Stephen: "But if I do it enough, someday it's gonna work on someone and it'll be the best damn card trick in the world."
This is where it begins, where it always begins, a smile with Stephen at the center of it and everything spinning out; kaleidoscoping into meaning, every player getting played because Stephen’s already holding all the cards.
The summer you are seven, Stephen teaches you how to swim. Or rather, he is the one who pushes you in, right into the deep end of the pool where the water is shockingly cold.
Sink or swim, Bloom, are Stephen’s exact words, but when it comes to Stephen, words are only ever window-dressing.
The entire time you’re in the water, his hand hovers directly under your shoulders, poised to keep you afloat.
Knock-knock, says Stephen at fourteen, eyes glittering.
Who’s there? you ask, even though you’re both too old for knock knock jokes.
Everything, says Stephen, and a joke isn’t a joke if it’s a promise; his smile bright enough to momentarily distract you from your most recent foster home getting swallowed up by yet another rear-view mirror.
Stephen’s looking straight ahead while you look behind and sideways, and most days your lives would be easier if you both wanted the same things.
You never know what is going to happen next - not in any great detail. Stephen does, though.
Stephen is a force of nature.
“No,” Stephen says, patiently. “I force nature.”
At this precise moment in time, Stephen is straddling a carnival game, sweet-talking the attendant into letting you both play for free.
By that afternoon you’ve both run away and joined the circus.
“Your name’s Marco and you only speak Italian,” Stephen whispers in your ear, right before he introduces you to the ringmaster.
Three hours later you’re under the big top standing facing Stephen, and he’s beaming at you as you aim darts, wildly, above his head while the crowd applauds, applauds, applauds.
“Pick a card,” Stephen says.
“C’mon, Bloom, who are we going to be today?”
It is a rhetorical question - Stephen knows every answer before he asks the question.
Sometimes you think he talks out of habit rather than necessity, so perhaps it’s no surprise that your conversations tend to be more farcical than informative.
“That brother of yours, he’s a real chameleon, huh?” says Diamond Dog. He’s leaning in too close, each breath a new pollution.
Diamond Dog is stupid. Mean and stupid - and because Stephen always says that’s the deadliest combination, you simply nod, although inside you’re thinking of how he must be blind, blind, blind.
If anyone's a chameleon, it is you - continually cycling through whatever colour or pattern or protective camouflage will best blend in with whatever backdrop Stephen has decided to place you against.
Stephen is the furthest thing from a chameleon you can possibly imagine.
What do you call a creature who changes the world to suit itself?
“We’re con men,” you say.
“No,” corrects Stephen, “we're confidence men.”
You snort. “Like there’s a difference.”
Stephen shakes his head, disappointed, like you haven't got it yet.
"The difference is, we're in the business of confidence, Bloom," he says. "How about you at least pretend like you have some?"
Pretending. It's what you do best.
Stephen looks around. “You’re not losing your nerve, are you, Bloom?”
Stung, you pull on the rest of your costume. “After you,” you say, gesturing as you adjust the bodice of your dress.
Stephen claps his hands together. “Onwards!” he trumpets, and around you the people cheer, and even though Stephen looks the furthest thing you can think of from a long-lost noble, all around you people part like the sea as you make your way through to the palace ahead.
It is never about the money.
Correction: it is never entirely about the money, but of course the money is part of it - it represents a tangible symbol of success, the culmination of every con.
Of course, Stephen also thinks that black eyes from jealous husbands or scorned lovers represent tangible symbols of success.
Even though he can usually see the punch coming by virtue of having choreographed the entire showdown, sometimes he stands there anyway to take the hit, wears it like a badge of honour. Sometimes he inserts himself neatly between you and the infuriated mark, catching the punch meant for you.
Then there's the times, he lets you get hit - tells you afterwards you should have seen it coming, should've learnt to duck by now.
All things being even and Stephen being Stephen, tonight's black eye will become tomorrow the thread of the next web he is spinning: Oh, him, he’ll say, pointing over to you where you sit brooding in the corner of the diner, holding a can of cola up against your bruised face. Yeah, you probably recognise him from the newspaper. He’s that fireman, you know? The one that saved all those puppies from the pet shop that was on fire. Beam fell right on him, but he just kept carrying them out. Labradors and poodles and pomeranians, and he will clap a firm hand on your shoulder, and despite your best efforts, you won’t be able to help the involuntary smile that floats to the surface.
Here you go again.
“Do you ever think about what I want?” you ask, one night. It’s your worst fight yet and you feel sick with it.
Stephen looks up at you. “Do you?” Stephen shoots back, and of course that’s when the police arrive, and by then you’re both running too fast to continue the conversation.
Penelope is your exit stage right. She’s the kite in the sky, just as Stephen is the wrist your string is tethered to, hopelessly moored and the lightning is coming for all three of you - four of you - you correct yourself, as you glance over to where Bang Bang sits, sketching out plans as Stephen snores in the corner, futures playing out beneath his dreaming eyelids.
Three days on a boat and his suit isn’t even wrinkled.
Penelope looks up, catches your eye, slants a smile at you - small. It’s your second-favourite smile of hers, and you catalogue the memory of it. You’re a romantic - who knew?
In this life, and every life Stephen paints worlds with his words - and just when you think he’s painted you both in a corner this time, he winks, sketches a door out of thin air and then pulls it open; pulls you along with him.
Most days it’s a door. Some days it’s a window. On one particularly memorable occasion, it was a rocketship.
The last trick he ever pulled was a Penelope-shaped escape hatch, and it was only after you stepped out into clear blue open sky that you realised that Stephen wasn’t parachuting down beside you.
You’ve never wanted anything more in your entire life than for Stephen to emerge, pop open the trunk of the car and come tumbling out.
If Stephen is right and the perfect con is the one where everybody gets what they want in the end, then this ending is about as far from perfect as you can imagine.
Either that, or the con isn’t over yet. You still haven’t decided.
Leave the imagining to me, is what Stephen would say. Bloom. What did I tell you about imagining?
It’s strange, the way that real blood looks more fake than fake blood - turns the colour of rust between your fingers.
It’s strange, that you are so used to cons and fakes and double-bluffs that you don’t notice what’s real until it’s too late. Maybe it’s not so strange, after all.
Stephen’s always got something up his sleeve. It’s so difficult to accept the fact that this time, there won’t be an encore. Fade to black, and you can’t stop clapping because then you’ll start crying, again.
Growing up, your favourite movie was Pinocchio.
In this scenario, there's equal odds that Stephen is both the fox that leads you astray and the whale that swallows you whole. It’s a whale of a tale, says Stephen, grinning, you’re never going to believe this one, Bloom, but you always do believe it, because Stephen lies to everybody, including himself, but he doesn’t lie to you, not in the important ways.
Stephen is Gapetto, too. He built you and he both, the Brothers Bloom, with his bare hands, tight-roping across all the webs he was spinning.
Penelope, of course, is the Blue Fairy.
Now that you think about it though, maybe Stephen was Pinocchio.
After all, he wanted to be real, too - that was the one consistent thread that ran through every single one of his stories, as if every mask he tossed aside would bring him one layer closer - but, ever the magician, there were only new masks, an infinite rainbow of scarves, a flock of doves flying out of a top hat that was empty just a moment ago, when you last checked it.
Perhaps that makes you nothing more than his dutiful Jiminy Cricket, a doleful naysayer, trailing behind with a long-face and an umbrella in case of bad weather.
“Nope,” corrects Stephen, “you are definitely Pinocchio,” and as he says it, his nose grows another inch, which is when you realise it’s a dream, of course it’s a dream, because Stephen never lies to you, not in any of the ways that count, and when you wake up Stephen's still gone.
You both wanted to be real, no strings attached.
Stephen is the dynamite in all of your metaphors. He is the fuse, the lit match and the resulting calamity.
He is the villain twirling his moustache as he ties himself to the railway tracks before sallying forth to his own rescue.
You are the moustache and the rope; the scream and the raucous applause. Props and sound effects and audience, with Stephen writing, directing and choreographing. And managing wardrobe.
You're terrible at this analogy business, observes Stephen.
Shut up, you think at him, furiously. You're dead. You don't get to have an opinion when you're dead.
Stephen's smile is Cheshire-cat style: the last thing to fade from view.
“Pick a card,” is what he’d said, and you’d picked a card and it’s an old trick that never works until it does.
On Stephen’s next birthday, you buy thirty-eight packs of cards and the first thing you do is you pull out all the jokers, tuck them away for safekeeping.
It’s Penelope that helps you to build a house out of the remaining cards, reaching out to steady your hands as they shake, when it gets too hard to see through the tears.
When it’s finally built, it’s cocky and tremulous and gravity-defying and glorious.
Bang Bang is suddenly there too, and she’s the one to help you set it on fire, while Penelope sends smoke signal translations of the fortune cookies you’ve both been snacking on compulsively for the past seven weeks.
You all get roaring drunk afterwards, and Penelope drives too fast around the corners and you stick your head out the window and for a moment you can smell the ocean, for all that you’re fifty miles inland.
The card deck nestled in your coat-pocket is stacked full with jokers, all the way down.
The thing about an unwritten life is, you never know what’s going to happen next.
Nobody ever wanted more for you than Stephen did. There’s a lump in your throat where there wasn’t one before, and out of the corner of your eye you still half-expect Stephen to appear, laughing.
Stephen’s gone, except for all the ways he isn’t. You carry all his stories with you, luggage you'll never let go of, his voice in your head, reminding you that what's past is prologue.
The curtain falls; the show goes on and the rest of your life will be the greatest story Stephen never told.
“You dumb bastard,” you say, and what you mean is Stephen, like a prayer, and just like that, you’re crying again, except this time it feels more like a beginning than anything that’s ever come before, and ‘wow’ is the word you’re looking for when it comes to Stephen; has been and will always be.
(This is about me, right? you asked, months ago, when all this began.
When Stephen said They’ve always been about you, your mistake was that you were so caught up in watching for the trick, for the spades hidden up his sleeve, the clubs held tight to his chest, you forgot that, where you're concerned, Stephen always wore his heart on his sleeve.)