This story is by Antony Norman Ricks and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
I was 23 and a journalism student at Boise State on that day in September 2001 that changed America. My father was in the Pentagon. My friend broke the news that the building had been struck by an airliner. I knew by the morning after that my father was gone because he would have called me, his only daughter, before anyone else. Now an orphan, this left me with my memories, pictures, videos, and a few other keepsakes. And my most prized possession, my late mother’s handkerchief.
One of her last acts in life had been giving it to me, when I was nine. It had been an heirloom for two prior generations–from my mother’s grandmother forward. It was the middle of the summer. She had cancer. My palm was shaking, but she handed it to me and said: “You’ve wanted it since before you could speak, Desdemona. And now it’s yours. Take care of it!” That was my last moment with my mother.
My last moments with my father was a week before 9/11, when we were fishing off a river together near Boise. It was a warm day–about 80 degrees; sunny; fish were biting. But there was a tension between us, one that still haunts me. The particulars are hard to parse out, because my feelings were exacerbated after he died. At the time, I was in college and vehemently anti-war. I still am–I would prefer that people got along–but age has brought wisdom and perspective. There are truly things worth fighting for, and things worth fighting against.
The words that reverberate in my head from that fishing trip are my own insulting words: “Anyone in any branch of the military supports senseless killing! So how do you really sleep at night?!” Up to that moment, on our fishing trip, the conversations had been lively. But after that, my father fell silent. We fished for a few hours, rarely within eyesight of one another. We talked a little about other things on the way home–boys I knew at school, my crazy roommates, and mom. Those were my last moments with my father.
There is plenty I could say about his funeral: talking with military officials, friends, and family; giving the life sketch as his only daughter; or endlessly shaking hands, and reassuring people. But the truth is that the funeral took place, and then I started life all over again the next day.
I sold discount cards to college students at Boise State–with deals at local restaurants primarily; at least, I had been doing that before my father died. My father required that I carry mace for my own protection when going door-to-door, and so I did. In the same pocket, I kept my mother’s handkerchief, which offered its own kind of protection. I enjoyed sales, and it gave me a way to earn money until I landed a good news writing job.
But I didn’t do it for long after he died. In fact, I only sold for one more day. I started knocking on doors again the day after the funeral. Maybe I was in shock to be doing this when the grieving process hadn’t even really kicked in. Or maybe I needed to just keep moving, keep acting. While I acted normal–selling just like before–on the inside my emotions were swirling like a windstorm. Still, after selling for three hours, I had sold 15 cards. I felt good.
That night I met Arnold. I knocked on a door. A guy answered the door, and I started my sales pitch. “Hi, I’m Desdemona. But you can call me Dez. What’s your name?”
I heard a voice from the back of the room yell, “His name’s Othello!” More guys laughed from inside. The guy who answered the door shook his head, and seemed a little embarrassed.
Listen, my father just died in the Pentagon, I thought to myself. So your roommate back there, who I’ll call stand-up comedy wannabee, can shove a sock in his mouth for all I care. Keeping these words within, I just smiled.
“I’m Arnold,” he said. Arnold was about six feet tall (still is); slender; short dark brown hair; a tan complexion; and a quirky smile that didn’t remind me of anyone in particular. He reached out to shake my hand. “What’s up? I have idiots for roommates.”
“It’s okay,” I said. “I’m just impressed they know Shakespeare.” This was just courtesy talk. I wasn’t impressed.
“Well, they know Sparknotes.” Arnold said.
That wasn’t surprising. But I found myself playing along with it: “Is there a difference?”
Again, someone from the back yelled, sarcastically, “Yes! Sparknotes is a cornerstone of Western Civilization! Shakespeare is some old white dude!” At that, I had to see the face of my heckler, so I leaned enough past Arnold to see. I saw a man sitting on the couch: chubby, balding, and Caucasian. He had a big bag of Doritos on his lap, an X-box remote in his hand, and he was staring at the game on the TV even while he heckled me. My ancestry is Irish, English, and Scottish. And as a girl named after one of the bard’s characters, I don’t think of Shakespeare as “some old white dude.”
But Arnold called his roommates to order, in a style closer to the character of King Henry from Henry V. “Will you guys be quiet?!” They guffawed, a little quieter this time. “I’m sorry about that.” Arnold said, turning to me, “Are you selling something?”
“Well, let me ask: Do you guys ever eat pizza?” I had several stock lines with which to open a pitch. This was my standard.
“Yes, all the time.”
“Then you need the Deep Blue College Card.”
“Oh, yes, I’ve heard of that! How much?”
But before I could answer, Arnold pulled a ringing cell phone from his pocket. “Oh, hold a sec if you don’t mind, Dez. I do want a card, actually, but I need to take this call.” Holding the phone to his ear, he said, “Hey, Dad! I’ve been waiting for your call.” Arnold held up his pointer finger, reminding me to hold on. As he held the phone, between his ear and shoulder, he pulled out a $20 bill from his other pocket.
But it was too late.
I literally had not cried since the funeral. But the words “hey dad” brought tears to my eyes, unexpectedly. I walked away. I remember Arnold calling “hold on, Dez!”, but I was not interested in talking anymore. I suddenly felt lightheaded. I pulled out my handkerchief to dab my eyes, when I felt dizzy and my surroundings grew dark. To counteract the heavy windstorm, I held tightly onto the handkerchief.
I remember Arnold running toward me then, as I began to fall.
I lost my mother’s handkerchief that day. Arnold called 911. The doctors said my heart had stopped due to stress-induced heart failure. Arnold came to see me in the hospital a couple of times, and we just talked. I told him about losing the handkerchief and about my family, and he told me about his. Whereas I grew up in a “big city”–Boise–Arnold grew up on a potato farm with a population of 100. He joked that if we moved there, together, we could boost the census within a few years. Also, he bought three discount cards. (I think the second two were out of generosity). And I was out of the hospital within a few days.
I also told him about a dream I had in the hospital, about my parents. I dreamed they came and saw me in the hospital. In the dream, I awoke in my hospital bed. My mom was holding my left hand, and my dad was holding my right hand on the other side of the hospital bed. I could feel their hands: Not like they were ghosts you could walk through like you see in the movies. My mom handed me her handkerchief with her other hand, and said, “Honey, I found this for you. Keep it. You have wanted it since before you could speak. You must pass it on to–” And she stopped mid-sentence, looking bewilderedly at my father. My father shook his head “no,” as if to say, “She can’t know yet.” For many years I wondered what this meant.
And although I knew it was a dream, I was still disappointed to wake up without the handkerchief.
After I left the hospital, Arnold asked me to join him at a magic show: A public performance put on by the same roommate who knew so much about Shakespeare upon our first meeting. Brent, it turned out, was his name. I hadn’t wanted to go out. At the time, I wanted to be fairly recluse: If I went out at all, I preferred it not to be in public. I was dealing with a Pandora’s box of emotions. But I went, and Brent looked very different with his black suit, top hat, and bow-tie. The auditorium was so full, there was standing room only.
Brent performed all the common tricks: rabbit-out-of-the-hat, cutting-a-person-in-half, multiplying pigeons, and disappearing colored handkerchiefs. At the end of the night, he announced he would perform his final trick. He asked for a volunteer from the audience. To my surprise, a woman came to the stage who looked like my mother. The resemblance alarmed me.
Brent asked her for “some item, any item” to give him for a disappearing act. The woman produced a white handkerchief. I turned to Arnold and asked him if this was a joke.
“No, it’s a magic trick,” he said.
“That’s not what I’m talking about! That woman looks like my mother, and she has a white handkerchief like my mother’s! What’s going on?”
“Let’s just watch,” Arnold said.
Brent did the old magician’s trick where he shoves it into his closed fist, and then “voi-la”, it’s gone. Brent held out both palms toward the audience, mock-surprise on his face.
Then he “tried” to make it reappear, looking in both of his sleeves. But to no avail. He asked my mother’s doppleganger if she had it. She didn’t. Finally, he walked down into the audience, right up to me. All eyes turned on us, and he pulled it out of my ear and waved it vigorously in the air: This act was accompanied by a crescendo of applause. During this fanfare, he handed me the handkerchief and a letter. Returning to the stage, he thanked the audience for coming and bowed gracefully.
As the room lit up, with light and more applause, I opened the letter. Arnold acted as surprised as me, but the letter was actually from him.
This is your mother’s handkerchief. I found it six city blocks from my apartment, after you told me about it in the hospital. To return it in a memorable way, I asked Brent to work it into his act. We both hope this reunion brings you much comfort and joy.
That evening is one I will never forget. I leaned on Arnold’s shoulder while everyone around us chattered and filed out. I caught glimpses of Brent on stage, shaking hands with audience members and thanking them for coming. Occasionally, he cast a smiling glance our way.
That was sixteen years ago. Today, my daughter Virginia and I are going school shopping while Arnold is at the university. Arnold completed a doctorate in Political Science, and is currently completing a postdoctoral research fellowship. I am a part-time journalist, now that I have Virginia to look after. Virginia is in the third grade and full of life, learning multiplication, and making movie trailers on her Macbook. She wants a new backpack, a phone, and a handkerchief like mine. I think I can do two out of three. I’ll wait on the phone.