He stood in busy, crowded Times Square, waiting for a bus.
"Hey, wanna see a trick?"
He turned to see the younger man, standing by his side in torn jeans and faded canvas jacket. Unshaven, uncombed, unkempt, the stranger held a well-abused pack of playing cards in his hand.
"I beg your pardon?"
"You wanna see a trick? A card trick?"
"Yeah, a trick. You know...like magic."
"No. Thank you," he said, looking down the street, clogged with afternoon traffic. As of yet, no bus in sight.
"Aw, come on, Doc," said the younger man. "You'll like it." There was the flash of a big-toothed smile. "Guaranteed."
"Thank you, but no. I'm just waiting for my bus."
"Well, there's plenty of time, then. Here, take one."
"Really," he replied, "I'd rather not. I've never cared for card tricks."
"Hey, live a little, I always say."
Registering the idiotic patience he was up against, the older man knew that that indeed was what the younger man did, in fact, always say.
The would-be entertainer stood there, looking up at him, holding the deck before him in both hands, spread for the taking of a card. He shifted his weight from side to side. Right foot. Left foot. Right foot. Left foot.
Right foot. Left foot.
"Really, please," he said to this stranger, somewhat apologetic.
"I'm just waiting for my bus."
"If I take one," sighed the older man, "will you leave me alone?"
"Sure thing, Doc. But you'll like it; you'll see."
He tightened the knot in his tie as he looked at the cards, then at the young man. Slowly, he reached over and removed one.
"Great, Doc, but you have to look at it. Otherwise, this won't mean anything."
He glanced perfunctorily at the Three of Clubs, which felt dirty between his fingers, then looked to see if his bus was in sight.
"Here, here, come on, Doc, put it here..."
He did as he was told.
"Okay, now, just a little shuffle...oops." Several cards fluttered to the sidewalk. The young man bent over to pick them up, bumping a day-worn lady in blue, who glanced reproachfully, then ignored him with great New York diligence.
Taking advantage of his assailant's distraction, the man looked for his bus again. It was now in sight, but several blocks away, inching with the traffic, a steel clot in a hardened artery.
"All right, here we go," said the young man, after straightening up and shuffling some more. He turned over a card. "Was this it? The King of Hearts?" he asked. The expectation in his voice almost frightened the older man.
"No, I don't think so."
"Oh." His disappointment was evident. "How about this one? The Seven of Diamonds?"
"No. I don't believe that was it, either."
"No? Hang on..." More shuffling.
The bus moved closer, spewing fumes. The monstrous hiss of its air brakes sang sweetly through the air.
"Okay, I've got it now. The Jack of Spades!"
The older man shook his head. "No, I'm pretty sure that wasn't it."
"What was it?"
"Well, I'm not sure, but my bus is..."
"You mean you didn't remember it?" The young man was amazed.
"You didn't tell me to remember it," he said, exasperated, "you just told me to...oh, never mind."
"What's the matter? You don't like card tricks?"
There was nothing to say. He simply looked at him.
"Okay, then," said the stranger with a miff, "maybe you like the bigger stuff?"
At that, the lady in blue fell into a deep trance and turned horizontal, hovering three feet above the concrete sidewalk. The young man passed his arms above and below her.
"No, sorry," said the older man. "I'm just here waiting for my bus, which, as you can see, is almost here."
"Oh, well, there's no worry about that."
He turned just in time to see his bus, all three axles and fifty thousand pounds of it, disappear. The air rushed in to fill the sudden vacancy left by its sudden departure with a very sudden and very loud POP. Voices of abject disapproval filtered through the crowd.
He turned back to the younger one. "Now see here," he said with all the dignified resentment he could muster, "that wasn't a very nice thing..."
"Just hang on a minute, Doc," interrupted the other as the lady gently floated to the ground, "It's okay." She got up, puzzled, brushing herself off and looking around to see if anyone had noticed. As best as she could determine, they hadn't. "Was it the Ten of Hearts?" the young man continued.
"No. Now I have an appointment, and..."
"Six of Spades? That's always been one of my favorites."
"I'm not sure. Now..."
"How about the Queen of Hearts? Didn't want to try that one before, cuz everyone thinks of that one, but there you go, I guess."
"Now, look!" he said. "I'm sorry. I'm sure you're a very nice fellow, given the proper circumstances - whatever they may be - but I have to be somewhere else very soon and I WANT MY BUS BACK!"
"Oh," said the young man, hanging a puppy-dog head. "Okay, Doc."
He felt a breeze at his back. Turning, he saw the silver and blue transport wheezing at the curb, throwing exhaust over the unfortunate vehicle behind it. The bus driver sat on his high throne, scowling at him, one hand on the door lever.
"Thank you," he said, moving to the bus. "I hope..." He suddenly found that in his reflexive effort to be polite, he didn't really know what he hoped for. "Well," he said finally, "I hope it goes well for you." With that, he stepped fully onto the bus, flashing his pass and sitting next to an open window.
He'd almost forgotten the young man already, when from somewhere in the mass of people still on the sidewalk, he heard a voice: "Hey, wanna see a trick?"
"What an odd fellow," he muttered to himself. "He really should practice more."
As the bus pulled away, he never looked up, never looked back, and never saw the message moving slowly in ten-foot letters on the Times Square marquee above his head:
"...KIDDING, DOC / THE THREE OF CLUBS / JUST KIDDING, DOC / THE THREE..."