Letting Go

August 29, 2021   •   By Joshua Mohr

A MAN PULLED a knife on us today. We were at 7-Eleven, buying Twizzlers to take to Green Lake. While I locked up our bikes, you looked at him, said, “Hi,” and he said, “What the fuck are you looking at?” and your seven-year-old eyes went wide at me: What’s happening, Daddy, am I safe, will you protect me?

He wasn’t homeless but was living a hard lifestyle, which I know because I used to live one, too.

There were three cars in the lot, people watching us through their dirty windshields. I pointed at the man who’d scared you and said, “Don’t talk to her, motherfucker! You talk to me!”

As I screamed at him, you studied me, seeing a side of your old man otherwise unavailable to you. There was no yelling, no fists, in our life with Mama. Our house was happy, crazy, what we called silly gooses time.

So you stared at me: Who the hell is this guy?

Good thing, too, your eyes fixating on a dad you didn’t know — a dad who was about to devolve — because that was when he flashed the knife at us.

Pulling up the front of his shirt.

Showing the blade handle tucked between his jeans and drawers.

Smiling at me, teasing me.

Fucking daring me.

And I became a chimp. Felt something called Unevolved Anger, once he swore at you, once the knife was revealed. It wouldn’t have mattered to me if he were five men — or five hyenas. I put my fists up and approached him. And he flinched even though I hadn’t thrown a punch. I knew right then that he didn’t know how to fight.

And so, I wrapped my hands around his throat.

And so, I choked him.

I was going to end his life for you.

Technically, this would be considered an overreaction. But there is no such thing as a technicality to a chimp.

Victor Hugo said: “If a soul is left in the darkness, sins will be committed.”

To Hugo, I’d say: Maybe that held true when you were still around, but these days, sins thrive in sunlight, float freely in our fresh, viral air.

My hands were around his neck, and his eyes bulged. He’d given up already. He didn’t want this. He didn’t even make a move to snag the knife. No, he’d forgotten all about it, once I constricted his windpipe, putting his hands on mine, trying to pry me off.

I stole a glance at you, watching.

The people in their parked cars viewing us, like a YouTube clip.

Another technicality: This was probably not good parenting. I knew that — of course I knew that — but how was I supposed to let go of him after seeing the knife so close to you?

He was, maybe, withdrawing, or resenting the fact that the virus had stripped his world of a job, maybe a place to live. There were more people living on the streets every day. I worried about it at night — will we be another family shivering in a tent, living at the lake?

I didn’t have any answers; I was a chimp with my hands around someone’s throat.

I hated doing that in front of you. It was wrong. But the Unevolved Anger. It wasn’t a choice. I wanted to swing in a tree, carry you, my baby, on my back, away from danger …

He’s a sickly red color now.

Take your hands off him, Josh.

Take your daughter away from here.

Don’t tell her you love her so much, and that affection makes murder easy. Don’t put this on her. These are your fingers tightening, your knuckles cracking. And why do you like that emptying look on his face? What about this are you enjoying?


I don’t know how.

You have to.

It’s love in my veins, not hate — no, it’s my love squeezing his neck.

If I finish this, I’ll be in an animal cage, and I’ll never see you again, or only through bulletproof glass, and that lonely window would destroy me.

So, I know what I have to do.

Loosen grip.

Lower hands.

See him back up a couple steps and cough and wheeze and breathe — breathe like a baby pulling in its first gulp, gasping, then crying.

See him recede. Slither off.

See the audience, those famished voyeurs, disappear back into apps and errands.

See us hop on our bikes, go down to the lake. See our feet slip in the cold water, dangling off the edge of the dock. See a few of those ducklings swim like drunk drivers.

Let’s try and stay here — hide as long as we can, you and me on the edge of this dock, licorice smacking around our mouths, the cool water of the lake making our feet dance.

See me saying: “So you must have some questions about that.”

See me saying: “I’m sorry if that frightened you.”

See me saying, “I’ll do anything to keep you safe.”

Even if that means letting go.


Joshua Mohr is the author of five novels, including Damascus, which The New York Times called “Beat-poet cool.” His latest book is a memoir, Model Citizen.