“My father lit himself on fire as a side gig.” It’s unlikely you’ll need much more than that to be hooked into Lyndsie Manusos’s “The Sum of All Amazements,” the honorable mention in our 2022 Summer Short Story Award for New Writers. Eleven-year-old Annie looks up to her father, an amateur daredevil, more than anyone else in the world. She, too, aspires to have her name printed among the great escape artists of all time—and with her birthday coming up, what better time to start than now?
In 1901, the first woman went over Niagara Falls in a large wooden barrel. She was the first person to go over Niagara and survive. She was in her sixties. Poor. Her husband had died shortly after the Civil War. Her name was Annie, like me.
My father lit himself on fire as a side gig. When he wasn’t working as a mechanic, he was an amateur daredevil. He performed at local rodeos in Spring Grove and Lakemoore. The Greased Pig festival and at the start of the boat races at Blarney’s Island. Low-budget high schools hired him for homecoming football games. Those sorts of things.
Once, he performed for a minor league baseball game in Springfield. Seventh inning stretch. The grass in the outfield was blackened for the last two innings. When the outfielders dove for the ball, they stood up with ash streaked along their pants. But there was a pleasant smell of burnt leaves and cigars after. People seemed relieved watching Dad perform. Something about watching someone else go to hell and back inspired people to breathe better, deeper. I loved that. Seriously. I believed my father was a part of something that singed the soul. He was special. He was special to me.
* * *
I watched from the field’s end zone while he put on layers of protective clothing. Our overweight beagle Evel sat next to me on the grass, his face resting on my thigh. I’d had three people already tell me animals weren’t allowed on the field, but I kept saying Evel was a service animal for my father’s anxiety, which was true and false at the same time. While Evel snored on my leg, Dad sang a Cleo Brown song while suiting up. Take a look at me, tell me, can’t you see, I’m right in my cup, I’m not myself tonight. He was a loud singer with a reedy voice, but when he sang, it was catchy. You’d never pick him for a band as much as summer camp counselor.
“Do I look good, Annie?” he asked.
I gave him a thumbs up.
Harry Houdini wrote something along the lines that an old trick well done was much better than a new trick with no effect. My dad was all about perfecting his old trick.
He tugged the hood over his head and placed the mouthpiece from the small oxygen tank in his mouth. By now he looked like a marshmallow man. Faceless. A hood and a massive amount of flame-resistant cushioning to keep the heat at bay. I heard kids laugh.
“What an idiot.” A boy pointed from the super fan section on the home team’s side. He was painted blue and white. The Woodville Blue Streaks. The fans from the visiting team were chanting across the field.
“What the hell’s a Blue Streak?” (Clap clap clap-clap, clap.) “What the hell’s a Blue Streak?” (Clap clap clap-clap clap.)
What the hell was a blue streak, I thought. Woodville was the high school I was due to go to following year. I had always groaned over the mascot and envied the town’s rival, the Johnsburg Bull Dogs. A vicious-looking dog, the exact opposite of Evel, emblazoned with fire around its head and fire in its eyes. That was something to cheer for. Too bad the district lines butted both my parents’ houses into Woodville.