Saturday Stories #1
The old man stood next to the park bench making coins disappear and reappear out of thin air – air that smelled of diesel fuel and summer heat and a strange mix of chestnuts roasting amid sweat and smoke.
A battered fedora reclined on the bench, showing a yield of only a few bills and a pocketful of coins. It hadn’t been a good day so far. Occasionally a passerby would drop a dollar and glance at him, but not enough of a glance to actually catch the act.
“Ah, lonely is the life of a prestidigitator,” he said softly. He didn’t think of himself as a panhandler – he performed his tricks in exchange for donations – but he knew most of his clients walked away believing they’d done a good deed for a panhandler today.
He had switched to card tricks when he saw the boy – maybe 6 years old, blond hair, glasses – watching from across the walk with a light in his eyes. When he saw that light, his heart jumped. Well, what do you know.
“Would you like to see it up close?” he called. The little boy looked this way and that, then touched his hand to his chest inquiringly. “Yes, you, young man. Don’t be shy. Come watch.”
He fanned the cards and held them toward the boy.
“Pick a card,” he said. “No, no, don’t show me what it is, just put it back in the deck right here. Good.”
A bit of shuffling, a bit of flourish, a bit of sly misdirection, and he reached behind the boy’s ear and a card appeared.
“Here is the card you picked, I believe,” he said, and the boy’s eyes widened in delight.
A few more tricks later, he sat down on the bench.
“You like my magic, lad?”
“How do you do that? Show me,” the boy said.
“If I show you, it won’t be magic anymore. Maybe when you’re older.”
The boy looked down in disappointment, and the old man touched his shoulder lightly with a gentle fist.
“I know you, boy,” the old man said with a grim smile. “You and I only see each other in passing anymore, but a long time ago we were the best of friends.”
“Shut up,” the boy said, returning the smile. “I’ve never seen you before.”
“Well, that much is true: This face has never seen that face,” he said, pointing back and forth between their faces. “But I know you, old sod. And we’ve met twice before since we were best of friends.”
The boy nodded but said, “I don’t get it.”
“You and I, we were inseparable,” said the magician. “We shared wine and broke girls’ hearts, or sometimes they broke ours, and then we went to war together and you died in my arms in the Ardennes Forest – that would be 1918.”
“That’s a hundred years ago,” the boy scoffed. “I wasn’t even born.”
“And yet there you were, and I imagine my heart ached for 14 years before we met again,” he said. “I only know this in the shadows of memory and from what you told me later that rang true in the corner of my heart: I got a job with a carnival, performing as Mr. Electrico. I’d sit in my electric chair and survive jolts of electricity as part of the act. And one day a little boy, 12 years old, came along and was bedazzled by my machine. Mr. Electrico told the boy – that is, I told you – about how you had died over there in France and now you were alive again with a new face and a new name.
“And I touched him with my electric hands and yelled, ‘Live forever!’ And the shock resounded through his lifetime: He started writing that night and grew up to write fantastic stories, and one of the stories was the one about us.”
“That does sound like me,” the boy said. “I like to write stories.”
“There you go. Well, sir, 20 years later, give or take a lamb’s tail shake, I died, was born, and became a little boy again myself, not much older than you are now,” the old magician went on. “And one day my parents took the family to the New York World’s Fair, and we happened to meet the man who wrote the words for a fabulous exhibit about tomorrow.”
“That was in 1974!” the boy said.
“1964, actually. But you know something about the fair – good lad, you’re inquisitive, that’ll take you far. Can you guess what this great man said to me?”
The old man barked a hearty laugh. “You remember!”
“No – no, I just guessed.”
“It’s a good guess, lad, a very good guess. Because the writer-man looked me in the eye and said, ‘Why, there you are! I never expected to see you again so soon.’ What do you think of that?”
“This writer thought you were Mr. Electrico come back to life?”
“He did indeed. He told me about meeting Mr. Electrico and the story of the Ardennes Forest. and I never forgot this next part: He said I had looked him in the eyes and said I saw his soul shining out, and now he saw me and understood: ‘Here you are, with a new face, a new name, but the soul shining from your face is the soul of my dear, dead friend. Welcome back to the world.’”
“I know, right? He said now he understood how you could see an old soul in new eyes, and he patted me on the shoulder and said, ‘I return the gift to you, my old friend. Live forever!’ And darned if I haven’t.”
“You must be old.”
“As old as my tongue and slightly older than my teeth,” the magician grinned. “Now, I heard the writer-man died a few years back, so I’ve been waiting and wondering when I’d see you again. And now here you are, that soul I first met 100 years ago shining back at me with another new face. And I don’t have anything profound to say except, ‘It’s good to see you again, my friend. Live forever.”
“It sounds like maybe we will,” the boy said.
“Yes, it does, doesn’t it? Maybe someday we’ll meet again when we’re about the same age, not one old and one young, and we can drink some wine and break some hearts together again.”
“Maybe,” the boy said, thoughtfully.
And then he heard his mother’s call, and he turned to go – stopping long enough to say, “Thanks, mister. Are you here every day? I’ll stop and see you next time we’re in the city.”
“Every day,” the man said, knowing he wouldn’t see the boy again in this lifetime.
“OK, then, see you!” the boy called, and was gone.
The man picked up his fedora and emptied the coins and bills. Enough to keep him going another day, and that was sufficient.
“Live forever,” he murmured after the boy. “Live forever.”