J. Robert Lennon and Lou Beach combine forces to bring us a warped specimen of small-town spectacle. Welcome to the party.
He came to our town around April, I guess. I was ten. Nobody knew who he was—he was just some guy who appeared one day, juggling in the park in his tuxedo. I don’t think anybody in our town even owned a tuxedo. I mean, you could rent one in Litchburg, but that was ten miles away.
Anyway, he cut quite a profile, I must say. The adults all hated him immediately. They thought he was some kind of agitator. But the kids adored him. He told them to call him “The Great Zombini,” but pretty soon that got shortened to Zom. He didn’t mind. You called him Zom, he kind of smiled this small, tight smile, and kind of took a little bow. We loved it! Nobody bowed to a child, in those days. Or now, either, come to think of it.
It was birthday season, starting in May. All of us had birthdays in May, June, July, at least everyone I knew. So we all asked for Zom to perform at our parties. And since we were all friends, you know, all of us went to every party. So we got to see him perform over and over. The parents, well, they just stood in the back of the room with their arms folded over their chests. You know. Disapproving. But even a few of them had to admit, afterward, that he was pretty good.
He did the usual stuff, you know. Doves turning into smoke, card tricks, rabbits out of hats, what have you. It wasn’t that he was original. He just had that special something. You know, the patter. The way he moved. He was a funny looking fellow—his face was strange, like an inverted triangle, he had a sharp chin and dark eyes and thick pomaded hair that looked like a toupee. Maybe it was a toupee. Anyhow, he was so smooth, it looked effortless, it was mesmerizing. He created this trust. That’s the only way I can explain what happened later. Or how it was allowed to keep happening.
It was at Larry Niles’s party. He was turning 11. And his sister June was eight. Most of the parents were there—they still disapproved of him, officially, but secretly they had become fans. They stood in the back as usual—this was in the Niles’s garage, which Larry’s parents had decorated with balloons and crepe paper. We had cake and ice cream, played a couple of games of pin-the-tail, what have you, and then we took our seats and started chanting, Zom!, Zom!, Zom! And finally he came out and began his show.
By now we’d seen it, oh, half a dozen times. It wasn’t any different this time, or at least it didn’t seem that way to me. A couple people who were there once told me they thought Zom had been more intense, or more nervous, or something, but I don’t recall anything like that.
In any event, toward the end of the show, when he usually got out the rabbit, he instead showed us this little low platform, this little wooden thing, almost a kind of stool, maybe six inches high, but draped in red velvet. And he asked June Niles to come stand on it. She was so excited to be picked—she was a little kid, you know, Larry hadn’t even wanted her there, but their parents insisted. And so she ran up there and got on the platform, and Zom said this and that in some crazy language—it might’ve been nonsense, as far as I know—and he waved his wand around her and bam! June was gone, and there was nothing but a cloud of smoke hovering over the platform.
Of course everybody applauded. He had a velvet curtain behind him, see, and we figured she was hiding behind there somehow. Even though we had just watched her vanish. That was the crazy thing. We just watched it happen, and figured she was back there, when it was clear this impossible thing had just taken place. So okay, Larry went up next, and Zom disappeared him too, and then Gary Fitch, and then Patty Busmiller. And by this time it was getting a little weird in that room, the applause wasn’t so loud, because how could all those kids be hiding behind this little curtain? It was maybe six feet wide, you know? Plus we’d see their feet. So it was beginning to sink in. And as though he sensed this, you know, Zom just hopped up on the platform, winked at the audience—we’d never seen him wink before, I can tell you—and then vanished himself.
Everybody was silent for like a second and a half. Then pandemonium. Mister Busmiller went running up there and yanked the curtain aside. Nothing. I mean—I don’t need to tell you the rest, right? They were gone, the whole lot of ‘em. The police confiscated all of Zom’s equipment, his metal rings, his cards, the whole shebang. They put the dove and rabbit to sleep, as far as I can figure. It was a catastrophe. And once the cops realized the kids weren’t hiding in the house somewhere, or out in the neighborhood, naturally, they started investigating the parents. Because who else, right? It turned the whole town inside out. Lots of nasty secrets got revealed. People didn’t like each other anymore. And of course the kids were gone. Four kids, that’s a lot of missing kids for a town the size of ours.
You know how it went after that. The place is a ghost town. It’s a real pity. We all moved out of state. Personally, I never went back. Who wants to remember all that?
The main thing that gets me is how long it took everyone to accept. I’m not saying they’re lesser people for it, that’s not what I mean. I mean, people can’t accept the impossible, even when it’s right in front of their eyes. Personally, I knew it right off the bat. I was ten of course, so there’s that. But personally, my feeling is, just because it’s impossible, doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.
J. Robert Lennon is the author of six novels, including Mailman and Castle, and a story collection, Pieces for the Left Hand. He teaches writing at Cornell University.
Lou Beach is an award-winning illustrator and artist with a new folly—fiction writing. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt will publish a trade hardcover of Beach’s short-short fiction, 420 Characters, in the fall of 2011. A preview of the collection, with readings by Jeff Bridges, Ian McShane, and Dave Alvin, is currently available. Lou Beach lives in Los Angeles.