Coney Island baby

When I first started working in the dark arts, I was apprenticed, briefly, with a master of great skill but poor repute. Reluctant to compete for the attention of a mentor with a higher position in the community, I figured I could learn all the tricks I needed to know from a man who might better know the shadows. In this assumption, I was, of course, correct.

In the months after I had graduated from university, I had made a habit of being available for the performance of strenuous odd jobs in order to maintain the rent on my little room. I was watching out for other work that would perhaps pay better and would be more appropriate for someone with my education, but I was a much younger man in those days, and so physical labor — moving furniture, hauling trash, chopping wood — was appropriate for me at the time.

To tell the truth, I was proud of my physique and was openly enthusiastic to show off my ability to perform such feats of strength. Yet I was modest when the people would swoon over the apparent ease with which I would dispatch such tasks. “You are so strong,” they would say, or, “I don’t know what I would do if it weren’t for you!”

Some of them would hug me — the women, mostly — pressing their clean-clothed bodies and fresh-scrubbed faces against my sweaty chest. The first time this happened, I have to admit I was somewhat put off by the situation, but thereafter I found it gratifying.

Before long, I had become curiously accustomed to those clinches, and on one occasion, I recognized a strangeness in the curvature of the spine of a woman who was holding herself against me. It was a subtle condition, but I was compelled to ask about it, and, yes, it turned out she was suffering from a specific pressure in a low part of her back. I suggested I might try to stretch her out, a procedure I had seen done at a party when I was a kid, and so she let me come up behind her and lift her by her shoulders. There was a short series of quiet little cracking noises, and then she stood upright as if she had never been so afflicted.

This led to a new occupation as word spread about how I could relieve the pain of a sore back. Even as I puzzled over the amount of money my neighbors were willing to pay for such a service, I started to wonder why I had ever gone to school.

And then one day, when I was assisting one of my regular customers in such a way, there was a knock at the door, and the old man, a friend of my present charge, came shuffling into the residence. Dressed in what was probably his only suit of clothes, he presented a modest, even slight, figure belying the fact that he was nearly as tall as I was.

Our casual conversation led to the subject of the field of our mutual interest, and he gave me a tutorial of sorts, providing more information in that one afternoon than what I had found useful in several years at university. Before the week was out, I was performing tricks I had only read about previously and had been left wondering about their efficacy. Such was the old man’s power to communicate complicated information in such a way as to convey understanding.

Our discourse was so vibrant, I found myself unable to address the fact that I had noticed he was suffering from a stiffness on the left side of his neck; he fairly had to turn his whole body to look toward our host as she tried, once or twice, to engage our attention.

Over the next several months, I found several opportunities to oblige my mentor with queries upon many topics. Each of these he graciously addressed, but I noticed, after a time, that his responses became more and more enigmatic, as if to advise I had achieved a mastery beyond his ability to instruct. Indeed, it was so.

The old man passed away this last week. In all the years I had known him, I never saw that he suffered from that same stiffness, but I will forever remember the way his movement indicated that slight, unstated agony on that day we first met.

For further consideration: “The Call of Cthulhu” by H.P. Lovecraft.