Merlin is doing something on his front lawn I don't quite understand. As I walk by, he's cleaning a long canvas strap with a dull blade. The thick strap is suspended, stretched, between two trees. He nods at me and smiles from under a sharp black cowboy hat, saying good afternoon. I used to live in this neighborhood in Dallas, on this very street. But I don't remember him. He strikes me as someone I should remember. His beard is white, long and pointed. His eyeglasses are perfectly circular, the frames pewter-colored. Around his neck hangs a thin leather strap with a simple ring, like a wedding band, rung through it. The rust in his cheeks is matched by the rust in his tie-dyed t-shirt. His jeans are fresh blue, his moccassins mustard yellow. I nod and return the good afternoon, curious, but then continue down the street, marveling at how many of the old clapboard houses have been torn down, replaced by chunky Tudors in brick and stone. My old house, amazingly, is still standing. When I come back to the corner, Merlin is standing on the strap suspended between the two trees. He's balancing, walking back and forth, bouncing. It's a tightrope, I now realize. In the time it took me to walk the length of the block and back to his blue clapboard house, Merlin has pulled two thick crash pads onto the grass, placed them under the line, taken his mocassins off and hopped up and started jaunting. As he bounces and jumps clear, I ask him how long he's been tightrope-walking.
"It's not a tightrope." He shakes a white finger at me. "It's a slack-line."
"Oh. A slack-line. How long have you had it?"
"Since October. I can't do much yet. You should see what some people can do, though. Want to try it?"
"I think I have the wrong shoes on."
"Naw, girl. People do this in anything."
I kick my clogs off and stand in my socks on one of the crash pads while he takes the dull blade I'd seen him use earlier and cleans the grass and mud from the line. I tell him my name, and ask him his.
"Like the magician."
"I am a magician."
"What do I do?"
He explains I should get my right foot up on the line, first. I do, and the canvas strap, only an inch or so wide under my sock, starts vibrating wildly.
"No worries, that's just your nerves, girl. Pay it no heed. Hop up with the other foot now, and I'll hold you. Keep your eyes looking straight ahead, and don't ever ever ever look down. That's the trick. And when you think you're going to fall, just bend your knees."
I hold fast to Merlin's shoulders, and hop on. He's steady and solid and warm, so comforting that when I've finally got two feet on the line, I can't bring myself to let go of him. The strap is still vibrating crazily, and I don't see how I'll ever calm my nerves and balance. Then I remember. Just look straight ahead. And if you think you're going to fall, bend your knees. Let go.
I grab Merlin a few times until I feel it: that strange moment when you forget what you're doing, forget yourself, forget, for example, that's there's anything at all unlikely about meeting a stranger in a cowboy hat and suspending yourself two feet above his lawn on a canvas strap. It's only for a few seconds, but I balance.
I grab Merlin, laughing, and hop off.
"That's amazing," I pant. "You are a magician."
"Want to see something else?"
He unknots the thin strap from around his neck, and starts doing tricks with the wedding band looping through it. The ring jumps off the strap. It jumps back on. It's knotted in the leather. Then magically unknotted. It flies through the air, then lands smack in the knot again.
"Should be. I'm a street performer."
"You make a living that way?"
"I've always managed to stay alive."
"By doing tricks?"
"Well. I had a job once. The girl I was with then"--he swings the ring around on the strap--"she was younger than me, going to college and all that, and spending all her time around wannabe doctors and lawyers and such--she told me, one day, that she thought she was living with a bum. And I supposed that she was. So I decided I should show her that anyone can make money, if that's all you care about . . . and I got a job, and went to school, and then I started my own business, and pretty soon I was making money all over the place, in land surveying. But then one day I surveyed myself, you might say, and I noticed I hated everything. So I quit everything and went back to learning magic. And now I'm not with that girl anymore," he waves the ring again, "and I'm learning this." He points to the slack-line.
"And what do you hope to do on it?"
"Yoga poses. Tai chi. That will be hard. But good for me. Also I'd like to recite my poetry on it. I'm a poet, too. Want me to write a poem for you?"
He closes his eyes and improvises:
What are you afraid of? That you won't have enough money? Or enough food? Are you afraid you're going to die? Or that you won't live? Are you afraid you are going to fall? And that you won't get up again? Maybe you're afraid of everything, then? Everything there is? Let me ask you again, my friend. What is it that you're afraid of?
"Of falling," I admit.
He opens his eyes. "But I told you what to do."
Look straight ahead. Don't look down. Bend your knees. It's not a tightrope. It's a slack-line.
"Trust me, I know what I'm talking out," Merlin said before we shook hands and parted ways.
Photo credit: Bruce Barone