The theater. A darkened marquee, illuminated only by the upward drift of light spilling out from a small ticket booth. In the booth stands a thin, redheaded woman, dressed in a silvery metallic one-piece swimsuit, a black cape drawn tightly around her shoulders. The headdress falling midway down her back - a humdrum exotica of green, red, and yellow turkey feathers - glows lightly, the notches on the feathers growing wider with age.
A small line of four or five people stands patiently in front of the booth. One of them, a woman in an expensive red coat, glances casually up at the neat row of black letters locked behind the glass of the marquee; "PRIVATE SHOWING. PERSONAL MAGIC."
The auditorium. An inside-out Kaaba of faux velvet wainscoting and plush seats, it is lit by chrome porthole light fixtures set high in the walls, as well as by the plastic snakes of lights marking the aisles. The vault of heaven - depicted in glow-in-the-dark paint on a black ceiling - curls and peels, flecks of constellations falling to an earth of armrests and smooth concrete floor. The stage is small and curtainless, its rear lost to darkness.
The magician. Short, comically fat, his purple cummerbund stretched tightly around his waist, he stands still in the center of the stage. Yellow and red spotlights shine mid-stage, the magician's bald head occupies the orange disk of light where the two meet. Beads of sweat break out across his brow, and he pats at them with a snow-white handkerchief. His light blue eyes scan the audience, but he waits until everyone is seated before starting the show. A quick look at his watch confirms it is time to begin.
- Think of a number between one and ten. Write it down on a piece of paper. After you have done so, please put it in the envelope you received from my assistant on the way in. Seal the envelope and place it in your pocket or purse. At the end of the show, I will predict those numbers.
He relaxes slightly, and begins moving around the stage, stubby fingertips touching to form a ball he holds chest-high, elbows pulled close to his fat stomach. His voice is thin and falls in the upper registers, yet he projects it effortlessly throughout the auditorium. It is calm and vaguely reassuring, a family friend telling nostalgic stories.
- Now, I would like those of you sitting in the second row to lean back in your seats and tell the person sitting directly behind you the year - but not the day and month - of your birth. Those of you who have been told an even number, please leave the theater and gather in the large tent that has been set up in the parking lot.
The request is odd, but after all, this is a magic show. People leave. The magician's assistant appears from the dark rear of the stage, carrying a simple wooden chair which she sets down behind him. She taps him on the shoulder and retreats into the darkness, her swimsuit flashing briefly in the spotlights. Her cape is gone. He sits in the chair, his small feet barely scraping the floor.
- Next, I would like those of you with incomes exceeding $50,000 per year to come down and occupy the seats reserved for you in the third row. If there are more of you than there are available seats, please adjourn to that portion of the balcony which has been curtained off.
A low murmur glides through the audience. As though in response, the magician smiles, pulling the chair closer to the front of the stage. He tugs his pudgy arms from the tuxedo jacket and drapes it across the back of the chair, then leans forward, elbows on knees, hands clasped together.
- Please keep in mind two things about what I am asking you to do. First, the success of the trick depends entirely upon your honest responses to the questions I am asking you. Second, it is important to remember that you are surrounded by strangers, people you will in all likelihood never see again. While your secrets may not be safe in the strictest sense of the word, your anonymity deprives them of their power. Satisfied, he leans back, smiling broadly. He is no longer sweating.
- With that, I would like those of you who have been married at least once, but not more than twice, to divide yourselves by gender, with the males going to the balcony.
The murmur returns briefly but is stopped by his quiet laugh and upturned palms.
- All of you who have been married more than twice, please follow my assistant to the basement of the theater.
She appears at the stairs to the left of the stage and waits for the affected audience members to gather behind her, leading them away after they do so.
- I would now like the homosexuals and virgins to line up in the center aisle according to height. With your backs to the stage, please. After you have done so, place your right hand on the right shoulder of the person standing in front of you and then walk single-file out of the theater to the chairs that have been set up on the sidewalk.
The audience smiles now.
- Of those remaining, will those of you who have been treated for a venereal disease raise your hands and put on the black hoods my assistant is distributing. Those of you who have attempted suicide, but who have not been treated for a venereal disease, please pair up with those who are wearing hoods and escort them to the foyer, where you will find a number of benches. While you wait there, explain to your hooded partner the reasons for your suicide attempt.
All but a few smiles vanish. The murmur has died, replaced by a protest of glancing eyes and shifting bodies. The magician stands, moving behind the chair and gripping its top ladder tightly as he leans forward. His eyes do not waver from the audience. The protest stops as hands go up and people meet in the aisles, staring at their feet.
- Next, I would like those of you who have given children up for adoption to go to the tent in the parking lot. With your eyes closed, feel the faces of those gathered there to determine whether any one of them is your long-lost child. If you cannot find him or her there, please go to the balcony and basement in turn and repeat the procedure. If you find your child, join the homosexuals and virgins sitting in the chairs on the sidewalk in front of the theater.
People leave. The magician loosens his grip on the chair and makes his way down to the front of the empty first row, pulling on his tuxedo jacket along the way. He crosses his arms. He has swallowed his smile, only the faintest trace remains in the slightly upturned corners of his lips.
- Now I would like those of you who have ever nursed a desire to see a loved one die, to curl up in the fetal position on the floor in the basement, covering yourselves with your overcoats.
Out of the spotlights the magician's eyes seem darker, almost weary. With difficulty he squeezes his hands into his tight pants pockets and begins walking up the center aisle.
- Finally, those of you with even-numbered birth years who are crying, please take those of you with odd-numbered birth years who are crying home. There are no numbers left. Thank you.
The lights go down and the theater goes black.