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The Real Work

Modern magic and the meaning of life.

On a long plane ride home to New York from Las Vegas, a man and a boy are playing with cards. Only their hands are visible to the people sitting near them, so that, as they shuffle and reshuffle and fan and deal, they seem to be engaged in a game of gin rummy that never quite begins. The hands move, first large and crabby, then small and soft, in example and imitation, and all through the night, hour after hour—while everyone else on the plane sleeps or dozes or watches DVDs on a laptop—their hands move and their voices murmur.

What they are doing is magic, and, because it is magic, it requires hour upon hour of hard work. A magician is teaching an apprentice how to do a card trick—a trick so complicated and subtle that it will, when finally shown, be almost too subtle to enjoy. It is called Twisting the Aces: the four aces are shown face down; they are counted out, still face down, one by one; the packet of cards is twisted, and each time the aces are counted out one of them, a different ace each time, appears face up. It’s as though inside the packet the cards, untouched by human hands, were somehow turning over.

The magician and his apprentice are believers in the deep and narrow art of closeup card magic. A few nights earlier, they had gone, with a dozen or so other people, on a rare late-night tour of the illusionist David Copperfield’s warehouse, which contains the world’s greatest collection of magic paraphernalia. All of Houdini’s most important boxes—the Water Torture cell, the Metamorphosis Trunk—were there, but the magician had walked over to a wall where a tiny book was kept under a false cover. “It’s Malini’s Erdnase!” he said, as one might say, “It’s Lincoln’s Bible!” The magician’s face came alive as he looked through it. The boy watched, rising up on his toes to gaze at the small old-fashioned engravings of hands, neatly turned with late-nineteenth-century cuffs, manipulating cards, hands and cards, hands and cards, page after page.
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