Bruce took his hands off the wheel and swished them, two fingers passing under his palm, hiding something invisible. He handled the air differently than I would’ve, different from anyone I’d seen holding something. That’s when I realized your joints could keep secrets.
“So they’ll just sell them to anyone?”
“They don’t like tourists,” he said, “that’s why the shop is up on the fifteenth floor and there’s no advertising. But they’ll sell if you’re respectful and they think you’re serious. Plus, you’ll be with me.”
“So it’s just a store?”
“It’s a store and a small showroom. You’ll see.”
He parked on the street. Manhattan was hot and crazy. I couldn’t imagine being there alone. I was thirteen. I guess Bruce was forty or fifty. We went into a golden building, found the elevators and got off at fifteen.
There were two guys behind the counter at the magic shop and they were so happy to see Bruce.
Bruce was the head of maintenance or the fire-marshal or the handyman at my summer office job. He was in a great mood with all of us whenever he passed and even when we were all talking and joking and someone asked him to do something really annoying like change the urinal cakes or drive to the end of Brooklyn to pick up boxes.
Once it was the end of the day and the CFO in the office was leaving and asked Bruce for her keys. He showed them to her, shook them and his hands were empty. She laughed but asked for them again. When she was gone I asked how he knew to do that. He got a napkin and showed me and a few others how to disappear anything by waving a cloth over it. The others lost interest, but I asked questions every day that week. Finally, he told me about Saturdays in Manhattan.
“Bruce from Flushing!” The chunkier guy behind the counter had a lisp and a long green tie and was so excited to be nice to us.
“This is Kevin,” Bruce introduced me. “He showed an interest.”
Magic Dan shook my hand. “I’m Magic Dan.” Then he brought his other hand up. “Hold this.” I opened my other hand and he gave me nothing.
He reached again and I felt something under my knuckles and he pinched a red pocketknife loose from my fingers.
A black and red curtain closed a circle around the entire room. Behind it you could see a hint of a storage area. The carpet was plain purple. The glass counter held a display case like a jewelry store, only none of the items seemed to be worth anything. On the wall behind the counter there were boxes of tricks with zany names. I didn’t have a lot of interests and didn’t like new places and was almost embarrassed to be there. But I wanted to be able to make my hands move like theirs did.
Magic Dan swatted Bruce like a fly. “You prospecting this gentleman?”
“He showed an interest. Show him something good.”
Magic Dan hovered the pocket knife over a clean swath of black felt that ran all along the counter. He twisted the knife and a second one fell onto the felt. He picked up both knives, passed one through his hand and said, “This is called the rainbow pocket knife trick,” and the knife’s color changed to rainbow. He had me pick one of the colors of the rainbow. I did. He talked about other stuff and eventually squeezed the knife very hard, had me squeeze the other, and when we both released, they had become the color I picked. I examined them. I searched for the trick.
Bruce nudged me. “If he’s letting you hold it, the secret isn’t there.”
I looked up at him. “Do you know how that one’s done?”
“I’ve never seen it before,” said Bruce, “but I can guess.”
“Cause I know the effect and I saw what he did.”
“I saw it too.”
“You watched the knives,” he said. “You didn’t watch him.”
I handed Magic Dan the knives. “Show me again.”
They both laughed a lot at that.
We stayed three hours and by the end I learned two tricks and bought three others to learn on my own. In the car ride back, I practiced my favorite over and over. It was a matchbox with a small golden block inside. You stuck a toothpick through the middle of it, then slid open the box to show the solid gold. It was so simple but seemed impossible. I was going to show a hundred people.
We got on the highway.
“You gotta be careful who you show,” Bruce said. “Those guys take this even more seriously than me.”
“They’ll never meet the people I know, though.”
“That’s not the point. If every shmuck who walks in there leaves and tells everyone how to do every trick they buy… You have to understand, it’s a living for them. It’s how they live.”
“Why did they show me?”
“You came with me.”
“So you’d never tell anyone else how a trick was done?”
“Soon as you show someone how you did it, you worse than disrespected the trick. You disrespected yourself. You’re picking up a talent here. You tell someone else, all you’re saying is, look, it’s not a talent. It’s bullshit.”
We took an exit toward the office. There were so many people on the street that day. They were dragging their laundry or eating pizza or chasing their dogs. They couldn’t impress anyone. I realized what I held.
“I won’t tell anyone,” I said. “Ever.”
Bruce smiled. “Buy Bicycle decks only. Two reds, two blues. Keep one in your shirt pocket at all times. Start with a one-handed cut, but just get used to the feel of the cards. You should be as used to that as to a pen.”
He stopped at a convenience store and bought them for me. I saw into his wallet at the register. He had two dollars left.
It got to where I was showing off at lunch. The other summer workers loved it and hated it at the same time and tried hard to figure them out. The first few times I was careless and they spotted something. After that I didn’t bring the trick in unless it was perfect. The admin chief always asked when I had a new one, when it would be ready, and then would tell everyone there’d be a show at lunch. We’d eat pizza as I set up. There were ten, fifteen people sometimes. Bruce said if I remembered I could fool them each alone, I would realize it is no different than fooling them all at once.
I said that to myself over and over as I did the sleights. My hands were getting damn fast. The office was loving me. Every time I looked past them I saw Bruce at the back of the room, his hands in his jeans. He’d hold his thumb up. Or wink.
Later he said, “You’re gonna realize, you can tell something about people when they watch.”
“Like if they are smart enough to spot it?”
“No. Some people don’t like to be impressed.”
“They think it says something about them. Like they’re not special enough if they’re impressed.”
“I think it’s pretty special to be in that place. Not knowing. Shocked. It feels good.”
“It does,” said Bruce.
Another Saturday we went to a café near Time Square. I went in first because Bruce had to park the car. Nobody was wearing a cape or anything weird, but I could spot the magicians. Four tables of them. Some had coins or rubber bands. Some were talking with their hands or holding their forks or coffees in a way that I just knew. One was shuffling a three card monte. I stood at the edge of their section and they noticed me dead away and eyed me but said nothing. I looked for Magic Dan but he wasn’t there.
A guy on a yellow stool said, “You want to see something, chump? Come here.”
I walked over and he fanned out a deck with blank faces. He said to touch the face of any blank card and at the same time say the card I wished it was. I touched one and said, “Jack of Hearts.” He flicked the card off the pile and into my hand. He tucked the rest of the deck under his palm and produced a match. It struck against the base of the deck and took and he held the flame to my blank card.
“Hot?” he said, smiling.
“I knew this wouldn’t end well.” It was Bruce showing up behind me.
Everyone at all four tables cheered. They called him names and clapped and threw squishy red sponge balls at him which he caught and disappeared.
I laughed and gave him a pound.
“What you got?” he asked.
I looked back at the fire in my hand, which was burning out. The Jack of Hearts was scarred black.
Towards the end of the summer, the CFO asked us all to help Bruce throw out maybe two hundred boxes of old files. We carted them into the service elevator, rode to the street, hoisted them over the dumpster, and repeated. Over and over all morning. Around noon Bruce’s boss—everyone’s boss—was walking into the building, I guess from a meeting. He applauded everyone’s hard labor. Bruce saluted him. He had sweat stains to the tail of his shirt.
“Some character-building work, team,” said everyone’s boss. He was passing into the lobby when he saw me taking a drink of water and came over. “You got a big show for us today?”
I laughed and said not today. “Sorry,” I said, “if I shouldn’t be doing that.”
Bruce was half-listening, breaking down more cardboard.
“Nah, not at all. I keep hearing thrilling things! I’m sorry I’ve never been in to see. You’ve done a fine job for us this summer. You have our recommendation anytime you need it.”
“Thank you, sir. I love it here. It’s just like…it’s such a good company.”
“What’s good about it?”
Bruce swung some more heavy pieces into the dumpster.
“It’s just…I feel like you’re all a family. It has such an intimate thing.”
He beamed. “That’s the feeling I’ve tried to create my whole career.” I nodded. He nodded and beamed. He shook my hand. “You’re a good man, soldier. Tell you what, go grab one of your tricks now.”
I looked at Bruce.
Bruce said, “Your big finish, kid. Don’t screw it up.” The boss laughed.
I went to the kitchen drawer where I kept some of my go-tos. The toothpick through the matchbox effect was still the one I loved most. It was cleanest. Simple and not debatable. Just a raw good shock that made you so damn curious.
When I got back Bruce and the boss were having water bottles together, leaning against a truck bed across from the dumpsters. They were talking and catching up. The rest of the summer workers continued to throw away boxes. They saw me come outside and knew what I was up to and I knew they’d all be watching.
“Okay, I want you to examine this toothpick. Can you admit it’s nothing but a small stick of wood with two sharp ends? Okay, hold the toothpick. Here is a standard matchbox, normal size, normal width. You see there are small holes on each side of it, same size as that toothpick, yeah? I want you to take it and slide it right up through the middle of the box. Yep. Push. Perfect. Clean through right? Here, hold it. Can you touch both ends? It’s the same toothpick on this end as it is on this end, right? Swivel it around, make sure. Ok. Now tug it back out. Now let’s take the matchbox and see what’s inside. And… one… solid… golden block. One-hundred percent: impendrable.”
“Hahahaha.” He laughed and clapped and said, “Spectacular.”
I looked at Bruce. He half-whispered: “Impenetrable.”
The boss laughed some more. “Spectacular.” He held the golden block and clicked it against his palm. He tapped it against the side of the truck. “Stone thick.”
I watched him have the thrill I had the first day Bruce waved his palms. The one I had watching the knives change colors and that the others had in the conference room. We loved amazing one another. I knew I could be amazing.
I held my hand out to take the gold back.
“So,” said everyone’s boss, “how’s it work?”
I pulled back. I looked at Bruce. Bruce laughed. “Uhp!” He laughed some more. Harder than usual. “What’d I tell you, kid. They all want to know.”
I smiled. I held my hand back out.
“Well, sure, damn, I want to know. Doesn’t seem possible. How’s it go?”
Bruce laughed. “Ah. Wish we could say. I told the kid never tell. You’ll have to torture him.”
I said, “A magician doesn’t say,” and used a light happy voice.
The boss looked at Bruce. “You know though. You taught him.”
Bruce had his arms folded, still leaning. His smile fell away.
The boss looked at me again then at him. “Well?”
There was quiet and we could hear the boxes colliding with the floors of dumpsters. Bruce waved his hand. “It’s just a—it’s one of those technical tricks, that’s all. It wouldn’t be worth it. It’s a trick.”
“But what’s the technical thing? Just tell me.”
“It’s a gimmick,” said Bruce.
“But what is the gimmick?”
I watched Bruce. He looked at me for a second. “We’re not, uh…”
“Bruce,” he said. “Say it.”
Neither of them looked at me now.
“There’s just a small hole in the block. If you push it the right way it clicks open.”
He looked at the block. “That’s it.” He fidgeted with it until it opened. “Hm.”
He handed it back to me and patted my shoulder. He went back to work.
I went to the magic shop a few times after that, but it was my dad that took me. Bruce didn’t want to go again.
Zachary Slingsby graduated from the New School MFA program a few years ago and has a finished novel he hopes to see on bookshelves soon. Slingsby’s work has appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Second Hand Stories, Into the Void, JuxtaProse, JumbelBook and a few other publications, and he recently made a Top 25 list in Glimmer Train’s annual contest.