THE BEDROOM IS BARREN but for the love seat. Bess told the movers to leave the love seat. It was a present from Houdini a decade ago, an apology, crated and shipped from a Paris display window the morning he barked at her in a hotel lobby for wasting a postcard stamp. One of the cushions is spotted where she tipped a saucer of tea, and the red petals have grown pink along the arm nearest the bedroom window—the side where Bess likes to sit and read, where she has sat for one hour every Sunday for the past year, where she is sitting now. There is a book in her lap, her mother’s Bible, but it’s closed.
How petty to remember that silly stamp. And the way Houdini’s voice fluttered, calling after her, pleading, Bessie, Bess, please. I’m sorry, darling. I’m so sorry! She practically forgot it ever happened, and surely it’s only because everything else is gone and only the love seat is here that she remembers now. Bess adores the love seat. It’s absolutely lovely, and to prove it, she presses her fingers along the thinning fabric of the arm, and then around the carved wooden bird claw at the end, those tiny grooves between the talons, before drawing her hands into her lap again and blinking.
There is nothing left of her husband, here or in any of the other three stories of the brownstone below. Except perhaps the cellar. Houdini’s safe is in the cellar, cemented into an alcove. Can’t be opened, both the first and second locksmith declared, blow-proof, but Jim—her husband’s stage manager and now, well, what should she call him?—scratched at his moustache to hide a half-smile. When Bess unlocked the front door minutes ago, Jim inched back a rag edge to reveal a nest of dynamite before cradling his tool bag down the steps. The house is silent now but for the rattle of automobiles through the glass at Bess’s back and the thrak of Jim’s mallet up the dumbwaiter shaft, three brutal raps and a pause, three brutal raps, the pause.
Bess looks up to see the clock on the dresser, but the clock isn’t there. The dresser isn’t there, just four dents in the floorboards, a gouge near the door. An hour from now, after Jim loads the love seat onto the truck, the house will be empty. The safe and whatever Houdini abandoned inside it don’t matter. The lawyer is predicting another will. Jim sees drawers of penciled diagrams, three decades of secrets Houdini never trusted to him. The neighbors say jewels. Apparently Houdini appeared to the wife in a dream, promised her treasure hived between wall beams. It was the only reason they could take the brownstone off Bess’s hands, the husband explained. The other Jews on 113th are selling, not buying. Because of the Negroes. It was a gamble. Bess shook the husband’s hand afterward, a large hand, though not as large as Houdini’s, and hugged the wife when she bent her cheek to Bess’s and giggled. Finders keepers. Bess promised.
Bess’s fingers smooth the Bible’s leather in her lap. The gold letters are worn, the E almost invisible, but the grooves are deep. She goes nowhere without a book these days, a talisman against boredom and strangers. She prefers a good novel, or a very bad one, naughty even, but today is Sunday. The spine bends around her crossed knee as her thumb flips pages. Bess is no God-fearer, and neither was Houdini, but death is a kind of conversion, an absolute one, religious or otherwise, and besides, she enjoys the razory press of the paper edges against her fingertips. This is the Bible her father droned from at their dinner table, the printing Bess spent hours of her girlhood hunched over, squinting to read verses between the shadow of her head and the shadow of her hand flickering in the kerosene light. She’s started reading it at night again, in bed, a good harsh bulb in the lamp, as many pillows as she could ever want at her back. The words are so familiar, so literally awful.
Today Bess chooses Matthew. Matthew has a sense of spectacle. And, behold, there was a great earthquake: for the angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door and sat upon it. The other evangelists don’t mention a quake, the second in three days, let alone an angel perched atop a tumbled boulder. They set the miracle between scenes, send Magdalene in after the deed. She sees nothing. No heavenly descent, no countenance of lightning, just the rock rolled back. Magdalene thinks: grave robbers! There’s something to be said for melodrama, for false suspense, the peering into the sepulcher, the empty linens, everybody but the reader in doubt. But if you want a showstopper, Matthew’s your man. Seal the door the verse before, set a guard, all faces squinting through a pre-dawn haze, start the earth kettle-thumping toward a crescendo, then, cymbal crash! The angel is distraction, that white-as-snow costuming, plus his bellowing announcement. All the while who can keep an eye on the just-popped tomb? Bess could spirit an elephant corpse from that cave, twice daily for matinees.
She inhales the singed metal of the radiator before looking for the missing dresser again, and then she slides the lace of her cuff back to look at her wrist. A quarter after, but her watch, a gift from Houdini four, no, five Valentines ago, runs fast when she keeps it wound, which is all the time now. Jim had wanted to work on the safe after hauling the last of the clothes trunks to Saint Patrick’s, but Bess insisted. She needs to be here, in this room, on this love seat, at twenty-six minutes past one o’clock. A commandment. She has not missed it once. She’s come close, fluttering through file boxes, losing herself in a supper recipe, then jogging to the bedroom to yank the curtains closed and perch breathless on the cushion edge. She didn’t say that to Jim. He’s Catholic, too. He knows what a ritual is.
Jim’s raps are faster now, and the pattern longer, more fickle. Sometimes five and then the pause, this time four, the pause lingering, it’s still lingering, and now six. She wonders what coded letters they are spelling, what meaningless message his chisel is sending into the belly of the safe. It’s funny, breaking into one after Houdini spent a life breaking out. Jim probably thinks it’s funny, too, that half-smirk of his, the sentences he leaves dangling, but he would never say it to Bess. He likes the job, the last for the boss. He’s down there hammering out goodbye.
She sighs a tangled breath and inches back her sleeve again. Three more minutes, two practically. She presses the King James shut and fingers the yellowed bookmarks bulging from its pages. It helps to have something in her lap, a prop to run her palms over, to focus her. She would use a picture frame, but all of Houdini’s photographs are rag-wrapped in crates. Everything is boxed. His office weighed down three trucks, books and fliers and photographs and notepads and reams and reams of typed and scribbled paper, file drawer after collapsing file drawer, all of it useless. Two minutes and he will be dead one year.
Bess closes her eyes. It’s how she begins. By the second month, it was a routine. Close your eyes, trace your thumb around the frame edge, and conjure a detail: his voice, his callused fingertips, his breath after dessert, a stubbled kiss against your cheek. It’s like counting rosary beads. Only Bess’s knees aren’t aching against the boards in her parents’ hallway, the corner where her father dangled a foot-high crucifix from a picture hook, where her mother used to hover, listening to Bess whisper Hail Marys, penance for backtalk or a shoddy chore. This is easier than all that. The love seat is soft. Bess isn’t staring at the Lord’s chest, the taut curl of his arms, the sweep of stomach down toward loosely swaddled loins, until the pulse of her legs has gone dead and the cadence of the prayer has emptied out the words. This is more like Sunday service. An hour of daydreaming, a few hymns, a crowd mumbling in unison. Bess is a child at Mass again, only there’s no lull of a sermon to anchor her, no Communion. There is nobody in the room but her.
She swallows a breath, holds it, and counts six of her heartbeats. “Houdini?” she says. It sounds like a question, the last two notes rising. That’s part of the routine. She could tap the keys on a piano. “Hou-di–ni?”
The name sounds so impersonal now, not a word a wife should use. “Harry.” It might as well be “Mister.” He needed something to go in front. His mother called him Ehrie, from Ehrich, from Ehrich Weiss, a boy Bess never met. He picked up a second-hand magic book and pocketed the author’s name, added an i, and viola! Her husband pulled himself from a hat. Bess is in her fifties, an old lady, and she’s still calling to a boy’s fantasy of himself.
She sees through her closed lids that the light is wrong. It’s too bright, too pink. She should have left the curtains. She had to stand on the armrest to reach the rod, and then only barely, tilting on her stockinged toes. She doesn’t know where she packed them. Bess doesn’t know where anything is. The clothes trunks in the basement she didn’t bother opening, just chalked the lids with an X, knowing the nuns will make sense of the high heels, lace gowns, minks for the poor. Bess could spend the remains of her life sorting this aftermath, her purgatorial chore.
The spiritualists say there’s no hell, no heaven either. The damned are the ones who linger. They don’t know better. They died doubting and when they wake—days, months, years afterwards—they shuffle in a fog, literally a fog, a half-world bound to this one. Earth is hell to those who don’t know how to leave it. They cling to routine, to the familiar, thinking themselves wed to the material, thinking this world is the world, and not its shadow, an illusion. The world is worthless. That’s what the spiritualists think.
When Bess opens her eyes, the bedroom is still empty. That this surprises her is proof of something, her lack of concentration, probably. She tries studying the pattern of the wallpaper. Flowered vines intertwine, rope thickly, then lightly, repeat. The same bud there, and there, and there. Like rosary beads. Though not really. She tried Kaddish once. She memorized the prayer from a book Houdini’s brother gave her. He was trying to be helpful. Bess kneeled at the clutter of photographs on her dresser every morning for weeks, a month almost, mumbling the phrases, embarrassed someone might be listening. Houdini’s mother used to scold her for not converting. Bess would smile, pour her mother-in-law a second cup of tea, say nothing to Houdini afterwards. The son of rabbis, and Bess never saw him set foot in a synagogue. Kaddish will never call him to her.
The wallpaper is brighter where the headboards stood. Bess doesn’t want to think that they look like headstones, so she thinks about the shape of the room instead, a coffin, and then she wonders if Jim is having better luck below. The rapping has stopped, mostly. There are still outbursts, each spaced for the next angrier blow. Then seething silence. It’s easier to get out of a safe than into one. All the mechanisms, the metallic veins and organ gears, are exposed in there. It’s like a body. Souls break out of them all the time. But not one has gotten back in.
If Houdini were trapped, wandering the earth in a daze of denial, surely some Circle would have reached him by now. Mediums host séance after séance, calling out to the great Houdini, urging him to speak, appear, so that they may save him, explain that he has passed over, that he must move on. You’re dead. Houdini is dead. It’s hard news to hear. Bess sobbed, lashed out at the nurse who tried to pull the bedsheet over his face. You bitch. You goddamned bitch, let him be. She doubts Houdini would take it any better.
When she notices that her stare has dropped to her hands, to the knot of her fingers on her lap, she looks back up, her head evenly forward, as though for a portrait, as though her chin were being raised by the tip of a painter’s index finger. The painting is titled The Widow. Or The Widow’s Repose. The Widow Remembering. Widow in Empty Room. She touches her hair, quickly, as though anticipating a flashbulb. It’s white now. She stopped dyeing it after the funeral. It was too much trouble, plus she likes to say she looks like Jean Harlow. Jean Harlow could play her. Come see Jean Harlow as the white-haired widow in Houdini Returns!
She’s sitting wrong. That’s why she can’t focus. She uncrosses her legs, squares the Bible, smoothes the pleats of her dress, and thinks of the earplugs and blindfold Houdini wore at night. He needed them to concentrate, or not to concentrate, to withdraw his senses, his hypersensitivity, his excuse for buying the matching beds. She would listen as she stared awake in the twilight of the street lamp, but he never stirred, never creaked springs, never ground sheet against sheet. He was the outline of a shadow. He was a shroud. Bess searches the floor for dents from his bedposts and spots them, four corners, another rectangle, the points of his coffin. And now she’s seeing the plush lining, his face done up in mortician paints, same as he looked before any performance. She was fine, basically, during the ceremony, until they angled the lid down, and then they were screwing it in place, and then a draft rose through her, and her scalp tingled and vanished, and then the ache in her wrist and rib was the nurse clutching her.
She rubs her face. She digs a fingertip into the corner of each eye. Bess imagines what this looks like. Houdini’s white-haired widow pressing her eyes. Everything is a performance now, even that faint. It was an honest-to-God swoon, but she was aware of that, too, its authenticity, and so it became that as well, an authentic action performing itself.
She needs to stand up, to step away from the love seat, from her own ridiculousness. The world is nothing but signs. What business did a mirror have breaking in her new bedroom? Every drawer and pocket contains the threat of a lost love note, Houdini scribbling while she sleeps among his boxes. Last night, while she was paging for a recipe in her new kitchen, a slip of paper fluttered moth-like from a yellowed cookbook: Darling, I’m yours!
It’s insufferable, really. Bess doesn’t even believe in ghosts, in souls at all. Do the unborn hover, waiting, watching their future parents grunt and thrust? A sperm breaks the skin of an egg and they dive for the breach? No spirit ever found Bess. She used to bite Houdini’s shoulder, eyes clenched, to stop from crying out. His mother was in the next room. They were newlyweds. His mother said the first soul was created in Adam, and the rest followed from him, gestating in Eve’s womb. It’s logical. If you think the sun spins around the earth, and all those half-human skeletons lining museum cases are hoaxes. We start as a blotch of cells, no larger than germs, animals so tiny they’re invisible. The skin swarms with them, a microscopic galaxy in every inch. Ghostly fingers are touching Bess everywhere.
A shiver pinches her shoulders, and she scratches at her hands, then shakes them as though flicking water into a sink. She begins walking, heel to toe, like a tightrope artist, only directionless, no cord pulling her anywhere. Her camisole is wet on her ribs. It’s warm for October. She thinks of the sunken tub in the next room, but there are no towels, probably no hot water, and she’s supposed to be thinking about Houdini. Houdini hated baths. His nails were black moons. He didn’t believe in germs. The doctor said the infection was old, weeks if not months. His intestines were an unraveling rope. The doctor couldn’t understand how he’d lasted so long, the pain, it was unthinkable. If her husband had checked into the hospital before collapsing, he would still be alive. Her fool husband would be alive, and Bess wouldn’t be here sweating in the center of their gutted bedroom.
She swallows, straightens her spine, imagines each vertebrae sliding like a book onto a neat, towering stack, and sighs. Be prepared. Her husband’s dying words. Well, not dying. That was the next day, barely a tremble of the lips, before his neck released his head into the pillow and his eyes stopped blinking. Houdini’s last instruction. Be prepared. He would try to reach her, to speak to her, to cross through. Even death cannot hold the great Houdini. Bess raises her arms, imagining a theater poster: Be Prepared…If Anything Happens! A rumbling radio ad for her new Broadway show, a tour, vaudeville. Come and see a year’s mourning in a single night!
Her arms are spread—like a crucifix; she can’t help thinking it—but then there’s a thunderclap, and she jolts. She yelps. Bess hears her voice and thinks it sounds like a dog’s bark, and then her arms are in front of her, palms out, protecting her, from nothing. Jim’s dynamite. The safe. The metal box must be on its side, hinges torn, smoke and shrapnel and—and blood? The stump of Jim’s arm that held the stick, lit it too soon, dropped it, the wick spraying as he fumbled to catch it skittering across the cement, force it into the drill hole, white sparks charring his face as he squinted and panicked, jaw too taut to scream.
When the explosion comes a second time, it is softer, barely a rumble, only an automobile backfiring. The window rattles in its frame again. That’s all. How stupid to have jumped. Her heart is still thudding, and she feels wet and hot. She goes to the window, though there’s no reason. Of course the vehicle is gone, just a thread of smoke over grayer pavement that implodes and balloons in the warp of the glass. There, on cue, a refrain of metallic thraks vibrates up from the cellar. Bess pictures the mallet swinging in Jim’s left fist, his right arm still a stump, still battering away. Can’t let down the boss.
She circles the love seat, listening to the click of her shoes, like a clock. And look, she is walking clockwise. She sits on the left cushion this time, where she left the Bible. Really it should be the Old Testament she’s reading, Isaiah, or Daniel. Anything her father used to read, his voice deep, one hand pressing the pages flat, his other rising, striking at the air, stoking it. Bess believed everything. Angels. Miracles. Thunderstorms were punishments for Our Fathers mumbled too quickly. Once a witch put an evil eye on her sister’s fiancé and the fool was dead in a week. It was an awful world, churned by the heat of certainties. Now Bess only has the rituals she contrives, which aren’t rituals at all, not yet. Bess has been at this fifty-two Sundays, one hour each, hardly two days’ worth. They were married thirty-two years. How long is this going to take?
“Houdini,” she says. It’s a whisper now, a girl’s croak. The quiver surprises her. So she says it again, “Houdini,” and the girl in her voice is still there. She was only a child when they married. She quit the tailor shop and the singing act and replaced Houdini’s brother on his poster. The Houdinis. Handsome as the devil, she wrote her sister. She meant the story their mother told the first morning May bloodied her sheets. The devil preys on girls, the stupid ones who smile back, who study the angles of a boy’s chest through the folds of his shirt. It’s a disguise. Lucifer tricks them, makes them marry him, makes them vow their lives away. Houdini was that beautiful, and she told him so, giggling in his ear, biting it, her bare knees against his ribs. There, deep in her body, she made the story true.
Afterward, he asked her for her dead father’s name, and then he rubbed ashes on his biceps and made each letter appear in blood. She ran shrieking from the tenement, her new husband dragging her back home scratching and biting through the street as he tried to explain the trick. Bess doubts it happened like that, though she can picture it, Houdini’s fist around her wrist, the give of his flesh under her nails. You Catholics are so superstitious! The truth is always so much harder to perform. Did the blood drain from her face as her hand rose, grasping at the wall, at air, at nothing? It probably wasn’t even that moment, it couldn’t have been, when it slipped from her, or began to, when Bess sensed what was accumulating with each sleight of hand, each secret exposed, the enormity of it, the loss, of everything, the lid of her life popped open. God undone in a finger snap. And here she is, free, alone forever, clinging to the demon who did it to her.
She inhales, shakily, aware that she could cry now, if she decides to. It would be easy. Bend the neck, clench the lids, wipe the heels of the palms across the wet cheeks. It’s another ritual, meaningless but still a comfort. The release of something bodily. Woman, why weepest thou? Because they have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid him. There. That does it. A made-up quotation. She is crying now. It comes up and through her in distinct pulses. Three. She can’t help but count. See how she balls her hands into useless fists? See them hover in front of her face? Her whole body tenses. Every muscle is taut, pushing back. That is the secret, Houdini taught her, to being bound.
When she decides she is done with crying and she tries to stand, to step away from it, she can’t. Her ribs are clutching her. She can’t lift herself from the seat, even with both hands shoving the cushion. The room is wet. She can’t see. Her breaths are punches to her chest, to her stomach, the knots of air gouging her throat. This is more than she planned for. She’s sobbing. She will have to touch her face up in the bathroom mirror afterward. Is there a handkerchief in her purse? When her mouth opens, a groan escapes, violent and grating, and she clamps her lips again. This is silly. Her mouth opens again, and now her body is shoving her forward, pushing her down, pinning her chest against her knees as she gasps. What if Jim hears? A stranger on the sidewalk? She would like this to stop now, please. It’s like vomiting, the way it shoves through her, forcing out something alien. It’s not her crying, it’s her body, or someone’s body. She doesn’t know who she belongs to.
And now his voice is fluttering again, pleading with her, Bessie, Bess, please. I’m sorry, darling. I’m so sorry! It’s absolutely insufferable. She should not be required to do this. Clamping her teeth doesn’t help, so she tries shaking her head, snapping her neck left and right, no, no, no. When that doesn’t work, she shouts. She thinks she can yell over the groans, but it only burns her throat hoarser, and now there’s a thread of mucus she has to wipe into her palms. It’s disgusting. It’s bodily. This is all he left her. A body. It was all he ever was, his miracles, esophagus picks, anal keys, shoulder joints levered from their sockets. It’s simply a matter of controlling the pain, of accepting it. Anything is possible if you choose to endure it.
“Blessed and praised,” whispers Bess. It’s not really a whisper. It’s not really words. She sucks in air, continues: “Glorified and exalted.” Her lips are salty, and she has to wipe the length of her forearm across both jaws to dry them. “Extolled and honored.” She sucks up more air, tries to hold it. “Adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One.” She’s starting to recognize her voice at least. There’s a rhythm returning to her lungs. “Blessed be He,” she says, “beyond all the blessings and hymns, praises and consolations that are ever spoken in the world.” What’s the next line? May there be abundant—what? Peace? Life? Her eyes are open, and she’s blinking, focusing beyond the wallpaper. Let’s go with peace. From heaven, and life, for us and for all Israel.
She starts to say it, but then the room is moving again. The floor is moving. The love seat is bucking against her back, and her ears hurt. She grips the wooden arms, startled by a sound so loud she can’t hear it. The house swoons. She feels herself atop a tumbling boulder. She feels the house rolling onto its side, the foundation exposed. She thinks: earthquake! Then the ache in her ears is silence, and nothing is moving but her chest. The stillness awes her. The world is silent, numb. Every dust mote is jostled and restacked into a new and precarious balance. The walls have never been so motionless. She doesn’t want to breathe. She doesn’t want to start the world colliding again.
But it starts without her. There’s a shout, and then there’s a thumping growing louder. Bess doesn’t remember the dynamite until the footfalls turn on the staircase landing. It’s Jim. Then she thinks that she should have thought that he might be dead, injured at least, but it’s too late now. He’s already running up the hall to her. She doesn’t have time to check her face. She rubs her fingers across her cheeks, touches a knuckle to her nostrils, and the door is opening.
“I’m so sorry,” Jim shouts. “I would’ve warned you, but I didn’t think. It was just the one stick, I swear.” He looks ruffled, comically, like a Chaplin reel, hair in tufts, a dusting of black on his clothes and face, his eyes whiter where he squeezed them shut. Bess wants to laugh and then wonders why she isn’t.
“Did you open it?” Her voice is raw. What a spectacle she must be. Flushed and red-eyed and swollen. Jim is looking at her, and then he is carefully not looking at her.
“Nah,” he says. He’s lowered his voice, too, has let the commotion drain from it. There’s nothing extraordinary going on here. Just the boss’s wife praying in an empty house, a half-blown safe in the basement. “I’m not done though.”
Bess nods. She wants to say something encouraging, or appreciative. Keep at it. Show him what we’re made of, Jim. Her hands are folded again, and her knees are crossed under her dress. It’s not one of her best, not one of those ridiculous gowns Houdini was always pulling from ribboned boxes, things she could never wear but once a year. This one’s simple, a dark blue muslin, but expensive. Jim’s eyes meet hers.
“Sorry to disturb you, ma’am.”
“Not at all, Jim.”
He shuffles sideways, opens his mouth, doesn’t speak, and then turns and grips the knob.
“You’re very kind to check on me,” Bess says, to slow him. She’s smiling, actually smiling, her whole face is, without her making it.
Jim nods vigorously. “No problem, Mrs. Houdini. No problem at all.”
He stops the door before it strikes the frame, before the gentlest of clicks. Bess barely hears it, and then she wonders if she did.
Her watch says five minutes till two. Another half hour. That’s all. Thirty minutes. She can do that. Anyone could. She tugs her sleeve straight, smoothes her hands down her hips, crosses her legs the other direction, and breathes. The light from the window has brightened. The wallpaper petals are glowing, are continuously opening. She has so much to do today, so many boxes to empty. She looks at her wrist again, thinks of the enormous stopwatch, the stage prop that ticked beside Houdini’s drawn curtains, while he bobbed in the water cell, or the rigged milk can, an endless loop of rope holding him tighter than she ever could. This is easier. Just an hour a week for the rest of her life. She will be done in no time.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.