Elmore Johnson, known to the community as Elmore the Magnificent, had been teaching magic to young apprentices for over thirty-five years. At the age of seventy-two, his eyes still shone brightly and darted mischievously back and forth as he watched his pupils perform tricks on the stage.
No, no, no he yelled feebly from the back of the room- distract with the opposite hand while replacing the bird with the other. If an old man from the back of the room could see the switch, then everyone else will too. At this, the nervous student on stage lost his focus and allowed the bird to escape from his hand. He proceeded to chase it across the stage to the laughter of those waiting their turn in the audience.
Elmore heard footsteps to his left. Can I ask you a question? He didn’t even bother to look, so familiar was both the voice and the request. It was Herbert, a man who was destined to become Elmore’s eventual replacement. His tricks were performed with a technical precision bordering on the absurd, and he had mastered almost every trick Elmore knew to teach. What kind of teacher would I be if I didn’t allow my prize-winning protégé a chance to ask a question? Fire away, Elmore stated, his eyes still following the impromptu scene playing out on the stage.
I was just wondering what posture you think is most efficient when performing the Balducci levitation? I’ve been practicing it from different angles and want to make sure I’ve got it down just right.
Elmore opened his mouth and released a gentle and constant stream of air from his lips that was too unnoticeable to be properly considered a sigh. He was trying to think of a situation in which Herbert could not perform any magic trick flawlessly. Underwater, perhaps? While on fire? After ten beers? Elmore smiled.
Elmore finally turned his head and faced Herbert, placing a hand on his shoulder. Let me think about it. Right now, though, come with me to the office- I have another trick I want to show you.
A new trick? You haven’t shown me a new trick in over two years!
Elmore shuffled toward the office. This one’s special, he said, before tripping over a prop in the dim light and falling to the ground. Herbert rushed to his side.
You okay? I told those guys to move those props.
I’ll be fine, Herbert. Help me up. A short and awkward effort later and Hebert succeeded in lifting Elmore from the floor. Without a word of thanks, Elmore continued toward the office. Obediently, Herbert followed Elmore into the cluttered space. Elmore sat down at the desk.
You okay there, Elmore? You look a little winded.
I’m fine, just fine. That’s merely part of the trick. Elmore winked and waved his hand mysteriously in the air before leaning over, his eyes boring into Hebert’s skull. Now sit down- it’s time for the trick. Elmore revealed a worn deck of cards, spreading them out facedown across the table. I learned this one from a Nanai shaman. Of course, he didn’t use playing cards, but the overall effect is the same. Go ahead, pick a card. I won’t even look. Elmore leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes.
Herbert quickly sat down and picked a card. The King of Hearts. Stealing a quick glance at Elmore, he picked up a second card, finding another King of Hearts. Poor old man is losing it, Herbert thought. It’s amazing he was able to remain lucid this long, considering the cancer. He quickly replaced the second card.
Alright, Elmore, I’ve picked a card.
Good. Then the trick is almost finished. Elmore returned to an upright position and faced Hebert. The last thing I can teach you is that magic doesn’t hinge on performing a successful trick- any buffoon can pull a rabbit from a hat or saw a lady in half. No, that’s not the point. Elmore paused, coughing forcefully into a handkerchief. The trick is in getting people to believe in you, to complete the illusion by inspiring wonder in the audience. Our craft has survived not because we’re clever or because people think we can bend the laws of physics- but simply because the guy in the audience wants to imagine a world where anything is possible, in spite of all scientific evidence to the contrary. It’s part of what makes us human, you see. You can practice your posture and set changes from here to doomsday, but no one will ever care unless you can get them to connect to you with this, Elmore concluded, patting his hand lightly on his chest. Do you understand?
Herbert stared back, numbed by Elmore’s outpouring. I think so.
Good. Then it’s time to finish the trick. Go outside and watch the door for five minutes- I’m going to make Elmore the Magnificent disappear. Before Herbert could reply, Elmore had stood up and was waving his hands. Go, go now- remember what I told you.
The door shut softly behind Hebert and he stood in the back of the theater. The bird had finally been recaptured and was now being used by another magician. What do I do now, Herbert wondered to himself. There’s no other way out of the office but this door. Do I walk in and pretend not to see him hiding under the table? And what was that speech about following your heart about? So accustomed to mimicking Elmore’s actions, his hand instinctively went to his chest. His fingers landed on something in his pocket. He fished out a card- the King of Hearts- and a folded piece of paper.
Before he could open the paper, he heard a crash in the office behind him and spun around. Elmore, you okay? He placed his hand on the doorknob and turned it slowly, pushing open the door. Hey, I think I figured out how you…
Elmore was dead. His body still rested in the chair, a coffee cup shattered on the floor beneath his outstretched hand. The handkerchief, brightly stained with fresh blood, lay on the desk.