Elle's Request

“Mom, can I have this? It’s been sitting here by itself.” Elle was interested in the pocketknife that was in a little leather pouch, the one my father had always carried on his belt and used to clean his fingernails with. Of course, it had far more significance for me than that. When he died it was one of the few things of his most personal belongings he had left to give, the sum total of my inheritance. Handing it to me reluctantly and solemnly as he did, you would have thought it to be a million dollars. My mother never thought of leaving me anything. There were all the self-help books she collected by all the perfect people who’d written them. Over a lifetime they’d never helped her, she died pretty much ignorant as the day she was born, a testament to how one or one-hundred self-help books won’t help you, if you’re not motivated enough to read. I think it made her feel better just to have them on a ramshackle shelf to look at. And as a backdrop to the bookshelf and the knife itself, was the rest of the junk they owned and had hoped to sell.

They were flea-marketers. Toys, trinkets, knickknacks, novelty dishware cups saucers and glasses, old lanterns, shoes, belts and clothing, bird houses my father built. That was their stock in trade second-hand goods, odds and ends, cast offs and when they couldn’t make ends meet at the flea markets, my mother would make cinnamon rolls, hoagies, chocolate fudge and butterscotch pies for my father to take around to sell in local stores and delicatessens. I was never really sure how I felt about it. I was never really sure how I felt about them. They were always poor as hell. Sometimes I loved them and sometimes I didn’t.

But now this mountain of worthless shit was all that was left and I had to get rid of it. My parents had died within months of one another, we spread their ashes over a local flea market just like I wished I could set all this junk afire box up the ashes and toss its tacky legacy in the dumpster, be happy to have nothing more to do with it c’est la vie. But they loved to peddle this stuff and with it stuffed into an old Dodge van always in need of some repair they huffed and puffed their way to every flea market up and down the east coast like two gypsies. I was hardly ever in tow often left with a relative.

So here I was up to my ass in an Everest of collectibles with my daughter asking about the penknife my father used to clean his fingernails with. “You don’t want that,” I said, and to entice her attention away I held up a little keychain, a dangling compass in a clear plastic ball.

“Yes, I do,” said Elle. When Elle was little she was a hellion but now as a teenager she’d made this remarkable transformation into a discerning sensitive young girl. She’d picked up the knife and turned it affectionately in her fingers, seeming to imagine its past as if it were a museum piece. Never having known her grandfather I’d mentioned the knife’s crude history to her before, painted a picture of him using it and with a touch of bile, his handing it to me at the end as if it were some sort of family heirloom.

“Why would you want that old penknife?” I asked with a laugh, she would have to justify herself to me on this one.

“Its surface is so smooth and worn,” said Elle, “this slightly wobbling blade, emblem with the engraving worn off, its weathered panels suggest an old, true friend, lasting, durable, a trustworthy sidekick in service to its owner.”

Not a bad observation for a young teen I thought. I tossed the compass and tried to look at it the same way but I’d never thought of a penknife quite like that especially this one. To me it was still just a pocketknife, one I’d seen used a million times for the most banal purpose.

“But it’s about to come apart.” I said, slightly irked at her fixation on the knife.

She shrugged. I bit my cheek; she’s allowed to have her own opinion about it if she wants to.

Now after listening to Elle, I remembered my mother picking the knife up at a flea market, giving it to him proudly, “Look honey, it’s for you.” When she handed it to him, he’d barely looked at it, but in the quiet hours of his oft-beleaguered existence he would sit with that penknife and rake the accumulated detritus of his life out from underneath those fingernails and once done rise and be ready to face living again. My resentment at the knife and anyone who would show affinity towards it was because at the end of his life it was all of himself he had left to give that wasn’t some other piece of junk for sale. To change my opinion about it would require some difficult soul-searching which amid all this other trash-bagging I was not prepared to embark on.

I had thought about handing it to her the same way he’d handed it to me solemnly reluctantly as if it were something to behold, but I couldn’t do it. What Elle didn’t know; gambling was the third prong of their existence. When my parents couldn’t make ends meet selling junk or peddling food, they played the lottery, one day they hit it big but kept on gambling. Deep in debt filled with regret unable to pay their bills they’d simply quit on life and each other. In this falling down shack alongside the railroad tracks my mother could no longer get off her couch, listless my father could only sit and stare raking his fingernails with that knife never able to rise up to face life again, and when he finally bestowed it to me it was betrayal I felt, it could have been a small fortune, instead of an old worn-out penknife.

“You know what? You’ve convinced me. I’ll hold on to the knife, I hope you’re not disappointed.”

“Not at all,” said Elle.

Elle became distracted, I went outside threw the knife hard as I could heard it crack and ricochet to the bottom of the dumpster I’d rented. Maybe with that stupid knife gone, I could let things go, stop blaming missed opportunities on it, I felt relieved, as if a hundred-pound weight had lifted. Then I went and retrieved it. Back inside with Elle I told her how I’d changed my mind, pressed the knife reluctantly solemnly into her hand and with her young and innocent wisdom beside me, perhaps dutifully, maybe even with some newly mustered reverence I could sift forgivingly through what remained of my parents’ lives now.

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About the Author

David Summerfield is a graduate of Frostburg State University, Maryland, and a veteran of the Iraq war. He has been an editor, columnist, and contributor to various publications within his home state of West Virginia.