Earl set the keys to the ash-colored minivan on the motel room’s nightstand. He moved the keys to the desk made of fiberboard, and then proceeded to place them on the dresser near the door, with a prominent jingle. He was anxious for his wife Cornella to take their three children, two boys and a girl, out for Halloween.
“What are you—a cat with a bell around its neck?” she snarled. “Stand still or do something useful.”
“It’s just, I need my space.”
It was the wrong thing to say. A harsh sigh slipped out from between his wife’s gritted teeth. Earl closed his eyes and pressed the balls of his feet into the scratchy carpet. He tried to think about the night’s performance, tried to stop his jitters.
“Why don’t you help then,” she said. “I’m ready to get out of here, let me tell you, and the kids want candy. But Mattie can’t find her ballet slippers, and the boys won’t put on their costumes.”
“Earl Jr. and Randy,” he said to the boys. “Do like your mama says.”
Half-dressed in a long black skirt and lace bra, Cornella crawled on her hands and knees, searching for Mattie’s slippers. The blue light of the television flickered across her still youthful face and thin neck as she pulled her head out from under a bed. Even after ten years of marriage, he found her beautiful, though he knew if he told her now she might kick him.
“I know it’s tight, but we go home tomorrow,” he said. “It’s just for tonight.”
“We know all about tonight,” she said. She’d found Mattie’s pink slippers in a duffel bag and was now helping their daughter slip them on. “We all know how special it is. You’ve made that clear.”
Earl had to turn away. The way she lashed him, with her fierce eyes and coarse tone, and in front of the children. It certainly wasn’t very Christian, not that he’d ever say that to her. She didn’t know what it was to move through this world feeling stuck, a lifeless zombie. Until one day he woke up. And now, now he was alive. He would always love his wife, he would always want her near, but he wasn’t meant to stay a struggling locksmith in Lampasas forever.
“We’re leaving,” she said, buttoning up her blouse.
He didn’t want her leaving angry if he could help it. He kissed the children and then grabbed her hand, her skin as smooth as her gold wedding band. He pulled her into an embrace. Her body remained rigid, but she let him latch on and stiffly patted his back in return.
“I love you,” he said.
“Then don’t do this,” she said. “It’s not right. It’s humiliating.”
She pushed him away, grabbed the car keys, and left. With the warm bodies of his wife and children gone, the smell of Lysol and cigarettes came through. This place was a dump. It didn’t matter. He turned off the lights and drew the curtains shut and found himself in a shadowy darkness. In twenty minutes his father would arrive in a rented white Cadillac to drive him to his show. His parents had driven in for the occasion.
Earl needed to reset his mind. He needed to focus. He cleared aside toys and underwear and sat cross-legged on the carpet between the two double beds. His bony knees splayed out like wings as he tried to meditate. Earl did not believe in God, nor did he believe in magic. He believed in training the mind and training the body. He believed in illusion—in art.
He tried to concentrate on his breath—courage on the inhale, nerves out on the exhale—but his mind wouldn’t stop racing. The risk, the thrill, the success—he wanted—needed—this night so badly. He knew he could do it. He wasn’t an idiot, like many of the magicians he’d seen, pretending to pull rabbits out of hats and letting doves fly out their asses, claiming supernatural powers or that the planet’s alignment was on their side. In fact, he abhorred the word, “magician.” He was an escape artist, a modern day Houdini. All he had to do was prove it.
And Earl had a knack for defying death. Two years ago in a car accident up near Brownwood, he’d nearly died. He’d been moving cocaine for a friend, desperate for cash. His wife thought he was driving night delivery for Walmart—if she knew about the drugs, no doubt he’d never see her or his children again. Work had been slow, so occasionally he took up odd jobs to round out the rent and other family expenses. But it wasn’t just the money. He’d known he was taking risks in vain, but he couldn’t get himself to care enough to stop. He was living on the thrill of a secret. On the night of the accident, the roads were icy, and he was eager to get home to finish Carl Jung’s The Undiscovered Self. So eager that after he made his drop and did a line, he floored the gas and swerved south, causing his car to spin and flip four times, landing upside down like a cockroach on its back.
The next time he opened his eyes, he was in a white room with static sheets and hooked up to a heart monitor. He clenched his fists and screamed out. A nurse came running. That’s when he knew, sitting in the white hospital room, that he wasn’t about to waste another day. He’d been going about things the wrong way. No more nonsense. He used to pray to God, asking for a life of value, but God never answered. In the white room he heard Jung’s voice: Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes. He was ready to look within. It was time to be something—something incredible.
When Earl wasn’t practicing his routines or traveling for shitty gigs, he continued to take jobs as a locksmith and sometimes as a carpenter or handyman. He’d always been good with his hands. At a fair in Burnet he’d heard that the east Texas town of Sunnyville held a Halloween festival every year that was well attended. He wrote to the city council asking if he could perform, and they agreed, offering to let him build his performance space on an abandoned lot with soft soil just off the square. Of course, they wouldn’t be able to pay him. That’s fine, he said. At this point in his career, he was after exposure. Sunnyville was only an hour from Houston, and if he did well, perhaps it could be the break he needed. He was thirty-four and had a receding hairline and a quarter-sized bald circle on the back of his head. It was expanding.
Cornella checked her watch. She held their ballerina-daughter’s hand as she and their sons—Batman and a pirate—walked door to door in a foreign neighborhood with tall, piney trees and square-shaped houses, A/C units blasting. Posters taped to telephone poles advertised The Incredible Earl’s Death-Defying Resurrection Act. Earl had come down to post them throughout the area about a month ago, and then last weekend, leaving her alone yet again with their indefatigable children.
With most of his earnings and time going to magic and travel, she wondered if life would feel any different without him. Though he was never perfect, he used to be normal—a man like her father or brothers or friends’ husbands. He’d go to church; at least help the children say their bedtime prayers. Her older sister had gotten pregnant at seventeen and was kicked out of the house, but not Cornella. No, she wore white to her wedding, and had the right to. She’d landed a man with promise, or so she thought when they wed so many years ago. She used to get on to Earl for drinking too much beer or jumping on her as soon as the kids went down. How she longed for those to be her complaints. Now, if he was even home, he’d shut himself in the garage long past midnight, not caring if that meant she slept cold and alone. He refused to go to church, refused to bow his head for Sunday dinners. She was ashamed to have him around her parents now. He’d become a shell of a husband, nothing more than a memory of what he used to be. And tonight he seemed out to disgrace the family openly with his latest act of irreverence. Worst of all, if the night went well, he’d told her he planned to repeat the act back in Lampasas. When he first began, they’d made a deal he’d never perform at home, but his tune was starting to change. He was growing brazen, and it had to stop. All she’d ever wanted was a quiet, peaceful life. Was that really too much to ask for?
“We should head to the festival,” she said to the children through fanged teeth. She was dressed as a kitty cat.
On the square the Sunnyville High School band was playing an out-of-tune rendition of “The Monster Mash” in full costume. Outside the limestone courthouse sat a blue blow-up slide rented for the kids and all kinds of craft booths. There was a lady who made jewelry, another who made watermelon salsa and blackberry jam, a man who carved animals out of wood. Girls could even get their face-painted. Cornella saw a photo booth and remembered how Earl used to take her to the Stephenville Rodeo every fall before they had Earl Jr. As frustrated as she was with Earl, she missed him. She wished he were here with her now, not as a performer, but as a husband and a father. As the man she’d been so proud to marry.
Sick of her attached tail and fake teeth, Cornella threw the props away and bought the children hotdogs and Cokes before directing them over to their father’s performance space. They found Earl’s mother, who was fanning herself with a Sunnyville Visitor’s Guide. Cornella wondered if his mother knew what was in the act, how she could accept it if so. The sky was nearly dark, but the air still balmy and hot. They stood near the lit stage and pawed at blood-thirsty mosquitos, waiting.
The Incredible Earl heard a knock on the motel door. It was time. He studied himself in the bathroom mirror. He looked good—right for the occasion. He wore a starched white suit and white leather dress shoes with tiny holes in them so his feet could breathe. What hair he had left, he wore slicked back.
“You sure you want to do this?” his father asked as they drove to the festival. “It might upset some folks.”
“Good. Then they’ll remember it.”
Earl looked forward at the setting sky, focused. He’d never performed for more than fifteen people, and he was told this audience could be upwards of a hundred. Clipped to his lapel, he felt the weight of his gold American Magician Association pin. A glossy picture of his wife in a red sweater from when they first met hid in his pocket, along with a lock pick.
A large, silver-haired man, wearing a pale shirt with a blue swordfish pattern stood near the stage. Little girls wearing pointy witch hats and boys with plastic swords gazed forward intently, their sweaty fingers clenched around baskets full of candy. Cornella couldn’t believe how many people had come, almost three hundred or so she estimated.
“Stop fighting!” she said to her sons. “Quit twirling—you’re making me dizzy,” to Mattie. “Be still, all of you!”
She had forgotten to feed herself. She reached into Mattie’s pink basket and plucked out a piece of chocolate. She unwrapped the treat, only to find that it was melted near to liquid. The soggy peanut butter cream smeared all over her hands, like glue. If only she had a napkin. She looked around to see if anyone was watching her. No one was. She threw the slick wrapper on the ground and buried it with the tip of her black boot.
Any moment now, Earl would step forward to begin his act. At least he had done a good job with the set. The hole in the ground—four feet by eight feet and then six feet deep—looked exact. It had clean lines. She stuck her dirty hands in the pockets of her skirt. She was trying to be more positive, to calm herself. Next to the hole, he’d built a raised wood platform with a wall on the back of it to serve as a stage. An easel holding his poster, framed, and a microphone stand stood on the construct. A pile of soil sat next to the hole, and then the cement truck.
No, she couldn’t pretend—nothing about this was okay. To the right of the hole lay a see-through coffin made of Plexiglas. The sight of it made her queasy. Also on the stage, there were thick ropes and handcuffs draped over a small wood bench. Four lustrous shovels leaned up against the wood siding. He could never perform at home. If he did, she’d never be able to show her face again. The children would be judged the offspring of a freak. Her sister, who was now married to a moneyed cattleman, would scoff at their backwards ways, and her Baptist parents might very well disown her. Cornella’s whole life, the one that she’d worked so hard to build, the one that was hanging on by a thread, would no doubt be over.
When Earl first started, he’d wanted her to be his assistant, like Houdini’s wife was to him, but she refused. She recognized his newfound magic was important to him, so she tried to be supportive in other ways, but, if she was honest, she’d never liked his passion. In fact she’d hated it from the start. Ever since his car accident, he’d been a different man speaking of the nonexistence of God and spending what little money they had on himself. He said he had a void to fill, which she took to mean she wasn’t enough. She’d known from the get-go he’d wanted to get out of Lampasas, but she hoped the life they built there, with three healthy children, would eventually be enough. It’d been more than enough for her. All she ever wanted was to be regular and respected. She was prepared to go through hard times in a marriage, but she was not prepared for this.
On their way, The Incredible Earl and his father stopped to pick up four local high school boys he’d hired to help. They’d rehearsed the weekend before. He’d instructed them to dress in black, which he was pleased to see they did.
“Y’all’ll have to squeeze in the back,” he said.
The boys, still not used to their tall and muscular bodies, clamored in together in the back seat of the Cadillac. They tried not to make eye contact with one another as their spread thighs and narrow hips pressed together. Earl laughed to himself, amused.
“When’s this show goin’ a get goin’?” the silver-haired man with the swordfish-patterned shirt said. “I wanna see a man die.”
Just then the Cadillac arrived. The high school boys Earl had hired ran to the stage. The tallest came forth to the microphone and turned it on and tested it with three pats of his palm, each one making Cornella jump.
Earl and his father parked the car next to the cement truck. His father shook his hand and joined the front of the crowd.
“Welcome, everyone,” the boy said into the microphone.
The show was about to begin. Earl sat alone in the car and traced the seams of the leather car seat to try and keep his mind still.
“On this Halloween night, we’ll all be receiving a special trick, a special treat,” the boy said, as instructed. He stuttered at first, but soon found his footing. “World-famous performer, a progeny of Houdini, has agreed to come to our little town for the unveiling of his most incredible escape act yet. Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, please, allow me to introduce, the greatest illusionist of our time—the Incredible Earl and his Death-Defying Resurrection Act!”
Earl stepped out of the Cadillac in his crisp, white suit and ran up to the stage, waving at the cheering crowd. Before he took the microphone, he spread his legs hip-distance apart and pressed the balls of his dress shoes into the platform. His quads engaged, and he began to sweat. He forced himself to look up. He scanned the massive, magnificent crowd and could feel its conglomerate pulse. He never imagined there’d be so many people in attendance. A thrilling rush of life ran through his body like ice in his veins. He forgot about the heat and his fears and remembered exactly why he was here and why he had to do this. He saw his ballerina-daughter in the audience, twirling.
“Ladies and gentleman,” Earl said. “Little witches and pirates, ballerinas and superheroes. Thank you for joining me.”
Near the front of the crowd, a cameraman from a Houston news station was filming.
“I’ve invited y’all here, including my own dear children, wife, mother, and father, to watch me die. Alas, just as Jesus was reborn, so will I be, though not with any sort of spiritual assistance. No. I’ll use my own finesse to escape the ultimate obstacle, the ultimate fear. Death.”
Cornella cringed. She couldn’t stand his profane disrespect, that he’d compared himself to their Lord. It humiliated her and would confuse the children. Never before had he so flagrantly mocked God in his acts. It wasn’t right. It wasn’t normal.
“Many of y’all’re probably wondering, what exactly is my act,” Earl said, his voice booming. “Well, allow me to tell you, and then, if you’re brave enough to stay, allow me to show you.”
“He’s plenty well-practiced, right?” Earl’s mother whispered. She was still fanning herself despite an assuaging breeze that had set in.
“You know what happens?” Cornella asked. “And you think it’s decent?”
“He told me that even ol’ Houdini couldn’t stand to be buried alive,” Earl’s father interjected. “That boy has guts, that’s for sure.”
“All of Houston’s going to see him,” his mother said. “My son’s going to be something—you just wait and see.”
Methodists. Cornella could barely keep herself from screaming.
“Placed in this here coffin, I’ll be lowered down into a six foot hole. Then, I’ll be covered with four feet of dirt. The final two feet will be filled with wet cement,” Earl said. “This may seem like an inescapable situation, but I promise, I’ll find my way out and surprise you all with my artfulness.”
“You forgot to mention you’ll be handcuffed,” the tall boy whispered.
“Ah yes,” Earl whispered back. And then in the microphone he said, “And as if this situation wasn’t dire enough, I’ll be handcuffed at my feet and hands!”
To Earl, it felt as if the crowd was one collective spirit, lunging into him with its feverish excitement, swelling into his soul. His heart beat wildly, and he could’ve breathed fire if the act called for it. If there was such a thing as magic, this was it. This feeling, the night’s energy, was inside of Earl, in his blood. He even had the beginnings of an erection.
He’d wanted a night like this his whole life, and here it was. Here he was, a man that mattered. He tried to notice every detail: the fall breeze that had finally set in, the sound of cicadas, the smell of cement, the faces of his children, the Spanish moss on the side of the courthouse. He would never forget. All he needed was his wife.
“Before I’m cuffed, I have a very special favor to ask of a very special lady. My wife. Cornella, please. Would you join me on stage?”
Please say this isn’t happening, she thought to herself, in shock. Dear Lord, please say he’s not making me do this.
“I’ll watch the children, you best go on up, dear,” Earl’s mother said. “Best not embarrass the star and refuse.”
Cornella wiped her sticky hands on her skirt and straightened her cat ears before walking up to the stage. She looked at Earl and squinted her eyes. Don’t you dare make me a part of this.
“Ladies and gentleman, a round of applause for my beautiful bride!”
The crowd clapped and whistled loudly while she whispered, “Please, Earl, I don’t want to be up here.”
“Do this for me, just once. Please. I’ll never ask again.”
The hungry eyes of the townspeople were upon her. She had no choice. Not wanting to embarrass herself further, she smiled at her husband with big, dopey eyes of staged wonder, though beneath her gaze she felt a broiling hatred. She could never trust him again.
“As these boys cuff me, my wife will say my eulogy. This is truly the day of my death and the day of my burial.”
Just then, a wintry gust of wind swept through the evening. Cornella ran to Earl and embraced him in a final appeal.
“Don’t do this baby,” she whispered, with surprising tenderness. “Please. For me. Let’s just go on home.”
It had been so long since she’d reached for him. She slipped her hands into his pockets and pulled his hips to hers. Her body up against his made him ache. But, he could not be deterred. The cameraman was filming.
“Cornella, come on.”
She had no choice.
“You’ll regret this,” she said. “This isn’t okay—what you’re making me do up here.”
His wife’s skirt flapped in the night’s wind. The Incredible Earl tried not to let her attitude affect him. He handed her a yellow piece of paper, and beckoned for her to read it aloud. The boys began cuffing his wrists and ankles as his wife started to speak.
“Joseph Earl Shroeder,” she read. “Was…a…great man. He was a… loving father, son, and… husband.”
She was furious. She was now lying point blank to a mass of people, including her own children. When word got back home about his show—and with so many people here, including a cameraman, it would—people would accuse her of being a part of it. He was not a loving man, but a selfish and sick one. She wanted to slap him hard and shove him into the Plexiglas coffin and kick the dirt on top of it herself.
Earl felt like he was floating outside of his body. He could see everything happening. His wife was angry, but he had to detach himself from that. He felt the tightness of the handcuffs—the boys actually clipped them a bit too tight but it’d be fine. He had to keep his focus. This was being filmed, for Christ’s sake.
“He loved his parents, his children, his country.”
She felt as if her stomach was folding itself in half. She couldn’t go on—not with her children listening. She shoved the yellow paper into one of the boy’s hands and walked off stage, back into the crowd. She hoped whoever watched the film footage would take note of her leaving abruptly, clearly in act of disapproval.
The crowd hushed so quiet that Earl could almost hear the cool beep of the video camera. The hole in the ground looked like a black, gaping mouth. A dead man, the escape artist laid down inside the Plexiglas coffin. The boys lifted the heavy container onto the ropes, which they then used to lower the box down into the six-foot-deep hole. Earl heard the crowd rush in closer, like water through a broken dam. He saw the cameraman up front, along with Earl Jr. and Randy, as he descended. They then disappeared from his vision.
Once in the hole, the aloneness shocked him, as did the tightness of the coffin. He’d practiced before, but somehow with the crowd and the stage it all felt so much more real. How horrible it’d be to be truly buried alive, he thought. How cruel. What could be worse, than screaming out and having no one hear you? To have everyone mark you as dead, while you had to wait for reality to catch up. Your death was already mourned. It had already happened. Just not to you.
His heart near leapt into his throat when the first heap of dirt splattered across the glass ceiling of his coffin. The four boys were a quick team. Swiftly and relentlessly more dirt fell around him. Before long he could no longer see out of the sides of his coffin, but only the top.
Suddenly he felt out of breath, as if his throat had closed up. He heard the faint bark of a dog. His body began to thrash around. The boys heard his thuds and looked down, their heads peaking over the hole’s ledge. He couldn’t make out their words but he saw with their eyes they were asking if he wanted them to stop. He thought about his wife’s pleading, his daughter’s twirling, the tightness of his cuffs and considered it, but no, he would not quit. He could do this; he just needed to calm himself. He turned his head to the side and looked at the dark soil lined up near his face. He pressed his forehead against the cool glass, focusing on its smoothness. He looked back up at the boys and bowed his chin, beckoning them to continue.
Soon, only the memory of light and faces surrounded around him. He could feel the weight of the earth on top of the thin Plexiglas coffin. Once the dirt covered the box, he began writhing his hands around to try to reach into his pocket.
His wife stood tall, eyes glazed. “This was a horrible idea,” she said aloud to no one in particular. “He shouldn’t have done this.” She closed her eyes. She couldn’t watch any more. She didn’t even like Halloween to begin with, and the chatter of the swollen, infectious mass of people made her feel sick. She hated them all.
For this act to work, Earl had calculated, he had to be out of his cuffs by the time the cement started pouring on top of the dirt. It’d take about two minutes for the cement to harden. The coffin was built in such a way that the sides could open, but there was a latch he needed his fingers to undo. On one side of the coffin, he’d built an underground tunnel reinforced with aluminum webbing that would lead him to the surface behind the wall of the stage, only a few feet away. He could surely open the latch and get to the tunnel entrance in two minutes, as long as he got out of his cuffs. He would then worm through the tunnel and pull himself out behind the stage, dust off his suit, and walk out to an astonished crowd.
He continued to move his cuffed hands towards his pockets. They were so tight, but there was nothing he could do now. He leaned as much as he could on his side and used one hand to pull on the fingers of the other hand. Finally his fingers were close enough to his pocket. He exhaled fully. He was going to make it after all. He slipped his fingers into his pocket and felt around for the lock pick. His fingers frantically searched around the waxy photograph of his wife, which felt strangely sticky, but the lock pick wasn’t there.
At that moment the top of the coffin began to bow down toward his face. They were now pouring in the cement. Earl could feel his chances of success dwindling with every thud. He had to get out of there now. Fuck the handcuffs. He didn’t have time to search his coffin for the lock pick—it must have fallen out. He tried to jam his feet against the corner of the coffin to get it to break. He kicked hard, but it wouldn’t budge. He tried to undo the latch with his cuffed hands, but he couldn’t reach. He continued to kick.
Cornella opened her eyes as the cement cascaded into the hole like a waterfall. Her husband was a fool.
“Where’s Daddy?” Mattie said, twirling.
“Shush up,” Cornella said.
Everyone’s eyes were fixed on the spinning belly of the cement truck. Cornella quickly emptied her pockets, full of sticky crumbs, and a lock pick, onto the ground. She buried the lock pick using the tip of her black boot. The cement filled to the brim of the hole, and the truck pulled away. He should have listened to her, Cornella thought. He shouldn’t have made her go up there, especially not in front of such a crowd. She hoped once his act failed, he’d finally give up the magic altogether. And if not, she was going to have to consider giving up the marriage, an act she never thought she’d do.
A moment later, the crowd released a collective gasp. The hole had sunk down suddenly, about two feet. Cornella didn’t understand. For ten long seconds, the crowd stood still, children and all, wondering what had just happened.
Finally Earl’s father screamed, “someone get the backhoe!”
The insides of Cornella’s head swirled and the mass of people pulled and pushed but she couldn’t move. She couldn’t think except about the acidic taste in her mouth and how she might vomit. She saw the blinking lights of an ambulance in the distance and heard its shriek grow louder. By the time she realized what had happened, the boys had pulled out her husband’s corpse, which was covered in dirt and glistening with shards of Plexiglas.
“That ain’t no way to go,” she heard the silver-haired man in the swordfish-patterned shirt say to the cameraman. “That ain’t no way.”
Five days later, Cornella found herself in the pews of the First United Methodist Church in Lampasas, where Earl’s parents insisted the funeral be held. Earl’s body was before them in a closed casket, made of red cherry wood with a soft crepe interior. Mattie was curled up asleep in Cornella’s lap, and she had a son on either side of her, both of them wide-eyed and fidgety. Over the past few days, she’d been contacted for interviews from several national news sources—the film footage of her husband’s death had made its way across the country. She declined them all. The papers read that Earl had made a careless and fatal mistake—he’d forgotten his lock pick. And that was how she was to see it, too. Earl was always one to get in over his head, especially in the last years of his life. And now, it would take years to rebuild her family’s reputation. Still, she would raise their children to think of him well. She would also ingrain in them the importance of knowing where one comes from, the value of staying grounded.