Anthony always held the belief that his father could make magic. Not the kind of tricks he watched the clowns do at the circus or the phony stuff he saw in the movies — this was real magic. It started a few weeks shy of his sixth birthday, some thirty years ago, when his father asked him to help organize the party.
“So now we’ve chosen the cake, double chocolate with chocolate frosting, and chocolate cupcakes on top. Isn’t that a bit much son?”
“No Pop.” Anthony replied with a big smirk on his face. He knew his mother’s disapproving glances would not be able to stifle his wishes; not when it came to birthdays, “the grandest of all of life’s celebrations,” as Pop used to say.
“And the theme… hmmm, are you sure you want pirates?”
“Yo ho ho, a pirate’s life for me.” Anthony giggled. His father taught him that song while in the midst of regaling the boy with tales of Captain Hook, Blackbeard, and the rest of the motley characters that sailed the seven seas. This was only a glimpse of the magic he could conjure up; on demand or on a whim. He had the storyteller’s gift and he used it well, with animated passion, love, and respect for the craft.
“You haven’t thought about the invitations have you Anthony?”
“We just call everyone and I’ll tell my teacher in school, like we did last year.”
“Not this time son, not for a pirate’s party. We must adhere to form, and good form requires us to do much more.”
The following day, Anthony and his father spent the entire afternoon creating customized invitations on parchment paper. A makeshift map consisting of a broken line connecting the top right hand corner, where Anthony would spell out the name of a particular guest, to the bottom left corner that contained a simple stick figure house with smoke coming out of the chimney and a big X underneath it.
The invitations were carefully rolled up, placed inside glass bottles, corked, and put away in a box. In the morning, his father drove him out to the beach, where they stood at the pier and threw the bottles into the ocean.
For the remainder of the week his father fielded telephone calls from excited guests who had happened to walk by a stream, or a lake, or even a water fountain, and found a mysterious bottle floating there, containing a special personalized invitation. The magic of that day lived inside Anthony well past the age of realizing that the messages had been swapped out the night before and handed over to the guests before the party.
It continued this way all through Anthony’s childhood. His father’s magic could cast spells of enchantment, make the demons under his bed disappear, make sense of the complicated problems the teacher gave him for homework, and hold him in such a way that the pain from a scraped knee would dull to the point of being bearable.
When he got older, his father’s father magic became less frequent but all the more meaningful. He always felt it envelop him, shielding him from any harm and nourishing his strength; the presence of perfectly timed words of wisdom, the right tone of concern for the things they couldn’t talk about, a baseball game, a walk in the park, a day at the races, a late night movie. As Anthony stumbled through life trying to make his way in the world, this was the magic that kept him moving forward.
He stood there now, on that very spot where he watched the glass bottles drift away with the ocean tide all those years ago, feeling the cold January air on the first day of the new year. He wanted to say so many things at the end, but the words were never there. As his father’s light waned, the magic subsided until there was nothing left of it and Anthony felt the cold embrace of the world for the first time ever.
“This year things will be different.”
And they were. For obvious reasons, his life had changed and he was becoming someone else. This moment and all the moments before it would morph into something vaguely familiar yet foreign. Memories of a life that no longer belonged to him because all of its illusions had exhausted themselves with the death of the one man who made it all special.
He picked up the empty bottle lying there on the sand next to his cold bare feet, placed the scribbled napkin inside it, and screwed the top back on. He listened to the sound of the waves and tried to remember if they’d always been this violent. He threw the bottle as far as possible and watched it float away into the distance, hoping it would make its way safely across to its destination.
At the other end of the ocean, where all the stories come from, where everything in your imagination is born, where all the best dreams that you’ve ever remembered play out in screens that cover the night sky, he was sure his father would be there, waiting to hear from him. The message was simple,
“You did a good job Pop.”