I’ve spent most of my life performing magic for people. Not ‘tricks;’ magic. Real magic. While some of my act does include store-bought magic – what you might classify as ‘tricks’ – I have real-deal magic 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 real 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 real trick; everything else I do is a sham. I can’t explain my skill. It’s like a politician’s promise; I do it smooth and easy and nobody expects it to be real. 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. 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 had hoped for fame and fortune, glory and women. But none of these came to fruition. No one believed my magic was real, and the truth is, no one cared. People make coins disappear all the time; 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 place where my vanished coins go, they are accumulating.
I often wonder why I wasn’t granted some other magical gift, such as invisibility, or maybe the ability to fly. But I wasn’t. I can only make your spare change go away. This ability, this magic, has been with me my whole life. I can’t remember a time when I was neither aware of it nor able to do it. It’s always been there.
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, of course (what do I really say to the 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 back, 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 make them disappear with my magic.
Like many who suffer from OCD, I couldn’t hold down a job. I tried teaching, but I couldn’t even collect lunch money in the mornings. My need to make coins disappear overwhelmed me. I got caught around Christmas, my first year teaching, while selling snack. 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 that day, Mr. Jenkins sidled over and asked me for the money. It was gone, I explained, but not 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, and it was gone in the blink of an eye.
My 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 last job ended when the boss caught me banging quarters from a washing machine at the Wash Bowl All Nite Laundroama. The boss who introduced himself as Larry. Larry Beam.
“What is this?” Larry Beam 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. So ended my career as a wash bowl night clerk.
Little did I know, things were about to take 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 that night, and the things we had in common, gathering my belongings in the breakroom.
I couldn’t explain my OCD to people because magic, to the rational mind, doesn’t exist. Trudy couldn’t explain hers either because – well, I can hardly put it into words here.
When I walked in the breakroom that night, around 2 a.m., Trudy was sitting there, in front of my locker, with her back to me. I must have startled her because she turned her face to me, something she rarely does when surprised, even to this day. Her mouth was open and she had straw paper hanging from the corners 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, to pull straw paper from her eyes, to move away from my locker.
“What were you doing? Just then. Was that straw paper hanging out of your eyeballs?” I knew it was because I saw two opened straws on my locker shelf. Plus, I knew what I had seen.
Trudy just looked at me. “Please don’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.” I could hardly contain my laughter.
“It’s twirlies,” she said, and I almost lost it. She slapped my arm, hard. “You laugh, and I won’t tell you any more!”
I shut up and let her finish.
“I can’t help 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 wasn’t laughing anymore. I told Trudy, “I got fired because I need to do magic,” she didn’t flinch, “so I’m out of here. And I’m not making fun of you. You ever hear of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder? I think that’s what you have. I have it, too.”
I had found a sympathetic soul, one with whom I could make a plan B. I was used to coming up with plan B.
“I don’t know what it is about tonight, but it’s as if the universe just showed me something. Trudy,” 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.
I knew students, I knew teachers; I knew they both liked getting out of sixth period on a Friday to watch an assembly – any assembly. To that end, Trudy and I traveled around the country with the 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 I have always had one caveat to the payment and one special request: Fist, half of my fee must be paid in rolls of quarters, and second, I need two dozen drinking straws, each individually wrapped in paper.
I know the fee is steep, but 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 really know.
Trudy has learned how to keep my compulsion at bay. Whoever pays our fee gives the bill to Trudy. During the show, Trudy will toss quarters at me, and, like a trained seal and with a wave of my hands, I snap them up. We leave each school behind with our secrets intact. I guess if anyone ever rummages through our trash, they’ll be in for a confusing moment of discovery. There are 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 year, and Trudy and I split the money. A quick calculation says that, somewhere, I should have a nice retirement nest egg stored up to the tune of around $600,000. That doesn’t include my life before the magic show. My honest 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’ve always wondered. But now, as I inch closer to retirement, I have to know. Surely I wasn’t given this useless ability 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.
“Sometimes there’s no reason, Tony. Sometimes the magic is all there is.”
It was a Friday when The Tony Harmon 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, no humidity, and the sun isn’t hot at all; in fact, it’s a welcome addition to a perfect October afternoon. Trudy and I unloaded our props from the trailer and set up on the stage.
“Three hundred dollars, Ms. Carnes, including 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 one with the drummer-man on the back.” She seemed pleased about that, but I didn’t care; one quarter vanished as good as any other. I thanked her anyway.
“And we found an entire box of wrapped up straws in the supply closet by the fridge.” It was manna from Heaven for Trudy. “The art teacher, Stan Hightower, 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 staffs in the 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, and 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 answers as we may, and we scratch out a modest living in the deal.
I never expected to find an answer in Graceville, Missouri.
A single crow cawed at us from the branch of a hemlock as we brought in the last box of books. It barely registered. The second crow, however, perched over the door, got my attention.
“’One crow means sorrow,’ right?” Trudy asked, quoting from a Wylly Folk St. John book we had stashed among the props.
“Yep, and ‘Two crows mean joy,’” I said. “Maybe the joy is your case of straws.”
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 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 stories began unfolding. There were the usual “ooohs” and “ahhhhs,” 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 did. Trudy sat backstage, happily unwrapping straws and sticking twirlies 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 I had invested in, while Trudy operated the ipod from behind the curtain, twirlies secured in place and hidden from scrutiny.
As the last musical number faded away, I prepped for the finale by asking for a teacher to join me onstage. As instructed, I called the art teacher, Stan Hightower, 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 to participate.
“Just go along, and I’ll do all the work,” I instructed Stan as we shook hands. He took his place next to Trudy, who left her twirlies backstage for this part of the show. She slipped me the roll of quarters and said, “It’s the Bicentennials.”
We attached a microphone to Stan’s collar, and I began the patter. I used sleight of hand to make his pen disappear and 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. Hightower. 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.
I thought he was playing along, acting, when the look of shock settled on his face. But he recovered, and I carried on.
Stan did as I asked and tossed the quarters at me. One by one, the Bicentennials spun in my direction. I raised my hands dramatically at each one and made them vanish before the assembled eyes. “Oooohs” and “ahhhs” again because this tricked looked real. And why shouldn’t they be amazed; it was real. We repeated this dance, Stan the art teacher and I, until the roll was gone. The crowd went wild.
And Stan, mic’d up for all to hear, said, “Holy shit.”
The cafeteria got quiet, instantly, probably waiting to see what the principal would do. Stan Hightower 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 was staring at me, mouth hanging open.
“Hey, man, it’s just a trick.” I said.
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 Hightower plunged his hands into his pants pockets, both left and right. When he brought his hands back out, he brought with them quarters. The quarters spilled onto the stage in the silent cafeteria with the myriad, chaotic ping of change hitting the ground. I looked at them, 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 Hightower’s pockets. If I had, I’m quite certain they would have all been Bicentennials, and there would have been exactly fifty, 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, so when Stan grabbed my arm, I jumped a little.
“This has been going on all my life,” he said. “Quarters appear in my pockets, out of nowhere. I’ve got over a million dollars of quarters buried around my house. I’ve been too scared to take them 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 to teachers gathering their classes and ushering them 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 was shaking, tears filling his eyes.
“I thought I was crazy. I thought I’d end up in jail or something. I never knew why.” He 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 the freedom from judgement we feared every day. But at that moment, in a cafeteria emptying of students and at the ruin of a humble man’s career, I couldn’t offer him any words of comfort or wisdom. I put my answer into words the best way I understood.
“Sometimes, Stan, the magic is all there is.”
Chip Jett is a teacher at a small school in Georgia. His stories have appeared in several literary magazines, online at “Cadaverous Magazine” and “Ripples In Space.” He has stories forthcoming in “Inwood Indiana”, “Petrichor Audio Magazine”, “Temenos”, and “Curating Alexandria”. Find him on Facebook at Jettstories, on Instagram at chipjettthewriter, and on Twitter @chipjett_writer.