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The Key Bearer’s Parents

We were good parents. We know people assume otherwise when they see our wide ties and honking red noses, but we were. We took that job seriously. We told our son that he could be anything he wanted to be, just like you’re supposed to. Yes, we could see his embarrassment when we showed up for Career Day, how he threw the basketball into the field as our tiny car pulled in so that his friends would look away. And though we were happy clowns, smiles broader and wider than any lips, the disappointment underneath our makeup was easy to read. “It’s fine,” we said, fitting on our over-sized shoes and adjusting the flowers in our hats. We told ourselves that he would get over it.

On the news, the talk was all nuclear war and how to avoid it. The broadcasts filled with the whole “key bearer” plan. Ethicists argued that war would be less likely if some kind of key were implanted in a person’s heart. What president wouldn’t pause if he had to stab the bearer to drop that bomb? The president, they said, must be the first to bloody his hands.

We sheltered our boy from all of that talk. Children should have aspirations. They should believe in their own future, if nothing else. We gave him tennis lessons, enrolled him in Spanish and pottery classes. No sooner did he tell us what his friends had signed up for then we were in the Parks office, signing him up as well. Sure, we showed him our own trade secrets—how to walk in hoop-belted trousers, how to paint a face that reduces you to a single emotion—but he wasn’t really interested, and we wouldn’t hold him back. We only wished his aspirations weren’t so heavily laced with judgment against our own.

Fine, though, fine. While Congress continued its endless debates, we sent him to prep school and on to private college, exhausting all that we’d saved, then a series of loans. Even early on, we worried over his talk of graduate school, an MBA, and how on earth we would afford it. He wanted to be a professional, he said.

“A professional what?” we never asked. He’d decide that in time. We pictured him leaning over a mahogany desk, sleeves rolled and tie abandoned, late at night when everyone else in the office had left. We pictured his boss patting him on the back one morning and telling him he’d made partner or would be the new CFO or had earned whatever accolades his future business would hold.

The summer before his junior year, our son came home, played tennis with his friends in the morning and drank bourbon in the afternoon. No one should be so angry wearing white shorts. In Congress, the idea of burying the key to nuclear annihilation, like treasure in a human chest, was gaining traction. “What about a trip to the fair?” we asked. “We’ll get elephant ears, ride rides. You always loved the Tilt-A-Whirl.”

“Fuck the tilted world,” he growled, impressed with his own cleverness and word play, as he once again grabbed his racquet and headed out. Makeup-less and uncostumed, we watched him play, relegated to the parked car where we were something separate. He scowled through the chain link, each serve fueled by rage. His forehands brutal, his overheads unapologetically smashed into the stomachs of his opponents.

“Perhaps he’ll be a tennis coach?” we whispered. That at least would bring some kind of joy, right? A brand of entertainment?

When he decided not to go back to school, there was the electrician apprenticeship, and we thought, OK, no college, no being a professional, but blue collar is fine. Our last electrician complained that he could only charge $58 an hour here when he got $92 in California ten years ago—all of which seemed hopeful enough. It was more than we’d ever seen clowning, but that’s life in the arts for you. Our boy was practical. Maybe he’d had too much time with his snobby friends? Now, if he wanted, he didn’t have to play tennis any more or talk to anyone who did. We thought maybe his anger had spent itself out.

When the bill passed, even the electrician thing evaporated. Yes, they voted, a bipartisan victory, and called for a volunteer to fill the key bearer’s post. Good benefits, they claimed, a life of luxury, so long as you were willing to be murdered at any moment.

We snorted at the nightly news. “Who,” we said to one another, “would ever volunteer for such a thing?” The whims of politics, the fickle world? Be serious. Life was too precious. If we knew anything, we knew that.

Our son was already filling out the online application. And now that he’s been selected, fished from their pool of thousands of applicants, we know we should be happy for him. He has what he wanted: steady pay, gourmet food on demand, a home in the nation’s mansion, all the time in the world for tennis.

Still we can’t help wondering: Is it easier to kill a man who never laughs? This boy of ours. . . We wish we could paint a smile on his face, teach him to spread cheer. We wonder how he ever grew so joyless. We tried to show him better, right to the end. “Money,” we said, “is the root of all evil.” He only looked at us, mustering the closest thing to a grin he’s ever possessed. “Yes,” he said, “but a man needs roots.”

Siân Griffiths lives in Ogden, Utah, where she directs the Creative Writing Program at Weber State University. Her work has appeared in The Georgia ReviewNinth LetterRedividerFifth Wednesday JournalQuarterly West, and The Rumpus, among other publications. Her short fiction has twice been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, once by Versal and once by The Georgia Review, and her debut novel, Borrowed Horses (New Rivers Press), was a semi-finalist for the 2014 VCU Cabell First Novelist Award. Currently, she reads fiction as part of the editorial team at Barrelhouse. For more information, visit sbgriffiths.com [1].

Note from the author:
I owe debts of inspiration to the Barrelhouse “Stupid Idea Junk Drawer” for the writing prompt “clown parents disappointed in non-clown child” and to the Book Fight! podcast. In an episode devoted to writing prompts, Tom had found a prompt that suggested writing a story that ended with the line “Money is the root of all evil, and a man needs roots.” As he and Mike discussed how ridiculous and unhelpful a prompt it was, I couldn’t help but agree and decided I’d better take it as a challenge. Wanting to up the ante for what was now a kind of “found fiction” and create an homage to a podcast I love, I gave myself the additional challenge to weave in two favorite lines from recent episodes: “A professional what?” and “No one should be so angry wearing white shorts.” Thank you, Mike Ingram and Tom McAllister, for your weekly dose of intelligence, wit, and word play.