For Anne Burton
My daughter hates magic, which is to say that after all this time she still hates me. Her mother was a tight rope walker. Sometimes I want to tell her of the extraordinary, gravity defying love she was born out of. Getting pregnant threw off Angel’s center of balance, and then rooted her in Minnesota, returned her to the family she’d fled, and my daughter, instead of being one glittering slight of hand trick after another, became as sturdy as a slab of beef and equally as unimaginative. But Angel, back then, took me under her long, graceful arms, scaffolding for the wings her stage name demanded. She’d been with the carnival for three months when I simply followed it out of town, having studied The Great Jackini four nights in a row. I’d wanted my whole life to disappear, and there Dr. Jack was, in a weathered tux, more resplendent than anything I’d ever seen, a top hat that went back in the box before he had the first after-the-last-show drinks.
It seemed only right that magic, learning an effect, would happen in bourbon soaked silence, and booze would be the residue, always floating out of Dr. Jack’s pores, and later my own. Oh, but that silence, the purr of the cards shuffled and fanned and cut. It was like living inside a prayer. I was content to watch, learn and puzzle until Angel came to lead me to bed. She was an effect I contemplated and played. She loved my hands, holding them up to the light, examining, then kissing the open flat of my palm. Angel got pregnant. Dr. Jack had nothing left to teach me. It was a different time. At eighteen, I hitched a ride all the way from Pennsylvania to Tannen’s Magic Shop on 34th Street to take up magic full time.
For years, I managed. Then I didn’t. I woke in a hospital room, and beside me was my adult daughter perched on the edge of the chair like a sparrow. She had a frazzled Kleenex in one hand. It was near enough morning I could make out her maudlin face, its contours as exaggerated as if I’d shaped the mourning mask of tragedy out of Silly Putty. “There, there,” I said to her, “I don’t know what the fuck happened, but I’m here now.” And Amanda looked at me with narrowed eyes, reached for the kidney shaped dish on my tray, brought it to her lips and vomited. “All day sickness. I’m in my fifth month. You’ll probably last longer than me. This kid is killing me.” I’d nearly died myself — massive heart attack while I was performing in a sad review making the third rate casino circuit. They didn’t know who to call, and I had a receipt with her name, address, and phone number. I’d Googled my own daughter. I was released to her care, given orders to quit drinking, put on a low fat, high fiber diet, shuffled through physical and occupational therapy. I wanted to get strong enough to vanish. I observed my daughter like an effect I wanted desperately to learn, only so I could ease into her schedule without disruption.
Angel had died three years earlier, and grief was something my daughter carried in her body as sure as the baby. I watched her stomach grow, cooked the bland food that the dietician stipulated. My daughter ate it; kept it down. Her husband was stand-up, the type of guy I’d pluck out of the audience that everyone, including himself, would laugh at. He was boring as a cutting board, but this was good. It meant he didn’t have legs to run on. And one night, during dinner, Mandy grabbed my hand and placed it on her stomach. I felt Darla swim and only magic has the vocabulary to explain how love is born with such ferocious immediacy.
Now I am an old man. Darla is nine years old and very sick. Darla knows more about magic than I ever did. She eats it up like buttered bread sprinkled with sugar. When she has the energy, we get out a deck of cards. I carry packs with me in the way I once carried cigarettes. She likes to watch me cut the seal with my pocketknife. I tell her someday the knife will be her’s, but she gives me her no bullshit, not enough magic in the world face. It’s a face meant for the stage. It closes and opens like the book the world should read. In silence we shuffle and fan and cut the cards. Never has pleasure come to me with such ease that it breaks me, again and again and I think of Dr. Jack’s funeral. I was chosen to break his magic wand, and I did, once, then twice, before I was blinded by my own raging sorrow.
Today, she’s not up for card tricks. Hospice says tomorrow we can bring her home. Darla sleeps. I try to memorize this effect—my arms about her birdlike bones, the terrible thumping of my own heart. Her face speaks to me. When she wakes, she murmurs, “I’m so thirsty.” I get out of bed with difficulty. I have been practicing my whole life for this moment. The force of my love should drive a miracle, but I know better. I roll up my sleeves so she can see my bony wrists and the tributaries of veins crosshatching there. I turn and show my open palms, and with very little flourish I produce an ice cube, as perfect as anything we’ve ever seen together. She holds out her palm, and I place it in its center where Angel once pressed her lips upon my own skin. She peers at it hard, turns it over, her eyes untroubled by pain for the moment or the knowledge of death. Then she pops it in her mouth and closes her eyes in pleasure.