Clara’s first prayer as a 9-year-old was said through tears in the back seat of a dark car as we finally left the parking lot. She shook her head and sobbed, “God, I hope they will find it, but if they can’t find it, and somebody HAS stolen it, I pray you will have mercy on whoever took it because they do not know any better.”
I reached into the backseat and held her hand in consolidation. But, I knew what I had been trying to tell her for the last 45 minutes was true, no one was ever going to find it.
A knot tightened in my chest as I realized that this, out of everything else that had happened this evening, THIS would be the one thing she remembers. Why does life have to be so fragile?
I remembered back to how the evening had begun.
She had insisted on dressing up. “It’s not really that kind of concert,” I told her. But she seemed not to listen, ducking under my upraised arms and charging up the stairs again to find the perfect white tights that matched her blue dress, the ones with the sparkles, and have you seen her hair clips, the flowered ones? Here’s one of my shoes… Where’s my other shoe? I spun in the living room watching her blur in all directions around me.
I noticed Andrea smirking to herself in a nearby chair.
“You’re sure you are okay with us going?” I asked.
“Oh yes! Go!” she said, “She’s been talking about this all day. She gets to go on a Daddy-Daughter date to a concert on her 9th birthday! It doesn’t matter what you are going to see, or what you even do, it will be the two of you and that’s enough.”
A little girl ran into me from behind and I stumbled into the wall. “Yeah. I mean, I don’t even know anything about this band we are going to see. They were free tickets. It could be awful.”
“It can’t be that bad. They are playing at the big theater. It’ll be fine. And if it’s awful you can just leave early.”
I sighed. Clara had turned and was standing in front of her mother now. The back of her dress was being buttoned. Her teeth, particularly the two adult teeth in the front, looked like they were going to burst out of her from smiling so much. She was a helium balloon dancing on the end of a string.
“I have it all planned out,” she said, with a twinkle in her eye.
“Oh, I have no doubt.”
She started pointing at fingers. “We can go to the concert, then eat at that restaurant that is my favorite but I don’t know the name of it-”
“With the burritos?”
“Yes! Then we can go to that ice cream place where you can pick your toppings.”
“Okay actually that’s frozen yogurt, but…” I looked at the clock. “We probably won’t be able to do any of this if we don’t leave soon.”
She grabbed her silver purse off the couch, snuck on some lip gloss in the bathroom mirror, and was out the door waiting in the car before I even had time to turn around.
“Have fun!” her mother called after me as I trailed the little girl out the door to the garage.
I tilted my rearview mirror to face her as we chased the setting sun into town.
“Hi,” she smiled.
“Nine years old? Really?” I asked.
She simply nodded and craned her neck to look out the window. Never once did her smile disappear.
We ended up having enough time to grab yogurt before the concert since it would be closed before we got out. We would eat it on our way. But that’s when I learned that the girl had forgotten her coat in her rush to get out the door. So, she hid inside of mine as she shuffled the two blocks down the sidewalk between the mall and the concert hall, spilling yogurt on my sleeves as she slurped up all of the gummy bears and sweet flavored boba balls.
The concert hall was packed, and the band was fun and Jazzy. They did their best to keep thing interesting, but three songs in Clara leaned over and respectfully whispered into my ear, “Why are they playing this same song again?”
I chuckled and leaned back, “Remember in the car when I warned you about Jazz music?”
Her mouth made an Oh shape along with her eyes. Then she made her hand flat, palm up and motioned toward the stage as if presenting it to herself. “Jazz.” she mouthed softly, giving the alien sounds a name.
We left at the intermission, although she gave some attempts at a protest that were almost convincing.
Later as we walked through the mall, she admitted, “I’m actually glad we left when we did. The music was alright. But it made me sad.”
“The music made you sad?”
“Huh? Oh no. The band made me sad. I don’t understand why the lady had to keep leaving to change her clothes backstage after every song. The guys didn’t have to go change their clothes.”
I squeezed her hand and pulled her into a trinket shop.
She had five dollars in her purse from helping her mother with laundry. She was quick to point out that she had forty-five dollars the previous day that was left over lemonade stand money, but she put it in the bank. She would only be able to buy one of the many things she found in the store that she wanted. She settled on a tiny container of lip balm in a container with an owl-shaped lid. It was perfect. She hugged it as we walked out the door, and slipped it inside of her purse along with her change.
“It’s the owl of love,” I told her in the rearview mirror.
“Is it?” She stared down at it in awe and then smiled. “It is.”
Since we left the concert early we had some time to spare before going to get burritos. So, I made a spontaneous stop at a bookstore on the way. The parking lot was dark. The cold shapes in the parking lot were not all friendly looking. I eyed a group of figures huddled together by the door talking to a security guard. Further across the parking lot, someone shouted a long string of nonsense in our direction.
I navigated my daughter through the doorway into the warm well-lit building and then took her back to the kid’s section. She picked out the next volume from a series of storybooks she has been reading about a pig. And we casually wandered through the stacks of picture books before working our way back to the front of the store. That’s where we discovered it was missing.
Clara’s silver purse was gone.
“Oh, it’s okay. We probably just left it back near the children’s books.”
But five minutes later I said, “Maybe it’s near that shelf of toys where we bought that thing for Lydia?”
And a few minutes after that, “Over by the puzzles?”
And then, “Did we really look everywhere there was to look in the children’s section?”
And then, “Did we go anywhere else in the store?”
I crawled on my belly through the children’s books, looking for anything even remotely shiny or silver. How could we possibly overlook THAT purse? I tore every book off their shelves and replaced them. I climbed the fake trees in the reading corner and looked down at the room from above and called out to Clara, “Is that it over there? Look under that table again!” But her purse was gone.
Every employee in the building was helping us look. But there was nothing to find.
Her favorite purse. Her two dollars in change. The owl of love. Everything.
None of it was very valuable, but my daughter was quickly dissolving. “Where could it be? It can’t just disappear!”
So, I sat her down, in the corner, under the fake trees, next to Winney the Pooh and Piglet, and I told her that it was gone. “There are people,” I said. “Sometimes bad people. People that see a shiny silver purse and think it is theirs, or wish it were theirs, or want it bad enough that even though they know they shouldn’t, they take it.”
“Why would they do that?” she cried. “It’s my purse!”
I smoothed her hair down and kissed her forehead. “I’m sorry.”
I checked the trash cans by the door on our way out. She watched me do it, but said nothing, shivering in the cold night.
She hardly touched her burrito. She kept sighing and looking out the window, and cupping her hands over her face. She didn’t even notice when the drunk man came through the door behind her and started singing to his bottle. We were country mice, and we had stayed far too long in the city. That much was obvious.
The only thing that kept her together was something the lady had said just before we left the bookstore. “Call back tomorrow morning and maybe the cleaners will have found it in the night.” she scrunched up her face as if to indicate how pointless that would be.
“Uh huh…” I grunted, and then gave her and the rest of the concerned booksellers a sincere thank you.
But Clara clung to this. The car ride home was quiet and dark. “Promise me, Dad. Tomorrow. 9 o’clock-”
“Yes, Clara. I’ll call.”
And then she turned again to look back out the window. Her eyes shining still, but for different reasons. Her smile gone. Her chin slowly dropping to her chest. Before I was even out of the car, she was unbuckled and in the house hugging her mother and once again in tears.
“Why would someone steal it?” Clara repeated over and over as I helped her into bed. “It has to be there. No one is that evil, right dad? I guess God knows where it is.” She rolled over. “It’s okay. Someone else can have my birthday owl of love.”
I slept poorly that night. Why does life have to be so fragile? I promised myself, I would write everything down. Hopefully, I could salvage some of the good memories, before this one small moment ruined everything.
I did call the next morning, as I promised, but I’ll admit, I gave up on their phone tree before I even talked to a real person. I waited through a list of their store hours, store locations, special events, special offers, best sellers, and on and on. Before I got to a point where I could even talk to someone at the help desk I started to get a call from someone else, and with a heavy sigh and silent apology to Clara, I hung up and answered my call.
Clara woke up and slowly smiled when she noticed me sitting quietly next to her bed. Then she sat up with a start, “What time is it?!”
“Clara,” I said, knowing what she was thinking, “I tried calling the bookstore earlier, but I couldn’t get through to anybody.” then I held up a finger quick as she started to frown, “BUT, as I was trying to call the bookstore, you’ll never believe who called me.”
She blinked again.
“And guess what…”
“They found it?!”
And as she squeezed the air out of my lungs I stammered, “Get dressed. We are all going this time, and we are going to get pancakes on the way.” and then I held her at arm’s length and said, “And let’s make a deal. You keep better track of your things from now on, okay? And I’ll try to have a little more faith in humanity.”