My dad was not the José who made his thumb disappear. That was Don José.
On Thursdays, Don José would wheel in a wooden cart that squeaked downhill to our cul-de-sac and groaned on its way up. He would fill the cart with the piles of newspapers we kept for him in a corner of the kitchen and sold the paper by the kilo at a recycling center, back when those centers were small and dingy.
Don José was endless to me, tall enough for him to crouch if he wanted me to hear him, old enough for his age to exceed what my body could count. Beyond the white sleeves, below the undersized pants, every bit of his skin was rutted. His hair was white enough to write on. Just about anything you said made a toothless cackle rise from his throat and bounce off the brick walls, the grooves of his skin sucking in his eyes, fogged irises and all.
Every Thursday, he opened up his left hand and asked if I wanted to see his thumb disappear. Every Thursday, I said yes and hid behind my nanny’s legs while he shook his hands, made a whacking motion with his left hand on his right fingers—and the right thumb was gone. I looked at mine, looked at his. Gone. His cackle bounced off the walls. A couple times he explained there was no trick—he had cut it clean off when working on sugarcane fields many years ago. I couldn’t fit his many into my many. But there was a trick. He had turned absence into magic.
One Thursday, the pile of newspapers turned into piles. And piles next to piles the following weeks. I asked about Don José over dinner. Mom and Dad traded looks. My mom said he had, umm, won the lottery. He wouldn’t be working anymore. “Why?” I asked. Because he didn’t need to, she said. He could go to the beach now. He could do whatever. My dad shot her a look, one eyebrow up, the other straight. “That’s weird,” I said, twirling the lentils on the plate. Of course, Dad cleared his throat, people should work, even if they made a fortune. The lack of drive is what’s keeping this country poor. “It’s weird,” I said, “because he loved what he did. He laughed all the time. Why would he give that up?” But that’s exactly what he did, Mom said, swallowing hard, moving on to grownup things like bills and politics. But I knew better. I knew his tricks. I knew exactly what we could do with his absence.