Kenneth the Magician

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After Kenneth’s funeral, at night, long after everyone who had come to pay their respects had gone home, I remember the kids hanging out in my kitchen. The neighborhood kids were over. A bunch of them ran around as if it were the last gasp of a party. We had hosted many parties that ended exactly like that in the past, where several of us ate leftover food and watched the kids play, talking, sipping wine amidst the remnants of a long day. Except this party was ending on a somber note. It wasn’t a party at all. But we had been celebrating Kenneth’s memory, so maybe it was in an absurd, twisted way.

One of the kids got into Kenneth’s magic box, and in no time they were all pawing at the tricks like children who had just gotten into something they weren’t supposed to touch. The tricks had always been off-limits. But Kenneth wasn’t there to say no. He was dead. They were being kids.

I noticed one of the neighbor boys holding a thumb tip, looking at it sadly. He used to go to the magic store with Kenneth.

“Do you guys want to take some tricks home?” I asked without really thinking it through. The idea had just come to me.

“Really?” they all asked.

Ethan’s eyes grew wide and a smile spread on his face. “Can I have them too?”

“Of course,” I said.

When Kenneth died, I found myself taking on the job of making other people feel better about all of “this.” Forget my own grief. I needed to help others work through their sadness. I would make these children feel better by giving them Kenneth’s magic tricks. Party favors. Absurd party favors you get after a funeral.

I methodically divided everything amongst the children, first making sure Ethan had the magic tricks I knew he wanted, giving the neighbor boy a thumb tip, and then making sure everyone else would walk away with something too. They were all thrilled.

In my mind, this was how Kenneth could continue to live on in the hearts and memories of these children. I could only hope that they would always remember him doing the tricks for them.

Kenneth would often hold out his palm, revealing a shiny coin for a person to inspect. This is how every trick began. No funny business. Just a coin. And in the next second, he’d make the coin disappear. He did this exact trick dozens of times for every one of the kids in my house. In fact, he loved doing magic tricks for kids. They were a more forgiving audience.

When we were invited to dinner at a cousin’s house in Israel, Kenneth performed tricks for the children. They were delightfully entertained and kept asking for more. Magic tricks seemed to transcend language barriers. My relatives filled his glass with Johnnie Walker and he had a great audience to show off his magician prowess. After that, Kenneth decided that he loved Israel.

When the neighborhood kids went home the night of the funeral, and after my own children were tucked into bed, I looked around my lonely house and wondered where to start with the clean-up. My eyes were drawn to the empty magic box and I felt an ache inside of me. I knew I did the right thing by letting the kids take the tricks. These things are for the living. But I’d be lying if I said it didn’t hurt me to see his magic tricks gone, scattered. Like everything else in my life.

I wish I could remember how Kenneth’s magic hobby started. I wish I could ask him. It’s the little mundane details that disappear out of my memory over time, like grains of sand falling between my fingers, unable to contain, even though I want to hold on to every single one. They are all I have left.

It is possible that the magic was subconsciously planted inside of Kenneth’s mind during his pickup artist years, since one of the gurus, Mystery, was a magician. I think Kenneth would deny that version of the story though, even if it was true. He wouldn’t want to look like a groupie.

He told me that he started liking magic as a child. Maybe that was it.

Or perhaps he got interested in magic during all of those trips we took to Disneyland, when his eyes would linger on the sign of the magic store on Main Street.

“Do you want to go look?” I’d ask.

“Are you sure?” His eyes were eager.

“Yeah. No problem. I’ll take Ethan over there,” I’d say, pointing to another store. “Take your time.”

And he would. I’d wait around for a while and then eventually make my way back to the magic shop. I’d see Kenneth leaning over the counter, mesmerized as one of the workers demonstrated a trick with invisible string. Kenneth laughed, that loud, exuberant laugh that sounded like something you’d hear out of a child.

He’d notice me and straighten, trying to make it look like he was ready to leave, even though I knew he never was.

“It’s Annemann,” he said, showing me the book in his hand. Apparently that name was supposed to mean something to me. “Should I buy it?”

“Sure. Get the other one too.” I already noticed there was more than one book in his hands.

“Oh, this? I’m just looking at it.”

“Get it.”

“Really?” he’d say, his eyes lighting up. “We do get a passholder discount.”

“Yeah. Sure. Go ahead.” I’d wheel the umbrella stroller and Ethan back toward the door so he wouldn’t feel rushed. He’d linger at the counter a little longer, chatting about magic with the workers, picking their brains about magic tricks. This is probably why he always wanted to go to Disneyland every week, just for this little bit of time that he got to play with magic. It’s probably why I don’t like going to Disneyland anymore.

Kenneth really, really, really wanted to be a magician.

I kind of ignored the entire thing. I mean, I would watch and humor him and listen as he explained the tricks, which he would two seconds later clarify that he wasn’t supposed to tell me, because magicians aren’t supposed to tell ANYONE how a trick works. He always told me anyway. It was pretty dorky, but I figured there were worse things for a man to indulge in. Might as well play along.

He was typically found with a coin in his hands or pocket, usually a 50 cent piece. He used it to practice palming. This was where he’d learn to hold a coin in the palm of his hand and make it appear as if it disappeared. Although this sounds easy, it actually required a lot of practice and skills. He started practicing on us, and then he practiced on his students. I’d see him in the hallway, in between classes, showing students how the coin “disappeared,” and when they’d smile in puzzled amusement, I’d look at his face and see how proud he was to pull it off.

Sometimes after class he’d tell me how he tried a new trick and that he was very nervous in front of the students, even though almost nothing made him nervous in life. For a guy who could easily do cold calls without breaking a sweat, it was funny to see him get shy about his magic tricks.

He acquired lots of tricks over the years. I’ll always remember him with thumb tips, coins, and pieces of paper that he cut into squares for his mentalism tricks.

One time Kenneth did a mentalism trick on my dad, which involved tiny pieces of papers with answers and a water bottle. I forget exactly how the trick worked, but it had something to do with “reading” my dad’s mind, which Kenneth successfully pulled off. I remember my dad digging in the trash can, trying to figure out how Kenneth did it.

My grandmother looked forward to our monthly visits. She’d always remind me on the phone to have Kenneth bring his tricks. I got the distinct impression that my grandmother was starting to like Kenneth better than me. He was more entertaining.

And he loved an enthusiastic audience, so of course he really liked my grandma.

His dream was to become a street magician.

Someday, he said. First he had to get better with his form, and then he needed to come up with a routine. There had to be a story that entertained an audience. That was the part he said he needed to master.

Five months before he died, we were in Vegas. We were walking down the street, on our way to the drugstore for something we needed for one of the kids. We came across a street magician, and Kenneth excitedly watched the performance. I’ll never forget how he laughed, clapped, and tried to absorb the showmanship that the man had as he performed his tricks and told a seamless story that drew people in.

“That’s exactly what I want to do,” Kenneth said. He was inspired.

He read books. He watched videos. He practiced and practiced and practiced. He did exactly what he did whenever he was really interested in something: he obsessed over it.

One time, he was even going to build a magician’s podium. Kenneth was never handy. Anytime I suggested that he perhaps find some handiness inside of him, he’d scoff at the idea.

“I’m an intellectual.”

“I’ll be sure to use that one on you next time you want me to make dinner,” I’d say.

But it seemed if Kenneth was motivated to do something, he could do it. He followed the directions from his magician’s handbook and built a podium and painted it black. He had a red mat that he laid on top and it all looked very legit. I have a photo of him hunched over a pile of wood, a toddler version of Ethan sitting next to him, putting it together with a look of determination.

There was a magic booth at the summer fair that he had to visit every year. It was just like Disneyland. I’d offer to go entertain the kids somewhere else. He’d be found leaning over the counter, watching the vendor demonstrate tricks, and then he would carefully decide which ones he wanted to buy. He fantasized about having a similar gig when he retired.

(The summer after he passed away, this same vendor mocked my Ruth Bader Ginsburg shirt that I wore. I’m glad Kenneth didn’t know that he had been patronizing a man whose ideology would have repulsed him. It would have ruined the magic for him.)

“Pick a number 1 through 10,” Kenneth said. His infamous words. I’ll never forget them. It’s funny how words that once annoyed me have become so endearing. What I would do to hear them again.

Kenneth was gifted tickets to the Magic Castle for Christmas. We never got around to going. To this day, the tickets are in a jar with the other gift certificates we have. I don’t know if I have it in me to go without him. It doesn’t feel right. But somehow I know, like all other things, that I need to push through the pain and just go.

He’d want it that way.

Someday, I might.

2 comments

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  1. Karl

    I’ve been reading all your blogs as they appear Teresa, and, how can I say this… it’s obviously all very sad, but it’s also been good to learn about your husband, I feel like I “kind of” know him, he sounds like he was a great guy, someone I would have like to have met, even though we probably don’t have a single thing in common. I hope you will go to the Magic Castle and share with us how it goes?

  2. Rory

    thanks for refreshing my memory of Kenneth ‘s magic. I loved it as did everyone else. He loved my viewing a new trick because my eyes were working overtime to figure out the trick. My eyes were the only thing working overtime because I never noticed how the trick was done. He was a magician and I miss his show. Thanks for sharing your memories.

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