Stage lights blinded Charles for the briefest of moments before his eyes adjusted. His pupils shrank and grew, and he began to discern the crowd from behind the glare: the people-shaped shadows that filled the seats of the Golden Nugget theater’s old auditorium. At first they were just blobs—fat and thin depending on their matching individual—but then, as his eyes dilated to the right degree, details emerged. An imposing human shadow in the back of the theater ruffled a wide hand over his eyes and down the back of his scalp. Charles could tell that this was a man by the angle of his chin and shoulders, and not just any man had that angle to his chin.
He had come. David Copperfield had accepted Charles’ invitation. He never thought Copperfield would actually show up. Why would he? Charles was just getting his feet wet in Las Vegas. Copperfield was a legend.
Breathe. Charles exhaled his anxiety between his new porcelain veneers—one of many tips his L.A. agent, Aggie, had made that paid off since he had first met her in her little, pink downtown L.A office almost a year ago. She had stared at him and blew plumes of smoke into the air. They curled around her like a noxious snake that permeated her very essence. Charles wasn’t sure Aggie knew how to breathe at all unless she was sucking on the end of a Marlborough.
“You’ve got trailer teeth.” She lit another cigarette off the end of the dead one before she stubbed it out on the chipped saucer sitting at the corner of her desk.
“Trailer teeth?” Charles pulled his lips back and ran his tongue over his teeth.
“You heard me.” Aggie swung around and pointed at a picture of Copperfield hanging on her wall. “I told him the same thing once. You won’t make it in Vegas if you look like you just fell out of a trailer. Those hicks are there trying to forget that they live in one. How do you suppose they can do that when you look like their alcoholic, wife-beating, meth-making neighbor?”
“But, see Aggie, it’s true. I am trailer trash. I have trailer teeth.”
“They don’t need to know that, kid. Get the fucking veneers. No one would have watched Copperfield make the Statue of Liberty disappear on Prime Time TV if his teeth looked like field corn.””
Aggie was right, of course. Copperfield was polished, well spoken, handsome. Charles knew he needed to be that way too, and so he got new $3,000 veneers. Those teeth, like the black dye in his hair and the sharp black suit to match, helped him get the gig at the Golden Nugget. He was sure of it
The crowd shifted in their seats. The lights were beginning to heat up the stage, and Charles was glad no o one could see his pit stains.
“Come on! We didn’t pay $22.95 to watch you sweat!” A Heckler.
Get it together. Screw Copperfield. Screw his perfect teeth and mesmerizing eyes. He was a hack anyway. Not like Charles.
Copperfield was just an illusionist backed by big budgets and friends in network TV. But Charles? Charles did real magic. It worked with surprising consistency. When he sawed someone in half, it really happened. Not in a blood and guts kind of way, more like slicing worm in half—no pain, no gore, just two parts that happened to exist in isolation of one another until he calmly, magically, pasted them back together again. The subjects never even knew it happened. Not really. They thought it was an illusion. Maybe they thought it was another fat housewife with her legs in one end of the saw-box who just happened to be wearing the same shoes. People just couldn’t wrap their minds around the fact that some magic was real.
The real magic he practiced was classic magic. It was his passion. But, these tricks were passé. Boring. Kids stuff. Hell, most everything was kids stuff after the illusions Copperfield pulled off. But that was Charles’ shtick, classic magic. The kind you practiced with your first kit when you’re a kid. He respected the basics, and he threw himself into it with the dedication of a delusional man. It never occurred to him that it was hokey.
Sweat ran down his forehead and off the tip of his nose. He shifted the top hat in his hands. Charles peered toward the Heckler and then squinted in Copperfield’s direction. Were the two sitting near each other? Charles looked down at the bottom of the hat. A nervous white rabbit with beady pink eyes looked up at him. He’d found it at PetShed Express earlier this afternoon. It was perfect. Pulling a rabbit out of a hat and making it disappear was classic magic. The Heckler would see that. Copperfield would see that.
So why was he so nervous?
Charles cleared the knot from his throat and licked his cracked lips. Brandishing the hat at the crowd, he channeled his most dramatic impression of P.T. Barnum.
“This is just an everyday top hat, as you can all see. It is not the hat itself that matters, but rather what is in the hat.”
The crowd had grown silent, assuming that something other than the same old boring rabbit-in-the-hat trick was coming. Charles reached in to scruff the bunny behind its ears. Holding it tightly, he pulled it from its sanctuary and held it in the air, presenting it to the crowd.
Silence. Nothing. No reaction.
Charles peered around the rabbit’s spasming legs and mumbled, “It is a rabbit, as you can see.”
“Get on with it!” The Heckler.
Damn him. He was sitting near Copperfield. Why didn’t one magician do another a favor and tell that ass to shut up?
Charles summoned his most authoritative voice. “I will now make this rabbit disappear.”
He shut his eyes and pictured the rabbit dissolving into nothingness. Its very fur, muscles, tendons, bones, and then finally organs ceasing to exist. They would remain in nothingness, in nowhere-ness, until Charles summoned the bunny back to the physical world again.
Fully in the zone, fully in the moment–he had to be or it wouldn’t work. Without warning, Charles threw the rabbit far into the air above his head. It’s body contorted with anxiety and fear, probably realizing somewhere deep its in instinctual brain that rabbits did not belong ten feet up in the air, they belonged in a grassy meadow, munching on spring onions and clover. It tried to run, but hovering above the crowd, the effect was cartoonish.
Charles spread his hands wide and cocked his head back. Hot magic rose from the floor and reverberated through his body like pins. It emanated. It took over. It ruled him and he just held on for the ride–a ten-dollar hooker in a house of magical ill-repute waiting for her john to finally just get on with it.
His lips split into a grimace. “POOF!”
It was done.
The rabbit exploded in a great whoosh of fur and smoke. Singed, sad white hairs floated back down and blanketed the stage.
Gasps. Then silence.
“You killed that rabbit! It didn’t disappear. You just blew it up, you asshole.” The Heckler
Charles opened his eyes, peering again into the shadows, his hand shielding his vision from the lights’ glare.
“No I didn’t. I would never, I…” The crowd moved as one. First, looking to the Helcker, then to Charles, then to Heckler, back to Charles. “You don’t understand.” Silence. ” It’s real magic.”
No one ever believed him. Charles pointed now toward Copperfield.
“We have a real treat in the crowd tonight, folks. The world’s greatest illusionist. Yes, the same man who says he can predict the future. The same man who had enough magic to marry Claudia Schiffer. That’s right. David Copperfield is here.”
The crowd turned, baited, in the direction of Charles’ outstretched arm.
“Why don’t we ask him where the rabbit went?”
This was Charles’ moment of triumph. Copperfield would confess that there was no explanation.
“Raise the lights!” Charles bellowed into the dark. The stage crew obliged and a sudden brightness washed over the blinking, confused herd of spectators.
But sitting on the purple velvet seat, where Copperfield had been only a moment ago, was the rabbit. It’s pink eyes squinted and its nose twitched. It sniffed the fabric and absently began to chew on a loose thread.
No one moved. No one spoke. Then, a great roar of laughter erupted from the other side of auditorium.
“I saw a trap door!” Another Heckler.