Clara looks up from the edge of the bed. Her eyes are red and swollen. She dashes to the wardrobe, blurting something about a different pair of shoes.
“The black flats are fine, hon,” I say with my softest voice. Next thing I hear is her scream, the crash of the shoe rack, her sobs: those unbearable sobs that cut through my flesh. I rush to the closet. She’s curled up at the corner, empty boxes strewn everywhere. The edge of her hand is bleeding.
I cradle her, cup her fingers, pet her hair. I remember when they shone a lush graphite, not these grey strings pinched in a bun. “Shhh, it’s alright, it’ll be alright.”
She plunges her fingernails into my shoulder. “I can’t. I can’t do it.”
“We’ve talked about this,” I whisper.
She squirms, fights me. “No, Robert.” Her blue irises with the grey rims that took my breath away two decades ago are afire. “It’s not fucking alright.”
I slump my head, jam my tongue against the roof of my mouth. I raise my hands. “Fine. I’ll go by myself.” I stand, she holds on to me. “You’re trying to stop me?”
She relaxes her grip. “No.”
Daniel’s waiting at the base of the stairs. “Dad…”
“I wanna come.”
He’s thirteen going on twenty yet pouts with that face that melted my resolve when he was two. But I shake my head. “Not today, baby. Not today.”
“You’re going alone?”
All I can do is purse my lips and bob my chin.
“That jacket suits you,” he says with a voice dripping an old soul’s melancholy. “Louisa’s favorite, no?”
I gulp dry spit. When I first bought the brown corduroy, Louisa had smirked from across the shop. “Now you look like a proper professor, dad.” We had chuckled. But that was two years ago, before she left for that fancy school. It was also the last time we had a proper conversation. Regrets on my skin that grow like cancer moles.
Today, the jacket hangs heavier because of the knife stuffed in my left breast pocket. I had considered buying a gun, but the knife seemed appropriate. Less cowardly.
I stand by the car, hand on the door handle. The metal of the old Buick feels cold, even though June’s around the corner. How many times did we agree to get rid of the rust bucket, only to postpone?I’m pretty sure we made Louisa on the back seat, when the vinyl wasn’t ripped, the foam padding wasn’t flaking. I tilt my head toward our bedroom window. Clara’s peeking from behind the curtains, but I can’t wink at her like the days of old.
I slide behind the enormous wheel, slot the key in the ignition. Usually, I need to cajole it. Her. We had christened the Buick Mollie for reasons I no longer recall. Why do people name their cars? They’re gonna get rid of them anyway. Today, half of me wishes Mollie would misbehave. But the engine coughs and revs up. She sounds like a printing press, a blessing: she’s loud enough to drown the volley of profanities I launch as I press on the gas pedal.
The roll down the driveway is long. I glance at the rearview mirror, maybe to see Clara rush to stop or join me. Either one would do, but neither happens. Instead, I send my gaze down the sidewalk that slopes from the mailbox to the playground, framed by rectangular lawns. In springtime, the grass grows long, fast. I used to pay Daniel ten bucks to cut it, but he lost interest. He also grew his hair out and started listening to angry music I cannot follow. So, I hired the crew with the metal-framed trailer and the lawnmowers that grind my ears every other Saturday.
Beside the playground, I slam the brakes and Mollie heaves. I wail in the solitude of the faux walnut and plastic cabin. “I can’t, oh God, I can’t.”
This memory keeps pounding me with impunity. When we first moved to the neighborhood, Daniel was about to attach to Clara’s womb. Louisa was five. We had barely unpacked when fall arrived. We bought her this enormous sky-blue backpack—she hated pink. The damned thing had dwarfed her, yet she pat-pat-patted three houses down to the bus stop, ponytail flailing. She was beaming with pride and Clara had cried in my arms on the doorstep. Ten years later, the scene repeated itself, only it wasn’t the sky-blue backpack but her boyfriend’s Camaro that swallowed her out of our lives. That day, it was my turn to fight the snakes in my throat.
“Oh, c’mon, it’s just a mile away,” Clara had said. “Besides, she’ll be home on weekends. And it’s good for her. Living in dorms, learning to be independent…”
“It’s not her I’m worried about.”
But Clara had petted my shoulder shaking her head.
Six months later I pelted her with I-told-you-so’s when Louisa called from the police station, boyfriend in cuffs, Camaro impounded. “Not his fault,” she had pleaded, and I had believed her.
“Robert, wait up!”
I roll down the window, curse Mollie and the stiff window crank. The next car will have buttons. “Hey Mike, what’s up?”
He crosses the street. “Where are you going?”
His face hardens. “Where’s Clara?”
“Stayed at home.”
He nods. He has the bushiest eyebrows. Between those and his bulbous nose, I always fancied him to be a dark Dumas character, except he spoke with a Southern drawl, not a French accent. And he was the kindest fellow. He had stayed up all night with Daniel when Louisa was at the hospital with her appendix. I was on one of those cursed business trips, wasn’t I? I did wish he ditched his awful patterned shirts, but never found the words to tell him. I never found the words for anything.
He stuffs his hands in his jeans, shuffles next to the car. “Listen, why don’t I come along? You know…”
“That’s kind of you, but I’m alright.”
“Oh, c’mon, Tanya’s on a chores rampage. You gotta help me buddy!” He cracks the smile of benign male conspiracy.
“Really. I’ll be alright.”
His eyes darken. “Robert. Don’t do anything stupid now, you hear?”
Did Clara say something to Tanya? No, no, she wouldn’t. I shake my head, give him the chin nod he expects, and force a gear into Mollie’s tuberculosis-ravaged engine.
The campus is bubbling with excitement. Encircled by an army of cars and trucks, the central lawn is filled with colorful people gushing smiles. Some carry handkerchiefs, all carry cameras and phones—same thing, nowadays.
I face the rows of white plastic chairs below the platform. Despite the ribbons and the balloons, they look like tombstones, their spacing arranged to perfection. Death to innocence, perhaps.
“Mr. Frisk! Robert!”
“Mr. Willow.” Headmaster. Fancies himself a bit, but who doesn’t these days. “Twenty grand a year and all we get is plastic chairs?”
“We saved the good stuff for afterwards. Bottled water and iced tea.” His eyes turn serious. “How are you doing?”
“Clara stayed home?”
My hand shoots to cover my breast pocket, I force it still. I bob my chin, look at my shoes.
He squeezes my shoulder. “Anything I can do…” his voice trails as he heads to the convocation.
I grab an empty seat at the end of a row, as close to the platform as I can manage, ignoring the sideways glances from the folks around me. As the headmaster starts reading surnames, the students march across the podium in their shimmering blue robes with the yellow stripe, while Pomp and Circumstance blares from the speakers. A few of them giggle, cast glances toward their parents. My heart quickens, I press the knife against my breast.
I see my Louisa. It won’t be long now. We’re past the Ds.
“Friedman,” Mr. Willow announces, and I can hear the ice swallow his voice. “Frisk.”
Louisa stands, walks to the stage, but I’m confused. She’s only six and she’s wearing that enormous sky-blue backpack that dwarfs her body. She turns to look at me and her eyes make me bleed.
She had her mother’s eyes.
“I’m sorry, daddy,” she whispers, and her words ring in my head like cymbals in a dark tunnel.
Everyone’s standing. A few of her classmates sob, their parents too.
She was one of three kids killed in the crash, the only senior. Some high-speed chase, they veered off the road, smacked a tree. Drugs were suspected. I fought—and won—to block the autopsy. What was the point? More gashes on her lifeless body, the one I cradled and dressed and, in the last few years, yelled to more than I should have. Why wasn’t I more vigilant? More insistent? Or maybe just there?
I gaze across the sea of parents. I know what’s expected of me, they all do. I climb on the platform, feel a thousand arms touch me along the way, squeezing the empathy. Assholes. You’re only crying from relief your kid was spared. I collect her diploma, one of her friends gives me a bouquet of lilies. Then comes the silence that transforms the summer cicadas on the trees into a hellish orchestra.
I step off the stage a hundred years older. Everyone thinks I came here to collect a memory.
I drift in the background, ditch the flowers, and hide my tears under the shade of the old oak at the far side of the green. The procession ends, fanfare and all, and the crowd scatters along the lawn, beetles dressed in their Sunday best. They chat. A few cast glances in my direction. Their eyes turn somber, but they know better than to approach me with platitudes. Crisis confronted by the community. Respects paid. Done.
By now, my jacket weighs more than a lead apron and my forehead is covered in sweat. I smell the bark and the fresh-cut grass and count my breaths until I spot him crossing the street: blue jeans, one of his gaudy t-shirts with some monster print, crutches. His mom walks beside him with another woman—Louisa had mentioned his dad died three years ago. They’re heading toward their car, a black Honda. The Camaro was totaled.
“You!” I say, maybe shout; I’m not certain, blood’s thumping in my ears and my eyes are blurry.
“Mr. Frisk!” His face turns pale. His mother’s too.
I stand three feet from him and four inches above him. My left fist is clenched, my right is reaching for my jacket pocket.
“I’m sorry I didn’t come visit. I…” he searches the ground for more words, fails. “I’m sorry about everything.”
“You should be!” I bark. From the corner of my eye, I spot Mr. Willow rush toward us. I don’t have much time.
“I wish I could take it all back,” he adds, gulping for air as tears escape his eyes.
The universe decelerates as my life transforms into a slow-motion sequence. I can’t see Louisa’s image anymore, she dissipated in the sunshine. All I can see in front of me is a broken kid who’s just about finished dealing with acne.
Clara. Louise. Daniel. I think of the dark nights in the kitchen, the cold, dark, silent kitchen steeped in guilt and regret.
I think of the knife, the cold, hard knife. This pimply kid buried the future.
I pause. Except for Daniel. I shake my head. He’ll be alright.
I coil to strike. I clench my jaw.
The boy sobs, his mother cups his head, pulls him toward her. She can’t look at me. His aunt stands frozen.
Thump, thump thump. “Do it, do it for me,” whispers Clara. “Dad, don’t,” says Louise. “Please, stay with me,” says Daniel.
My shoulders melt. I reach into my pocket. My left pocket. “This is for you,” I thrust my hand out.
He stares at the picture.
“She’s six in that one. You’ll pin that on your wall and talk to her every day.” I do.
His arms are trembling, he nods. By the time I breathe again, Mr. Willow is upon us, one hand on my shoulder, another on his.
“We’re done here,” I say, brushing off the hand, and I stomp away. I cannot look back. I cannot look at him.
I walk for a mile, thunder in my head, tears in my eyes. I reach into my jacket pocket, out comes the knife. Maybe the kid deserved it. I stare at my wrists. Maybe I do.
I pass a trash bin. What do I tell Clara?
“What is the point?” I ask the clouds and toss the blade to the metal basket. “What is the fucking point?”