A late-model sedan, packed to the gills with suitcases,
towards a young boy as he played alone on the crusty snow-covered
schoolyard. The car was packed with a full family and it was obvious
that the family were lost and needed directions. The little boy knew
they were somewhere on their holiday journey, but too far from home to
trust any more discretionary decisions. He saw the car approach in the
corner of his eye as its tires crunched through the snow but he did not
acknowledge them until he heard the cranking noise of a window
retracting and a voice coming from the car.
"Oh, little boy!" shouted a mother's voice. "Come over here, little boy."
"Yes, ma'am?" said Johnny Keats as he turned towards them, he pulled down his stocking cap and pulled up his scarf. All she would have seen was his eyes; and that was enough for this conversation.
"We would like some directions. We are lost and must find the interstate. Do you know where it is?"
"Yes, ma'am," said Johnny Keats proudly, "You need to go up this road about a mile and find Green Valley Drive. The interstate will be about a mile down the road. If you see the Reptile Gardens, you have gone too far."
"Thank you" said the woman as the car began to accelerate before the last appreciative syllable was uttered.
Johnny Keats waved and smiled at the family and began to walk quickly across the ball field. He wanted to get as far away from the park as he could without looking too suspicious because he had purposely told them the right directions but in a manner that would send them in the wrong direction. The portion of the directions dealing with Green Valley Drive was there to confuse; it had nothing to do with finding the interstate and he was almost guaranteed that they would instinctively merge onto Green Valley Drive and thus, make their mistake. If they ever did return, which was highly unlikely, they would have out for his blood because whomever helped them with the next attempt at directions would have compelled them to point out Johnny premeditated cruelty. However, this was not the time to run through contingencies, it was time to get as far away from that snowy field as he could while smirking about his interest in power to confusing and confounding the ignorant and the lazy.
Exactly three blocks north of the ball field was Johnny's home. It was a comfortable home with many similar homes surrounding it. However, the many choices of entry and exit made it unique; four doors were used equally as entrances and no less than ten ways to exit the property existed. Johnny could leave through any of the four main doors, the second floor porches (one with a fire escape and one directly adjacent from a friendly and easy to climb oak tree), and on opposite sides of the basement, the cellar and the old coal chute. He usually chose to enter through the side door that was specifically used when a silent entrance was needed.
The multitude of exits and entrances were very handy for someone who didn’t like to fall too far into predictable patterns. Once outside, Johnny could walk down the driveway, cut through one of five neighbor yards, take one of the two alley options which ran perpendicular to their property or use one of his own non-traditional paths already prepared for emergencies. At this age, he had not experienced any need to use these exits but he was also wise enough to have already learned the importance of having back-up plans. The family and the neighbors had no concern about his fixation on freedom to come and go as he pleased; the neighbors enjoyed watching him come up with variations on the themes and his family didn’t care as long as he was home in time for supper. Leaving his footprints in the snow also troubled Johnny; he didn't like to leave any evidence of exits and entrances unless absolutely necessary.
Three years earlier, he had experienced his first adrenaline rush with an opportunistic variation of formal petty theft. Johnny frequented the local grocery store and consistently purchased candy from the elderly woman at the counter. Her back was always tired and her eyesight failing and he made a point of requesting some candy bar located in the lowest rack spot behind the counter. After watching her struggle with retrieving his choice, he began to volunteer to grab the candy himself and save the elderly woman the trouble of straining her back and eyesight.
After several dry runs, Johnny began to take two candy bars and show them briefly to the old woman while angling the bars on top of each other, thus making it look like one bar. The woman’s point of view was affected by his sleight of hand and he choreographed the entire process so further mask his intention. He made a point of having correct change and slapping it on the counter while taking the bars and was comfortable with the high probability that the old woman thought he was an idiot. The orchestrated combination of his elegant movements, the sound of the coins on the counter and the practiced presentation of one bar on top of another combined to allow Johnny to pull that sweet trick for years.
She was either feeble or dishonest as she never returned any potential overpayment but Johnny wasn’t doing it for the extra candy: he wanted to fool his audience, no matter their motivations. He always left the correct change somewhere near the counter so he couldn’t technically be accused of theft but the rush of making people see things that weren’t there was his motivation for this crime spree. If he wanted to steal, the little store would have provided him with hundreds of opportunities to do so as it was a converted old house with plenty of blind corners and crannies. However, he just wanted to fool people. In fact, after the old woman died, he continued to do the same act with the owner and the younger clerks because everyone had made up their mind what they were going to see before he ever did it. People make their minds up before anything occurs, an observation that would serve Johnny well as he grew as a magician with a flexible moral code. He would buy things just for the satisfaction of sharpening his hand-eye coordination while never rejecting the unfamiliar due to the novelty of the emotion.
To further hone the skill of misdirection, Johnny would walk around his house at night, navigating from room to room and specifically touching light switches and targeted objects such as door jams and paintings as tests of nocturnal accuracy. He would sit down on a chair in a dark room only guided by familiarity and his enhanced senses of touch and hearing but by combining those senses with his the new found sense of knowing you are being watched, he finally figured it out. In the darkness, he became comfortable with relying on the minor senses while developing his own sixth sense of the world around him. He didn't realize it at the time, but he enjoyed moving between the known and unknown world, relying only on his wits and resourceful ability of working with the tool provided.
As he grew up, he eventually determined he must be interested in the pursuit of magic. Describing it, as a propensity or a legitimate love of legerdemain would have been too extreme of a comment for Johnny interest in misdirection as the main motivator was simple; he finally realized that he loved to deceive people. Thanks to his own calculations, magic was the closest profession to his interest which would allow which would also allow him to make a living without being ostracized by society. He poured over the magic books, hung around the local magic shop and begged the regulars to show him a few gags when time permitted.
As the years passed, Johnny became a master of slight of hand tricks and he prided himself on "table" or close-in magic. A pen would disappear while it rested in someone's hand; coins and other small objects would disappear and reappear at his bidding and the close proximity magnified the impact several times as the tricks were simple misdirection but perfected through thousands of practice attempts in front of his mirror. The goal was to make these tricks appear graceful and without friction or hesitation and Johnny got very good at it. He learned to do tricks with eyes shut knowing audiences instinctively followed the eyes of the magician. Later on, Johnny learned that purposely looking one way while doing work the other way added significantly to the mass confusion of the audience but the real rush came from looking directly into their eyes as he picked their pockets: working in close with a sensitive target was the prize he wanted so bad.
He learned to feel other’s eyes on him and he further developed that sixth sense to his advantage. When people watch someone and feel they are unseen, they are even more susceptible to misdirection and assumption. This came to Johnny aid countless time, on stage and off, when he dealt with his own personal relationships and their related issues. He learned he could make anything disappear and not be blamed; often did just that. In direct opposite of his public performances, his official social life was moderately unimpressive; enjoying some adventures and having heartache in others. Choosing to remain behind his shield of magic, he did not allow many people behind the curtain of either motivation or engagement as the beginning of college was looming and the ability to enhance his magical skills to a more discriminating audience beckoned.
The high school years came and went quickly with Johnny staying engaged by gently tormenting classmates and teachers with items that continually disappeared and reappeared. He grew bored with standing in front of someone and declaring a trick; he began to arrange for tricks to happen on their own, without being nearby to be blamed. Banks of lockers would disappear before lunch and then reappear right before school was let out. Stacks of food trays, reaching to the cafeteria ceiling, were discovered by a sleepy-eyed cook when arriving in the morning. They would return in five minutes with an Assistant Principal and find the trays all neatly returned to their bins.
Names built with individual letters in glass award cases would be switched around, leaving horrible puns to be found by the vain while classroom doors would change from sequential order to alphabetical order and back again in the same day. All the while, Johnny would sit in class, dutifully completing his assignments and under the direct supervision of exasperated teachers and administrators. However, the janitors always found Johnny a good kid and since his tricks never made an official messes or left any evidence, always liked the general confusion and tension which always resolved itself with them ever lifting a finger. Also, they enjoyed watching Johnny torment the deserving majority of jerks that made most of the behind the scene messes and general vandalism at the school.
Thankfully, graduation eventually arrived and the school experienced an audible sigh of relief from the tormented and tweaked infrastructure. The last straw was at the graduation when, according to tradition, the seniors would receive their diplomas and kept them shut inside their faux leather holders until all were distributed. Upon receiving their final instruction, they all opened their individual portfolios to finally see their formal diplomas, with their name painfully handwritten in scripted, calligraphically elegance. The graduating class stood solemnly and were told to open their diplomas and as they did, they all saw the same thing: the name of “John Franklin Keats” written within each and every diploma. In unison, four hundred students began screaming; slamming their portfolios shut and started looking for Johnny Keats. However, once you shut your diploma case and re-opened it, the name “John Franklin Keats” had been replaced by the correct name and no amount of scrutiny could determine how he did it. Before anyone could react, he tipped his cap and disappeared from the middle of the J-M section forever.
When arriving at college, he sought out magic stores until he found one that provided both friendly confines and collaborative support. His close-in magic skills were always improving but under far more critical scrutiny by the shop’s regulars. He could fool some teenager with a disappearing prop but his audience was now made up of crafty, gag-knowledgeable magicians. It didn't take long for the regular group to welcome him into their world; not many youngsters were interested in magic and it was evident that the kid had some experienced chops. The college was about twenty miles out of town so students rarely, if ever, ventured into the city but Johnny found it exhilarating and fascinating at the same time.
"Slow down the pass," one would say while watching Johnny manipulate one of his time-tested and successful gags. "You are moving too fast to be realistic: no one moves that fast. You will make the audience nervous. You want them to feel that they are in control."
“Too jerky,” concurred another one from the back, “It has to be both slow and smooth.”
Johnny dutifully started over, re-palming the hidden card and readying himself for another attempt. The presentation of the hidden card was inconsequential; they all knew it existed but they (and others) were far more interested in the elegance of the entire delivery. The conclusion of the trick was not important, the journey from the initial creation of tension to its resolution was all the pros wanted to see. Similar to a wine taster, they want to assess the depth and then spit the wine in the bucket. Drinking the wine is not the point: assessing some quality of the product is the goal of enlightened inspection. In fact, many times tricks were not presented to their obvious conclusion as the interest in the pass may have been the only interesting attraction for the group. Johnny eventually became proficient in the center deal, an extremely rare skill, but the joy was not learning the deal and its incredibly difficult hand mechanics but it came from letting his peers know what he was going to do before making the move and still get the nods of wise approval.
In the middle of his informal education, it was time for him to get a more formal one. He learned that it was far larger stage than high school so any tricks had to be reviewed at a far grander scale and most of his old gags would not scale large enough to be attempted. He had worked on the four hundred disappearing diplomas for two years to successfully pull it off so he knew he needed to find the right sized room to be effective. He wanted to find the right sized audience and he eventually found success with frat houses and medium sized groups; that was as grand of a scale he could handle. The frat houses were great venues; scores of inebriated students in claustrophobic close quarters with pockets full of small bills. The resulting viscous gullibility, fueled mainly by excessive drinking, allowed Johnny to amaze throng after throng with his close-in magic skills and have any currency appear and re-appear so many times that the mark wouldn't even ask for it back.
Although he attended college to learn, he became immediately and locally famous as someone you wanted at your party because of both his preceding reputation and his ability to entertain the historically unentertainable. He could playfully pull coins from one ear while making a watch disappear into the pocket of the person standing nearby; property was always returned because stealing wasn't his goal; it was the bitch slapping of the truth was what he wanted. The crowds would gather and become mesmerized with his skills to make all the known laws of physics disappear along with a set of car keys or a five-dollar bill. The trick was a means to an end for Johnny; he didn’t care if the keys ended up across the room, hanging on a beer tap or jammed in the ass crack of a passed-out student athlete. He only enjoyed himself when the people around him would collectively declare they were flummoxed and defeated. As his rep grew in college, other stories from his past would catch up to him and he would deny any of it happened.
There were times when someone would attempt to stay engaged with Johnny; it was usually a frustrated magician or an individual with a little bit of inside knowledge. Those encounters provided the necessary adrenaline to enjoy the gag even further as not only would he complete the trick to astound the crowd, he would purposely bait the courageous challenger with additional hints. He made it easy for the challenger to accuse him of palming the disappeared object and he would feign surprise when the challenger would interrupt the gag and demand to see his off hand or what was in his pocket. Johnny would smile quietly and act as he was finally discovered and slowly reveal that not only was the challenger was wrong, but Johnny would have placed the object somewhere, usually in an embarrassing place on their person. The tension would build significantly because of the accusation but with the resolution, the vortex left by the double cross would eviscerate the challenger. The more playful the challenge, the more playful the reaction from Johnny. He enjoyed the true give and take from a sincere or curious audience but if the tone became more nasty, Johnny could easily shift gears from wonderment to embarrassment.
People would come up to him after being astounded and ask how a trick was constructed. If the questioners were passively polite, he would respond in kind, with "You have to figure it out for yourself." Many would thank him for his sincerely but some undaunted souls would keep pushing. “Johnny, I tried to figure it out but I can’t do it. How did you make the pen disappear?”
Again, if the questions were polite he would provide his only clue. He would look at their eyes to assure them that he was telling them the truth and say, “You wanted it to disappear and reappear and that is what happened.” Nothing else was ever revealed.
This lesson began to creep into his daily interactions as well. He had several relationships that bordered on significant but affairs of the heart at avoided him to date and he felt somewhat lucky with his simple approach to life. He met many women thanks to his magic skills but for the most part, the people that were attracted to him for picking the correct card were also impressed with bass players and others with less than substantive skills. Overall, Johnny knew that it came with the territory, albeit finite territory.
One day coming home from class, he saw his official girlfriend of six months holding hands with a long haired artist-type. They were chatting to each other close, nuzzling occasionally and did not seem too shocked when Johnny walked up to him.
“Hello Kath,” said Johnny. He was cordial and didn’t sound angry or put out. He had never called her officially by her given name and thought that was one of the symptoms of the break-up but this was not the time to ask for specifics.
“Hi, Johnny,” said Kathy. “I want you to meet my new boyfriend, Raymond.”
“Hi, Raymond,” said Johnny. They shook hands like young men shake and the duo began to wander away but then she doubled back with a polite look on her face.
"Johnny, I hope this isn't too awkward but can you do us a favor?
"Sure. What is it?"
"We never go into the city and you do all the time when you visit your magic friends."
"Well, not all the time but I go there frequently."
"Whatever. Can you help us out with directions? We are going to a few clubs in the Gaslight area and Brett thinks he knows where they are but I don't know if he does."
Johnny was going to ask why she just didn't google the addresses but decided against it; it was time to appear cordial and helpful.
"Okay, I understand," said Johnny. "Let me draw you a map. I don't know the exact addresses, which you could google to confirm but this map should get you fairly close."
"Thank you" said Kathy. Johnny quickly drew the map from his notebook and Kathy took the paper quickly and may have uttered some veiled appreciation but it was hard to make out with all the noise around them.
Johnny Keats waved and smiled at the couple. He wanted to get as far away because he had purposely drew the the right directions but in a manner that would almost guarenteed to send them in the wrong direction. The secondary portion of the directions dealing with the city was there to confuse; it had nothing to do with finding the Gaslight area and he was almost guaranteed that they would instinctively wander away from their desired destinations but the information presented was indeed accurate. The long hair artist would be no help as Kathy would continually look to him for some vague help; he knew what was going to happen and just didn't care. If they ever did talk to him again, which was highly unlikely as either a couple or individuals, they would not be happy because whomever helped them with the next attempt at directions would have compelled them to point out Johnny premeditated cruelty.
Johnny was surprised that he learned that he was replaced, especially due to her introduction, but more than that, he was surprised that he didn’t care that much but was proud of his goodbye gift. He wandered back to his apartment, without looking back, and took a nap. The relationship was never too all embracing and in fact, it was more of a mutually convenient partnership as he didn’t share much of his feelings and she had no interest in them anyway. At that level, it was successful but without either of them engaging at any portion of relationship building, it plodded along until Raymond made the recent discovery of his replacement. He wondered what would have happened if had not bumped into his official girlfriend? Would they have continued going out when it was convenient or would have she eventually got around informing him of his new status? Either way, the job of being kept in the dark was usually his role so he was a bit unsure of what may have come of the situation. After a few more minutes internally discussing this, he fell asleep.
Once awake, the recent discovery of the new boyfriend was quickly filed away in his brain for dissection later. He wasn’t too excited about jumping into a new relationship right away because at its best, it was okay and at its worst, it was a lot of time-wasting heartache and lost energy. He concluded that his role in life was not one of engagement but rather one of a gadfly, an artist with more emphasis on making people laugh at themselves versus laughing at him.
Life continued and as expected, the sun came up the next day and he was alive. Once in awhile, he would see Kathy and she would give him with a “you poor bastard” look but it had no affect on him. He wasn’t bitter; he was just pre-occupied with school, his magic and the adventure of continually merging the two. His classes were going well, his friends were loyal and he was enjoying a lucrative career as an exciting entertainer, albeit, an exciting entertainer of frat houses but a gig was a gig.
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