You had to be at Jimmy’s birthday party to know because seeing is believing.
Bright rubber balls kept coming out of the magician’s coat. Jimmy and his friends started to laugh, not at the trick, but at the pathetic man with a desperate frown on his face. He had planned to pull rabbits out of a hat and scarves out of his mouth. He planned to perform simple card tricks to wow Jimmy’s friends. Instead, the gangly unshaven man in an old tuxedo, which wreaked of moth balls, gave a wry smile to his employer, who stood in the background with a look on her face that told him he was digging his grave.
She drew an invisible line across her neck. He thought of the ways he could interpret that. One was the worst. Wielding a cake knife, she intended to drive it through him. Or the ‘normal’ conclusion for God’s sake: give up on the trick. He was already choking, but he didn’t want it to become reality. Yet, the balls kept pouring out of his suit pockets. Thus, the comedy of errors ensued.
The boys were becoming impatient. He would have ended the trick, but he couldn’t figure out how to get rid of the balls. He hadn’t read that far into the manual. He tried buttoning his coat, but the burgeoning orbs multiplied. Then, he began chasing after them with his top hat, an act, he thought was theatrical suicide. Pretend you know what you’re doing even if you don’t. The brutally honest pre-teens could see through him. They smelled BS the moment he walked through the door.
The ‘Mystic and Magician Thomas Crook’ drove up to the front of the house in a dilapidated white rusted Chevy van, his name and title stenciled over a magic hat on the side panel. Walking through the front door, he startled the young boys with a bent smile crawling out of a pale complexion. Not horrible, except for an anemic condition that caused his lips to turn a gloomy shade of blue. His height—a modest six feet—was exaggerated by platform shoes. He did his best to apply brown polish to them, over the cracks and tears in the patent leather. They weren’t much, he bought the platform shoes at Payless. His other shoes were a pair of sneakers from his college basketball days. Not too long ago, he performed other magic feats such as crashing the rim and leading fast-breaks. Too slow as a guard or forward and too short to play center, his dream of going pro died shortly after getting a degree in Philosophy. Hence, what he deemed a temporary career in magic would pay his bills and help him decide what to do next.
As mysteriously as the balls appeared, they stopped, gone, disappearing in puffs of smoke. Jimmy’s mom sighed. She held before her Jimmy’s birthday cake punctured with thirteen candles. Jimmy’s cheeks glowed as bright as the candles. The red color of embarrassment faded. “Alright boys, shows over for now,” Jimmy’s mom announced, setting the cake with great care in the middle of the dinner table.
She stood in front of a China hutch, in her element, deftly removing several plates from behind the glass doors, and her best silverware from the drawers. Then with manicured precision, she laid down the place settings. In a show that upstaged the magician, she wielded the serving knife like a wizard’s wand, angling it next to the cake in a way that pleased her sense of order. Getting her camera, each child smiled with balloons tied to oak chairs waving behind each head. Everything’s just right except for… that guy.
Mr. Thomas Crook stopped to admire the scene, hands stopped from pulling a scarf from his jacket pocket. He was glad for a break afraid any more tricks should go awry. One more and he might have seen the door. As the boys sat down, the singing began, cued by Jimmy’s mom, her high-pitched tendril voice invited the boys to join in, flat and off-key. Jimmy’s party hat tilted. He felt almost too old to wear it. Yet, they all wore them for tradition’s sake. Glad to suffer the tight elastic strings under their chins, they were eager for Jimmy to open his presents, knowing what they gave him. They wanted to get on with the fun. The mound of presents sat on the coffee table next to Mr. Crook’s cheap magic stand. There, he awaited his audience. His black suitcase lay on the stand, showing his disorganized agenda. His top hat flopped down onto the case, causing the kids and Jimmy’s mom to stop in mid-song.
“Happy Birthday Dear Jimmy, Happy Birthday to…” His best-friend Anthony managed to finish the song with a weak, “To you… and many more.”
Flattened by the interruption, Jimmy’s mom narrowed her eyes and pursed her lips, an expression which did not become her. Her beautiful brown eyes glared. In her thirty-nine years, she tried to refrain from profanity, to really cut down on her crude biting Spanish slang. But the tirades contained valuable lessons, this one would have addressed rudeness. Jimmy could read her fiery posture and knew to duck. An awkward pause followed. She stood up straight in the unmistakable stance of a flamenco dancer—face upturned, ready to attack.
Crook muttered a weak interminable “sorry.” Pulling his hands behind his back, he bowed, as though the small gesture might improve matters.
“Do you mind?” Jimmy’s mother said, restraining herself for his sake. A thought somehow escaped her lips. “Que pendejo!”
Surprised by his mother’s language, Jimmy burst out laughing. Even his friends who didn’t know a lick of Spanish, chuckled. Snuffing out the rage, she turned her attention and lit the candles on her white frosted masterpiece. Then, Jimmy’s friends encouraged him to make a wish.
During that wish, Thomas’ hat disappeared into the case. That wasn’t his only problem. It uncovered his thinning hair, a crown of black licorice. So much for appearances. The bald areas glistened with nervous sweat. He needed that hat. No hat, no magic, no cute bunny rabbits, a guaranteed hit at parties. These days, all it produced was fat pigeons. Graceful doves. Forget it. Damn magic catalogue for getting it wrong.
The awkward magician felt he had some time. Though a jumble of artifacts rearranged over the large hat like quicksand. Thomas’ spindly long fingers made for basketball or magic, take your pick, dove into the pile of cards, feathers, balloons and fake jewelry, desperate to recover his black stovepipe cover. His fingers hit bottom and came up empty. No reward. Not this time.
“I got to find it, I got to find it…” he muttered. “Don’t let this happen Tom, not again.”
Ignoring his mumbles, the boys dove into the cake. Mouths full, they shared their young teen wisdom about entering puberty, growing hair and muscles. They teased Jimmy about his girlfriend Leticia. Loud whispers drew his mom’s attention. Jimmy’s mom was intimidating, and truly no-nonsense: hair pulled back into a ponytail, clad in a white cotton blouse and faded jeans. She wasn’t about to let anyone ruin her son’s birthday. In seconds she hopped from the table to the family room. Crook still fumbling, didn’t notice her. “Now you see me?” She leaned over the magic case and warned him to get his act together.
“One more chance, mister,” is all she said.
Thomas removed his hand once more from the case, but something tugged back. His eyes darted around the house. No answers there, and not in the manual, though an incantation spewed out of his mouth. While he pulled with consistent might, he felt something smooth in his grasp. Something cylindrical both hard and soft, which emerged. Attached to it, trinkets, amulets and a Talisman. It was a large candle, which ignited automatically. Jimmy’s mom stood back. She admired the small conflagration, and the first bit of magic that, well… seemed like magic. It captured the attention of the boys, too. To think, they poo-pooed Thomas, placing him in the same category as Santa and the Easter Bunny.
Avoiding logic, Thomas drew from the ancients, folklore and wives’ tales. In a modern world, it was the kind of stuff that science could not explain. Long ago, chemistry was alchemy. It’s best to keep wonder alive. The flame grew higher. Jimmy’s mom thought it was a nice touch for the celebration. Beneath the wax manifestation, there appeared a three-layer cake. His large hands let go of the candle, in time to catch the large cake as it grew. He was grateful for this reflex, years of catching rocket passes from teammates. There, the cake sat beneath his ridiculous wide grey eyes.
The candle on top changed shape into a one and three. Happy thirteen. A voice came out of Thomas to welcome Jimmy to this rite of passage, telling him he was becoming a man. Jimmy’s eyes lit up. He stopped stuffing his face. Crumbly frosting and candy bits fell from the corners of his mouth, now agape. His friends stopped frozen too, waiting for the climax of this unexpected treat. The burning candle emitted sparks. Most of tiny flames flittered off, but some fell onto the carpet. Jimmy’s mom yelled something in Spanish, as more sparks shot up. One wayward meteor landed on the drapes.
At first, Thomas didn’t notice, but smoke rose up from the gold window coverings blocking the patio doors. Seeing the flames grow larger, the boys yelled. Then Thomas blew hard on the candle, but it wouldn’t go out.
Jimmy’s mom emerged from the kitchen with a fire extinguisher. She pointed the nozzle from the red cannister at the small blaze. A cloud formed then cleared. All that was left of the drapes were large chunks of blackened cloth. The fire was out, but not in Jimmy’s mom. Lo and behold, she came to full froth. If the scarecrow Thomas had any ounce of courage, he’d face the banshee and shut his mouth. It would be no minor scolding. He awaited her fiery dragon’s breath. Her glaring eyes said more than words.
He tried, but the cake wouldn’t fit back. After seconds, it, “poof”, disappeared. Pretending he pulled off the act, his sad dreary eyes said something else. Whatever it was brought approval from Jimmy and the boys. Tom was ready to close the lid on his case, after setting it on one of the couches. Wonderous, it coughed up his hat, which landed crooked on his head. Then, he straightened it like it was part of the plan. “Yeah,” he said, “that was supposed to happen.” Weak applause followed, and Anthony said, “yeah, that was cool man.” The others nodded in agreement.
Jimmy’s mom stood next to the magician. She folded her arms and puffed-out her chest. Calmly she said, “Do you think you can make it out of here without hurting yourself?”
Tom felt something new in him, affording him a momentary lapse in clumsiness, and his aloof approach to magic. The case dangled loose in his hand.
“Sorry about the way things went, but happy birthday, Jimmy,” he said. “Any last request?”
Jimmy thought about his wish, musing about his mysterious gifts. He figured his friends and he would end the afternoon doing the same old thing: eating more chips, more candy, and drinking more soda. All sugared out they’d somehow misbehave. All amped up, they’d play video games and fight.
“I’ll give you three wishes. All I do is wave this wand. Hocus pocus, let’s hope the smoke don’t choke us,” the skinny man laughed, wheezing, stretching his blue lips across crooked yellow teeth. But somehow his face was different. He had more powerful gaze.
“That was funny,” Anthony laughed. “Choke us! He said, choke us.”
“OK, what do I have to do,” Jimmy asked. “And is it OK mom?”
“Fine with me… but, don’t be disappointed when you don’t get nothing.”
Thomas quickly followed, “Oh, they’ll come true Mrs. Sanchez.” He waved his hand in front of her. “Don’t you believe in magic?”
She answered him with a smirk. “Go ahead,” she said. “I paid for magic. Let’s see some magic.”
“Alright,” Thomas said, palming his long black wand. “Just think what it is you want. You ready?”
Jimmy closed his eyes and thought about what was in his heart’s desire.
“Have you made them? You got something in mind?” Thomas asked.
Jimmy answered, “Yeah!” His friends sat at the edge of their chairs, balloons waving behind them. One by one, each one popped.
The young magician invited anticipation. “Close your eyes, Jimmy.” Seeming to morph into something with more presence, he tapped his hat with the wand three times.
When Jimmy opened his eyes, a girl appeared. She came through a rip in the fabric of time. But how could this be? He thought. It was his girlfriend Leticia.
“Wish number one,” Thomas said.
Curious and stunned, Leticia examined herself as if to see if anything was missing. Next, she felt compelled to kiss Jimmy, while Mrs. Sanchez rocked on her heels unsure of whether to pull Jimmy away or step in between. She did neither, struck by a daydream of her own puppy-love days. Jimmy’s friends “ooooohed and yucked. That’s gross.” They were jealous. The quick peck seemed quite against the girl’s will, but she watched Jimmy blush, and that was priceless.
“Wish number two,” Thomas announced.
Leticia grabbed Jimmy’s hand and led him back through the rip. Suddenly it closed, leaving behind a bright shining light. The closure snapped shut. Thomas took off his hat. The light zig-zagged like a buzzing bee. Then, it too was gone. “Where’d they go?” the boys asked.
“Perhaps into untroubled world far from ours,” Thomas said.
“Wish number three,” Thomas said aloud. “How’s that for magic Mrs. Sanchez? Jimmy got what he wanted. I’d gotta say that’s one birthday he’ll never forget.”
“Wait,” she said, re-emerging as mom, angry—the kind of energy that kills magic. “Where did he go? What did you do with my son?” She was frantic. Then, she ran for Crook’s hat like she was driving for a layup. He turned and dodged her as she stumbled down.
“You OK Mrs. Sanchez?” Thomas said, offering a hand. “He’ll be back when he’s ready.” Out the door he went as she sat on the floor. “Again, sorry about the curtain. I’ve got another party to attend.” Straightening his tuxedo and tipping his misbehaving hat, he turned and waved good-bye.