The spitting image of Harry Houdini, Myrna Jessel’s father flaunts this coincidence. Her mother is his dogged cheerleader. Together they’ve formed a world unto themselves. Her grandfather, an acerbic, old school Russian communist, is obsessed with turning his excruciatingly shy grandson into the next Leon Trotsky. Myrna is the family’s fifth wheel. In addition to affection, she also craves the return of a vital substance—a light, a breath, a touch, her memory of it is maddeningly vague—that deserted her early on. Desperate to be valued, she brings hoopla and hilarity into the lives of her friends until puberty strikes and she learns to her dismay that it’s nocuous for a thirteen-year-old girl to have her father’s muscleman’s body, her mother’s less than so-so face and be over six feet tall. Classmates shun her.
My Atheist Parents Anoint a Jew As Their Patron Saint.
Before he met and married my mother, my father used to go to Orchard Beach in the Bronx, so he could strip to his trunks without seeming like the exhibitionist he actually was. Other guys his age also flocked to the boardwalk with their muscles oiled and their stomachs drawn in. Summer flings were rampant. The air was heavy with two kinds of heat. But my father offered more than mere youthful swagger. He was the spitting image of Harry Houdini.
At five foot five, he was the same height as his hero. He was as muscular. His face was as tender and eager and sensuous. His brows were as arched. His chin had a clef. His hair was as black and it stuck out from his head like Houdini’s did, as if it, even more than the body, could not be restrained.
My father would find a conspicuous spot in the sand, prop up the famous poster of Houdini, circa 1899, and strike the same pose. He did this without bothering to drape himself in the chains and massive padlocks Houdini had used. To his way of thinking, such props were superfluous. He was celebrating an astonishing resemblance to one of the most famous men of all time, and that was enough. Others agreed. Passersby in search of diversions goggled at his likeness to the great vaudevillian.
Three brunettes and a blond left their blanket near the water’s edge. The blond was clearly the flower of the group. Her friends were lesser versions of her and still their youth made them luscious. Heads turned as they passed. Invitations to flop down and share a beer were issued by some in pleading tones and by others who behaved as though they were God’s gift to women. Whatever the approach, the offer was refused. The girls had something different in mind as they strode along, swinging their hips and digging their toes in the sand. This something appeared to be my father yet despite his good looks, a fan club of four wasn’t about to descend on him, brandishing their phone numbers and jockeying to be the one who he’d call. They were on route to the bathhouse for ice cream and were annoyed that they’d have to lengthen their travels to skirt his act. But why call it an act. An act was entertaining. The audience enjoyed it and wanted more. He offered nothing. And it was exasperating to see him stand there week after week with his wrists pressed together as though he was a slave on the auction block, when he could walk off and do whatever he wanted just like anyone else.
Smitten by the blond beauty’s dazzle, my father pretended to tug at his invisible bondage. He flexed his muscles and winked.
She detested winks. A round of anger shot through her. “Let’s call his bluff,” she said. “It’s about time that fraud earned his fame or suffered the consequences.”
She’d noticed a rope in a shed. She fetched it and the gathering crowd, thrilled by the prospect of an actual performance, parted to let her though.
“Playtime is over,” she told my father. “Let’s see if you’re anyway near what you claim to be.”
Men who were awed by the blond beauty and had been sailors or boy scouts and could tie expert knots volunteered to bind my father as closely as they could to the way Houdini had been chained—in a stooped position with fetters leading from his neck to his wrists and from there to his ankles.
“Hey, get a load of this,” people called to their friends. “Houdini’s double is about to outdo the great Houdini himself.”
The crush that encircled my father soon swelled to such a degree that latecomers found themselves flattened against the sweaty backs of other latecomers. And still they stayed, wanting to be part of an historical event. Houdini had been a foreigner but my father was a Bronx boy. Local pride was strong. A fast-adept squirm and he’d slide free of his harness. Newsmen would catch wind of his exploit and the kid and his supporters, who’d ham it up for the cameras, would make every front page.
His boosters didn’t know that failure colored my father’s blood. His parents had fled Russia only to be defeated by every effort they made. Sick to death of disappointment, his mother had taught him to submit to circumstance, rather than be mangled by it. His father, hating all things American including his son, took out his anger on his only child. This upbringing coupled with an innate desire to please, kept him mute and rooted to the spot while the blond beauty mocked him and strangers bound him in ropes. His audience mistook his paralysis for dramatic art; the captive feigns weakness until he shows that he’s a hundred times stronger than a chest thumping gorilla.
But brute force, assuming my father could find it, would not be enough. When Houdini had been in social situations, seated on a tufted sofa for instance and chatting with friends, he’d practiced tying and untying knots with his bare feet. My father would have been ridiculed for such behavior and the only thing he’d done to prepare himself for this unexpected challenge, was to casually flip through a manual that Houdini had written about freeing oneself from ropes—a stunt the otherwise secretive performer had considered too easy to protect.
“On your mark, get set, go,” an onlooker shouted,
Another man appointed himself timekeeper. “It’s three ten and he’s still tied up. What was Houdini’s record? Was it minutes or hours? Does anyone know? Can someone find out?”
My father swayed. He steadied himself. Unable to remember how to proceed, he became catatonic.
The blond beauty snickered. “Have you given up already?”
“No,” he cried, waking. Quit and the exceptional man he’d admired in his bathroom mirror, often climbing up on the sink after a shower to glimpse as much of himself as he could, would disappear like the steam on the glass. He’d be a nothing, a no one who’d barely made it through high school. “Time me from now,” he begged the timekeeper. “From now. OK?”
“Stop stalling,” someone yelled, as riled as if he’d just paid a fortune to watch this fiasco.
My father remembered a photograph of Houdini bound to a chair by rough cord. As the first step in this particular escape, Houdini had forced the chair over onto its side. In his panic, my father wondered how Houdini had hit the floor safely when he’d been unable to stick out a hand or a foot to break his fall.
My father decided to tumble in stages. He dropped to his knees without realizing that the rope would jerk his neck forward. Shocked and in pain, he landed with his face in the sand and his rump in the air.
“Well that’s lovely,” the blond beauty said. “What else can you do?”
Stuck in an indecent kowtow like an eighteenth-century criminal, my father wanted to let out a howl that would break him in half. Instead he pitched onto his side. His shoulder smarted but he could move both of his legs at the same time.
“This is good,” he thought. “I can do this.”
My father’s hands were crossed at the wrists and tied tightly. He could only use a few of his fingers to scratch at the rope. And still he vowed to free himself and uphold his honor, no matter how long it took.
The crowd though, had nothing at stake. He was a minor diversion and they quickly lost interest in watching a man squirm to no avail. The blond beauty spotted a guy she’d met at a party. They’d slow danced before a better prospect had cut in. But that had been in winter. He’d been pasty at Christmas. Now his tan gleamed under a slathering of oil. Oblivious of her friends and the bind she’d put my father in, she waltzed in his direction. Her friends understood. Men were the raison d’être. They themselves were a fallback, and without her impressive wattage, their own appeal dimmed. Yet life must go on. They wanted ice cream and in the realm of chocolate, vanilla and strawberry they were everyone’s equal and could get what they wanted if they had a dime. As they strode to the bathhouse one of them called to my father and asked if he wanted a drink.
He was too busy to hear. The sand scalded him each time he shifted. Sweat dripped from his scalp into his eyes. If he’d heard the girl he would have shouted, “Yeah, the largest they got.” And then wondered how he’d pee once the drink filled his bladder, tied up as he was on display.
But he was no longer a point of interest and no one would have cared if he’d wet his pants. Orchard Beach was part of New York City and in New York City bums and madman pissed on themselves all the time. Passersby deliberately turned a blind eye to those wretches and now that my father had been demoted from an entertainer to a fruitcake, those in his vicinity were oblivious to him.
My father felt their attention wane and the loss drained him. Still, by five thirty, he’d loosened a knot enough to separate his wrists a crucial inch. Gain more slack and he’d be able to bring his palms together and use both of his hands in tandem.
It was nearly dinnertime. A procession of mothers, fathers and children dusted with sand and lugging their belongings traipsed past my father. The children gawked as they watched him struggle to loosen a knot with his teeth, while the parents, afraid their children would think this was fun and search out the clothesline at home, hurried them on.
By seven only he remained on the beach. An ominous rumble pricked his ears. An instant later hairy bolts of electricity lit a dark sky that seemed bent on exterminating whatever was below it. My father rolled onto his knees in an effort to crawl to safety. With bound wrists and feet he could only drag himself in an inchworm-like movement. Had he actually been an inchworm, he could have burrowed into the ground and emerged months later with wings. Unable to copy this process, he curled into a ball and screamed at the lightening to spare him. He was barely twenty. His attempts at lovemaking hadn’t gone well. Surely he was capable of more than clambering onto a glacier of girl and sliding off her. He just needed time to find the right prospects. “That’s all I’m asking,” he begged. “I can’t die. Not now. Not here.” His parents would be destroyed by the sight of him in his death and stupidity, looking like a scorched bird.
Hail pitted the wet sand. Then as though the storm had been a bad dream and had as little real punch as a dream does, the sun blazed in the sky. The rope was thicker and heavier than it had been when it was dry. But it was also slicker and my father used this to his advantage. Every part of him ached but he didn’t grant himself a reprieve. If it was hard to free himself now, it would be a hundred times harder once it got dark.
A shadow fell across him. Startled, he glanced up and saw a young woman in street clothes.
“Do I know you?” he asked. Her face and body were so commonplace she could have been any one of a hundred girls he saw on the subway each day. Her blouse and skirt were as ordinary. She’d tucked her saddle shoes under her arm.
“In a way. We didn’t talk but I took part in it. I haven’t thought about anything else.”
“What are you saying?”
“I came to apologize for getting you into this jam.”
“You? Are you nuts?”
She hunkered down next him. “Actually it was Gloria but we went along with her like good German soldiers.”
My father’s eyes narrowed. “What made you think I’d still be here? You went home, took a nice long shower, ate a three-course dinner and strolled back to the bus stop figuring you had all the time in the world.”
“I came on the slim chance.”
She took a pair of scissors out of her purse.
“That proves it. You think I’m no better than a flounder trapped in a net. Put them away. I can do this by myself.”
“You don’t have to.”
“And just what do I tell myself after Mommy cuts me loose, that sure, I look like Houdini but so does a rubber mask?” He remembered the poster. Twisting, craning his neck, he scanned the beach for it. It and the easel were gone. Those bastards, he thought.
She hadn’t brought a towel. She was wearing a blouse and a skirt and still she lay down beside him in the damp sand.
“What are you doing?” he asked, staring, trying to figure her out. She had what were called piano legs. Her arms were as stocky.
“Keeping you company until you free yourself.”
“You could be here all night.”
“That’s OK. I told my parents I was sleeping over at Selma’s.”
“Call mine,” he cried. “Say I’m helping a guy pack cartons for an early morning delivery. I do that sometimes. Say it and hang up before they ask where I am. I was supposed to be home by five. Take a dime out of my pants pocket.” His clothes, he realized, were also gone. For half of a day he’d forgotten about everything except for the mess he was in.
He faced the ocean and it would have cost him most of his strength to roll over so he could watch her walk to the telephone booth. He decided against this. Her desertion would just be another piece of rotten luck. And why doubt her? She wasn’t a double-crossing flirt who’d drop him the instant she saw someone better. She was the sort who’d been a girl scout and had the words, on my honor, embroidered across her heart.
He hoped she’d be smart enough to pretend she was the jobber’s secretary. If she spoke nicely they just might forgive him. And later when they asked about his clothes he’d say haven’t you been outside? I had to strip or I’d melt.
Gulls called to each other, subterranean creatures made holes in the sand and… nothing else. His father must have answered the phone and launched into a tirade, screaming that she could tell her Simon Legree of an employer to keep his wooden nickel and send his son home.
He tried to chew threw through the rope but he’d have had to file his teeth into points for this to work. Had Houdini filed his teeth? And ruin his good looks?
Enough time had passed for ten calls to his parents. Her bleeding heart had bled itself dry. It had said forget him and she’d complied.
Who needs her, he thought. He’d stupidly let down his guard and acted like a World War II pilot who paints a pinup on the side of his plane and starts to believe she’s an actual girl. He had a job to do and it occurred to him that if he raised his arms as best as he could, the blood would flow out of them and his hands might lose some of their volume. This worked and he was able to slide one palm ahead of the other and gain the full use of one hand.
He was trying to loosen a knot at his ankle, whispering to it, move you stubborn bastard, when his wallet hit the ground near his head. She’d had found it in a trash can.
It was empty of course but how many cans had she searched? There must have been fifty scattered across the beach. Who else would have swatted away the bees and then rummaged through the rotting garbage for him? No one else, not even his mother.
She stretched out beside him and shut her eyes. “Someone must have walked off with your clothes,” she said.
“Or they left by themselves,” he snarled, afraid to feel grateful.
The setting sun colored the sky. My father didn’t give this spectacle a passing glance. He was not, in the words of a song from that time, a nature boy.
Within minutes the sky became black and only the light from the thinnest of moons attested to the sun’s presence elsewhere.
“I can’t see,” he wailed. “I don’t know what I’m doing.”
“You’ll figure it out.” She knelt beside him and kneaded his muscles.
His back and shoulders hurt less yet why be gracious. Chance had sent him a companion in his hour of need, but rather than going whole hog and answering his wishes, it had given him a girl who excelled next to the sickbed, rather than under the sheets.
A knot gave way. My father’s cry was exultant. And then it became tough going again.
“I’m drowning,” he said. “I’m fifty feet below water. And I don’t know if I’m madder at myself for behaving like an ass every Sunday or at that friend of yours for calling my bluff. You’re right. You should have stopped her. It would have been easy enough. Stop is a pretty short word. It’s four f’ing letters. A kid learns it at two.”
His dream girl would have bent over him, grazing him with her torpedo breasts. She would have given him one matchless kiss as a hint of what was to come once he broke free. Just the knowledge that she sat near him would have burned away his fear.
You can do it.
Yes, you can,” she said in a surprising small voice.
“You can do it.
Yes, you can.”
He’d never heard anything as woeful. Her little cheer was something a frightened child would whisper to herself on her way to her first day of school. “What are you telling me?”
“Don’t give up.”
“I’m trying not to,” he shouted. “But you’re making things worse. What do you think I am, a nine-year-old imbecile?”
“I think you’re you.” She sounded shaken. “Should I get out scissors?”
“No. I told you before, I won’t cheat.”
“Do you want me to leave?”
It was exactly what he wanted. But how could he let her cross the beach in the dark? It was over a mile long and surrounded by marshes. She wasn’t a mariner who could navigate by the stars. She was used to sidewalks and public transportation. Even if she made it to the bus stop, buses didn’t run at that hour. She’d have to wait alone until dawn while guys who were high on weed cruised by. She was a plain Jane and still they might pull her into their car.
“Stay.” He felt like he was talking to a dog.
“Are you sure?
“I said so, didn’t I? None of this is your fault. It’s mine for pretending I was anything like him. Houdini was a five-star genius whereas yours truly? How am I going to live the rest of my life with the memory of tonight glued to the inside of my skull?”
If she’d known more about the man my father was measuring himself against, she could have told him that Houdini had prized guile over honesty. He’d thought trickery was as important as physical strength. His fearlessness had masked his terror, and instead of owning up to his mortality he’d attempted to become mightier and wilier than death. This arrogance had led to an October Sunday when cocooned in a state of denial, he went on with the show despite a high fever. The curtain fell, he collapsed and died days later.
“Houdini had more experience than you, that’s all. But you’ve got character. You’re honest and you refuse to quit. That’s what counts. It’s what makes you remarkable.”
He wouldn’t desert his wife during their first bout of hard times. If he lost his job, he’d find another even if he had to pound every door.
“You see me like that?”
“I wouldn’t say so if I didn’t.”
My father rested against her words. Refreshed, he remembered the path the ropes took as they wound around him and curled into knots. He identified the loosest knot, scrunched his body and coaxed the cord through the loop. A few more minutes of this and he extricated both of his hands and then his feet at a speed that shocked him and which he later compared to the experience of woman in labor who screams and pushes for umpteen hours until during a black and bloody moment when she’s lost sense of who she is and what she’s doing, the baby slides out. Able at last to throw off the ropes and be free to do whatever he wanted, he embraced his cheerleader with more rapture than he’d known a man could feel.