He was a terrible client. The absolute worst. His agent Aggie knew it. Hell, even the rabbit in his hat knew it.
“Listen, Charles, you can’t just go around throwing rabbits behind couches, and thinking the crowd doesn’t notice.”
He couldn’t see her, but he heard the cigarette, the sound of air sucking through her shriveled lips. The wheeze as she inhaled and the deep rumble as she exhaled.
Aggie had been his agent for over 10 years and Charles had been in her tiny salmon pink office so often that his mental picture of her was complete in his mind’s eye: The roll of her eyes, the deep pull of the Marlborough, the way its tip glowed and advertised untold delights, seducing its the next user—moths to a flame.
“Aggie, I didn’t throw a rabbit behind the couch.”
“That’s not what I heard.”
Charles sighed. It was true, sort of, but it had been a joke, ironic. What kind of magician makes his rabbit disappear by tossing them, obviously and wildly, through the air?
“For the record, Aggie, it’s not a couch,” Charles muttered, “It’s a Lazy-boy that I use to hypnotize people. And I didn’t throw the rabbit. I said, ‘Quick, get behind the couch!”
He heard Aggie rustle in her chair through the crackle of her old telephone. It was pink too. But bubblegum pink. He had a serious suspicion that her office used to match that phone before she locked herself in there, closed the windows and smoked away the last 20 years. Charles decided that next time he visited her he would say, “Oh Aggie! That painting is crooked, can’t you tell?” and shift it just enough to peek and see if the paint behind it was the same nicotine-stained Marlborough pink of the walls or bubblegum pink.
“Aggie, the rabbit, it’s my schtick.”
“Charles, you have hit the big time. There is no room for schticks in Las Vegas. Let me explain something to you since you don’t seem to get it…” her voice lowered conspiratorially as if she was about to tell him him some rich secret, There is no God, or even a mundane tip, Sucrets are on sale at the Piggly Wiggly. “Rabbits are for barmitzvahs and birthday parties. No rabbits. No ladies sawed in half. And jesus-christ-on-a-pickle-stick, don’t say ‘poof’ anymore. People want illusion.” She let the last word roll slowly through the phone: Ill-ooooo-sion.
Charles rubbed the bridge of his beakish nose and closed his black eyes. “I like ‘poof’. It’s my thing.”
“Your thing? Please, darling. Not another schtick.”
“Look, Aggie, I respect you. You’ve been a good agent to me over the years and a better friend.”
He heard the clink of an ice cube followed by liquid tinkling into a glass. Scotch, maybe? Nice combo, Aggie. What is it in LA? Ten in the morning?
“But you need to back off. I let you do what you do best, now let me do what I do best.”
“But you’re not the best, Charles. You’re a joke. Do you have any idea what Copperfield’s people are saying about you?”
“Don’t sass me. Not poof. That you’re not the real deal. That you don’t deserve the Mirage—hell, that you don’t even deserve the Golden Nugget.”
Charles breathed deeply. It was ironic because he was truly a magician. Not just a guy who knew tricks, but a real magician. David Copperfield was just tricks with a million-dollar budget.
“Aggie, I’m telling you, I’ve been telling you for years, that I am the real McCoy. Have a little faith in me. ”
“Oh, I do. I’ve believed in you since I dragged out of that pathetic trailer in Wisconsin and pulled the bottle out of your hands. Don’t tell me I don’t believe in you, but—“
“But nothing. I’ll prove it. Listen. I hear your breath rattle when you breathe. It’s all that smoking you do. I have a serious hunch that the rattle is just the beginning. Isn’t it?”
“What? How dare you—“
“I know that you get up in the middle of the night terrified because you’re coughing up blood. Terrified because you can feel it, sense it growing inside your lungs.”
Silence hung on the line. The only thing Charles could hear was Aggie’s labored breath.
“True. No argument there. But you know I’m right.”
Aggie was quiet for a long minute. Charles would not have been able to tell that she was still on the phone had it not been for the wheeze of her lungs pumping in and out.
“Fine. Yes. It’s true.”
“Do you want me to fix it?”
“Take a deep breath in, Aggie.”
He heard her death rattle.
She hummed that she was.