The only reason Bob Seldon wore such a flashy watch to the Sixth Annual Evening of Illusion that night — besides it being his birthday — was to have it stolen. He’d never had a watch lifted before, or his pockets picked, or his torn-up blue-backed card found regenerated within a stack of reds. Tonight, as he maneuvered the Camry into a parking space near the sidewalk, he hoped somebody would bring him on stage.
He would be ready for it, too. Earlier in the evening, he made sure to wear several layers of clothing, and each layer had pockets waiting for an uninvited guest. The pockets in his slacks, for instance, were filled with the usual suspects: overstuffed leather wallet (back right); standard-issue, scarcely used checkbook (back left); fully loaded “I Left My Heart in Sonoma” keychain (front right); and six coins, all minted in 1974 for tracking purposes (front left).
His wife bought him a vest that he had worn once, to her sister’s third wedding. It was blue like the deep part of the ocean, and it made him feel slim. It also had a single pocket in the front, which tonight was home to a freshly buffed 1973 JFK 50-cent piece.
His black overcoat had two deep pockets in the front, and a small one on the inside left. Instead of their normal hat- or glove-shaped inhabitants, all three pockets were filled with a variety of small family photos and other pieces of flair he had swiped off the mantel just before they left — any of which could be easily identified if they were taken and showed up, say, in the middle of a Jell-O mold.
Now that the car was parked, he turned off the ignition and swung his door open.
“Hang on, babe, I’ll come around.”
Bob walked around the back of the car and opened her door, reaching for her hand. She loved seeing him so excited. His coat sleeve crept up as he helped her out of her seat, and that’s when she noticed the solid gold 1967“El Presidente” Rolex gently saddled on his left wrist.
“Bob, isn’t that your grandfather’s watch?” she asked. “I haven’t seen you wear that thing since our wedding day.”
“Yeah, I just felt like it was time to break it out again. It’s too nice to keep stuffed in a box, you know?”
“Well I love it. It’s a handsome watch for a handsome birthday boy,” she said as she kissed him on the lips.
“Mmm, thanks babe. Now, let’s head inside so we can get a good seat!”
They went in, and in the lobby they showed their tickets to the guy wearing a Save the Belcourt T-shirt, and he directed them to the smaller theater off to the left (the main screen was showing It’s a Wonderful Life, and that room was packed).
Their theater was small and could fit maybe a hundred people or so. The movie screen had been rolled into the ceiling, which left a stage at the front of the room, framed with ornate sculpted patterns and finished off by the kind of heavy red curtain that seemed to only reside in old arthouse theaters.
“Look, babe, there are a few seats open in the front row. Let’s grab one.”
“In the front row? You never want to sit in the front row.”
“I know. I want to tonight, though. I want to see their hands.”
“I see.” She lowered her voice. “You’re hoping they pick you, don’t you?”
“Thought so,” she laughed. “Well then, you pick the seats.”
They proceeded to the front and sat down next to a younger couple who looked like they might still attend the university across the street. His wife took off her coat, but Bob left his on.
“Don’t you think you’ll get hot?”
“I’ll be okay,” he said.
Bob knew he was probably being watched, too. He looked behind him at the folks in the seats. Not a fully packed house yet, but more people than he expected. Many were already sitting down but a few were still filing in, and several were standing at the rear of the theater as well. He tried to make eye contact with many of them. He figured there were some plants in the audience, and for all he knew the audience could be chock-full of magicians.
He ran his fingers through his thinning hair several times, making sure his newly polished watch shimmered in the overhead lights while they were still nice and bright.
And his timing was perfect, because just then the lights lowered and the stage curtains opened. The folks in the seats erupted in applause as the emcee walked out and greeted the room.
He spoke for several minutes and then gave way to the first magician, who specialized in rope-cutting tricks and bad jokes. The next act was a ball-in-the-cup expert, and the third could escape from a pair of handcuffs without breaking a sweat.
As the evening progressed, more magicians performed, and Bob watched each with delight. He had working ideas on how most of the tricks were done — dealing from the bottom of the deck, slightly bending two cards so they look like a single card, acting like you’re palming a lemon in your left hand while replacing the ball with your right. He loved watching them all just the same, as if he were watching a chef prepare a seven-course meal.
Several of the acts called for assistants. Each time he thrust his hand as high as he could reach, waving El Presidente for all to see, but nobody picked him. Maybe the assistants who had been chosen were planted by the magicians anyway. Or perhaps they were simply better looking and more distracting under the stage lights.
The final performer walked out on stage. The emcee announced him as The Spectacular Russell Tomlinson, a description that Mr. Tomlinson seemed to believe wholeheartedly. His long dark hair flowed perfectly around his slender, pointed face, and when he smiled it was impossible to miss his gold tooth shining like a beacon of hope under the lights. Bob’s watch shined back as he clapped with his arms high in the air, waving back and forth on his wrist like a flag of surrender, begging the man on stage to take it.
The magician performed many illusions, each one more stunning than the last. Mind reading. Levitation. Feats of strength. Along the way he asked members of the audience to help him, and each time Bob was the first person to raise his hand. His wife smiled at his eagerness. He was acting like a kid, and she hadn’t seen that in a long time.
But of course every time Bob raised his hand, the man picked somebody else. And this time, for what he announced would be the final call of the night, the man asked for an assistant. Then another one. And another. Then as the man with the pointed face was choosing his final helper, he looked straight into Bob’s eyes, and for a moment held his gaze. Bob watched him flash his gold tooth as his mouth wrinkled up in an awkward grin, and then his gaze broke away as he chose another man from further back in the theater.
Bob’s arm stayed straight up in the air, even as the other man slowly made his way to the stage. That couldn’t really have been my last chance, could it? Not even on my birthday! The other man, the final pick of the night, was wearing a hat covered in patches, and the words Vietnam Veteran embroidered on the front. Of course, Bob thought.
His wife tugged his coat sleeve and he reluctantly lowered his arm.
The final act played out in front of him, but he could barely watch. He saw shapes of people on the stage, moving from here to there.
Nobody picked me.
And then the magician asked the Vietnam veteran to stand in the center of the stage. That’s when Bob noticed a fire-engine-red watch on the man’s left wrist. It looked cheap, like something out of the quarter machine near the exit at Kmart, but it was ridiculously shiny. And in a place like this, that’s what mattered. Not only was he a damned war veteran, but he was also wearing a bright red corker of a watch. He probably saved a family of kittens on the way to the show, too.
“Sir, please tell everybody your name. Very good, Steve. Very good. Now. Now, you’ve just watched me shuffle these cards several times, correct? Would you like to shuffle them yourself, or are you satisfied? Okay, very well. In that case, as I fan the cards out before you, please take a card from the deck and don’t let me see it, okay? Memorize your card, Steve, this is very important. Now show it to the room, please, but again do not let me see it.”
The Vet showed it to the room. He’d picked the Jack of Diamonds.
“Excellent, excellent, Steve. Now, take this pen and sign your name across the face of the card. This way there can be no dispute about whether or not the card is your card, correct? Good.”
The vet signed his name and then placed the card back into the fanned-out deck. The magician shuffled the cards several times and muttered that Steve never gave the pen back, and the audience chuckled.
He held the deck vertically and waved his hands several inches over the top, and a single card rose out of it. He pulled that card away from the others and returned the deck to his pocket.
“Do you think this is your card, Steve?”
He kind of nodded and shrugged at the same time.
“I see. I mean, it could be yours, right?”
“Okay, well whether it is or it isn’t, this card you picked just has to get dealt with.” And the magician took the card and tore it in half, then in half again, and then a third time.
He asked Steve to place his right hand out, and the magician placed the pieces in a pile on his hand, still all face down, and asked him to clench his fist.
“You feel the torn up card in your hand, right? Good, very good. Now make a fist with your other hand, too. That’s right, excellent.” He paused, then said, in a slightly louder voice, “Thank you for your service to our great country, by the way.”
The crowd cheered, and the magician grabbed both wrists, closed his eyes, and stood silently waiting for the applause to soften.
Bob leaned forward. That watch is about to be a goner, he thought.
The magician started waving the man’s arms back and forth — at first like paddles laboring through water, and then faster and faster. The Vietnam vet’s eyes were open wide, bulging out of their sockets, and for a second Bob wondered if they would end up on the floor. The man looked like one of those scary Charlie Chimp monkeys frantically banging its cymbals together. The magician’s stolid mouth shifted slowly into a grin, and his gold tooth seemed to change colors under the stage lights, from gold to blue to red, every bit as red as the vet’s watch that he was deftly unwrapping with his long fingers.
That should be me up there.
Then violà! The magician asked the vet to open his right hand, and of course it was completely empty. He turned his hand over several times in amazement.
Really? What were you expecting, man?
The magician put his finger in front of his pointy nose, as if he were thinking for a moment, then he gestured to the vet’s other hand and asked him to open it.
The vet did, and of course there was a card inside. He unfolded it, and naturally it was the Jack of Diamonds, put back together without so much as a stitch, and complete with his signature in bold black script. The vet smiled and the crowd cheered, and even Bob’s wife whistled, a sound he had never heard before.
Nobody seemed to notice or care that not only did The Spectacular Russell Tomlinson finish out the evening with a trick that wasn’t even that impressive (nobody calls for an encore after a damned card trick), but the holy Vietnam veteran’s left wrist was now completely naked.
Then, the magician motioned for all the assistants to return to their seats (telling the vet he could keep the card to go with the souvenir pen) and then he took center stage and bowed. The emcee appeared and thanked everyone for coming out, and as the lights were raised, the show was over.
The entire room stood simultaneously (even that was more impressive than the final trick), but Bob didn’t move. His eyes were locked on Tomlinson, who was chatting with the emcee. Had he just stolen the vet’s watch in front of a room that didn’t notice? The poor man probably wouldn’t even notice it was missing until he got home.
His wife tugged on his coat and he slowly stood. He looked to the back of the room and spotted the vet walking toward the door, enjoying pats on the back from anybody who passed by him. Bob noticed there was, indeed, no watch on either of the man’s wrists.
“Wasn’t that amazing, honey? Oh, how fun! We should get to the lobby and see if any of the magicians are out there, we could meet some of them!”
Bob looked back onto the stage to get another glimpse of the magician with the pointed face, but the stage was empty.
“Okay sure, babe. Let’s get to the lobby.”
But by the time they got to the lobby, there were no magicians greeting people or shaking hands or doing tricks. It’s a Wonderful Life had let out an hour ago, and except for the few men waiting on their wives to come out of the restroom, the lobby was empty. Bob and his wife exited the building.
“Oh well,” she said. “That was so much fun! I don’t want it to end, we should go dancing!”
“Dancing? We haven’t been dancing in 20 years.”
“Or out for cocktails. We could go to that one place down in the village where we heard that poetry reading that time, remember?”
“Eh, I think I just want to go home. It’s nearly 10. We can have cocktails at home if you want. I’ll fix you that one you like, named after that dancer.”
“All right honey. It’s your night. Didn’t you like the show?”
They approached the Camry and he opened her door.
“Oh, it was great, don’t get me wrong. I just—”
“I know you wanted them to take you up on stage.”
“Well. As wonderful as that would have been, I’m glad you were sitting next to me the whole time.”
He smiled and kissed her cheek, and she sat down in her seat. As he closed the door, he looked across the mostly empty parking lot.
That’s when he appeared. The Spectacular Russell Tomlinson exited the building’s side door, carrying two large duffel bags. Bob watched the man walk over to his Escalade. The hatch opened itself, and he set the bags down inside, rubbing his hands over his mouth to get warm. He wasn’t wearing a watch.
The magician noticed Bob looking at him. He smiled, flashing his gold tooth that now seemed dull in the parking lot, and waved at Bob.
Bob felt the urge to walk over and confront him about stealing that guy’s watch, about asking him why he wasn’t chosen when he so obviously wanted to go on stage. It was his damned birthday, after all.
But Bob didn’t budge. He waved back with a quick flick of his hand that was unintentionally theatrical. This amused the magician, who responded by leaning into a long, deep bow, like something out of a cartoon. Then he slipped into the Escalade, started the engine, and disappeared around the rear of the building. The puff of smoke from the exhaust was a nice touch.
Bob opened his car door and got in.
“Did you see Tomlinson bow for me just now? The nerve of that guy.”
His wife nodded and referred to him as the sexy magician.
“Well, you know, for a magician.”
“We’ll come back next year, Bob. They’ll pick you eventually, I just know it. They can’t ignore you forever, can they?”
“No, I don’t suppose they can.”
He started the engine.
“After all,” he said, brushing back his coat sleeve, “they can’t ignore El Presidente forev—”
He stopped. He didn’t mean to stop, but his mouth simply stalled. Eyes on his wrist, he couldn’t understand. Because what he saw was definitely not his grandfather’s solid gold 1967 Rolex wedding present.
“Bob? What’s wrong?”
She looked at his wrist and her mouth stalled too. She had to clear her throat. “Oh. I … see. That shiny red watch isn’t yours, is it?”
“No. No, it isn’t.”
She started laughing. She put her hands over her face, trying to hold it in. “He did it, didn’t he? You got picked after all!”
“It would seem so, wouldn’t it?” he said.
He laughed too. Then he sighed and looked back at the red watch. It wasn’t a bad piece. A little cheap thing, but you certainly couldn’t miss it from across the room. He wondered how long before the Vietnam vet realized what had happened.
Then he spoke, and the words scrawled sideways out of his mouth: “But you did get the magician’s wallet, right?”
She grinned and pulled a small leather rectangle from her purse. “Of course I did!”
He smiled and put the car into drive, turning out onto the empty street. She opened the wallet and ran her thumb across the line of credit cards.
“Now where do you think we can get you a new watch at this time of night?” she asked.
“I don’t know. Let’s go find out!”