Tuesday, January 31, 2017

"Don't Try This At Home" By Jonathan Segol - 2016 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Semi-Finalist

"Don't Try This At Home" 


Jonathan Segol 

All the good Dads are a block away, taking their kids swimming, playing skee-ball, riding the Wonder Wheel, deciding between lemon and coconut ices.  My daughter and I might do these things later.  For now, we slow down to admire the murals on the wall.  The people depicted in the murals appear as various combinations of comic book heroes and Egyptian goddesses.  The captions in the corners only amplify the effect:


The image above “Electra Alive” looks like Isis in a bathing suit, with lightning bolts coming out of her fingers.  Another one, next to the caption “Wolf Man Sr. Chuy”  shows a well-dressed wolfman walking a tightrope.  More captions in giant letters leave no doubt as to what is inside:


Aren’t parents supposed to build kids’ resistance to advertising?  I silently promise myself I will critique commercials next time my daughter and I watch television.   
For now, I say, “Aren’t these good pictures?”
“They are,” my daughter agrees.
And that’s why, on a sunny afternoon, my daughter and I are sitting in a dim theater, watching the emcee complete his opening welcome, then hammer a nail up his nose, where it sits without slowing down his routine:
“It takes a little practice to find the gap between the bone and cartilage.  Last year, I stopped bleeding enough to include this trick in the show.  I know what you’re thinking.  You’re thinking, if he’s such a well-practiced emcee, why is he banging a nail into his head?”
He pauses to remove the nail from his nose, approaches the front row, says, “Can you hold this?”  Half the front row shrieks, the emcee returns to center stage with his discolored nail and continues:
“I know what you’re thinking: can’t the emcee do better than a nail?”
The emcee reaches into the side pocket of his parachute pants.  He pulls out a power drill.  There is more shrieking and gasping around the room as he sticks the power drill up his nose.  And turns it on.
I eat this stuff up.  So does my daughter, it turns out.  I knew she would.
Next up walks Serpentina – a six-foot tall sturdy-looking woman – who sits in an electric chair.  When the emcee flips the switch, sparks jump.  The emcee asks for a volunteer.  I usually encourage my daughter  to volunteer at magic shows, get involved in the fun, and even get applauded.  This time, we both hold back. 
A young woman near the front row comes onstage.  The emcee hands her a long metal wand and asks her to touch it to Serpentina’s tongue.  Some questions remain that the emcee addresses:
“Before you do, could you sign this waiver?  Simply a formality, it protects us from liability, in case of a power surge or something.  And list your next of kin?  Thank you.”
The volunteer reaches out with the wand.  Serpentina opens her mouth.  As she reaches out with her tongue – a long tongue – we all lean in.  
Her tongue touches the wand.  Light bursts out.  The volunteer screams and drops the wand.  The emcee laughs.
“Don’t worry.  You’re fine.  Just don’t take a drink for the next fifteen minutes.  Let’s have a hand for—“
“That was good,” my daughter and I say at the same time.
Am I out of my mind?  This is the daughter who’s had three stages of regular nightmares; one for each time we two moved, and also when her mom and I split up.  
In the event of a nightmare, I attend to her, sometimes brush the monsters out the door, maybe even instruct her what she will dream of next.  Then I stand next to her while she settles back to sleep.  This job utilizes the only remaining cognitive skill in which men are widely considered superior, is that of “compartmentalization.”  This is an academic psychological term that in this context means, “going back to sleep like nothing ever happened.”  It another context it may result in taking your nightmare-prone daughter to see a freak show.  Luckily, I am compartmentalizing too well to be troubled about the nighttime.
Now we are both wide awake, eyes bursting to watch a lanky bald man with stumps for arms.  At the end of those arms are just enough fingers to clutch the drumsticks that he pounds into the full drumset standing before him.  With the speed and skill of any jazz drummer, he layers rhythms on top of rhythms and slips in cymbal crashes without missing a beat.  Around us, reactions range from horror to admiration and combinations of the two.  I cannot stop watching and neither can my daughter.
My daughter likes the drums.  She took a year of violin to humor her parents. But the drums are her true calling, a calling that school orchestra will not meet; nor will school band.  I predict any musical epiphanies will occur in college or young adulthood with a punk band.  As gasps erupt around us, she comments on the drums:
“He plays really well.”
I look around for other families that have brought their children.  There were five or six kids here before.  One looked as young as my daughter.  They are all gone now.

Next up is the Contortionist (also Serpentina).  She climbs into a wooden box with several slits on the top.  The emcee drops a large sword into each one, with a good deal of patter in between each sword plunge:
“I know you’re listening for a scream or for the gurgle of a punctured body organ.  But Serpentina can see the light through the slits and knows which way to twist.”  
The emcee puts up his hands and continues with his favorite phrase.
“I know what you’re thinking: some shows would have the contortionist crawl through an escape hatch at the bottom of the box, connected to a trap door on the stage, have a coffee break under the stage while I plunge twenty swords into this box.  Like so!  15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20!  And now anyone who contributes an extra dollar may walk on to the stage and peer into the slits and see Serpentina curled inside – by choice, more or less.  If anyone sees blood trickling out the side of the box, our 911 phone is on the wall there.  They know where we are.”
A line quickly forms by the side of the stage, more orderly than we would expect of a freak show.  My daughter and I look at each other and nod, as if to say there is no need to ask.  We join the line and make our way to the stage.  I place two dollar bills into the emcee’s hand and we proceed to the box with twenty swords stuck through it.  There is not much to see, just enough to confirm that Serpentina is in fact curled inside the box.
My daughter and I return to our seats as others walk on to the stage to get their peek.  I try not to look at this line of people, but I can’t help it.  I am guessing their ages, their stages of life.  Senior citizens, middle agers, college students., maybe some high schoolers?  The next youngest audience member might be five years older than my daughter.
This can’t be the most shocking thing my daughter has seen this summer.  This week she saw a mother hit her preschool son for dropping a potato chip on the sidewalk.  Was she with me when the car hit the biker on Flatbush Avenue?  Or when the mother and father were cursing at each other in frightening tones on some other street?  Scared me.  I compartmentalize hard, clapping and cheering as the emcee pulls one sword after another out of the box, making a show of checking each one for blood and vital body organs.  Finally, Serpentina steps out of the box and straightens up to her majestic height.  She appears almost regal as she takes multiple bows and acknowledges our standing ovation.
Back outside the sunshine feels nourishing. It’s early afternoon, and we have ample time for skeeball, Wonderwheel, lemon ices, and playing in the small waves that lap up this stretch of shoreline.  

Back in the neighborhood, someone on the block notes our reddened arms and sandy towels.  She asks where we’ve been today.  I’m almost relieved that we proceeded to  more conventional forms of summer fun, and left sand and sunburns the most visible signs of our day, not the details that will get Children and Family Services called on me.  I step back to let my daughter answer.  
She  lights up and exclaims, “We saw a man with no arms play the drums.  And another man stuck a power drill up his nose.  And a giant woman sat in the electric chair and later got twenty swords stuck in her.  And then she got right back up.”
My neighbor lifts an eyebrow at me.  To my daughter she smiles warmly and says, “Sounds like you had a nice day.” 
We both slept well that night.

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