The smiles of the small crowd on the street disappeared faster than the people who hurried away from the boys in the brown outfits. Yelling profanities despite the presence of children who’d been enjoying the man’s show, they kicked his table over before they set to kicking the man to the ground and then kicking him more. The tools of his trade, the rings, the cups, the case, weren’t so badly hurt as the man seeming to claw his way through the sidewalk to safety. He crawled to the gutter – thank goodness the rained had flushed the rubbish and manure into the sewer.
Oskar was hunched over from a bad back. He combined that manifestation of his aging physique with the ease of brushing back the tails of his coat in a movement that left a few loose threads floating in the air before settling behind. His shaking hand could almost have been almost deliberate when he waved a scratched-up ebony wand before his audience. He tapped the want on the side of a top hat held by his other hand. The dust the move created could have been mistaken for a brief cloud of smoke.
Then as if to the spirits in the sky he coughed up the eternal word ‘Abracadabra’, plunged his hand deep into a hat, and pulled out a limp imitation of squirrel, one glass eye missing, patches of faux fur long gone. His eyes opened wide, his smiling mouth following suit, to emphasize the awe he had produced.
“Voila!” It pronounced it wallah.
He held the squirrel by its tail, arching his already rounded back, and to the half dozen blank faces sitting in front of him took a bow.
The surprisingly husky voice of a chubby adolescent came forth. “It’s supposed to be a rabbit.”
That keen observation usually came from a child between the ages of eight and 15. Those younger than that were either too shy or polite to say anything, or simply hadn’t seen enough stale magic shows. Those older than 15 didn’t go to see magicians perform unless they were forced to chaperone younger siblings by parents who wanted to go shopping by themselves. But between those miracle ages were the ‘gotcha’ years, when obnoxiously confident children tried to guess at how he did tricks or worse, actually knew. They’d say they’d seen that one on TV. The quiet ones were especially dangerous. They’d steal his props or say that wasn’t his or her card when it most certainly was; Oskar was that good. And they could be costly when answering calls for a volunteer. He’d lost several rabbits that way, torn in half by the child exclaiming it was fake. One little girl nearly choked on a stolen sponge ball. A fat boy holding not one, but two ice-cream cones sat on Oskar’s only silk top hat. A very short but very fast child with the silken wisps of an early mustache stole the cigar box holding a day’s earnings. Then there were the hysterics of genuinely shy kids whose pushy parents pushed too hard for the sake of a photo of their darling performing before a crowd albeit usually a small crowd.
Oskar no longer asked for volunteers.
That final bout came when he was performing the classic Chinese linking rings and proffered a solid ring to one Bar Mitzvah boy who dropped a ring with a loud clang, bending it out of shape. When Oskar went to pick it up, the newly minted man grabbed the keyring from Oskar’s aged grip and revealed its secret. “Hey, look! It’s got a hole in it. It’s only a trick.”
Only a trick. That got the sneering laughs of the adolescent from the boy’s friends and an encouraging set of guffaws from the few adults who were watching. Only a trick. Oskar wanted to ask if the boy didn’t think there was real magic in the world, or magic by another name; miracles, luck, serendipity? What he really wanted to do though was slap him – hard – across his face and say something to the effect that the hand was quicker than the eye. He might have done so had he been paid in full for the gig. Instead, he pulled a ludicrously large toy gun from his pocket, aimed it at the boy, pulled the trigger, and watched the silk that had “BANG!” on it pop from the barrel. That got some polite laughs although one woman stole the attention when she said, “I don’t think guns are appropriate for children.”
“Do that again Prince Myshkin and I’ll make you watch my second act!” That got some genuine laughs. It also got the Bar Mitzvah boy to plead anything but that. He left with his entourage to smoke cigars he’d stolen from the adult tables and pay the Hispanic bartender the $100 bill a great aunt had given him to get a few underage drinks going.
“Kid’s these days, right?” said the boy’s father.
Oskar was left alone until the boy’s father paid him his due and ushered him out of the last Bar Mitzvah he vowed he’d ever do. Until he needed the cash, that was, which was always very soon.
“It’s supposed to be a rabbit.”
Oskar looked down through glasses scotch-taped on one side to see who had advised him of the rodential faux pas. In front of his folding table was a grinning short man sporting a well-to-do double chin, and a raspy voice. Oskar was reminded of an aging Peter Lorre. His smile conveyed a mix of sympathy and admiration. The man reached into the jacket pocket of his suit well-fitted to his chubby physique, drew out a fold of bills clasped by a heavy gold money clip, and dropped a fifty into Oskar’s sad top hat. Oskar wondered who carried 50s with them?
“Bravo,” he said clapping his hands in a wide circle. He turned to the diminished crowd and held a steady gaze until they started to reach into their wallets. A few bills and coins ensued. Oskar bowed deeply as each spectator dropped something into his hat. The bow was an old-world-habit out of place and out of sorts in the side alley of this downtown seaport favored by unlicensed street performers and three-card month cons.
“It was good,” said the little man. “The squirrel’s a nice variation. But try putting some stuffing back in it. It looks rather pathetic.”
There was more than the hint of an accent and the touch of a European formality Oskar once knew.
“Lantzman?” asked Oskar.
The man tossed his hands in the air in a gesture that said, “Indeed.”
Oskar offered some words in various languages common to Eastern Europe trying to gauge the man’s origin. The man smiled, nodded, laughed, frowned, and appeared to understand but only responded in English. Oskar settled on that. The few spectators had already dispersed leaving the chubby man and Oskar huddled around a case that doubled as a stage exchanging thoughts on, amongst other things, magic. The man brought out a new deck of cards, unwrapped it, and counted out four cards. He counted four, put one down, then counted four again; three times in a row.
Oskar was confused. The man had just done his creation, the Four-Card-Repeat, and done it well; how had he learned it, or was it purely coincidence?” “You used the Brahms’ subtlety. Nicely done.”
Oskar came back with his 21-card trick. He divided the deck into three piles, the man glanced at one card in the pile, Oskar shuffled, laid out the cards, and picked his. He did that three times, the final one with the cards face down. The man threw his chins back with a laugh, applauding to himself, and pleaded that Oskar do it again. In violation of part three of the magician’s code. Oskar politely refused.
The man stared at cards, shaking his head in delight. “I counted the shuffles this time! Absolutely marvelous.”
Oskar started his bow until he reached a certain angle that gave him a sharp pain in his lumbar region forcing him into an abrupt rise exacerbating the pain he was trying to leave at the shallower angle. He tried not to grimace when he looked to the little man, curious. Fellow magi, no I assume; amateurs wouldn’t know about his Four-Card routine and its requirement of what professionals called “knuckle-busting” sleights. Had they met? Perhaps it was in the backroom of Tannen’s Magic Shop years before, the spot where magicians exchanged tricks of the trade before the spot was taken over by Korean dry cleaners. Oskar would have remembered, surely. Magicians from old Europe, pre-war Europe, were a dying breed and now, well Oskar hadn’t met a fellow traveler in a very long time.
“You said this time Have we met before?”
“I caught your act once you might say. A great show it was and such a tough audience!” He had to laugh at that. “Such a long time ago thank God. It was a lifesaver.”
Oskar searched the man’s face but found no recollection. It wasn’t at Tannen’s, or any of the magician’s club that once peppered the city, whose numbers had shrunk to just two, and those had merged. It wasn’t at his street performance; he didn’t do the sophisticated stuff for lay audiences. And Oskar hadn’t done the private shows in a long time. Alas, Oskar hadn’t done much more than busking on the street and the extremely occasional birthday party or the to-be-avoided-as-much-as-possible Bar Mitzvah. And none of which would have included his signature Four-Card Repeat trick, once the toast of Europe’s extinct magic salons.
The two men looked at one another with very different smiles. Oskar’s was that of a man trying to look aloof, dignified when he was feeling someone had the better of him. Nothing upsets a magician more than that possibility. The little man twinkled, his face displaying a not unfriendly smugness, a face that said I know something you don’t know. It was the very smugness that got many young people wanting to learn magic in the first place.
“I apologize. I simply don’t recall. Forgive me, but where did we meet?”
The man closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He held up one finger requesting patience. From his briefcase, he brought out a set of three identical cups, copper, dented, and tarnished. He rolled up his sleeves and borrowed the wand Oskar had on his little table. And then he performed, flawlessly, a cups and balls routine, including the final load of four pieces of fruit, one after the other, that barely fit under each cup.
Oskar clapped this time, loudly and long. “Yes, yes,” he said. “So very well done. You had a good tutor. I’ve performed some of those very moves myself.”
“And on these very cups,” said the little man. He stood back and rolled down his right sleeve, leaving the left exposed. He held that arm forward revealing small blue numbers; 289717.
Oskar remembered now.
The guard ripped open Oskar’s bag and emptied its contents on the makeshift table piled one side with watches, wallets, handbags, jewelry. He scrounged around its odd contents; cards, balls, cups, little red balls, and wiped them aside with his uniformed arm. “Any money? Watches? You must have a gold watch. All of you people do.”
Oskar had to explain that his valuables had been ‘given’ to another guard. He pointed past the line of people behind him. The guard grabbed his hand and screamed for him to take off his wedding ring. “Trying to steal that?” and slapped him. “What’s all this crap?”
“I’m a magician.”
The guard looked down. He sucked in his cheeks as if he was collecting saliva to spit, but instead ordered Oskar to show him something. And Oskar did. The guard smiled when a red ball became two, then three, then disappeared. “Hey, you’re good,” he said and called over his colleagues to watch, insisting, not ordering, Oskar to do more. His Four-Card-Repeat had them shaking their heads. “Hey, can you do that with Reichmarks?” The guards laughed at their colleague saying their sort could create money from the air. They applauded and slapped Oskar on the shoulder for what would prove to be the performance of his life. “More,” they said.
“I need an assistant,” he said. The guards looked at each other, shrugged, and pointed to the young boy next in line.
“You, there!” ordered Oskar with a wink.
Oskar pulled balls from the boy’s ear, a colorful silk from his nose. The guards laughed as he tossed paper balls over the boy’s head who thought they were still in Oskar’s hand. A children’s trick, an old one, which delighted still more guards who had gathered around until an officer yelled at them to get the line moving. When he’d turned, the guard took two decks of cards and gave one to Oskar, one to the boy, and as an afterthought gave the boy three copper cups. He pointed to a line of men on the left. “Go,” was all he said.
Oskar rolled up the sleeve of his left arm and held it forth. Faded blue numbers revealed “289176.”