A Billy Sunday Kind of Love
When Calpurnia Waters volunteered to let the Amazing Waldo make her disappear, she never dreamed it would be for good.
Master conjurer and disciple of the mysteries of the most ancient of sorcery and magic, the illusionist came to the Bluff City “Direct from the grand stage of the Hippodrome in New York!,” as his posters proclaimed. In these hard times, dozens of Memphis men thanked him for the three days of work it had taken to raise his vast tent on the fairgrounds, spread cubic yards of fresh sawdust under it, stock it with hundreds of wooden folding chairs, and suspend the multitude of twinkling lights under which the magician now performed.
Suave in tuxedo and white tie, his Douglas Fairbanks mustache neat and his inky hair slicked back smooth against his skull, the Amazing Waldo held his audience spellbound. He had already transformed a rabbit into a dove and transported his leggy assistant Matilda to the very back of the audience from a box on the stage that he had stuck swords clean through, changing the color of her spangled outfit from crimson to gilt for good measure. On this September Saturday afternoon, every one of those folding chairs was filled, and every man, woman, and childin them strained forward to see what miraculous illusion or legerdemain would come next.
“Now, good people of Memphis assembled here, are any of you so daring as to risk being transmuted into energy, transferred to another dimension, and then restored to the fellowship of your rejoicing family?” Waldo said from the front of the stage.
He motioned to Matilda, who with the help of two burly stagehands wheeled an enormous Egyptian mummy case to the center of the stage. “Who among us here tonight would not embrace immortality?” he said. “From the dawn of time, the promise of eternal life has enraptured mankind. Untold ages ago in the storied valley of the Nile, the ancient Egyptians prepared their dead for the afterlife. To earn a place on the great god Ra’s boat for the journey to the land of the Two Fields and that everlasting life, they believed the bodies and organs of the departed must be preserved. They would need them again after their souls traveled safely through the underworld.”
Waldo stepped to the case and rested his hand against its side. “First, the heart of the deceased had to pass scrutiny in the hall of the goddess Ma’at, who placed it on a balance to be weighed against a feather. To board Ra’s boat, one’s heart had to be light. Only the kind, the gentle, and the upright who spent their lives doing good were light of heart.”
He stalked back to the edge of the stage and regarded the nowquiet crowd. “Those whose hearts could not pass Ma’at’s test were denied a place on Ra’s boat and vanished from the face of the earth forever.” He struck the spot over his heart with his right fist. “Now, I know that there must be many among you who live virtuous lives. This antique case once housed the body of a great pharaoh, a king wise and good who no doubt found his rest in the afterlife.” Right palm now open, he gestured toward the case. “Which of you is willing to enter?”
The crowd stirred. This time, fewer hands went up than had appeared when the Amazing Waldo first issued his challenge.
Calpurnia turned to her friend Hattie Taylor where they sat on the second row of the colored section. “I’m going.” Calpurnia waved her hand in the direction of the stage.
“Cal, what on earth makes you think he’s going to pick you?” Hattie gave her a you-have-clean-lost-your-mind grin.
“This right here.” Calpurnia tapped the brace on her right leg. “You know it’s always better if he can get a crippled girl up on the stage. Makes the audience feel sympathy.”
Hattie snorted. “Honey, it’s been a good while since you were a girl. And how is he supposed to know you’re crippled? You know he can’t tell that all the way over here. ”
Calpurnia elbowed Hattie. “Hush, and help me up. I’m going to step out into the aisle. And anyway, he’s a magician, isn’t he?”
“All right.” Hattie shrugged and handed Cal her two canes just like the ones Mr. Roosevelt used. She braced herself with them, rocked forward onto her feet from her seat at the end of the row, and shuffled sideways until she stood in the middle of the aisle. There, she waited for the conjurer to notice her, the only woman standing in the colored section.
The Amazing Waldo gazed out over the audience, many of them languorously waving paper fans decorated with pictures of Jesus knocking at the sinner’s door that Watkins-Fish Funeral Home had handed out at the entrances. Memphis was still warm in September, and with all the humanity crammed in under the tent, it got hot even with the sides opened at intervals to let the air in.
“Are there so few who dare?” he said. He stretched out his hand and swept it to encompass all the audience. “No strong young man eager to prove his valor? Come, there is nothing to fear. I thought the proud people of this city were made of sterner stuff than this. ”
Around the audience, a few more timid hands had gone up. At the back, a group of teenage boys stood, jostling each other, whether competing for notice or perhaps doing their best to push their friends forward, he couldn’t tell. Waldo locked eyes with a sassy-looking blonde in the middle of the crowd. She smirked at him as though to say, “I know what you’re up to.” He was tempted to call on her, but the hulknext to her with an arm around her shoulders discouraged him.
Then, he saw her. A frail Negro woman, a cane in each hand, standing erect and quiet to the far right of the stage. She would do, and bringing her up would shame all the country yokels whose girlfriends and wives pushed them toward the stage while they pretended to be too sophisticated to consider such foolishness. Waldo crossed to the stairs, strode down them to the woman’s side.
“Think you’re up to it?” he asked her in a low voice.
Waldo threw his hands in the air. “At last, our intrepid volunteer. I will escort her to the stage to face the perils of the unknown. Matilda, prepare the chamber.”
The magician’s assistant pulled open the front of the mummy case, entered, tapped the sides to show they were solid, and walked out again, waiting while Waldo and the volunteer made their way up the steps and across the stage. The woman’s gait was deliberate, the tap of her canes on the wood floor marking her progress. The clamor that had greeted her died down so that by the time she reached the case, there was complete silence.
Waldo faced the audience again. Removing the black star-bedecked cloak he had draped over his shoulders, he whirled it over his head and let it fall into a fan shape at his feet. “This mantle once belonged to a master of the occult arts, a mage so powerful that it is said that at his death, not only did his immortal soul cross over but his mortal body did as well, leaving behind only this cloak, a papyrus so ancient that itcrumbled at the touch of my hand, and this ring.”
Turning the back of his right hand toward the crowd to reveal what appeared to be a gigantic ruby set in an ornate gold-and-enamel band, Waldo stretched his left arm out at a right angle to his side. Gradually, he extended his right arm as well until he seemed about to embrace the crowd. “As the one true heir to that power, the cloak and the ring passed to me. I will call upon their power to make Miss .…” He turned to the petite woman waiting by the case.
“… Miss Calpurnia disappear. Are you ready?”
“Then, let us begin.” Waldo reached into the case and rapped with considerable force on the sides, again showing that they were solid. He clapped his hands twice, and Matilda appeared at his side with a mask and strips of cloth. “You afraid?” he whispered to Calpurnia, who shook her head. He winked at her. “I’ve got you.”
“Not only did the faithful of the Egypt of yore believe that one must be light of heart, but they were also convinced that they must preserve the body after death if the departed were to achieve immortality. Thus was born the art of mummification, an art so grisly to our modern ears that I shall refrain from explaining it out of deference to the ladies in the audience and to any gentlemen who may be particularly delicate of constitution.”
He held out a hand to Matilda, who placed in it the mask.
“When the body was prepared, it was bandaged in strips of cleanlinen like those the lovely Matilda now holds aloft in her hands, but we will spare our courageous Miss Calpurnia that ordeal.” He lifted the mask toward the crowd. “No doubt you have all heard of the fabulous treasures of King Tut discovered in the legendary Valley of the Kings not so very long ago. As he slept in his royal tomb, Tut wore a golden mask and rested in a case protected by sorcery like the one that awaits Miss Calpurnia here. The mask I hold in my hand is an exact replica of the one that safeguarded Tut through the millennia. I will now place it over her face to ensure that she, like that ancient pharaoh, will be returned to the light of day.”
With the mask in place, Waldo picked up his cloak from the floor and draped it over Calpurnia’s shoulders. Taking one of her canes, which he passed to his assistant, he grasped her now empty hand and gestured for her to enter. Calpurnia hobbled in, turned to face the crowd, and braced herself against the back. Waldo released her. He and Matilda stepped to either side of the case.
“Matilda!” Waldo said.
His assistant swung the cover of the case closed and latched it. Waldo struck the front with the ring. “Can you hear me, Miss Calpurnia?”
“Yes, sir,” came the muffled answer.
“Then I will strike the case three more times before I open it again.”
Over his shoulder, the Amazing Waldo gave the audience a long look. It was as quiet as a churchyard under the tent. He raised his right hand over his head and swung it down sharply so that the crack of the ring striking the wood echoed throughout the space. He struck it a second time, and a third. Then he gazed out over the crowd again, arms stretched over his head. “Are you ready?”
“Yes!” an old man somewhere in the middle yelled out, and everyone laughed.
The assistant unlatched the case and swung the lid open again. It was empty, except for the magician’s cloak, which lay in a puddle at the bottom. There was a gasp from several quarters. Waldo snatched up the garment to reveal the gold mask, which he held up to show to the audience before he handed it to Matilda. With his mantle draped over his arm, he stepped into and out of the case and walked around it, tapping the sides. He crossed to the front of the stage, swirled the mantle over his head, and let it fall to his shoulders before he bowed deeply.
The crowd erupted into applause.
No one clapped louder than Hattie Taylor.
Standing in the near darkness at the back, medium Joseph Calendar did not applaud.
“And, now,” said the Amazing Waldo, “to return Miss Calpurnia to her loved ones.”
This time, he closed the lid of the case himself. He rapped it once and opened it. There was no one inside. He paused ever so briefly before turning a brilliant smile on the house. He closed the case and struck it three times as decisively as he had to make Calpurnia disappear. But when he opened it again, it was still empty. Behind him came murmurs and the sound of people shifting in their seats. He turned to face them.
“There’s nothing to worry about, my friends. It seems Miss Calpurnia is reluctant to return from the other realm, so we will wait for her to do so on her own terms.” He closed the lid again, exchanged a glance with Matilda, and nodded slightly.
She crossed to a stand at the side of the stage and brought back along, latched box, which she opened and held out to Waldo. From it, he withdrew two ornate curved swords that glinted under the lights.
“Now,” Waldo said, “who will allow me to pass these ancient scimitars through his body? Completely without harm, I assure you.”