The magician is having trouble reassembling his assistant.
The trick is one he’s done hundreds of times before. The assistant goes in. The saw goes through. The boxes are elevated waist-high like gurneys on wheeled stilts. The boxes spin, and the assistant kicks her feet. The boxes are brought back together. The lids lift, and the assistant rises, smiling, in one piece.
Only, this time, when the lids lift, the assistant is not in one piece. The assistant is two halves, separated at the waist, as with an invisible belt.
There is no blood, no gore. The assistant cannot feel a thing. It’s only when she looks down that her smile drops. She looks to him.
“Keep smiling,” the magician whispers, then shuts the lids. “Let’s try that again!”
The audience laughs generously.
The magician spins the boxes harder this time. The assistant’s blonde hair is a comet. A shoe clatters to the stage.
The magician brings the boxes together again. Again he lifts the lid.
Same halves. Same invisible belt.
“Third time’s the charm!” the magician shouts.
The audience laughs less generously.
The magician flings the boxes so hard one collides into the gold-fringed curtain and the other almost rolls offstage.
The boxes are brought back together. The magician wipes his brow. The audience murmurs its concern.
The magician lifts one lid and peers inside. The assistant is definitely still cut in half.
The magician shuts the box, taps each lid twice with his magic wand.
The wand’s a good one, pro model, real wood, black with chrome tips. When it comes to magic, the magician spares no expense.
For good measure, the magician taps the assistant’s toes, and, gently, the assistant’s narrow brow.
The assistant shuts her eyes.
She is not his wife, though the magician gets that question a lot. Not a girlfriend. He is old enough to be her father, though she is not his daughter, not a relative of any kind. She is his employee.
The magician is a good employer, fair. He pays the assistant biweekly. Every six months, he buys her a new uniform. Each year, he issues her a W-2. Together, their LLC has survived two recessions, four rabbits, and more doves than the magician can count. Together, he and the assistant have survived three unruly crowds, two fires, and a dangerous bout of swine flu. The assistant has survived 934 counts of being sawn in half.
“Presto change-o,” the magician incants, though he hasn’t used an incantation in years, not since Gerald over at Lights, Camera, Magic! LLC stole his catchphrase: “From heavens high and regions nether, put this woman back together!” It wasn’t a good incantation, but it was his, until it wasn’t.
Gerald with his website and podcast and check mark on Twitter. Gerald with his two assistants.
The magician flings open the lids. The woman remains cut in half.
“Boo!” an audience member yells, and a chorus of boos fills the air.
The magician does not know what comes next. Should he call the authorities? Should he call another magician? He’s not calling Gerald, that’s for sure.
The audience boos loudly. One family leaves, the mother covering her young son’s eyes.
In the front row, a man raises a phone to snap a picture. Others follow. Soon, everyone is too busy taking pictures to boo.
“I’m sorry,” the magician says. “I’m so sorry.”
The assistant will not open her eyes.
The audience will not leave. They crowd closer, gawking, angling, all elbows and phones.
The assistant opens her eyes. “Let me out.”
“But your legs,” the magician says.
“Let me out. Let me out.”
The magician raises one lid, then the other. He lowers the assistant’s legs to the floor.
Her bottom half wobbles, as though the waist works a hula hoop. Then the feet find their footing, and the legs depart stage left into the wings.
The magician cradles the assistant’s top half, pulling the assistant from the box.
What will he tell the woman’s parents? Her children?
What will he tell the police?
The magician is ruined. His license will be stripped from him, his magic hat impounded, and wand revoked. He’ll never practice magic in the lower forty-eight again.
Perhaps he can find work in Italy. He has a cousin there. Or a second cousin. He can’t remember which.
But now is not the time to think of Italy. For, even now, the assistant’s top half is being torn from the magician’s arms. And now the audience is on her, snapping selfies, passing her around.
By evening, pictures of the magician’s assistant will fill Instagram. By morning, she will be a meme. Next week, she’ll inspire three TikTok dances, and, by next year, the magician’s assistant will host her own late night network show.
The magician will not be one of her guests. The assistant will never speak to the magician again.
“Give her back to me,” the magician calls from the stage. “Bring her back!”
The audience-turned-crowd ignores him. The assistant ignores him.
Tentatively, the assistant’s legs peek out from behind the curtain, then charge forward. They kick the magician in the shins.
The magician stuffs his wand and hat into his bag.
He is forgotten.
Already, the crowd chants the assistant’s name. Already, that name is trending on Twitter.
The magician could call Gerald, beg him for a job.
But no. A magician who cannot reassemble his assistant is no magician. He’s just a man with a dove in his pocket, a man in a tuxedo with two boxes and a saw.
The magician releases the dove from his pocket. The bird flies over crowd, but the people take no notice. Cameras flash. The assistant smiles for the phones. The bird swoops and dives, and then the bird is gone.
I am the author of the novel Lake Life (Simon & Schuster, 2020), a New York Times Editors’ Choice selection, Publishers Weekly Summer Read, and a Millions Most Anticipated Book of 2020. My story collection The Heaven of Animals was a winner of the GLCA New Writers Award and a Florida Book Award, a finalist for the L.A. Times Book Prize, and was longlisted for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize. My stories and essays have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, One Story, Ploughshares, The Southern Review, and in numerous textbooks and anthologies including New Stories from the South, Best New American Voices, and Best American Experimental Writing. My books are currently in print in six languages. I teach in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of Central Florida and live in Orlando with my wife and daughters.