“What’s he doing?”
A woman, behind Jack, pointed down the line at a frumpy young man in his late twenties fumbling with a phone and a half eaten sandwich. Jack focused on the smartphone’s display and saw a lively procession of emoticons and ascending praise.
“He’s an influencer.”
“Someone wealthy enough to have free time, but too poor to sustain it indefinitely.”
“That sounds awful.”
Jack nodded. It was awful.
The line snaked along theoretical lanes inside the crowded government facility. Etched into the bones of an aging strip mall, the Department of Motor Vehicles exuded an odor of wet drywall and day old urine. False hope abounded, embodied in the musty décor and hopeless faces of employees required, by law, to work inefficiently. Above Jack, a sign fixture dangled perilously from the ceiling:
USE OF MAGIC PROHIBITED
UNLAWFUL EXPERIMENTATION WILL RESULT IN REMOVAL FROM THE PREMISES
The woman beside Jack groaned.
Jack chuckled. He would’ve liked to see Jesus here, kicking over desks and whipping frightened attendants like weary cattle. He was the first Magus, the supreme Mesmer. He would have burned this all down were it not for the brief detour back to the realm of immaterial.
“Are you here for the certification too?”
Jack turned around and saw the woman for the first time: a retro embodiment of sixties kitsch, replete with beehive hair and a tropical muumuu. She saw the surprise in Jack’s expression and shrugged. “I’m in theater. You know? Plays… This is art, okay.”
“I’m not here for a certification,” Jack replied, slyly. “I’m here for a License to Think.”
The woman sputtered jealously. “Lucky guy.”
“Correct,” Jack agreed. “But it’s not all glamorous.”
“That’s bullshit. Magic is awesome. I wish I could do magic.”
“It has its perks. Not all of them good I’m afraid.”
The woman snickered.
“I haven’t seen you online, have I?”
Jack shook his head.
“When Experimentation Goes Wrong is one of my favorite shows,” the woman continued. “It’s like screwball comedies, if everything was on fire!”
“My name is Annie.”
Jack shook Annie’s hand. It was sweaty.
“This makeup makes me burn up. Sorry.”
“Nothing to apologize for. Far be it from me to judge another in this desolate place. You might as well be Cleopatria in the nude, compared to the ghouls they have here.”
Annie frowned. “That’s sexist. You’re sexist. Of course you are. You’re a fucking magician.”
Jack wrinkled his nose.
“I’m not a magician. I’m a philosopher,” he replied smugly. “And it’s a profession that precludes manners.”
“Asshole,” Annie grumbled. “I’m always next to a creep…”
Jack looked ahead, unmoved by the altercation. A ghoul, with layers of foundation caked on to her putrid skin waved him forward.
“Nnn… Next…” she croaked.
Jack approached the counter and flopped an envelope onto the plastic shield, protecting the faux laminate wood. “I’m here for my license.”
The ghoul looked down, straining her failing eyes. A valid birth certificate was splayed out with a social security card and a utility bill. She ground her teeth, snarling thoughtfully.
“Ahhh… arrrr… are you pruh... prepared for a vuh… verbal test?”
Jack placed his phone faced down on top of the documents and emptied his pockets of loose change. The ghoul looked down, identifying the rhetorical objects and growled.
“Duh… door, four.”
Jack smiled. “Thank you, my dear.”
The ghoul smiled, worms crossing between blackened teeth. She dragged her arm across the countertop, sweeping the contraband into an iron lockbox. It would be returned after the assessment.
The examination rooms were standing compartments: cubby holes with irritated, bespectacled gentlemen shuffling tarot cards and organizing talismans. Jack entered the booth, placing both hands—palms down—onto a blue stencil outline, while “Steven” carefully categorized the mystic paraphernalia with sterile precision.
“With your hands bound, and relying only on verbal commands, you will be tasked with transmuting three objects,” Steve recited, speaking dryly from a memorized script. “You will be timed and all tasks will need to be completed before this undisclosed time expires. Do I have your consent to proceed?”
“Yes, yes. Please, I’m ready,” Jack replied.
Steven drew out one yellowed card from a dispenser. He reached into a box of bric-a-brac and grabbed a pewter soldier and placed it in the center of the space between them. Steven flipped over the card.
“‘If matter is material, then what is consciousness?’”
Jack looked down at the soldier and frowned.
“It is the immaterial made material.”
As Jack spoke, celestial energy coalesced around the inanimate object. The soldier flexed, the cracking of bones and flesh faintly audible, and its green skin became pink and soft
“Oh my god,” the soldier wailed, thrashing on the ground. “Not again… Please god, make it stop!”
Steven quickly slapped down an opened Styrofoam cup onto the homunculus and slipped the dialogue card underneath to carefully remove the figurine from the surface.
“That’s actually my specialty,” Jack murmured whimsically.
Steven looked at Jack, unamused. “Whatever it is that you people do, I don’t want to know.”
Steven drew another card from the dispenser, retrieved a feather from the box, and flipped over the card.
“I… also know this one.”
Steven paused, tapping his finger on the countertop. He flipped over the card.
“‘How do you make a feather weigh eight hundred pounds?’”
Jack shrugged playfully.
“You move it to Jupiter, obviously…”
The feather flexed against the countertop, warping the plastic fibers of the manufactured wood, until it ripped through and crunched into the linoleum flooring below.
Steven left the side of his booth and motioned for Jack to follow him to the next cubby over.
In the second booth, Steven took out a dollhouse, placing it off to the side. With a swipft, Steven took another card and cleared his throat.
“Why is there a global housing shortage?”
Jack took a deep breath and squared his shoulders. “I hate this one.”
Steven, who probably lived alone in a one bedroom apartment, nodded bleakly. He turned to the side, looking over at someone and silently shook his head. Jack, meanwhile, focused and breathed through his clenched teeth.
“Not too much time left…” Steven muttered.
“It’s because people don’t share,” Jack said, though not particularly to Steven. The dollhouse shifted sideways, a transparent weave embodying the structure of the original, only minutely as dense. Steven took out a telescoping pointer and prodded the copy, which firmly resisted. He unclipped a pen from his front facing pocket and jotted down a signature on a blue receipt.
“Bring this voucher to desk 12F.”
Jack was out and back into the world a half hour later, holding in his hands a provisional license to think in the State of Oklahoma. As he walked out to his car, he shuffled through his pockets, feeling for the familiar shape of his key fob. As he did, a blinking light on the seat caught his attention. The fob was laid out across a pile of junk mail and a half eaten energy bar.
“Is there such a thing that I don’t lock my keys in the car like some pedestrian simpleton?” Jack bemoaned. As he did, an identical fob took shape inside his clenched fist.
Jack grinned. “Imagine that.”
When he opened his hand the fob was half materialized through his knuckles.