Ellen Adele King
You have come to the Chinook Winds Casino with your husband for your fifteenth wedding anniversary—Chinook Winds because Clark received a coupon for a half-price room and unlimited dinner buffet for two. The casino is perched on a bluff overlooking the relentlessly angry Oregon coast. Your half-price room has a panoramic view of the parking lot and dumpsters.
The suitcases sit in the middle of the room, and Clark is already on the bed, still wearing his shoes, hitting every wrong button on the remote as he tries to change the channel on the TV. You take in the dimly lit room—busy carpeting, faint forbidden smell of cigarette smoke, crooked painting of a Chinookan woman—and regret not fighting harder for the ski trip to Mt. Hood you’d championed before frugality and practicality won out. You put your bathing suit on in the bathroom and announce, “I’m going to look for the hot tub.” Clark doesn’t look away from the television screen. “Okee dokee,” he says.
After your soak you freshen up, and you and Clark go down to the dinner buffet. He rubs his hands together like a cartoon cat about to pounce on a birdcage. Not far off are the jingles and blips of the slot machines. You and Clark silently chew. When your eyes wander to a fat couple—seven empty plates between them, good God!—you think, at least we’re not those people.
After dinner, you and Clark wander into the psychic/hypnotist show in the casino ballroom. The term “ballroom” is misleading. It’s more like a high school auditorium set up for an AA meeting—folding chairs fanned out in rows facing a small stage. You spot the fat couple from the buffet sitting in the front row. Thankfully, Clark chooses seats in the very back. He’s a volunteer fireman back at home and has made a habit of locating the nearest exits and situating himself accordingly.
Soon, the lights dim and frenetic music comes over the PA system. A man dressed in black slacks and a black button-down shirt hops up onto the stage. “Ladies and gentleman,” he says, “I am Mr. Enigma, and I’m going to blow your mind.”
Mr. Enigma proceeds with a few mildly entertaining party tricks—guessing ages and the names of dead relatives, etcetera. Then, he asks for a volunteer to be hypnotized, and to your surprise Clark volunteers you. You shake your head, no, but Mr. Enigma promises he won’t bite, which gets a laugh.
“Come on, hon,” Clark says, almost pleading. Remember, you agreed—even if begrudgingly—to come to the Chinook Winds Casino to celebrate your crystal anniversary. You sort of deserve this.
“Okay, okay.” You stand and make your way to the stage. The crowd claps encouragingly. You look back at Clark. He smiles and waves, clearly pleased with himself.
The crowd applauds as you walk up to the stage, where Mr. Enigma instructs you to sit on a folding chair.
He asks your name and where you’re from, makes a joke about what it must be like to live in Drain, Oregon—low hanging fruit. Then he takes out a pocket watch and swings it in front of you.
“Just relax…” he says.
A pocket watch, really?
“You feel your eyes getting heavy…”
No, you don’t. Besides it’s the eyelids that would feel heavy.
“I’m going to count down from three, and when I tap your shoulder you will fall into a deep sleep…”
No, you won’t.
In fact, you’re going to prove to the audience just what a load of crap this is.
He taps your shoulder.
The audience gasps.
Okay, yes, for some reason your eyes are closed and your head is down. But you’re definitely not asleep. You’re just as conscious as before. You can sense Mr. Enigma standing next to you, can smell his noxious cologne. Maybe it’s just stage fright. You remember as a little girl being Mrs. Cratchit in The Christmas Carol and freezing when it came time to say your lines. Mr. Enigma explains how he’s going to give you special instructions, make you do silly things, things you have no intention of doing.
“When I clap my hands twice,” he says, “you’re going to open your eyes, and when I clap again, you will quack like a duck.”
The audience grumbles with laughter as you mentally prepare yourself to get up and walk off the stage and back to your seat.
Mr. Enigma claps once.
You open your eyes and look out at the audience but can’t see any faces in the glare of the stage lights.
He claps again.
You open your mouth to say ha, nice try, but something else comes out: “Quack, quack.”
The audience roars with laughter.
Mr. Enigma taps you on the shoulder again, says “Sleep,” and again you close your eyes and bow your head. The audience is still laughing. You try to single out Clark’s laugh—grunt, grunt, wheeze, snort—but can’t.
Next, Mr. Enigma makes you hop like a frog, bark like a dog, clean your face like a cat—his whole repertoire is very animal-heavy. Then the tasks get more humiliating. You sing The Star Spangled Banner with a lisp. You sit on a stranger’s lap and pretend he’s Santa Claus. You confess your first childhood crush: the mailman. Oh how you longed to drive off with Mr. George in his little white truck!
All of this you are compelled to do. But, no, you know you can walk off the stage at any time. You can do it right now, at this moment, as Mr. Enigma basks in the applause.
You can’t summon the nerve to break the spell. You feel an obligation, a cultish instinct, to sublimate your own discomfort for the sake of this communal fiction.
Mr. Enigma finally prepares to take you out of your trance, explaining you won’t remember a thing. He counts down from three and taps your shoulder.
You open your eyes and blink against the harsh stage lights.
“How are you feeling?” he asks.
You search his sweaty face for any sign of gratitude for your complicity in his elaborate hoax, but all you see is a haggard-looking man too old to pull off his black eyeliner.
“I feel fine.”
“What’s the last thing you remember?” he asks.
Of course, you remember it all—the quacking, the singing. But you know that’s not what the audience wants to hear. While you may be out of the trance, you are still part of the illusion. “I remember walking up here and sitting down.”
“Anything else?” he asks, looking out at the audience.
The audience laughs and applauds, and Mr. Enigma thanks you for volunteering. You make your way back to your seat, where Clark is laughing like you haven’t seen him laugh in a long while. “You were amazing,” he says.
Mr. Enigma bows and bids the audience good night. Soon, the house lights come up, and everyone starts shuffling toward the exit. “You should’ve seen yourself,” Clark says.
Now is your chance to tell him that you faked every minute of it. But you being hypnotized, you know, will likely be the highlight of his weekend, and you don’t have the heart to take that away from him. Instead, you ask him what happened and laugh and guffaw as he recounts your performance from start to finish, his arm snug around your waist, as if to claim you as his, as if he doesn’t want to lose you in the small sea of strangers.
Ellen Adele King is a graduate of the North Carolina State University MFA program in fiction. She lives in Portland, OR, with her wife and young son. When she's not teaching writing to high school students or chasing after her toddler, she is working on completing her first story collection.