Issue Thirty-Three - Winter 2019

Some Kind of Smoke Signal

By Alya Bohr

There’s this video of my dad and me lighting our hands on fire at the kitchen table. It starts with him walking around the kitchen, opening and closing cupboards. He must have been looking for something—I’m sure he was looking for something—but a small part of me wonders if maybe he was doing it just for fun. This is the same man, after all, who dragged home a hay bale for us to practice “knife throwing” on mere hours before he went to practice Aikido, a nonviolent martial art whose pacifist principles he swore by. You never really knew with that guy.

He started shrinking at some point while I was in high school, but even in the video—before everything happened—he’s tiny, wearing a pair of old jeans that he found at the thrift store. They’re actually high-waisted women’s jeans, but somehow that fact evaded him when he made the purchase. The video takes awhile to get to the good part, the part where his laughter crescendos into a crackling burst when the flames are particularly tall above our fingertips. His pointy grey beard tilts toward the window and the stream of midday light whites it out, blurring any separation between my dad and the sun.

I watch the video whenever I need proof of what we had before he died. See, I think to myself, this was real. It reminds me of that thing, that unspoken and ineffable feeling that just exists with some people in our lives. I want to dissect it, to take a scalpel to that feeling until I can figure out just what it is that makes a person magic. I want to know. Shit, I need to know.

So, the video starts with my dad pouring rubbing alcohol into a small dish. He swishes it around, hesitates, then pours in a little more. Just moments before, he had interrupted my Saturday afternoon with an offer: “What do you think we try to catch our hands on fire?” I never notice his accent, his broken English, but other people point it out to me. When you’re on the inside of something it just seems normal.

There’s a tiny furrow in his brow. I pause the video and look at the wrinkle. Trace it with my finger. I wish I could know what he was thinking. Wish I could see past his creased forehead and into his inquisitive mind. I glance around the screen; my eyes catch on his scratchy wool sweater. I remember hugging that sweater—it trapped smell, so it always flooded my senses with the warmth of my Papa. But it snagged at my skin, too, stung a bit.

Actually, here’s the thing: I don’t remember the sweater as well as I’m making it seem. Only one moment in particular: the day after he came home from the doctor with the weight of jaundice and a “you will probably die within the year” diagnosis. I was at my mom’s house and I cried all night and wrote him a letter and rolled up a drawing of a ballerina that I had made in my art class to give to him. I drove to his house first thing the next morning and hugged him extra hard. That’s all I know of that sweater.

On second thought, maybe the video starts with me coming back from the bathroom, waving to the camera on my laptop. I sit down at the table and wait for my dad to touch a lit match to the dish of rubbing alcohol. I try to focus on his fingers. Apparently I got my hands from him—those wide palms that sweat too much for me to hold a piece of floss and the stocky fingers that a friend of mine once likened to daikon radishes. That’s a thing I love to hear—you got that from your dad. But sometimes I wonder about the things you can’t see. I wonder what’s his and what’s mine and how do I tell the difference and does it even matter. I keep looking; I’m not great at having faith.

My dad grins and says, “Don’t tell Jennie about this.” Jennie is his girlfriend and she’s out in the yard polishing her rocks with lavender-scented facial moisturizer. She can do that for hours, but my dad moves to the window and lowers the blinds anyway, just in case. I will likely get one of those rocks for my birthday or Christmas or whatever gift-giving day happens to roll around next. Actually, who am I kidding, I’ll probably get one of those rocks tomorrow. Every time I arrive at my dad’s house, I discover that a handful of stones have crept into my room and settled themselves along the walls. Jennie and I have moments of passive aggressive tension when I remove the rocks and leave them outside of her and my dad’s room.

But this video—listen, I’m sorry about all the false starts. I promise I’ll rewatch it and get my facts straight. It’s just that I don’t want to wear it out. I can steep my memories until they hold every drop of meaning I need them to, but this, this just is. It’s only real life, trapped in five short minutes of Photo Booth video, and what if magic only happens in retrospect?

There’s another video of us, only this time he and I are dancing like mad. It’s a few years later, my sixteenth birthday, and we’re hopping around the living room of my mom’s house, bending our limbs in all the wrong places and bobbing our heads just out of sync with the music.

I know that he’s sick, but he hardly acts it so sometimes I forget. He still makes sauerkraut and helps me with my physics homework and does everything for everyone else. He didn’t want to try chemo—“Western medicine is no good” (cue my sigh)—so for all intents and purposes he looks the same. Just a little smaller, face more wizened, skin a tiny bit sallow.

He’ll die in a few months (I don’t know yet just how quick it will come), but right now I’m surrounded by the warmest collection of family friends and my parents are getting along and it’s my birthday so I’m the center of attention and Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” is filling the room, so nothing else matters. It’s a moment when Susan Sontag’s words ring truer than true: God, living is enormous.

This dancing video is what I show to people who never got to meet my dad. They watch it and laugh and say, “Oh my god, he’s just as weird as you.” Or, “I see where you get it from.” When they say that, I wonder if maybe he gave me some essence people now know as mine, if he shared some inexplicable spark with me that I managed to hold onto. But that can’t be true, I don’t think. He was all heart and wisdom and kindness. I’m just moody and jealous and self-absorbed.

He is holding the match patiently, its tip touching the pool of liquid in the shallow bowl. It takes a few matches before the rubbing alcohol lights, but finally it goes up in flames. I yelp and my dad smiles and I tentatively dip my finger into the burning alcohol. My hand catches fire, comes out flaming; there is a tingle of heat but it doesn’t hurt. Over the next few minutes, we take turns slipping our fingers into the flames, and I am reminded that fire is contagious. We laugh and shriek and Jennie walks in at some point and says, “Holy shit!” I can hear the shuffle of my dad’s slippers on the kitchen floor—I will never lose that sound. He is small, but it’s hard to tell because his warmth is so big. A friend of his once called him a heart on legs, and it’s true; he is expansive in his love. But Jennie’s nephew calls him Tiny Jenya and in this video he is shorter than the refrigerator. Maybe he is more fragile than I realize. Maybe there is no such thing as invincible.

I often return to this moment, to the heat of the flames leaping from my fingers, the manic giggling, the warmth of his presence. The idea of this moment means everything to me. But I want to remember what it felt like then, outside of the glow of nostalgia, because sometimes real life isn’t special until you see it refracted. Sometimes a person is just a person, and nothing larger. Maybe I’m only telling you a story of a teenage girl on an average Saturday with her perfectly, unremarkably run-of-the-mill dad. Maybe that’s all.

When I was eight years old, I learned to strike a match for the first time. I’d been eyeing the matchbox for a while and decided to give it a try when my parents weren’t looking. I got it lit and then realized I didn’t know what to do with it. Lighting a candle was out of the question on account of candles being boring, but I noticed a vase of dried wheat that my mom had placed on the table. It seemed like a good target, so I held the match to the dried wheat stalk. It began to burn! I didn’t really know what to do next. It was actually burning pretty fast. I panicked and ran outside and threw the burning stalk into the yard. I panicked better and threw water over it. The flame went out with a hiss. My heart was beating loud. That was the day I discovered the transferrable effects of fire, the day I learned that one bright thing can light another, that something really can go up in flames, that a moment can have a heat of its own that might just slip away with a splash, irretrievably.

There are days when I am sure that everything I remember about my dad is whispery fiction. That even a video can’t tell me what it was that gave him his spark, what made his wide palms and blue eyes and grey wisps of hair comfort me just so. There is no replacement for the specific way in which a person keeps you warm. These are the days I want to climb up some dumb mountain and shout at the treetops, “Nothing lasts!” Because, really, what’s the point? You lose things and then they’re gone for good.

But then I remember about that tiny stalk of wheat, with its little moment in flame, with the heat right up close, and how it mattered. Or how it didn’t actually matter. How it was just some dried up piece of wheat that caught fire for a second and then was doused out of existence. It doesn’t make sense to care about it. It was stupidly impermanent, that’s all. But when the water fell, a little sizzle of smoke drifted into the air, and that smoke, it was a reminder of some irreplaceable essence—a new state of matter signaling that the fire had been there and was real and had changed the world irrevocably with its tiny crackle of warmth. Somehow that little flame seemed to hold everything I needed. Which of course isn’t true but that’s entirely beside the point because magic isn’t rational. The world opens itself up and anything goes. We are all that wisp of smoke, something new carrying the essence of something old.

Copyright Bohr 2019