The people next to us were an extended family—nine of them, arranged in descending order from grandpa to grandchild, all occupying three tables that had been placed end to end in the middle of the restaurant. Most of their attention was focused on the grandchild. It was his birthday.
He looked eleven, maybe twelve. Bright eyed and brown haired. The first volleys of acne were landing upon his chin. The boy did not seem to mind. He nodded and smiled and offered a few words here and there. It was the typical pre-teen response to nearby family, one that said I love you people but I’m now too cool to show it.
I took all this in (writers will invariably call this sort of thing Research, which sounds much better than plain nosiness) and nearly moved on to the next table when the waiter arrived. He inquired as to the quality of everyone’s meal and if anyone would like dessert. The birthday boy’s face turned the color of his encroaching acne when everyone announced the occasion.
The waiter smiled and asked, “You like magic?”
The boy shrugged and snorted in the same motion. “There’s no such thing as magic.”
“I’ll be right back,” the waiter said.
He returned with a man I assumed was a dishwasher. His jeans and apron were soiled and soggy. He smiled down at the boy and said, “Hey there, m’man. Lemme show ya somethin.”
He produced a deck of cards from his apron and fanned them out face up in one fluid motion. Flicked them back with one hand. He smiled and winked at the family, who had by then already begun inching their chairs forward for a better view.
“You believe in magic, m’man?”
Another shrug and another snort.
“Cool,” the dishwasher said. He fanned the cards out again, this time face down. “Pick a card, birthday boy. Don’t let me see now.”
It took prodding from both mom and dad, but the boy did. He took one from the middle of the deck and held it close. He peeked and then let everyone else do the same.
“Toss it back in here,” the dishwasher said. He tilted the deck up and down and wiggled it. “Anywhere you want, Bossman.”
Back in the middle it went. The dishwasher slid the cards back one-handed again and held the deck beneath the birthday boy’s chin.
“Blow,” he said.
“Come on now. That’s where the magic be.”
Neither mom nor dad could get him to budge this time. Grandma stepped in. The boy blew on the deck and the dishwasher tapped it with his forefinger. He flipped over the top card.
I didn’t have to see the card to know the trick had worked. The birthday boy’s bewilderment did that. The slaps on the table by dad and grandpa helped.
“It’s a trick,” the boy said.
The dishwasher raised his eyebrows. “Okay, let’s try again.”
Another fan of the cards. The boy picked one from towards the back this time. He placed it in the middle. He handed the deck to dad to shuffle, who handed it to grandpa, then back to the birthday boy, who shuffled once more for good measure. Then he handed the deck back to the dishwasher and smirked.
The dishwasher held the deck beneath the boy’s chin, who proceeded to not so much blow as snort.
There was a tap on the deck. The top card turned over.
“Ha! That’s not my card.”
“No?” the dishwasher asked. “You sure?”
“Dang. I dunno what happened. Guess you’re too good for me.”
I will say I was disappointed. I wanted to see the trick. And I’ll say the boy who thought himself a man was pretty disappointed too, even if he was too old to show it.
“You done with your plate there, Bossman?” the dishwasher asked. “Might as well take that on back.”
The boy nodded and picked up his plate. His mouth fell open.
His card was taped to the bottom.
The family applauded. The dishwasher bowed.
I have no idea who that boy was, but I guarantee I will always remember his birthday. I guarantee this too—whatever presents he was given, the best one came from the dishwasher. It was a reminder that no matter how old you think you are, there’s still a little kid hiding inside.
And no matter what we think, there is magic in this world.
There is magic everywhere.