The Magician Invents Fire

by Bailey Bridgewater

Tonight your back presses hard against the thin mattress of the Flagstaff jail—the charge: arson. It was you. You, who haven’t been my father in years; there isn’t a doubt in my mind. I knew when the article quoted what you said right after the trial. You told the reporter, “I wish people would have a little more faith in me.” 

I remember when I was a girl and you snuck me away from my mother’s house. She wasn’t speaking to you anymore because of the drinking. You’d parked that old blue sports car under my window and thrown rocks like a high school boy until I came down in my nightgown, wiping crust from the corners of my eyes. You told me we’d go camping. How could I resist? Mother would never let me sleep outside. You’d driven us to the park, and far off the trail that leads to ancient Native American homes, cozier and warmer than any I’d ever known, you pitched a yellow tent below white-hot stars. I’d shivered in the sudden desert cold. You stumbled a little. You were drunk. You’d forgotten sleeping bags. But you insisted you could keep us warm. You told me you could invent fire, if I’d only have a little faith in you. 

Your legs bent at odd angles underneath you as you lurched and pitched forward into the woods, breaking small branches off trees and tucking them under your arm, many of them falling out any time you reached up for a new one. Hindering your own progress, like you’d always done. You carried the branches that chose to stick with you back to me, throwing them at my feet and surrounding them with a circle of stones. 

“See? I’ll make us a fire. You’ll stay warm and we can stay out here as long as we want, camping.” In my memory I say nothing, and it’s possible that I simply stood staring up at your bearded jaw, darting off to the left sloppily every time you went to close your mouth, misaligned from a bar fight. You fumbled in your pockets, but you were trying to quit smoking again. You fumbled in the glove box of the car, then in the trunk. I hugged myself and missed the stuffed panda at home in my warm bed. 

“I’ll make a fire. You’ll see. I can take care of you, too.” 

You crouched over two sticks, rubbing them furiously together. Nothing happened. You rubbed faster. You reminded me of pictures of cavemen in the books my mother made me read before bedtime. You rubbed two stones together. When nothing happened, you screamed curse words at the trees. I was afraid to, but I spoke. 

“I want to go home.” 

You’d lost me then and knew it. You looked at the flimsy yellow tent. You looked at the stars. You looked at my thin pajamas and the old sports car. Your eyes started to water. Suddenly you were half your size. Your greasy hair fell over your bloodshot eyes. You slumped forward, but you packed the tent in silence. 

When we pulled up to the house, you knocked on the front door without looking up. When mother opened it, she pulled me inside in silence and slammed the door so hard I thought it might break your nose. It was the last time I saw you. 

Sometimes I’d find notes from you tucked into the outside of my bedroom window, but I never read them. I pretended you’d never been there. I threw away the presents you’d leave at the bus stop, unopened. When I moved away to college, I didn’t tell you where I was going. I’d hear about you once in a while when I went home. People said you were in rehab. They said you’d gotten a job and that you still drove by mom’s house every Saturday because that’s when we always walked down to the park. They’d give me messages from you in the café or at the ice cream shop, and I’d pretend I didn’t hear. 

I don’t know how you knew about my fiancé or how he’d blackened my eye. But I knew when his house burned that night that it was you. I’ll always remember your words in the paper, because I know that you can invent fire if I only have a little faith in you.

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