At Zucchini's recommendation, we went to Barry's Magic Shop in Wheaton, Md. I explained to the salesman that I was performing at a 3-year-old's party, and he showed me a bunch of tricks that required virtually no skill. I couldn't resist the silk scarf that changed color when passed from hand to hand, or the D'Lites—a pair of small red lights the salesman demonstrated by having them seemingly enter one ear and come out the other. I also got a bag of balloons and a pump (after realizing I didn't have the lung power to blow up even a single balloon). It all cost $59, a small price to pay for being boffo.
In the week before the show, I obsessively worked on my routine. I was inspired one day to run to the drug store and buy a pile of baby things: a bottle, pacifiers, a teething ring. I would use these as visual gags.
The party was on a Sunday morning, and as I double-checked to make sure we had all our props, my daughter asked, "Are you nervous, Mom?"
"Yes," I replied. "Are you?"
"No, Mom. They're 3!"
We arrived at David and Hanna's and I was distressed to see that, because it was a beautiful day, the party had been moved to the park across the street. This setting was the opposite of the distraction-free zone Zucchini demands. There were trees and caterpillars and swings and balloons and tables laden with food. There was, however, no electricity. Zucchini had told me if things started faltering to make sure I had a CD player and to get them to do a freeze dance—that always worked. I frantically sent my husband to get batteries for the CD player.
Then the parents gathered about a dozen children on a blanket in a clearing, and the Amazing Macaroni and Cheese began. I opened by saying we'd forgotten our hats, and we pulled out some underwear and put it on our heads. Silence. I put a diaper on my head. More silence. I realized I'd better move to audience participation, so I called up the birthday boy.
By this time Jacob had concluded I was an abomination. He refused to have anything to do with me and wandered off to play happily with his bubble gun. His 5-year-old sister, Noa, sweetly came to my aid and agreed to hold out two fingers as instructed. I put a roll of toilet paper on them. When Broccoli did that, the kids almost needed to be sedated. When I did it, it seemed as if they had been.
I tried to rescue this by ripping off some toilet paper and shoving it into my mouth. The children were nonplussed, but there were a few barks of laughter from the parents watching from the side. As I went though each disastrous bit, the adults' laughter grew. It wasn't amusement, exactly, but the kind of caustic snickers you hear from Republicans when John Kerry puts on his windsurfing outfit or from Democrats when George Bush calls himself "the decider."
Desperate, I moved on to my magic tricks, passing the lights through Noa's ears. I couldn't tell if she was more mortified for herself or me. The color-changing scarf, which had even impressed my husband, left them cold. My assistant, Cheese, quickly tried to distance herself from me. We had practiced a routine in which we each put pacifiers in our mouths, then simultaneously pulled them out. I went to the bag and handed Cheese hers. "I'm not doing it, Mom," she said sotto voce.
"But it won't be funny if you don't do it," I begged.