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All is tranquil during the third week of the season. From the third floor of a coast town motel, the manager waters the baskets of geraniums by hand. It’s the only thing he doesn’t want to pass down. He wants to keep his fingers in the life of the motel—not just get swept into the financial decisions and board meetings of the Hospitality Coalition. Plus, it’s so pleasant on the deck at ten PM, where he can hear the clanging of sailboats in the distance. He breathes in the sweet starry air and heads back to the front desk to relieve the clerk until the night staff come in.
“You’re good to go, Manny. Nice work today.” He pats Manny on the shoulder and starts to count the day’s proceeds.
Charlevoix is a summer town, and the tourists are filing in with the same parochial politeness they bring every year. Easy to persuade, easy to please—as long as they don’t have to mix with the young or the poor, whose music and morals are not conducive to vacation. Business is good in Charlevoix, where blue collar families are scarce and most people are older than 55. The computer’s transaction records confirm this. The manager smiles and yawns. Most guests stop arriving by six, so he’s looking forward to a peaceful shift.
His moment of quietude ends abruptly when he spots the rag tag fellow talking to the concierge by the door. The concierge sends the man to the front desk where the manager is standing, and the manager takes in the spectacle. He’s a dirty laundry basket of a man, with a haywire sweater and corduroy pants—even in the heat of the summer! His face is as jagged as the Lake Michigan coastline. A sleeping child is slung over his shoulder, much too old to be held, in his opinion.
“Sir, I’m looking for a room for the night.” His voice is almost as soft as a whisper. The manager is close enough to smell the kerosene, which confirms his suspicions. He’s a juggler.
“I’m afraid we require advance notice,” the manager lies. He keeps his eyes low.
“Sir, I wouldn’t trouble you if it weren’t for my daughter. She hasn’t been sleeping well and we’re on a long road trip. I’ll pay up front if you’d like.” The man begins pulling bills from his wallet.
“Let me see your driver’s license.” The manager knows it’s been nearly impossible for jugglers to keep their driver’s licenses since the Freedom of Employment Act was repealed. A march in Traverse City a few weeks ago had called for it to be reinstated, and all the shops had closed as the tourists fled to Leland. God forbid those radicals ever make it this far north.
“Sir, I’m not required by law to show you that.” The man is right. He looks stern under his unkempt eyebrows.
“Most guests do—it’s an accountability measure for Charlevoix motels.” The manager maintains his calm. This can all be handled with minimal disturbance. The man pauses. He knows that the manager could call the police and he could be detained without probable cause.
“Of course, sir. I’ll get it from my car.” The man turns to leave. The manager can see his daughter’s face as he turns, her cheek limp against the man’s shoulder. Seems to be sleeping just fine, now.
The man disappears around the corner, and a minute later the manager watches the car pull out of the motel parking lot. Just as he suspected. The manager dials the sheriff’s extension as soon as the car is out of sight.
“Evening, Bruce. Incredible night, huh?” The manager chats with the sheriff for a while. “I just wanted to put someone on your radar. Young juggler with a daughter. Couldn’t show his license. Just took off a couple minutes ago,” the manager reports. “Beats me. He must not know the area.” The manager laughs at the sheriff’s response. “Thanks, Bruce. We’ll keep those renegades down south where they belong. All right. See you Saturday.”
. . . . . . . .
On the water’s edge a few miles from the motel is a campground nestled into rolling dunes. It’s not the weekend yet—there are only a few sites occupied and most of the campers have gone to sleep. In the pit of a dune, two teenage sisters are stirring around their pile of embers. Charcoal is smudged on the younger one’s face. The older one holds a charred stick.
“I’m gonna wash up,” says the younger one. “And I’m scared of bodies of water at night so you need to come with me.”
The older one, nestled into her sleeping bag and pretending not to hear, eventually groans and the two of them trudge to the water. There’s a chill in the air without the shield of the dunes or the heat of the coals. The moon’s light guides them to the shore.
They’re brushing their teeth and scrubbing char off their skin when they notice the reflection of light coruscating on the water. The younger one points a few yards down the dark beach. Two balls of fire are in a rapid orbit around each other. When the girls’ eyes adjust, they can see the body that’s throwing and catching them. His eyes and limbs are in a deep, dynamic concentration with the flames. “Whoa,” the younger one breathes. “Isn’t juggling illegal?”
The older sister nods. “I haven’t seen a fire juggler since I visited New York City as a kid.”
“Look, there’s someone else with him.” A smaller figure is lying down in the sand, wrapped in blankets. The voice of a girl mingles with the juggler’s voice, barely audible from where the girls are standing.
The orbits of flame stretch and slow until gravity stops dragging them down. They rotate in leisurely ellipses five feet above the juggler’s head. “He’s a professional,” says the older one. “That’s so sad.”
Then he starts to sing—sort of. It’s a vibration of sound, like a flute and a snare drum. His arms drop to his sides. The girls cringe, expecting the fireballs to pitch into the lake. But they don’t. An expectant silence spreads over the water. The wind dies down and the pulsing coast line hushes. The voice of the young girl has stopped.
The sisters stand numb, watching the two flames dance above the juggler’s head, listening to his deep flute voice. All of Lake Michigan has stretched into flagrant glass. They don’t realize they’ve fallen asleep on the beach until the next morning.
. . . . . . . .
The old woman calls to the solemn fellow a few bar stools over. “I hope you didn’t take him up on his offer.”
The man looks at her. His eyes are bruised with sleeplessness. On his hands are the unmistakable coal smudges of a flame juggler. He’s alone now, after a tense exchange of words with another man. She’s seen the other man at this bar many times, usually right before a visit from the police.
“That looked like an awful lot of driver’s licenses in his briefcase.” She raises her eyebrows. “Why didn’t you take one?”
The man shifts in his chair, like he’s considering flight. “I didn’t know the nature of his work.” His voice is low and soft. “I’m sorry to bother you, ma’am.” He gets up from his stool.
“Wait, I’m not going to turn you in,” she insists. She opens her wallet and takes out her driver’s license. “Fifteen years ago, I didn’t have as much integrity as you. See the discolored print here? You wouldn’t find that in a real one.”
The man sits back down. “I can’t afford to carry a fake ID. I have a daughter to raise.”
“Children will drive you to make irrational choices, though.” She moves to the stool next to his. “I raised two boys on my own, many years ago. I tried to make it as a full time waitress, playing weekends at a jazz club. It almost killed me.” She drinks her whiskey. “I’m an artist. Never been good at anything else. So I started forging paintings for an online seller. The money was flowing in, I could send my boys to private school, I was making my payments on time. Then the seller got caught. I did my time, but no one would hire me after that. So I found someone like your friend to make me a new identity.”
“You never got caught?”
The woman shakes her head. “To be fair, I didn’t have the coal smudges to give away my profession.” She nods at his hands. He presses his palms together like it will get rid of the marks. “Once I had this,” she says, holding up the license. “I moved a few states over and opened the first glass blowing shop in Michigan. Something I picked up while the money was steady. My shop is just a few blocks away.” She puts her business card on the table and looks up at him. “I never asked you your name.”
She senses a visible strain in his manner. He is skeptical, but tired of being skeptical. “Luca,” he says.
“Annie Whitaker.” She shakes his hand. “Luca, I’d like to offer you a job. Something tells me you’re good with flames.”
. . . . . . . .
The sheriff watches the young man twist the blowpipe as it gathers malleable glass in the oven. Nothing about his manner gives him away. If the sheriff didn’t know any better, he would guess this man had been blowing glass for a decade. But after the tip from the motel manager and the bartender, there’s no question that this is his fire juggler. A quiet man with a dark beard working at an old woman’s glass blowing shop. Today the sheriff is just an ordinary customer in a baseball cap, confirming his suspect.
“How long does this usually take, Mr. …?” The sheriff shifts from foot to foot.
“Call me Luca.” The young man smiles. So cordial and soft spoken. The sheriff almost needs to lean in every time he speaks. “About an hour today, and then the glass has to dry for 24 hours. Can you come back sometime tomorrow?”
“Count on it.” The sheriff peers into the fire. Luca goes into a whole lectureabout why the glass melts at a certain temperature, how the chemicals react, why they have to repeat the process so many times. Itall goes over the sheriff’s head. He’s starting to zone out when he hearsa young voice behind them.
“That’s called the glory hole.” It’s a young girl, probably seven or eight. She points to the oven.
“That’s right, Elena,” says Luca. “And what’s this called?” He points to the table where they rolled the glass.
“That’s the marver.”
“Magnificent.” He turns to the sheriff. “I hope you don’t mind. My daughter is my apprentice.”
“Not at all. Quite impressive. You can teach me sometime.” The sheriff laughs. The girl smiles with pride.
“What are you making?” she asks. Luca takes the blowpipe out of the oven to show her. It’s a fiery red glob of glass in the shape of a bird.
“Don’t tell my wife,” the sheriff whispers. “It’s her birthday present.”
“I’ve made two birds already,” she boasts. “They’re my favorite shape to make.”
“And what did we add on the last one?” Luca asks her.
She lights up. “Wings! You should add wings to yours.”
The sheriff wipes his forehead. “That sounds complicated. I’m already out of my element here.”
Luca grabs a pair of tweezers. “A bird in flight is far more beautiful than a stationary bird, but far more difficult. It’s your choice.”
The sheriff checks his watch. “I’m already short on time. I’ll have to save it for my next lesson.”
“Then we’re almost done.” Luca demonstrates blowing into the pipe and then hands it to the sheriff.
“Ouch!” The sheriff yells and the pipe clatters to the ground. “Damn pipe burned my hand.”
“That was my fault, I’m sorry,” Luca apologizes. “I should’ve told you not to hold it so close to the end.”
“It’s fine,” the sheriff says, picking up the pipe and hastily blowing into it.
“I’m afraid we need to reshape it now,” Luca says, motioning to the oven. The sheriff gruntsand they repeat the process again. He notices how the girl is fixated on the bright red bird, almost like she’s afraid he’ll drop the pipe again. It’s hard to concentrate while she’s scrutinizing him. When they finish the lesson, the sheriff pays and tips his hat to Luca and the girl.
“See you folks tomorrow,” he says, and drives away in his station wagon.
. . . . . . . .
Elena is decorating the chalk stand in front of the shop. Mrs. Whitaker is writing “Glass blowing class - $75” in white and Elena is tracing the letters in orange. The police cars arrive without sirens or lights, but Elena spots them from down the street. She barely notices the drop in her stomach anymore. It happens every time she sees a black SUV. But there are two this time, pulling into the parking lot of Annie’s Seaglass. Now Mrs. Whitaker sees them too.
“Elena, go upstairs,” Mrs. Whitaker says, standing up calmly.
“I need to find my dad,” Elena says, but her feet won’t move. Three men get out of the cars and walk toward them. The leather casings at their hips paralyze her. She needs to find her dad.
“Good afternoon, ma’am.” one of them nods at Mrs. Whitaker and walks right into the shop. “We’re here to talk to one of your employees.”
Elena’s always hated the way their voices sound. Polite, but the kind of polite that makes her feel small. She wishes she could block the door with her body and bellow with a deep voice back at the officers. Instead, the anger inside her boils into a sprint, and she takes off to the back entrance of the warehouse.
“Dad!” She flings open the doors.
“Over here,” Luca shouts from the cooling oven. He’s removing finished glass pieces from the oven to let them cool on a table.
“Dad, the police are here.” Elena’s words suddenly choke with strained sobs. A wildfire of fear springs to her eyes and nose before she can stop it. Luca glances toward the entrance, a moment of alarm passing over his face. Then he bends down to Elena.
“Do you remember what we talked about? In the car, on the way to Michigan? How this might happen?”
Elena nods. She remembers every detail. She remembers holding back tears at the thought of this moment.
“I’ve talked to Mrs. Whitaker. You can trust her. Elena, I’ll do everything I can—” The doors open and the three officers walk towards Luca in long strides. Luca gathers Elena into a tight embrace. “We’re going to be back together again. That’s a promise,” Luca says.
“How long?” Elena is holding onto his hands.
“I don’t know, Elena.” Luca smiles at her without wavering. “Do you remember what I said about hope?”
Elena nods again. She tries to swallow her fear, like her dad can.
“Sir, please step away from the girl and place your hands behind your head,” says an officer. Shock seeps through Elena’s senses until she can only hear the echoey quality of the officers’ words in the warehouse. Her dad looks angry and solemn as they shackle his hands. Someone is calling her name, again and again. It’s her dad, turning his head as they lead him out. She can’t concentrate on his voice, because it would mean seeing his wrists bent together too tightly. But she listens anyway, and hears him call out to her. I love you. Elena can only feel salt in her mouth. She says the words back, but they shrink on their way out. The warehouse reverberates with the officers’ boot steps and radio static. It’s like she’s in a dream, trying to run or scream, but a giant magnetic force is holding her back. Someone wraps gentle arms around her—it’s Mrs. Whitaker—and Elena feels herself fading.
In a final moment of clarity, Elena recognizes one of the officers without his sunglasses. He stays back, searching the table where the glass sculptures are drying. He picks up the one he’s looking for, the dark orange bird. It’s a beautiful work of art, even without wings. Flecks of gold and black are trapped underneath the smooth exterior like a million sparks. He places his hand on the bird’s head, pressing it into his breast pocket. His hand hovers protectively over his breast pocket, as if the bird could sprout wings and light into the sky in a blaze of red glass.