The Clasp Knife
Short fiction (Guest Author Series)
Today, I am pleased to introduce Herb Horowitz, who gives us a thought-provoking story of a vivid dream where the protagonist encounters his deceased father. With poignant introspection, Herb weaves a tale that explores the intricate nuances of abuse, healing, and the transformative power of self-discovery.
When I wake up, I’m disoriented and don’t have a clue where I am. The small room is dimly lit; it surrounds me like a white rectangular cave. The fake red leather chair in which I sit is the only thing I can distinguish. I’m feeling very uncomfortable.
I survey my surroundings and gradually understand where I am. A bed, raised high, is just a few feet ahead. It seems unoccupied until I spot a sheet-covered body. Thin gray hair combed back matches the gray pallor of the visible head and hands. I notice the widow’s peak that defines the contour of the forehead. It's a man's body, I realize. I shockingly realize that he's my father. His eyes are closed. There’s no movement under the sheet. I can’t tell if he’s breathing.
Confusion and apprehension rush through me. I know my father died 23 years ago. I helped bury him. It's unclear if he's alive or dead from his appearance.
He looks frail and small under the sheet, and it's frightening me. While I’ve never seen him look like this before, I know, without a doubt, it is my father who’s lying in front of me.
His lids snap open, and he’s awake. His eyes are large and round, the gray pupils sending out laser beams. I recognize his expression, the menacing way he can look at you. I witnessed it often, even during his old and sickly years. Two small suggestions of a smile grace his thin-lipped mouth. When I was young, that look was like pouring acid on me. To me, it always meant that he was in charge. Under that scrutiny, I became nothing. It was a potent laser that made me feel nonexistent. As I grew into adolescence, this power he had over me weakened. His look, the glint in his eyes, dared me to take him on. I met his gaze fearlessly, daring him to try.
He gestures towards the night table and tells me to get the knife in the drawer. As I give it to him, I recognize it as the clasp knife he used every night to peel apples. It’s one of my clearest memories from my younger years. He had bought that knife in a Paris flea market when he was a young man. Its wooden handle has small white mother-of-pearl plates on each of its sides. An inlaid plate had a broken piece, revealing the underneath. Two rusted screws protrude from the wood. It felt familiar in my hand.
Then my father says, “Get me that apple.” He’s pointing to the green one on the dinner tray. Despite his thin, reedy voice, I recognize the familiar curtness and trademark ordering around. The voice always demanded my compliance. To me, the young child, it was a sorcerer’s voice. I followed the sorcerer's orders, though I loathed being indentured.
I get him the apple.
Handing it to him, I have the impulse to throw it at him. But I don’t. The question in my head: why did you do that? You forgot you don’t have to do what he says. I catch myself and realize I’m thinking about him as though he’s alive. This entire scene is surrealistic. I think I must be dreaming.
Studying the way he works the knife, I remember every motion. He is meticulous in the way he strips the apple of its skin. It’s like an old movie I’ve seen thousands of times. The precision with which he guided the knife between thumb and finger just under the peel had always fascinated me. Turning the apple, he keeps cutting until there is a long, scalloped strip. He then frees the strip with a last cut, throwing it away.
He slices off a piece of the apple and gives it to me just as he used to. It's one of my few fond memories of him. He reaches forward a little to me; the segment sandwiched between thumb and knife. I bite into it and enjoy its juicy, tart taste. He eats another sliver in the same manner. The memory echoes of such naked nurturing relax me. My chest feels warm.
After another few moments, he cuts me another chunk, a larger piece, and I take it from him. I hesitate when I see his eyes, catching a hint of his old malevolence, a shifty quality in his eyes. It was so ingrained in him it felt like a removable black vest.
I bite into what he’s given me and there’s a horrible taste that brings with it overwhelming disgust. I spit it out into my hand. In my hand, a part of a live worm wriggles out of its home. I grab the napkin on the tray and dump my hand’s contents into it. I squeeze the napkin into a small ball and toss it angrily back on the tray.
“What the hell is this? You knew, didn’t you?”
He is silent, but there’s a subtle smile at the corners of his mouth that lets me know I’m right. He always knew what he was doing. I was certain of that when I was young. It was part of the bewitching. As I got older, I came to understand that couldn’t be. The belief in his omniscience repeatedly captured me. It was irresistible then, and it comes back now.
Anger filled my voice. “What is with you? You’re always coming after me. Aren’t you trying to get me and enjoying every bit when it works again? Why? Why do you do that?”
He remains silent. A tense atmosphere fills the room.
“Why? I thought we had reconciled when we last spoke. What are you doing, starting it all over again?”
Seconds pass as neither of us says anything. As I stare at him, I’m struck again with his frailness, but somehow it does nothing to soften the overwhelming anger that surges through me. Except for an ancient anger I have polished for many years, I felt nothing towards him.
“Well, say something. And don’t tell me you’re too weak, because I don’t believe it.”
He spreads his arms out slowly to each side, a gesture I know well. It gave him an innocent disguise behind which he could ask, What do you want from me? Then deny my request when he saw I was in need and he had control. Oh, how he loved those times. There were many times like that.
I remember wanting to watch the Knicks play the Celtics at the Garden. My friends and I had made our plans, but I found at the last minute I was short fifteen dollars. I approached him timidly and asked him in the most delicate voice if he would lend me the money. I knew he would refuse, but I don't recall his reasoning. All I remember is his arms spreading out to the sides like he didn’t have a choice to turn me down. He looked so pleased. I felt like a bug squashed under his shoe. I believed that was his intention.
He looks at me with that old fake helplessness. “Can’t you see how incapacitated I am?”
“NO! I don’t believe you for a second. You're not incapacitated at all. I see that sadistic look. You don’t know any other way to treat me, do you?”
Now I’m like a dog with a bone that I’ve dug up from my favorite burial place and am enjoying like hell working away at it with my teeth.
“What’s wrong with you again? No… What’s wrong with you STILL?”
His reedy voice says, “Everything’s wrong with me. It’s not obvious? I’m at death’s door. It’s time for me to go.”
“What are you talking about? You died 23 years ago. What are you doing back? Why was I asked to come here?”
“I didn’t ask you to come. You just showed up.”
“I said goodbye to you 23 years ago. How can you be dying now?” I hear a little tremble in my voice. I am jarred again, remembering he is dead.
His voice sounds distant and like a neutral commentator as he says, “Maybe you didn’t say everything you needed to.” It sounds like a genuine offer, but I’m suspicious.
“No, that’s not true. I expressed everything I needed to. When I cried at your funeral, it was with a sense of relief that I wouldn't have to deal with you anymore. No, there’s nothing more to say.”
Silence takes over again.
I have thought little about my father in the years since his death. For some, relationships with loved ones continue after death. That hasn't been the case for me and my father. When I buried him, I evicted him from my mind. In this strange hospital room, the reincarnation of our relationship pains me. Having to engage with him again is boggling my mind. I keep reminding myself that he is dead.
“So, I’m waiting,” he says.
“What are you talking about? Waiting for what?”
He responds with a riddle. “The one thing you have access to and which is only mine.” Hearing this, I once again see him as the Classics professor he had been his whole life, the one always testing his students—and his children. That professor who had self-created a mission to ensure that we all met his high standards of brilliance. The riddle he’d just put to me gave me a familiar sense of being toyed with. It sounded like a question Odysseus would need to answer swiftly to avoid execution. I saw his challenges as unbeatable tests. That’s the way I feel now as I turn his riddle over in my mind. Despite myself, I found myself hooked.
My thoughts squirm around in my head, searching for the solution. I can see he’s studying me with a neutral expression. I was bracing for an attack. Yet, I accepted the challenge willingly.
My initial reaction is he's expecting something that's due to him. Growing up with him, I had learned a lot about his expectations of me and my brothers. I always thought I had met them, but always unwillingly and grudgingly. It always seemed that he had shaped and molded my behavior. My father’s way never entailed physical coercion or punishment. He didn't have to do that. Besides, it would have been outside his ironclad standards of what was right. His way was that of a self-appointed judge with complete power to approve or condemn. His rapier-delivered disdain was world class.
One thing my father demanded from us was attention. We had to endure elaborate explanations on topics we had no interest in. I learned how to simulate listening, to let in a sufficient amount of information to show that I had listened in case he tested me. Back then, I often wondered if he knew how hollow my attention was. Would he have refrained from those lectures? I doubt it.
So, he got what he wanted, but only through my deceit. I, of course, paid a high price. I lost all sense of integrity.
Respect? My father also demanded that. It was difficult to know what he considered disrespectful. Once someone gave him tickets to a championship boxing match. I was both excited and envious upon hearing this.
Without meaning to offend, I blurted out, “You lucky dog!”
He wheeled around at me and pinned me with those blazing coals that had replaced his eyes and said icily, “That's no way to speak to your father.”
Then he ordered me to bed without supper. My brothers and I would often compare notes and joke about his latest fascistic antics.
Living with him meant living with fear of him. My brothers and I had developed a powerful fear of him early. My mother feared him also, and that seemed to legitimize ours. If she couldn't handle him, how could we?
My father was always talking about loyalty and insisting we give it to him. His meaning was unclear to us. But he often reprimanded us for disloyalty. Later on we knew what he meant, but by then we enjoyed being disloyal. As adults, when we heard criticism of him by my mother’s family, behind his back, we gloated with the confirmation. We didn’t have the slightest inclination to come to his defense.
Liking? Was that what he wanted from me? To like him? The idea of that was a joke. What was there to like? My father was not someone you could laugh or play with or have genuine enjoyment with. The closest I came was during a family vacation to England. We’d gone to Cambridge, where he’d gotten his doctorate years before. Naturally, he was the supreme, all-knowing tour guide, pointing out all kinds of things, giving the history of all the sights in excruciating detail. One afternoon we all went punting on the Cam. He’d been showing off how well he could steer the flat-bottomed boat. Then we got to the turnaround point. He’d turned the punt almost completely around when he lost his balance and went toppling into the water headfirst. We pulled him into the boat, and he laughed even though drenched. For a rare moment, he endeared himself to me by laughing at himself and joining us in slap-stick appreciation. I have only felt that way once.
I couldn't solve his riddle, even after exhausting my list; I was tired of trying to figure it out, and I wanted out.
“Well, I give up. Stop playing with me. What do you want? Give me a clue.”
“All right. How are you fixed for erasers?”
“Erasers?” I was confused and felt he was playing with me.
“Yes, erasers. Like the kind you use on a blackboard.”
“Ran out years ago.”
“That’s too bad.”
“Too bad for me or you?”
“For both of us.”
And then I thought I understood. Was that what he was asking for—my forgiveness? It surprised me he wanted that. Was forgiving him possible? Could I give him that? Forgive all the domination and endless sense of inadequacy he was always wrapping me in. Could I forgive the miles of shame with which he’d paved my sense of myself? Forgive the contempt he’d splattered me with because I was not the son he’d needed me to be for his friends and colleagues. Could I forgive him for disappointment in me? Before he died, he gave me a brief list of his accusations. But he’d delivered it in a more muted way than usual. He only appeared to have changed my "death sentence" to life imprisonment. In this surreal hospital room, it's clear I'm still imprisoned, and he's the warden.
Forgiving him seemed impossible. I couldn’t think of one reason I might.
I looked over at him, letting him know silently that I understood what he wanted, then shook my head slowly but firmly, indicating no. Now it was my face that showed a malevolent smile.
He looked hurt. Was that my wish fulfilled? He lifted his limp gray hand towards me, reaching cautiously for my left hand. In my head I hear: OH NO! I WIN THIS TIME. Moisture gathered in the corners of his eyes. I had never seen him cry in all the years I knew him. But he was now, unquestionably. Had I failed to recognize the man's capacity for tenderness? Still, I would not surrender, so strong was my fear of his manipulative gyrations and the revenge I sought.
My hand acted autonomously. It moved toward him gingerly. The hands met in a gentle, mutual caress.
With the index finger of his other hand, he beckoned me toward him. Guardedly, I leaned closer to his head. He said something in a raspy whisper. I could make out the words. I asked him to say it again. He did and what I thought I heard was: “I love you, even if you don’t forgive me.”
Just then, the sound of the phone ringing startled me awake. It was one of those times when a dream becomes the compelling reality, usurping actual reality. I felt a strong desire to continue my dream.
I sluggishly got up from the couch and answered the phone. It was just a brief business call confirming an appointment I had set up. When I hung up, I began jotting it down on my calendar. As I did that, I noticed today’s date: December 14, the day my father had died 23 years earlier.
I spotted the photograph of him among the large group of family photographs on the mantle, the one taken when he was on vacation in Italy a few years before he died. I’d always like that one. He looked relaxed, like he might have been enjoying himself.
I picked up the photograph and stared at it for a while. Then, bringing it close to my mouth, I whispered at it, “Maybe.”
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