Ghost Fandom

Submitted into Contest #190 in response to: Write a story about a fandom... view prompt

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Creative Nonfiction

Ghost Fandom

I was a fan of a ghost. So, I believe in ghosts;  because my dad, the stage star, disappeared and rematerialized thoughout his entire life, and I was an audience of one. 

Before his evolving spectral transparencies began, he was a fully visible, handsome, and funny guy, a stage star. Studying his scrapbooks, the vanishing sepia photos confirmed he originally appeared as a star performer working Big Tent Shows in the 1930’s throughout America’s Midwest. A comedian, pianist, singer, composer, writer, and actor, he was the main attraction of The Hugo Players. Reprising the comic character “Toby” Dad played the fool to SRO’s. Toby, the red-haired, freckle-faced bumpkin who had once been a well-performed character in a much broader more burlesque repertoire: The Toby Show, Dad frequently insisted that 

Hugo shows were never burlesque, never Chautauqua, and never ever ever vaudeville.”

The company would troop across the plains, heft up the massive tent, perform, strike the tent, and disappear. On to the next gig. Then, like one of the massive white pavilions that blew away during a sudden tornado in Iowa, the entire genre of Tent Shows dematerialized. I wasn’t born then and only met one of the other original Hugo Players, Larry, a woman who before I knew what it meant seemed used up. 

Long before that visit, Toby, Dad, had taken on the role of Mr. Breadwinner, a newspaper printer, in order to provide for his three children. He believed this work would fit his passion of art and design. But grueling hours performing repetitive tedious work on his feet, along with crushing union strikes, dimmed his shine. No longer the star of the show he sulked and groused about the conditions and his creative invisibility: 

“I could have done something to make that newspaper advertisement look sharp and artistic, but the foreman just hammered me to get it done.”

“They won’t even let me bring a tall stool to my worktable. It’s like a sweat shop.”

He would come home tired and tried to settle for nightly performances for the family, a captive audience. When the ink and lead-type industry shapeshifted to digital technology, my father could not make the transition. He stopped playing the piano at night, no longer kept Chiclets® in his pockets for us, and made no more silly Dad jokes about his ink-stained fingers. Gone were the shards of metal in the cuffs of his slacks that we pretended were bits of fairy silver. We watched his transformation into a new character, Mr. Disappointment Man, as he changed from comedian to tragedian. 

He struggled to make a comeback with minor roles, because the show must go on. Daily tasks like stirring his coffee were accompanied with a dance step or dad joke for his shrinking audience. Every exit from the house included a “Break-a-leg,” from Dad. In the days of tent and stage shows the bottom of the heavy fabric curtain was held fast with a sewn-in wooden pole called a leg. The leg allowed the weighted heap to roll up and down as well as remain straight. If one was lucky or talented enough to have multiple encores, the curtain might rise and fall so many times that the leg would break. And Dad was all about encores. 

To maintain his audience, once again he shifted characters. This time he became Mr. Puppeteer. First, his next act was ventriloquism, something that scared me terribly. The face of the puppet was garish, and that was before a James Wan horror, Dead Silence, and terror dummy Billy. It must have been an organic reaction, and when Dad put his hand inside the thing and talked, I was too young to discern that it was a trick. Fortunately, he moved on quickly and crafted The Little Ghost show for what had become an audience of one, his biggest fan. My brothers were a lot older and had already moved on to college, so Dad was the biggest show in town for me. The new performer was a white handkerchief marionettea small puppet constructed from the folded fabric and rubber bands to form a little ghost-man. The charming cotton spirit leaped into the air and landed on its soft feet after spinning death-defying pirouettes. Of course, Dad controlled the invisible string that made it dance from the other room, but there were rules. A comment like “Guess what? A little ghost visited today,” elicited no comment. It was how I learned about the taboo not to break through the fourth wall. But if I waited for a moment there would be a wink and a bit of a smile. 

The last limited engagement came from a character called The Peppermint Man. Offstage, with an aside outside my bedroom door, the mini-musical began with an original composition: 

“Here comes the peppermint man, open your mouth as fast as you can, close your sleepy little eyes, and he will bring you a mint surprise.” 

I participated in the illusion. I closed my eyes and opened my mouth, the rising action of the show, until a mint was delivered into my mouth as the sweet denouement. It reminded me of the Chiclet® days. Dad would come home from work at 5:10 pm, I would hide in a closet and he would pretend to be shocked to find me, he would give me a piece of gum from his pocket, and for a brief moment, his eyes would light up. Determined to comply with the rules of the Fourth Wall prohibition the silences grew beyond performances. Nothing could be said out loud about Dad’s depression or evolving isolation. By then he was fading into Mr. Oblivion Man; sequestered, smoking, not eating, and writing songs no one would hear inside his study, locked away as if it were a star’s dressing room. 

For ten years after I left home, I delivered homemade sugar cookie tributes as often as I could get away. The aging method actor had then perfected his next role, the Great Recluse. But his final role broke the Fifth Wall, defined in theater as “playing a character occupying a higher universe that is more real than the universe we inhabit.” 

Always the trouper, Dad just had to have a final encore. I was at my house, piling kids into the car to get groceries when I was stopped by a familiar sweetness, a presence, a soft quietness. I knew better than to break the spell and stood absolutely still when I heard my Daddy’s sweet old here's a Chiclet in my pocket for you voice say, 

“Thank you for all the sugar cookies.” 

Tears filled my eyes, and I think I held my breath not wanting the feeling to go. But the phone rang and interrupted me with the information that Dad had just accepted his final role: Ghost Dad. Bravo Daddy!

March 17, 2023 17:52

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1 comment

20:07 Mar 26, 2023

I loved this! It made me cry at the end 😭


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