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Before Your Very Eyes

By B. E. Pinkham

Screen Shot 2015-06-21 at 8.52.41 PMA few weeks before the party, Robin’s mother Maria had said to me, “You know how I picked him? He had the biggest ad of all the magicians in Chicago Parent. I just thought that had to mean something. Is that stupid or what?”

“No. I don’t think so,” I’d said, thinking that that’s exactly what I would have done.

Robin, the birthday girl, had chosen magic as the party’s theme. My daughter Eve and most of the other kids were still decorating their purple hats with star and moon stickers when Randy the Magician arrived. He was tall and normal-looking; he had a performer’s presence, already comfortable as we watched him getting ready to work. He opened a bag and started to blow up long thin balloons.

“Hi,” he said to a little blonde girl nearby. “I’m Randy. What’s your name?”

“Andrea,” she said as she smiled and wriggled her legs.

“Oh, okay.” He leaned over her with his hands on his knees. “What’s your first name?”

She blinked at him and kept smiling.

Randy kept smiling, too. “Come on. What’s your first name?”

A few of the adults, including me, chuckled.

Andrea blinked again, still smiling, but her eyes were starting to scan the sidelines. She looked into the air, then down at her shoes. She knew to stay silent because, even if she didn’t get the joke, she got that she shouldn’t ask for an explanation.

Welcome to: Surrealism for Preschoolers.

Randy said, “Oh, it’s okay” and waved at her. She turned and wandered off.

While Randy was making his pile of balloon animals, he repeated the What’s-your-first-name thing three or four times, always with similar results.

It was a bright day, cold and windy outside, and the view from the party room on the fortieth floor of Maria’s Edgewater high rise was brilliant. I could see past downtown Chicago to the smokestacks of Gary. I walked over to the north windows where Camille’s dad and Imaan’s dad were talking.

“Look! You can see the Bahá’í Temple,” I said to them. I’ve never been good at starting conversations. But they turned and looked and, for the next blessed three or four minutes, we talked not about our children and their education, but about the visible landmarks and the sudden staggering proliferation of high-rise condos in Evanston.

Randy put on his magician’s robe. Maria herded the kids and got them to sit on the floor in front of Randy while he reminded all the parents to be quiet. After he’d done a few tricks, he tried his first-name thing once more.

“What’s your name?” he said, pointing at a boy in the middle of the audience.

“Zachary.”

“What’s your first name?”

Zach pushed his shoulders back and smiled. “Zachary is my first name!” Zach is six. The adults applauded and he took a bow.

Like all magic shows, Randy’s had two parts: the illusions and the patter. He had the equipment and the skill for the illusions. Objects showed up under empty cups, were pulled out of the birthday girl’s ear, and jumped, invisibly, from hat to pocket. For the patter he did cartoon character voices, made rude sounds, and mixed in age-appropriate potty jokes with some serious health and safety reminders. Hey kids, it’s fun to be a little naughty for a laugh but let’s still show that we’re really all good boys and girls. I’m a real grown-up. I know the limits, and I can show you how to take it right to the edge.

Welcome to: Middle-Class Values Indoctrination for Preschoolers.

I was sitting off to the side of the show. Bob—Robin’s dad and the writer of Randy’s paycheck for the afternoon—was leaning back in his chair directly opposite Randy, with his arms crossed over his chest and his legs straight out and crossed at the ankles. He was not laughing or smiling.

Randy, always smiling, said to Bob, “You know, you’ll have much more fun if you lower your expectations.”

“I already have,” Bob said, nodding slowly. His very slightly amused expression could easily be mistaken for an attitude of skeptical appraisal or possibly for an it’s-just-a-kids’-show sort of cynicism. Or even for sleep deprivation.

Randy dropped his chin toward his chest. “Oh. Kay,” he said, keeping his eyes on Bob’s face. He looked like he was thinking, There goes my hope for a tip here today.

Welcome to: Non-Verbal Communication Dysfunction for Adults.

I wished that Bob had smiled for the guy. I would have hated to see an ego collapse at a kids’ magic show.

Now, I felt like I had to laugh a little more emphatically to reassure Randy. I frequently find myself laughing and applauding for the benefit of the performers (and not so much for my own pleasure) because I believe it’s my duty as an audience member to give them their “E” for effort. It’s my show for them. I have acquired this very Midwestern attitude since moving here. Back in New York, where critical judgment takes priority over big-hearted validation, standing ovations were given only if one could not possibly contain one’s excitement. Out here, it seems we sometimes give out standing O’s to show our gratitude to the performers who have not left us to live on one of the coasts. Or because—like their families—we’re proud of them just for getting the job. Midwesterners make good audiences.

The kids were laughing. The other adults also were chuckling on cue, but Randy kept checking on Bob. Bob was still in the same pose. Looking at him now, you might think that he was even less satisfied with his worker than he was before.

Brave and reckless, Randy tried again. “You know, if you lower your expectations you’ll have much more fun,” he said, this time louder and with more feeling.

“I already have and I’m having a fine time,” Bob replied, also louder and with a tiny bit more feeling.

There was way too much dramatic tension in the room for me. I was trying to think of a new line for Randy, so I barely noticed when he looked at me and pointed.

“Would you come up here and help me?” he said. Wasn’t I already helping? I walked toward him hoping he’d do it—maybe he’d ask me for my first name.

“What’s your name?” he said.

“Ellen.”

“Where are you from originally, Ellen?” I guess he knew better than to try the what’s-your-first-name thing on a grownup.

“New York.”

“New Yawk, huh?”

“Yes,” I said. (Note to non-New Yorkers: Do not say that.)

“What part?”

“Long Island.” What’s my face doing? I’m not used to this talking with everyone looking at me. What if I get the answers wrong? Where do my hands go? But then, I breathe. I’m cool.

“So do you want to go back there, or do you like Chicago?”

“Chicago’s just wonderful. We love Chicago,” I said as images flashed through my head: the drive to New York and back on Route 80, some brutally ugly little house we might have to live in there, the inevitable daily crawl on the Long Island Expressway. None of it seemed even slightly appealing; it never has. Then flip, flip, flip in my mind through all the places we’ve lived here, plus a selection of pleasant memories of the city and the lake. That’s right! We love Chicago. I was just checking my answer. I wanted to be sure I’d told the truth.

“So, Ellen, what do you do?”

He wants me to say it? Say what? At-home mom? That’s what I’m supposed to say. But he wants me to come out and say it? There’s got to be a better way for me to answer that question, but I don’t think that it would make sense without the soundtrack and visuals. I’d need flashbacks to represent all the resonance his question inspires in me. Each day of my life is complicated with memories of my own childhood; with small reminders of movies, novels, and songs I’ve loved; and with impressions of my mother’s life and my beliefs about the lives of my sisters and friends. Could Randy have any idea about all that? I mean, did he even see The Hours? Maybe not.

Maybe I could say that, while my children are at school, I spend as much time as I can attempting to give some order to the chaos of my life (past and present) by writing these little narrative things about said chaos. The rest of the time I fulfill my duties by keeping the house hold stocked with peanut butter, milk, and paper towels; by keeping clean clothes available (even though I deeply, childishly resent it); and by maintaining a full and fully met schedule of activities for the above-mentioned children. Also, I believe that I have, so far, managed to keep them healthy, safe, and clean—and I have, so far, kept their intellectual, spiritual, and emotional needs reasonably well attended to without causing them undue psychological trauma.

And I have never even once forgotten to pick one of them up from school. I’d like that noted. And, also, one of them has autism—but I can’t just announce that, can I? And I really like my husband; that’s no small thing, either.

But I couldn’t say all that. I knew I should just come out and say that I’m writing a book—or trying to write a book. No, be definite: Writing a book. It sounds more rational.

“Absolutely nothing.” I said. “I have two kids.”

And right there I realized that that is my problem and that it’s always been my problem. Rather than even try to verbalize a rational answer to a big stupid question, I will say something dry and ironic to make my own private joke on myself.

If you lower your expectations you’ll have much more fun.

If you don’t know me and don’t know how my internal and external life teeters on the brink of anarchy and how much I’ve come to like it that way, then you can’t understand how deeply amusing that answer was to me. Few people know that I always stand off and point at the truth from a distance.

Because why bother when the slippery mess can’t be nailed down any way? Everyone’s life resists encapsulation, sound-biting, simple narration, spin doctoring, and even Oprah. Let’s, instead, explore the differences, in the field of self-expression, between uselessness and purposelessness, shall we?

Welcome to: Post-Structuralism for Mommies.

Then Randy picked up a long wooden box. Its blue-green paint was scuffed up from traveling in the magician’s case. I let him put my arm inside. He slid two metal plates through it, just below my elbow. I wanted to be a good assistant, so I winced as the plates hit the bottoms of their slots. It was just a little wince; I was subtle. Then he bent the two halves of the box away from each other. One half contained my lower arm, the other my upper arm. It didn’t hurt, but I furrowed my brow slightly to suggest that it did. The kids gasped and giggled. Randy put the halves back together and took out the plates. He took my arm out of the box. Everyone applauded. I looked over my shoulder at Eve in the front row. She wasn’t smiling like the other kids.

I went back to my seat.

Soon the show was over and Randy handed out the balloon animals. Eve, holding her pink balloon puppy, came over to me with her lower lip pushed out and her eyebrows knit together. She reached for my magical arm.

“See? It’s okay. It didn’t get hurt,” I said. She touched it and hugged it while looking me in the face so I could see her expression. She even snuffled up nonexistent tears. Then she leaned into my chest.

“Mommy, I didn’t like that.”

“It was all pretend, honey. Nothing ever really happened to my arm, and it didn’t hurt. Okay?”

“Okay,” she said. She hugged me again and then went back to swatting her friends with her puppy. She’s just that kind of a girl: capable of expressing herself honestly while putting on a good show for her audience.

Author’s Note: I started to write this story the day after the party, but something was missing, so I left it alone. A month later, at a Cubs game, I became fascinated by the behavior of four young guys seated in front of my friend and me. They were putting on a great bad boy act for right fielder Sammy Sosa, heckling him every time the ball came within a hundred feet of him, but they skillfully omitted all profanity and anything more than mildly insulting. Sosa, of course, tried to ignore them, but eventually he gave them a noncommittal nod. The hecklers congratulated themselves with high fives and “Yes! Sammy gives us the nod!” then went right back to their tirade. Obviously, I don’t go to games often, but they got me thinking about when and how those cultural rules are learned.

B.E. Pinkham lives with her husband and children in Chicago.

Brain, Child (Winter 2005)

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