I was with my dad the first time I stole something: a little booklet of baby names. I was seven and I devoured word lists: dictionaries, vocab sheets, menus. The appeal of this string of names, their sweet weird shapes and neat order, felt impossible to solve. I couldn’t ask for such a pointless thing but I couldn’t leave it either. I pressed it to my chest as we walked out of Kroger. It was pale blue with the word baby spelled out in pastel blocks above a stock photo of a smiling white baby in a white diaper. I stood next to Dad, absorbed in page one, as he put the bags of our food in the trunk of his crappy gold Chevette and he stopped when he saw it. At first he said nothing. He avoided my eyes. He just pressed hard into my back and marched me to the lane we’d left and plucked the stupid booklet out of my hand and presented it to the cashier.
‘My daughter stole this. I apologize for her.’ He beamed a righteous look over a sweep of people nearby. The droopy cashier winced and muttered that it was OK, chuckling mildly. Then, stooping over me, Dad shouted cleanly, ‘Now you apologize. You will never do this again.’ The cold anger in his face was edged with some kind of glint I didn’t recognize. As he gripped my shoulders he was almost smiling. I remember his shining eyes and the high ceiling of the gigantic store and the brightness of it. I am sure I cried but I don’t remember. I do remember an acidic boiling in my chest and a rinse of sweaty cold on my skin, a disgust with my own desire and what it did, how awful all of us felt now because of me. I never stole again until I was a teenager, when he was in prison.
Dad robbed banks one summer.
He robbed the Community Choice Credit Union on 13 Mile Road in Warren.
He robbed the Warren Bank on 19 Mile Road.
He robbed the NBD Bank in Madison Heights.
He robbed the NBD Bank in Utica.
He robbed the TCF Bank on 10 Mile Road in Warren.
He robbed the TCF Bank on 14 Mile in Clawson. That was my bank. The one with the little baskets of Dum Dums at each window and sour herb smell from the health-food store next door.
He robbed the Credit Union One on 15 Mile Road in Sterling Heights.
He robbed the Michigan First Credit Union on Gratiot in Eastpointe.
He robbed the Comerica Bank on 8 Mile and Mound. This was as close as he got to the Detroit neighborhood he grew up in, Poletown East, about ten miles south.
He robbed the Comerica Bank inside of a Kroger on 12 Mile and Dequindre.
He robbed the Citizens State Bank on Hayes Road in Shelby Township. The cops caught up with him finally, at Tee J’s Golf Course on 23 Mile Road. They peeked into his parked car: a bag of money and his disguise in the back seat, plain as day. He was sitting at the bar, drinking a beer and eating a hot ham sandwich.
I was thirteen that summer. He went to prison for seven years after a lengthy trial, delayed by constant objections and rounds of firing his public defenders. After his release he lived a normal life for seven years, and then robbed banks again.
There: see? Done with the facts already. The facts are easy to say; I say them all the time. This isn’t about them. This is about whatever is cut from the frame of narrative. The fat remnants, broken bones, gristle, untender bits.
I’d sit at the dinner table watching my parents’ volley crescendo from pissy fork drops to plate slams to stomp-offs and squeal-aways, my sister biting into the cruel talk just to feel included, me just watching as if on the living-room side of a television screen: I could see them but they could definitely not see me. I squashed my wet veggies around on my plate, eyes fixed to the drama like it was Scooby-Doo or G.I. Joe. I could sleep, I could squirm, I could hum, dance or even talk, safe in their blind spot. I could write, I discovered, and no one heard me.
Yes, one day it was like a membrane breached: before, Dad was like all other dads, and then he was not. We sat together at Big Boy, our booth flush against the winter-black windows reflecting back a weak pair of us, and I idly asked him what recording studios are like and how they work. I was something like eleven, and I had a cloudy notion that it would be exciting and romantic to work in a recording studio for some reason, to help create music but not have to play it. He fluttered his eyes upward like he did and answered without hesitation.
He told me about the equipment and how bands work with producers, how much sound engineers make and what their schedules are like. Details, I started to realize, he could not possibly know. Some giant drum began turning behind my eyes.
Very slowly, as he talked, I felt my belief, something I didn’t really know was there until I felt it moving, turn away from him until it was gone, and I was alone, nodding and smiling. But what a marvel to watch him construct bullshit.
After that, I could always tell when he was lying. Something changed around his eyes when he spoke, a kind of haze or color shift, I could see it.
It’s the day after Thanksgiving and I’ve forgotten to write to him. I log into the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ email system, called CorrLinks, and check my inbox. No new messages from him in the past month. I try to find the last email exchange we had but it’s all empty: the messages are only archived for thirty days, then they disappear.
I write to him like I’d write to a pen pal – distanced, a little uncertain, with a plain dullness I know is shaped by the self-conscious awareness that someone screens these messages before he reads them, even though their content is never more than polite and bloodlessly broad life updates.
How’s the new job? Is it interesting? I ask. I remember he told me he upgraded from a job rolling silverware in the kitchen for $2 a day to a ‘computer job’ – previewing patent applications and rejecting them if incomplete. I got a new cat. She’s kind of shy but funny, with one white spot right on her chest. Her name’s Jupiter. I feel like I’m talking to a child. Hope you are staying warm there!
I eat lunch, grade papers, go for a walk, check back for a response, spurred by nagging and pointless guilt. No response. He’s pushing seventy, with failing kidneys, and I sometimes wonder if he’ll make it to his release date. Or even to another email.
The day passes. I try to forget about him. Then, I do forget about him. Days slip by, weeks.
Almost a month later I receive a Christmas card from his girlfriend.
Merry Christmas Molly – you’re a doll!
Below her signature is his, pressed on by a stamp she had made of it. Enclosed is a check for $300, also with his signature stamped on it.
In the window of the cab our beachfront hotel approached like a dream, as wrong as a dream, and I felt sick and overwhelmed with the luxury of the fantastic palm trees and clean arched doorways. This could not be right. As we left the cab I hung my mouth open a little long in joy and suspicion, for him to see. He made a roundabout pointing sweep to the door and said, ‘Lezz go,’ goofily, like he did. Thinking about it now, the hotel was probably nothing special, maybe even cheap, but I couldn’t have known.
This was the longest period of time we spent alone together. I was nine or ten and he’d brought me to Cancún, an unlikely place to take a child for no particular reason. He had a habit of taking vacations with just me or my sister, never both of us together, and never with Mom, even when they were married. I feel there was a reason for this; the reason feels dark and I don’t like to guess at it.
During the day he would leave me. I’d wake up and find a key and a note on top of some money: Have fun! Wear sunscreen! I’d put on my nubby yellow bathing suit and take myself to the beach or the small, intensely chlorinated pool and try hard to have a fun vacation, as instructed.
What was he doing? Was there somewhere nearby to gamble? There must have been. Or was there a woman he met? He’d return in the evening and take me to eat, always ordering a hamburger and a Coke for me without looking at the menu, even though I hated hamburgers and Coke. Mom wouldn’t let me drink soda, and he liked to break this rule of hers.
‘Hahmm-borrr-gaysa,’ he’d say to the waiter, childishly drawing out the words and gesturing coarsely as if the waiter were near blind and deaf, ‘and Coca-Colé!’ he’d finish, pairing the silly ‘olé!’ with an insulting bottle-drinking mime. He was condescending to waiters everywhere, big-shot style, but especially here. ‘This is the only word you need to know,’ he told me from across the dark booth. ‘Hamburguesa.’ I tamped down my disgust with obliging laughs, since this show was for me. His gold chain and ring I did not recognize. I watched him carefully, waiting for a time when we’d say real things to each other.
I didn’t tell him I liked my days there, on the beach, alone like a grown-up. But anxious. I knew the untethered feeling I liked was not right for me yet. I would have told him about my days lying on a blue towel, just lying there for hours burning pink in the sun, listening while two teenage Mexican girls talked next to me, oblivious to my eavesdropping, alternating between Spanish and English. They talked about how wonderful it would be to be born a gringa, and what kind of house they’d live in and what their boyfriends would look like and how their daddies would spoil them with cars and clothes and fantastic birthday parties.
Once, he waited for me to wake up and took me to a Mayan ruin. As the tour started, the foreigners drew together automatically to climb the giant steep steps of a pyramid. It was soaking hot, and I felt so young and small. The other tourists seemed to have such trouble climbing. I bounded up the old blocks, turning to the wide mush of treetops below and smiling. Dad was down below. I waved to him but he wasn’t looking. We were herded up for the tour and kids my age and even older were already whining. I couldn’t imagine complaining even half as much as my peers did. It frightened me, the way they said what they wanted. Hungry and tired and thirsty and bored and ugh, Dad, can we go? At the edge of the cenote nearby a tour guide described how the Mayans would sacrifice young women here by tossing them in, ‘girls about your age’, he said, and pointed at me. The group of tourists around us chuckled uncomfortably but I straightened up.
I rested on a boulder carved into a snake’s head, wearing the only hat I owned as a child, a black-and-neon tropical-print baseball cap I am certain came from a Wendy’s kids’ meal. I remember seeing a photograph taken of this, and I wonder if it still exists somewhere. I remember resting on the snake’s head, and I remember the photograph of myself resting on it. I liked this day, seeing these things that seemed so important, Dad mostly hanging back in the wet shade of the jungle edge, not climbing things. But he had brought me here and I loved it. I felt the secret urge children have to become lost and stay overnight somewhere good like a museum or a mall as a way of being there privately, directly. I circled the pyramid hoping to find a cave where I could curl up, so I could sleep and stay in this old magic and feel like I’d be a good sacrifice, just right for something serious. But it was hot and we had to go. Dad seemed tired, suspicious of it all, not especially interested in learning too much from the guide or in looking too hard at the ruins. I was happy, though, and he was pleased with that, seemed to want to let me have my happiness without necessarily caring to share in it or talk about it.
On the way back, the tour van we were in had to stop for gas. Children my age but much skinnier came to the windows with their hands out, pleading, keeping steady eye contact. Some tourists in the van gave them coins. The kids who received coins immediately pocketed them and stretched their hands out again, empty. I looked at my dad. He laughed dismissively. ‘They’re just bums. They can work like the rest of us.’
And then, back to the days like before, which now seemed even longer. I grew tired of the pretty beach. The tourists were loud, desperate in their drinking and their little radios. I sat alone in the hotel room. It was yellow and clean and there was a small TV I would flip through endlessly. We are just not . . . friends, I remember thinking. I wondered who was friends with Dad. Mom? That seemed insane. My sister? Yes, her. She’d be good at this, being here with him. She’d be having the time of her life, sucking down a virgin strawberry daiquiri and posing poolside, hamming it up for Dad’s camera. The hallways were tiled brown and cold, and the smell of chlorine from the pool seemed trapped forever in the corridors, night and day. I would walk around the hotel with the $20 bill he had given me for food, not sure what to do with it.
I want to say plainly everything I didn’t know.
I didn’t know Dad gambled. Sports betting mostly, on football, baseball or college basketball, point spreads, totals, money lines, whatever was offered. Bookies, calls to Vegas, two or three TVs at once.
I knew there were little paper slips and crazy phone calls and intense screaming about games – more intense than seemed appropriate – but it only added up to a kind of private tension orbiting him. I didn’t know what it was.
Sports betting is so different from card games or other gambling because the player doesn’t play the game, exactly. His game is the analysis of information – knowing which players might be secretly hurt or sick, which refs favor which teams, the mood of one stadium over another, the combination of one pitcher with a certain kind of weather – and the synthesis of hunches, superstitions, wishes, loyalty. And beyond that there are the odds the bookies are offering, which reflect what everyone else is predicting. Perfect for someone who thinks he’s smarter than everyone else.
Before Detroit built big casinos downtown there was always Windsor Casino across the Canadian border, so there was always blackjack too. But nobody knows much about this – my mom, my sister, his co-workers, his brothers and sisters – no one saw his gambling, no one was invited to come along, or share strategy, or even wish him luck. It was totally private. Perhaps it would not have been so evil if it hadn’t been so hidden. Mom’s experience of his gambling came to her only in cold losses: an empty savings account, the car suddenly gone, bills and debts, threatening phone calls. Sometimes broken ribs, a broken nose. The rare big win must have been wasted immediately in private, on more gambling or something showy and useless like a new watch. Or, of course, on his debts.
Outcomes get shaken out fast in gambling. In real life, big risks take years to reveal themselves, and the pressure of choosing a career, a partner, a home, a family, a whole identity might overwhelm an impatient man, one who values control, not fate. He will either want all the options out of a confused greed, hoarding overlapping partners, shallow hobbies, alternate selves; or he will refuse them all, risking nothing. And really, the first option is the same as the second. Keeping a few girlfriends or wives around effectively dismisses a true relationship with any one of them. Being a good, hardworking dad and a criminal at the same time is a way of choosing to be neither.
Besides, an addict is already faithfully committed to something he prioritizes above all else. Gambling addiction, particularly, is easy to start; it requires no elaborate or illegal activities, no troublesome ingestion of substances and it programs the body using its own chemicals. I thought at first gambling was about chance, the possibility of making something out of nothing, of multiplying money through pure cleverness. He’d like that. Something from nothing. And that is the first charm. But the ones who get addicted, I think, are looking for certainty, not chance. Outcomes are certain, immediate and clear. In other words, there will be a result to any one bet, a point in time when the risk will be unequivocally resolved, and the skill and foresight of the gambler can be perfectly measured. A shot of adrenaline will issue into the bloodstream, win or lose. It’s not messy, not indefinite or uncontrollable, like love, or people. Gambling absolves its players of uncertainty.
Dad steered Mom through the broad doors of the restaurant at the Hazel Park Raceway for their first date. The old host lit up, welcomed him by name and seated them by the wide windows. The waiters knew him too, and he tipped outrageously. Mom wore a baggy white hippie smock embroidered with lines of tiny red flowers (a dress, she said, like ‘a loose interpretation of a baseball’), and her wild black curly hair down in a plain cloud. Dad wore a gold-button sports jacket, creased slacks, hard-shined shoes and slick hair; a near Robert De Niro. They’d met while working in a tool and die shop in Romeo, Michigan, in 1977. Mom had been placed there for a few weeks by a temp agency to do packing and shipping.
After only a couple months of dating, Dad took her on an elaborate vacation to South America to see Machu Picchu. He’d first suggested Mexico, but Mom said she didn’t like Mexico. It made her nervous.
The trip was impulsive and strange, something my mom would have loved. And he seemed so rich. He’d told her, I imagine in his shy way, without eye contact, that if he ever were to marry someone, it would be her. Mom felt adored, scooped up in his big gestures, bound by the certainty of them. I have seen some photographs from this trip. They both look so excited and free and wild, in jeans and thin T-shirts, laughing, almost childish against the ancient monuments and green vistas. He directed the trip with sheer confidence, ever-calm, bullying through the language barrier, tossing indulgences to my mom along the way like the king of the parade. She didn’t know he had cashed out a life insurance policy to take her there, and that he was dead broke. Soon after the trip she discovered she was pregnant with my sister.
Mom’s pregnancy started to show at the shop, drawing stronger looks from the bitter receptionist with the beehive hairdo. Mom noticed the looks, and turned to her, straight and direct, like she always did if something needed to be sorted out.
‘Darlin’,’ the receptionist said before Mom even opened her mouth, ‘he didn’t tell you he’s married, did he?’
Mom laughed but said nothing. The receptionist just shook her head in pity. Mom didn’t like pity. She would have ignored it. He had told her he’d marry her if he was ever inclined to marry, and it just didn’t seem to her like something someone already married could come up with. It was so sweet. He was so generous, so affectionate.
The idea, though, began to itch. She did think it was odd that she had never been to his house, didn’t have his home phone number and had only been offered vague indications of where he lived. That night she asked him if he was married, and he said no. He acted genuinely confused, suggesting that the receptionist was just a jealous cow because he wouldn’t flirt with her. She felt happy with that. And besides, there was a baby to consider now. She let it go. Soon, she moved into an apartment with him and quit working.
For her first doctor’s visit, Dad gave her his insurance card and the name of the clinic to visit while he was at work. She handed over the card to the receptionist, who pulled a file, opened it and then paused. The receptionist looked at Mom, then at the file, then at Mom again, glancing at the nurses near her to spread her discomfort. An indignant look hardened her face. Mom was puzzled. ‘Is everything OK?’ she finally asked.
‘Yes, but . . . I’m sorry, ma’am . . . but you are not Mrs Brodak.’
Mom smiled politely. ‘Well, not officially yet, but I’m on his insurance now so you have to honor that.’
‘No, I mean . . .’ The nurses now looked on with worry. ‘Mrs Brodak and her daughter are regular patients of this clinic. They were just in last Wednesday. You are not Mrs Brodak.’
It was then, she told me, that it should have ended. It wasn’t too late. ‘Everything,’ she told me, ‘could have been avoided if I had just gone back to my parents instead of to him the moment I left that clinic.’ I nod, imagining how much better that would have been for her, skipping past the idea that this ‘everything’ she could have avoided would have included me. ‘It’s like all I could do was make mistakes,’ she said.
The moment he stepped through the door that evening she told him the story of the insurance card at the clinic and demanded to know who the real Mrs Brodak was. He softened his shoulders and toddled gently to her, engulfing her with a hug, caressing her as she cried. His softness and confident denial stunned her into silence, just like it had before. He told her the woman was just a friend he’d allowed to use his card, that he was just doing someone a favor out of kindness, that he was certainly not married. He laughed about it, prodding and rousing her into laughing with him as he smoothed her face.
He could turn you like that. He just wouldn’t let your bad mood win. He’d steal your mad words and twist them funny in repetition, poke at your folded arms until they opened, grin mockingly at your dumb pout until you smiled, as long as it took.
A few days later she called the county clerk’s office to inquire about some marriage records. The clerk on the other end delivered the news plainly, as she probably always did. He’d been married for just a few years. He had a daughter, aged four.
See, this is how my dad starts – stolen from another family.
Mom packed her small suitcases and moved to her parents’ house that same day, and that, again, should’ve been the end of it. She stayed in her room. The road to her parents’ house had not been paved yet, and there were still fields around them, overgrown lilac bushes, honeysuckle and wild rhubarb where now there are neighbors’
She thought about his tenderness. The honest, steady light in his eyes when he told her he loved her. How he’d suddenly sweep her up for a small dance around the kitchen. All these things he’d practiced with his real wife. She gave birth to my sister, quietly.
But he wouldn’t leave her alone. He found her and would come whenever he could, tossing rocks at her window in the night like a teenager until her father chased him off, leaving bouquets on the doorstep with long love letters. He was unreasonably persistent, beyond what she would’ve expected of any boyfriend, and perhaps it was the insane magnitude of this persistence that convinced her to go back to him. She thought maybe their relationship was worth all of this effort, all of the dozens and dozens of roses, the gifts, the jewelry, the long letters pleading for forgiveness, praising her virtues, promising to leave his wife. ‘And poetry,’ Mom said. ‘You should have seen the poetry he wrote to me. I almost wish I hadn’t thrown it all away.’
First she wanted to meet the real Mrs Brodak. Mom looked up their number in the phone book, called to introduce herself and extend an invitation to meet, which Mrs Brodak accepted stiffly.
It was a muggy summer. Dad’s wife appeared at the screen door and stood without knocking. In a thick blue dress with her waist tied tightly, she said nothing when Mom opened the door. ‘Would you like to hold the baby?’ Mom asked.
My sister was placed in her lap like a bomb. Nothing could be done but politely talk, with hard grief in their chests, softening their voices. The real Mrs Brodak was scared too. ‘How did you meet?’ Mom asked Dad’s wife.
They had met in high school. After he had returned from Vietnam, they married impulsively. She never had time to think, she said. Baby, work, no time to think. This is how life works: hurrying along through the tough moments, then the hurrying hardens and fossilizes, then that’s the past, that hurrying. She asked Mom what was going to happen now.
‘Now,’ Mom said, ‘we leave Joe Brodak. We don’t let our babies know him. He’s not a good person.’ She leaned to her, with hands out. They lightly embraced and nodded tearfully. Mom would have wanted to help Mrs Brodak.
Mom also would have felt a little triumphant somehow. She would have felt like she had won him. Whatever there was to win. She didn’t actually want to quit like that, despite what she said to Mrs Brodak. She had a baby now, and no real career prospects, having ditched the student teaching she needed to finish her certification, and on top of that her own mental illnesses kept her from self-sufficiency. Her parents looked on with reserved worry. After Dad’s wife left, Mom joined them in the kitchen, where they had been listening to the exchange. They sipped coffee, looking out at the bird feeder. Eventually Mom’s mother urged her to go back to him. ‘It is better to be married,’ she said. ‘You have to just deal with it.’
She turned back to him, resolved to trust him.
This looks bad, I know. I would not have made this choice, I think. Most people wouldn’t. But what do any of us know?
In the basement of the Romeo District Court my dad married my mom, with his sister, Helena, as a witness. The dress Mom wore, an off-white peasant dress with low shoulders and small pouf sleeves, I wore when I was ten, as a hippie Halloween costume.
A small dinner party was held at a restaurant on a nearby golf course. Mom met her mother-in-law there, and many other Brodaks, who all regarded her warily. As a homewrecker.
Soon after the wedding, I was born, during a year of relative happiness in their relationship. Perhaps, Mom thought, their rocky start was over, that there would be no more problems. She threw her wild energy into this life: these children, and him, her husband, now. She enacted a vigorous and healthy routine for her family: reading, games, walks to the park, dancing, art and helping the elderly lady upstairs with her housework. She attended to us with pure devotion. She baked homemade bread and wrote folk songs, singing them softly to us with her acoustic Gibson at bedtime. The songs were always minor key, lament-low, about horses and freedom and the ocean. In the dark, I’d cry sometimes in their hold.
Mom isn’t sure exactly when Dad got divorced from his first wife; he kept the details a secret. With her daughter, my half-sister,
Mrs Brodak moved to California, where she died of cancer a few years later.
Mom threw away all of the letters and poetry he’d sent her when she remarried and moved in with her new husband. It stings to think about. I wish I could have read these things, but they were not for me. And I don’t blame her.
But I did see the letters, a long time ago. I saw the shoebox full of them when I was little. Pages and pages of blue-lined notebook paper with Dad’s loopy, fat, cursive writing, or sometimes the harsh, slanted caps he’d use. The words rattled on the pages with some mysterious grown-up intensity that pushed me away from them. I did take something from the box. A thing that made no sense to me.
A small, square, black-and-white photo of him he had sent her. The background is pure white and the whiteness of his knit polo shirt disappears into it so his head appears to be floating in whiteness, rooted only by the wide, heathered gray collar of his shirt. He is young and smiling broadly, open-mouthed, joy in his eyes, like he was just laughing, really laughing. He’s smiling honestly, more honestly than I have ever seen.
On the back of the photo is his loopy cursive in blue pen. When I read it I began to cry instantly, in gusting sheets of tears. I took it because it was the first object that made me cry. I couldn’t understand how. I’m crying now, reading it again.
My first real, true love. You changed my life with your ‘crazy’ love.
I love you,
After I was born Dad came across an ad for an attorney who was hiring women to be surrogate mothers. He became convinced that this would solve their financial problems. Nowadays paid surrogacy is common, but in the early eighties the process was new, and still somewhat risky. He pressed my mother, and she started to warm to the idea; after all, she loved being a mother and felt good about the idea of helping a couple have a baby. It seemed kind and smart and wonderful. She said the couple met her in a restaurant, and she brought me and my sister along, ‘you know, to show you off, so they could see how healthy and happy you were’, she told me. We squirmed and smiled in the booth like the best roly-poly babies possible, and Mom beamed while the couple fell for her.
They lived in Long Island, so Mom was flown out to New York to do the insemination there. It didn’t work. She was flown out again. It didn’t work.
Meanwhile, Dad’s gambling debts were secretly starting to accumulate. He was thinking about the $10,000 they were set to receive as soon as the baby was born, and had started spending recklessly. Mom started noticing odd things. Some men had asked the neighbors where the Brodak girls went to school. The phone rang off the hook. Only once did she respond, finding a strange man on the line. He told her he was calling from Vegas. ‘Your husband,’ the man said, ‘is a scumbag. A fucking deadbeat. Did you know that?’ She unplugged the phone. That night, the living-room windows were shot out.
Dad told her they needed to move. And why not to Long Island, to be closer to the couple? To him it was the perfect out.
We moved to a cramped basement apartment on Long Island. In photos of us from this era, on a cheap swing set or feeding ducks by a weak pond, there is a kind of stressy child anger in our eyes. Mom kept up her focus on us. Free from his debts back in Michigan, Dad returned to gambling. She never knew how bad things were until something went missing.
Mom was cleaning us up from breakfast one day when Dad was leaving for work. He came back through the door after a minute. ‘Forget something?’ Mom asked absently.
‘No, uh, my car . . .’
Mom looked out the window. It was gone, had disappeared overnight. ‘Where’s your car?’
‘Oh . . . I let a buddy of mine borrow it.’
‘He just came in the night and took your car? He had a key to your car?’
‘Yeah, it was an emergency, no big deal. I’m gonna borrow yours today, OK?’ He grabbed her keys and left.
How could he resolve this one? Weeks went by and his ‘buddy’ didn’t return the car. Eventually he just came home with a new one, an old beater with green upholstery smelling of dogs. He told Mom he’d decided to sell his buddy the car, but she’d already seen the repo notice. She wasn’t surprised anymore. She shuffled her rage into resignation, and focused on us.
The insemination attempts continued. One night, after returning from a long trip, drunk and tired, Dad forced himself on her. Mom said she screamed and fought him. But he was strong. Sex was against the contract they had with the couple, for obvious reasons.
On a hunch, she took a test a few weeks later and discovered she was pregnant. Now, though, she wasn’t sure whose baby it was.
She took us to stay with her aunt in Baltimore for a few weeks. And there, without telling anyone, she decided to abort the fetus. She hadn’t spoken to Dad for weeks, nor did she return the calls from the couple. Eventually she returned home, with us in tow, to find Dad having just returned too, from Atlantic City. He had gambled away everything. Their savings, his car, his wedding ring, every penny he could find. She packed our clothes and whatever small things would fit into her powder-blue Caprice Classic and took us back to Michigan that same day. She filed for divorce and moved back in with her parents. It was here, living with my grandparents, that I first started to know my life. I remember Goodison Preschool. A salt-dough Christmas ornament I made and tried to eat. Playing Red Rover in the sun. My bossy sister teasing me, and stress around us all.
Eventually she was going to have to call the couple to tell them what happened. She says she still remembers that phone call, their voices on the other line, warm, but quiet and shocked. They were crushed. They said they would have taken the baby either way, and loved it completely. They had come to trust and care for her, and she failed them in the worst possible way. Listening to my mom reveal this story crumples me inside.
She was about my age when this happened, and I imagine her next to me, as a friend. I would have helped her out of this.
I would have shaken her bony shoulders and said no no no no until the stupid false hope in her eyes was gone and all of Dad’s tricks fell away.
Such a short part of their lives, really, this marriage and this family. Just a few years.
Dad moved back to Michigan too, following us a few weeks later. He was living in a hotel room in Center Line, near the GM Tech Center where he worked.
We’d be dropped off there, and walk the AstroTurf-lined walkways to the room while teenagers screamed and splashed in the pool. Mexican music blared and faded in the rooms we passed, some with open doors, some with eyes following. But it was a break from the attentive care children can get sick of. It seemed like a party. He bought us huge bags of candy – Skittles for my sister and Raisinets for me. There were always cold cuts and a shrimp ring in the fridge. During the day he’d often leave us alone, and we were OK, watching movies, eating candy, puffy-painting giant cheap sweatshirts and playing Nintendo. I didn’t really miss him when he was gone, and I knew that couldn’t be right.
My sister took care of me when we were alone. She directed me to eat the crackers and ham she’d arranged and have a glass of milk while I was absorbed in Mega Man. She knew how to pull out the sofa bed when we were getting tired. I’d watch her tiny body rip the creaky metal frame out of the nubby brown couch. She’d straighten the sheets around the lumpy mattress and drag the comforter from
Dad’s bed onto ours, nestling me into the uncomfortable mess wordlessly.
She’d check to make sure the door was deadbolted, then flip the lights off and tuck us in. The puffy paints and bags of candy and the half-consumed glasses of milk and the ham plates would be scattered on the floor around the sofa bed, and we’d just lie there, listening. The rush of 12 Mile Road below and the garbled living sounds from the other residents would lull us to sleep. We imagined different versions of where Dad was. A cool movie, on a date with a hot lady, at a nightclub, at a concert. Sometimes we’d compare ideas, sometimes we’d just let them play out in our heads as we fell asleep.
During the day I’d poke around his stuff. Shoved under towels in the linen closet: Playboys and baggies of green and white drugs. Sometimes money. Under the bed, in a shoebox: a heavy, greasy-looking gun.
I wanted to have the fun he wanted us to have. He’d take us to things, kid things, like water parks or Chuck E. Cheese’s, places Mom would never take us because she insisted on productive activities like hikes or art museums. He’d take us to a golf dome with a bar and a dark arcade attached, then hand us both a roll of quarters to spend in the arcade while he was in the bar. For hours we’d feed the machines, Mortal Kombat and Rampage and Gauntlet. When our quarters were gone we’d gingerly shuffle through the bar and find him alone, glued to a sports game. He’d hand us more quarters or say it was time to go. It was fun but, I don’t know, thin fun. He’d put something in front of us: a sports game or play place or movie or toy and he was always on the other side of it, far on the other side of it. I kept it that way too, I know. I didn’t like to go with him, I didn’t like to have to answer his perfunctory questions about school or interests, I didn’t even like to hug him. I feel awful remembering this.
And, once again, he pursued Mom relentlessly, but I never saw it happen and didn’t know this until later, when Mom told me. I often wonder why he did it. He could have easily walked away from us, and perhaps he didn’t only because that was the more obvious thing to do. The only thing that makes sense is that he wanted to be with us. Or that he felt like he was supposed to be with us, an obligation he couldn’t shake.
I should be able to feel my way through that question, to be able to know, in my gut, if he really wanted to be a dad and husband. But I can’t feel it. Nothing really matches up. There are fragments of a criminal alongside fragments of a dad, and nothing overlaps, nothing eclipses the other, they’re just there, next to each other. No narrative fits.
No, I did see it, once. On a softball field in the evening when the sky was getting dark pink. Mom had brought me to see my sister’s softball team play, a team that my dad coached. I had wandered away to sit in the grass, probably looking for interesting insects or rocks, and from some distance I saw my dad approach my mom at the edge of the bleachers where she stood. The sun was behind them but I could see their gray shapes in the nook of the gleaming silver bleachers and the matching fence. Perhaps the game was over. He was talking closely to her face and she was looking away at first, arms crossed. I edged to the other side of the bleachers to hear. He had his hand on her shoulder; she was starting to smile. I could hear him say, ‘I need you. I need you,’ in a steady pleading voice I can still hear in my head. I was surprised at this sound, and memorized it. Then he lifted his knee and softly and childishly kneed her thigh, still saying, ‘I need you’ and now drawing it out lightly and funnily with each jab – ‘I kneed you. I kneed you,’ – and she was really smiling now, looking down sweetly and smiling.
My dad was born August 19, 1945, in a displaced persons’ camp. This is how he first lived: being carried by his mother, in secret, while she worked silently in the camp.
The previous year his mother and father and five siblings had been moved out of their homes in Szwajcaria, Poland, by the Nazis and forced to board a train. My Aunt Helena, a few years older than my dad, told me she remembers it. She remembers their mom, Stanislawa, hopping off the train when it stopped to hunt for wood to start a cooking fire. Stanislawa’s parents and three of her siblings had died a few years before in Siberia, having been shipped there to cut trees for the Russian supply. ‘The trees would shatter if they hit the ground because it was so cold. No one had enough clothes or food, so most people died there,’ my aunt told me in a letter. She has memories of their life during the war, ‘but they don’t seem real’, she wrote. She remembers the mood of the train: the animal-like panic any time the train stopped, the worry of the adults, and her worry when her mother would disappear. They were taken to Dachau, where my grandfather was beaten and interrogated daily because the Nazis suspected him of being a partisan, like his brothers.
My grandfather was separated from the family. The rest of them lived and worked together, hoping he’d be returned. Nothing useful came out of the interrogations.
After a few months they were reunited, and all transferred to a sub-camp in Kempten, Germany, where they worked as slaves, mostly farming. This is where my grandmother became pregnant with my father. She hid her pregnancy because she was afraid she’d be forced to abort it. She had to work to be fed like everyone else, even the children, the sick, everyone. My aunt remembers a little of this but won’t say much. ‘There were horrors every day,’ she says, and I don’t press her. The war was over in April and my dad was born in August.
After the war, my grandfather felt strongly that they should move to Australia, since he liked the idea of working a homestead and living freely as a farmer. But a few months before they were to leave, he died, and Australia no longer welcomed them – a widow with five children. Through a Catholic sponsorship program a passage to America was offered, and they took it. My dad’s first memories were of this ship: troop transport, cold and gray all around, the sea and metal smell.
They arrived at Ellis Island on December 4, 1951, and Dad’s name was changed from Jozef to Joseph. They took a train to Detroit. Their sponsor took them to St Albertus Church, on the corner of St Aubin and Canfield, an area that used to be called Poletown. They lived on the top floor of the adjacent school, built in 1916, until my grandma found work in the cafeteria of the Detroit News and rented an apartment for them. St Albertus closed as a parish in 1990, and now stands in urban prairie among other abandoned buildings.
I wanted to see it for myself. One family visit in December I snuck away for the day and drove myself there. There are a lot of death holes in Detroit. Not poor neighborhoods but something beyond that: nothingnesses, forsaken places. Scattered plots, some whole blocks, whole streets, sets of streets, in the middle of the city. The place where my dad grew up is dead.
This area, around Mack and Chene, is one of the emptiest in Detroit. It is not the most dangerous; there just aren’t many people here at all. Only a few structures stand on each block, and rarely are those structures occupied. Sometimes you can’t really tell. Most houses are in different states of decay, some just piles of charred wood and ash. These are not the most picturesque ruins. They’re not the famous ones, like the Packard Plant or the huge train depot, or the ornately ruined Michigan Theater. They’re not the pretty castles of Brush Park, derelict and looted, the cool tall office buildings downtown with wild trees growing on them, the broken buildings out-of-town journalists and photographers come to document and vaguely lament. These were plain poor houses to start with.
St Albertus sits next to homes like these, and plots of empty grassland. Across the street is one occupied house, and a heavily gated new-but-cheap apartment complex, where a convent and girls’ orphanage used to be. Behind the church is the school, a sturdy three-story brick building with a stone facade, st albertvs carved across a neoclassical frieze above four faceted pilasters between the doors. The school is a ruin – windows are broken or boarded up, graffiti covers the building man-high around the dark brick and the yard is grown over, with dumped TVs and furniture in the grass. I looked at it for a long time. This is where my family first lived in America. This is where my dad learned English. A ruin, like any other. I watched a solidly fat black squirrel climb the brick effortlessly, pause to eat a small thing on the windowsill, then disappear inside.
On the front steps I pulled shyly at the boards over the three doors, but they were nailed tight. It would have been easy enough to climb up to any of the glassless first-floor windows, but I was alone and it seemed unwise. I took some photos with my phone. A rind of green copper wound weakly around the roof, the rest of it having been pulled off by scavengers. I had explored abandoned structures before, but not alone. Still, here I was. I had come this far. I looked up and down the street, but there was not a soul around. I walked quickly to an inner corner and hoisted myself up on the ledge, then to the same glassless window into which the black squirrel had disappeared.
Broken glass and soft piles of crumbled plaster. Cold dark. The smell of old wet wood and dead animals. I dropped down into a classroom with gritty gray floors. But there had been some maintenance here by Church people; I could tell the floor had been swept occasionally. I walked like I was stepping on someone. The boards shivered and a steady wind hushed me.
A dark wood door lead to the hall, lined with more classrooms. All of the doorknobs removed, stolen. The next room was painted a sweet sky blue, peeling at the top, with a chalkboard but no furniture. A red fire-alarm box. Very nice wood, rotting. Powdery plaster making the ground soft. Every surface peeling. The next room was pale acid green. A patch of exposed cinder blocks where the chalkboard had been. It’s hard to imagine my father as a boy. He was a star athlete, he’d told me. Captain of the football team in high school. He would’ve been fun. Quiet but brave and strong, like me. I kicked lightly at some planks on the ground, and the sound of scurrying claws in the walls moved away from me.
I went slowly down the hall, feeling ridiculous for using the flashlight feature on my expensive phone but glad to have it, since the floorboards were warped, with odd piles of glass and nails and wood shards. The bare rooms felt heavy and full, and I can’t explain this. I came to a stairwell. Plaster dust had been swept into loose mounds against the wall, and footprints marked a path up the steps.
On the top floor, the hall opened into the auditorium. The windows were not boarded up here, and the room was bright and open and cold. I stood astounded: at one end a gaping black stage was framed with pale peach and jaunty blue leaf patterns, deco style, and flanked by two doors topped with Greek urns and vines of plaster. A very small gold-fringed pale blue curtain hung straight across the stage, painted with mounds of red and orange flowers with wispy grass behind.
My mouth hung dumbly and I started to cry. The peeling colors and the light of the room, the flowered curtain and the darkness, the piles of powder, the good wood, the hidden air. It was beautiful in a way I recognized in the oldest part of me. I felt like I was seeing something true. I walked the thin boards of the floor to the center of the room, past a large blue a painted inside of a circle, like a tidy anarchy symbol. Bird shit covered the floor, concentrating under grates. The cooing and wheezing and clawing of pigeons echoed blindly. Above the center of the room, on the high ceiling arching like a coffin top, was a trinity of large pale blue medallions, the center one probably once surrounding a light fixture that was now gone. My family slept on cots in this room for months. They looked up at this. As a child, my dad, packed in with the other refugees, looked up at this ceiling and thought about the future, this future I am in now. It was hard not to feel grateful for this useless beauty. It was there for them, this silent, mindless pattern, how it looked like love over the empty room.
The sky can be so solid gray in Michigan, like wet concrete, churning without breaking for days. Under it, this home, sinking into the earth, the earth digesting its own paradox, in silence.
Photograph courtesy of the author