September 24, 1955

“Presenting Fantasma Scuro, the greatest magician in the world.”

I chuckled; as if the greatest magician of any place would be caught dead on Coney Island. Within the humble auditorium, my eyes wandered to the peeling paint of the ceiling, down the tattered red curtains, to the worn wood of the stage, across the dresses and coats of the audience, to the pile of peanut shells at my feet.

Peanuts. At least the day wasn’t a total loss. I turned my attention to my sister at my side. Sarah flashed a wide grin. Forcing a smile in return, I reached into the bag in her lap and fished out another handful.

“I’m sorry you’re not having fun,” she offered.

I shrugged and let the smile go. “Maybe I’m just getting too old for this kind of thing.”

“You went trick or treating with me just last…” Sarah paused, cutting her eyes from me to the stage. “Oh, look. Here he comes.”

I turned to see a tall mustached man in a classic black cape and hat. He strolled to the center of the stage and bowed, then waited for what applause there was to subside before he motioned with a sweep of his hand toward the curtain. “May I present my assistant, the lovely Christine!”

From behind the hanging fabric, a young woman strode waving and smiling. I gasped as I beheld her figure, an ideal hourglass constrained by a costume that was little more than a white swimsuit with red sequins. My attention traveled upward along her golden tresses to her movie-star face. She was everything I’d always wanted to be. I sat upright and lamented that I could not trade places with her, experience her glamour, know what it was like to be beautiful, if only for a moment.

My gaze dropped beyond a pair of pouting lips to my own pudgy frame. Beneath the frayed ends of my mousy-brown hair I watched my chest expand with a breath, then collapse through a sigh. I would never be her, or anyone like her. My fingers went to work on the peanuts. Their subtle oily scent wafted to my nose and I managed a little grin before popping the first into my mouth.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” the magician bellowed. “I shall now saw Christine in twain!”

I laughed again; ladies and gentlemen didn’t come to Coney Island either.

My attention was more on the peanuts than the performance until the man began to saw and the assistant loosed a blood-curdling scream. A gasp swept the audience. The child in front of me leapt for his mother. In the near silence that followed I could hear the sound of the saw for the first time. My eyes darted to the blade, half expecting to see a red stain upon it.

“Stop it, Christine!” the magician commanded. “You’re scaring the children.”

“But it hurts!” the young woman gasped.

The man stopped sawing and looked up to the crowd with a grin worthy of a theater melodrama. “Of course it does,” he said. “After all, I am cutting you in half.” Still wearing the same grin he waited for a ripple of amusement to sweep the audience before his hand, and the saw, once again moved. “Try to bear it like a trooper,” he yelled. “I’ll have you back together in a few moments!”

My attention leapt back to the assistant’s head where it protruded from one end of the box. With her contorted face, her clenched teeth, her shaking arms, and tears pouring from her blinking eyes, if she wasn’t in genuine pain, she was sure doing a good job of faking it.

The magician spun the two halves of the box so that the girl’s head and wiggling feet were toward us. He looked down at the supposedly severed ends of the girl and grimaced. “Oh,” he said, turning his eyes back to the audience. “It’s worse than I thought. I’ll be right back.”

With that, he turned and disappeared behind the curtain. The girl’s arms continued to wiggle, but her feet stopped moving. Where her severed abdomen should have been, a red fluid began dripping from the box onto the stage. Several seconds later, her arms went limp and head fell back, revealing to everyone her closed eyes and open mouth.

Another gasp swept the crowd, followed by a few whispers.

The little boy in front of me looked up to his mother. “Did he really cut her in half?”

The woman looked down and smiled. “No. It’s just an act.”

“But what about the blood?”

The woman cradled her son’s head to her bosom. “It’s just ketchup, Sweetie, that’s all. It’s just pretend. You’ll see.”

We heard footsteps. The magician dashed through the curtains and stood for several seconds panting. Then, wearing the same wide grin, he held aloft a tiny pink and white strip. “Let’s just hope I’m not too late!”

I laughed with everyone else. It was an oversized Band-Aid.

The performer rushed to the box and, with mock diligence, pretended to apply the adhesive strip. “I think that’s done it!” he announced. The dripping ceased. Another ripple of laughter swept the crowd.

“Time to put her back together!” the magician announced. With that he spun the box portions until they were again adjacent, then secured them together with a pair of hooks. He clenched his teeth and threw open the lid.

“Dear me!” he said, looking down and scratching his head. “I think this goes here.” He reached into the box and pretended to reassemble the girl, much to everyone’s continued amusement.

A dozen seconds later the girl’s head rose. Turning her face to the audience, she yawned and stretched as if she might be waking from a long night’s sleep. Then she wiggled back into the box before alighting to stand clear of the container. With her ankles crossed in the most dainty of fashions, she smiled and threw her arms wide.

Instead of applause, there was silence. Everyone’s eyes gravitated to the assistant’s midsection where a section of her costume appeared to have been torn away, revealing the lower portion of her abdomen, including her navel.

“Darn, Christine,” the magician said. “We seem to have ruined another of your outfits.”

The girl looked down, then gasped. Her mouth and eyes both widened in the same moment. She looked back to the audience for a full second before she pulled her arms inward, covering her tummy.

“I agree, Christine!” the man called above the laughter. “You should go change!”

A roar of amusement followed the young lady as she turned and ran. My admiring eyes followed her too, until she had disappeared behind the curtain.

“And now,” the magician proclaimed, “I shall pull a rabbit out of my hat.”

He removed the top hat from his head and placed it on the end of the box just above where Christine’s head had been.

Pocus di Hocus,” he said, waving his hands and fluttering his fingers over the upturned hat. “Venuto avanti dal mio manicotto poche lepri

A white bunny leapt from the man’s sleeve onto the box top.

The magician put a hand to his chest, then turned his wide eyes to the audience. Everyone laughed as he hurried to stuff the bunny into the hat only to have it leap from his other sleeve. A larger roar of amusement swept the crowd.

“Bear with me,” he pleaded, putting the rabbit into the hat for the second time. “I’ve never done this without my assistant.” At once the bunny fell from his trouser leg onto the stage.

Though he continued to put the rabbit into the hat, it continued to appear elsewhere until at last it poked just its head from the box.

“I should have sawed you in half instead!” the magician cried. Amid yet more laughter, he thrust the bunny into the hat then threw his headgear into the audience. Without looking back, he turned and stalked toward the curtain.

The laughter ceased. Everyone’s eyes turned to a man in the third row as he examined the hat. There were whispers. He passed the hat to another man who proceeded to push and pull the black material, but there was no sign of any compartment, much less a rabbit.

This man passed the hat along, then stood and directed his hearty applause toward the stage. Within seconds, the rest of us joined him.

After a quarter-minute of such ovation, the magician’s head poked from between the slit in the curtains. His wide eyes roamed the audience in the few seconds it took for the clapping to subside.

“So,” he called, “am I to understand you wish to give me a chance to redeem myself after the rabbit fiasco?”

Another round of laughter, and applause, swept the crowd.

Wearing a wide smile, the magician emerged. Christine followed, wearing a costume similar to her first, except this one was blue and silver.

We applauded again. With a start, I turned my empty palms to my face, then glanced past my hands to the floor, trying to remember when I had dropped my peanuts. Looking back to the stage, I began to wonder what the world’s greatest magician was doing on Coney Island.

* * *

“I thought you didn’t like this place,” said Dad, victorious sarcasm evident in the raised pitch of his voice. “It’s getting late. We should get a couple dogs at Nathan’s and head home.”

“No!” Sarah squealed, wrinkling her nose and pulling on our father’s arm. “I don’t want anything from Nathan’s.”

“You have to see him,” I added. “He’s the best.”

“Then why is he free?” Dad asked.

“He’s only free today,” I explained. “Something about it being the first day of fall.”

Our father smirked. “Equinox special, is it? How good can he really be if he performs for free? We could ride the Thunderbolt instead, you’ve always like that…”

“We’ve ridden the coasters before,” I said. “All three of them.”

Dad stopped. A grin spread across his face. “You’ve seen the magician before too, haven’t you? At least you haven’t ridden a roller coaster today.”

“Please!” My sister and I begged in unplanned unison.

Our father looked to each of us, then to our mother. This last look sealed his fate.

“We drove two hours to get here,” Mom said. “We can stay for one more show.”

Thus the four of us filed into the modest show hall for the final performance of the evening. The act went much as before. First, the magician sawed his assistant in half. Then he had trouble with the renegade rabbit. Next, Christine locked him in a chest suspended on a pair of wooden chairs and he escaped, appearing with a puff of smoke amid the audience.

Finally, he threw seven daggers at his assistant while she spun on a wheel. Though he appeared to toss the knives in every direction except toward the assistant, each blade flew true, popping one of the seven balloons nestled near her body.

Watching the performance again, knowing what would happen, I was even more amazed; I could find not a hint of how he accomplished his tricks. Even the volunteers from the audience were different. After the knife throwing I applauded with everyone else, expecting the magician to issue his thanks, but he tricked me once again.

He and his assistant wheeled a pair of dark wooden booths onto the stage. Wearing broad grins the duo then walked to the forward edge of the platform where he again spoke.

“For the final performance of the final show of the final day of the summer, I’d like to perform a special trick. I’ll need another assistant from the audience, but not a burly gentleman like last time. This time, I’ll need the loveliest lady in the crowd, one even lovelier than Christine.”

The assistant looked to the magician, then back to the spectators, affecting a dramatic pout in the process. Of course, everyone laughed at her mock lament.

“But who is this damsel?” The magician paused to smile and raise one index finger aloft. “I know not. It is for you,” he directed that finger toward us, “to decide. That’s right, everyone look around and when you’ve decided who is the most beautiful maiden amongst you, close your eyes and picture her.”

The spectators began swiveling their heads, looking every direction. I looked first to my dad, hoping he might look my way; but he looked to my mother instead and clamped his eyes closed at once. She blushed, then smiled.

I grinned as well, then turned my attention back to the other spectators, hoping against hope just one gentleman might look my way, but none did. With a sigh, I sank into my seat.

The magician walked to the center of the stage while his assistant departed the platform and stood adjacent to the first row. “Now,” he began, “through the mystical power of the mind, I will guide Christine to the fairest maiden on the island.”

With that, he spun, facing away from us. His arms rose above his head. He turned his upturned left palm toward us, and flapped it once.

The assistant moved up a row. The magician motioned again. The assistant took several steps. And so it went, until the young lady reached, and then passed, my row. Within my chest, my heart sank. I turned and looked to my sister. She looked back and shrugged. A moment later, I swallowed and glanced to my feet, wishing for a handful of peanuts.

Hearing the sounds of shuffling, I glanced over my shoulder to see Christine sliding through the row behind me. I snapped my focus forward again until a round of giggles swept the audience. Turning, I saw the assistant standing just behind and above me, in front of a trio of men. Her eyes and upturned palms spread wide, she motioned to the men, then hunched her shoulders about her neck and shook her head.

I smiled. The giggles from the audience turned into a roar. Christine’s exaggerated focus snapped back to the stage, taking our attention with it. The magician raised a single forefinger in the air and then stabbed downward with it. A few seconds of silence followed before he spun, smiled, and thrust his splayed hands toward the audience.

Within the crowd, every head save one swiveled a direction I could never have ever anticipated. The one head that did not move with the others was mine. Naive in my ignorance I bounced my eyes about the faces turned toward me until I looked at last to my father.

Wearing a wide grin, he motioned upward with his eyes. I kinked my neck backward to see the assistant smiling down at me.

I felt a touch on my forearm and looked to my right. Sarah beamed back. “I knew it was you!” she squealed. “It had to be. I picked you!”

“Thanks,” I managed, feeling a bit guilty I had not done the same for my sibling.

“The necklace, Christine,” the magician roared from the stage, diverting my attention from my sister. “Our gift to Coney Island’s Autumn Queen of 1955!”

A round of applause followed while the assistant removed one of the pair of identical necklaces she wore. My mouth fell open as her hands descended with the ribbon of jewels stretched between them. My eyes followed the string of glistening gems. A gift? I mused. Is it really mine? Do I have to give it back? The gold of the necklace settled upon my neck. Amid yet more applause, a shiver of excitement swept from my shoulders to my hips.

“Stand please,” the magician beckoned. “Tell us your name.”

With my knees trembling, I rose. I could feel my cheeks grow warm. “Megan,” I said.

“Louder, please!”


“Megan,” the magician called back, “I should like to bring you upon the stage, with your parents’ permission of course, for the climax of our show. No knives or saws, I promise!”

Another round of laugher swept the crowd, but I barely heard it. My eyes leapt to my father. “Can I?”

“Yes, Sweetie, of course.”

Looking up, I saw Christine smiling at me from the aisle at the end of my row. She extended an upturned palm and gestured by curling her fingers back and forth. Then she turned and strolled toward the stage. I all but tripped over my own feet scurrying after her. With my shoulders tight about my neck, I followed her onto and then across the stage.

There I found a magician younger than I had expected, and taller too. The wild hair and mustache I could see were fake, though not the swarthy complexion and hawk-like nose. “Well, Megan,” he said, “the audience certainly outdid themselves today. You are lovely.”

My cheeks bulged to make room for my smile. Outside of my family, no one had ever called me lovely before, least of all a strapping young man. Again the audience applauded. A tingle swept from my shoulders to my toes. I could get used to this! I decided.

“Now, Megan,” the magician continued, “are you ready to participate in our final magical act of the day?”

I nodded my enthusiasm.

“Very good!” From out of nowhere the man produced a pair of wooden shafts, each a couple feet long and the diameter of my thumb. “I want you to take this rod and poke it beneath whichever booth you want.”

Eyes wide, I accepted one of the sticks and then looked to the two vertical black boxes. They looked the same to me, so I went to the nearest, knelt, and shoved the rod beneath the booth into the space created by the wheels.

“Wiggle it around a bit,” the magician said.

This I did, tapping the wheels on either side.

“And now,” he said, “put your rod anywhere on the stage where you’d like your box to be.”

I wandered the platform for several seconds before deciding no place looked better than any other. Turning back to the magician, I dropped the stick.

“Now for Christine’s box,” he said, extending the second staff toward me. “Same thing.”

As I repeated the procedure a second time, the assistant pushed the first box until it rested atop the first rod I had placed. Less than a minute later, the magician wheeled the second box atop the second stick.

“And now,” the magician said, opening the door to the second booth. “Check the interior.”

I peered inside, uncertain what I was meant to be checking for. The box was lined with a grey metal. Aside from the door itself, and the dozen or so holes the diameter of a pencil drilled through it, there was no sign of any opening.

“Do you see any way for Christine to escape the box other than through the door?”

Biting my upper lip I gave the box one last look, then turned my eyes to the magician and shook my head.

“Very well then,” he said, turning to his assistant. “Christine?”

With a smile and a curtsey, the young lady stepped into the booth. The magician closed the door behind her and latched it with the simple twist of a wooden block. He turned to me with a smile.

“This way, Megan.”

He motioned with a wave of his hand and I walked to take my place in the other cabinet. Darkness surrounded me the instant the magician closed the door, aside from the streams of light entering from the holes just above my eyes.

“And now,” the magician bellowed, “as most of you may have guessed, I’m going to cause Megan and Christine to trade places within these two booths. I need absolute quiet, please.”

I stood on my tiptoes and peered through the tiny openings, wondering how in the world he was going to move me into the other box and if I was meant to do anything to help him.

Outside, between the booths, the magician began to chant, “Fantasma di inferno, sentire me. Trasferire dentro corpi … “

A flash of blue glow played across the audience. The illuminated faces gaped in unison, then issued a collective gasp. The magician continued to chant. A tingling crept over my body. A hissing, crackling sound like that of a roaring fire enveloped me. My nose sampled that peculiar scent that precedes rainfall. I became dizzy. My legs wobbled. I collapsed. The cold of the metal floor greeted my knees, but I hardly felt it. For a moment, I would swear I felt absolutely nothing, then my head warmed as sensation returned.