Bump the Cutter

Bump the Cutter

When my daughter was five, we lost her inside a mall. Not for long, but long enough. Erica and I both thought the other was the one holding Maria’s hand. How small a thing to be wrong about, and how huge. When we realized she wasn’t near us, as we were turning to go into the little mall coffee shop with the frilly pink shakes that Maria loved, and she didn’t give her yip of excitement, my stomach clenched. I panicked. Erica, of course, didn’t. She never panicked openly, a gift from a childhood of trying to soothe her parents, and so I knew she had gone into fix-it mode. While Erica went up to the security guard across the way, I began to jog in between groups of people, scanning every face for either my daughter or the face of someone who looked like they might steal a daughter. Back when I played ball, I used to do that from the bench, scan the opposing team for the one I thought would cause trouble—the hard fouler, the technical waiting to happen, the too quick to flip out. I had a knack for it. And a big mouth for bringing it out of them. I was an okay player, good enough to warm the bench. But where I actually shone was in riling up the other team, making them play sloppy. Rico “The Instigator” Gonzalez was what Tay called me, shaking his head, as we left the court.

But there was no point in instigating, when Maria wasn’t where she should have been. Every skill I’d ever had went out the window, except my quickness on my feet, as I spun between people, looking for her. And my big mouth, as I called out her name every few minutes. People had started to look at me, gauging the level of threat I was. I could feel my heart starting to pound, the clenching feeling overtaking my stomach and then my chest, sending my shoulder blades pushing towards one another.

And then Maria was there, pressed against the glass of the toy shop staring at a mechanical kitten batting a ball around. Everything unspooled inside me as I grabbed her up into a hug.

“Daddy, what wrong?” she asked. And how could I explain how easy it was to lose everything.


“Dad, what’s wrong?” Maria asked.

I held up my hand, the blood spiraling down from where I’d cut open my finger as I chopped onions. “Your mother’s knives have a mind of their own.”

She rolled her eyes and went to fetch the peroxide and a Bandaid, used to me hurting myself in the kitchen every time Erica actually let me in there.

“Why were you cooking, anyway? Mom left some frozen stuff in the fridge for us to heat up?” She handed me the peroxide and I poured it over the cut.

“Man and daughter can not live on iced food alone!”

“I bet your hands would prefer we did.” She comically shrugged at me and left the room. I wondered what Erica had packed away. She always did it before business trips, probably in hopes I wouldn’t end up cutting an arm off making pancakes. I had gotten clumsier over the years—the quick reflexes of my basketball-filled youth giving way to a slowness that I had fought against before giving in to it. I had asked the doctor, worried that it might be a sign of something, and he’d smiled and said it was just a sign of aging and having over-worked my joints too much as a youth. The body remembers what we’ve put it through, he said.  Almost 40 now. A number that had stopped seeming scary the longer I looked at it. I hadn’t ever imagined I’d reach it and now I still felt good, felt young even. Youngish. Forty was only halfway to eighty and halfway to eighty sounded good.

In the freezer were several Tupperware containers neatly stacked together with labels written in Erica’s perfectly controlled handwriting: kale lasagna, black bean enchiladas, stew. There was even a pint of Culver’s frozen custard tucked neatly in, so we’d have something for dessert. Peanut Butter Cup, the flavor Maria and I loved but Erica always crinkled her nose at. Peanut butter is for savory, never for sweet, she’d say, sticking out her tongue at us. It was these small details that I had come to realize long love was built on: the kindness and remembering that Erica always showed. Tay had once commented on how quiet Erica was and I’d said it was because she liked to watch people, figure out what they needed, what they valued, who they were.

“We’re gonna have enchiladas!” I called out to wherever Maria had gotten off to. Teenagers had an uncanny ability to always be in the room you least expected them to be. I brought the Tupperware out, and set it on the counter to thaw a little.

My phone rang and I picked it up, without looking at the number, expecting Erica to be calling to see which dinner I was making. “Hello, darling.”

“Darling?” It was Tay. His voice sounding off.

“Oh, hey, man, thought you were Erica.” I laughed. “Not that you’re not my darling.”

There wasn’t the normal chuckle I expected in return. Just a moment of silence. “Tay, what’s up?”

“Just got a message about Coach. He. He, uh, had a heart attack.”

A clench to the stomach. “He’s in the hospital?”

“No, he’s not.”

And the clench covered my body.


“You okay, Rico?” Coach asked, one hand already extended to help me up. I’d slipped on sweat on the court, during practice, and laid myself flat.

“Right as houses, Coach,” I said, taking his hand, and oomphing myself to my feet.

“Safe as houses, kid, not right.” He shook his head at me, as if he was exasperated but he was smiling.

“Ain’t no English class in here,” I finger-gunned back at him as I jogged away down the court.

I pitied teams whose coach wasn’t our Coach. He wasn’t a father figure to us, but he wasn’t not either. There was a sense that he genuinely cared about each of us beyond our abilities on the court. He’d ask about our classes and actually listen to what he had to say. When he’d found out that I was going in to Music Education, he’d been delighted with the surprise of it. As if I’d just revealed I was from Mars. I had sung since I was a child, in church, and it made sense to me—to teach others to use their voices. Mine was big enough already. People expect you to do one or the other—art or sport, as if they are on opposite sides. But it’s all the same coin, you just flip it differently.

I was one of the only players on the team who had tried out, rather than being pulled in from high school with the lure of a scholarship. I remember thinking I was a good player, but mostly trying out for the sake of it. I didn’t expect to be picked. But Coach talked to me after the tryout, asking me about my life and my goals and what I thought I’d bring to the team. He’d shook my hand before I left and I figured that was the end of it—my short-lived attempts at being a college star. But then I’d been called back for another tryout.

“You’re the last piece of the puzzle,” Coach had said. But he didn’t explain what I was fitting in to. It was a couple of years later, on our way to the Final Four, all lounging about the bus—buzzing with the nerves and sadness. Our bus one player less than it should be. You could feel it in the air, like the smell of ash. I’d sat down next to Coach and asked him what piece I was. He didn’t even hesitate, or ask what I was talking about.

“I needed someone who would pay attention to everyone. A big voice to point out the flaws.”

“I do have a big voice,” I’d agreed. But some part of me felt let down, I’d wanted there to be more than that—that he saw something bigger in me.

“You’re not an instigator, Rico, you’re an architect. You see the flaws in the design. I like a realist.” He’d patted me once on the shoulder and then went back to looking at his notes for the game. The big journal he always carried where he plotted out everything. Always pen and paper. He must have had hundreds of those journals somewhere. I imagined reading them and seeing every game unfold in my head.

“You ever reread those, Coach?”

He shook his head. “I let things be.”


“Dad, you okay?” Maria asked. She was in the doorway, again, watching me as I leaned against the kitchen counter, breathing in and out slowly. I was trying to calm the clench, fight back the tears.

“Got some bad news, kiddo,” I said. “My old basketball coach. He passed away.”

She walked up and hugged me. At 14, she was already much taller than all the boys in her grade. Her arms long enough to fold me into a hug that felt infinite. I had wondered, more than once, if she’d pick up basketball. She’d watch games with me, when she was bored around the house, but I never saw her eyes light up at it. She watched it because I watched it, and that was enough for me. “I’m sorry, Daddy.”

“Thanks, love.” I felt my stomach unclenching, but knew I’d cry later. I felt that ache in my chest that I’d have to let out at some point.

Maria walked over to the Tupperware dish and began to dish out enchilada servings to reheat. She put them into a pan to put in the oven. She hated the microwave, ever since she was a child, and said that the gentle hum of the machine sounded like ghosts telling secrets.

My phone rang again, but I didn’t pick up. It was another teammate, Tony. I let it go to voicemail. I could call him back. Maria looked at the phone and then at me. “Was he a good coach?”

“He was a great coach.” My voice broke just a little on the word. I pictured all of us getting the calls, remembering a time in our life when all we’d worried about were grades and the next game. And then I thought about Shamar.

“Daddy, what’s wrong?” Maria was eight years old and it was the first time she’d ever seen me cry, really cry. Not just the sometimes misty-eyes I’d get at the end of movies where a dog lived or a hero saved the day. It was a full cry, shuddering shoulders, breaths that I couldn’t take all the way in.

Erica was next to me, one hand on my shoulder. She looked at Maria. “It’s okay, baby. Daddy got some really bad news. A friend of his died.”

Maria frowned with worry. “Uncle Tay?”

Erica shook her head. “Not Tay. A friend from a long way back, before you were born.”

Maria came up to us, tentatively. Then sat on my other side. She looked at Erica, and then placed her own hand on my other shoulder. I focused on steadying my breath. The news had come out of nowhere. I’d been watching TV, a pro game, and then at halftime, they’d brought it up. I saw the stunned looks on the commentators faces as they processed the news. Shamar James, a star of the NBA, still in the prime of his career. All I could think about was Shamar when I’d known him. The quietest member of the team, we’d been like the yin and yang of it. He was studious in everything—the way he watched everyone at practice, following feet with his gaze. He was the gentlest man I’d ever met.

It was a flash of memory—him folding a piece of paper into a swan and leaving it on top of the tip he’d left for a server at a restaurant, the careful precision of his fingers as he made creases—that had sent the first sob racking through me.

I hadn’t talked to him in years, not since his first couple of years in the NBA, when we’d started emailing less and less. I figured he was getting caught up in his career. I thought maybe one day we’d talk again. When he had kids, I always imagined him with children, what a sweet giant he’d be with his own children, maybe he’d reach out and we’d talk about parenting. Then about the old days, about basketball and teams and the way the world used to stretch out in front of us. I’d imagined him a future without knowing that imagining was the only way he’d have one.

I wanted to say something, to show Maria that it was alright. But I couldn’t find the words. It was the first time, I couldn’t find the words to say something. To say anything. And so we’d sat, my two loves hands on each of my shoulders, in silence, as I regained my breath.


“Where do we go from here, man?” Tay asked. We were at a booth in Culver’s, the place we always ended up after practices, after games where we won or lost. The blue accents on everything as comforting as any home could possibly be.

It was the day after the loss, after our season ended. Our last on the team, since we were both Seniors. We had known it was going to be a loss, as soon as we had heard about Liam’s injury, we had known. But it still felt much realer, much harder, now that it had actually happened.

“I guess we get jobs, live lives, give up on these hoop dreams,” I said it like I was making a joke, the grandiosity of it all. But it did feel like giving up, like some loss beyond the loss of the game.

“Man, think about us in fifty years. You think we’re gonna be those guys telling their grandkids about the big loss? Back in my day, we played basketball with one arm tied behind our backs.”

I laughed. “You’re definitely going to be one of those guys.”

He threw a french fry at me and turned to stare out the window. People in the parking lot all looked happier than us. Families picking up ice cream cone treats and teenage couples going on first dates.

“What a goddamn loss,” I said. In the moment, then, in a life before I knew what was to come, it had felt the biggest thing to lose.


“Where did you find her?” Erica asked me, after we’d come back through the mall to her. I carried Maria the whole way, afraid to set her on the ground, to feel her slip away.

“Daddy found me,” Maria proudly announced.

“By a toy shop,” I said. “She got Pied Pipered by a robot kitten.”

Now that I’d found her, that everything was safe, I felt a lightness. Disaster wasn’t disaster, everyone lives happily ever after. I felt like dancing. Erica wrapped an arm around me and Maria, as we walked out of the mall. Every parent remembers the first time their child disappears from sight, that first scare. It settles into you like an omen, a protective charm, because you found them then. Nothing was wrong. No one was hurt. You carry it in front of you.

“You can’t do that again. You have to make sure mommy or daddy are with you if you walk away. You understand? We get scared when we don’t see you.”

Maria nodded. We buckled her into her carseat. I double-checked the latch. A habit I’d keep after that day, all the way through to when I’d drive her around as a teen and would always check twice to see that she’d clipped her seatbelt into place.

“I was lost,” Maria stated, as Erica and I got into the front seat.

Erica turned back to her and smiled. “You weren’t lost, baby, just misplaced.”

In that moment, and every moment of something falling away from me after, I’d realized the difference between the two words meant so much it took my breath away.


About the Author

Chloe N. Clark is the author of Collective Gravities, Patterns of Orbit, the forthcoming Every Galaxy Is a Circle, and more. She is a founding co-EIC of Cotton Xenomorph. Her favorite basketball player has always been Rasheed Wallace.


Photo by Sanzhar Alimkhanov on Unsplash