Some veg out by a beach. Others sight-see incessantly.
But for me, vacation time allows me to catch up on two passions, namely reading and writing.
Over the past two weeks in Maine, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, other than eating a ton of seafood, I ripped through three books, a dozen magazines and put the finishing touches on a short story that I've been working on for a while.
So, with one last day of summer holiday left (that is, if you are amongst the 78% who read my stuff the same day they're posted), something a little different from me--the aforementioned (kinda long) short story in its entirety.
Enjoy it as a whole, in parts, or ignore it until the usual lessons return next week. But until then, you may want to learn the secret to:
THE WORLD’S GREATEST
“For my next trick, I need a volunteer.
“Someone good looking, bright, a worthy addition to the splendor of my show. Hmmm…let's see, how about you sir? Yes, you there in the blue checked jacket. That outfit is just screaming to be on a stage somewhere, so why not right here?
“Oh, a little shy, are we? Come on people; give him a nice round of applause to make him feel more at ease…
“There we go! Please follow my lovely assistant Jackie up the stairs and into the spotlight. Thank you so much for helping me out…for helping out the show! So, let’s get to know you a bit. We’ll start by your name.”
“Had to think, didn’t you? Well, 'Quentin' is most definitely a unique name. And Quentin, it’s a name that fits perfectly with this next feat of wizardry, as it is most definitely a unique magic trick. More than merely ‘unique’ actually, for I call this...The World’s Greatest Card Trick! There’s usually a drum roll right about now, at very least a smattering of oohs-and-ahhs from the audience, but worry not, because when this is all over, we will all be enveloped in tidal waves of sheer pandemonium. You believe me, don’t you, Quentin?”
“I guess so. No reason to doubt you…”
“I appreciate the encouragement, Quentin. I wish my agent had such a degree of blind faith. Now Quentin, how old are you and what do you do for a living?”
“I’m 31, and I work in branded promotional products at a large-scale corporate level.”
“That’s quite a mouthful! Which means what, to a layman like me?”
“Uh, let’s say for the Super Bowl, Pepsi needs 200,000 collapsible water bottles as a promotional giveaway. Well, my company will source the product—or we’ll get it created if we have to—and then we'll print it with the client’s logo and message. Then they give ‘em away. To their clients.”
“How intriguing! I always wondered where all those collapsible water bottles came from! In your comprehensive explanation, I noticed you said ‘my company’. Do you own it?”
“No, unfortunately not. It does real well. I just work there.”
“Fair enough. And that ravishing lady you’re sitting next to, is she your wife?”
“Your girlfriend? Someone serious?”
“No, she’s just a friend.”
“She can still be serious though…”
“Well…you can say she’s a serious friend.”
“Touché, Quentin, touché. Well handled! I just love it when my volunteers get more laughs than I do. Anyway, enough about you…for now. As I mentioned before, this special trick is less-than-modestly entitled The World’s Greatest Card Trick. And what makes it even more special is that, after years of intense practice and preparation, tonight marks the very first time I’ll be performing it live, on stage, before an audience. Quentin, you’re a part of history! Pretty exciting, don’t you think? “
“That is pretty cool, I suppose.”
“Indeed it is, Quentin. So, let us begin. You may have already remarked that my assistant Jackie has emerged from a secret location backstage to bring me a deck of cards. Thank you, my dear. You’ll notice that this is a standard blue-backed deck of Bicycle Playing Cards, the most popular brand of playing cards on the planet. Nothing but the best for Quentin and The World’s Greatest Card Trick!
“Now Quentin, if you would kindly stop checking out Jackie for a moment or two, I’d like you to focus your attention on these cards and assure the audience that they are as I so proclaimed—standard issue, just 52 of them, no trickery whatsoever. Take your time; complete audience buy-in is of fundamental importance to the desired effect and ultimate outcome of this magical moment. The wait will be worth it.”
“They look okay to me. They seem kind of heavy.”
“Good observation, Quentin. For this trick to work its many miracles, durability of the cards used is a key factor. That’s why I have selected Bicycle’s Prestige deck, made with crease-resistant Dura-Flex. It’s the only 100% plastic card to offer a paper-like feel to the user. As Bicycle's corporate website boasts, it’s ‘Perfect for a neighborhood game or a professional tournament.’ Or for The World’s Greatest Card Trick, wouldn’t you agree?”
“I guess. I can’t really tell the difference between these cards or any others, really.”
“Not yet, Quentin. But soon…soon. Anyway, enough babbling over the mere tools of the trade. Let’s get to the reason why we are all here…and why over 1,200 or so of your peers are staring at us with bated breath—The World's Greatest Card Trick!
“To start, I will utter the words that so many thousands of my brethren have uttered before me, and ask you to ‘pick a card, any card’. But to assure those gathered here that there’s no forced choice of any kind—the dirty little secret behind most tricks of this ilk—I will not touch the Prestige deck at any point in time. I will now leave it up to you to rifle through it alone, pick a card of your choice and give it to Jackie. Easy enough?”
“Wait Quentin, wait! Not just yet! Let me do something that may be considered rude in some cultures, but so necessary to add credibility to The World’s Greatest Card Trick, and turn my back to both you and the audience to assure the card its undisputed anonymity. Now go ahead...and tell me when you’ve handed the card to Jackie.”
“Fine, Quentin. Now I'll stay turned as Jackie shows that card to the audience, strutting deliberately from stage left to stage right, not forgetting a slight arm raise for those of you in the balcony. As she does this—and isn't she a delight?—I want you to put the rest of the cards back in the box. Got that?”
“Yup. All finished.”
“Oh, I think not! Trust me, you’re just getting started. Jackie my dear, would you put Quentin’s card back into the box, blending it in with its 51 other Dura-Flex coated brothers, sisters and cousins, secure its closure with an elastic, and hand the box back to Quentin. Do you have it in hand, my friend?”
“Yes I do!”
“Okay, on the count of three, when I turn around, I want you to throw that box as far as you can into the audience. Here I come. One, two…”
“Nice toss, Quentin! Right into what more elitist entertainers would impolitely call ‘The Cheap Seats’. Hope you didn’t pull a muscle. You ever play quarterback with that arm?”
“No...but I was the catcher on my college baseball team.”
“Impressive! Now Quentin, do you know why I asked you to throw the deck into the audience?”
“No real reason…just wanted to give someone a souvenir! A little act of generosity and jocularity before we commence the wonderment. Well Quentin, 1,200 people, Jackie and you all know your card. The entire theater is co-opted in a secret that has excluded just one poor solitary soul, namely me. And therein lies the purpose of The World’s Greatest Card Trick—for said soul, namely me, to reveal this card to you. Are you ready to re-learn its identity?”
“Well then, let us begin. Jackie, please make sure that Quentin is seated properly in the special chair you are now wheeling onto the stage. And how about a bottle of water for our guest? Thanks once again, my dear. Now Quentin, get comfortable, buckle the safety belt, and listen closely to what I’m about to tell you. Every detail is important. You may even want to take notes. Do you have a pen?”
“No. I usually type things into my iPhone.”
“So very ‘Wired Magazine’ of you, Quentin. Take it out if you want. But follow along… So Quentin, tonight when you return to your seat to the sound of thunderous applause, your ‘serious friend’...uh, what is her name?”
“Okay, when you return to your seat, Leslie will not only have a new-found respect for you, but she will also be a touch worried about you due to the intense nature of this performance. Instead of a direct drive home to her place in Williamsburg, she’ll suggest a quick walk and a coffee together down the block from this theater. You will grab a table for two in the window of the Caffé Pleuristo, enjoy de-caf double cappuccinos with chocolate biscotti, and she will surprise you somewhat as your conversation takes on a more romantic direction than ever before.
“This twist, this shift in emotions will be flattering, and will unlock some of the warm feelings for Leslie that you’ve been repressing for longer than you care to admit. But it will also be somewhat awkward for you, since you’ve never been great at personal commitment. Even your girlfriends throughout high school, all eight of them, harbor subtle grudges to this day. But I digress…
“Over the next few months, you will continue to fight these feelings, but will eventually succumb and come to realize that Leslie is your soul mate…so much so that on your first real vacation together at Atlantis Paradise Island—a company trip you will win for finishing first in a quarterly sales competition—after a memorable day spent swimming with the dolphins, you will propose marriage in the Dune Restaurant during a wine-soaked dinner overlooking a very calm ocean. By the way, you’ll be on your second bottle of Francis Ford Coppola Director's Cut Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel when you actually pop the question.”
“Wait, how do you know…”
“By the way you hold your water, my friend. Look at that grip! Obvious you’re a California Zinfandel man.”
“But all the other…”
“Please! Did I not say that this is The World’s Greatest Card Trick, Quentin? Never mind the wine…your groom’s tux will be handmade by Mr. Henry Lee, the Hong Kong tailor who travels to different cities every weekend and takes orders in three-star hotel ballrooms for bargain-priced custom-made suits and shirts. Leslie’s ring will have an uncharacteristically large 1.25 solitaire diamond surrounded by smaller pave stones, the main gem being smuggled in from Europe by your wealthy great aunt Florence and given to you as a gift for being the only nephew who would call her every year for her birthday.
“Your wedding will also be uncharacteristically grand, and will include almost everybody from your office since your boss, Peter Vanack, will agree to pay for one third of your nuptials due to his increasing love of and trust in you. Your first-dance song has not yet been released, a comeback romantic power ballad by legendary Detroit rocker Bob Seger, but will be #4 on the Billboard Singles Chart that week. Finally, Leslie’s cousin Sally, although married for over 22 years, will somehow catch the ceremonial bouquet, much to the delight of every guest except for Sally’s husband Ben and two embarrassed kids. Ta-da!”
“Is that it?”
“It? Is that ‘it’? Hold on tight sir, because we’re just getting started! Jackie, tell Howard to intensify the stage lighting, please. Give me a blue wash, red spots, with Quentin in a green laser cone. Perfect! Now Quentin, together you and Leslie will move into your first home, a two-level Jefferson on a surprisingly affordable double lot out in Putnam Valley, about a 50-minute drive from your office. On one such drive from work, less than a year after moving into your home, late on a cold, rainy November night—sleety, actually—you will skid off Highway 122, wreck your Volkswagen Passat and fracture your fibula in three places, an accident that will cause you to walk with a slight but perceptible limp for the rest of your days.
“Given that you were coming home from yet another late night at the office, your boss Peter will feel bad for you and will offer to replace your totalled car with a spanking new Mercedes C350 Coupe, one with much needed 4-Matic anti-skid technology. Peter will also reward your diligence and superior sales results with a generous partnership stake in the company, which will accelerate your family plans with Leslie.
“You will go on to have two children, both girls. Your eldest daughter Janine, while not the brightest student, will be blessed with a gallant work ethic, and will surprise everyone by being accepted to Wharton School of Business and end up being employed by the government as an economist. She will also have a strange fixation with the color forest green and be renowned for her quirk of wearing slippers while in the office. Your younger daughter Hazel will be more artistic, be obsessed with horses and all things equestrian, and end up working in the graphic design department of the landmark Churchill Downs racetrack.
“You will travel extensively for business, often to Las Vegas, and although you will not be much of a gambler, you will spend an inordinate amount of your late nights killing time in the casinos of your hotels, sipping free Sam Adams beer while playing the $1 slot machines. On one hand, this gaming choice will be very beneficial, as had you been a poker or blackjack player, your card would’ve been revealed to you at that point in time, making this a very good card trick, but not the World’s Greatest as it has been advertised and promoted.
“As I said, all this is on one hand. And then...there is the other hand.”
“Jackie, cue music! One night, while sipping beer at the slots, you will be served by a petite, raven-haired cocktail waitress named Brandi. Well, 'Brandi' is what it will say on her name-tag, but her real name is Melissa Manchester, like the singer from the ‘70s who enjoyed hit songs like ‘Midnight Blue’ and ‘You Should Hear How She Talks About You.’ Now Quentin, I’m trying to think of a succinct way to put this, but there’s a line in Midnight Blue that goes: ‘I think we can make it/One more time/If we try’ and that evening, smitten by Brandi’s multiple charms—and she yours, no doubt—you will take that lyric quite literally, and despite the fact that at first you did indeed succeed, you will try, try again. Yes, a simple one-night stand, but ultimately the tipping point for what is still to come…if you'd pardon the suggestive pun.
“A few months following this trip, you will receive a phone call from Brandi breaking the news that she is with child…guess who's? At first, you will think this brazen extortion, but after receiving an email with a Quicktime video of her ultrasound attached, you will understand that she is most probably telling the truth. You will be overcome with a sense of dread and fear, and do everything in your power to ensure that Brandi and the future little Quentin will be provided for, all while Leslie and the girls continue to know nothing of your little side venture. By the way, do you like the musical accompaniment I've chosen for you?”
“This is absurd! I don’t know what you’re talking about!”
“Of course you don’t, Quentin! If you did, you’d know the secret to the trick, and ruin the magic. We don’t want that, do we?”
“I really don’t give a rat’s ass…”
“Well, that’s what you say now. But I think you will change your tune once caught embezzling funds from poor, trusting Peter Vanack, a man who has become a second father to you. Okay, so it will only be $112,000, but still more than enough reason for Peter—a man so dejected, so disappointed—to fire you and agree not to go to the police if you’d destroy your share certificates by slipping them one-by-one into the Powershred Office Shredder before his very eyes.
“While a magician should be a master of misdirection Quentin, I think by now you know exactly where this trick is heading. Leslie will be shocked and saddened by the whole sordid affair, and send you packing. Without the support of Peter, shunned by your embarrassed parents who take Leslie’s side unequivocally, you will empty your bank account of the $3,129.87 still left in it, borrow an additional $5,000 from your best friend Marcus Hamel, and head off with your Briggs & Riley overnight bag and Samsonite rolling duffel to Raleigh, North Carolina, where Brandi, or Melissa, will have re-located to be with her parents and raise her little boy—well, yours as well, I suppose—that was born six months previous at 3:13 p.m., weighing in at a whopping nine pounds, three ounces.
“When she opens the door at 6633 Westbury Avenue, she will be shocked, as your visit will not have been preceded by any prior warning. While befuddled and blank-faced for 45 seconds or so, she will break into a warm smile and invite you into the '80s-styled living room to sit down and talk. Unfortunately, this will provoke a screaming match with her parents Franklyn—a textile manufacturer—and Sharleen—a school librarian—who consider you Satan-esque for what you have done to their daughter. Enraged, they will pull Brandi inside, threaten to call the police if you don’t vacate their property immediately and, as you are bum-rushed out of the house, swear that you will never see your illegitimate son as long as you live.
“With all hope of a reunion and a new life with Brandi shattered, you will need somewhere to spend the night, and after a 35-minute search, at 10:30 p.m. you will settle for a two-star hotel called Lodge America of Raleigh at 3215 Capital Boulevard, where you will rent a twin-bed room in the back for a mere 52 bucks. Instead of watching the free HBO advertised in neon in the window of the hotel’s lobby, you will decide to take stock of your life and go for a long walk to ruminate. You like ruminating walks, don’t you Quentin?”
“Wha-what? Walks? Ruminate? What are you trying to say to me? What is all this? You’re insane! I’m outta here!”
“Not so fast, Quentin, we’re just about done! Anyway, your chair's seatbelt won’t open unless you have the key that Jackie is now holding high above her head in her left hand. Just sit tight a little bit longer. It’ll be worth it, you have my word. Cross my heart.
“So…on this walk, you will head northeast for three blocks, turn left due west on Mayflower Drive, where you will cross Huntleigh Drive and head into a wooded area that fronts Beaman Lake. The moon will be shining off the less-than-pristine water, and will illuminate a green plastic bench made out of recycled pop bottles. You will sit down on that bench and light a cigarette, rekindling a bad habit for the first time since you gave it up at Middlebury College back in Vermont. Upon tossing the match down to the pavement, you will notice a newspaper at your feet, a three-day-old sports section of the Durham Herald-Sun. In quest of a moment or two of much needed head-clearing distraction. you will pick up the newspaper, and under it you will find one blue-backed Bicycle Playing Card, amazingly no worse for the all the wear-and-tear. Gotta love that Dura-Flex!
“You will turn it over.
“And that, Quentin—THAT!—will be your card. The Six of Clubs, correct?”
“'Uh yeah’ is right! Let’s hear it for Quentin and The World’s Greatest Card Trick! You can stand up now, my friend. You have the key, Jackie? There you go! Take a bow, sir! And as you leave this stage to the promised explosion of thunderous applause, please grab my assistant’s hand and follow her backstage to sign the legal release forms before you return to your seat!”
“Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen! You are very kind. And very loud. Thank you. Please settle down. Alright then…
“For my next trick…hmmm…I need a volunteer.”