The Palace of Illusions

That summer I was twenty-one. I worked in a big tent with the words The Palace of Illusions in blue on a white banner stretched across the entrance, making doves vanish from cages, holding a big snake by the neck so it would coil around my chest, sawing my girlfriend, Alice, in half inside a box or cutting off her head. When she talked, a seemingly disembodied head on a platform across the room from the rest of her, girls would scream and sometimes faint in their boyfriends’ arms. I liked to think it was my skills, not just the sultry weather and the beer everyone was guzzling from wide plastic cups. I was the Illusionist. I made believers out of skeptics, convinced ordinary people of an extraordinary world that existed just on my stage. I was good, is what I’m saying.

I bet you were, the girl said. This is your studio?

She was taking in my room, the water-stained wallpaper with the roses on it, the frayed edge of the carpet. My hot plate on top of the waist-high refrigerator. Cans of spaghetti and soup, neatly stacked next to the sink. For real? she said.

Here, you can check out some of my pictures, I said. I took an album of wedding photos from the dresser, that I show couples when they ask. It’s white leather, with gold bells stamped on it, and makes a nice presentation.

She still had half a slice of the pizza I’d bought her on the boardwalk. She set it carefully on the refrigerator in the wax paper, wiped her hands on her short skirt, and took the album.

These are nice, she said after a minute. Everybody looks happy.

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