by Chaunce Stanton
Houdini’s agonizing final performance at the Garrick Theatre in Detroit, Michigan reimagined.
Houdini clutched the armrest as another flash of pain exploded within him. The interior of the train was too loud, overwhelming his senses. He just wanted off. He’d be so relieved when they would finally pull into Detroit. He couldn’t even shift in his seat without wincing, but he willed the pain back to the ball of molten fire that now lived in his abdomen.
It had been three days since Whitehead had clobbered him in Montreal. Right in the breadbasket. The guy could throw a punch. You had to give him that.
Houdini had worked injured plenty in his life. He could always compensate for a sore muscle, a strained wrist. But this, this was a different story. Unlike those other injuries, the pain and fever didn’t just go away this time. The muscles in his torso spasmed in red-hot pain with even the slightest movement.
He followed his mind to its wander place: a bend in the Fox River near Appleton, Wisconsin, where some of the locals still insisted on calling him Erik Weisz. Where he’d wrestled farm boys and run narrow deer tracks cutting through waist-high snow.
The most trees he’d ever seen before or since – up and down the riverbanks and in the marshes. He’d built a fort in the middle of a tamarack stand, and unlike the other boys, young Erik dissolved the “boys only” rules. He wanted other children to visit his fort: all of them. Boy, girl: who cares?
Houdini recalled their happy faces, his little friends, as he put on performances with no clear end, filled with surprise feats of strength: holding his breath for one or two minutes, racing a dog – anything to keep those rapt expressions unbroken.
That was before the tree plague. That place was changed now. Gone.
The Garrick was a squat brick building with six triangles for a crown. All the crooked buildings in Detroit sprang from the ground like brick and clapboard mushrooms.
“At least the pain takes my mind off the ankle,” he confided to Bess before the show.
She’d handed him something in a glass.
“Don’t ask,” she told him.
He didn’t ask. That much he’d learned about Bess. When she said something, she meant it. Whatever it was, he began to feel a little better – good enough – and the show went on, as they say.
Every second dragging out into two, like being awake during surgery.
The audience forgave him a few minor mishaps, like when he dropped the chalk in the middle of the blank slate trick. “Fortunately” the message from beyond the grave shaped itself in shaky, white script just the same, the most recent final words of Edmund Herringthorpe to his near-hysterical widow.
Window Now Closed. Eddie
“Does that have any significance to you, Edna?”
“Yes, it’s his message! My Eddie!”
“Can you please tell everyone who Eddie is, my dear?”
“Eddie is my husband, Edmund.”
“And Eddie is passed over to that Other Side?”
“Yes, he died two years ago.”
“Speak up, my dear. Sing to the rafters.”
“EDMUND DIED TWO YEARS AGO.”
“And the window Edmund wrote about – is that a specific window?”
“Yes – it’s the window in our conservatory. It had gotten stuck open, until today. Just this morning, I noticed it had closed on its own!”
Houdini braced himself, shot his arms over his head and smiled in spite of the searing blast from his gut.
“Mrs. Herringthorpe, ladies and gentlemen!”
A brief moment before the requisite applause, the audience trying to absorb the ramifications of a spirit message. Are the dead still with us? Watching us? Houdini didn’t care if there were spirits talking to widows from The Beyond. He only wanted to get through the show and have Bess give him another dose of whatever painkiller she’d concocted. The last one was wearing off fast and the demonic blacksmith was back pounding on his insides.
The crowd waited for him to continue.
“What would your message be?” He gritted his teeth and opened his lips. To the audience, it would look like he was smiling. “What would your message be to those you knew in life once you’ve passed into the dusky twilight that separates the living day from the cold, dead night? What transmission would you send from that ethereal other side to your son, your daughter, your wife, your mother? You, my friends, are in the fortunate position of being able to communicate to them now! Without being interred in Woodmere Cemetery!”
He liked to use local references. Made it feel more homey. But they knew where he was heading. He could see their guard go up. They had hoped beyond hope that Houdini would shock them with some supernatural revelation, something to fuel their blind faith in a chaotic afterlife in which tables shook and conservatory windows were forced shut by spectral hands.
In spite of everything they’d read about his performances; in spite of the radio duel between him and Madame Privnakhouva whom he’d run up a tree by replicating each of her little mind-reading tricks and exposing her as yet another fraud. Oh, but she did place that phlegmy fat curse on him, claiming he would choke on bauri and die. He’d stopped eating escargot to be on the safe side – not because he believed her curse, but because he believed she might know a chef or two who could poison him.
Was Bess trying to poison him?
His scalp tingled at the thought. She would gain everything by it. Maybe she’d fallen in love with one of her men. He let the thought pass, returning his smile to the crowd. They were about to be deflated, as they were every night when he lifted the veil and revealed their superstitions to be nothing more than string and twigs.
They all knew it was coming – the crowd and the widow Herringthorpe – the revelation stark and inevitable, but they fought him like a brook trout on a light line: pulling away, but always ending closer to him with every crank of the reel.
Even with Houdini’s heartfelt apologies to the widow, she had to be led away by her family, so disturbed was she when Houdini revealed the chalkboard trick to the crowd as simply having been rigged prior to the performance – preparation being only one of myriad tools of deception employed by charlatan crystal ball gazers and table rappers and mediums.
“In optimism lies a goldmine! In the hope of salvation, a fortune!”
He was feeling very lightheaded now, like the time he sprinted two miles to steal one longing glance of Muriel Abernathy through the lace curtains separating him from her family’s dining room window. It was dark enough outside so they could not see young Erich, but they were lit within by candles, and the flickering light made Muriel – so soft, so kind – it smoothed her skin like untroubled cream. She was his first love, but she never knew he was watching from under the boughs of the maple tree that dropped its final yellow leaves in the evening’s frost.
He kept the pain at bay, but that exchange came at the cost of fine motor skills: he was less steady, he dropped the chalk again. He shook his head. He was losing his grip on the performance.
“PAY ATTENTION!” He yelled it. It was meant for himself, but it sent a ripple through the audience not altogether useless. His voice was pitched an octave higher than usual as he reinforced the defenses between his mind and his body.
Then, a reflex, lightning fast: he stooped to pick it up. Pain surged through the wall of will to touch his mind.
He shielded his eyes with a hand, struggling to see over the gray faces swimming in the black pool beyond the stage lights. He needed to wrap up the performance and get out. Not perfect, but done. He signaled the rigger lead, a flip of four fingers, indicating he was jumping to the last act. They would have to work hard to make the set change, but Houdini needed to collapse, if even just for five minutes.
A voice, clear, carved a space in the generous applause that followed him off stage.
Scribbling ghosts, indeed!
Very familiar voice. A very impossible voice.
Perjos was dead.
Their eyes caught for just a moment.
“Am I dead?” Houdini wondered.
A red-and-silver Cunningham ambulance rushed him to Grace Hospital in Detroit, the sirens screeching like seagulls on a net full of cod. Two doctors (presumably, judging by their costumes), waited for the ambulance. Even as the ambulance men unloaded the gurney, the doctors prodded his abdomen as they headed down the black-and-white checkered hallway, directly to the operating theater.
Houdini fought for consciousness to tell them, to tell them all, the doctors, the nurses – Bess, because he’d remembered something very important, and then forgot. Everything. In waves. Like waves. The small castles in sand. Washed slowly away. The riverbank eroded. Tree roots, like claws, exposed their determined grip. And for what? For what? To die from the air. To die from curses and snails. To die from lace and candlelight. Over and over, the waves washed over what used to be a man.
For days he neither slept nor woke. He was nowhere. He was unshackled. He was unburied. Free. Terrifying freedom. A final panic seized him as the black deep, deep below rose and swallowed him.
Would Bess know where to look for him?
Harry Houdini died of peritonitis, secondary to a ruptured appendix on October 31, 1926 at Grace Hospital in Detroit, Michigan. An incident nearly a week earlier in Houdini’s dressing room gave rise to speculation that Houdini’s death was caused by a McGill University student, J. Gordon Whitehead, who delivered multiple blows to Houdini’s abdomen in Montreal.
His body was returned to New York for burial in Queens with the crest of the Society of American Magicians inscribed on his gravesite. The insurance company paid out on the double indemnity clause. Houdini was lucky that way.
Harry Houdini is just one of the characters, imagined and re-imagined, in the dark historical fantasy The Blank Slate Boarding House for Creatives by Chaunce Stanton.