Neanderthal Man
On Mom’s first date with Dad they went to Coney Island. She wanted to go to see the Neanderthal Man exhibit and he didn’t. They had their first fight on their first date, right there, she said, on the Coney Island Boardwalk. I can picture it so well. Mom’s eyes became wild looking and very young when recalling it.

“He was already angry about everything,” she said. “He didn’t even like The Great Mondini’s act.” She said Dad perceived the great Mondini as nothing more than a con artist. She said that night he wouldn’t speak to her just because she had clapped.

“Your dad hated successful people on sight. Plus, he believed he was a better magician.”

“Did you ever actually get to see Neanderthal Man?” I asked.

“Only in my dreams,” she smiled the smile of an old hussy, which made me squirm.

By the time they had me, Dad was a practicing magician, trying to make a name for himself. When I was born Mom said my head was too big, that I was trying to kill her already. Sometimes it seemed she hadn’t forgiven me for being born or for my father’s disappearance.

 I told myself that I offered my mother morsels of joy, but that joy never became a main course in our house. I decided to run away at fourteen.

The week I left, I found Dad’s original magic hat. It was crusty and it looked as if rats had bitten into the brim. I tried to orchestrate a magic show in the living room. That year I’d become pretty and a few boys at school called me “A la mode” as if I brought my own vanilla ice cream with me, as if I was an act worth paying for.

My devotion to my mother felt alien to me now. I imagined myself on a bus headed south, zooming away from a woman who still blamed me for my father’s sudden disappearance. Judging me for something as harmless as the synthetic rabbit’s foot I twirled around in my hands in order to get boys to follow me places. My magic was useless, but my twirl was mighty, you could say.

At night I’d imagine myself on a comfy Greyhound bus, a fixed smile on my face, a face like my mother’s in those early photos of she and dad. I saw myself out of the box I was stuck in. I’d find my way to a city and get discovered.

When I finally found the courage to take that bus, I went to Coney Island.  Finding the Wonder Wheel just as crowded as Luna Park, I stood in line to ride the Cyclone coaster. 

Giddy after the ride, wandering the Boardwalk, I spotted signs for the Neanderthal Man.  Before I found the exhibit, a sad old man stopped me, claiming to be a magician.  “Can I show you a trick?” he asked.  “One.  Only one?”

“No,” I said.  “I’m in a hurry to see the Neanderthal Man.”

“That exhibit has been closed for years,” he said.  “I don’t why they even keep out the old signs.  Nostalgia, I guess.  It’s gauche now to want to see him.  He’s not just another street performer or circus sideshow. Don’t you know?  He’s an extinct species, an archaic human.  Gone, an entire culture, an entire people, just disappeared.”

“And now the exhibit is gone?”

Maybe because the old magician could tell how disappointed I was, he asked, “Let me buy you a snow cone?” 

I agreed, pouncing on the pleasure of blue and pink ice melting on my lips as I listened to his stories about the old exhibit where the Neanderthal Man was played by a real man with a hair system for his entire body. 

“Why do you know so much about Neanderthal Man?” I asked.

“Would you believe that in a former life I used to be an anthropologist with a duel major in computational biology?  I spent my youth searching for the Y chromosome of the Neanderthal man.  It was so elusive that some people began to think he didn’t exist, though Neanderthal DNA is alive in some people even today.”

I licked my snow cone.  “What does that mean?”

“People say Neanderthals went extinct because of sickness or climate change.  They really went extinct because they made the mistake of mating with humans.” 

“How would that make them disappear?” I asked, licking sweet indigo ice.

“Human males mating with female Neanderthals ended up erasing the Y chromosome of the Neanderthal in future generations, but if a human woman got pregnant by a Neanderthal man, her body would likely miscarry because the Neanderthal Y chromosome was harmful to humans.  Or at least that’s the going theory.  Anyway.”

“But why did the males disappear?” I asked.  “Did the male Neanderthals stop mating with the female Neanderthals?”

“Over time, there were too few left because all the babies from male humans and female Neanderthals were all baby girls.”

Now I would have something to tell my mother about a real disappearing act to rival my father’s.  I could explain to her the way the Neanderthal man eventually disappeared into humanity, how human males were history’s magicians making species disappear into women the way fathers sometimes disappeared from their daughters, though mothers tended to stay behind, becoming wild looking when recalling what would never be.

Thinking of Mother’s eyes, I was staring down at my shoes and sucking on the last dregs of my snow cone.  I was about the tell the old man what a gift he had given me by appearing at just the right time when I gazed up to look into his eyes to thank him and realized he was gone.
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