Personal Histories

David Drebin, Casino, 2005. Courtesy the artist and Contessa Gallery. Via Artsy.

The Gambler

In which the novelist and magician Tim O’Brien makes the author disappear, and a family funeral puts a father’s sleight of hand on full display.

On a warm summer evening, in a house in south Austin, I found myself standing on top of a trick roulette table next to the author Tim O’Brien. I was about to disappear. The writer of The Things They Carried sported an old baseball cap, orange and blue sneakers, and a tuxedo weighed down by stashed coins, collapsible flowers, trick matches, and other magic gear. Tim held a red, satin curtain attached to a broomstick. He raised the curtain, blocking me from view, lowered it, and raised it one more time, and when he whooshed it back down—I was gone.

This was the night I first disappeared. The night I first sang “The Gambler,” by Kenny Rogers. Exactly one week earlier, I had been at my father’s funeral.

At the funeral, I met my father’s newest wife—younger than he by a few years, blonde, and with rosy, sun-worn Texan cheeks. She wrapped both hands around mine and said, “He always spoke so fondly of you and your sister.” Old instincts honed by years of devouring books and movies took over, so I nodded and attempted a warm smile. I gave her my condolences. I felt sorry for her, in the way you feel sorry for someone whose grief is not your own. Neither my sister nor I had spoken to our father in at least 10 years; I didn’t know he’d remarried, again, until I got the call about his death.

My sister, Victoria, and I had arrived late and the room was already full of mourners. For a second, we locked eyes, both of us thinking we’d be OK slipping into open seats toward the back. Of course we were pulled up front, to a row reserved for family.

At the funeral, I met my father’s newest wife. I felt sorry for her, in the way you feel sorry for someone whose grief is not your own.

All twenty pews in the Pearsall Funeral Home were packed with people who had driven the hour from San Antonio, the two hours from Crystal City in the Rio Grande Valley, the three hours from Laredo. There were nine or ten speakers, and each told nice stories focusing on two areas of my father’s life. One set of eulogies covered his work debunking the Anglocentric myths of the Alamo. All of those legends they taught us in Texas History class—the line in the sand, the size of the Mexican army, the valiant deaths of the Alamo defenders—could only help shape Texas’s identity if the truth was embellished. The second set of eulogies addressed my father’s work at the end of his life on books exploring the Jewish ancestry of some Latinos in south Texas and New Mexico, people who had been chased from Europe by the Spanish Inquisition and eventually lost their religion after being forced to hide it under layer upon layer of subterfuge.

They were nice eulogies. However, around me sat evidence of my father’s true interests—children from his many marriages. There had been at least five wives. He’d told my mom she was his second wife, but an earlier union was revealed during their divorce, and there were two more after her.

The pew in front of me held my twin half-brothers, boys still in high school and living with their mother in Chicago. My father married their mother—the second-most recent wife—when she was twenty and he was sixty. They used to joke about going to the movies and ordering tickets for one child and one senior. Sitting next to me was my father’s oldest daughter, who I’ll call Cathy, who is nearly fifty and has five kids and two grandkids of her own. Behind me was Angela, my half-sister and cousin. And next to me, my sister Victoria, who was two years old when the divorce happened and didn’t understand why until a decade later, when a cousin blurted out that our father had had an affair with one of my mother’s sisters. Despite my father’s repeated attempts to start a family, none of the eulogies talked about how great a parent he was.

It wasn’t until after the service—when men stood in line to shake my hand and say my father was a great man, that I should be proud, that I had a legacy to continue—when I realized my symbolic role. I am the oldest son.

My father had a gambler’s mentality and a magician’s instincts.

At least, I think I am.

All of his children had never been together in the same room before. Angela didn’t even know that we shared a father until only a few days earlier. Afterward, the six of us stood in an awkward line outside the funeral home and took a picture. I smiled, of course; we all smiled. That’s what you do in pictures.

“Who knows if we’ll ever be together like this again,” Cathy said.

Then a few minutes later: “We really should get together more. It’d be so nice to spend real time together.”

Everyone nodded. She said it again, and then once more a little later.


Here’s something you may not have known about Tim O’Brien, one of the great American writers; he performs magic shows in his living room. Now, let me clear up a few misconceptions. When you read “magic show,” you probably picture a guy in a tuxedo, rabbits coming out of hats, and maybe five or six guys politely clapping at their friend’s eccentric hobby. Tim is different. He’s won the National Book Award, he’s the greatest author to emerge from the Vietnam War, his books are taught in high schools and colleges across the country, hell, Tim received two lifetime achievement awards during our six months of rehearsals—he does things differently.

Tim’s living room is kind of a natural black box with entrances on all sides, a raised area that creates visual levels, and a built-in bar in one corner. The acoustics are good and some fiddling with the lights (plus the addition of a few floor spots, some blue gels, and a small smoke machine) turns it into a real performance space. Chairs are rented, bartenders are hired, food is made, and 50 to 60 people are invited to each performance. It’s quite a spectacle—our show alone featured half a dozen explosions and three songs performed live for three nights.

Tim’s been doing magic tricks since he was nine years old. He’s worked in magic shops and has spent hours and hours of his life, adding up to days and weeks, working on sleight of hand, misdirection, and showmanship. The rest of us were newbies. We learned rope tricks, scissors appeared from thin air, and people, cups, coins, candles, dresses, and umbrellas appeared and then disappeared even faster. Learning the tricks was difficult. It took time, patience, and months of practice. At the peak of rehearsal and through the shows, there was no one I saw more than Tim, his wife, and the other six people in the cast. Rehearsals were boozy, bubbly affairs that combined both steady drinking and hard work. Tim popped champagne and wine bottles before we showed up, and glasses were thrust into our hands before the front door had shut behind us.

When you read “magic show,” you probably picture a guy in a tuxedo, rabbits coming out of hats, and maybe five or six guys politely clapping at their friend’s eccentric hobby. Tim is different.

The shows themselves are never a simple string of tricks. Come on, this is the author of In the Lake of the Woods and Going After Cacciato. These shows have scripts, plots, dynamic characters, and a narrative story arc. This particular show was set in a rundown, crooked casino out West. Tim’s character, a hapless gambler, meets a beautiful woman, who’s pulled away by her loathsome boyfriend, only to return to Tim in a grand flourish at the end. A cowboy loses his money and contemplates suicide, only to be pulled out of his depression by a woman’s song. A waitress drinks too much, a blackjack dealer fleeces Tim, and a waiter harasses him for another, bigger tip. At one point toward the middle of the show, Tim’s gambler has lost all his money and is sulking in the corner. My character, a roulette dealer, does what any good casino employee would do; he gathers some people together to sing a song.

“The Gambler” by Kenny Rogers, I’ll admit, is a song so cheesy and overplayed that I’d never really listened to the words. It’s a song built for a drunken sing-along—at least the choruses. Everyone knows the lines about knowing when to fold, knowing when to walk away and knowing when to run. The verses, however, are another story. They’re dark and very sad. They tell a story about a man who’s lost more than he’s won. A man with nothing left but a quiet stranger and a bummed cigarette. A man who claims, “The best that you can hope for is to die in your sleep” and “The secret to surviving is knowing what to throw away and knowing what to keep.”

My father had a gambler’s mentality and a magician’s instincts. He could weave a story that could snare almost anyone. In some of my fondest memories, we’re sitting in a diner and he’s telling me about the past—not his past, never his past, but the small, forgotten details of long ago. Once, when I was nine or 10, he took me walking in downtown San Antonio and told me stories about what the city used to be like. San Antonio is drowning in four hundred years of European civilization and countless centuries of Native people (all of whom were vanished from the state long ago). We walked downtown, my father often stopping to light cigarettes. He told me stories: the first settlers from the Canary Islands, the Mexican camps, the first city government, then the Anglos who came marching in ready to manifest their destiny over a country that, until then, didn’t think Americans were very serious people. He put all the details together, the dry history, and made me see where it had happened. When sirens went by, or when a truck pulled up next to us with thumping music, my father would not try to speak over it. He would stop talking, take a gentle puff on his cigarette, and wait for the illusion-shattering noise to pass.

Years later, I realized my father took me on this walking tour because it meant he didn’t have to spend very much money. On the walk, when we were near some railroad tracks, I found a spear-like piece of metal—thin, about a foot long, shaped like a pencil or a magic wand. It was a piece of train track that couldn’t have been more than, what? Fifty years old? But I held out hope that maybe it was something different: a Spanish sword, an Indian spear, Davy Crockett’s muzzleloader. This scrap of metal stayed next to my bed for years—a reminder that, with enough faith, you can turn something normal, something meaningless, into something wonderful.

When I think about the way I’ve spent my life, I get scared. Holding two graduate degrees seems impossibly indulgent, yet somehow this seems to impress people. Working in politics in D.C., teaching high school in Austin, writing a novel for three years and counting: This path strikes some as interesting. To me, the wandering is a sign of indecision bordering on moral depravity. An unwillingness to settle into something and just see the damn thing through.

With enough faith, you can turn something normal, something meaningless, into something wonderful.

My father stalled on countless projects and jobs. He worked for a state senator, chaired local historical commissions, taught at several colleges and universities, worked as a truck dispatcher when things were bad, served as Bexar County’s first archivist, wrote a column in The San Antonio Express-News, edited books, produced albums of folksongs, wrote a screenplay about our Jewish ancestors tortured by the Inquisition, wrote a cycle of poems for my mother, traveled the country delivering lectures about crypto-Jews or the lies of the Alamo—but never anything for long.

For years, these stories, his plans and schemes to break through with something real and important, were always so thrilling. He’d pick me up and take me to a diner and tell me all about what grand plot was waiting in the wings. On one of our last visits together, he was still talking about his screenplay. Our ancestors were tortured, garroted, and burned at the stake for being Jewish on two continents. It’s a hell of a story, but my father’s screenplay was over-emotional and boring. His plan was to mail it to Jewish, half-Jewish, and seemingly Jewish celebrities. “One of them,” he said over and over, was “bound to be interested.”

I don’t know if my half-siblings have similar stories. We don’t talk. At the funeral, I didn’t know how to treat these people. What would we say to each other? They live in Chicago and go to high school. Or, they live in San Antonio and run marathons. Or, they raise grandkids. Or they do other things I can’t even imagine because maybe I’ve never met them. The only thing binding us together is not having him in our lives. Angela hadn’t seen him since she was a child. The twins had only seen him once since they were five. Cathy had tried to reach out to him for the past few years, but he never responded. He’d started a new two-person family with the rosy-cheeked blonde woman.

Are these half-siblings my family? I know we are related, but are we family? I cried once after his death. Not for his passing, but for what my sister and I missed out on, and what we could never hope to understand—the experience of having a father that you plainly loved or even plainly hated. We had an empty space, a puff of smoke.

At the end of that first rendition of “The Gambler,” in an attempt to keep the performance active, the four singers ended up with our arms around each other’s shoulders, swaying in time and holding a whisky bottle. By the end of that first, off-key, tortured rendition, I knew I’d be more sad about the end of the show than I was about my father’s death. My half-sister says she loves me, and I believe this to be true. Yet, I don't know why she loves me. Is it because she remembers me as a toddler? Is sharing some of our DNA enough? When the cast of the magic show says we love each other—I believe them. Here was a family. We’d built something together and it was beautiful.

At the end of the show, I disappeared off the roulette table and reappeared on the other side of the stage hiding under a mask, a hat, and a big coat. It was the best trick I did the entire show. Afterward, people said they didn’t recognize me until I ripped the mask off. With that single move, I tore away the veil and showed the audience that a trick had been played on them—admitting something my father never had.

Richard Z. Santos is a writer and teacher living in Austin. His work has appeared in many places, including the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus, Nimrod, The San Antonio Express News, HTML Giant, Kirkus Reviews, and is forthcoming in Cosmonauts Avenue. He’s finally close to completing his first novel, is working on a series of noir novellas, and hopes Tim O’Brien finishes writing his new magic show soon. More by Richard Z. Santos