Presto at Close Quarters by Time Barrow

Monday, November 14, 2022
Time Barrow's character has an incredible talent that he parlays into an underwhelming magic trick.

Image generated with OpenAI
I can do one trick, that's it. One. But I'm mighty sure it's one no one else on the planet can do. And it's technically not even a trick.

I stood sweating in the 119° August heat on the back porch of a swanky Scottsdale home, a couple dozen 5ish-year-olds sitting cross legged on the well-groomed grass and yelling disappointed lines at me like, "Mister, don't you have any tricks that work?" This wasn't my first birthday magician gig, but as usual, the out-of-my-element discomfort made it feel like it was. Somehow, I just never mastered the ability to shuffle cards mid-air or palm them or guess the one you picked or get out of the way of my own disappearing sheet fast enough or... really, I couldn't do any of it... beyond the one.

I squinted through the sun and into the face of a small girl, wispy red hair crawling out from under her birthday hat. She stared agape, expressionless at me through the smeared butterfly face paint mask, and I wondered how it came to this. I was letting her down. I was letting them all down. A few feet behind the kids, I heard her father whisper too loudly to his wife, "Geez hon, this guy's horrible, should I just bring out the cake?" Maybe he'd made the wrong decision. Maybe I'd made the wrong decision.

Given my talents before choosing this unlikely vocation (caricature portrait artist, uncertified CPA, community center children's mime instructor), I took a risky leap but with arguably fair reasoning. My extraordinary tale is the product of one of those rare times when one discovers a previously unknown, unplanned, unparalleled talent, like double-jointed acrobat, spot-on NFL punter, or perfect-pitch crooner. When you can do it right, and just naturally better than anyone, there's not much of an option; the world'd be better with you in such a role, so you just go with it. That's basically how I became a party magician - the only feasible place I could imagine sharing my one unique, albeit largely unimpressive, feat - providing the world, or at least the metro Phoenix area, with mediocre prestidigitation, plus the one phenomenal bit.

That's right, I chose the proverbial (rarely literal) stage, generally consisting of a backyard porch, living room corner, or reserved park gazebo. In these ignoble locations, I'd perform my subpar act solely to lead up to my grand talent - from which I could not, and would not, deprive the world - only for it to be seen as second-rate, at best. That the unexceptional magic (all my lackluster sleight-of-hand attempts) leading up to the big reveal did nothing to foretell the rarity of my real aptitude was not lost on me. But how could I just show up with the one trick? As it was, my big finale was not life changing and would leave people wanting, that is, until I could come up with the right hook, application, spectacle. I didn't find that for a while, and I still think there's room for improvement. But nonetheless, I had this strange ability, and I couldn't leave it for mere grandchild entertainment and bar bet wins.

OK, I've kept you at bay long enough. Here it is:

When I was a kid, my Granddad could never cease to excite and amaze me with the quarter trick... ya know, the sleight-of-hand bit where you "magically" pull a quarter from behind a child's ear. At the time, I had no idea how he did it; actually, today I'm still not really positive. I mean, I get it; one produces a quarter from the other hand or a pocket or a sleeve or who knows where and they sort of hide it and move it from hand to hand (or pretend to do so and really keep it in the first hand). But to be honest, while I can sort of do it, I'm still not very good at it. I'm not good at any of it, and chrissakes, I'm a working party magician, though admittedly, one with a slew of negative Yelp reviews.

I can't know how many quarters my Granddad carried around with him, surely less than a couple bucks, since he always gave me the quarter he produced from behind my ear and the bit never went beyond about five or six quarters. But there was a limit. Sure, I understand it was a trick! It was a simple septuagenarian maneuver not even worthy of children's birthday stage magic.

But here's the thing... years later, I learned I could do it for real. No kidding, I actually produce a quarter from behind my own ear. And there's no limit. I can do it all day, one about every 40-60 seconds.

For years after Granddad exposed me to his little deception amusement, I'd tug at my ear trying to produce a coin: on the playground waiting for my turn on the swing, in the backseat of my folks' car, in a locked bathroom, late at night under the covers, wherever. Of course, it never worked; it was a silly trick. Once I'd aged enough to understand this fact, as well as the specifics of how one performs it, I let go of any attempt at reproducing it... that is, until I was about 19.

I was attending the local community college and studying in the library one day. Deep in a book on Andean Mountain religions and the Quechua people, I was mindlessly rubbing my head and neck. Suddenly, I was jarred from my reading when I discovered a lump behind my right ear. I immediately thought of all the cancerous types of lumps people find, and panicked. But I kept exploring it, pushing, pinching, pulling. Pretty soon, I realized there was something under the skin.

In a rather obsessive manner, I was set on getting it out. The next few minutes were spent rubbing really hard and working it closer to the surface. Eventually, I felt it peeking out, an edge, a hard metal edge. I managed to get my fingernails on the tip and pull. Slowly, painfully, and with face contorted, I extracted what you already know is coming: a quarter, a real quarter. I'm talking 91.67% copper, 8.33% nickel, full-on, US mint quarter.

They have years printed on them and everything, though so far, never one before 1971 - go figure. So, where do they come from? Am I taking them out of public circulation? Are these discards or lost coins? Man, I cannot know. That's the whole existential side of it. I mean, clearly there's some sort of magic at work... like real magick. But I'm just the driver, I've no idea what's going on under the hood.

So, as time went on, I honed the skill a little (if you can even consider it a skill). Maybe because I kept pulling them out and sort of primed the path, maybe because I just got better at extracting 'em, I got the process down to a little bit short of 45 seconds, on average. But then another would be ready to start the process again. And another, and... so on. Immediately, I thought, "Hot damn, I'm gonna be rich!" But then I did a little math.

Let's say I can improve even more, get it down to 30 seconds per. Feel free to check your calculator app, but that's thirty bucks an hour. If I worked a regular 40-hour week doing this, that's basically a tax-free salary of $62k per year, that is If I can speed it up; at my current pace, I'd be raking in less than $42k. That ain't tuppence, but it's nothing to get rich by. Either way, let's look at the reality of it: That's sitting for 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, all month, allll year - talk about a tedious, repetitive job. I'd basically be a friggin' cow, producing milk. Were I really to engage in the eternal quarter production, it'd be far from satisfying labor, plus it's still rather painful. Bearable, yeah, but it sure ain't a career of comfort.

Given all that, it didn't take long to land on party magician as a logical outlet for what's basically a trick... at least from an outside perspective, it is. Next thing ya know, I went out, got a couple bags of traditional magic tricks, and started learning them to the best of my ability. But we know where that got me.

So there I was, in an all-too-familiar scene, sweating on the Scottsdale back porch, facing a sea of displeased faces. The father waved to the nanny - who'd not even bothered to come out initially, but simply looked on from the kitchen window - to bring out the cake. I took this as my finalé cue. "OK, kids." I tried to beam. "I've got one more. It's the big one. Check it out."

I took off my hat and cape. (Yeah I know, it's a cliché and demoralizing outfit. But they're kids. I gotta look the part, right? Ah, shit, maybe not.) I then took off my jacket and started unbuttoning my crisp white shirt. "Hey, hey, hey... kid's party, KID'S party!" screamed the father. I merely flashed him an annoyed look, continuing. Once down to a plain white tee. I walked to the edge of the patio and began.

I flipped on my carnival barker persona and let it fly. "Alright, alright, everybody draw near. Here we are, coming to the big act. Don't even think of blinking lest you miss it all. Watch closely, kids, watch closely... oh, that's gotta include you adults. C'mon, come close, don't be shy."

The nanny walked out behind my audience with a large white sheet cake. She was cute - an African-American girl, partially blonde, thin but compact like a gymnast, tiny but walked tall. As she pulled out a lighter, I held up one finger, motioning for her to hold off a moment. "Look, there's nothing up my sleeves, since I don't have any." I rubbed my arms. "There's nothing hiding in my collar, since I don't have one." I rubbed my neck front and back. "I've got nothing in my hands." I showed them my hands: front, back, flipped, and repeated.

I began to rub behind my ear, slowly then firmly to work out the quarter. In less than a minute, I produced it and flipped it into the audience. A young boy with an only half-painted Spiderman face caught it and stared at the coin, disappointed when he realized he'd not gained much. The nanny smiled at me coyly and crossed her arms. Boom, I had her attention. I smiled back with raised eyebrows.

"Pull one from MY ear, Mister!" screamed the birthday girl. "Oh, I'll do you one better than that, little one. Give me a minute." I looked down at the ground, stretched my arms out in either direction, and shook 'em a little. After a bit, I called the child up and had her check my neck, arms, and hands. "You ready?" I asked. She nodded, anxiously. I went through the whole bit again and produced the next coin from behind my ear, showing it to her and the audience. Only this time, I then did the old man trick, palming it, showing an empty hand, and then pulling it from behind her right ear. I handed it to her, and she squealed in delight.

The nanny started a not-too-dramatic slow clap, and the kids followed suit. The father, however, was less than impressed, thinking the whole bit was something he could perform himself with an hour or so of practice. "C'mon Layla." He motioned for her to light the cake candles.

And with that, my part was done, and I was quickly forgotten in the face of the lit pastry and the accompanying song and celebration. I collected my things, and Layla filled and doled out the festive paper plates. When I finished loading my car, I went back to collect payment. The father silently, and reluctantly, pulled a signed check from his pocket. Layla came up behind him, took the check, and said, "It's OK, Dave. I'll walk him out."

From a ways away, and with white frosting already caked on her face, the birthday girl waved goodbye, I waved, and Layla walked me out. We chatted a bit on the way, cordial to be sure but nothing too flirtatious. However, after I closed the hatchback I'd left open, I found her leaning against the driver's door, preventing me from opening it.

"So, uh... that quarter thing..." she began. "It's real, isn't it?"

"Whaddya mean? I'm a birthday magician." I grinned. "I've got a whole case of this stuff."

"Yeahhh, you're a birthday magician. But you clearly don't enjoy it. And frankly, you're no good at it. But that quarter thing, that's different. There's something going on there, something... unlike the rest of it, unlike the tricks any of 'em do. So, how do you do the quarter trick?"

"Ohhh, a magician never reveals..."

"How do you do the quarter trick?" she interrupted.

"It's just a trick. There's nothing to..."

"Last time, and then I'm walking. How. Do you. Do. The quarter trick?"

I looked into her eyes: dark, curious, and fiery-intense on this. I'd never told anyone about the ability, that is to say, not in any way that'd make 'em think it wasn't just another trick. And by appearances, it was a trick, just the single one that nobody could figure out how I did. But I was not finding any good reason not to tell her. So, I did... the whole tale from childhood to college to kids' birthdays. I let remain silent for a while and process it all. But then, she dropped her bomb.

"I've got one," she began. "A talent. A real and for true, secret, magical talent. But that's your teaser. I can't tell you now or here."

I was, of course, mighty dubious. But I can't deny she had my attention. I'd quickly grown interested in both her and her story. So, with the paltry $75 check I'd just collected sitting in my pocket, I asked her to lunch. But it was already 3:00 and she had to finish up the party. So, dinner it was. She asked me to come back at 6:00. And, as prompt as I'm sure I've ever been, I pulled up at 6:00 on the nose and waited. She came out, said nothing, and climbed in the front seat before I could even open the door for her (yeah, I think chivalry's still important).

We drove to Tempe, where I took her to Restaurant Mexico. It was busy with the regular college crowd, and she couldn't show me her trick there, anyway. So, we chatted about everything else, seemingly forgetting about all magic-related topics, over taco suaves and soup-style beans. After, we walked to the town lake, and in a timely reprieve from cyclists, runners, and wanderers, we found a remote spot by one of the bridge supports. So, I prompted her.

"OK, I'm listening. You know mine's for real. Whatcha got? What's your supersecret talent?"

"Prove it to me," she demanded. "Right here, right now, no planning, no prep, show me your hands, then give me a quarter from your ear. Prove it to me, and I'll tell you."

I sighed. "You show me yours; I'll show you mine, huh? Yeah, Okay. Why not?"

I went ahead and took off my t-shirt, did my bit face-to-face, and there was no question it was for real, I even showed her the edge peeking out before I extracted it completely. "Okay. That's the view behind the curtain. Whatcha got?"

"I can make a nickel disappear."

I stared a moment, questioning her delivery, her honesty, and I just burst out laughing. I couldn't hold it back. Understandably, she turned and started walking away. "OK, wait, wait. Come back. I'm sorry. I seriously thought you were messing with me. Please, tell me about the nickels. I assume you've done this many times?"

She didn't tell me, but she did show me, twice. The first time, she took a nickel, put her hand in her shirt, sort of under her arm, played it up a bit and then said, "There. I just shoved it into my armpit." pulling out her empty hand.

"Huh? What the hell was that?" I blurted with indignation. "There's a thousand things you could have done with that nickel... put it in your bra, hid it in some inner-sleeve pocket, palmed it as you removed your hand. You gotta make things engaging; you gotta remove all traces of anything that suggests what you might be hiding."

"You're asking me to take off my shirt?"

"Look, you know that's not what I mean. But yeah! If you want to keep people interested, believing, you have to remove the elements that give them reason to doubt. And yes, of course, a little skin sells it a bit more, sure."

She took off her top, sporting just a red lace bra... the lifting sort. I can't lie, it was more than a bit distracting.

"You pleased?" she asked, putting her hands on her hips.

"Yes, yes I am, on a few levels. But look, you've gotta work on selling it. If it's real, that makes it even easier. But folks think it's not, so play it up and leave 'em wondering."

I had her place her hand behind her neck. It was a rather stage-sexy pose and fully exposed her armpit. She was a bit bashful and feigned offense when I told her that she'd need to keep it shaved, so it was a clean canvas. But such advice might be what this moment was about. She took her next nickel and slowly, seemingly painfully, worked it into her left armpit, until it was gone. I saw it clearly. Her bit was just as real as mine.

We talked extensively about both of our histories, including how she continually gets tested for nickel poisoning and coming up with odd claims to get semi-frequent x-rays. But there's just no sign of the coins. However, we were in a secluded spot, wearing not much above the waist, and both super amped and excited about finding someone who had this crazy heretofore unparalleled ability. Suffice it to say, we explored other topics over the next hour or so.

From there, we started seeing each other regularly, discussed, planned, and quickly worked out an act. That's basically it. Layla and I each have these truly unique, not inordinately impressive, talents. And we joined forces to sort of make this one act. It didn't take much to plan the act, so it looks like she (well-shaved and sporting a shiny sequined vest) inserts a nickel into her armpit and I (having recently bulked up a bit and sans shirt) pull it out from behind my ear, having "transformed" it into a quarter.

So, while my big reveal here is that each of our talents is real, that they're aligned in some way is all fiction... mostly. See, here's the cherry topping: I think we did it for real... twice. The first time, I noticed the date on the nickel was the same as the quarter I pulled out. Okay, that's not too impressive; probability'd say it could happen easily. But I'd also noticed a groove, like a cut, on one side of each of the coins; that's far more unlikely. So, I started watching more closely.

Last week, we were having lunch and she had a few nickels on the table. I saw that she'd spilled hot sauce on one of them. That night, we performed our bit as an opener to a local bar band. I saw her insert that soiled nickel. When I pulled out a quarter, it sort of burned a bit and it actually had some red schmutz on it. So, I've been paying even closer attention and trying to figure out how we can make that connection, that transfer, for real. That's it, that's where we are now. We've been at it about a year and getting better daily.

But from the trick my Granddad used to do for me, to the many failed birthday gigs, to all the days I've spent trying to hone my prestidigitator chops, to all the spot-on performances (amidst the many embarrassing ones) I've had with Layla, there's a real takeaway.

What I've learned is that while my one "trick" is, by far, the most amazing thing I do, no one's really the wiser. Sure, I've become halfway (no more than that, I assure you) decent at palming a foam ball and pulling it from my mouth, making the eight of clubs ('cause that's the one I made you choose) appear at the top of the deck, and having your signed dollar bill appear in the pocket of someone at the back of the crowd. But that's sleight-of-hand shit. You get that through practice and training. The real thing? That one thing I've got? Pshhh, from the audience perspective, it's no different than the rest... all the bullshit ones. And perception is reality. So, it's not different. That is, not unless I sell it, unless I really sell it and draw in the audience, so it's not just me/us up there.

The best magicians make you a part of it, they bring you in, willingly or not. Like an effective novelist or even a worthy ad man, they set and sell that hook, the one that grabs you, so you have no option but to keep reading, to keep watching. Because suddenly, you're not just interested, you're entwined. It's not a one-sided, viewed performance; the audience, each and every last one of 'em, is connected, invested, an integral part of it all.

So, that's what I do. I make sure they're hooked. Whether or not they think my quarter comes legit from behind my ear or Layla's nickel actually disappears into her armpit or the coins are palmed from who knows where, the audience thinks it's a trick. But it doesn't matter; they're still amazed as all hell when I do it. At worst they're mildly entertained. But there's the draw. They want to know how I did it. And, at least for the one, the little big one... we'll never tell.

We've made a bit of a name for ourselves locally, and the act's getting greater renown as of late, but we need to expand, need to get in with a larger group to help sell it. Tomorrow, we're heading down to Tucson. I hear there's a guy down there, goes by the name of the "Ass Assassin," and he does target shooting with a .22 alternately jammed through his stoma hole and his colostomy bag hole. Now, that's the sort of fella who knows how to sell a hook.


  1. Fun Story. I love the way you humor and humility of the MC. I truly hope he makes it someday. This story opens up a ton of future possibilities (a novel or series). I've often postulated that everyone has some sort of undisclosed magical ability. Mine is being able to guess how long I've been in church before looking at my watch.
    Thanks for sharing your work.

  2. I agree with Jim: this story is fun. Aside from the main plot points, the undercurrent of attraction between the MC and Layla was a crackling delight. When the notion of a “unique” talent was raised, I kept envisioning those “entertainers” who can consume and then regurgitate gallons of water in one fell swoop. Thankfully that was not the case. The talent as revealed was rather modest but it did turn out for the best: a blossoming cottage industry for moderately endowed freaks. Perusal of the piece was worthwhile based just on the final sentence of the story.

  3. As I read this story, I found myself “not just interested … entwined…” Entertaining, original and well-crafted.
    -D, Henson

  4. I loved the narrator's self-deprecating humor. He knows his strengths and his limitations. The ending is just hilarious. Well done, Time.