Cocktails and Conversations: an elaborate deception

by Joel Finsel, published June, 2016

A tall, thin man wearing a three-piece suit walked into the bar and sat down. He carried a cane, though he didn’t seem old enough to need one—nor did he lean on it at all for support. He carried it like a scepter and set it on the seat beside him within easy reach.
“Hello,” I asked, as I laid a cocktail napkin in front of him. “How are you?”
With the chain from his pocket-watch dangling from his vest, he looked like he just walked out of an old movie—possibly even twirling the ends of his mustache with his fingers.
“Just fine,” he said. “Do you have a port?”
“How about this 10-year tawny?” I asked and poured him a little taste.
File:David Copperfield Magician Television Special 1977.JPG
 David Copperfield, 1977wiki-commons
He held the glass beneath his nose, swirled, and when he took a sip, he held his jowls open a little to suck in some air. He took his time tasting it, staring straight ahead, squinting and rocking his head back and forth in consideration.
“How long has this been open?” he asked.
He closed his eyes and sipped again.
I honestly didn’t know.
“It’s garbage,” he said and slid the cup forward. “It’s obviously turned. Do you have any others?”
I pulled a fresh bottle down and opened it. I poured a second taste in a fresh glass.

This time he sloshed the wine around in his teeth like mouthwash a few times before swallowing. “It’ll do,” he said.
I was about to take the spoiled bottle away when his hand grasped the bottom. “Want me to make it fresh again?” he asked.
“Nice try.”
“I’m a magician,” he said.
“Sure you are.”
“I’ll prove it.”
I looked around the room. My shift-mate Heather seemed to be holding the other customers down, so I decided to oblige him. “How?”
He pulled out a hundred dollar bill. “See this,” he said. “I bet you $20 I can crinkle it up until it becomes so small I will then blow its particles through the air and later make it reappear back to full-size in your register.”
“You’re crazy.”
He pulled out a ballpoint pen and drew long handlebar mustaches around Ben Franklin’s mouth. “I invite you to also write down the serial number,” he said. “For the price of this port and your tip, I will make this legal tender note disappear and reappear in your cash box. If I can’t, it’s yours.”
I let go of the bottle. “Let me see that serial number.” I copied it down on a napkin.
His smile could have peeled the paint from the wall. I put the napkin with the serial number in my pocket and handed the defaced currency back to him.
He took a sip of port, picked up the bill and folded it in half, then in half again. “Have you ever heard of Leonardo Fibonacci?” he asked. Before I could answer he continued, “Fibonacci was an Italian, from Pisa, who traveled around the Mediterranean world, learning everything he could about different forms of mathematics.”
I nodded and watched him fold the bill in half in ever smaller segments.
“The reason I am folding the bill this way is to honor the golden ratio, a spiral of integers, a sort of sacred geometry that Fibonacci discovered,” he explained. “Now, if you will excuse me, because I can no longer physically fold this in half any longer, I must turn within.”
He closed the origami bill in his balled fist, took another sip of wine and closed his eyes.
The door opened behind him and a young man wearing a yellow T-shirt walked in, scanning the place desperately. “Which way is the bathroom?” he asked.
I pointed left and he smiled thankfully.
I looked back at the magician. His eyes were closed tightly, his mouth and cheeks strained like Luke Skywalker failing to levitate his X-wing Fighter out of Yoda’s swamp.
About two minutes later the guy in the yellow T-shirt re-emerged from the bathroom, his shoe-lace untied. When he reached the bar, he bent down to tie it. He was about to order from me when he noticed the magician’s contorted face having some kind of spasm. He decided to sit at the other side of the bar where Heather took his order.
I continued to watch the crazy guy’s face for another couple of minutes. He must be an escaped mental patient, I reasoned, as he began to snort and smack the side of his head with his open palm. I noticed other customers beginning to stare, and I was afraid I might have to throw him out if he didn’t come back around soon.
I turned to scan the others and saw the guy in the yellow T-shirt slam a shot of whiskey. “One and done,” he said to Heather, counting up his change. “Many thanks.” As he walked out, he held his finger up to the side of his head and twirled it in a circle, then pointed at the well-dressed loon.
I stifled my laughter and the magician didn’t seem to notice. After a minute or so later, the magician slammed his fist down on the bar and opened his hand. “It is done,” he said. The bill was no longer in his hand.
He reached for his cup and took a sip. “Go on,” he said, “take a look.”
“Bullshit,” I said.
“Go on,” he waved me away. “Make sure you check the serial number, if the mustache alone isn’t enough for you to believe.” He held his stare and sipped slowly while pointing to the register.
“That’s impossible,” I said.
“I assure you,” he said, finishing his cup, “it is not.”
I opened the drawer. In the far left compartment was the back of a hundred. I flipped it over and saw the mustache. The serial numbers matched. “How the hell?” I asked.
“I’ll take that back,” he said, and snatched the bill out of my hand. “Keep the change on the $20 bet.”
“Thanks,” I said, suddenly wobbly. I had to grab onto the bar to steady myself.
He slid his empty cup forward, wiped his mouth with the napkin and picked up his cane. “Good evening to you, then,” he said and triumphantly made his way out.
I thought it was the most inexplicable event of my life until Heather counted the money-drawer at the end of the night and asked if I knew why we were $92 dollars short.

*                         *                      * 

Their scam: the two guys had been working together and followed a carefully crafted script. When the guy in the yellow T-shirt bent to tie his shoe, he was play-acting. In reality, he was picking the bill up from the floor. He then walked around to Heather’s station and used it to pay for his shot, allowing the older man to win his bet while netting over $90 dollars in change.

"Though the Heavens Fall"

On Texas, old newspapers, race music, and two black lives that shaped the history of civil rights

*This project was born out of assisting Sullivan as a researcher while he was writing "The Ballad of Geeshie and Elvie."  Inspired by the strength and fearlessness of editors C.N. Love and C.F. Richardson, he suggested I take on their story. Before long, we were both staying over late in the officea few evenings until after midnightwriting it together. 

Read both parts in their entirety at The Oxford American online.

Special thanks to Roger Hodge and Caitlin Love.