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Slackjaw by Jim Knipfel
Makin' The Kids Happy
I don't remember much about the third grade. To be honest, as I get older, I'm remembering less and less about everything--but I guess that's no surprise. It's a tough position to be in given this business though, I'll tell you that.
But every once in awhile, something will set off a trigger in my head, open a tiny door or window onto something I hadn't thought about in 20 or 30 years. Usually it's a door onto something I'd rather not think about. And sometimes, like a few days ago, it shines a light on the merely inconsequential.
I was on my way home from the tavern. It was early evening, a bit overcast, and I was in a mood. It seems to be happening most every day lately. Morgan and I have a good time at the bar, we talk and drink and tell funny stories. The minute I step foot on the Brooklyn-bound train, however, I feel it creep up in me. I get bumped around the train as I try and find a handhold, look as best as I can at all the faces around me, and I begin to hate.
So I was doing a bit of stewing and quiet raging as I strolled down the sidewalk, looking forward to eating and going to bed, praying I'd finally be able to sleep that night. Then I passed a big cardboard refrigerator box, sitting all alone in the middle of the sidewalk, like the monolith in 2001.
I stopped a moment and squinted it at. It was dredging something up, I could feel it. Didn't know what it was yet, though. Memory is such an odd beast.
I stepped around the box, which was a good foot taller than me, and continued on my way towards home.
With each step, I knew I was getting closer to what that box was stirring in my memory. I used to play with boxes as a kid, but that wasn't it. Pretended they were tanks or submarines or battleships in the dark, cement-floored basement of the little duplex we lived in.
This was different though. A classroom was involved. And a tapping sound. And a lot of small voices, laughing. And darkness. And fear.
By the time I turned the corner, I had it.
Third grade. Webster Elementary. Mr. Herkman's class. Yes, "Herkman." What a fucking awful name. All these years later, and I still can't get over it. Pretty fitting for her, though.
She decided one day, for reasons far and beyond me, that it was the duty of the students in her class to put on a little fair for the first graders of the school. Yes, well, teachers do things like that.
There would be games and snacks and entertainment. Everyone would leave feeling buoyant and well-satisfied, happy to be alive at such a magical time.
As duties were portioned out over the next few days, some of my classmates were told that they'd be running games or concession stands. And I was told that I would be...a clown.
More than just a stupid, mincing clown though. I was to be a jack-in-the-box clown.
Here was her idea. She had this clown suit. And she had a refrigerator box. Put the clown suit on the kid, put the kid in the refrigerator box, have the kid jump out of the refrigerator box and voile--instant, simple, full-proof entertainment for first graders.
She chose three of us. Tim Jenkins (who would be murdered at the age of 18 by his shotgun-wielding brother), Greg Erdman (a big dumb kid), and me. This was before all the clown troubles had begun. Those would come a year later. Here, I was just amazed that I was about to be humiliated this way. I tried to trade jobs with a few classmates, and they were perfectly willing, but Mrs. Herkman wasn't having any of it. She knew who she wanted in that box.
The classroom was decorated with gaily-colored streamers and crayon pictures and balloons. Tables were set up, and games readied.
The fair was scheduled to run from three, when school let out, until five. Each "Clown-in-the-Box" would be expected to perform for 45 minutes. Jump out of the box. Get back in the box. Jump out of the box. Get back in the box.
And so on.
Tim would be first, then Greg, then me. I was glad of that--after an hour and a half, I figured the shtick would've pretty much played itself out.
The box I ran into on the sidewalk a few days ago was a foot taller than I am now. When I was 8, a box of the same size would've been a good what, two and a half feet taller than me? And what I found particularly sad back then was the fact that the refrigerator box in question wasn't disguised at all. It was just a damned cardboard box with "Amana" or "Kenmore" or "Frigidaire" printed on the side along with the product specifications. Oh, a red magic marker had been taken to it some but to no great effect.
I wandered the classroom, in and amongst the happy fair-going children, occasionally swinging by to watch Tim and Greg's technique. They seemed to be enjoying themselves. They'd pop out the top of the box, much to the delight of the children sitting on the floor around them, make faces, what have you. Once in awhile, Mrs. Herkman would come by and ask loud questions through the side of the box, while Tim or Greg were crouched in the darkness, awaiting the perfect moment to suddenly appear again, surprising everyone.
Then it was my turn. Greg slipped out of the one-piece clown outfit (which by now was soaked in the sweat of two people), handed it to me, and I stepped into it.
It hung off my body like a damp shower curtain, revealing more than it covered. Greg tipped the box on its side, and I crawled into it. Then he set it upright again.
None of this had ever been rehearsed in any way. So while Tim and Greg--both of them being on the tall side--could very easily pop out the top, as is expected of a Clown-the-the-Box, I found that even on my tiptoes, I couldn't see over the edge. The best I could do was punch a hand through the top, and wave.
That seemed foolish unless you were putting on a puppet show, so I did the next best thing--which, in my mind, was the first best thing all along.
I sat in the darkness, knees to my chest, at the bottom of that box, unmoving, unentertaining, for 45 minutes, until it was time to go home. Mrs. Herkman tapped on the side of the box after the first 10 minutes of silence, called to me, told me to come out and say hi to the kids--even opened up the top and peeked in once, whispered a mild threat--but I wouldn't budge. No sir. Just sat there feeling oddly safe.
I guess that's what you might call my first performance piece.