My father disappeared at 6:30 p.m. on a Sunday in November. Since then, I’ve been fascinated by disappearances.
No one else I know has ever disappeared. People have sometimes gone missing. People have sometimes died. But no one else has vanished into thin air.
I once read a newspaper article about a hotel where small items started vanishing one by one. At first it was thought to be the work of thieves, but gradually the items starting reappearing in strange places — staplers were found in guest room showers, a large selection of bathrobes on the roof. My favorite incident involved a giant swordfish disappearing from the restaurant’s walk-in freezer. A live one was found in the swimming pool three days later.
The working theory is that the disappearances were part of an elaborate prank, but I think that’s a boring answer. Mysterious things happen every day.
My father had told us he was going on a business trip to Akron, but he came home a day early to surprise us. My sister opened the door for him. He walked up the stairs and into his bedroom to change and never came out. When we opened the door, all that was left was an open suitcase beneath the window. A white button-down was strewn across the bed; a faucet in the bathroom was still running.
My father worked for a factory that made tiny giraffe sculptures. He was fond of saying that they were only 10 years from being able to build real ones. He made a lot of bad giraffe jokes when he was still around. He liked to call them “giraffe gaffes.”
The contents of my father’s suitcase:
- Three pairs of argyle socks
- Two polo shirts, orange
- One toiletry pouch containing a toothbrush, razor, and travel canister of shaving cream
- One pair of khakis, pleated
- Fourteen individually wrapped wintergreen Lifesavers
- One United States Passport, expiration date June 5, 2017
- A Peruvian cookbook, wrapped as a gift
I still wonder who the cookbook was for. No one in our household has ever liked to cook.
I was 18 when my father disappeared. My sister was 15. Our mother was digging wells in Botswana.
Once in a while we receive a letter from Africa. The contents tend to be the same: My mother describes a harrowing experience undergone by someone she has met in Botswana; she describes a terrible marriage or a terrible disease, and tells us how sad she is that she can’t solve all the problems she is seeing. She tells us that she might come home next month. She usually includes a photo of herself. In the photos, she is always smiling among the villagers she has most recently saved. Her teeth are always very white.
We are also sad about the things my mother writes about in her letters. We understand, but we miss her anyway. We are probably bad people.
After my father disappeared, I moved from part-time to full-time at the grocery store down the road. Most of my work involves the unloading and rearranging of produce. Once in a while, I take something small — an orange, an onion — just to see if someone will notice that it’s missing.
No one ever does.
Most of the people who come into a grocery store don’t consider the possibility that their produce could disappear.
I think my sister took the disappearance the hardest. In the weeks after my father vanished, she rarely ate. She rarely slept. Some nights I would walk to the kitchen to get a glass of water, and I would see her in the living room. She would be sitting on the couch in the dark. Her eyes would be fixed on an empty part of the wall. It was as though she could see something that I couldn’t.
There are a lot of things, I know, that I’m incapable of seeing.
At our local zoo, a magician once made a tiger disappear. He worked the whole town into a frenzy over the act. It was, he insisted, going to be something Earth-shattering. Those of us who were lucky enough to see it would never feel the same way about the world again. Flyers were posted everywhere. THE VANISHMENT OF THE TIGER was printed on top in bold capital letters.
When we finally watched the act, all that happened was that the tiger was moved from one part of the cage to another with a whirl of his cape. There were many plausible explanations for this fact. Everyone forgot about the trick shortly afterward.
I sometimes wonder how the tiger felt about the whole thing. When I visit him now, he mostly looks bored.
When my sister was 6, she asked my mother to send her a picture of a tiger from Africa. “There aren’t any tigers in Africa,” I tried to explain, and she started crying. She thought that Africa was filled with all sorts of dangerous animals, so of course our mother could take a picture of a tiger for her. My sister didn’t speak to me for a week after that.
I can’t remember if my sister saw the magic act with the tiger, but if she did, I’m certain she doesn’t remember much of it either.
My sister asked my mother about it when she was home for Christmas one year. My mother said no, no there aren’t any tigers in Africa. “But there are giraffes,” my father said, beaming.
Throughout our house there are a large number of tiny giraffe sculptures made of plaster. My father had always been proud of what he did, so I suppose it makes sense that he would have wanted to show them off to guests. All of the giraffes are in exactly the same pose. The only difference is the name of the zoo written at the bottom of the sculpture. I haven’t gotten rid of any of them yet.
I did, however, manage to break the statue from our local zoo shortly after my father disappeared. I went to the gift shop to try to replace it, but they no longer carried statues of giraffes. Now my desk has a tiny statue of a tiger on it instead.
When she turned 16, my sister asked if I thought our mother would ever remarry. I said that I didn’t know. You can’t replace people the way you can replace objects.
My sister has asked me many questions that I don’t know the answers to. Other favorites include will it rain today? and what happened to the cat?
What happened to the cat is probably this: It ran away from home. Like all cats do sometimes. He might come back, and he also might not. He was an orange cat and we cared about him a lot. When my sister was six, she tried to paint black stripes on him so he’d look like a tiger.
Whether it’s a tiger or a giraffe, it’s always sad when something you love disappears.
I tried to talk to my sister several times after our father vanished. I explained that the universe is mysterious, that we can’t control these things, and that it’s all we can do to learn to live with them. She said I was crazy for being okay with everything. All I could say was that I wasn’t.
One night, while my sister was asleep, I tried reenacting my father’s disappearance. I walked in the door with his suitcase, slipped off my shoes, and carried his things up the stairs. I closed the door, took off my shirt, and turned on the faucet in the bathroom. I stood in the middle of the bedroom and stared out the window. The sky was covered by clouds and stained a quiet amber from the light pollution. Everything was dark. I closed my eyes and waited.
I waited forever.
I have a lot of ideas about how my father’s disappearance must have looked. There was probably a glowing portal, or a puff of smoke, or at the very least a mysterious humming. My father must have stepped though the portal, fallen through to another side in another universe. Or else it was like a blink. One second he was there, and the next he wasn’t.
We received a letter from my mother recently. It said she would be home for the holidays and might stick around a month or two longer than usual. She included a Polaroid photo of herself with a lion plodding along in the background. “Pretend that it’s a tiger” was written on the back.
I suspect my sister worries that one day my mother and I will disappear too. This is probably inevitable; there are many things that can drag a person away from the people they love. But with our mother so far away, it’s all I can do to say, “I’ll be here.” And I will be. Even when a person disappears, they always leave something behind.
Last Sunday, I discovered that the tiger statue had disappeared from my desk. I asked my sister if she knew anything, but she said that she hadn’t had anything to do with it. I tore my room apart looking for the statue, made and unmade my bed, even pulled the books off the shelves. No matter how much I tore the room apart, the statue was nowhere to be seen.
This morning I found a small giraffe statue on my desk, where the tiger used to be. On the bottom, where the name of a zoo is usually written, our family name is scrawled in capital letters instead.
I’ve decided not to question where it came from. Mysterious things happen every day.