A Story About the Loneliness of a Professional Escape Artist
“Miraculously, He Escapes” by Sean Adams
AN INTRODUCTION BY MICHAEL G. CZYZNIEJEWSKI
After reading “Miraculously, He Escapes” for the first time, what struck me most of all was This author went all-in. I remember actually thinking that upon finishing the final sentence. Sean Adams’ story is a surreal, satirical, fabulist tale, a daunting combination in lesser hands, but Adams succeeds because he did the only thing he could with a concept like this and that was to go all-out, leave nothing on the table.
All-in. All-out. Nothing on the table. These seem like terms straight out of the blurbist’s handbook (or the corresponding manual for X-Games announcers), but with a character — and a concept — like the Escape Artist, could there be any other route? I’m trying now to visualize a subtle story about an escape artist. Raymond Carver’s “Where I’m Calling From” was about a chimney sweep, a profession on par, in terms of metaphorical loadedness, with an escape artist. So, sure, if Carver had lived longer, written more stories, eventually he could have gotten there: presented a sad tale of a man who just happened to chain himself inside of shark tanks (though not on the page, just explained around a coffee table).
These seem like terms straight out of the blurbist’s handbook (or the corresponding manual for X-Games announcers), but with a character — and a concept — like the Escape Artist, could there be any other route?
Sean Adams, however, didn’t write his story in the era of 1980s minimalism. Adams explores all aspects of escape artistry, staying one step ahead of his reader and heading off any protests, any ambiguity, at the pass. I can’t remember reading a story with as ambitious a premise as “Miraculously, He Escapes” that didn’t leave me with questions, with doubts, with logistical sticklerings. The story is fully realized, and at the same time, exquisitely structured and paced: Everything is in its right place.
Rereading Adams’ story has made me appreciate it from another angle: process. I picture Adams beginning with the obvious, the colorful and creative inventory of amazing escapes, soon grasping onto the repetition that presented him his title. Right around that point, I imagine the need for an actual story starting to form. As this is an introduction to the story, I’ll withhold my suspicions on how the rest of “Miraculously, He Escapes” was born. Besides, I could be way off. Maybe Adams had the whole thing worked out in his head before he committed a single word to the page. Maybe the story came to him in pieces, over several years. Perhaps he dreamed the whole thing. Maybe its nonfiction in disguise.
What’s important now is this story’s reintroduction to the world. Much like its protagonist in its first paragraph, it’s had its time to hibernate, to escape, and now it’s back, ready to perform again, to dazzle.
Michael G. Czyzniejewski
Editor, Moon City Review
Previous Editor-in-Chief of the Mid-American Review
A Story About the Loneliness of a Professional Escape Artist
“Miraculously, He Escapes”
By Sean Adams
The Escape Artist wakes on the first day of March with a sore awareness in his arms, legs, and spine. His bones, they understand what this day means — that the winter is over, that the world has thawed, that Escape Season has begun — and they are softening themselves and loosening themselves and preparing themselves to be bent, stretched, compressed, and rearranged, all for the purpose of being shoved into and subsequently removed from unfortunate spaces.
“What a smart bunch of bones I have,” mutters the Escape Artist to himself. He lies in bed for a moment, wide-awake but careful not to move. This, he realizes, will be his last unimpeded moment until he lies down to sleep in the evening, the last time his stillness will be voluntary, unenforced by a restraint of any kind.
A moment is all he desires, though, so he leaps out of bed and, without even kissing his wife good morning, calls his manager, who has already booked six escapes for the day and seven others for the rest of the week, also one next week, and of course there will surely be more because Escape Season always begins slowly and picks up momentum until it is barreling towards its end like a bowling ball down a playground slide. “Well done, chief,” says the Escape Artist, and he dresses and leaves for a day of daring escapes.
He is chained up and submerged in a shark tank, and miraculously, he escapes, and he is buried alive in a minefield, and miraculously, he escapes. Then his wrists and ankles are bound with live pythons and he is placed in front of a rapidly approaching tornado, and miraculously, he escapes. After that it’s noon and he goes to lunch, where there is no escaping, just eating.
“I saw all of your escapes today! You are amazing! I am your biggest fan!” screams a woman who is allegedly the Escape Artist’s biggest fan. Aside from the old man behind the counter, she and the Escape Artist are the only two people in the small, hidden-away sandwich shop that the Escape Artist frequents during Escape Season specifically to avoid the very type of person with whom he presently speaks.
“Thank you,” says the Escape Artist.
“I’ve been waiting all winter to see you escape!” screams the fan. She wears a shirt with the Escape Artist’s picture on the front, under which is written, Now you see me. On the back there is only his silhouette and the words, Now you don’t. “Why don’t you do anything in the winter? Are you, like, hibernating?”
“Sort of,” says the Escape Artist, because he’s not in the mood to explain it fully, not in the mood to clear his throat and say, “In the winter, it is far too cold to escape into the outdoors. On the other hand, while it would be possible to stage elaborate escapes in arenas and ballrooms, these escapes would not be very inspiring or effective because, if we escape from something but remain within something else, we must ask ourselves, did we really escape at all?” Which is to say, he is not in the mood to recite word-for-word the opening passage from the award-winning book, The Seasonality of Escapes, a book which he is known to have authored despite his author photo in the dust jacket being mysteriously empty, nothing more than a square of nondescript wall. As the story told in the foreword of the newest edition explains, the Escape Artist stood patiently as the photographer adjusted his camera, but somewhere within the split-second of blindness caused by the flashbulb’s burst, he disappeared, miraculously escaping from his own author photo, one of his most conceptual escapes to date. And so, the fact that the fan even asked her question just goes to show that she is unaware of the book, the passage, and the author photo escape, proving definitively that she is not his biggest fan, which is not to imply that the Escape Artist had given her assertion any real consideration; no, the Escape Artist already knows his biggest fan, intimately in fact, but no time to talk about that now because lunch is over, and the escaping must resume.
The Escape Artist enters a submarine, which is subsequently filled with cement and dropped into the sea, and miraculously, he escapes, only to be dunked in kerosene and thrown into a log cabin — its doors locked from the outside, its windows boarded up — deep within the woods which are, on all sides, being engulfed by forest fires, unexpected rogue forest fires, the Escape Artist’s manager claims. The sincere-sounding panic in his voice might convince people of true, unplanned-for danger, except then, as the skeptics point out, what’s with the kerosene? But, when the radio news anchor announces that the entire forest has gone up in flames and no living thing could have possibly made it out, this skepticism quickly gives way to shame and solemnity.
Eyes around the city fill with tears. Flowers pile up at the gates of the Escape Artist’s mansion. Everyone begins to mourn all at once, or at least everyone except the Escape Artist’s most loathsome critic, whose unmistakable laugh is heard booming triumphantly from an open window in the attic study of his brownstone. The rest of the city, though, gathers in groups around their radios, sobbing shamelessly along with the anchor himself until the hour is up and the news program ends. Next comes an interview show. The host seems strangely composed in light of the recent tragedy, which makes sense when he introduces today’s guest, the Escape Artist, who has miraculously escaped from the forest.
“What drove you to escaping?” asks the interviewer.
“That’s complicated, but I’ll say this much: it all began with an inexplicable distrust of traditional methods of exit, such as doorways,” says the Escape Artist, although it is by no means inexplicable to lose faith in doorways when a collapsing doorway claimed your older brother’s life on your birthday, which is exactly what happened to the Escape Artist. So, the distrust does not come from the doorways themselves but from what doorways can do, especially when they stop acting like doorways and start acting like avalanches, but this is a detail that the Escape Artist tells no one.
“What is the key to your success?” asks the interviewer.
“Well-constructed, easy-to-put-on fake beards,” says the Escape Artist.
The answer’s strange specificity along with the quickness with which it is delivered throws the interviewer for a moment. He looks down at his note cards to regain his composure. “That’s … interesting …” He stutters to fill the dead air. “Now why don’t you tell me about — ” But when he looks up the Escape Artist’s chair is empty. “Where did he go?” yells the interviewer to his producer in the sound room.
“I think I saw him run outside! I’ll go get him!” replies the producer, who gets up, who leaves, who is bearded, who is the Escape Artist miraculously completing his sixth and final escape of the day.
At home, he lies down next to his wife — who is already in bed, rereading The Seasonality of Escapes for the sixth time — rolls onto his side so as not to look at her, and goes to sleep.
Eight hours later, the Escape Artist wakes with a yawn that quickly fills his lungs with water. He finds himself hand-cuffed in his living room in a giant newly-built fish tank filled with, besides himself, many rare and exotic fish, some so rare they could be classified as “endangered.” In fact, there is one fish who is the sole survivor of his species, one fish who alone keeps his genus from being termed “extinct” simply by being alive, an act that, until this very morning, had been as simple as remembering to eat and avoiding creatures, fish or otherwise, whose mouths his body could fit wholly into. It appears, however, that surviving may soon increase in difficulty, possibly so much as to be considered “impossible,” because, at this very moment, a hair dryer, plugged into the far wall with a thick orange extension cord and turned on, gradually approaches the surface of the water by way of an elaborate pulley system.
And it might seem unfair to single out just one fish in the face of what could possibly be, when all is said and done, the most devastating domestic fish genocide in history, but still, let’s watch him for a moment. Look how his face remains mostly expressionless, but maybe, just maybe, lightens a little, as if to say, “I’ve fought the good fight, and now I can go in peace. I have, for some time, been the only victorious member of my culture, and now I look forward to ascending into the great pond in the clouds where I will join with my family and friends once more.” And in the next moment, what then? Disappointment in his eyes? Confusion? Frustration? No one will ever know because he’s only a fish and really he has no discernible facial expressions to speak of. The important thing is his face does not look like that of a dead fish, because he’s not dead, because in the time it took to psychoanalyze this single fish, the Escape Artist has miraculously escaped and torn the hair dryer from the pulley system, thus keeping the tank from becoming a mass grave.
“Bravo,” says the Escape Artist’s wife, who has clearly arranged this entire thing.
She, of course, is the Escape Artist’s actual biggest fan, a fact that the Escape Artist celebrated at first. After all, why wouldn’t he want a wife who so vehemently admired his craft? But things had changed. Her admiration had grown stronger and stronger until, over time, it turned into something more obsessive, something dangerous. These days, it seems as though she wants nothing more than for him to escape always, to spend every waking hour — quite literally, as evidenced by this fish tank escape — dodging his demise. He has tried to explain it to her: that, like anything, escaping requires moderation, that he shouldn’t exhaust himself on unpaid, recreational escapes. And she’ll nods when he tells her this like she understands, but only moments later, while they walk to get coffee or go grocery shopping, he’ll get snatched up and whirled away by a crane or fall through a trap door into a pit of grizzly bears. Each time he begs with her to call it off, to let him have the final say as to when he can trust his surroundings and when he can’t. Each time she simply giggles and claps as if this — his desperation, his pleading — is all part of the show.
There remains no love between them, just her love of watching him wiggle out of death’s grip. He has made many attempts to free himself from their marriage, but without any success. That is, not until this very moment, when the Escape Artist points a water-pruned finger at a pile of papers on the coffee table, a pile of divorce papers, signed by him, and by her.
“But, but… how?” his wife wants to know, staring at what is unmistakably her true and unforged signature. The Escape Artist, shaking with giddiness, explains everything: Last night, the door had not fully closed behind the team of tank builders and fish stockers, trained for optimal quietness, when another team, a team of hypnotist lawyers, slipped into the mansion. The two teams worked simultaneously, hers to construct a container for her husband, and his to hypnotize his wife and contain her misguided signature on all of the necessary lines. So, fresh on the heels of an impressive underwater escape and rescue, the Escape Artist completes a second miraculous escape, the escape from his unhappy marriage. Two whole escapes, and he hasn’t even eaten his breakfast.
Bachelorhood endows the Escape Artist with newfound energy. He escapes with reckless abandon. The scenarios grow more troubling. He lays in a coffin filled with scorpions and hypodermic needles, which is nailed shut, loaded onto an airplane, and dropped through a thunderstorm to crash upon the jagged rock formations of the Badlands, but miraculously, he escapes.
The people marvel uncomfortably, as if they’ve witnessed something simultaneously awe-inspiring and nauseating. Their cheers sound fainter than usual, but also more sincere, more considered. “He can’t possibly top that,” they say to each other. “There’s simply no way.” But of course, they are wrong.
His wrists and ankles in shackles, he enters a riverboat, whose door is then boarded shut. Inside there are two chairs, a table on which sits a plate of chicken in peanut sauce, and the Escape Artist’s most loathsome critic — a tall, skinny man with such sharp cheekbones that they appear ready, at any moment, to stab through his cheeks and flee their prison within that terrible face. The critic tells the Escape Artist that, despite his well-publicized peanut allergy, he must eat the chicken in order to find the location of the key both to his shackles, and he had better eat quickly, as the boat is being carried, at this moment, towards a treacherous waterfall. The Escape Artist finishes the entire plate, his throat constricting with each coppery bite. The odd taste, he assumes, is due, in some way, to his allergy. In truth, though, the flavor comes from the key, which has been ground into dust and mixed into the peanut sauce, and right as the critic announces this and laughs — the same laugh that passersby heard bellowing from his residence when all thought the Escape Artist had surely fallen victim to the forest fire — the boat plunges over the waterfall, disappearing into the mist and splintering into wreckage, but miraculously, the Escape Artist escapes. The location of the critic remains unknown, but everyone agrees that it serves him right.
It hasn’t even been a month since his divorce, but the Escape Artist has already begun taking a new lover after each escape. Many of them report their stories, which are all strikingly similar, to the local tabloid: he takes her to a hotel room, clothing is shed, impassioned touching occurs, arousal is achieved, and then, suddenly, she finds herself alone, both surprised at the Escape Artist’s escape and also surprised at her surprise, surprised she had envisioned things going any other way.
Some readers find these escapes from intimacy to be amusing, but others express concern. These are not like his usual escapes, they say; in these he is not escaping from a dangerous, displeasing situation but a pleasurable one, a situation many would desire. It marks the beginning of the end of his career, they say, and their predictions are only confirmed by the Escape Artist’s rapidly deteriorating appearance.
These days, the Escape Artist’s bloodshot eyes dart wildly. How long has it been since he slept? He walks with a limp and his whole body shakes with frequent, phlegm-filled coughs. He has developed a hunchback from being crammed into so many tight spaces. His manager refuses to schedule any more escapes until he seeks medical attention. At the doctor’s office, they tell him what he already knows. He needs to take a break. He needs a temporary escape from escaping. The Escape Artist books a vacation to a tropical resort.
On the plane, he wears dark sunglasses and an oversized suit to fit his hump. The sleeves hang down to his knuckles. He looks like a homeless man who has befriended a charitable tailor. His fellow first class passengers at first only glance in his direction and then quickly away, but since he seems so completely unaware of his surroundings — staring straight ahead the whole time, his head only bobbling slightly as the plane leaves the ground — they allow their gazes to linger. They watch him breathe — each intake and expulsion of air appearing to be a struggle, existing on its own, unrelated to the last — and they think about how washed-up he suddenly looks, how he seems to have aged a decade in the last month, how, after a life of leaving, he appears to be stuck within himself.
These jagged thoughts thicken the air, and the Escape Artist fights to breathe in their sharp edges.
He reaches to twist open the air vent, but his hand doesn’t make it all the way up before it comes crashing down. He clutches his armrests, gasps like he is choking, and then falls into silence, breaking it only with an even louder gasp than the first. After unfastening his seatbelt, he manages barely to get to his feet, and limps up the aisle as fast as he can, his footsteps heavy under the new weight of his hump.
The other passengers remain seated, terrified into stillness, as the Escape Artist closes the lavatory door behind him. Now, if they were smart, they wouldn’t turn to their neighbors and whisper nervously about the prospect of him dying in there, about someone having to pull his dead body off of the toilet upon landing. No, if they were smart, they would be looking out of their windows to see the Escape Artist plummeting towards the surface of the Earth, his suit jacket and shirt flying off to reveal his hunchback to be, after all this time, a parachute, and they would understand that, miraculously, he had escaped his escape from escaping. But no, if these people want to whisper, let them whisper. They’ll realize their mistake soon enough.
The Escape Artist’s feet settle into the sand of a desert island. He unhooks the chute and removes his undershirt and his pants, so that he is wearing nothing but his navy blue boxer briefs, and after surveying the island — roughly two acres of land, sloping up towards a small cluster of palm trees at its center, an island like from a Sunday morning cartoon — he removes his underwear as well. He clumps each article of clothing into a ball, throws them into the waves one after the other, and watches the tide steal them away.
“Good riddance,” he says. He doesn’t need clothes. Clothes won’t help him catch fish. For that, all he needs are his bare hands. But when he goes for a swim and dunks his head underwater he doesn’t see any fish at all. “Must not be the fish time of day,” he thinks, and decides he’ll try again tomorrow. It might take some time, but he’s bound to catch some eventually, right? After all, he is a professional at surviving.
But now it is days and days later, maybe even weeks have passed, and still, no fish. He continues to go on twice-daily fish-hunting swims, but they feel more like an exercise in sanity. As long as he can stick to a routine, he knows his mind has not rotted; no hope for actually seeing, let alone catching a fish remains. Instead, he eats squares of bark off the palm trees. His stomach no longer rumbles, or maybe never ceases rumbling; maybe it emits a low humming noise the Escape Artist attributes to the ocean.
When it gets dark and the nightly monsoon rolls over the island, he stands on the shore with his mouth agape until his thirst is quenched, and then he runs to the semi-shelter of the trees until the rains die as abruptly as they began. One night, he nods off there and dreams of fish surrounding the island in the shallows, laughing at him as he sleeps. The Escape Artist awakens, charges towards the shore, and dives into the water, but when he holds his breath and opens his eyes, he can see nothing in the darkness.
He makes his way out of the surf. The sand is slick from the downpour. The short climb feels incredibly difficult. He sits down halfway up the beach, shivering and thinking of his brother. When the doorway caved in, his brother was following his mother and father out of the kitchen into the living room, his face contorted into a fourteen-year-old look of false reluctance as he sang “Happy Birthday” to the young Escape Artist. Outside the wind blew so hard that it felt like the ranch house’s cheap, thin windows might be sucked out of their frames. The Escape Artist remembers hearing a snap that he thought was just a branch but was actually a whole tree, a tree that the Escape Artist’s father had been meaning to cut down, a more-or-less dead tree with one thick protruding knot that, as investigators would find later, was aligned perfectly to strike through the weak roof with ease in just the right place to improbably collapse the very doorway (and a significant chunk of the kitchen, as well) in which the Escape Artist’s brother found himself.
And, although he didn’t realize it until much later, what the Escape Artist learned that day was that, in all situations, there is a set of variables that can bring death, and so, conversely, there must be another set of variables for every situation: the variables for survival.
But now, the Escape Artist wonders why he pursued survival when he could have exacted revenge. He could have become a logger. He could have leveled forests’ worth of his brother’s murderer. Then he wouldn’t be here on this island in this fishless sea. He’d be safe, bearded, and flannel-clad. He would marry a rugged mountain woman instead of a lunatic fan, and every night they would sit on the porch of a cabin that they built themselves, sip coffee, and look out at their yard, a field of tree stumps extending over the horizon.
Siphoning some strength from the burlier, happier version of himself in his imagination, the Escape Artist stands, but upon consideration, he finds the idea of walking the several yards up to the island’s peak not nearly as appealing as going back down towards the water, and soon the waves pool up around his ankles and then the water is up to his knees, and he says to himself, “They’re never going to believe this one.” Then the water is up to his chest and the waves pick his toes up off the sandy ocean floor, and the variables of survival are not exactly jumping out at him, but he doesn’t think about that. Instead, the Escape Artist merely hopes he can catch up to his clothes before arriving back on the shore of the mainland, or else he will have to speak to the media dripping wet and stark naked.