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He strides up to the vinyl-topped table, chest puffed out like a Three Stooges throwback. He reaches deep into a pocket and retrieves a silver dollar. His eyes slide from left to right, mischief or glee or sheer joy evident – it’s hard to tell which. He smooths his black uniform shirt, fingering the lettering over his heart: “Perley the Magician”. The show begins.
This is no comedy club, no grand ballroom or exhibition. His stage is a tile floor at Frank’s Finer Diner on Fredericton’s North side. Perley Edward Palmer, more commonly known as Perley the Magician, is perfectly at ease in his Tuesday night gig at the retro eatery. He plays to a table of three adults with the same flair he reserves for a party of small children.
His arsenal of tricks is vast, but his act often features simple coin hiding and handkerchief flourishes. The next Tuesday he sits in a coffee shop, talking up a subject he needs little prompting to discuss – himself.
“I’ve loved magic all my life. I never missed a magic show on TV. At first I used to do little tricks for children and the kids loved it, you know? They used to say, do you have anymore tricks? And I’d say no, but then I went on vacation to Vegas and I went into a magic store. I was amazed at how many things there were to buy! I bought five or six little things and when I came home and the kids would ask if I had another trick I said yeah! Right here, you see!”
It started over 25 years ago. After the Vegas trip, Perley bought a catalogue from the very same store. He ordered almost two thousand dollars worth of merchandise – a fortune at the time on a grocery worker’s salary. His wife told him he’d never get it back. Almost three decades later, through word of mouth advertising, a retired Perley has a steady schedule of exhibitions, fairs, parties, and charity appearances .
“But I never take money for a charity thing, you know. Especially for hospitals and sick people,” he says, before changing the subject to something more lighthearted.
His absolute zest for humour and life comes as a surprise after he recounts his story of humble beginnings that is anything but comic. He’s been through a divorce but is now happily married to second wife Valerie for 28 years. He has three children he boasts about, but life wasn’t always so grand.
“I had to go to work very young, at fourteen. I was left behind to go to work. My parents divorced, and I was forced to go to work so it was very hard times. I was only making twenty bucks a week. Very, very hard times. But now it’s nice to be recognized. I appreciate that. I guess I grew up with not much attention so it’s nice to be made a little bit of.”
It’s impossible not to give the man your attention. His short stature and slight build disappear at the first hint of a captive audience. He grows to an impossible height and seems to age backwards from his 70 years. A consummate performer, he’s unable to stop the show.
“Let me show you this one,” he says several times, as he pulls out a handkerchief or asks for a pen, or flourishes his hands about.
Even Perley’s business card is a magic trick. When others are content to simply hand over a slip of cardstock, the magic man urges you to sign his calling card and to pick a playing card from his ever-present deck. After several flourishes, questions, assurances that he hasn’t seen your pick, he gives you back the business card that you haven’t even realized he’s taken.
It looks normal. The face that gazes at you atop a Liberace suit jacket is the same as before. His home and cell phone numbers are unchanged. “I’m in Business for Fun!” can still be read in bold letters. The trick has failed. Nothing is different.
“Turn it over,” he says.
And there it is. Above the signature, written in your own hand, is a print of the playing card you picked. It’s an impossible trick. To be duped so completely feels almost cruel. Until you raise your eyes back to Perleys and his face almost breaks in half trying to contain his wide smile. His glee is obvious. It’s contagious.
The funny thing is, with all the smiling and laughing, one would think the man’s face would be a mass of wrinkles, or at the very least, far more lined than it is. The 70-year-old sitting in the coffee shop too closely resembles the man on the business card, who obviously posed for the portrait twenty years ago, judging from its style – and his oversized glasses.
“I see a lot of these old comedians that live to be one hundred. They all laughed a lot. Bob Hope even, they interviewed him and they said what’s your secret to longevity, and he said laughter. I never forgot it. Laughter keeps you young. And I laugh a lot! It really does work. And I’ve never smoked a day in my life. People who smoke all the time don’t look like me. And I’m not saying I look great, but I don’t look a hundred!”
His black, tightly poodle-curled hair is only peppered with grey. When he laughs and moves around with all the nervous energy you can imagine, it doesn’t even move. It contrasts his wild personality, keeping with his uniform of all black: the bowling shirt with his insignia, the black pants, the shoes. The colour is in his act. It’s in the pink handkerchief and the red and blue cards and the animation in his eyes.
With magic as his trade, it’s hard to tell if Perley has any wonder left, until he’s asked point-blank.
“It’s the faces on the audience. That’s real magic. The little children, their mouths wide open. Some are really shocked,” he mimicks the wonder of a wide-eyed kid, hand clamped over his gaping mouth.
“Not even just children! The adults sometimes, they really get into it. I go up to a table of big burly guys, you know, and they’re so amazed by one little trick I do. To watch the laughter I get from doing a trick for somebody, it’s nice.”
The laughter is great, but what about the real trick? What’s the secret?
“I never give away my secrets. You know, I used to, but after I’m done, their mouths just drop. No more laughter. And that’s why I really do it. I won’t reveal any of my tricks.”
In this, the magic man is serious. His face straight as an arrow, he shakes his head, refusing to budge. But then, like a burst of sunlight after a storm, his face breaks wide open again. The lightbulb over his head is almost visible.
“Wanna see another trick?”