combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 04 Number 04 Fall ©Oct 2006

Waiting for Houdini

          My first really strong memory of my father is one where he was showing me a card trick with his favorite deck of cards. He'd purchased them in Las Vegas. His long, skinny fingers flipped the cards until they come to mine, and I plucked the queen of hearts from the top of the deck while squealing in a five-year-old's delight.

          "How'd you do that?" I demanded, tugging at his sleeve. "How'd you find my card?"

          "Magic," he'd said, taking the card back and stowing it in the deck. "You chose the right card, baby. You'll always be the queen of my heart." Then he picked me up and threw me into the air, giving me wings for a few seconds. Living with him was like living with Houdini. He had spent years practicing his tricks, and everyday he showed me something new. Something magical. Everyday until he was drafted to fight in Vietnam.

          Since his return, he had lots of time for card tricks because he hadn't held down a job since the war. Once I'd heard mom say to our neighbor and her best friend, "Tom has more flashbacks than future." She didn't know I was standing in the doorway, listening. Or maybe she thought I wouldn't understand. Maybe she didn't care.

          For a long time I thought flashbacks were a magical trick, something he'd show all the kids in the neighborhood. I never asked him because I figured if he wanted me to know, he would have said something. Even then, I noticed my mother's rigid back always turned toward my father when he walked into the kitchen. Even then, I saw the great distance that divided them, and sometimes I felt my body being used as a bridge they stepped upon while trying to remain in the same life while a For sale sign swung in front of them.

          My father had tried to be a physician again, but he couldn't fix himself and there was no point in trying to fix other people after that. My mother never got over his unemployment. By the time they'd divorced in 1985, I was living with Mike, my boyfriend of four years, and the aftershocks didn't surprise me. My mother headed for San Diego and my father moved to Bowie, Texas.

          Even though we resided in the same state, I didn't drive from Houston much, probably due to the extensive hours I spent working as a reporter. I always thought of him as I looked at the stories coming from the Associated Press about Iraq or whatever country the United States found disfavor with at the time.

          Although my mother remarried and sent snapshots of some squirrely artist she'd fallen for, my father remained alone, living in a small trailer house that I was surprised had in-door plumbing. It was like he had retreated from the world he'd once known. He didn't even have a phone.

          In just a few months I would be getting married, and I spent a lot of time thinking about the man who had made magic when I was a child. It wasn't just the cards. It was him. The thought of walking down that aisle without him seemed unbearable.

          Instead of writing to him, I drove to his home. When I pulled up in front of his gravel driveway, I double-checked the address and shook my head. A burnt orange couch sat beside the front door. Half the cushions had been ripped out and stuffing was strewn about the yard. The neighbor's dogs left ample fertilizer, and I looked down, careful where I stepped as I walked to the porch.

          The screen door swung in the slight summer breeze and I rapped on the door. "Daddy, it's me, Carol." From inside the house, I heard things shuffling, falling. "Daddy, are you okay?"

          The door jerked open and I found the barrel of a revolver pointed at me. "Daddy?" I managed, while staring at the gun. "Please put that away."

          "Carol?" he said, lowering the gun. The door slid open and I saw my father's bare chest, his skin washed in a paleness. Beneath the skin, his ribs poked outward, prodding the flesh like bones stretched against a plastic bag. "Carol, what are you doing here?" He reached out with his free hand and drew me into an embrace.

          "I just came by to check on you." As I lingered in his embrace, I smelled stale whiskey and sweat, not the Old Spice cologne I had been used to.

          He set the gun on the table beside the door and hugged me even tighter before letting me go. "What a surprise," he said. "A visit from my little girl."

          I stepped around him and surveyed the room. Dirty dishes were scattered across the counter. Dirty clothes lay across the floor, and dust covered everything, even the television as the talk-show filled the room. At the moment, I felt as though I were seeing double, as I noticed the soiled room and then thought of my father's once faultless order: a line of shoes in his closet, his clothes hung neatly on hangers. The bed perfectly-made.

          He picked up one of the glasses from the table and drank the last of the liquor in it. "So what now?" he asked, sprawling across the sofa.

          I took a deep breath and stared at his face, the hardened lines scratched around his eyes and mouth. His brown eyes narrowed as though he were simply peering at a stranger instead of me and for that moment, I felt like a child lost in the circus like when I was six and he had found me in the arms of a clown where I had cried because I couldn't remember my daddy's name, only that he liked Houdini. Besides, I didn't have to know his name. He was magical. He would be able to find me because he loved me so much.

          "Got any new magic?" I asked, picking up the deck from the table and holding them out to him.

          "You're too old for card tricks," he said, picking up a pack of cigarettes from the table. He pushed one between his lips and lit it with a match. "And there ain't no such thing as magic. Hell, even Houdini knew that."

          I stared at the top of one card, a picture of a desert with one pair of footprints trailing in the sand. "You really liked Houdini. You believed in his magic."

          "He was just a man," daddy said. He pushed the glass back and forth between his hands. "He died performing a stupid trick."

          Blushing, I set the cards down. They had felt warm in my hands. "What have you been doing these days?" I asked, sitting in a recliner across from him.

          He threw his arms wide and gestured to the trailer house. "What you see is what you get. I ain't been able to work. But you knew that, didn't you?"

          I closed my eyes and tried to remember my father's speech patterns before the war, but I couldn't. I didn't think he used to talk like that, and he never used to pronounce my name Caril. "How about a trip, daddy? You could come visit my home in Houston. You could meet Mike. We're getting married in a few months."

          "I can't," he said, tapping the cigarette against an ashtray.

          "You mean you won't," I corrected in a quiet voice.

          "I see where this is going." He rubbed his left shoulder where a tattooed eagle clutched a dead fish.

          "Then you know why I'm here."

          "You don't want me to give you away," he said, reaching out with one hand and squeezing mine. "You ain't mine to give away anymore, and I'm not good church material anyhow." Daddy folded his arms across his chest.

          "There's nobody else to give me away." I knelt in front of him. "You're my father."

          He reached out and touched my cheek. "I'm in your blood, girl. I always will be. But the man you knew as your daddy ain't living in this skin and bones. Daddy is just another word. Just like magic. I can't give you back either one, no matter how many card tricks I perform. That's all they are, just tricks." He pulled away from me. "Besides, I like it here. It's where I belong. I don't want to leave."

          "It's just for a visit," I protested. From the corner of my eye, I kept seeing those damn cards, piled upon each other, waiting for his hand to touch them.

          "I don't want to visit, baby." Daddy shook his head and reached into his pocket. He pulled out a twenty and laid it across the deck of cards sitting on the table. "Take that with you."

          I recoiled from the money. "I don't want it. I don't need it."

          Daddy picked up the money and the cards and proffered them to me. "Damn shame, girl. You don't know what you want or need until you haven't got it no more. Take the money and buy a wedding gift. Give the cards to Mike. Maybe he has the magic you're looking for." He pushed them into my hands.

          Daddy stood up and held the door open for me. He squinted as sunlight streaked through the door, highlighting the grey that had consumed his black hair. I clutched his gifts to my chest and walked out.

          Once I stepped out his door, I looked at the cards as I heard the screen door close. The corners were bent and torn, ragged from use. My father had probably spent half his later life playing solitaire. I took the twenty and shoved it under one of the orange cushions on the couch. Then I started walking to my car.

          When I reached into my purse, the cards slipped from my grip and tumbled to the ground, some face up some face down. I looked at them and found two cards lying at my feet. The queen of hearts peered up at me. Across her lay the joker. In that macabre outfit of red and black harlequin, he grinned at me and I thought I could hear the bells on his hat chiming in the foolish breeze of my heart.

          Bending over, I pushed the joker from across the queen and picked her up. A breeze fanned through the tree branches and swept the cards away. That was the last I saw of the joker as he cartwheeled down the street and out of my life.

by Maria Rachel Hooley
... who is a teacher of English at the secondary level, with more than sixty works of poetry and fiction placed nationwide. She has sold greeting verse to Blue Mountain Arts and others, and one of her non-fiction articles in Byline Magazine during 1998. This story won the first place prize in the 1999 Professional and Amateur Writers' Society writing contest, and was also awarded honorable mention in the 2000 Oklahoma Writers' Federation contest.

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