the remembering child

When you’re in kindergarten two boys in fresh crewcuts will stomp your toes as purple-dark as berries until your toenails fall off. There you’ll be, in your self-cut bangs and patchless Brownies’ smock standing five kids from the water fountain, and they’ll turn around and start stomping. You won’t tell them to stop. You’ll just look down at a couple of dusty grey-beige linoleum floor tiles and wait for someone to save you.

You’ll forever be looking for someone to save you.

A couple of nights later, your mother will see your toes with their crooked nails hanging on like November leaves and ask what you’ve gotten yourself into. You’re always getting into something. But it will be too late. Four out of 10 toenails will be too damaged to save.

You’re the new girl in town. Just six and you’ve already had four homes. This will be the second without your father. You’re starting to forget his laugh. By now, you’ll know how to make your bed, rinse conditioner from your hair, make peanut butter cookies with the criss-cross fork marks, and say involuntary manslaughter.

You will spend two years in the house on Ford Street. It will have a potting cottage with a cobblestone floor and vines of wild strawberries and buttercups in its back garden. You will spend most afternoons alone, catapulting yourself into its yard from a rickety red metal swing set left by the previous owners.

Your grandma will visit from D.C. and sit quietly with you in your room and watch you move dolls around the floor. She will know you’re faking it. This childhood play. You’ve seen adult things you can’t unsee with those child eyes. She will buy you a kite instead. She will know you need run alone in a field tethered to Heaven.

It’s true, despite what they tell you about all the good people in the world. No one will want to hear about how your father used to play John Denver songs on his guitar until you fell asleep. How his humming filled a room like the aroma from a candle. How he walked into a building and the windows shot out onto the pavement. How his watch was found a quarter-mile away, his hand and wrist still attached. How the men who set the bomb didn’t know he’d be there, or that his four-year-old daughter, in her birthday dress, would be waiting for him in the parking lot. When these truths slip from your tiny pink mouth, even good people will look away.

You’ll learn to be careful with your truth.

Years later you will make remembering a career. Before the Internet, and yes there was a time, you’ll hunt the stacks of your college library for his name. You’ll see that it was nine men, two of them brothers, who fastened colored wires to ticking clocks to take down the building with your father inside. You will discover this story alone, across from a group of strangers reading Tolstoy and Hemingway in the late of night. With old newspapers spread out like sadness before you, you will want to write your own stories. Nouns, verbs, punctuation, strings of sentences like obsessions. Like picking at a hangnail, you won’t be able to stop.

Around this same time, you’ll start looking for your father in bars, in boys. Dark haired, blue-eyed boys who turn into serpents when given six beers and an hour in an empty alley. Boys with checks from home big enough to pay for attorneys and a full four years of tuition — not the three you’ll be able to afford with your life insurance check and a part-time job washing other people’s dirty laundry.

You’ll learn the hard way, my love, God doesn’t favor fatherless girls.

This won’t mean there won’t be blessings. Two healthy children; and, my God, their chubby faces will be gifts. One will grow to look like your father, the other like you. Your words, which by now will have turned into weapons, will go into a box under your bed. Your new job will be to put on a mask and protect these children from dark basements.

Over the years, these children, the only true goodness you’ve ever known, will grow tall and straight into themselves. It will now be your job to let them go from the house you’ve bought with money made from other’s stories. It will be your twenty-first house in 42 years and possibly your last. It is here, in the quiet of the morning, you will find your voice again. 

It is here, you will remember that you have always been his remembering child.

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