"Here's the plan," Josie told me as soon as we got backstage. "We do the trick, wow the audience, win the award for 'Best Trick of the Evening,' and as Garbanzo The Splendiferous is presenting the award we ask him about the favor. Now we'll have to act quickly, because people will be rushing the stage to get our autographs..."
"I can't do it," I interrupted her.
"What?" Josie asked.
"I just realized. I've never been on stage in my life. This is crazy. I can't go out there!"
Josie put her hands on my shoulders. "What do you mean you can't go out there?!? You can't back out on me now!"
"I'm sorry, Josie. Stage fright runs in my family. My father called in sick the day they were supposed to present him with a certificate for perfect attendance."
I swallowed. "He was too shy to show up for the ceremony."
Josie started pacing back and forth, waving her arms. "Do you have any idea how unlikely I am to win the 'Best Trick of the Evening' award for sawing an empty box in half?!?"
"I'm really sorry," I told her.
"Wait," Josie said. "Wait, no -- I've got it. There's an old trick for getting over stage fright. Garbanzo The Splendiferous told it to Gra'ma. Gra'ma told it to me. And now I'm going to tell it to you."
"I hope it's 'Forget about the whole thing and go home.'"
Josie did a squidgy face. "No, it's 'Imagine the entire audience is wearing their underwear.'"
I didn't say anything at first. I just blinked. I think my brain was rejecting the idea of the Mayor in his underwear.
"How will that help?" I asked finally.
Josie smiled. "If you imagine them wearing their underwear, they'll seem so silly you can't possibly be scared of them. Brilliant, eh?"
"I dunno," I told her.
"C'mon, just try it," she urged. "Peek through the curtain and imagine the whole audience in their underwear. Then you'll realize you've got nothing to be afraid of."
I peeked through the curtain. There must have been a gazillion people out there. J.P. Aunt Leslie. Max. Mei Xing. The woman who looks like my Aunt Alberta. Ms. Dopplemeyer and Principal Laquit, who were holding hands. The Mayor. And every single one of those people was wearing their underwear.
"Aunt Leslie was right," I whispered, turning to Josie, "I've got quite an imagination."
"Welcome to the Annual Meeting of the Society for Magical Persons," Mei Xing said from a podium on center stage. The audience quieted down.
"As you know, we are here tonight to honor Garbanzo The Splendiferous, one of our finest members. Garbanzo is retiring as Grand Vizier. He'll be moving to France in just a few days to soak in some of the ambiance."
"In other words, the topless beaches!" someone shouted from the audience. The heckler was a an old guy with hair even crazier than Max. He was wearing pink boxers with yellow ducks on them, a white T-shirt, and holding a graying teddybear that may have once been white.
Mei Xing frowned. "As I was saying, Garbanzo has contributed some of our greatest conjurations, enchantments, incantations, gimmicks, tomfoolerys and outright stunts. Who could forget the time he turned Richard Nixon into a lyre? Or hypnotized Walt Disney into believing that dancing hippos set to classical music was a guaranteed money-maker? Or sent that tinfoil hot air balloon full of shaved green monkeys over Roswell, New Mexico?"
"Or the time he made the audience's money disappear!" The old guy shouted. Mei Xing made a pointed throat-clearing noise, and a few members of the audience glared at the old man. One person hissed.
"Anyway," Mei Xing continued, "Garbanzo has enriched the art of illusion immeasurably, and we are here tonight to honor him. It was Garbanzo's idea that we all wear underwear, to guarantee that none of our performers get stage fright." The audience chuckled. "Garbanzo will be judging our 'Best Trick of the Evening' competition, and at the end of the program we will present him with a Lifetime Achievement Award for Extreme Cleverness. Mr. Garbanzo, please, take a bow."
The guy who had been heckling Mei Xing the whole time stood up, turned to the audience, and curtsied.
Five minutes into the performance it was obvious there was absolutely no way we were going to win. The other magicians were all unbelievably amazing. Max turned his own head into an actual rhododendron bush, which proceeded to catch fire and make Moses jokes. Fabulous Frieda levitated around the room, raining pixie dust on us, then exploded into confetti. A moment later Mei Xing pulled off her own face to reveal that she had really been Fabulous Frieda with a rubber mask on. A man I had never seen before sawed his own legs off, duct-taped them back on facing the wrong way, and waddled offstage.
None of which seemed to faze Josie in the least. She kept whistling what I eventually realized was the theme from Rocky. She rubbed my shoulders a few times and called me "champ," kept checking and re-checking the box we had assembled from pieces we had brought in our knapsacks.
When they finally called us out on stage, I was too overwhelmed to be nervous. I heard a little gasp as soon as we stepped into the spotlight. A little Aunt Leslie/Gra'ma-sized gasp.
"Laydeeeeeeeze aaaaaaaaaaaand Gentleman.... and those of you in the cheap seats," Josie began. "In a spellbinding display of legerdemain, I will now saw my lovely assistant in half!" Josie gestured to me and I bowed self-consciously. There was a smattering of applause.
I was actually surprised that no one booed. The act before us featured an elephant wearing a tutu being sawn in half. The trick was performed by a second elephant, who gripped the saw in her trunk and told jokes the whole time.
I'm sure you've seen the sawing-the-assistant-in-half trick enough times that you don't need much of an explanation: I climbed into the box. Josie asked a few stagehands to lift the box onto a table. She rolled under the table to prove there was nothing under it. Then she opened the side of the box to prove I was still inside, closed the box, and sawed it in half. Or actually she wasn't strong enough to saw the box in half, so one of the stagehands came back out and helped her. During the whole trick Josie told little jokes and stories, but I'm pretty sure she memorized them from Gra'ma's book. For instance, she didn't get much of a reaction with her joke that started: "This newfangled Howdy-Doody contraption has got nothing on Radio Drama..." Except from Garbanzo, who laughed and hooted uproariously.
At the end Josie bowed, and the audience clapped politely. I think they were hoping the elephant was going to come back out again, or something.
Josie met me in the basement, where I was lying on a mattress under the secret trapdoor in the stage. The room was mostly dark except for some light which seeped in from the cracks around the trapdoor. It was cluttered with exotic props and filled with artificial fog from an earlier trick. If I wasn't so disappointed I probably would have been terrified.
"That went great!" Josie said, jumping onto the mattress with me. "We're sure to win!"
"I dunno," I told her. "Did you see that woman who turned into a bandersnatch and recited Jabberwocky? That was pretty good."
"Nonsense," Josie smiled. "What do you think we should do with the prize money? Put it towards our college educations? Or just travel the world for a few years?"
Luckily, my answer was drowned out by a loud "thumping" from the stage. It was the magic elephant, gallumping towards the podium to accept her award for "Best Trick of the Evening."
"What?!?" Josie jumped up from the mattress, fuming. "How can they give the award to her?!? What kind of trick is that?!? I happen to know for a fact that she's not even a real elephant!" She pointed up at the stage. "That's a cow in an elephant suit! And she can't really talk! The chicken offstage is throwing her voice!"
The elephant (or really the cow and the chicken, according to Josie) accepted her award graciously. Then Mei Xing made yet another speech about how wonderful Garbanzo The Splendiferous was, which he constantly interrupted, until she called for him to come up on stage and accept his Lifetime Achievement Award for Extreme Cleverness.
"Darla, would you mind hopping off the mattress?" Josie asked in a strangely adult tone of voice. "I've got an idea." Her hand wrapped around a rickety-looking lever that stuck out from the wall.
"Josie, I don't think this is such a good idea," I told her, getting up anyway.
"Shh!" Josie squinched her eyes up. "Listen."
We both looked up at the ceiling. Garbanzo's bunny slippers didn't make as much noise as regular shoes would, so we had to strain to hear every footstep as he walked towards the podium.
"Now," Josie whispered, and pulled the lever.
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