No tip meant I’d be late on my rent again. No tip meant I’d have to find a third job. No tip meant disapproving stares from my parents at dinner.
I was still wearing the top-hat and cape (the agency requires you keep them on until out of sight of the venue) and was loading my kit back into the van when my cape caught in the door and tore. I screamed and kicked the nearest tire until my foot hurt. It was unprofessional and, sadly, unsatisfying.
When I turned around, I realized I was being watched by a small boy with brown hair and large brown eyes.
“Sorry about the yelling,” I said. “I got mad.”
He looked at me for a moment and then nodded.
“I have Down’s Syndrome,” he said. His voice was strangely deep.
I just nodded. It was hard not to notice. I had read about Down’s Syndrome and how it splays your feet, gives you folds in your eyes, messes with your brain, and shortens your life.
“My name is Gerold,” he said.
I knew that, too. I had spotted him in the crowd while I was doing my act. He had been on the news. Gerold had lived alone with his brother after his parents died. Late one night a few months ago, there had been a fire and his brother was killed. Now Gerold was living in a foster home. Looking at him made my own life seem not all that bad.
“I want to ask you something,” he said, pronouncing it “axe.”
“Okay,” I said.
Gerold held out a pen to me. I took it and looked it over. It was a worn, black permanent marker.
“Is this pen magic?”
I managed to stop myself before I laughed. I managed to stop myself before I said “When they call it a magic marker, they don’t mean it’s really magic.” Who was I to ruin this boy’s happiness? After all, I’m a magician. Our stock and trade is taking something ultimately dull and making kids think it’s magical.
“If you think it is, then I think it is,” I said, handing it back to him. “Magic can hide in the tiniest things.” Then, worrying he would write permanent marker on something and get in trouble, I added “Use it carefully.”
Gerold took the pen back gravely, looked at it, and loudly burst into tears. I looked around wildly for a parent to hand him over to and make my getaway, but the street was deserted.
I knelt and put my arm around Gerold, hoping nobody would notice how silly it was for a caped man to hug anyone. I probably looked like a vampire taking a victim. I probably looked like a pedophile. After a few moments, Gerold got a hold of himself again.
“Frankie was teaching me to read,” he said. “He told me I could learn if I tried. We were up to four-letter words. I was going to surprise him. When he went to sleep, I took this pen and practiced. We ran out of paper. I wrote ‘fire’ on a wall. Then I went into his room and wrote on his arm. He told me it was okay. He used to teach me by writing words on my hand. He said it came off after a while. I wrote on his arm so it would be a surprise when he woke up.”
He looked at me, his eyes brimming with new tears.
“I wrote ‘gone’ on his arm,” he said with a horrified whisper. “I wrote it with a magic marker. I wrote ‘fire’ and I wrote ‘gone.’”
He cried again, silently this time. I kept my arm around him, feeling a cold chill in my stomach. Gerold had convinced himself he had killed his brother, and there was no way I was going to convince himself otherwise. I could, however, distract him until he got over the tragedy. An idea hit me.
“You want to see my magic book?” I asked.
He stopped crying suddenly. I went to the front of the car and grabbed the book from the floor in front of the passenger’s seat. I put it in his hands and opened it.
“I’ve had this book since I was a little boy,” I said. “It’s a book of magic symbols. See this one? That means radiation, be careful. And that one means biohazard. I guess it also means be careful.”
I turned the pages and showed him the symbols for all the planets, and men and women, and hospitals and street signs.
“I want you to have it,” I said.
To his credit, he didn’t say “no,” like most people are trained to say. He just smiled and flipped through a few pages. Then he stopped suddenly and pointed to a picture. It was a person’s head with a swirl on the inside.
“What’s that?” he asked.
I read the caption.
“That’s the symbol for intelligent,” I said. “Smart.”
He nodded and sat down on the curb. After a few moments, I realized he’d forgotten about the fire, about his brother, and about me. Grateful, I slipped into the van and drove off.
A few weeks later, I saw another report on the local news. It was a follow-up about Gerold and his brother and the fire. Gerold had disappeared from the foster home. The reporters posted a picture of him, smiling in a happier time, and flashed a hotline number for anyone to call if they spotted.
They never did. Gerold probably ran away from home, thinking he had a magic book, but it wasn’t. I’d like to say that it was. I’d like to say I’d had it ever since I was a kid and got it as a gift from Gandalf or Merlin, but I’m a magician, not a wizard.
The book was a belated birthday present from my sister. She gave it to me, unwrapped, in a bar over drinks I paid for. When she went off to the bathroom, I flipped to the back where I found the used bookstore price tag. She hadn’t bothered to even spend five dollars on me.
No, the book wasn’t magic, far from it. Still, at night, when I’m trying to sleep on my parent’s lumpy couch, I wonder. Even if the book wasn’t magic, what if the pen was?
What if Gerold practiced writing the symbol for “smart” until, one day, he picked up the pen, looked in the mirror, and wrote it on his own forehead. What if he found the symbols for “handsome” and “long life.” What if he walked out of that foster home, head held high, a beautiful, smart, healthy man.
What if makes it easier to fall asleep, even if you’re a magician and not a wizard.