(Fiction) The Prestidigitator

When Ten Dollars was twelve, he went to see the Prestidigitator for the first time. His mother put him in the front seat of a Dodge Dart with no seatbelts and put his little brother in the laundry basket in the back and drove a good five hours it seemed (it was forty minutes) to Big Lick, where the Prestidigitator lived in a plain yellow house at the corner of two streets and a set of railroad tracks that ran across them at a dangerous angle. It being a special occasion, his mother had made Ten Dollars wear his uncle’s seersucker suit, which, thanks to his uncle’s unusual proportions, was the right length but too big around, and it made Ten Dollars look like a diminutive gangster. The man who greeted them as they came up the walk looked like he was 70, but Ten Dollars didn’t really know. His mother had once asked him how old his grandma was, and he said 90. After she stopped laughing, his mother explained that her mother had just turned 58. As the Prestidigitator made his greetings, Ten Dollars turned to glance at the loading pens, ominously empty, which abutted the railroad tracks in clear view of the porch. A loose gate swung in the breeze.

As Ten Dollars was taken from his mother and led to a narrow parlor at the back of the house, he noticed the Prestidigitator touched everything as he walked past, as if the old man didn’t trust his eyes and wanted to make sure it was all really there. He told Ten Dollars to sit and asked if he knew why his mother had brought him, and Ten Dollars said it was because of the change. The Prestidigitator asked if Ten Dollars knew what that meant, and he hesitated.

A month earlier, his mother had found where he’d hidden a black and white magazine cutout of a woman in feathers and lingerie. When she confronted him, he stammered. He didn’t dare tell her he’d gotten it from a tin that the older boys kept in a nook in the ground under a leaning boulder called Penis Rock and that Dirk and Kenny had made him hide in the bushes until the older boys left and then go by himself to the rock, which wasn’t much shaped like a penis, and bring back some loot. Dirk and Kenny liked anything the older boys liked, and they waited as Ten Dollars walked over broken beer bottles, terrified to shaking of what would happen if the older boys returned and caught him there. He saw the wall to the girls’ compound and colorful broken lighters and the tin, which he thought briefly of stealing. But then the boys would know someone had took it, and they would go looking, so instead of taking the whole thing, he opened the tin with trembling fingers, expecting to find a gun or perhaps the severed finger of one of the fourth-graders who had gone missing the year before. But there were only the magazine clippings and a few cigar butts the boys had apparently scavenged from around town. Ten Dollars grabbed one of the clippings and ran back to show Dirk and Kenny, who were just as perplexed as he. After studying it for secret clues—perhaps there was a hidden message, like microfilm—the three of them threw it away. But Ten Dollars returned in secret later and took the clipping with the intent of replacing it before school the following day, when the older boys were unlikely to be at the rock. He didn’t trust Dirk, and especially Kenny, which meant he was in mortal danger as long as the loot was missing. But the following morning, Ten Dollars forgot and left the clipping under his pillow, where he had hoped it would remind him.

Ten Dollars didn’t dare admit any of that to his mother. He didn’t dare tell her he was a thief. He didn’t dare tell her that Dirk and Kenny had put him up to it and that he was too weak to tell them no. It was very important to Ten Dollars that his mother not think of him as a little boy, so instead he stood defiantly, refusing to give any answer on the expectation that the punishment for silence would be less than the punishment for theft. To his surprise, his mother acted as if there was some special significance to the picture, and Ten Dollars wondered if the woman in feathers were a relative or maybe one of the people the preacher talked about in church. His mother asked if Ten Dollars liked looking at pictures like that, and Ten Dollars didn’t know what to say. If he told her the truth—no—then she would ask why he had it, and he would be in a pickle. So, he lied and said yes. His mother frowned then in a way that made Ten Dollars’ heart shrivel, and he had to fight very hard to keep the corners of his lips from turning down as his mother walked away without a punishment or even a harsh word. He ran to his room to let the tears come in secret. His mother was disappointed in him, so disappointed, it seemed, that she couldn’t even speak of it, which meant he must’ve done something unspeakably bad. Did she know he’d stolen the clipping? He didn’t think so. When he’d taken a piece of candy from Mrs. Maynard’s dish without asking, his mother had swatted him without hesitation. It seemed there was some significance to the picture, even though it looked no different than the underwear catalogs his mother often left open on the dining room table. Some of those were even in color. And they didn’t smell like old cigar butts.

The following week, his mother announced they were going to see the Prestidigitator. She told Ten Dollars in a very serious voice that the change had come and that it was time they knew his future. Ten Dollars didn’t know what she meant. The only change he knew was the one he read about in comic books, where men bitten by wolves turned into monsters under a full moon. There wasn’t a full moon that night. Ten Dollars checked. There wasn’t one the next night either, nor could he tell if the moon was getting bigger or smaller. To be safe, he thought he should practice locking himself in his room, just in case the change came unexpectedly. He knew it was a thing that only boys got—none of the werewolves in his comics were girls—and that when it came, the men often hurt the people they loved, so Ten Dollars got a roll of twine from the junk drawer in the kitchen and cut a long piece and tied one end to the handle of the bedroom door and the other to the lock on the window so that there was no way to open either of them, especially without fingers. While reading some of his comics on the floor of his room, Ten Dollars was dismayed when his mother opened his door and the twine sagged to the rug. She saw it but didn’t say anything. She just called him to dinner and left, which only convinced Ten Dollars that he truly had done something unspeakable.

When the Prestidigitator asked him a second time if he knew why they had come, Ten Dollars finally shook his head. The Prestidigitator nodded solemnly then and asked to see Ten Dollars’ hands. When the boy presented them, the old man turned them round and studied the palms intently. Then he looked in Ten Dollars’ eyes, like the doctor did, and turned his head this way and that. He measured the distance between the tips of his thumb and pinky finger on a graded card, and noted the shape of his earlobes. This went on for several minutes until finally the Prestidigitator said grimly that he needed to think and released Ten Dollars to his mother, who was waiting for him in the front room, bouncing his little brother on her legs and making happy faces like she used to do with him, before he became a monster. Ten Dollars sat on the couch next to them and tried to feel if there was a monster inside him. He imagined he would have to tell Dirk and Kenny that they couldn’t be friends anymore because he was a werewolf and might kill them at any moment. A cold thought occurred to him then which caused his eyes to glaze and his feet to stop swinging. Maybe that was why all the men had left, even in Big Lick, it seemed—other than the Prestidigitator. But he didn’t count. Ten Dollars had seen plenty of pictures of men. They were all around his house and on the billboards on the street, especially the ones urging recruitment. The men were always smiling, even when they were getting the injection. And he remembered his father, if only vaguely. It seemed odd then in a way Ten Dollars had never considered before. The prevalence of women had simply been a persistent fact of life, like stinging rain or the red fog that periodically rolled through town and made all the adults go quiet.

“Mom?” Ten Dollars asked.

“Yes, dear?”

“What happened to Dad?”

The Prestidigitator returned then with some papers in his hand. He found a pair of glasses on a side table and sat down across from Ten Dollars’ mom and began explaining each sheet to her one at a time. He gave her a chart with a bunch of numbers in a grid and explained that Ten Dollars was a little small for registration but that he was within the average and that shouldn’t affect the price of the allotment. He confirmed Ten Dollars’ age and the exact date and time of his birth on a circular star chart that broke the sphere of constellations into thirteen even wedges. He asked for signs of the change and Ten Dollars’ mother produced the stolen clipping and explained its discovery, at which point the Prestidigitator said it was a bad time for it, and none of the available camps were places he would’ve wanted to send his son, God rest his soul. The Prestidigitator looked right at Ten Dollars then and asked if he was telling the truth, as if the old man knew or suspected something was amiss. Ten Dollars turned in fear to his mother and realized then that he hadn’t looked her in the eye, not since the shady business at Penis Rock. Not really. He’d looked at her face plenty of times, but he’d been too afraid of her piercing gaze to notice how frightened she was. But now he could see it, just there at the corners. She was terrified. His mouth turned down then and he said no. He said he stole the picture because Dirk and Kenny had made him, and if the older boys found out it was gone, they would ask about it, and there was no way Kenny could keep his mouth shut, and the older boys would beat him up. And anyway, he didn’t want to be a werewolf and wasn’t there something he could take to make the change go away?

The Prestidigitator and Ten Dollars’ mother looked at each other, and a moment passed between them. They seemed to understand something that Ten Dollars didn’t. The Prestidigitator said he was glad it had all worked out, and the two adults stood and the old man showed the young family to the door. He explained there would likely be much better options in the fall and that it had been over a year since the earth shook and any of them had risen, and it seemed the sacrifices were doing what they were supposed to, and who knew? Maybe it would all be over soon. Ten Dollars’ mother thanked the Prestidigitator and apologized several times for bothering him, including again on the sidewalk, where Ten Dollars noticed the sign in the yard that said PRESCIENCE REGISTRAR, and he wondered if he’d gotten the name wrong. Then his mother loaded the boys in the Dodge and drove them home, stopping once for ice cream and once again near the girls’ compound so that Ten Dollars could return the picture to the tin. Later that night, they ate peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches instead of meatloaf and fell asleep on the couch together watching TV. It wasn’t until his mother carried him and his little brother to bed that Ten Dollars wondered again what had happened to his father.

While flying home from Michigan with my family, I had a dream on the plane. When I awoke, I started writing. I don’t expect I’ll do anything with it, so here you go.