It was easier for The Great Schmendrick DeSoto to perform his last show if he didn’t think of it as his last. If he even pretended to think about such things, no amount of magic would save him.
At least, thank God and Houdini and Saint Doug Henning that the crowd was decent. It wasn’t the largest crowd Sheldon… not a magician’s name, in his opinion… had ever had, but at least they were paying attention and not just giving him a bored eye and a bent nickel. They laughed in the right spots, they clapped when they were supposed to, and he’d even heard a couple of surprised ‘ahs’ when a card exploded in flame only to reappear under his black tweed driving cap, which was his second favorite trick. Though, now it might just have to be his favorite trick. At least, it would be if he ever performed again. Even on the last one, he’d felt a twinge of tightly wound fire threaten to pull his wrist apart and he’d never had trouble with that sleight before. Then, Haley’s eye caught his from the audience, and he let slip a tiny smile to the girl… to the young woman he was entitled to call his daughter, and finished with a flourish.
He went on to the penultimate trick in his routine, a fun variation of Cups and Balls. The Second-To-Last Trick, he thought, his brain filling in the capitals for him. This was one that he always threw in toward the end to keep the kids in front not only entertained but educated, too. It was one of the first tricks he’d learned, back when he was twelve and his older brother had lost several hundred dollars playing the game in some dive bar downtown. After a day of practice in front of his mirror, he showed his brother exactly what they were doing to him, and thirty years later, he still liked to fire off this fun bit and perhaps open a kid’s eyes a little to a scam that still turned up in Atlanta and other cities from time to time. Keeping people from losing everything they had was something of a mission for him. If only…
His hand started to twinge again, and he pulled it back a little, though after he did that, it ended up not hurting after all. Covering for a pain or spam that never happened was almost as bad as having carpal tunnel syndrome in the first place.
Maybe not, he thought, thinking of the last trick he wanted to do. Maybe nothing is worse for a sleight-of-hand artist than to have carpal tunnel.
And it really didn’t help that this was the last weekend he’d have Haley for the next three months, since her mom and the asshole (an incredibly nice man who treated Haley like his own, and whom Sheldon trusted with her, even though he couldn’t call him anything but ‘asshole’ in his mind) were going to a town up in Latvia for the summer. The Slow Aces was a trick he’d been doing since before she’d even been conceived, but it was her favorite trick, too, and even if she asked him not to (which she might have if she’d known what kind of surgery he was having after she left the country, and what that meant for his performing prospects) he still would have tried the illusion. He had to.
There had been a time when nary a spasm or twitch had marred his performance, in magic or in anything else. He’d had a web design job that paid well and most importantly, had flexible hours which let him perform on the weekends and occasionally tour around the southeast. And for almost twelve years, he’d had a wonderful wife and a beautiful daughter living in the same house as him.
Check that, he thought, as he slid into the finale of Cups and Balls. I had them for eight years, tops. After that, he’d had his magic and a fading job at a struggling company. At first, there were even a few magic groupies who’d helped him forget a lot of those blots and stains. And now…
“Ladies and Gentlemen, Friends and Family, Kids and Kidlets, I come to the end of my act. No, please, don’t clap yet. I was taught as a child to put away my things properly when I was done playing with them. And I’d like to, but I’m afraid this deck of cards is completely disorganized.” A few people chuckled, and most importantly, Haley smiled and edged forward, along with another young man he’d noticed in the crowd, thankfully not standing too close to her. I’m definitely not ready for that, yet. Can’t aim a shotgun with a wrist brace. There was no telling how many times she had seen this trick, and though he was sure that by now she had a good idea of how it was done, she still loved to watch him perform it. Once he had overheard her tell a friend that the point of watching a good magic performance wasn’t the magic but the performance, and he’d had to refrain from running into the room and hugging her to pieces, using his magic to put her back together, and then hugging her some more.
The thing he liked the most about this trick was the technique he invented to finish it. Another magician who knew what was involved had told him that it was still a joy to watch it, even though part of him knew what he was doing. The technique, though, involved a couple of secret card manipulations with his ring and pinky fingers, and while they came naturally to him, once upon a time, the sleights now felt like they were ripping a furrow down his forearm. Something in his elbow twinged at the thought that he was going to do those moves. He would have crossed his fingers for luck but that might have hurt, too.
“There are of course, two ways one can arrange a deck of cards; the easy way and the hard way. Y’all want me to do the easy way, right?” And he started thumbing the cards off the top and flipping them over, arranging them by suits. He had a bit of patter to move the trick along but someone almost always stopped him. This time it was a little boy, coffee dark skin standing in sharp contrast to his crisp white Sunday shirt, and Sheldon was pretty sure that he hadn’t blinked once during the entire routine. His mother and father flanked him, keeping a happy eye on Sheldon while beaming at their absolutely enchanted son. If he’d been worried about doing the trick before, he knew he had to go on, now. He looked the boy in the eye and went on.
“Would you use magic to put away your things if you could?”
He nodded, not moving his eyes from Sheldon’s face.
“Even if it were harder than just picking them up and putting them away?”
He nodded again. Then, so quietly that Sheldon could barely hear him, said “I like magic.”
“Well, I do, too.” He scooped the cards into his hand and prepared himself. “We’ll just have to use magic to sort out these cards so I can put them away, alright?”
It really was not Nory’s fault that he had carpal tunnel syndrome, though he had trouble not thinking that some days, since he’d gotten his first spasms the day the divorce papers came in the mail. Around the time the two of them hit the rocks, his design contract had been drastically reduced. Luckily, or so he’d thought, the company had a couple of data entry positions open up at the same time, and they let him sit at his desk, plugging in endless columns of numbers and names whenever he wasn’t working on his regular job. Data entry hours only paid just over minimum, but since his design work plummeted to sometimes less than ten hours a week, it was better than starving. Plus, the work was mindless and kept him from thinking about Nory, and packing boxes, and Haley not being there when he came home at night. Sometimes he’d even put in unpaid mindless hours at data entry, since that was better than mindless hours at home.
A month or two ago, he finally went to the doctor, even though he already knew he had carpal tunnel, and he knew that they’d give him a brace and some medicine and tell him to take it easy for a while. He’d had the first part right. Then the doctor had shown him what kind of surgery he would need, and sealed the rest of Sheldon’s fate by showing him what range of motion he could expect to have afterwards.
“Now, I can arrange the deck by suits…” And here he ‘magically’ pulled off the Ace, Two, and Three of Hearts, though the audience had just seen him put the Ace on top of a pile of nothing. “Like so. Or I can arrange it by rank.” He scooped the cards back and shuffled, arranging the deck so he was on the way to the final effect of the trick. This first sleight didn’t hurt as much, but he knew the others were coming. Now, he had two Aces at the top of the deck, along with two other cards. “Let me show you.” He blew on the deck and said “Ta-DA! Four Aces.” And then he laid down the mismatched cards.
This was the way he played this illusion, and why it was so fun to do. He always found new ways to screw up before pulling off the final flourish, usually with the help of a spectator. He loved watching the faces of the spectators as he pretended he’d failed. And his new fan, the little boy in front of him, didn’t seem to mind, either.
“Hmm… I wonder what I did wrong. Any ideas?”
“Maybe you need a different magic word,” the boy said, though his voice was even quieter than before.
“Maybe I should use a different magic word?” The audience chuckled, and he did the second to last move of the trick. Their chuckling covered up his gasp, but he got the card in place. Now there were three random cards and the Ace of Clubs, the Ace of Puppydog Toes as Haley called it, at the top of the deck, with the other three hopefully where he could find them.
“What’s your favorite magic word?” he asked.
The boy froze. His mother leaned down and said, “It’s okay, Marc. You can answer him.”
In a whisper, he said, “Abra-cadabra.”
“He’s really shy,” his mother said.
“Shy is okay, ma’am, because magic can fix everything.” Almost everything. He stood up as straight as he could and shouted, “ABRA-DA-CABBA!” Then he laid down the Ace and the other three cards. The audience laughed again, and his arm felt a little better. Part of the fun of this illusion was discovering which way the audience would let him take it. It was almost like the jazz improv piece of his repertoire. And any other day, before his wrist had turned against him, he would have been having nothing but fun doing this.
“Hmm…” he said, and scooped the cards up one last time. One last time. You can make it through this, or your name’s not Schmendrick DeSoto. Well… actually your name isn’t Schmendrick DeSoto. But never mind. You can make it through this. “I wonder if I said it wrong.”
“It’s ‘Abra-cadabra!” another helpful child said.
“That may be so, but I think a trick this big needs special magic.” He stepped around the table, crouched down, and began to do the final sleight. He had the cards. He felt them start to slide into place. And then his wrist locked up and he knew without looking that he’d failed to move the cards the right way. The trick, his favorite trick, his last trick, was a dud.
“What’s your name?” he asked the little boy, not paying attention to the deck and his wrist.
“Marc,” he said, stepping back a little from the magician.
“Well, Marc, I think this trick needs your help,” he said, though the words felt flat to him. He knew the deck was unordered, and he knew he’d have to think of something to save the trick, or make it look like an intentional flub and move on to a different one. Or just run away from the crowd and saw off his traitorous wrist and cry himself to oblivion. But since he was already down here, he went on with the last part of the trick. “Do you like magic?”
“Well, I do, too. I want to use some of your magic to finish this trick, okay?”
He nodded, eyes wide.
“I want you to touch the deck for me, okay?”
He nodded, but didn’t move.
“Go ahead, Marc,” his father said.
He still didn’t move.
“He’s really shy, sir,” his mother said, and looked at him apologetically.
For a second, Sheldon couldn’t believe his luck. Not only had he failed at the trick, but the little boy hated him, too. He looked around, frantically running through any possible trick he could use, any saying, any patter to finish it off.
“Can I try?” a new voice asked.
He looked and saw the young man crouching down beside Marc. Without a word, he gently took the boy’s wrist in two long fingers and placed the boy’s hand on the deck of cards.
“Say the word,” the young man said. And in a strong voice, the boy shouted “ABRA-CADABRA!”
“Thank you… my fine assistants,” Sheldon said, and stood up. “And now…”
Here, he usually said “Now, we’ll see if my assistant’s magic was strong enough,” but he didn’t want the boy to think he’d done anything wrong. This was all on him.
“Now we’ll see if I get to come back next week.” The audience laughed, and without another word, he flourished the top four cards on the table and flipped them over. They were all Aces.
“W… well, we see, Marc’s magic is much better than mine.” Everyone clapped, and his parents both hugged the boy, and then his father shook Sheldon’s hand almost hard enough to pull his arm off at the shoulder. Personally, Sheldon thought he would have preferred a hug, since he felt like he was about to fall over. Everyone else in the crowd began to shuffle forward and drop ones and fives and even a few twenties in his hat, amazingly. Soon, no one was left but Haley, who hadn’t stopped smiling at him, and the strange young man.
“Haley? Could you put our stuff in the car?” He handed her his backpack and the collapsible table and waited until she’d turned the corner. Then, he looked at the young man in front of him.
“Mind telling me what happened?” he said.
The man smiled. “You’re not the only ones who like magic.” He brushed his hair away from his almond eyes, his … were those… no, they had to be completely normal ears, just like Sheldon’s, and gave him a tiny salute.
After that, he was gone.