I eased open the garden shed’s door. I smelled grass clippings, engine oil, and cigars. Dad sat in a corner, folded into a beaten-up old armchair he’d covered in a tartan blanket. Guilt turned to relief as he saw that it was me, not Mum. His right hand snaked back up from the far side of the chair, a telltale glow traveling like a fluorescing insect climbing the wooden wall.
“She knows you still smoke them,” I said.
“After 26 years of marriage, you learn to allow each other the illusion of some secrets,” he smiled.
Twenty-two years ago a colleague at The Disney Store confided, as we folded t-shirts together, “I’m off to JPL, to work on the Cassini mission.” After she explained all the nouns to me, I was suitably awed.
When Cassini launched in 1997, I thought of her.
When it passed Venus in 1998, I thought of her.
In 1999, when it gave itself an earth-gravity assist and headed towards the asteroid belt. I thought of her.
Past the ridged sand and stranded jellyfish, I line up my boots with the front edge of the waves. I dare them to come closer, but even the tide is leaving town.
I crouch down; plunge my hands into the cool, wet sand; fight the wind for balance. A seagull, smarter than I, works with the buffeting to hover, then wheel out to sea. I watch it glide away down the curve of the coast.
Water rushes in and my hands sink deeper. As the wave sucks out again, the sand tightens its grip on my wrists, anchoring me here.
Have a granola bar, they say. It’s low-fat and only 150 calories. Keep a box in the pantry and have one when you’re peckish.
Except I can’t eat one. I’d eat the whole pack.
The first I’d enjoy. The second, too. I’d eat the third because I felt bad about the second. The fourth and fifth would be so that nobody would know how many were missing from the box, which I would throw out.
And then I’d lie about it ever having been in the house. (“Weren’t there granola bars?” “No, you must be thinking of last week.”)
We walk on the history of other people’s lives: every step on strata of hopes and dreams, heartaches and boredoms.
Swamp sunflowers and water willow wave from their ditch, where steel sheds once sat and rails ran. Invited, now, they protect the condo-cliffs rising between the cricks.
The workers are mostly ghosts. The youngest are approaching old age—retiring from municipal jobs or teaching careers. One runs a gift shop across the street. He tells late-night hipsters stories of the decommissioning.
Horsetail grasses whisper the rest through open windows to where the sleepers in the condos dream deeply.
“Breathe,” he told himself. “Slow and even. Keep your heart rate down. Don’t waste a molecule of oxygen.”
It was how he had always done it. Sure the old escapology tricks had been mostly illusion, but there had always been that moment, when The Lovely Samantha, or The Adorable Annette, or The Luscious Lavinia had slammed down the lid of whatever contraption this decade’s audiences had wanted to see him escape from. That moment before he found the tripwire, the trigger, the trapdoor, when he had felt his confinement. The moment of panic. The moment he had always had to talk himself through.
It was a funny occupation for a claustrophobic, he would say, only half-joking. His parents had only been able to scrape together enough cash to pay a cut-rate therapist. She was the one who had come up with the crazy idea. And so, the Amazing Toddini had been born…and had paid his parents back from the money he earned with his first few performances for astounded neighbors.
Over the decade, though, his audiences had become harder to impress even as his body had resisted his efforts to contort it into smaller and smaller spaces.
Tank God for cable. That final HBO special and been enough to buy him the ultimate escape, here to his tropical paradise.
Of course, he hadn’t reckoned on his need for applause. Hadn’t thought about the consequences when he’d rigged up that elaborate illusion simply to delight his village neighbor’s daughter. The new red shoes she’d been coveting in the marketplace had been easy enough to secure. They’d been hidden under his sarong all along, of course, but when he’d produced them from nowhere and presented them to the confounded girl, it had looked like witchcraft.
And now here he was, confined to a 4’x 4′ corrugated iron cell. Breathing slowly. Trying not to panic. And this time the only trapdoor waiting for him was one he didn’t want to trigger.
The newsboys roared the terrible news in the thick evening. Fog muffled the hooves of the hansom cab horses as if they were already shod for the hearse. Men, in passing, paused and found themselves removing their hats.
One man, dark and furtive, stopped by the nearest paper boy, waiting until his back was turned, twitched a paper from the top of the pile and slipped into an alley. He peered at the pages under a street lamp. There it was, the famous detective, in pursuit of his nemesis, had plunged over a foreign waterfall. “Both men feared dead, though the raging torrent had give up no corpses.”
The lurid prose of the newshounds tickled some melodramatic chord in his soul, but he couldn’t take any pleasure in the headline.
“No,” he breathed, his word leaving coils int he thick air. He fingered the handkerchief in his pocket, its embroidery coming loose after all these years. ‘I needed him.”
Alone in the lamplight the man stared into the yellow air for a few moments. Then, as if reaching a decision he jammed his battered hat firmly onto his head, wiped his hands on his bloodied apron and dashed the paper to the damp cobbles underfoot.
“No,” he said, again, then spun on one foot and stalked down the alley towards a grimy shop door. Barging through the door, the man’s voice echoed throughout the dark interior.
“Woman!” he called. “Make ready the new contraption. I have need of it.”