The address on the flyer led him to a quiet industrial estate with a neon road sign: “Ready to change your life? TED IS HERE!”`
Ken parked his dusty pick-up and checked his teeth. He had a pen in his jacket and clutched a new pocket-sized notebook as he walked past other businesses—an upholstery place, a property damage restoration service, a U-Haul rental location.
In the window, there was a painting of bright, bubble flowers that blossomed around the word “Welcome!” The flowers all had happy faces in their yellow centres. Their simplicity put him at ease. He pushed open the door even though he was early. The class was closer than he’d thought, only half an hour away from the Southern California city where he’d lived ever since he moved from Japan fifteen years ago.
He’d already paid a deposit over the phone. When he had asked in his broken English why, if class was so good, it cost so much money, the man on the other end explained: “I wish we could offer it for free. But when we charged less money, people didn’t take it as seriously. We charge what we do to make sure everyone in your seminar is 100% committed.”
Ken nodded when he heard that. Most people needed something to be expensive to believe it was important. The foolishness of other people often made Ken smile to himself. He pulled out his credit card and read the numbers to the man, one by one.
It was dark when they finished. As he drove to his ex-wife’s house, Ken listened to his new podcast. “Listen to it often,” Ted had advised them. “You need to hear it several times to uncover its secrets.” Ken waited a long time to talk to him—people had questions, books to sign, and photos to pose for. Ted flashed a wide smile every time like he was delighted to be there that disappeared just as suddenly once the photo was taken.
When it was only the two of them left, Ken hesitated. He worried about his English and whether people would be patient enough to understand him. But he needed to know, so he asked Ted what to do about his ex-wife and daughter.
Ted paused, and for a moment, Ken thought he might walk away and dismiss him, as if he were invisible or his problems were too great to even bother with.
“You know, Ken, sometimes you have to take care of your own issues before worrying about other people’s,” Ted finally said. “But then sometimes, you just have to start with something small and concrete.” He put a warm hand on Ken’s shoulder.
Ken hadn’t grown up with casual touch. In Japan, people didn’t touch each other to make a point. He couldn’t remember the last time anyone had touched him. Even when he used to hug his daughter hello and goodbye, there was emptiness to the ritual. Now Carina was a teenager and avoided any kind of physical contact altogether.
“What do you do for work, Ken?” Ted asked.
Ken hesitated before saying that he was a gardener. He was used to an embarrassed silence and then the distance when whomever he was talking to moved on to the next person.
“Then you help to make the world beautiful,” Ted said without missing a beat.
Ken parked in Suzy’s driveway next to her dirty SUV and let himself in with his key. They had divorced two years ago but he still stopped by her house nearly every day. Even though she’d told him that she had met someone else, he felt sorry for her. The boyfriend she’d found in the computer only flew in on weekends. He was never there when there was a plumbing problem or she ran out of gas.
He didn’t mind helping her. His apartment was only five minutes away. It was better this way, Ken often thought as he responded to her crises. Your mother, he would think when he saw Carina and shake his head. Over time, he’d grown to like the arrangement. Whenever Suzy was in a mood, he just drove away from the home that they had bought together and all its messy feelings.
In the kitchen, Ken poured himself a cup of coffee from the pot that Suzy had left on for him, mixing in sugar and half-and-half from the fridge that was stuffed with half-eaten things in plastic containers. Then he arranged the vitamins and brochures that Ted had given him, fanning them out on the table.
Suzy came in a couple minutes later. She always knew when he was there.
“It’s you,” she said, hands on hips. “Didn’t you say you were going to be here at four?”
“I had to talk to Ted. He’s very busy.”
“Carina’s waiting. You should have called or texted.”
Ken was too excited to say what he was supposed to. He knew he should say “sorry” because he was late, find Carina and say “sorry” to her, and then drive her to the mall.
“Class was great,” he said instead. “Ted says you have to work on physical health and spiritual health. I learned ‘midlife rejuvenation.’”
“Ken,” Suzy stopped him. “Carina’s been waiting over an hour. You promised.”
She was in a bad mood. His shoulders tensed upward.
When Suzy yelled, she hurled words at him. Though he backed away from the table, they followed him toward the door. They were sharp and pointy and when they reached him, they stung.
Before, he would have yelled. Over time, he’d learned that it would be over sooner if he just stayed silent.
She was coming to an end.
“Are you taking Carina or not?”
“Yes, you’re taking her or yes, you’re not?”
Ken waved his hands back and forth in frustration. “I didn’t forget. I talked to Ted to help. I buy vitamins for you and Carina. You feel better!”
Ken nodded at the table.
“Have you even been listening?” she sighed.
Suzy picked up the bottles and brochures as if to study them.
Ken started to smile.
With a sudden burst of effort, she threw everything on the floor. The effect was too studied—she had paused just long enough to show that she had thought about it—but the rattle of pills sent Ken scuttling out of the room. She was yelling again, but he didn’t hear what it was about. Her voice went up and down in all the same places.
From the hallway by the front door, he called: “Carina! I take you to the mall! We go now!”
He fled the house for his truck and started up the engine. Ted’s voice came through the speakers, clear and calm. “People are all trapped by the past,” he was musing when Ken’s sullen daughter knocked on the passenger window for him to open the door that had locked automatically when he had turned on the ignition.
They listened to Ted on the way to the mall though Carina looked down the whole time, absorbed by her phone.
At the beginning of the divorce, Ken had tried to talk to her. It had come out all wrong and he had said something else entirely. Carina cried and told Suzy, and then Suzy had yelled at him. For about six months, father and daughter were estranged. During that time, he never went to Suzy’s house, and when he drove by, he saw a strange rental car parked where his truck used to be. Carina never contacted him. It ended one night as abruptly as it began when Suzy dropped off Carina at Ken’s apartment with an overnight bag.
He stared at his daughter, who’d grown taller in the intervening time and had hair that was lighter and longer and fell in her face.
“Hungry?” he’d asked. Carina shook her head.
“You like the mall?” She nodded.
They came back with three crisp carrier bags that she swung by their handles. By the end of her stay, she didn’t seem to hate him anymore.
Trips to the mall were one of the activities they did together. The other was go to the movies. They’d see something popular and undemanding, sitting awkwardly together toward the back of the theatre while they shared buttered popcorn and tried to avoid each other’s fingers.
The highway stretched ahead of them. Ted was yelling: “Freedom! Free yourself from mental constructs! Imagine a pair of scissors. What would it look like if you just snipped the cords to the past?” They cut across several lanes to the exit and waited for the light to change before Ken tried again.
“Your mother is so angry,” he said.
“I don’t want you to be angry like her. I went to school today. I want you to learn this. If you have time, I make you a copy. If you have time, I pay for you to do his class. Ted says there are lots of things that you don’t know—you should learn that you don’t know and just accept it.”
“You want me to go to school to learn that I don’t know things?”
“Very good class,” Ken said. “If you have time—”
“I don’t have time.”
When Carina was short like that, she sounded just like her mother. Although she didn’t yell or scream, he could sense her watching the world from under her long, brown bangs. Just like Suzy, Carina had a way of tuning him out and then speaking slowly as if she were talking to a stupid child.
“I make you a copy and you listen,” Ken said. Sometimes he thought if he just repeated himself forcefully enough she would give in.
Carina said nothing. Ken took it as acquiescence.
Carina swished her head, looking side to side, before pushing open the truck door. They walked together up the escalators, past the piano that was silent during the late shopping hours, to the third floor where the cafe and juniors’ section were. Carina walked with him until they reached the first clothing rack. Then he made his way to the cafe by himself.
Ken didn’t mind. He could get a nice cup of coffee for only a dollar. It was self-serve; he liked that they just trusted people to pay for it. The staff never bothered him. He would read or study until he heard Carina shuffling in, interrupting him to get whatever she wanted.
When he pressed the button on the top of the urn, only a thin stream dribbled out. It was hardly worth anything for leftover muddy water. Ken put his dollar in the box and felt mean. He ripped open three sugar packets, leaving the spill.
“Daddy? I’m ready.”
Ken followed Carina to the juniors’ department. On the checkout desk was a pile of clothes in a jumble.
“Do you want me to show you everything I’m getting?”
The salesgirls rang through a pair of jeans, some jewellery, and a suede vest lined with faux fur. Carina picked up jewellery displayed on the counter and played with the price tags, while Ken crossed his arms and stared into space. Once a girl announced the total, he looked uncertainly toward Carina as he fumbled for his wallet.
“I pay with credit card?”
Carina looked up briefly, unsure if she should respond, but then the girl was handing him the receipt and there was a scramble for the bags.
“Thanks, Daddy,” she said softly.
Before they left, they stopped by the cafe. He had noticed that they had refilled the urn. He didn’t put another dollar in the box because he’d put one in already.
The next morning, the group commiserated. It was just how Ted said it would be—even the people you think you’re the closest to don’t want you to change. The group was also anxious: there was only one more day left with Ted.
When Ted strolled in, they cheered.
He made them count off in threes. Today they had to think about a time when they had hurt someone. They would figure out in groups how to take responsibility for it.
A loud man was in Ken’s group. He rubbed away tears with his fists.
“She deserves to know,” he said as the group applauded.
Then it was Ken’s turn. He wished he could think of something right away like everyone else, who all seemed to know exactly what to say and had everyone nodding in understanding. But his life was like a freeway: he might stop one place or another, but then he was moving onto the next thing, not thinking about what came before or after. Once when she was little, Carina dropped a favourite doll out the car window while they were on the freeway. “Daddy, please stop!” she had cried, begging him to go back and look for it. But Ken couldn’t see it in the rearview mirror. So they kept going.
Ted was walking around, checking in on them, and for the first time, it made Ken nervous.
“I haven’t done anything wrong,” he said.
“Everyone does,” Ted said, and the group nodded. “Take your time. Do your accounting and take responsibility. It’s OK if you can’t admit it right away. We’ll be here when you’re ready.”
Ken tried to think of a time he had hurt someone as he pushed his lawnmower. He thought as he clipped hedges, watered flowers, and raked debris.
Before he was Ken, he was called something else. That part of his life ended when he read the letter from Suzy, an American girl who had tutored him in English for a while and then disappeared. Suzy said that she was sure it was a boy. Several letters followed, but his English wasn’t good, and he couldn’t understand the rest. He never knew what else Suzy had written.
He decided to call himself Ken. It seemed like a strong, American name. A friend of a friend got him a job as a gardener, which was supposed to be a temporary thing while he could only work for cash before his Green Card came through.
When Carina was born, she was cute and clearly his—everyone commented on the resemblance. But then she grew into a mini Suzy.
Ken combed through his life, backward and forward, and then, just as Ted said, it became very clear. He had to talk to Carina.
The drive home from the movie theatre wasn’t long but it would give him enough time. Afterward, he could drop her off at Suzy’s.
“Carina,” he began. She must have heard him but her brown hair stayed dangling down to her phone.
“Ted has a lot of knowledge,” Ken said, nodding at the speakers as he turned down the volume and they passed bright pink mini-malls still lit though they were closed and cars full of teenagers playing loud music.
“Ted says so many good things. Carina, I want you to know Ted. Ted is my friend.”
Carina rolled her eyes. “Can we do this later?”
“No, we do now! We must do now. I made a problem with you.”
“Are you talking about when you said you never would’ve come to America if you knew I was a girl?”
“You know my English is very bad.”
“You said I wasn’t your daughter.”
“You’re like Suzy. You’re fine. Always you’re fine.”
Carina was sniffling and wiping her nose on her sleeve. He didn’t know what to do to make her stop so he said what Ted said was the best thing to say when you could say it and really mean it.
There wasn’t anything else to say. Ken turned up the volume of Ted’s podcast. He tried to listen but was having problems hearing it, distracted by the noise of the wheels on the road and the little whimpering sounds coming from underneath Carina’s long bangs.
Emi Benn’s fiction has appeared recently in Fiction Southeast and Jellyfish Review. She lives in Hamilton, Ontario.