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Authors: Jennifer Egan

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BOOK: The Invisible Circus
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Her mother woke her. “You’re pooped,” she said. “Go to bed.”

“Wait, I want to see the end,” Phoebe muttered, sitting up and rubbing her eyes. She searched the screen for Rockford.

“The show’s all over, sweetheart,” her mother said. “This is just news. It ended while you were sleeping.”


While Phoebe’s father was painting her sister, Faith, Phoebe would bang objects sometimes to try to catch his attention, or rustle leaves if they were outside. Her father looked, but only for a second.

She tried disappearing, wobbling into the bushes in her bare feet or hiding up in her room, waiting for someone to call, but no one did.

Finally, in frustration, she went back to them. Faith reached for Phoebe without even moving her head—she was good at sitting for paintings. Phoebe slumped against her sister and, out of nowhere, she was happy. Their father grinned. “You’ve been ignoring us, squirrel,” he said.

Afterward Phoebe would run to look at the canvas, thinking she might be in the picture, too, but there was only Faith. And sometimes not even Faith was fully visible, just a hint of her face, a shadow or else nothing at all. But even then Phoebe saw her sister hidden among the trees or windows or abstract designs, like a secret. She was always there.

“It’s a gesture,” their father said, “an expression you make with your body.”

Diving lessons. A gigantic turquoise swimming pool, water syrupy-looking in the thick summer light. Three boards, the highest a virtual skyscraper attempted only by the seasoned teenaged divers, doglike boys with short legs and long tapered torsos, girls whose slender bodies curved toward the water like birds diving for fish, entering it with so tiny a splash that they left an impression not so much of having dived as of having ascended.

“Sure you’re scared,” their father said. “Don’t fight it, that’s the trick. Walk into your fear. Let everything go and you’ll get it all back, I promise.”

Phoebe listened, mystified. She was too young to dive except from the pool’s edge, but her father’s face she understood. He climbed on the lowest board and bounced, handsome in his faded trunks, his muscular body more like the boys’ than the half-melted physiques of the other fathers. He could still do a one-and-a-quarter, though he’d been much better back in the seminary. “Don’t fight the fear—let it swallow you,” he called, still bouncing. Their heads bobbed as they listened.

Abruptly he stopped and climbed off the board. “You poor kids,” he said. “You just want to get wet.”

From a reclining chair he watched them practice, gathering Phoebe absently into his lap, calling over her head to Faith and Barry. “You’re not ready for that,” he said when Faith headed for the middle board. She tried anyway, hitting the water sloppily, legs flapping back over her head. “She’s a show-off. That’s not enough,” he remarked to Phoebe, adding with a laugh, “Too bad.”

For ten days each July, they came to St. Louis to visit Grandma and Grandpa in the mansion where their mother grew up, and while their mother played bridge with old friends or golfed with Grandpa, their father drove them to the country club. Thick grass surrounded the pool. You could have your lunch brought there: cottage cheese, salade niçoise. No money ever changed hands; you just signed “3342” with a tiny yellow pencil and the bill went to Grandma and Grandpa. Early evenings, tanned and showered, martini in hand, Phoebe’s father would lift her into his arms to wait for her mother on the club’s flagstone terrace. As he gazed down at the sloping green lawns and egg-shaped flowerbeds, Phoebe felt his happiness. Behind the chugging locusts she heard the faint thump of tennis balls, like a heartbeat. There was a warm sweet smell of cut grass. He was happy. Phoebe drank her Shirley Temple, saving the cherry for last. Summer heat on her bare arms, filling the sky with strange, imaginary colors. It looked like heaven.

But he never painted enough. Driving the stakes of his easel deep into the lawn, their father would gaze up at the towering elm and walnut trees outside their grandparents’ house, everyone hanging back, letting him alone. “I can’t believe this is all I’ve done,” he’d say, panic in his voice at the discovery that he’d spent his vacation drinking cocktails, charming the club wives with his lean handsomeness, his roguish air of having come from somewhere else, someplace less fastidious. Now the vacation was over. Tomorrow they would fly home.

“I’ll bring them to the club today,” their mother said. “You stay and paint.” But no, no, he would take them. He was dying to escape.

Beside the pool their father lay back in a chair and closed his eyes. Phoebe and Barry and Faith clustered helplessly around him, frightened of a world that could reduce their father to such despair. Phoebe stared at his tense, unhappy face and wanted to help, but she felt so small. He couldn’t see her.

Faith kept glancing at their father, fidgeting with the straps of her bathing suit. Finally she rose to her feet. With dread in her face she walked slowly to the highest diving board and climbed its steps. She looked tiny up there, eleven years old, slim and deeply tanned, slightly knock-kneed. “Dad,” Barry said. Their father opened his eyes and rubbed them, followed Phoebe’s and Barry’s stares and sat upright, muscles tense in his neck. Faith stood a long time at the end of the diving board. A few teenagers waited impatiently below, craning their necks to see what was taking so long. Please do it, Phoebe thought. Please, please do it. Faith gave a tentative bounce. Then a clarity came to her movements, a stillness; she leapt high in the air, spread wide her arms and arced into a swan dive, head straight down like an arrow’s head, pulling the wand of her body toward the turquoise water. Her splash was minute—in years to come Faith would never again match that first, perfect dive, a fact that galled her—and their father leapt to his feet. “That’s it!” he cried. “Jesus, you see what she did?” He was grinning, his despair gone, and Phoebe knew the day was saved.

Faith must have known, too. She rose from the water, steamy chlorine footprints on the pool’s concrete lip, grinning from ear to ear as they all waited, and suddenly Phoebe was angry—why her? Why always her? Then, without warning, blood poured from her sister’s nose over her mouth and chin and neck, spattering the wet concrete, as if by accident she’d breathed out blood instead of air. Faith frowned, raising a hand to her face. “Oh,” she said, and there was a beat of confusion before their father bolted to her side, laid Faith gently on the grass and sent Barry running for ice, a wet towel.

When the nosebleed finally ended, Faith slept for a solid three hours. Their father moved her tenderly into the shade of a tree, but she didn’t wake; she was exhausted.

Phoebe and Barry went swimming, then ordered grilled cheese sandwiches for lunch. At the sight of Faith’s thin, sleeping shape, Phoebe felt something move in her stomach and was ashamed of herself for having wanted her sister to jump.

Phoebe’s ragged memories of her father made her angry at herself; she should have watched more closely, should have memorized whole days from his life. She remembered the strength of his arms, the rough, easy way he would lift her to his chest—absently, as if she were a cat he wanted to put outside—would toss her into the air or spank her without warning, so startling Phoebe that her crying came as an afterthought.

His dark mustache was unexpectedly soft. Mornings when her father and mother were still in bed, Phoebe would burrow between them, inhaling the milky warmth of their flesh, softer after hours of sleep.

Grandma and Grandpa O’Connor still lived in the Southern California town where Phoebe’s father grew up. Mirasol was mostly Navy—Grandpa had been a military policeman—and the small olive-colored house where these grandparents lived could not have contrasted more starkly with the others’ St. Louis mansion. But Mirasol had the ocean. Sea wind rattled the doors of the neighborhood church, grains of sand fell from prayer books. As Phoebe watched the priest break the Host, she would think, That could have been my father. He’d almost become a priest. Phoebe imagined his strong arms lifting the golden chalice to drink the blood of Christ, placing a pale Host on the tongue of each parishioner, murmuring “Amen” to their “Body of Christ.” But to Grandma and Grandpa O’Connor’s lasting sorrow, her father had refused a place at Holy Cross Fathers at Notre Dame and gone instead to Berkeley, where by his own account he endured his electrical engineering courses so at night he could play the bohe-mian, sketching nude models in paint-spattered art studios.

Afterward he’d moved to San Francisco, lived in North Beach and worked the construction jobs that had cost him some hearing on the left side. On weekends he would set up his easel behind the Maritime Museum and paint the old blue-eyed Italian men who played bocci. Phoebe’s mother had met him there, on a trip to San Francisco with friends from Bryn Mawr, a graduation present from her parents. After their wedding Phoebe’s father took an engineering job at IBM, the job Phoebe came to believe had cost him his life.

Phoebe grew up surrounded by sketches of Faith: in their mother’s arms at the hospital, at home in her crib, on a rabbit skin, splashing in her bath, in a high chair, car seat, playpen. Beside the vivid record of her sister’s childhood, Phoebe’s own existence felt shadowy, and this confused and enraged her. Seven years younger, she grudgingly endured stories of how Faith had lunged for everything in sight with her small, star-shaped hands: bees, hornets, broken glass, diamond earrings. Everyone spoke of her daring, how when her father pushed her on the swings Faith would egg him on, yelling “Higher! Higher!” until at four years old her swing overshot the bar it was attached to, wavered in midair and dumped Faith onto the sand.

Their mother screamed, bolted from the bench where she’d been rocking Barry’s stroller and ran to Faith, who lay crumpled in a heap. “Gene, how could you push her so high?” she cried.

“She told me to,” he said, shaken, abashed. “She kept saying ‘Higher.’”

Faith was white-faced, her lips dry. Grains of sand fell from her hair. “Look at her,” their mother chided, lifting Faith up. “Honestly, Gene, she’s four.”

“Not hurt,” Faith whispered. When her parents eyed her skeptically, she insisted, “Not hurt.”

Years later the grandparents still would tease her, asking, Does it hurt? Does it hurt? No way, Faith always said, laughing. She was famous for that.

Phoebe tried in small ways to match her sister’s daring, taking little chances on her trike or with the neighbor’s dog, but Faith was always older, always doing more. When her sister’s exploits led her into trouble, Phoebe felt a surge of guilty satisfaction. Once Faith came home crying after a hunting trip in Sonoma with their father, a dead rabbit clutched to her chest. “Well of course it’s dead. You shot it, for Christ’s sake,” their father said, exasperated, but Faith hadn’t meant to: she loved to shoot clay pigeons but had never hunted, and failed somehow to realize that firing at a flash of brown fur would lead to something dying. She buried the rabbit in the backyard among the other beloved family pets (“Killed by me,” read its epitaph, inked on kindling wood with Magic Marker, and underneath that, “i am sorry, Bunny”). Years later Faith still mentioned the incident, that poor rabbit she’d murdered, by accident.

On the Osage River one Sunday: someone’s pier, slippery wooden slats, Faith pushing with the other kids until a boy sent her flying into the river with her sun hat on, in front of all the parents. Faith emerged dripping river water, laughing crazily under the sopping hat, waited until her assailant wasn’t looking and then threw her weight against him so the boy slipped, fell unevenly into the water, smacking his head on the pier as he went down, a big gash just above the left eye. Faith’s horror at the sight of his face running with blood, all the parents leaping from white grille chairs in a single motion. They rushed to the boy, whose eye was saved by half an inch—less—and while they rallied to get him to a hospital, Phoebe followed her sister to a hidden corner of lawn, powerless to stop her sobbing. Phoebe felt afraid then, touched by the bad thing Faith had done. Her sister disappeared for the rest of that day. They found her at nightfall, coiled tightly in a spare bedroom, fast asleep. Their father carried her to the car. Back at Grandma and Grandpa’s, Phoebe stood outside her parents’ door and overheard them arguing. “I’m saying stop encouraging her,” her mother said. “You see what happens.”

“How do you mean? Encourage her how?”

“I mean she does it for you. That wildness? Come on, Gene. You know perfectly well that’s for you.”

Her father’s voice was hushed, furious. “You think I told her to knock that kid in the river?” he said. “I don’t tell her to be wild, Christ Almighty. She just does it.”

“You don’t have to tell her,” her mother said. “Any fool can see it makes you happy.”

BOOK: The Invisible Circus
10.8Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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