Imagine a fantastically drab ballroom. Seven square tables have been set up in front of a large stage, each table seating two couples, including Bob and Jane Coffen. Imagine everybody has finished gumming their salmon and parsnip purée and now the overhead lights go out.
The sound of a recorded heartbeat thumps from the speakers. Loudly at first. It fades until only faintly playing in the background.
The lights go back up, and there are two people standing on the stage, a man and a woman. The man wears a sign on his chest that says SPUTTERING HUSBAND. The woman’s sign says ZOMBIE WIFE. They both stagger around the carpeted stage, weaving wildly, like blind people doped on booze without canes or dogs or good Samaritans.
“Who are you?” says Zombie Wife.
“Don’t you remember me?” Sputtering Husband asks.
“Oh, yeah, you’re that man I’ve been married to for all these years. You think I’m only a dishwasher and a Laundromat and a baby-making factory.”
“And you’re the woman who thinks all I do is fart and play fantasy football and you never appreciate the little things I do to help out around the house when I’m not slaving at the office . . . ”
“I’m tired of going through the motions,” she says.
“I wish there was a way to recapture the magic we once possessed,” says Sputtering Husband.
They’re still staggering around, clomping on the carpeted stage, though now they’re both quiet, and in one far corner there’s suddenly a puff of smoke that grows in diameter and from it emerges Björn the Bereft. He’s wearing a black cape, a black top hat. He is mustachioed.
“Did somebody say ‘recapture the magic’?” Björn says.
“We did! We did!” say Sputtering Husband and Zombie Wife.
“And what about you fine people?” Björn asks the audience. “Are you also here to recapture the magic?”
“We’re here to recapture the magic!” everyone regurgitates in unison.
“I didn’t hear that. Why are you here?”
“We’re here to recapture the magic!”
“Stand up, please,” Björn says, walking toward center stage.
The whole audience does as it’s told.
Sputtering Husband and Zombie Wife come close to him, a few feet away. Björn says, “Would any of you like to guess what this stage is made out of?”
Bob Coffen and his tenuously married comrades peek around with puzzled faces, shrugging shoulders. Most people seem to be eating up the proceedings, but Bob’s swinging between his primordial impulses—to deride this magic show as a cult-in-training: married adults congregating in a ballroom in the hopes a magician will make their marriages better; however, he tries to shrug off this instinct to disparage. He tries to assimilate, to take part, to be open-minded. Boy, does he try, but so far it’s not working.
“You,” says Björn to a woman near the front.
“Me?” she says.
“Yes, will you please come up and inspect the stage? Please walk around it and let everyone know what it’s made out of.”
The woman gets busy walking around the stage, stomping on it in places, doing a fine, thorough job. Then she says into Björn’s mic, “The whole stage is carpeted and it feels like thin wood underneath it.”
“And you are confident that the entire stage is carpeted with thin wood underneath it?”
She nods enthusiastically. “Absolutely, I’m confident of that.”
“Thanks. You can go back to your seat. Let’s give her a hand.”
They give her a hand.
Then Björn pulls a wand out of thin air. He leans down at the feet of Sputtering Husband and Zombie Wife and taps several times on the carpeted stage. Now there’s smoke wafting around their ankles, climbing up, encasing them in fog. Björn moves away and says, “Ladies and gentlemen, once the smoke clears, I think you’ll find that my associates here are actually standing on thin ice.”
The smoke clears and everyone struggles to see, jockeys for a better view. Björn’s associates are indeed standing on a small circle of thin ice. They shift from side to side, steadying their sneakers on the slick surface.
“Ooooh,” everyone says in surprise.
“What the hell?” says somebody with a Scottish accent from the back.
“The rumors are true: Björn is a true sorcerer!” another guy shouts.
“Wow, it’s sure hard to keep our lives stable standing on this thin ice,” Zombie Wife says.
“The simplest task, such as just standing here, is a daunting endeavor,” Sputtering Husband says. “I wonder what we can do to better our situation.”
“Have any of you ever felt like this?” Björn asks the audience. There are thoughtful nods, murmurs in the affirmative, knowing and furtive glances between spouses. He continues his speech: “Remember, this couple up here is only one permutation of marital dynamics. Maybe you’ve never officially tied the knot but lived together for many years. Maybe you’re a same-sex couple. Maybe a long-distance relationship. Maybe your signs don’t correspond to these up here in the slightest, but instead say things like PILL-POPPING FLOOZY, GAMBLES LIKE CRAZY, CLOSET CASE!, ADDICTED TO PORN, SHOPS FOR FULFILLMENT, VIOLENT STREAK, HUNG LIKE A TODDLER, DRUNK & INDIFFERENT, I’M SETTLING WITH YOU, BLOWS PAYCHECK AT TITTY BARS, YOU’RE THE WRONG ETHNICITY, COCAINE FOR BREAKFAST, DESIRES S&M BUT ASHAMED TO ADMIT IT, INFIDELITY EMPOWERS ME, I HATE OUR CHILDREN, TOO DAMAGED TO GIVE EMOTIONALLY, YOU EXACERBATE MY DADDY ISSUES, LOST IN SELF-PITY, HAVEN’T HEALED MY PAST TRAUMAS, etc., etc. In the long run, it makes no difference what your particular sign says. Point is that you are here to recapture the magic! Now, let me ask all of you a very serious question: How long can two people stand on thin ice?”
From the speakers comes the sound of cracking ice.
A few gasps from the audience . . .
“I’m feeling vulnerable to catastrophe,” Zombie Wife says.
“I’ve come to expect the worst due to our pattern of toxic communication,” Sputtering Husband muses.
The sounds of cracking, splintering ice grow louder.
And that’s when Sputtering Husband and Zombie Wife fall through the ice and into water. They fall right into the stage and splash around. Holy smokes, Coffen can’t believe his eyes. He didn’t see a trapdoor on the stage earlier, let alone a patch of ice, let alone a patch of ice concealing a water tank. Wow! It’s a magnificent trick—a feat of hearty magnitude.
“It’s sure cold in here,” Sputtering Husband says.
“If only we’d learned to recapture the magic prior to this disastrous yet inevitable conclusion,” Zombie Wife says.
“Don’t let this happen to you and yours,” Björn says to the audience. “Trust me: We can fix whatever’s ailing your relationships. I promise. Think of me as the Lifeguard of Love on Duty. If you fall into the frigid waters of marital discord, I can help you climb out before you freeze to death.”
Coffen’s internal clash to participate in this show hits a pothole as soon as the magician says “Lifeguard of Love.” Bob almost laughs—it sounds too much like a porn: Excuse me, scantily clad coed on the beach. Do you need CPR? My penis is really great at administering it.
He stares at Jane, who still looks to be taking this all very seriously.
“Speaking of freezing to death,” Sputtering Husband says through chattering teeth.
“In a minute,” says Björn.
“My feet are numb,” Zombie Wife says.
“Divas,” Björn mutters, then helps both of them get out of the water. They stand onstage shivering and everyone gives a walloping round of applause before the two walk off and huddle in the corner in blankets.
“Do you know why they call me Björn the Bereft?” the magician asks. “Because of these.” He points at his cheeks, which are slick with tears. “I’ve been crying nonstop for nine years. Nine! Ever since my own marriage failed. My wife and I weren’t clearly reading each other’s signs. Even if we don’t wear real signs around our real necks in everyday life, they are invisibly dangling there. For instance, did I know that Vivian’s invisible dangling sign said BORED IN THE BEDROOM? I had no idea of her boredom in the bedroom. How is anyone supposed to fix something if they aren’t given ample opportunity to make adjustments? It’s common sense, right? So tonight, you are going to articulate what your sign says to your spouse. Hopefully, this exercise can close some of the distance that exists between you. Will everyone please look under their placemats? What’s there? Is there a blank dental bib that you can write on and then fasten around your neck? There sure is. And before you go giving me too much credit, no, that wasn’t a magic trick. I had my interns stash those there before the show. I’m a magician of principles and won’t take credit for feats I myself did not mastermind. You’ll also notice a Sharpie next to your bread plate. Please take a couple minutes and collect your thoughts regarding what should be written on your dental bib. Remember: The sign is already invisibly dangling from your neck. Now, it’s time to be honest with yourself, your partner, and do your best to make the marriage work. Trust me: You don’t want to end up like me, crying for nine years. Could I have stopped crying by now? Yes and no. But I cast a spell on myself to cry every day for the rest of my life so I could help other people avoid the vipers’ nest my wife and I stumbled into. Does that make me a martyr? Am I some kind of emotional hero? We’ll see how history remembers my contribution to the dark arts. I can only hope to be immortalized in the pantheon of legendary illusionists.”
Björn pauses, twirls the ends of his moustache. He’s pacing back and forth in exaggerated, labored strides and making eye contact with all the people near the front, flashing them smiles. Probably the magician thinks he’s being friendly, but all Bob sees is a snake oil salesman trying to dupe people into buying his miracle tonic.
Björn says, “Don’t show your sign to your partner until I tell you to. For now, only worry about writing on it, then stand up next to your chair. Once everyone is standing, I’ll know we’re ready for the next phase. Good luck.” He wipes more tears from his face.
Joshua Mohr is the author of four novels, most recently “Damascus,” which The New York Times called “Beat-poet cool.” He’s also written “Some Things that Meant the World to Me,” one of O Magazine’s Top 10 reads of 2009 and a San Francisco Chronicle best-seller, as well as “Termite Parade,” an Editors’ Choice on The New York Times Best Seller List. He lives in San Francisco and teaches in the MFA program at USF. His new novel, “Fight Song,” was just published in February 2013.
Adapted from Fight Song by Joshua Mohr. Copyright © 2013 by Joshua Mohr. With the permission of the publisher, Soft Skull Press.