Watson took a sip from his water, glancing only once toward the commotion. Not the kind of place you’d expect to see a baby, but true to the murmurings, the little guy was straight off a Gerber label, smiling like a cherub at his newfound celebrity, as stunning as his parents. They took a table too close, nestling junior into the high chair the maitre d’ managed to have materialize. Instead of joining in on the gawking, Watson said, “Just like me at that age, Dad?”
His father stared off Watson’s shoulder as if he loved nothing more than an infant’s gooing and gahhing. Or maybe it was Momma’s cleavage that caught his attention. Watson could only hope. Displayed in a cocktail dress cut low enough for any teenager, Watson couldn’t deny it had caught his attention. Assistant material all the way.
His father plucked his napkin from the table, unfolding it a corner at a time, turning it to show both sides, then snapped its starched hem with a flick of his wrists, settling it across his lap as if making a rabbit disappear. Behind Watson the baby burbled out a laugh, and Watson’s father’s eyebrows shot up, a clown’s face, flirting with whatever was at hand. Even a baby boy. Watson looked at his plate, patted his own napkin into place.
The waiter made his arrival, Watson following his father’s lead with a Scotch and soda, and as they listened to the night’s specials his father retrieved a bill from his inside jacket pocket, a one or a five, Watson wasn’t sure which. He worked it with the same flair as his napkin, though his fingers, the knobbed knuckles, had more trouble than they used to with the folding and flipping and flourishes. The waiter stuttered mid mango chutney, a real smile cracking his veneer when Watson’s father held up the bill, folded into a tiny, green-checked tuxedo jacket, razor sharp collar points. He did his slight of hand, that still as assured as ever, revealing his suddenly empty palms a moment before pulling the bill out of the waiter’s sleeve. He held it up to him, and said, “Please, take it to the young gentleman over there. A gift, from me.”
“Dad,” Watson said.
“From me,” his father repeated. “Doctor Marvelo.”
The waiter glanced between the two of them, the tiny jacket pinched between his fingertips, as if it might vanish again, paused long enough Watson worried his father might pull a full water glass out of his fly, but he turned at last, and Watson watched his father as he imagined the waiter making a slight, apologetic bow, holding out the bill, nodding toward their table. His father’s smile, held just below beaming, tremored for an instant, then went flatline, the waiter returning, saying, “They thank you, Sir, but are afraid the child would only try to eat it.”
The waiter left a moment for smiles that didn’t come, then placed the dollar jacket on the linen.
“You keep it,” his father said, but the waiter took a step back, saying he’d return with their drinks, give them a moment more for their decisions, the bill left on the edge of the cloth like a stain.
Watson had seen it all before, the young lovely across the room presented with another of whatever she’d been drinking, a discreet nod toward his father, then the drink carried away, his father disappearing before his eyes, as if Watson were dining with an empty jacket. But playing up to a baby. That was new.
“As if I were offering to sell their little dear into the slave trade,” his father muttered.
“Instead of simply trying to steal his spotlight?” Watson said.
His father shot a glare his way and Watson said, “You could have offered to saw him in half.”
The drinks arrived. Watson lifted his toward his father. “Happy Birthday, Dad.”
His father scanned the restaurant, took a sip. “They haven’t been happy in a long time.”
His father looked at Watson, not drinking, not speaking, not reaching to put the folded bill back into his jacket. “They used to know me,” he said. “Wherever I went.”
True enough, Watson thought, but so long ago, Watson’s mother still alive. Doctor Marvelo and The Amazing Lucia, his lovely assistant. They’d have had to have performed with elephants though, to get anywhere near memories sharp enough to recall those days. “No, no, not Alzheimer’s,” he told his friends. “Just attention deficit disorder. He cannot bear the lack of attention.”
His father hadn’t cheered by the time their food arrived, and Watson had to watch him slice a morsel from his prime rib, put it into his mouth, fork turned back European style, like his mother before the cancer—no trick or illusion about it—made her disappear. His slice of bread sat beside his plate, one bite torn off, crumbs dotting the linen, letting everyone see they’d performed in Paris, Prague, the continent.
Watson guessed it would be the bread.
It had been a decade, his mother gone that long again already, since Watson had been able to gather enough of his father’s friends to make a raucous night of the birthday. All performers, though Watson’s father hadn’t made an appearance since the death of his wife, the showing off was a show in itself. Just out of college, flush with his first paychecks in the real world, Watson had been clueless enough to rent an entire club sight unseen. The glass back bar the side of a swimming pool, mermaids performing for their pleasure, had been as much a surprise to Watson as to everyone else.
And, as more and more attention swung toward the mermaids, their oversized tip snifter filling with bills, Watson found himself looking for his father. He’d been right beside him, grumping about the damn mermaids, and then, poof, gone, just like his old act.
He was thinking of checking the restroom, the coat check, when a roar went up at the bar, and Watson turned to see his father reappear in a froth of bubbles behind the glass, stripped down to his boxers, chasing after a very startled mermaid. The crowd went wild, throwing napkins at the glass, cocktail straws. But the mermaids scattered like minnows, leaving only his father mugging behind the glass, something he couldn’t hope would hold the crowd the way the bikini-topped college girls had.
The cheers turned to jeers, then died out completely, everyone back to their drinks, their stories, their endless rounds of one-upmanship.
Only Watson saw his father reach for the glass, his eyes as wide as if Watson’s mother had walked into the bar, back from the dead, the greatest magic trick ever, only to find his father trapped in all that water behind a glass wall. Watson actually glanced over his shoulder, wondering what his father could have seen, and by the time he looked back, his father’s stare had become fixed, his body sinking, arm still reaching, a last breath trailing out of his mouth, bubbles coiling toward the surface.
Watson tore out of the room, up the stairs to the pool, and dove in fully clothed, barely noticing the mermaids beached against the far wall, hobbled by their ridiculous fish tails. He grabbed his father by a wave of his still dyed black showman’s hair and pushed for the surface, only at that instant remembering the time before, at the beach.
When Watson began winning his meets not by touches but by body lengths, when the colleges started waving their scholarships, his father, pointing out that it had been he who had taught him to swim in the first place, took Watson to the beaches like he hadn’t since his mother had been alive. A fabulous swimmer himself, fit and trim as any twenty year old, only the whitening chest hair giving him away, they’d body-surfed together like kids. Between waves, he declared that this was what swimming was for, not churning back and forth over some black line on a pool bottom, like some trained aquatic rat.
It was his father who noticed the lifeguard watching them, pointed her out to Watson, a woman straight out of a fantasy. He urged and badgered, but she was so far beyond any high school kid that Watson only swam out deeper, beyond the break. His father followed, insisting she could be Watson’s, all he had to do was walk out and be noticed, maybe pull a coin out from behind her ear, or, as his father said, “Pluck it straight from the depth of wonders of that mighty bosom.” Cheeks burning, Watson stroked steadily away. But his father stuck beside him, matching him stroke for stroke. Watson dove, changing directions underwater like a deepwater game of Marco-Polo, zigzagging until his lungs burned. When at last he popped up to check his bearings, his father was nowhere to be seen. Only the line of people on the beach, the empty lifeguard tower.
Watson treaded harder, lifting himself to see the guard churn through the surf line, rescue tube trailing behind. He looked out ahead of her, and then farther, until he saw the black patch of his father’s hair, the last weak wave of arm, the collapse of it back into the water.
Watson swam like he never had in any pool, barely, it felt, touching the water, more skipping across it, beating the guard and her head start, yanking back on that hair, turning his father’s face to the air. He’d only made a couple of pulls toward the beach when the guard slapped her tube out to him, said, “Clip him in.”
Watson did and one on each side of the tube, they checked, found his breath sputtering in, then out, and started hauling him toward the beach. Watson and the guard were close enough their legs touched, big wide scissor kicks. She told him he was quite a swimmer, that they both were. She said she’d been having fun watching them.
“He’s my dad,” was all Watson could think to say.
Back on the sand, the crowd huddled around, his father sat up, forearms draped across his knees, the very picture of exhaustion, but, Watson noticed, with his belly sucked in tight. He held the crowd spellbound with his tale of the riptide, the slick, deadly pull of it, as if it had “nefarious intentions, tugging me out toward oblivion.”
“Riptide?” Watson asked, and he caught the guard’s glance his way. “Dad, I was right with you. I didn’t feel a thing.”
His father kept his head down, hair dragging in front of his face. He only tilted a palm up, almost too weary to explain. “A rip can be awfully tight. Taking one, leaving another.”
“But,” Watson started, looking to the guard, who only shrugged those shoulders, said, “I don’t know. I’ve never seen one.”
His father looked up then, turned his head slowly to meet Watson’s eye. “Would it have helped, son, if it had taken you as well?”
“Well, no, but…”
“Tell me, son, how big a riptide would you require to sweep your life away?”
His father deigned to let Watson and the lifeguard help him to the car, saying thank you, thank you, to the crowd, as at the end of one of his performances, although he never once gave in, never admitted that one thing about it was staged. As close as he ever came was as Watson drove him home, both of them silent until his father quoted him. “’He’s my dad?’ After everything, that’s the best you could do?”
Watson drove, looking straight ahead.
“My god, she was yours for the taking. Dressed and trussed and served on a platter.”
“I don’t need an assistant, Dad. You do.”
They did not speak again, that day, or ever, about his father’s drowning.
Nor did they about the mermaid episode. His father only gasping on the deck after Watson’s single breath of mouth to mouth, turning toward the mermaids, saying, “My son,” Watson wishing his mouth was still clamped over his father’s, silencing him.
“Dad,” Watson said, water streaming from his suit, “are you okay?”
None of the mermaids making a move toward them, his father had only muttered, “Unbelievable. They, they did not lift a fin or flipper to assist me,” and one of the girls said, “We’re the entertainment, asshole. You weren’t even supposed to be in the goddamned pool.”
Now, watching his father’s glance return again and again to his spurned dollar bill, Watson watched each bite he took.
It was the bread. A bit of crust that wouldn’t slow a seagull.
He watched his father’s jaw work once as he stared at the beautiful couple with the beautiful child, a scene that brought who knew what out of his past. Then he stopped. Stopped everything. No motion whatsoever. Just frozen there, for longer than Watson could have credited.
Then, as slowly as if he’d wrapped time around himself, Watson’s father turned to him, eyes not bulged as Watson expected, but just seeming to see more clearly than he had in ages, the present instead of the past.
“Dad,” Watson said. “Please don’t. Not tonight.”
His father dipped his head just perceptibly to one side, not unlike a bright dog working out a perplexing command.
“Dad. I’ll get up and leave. I swear I will.”
His father, Watson thought, bowed to him, but he was only reaching for his water glass, which he caught too high on the rim, tipping it over, water launched out across the table but soaking into the linen before reaching Watson. A few heads turned. His father didn’t give them a glance, reached instead for his highball glass, lifted it and took a sip which leaked out the corners of his mouth.
“Please,” Watson said. Napkin in his fist, he pushed back his chair.
His father searched his son’s face, the corners of his eyes crinkling into something more question than smile.
“I can stay under longer than you can, Dad. Remember?” Watson took a big, cheek swelling puff and clamped his lips shut, nodding his head side to side, humming the Jeopardy song, letting out too much air, finding himself straining too soon. He hadn’t been swimming in a long time.
Ever the master, his father’s face flushed, lips tingeing blue. He made no move to stand, to go for help, did not lift his hands to his throat.
And then there they were, the beautiful couple, there at their table, the woman bending toward his father, but his father giving her not so much as a glance, even when she asked, “Are you all right? Can I help?”
The father never took his eyes off his son’s.
Watson let his air out in a rush. “For God’s sake, Dad.”
“He’s choking,” the woman said. “We took a class. When Dylan was born.”
The husband, Watson saw now, had circled behind his father’s chair, was reaching around to lift him.
“He’s not choking,” Watson said.
“He’s going to pass out. He’s turning blue.”
“He’s a magician. It’s a trick.”
The couple gaped.
“Doctor Marvelo!” Watson said, waving his palm toward him as his mother had on the stage. “At your service.”
“But, he’s choking!”
His father’s eyes followed Watson as he stood and threw his napkin down. He stepped around the table, saying, “Excuse me,” to the husband as if cutting in on a dance.
Watson wrapped his arms under his father’s, his fist clenched beneath his father’s sternum, his other hand wrapping over it. The waiter skimmed toward them as if on wheels. The maitre d’ looked up from his podium.
“Do you really want me to do this?” Watson asked, his lips as close to his father’s ear as a kiss.
“I’ll break every one of your ribs. Drive fragments into your lungs. Burst your liver. Is that what you want?”
And as he whispered, Watson wondered, left behind all these years, nothing left to amaze anyone with, if that was all his father had ever really wanted, not rescue, not attention, but only to finish the act, to finally be reunited with his Amazing Lucia, take their place on the grandest stage of all.
“Tell me what you want, Dad,” Watson whispered.
“He’s choking to death!” the beautiful woman said, upsetting her baby, who, left behind in the high chair, began ratcheting up a whimper.
Watson had to lean forward as his father’s head sank toward his chest, had to haul back as his weight slumped in his arms.
The waiter at his elbow. “Sir?”
“Dad?” Watson said. He gave his father a shake. “Tell me.”
“Sir, he cannot speak. Measures must be taken.”
Watson looked up, saw the faces, every one, riveted on them, could nearly feel the heat of the spotlight. The waiter tugged at his arm. The husband, the father of that beautiful child, bent low to look into his father’s face. “He’s blue,” he said.
“He’s performing,” Watson said, but they were all leaning toward him, so expectant, their own breaths held.
Watson lifted his father and gave one sharp tug, more blow than hug, nothing shrouded in kindness, and a small piece of bread crust struck the linen, followed immediately by an intake so sudden and so rushed it could have been mistaken for the roll of the sea.
Watson bent forward, whispered, “The Marvelous Marvelo,” and sat his father back in his chair, where the beautiful woman knelt beside him taking his hand, dressed and trussed and served on a platter.
Watson’s father took more oceanic breaths, and the crowd leaned back, the maitre d’ announcing that the ambulance would arrive in seconds.
As Watson stepped around the table, plucked his napkin up from beside his plate, snapping its hem with one short, sharp flick of his wrists, applause began to scatter through the house, and Watson found his father looking only at him, eyes rimmed with tears that trickled across the creased and lined landscape of his face.
“Bravo,” Watson said. “Bravo.”
He saw his father swallow, the working of the Adam’s apple a thing both exhausted and aching, and his father lifted his hands, reaching them toward Watson but spreading them wide, palms up in offering. “Ladies and gentleman,” he said, his voice as hoarse and choked as a sideshow barker’s. “I give you, my son.”