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The Final Act

by Matt Shaner

I come home from a week in our Europe satellite office, which I manage, and throw my coat over the kitchen chair. I put my luggage next to the hallway knowing that I’ll get to it later. I look for my wife but don’t see her. On the counter is an envelope, ripped open, and a piece of folded paper. I read the front of the envelope. There is no return address, but the handwriting is our daughter’s. She left almost a year back. I unfold the paper. The letter is to her mother.

The letter says:

I am not doing fine.
You put me here.
I prostitute.
I use drugs.
I’m high right now.

Before I can keep reading, sobbing noises come from the bedroom. The door is open and I go inside. My wife is on the bed. She looks up at me in tears.

“Did you see it?” she asks. I nod. I start to say something when she raises the gun we keep for security to the side of her head and everything turns red for a second.

I’m sitting in a police office looking at a younger than normal officer who is writing on a form. He asks me to describe everything and I go through it. I think he is young enough to be my son. He tells me he is sorry for my loss. He asks me if I want them to follow up with looking for our daughter and I tell him no.

I’m standing at the funeral and listening to the priest. He talks about my wife as though he knew her, even though we came sparingly but made large donations. We kept her parents happy with our donations to the church. They stand to my right. Her father looks at the coffin and her mother cries. She sounds just like my wife when she cries.

The procession goes into the cemetery underneath the slate blanket of clouds. A small green felt tent is up over the grave with three men waiting for us to arrive. Two of them are dressed in overalls and I assume they are the diggers. I wonder how many of these they see every year.

The rain falls harder when we make it to the hole in the ground. The casket is placed inside and I stay. The people all leave and I stay longer. The priest, now with his soaked white hair is at my side and I tell him to leave. I cannot think anything or hear anything. I just watch the headstone hoping for some movement. Maybe this is a dream. Maybe a hand will come up out of the dirt. Maybe she will be in the car laughing at the big joke she pulled on everyone, or maybe not.

A week later I pay three dollars to run a report on the Internet site we use to verify personal information for investors. I enter my daughter’s name, Samantha Elliot. The little icon shows the site processing and the report is displayed. I print out all sixteen pages. I tell the secretary I’m going to lunch.

Sitting in the parking lot of a convenience store I look over the report. It tells me her known locations (our house and some apartment in the city), her neighbors, their names and phone numbers, her phone number, and various other pieces of information. I dial the number that is supposed to be hers and the phone rings for ten minutes. I put it on speaker and place it on the passenger’s seat while I finish lunch. Finally I hang up. I decide to visit.

After a thirty-minute drive, I find the building. A street vendor is on the corner. Two men look at me with shark’s eyes and I go into the lobby. A set of stairs runs to my right. A woman looking older than the building itself watches me from the desk. I point to the stairs.

“I’m here to see my daughter.”

She smiles and goes back to her magazine. I’m sure she had no idea what I said. After three flights of stairs I come to the end of a hallway. The hallway is long and narrow. Heat coats the damp air. The only window at the end of it is nailed shut. Two doors are there, one to my right and one to my left. The one to my right has a tarnished brass number 27 on the front. This is hers, according to the report.

I knock. I knock again. I stay for a while in that hallway until the sweat is coming through the front of my suit shirt. After another knock the door behind me opens.

A large girl looks out. She is wearing a basketball jersey, a pair of shorts, and a baby cries in the background. A small dog is trying to attack me from behind her massive leg. She does not react.

“You police?”

“No, I’m, well, this is my daughter’s place.” I point to the door.

“Oh yeah? She hasn’t been around for a while.” She is palming some chips from a bag away from my sight. A man yells a name I can’t make out, but sounds like Molly, and she tells me she has to go. The door shuts. I decide to leave.

I send a letter to the address and get no response. I go and sell our house. I move to a town home in the suburbs of the city. In the letter I tell her that she needs to come home. I tell her that her words hurt us. I tell her that we still love her and we are sorry. I do not tell her of her mother’s death.

A few months later, at work, my phone rings. I am in the middle of a meeting with clients but I look at the caller ID and see the name S Elliot. I pick it up.

“Dylan’s Bar. Tomorrow night. Midnight.” The line goes silent. I hang it up and forget the rest of my meeting items. After the day, I sit in the living room of the town home and remember everything. I look at the picture of my wife on the wall and tell her I’m doing this for her. I tell myself that too. I do not know if I’m convinced. I call out of work the next day.

I find Dylan’s bar an hour before we are supposed to meet. It’s a weeknight but the place, according to a faded sign out front, is open till three in the morning. It is a few blocks away from her apartment. I park across the street.

People walk by. They look in and see me. I hear whispers that contain the word “policeman” and “parole officer.” If this gives me some security, I’ll take it. I decide I should arrive first so, at 11:59, I go inside.

We sit in a bar too dark for this part of the city and in a booth too far in the back. The place is a U shape of booths all dimly lit with a rectangle of steel for the actual bar top. Two people are at the bar. Another couple is at a table. We are in the back.

She faces me with her dark eyes and looks showing me all her pain and curiosity. She starts talking.

“My friend Molly calls me the other day and tells me her dog died. She starts crying and saying she doesn’t know what to do. I’m in the middle of a good high so I don’t say anything. She cries and cries and I hear the phone drop. The slashing sounds come through and something heavy hits the floor. Molly always had weight on her bones. I get the Times the next day and they found her dead in her place.”

I picture Molly and her dog behind her massive leg. Maybe the dog had had enough. The thought brings a quick smile to my mind but not my face. Everyone has limits.

She pulls out a cigarette. I produce a lighter. She sucks in a drag and exhales trying to fit in.

“I’m glad you came,” I say.

“Are you? I gave up time for this. My time is very valuable.” Someone, a waitress or waiter or bartender, appears and gives us drinks and then vanishes.

“How are you?”

“How am I? After this long you ask how I am?” She picks up her knife and starts to lightly scrape her wrist. I think of her friend Molly. I notice the light picking up the hint of a scar. It is diagonal though. Her psychologist used to tell us that cutters always go vertical, for the most pain.

The couple in the other booth is as pale as the falling night outside and they embrace. I watch them for a solid minute and they don’t move. I want to check for a pulse but doing that in this section of the city is enough to get you killed. The speakers play a faint Johnny Cash song. The windows in the front are blacked out.

“How is school?” I know this is a joke.

“School? Forget it. I want to learn the truth.”

I raise my eyes. She blows another puff of smoke and small stingers attack my retina.

“How do you intend on doing that?”

“Sure as hell not like you did. Not walking away from my daughter. Not spending more time in hotels than at home. Not by torturing us the way you did. Not by hurting me so badly.” She chokes out the last word. In that second I see her as a little girl, stumbling into my arms. I see her riding a bike. I see a birthday party. I see sunlight and curls and peace.

A scarlet drop of blood jerks me back to reality. The knife in her wrist produces it and it falls to the table. The drop spreads into the grain and absorbs. A small piece of my daughter will be in this forsaken place until they tear it down and then she’ll join the table in the dust. The thought sickens me.

“You know I’m sorry. I tried.”

“Right. You tried. Is an eighty hour work week trying?”

“I provided, didn’t I? What did you lack, tell me?” I raise my voice and the two at the bar look in my direction. I can’t see their eyes in the light. They turn their heads back and look into the drinks. I taste the beer and it tastes like hell.

“What did I lack?” She plants the knife, blade down, into the table. “How about being able to share some of me with you? You know something; if I could count all the things you missed I’d be smarter then to sit across from you now. I stopped counting.”

“How about now?”

“How about your daughter being in a monster jail cell? It’s trapping that little girl, who I know ran through your mind two seconds ago, into her own prison because she’s overrun with hate?” I begin to wonder if this is real. “How is mom?”

“Honey. She died a year ago.” She drops her cigarette to the table. “I called. I wrote. Nothing I did could get a hold of you.” I called twice and wrote a letter. The phone rang for twenty minutes before I gave up and the letter returned with a large INVALID ADDRESS stamp. I knew this would come to haunt me. “As far as I knew, you were dead too.”

“You pick now to tell me this. You come here, to my home and tell me this. You never had timing. You pushed me here.” She waved an arm and it cut through the smoke haze.

“We received the letter.” I waited for the right moment to drop this.

“Oh. Well, I thought about things. Sometimes I just feel like you, too, need to hurt to remember what you did to me. It took a lot to write that letter.”

“Your mother didn’t take it well.”

“Then she shouldn’t have hit me so many times.” The repressed memories come across my vision. I remember their fights. She knew no better. I remember I backed her up.

“You can’t say you didn’t deserve it.”

“Let’s not talk about deserving. I should take this knife,” she pulls it away from her arm, “and put it in your forehead.”

“Why do you hate me?” I’m the one who chokes out the words this time.

I hear a cell phone. She pulls it from her pocket and holds it to her ear. It is an astonishingly new model. I wonder what she did for the money. She talks and the voice fades into the background. She hangs up.

“Listen. I have to go. Go, get in your car, and drive back to your house.” She stands. She leans in over the table and I think I catch a hint of a tear in her eye. A small line of black mascara cheats its way to the edge of her cheek. “Do not call me. Do not write me. Forget you were here. I do not want to see you again.” She turns and walks away.

“Why do you hate me?” I ask again. She turns.

“If you don’t know, you never will.”

The guys at the bar watch her leave for too many seconds and I think about killing them.

I pick up my glass and throw it against the wall. It breaks. The couple does not move. The guys at the bar ignore me. The song on the speakers changes to something else. My daughter, my baby, walks off into the night.

I finally make it to the car, sufficiently drunk, and start the engine. I’m crying. I drive and make it back to the highway. I’m crying more. I see the cars on the other side facing me. This time of night they are less and less. Their headlights are blurred into white crosses by my tears. I think of turning the wheel and slamming into one. I see the sign for my exit and I press the gas. The universe stops and I fall into the memories. I spin and drift. I float out of my body content that she is finally content.

It is the best I’ll ever have.

Copyright © 2007 by Matt Shaner

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