by Sherry Morris

Dad didn’t wow crowds by bursting out of burning caskets like other escapologists. He didn’t wriggle free from straightjackets or emerge jubilant from chained-shut oversized trunks. Mom claimed he was a helluva Houdini anyway.

She meant his knack of disappearing whenever there were chores to do. Gutters stayed cluttered, grass grew high, the kitchen tap dripped constant as a ticking clock. Dad dodged other duties too: kissing boo-boos, reading bedtime stories. He vanished at the first sign of raging tears, monster-fears, or any kind of hug. Sometimes, Mom wondered aloud how we three girls were even born. Then she’d smile and shake her head.

“Your father is a true magician. They never show their tell.”

Other times, when she thought we weren’t about she’d shout, “Marriage is more than smoke and mirrors, you know.”

Dad would calm her with a kiss. Say, “Shh, don’t break the spell.”

We loved our escapologist dad. Even when he evaporated from birthday parties, family reunions and for long stretches of Christmas day. We kids would sit outside his locked study door. Chant all the magic words we knew: Abracadabra, Hocus Pocus, Bibbity-Bobbity-Boo then wonder why our words took so long to work. Agreed the budding feeling in our guts was simply anticipation. And when he eventually reappeared, looking crumpled and spent, enveloped in a strange scent, we’d rush to him, ask him where he’d been. He’d sneeze. Look over our heads. Take in air like he had a long answer prepared. Then smile and shrug. In a rushed exhale he’d say, “Magic is complicated work.”

We got used to his non-appearances at our school plays, music recitals and high school basketball games. That odd feeling in our guts. Accepted we’d never pin him down for photos. Tried to engage him in other ways. Asked for homework help, advice on boys, tips and tricks to pass our driving tests. Said, “Tell us about your day.” In the middle of telling him about ours, we’d suddenly find ourselves alone—the image of his lopsided grin shimmering in mid-air.

We did our best to interest him in our lives and when Dad took early retirement, Mom said for sure we’d see more of him. Instead, he announced he was moving out. He’d found the love of his life—Janice—and planned to start a life with her, her cat, Bunny, and Barnaby, her ten-year-old son. We looked to Mom to see if it was true—she looked like a lady cut in half.

Things didn’t quite go to Dad’s plan. He developed a severe allergic reaction to Bunny. And Barnaby didn’t like sharing his mom full-time with Dad. He moved into a bachelor pad, temporarily, while everyone adjusted. Then Parkinson’s got hold of Dad. He couldn’t escape that.

Mom took him back to convalesce. Said she did it for us kids though we were nearly adults by then. She repeated what the doctors said—the disease made him behave the way he did. We couldn’t blame Dad, she said. We all nodded our heads. No one wanted to believe Dad only had escapology in his heart.

We looked on the bright side, we still had time with Dad. But with the tremors and balance loss, he wasn’t up for much. We tried to reminisce, but our best memories didn’t include him. He shrugged when we asked what he remembered of us. We joked Dad was so skilled, he’d find a way to dodge death.

He didn’t, of course. And Mom shocked us all with a curse-laden outburst, shouting maybe Dad was finally f-ing happy now that he was free of us. We supposed this tirade was Mom’s grief speaking. Enclosed her in a group hug. Told her he’d loved us in his own way. Reminded her of his charm, his magic touch. We said all the things he’d said himself a million times before. But from our mouths the words sounded hollow. Mundane. Cliched. To my ears anyway.

Somehow, the words worked on Mom. She pulled out a smile from somewhere and ta-dah-ed it to her face. Said it was our duty to keep Dad’s memory alive. We go through his stuff, (there’s not much), and find a cheap cutlery set he bought while living on his own. Mom announces we’ll use it for our Sunday roasts—his favourite meal he sometimes ate with us.

And at first when we gather around the table each week, it’s nearly normal—we talk, laugh, reminisce. Dad’s empty chair is reinstated so it’s almost like he’s back. It’s not exactly the same though. Our voices are too loud, too rushed, ventriloquist-dummy high-pitched. We shovel in mounds of food blink-quick—as if we have hungry hearts and empty bellies to fill.

Then one Sunday, instead of his face, all I see is his shoddy fork and dull knife in my hands. The white plastic-coated handles have already started to discolour. And yet, these bargain-basement utensils are more real to me than Dad.

I listen to the clink, clatter and chatter that ties us to him. Wonder why we still work so hard to maintain the illusion. Why we have never allowed ourselves to be mad at our always-absent dad. And why we weren’t enough for our dad.

I press the fork tines deep into the meat, securing it to my plate. Too bad we couldn’t use cutlery on Dad. I position the knife to slice but stop. My appetite has disappeared. My eyes prick as the world blurs. I wish we hadn’t shushed Mom’s rage. Or called our childhood anger anticipation. I take a deep breath.

“Dad was a complete shit,” I exhale. “I won’t be his complicit assistant.”

Into the speechless silence, I say the words again—louder this time, then once more. Something lifts, a spell is broken. I release my grip. Watch the cutlery fall to the floor. Open the windows. Slide open doors. Walk outside to the sunshine-filled yard. Gulp fresh air.

Image via Pexels by Steve Johnson