The Bad Father

Tim Conley

As you may have yourself discovered, just when the shops are closing is a terrible time in which to find a gift for a party later that evening, and this was the quandary in which Clive found himself less than an hour before he was due at his ex-wife's house. Snow was teasing the sky and effected a certain panic among the cars below, which made finding a place to park that much more of a job. A side street was tried after another side street, and after that a narrower side street, Clive muttering the unheard-of street names as curses, looking at signs, trying to look around or through obstacles. The lights of shops went out one after another.

Having parked far from those dimming commercial lights, Clive jogged the way a man who does not typically exercise in this way jogs through the side streets, turning here and there. He found a candy store with those nice lemon drops, a stationer's shop with fancy pens, a few places that might have sold something to the purpose, all closed. He had no idea what he was looking for beyond the general concept of buying a gift, and he was breathing heavily when he stopped at a shop window he almost didn't spot, peered in, tried to figure out whether the place was still open.

The door pushed open, but the place was dank and dark. Clive gradually made out various crowded and cobwebbed shelves and an antique cash register. Empty birdcages. Lamps, candlesticks, a row of eye-droppers. Coiled springs nestled in boxes with speckled handkerchiefs. A sextant leaning against a microscope. Jars of marbles and towers of spools. Expressionless figurines in uncertain poses. Bookends shaped like owls. A xylophone or something very like one.

The owner, if that's who it was, slowly shuffled into view from behind a curtained doorway. It might have been a man or a woman, but for that matter it might have been an animated pile of papers and dust, for so it looked. The tendered smile was made of a thousand interwoven facial creases; the voice that offered assistance rattled deep within.

Still looking round at the unpromising bric-a-brac all about him, Clive hurriedly explained the need for a suitable present for his daughter, something unique and needed immediately. "It is her tenth birthday. She is an unusual girl. She likes unusual things." As he was speaking, his gaze slipped through a pile of beaten boxes on a high shelf. He reached up to move the boxes aside and pulled down the dull red object there. It was not a ball, as he had first thought, but a polyhedron, whose vertices were puckered with dials, and its faces alternately engraved with markings and punctured with delicate little holes. Porcelain maybe, but very old. Clive held up the ball in vain hopes of seeing it in a better light, and then applied his eye to one of the holes. Flakes and tiny sticks of shifting colors coalesced into a moving shape, then into another, and another, as he could not help turning the object in his hands. Was that a woman dancing? No, now it was two men fencing, and now a proud horse leaping until it became a massive shining bird, which flew high until it burst into flame.

"What is this?" The question, he realized as he asked it, didn't matter.

"If it has a proper name," the proprietor answered with a chuckle akin to a snake's cough, "I have forgotten it. We might satisfactorily call it an amusement. It is unique, and the story goes that the master who devised this original amusement, at the behest of a potentate's child, died after its completion. Yet its history is even more singular than that."

"Great," said Clive.

"It is said that the young heir in question disappeared not very long after the amusement was given to him. It is said that he played with it for days, turning it round and round, twisting the dials, unlocking its abilities and its secrets. Nothing but it could hold his attention: he took it with him to his bed at night and began his mornings with it in his hands. But one day the servants found the amusement sitting unattended on the floor of the heir's bedchamber, and the young heir was nowhere to be found. There was speculation that the amusement had swallowed the young heir's soul."

"Sounds perfect," said Clive. He had missed –had actually forgotten– last year's birthday. Not this year.

"But beware," the gnarled face continued, and a bony finger rose before it, "if it is exposed to the light of a full moon: for these apertures will take in that luminescence and awaken a mystery best left dormant within the device. Flout it at all other times, in any weather, but on the night of a full moon, wrap it in some thick cloth, store it in shadow, keep it far from the full moon's light."

"Got it," said Clive. The party was due to start in ten minutes, and it was going to take at least twice as long to get there, and he still had to get back to the car.

"We have called it an amusement, for the sake of convenience, and it is a very old and remarkable amusement, perhaps even an endlessly diverting amusement, but there are very specific conditions for how it may be given as a gift and how it is to be handled. No one else should play with it but the person to whom it is given. It is for her and her alone. Others who try to usurp it or possess it without permission may find it harmful. The amusement belongs only to whom it is given, and the amusement will resent the presumptions of others."

"Great," said Clive.

"Above all, there is one most important prohibition. The child may look through any of the apertures and delight at the visions she finds within, but not this aperture," and the bony finger identified the one in question, which looked no different at all from the others, "never this one. There are great dangers in this one."

"Great," said Clive.

"There are those who believe that play is inextricably bound up with danger, and there are those who believe this is as it should be. Of such things have I no judgment. Yet even such an ancient fool as I readily observe that some hazards can never be properly called part of play, even if play may lead one towards them."

"Great," said Clive. "How much?"

The proprietor did not seem to understand the question.

"How much do you want for it?"

"Oh," came the reply, "thirty-six fifty-five."

Then Clive was out into the snow, now in earnest and joined by wind, reckoning its adverse effect on his estimated time of arrival. Clutching the hastily wrapped amusement under his arm, he tried to remember whether this next corner was a left or a right. His ex-wife would have nothing so unique, nothing with such rich history to it, the magical bauble that would belong to her and to her alone, but that last corner did look familiar. He retraced his steps, already quickly filling in behind him, and then retraced those other steps. There was the shop with the cheap lemon drops. That was encouraging. He took another right. A young couple, arm in arm, passed him, but their intimate laughter stopped him from asking the name of the street. He took another left. Then another.

Like a beacon, a blue light ahead shone out between the blowing streaks of white. Clive thought suddenly and stupidly of the fairy who transforms Pinocchio, and it may have been this sudden and stupid thought that prevented him from breaking into a sprint, to see the light for what it was and try to get to the truck before it towed his car out of the private lot and away, away. But it was going away by the time he was running, and he shouted as he ran, and tried to bang his arm against the side of the truck, but could not even see the driver or be sure that he was being heard. He shouted again and struck again, but the truck dragging his defeated car was away, well away.

It had not been just his arm that had struck the truck. The gift lay irreparably in pieces in the deepening snow, the torn wrapping flapping about. His eyes itched, or perhaps just the one eye, the eye that had seen the dancing woman and the duelists and the leaping horse and the shining bird and the fireball. His hands were empty and it was late.

He went to a bar, which he had no difficulty finding, and got very drunk, very nearly carelessly drunk.

Late the next day he telephoned his ex-wife and made apologies and excuses, but his daughter, the unusual girl of ten, never spoke to him again.

Has this ever happened to you?


About the Author

Tim Conley's fiction, poetry, essays, and translations have appeared in journals from a variety of different countries. He is currently completing his third collection of short fiction.