Wednesday night arrived yet once again, and so the men of the city made ready to convene. If you stood there on the corner of that city block beneath the black iron lamppost, you would see them shuffle down the alleyway and enter into the cellar of a long forgotten building, making use of a side door unbeknownst to those who cared not to look in those kinds of places. They each made sure to stamp the snow from the bottoms of their work-stained boots before entering.
They were honest men and hardworking, each with a family of their own. Carpenters, street cleaners, mechanics, and others of all trades filled the crowd. Obscured by their commonplace roles in society, they lived a simple and overlooked existence – except on Wednesday nights.
One might wonder perhaps to what city these men belonged. The answer: it was any city, and it was every city. Part of a long-held tradition dating back to the days of ancient Greece, they were the Gentlemen Keepers of Mankind’s Hallmarks. The name had changed several times over the years, but their purpose remained the same.
As the men filed into the dimly lit cellar, they each took a seat at one of many round tables that filled the room. At the far end was a bar where mugs were filled from large metal kegs that rested atop the once polished and now marred and dusty surface.
When the cellar grew quiet, with only the occasional cough or sniffle to be heard, a man approached the head of the room. He climbed three short stairs leading up to a wooden stage that somehow did not seem to belong in that dark cellar. A microphone stood waiting for him. The stage was built of unfinished wood, befitting of the men who used it. Nevertheless, it served its purpose well.
Standing in the white spotlight that shone from the back of the room, he pulled off his hard-hat and tucked it beneath his arm, pressing it against the thin yellow vest that covered his red and green flannel shirt. Clearing his throat and scratching the stubble on his chin, the man on stage began to speak.
“Welcome everyone. I’m glad to see we all could make it here tonight. We haven’t missed a single meeting so far, and a little snow ain’t gonna stop that, now will it?” The room resounded in applause. “I see we have a few newcomers this evening. Good. My name is William,” or Bill as he was introduced by those who did not really know him, “and I am what you might call the “master of ceremonies”.
“I don’t know what rumors or stories brought you here tonight, or what you’ve come expecting to see, but you’ll soon find out firsthand what it is we do here.”
Sliding his free hand behind his vest into his shirt pocket, William withdrew a crinkled slip of paper and a pair of thin-rimmed spectacles. Holding the paper at chest-height, he peered down through his glasses and read the notes that were scribbled in black ink upon it.
“Tonight we continue the legacy of our brotherhood, a ceremony carried on through the ages for the continuation and preservation of mankind’s greatest achievements. This evening we have a special –” he began, but a voice from the back of the room quickly interjected.
“The minutes!” the voice shouted. It was too dark in the cellar and too bright on the stage for William to see who it was.
“Ah yes! I nearly forgot.” William darted off stage for a moment, then hurried back carrying with him an old leather-bound book with gold-trimmed pages that one might easily mistake for a bible. Tugging at the cloth marker sewn into the spine, he flipped open the book somewhere near the middle and ran his calloused finger down the length of the page. “Let’s see, yes here we are. Last week, Paul,” or Pauly as you might know him, “sang for us some opera, including a wonderful performance of Nessun Dorma that left many of us with tears and tingles down our spines. Thank you Paul.”
The cellar filled with the sound of cheers and fists pounding tabletops. Paul blushed, uncharacteristic, you might think, of a man who spends his days working in sewers. It is said that if you listen closely while walking down the city streets, you just might hear the faint trails of an Italian opera resonating beneath you.
William continued, “The week before that, Bernard,” or Bernie as you probably have heard him called, “acted out for us lovely renditions of Shakespeare’s most popular sonnets, as well as select lines from several of his plays, my personal favorite being of course Hamlet. What a piece of work is a man indeed!”
Again, the room filled with applause. Bernard, a mechanic by day, was the proud owner of a very successful garage, Much Ado About Engines.
“And now for this evening’s entertainment – unless I’ve forgotten anything else,” he said, peering over his spectacles searching the room for objections.
“Yeah! Where’s that lumber you promised me?” jested Harry from somewhere in the back of the room. He preferred Harold, as it appeared on his business card just above the line reading, Number one contractor in the North District. “That steeple ain’t gonna build itself you know!”
“Just hold your sawhorses; you’ll get it next week.” William found it impossible to contain the grin brought on by his simple pun, revealing a chipped front tooth which he often took measures to keep hidden. Harold raised his mug and winked in reply.
“Now, barring any further interruptions, tonight we have something very special planned from a first time performer to this group, with an act played out before many of our brothers in other cities. I am certain we will all enjoy his celebration of mankind’s ability to mystify and conjure, to spook and delight, so please welcome to the stage tonight –” he paused and chuckled, along with the rest of the room, “hey that rhymed! You’d better look out Bernard, you might be reciting my poetry someday.” Bernard shook his head doubtfully. “Please welcome to the stage, Theodore the Magnificent!” William presented, urging the room to join him in a round of applause.
As William made his way off the stage, a thin pallid man passed him, wearing a light blue button-down shirt with a white patch sewn onto the chest. The blue cursive stitching on the patch read, Teddy. He was a plumber by trade, though not for the city in which he currently stood, and with his stained black work shoes and fading navy blue pants, Theodore certainly did not portray a man of magnificence as his stage name suggested.
Upon his arrival, Theodore promptly removed the microphone to the back of the stage. He would not need it. William returned to the stage carrying a stool with several items resting atop it, among them was a rope, a glass of water, and a violin. He placed it where the microphone once stood and removed himself from the stage at once. Theodore nodded in approval.
Taking the violin, Theodore balanced it atop his shoulder and beneath his chin and began to play. It was a song that the men in the room had never heard before, one of original composition. It was good, but it was not the best. There were several gifted musicians in the audience that evening, all of them deemed much more talented at playing the violin than their present guest on stage. Theodore held back his grin, for he knew what the men were thinking. He always began his performance in the exact same way, and he relished in the dismal response it drew.
After a couple of minutes playing, William began to wonder if he had been misled by his contacts in the other groups. While he wondered this, he watched in curiosity as Theodore released the neck of the violin, and continued to play without missing a note, the instrument balanced only between his chin and shoulder. There were some stray claps here and there, but nothing much. While it was impressive, it paled in comparison to Robert’s flawless piano performance of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata only one month before – Robert, or Robby, being a lumberjack with only one arm.
A few more minutes passed with Theodore playing in this manner, when he unexpectedly released the bow from his grip and the instrument continued to play. This garnered a great deal of gasps from the room, followed by a rush of applause. The men in the room cheered even more when Theodore stepped away from the violin entirely and it continued to play the song suspended in midair.
Free of the instrument, Theodore proceeded to walk around the confines of the stage, performing simple tricks that many of the men had seen before as children. He pulled knots out of ropes, and produced silk scarves from thin air. Pigeons flew from out of his cupped hands, and he made water in a glass freeze before their eyes. Then, as though he were still in control of its bow, or perhaps the instrument itself was aware of its role in the show, the violin picked up in pace, growing toward a climax.
Theodore the Magnificent pulled a silver dollar from his pocket. The men in the room looked on with half-interest, the astonishment of the floating violin having been doused by mediocre magic. Holding the coin out before him, pinched between his thumb and forefinger, he moved his free hand in front of it in quick passes, up and down. As his hand moved upward, blocking the view of the coin, the silver dollar would vanish, only to reappear when his hand passed back down.
The tempo of the violin quickened and quickened, and suddenly as his hand moved upward over the coin one final time, Theodore the Magnificent himself vanished from the stage with a loud POP! that resonated throughout the room, absent of smoke or flashes or showy diversions of any kind, save for that loud POP! that had ushered the room into bewilderment. The coin and violin remained floating in the air for a few seconds more before finally crashing to the stage, the instrument ceasing to play any longer.
The room grew loud with argument over what had taken place. William nearly fell out of his chair in surprise. Standing on the stage, he inspected its wood. He did not know why, for they had built the stage themselves, and knew there were no trap doors to be found. Someone flipped on all the lights and after a thorough search of the room Theodore was presumed to be no longer in attendance that evening. He would never be seen by any of the men in that room again, yet, once in a while, rumors and hearsay of his astonishing performances in other cities would find their way down to that dimly lit cellar.
The violin and silver dollar were collected and placed into a locked trunk kept in the cellar, and the record of his performance was added to the thick leather-bound book with its gold-trimmed pages. The men all agreed it was the finest magical act they had ever seen, and made sure William noted that in the entry.
When the meeting adjourned, the men returned to their workaday lives. As it was every week, their wives would ask where they had spent their evening, to which they would only reply, “Out dear, with the boys,” and say nothing more of the matter.
The tracks of their footprints and tires in the snow would lead to all corners of the city that night, only to be erased by the bustle of the following morning. The next Wednesday there would be another meeting, and Theodore the Magnificent’s performance would be pushed further back in the book with gold-trimmed pages, one week at a time, as it was in every city, with old and unfamiliar faces alike filling the spaces of a dark cellars to stand upon stages of tradition.