Slumped behind the wheel of his idling mauve German sports sedan, tears streaming down his cheeks, seconds before losing consciousness from the auto exhaust fumes filling his small dark garage, H—— flashed back for what he thought would be the last time to what he thought would be the last time he would ever think he has disappointed his parents. Earlier that evening, he had visited their condominium for his father’s 65th birthday party and had given him a massive book about the September 11, 2001, attacks as a present, a slick hardback of full-color photos of the collapsing World Trade Center towers, ash-covered streets, American flags of every conceivable size waving or hanging in every conceivable place, photos depicting how those terrorist attacks (a.k.a. terror attacks) could not crush the indomitable spirit of ordinary Americans. H——’s father’s old college roommate’s 31-year-old daughter had died in the attacks, burned almost beyond recognition when one of the hijacked airliners had slammed into the Pentagon during her decaffeinated herbal tea break outside the Navy department related to nautical measurements where she had worked as an administrative assistant, having acquired her job through the same national temporary-employment agency for which H—— worked full-time (with benefits) at a different branch office as district manager.

His father opened that present last, peeling off the shiny red foil wrapping paper H—— had applied himself at home after work that day after buying the book during lunch at the national chain bookstore down the block from his workplace, picking up the book from the remainder table for only $9.95, marked down from $39.95, complimenting himself inwardly for his thriftiness. His father looked at the book for a few moments, said “How thoughtful” with a trace of delight in his voice, and started leafing through the pages.

Then something caught his father’s eye for a second. Someone had dog-eared a right-hand page showing a dazed, bloody young woman in Manhattan a few hours after the attacks, the somewhat large dog-ear slicing through the tip of her skull at a 45-degree angle. “Thanks,” his father said with what H—— perceived as an almost imperceptible lessening of enthusiasm, his father smiling but opting not to look at his son. As H——’s father laid the book (a little too carefully in H——’s opinion) onto the dining-room table covered with the 65-dollar gift certificate redeemable at a national golfing supplies warehouse chain, the 4-CD box set of remastered easy-listening radio hits, the 5-DVD box set of flattering documentaries about various Reagan administration personages, and other presents from the relatives, friends, acquaintances, semi-acquaintances, and tolerated boors assembled there around the table, H—— could see the 4-inch-long green marker slash on the bottom of the book’s pages, a slash signifying something remaindered and thus cheap, a slash H——’s father had to have seen.

H—— deprecated himself inwardly for not examining the book more closely at the bookstore, for disgracing his employer by disgracing the memory of his father’s old college roommate’s daughter and by extension the memory of everyone (except the terrorists) the September 11 attacks had killed, for buying too many manga-style graphic novels that month at the local comic book and trading-card store and thus being able to afford only something cheap as usual for his father’s birthday (his father’s 65th birthday), for dawdling over lunch at the national chain 1990s alternative rock-themed semi-vegetarian restaurant across the street from the bookstore and thus grabbing in a rush the first volume H—— had thought his father would enjoy from the remainder table, for not even paying the bookstore extra to wrap the present with greater skill than H—— had done. (H—— thought he had used too much cellophane tape.)

The deprecation increased when H——’s 62-year-old mother announced “Now for cake” in what seemed her usual syrupy voice. Only H—— could hear the contempt underlying her cheerfulness, contempt no doubt for a son for whom she had always professed affection, professed more as a formality no doubt than as something genuine. He wished he could pay his $7,500 in credit-card debt. He wished he could have the time and ability to learn Japanese so he could read actual manga. He wished he could introduce himself more easily to women he considered desirable (such as that semi-lesbian waitress with the cantilevered clavicles at the semi-vegetarian restaurant). In short, he wished he could fulfill the prophecy his mother had made to him 24 years earlier, when he had been 5, prior to his leaving home for his first day of kindergarten: “You’ll have the world on a string someday.”

By the way, 6 months before his daughter’s death, during a dinner date with her and her mother at a national chain U.S men’s professional sports (except soccer)-themed restaurant in an upscale shopping mall, the old college roommate jovially declared, apropos nothing, that his daughter’s unspecified teenage “antics” had made him “want to get as stoned as possible,” a remark causing everyone to chuckle.

“Well, you should have told me,” the daughter said. “I would have given you some of my stash.” Everyone chuckled again.

Written in 2004 (revised May 14, 2016)

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