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by James C. Strouse

It was Take Your Daughter to Work Day and I didn’t have a job so the girls and I slept in till noon, then went downtown to the Mexican grocery store for breakfast.

“It’s actually lunchtime now,” said the little one, a wise, chubby girl who I was pretty sure had me completely figured out.

“Don’t be so literal,” I told her.

“Why not?” she asked.

“It’s too limiting,” I said. “Doesn’t leave any room for the mysteries.”

“What mysteries?” she said.

“Exactly,” I said.

The little one turned to her sister and frowned.

“Don’t confuse her,” said her sister, a quick, cow-eyed thing with a long face and short temper. “She’s only eight.”

“I know how old she is,” I said.

The girls both stared at me skeptically.

I covered my face with a menu, looked at the specials and tried to remember what year the little one was born in.

Two beats later a squat Mexican with bulging eyes and a high, shiny forehead came to the table and put three cups of ice water in front us. He was followed by his four daughters. Each held her own little pen and waiter’s tablet in hand, ready to take our orders.

Just seeing those little Mexican girls made me feel powerfully unemployed. And the shame of that feeling took all the taste right out my huevos rancheros.

The girls didn’t like their food either. They preferred the corporate Mexican place in Maple City where the wait staff all wore black sombreros and served things called taco poppers without any sense of embarrassment.

I was afraid for their lives.

Their mother, my ex, took the girls to the Big Everything Store to buy them off-brand tracksuits and faux-antique alarm clock radios every time either one got a little sad or confused. They were bright kids but they were getting the sparkle bribed right out of them one cheap trinket at a time.

I wanted them to be spectacular. I wanted them to burn with truth. I wanted them to lead revolutions, invent new types of tasty cookies. I wanted them to live free, singular lives. But I only got them on the weekends.

Plus their mother had them convinced I was an alcoholic.

To be honest, I might be. I’m not sure. I don’t drink straight vodka and black out in the parking lots but I do drink a lot of beer. I think if I had a steady job it wouldn’t seem like such a problem. But since I don’t it’s become one of my defining characteristics.

“What are we going to do now, Dad?” asked the chubby one as she fingered a heap of cold beans on her plate.

“What do you want to do?” I asked.

“We could go to the Big Everything,” she said. “They’re having a sale on jewelry this week.”

“That place is for idiots,” I said. “Don’t be fooled. There’s no happiness to be found in any of their cubic zirconium brooches.”

“I don’t want a brooch,” said the little one. “I want a charm bracelet.”

“No,” I said.

“Why not?” said the little one.

“Because he’s broke,” answered her sister. “And he can’t afford to buy us anything.”

“I bought you breakfast, didn’t I?”

“Lunch!” yelled the little one. “We skipped breakfast!”

“Okay,” I said. “Okay.”

We left the Mexican grocery store and drove to my temp agency in Maple City. I usually just called into the agency for work but they hadn’t found me a good job in over three weeks and I thought it might be helpful to remind them I had some dependents.

The girls sat in the backseat frowning the whole way. I could have sworn I heard the older one call me a dickwad but I didn’t press it. They both had a right to their anger. Their mother had pawned them off on a school day just to go up to Kalamazoo and take a date with some guy she met on the internet. Their father was probably a beeraholic. Everything about their lives was so small and tacky at the moment.

We were greeted by a plump, sunny administrative assistant named Rita and her anorexic teenager at the temp agency. Both sat behind a big, half-moon table with headsets and diet cokes.

“Can we help you?” asked Rita.

“I’m here to see Maureen,” I said. Maureen was my temp agent going on three years now.

“Great,” said Rita. “Just have a seat.”

Rita gave us a gap-toothed smile while her hungry daughter called Maureen.

“Yeah, some guy’s here to see you,” said Rita’s daughter in a whisper.

A beat later Maureen came out of her office with a moony five-year-old trailing behind her.

“Hey, there,” she said. She’d forgotten my name.

“Hey,” I said.

Maureen smiled. Our daughters sized each other up.

“These yours?” she asked, looking at my kids.

“Yeah,” I said.

“Cuties,” she said.

“Look, I need some work,” I said.

“I hear you,” said Maureen. Maureen’s daughter stared at my girls like they were the special kids at school. To be honest, their hair needed brushing and the little one had a hot sauce stain on the front of her shirt, but the look still really pissed me off.

“No, I don’t think you do hear me, Maureen,” I said.

“Hey, now, calm down” said Maureen. She stood in front of her girl and showed me the palm of her left hand.

“My daughter needs a brooch,” I said.

“Charm bracelet,” corrected the little one.

“Why don’t you come in tomorrow?” said Maureen, looking at my girls. “When we can talk more privately.”

“What’s my name?” I said

“Excuse me?” said Maureen.

“You heard me,” said me.

Maureen stood and cleared her throat. She looked at her daughter and smiled helplessly.

“I’ve been a client of yours for three years,” I said. “Three years you’ve skimmed my paychecks for work I do and you don’t even know my name? Now tell me, what does your daughter think of that?”

“My work is mostly on the phone,” said Maureen. I couldn’t tell if she was talking to me or her daughter.

“I need a job,” I said.

Maureen thought for a second as my girls stared at her daughter with a new found sense of superiority.

“Do you know Spanish?” Maureen asked flatly.

“Si,” I said. It was only one of two other Spanish words I knew besides huevos rancheros.

“We might have something at the orchards next week,” said Maureen. “You’ll have to take a test.”

“Gracias,” I said, exhausting my vocabulary.

Rita set me up in an empty office. Gave me a test booklet and a number two pencil.

I sat at an unused desk and tried to will the Spanish language into my mind. I put my head down on the test and shut my eyes real tight. But the only thing that came up was that image of a cartoon mouse with the funny mustache and white pant suit.

“What are you doing, Dad?” asked my oldest. She and the little one snuck in the empty office to check on me.

“Uh,” I said.

“You don’t know Spanish, do you?” they asked.

I looked at my girls with the shame of a man who was too smart to be this low, yet not really talented enough to get much higher.

“Can we help?” they asked.

I gave them the booklet and pencil, told them to take my seat at the desk. Twenty minutes later they were just about finished securing me my first temp job in weeks when Maureen walked in to give me more details on the work.

“What’s going on here?” she asked, her snobby five-year old standing behind her.

“What do you think is going on here?” I asked, hoping she’d assume something a little more flattering than the truth.

“I’m going to have to ask you to leave now,” said Maureen.

We left the temp agency. The girls walked glumly behind me, their heads low, their eyes fixed to the ground.

It was a nice day. A man from the sanitation department happily swept the gutters as his daughter cleaned gum off the sidewalks.

Another man in a shoe store measured a woman’s foot as his daughter held up a pair of black pumps.

Down the street a traffic cop gave an angry teenager a parking ticket as his daughter wrote down the boy’s license plate number in a little police log.

“There’s more to life than work,” I said to the girls. “Some people need structure imposed on them or else they don’t know what to do with themselves. But the world is full of great and endless pleasures for those brave enough to seek them out. Never forget that.”

“Mom says you’re depressed,” said the older daughter.

“Hogshit,” I said.

“She says you need help,” said the older daughter.

“Your mother never got over leaving me,” I said.

“That doesn’t make any sense,” said the little one.

“Who wants ice cream?” I said.

The girls said nothing.

I felt in my pockets. I didn’t even have enough money to buy them both a scoop.

We got in the car. I told the girls to close their eyes.

“Why?” they asked.

“Because I have a surprise for you,” I said.

“What is it?” they asked.

“Something amazing,” I said.

The girls closed their eyes. They smiled beautiful, curious little smiles and laughed.

Oh, how those little smiles killed my heart!

I had no idea what to do next. We circled the block while I tried to think of something.

“Where are we going?” asked the older daughter.

“Just keep those eyes closed,” I said.

“It feels like we’re going in circles,” said the older daughter.

“I’m serious, no peeking,” I said.

Look, I know what you’re thinking. But I’m not a bum. I’m happy to work. I just refuse to give my whole life to one pointless endeavor. And I may not remember the exact days my girls were born but I remember plenty of other stuff.  Like how they used to dance to the lite FM when they were still little wobbly, sub-lingual things. And how you could see the music move right through them in their funny little dips and pirouettes. The pure joy of it. How miraculous it felt to witness something like that on an ordinary Wednesday in my own kitchen. My wife beside me. I wanted to make every moment of our family’s life like that. Spontaneous, transcendent. But in thinking big sometimes you lost track of the small. And unfortunately, it’s the small things that most people care about.

I drove the girls to the Big Everything.

“Alright, open your eyes,” I said.

“What are we doing here?” asked the little one.

“We’re going get you that brooch,” I said.

“Charm bracelet,” corrected her sister.

“Yeah,” I said.

We went inside. A geriatric with shaky hands and no hair welcomed us as his three granddaughters offered me a shopping cart.

The girls and I walked past them briskly. I looked towards the exits. A young security guard was showing his four-year-old daughter his taser gun near the information center. He looked about nineteen.

I told the girls to stay close. The little one put her hand in mine. She was so excited.

When we got to the jewelry section the girls both ran up to the glass cases and pressed their hands against a display of bracelets.

“Can I help you?” asked a kind looking older lady without any daughters.

“My girls need some jewelry,” I said.

“They looking for anything in particular?” asked the lady.

“ I want them to get whatever they want,” I said

“What a good dad,” said the lady.

I smiled falsely.

She helped the girls with their choices. They both wanted the same thing. A silver snap-link charm bracelet with three charms a piece. There were all sorts of different charms to choose from. The older one chose a book, a tap shoe and the letter C, for her first name. The younger one chose an eyeball, a heart symbol, and the word ‘mom.’

They showed me the bracelets. I nodded. I put out my hand and they placed the bracelets in it.

I told the girls to go wait in the car.

“Why?” asked the older one.

“Surprise isn’t over yet,” I said.

The girls both stared at me skeptically.

“Go on,” I said.

The older one turned white and sullen. She took her sister by the hand and led her slowly out of the store.

I held the bracelets tightly and faced the kind looking older lady without any daughters.

“I don’t have the money for these bracelets right now but if you let me take them I promise I’ll come back and pay for everything just as soon as I get some work,” I said.

Suddenly, the kind looking older lady without any daughters did not look so kind.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t understand.”

“I’m a good person,” I said.

“If you want the bracelets you have to pay for them,” she said plainly.

“I will,” I said. “Just not today.”

“You have to give those bracelets back to me if you can’t pay for them, sir,” said the lady.

“Whatever happened to customer service?” I said.

The lady walked to a phone on the jewelry counter. She picked up and dialed three digits.

I put the bracelets in my pocket. I walked towards the exit. The lady said, “Security to the jewelry department. Security to the jewelry department,” over the store intercom.

I thought about my daughters waiting in the car and all the things I’d never be able to afford for them.

“Stop!” yelled the lady. “Stop!” she yelled again.

But I did not stop. Instead, I kept my eyes fixed to the exits and ran.

I hadn’t run in a long time. I was surprised by all the chub I felt jiggling around me as I zig-zaged through the women’s department to avoid security. I really did need to stop drinking so much.

A saleswoman and her twin ten-year-olds turned to watch me wheeze by as they stocked panties in the junior miss aisle. Each looked shocked and repulsed in the same family way.

Who could blame them?

Was there any sight more sad and graceless than a grown man dashing out of a department store with a couple of cheap bracelets in his pocket?

Yes.

A grown man sissy slapping his way past a teenage security guard as he yelled, “Don’t shoot me. Don’t shoot me.”

“Look away,” yelled the security guard to his daughter as I ran past his little girl to the door.

I felt a tiny shock goose me in the ass and suddenly my mouth tasted like batteries and my left foot was asleep but I kept running.  I ran gimp-legged and panting right out the automatic doors to the car.

The girls were waiting in the backseat reading a road atlas.

“What the fuck?” said the older one as I heaped into the driver’s seat.

“Swearing is an uncreative way of articulating your anger,” I said, starting the car.

The security guard scanned the parking lot for me with his daughter and the geriatric’s grandkids.

“Why are you twitching?” asked the older one.

The taser shot had created little electric spasms in my neck and arms.

“I’m excited,” I said.

“Did you get the bracelets?” asked the little one.

“What do you think?” I said.

The girls thought about it. Neither one was positive one-way or the other.

I decided to keep them guessing.

I wasn’t sure where to go next. I didn’t want to take the girls home but I was tired of running into working people and their daughters. So I took them to the Forest River. There was a bend in that crummy, polluted river where my father took me fishing a couple times when I was a kid and maybe the taser had zapped into some hidden nostalgia lost in my brain or something but all the sudden I really needed to show the girls.

I parked the car in a farmer’s field about a quarter mile inland from the river. The same place my dad parked when he took me there. The girls and I had to jump over a ditch full of litter to get to the water. The little one didn’t clear it. She fell into the mud and got her pants soaked to the knees but we kept going anyway.

Just past the ditch was a thick forest of maple. There use to be a trail to the river in the forest but it was gone now. Grown over with weeds and dead trees.

“You know we’re going to get lost, right?” asked the older one.

“I’m your father,” I said.

“So?” said the girls.

“So, you shouldn’t doubt me until you’re older.”

“How much older?” asked the little one.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Your teens.”

“I’m twelve and a half,” said the older one.

“Really?” I said.

“You stole those bracelets, didn’t you?” she said.

I turned to look at her and her sister. We were in the shadow of the forest and both girls looked very dark and mature. I could see they were going to turn into women much sooner than I’d hoped.

I didn’t want to lie to them but I didn’t want to tell them the truth, either. So I ignored the question and just kept walking.

My father only took me fishing four times. He was terrible at it, too. He worked too much to develop any real hobbies. My dad was not a particularly smart or inspired man. All he ever wanted was to make enough money to give his wife and children a happy life. And I guess he succeeded in this—at least my brothers and I never went hungry or without clothes—but I would have preferred to go fishing with him more.

I wonder what he would have thought of me as a father. Probably not much.

“I’m cold,” said the little one. “I want to go home.”

“This is so fucked,” said her sister.

“Please,” I said. “We’re almost there.”

And we were, too. I could hear the water rushing just past a wall of young maple. It was a hushed and kind of sacred sound in the stillness of the forest.

When we got there I sat the girls down on a dead log along the muddy bank of the dark river and we watched the sun dance off the black water for a long time before anyone spoke.

Then the little one said, ”Are we going to get our bracelets or what?”

And I said, “Constance, Matilda. I love you girls so much.”

And they said, “We love you, too, Dad. But what’s your point?”

And I said, “Girls, the whole thing is a mystery.”

 

Jim Strouse is a writer, cartoonist and filmmaker from Goshen, Indiana. He wrote the screenplay for Lonesome Jim, which was shot in his parents’ home. He has two kids. They are amazing writers.