Mark Zegarelli
Mark Zegarelli

​An Innocent Death

In the living room stands the big TV, which takes up almost the whole room. Eric lies on his stomach facing it, only a few inches from the screen, with his feet propped up on the couch, while his grandmother watches with him.


That’s it, Nana, he tells her, now please pay attention this time.


She watches, daubing her forehead with a kerchief. Mid-July, and the fifth-floor apartment is sweltering even at 9:30 at night. In the window, a fan clangs loudly, unheard.


Boys and girls circle a campfire in a green suburban backyard on the screen as the voice taunts, It’s not make-up, it’s not paint, it’s Magic Indian Paint.  


See, Nana, says Eric, I told you. It’s called Magic Indian Paint. Magic Indian Paint. Please write it down, OK.


His grandmother scribes dutifully.


The next day begins the search up and down Manhattan Avenue, in and out of every shop, with no luck.


After dinner, sitting out on the stoop with the neighbors, she asks Mrs. Shroeder, who says her granddaughter found it at Kresge’s. We could take the bus there tomorrow if we get out early enough, she suggests.


I don’t think they sell it at Kresge’s, says Eric hesitantly. The commercial gives a list of all the stores where they sell it, and Kresge’s isn’t one of them.


Even so, at dawn Eric rises, puts on his clothes, and waits for his grandmother to emerge from her bedroom.


I’m ready, he says.


Most of the way to Kresge’s, standing together on the hot and crowded bus, Eric describes it for her. It’s not paint, and it’s definitely not make-up, because in the commercial the boys are wearing it, too. Once you put it on your face it stays there all day, and you can sleep in it, too. But don’t worry. It washes right off with soap and water. The commercial says.


Halfway there, a nice man offers her a seat, and she steers Eric butt-first into it.


Say thank you, she instructs him.


But the distracted woman at the sales counter of the toy department says, No, we don’t carry that product. Try Woolworth’s.


There’s a Woolworth’s in Journal Square, his grandmother tells him as they walked out of the store. But you know, she didn’t have to be rude about it.


Which misses the point entirely. So then Eric has to tell her, It’s not at Woolworth’s.


The commercial says, mimics his grandmother. You know, if you get it on your clothes, your mother’s gonna have my head on a plate.


He rolls his eyes and says, I won’t get it on my clothes. Then he notices how the expression on her face has changed and adds, sincerely, I promise.


In the end, a neighbor, Mr. Kaye, finally tells them he knows for sure they sell Magic Indian Paint at the Korvettes. His daughter would take her mother shopping this Saturday, so they could pick it up for Eric.


Saturday was three days of torture away.


The box arrives late in the day. Eric tries not to notice that it looks smaller in real life than it was on TV, and that it’s made of chintzy cardboard that isn’t even shiny, and that the contents clack around disappointingly inside before you’d even opened it.


Say thank you to Mr. Kaye, his grandmother tells him, and then stands gabbing with him out in the hallway for about a hundred years before finally shutting the door.


Tomorrow, she tells him in a tone of finality that admits not one word of response.


After breakfast, Eric finally breaks open the box, which contains three plastic cups of powder in red, yellow, and blue, plus a surprisingly long instruction booklet. Apparently, you have to mix the stuff yourself.


His grandmother’s lips are moving as she reads through the booklet, then sets it down. This might as well be written in hieroglyphics, she announces. Get me my reading glasses.


The list of obscure ingredients includes baby oil and Epsom salt. Fortunately, Eric’s grandmother has both of these items.


During the demandingly precise mixing process, Eric’s grandfather walks through on the way from the back of the apartment to the TV, commenting, I don’t know what you paid for it, but it was too much. Hurry up, you’ll miss the astronauts landing.


That’s not for hours, Eric tells him. It always takes longer than you think.