We’re starting 2014 off right, with a never-before published short story by yours truly. I wrote it a couple of years ago, and it never found a good home. It’s maybe a little more literary than a great deal of stuff I write, but I enjoyed writing it, and finding it several years later, I also enjoyed re-reading it. Enjoy!
A New Man
Short Fiction by Bobby Mathews
He started off easy – a simple trick to relax his muscles and his mind. The coin, glinting in the early morning sunlight, slipped easily from the thumb and forefinger of his left hand into his right palm. From there he let the quarter slide down his wrist into the cuff of his slightly bagged sleeve. He opened his palms wide for the small, scattered group of onlookers. Nothing in either hand. The little crowd clapped. A couple of the girls laughed. And almost all of them dropped money into the battered black tuba case that lay on the grass near his feet. Some of it was bills. Some of it was change. And some was seed money he put in there himself.
Logan Carson never talked to the people who passed by the quad on their way to classes at the university. His voice was too high, too nasal to be a pitchman. Instead he relied on the tricks to draw the people in. The tricks weren’t magic – or at least not all of them were. Some little sleight-of-hand he had picked up in his travels, but he could never call himself a magician. He couldn’t produce a dove from a wand, or make a rabbit disappear from a hat. But getting a coin to disappear? That was easy. Money always tried to vanish anyway. To make it disappear was natural.
From the coin, he moved on to the tennis balls. He started by juggling two in one hand, then added a third. When all the balls – six of them — were in the air and everything was simply muscle memory and reflex, Logan sized up the crowd. Some were clapping, and some were laughing. But more and more he began to notice a look in the faces of the people who walked past: boredom. They might toss a quarter into the tuba case, but they kept on going. Didn’t even stop to notice him. He snatched the balls out of the air. Each catch was deftly timed to keep from disrupting the rhythm of the rest of the balls in the air.
The crowd couldn’t see that, of course. They didn’t see the hours of practice. They saw effortless tricks that amused them. And then the amusement faded, and they walked on to their classes, to their friends, to the lives waiting on ahead for them. Logan remained behind, with his tricks and his act and his welcoming smile – just another amusement in a culture that offered thousands of them. Logan shook his head and nearly dropped one of the balls. Catching that one threw his rhythm off for the others, and it was only by reflex that no balls hit the ground.
He moved on to the basketball, spinning it on the middle finger of his right hand, letting it roll over the back of his hand, back into his palm and finally onto the tip of his finger again. When the spin wound down, he transitioned into his free-throw shooting stance – as if he imagined an orange hoop and white nylon net 15 feet away. He put the shot up with a lot of backspin on it, just as he would if he were on the court. String music, baby. But instead of arcing the ball toward the imaginary goal, Logan sent it straight up. There was a collective tension in the crowd as the ball reached its apex and came back down. There always was. But now it was less than on previous days. Logan held his shooter’s stance, with his right hand extended nearly ninety degrees. He caught the ball on its downward path, using the back of his right hand, and let the ball roll down his right arm. Logan dipped his head slightly to let the ball pass over his neck and down his left shoulder. He extended his left arm and let the ball roll up it, then began to pass the ball from arm to arm as it rolled across his chest.
The move was stunning, something right out of the Harlem Globetrotters’ playbook. Those who hadn’t seen it before stopped and stared. It was a good trick. Logan knew it, and the people who passed on the sidewalk knew it too. A fresh shower of money spattered into the tuba case. But still they walked on. It went that way for the rest of the morning and on through the afternoon, no matter which trick he tried. When Logan packed up all his props after a long afternoon sweating in the sun, he had made more than a hundred dollars. But the attention he once commanded on the quad had never materialized. Head hanging, he dragged his tuba case behind him along the sidewalk like a disobedient dog.
At home Logan kicked off his shoes, grabbed a beer from the fridge and collapsed onto the living-room couch. Bradley, his roommate, was already there, surrounded by textbooks and spiral-bound notebooks. In a week, the college had its spring semester finals. Then there would be no work, not for a couple of weeks at least. The summer mini-term would help. But Logan could expect a dip – a significant one – in money. Some students stayed for summer, but most were on vacation. The money they could have left with Logan would go to someone else, in Cancun, probably. He and Bradley sat in silence for awhile. There was no noise in the apartment aside from the small creaks and ticks of the run-down building settling into its old age. There was no TV. Logan couldn’t afford one, and Bradley was too studious to care about TV. He was so engrossed in cramming for finals that Logan wasn’t sure Bradley had heard him come in.
“I’ve been doing this too long,” Logan said.
“What?” Until Bradley answered, Logan hadn’t realized he had spoken aloud.
“Performing,” Logan said. “I’ve been doing it too long. They’ve seen everything I can do. Now they’re not even watching anymore. They just toss me a couple of coins, maybe a buck, and walk on by.”
“So what? You’re still getting their money.”
“The money isn’t the point,” Logan said. “It’s the principle of the thing.”
Bradley took off his glasses and cleaned the lenses with the tail of his shirt.
“Anytime someone says that, what they really mean is that it’s the money. Bad day?”
“Nope. Good one, really. But nobody was watching. They didn’t care. Had other places to be or better things to do, I don’t know.”
Logan swallowed some beer and thought about it for a little while.
“See, if they are watching my show, I am giving them value for their money,” he said. “It’s a trade-off, no matter if they give me a dollar or a nickel. I’m still being paid for my work. But now a lot of them don’t even look – not even a pause to ask themselves ‘How did he do that?’”
“I don’t see where it matters,” Bradley said. “You’re still making money. Why worry about it?”
“If they’re not watching, I might as well be panhandling out there. Maybe I should get a little sign that says ‘Will work for food.’ I’m a performer, Brad. I don’t just want their money. I want their hearts.”
“Settle for the money. Maybe it makes a difference to you, but most people don’t see any difference between you and some guy with a cardboard sign around his neck.”
Then I’ve got to show them the difference, Logan thought.
The next day it rained, so he couldn’t perform. Instead, he paced around the apartment and tried to think of a new trick – something that would really stand out to the meandering crowds that passed him daily. There were ordinances against fire. He had learned that the first day on the quad, nearly three years ago. The university wasn’t pleased to have him on campus, but they were loath to throw him out as long as he obeyed the rules. And no fire was one of the biggies.
Besides, fire was unpredictable. He needed something – a situation where he could be in complete control. Catching an arrow was out. He knew how, but the trick required an assistant who was as skilled as he. He could snap the cigarette out of someone’s mouth with a bullwhip, but one mistake and he would be done. No more performing on university grounds, and probably criminal charges on top of that. Certainly a lawsuit.
Logan had learned his craft and showmanship in Paris, where he had stood out among the buskers and the con men. His tricks were smooth and funny. His hands were deft, and he never made the mistake that so many of his fellows did: he never took his performances to the Metro. It was a common thing to see a street performer hustle into a crowded metro car with a portable karaoke machine and a musical instrument in tow. But there wasn’t much money in it, Logan could see that from the first. People – especially people in a hurry to get somewhere – didn’t appreciate being a captive audience.
And then there were guys like Francois, the always smiling Frenchman who had helped Logan from the start. Francois was a former acrobat, injured in a fall while working with Cirque de Soliel. He could no longer tumble, but his body remained supple, and he could play at anything and still make money.
“The thing is to always be one step ahead of your mark,” Francois said one day as they nursed tiny cups of bitter coffee in front of the Baille de Suffren near the base of the Eiffel Tower. “They expect something, but you change the direction of the dance. You have to wow them, give them some reason to stop and open their purses.”
They were eating badly cooked steak and pommes frites – the restaurant had a great location but its food wasn’t fit for un chien, as Francois said on more than one occasion. They called it the Belly of Suffering, and felt badly for the tourists, who could afford finer food but didn’t know any better.
In the shadow of the tower they plied their trade until the ministry of tourism ran them off, moving them further and further away from the tourists each day until there was no money to be made. Finally, they said the hell with it and went up to Montmartre. The money was better there for awhile, and Logan learned some more tricks from Francois – handstands and headstands, spinning plates on top of broomsticks and even some comedic fencing. They worked and played until one day Francois performed a trick he didn’t know quite as well as he thought – he picked a mark’s pocket on the way down the stairs from the mountain.
The man was Maxim, an artist of some note who did portraits of the tourists who frequented the square near the Sacre Couer. Maxim caught Francois by the hand – the hand that still held the artist’s wallet – and bent it back behind his shoulder blade. Even six meters away, Logan could hear the bone when it snapped high up above the elbow.
Francois screamed, and Maxim let him go. The little man fell forward, tried to break his fall with his hands, and screamed again. Logan ran to him, careful of the Frenchman’s broken arm. Maxim squatted nearby and picked up the wallet. After he stood and slipped the wallet back into his coat, Maxim looked calmly at the two street performers.
“No trouble, no trouble,” Logan said. He had one arm around Francois and was trying to help him to his feet. “My friend is sorry. It’s just been a bad day.”
“It can get worse,” Maxim said. He was standing calmly in the waning afternoon light. Behind him Paris was a glorious blur against a slate-gray sky.
“We will go,” Logan said. “My friend needs a hospital.”
“Don’t come back to Montmartre,” he said. And they hadn’t. In fact, it was a long time before Logan had seen Francois again. He had gone by his friend’s apartment only to find it empty. There had been no telephone for either man. One day Francois was there. The next, he wasn’t. When Logan boarded the Metro at Chemin Vert, he walked onto the subway car and heard the music. He nearly turned around and got off, but the damned singers – beggars, he and Francois had called them – seemed to be everywhere these days. The singer was awful – belting out some Euro-trash pop song. He wasn’t in tune with the music, and the subway patrons were rolling their eyes at him. When the singer slithered through the car with a paper cup, asking for change, Logan finally recognized him. It was Francois. He was noticeably thinner – as if he hadn’t eaten in weeks – and his right arm still hung at an odd angle, as it had before the emergency room doctor put it in a cast.
When Francois saw Logan’s face, his eyes dropped away in shame. Logan tried to put a Euro in Francois’s empty cup, but the little Frenchman turned away. At the next stop, he got off the metro and hurried for the sortie, dragging his karaoke machine like his own private albatross. Logan was only a couple of steps behind him.
“Wait!” He said. “Why are you doing this?”
Francois wouldn’t turn around, but Logan’s legs were longer. He caught his friend before they reached the first set of stairs leading to the exit. Logan grabbed his friend by the arm – the wrong arm. Francois hissed as he turned around. He tried to slap Logan’s hand away, but Logan had already released him.
“What do you want?” Francois said, massaging his injured arm above the elbow. He wouldn’t look Logan in the eye. Up close, his clothes were more ragged than usual. He hadn’t shaved, and his breath smelled of cheap cigarettes.
“Why are you doing this?” Logan said. “We used to make fun of the jerks who tried to sing and play on the trains. Where have you been?”
Francois pursed his lips in a wry smile.
“I can’t go near the tower, can’t go back to Montmartre,” he said. “The Arc is too dangerous to work because of the traffic – and the priests ran me away from Notre Dame. What else can I do?”
“What about your arm?”
“The cast lasted about three weeks. When you perform for a living, you can’t miss work. You know that. I took it off with a hammer.”
Logan shook his head. Of course Francois had to work. Why hadn’t Logan thought of that? He had been making money – a lot of it, in fact more than ever – since Francois hadn’t been coming around. He took a twenty Euro note from his wallet and pressed it into Francois’s hand. It left him short on funds, but he would be performing again tonight. Francois would not.
“Get something to eat,” he said. “Go somewhere warm. Drink some wine. Rethink this silly thing. Tomorrow we will go to Maxim and talk to him together. Meet me at the Bastille station at eight tomorrow night. It will all work out.”
Francois took the money. But he didn’t meet Logan the next night. Nor the night after that. In the weeks that followed, Logan thought often about his friend. He should have ridden the Metro at every opportunity, searched Francois out and helped him as the man had helped Logan in the old days. But the tourists were thick like the clouds of summer flies. Logan was having fun performing for the crowds, and most importantly he was making nearly two hundred Euros a day. And then it happened by accident, months after Logan had stopped looking.
Francois, looking older and thinner than ever, came onto the crowded subway car with his karaoke machine in tow. The car was hot and stifling with the press of bodies and the heat turned up in the vents along the subway car’s walls. Before Francois could turn his microphone on, a short burly man said “Oh hell no” in English and grabbed the machine and launched it out the open door of the subway car. People applauded. Some whistled. Nearly everyone laughed. Francois scrambled out of the car barely before the doors swished closed and fell to his knees by the amplifier, which had broken. Logan caught one last glimpse of his friend: head down, crying, trying hopelessly to pull the cheap plastic machine back into some semblance of order.
After that, Logan was finished with Paris. All the old hangouts seemed lonely and haunted, as if the lights in the city were dimmer than they should be. The money was still good, but any small bit of success tasted like ashes in his mouth. Spring was gray, rainy and cold – and the city itself seemed that way, too. He saved enough money to pack his duffle and hop a flight back to the states. By the time the plane left the ground, he was already asleep. Ten hours later he was back on American soil. Two days later, he was asked nicely by airport police to leave Atlanta’s Hartsfield International Airport. The third time they asked, they’d thrown him in jail for ten days on a vagrancy charge. Logan moved on. He finally landed in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, playing to a college crowd that could afford to be generous. After all, so many of them were paying for school with Daddy’s money.
There were occasional problems – drunk frat boys, mostly, trying to look cool. But he was nearly universally accepted. Even the street preacher who stood at the other end of the quad and shouted scripture at the top of his lungs treated him decently … although the preacher had never once dropped anything into the tuba case except a tract explaining why Logan (and everyone else, apparently) was going to hell. The administration ignored Logan, and would do so until someone complained. He was generally accepted as just another fixture around campus.
And that was where the problem lay. Logan no longer stood out. His first year in Tuscaloosa, the smiles on the faces of the passing crowd were genuine – happy and surprised. Logan was something new and interesting. A few girls even lingered awhile and flirted. Sometimes he went home with them. A couple of times, sorority girls flashed their boobs at Logan while he was juggling or balancing plates, just to see if he would lose his concentration. He didn’t, but he did appreciate the view.
Nothing like that had happened for a long time. Logan was still pacing the length of the shabby little apartment when Bradley returned from on of his finals.
“Aced it, man!” Bradley said. He tossed his bookbag onto the floor beside the threshold. It landed with a massive thump, and Bradley stood for a moment with his hands on his hips, leaning backwards to stretch. Looking at his roommate, Logan caught a glimmer – not an idea, but the shape of an idea, something that showed itself for just a moment and then slipped back into the mists of his mind.
“I swear, I thought Maxine was going to be tough, but that thing was a tit.” Bradley seemed to expand as he came into the apartment, his presence filling more and more of the space until Logan could barely stand it anymore. He rubbed his eyes. Been thinking too hard all day. Too many memories. Too much. Too much. And still he kept staring at this new Bradley – shining as if with some interior light, fresh with life, bursting with joy.
Logan watched Bradley strip off his jacket and tie. His roommate went to the fridge and got a beer, then plopped down on the sprung couch. But it wasn’t until Bradley took off his glasses and leaned back with his head toward the ceiling that things finally clicked for Logan. Bradley didn’t look like himself. With a tough exam past, with time to relax, Bradley was something or someone new and different. Without pressure, his features looked fresher. The lines that pinched his face while he studied were gone. His posture was different.
And there was the idea. A new man. Logan clapped his hand to his forehead hard enough to hurt. Charlie Chaplin had done something like it. Francois had told him about it one time. Appear to be someone or something else, and then change before your audience’s eyes. Hold them captive with the force of your personality, with the slightest movement of your body. Logan wasn’t sure he could do it. But he knew he had to try. The trick, of course, would be to become someone or something else entirely.
Everyone felt sorry for the little old lady on the quad. She stood alone, her back humped from years of carrying heavy burdens. A few wisps of gray hair peeked out from under the kerchief she wore over her head, and she had little round spectacles like John Lennon used to wear. A little oak bucket sat next to her on the ground. Some just assumed she was a beggar. And maybe she was. Money would occasionally clink into the bucket. Some passersby – students and professors – tried to ask her if they could help. The woman wouldn’t say anything. She just shook her head.
They weren’t sure when it happened, but sometime during the morning, the woman began to change. She stood a little taller. Her manner seemed less matronly. Inch by inch, she began to slowly morph into something different. As this change went on, word began to spread around campus that something odd, something strange, was happening down on the quad.
Students and faculty paused for a second on their way to or from class. They meant to stay for only a moment, but as the changes – little slips of personality or clothing sliding away to reveal something else entirely – began to pile up, they stayed, fascinated like a bird standing before a cobra. Administration officials arrived, as did security. An officer made a move toward the old woman, but he was shouted down violently. The officials conferred and decided it was best to let whatever was happening, happen. And the crowd grew. People elbowed to the front to catch a glimpse of what was going on and then were elbowed back themselves as even more people arrived. Students were using their cell phones to take photos or record video.
The woman would seem to grow, to change, then to be simply herself again, with some bit of her outfit or posture changed. The movements were slow and mesmerizing, and onlookers were left with the impression of a butterfly worming its way out of a cocoon.
It was well past lunch when it finally ended, when the woman finally straightened and was no longer a woman. She whipped away the kerchief and the wisps of gray hair slipped harmlessly away in the spring breeze. Before them stood a man – a man none of them had really seen before. He stood tall and straight, with his arms extended from his sides.
And then he took a bow.
The applause started slowly, somewhere in the back. By then there were hundreds of students and faculty gathered. Someone grabbed the old woman’s bucket and began to pass it around. The applause grew and grew until it filled Logan’s ears, filled his heart, filled his world. He had them, every last one of them. He could look at their faces and recognize the joy of seeing something new. Logan bowed again.
Security eventually dispersed the crowd and escorted Logan off campus. He understood, without being told, that he would no longer be welcome. But he didn’t care. He had them. Had their hearts. Had their minds. It was time to move on anyway. It couldn’t get any better.
And besides, they let him keep the bucket full of money.