It was Halloween nineteen seventy-something, and all the students inside a small Kansas elementary school crowded into the gymnasium with its high upper windows condensed in sweat. Kindergartners gathered in the front, first graders behind, second and third filled up the middle, and fourth stood all the way in the back. Teachers lined up against the bleachers, coffee mugs clutched perilously in their ink stained fingers. I had been corraled in the mid-to-front section so that put me somewhere around second grade. The costume I wore was a Tweety Bird smock that tied behind my neck, and a very uncomfortable plastic mask that squished the nose on my face. It was itchy and suffocating and it didn't even look like Tweety—not with its big cutout eyes and lopsided mouth that I kept sticking my tongue through.
We'd been waiting all day for the Halloween parade and show. Some kids had their mothers come in to help apply makeup in the crowded bathroom with tiny toilets and low mirrors. I'd watched them smear makeup with fussy, shaking hands, expertly changing children into witches and clowns. My mother was up on Main Street near the railroad tracks, working because she and Dad had gotten divorced a few years ago. She ran the town's library, happily. A book was always in her hand. She frequently listened to the radio and ate lunch at her little checkout desk. Sometimes she went across the dusty street to Kuhn's Grocery to buy moldy food and piss-warm pop. She loved it. Something told me even if my mother could leave her job to come help me apply makeup, she wouldn't.
The lights went down a bit, but not after we'd all lowered to Indian style on the parquet floor. I shifted my mask; kept shifting until I could no longer take it. We'd already watched movies in our classrooms. Old Disney flicks about ghosts and funny looking vampires who crept under your window at night with rattling bones and clinking chains. Someone rolled a large contraption into the room and a man in a magician's cape appeared. His hair was slicked back; he had a funny look in his eye.
"Are you kids ready for something scaaaary?"
It was universal never to show enthusiasm to an adult. A staggered reply crossed through the room. "Uh-huh."
"I said, are you kids ready for something SCAAAAARY?"
Good enough, the magician shrugged and asked no more questions.
Removing the mask from my face, I gathered sweat with the back of my hand and sat up. There, now I could see better—but not too great. This was pre-glasses, after all. Clear vision, for me, has been an act of pointless gradual imperfection. I blinked and in a blurry haze watched the man pull two metal rings from his cape. He made them come together, separate, and come together again. A kid in the front row yelled, "I see the seams!" The trick was ruined. The magician laughed it off.
"You're too smart for school, kid. But you won't believe my next trick."
Flowers flew from the tip of a black cane. Balls spewed forth from the endless cavern of his smirking mouth. Flames leapt from his nimble fingertips. A long strand of colored chiffon scarves—the same kind my grandmother wore—slipped expertly from inside his satin sleeve. Someone next to me yawned; I turned to see their monster makeup crackling.
It was so hot in the gym. We were hours away from a veritable sugary orgasm and here were stuck together in an aluminum prison with pore clogging oil-based makeup and plasticine masks. Didn't the adults know how torturous this was? That children, in such close confines, could collapse mentally? Not only that, but lice most likely existed somewhere in the crowd. With such masses of life, rubbing shoulders—nose-picking, twitching, finger sucking life—it was sure to jump and colonize in mere seconds.
"Okay, okay. You kids are hard to please. But I got something really special. Something that'll knock your socks off."
When the magician moved, I peered to see the large contraption that had been wheeled out at the start of the show. It was painted black and had a set of curtains, slightly parted. With a swoop of the hand, the curtains revealed a guillotine with a glistening blade hovering near the top. The blade hung suspended by rope. Or probably, God.
The crowd oohed and awed. It really did. Now this was something. Not loops or scarves. This was death and fear and blood. This was magic.
"Do you children trust me?" the magician asked. "Do you believe in magic?"
No one moved. Not even a lice infested blade of hair. No one dared move their eyeballs away from the razor sharp blade. It was mesmerizing.
"I need a volunteer," I heard the magician say through the heated hum of my blood-rushed eardrums.
Again, no one moved. Until, yes, someone rose near the back. A fool. A damned fool! A fourth grader in all his eternal stupidity had jumped to his feet and yelled, "I'll volunteer! I ain't scared of nuthin'!"
I could see a small grin spread across the magician's face. We all turned to see the fool move from his row and make his way across the gymnasium. There was real fear in the room. Palpable fear that could be sliced and spread on toast. No one could believe the recklessness in which another child could spend their entire existence just to showcase bravery. It was suicide. Murder. Someone better call his mom.
The fool approached the guillotine, with perhaps less bravado then when he'd first lept to his feet.
"Put your head in here. That's right. It fits in the groove. Are you comfortable? I need you to remain perfectly still."
The collective sound of children swallowing in unison filled the room like a million bullfrogs under a full moon. Why weren't the teachers stepping in? This man was crazy. The boy was crazy. And we were too young to witness death. Sure it was okay on tv, but not here. Not in our school, a few hours before Halloween night.
The fool was on his knees, head trapped in the guillotine like a cow in a yoke. His eyes shifted restlessly. His small adams apple bobbed. His hands were trapped too—there would no escape. He couldn't even punch the guy if he wanted to. I'd heard once that chickens still ran around after having their heads chopped off. I wondered if it was true, and what impulses remained inside us during that small, frightening moment of death where truth and denial had their way with each other.
"When I count to three, the blade will come down. Are you ready? You can change your mind if you want to. Just say the word."
For a moment, the fool looked to change his mind. His joking stopped. His hands ceased their comical flailing at their regiments. It seemed he'd given escape a good, clean thought before his eyes squinted hard into a final bluff. "Nah. I ain't changin' my mind."
"Alright then. I'll start counting."
I could feel my heart plaster into stone and my breath cease like the wind in the eye of a hurricane. This was unreal. I was terrified of the blade and the sound it would make when it came down. That terrible wedging sound of split flesh—flesh too young to be sacrificed for magic. I pulled the Tweety Bird mask back over my face and squeezed my eyes shut.
"One, two, three!"
The blade hit hard and the room gasped and cheered. I could swear something rolled to the floor. In the dark confines of my imagination I pictured a head spinning its way to my feet, stopping just short of my big toe, and the eyes of the fool staring blankly up at me.
I opened my eyes just in time to see the shackles coming loose. The boy's cheeks were ruddy with embarrassment and there seemed to be relief in the way he ambled to his feet. The magician grabbed his hand and gave him a hearty shake before sending him back to the fourth grade section—ironically, a broken Tootsie Roll Pop for a prize.
The room rigorously shook its head, grateful for the ability to do so. And before he could find another victim—er, volunteer—the bell rang and it was time to go home.
Still quivering, I gathered myself enough to stand. All the boys bragged about how they hadn't really been scared and would have volunteered as well, only they didn't want their mothers to get mad over them ripping their costumes. I wondered if it was true. Would they really volunteer? Were they as they as brave as they claimed to be?
The guillotine man never came back. From then on our school opted for more Disney movies and in-classroom parties with orange punch and frosted cookies. I was glad. I wasn't ready for beheadings yet, I hadn't even had a pimple or felt the first strains of a crush.
Sometimes I wonder where the fool is now, and if he hesitates every morning before he shaves.