When I was hired at my dream job as an editor for the only women’s magazine I’d ever really loved — a position I was as unqualified for as I was thrilled about — one of the first things I was asked to do was a prank. It is a long standing problem of mine that I am too good in interviews, which still only partially explains why when the editor-in-chief asked if I’d be willing to do pranks, the transcripts of which occupied each issue’s last page, I’d practically leapt out of my seat with excitement so fully acted it became sincere, clasping my hands, exclaiming, “Oh yes!” Not, of course, that I ever pull pranks, or have ever wanted to. In truth, I had visions of all those 6th- and 7th-grade acting lessons finally paying off. “I went to theatre camp, you know,” I said more than once. After all, I had spent two air-conditioned summers in the early 90s studying the fine arts of elocution, show tunes, and jazz hands under the direction of Eileen Boevers, the drama doyenne of suburban Chicago. Her motto was, “If you make a mistake, make it loud!” — which was pretty much all I took from those fateful lessons.
It was my second week on the job when one of the senior editors assigned me my first prank – a really important prank, the kind of prank that would make a major glossy publication proud, the kind of prank that would prove I was a journalist worth my mettle – one they’d wanted to do for so long and that would be so fantastic and that by the way needed to be done in a jiffy because the issue was closing the following week. I swallowed the pukey substance that roiled up in my throat clasped my hands, and cried, “Oh yes!” At least no one had called my bluff yet. I had spent most of my first week on the job trying to look busy and willing my accomplished new coworkers not to sidle up and ask how on earth I, who had never worked or written for a magazine in my life, had gotten myself hired.
Which is how I found myself in my darkened apartment on a sunny Sunday in July, rolling my friend up in a rug.
Here was the prank: I was to call three man-with-a-van services and schedule pick-ups from my apartment with deliveries to “uh, near the Gowanus canal,” that rancid strip of water so famous for incubating filth and misbehavior. The movers would come upstairs and see a rolled-up rug with, allegedly, a dead body in it. Would any hilarious mishaps ensue? Significantly, would anyone actually help me move my dead body? See, it was more than a prank — it was a social experiment, stamped with the magazine’s signature sass and flair! Now, I could see how this kind of thing might be very fun if carried out amidst a group of one’s peers, cheered on, say, with one’s new prankstery coworkers waiting in the wings. But no, the plan was for me to take care of it all on my own, thus proving (or so I imagined) my tenacity, skill, and good-humouredness to said colleagues. Luckily, I had a friend kind enough to volunteer to be my dead body — or, more accurately, a friend so desperate for company that this sounded to her like a non-unreasonable way to spend a Sunday.
A word about this friend, whom we’ll call “M.” M. was happy to volunteer because she didn’t want to be alone that day. M. didn’t want to be alone that day because it happened to be the day her married lover was telling his wife about M., or should I say, “telling his wife about M.”
So M. came to my house to pretend to be a murdered girl. Her therapist was not amused. And surely were I a better friend I would have protested, but I really, really needed a dead girl, and they are not so easy to come by.
So M. shows up and launches into an anecdote about the married lover doing something supernaturally charming and romantic. I pat her shoulder sympathetically and roll her up in my rug. I’ve had just enough time to snap on my rubber gloves and swallow another stomach-full of pre-show-jitters/regurgitated bile when the buzzer sounds and we both shriek. Our first victim has arrived. Luckily, I am really freaked-out and authentically covered in sweat, full of guilt and fear – turns out I’m a method actor. Entrenched now in my murderer-self, I lead the man up the narrow staircase to my apartment, gesture at the M. burrito, and say, projecting from my abdomen, “Okay, I just need you to take that and dump it in the river.”
Guy #1 is a smiley African-American man in his 30s or 40s. He blinks and blinks at the rug, clearly trying to ignore the pale little toe poking out the bottom. “Ah, okay,” he says, smiling uncertainly and clapping his hands together. “Let’s, uh, roll this up a little tighter.” He steps closer, focuses in on M.’s dainty appendage, and jumps back about three feet. “What. What is that? What is that?”
My Eileen Boevers Theatre Camp skills kick into intermediate gear. “I just…I need you to help me. I don’t have anyone to help me. What am I supposed to do?” I’m there, I’m in it. I move closer to him, begging. “Please?”
Smiley guy jumps back another three feet, landing him smack in the doorway. “You’re… you’re crazy! You’re crazy!” And – this is by far the best response we get all day – he turns tail and bolts down the stairs, running at sound-barrier-breaking speed, probably to go call the police or at least dispatch. I chase him, laughing, as giggling M. wriggles out of the rug. “Wait! Wait! It’s a joke! It’s a prank!” He stops halfway down the stairs and eyes me fearfully.
Perhaps now is a good time to mention that I am five feet tall, weighing in at around 105 lbs, and, as I have been told my whole life, exceptionally young- and innocent looking. At 29 I get carded for Rated-R movies; I just barely clear the You-Must-Be-This-Tall yard sticks clutched by 2-dimensional clowns outside children’s amusement park rides. M. is a sweet-faced blonde in a sundress, only slightly larger and more menacing than myself. Still, I have to coax terrified Guy #1 back into the apartment with a wad of cash, assuring him that I’m still paying for his time, that it was all just a joke. M. beams and waves. “See!” I say. “Not dead!” He looks at her, looks at me, looks at her, and bursts out laughing.
“Aw shit,” he says. “What’d I say? What’d I say?” We tell him and he starts laughing again. “I don’t even remember! I just went blank!” I give him a glass of water and he stands around for a while, laughing. “You girls are crazy,” he keeps saying, shaking his head. I explain to him about the magazine, about how he should look out for the September issue, about how we eternally adore him for believing us, even for a second, and then for being such a good sport about everything. As he leaves he gives us his card and says, to our enduring bafflement, “You crazy. Call me sometime! Call me!”
M. and I discuss, breathless with laughter. He wasn’t un-cute! Maybe M. should take his number, just in case R. decides not to leave his wife today after all! M: unamused. Still, we are more relaxed now, a little looser; I’m feeling slightly less like an actual murderer. But the show must go on. The buzzer rings a second time, M. hamster-shimmies into her rug tube, and I answer the door.
Guy #2 is a shaggy-haired white guy in his late 40s who has apparently decided to make a quick delivery on his way to a luau, the only fathomable explanation for his billowy Hawaiian shirt, Tevas, and the mirrored sunglasses perched on his head. “Okay,” I say, as soon as we enter the death chamber. “We just need to do this as quickly as possible. My husband will be home soon.” I’ve decided to beef things up by adding some back-story. Guy #2 nods, squints, and turns on the light.
I look around, wildly. “What?”
“What’s that?” He steps forward, examines M.’s foot, steps back, and shakes his head. “I’m not touching that,” he says, very quietly. He stands by the light switch, his arms crossed in front of his chest. “Nope. I’m not touching that.” I’ve gained confidence from my last performance; I move towards him, swiping wildly at my crazied-up hair. I always was told I had great stage presence. “It’s… a mistake,” I say. Where do I come up with these things? I picture Eileen Boevers in the corner, nodding approvingly. “It’s just a mistake. Haven’t you ever made a mistake?” I’m trying to squeeze out a tear. “Just – a really bad mistake?”
He stares at me, deadly calm. “Well, it’s not gonna be my mistake,” he says.
It’s not gonna be my mistake! This line delights me. The whole exchange is gorgeous. Clearly, we’ve both seen too many movies. Can I also mention that it’s the middle of the day on a blindingly bright, sunny Sunday, on a bustling avenue in innocuous Park Slope? The sidewalks teem with children playing and people walking pugs named Lola. So what I, a small and bespectacled young woman in an apartment full of books, am asking is for him to, in broad daylight, hoist a rug-wrapped corpse downstairs, past the neighbors and out onto the street in front of the busy shop on the first floor of my building and into his van. Just to be clear. So here we are, and the guy with the sunglasses on his head is saying, with narcotic calm, “This is not gonna be my mistake.” But he makes no move to leave, which is interesting, and actually a little annoying, since I haven’t allowed that much time between pick-ups. I wrack my brain.
“Um, please? You have to help me! Look, I’m paying you for your time. This has nothing to do with you. It’s none of your business. You just need to move this moldy old rug for me. Just mind your own business and help me!”
The guy doesn’t budge. “Where am I supposed to move this to?” He is taking it all so seriously. I feel suddenly very, very tired. I consider curling up on the dead girl, who, now that I think of it, must be stifling.
“The Gowanus canal? Come on, please?”
“You’re in a lot of trouble.”
“But it’s not my trouble.”
By now I am flat out of ideas, though I get the distinct feeling that with very little convincing I could get him to actually do it. He’s just standing there, waiting, while I am transforming back into a girl in a darkened apartment on a perfectly lovely day, wearing rubber gloves that are starting to make my hands sweat. The part of my brain that adrenaline had shut off earlier is waking up, shaking off, asking, Wait, what is all this about? Why are we doing this?
Finally I say, “Um, okay. It’s okay. It’s only a prank.” It must be the most anti-climatic reveal of all times. A flushed and decidedly non-giggly M. emerges and sits on the floor, examining the new rug-induced rash on her bare legs. I explain. He doesn’t seem terribly impressed. As he leaves, I ask, cautiously, “Did you really believe me?” He just shrugs and says, “Hey, you see a lot of crazy things in my line of work. Just – a lot of crazy things. I wouldn’t be surprised.” He drops his sunglasses on to the bridge of his nose and heads back out to his van and towards the luau.
This encounter leaves us deflated. Suddenly there is nothing amusing about what we are doing. We are just wasting a day off – wasting our time, wasting the delivery men’s time – for a half a page of text that realistically, I realize, I could have just invented. M. checks her phone for text messages from her lover. There aren’t any. She goes to the window and looks out. There are things I would like to say to her. Specifically, I would like to say something like, “Look, he’s clearly not going to tell her.” But of course I don’t. I’m not quite nice enough to be that honest, or to release her from dead-girl duty for the day. Anyway, she’s already launched into another tale of R.’s supernaturally charming and romantic ways, so I try to listen sympathetically as I make the apartment look a little more disheveled. A knocked-over chair, it’s perfectly obvious that this is what we’ve been missing. Nothing says murder like a knocked-over chair. And then! The buzzer sounds. Guy #3 is early.
M.: back in the rug. Me: rushing down the stairs. But I can tell, even on my way down, that the spell has been broken. I might as well just tell him over the intercom before making him climb all those stairs. Guy #3 is a twenty-something, flannel-clad student type who’d said “Peace” on the telephone instead of “Goodbye.” He follows me up, sees the dead girl wrap, and shoots me an unforgettable look. “Okay,” he says. I don’t even have time to launch into my spiel. “All right. This is a joke, right? Who put you up to this? Who’s here?” And then, to the invisible prankster friend: “Very funny!” He flips on the light, starts opening closet doors, peeking around corners. “Joey? Ha, ha, you’re very funny!” I protest listlessly for about four seconds before I give up, and M. is born out of the rug-tube for the third and final time. Some journalist I’ve turned out to be, I think, disgusted. Some actress, for that matter. The ghost-Eileen Boevers in the corner shakes her head scornfully and disintegrates.
At least Guy #3 is enjoying himself, beaming as he takes the easiest money anyone’s ever made. “No, no, no. You girls have this all wrong. Listen, I’m the prank king. My friends and I pull pranks all the time. Here’s what you should have done – first of all, you look too innocent, and this neighborhood is just not creepy enough. And you gotta do this at night, are you kidding me? But so okay, you gotta just go and lift one end of the rug and have the guy lift the other end and just act totally normal and not freaked out at all – those rubber gloves are ridiculous, really, when I first saw them I was like, oh what, did she just murder someone or something? – and then, just as you’re hoisting the rug into the truck, she’s gotta flop out a foot or an arm or something. That would really freak them out.” He leaves in good spirits, but not before assuring me that if I ever need help with another prank or need to use his pickup for anything to call him. (So that’s two potential dates, for anyone who’s counting, or looking for ideas.)
M. and I, relieved to have the whole thing over with, open the shades and a couple of beers. M. finally gets the text message she’s waiting for, and the grisly aspects of real life lower like a scrim over our crime scene. “He says he’ll call to explain later. He can’t talk now,” she says. I close my eyes but, exhausted from my tour de force performance, stay out of it. Instead I compile my notes, looking forward to impressing my new colleagues with my devil-may-care spirit, superior journalism skills, and hilarious prank results.
But the next day turned out not to be such great one at work, depriving my prank of its day in the spotlight. Everyone was distracted, including me. Mostly we were distracted because of the all-staff meeting that had been called first thing in the morning, in which it was announced that the magazine had ceased to exist.
That was the language they used – ceased to exist – as if despite everyone’s best efforts it had dissolved on its own like a slug in the sun. Profits had been down, the company had decided to pull the plug, the magazine would cease publication, and today was our last day at work. Our building IDs wouldn’t work after 6. And the September issue that we were just about done closing would never come out.
There are those things that seem tragic and only with the passage of time acquire the patina of comedy. This was not one of those things. I immediately thought it was hilarious. “But my prank! My prank!” I muttered for most of the day, while cleaning out my not-yet-fully-moved-in-to desk. Oddly, none of my suddenly-unemployed coworkers seemed particularly worried about the wasted prank. Even M. was more sympathetic about my sudden job loss than she was annoyed that she’d played dead all day for no reason other than wacked poetic justice. And at least, in the face of losing my fancy new job and my favorite magazine in one fell swoop, it was some small consolation to know that not only would I never be ousted as a complete fraud, I would also never have to do a prank again.
Still, there is that Boevers-trained, almost-prankstery part of me that likes to imagine Guy #1 that bright September, passing a newsstand and suddenly remembering to check for the magazine, rummaging through the fashion titles while the newsstand guy takes his measure with a dead-eyed stare. I like to think of him asking about the magazine and being told it doesn’t exist, and then walking down the street shaking his head, saying to himself, “Those girls are crazy. They crazy!” Because we are, or anyway, we were that day.
Illustration by Devon Kelley-Yurdin