by Chip Jett
I’ve spent most of my life performing magic for people. I don’t mean tricks. I mean to say magic. Real magic. While most of my act includes the store-bought variety—what you might classify as—tricks—I have the real deal as well. But I work at the fake stuff, too, the tricks that aren’t real. I’m so good at what I do no one can tell what is genuine and what isn’t. That’s what makes me a great—not good—magician.
But as I said, one of my tricks is real. I’ve only got the one; everything else I do is a sham. I can’t explain my skill. It’s like a politician’s promise—smooth and easy with no expectation of truth. But it is, and it’s the oldest one in the book, I guess.
I make coins disappear.
I don’t use sleight of hand for coin tricks, and I have nothing up my sleeve; I make coins disappear due to some magical intervention I cannot explain. I concentrate on the coin, and it goes away. Simple as that. Denomination doesn’t seem to matter, either. I can vanish pennies, dimes, half-dollars—anything. Foreign currency, too. I’ve even made little commemorative coins disappear. My favorite target, however, is quarters.
I had hoped growing up that my little bit of magic would win favor for me in certain aspects of life. I longed for fame and fortune, glory and women. But none of these aspirations came to fruition. No one believed my magic was real, and the truth is, no one cared. People make coins disappear all the time, right? I couldn’t convince people that what I did was of any consequence. Such insignificant magic, who should care? No one did.
So that’s the good news if you will: I can do insignificant magic. The bad news is that I don’t know where the coins go, and I cannot bring them back. My hope is that somewhere out there, in the Neverland where my vanished coins go, they are accumulating, waiting for me to collect on a lifetime of frustration.
As I got older and was the only person both aware of my talent and impressed by it, magic became my obsession, to the point that I developed obsessive-compulsive disorder. I’ve never been diagnosed—what would I say to a doctor—but I know what it is. I cannot go a large amount of time without vanishing a coin. I’ll buy a coffee at a drive-through and pay in bills in order to get change—change that will feed my compulsion. If I find a coin on the ground, it’s always good luck, heads or tails. I was devastated when payphones became obsolete; I had no reason to ask strangers for quarters. And so it goes. I must have coins daily, and I must disappear them with my magic.
Like many who suffer an OCD, I’ve been unable to hold down a job. I tried teaching but found even the mundane chore of collecting lunch money in the mornings to be maddening. My need to make coins disappear overwhelmed me. I got caught around Christmas my first year teaching while selling snacks. I guess they were on to me by then, and I didn’t see the principal watching me take up snack money. All those quarters falling into my hand was too much. I’d wow the kids in line with disappearing coins and hand them their Cheetos. When snack time was over one particular day, Mr. Jenkins sidled over and asked me for the money. It was gone, I explained, but I couldn’t say where or why—only that he wouldn’t be getting it back. I don’t think he expected me to answer him this way. He told me not to come back after the break. I spent four years in school preparing for a career in education, only to watch it vanish into thin air.
Subsequent forays into the working world were equally problematic. Stocking shelves on the big box night crew was no good; I hassled my coworkers for change and bothered late-night customers. I tried fast food, warehouse work, tire express places, and music stores, but it all ended the same: fired for stealing coins.
My final job in the real world ended when the boss, who always answered the phone This is Larry, Larry Hightower, caught me banging quarters from a washing machine at the Wash-Bowl-All-Nite-Laundroama.
“What is this?” Larry Hightower had screamed. “You said nobody used that machine because it wouldn’t spin the clothes. I wasted money replacing parts on it—twice—and here you are, fishing out money!”
What could I say? I do magic and have an obsessive need for your quarters? I don’t think he would have been sympathetic.
Little did I know, my world was taking a turn.
The staff room at the Laundroama was small, and we employees had room enough to stash a jacket and maybe a pack of crackers for a late-night snack. We worked in pairs for safety, and my partner the night of my exit was Trudy Carnes. Trudy fit the description of what my mind stereotyped as a laundromat worker: she was a divorcee, she said, and needed the extra cash to fix her car. I learned the rest of her story the night I was fired as I gathered my belongings from the breakroom and of the personal tragedies we had in common.
I couldn’t explain my OCD to people because magic to the rational mind doesn’t exist. Yet Trudy couldn’t explain hers either because—well, I can hardly put hers into words here.
I walked into the breakroom that night around 2 a.m. to find Trudy sitting there in front of her locker, her back to me. I must have startled her because she jumped. Her mouth hung open, and she fumbled around like a caught criminal. But the damage was done, for I had already seen what I to this day cannot understand.
Trudy had straw paper hanging from the corners of each of her wide, blue eyes.
“What the heck,” I whispered.
“Oh my God! Don’t you knock or anything?” she asked, scrambling to turn around, hands pulling straw paper from her eyes.
“What were you doing? Just then. Was that straw paper hanging out of your eyeballs?” I knew it was because I saw two discarded straws on the floor. Plus, I knew what I had seen.
Trudy just looked at me. “You can’t tell anybody.”
When you’re caught, you’re caught; she couldn’t lie her way out of it. But that night, I almost didn’t care. Almost.
“Oh, I won’t tell,” I said. I spun a cheap plastic chair around and sat down in front of Trudy. “But you’ve got to tell me what that’s about.”
“It’s twirlies,” she said as if I should understand the word. “I can’t explain it. I like how it feels to take straw paper, roll the ends into sharp little points, and stick them in the corners of my eyes. I discovered it when I was a teenager, and I love it. It’s the best feeling in the world. I drive the minivan with twirlies, I read with twirlies. And until tonight, I came back here, in private, and had twirlies on my break. But don’t you tell a soul.”
I knew then I had found a sympathetic mind, one with whom I could make a plan B. I was used to coming up with plan B.
I told Trudy, “You don’t have to worry about that; Larry just fired me tonight because I need to do magic.” She didn’t flinch, so I kept going. “Look, I don’t know what it is about tonight, but it’s like the universe just showed me something.” I stood and held out my hand. I said, “Come with me. Let’s get out of here and do something else.”
And that night, with a new friend and no secrets, the Tony Harmon Magic Show was born.
Because of my years wasted in education, I know students, and I know teachers. I know they both like getting out of sixth period on a Friday to watch an assembly—any assembly. To that end, Trudy and I travel around the country with our magic show—she the assistant and I the star.
My fee has increased over the years (we charge three hundred dollars per appearance these days), but there’s always one caveat to the payment, and there’s always one special request: First, half of my fee must be paid in rolls of quarters; second, I require two dozen drinking straws, each individually wrapped in paper.
The fee may sound steep, but reviews say the show is worth it. Not only do I tie my patter to educational topics, but the magic is very realistic. Just how realistic?—only Trudy and I know. As for the straws, no one has ever asked why. I guess if anyone ever rummages through our trash, they’ll be in for a confusing moment of discovery: wrappers from empty quarter rolls and two dozen straws, sans paper.
The Tony Harmon Magic Show has rambled on now for the better part of twenty years. I do about two hundred shows a season, and Trudy and I split the money. A quick calculation says I should have around $600,000 of vanished coins stored up. That doesn’t include my earnings before the magic show. My guess is that, somewhere in Neverland, there must be at least a cool million, maybe more. Honestly, maybe a lot more.
Part of my obsession is the act—the feel of the coins in my hand, the moment of true magic when I will the coin to vanish, and it does. Just thinking about it, here, now, makes my heartbeat quicken. But the other part of my obsession comes immediately after I make a coin disappear. That part of my disorder has haunted me every waking second of my life: where do the coins go? I always wonder.
But now, as I inch closer to retirement, I have to know. Surely I wasn’t given this useless ability only to make coins disappear. There must be a reason.
I say this out loud from time to time. Trudy looks at me, long, slender rolled-up twirlies dangling from her eyes.
“Maybe there’s no reason, Tony. Maybe the magic is all there is.”
It was a Friday when The Tony Harmon Magic Show rolled into the small town of Graceville, Missouri, one bright Fall afternoon. It was just that right time of year I like when the midday air is crisp and cool, there’s no humidity, and the sun isn’t hot at all. In fact, the scant heat makes for a perfect October afternoon. Trudy and I unloaded our props from the trailer and set up on the stage.
“Three hundred dollars, Ms. Carnes; thirty rolls of quarters,” the secretary, a kind and familiar face, said. “If you’ll notice, the lady at the bank said one of those rolls is all ’76 Bicentennials, the lucky ones with the drummer boy on the back.” She seemed pleased about that, but I didn’t care; one quarter vanished as good as any other. Trudy thanked her kindly.
“And we found an entire box of wrapped up straws in the supply closet by the fridge,” the secretary continued. This was manna from Heaven for Trudy. “The art teacher, Mr. Stanley Weatherford, will be your faculty volunteer. Kids’ll be in the cafeteria in half an hour if that’s okay.”
Trudy said it would be, and we finished setting up.
Little towns like Graceville are a dime a dozen, and that’s what I love about them. We’ve come to recognize the staff by face if not by name in most of the places we visit, but nobody gets to know us too well. Everyone is friendly, and we put smiles on the faces, as they say. Maybe we change a life here and there with an inspirational anecdote, or maybe, we don’t. I like to think we do. Either way, I get my quarters, and Trudy gets her straws, and we operate on the outskirts of the norm, satisfied, anonymous, and protected from ridicule. We are free to search for whatever answers we may to our peculiar afflictions, and we scratch out a modest living in the deal.
I never expected to find the answer in Graceville, Missouri.
The lesson this year was on the wonders of travel and the books that could take you around the world. It was a good show, one of the better ones we’d come up with in these twenty years. I mastered the tricks and the patter that sold them, and if all else failed, the vanishing coins would bring down the house.
The show started on time. The students were chatty but quieted as the tricks and tales unfolded. There were the usual “oohs” and “ahhs” in all the right places, and I carried on with as much enthusiasm as I could muster, which, believe it or not, was a good deal considering the number of shows we put on. Trudy sat backstage happily discarding straws in favor of the glorious twirlies stuck in the corners of her eyes.
We set the show to music at different intervals. This gave me time to showcase certain tricks—the newest store-boughts in which I had invested—while Trudy managed the music from behind the curtain, twirlies secured in place, both of us free for a while from judgment and scrutiny.
As the last musical number faded, I prepped for the finale by asking for a teacher to join me onstage. As instructed, I called the art teacher, Stan Weatherford, to volunteer. Teachers were always good sports, though they would sometimes shake and sweat worse than the kids. Stan’s face flushed red as he made his way up front, but he seemed willing enough to participate.
“Just play along, and I’ll do all the work,” I whispered to Stan as we shook hands. He took his place next to Trudy, whose twirlies sat safely backstage for this part of the show. She slipped me the roll of quarters and said, “It’s the Bicentennials.” She winked and said, “For luck.”
We attached a microphone to Stan’s collar, and I began the patter. I used sleight of hand to make his pen disappear then reappear in his front pocket. More trickery as a glass of water that should have poured onto his head let loose a bouquet of multi-colored daisies instead.
Finally, I told Stan, “This is the last one, Mr. Weatherford. Thanks for being a sport.” I handed him the roll of quarters and instructed him to take them, one at a time, and toss them at me.
Stan did as I asked and tossed the quarters. One by one, the Bicentennials spun in my direction. I raised my hands dramatically at each one and made them vanish before the eyes of the captive audience. “Oohs” and “ahhs” again rained because this trick looked real. And why shouldn’t they be amazed? It was real.
I thought at one point Stan was playing along—acting—when a look of familiar disbelief settled on his face. But he recovered, and I carried on. We repeated this dance, me and Stan the art teacher, until all of the drummer boys were gone.
The crowd went wild. I took a bow. The roar subsided.
And Stan, mic’d up for all to hear, said, “Holy shit.”
The cafeteria got quiet, instantly, waiting to see what would happen next. Stan Weatherford was probably finished as an art teacher at Graceville Elementary, that was certain. The look of shock had returned to Stan’s face, and he stared at me, mouth hanging open, much like Trudy’s when I had long ago walked into the breakroom and discovered her twirlies.
I said, “Hey, man, it’s just a trick.”
Stan shook his head. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” he said. “All these years, and it’s been you.”
I couldn’t imagine what Stan meant and told him so.
In response, Stan Weatherford plunged his hands into his pants pockets, both left and right, and when he brought his hands back out, he brought with them quarters. Quarters spilled onto the stage in the silent cafeteria with the myriad, chaotic ping of change hitting tile. I looked at the quarters, some rolling at my feet, some coming, at last, to a stop. I bent down and picked one up. It was a Bicentennial. And so was the next one and the next. I didn’t bother picking up all the quarters that fell from Stan Weatherford’s pockets. If I had, I’m quite certain they would have all been Bicentennials, and there would have been exactly forty, the number in the roll of quarters I had just sent to my Neverland of coins.
I was too stunned to know what to say. When Stan grabbed my arm, I jumped.
“This has been going on all my life,” he said. “Change appears in my pockets, out of nowhere. I’ve got over a million dollars of change buried around my house. I’ve been too scared to take it to the bank. How do I explain these things appearing in my pockets out of nowhere?”
Trudy had, by this time, cut power to the mics and disappeared backstage. We didn’t pay attention as teachers hurriedly ushered their kids from the cafeteria. There was no last round of applause for this show, but none of us on stage noticed.
“I had no idea,” I told him. “I swear. I just make them disappear. I wondered where they went, but I never knew.”
Stan only shook, tears filling his eyes.
“I thought I was crazy. I thought I’d end up in jail or something. I never knew why.” He still wasn’t crying, but he was close to it. “Why?” he said. “What does this mean?”
I had searched most of my life for an answer, for a reason I could perform real, if insignificant, magic. I found a career and a friend in Trudy. She and I both found happiness in freedom from the judgment our compulsions brought.
But at that moment, in a cafeteria emptying of students and at the ruin of a humble man’s career, I could offer no words of comfort or wisdom. What could I say to the man whose pockets were my life’s Neverland? I put my answer into words the best way I understood.
“Maybe, Stan, the magic is all there is.”
The Tony Harmon Magic Show previously appeared online in Soft Cartel, October 23, 2018.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Chip Jett is a teacher at a small school in Georgia. His stories have been in several literary magazines, including The First Line, The Raw Art Review, Storylandia, Mystery Tribune, and Curating Alexandria, and in online publications as well, including The World of Myth, Soft Cartel, and Enchanted Conversation. Find him on Twitter @chipjett_writer.
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