Cleighton Brooks loved his wife, so far as he knew. He enjoyed his daughter’s company as well. Yes, if he had to explain the arrangement, it was true that he felt he loved them both, very much. Certainly not as much as his wife loved him, though. For a long while, he worried that he didn’t love her at all. But that was tosh. It is a womanly thing, thus women are better rehearsed for it.
He behaved poorly when they were first married. Her fits irritated him. His irritation demoralized her. She, too, wondered if he really loved her. She would learn, as he had, that his love owed little to tradition, that was all. He hoped she’d grow beyond dramatics just as she hoped he would grow beyond myopia. He’d say things, small things with deep shadows. When she’d desire the bedroom and he didn’t, for instance. He’d shimmy out of his pajamas and say, ‘Carry on.’ It shamed him now remembering those nights. Not just once, but multiple occasions. Perhaps she’d throw a fit and he’d admonish, ‘I was only trying to accommodate you, darling; no need to harangue me.’
What changed recently, for him at least, was the look on his daughter’s face, standing in the doorway of his study in her riding pants and red doublet. ‘You’re not coming?’ she said.
‘I’ve seen the routine. It’s very good.’
‘But today’s the competition.’
‘And I’m sure you’re prepared,’ he said with a smile. ‘You haven’t anything to worry about. The horse doesn’t know the difference between practice and the real thing.’
‘There’ll be hundreds of people there, daddy.’
‘Goober will perform marvelously. He comes from champion stock.’
‘I’m not worried about Goober!’
‘I’m lost,’ he said. ‘What are you worried about?’
‘You? What do you mean?’
‘I’m nervous, daddy.’
‘Why are you nervous? The horse does all the work.’
It was one of those instances in which he knew he’d said the wrong thing, but he didn’t know which thing, nor how it was wrong.
‘Juney, my child,’ he began.
But his daughter, now fourteen years of age and braver than her mother had ever been, lowered her brow and said, ‘You’re right. There’s no reason for you to go. Really no reason for me to go, either.’
‘Don’t be silly, Juney. You enjoy it.’
‘And you’ve done your part.’
‘What does that mean?’ She fell silent, staring at the shining buckles of her boots. He asked, ‘You’d like me to go, is that right?’
‘Not any more.’
‘Do you know why I’m not attending, Juney, my child? I’ve got a call with the partners in an hour and a lunch with the board. Certainly not as much fun as eating hot dogs and drinking root beer. But somebody has to look after the family’s investments.’
‘I’ll let you know if Goober stumbles, daddy. Maybe you can get a refund.’ This flummoxed him for a variety of reasons; the least of which was that the lessons, the stable, the feed, the grooming, and the veterinarian bills drastically exceeded the single price point of the animal.
‘These things are final sale, Juney,’ he said, trying to establish a line of rationality in his household that had been lost since his daughter began bickering with him a few months back. ‘You don’t return a horse. You shoot it.’
At the office, nobody left his presence until he dismissed them. His home, however, was populated by two people who made a habit of turning their backs to him. Juney quit the room and soon after his wife appeared in the doorframe. ‘Clay, you bastard.’ The familiar overture.
‘What has she told you?’ he asked, meaning that he expected that his words were being misinterpreted. To his wife, though, this was an admission of guilt.
‘You can speak to me like a servant and placate me with gifts, but you will not treat our daughter like an employee of the family trust.’
‘What would you have me do, Laurette? Cancel my appointments every time Juney’s itinerary is updated?’
She screamed at him, ‘Just once would have delightful!’
‘I’ll call Merno right now. Push it back. An hour? Two? How long do these things take?’
‘It’s too late now, Clay. Don’t even bother.’
‘How is that fair? I’m chided for not wanting to go and now for wanting to make it right.’
‘Why don’t you aim for getting it right at first opportunity?’
‘And how am I supposed to identify the right thing? I’ve provided for the lessons, the health of the animal; I’ve invested tens of thousands of dollars into this pastime already. And I give her an allowance. I’ve set her up with a savings plan, an active portfolio, she has her own chauffeur.’
‘She wants a father, not a bloody financier.’ This made no sense to Clay. He’d had a father.
Juney stomped down the corridor and Laurette stepped aside. Juney’s face was bright red and streaked with tears. She swung her arm and a hail of dollar coins clattered across Clay’s desk. ‘There’s my allowance,’ she said. She stared at him and he got the feeling that she wasn’t expecting him to say anything, nor was she steadying herself to speak. She wanted him to see her.
It was that look that changed things for him.
Lying in bed that night, Cleighton said, ‘I’d like to ask you a question, and I’d like to assure you that I’m not intending to start a quarrel.’
Laurette for her part remained perfectly silent. But she placed her tablet face down on the duvet stretched across her legs.
‘You are unhappy?’
Laurette turned her head to face her husband. ‘Are you asking if I’m unhappy right now, or generally unhappy with our life together?’
‘I’m no buffoon, Laurette. I know you are unhappy at the moment.’
‘I’ve been unhappy for years, Clay.’ She was genuinely touched by how shocked her husband appeared.
‘I don’t know what to say,’ he said. ‘What can I do?’
‘What can you do, for what?’
‘How can I show you and Juney that I love I you?’
‘Don’t of course me, Clay.’
‘I don’t want you to be unhappy.’
‘That’s nice to hear. Usually when people love other people they say nice things like that. Things like, I love you.’
‘I don’t say I love you enough?’
‘How would you define enough?’
‘Do I ever say it?’
‘Do you know I love you?’
‘I don’t think you understand it.’
‘I buy you things.’
‘You certainly buy me things enough. But I’d rather be poor and have a husband who says I love you more than once a year.’
‘I can’t do that, Laurette.’
‘You can’t say I love you?’
‘I can’t be poor.’
For some strange reason—love, love is that strange reason—Laurette was compelled to console her daft husband. ‘Clay. I appreciate how much you provide. I appreciate the life you have created for this family. I’ve resigned myself to our marriage. In the holy books, providence is another form of love. You’re like a benevolent but absent god and I thank you for the harvest.’
‘My dear, you know I can’t discern sarcasm. So if …’
‘That wasn’t sarcasm, Clay. I’m a forty-seven year old woman whose only real problem in this world is that her husband doesn’t have emotions. I’m doing pretty well for myself.’ She leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. ‘I’m going to sleep.’
He rang her at lunch a few days later. ‘Laurette, our child refuses to talk to me.’
‘She changed her accounts. Her allowance was kicked back.’
‘Ah? What is ah?’
‘She’s speaking your language, Clay.’
‘What does that mean? How can I fix this?’
‘First: why do you want to fix it?’
‘Why? She’s my child, that’s why. I want to make sure she’s eating lunch, for one thing. I want to make sure she has funds to go out to the theatre and have friends.’
‘You’re a strange man, Clay.’
‘What is second?’
‘You said, First: why fix it. What’s second?’
‘You know the broken window parable of economics. You explained it to me on our first wedding anniversary. Why would she bother to fix a window if she knows it’s just going to be broken again?’
‘That’s not entirely a comprehensive reading of the parable, Laurette.’
‘Exactly my point.’
‘I’m late for a thing,’ she said.
‘What should I do, Laurette? I’m asking. For once, I’m asking. You tell me what to do and I’ll do it.’
‘Be a better goddam father.’ She hung up.
If she didn’t accept a bonus, could he charge her a penalty?
No that didn’t make sense. She wasn’t the one at fault. He was. How could he charge himself a penalty? She was already refusing the allowance. But that was a bonus for him. He couldn’t charge himself more if she wasn’t taking anything. He could use the allowance and then some to buy Laurette a new car. That would be like paying a penalty, no? No. It’s still giving to his family, which in the end advantages him. He could give to charity. He imagined that conversation. ‘I’m sorry I hurt your feelings, Juney. I gave your allowance to those who needed it more than you.’ It would seem he was mocking her. Why wouldn’t she just take the money, plus a bonus as an apology? It was dreadful that all of his affections were seen as bribery.
Cleighton walked to his bank and withdrew the amount of his daughter’s allowance. ‘Paper money, please.’ He walked back to his office and closed the door. He extracted a cigar from the humidor on his desk and the lighter from the top drawer. He torched the end of the cigar and once he got a steady burn, he picked up the cash and torched it as well. He dropped the stack of bills into his ash tray and leaned back in his leather chair. It pained him to watch the money burn.
He reasoned it out in his head. This money was budgeted already. It didn’t belong in his account. It belonged to his daughter. She refused it. He could add it to her retirement account, but that would be subverting her wishes. She was making a financial choice and regardless of Cleighton’s approval, he would allow his only child to experiment with financial consequence. What better lesson?
He had to re-light the bills four times before they burnt all the way to nothing. He didn’t know what he liked least: the deliberate obliteration of good money, or the memory of his daughter’s tear-streaked face that seemed to be staring out at him from the intensity of the slow fire.
The next weekend he was making himself an espresso in the kitchen when Juney’s friend Delany buzzed at the door. Laurette answered the door wearing a silk blouse and pressed trousers. Cleighton looked down at his bathrobe and slippers. His wife greeted Delany and he tried to hear what was being said over the whir of the chrome-plated machine. Delany waved and he waved back at her. His daughter clambered down the stairs and walked through the kitchen without looking at him. She, too, was wearing fashionable clothing, nearly formal. As Juney got to the door, Delany peered back into the kitchen where Cleighton stood alone with a fresh coffee. He heard his daughter say, ‘Don’t worry about him. He doesn’t go to things.’
The following day, he stopped by his bank on the way to work. He withdrew his daughter’s allowance. ‘Actually, make it five thousand.’
‘Paper money?’ the teller asked.
In bed that night, he said to his wife, ‘I don’t know how to progress.’
‘With Juney? That’s because you can’t, Clay. You can’t buy your way out of this one.’
‘Is there something I can do to show …’
‘No. Clay, no. This is not a deal to close or an estate to be restored. This is an offer that’s been rescinded. There’s a part of your daughter that will be shut off to you for good.’
‘I’ve got to say, it is remarkable to see you like this. But it’s too late, my darling. The ship has sailed. You’re now just another disappointing father.’
‘It’s like all of the good that I’ve done isn’t being accounted for!’
Laurette reached her hand out and grasped his wrist. ‘If it’s any consolation, she will one day be of an age to recognize all of that.’ She squeezed his hand. This was the most intimate they’d been since Juney’s birth. ‘I wish it hadn’t taken this long for you to come to realize that our little girl just wants you to be her daddy.’
Cleighton re-arranged his morning appointments. He made himself an espresso in their kitchen and poured a chocolate milk for Juney. It sat there for forty-five minutes before she ran down the steps and towards the front door. He shouted out to her, ‘Juney, my child.’ His voice startled her and she crashed into the coat tree in the foyer. ‘My god, I’m sorry.’
‘It’s okay,’ she said.
‘I made you a chocolate milk.’
‘Shouldn’t you be at work?’
‘Look, Juney. I wanted to say that I’m sorry.’
‘I wanted to tell you that I love you.’
‘And I am sorry that I’m not always the most proficient father.’
‘It’s okay, Clay,’ she said. ‘You’re trying your best.’ She ground the toe of her shoe into the hallway runner. Then she turned and walked out the front door.
The chocolate milk sat on the counter all day.
When he got to work, he buzzed his secretary. ‘Budkins, can you bring me the paperwork on that new Goosefleet venture?’
Budkins came in with the blue folder, tied up with red string. ‘This has the confirmation? Our signatures? Everything?’
‘All right. Leave me, Budkins. Close the door on the way out and divert my calls for the next hour. I want to review this. And, Budkins. Send a page to Mr Merno. I’d like to make some time for us to chat this evening before he goes home.’
‘Good heavens, Brooks. Why not? We’ve got the contract signed and everything. Legal says we’re good to go. The board’s excited. Everybody wants to move on this thing.’
‘The timing is wrong.’
‘The timing is perfect. We’ve been itching to get into apparel for years now.’
‘It’s the wrong profile for us.’
‘It’s the perfect profile. It’s a branding miracle. We’ll never be so lucky again.’
Cleighton slid his waste basket out from under his desk with his foot.
‘What is that, Brooks? What is that? Don’t tell me that’s the contract.’
‘I burned it, Merno. It’s done.’
‘Why? By god, why would you do such a thing?’
He couldn’t think of a reason. He knew the real reason, but he couldn’t explain that to his business partner. Burning cash is throwing away previously gained assets. He needed to destroy something stuffed with potential, the results of which he could never fully know. But he couldn’t say that.
‘We’ll have to get creative.’
‘That’s no answer! We were sitting on a goldmine.’
Cleighton felt terrible. Merno’s hostility was justified. His own actions were nearly insane. He’d almost thrown up while burning the file. Merno’s reaction only bolstered the searing pain in his stomach. He’d disappointed his best friend and business partner, cost his company untold fortunes in future wealth, wasted thousands of man-hours that went into securing the deal and preparing all of the paperwork, and jeopardized his standing in the firm he created from the ground up. Professionally, it was the worst moment of his life. But he knew, without any doubt, that he loved his daughter. And it didn’t matter that he couldn’t explain that to anyone else.
‘Merno,’ he said. ‘I’m terribly sorry I didn’t consult you first.’
‘That’s it? That’s all you have to say for yourself? How are we going to explain this to the board?’
‘Tell them I torched it.’
‘I can’t do that! You’ll be out on your ass.’
‘It’s the truth. Brooks didn’t like it, you know how Brooks is, so he torched the contract.’
‘But that’s the thing. This isn’t like you at all.’
‘I know,’ said Cleighton. ‘And I’ll never be able to make it up to you.’
He rang his wife. ‘Laurette?’
‘I wanted to … This is odd. I wanted to thank you.’
‘What now, Clay?’
‘I know it’s not the most romantic compliment, but you’re a great asset.’
‘Oh god,’ she said.
‘No, I meant that as a compliment. You give great advice. I’m sitting here at my desk thinking things over and I realize how valuable you are to me.’
‘It’s just three words, Clay. How hard can it be?’
‘The way your brain works, Clay. I hate it.’
‘Well, perhaps I do, too.’
‘Will you be home for supper?’
‘Did Juney win? The horse thing?’
‘That was two weeks ago.’
‘I’m trying to be a better father.’
‘You can start by not shooting her horse.’
‘Why would I shoot her horse?’
‘You said you would.’
‘Did she win?’
‘She came in last place, Clay.’
‘Last? I paid thirty-five thousand dollars for that beast!’
‘Promise me you’re not going to shoot Goober.’
‘Don’t be melodramatic, my dear. I’m trying to fix things with our daughter.’
‘It’s been nearly two weeks.’
‘She’s not speaking to me.’
‘She’s been waiting for you to ask about the competition!’
‘Oh, dear. Really? Am I that daft?’
‘You are, Clay. You really are.’
In his pocket he had about two hundred dollars in paper money. He cradled the phone against his shoulder and torched the cash. ‘I’m working on it.’ That offense ranked significantly higher than a two hundred dollar fine, but it was all he had on him at the time. He’d have to start carrying around a lot more money. Or, and this was the goal, stop making so many blunders.
‘It’s too late.’
‘It’s not too late, Laurette. Is Juney racing again?’
‘What? Yeah. In two months. Don’t worry, I’ll remind you.’
‘She came in last place. Did you tell her it was too late? To stop competing?’
‘Of course not.’
‘I’m in last place.’
‘You’re in worse than last place.’
‘Yeah, maybe. But I’m not going to shoot her horse for losing and I’m not going to give up even though I’m way behind.’
‘Let’s just start with not shooting her horse.’
‘I don’t even own a rifle, Laurette.’
‘That’s a start.’
‘Exactly. It’s a start.’