Authors: Michael Hainey
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About Michael Hainey
“If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”
—THE MAXIM OF CHICAGO NEWSPAPERMEN, ATTRIBUTED TO EDWARD “EULIE” H. EULENBERG, REPORTERAND NIGHT EDITOR, CITY NEWS BUREAU OF CHICAGO, 1927–1957
“It is the dead, not the living, who make the longest demands.”
WHAT YOU ARE
I was home from school, visiting my grandmother in Chicago, when she told me thisstory, a story that involved an old Polish custom: When a boy has his first birthday,his family sits him in his high chair, and on the tray before him they place threeobjects—
“Whatever the boy chooses,” my grandmother says to me, “that will be his life.”
“And I?” I said. “What did I choose?”
“You?” she says. “You slammed your fist on the tray, sent everything scattering tothe ground. There was your mother, on her knees, searching, cursing you and all thepieces she couldn’t find.”
“I never heard that story.”
“There’s lots of stories you haven’t heard.”
Even when I was a kid, and the holiday dinner was over, the plates pushed aside andthe adults having coffee and thekolaczkithat my grandmother always made, I’d linger at the table, ask her questions aboutthe old days. How, when my mother was a young girl they had no money for medicine,so if she had a sore throat, my grandmother would make mashed potatoes, roll themin a dish towel, and put them on my mother’s neck. A hot compress. Or she’d tell mehow my mother learned to play the accordion from Mr. Carnevale, down the block. EverySaturday, wrestling her instrument into her red wagon, pulling it to his studio on63rd Street.
Once, some years ago, we were sitting around my mother’s kitchen table playing cards—mymother, my grandmother, and me; the matriarchy and me. (My grandfather was dead bynow, and my father had died years earlier.) I asked my grandmother what it was likewhen she first got married. This was 1934. Middle of the Great Depression. They saidtheir vows on Thanksgiving, so they could cobble together a four-day weekend and callit their honeymoon, such as it was. My grandfather was the only one working in hisfamily—supporting his parents and his eight brothers and sisters—so he was unableto take any time off for the wedding, let alone a honeymoon. Not that they had themoney to. Eighteen months later, my mother was born.
My grandmother tells me that she and my grandfather were so poor that they could notafford a crib for my mother, and for the first year she slept in an old dresser drawer.
“Sometimes at night I’d tuck your momma in and then Grampa and I would go to the cornertavern and have a beer. Cost a nickel. That was our Friday night.”
“Wait,” my mother says. “You left me home in the drawer? Alone?”
“You weren’t alone,” my grandmother tells her.
“Who was watching me?” my mother asks.
My mother slams her hand on the table, gets up, and starts washing dishes.
My grandmother looks at me. “What’s she so hot about?”
One Christmas Eve, I had driven my grandmother and grandfather home. We’re sittingat the kitchen table, a bowl of pears between us, ripening green to yellow. My grandparentsare telling me a story about the old neighborhood, and they can’t agree on when thestory happened. My grandfather taps his finger softly on the table, three times, andsays, “No, it was 1917. I know because it was the summer we hanged the kaiser in effigy.”
“You’re right,” my grandmother says. “There was a parade through the neighborhood,and we strung him up on a streetlight in front of Saint Adalbert’s. Lit a big fireout of trash.”
And I’m sitting there, thinking: How many people remain who can speak the sentence“It was the summer we hanged the kaiser in effigy”?
Her parents were from Krakow. “Crack-oov” is how she’d say it. She told me that herfather tuned organs in a church there. They ended up in Chicago. Back of the Yardsneighborhood. Poles. Germans. Austrians. What my grandfather called “Bohunks and Polacks,all of us.”
Her father ran a corner store. Canned goods. Boxes of basics. Shelves of staples forthe families who washed up on the block. Families of men who worked the slaughterhouses—theChicago Union Stock Yards. For a good hundred years, there was nothing like it onearth. An entire square mile of Chicago, devoted to butchering cattle and hogs orany other beast a man could ship fromAmerica’s hinterlands—our prairies and plains—turning it into canned meat, churningall of it into the bounty of America. This was the land of Swift, the kingdom of Armour.Chicago as the disassembly line. Chicago—how fast and how efficiently a creature couldbe reduced. Rendered. Broken down.
On summer nights, when the wind blew off the lake, the stench of death and dung hungover the whole city. My grandmother told me that some nights in her bed, she’d beawakened by what she called “the sad groaning”—beasts in the dark, all those milesaway. Chicago.
That was them. Running their store and living in a small apartment in the back ofit: my grandmother, her baby sister, her father and mother. That is, until her brotheris born and their mother dies in the bedroom, giving birth. Her father pushed thebaby into my grandmother’s hands, the baby still bloody, said, “Here.”
Then he got drunk.
My grandmother was left to raise her sister and her baby brother. A year later, whenmy grandmother was twelve, her father found a new wife—Sally. Sally was sixteen. Sallyturned my grandmother’s father against her, and the day that my grandmother turnedfifteen, she left, took a job cleaning houses for some rich people. But she persevered.To me, perseverance is the great trait. She taught me that.
I was in my thirties when I told my grandparents I wanted to see the old neighborhood.This was March. Thick of Lent. We get in my mother’s Buick. Chunks of rotting snowcling to the edge of the road, crusted over with carbon. Looking like they were smearedwith newsprint. News of days long past, forgotten.
When we get to the old neighborhood, I round a corner and hear my grandfather fromthe backseat.
“Black Betty lived in that house. Olive skin. Give her a quarter and she’d let youlie with her in the weedy lot.”
In the rearview mirror, I see my grandmother elbow him.
“What?” he says. “I never done it. But it’s true. That’s the story I heard.”
I want to see Saint Adalbert’s, where they were married. One of those hulking massesof soot-stained stone, the kind they always tell you was built by immigrants’ penniesand nickels—and as we start walking up the steps my grandmother freezes. She’s beenholding my arm to steady herself on the icy steps, but now she’s tightened her grip.She tells me she’s thinking of when her mother died and men shouldered her coffinfrom their house through the streets, to the church.
“When the guys carrying my mother’s casket got here, they set it down on the stepsright here and opened it. ‘Final viewing,’ the priest said. I was standing next toher casket, and when I look down at my mother, I saw her face move. I thought shewas alive. And I tug my father’s sleeve. Oh, I was so happy. I thought, God has heardme. And then my father says, ‘Look again.’ And you know what it was? Little worms.They’d already started.”
She looks at me. Her bottom lip trembles.
“We couldn’t afford to preserve her.”
# # #
Years later, I was home from New York one October when I went to see my grandmother.Over the past few months, she had been “deteriorating.” Mentally. In the span of sixmonths she’d gone from living on her own to being in a nursing home. Or “assistedliving,” as they call it now. She was in Central Baptist Village. Not that she’s Baptist.But it was closer to my mother’s house than any Catholic place, and my grandmotheragreed to it.
Moving her was hard on my mother. Not just the packing upof my grandmother’s house, winnowing down her possessions, but the stress and strainof being responsible for her. I’d hear it in our phone calls.
That morning, my mother asks me to take an afghan to my grandmother.
“I think she needs an extra blanket,” she says.
The afghan is the same one that we had in the basement when I was a boy, the one mybrother and I wrapped ourselves in when we watched reruns on the TV—our Zenith. Mygrandmother knit the afghan years ago, for my mother. Over the years, my grandmotherhas knit too many afghans to count. She makes them as wedding gifts. Somewhere inmy mother’s basement there is one she knit for me. “I can’t wait forever, honey child,”she told me when I caught her knitting mine. “You’re forty. The way you’re going,who knows how long it’ll be.”
On my way to see her, I stop at Fannie May, the candy store. I get a small mixed assortment.A blustery, chill day. Fall, advancing on Chicago. Leaves—yellow, rain-battered, pulleddown in the night—cling to cars and the damp blacktop.
I find her in the Common Room. A bunch of gray tufts and bald, liver-spotted headsseated in a semicircle. At the center, a heavy woman in white pants and a purple smock.The woman is leading them in group exercises, getting them to raise their arms overtheir heads, move their limbs in small circles.
“Let’s repeat our vowels,” she says, “A, E, I, O, U.”
From the group, a murmuring. “Ehh . . . Eee . . . Eye . . . Oh . . . Ewe.”
With each vowel, they lower their arms a few inches. They look like aged mariners,sending semaphore. Signaling to ships in the mist somewhere out at sea.
Eighty, ninety years ago, these people are sitting in a schoolroom, in the same messyhalf circle, being led through the samedrill—minus the arm exercises. And here they are now, on the other side of life. Tryingto hold on to what they learned so long ago.
I walk over and touch her shoulder. I’m prepared for her not to recognize me. Hereyes, all exaggerated behind her glasses, try to focus on me. She takes my hand.
“Michael . . . ”
We walk the long hallway to her room. She leans on her walker, plows ahead, slowly.I walk beside her, my hand on the small of her curved back. She’s like an old car—shedrifts left—so I have to ease her away from the wall.
“Look at me,” she says. “I’m just a skeleton. I should go trick-or-treating. I’d scare’em all good, I would.”
Her room has two single beds, hospital types, made to be raised up, angled. The bednear the door is unmade, waiting. On it, the SundayTribunesits unread. The bed beneath the window is my grandmother’s. On the nightstand aretwo photo albums my brother’s son made for her. “Moments of her life,” he told methey were, “to help her remember.” My nephew is eight.
To the right of the bed, there’s an armoire. On it, someone has taped a piece of paper,computer-printed:
FAMILY DOES OWN LAUNDRY
She maneuvers to the bed. There’s a wheelchair in the corner and I pull it up, sittoe-to-toe with her.
“I brought you a trick-or-treat,” I say, and I place the box on her lap.
For a minute, she holds the box and gazes at it, then hands it back to me.
“Can I have one?” she asks.
I give her a chocolate cream. She raises it to her mouth. A tongue emerges, takesthe candy. Like a tortoise I saw at the zoo. She bites, almost in slow motion, chewsso slowly I swear I can feel her tasting it.
She asks, “Why’d you bring me candy?”
“I told you,” I say. “Halloween.”
She says, “Is it Halloween? I can’t remember.”
As I put the candy on the nightstand, I notice a piece of paper. “That’s my bedtimereading,” she says to me.
It’s a pamphlet from Resurrection Cemetery. Inside, there is a form filled out. Mygrandfather’s burial record:
NAME: FRANK HUDAK
“That’s going to be my address soon,” my grandmother says. “I read that every nightbefore I go to bed so that if I don’t wake up, I know where to go. I don’t want SaintPeter putting me on the wrong bus. Grave four. Right next to my little Franta. Sixty-sevenyears we were married, Mike.”
Her head droops down, chin against her chest. I reach out, my hand under her chin.Raise her head. Tears are in her eyes, and I wipe them with my fingers.
“I wish it were over, Mike. People weren’t meant to live this long.”
“Did you take your pills today?” I say to her.
Ninety-five years old, and she’s on antidepressants. What’s the world come to? I think.
Truth is, she never got over my grandfather’s dying. That whole year after, she’dsit at the kitchen table and cry, stare out the shutters.
She reaches out, takes my hands in hers.
“Warm my hands,” she says. “They’re cold.”
She slips her hands inside my cupped hands. Her hands like two small mammals burrowinginside a hollow, hunkering down against each other, against the coming freeze.
“I used to worry about you,” she says, “but I don’t anymore. You’re over the wall.”
“What’s the wall?”
THE SHADE, RAISED
April 24, 1970. Friday morning. The sun, searing the shade, my brother’s and mine.We share a room. Twin beds above the kitchen, side by side. Headboards against thewall beneath the window that looks down on a tiny cement patio. A small house nextto an alley next to a grocery-store parking lot. Kroger.
Scraggly forsythias divide our alley from the parking lot. Fragile yellow flowersthe color of Peeps pop on the thin branches. Mostly the branches catch the trash thatforever swirls in our lot. Flyers and circulars. Papers.
This is on the Far Northwest Side, a block from the Kennedy Expressway, in the shadowof O’Hare.
# # #
My mother’s hand on my shoulder. “Time for school,” she says.
She wears a blue robe and pale blue slippers that look like sandals. She is thirty-three,thin with frosted brunette hair and deep, heavy-lidded almond-shaped brown eyes anda tight mouth. Shelooks like Queen Elizabeth. It’s like they’re twins in time. Pick a photo of Elizabethfrom any year and lay a photo of my mother next to it. Sisters, you’d say. Especiallyin the mouth and eyes. Same hair, too. My mother has always wished her hair were curlier,that it had more body. For years, my grandmother gave her a perm every few months,my mother hanging her head in our cold gray washtub.
The doorbell rings. My mother says, “Who could that be?”
She walks to the window and raises the shade.
“What the hell are they doing here?” she says.
Below, my grandfather and grandmother, my uncle Dick and aunt Helen, are standingon the porch in the shadow of our honey locust tree, its tiny leaves fluttering inthe breeze.
My mother walks out.
From the air vents along the floorboards my brother and I can hear the adults in thekitchen below. No words. Just sounds.
I remember exactly what happens when I get into that kitchen—and every moment afterward.But sitting with my brother on the edge of our beds in our pajamas, that bright morningin April, him eight and me six—even now I feel like I’m imagining it.
My brother and I pause at the top of the stairs. Then there we are, on the edge ofthe living room.
“The boys are here,” Uncle Dick says.
He pushes us forward, into the kitchen. The sun is bright. The linoleum white andcold on my bare feet. My mother sits at the kitchen table, in the chair she will sitin the rest of her life. Her chair to solve the Jumble. Her crosswords chair. Herchair for solitaire. My grandmother stands behind her, a handkerchief’d fist to hermouth.
My mother reaches out. “Come over here.”
She sets us on her chair, my brother and me, side by side. We’re still that small.
“Your dad is dead.”
Her eyes are red but she is not crying. “It’s going to be okay,” she says. “We’llbe fine.”
She hugs us. And as I sit there, crushed against my brother, held tight by my mother’sarm, I can feel, against my chest, my brother’s chest, quivering. I struggle to pullback from my mother’s embrace.
In that moment I think only one thing: how excited I am. Because my whole life upuntil then, my brother has never cried. Whenever I have cried, he’s always teasedme, told me I was a baby. I point at him and start to laugh and I say, “Crybaby! Crybaby!”3
THE NIGHT SLOT
My father was the night slot man. That’s a newspaper term. From the time he is a youngboy of six or seven in Dust Bowl Nebraska, back in the Depression, all he wants isto work in newspapers. All he wants is to escape, to get to Chicago and be a newspaperman,just like his brother.
My dad’s name is Bob. He idolizes his brother, who is twelve years older. His brother’sname is Dick.
Their father was many things, but mostly he was a switchman and, when called upon,a griever. Those are railroad terms. Their father passes most of his life in the windblownrail yard of McCook, a town barely bigger than an afterthought. Day after day, hecouples and uncouples strings of boxcars and then waits for the engines that willcome to pull them apart or carry them away.
At eight, my father gets a job as a paperboy, delivering theOmaha World-Herald. In high school, he editsThe Bison,the school paper. Come graduation in 1952, theOmaha World-Heralddeclares him “one of Nebraska’s brightest newsboys”—who hasworked his route “with diligence and dedication.” They give him a “Carrier’s Scholarship”—$150.He also earns a $450 scholarship from Northwestern University and uses it to attendthe Medill School of Journalism, just like Dick, who is by now an editor at theTribune. Dick delivers the address at my father’s commencement. TheOmaha World-Heraldruns a story headlinedTWO BROTHERS GET ATTENTION AT MCCOOK HIGH GRADUATION. The editors print head shots of Dick and my father. Beneath them, a caption:Richard, Robert . . . Speaker, Listener.
Five years later, in May 1957, my father graduates with a master’s degree in journalism.A few days after commencement, he packs up his room in a boardinghouse run by an Armenianwoman on Foster Street. A Sigma Nu fraternity brother drives him and his suitcasesdown to Chicago’s Union Station, where he boards the Burlington Zephyr, bound to McCook.
He doesn’t want to go back to Nebraska, but Dick, who is the chief of the local copydesk at theChicago Tribune,tells him that it is all but impossible to get hired at theTribunestraight out of college. “Most of the reporters didn’t even graduate from high school.You need experience. That’s the only way they’ll respect you.”
The McCook Daily Gazetteis in search of a managing editor for a special project, and my father takes thejob. The town is getting ready to celebrate the seventy-fifth anniversary of its founding.In 1882, the Burlington & Missouri River Railroad needs a way station between Denverand Omaha where it can switch out crews and add a more powerful locomotive for theclimb through the Rockies. They name the nothingness after General Alexander McDowellMcCook, a Union soldier in the Civil War who spends his prewar years wandering thefrontier, putting down Indian uprisings.
TheGazetteis a small paper, but my father consoles himself with the fact that it’s a dailyand it covers all of southwest Nebraska. Just as the Great Depression hits, theGazettebuys a propeller plane, christens it theNewsboy,and claims to make journalism history by becoming “the first paper in the world tobe regularly deliveredby airplane.” Every day, theNewsboytakes flight from an airstrip notched into a cornfield on the outskirts of town andzigzags through the skies of southwestern Nebraska and northwestern Kansas. Througha hole in the plane’s thin floorboard, the pilot of theNewsboydrops bundles of papers down onto towns even smaller than McCook. It’s all very successfuluntil a windstorm sweeps into town and hurls the plane end over end, splintering it.So dies theNewsboy.
The paper is published in a limestone building on Norris Avenue where, above the frontdoor, someone has chiseled:SERVICE IS THE RENT WE PAY FOR THE SPACE WE OCCUPY IN THIS WORLD. My father dedicates himself to his work, creating theGazette’s seventy-fifth-anniversary issue. He spends that summer interviewing old-timersand digging through records at City Hall and the town library. He edits stories forthe paper, as well as reports and writes.
One night, so the story goes, he and a high school buddy, Bob Morris, drive out oftown and spend the night drinking beer. On the way back, they come across a road-constructionsite. My father climbs onto the earthmover and drives it toward the darkened river.
“What are you doing?” his buddy yells, laughing on the bank.
“Getting some experience,” my father says.
The following morning the Red Willow County sheriff calls theGazette—he asks for a reporter to drive out to the river. My father arrives at the sceneof the crime. Once there, he interviews the officers as well as the construction foremanand then publishes a story in the next day’s paper:MYSTERY VANDAL HITS CONSTRUCTION SITE. The sheriff thanks him for helping to draw attention to the crime.
He publishes theGazette’s commemorative edition, says his good-byes, walks to the redbrick train stationat the bottom of Norris Avenue, and buys a ticket for Chicago. His brother has gottenhim a job as a copy editor on the Neighborhood News desk at theChicago Tribune.
# # #
By September 1957, my mother has been working at theTribunefor almost five years. She starts when she’s sixteen, still a senior at Gage ParkHigh School. My mother ends up there because my grandmother sees a help-wanted adin theTribuneclassifieds. Years later, my mother sends the ad to me. My grandmother had kept itpacked away and my mother uncovers it after she moves her into Central Baptist. Mymother scribbles a note:Mike, A step back in time. Love, Mom
GIRL FOR TRIBUNE
16 TO 19 YEARS OF AGE.
ERRANDS, CLERICAL, IN NEWS DEPT.
DAY SHIFT. 40 HOURS A WEEK.
MUST BE WILLING TO WORK SATURDAYS
AND SUNDAYS. THIS JOB AVAILABLE
AFTER AUGUST 28. ANSWER BY LETTER
ONLY TO TONY STEGER, NEWS DEPT.
4THFL. TRIBUNE TOWER
435 NORTH MICHIGAN AVE.
When my father arrives from Nebraska, my mother is barely twenty-one years old, agal Friday for the paper’s editorial cartoonists. She attends college part-time butwill not graduate. She’s too in love with the newspaper life. Later she will workon theTribune’s Radio-Television desk, writing up listings for the television guide.
“TheTribunewas the happiest time of my life,” she tells me.
In a room full of crusty old guys with cigarettes singed to their lips and half-drainedbottles rattling in their desk drawers, she stands out. “She was all our daughters,”one of them tells me years later. “We adored her.” She blossoms under their attention.She begins to see there is a world beyond the world she knows. A world of smart, knowingmen. A world at the center of the world. A world that knows what’s happening. A worldwhere things happen. Like the day Bob Hope drops by. She gets her photo taken withhim. Her parentscan’t believe it. Or the day she goes down to the Radio Grill and buys drinks forthe guys. A slew of screwdrivers in paper cups on a plastic cafeteria tray that shecarries across Michigan Avenue and up the elevator into the City Room. Twenty drinks,to go. Her idea.
“I thought it’d be funny,” she tells me. “All the guys loved it.” Then she does thatthing she always does—waves her hand and looks away and says, “I don’t know.”
All the while, she’s living with her parents in the West Elsdon neighborhood, by therunways of Midway Airport, on the city’s Southwest Side. A small, tidy house amongrow after row of small, tidy houses built on old prairie, just after World War IIwas won and the men came home. Each with a small yard. In theirs, my grandfather plantsa silver maple. Broad-limbed and overarching. Its seeds, come spring, green and conjoined.Thin wings. As a boy I would gather handfuls of them. Split them from each other.Cast them to the wind. Watch them helicopter to places beyond my reach.
In the fall of 1957, the man who will become my father walks into theTribunenewsroom and starts working with his brother as a copy editor. I have a photo ofthe two of them sitting face-to-face at the copy desk, my uncle speaking, and my father,listening.
My father covers the city. He writes a feature about the construction of Chicago’snew water-filtration plant. (WORLD’S BIGGEST WATER FILTRATION PLANT HERE NEARLY A THIRD COMPLETED); he writes about a man trying to get the Dukes, a West Side gang, off the streets(DUKES NO LONGER HAVE THEIR DUKES UP; HERE’S WHY); he writes a piece about the dead-letter office (DEAD LETTERS? POST OFFICE SLEUTHS KEEP ’EM ALIVE); the 4-H Fair (DOZING ENTRIES BELIE BUSTLE AT 4-H FAIR); the tale of a man named Otis T. Carr, trying to raise money to build the flyingsaucer he wants to fly to the moon (TRIP TO MOON? OTIS IS READY); about a reunion of men who’ve been saved by the Pacific Garden Mission (SKID ROW GRADS HOLD A REUNION—EX-ALCOHOLICS PRAISE GOD AND MISSION). He cuts these stories from the paper and mailsthem home to Nebraska, where his mother pastes them in another scrapbook.
For the next couple of years, he will move from general assignment reporter to copyeditor to assistant picture editor. It’s a lot of movement because the “Old Men,”as management is known, have marked him as an up-and-comer, and they want him to getexperience.
By 1957, theTribuneis the biggest and most powerful of Chicago’s five dailies. As a morning paper, itcompetes with theSun-Times. TheDefenderis also a morning paper, but since it is for the city’s black population, the otherdailies don’t pay much attention to it. The two afternoon papers—theDaily Newsand theChicago American(which later changes its name toChicago Today)—are sister publications of theSun-Timesand theTribune,respectively. TheTribunestill labors under the shadow of “the Colonel”—Colonel Robert McCormick, the recentlydead owner. Grandson of the paper’s founder and grandnephew of Cyrus McCormick, theman who developed the reaper, the Colonel is a rabid Republican and uses the paperto crusade against the New Deal, back Joe McCarthy, and rant against the Commie threat,wherever he imagines it to be. He plants an American flag on the banner and dubs theTribune“An American Paper for Americans.” In November 1948, it is the Colonel and his obsessiveRepublican wishful thinking, as much as any editor’s ineptitude, that results in theTribune’s most infamous headline:DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN. The Colonel dies in 1955—four days before Richard J. Daley gets elected to the firstof his six terms as mayor—but his presence looms over the paper for years. “That’snot the way the Colonel would want it” is what men say in the newsroom to keep someonein check. A paper edited by a dead man.
In one of my father’s scrapbooks, there is an 8½-x-11 black and white, shot by oneof theTribunephotographers. It’s a crowd scene,and there, on the edge of the red carpet that unspools up and out of the picture,is my father—crew-cut, notebook in hand, alone in a cluster of dignitaries crowdingthe steps of the Ambassador West hotel. In front of my father stands Prince Philip.In front of him, his wife, the young queen—Elizabeth. In the photo, all eyes are onher. She is white-sun-hatted and white-dressed, and about to step from a wide anddeep whitewalled Lincoln convertible. Men, waiting for her to alight, hold ajar hersuicide doors. Her white-gloved hand touches the side of the black car. Mayor Daleywatches her. And he—my young father, off to the side—watches this woman hardly olderthan he, really, as she prepares to ascend the steps. It is 1959 and the queen hascome to Chicago to celebrate the completion of the Saint Lawrence Seaway, linkingLake Michigan and the Atlantic Ocean, linking Chicago to the world. From here, finally,a man can sail unimpeded.
The next day, July 7, my father’s story runs with the subheadlines:
QUEEN EATS A LITTLE,
LAUGHS A LOT
My father tells Chicago what Elizabeth ate at lunch (lamb and duck, local) and whatGovernor Stratton of Illinois gives her as a gift (Carl Sandburg’s six-volume setof books on Abraham Lincoln).
The first Saturday in May 1959. Derby Day. My father and his pal from McCook, BobMorris, the same guy who was with him at theGazette,are tossing a Kentucky Derby bash to break in their new apartment. My dad thumbtacksan invite to the newsroom bulletin board. It’s BYOB.
My mother’s just broken her engagement to a man she had beendating for a year. She ends it after she realizes he drinks too much. She breaks downin front of her parents at their kitchen table, telling them between sobs that shedoesn’t love the man. My grandparents stare at her. They do not have the vocabularyfor this. My grandfather says, “You need to talk to the priest.”
As my mother tells me years later—“There I am, twenty-two years old and living athome, my life falling apart, and what do my parents tell me to do? Go talk to thepriest. I walk over to the rectory of Saint Turibius, ring the doorbell. I hated it.”
Her girlfriends at the paper, looking out for her, tell my mother she should go tothe party.
“You know,” says Diane Lenzi, who works in theTribune’s Morgue, “Hainey looks like a nice one. Why don’t you see if you can get him todate you?”
When my mother tells me this, I ask, “Did you go to the party alone?”
“Of course not,” she says. “I brought a six-pack.”
She borrows my grandfather’s Ford Fairlane. A ’55. Blue and white. It’s the firstcar my grandfather has ever owned, as he doesn’t get his license until 1955, whenhe’s forty-five.
She has to drive all the way to the North Side, almost to Evanston. She’s never beenthis far north. She arrives just after 4 p.m., in time to see the horses go off onthe small black and white.
The man who will become my father is not there. He’s working the late shift and doesn’tarrive until ten. My father, arriving late. My mother, waiting. From the start, theirpattern.
She’s a girl in a blue skirt and a yellow cashmere cardigan. She knows she’s supposedto talk to him. But that’s not something she does. Suddenly a friend pulls her overto Bob Hainey and his group of young newsmen in a corner, all confident.
“Bob,” her friend says, pushing my mother toward the circle. “You know Barbara Hudak.Radio-TV desk?”
“I do,” he says.
Because he does know her. And she knows him. For months, the old men in the newsroomhave been telling her, “He’s a guy worth knowing.” And they’ve been telling him, “She’sa girl to get to know.” Now, here they are. They talk. They drink. The circle of friendsexpands, contracts, expands, and then, finally, contracts to just them. Two new friends.
She looks at her watch. “I need to go home.”
“Why? We’re having fun. I just got here.”
She tells him that tonight, her father starts work at 3 a.m. He’s an engraver at aprinting plant in town, she says, crafting the metal plates forLifemagazine.
“If I don’t leave now,” she says, “Lifedoesn’t happen.”
He asks her out. Their nights, a rhythm.
My father works 2 p.m. to 10 p.m., drives his ’57 Plymouth to the South Side to pickher up, then drives to one of his haunts on the North Side. He wears a suit and tie.Ever since he showed up for his first day of college, he’s made it a priority to dresswell. “I’ll never forget how I felt,” he tells my grandmother years later, “showingup there in my Nebraska clothes, seeing all those guys with money. I’m in brown andthey’re in blue. I got the picture fast.”
Their first date is at the Bit & Bridle. My father likes it because it once was aroadhouse. Left over from a time when the area north of the city was stables, pastures,and nurseries. Inside, pine-paneled walls the color of honey. Paintings of men inred jackets and black hats, riding horses, tallyhoing over hedges and fields. Thewaiter shows them to a tight, round table. A small red candle glows between them.The man asks what they want to drink. My father says, “Manhattan.”
My mother freezes, doesn’t want to embarrass herself.
“That’s when I looked to the bar and saw a sign,” she tells me later. “It said Champale.I ordered that. I figured it was classy.”
My mother has instructions from my grandmother: “I don’t want you sitting in the carand necking. Just come in the house and do it, if you have to do it.”
They stop at the door and he kisses her. The wind blows and rustles the leaves ofthe silver maple that shades them from the streetlamp’s glare.
A few weeks later, he asks her to be his date to the Page-One Ball—an awards dinnerfor Chicago newspapermen. It is June 13—my mother’s birthday. But she doesn’t tellhim.
After the awards, he drives her home. On Ogden Avenue, cop lights in his rearview.Maybe he’s had too much to drink. Worse, he’s in Cicero, a city unto itself. Thisis where Capone ruled. My father pulls to the curb. He hands the cop his license,a five-dollar bill paper-clipped to it.
“This ain’t gonna do, sir.”
He hands my father his license, the five bucks gone. The cop tells my father to getin the squad car.
He points to my mother. “You follow.”
The car’s a stick. She barely knows how to drive one. But she follows them to thestation—just in time to see my father taken away to a cell. Another cop drives mymother home. She doesn’t hear from my father until the next afternoon, after he callsUncle Dick to bail him out. Everything gets fixed when Dick shows up and tells thecops that my father is a reporter, too.
When my father is led out of his cell, the desk sergeant says, “Why didn’t you sayyou were one of us? Next time, show us your press pass.”
The cop puts a hand on my uncle’s shoulder. “He’s lucky he has you.”
By the late 1950s, four of the five newspapers are clustered in a tight circle aroundMichigan Avenue and the Chicago River, in the shadow of the Wrigley Building. Eachnewspaper has its preferred bar, each but a few steps out its front door. TheTribunemen drink at the Boul Mich. Some nights, my father takes my mother there. Sometimes,my mother meets my father at the Press Club in the Hotel St. Clair, where the reportersfor all the papers hang out. Men in dark suits drinking brown iced drinks. She likesit because a man plays the piano, and Joe, the bartender, shines attention on her.“He just thought I was something else,” she tells me. “And he loved Bob, too.” Sometimesmy father takes her to the Tip Top Tap, a cozy bar atop the Allerton Hotel, overlookingMichigan Avenue. And sometimes they go to Radio Grill on Hubbard Street, where they’reserved by Frank Morgner. As a nine-year-old back in Columbus, Ohio, Morgner was runover by a horse-drawn cart and lost his right leg. A year or two later, he made friendswith another boy in town—Foy Large, who’d lost his left leg after he was run overby a train. Eventually, the two boys worked up a tumbling-and-dance act based arounda pair of extra-wide trousers so they could stand together on their good legs. Theyplayed theaters all over the country and made two world tours, including the LondonPalladium and the Alhambra in Paris.
Sometimes, if the night is right and late enough and Foy is there, drinking, Frankand Foy will climb atop the bar and then, like two kids getting ready to run the three-leggedrace at a Fourth of July picnic, belt their peg legs together. The whole bar, rapt.
And then, softly . . . softly . . . the two men begin to sing,Way . . . down . . . upon . . . the Swa-nee Ri-ver . . . far . . . far . . . a-way . . .Their two soles, keeping time.
In the fall of 1959, my father leaves Chicago. A six-week trip through Europe, hisfirst. It’s been a dream forever, and he’s savedhis money. He goes with a buddy. Maybe the biggest moment comes when he somehow endsup on the British version ofWhat’s My Line?He wins when he stumps the panel with his secret (“I’ve interviewed the queen”).
He airmails my mother letters from Berlin, Zurich, London. He sends her a postcardfrom Windsor Castle, a photo of the Waterloo Chamber and its enormous wooden table.“Take a look at this table,” he writes. “Looks like they haven’t made up their mindwho is going to be slot man. Had lobster last night and sawMy Fair Lady. Both great. Be good. Bob.”
He returns. She’s waited for him. They go to bars, restaurants. The Driftwood CocktailLounge, the Ivy Lounge, the Clover Club, the Town and Country, the Baby Doll PolkaClub, Talbott’s, Elliott’s Pine Log, William Tell Lounge, Café Bohemia.
South Pacificis the first movie they see together.Porgy and Bess, North by Northwest, The Five Pennies, Anatomy of a Murder, The 400Blows, The Seventh Seal, Ben-Hur, The Apartment, Smiles of a Summer Night.My mother falls in love with the theme fromA Summer Place. Whenever they go to Talbott’s, she plays it on the jukebox, over and over.
They go to Second City. They go to music clubs. Cloister Inn, Gitano’s, the Gate ofHorn, where, a few years later, they see Peter, Paul, and Mary.
June 25, 1960.
They have been dating for a year. My mother’s leaving for Europe the next day withher friend Diane Lenzi—the same woman who encouraged her to attend the Derby Day partyat my father’s apartment.
My mother’s never been to Europe. She’s saved her money. It’s her dream, too.
The night before she leaves, my father tells her he wants to marry her. She says yes.
Two facts: (1) He cannot afford a ring. She tells him she doesn’t need one. Instead,he gives her a watch for Christmas. (2) Not until she returns from Europe six weekslater does my mother tell anyone that she is engaged.
In the newsroom, they send each other notes and cards, in theTribune’s house mail—manila envelopes shuttled by copy boys from desk to desk, from chicken-wireout-basket to chicken-wire in-basket. My mother saves them all. Years later, downin her basement, I find the box. A short time before they are married, she sends hima card via interoffice mail.
The cover says,YOU’VE MADE ME THE HAPPIEST
Inside she writes:
But you will make me happier if you will meet me at the end of the aisle in St. TuribiusChurch at 12 noon exactly three months from today on May 6. I look forward with anxiousheart to be your wife—and love you, take care of you, make sandwiches for you, and even sew your buttons.
I love you very much.
Two years after they meet, they are married. It is Derby Day of May 1961. A few monthslater, my mother leaves theTribune. She’s a housewife now. They get a one-bedroom apartment on Ridge Avenue. Nine monthsafter they’re married, my brother is born. A short time later, they buy their housenear O’Hare. My mother is happy—“I had my own washer and dryer. For once, I coulddo the laundry whenever I wanted.”
March 1964, I am born.4
And then, just like that, he is gone. Thirty-five and dead.
And just like that, we go on. Or, try to. Three of us stumbling through that firstyear. My mother, thirty-three, a widow now. My brother and I, eight and six, 1970.
A death, quick. Abrupt. Unwitnessed. Mysterious.
The parking lot. That morning. I am on my bike, my new two-wheeler, riding in circlesin the parking lot of the Kroger grocery store. My mother has sent me out. Or haveI chosen to leave?
Here they come. People I know. People who know me. Blood, they say. Relatives, all.In big, wide American cars, they drive into my faded-asphalt lot. There’s my unclePaul, my aunt Nancy; my godmother, Lorraine and her husband, Clarence. There’s UncleHarry, there’s Aunt Sue. They are waving to me. I am one boy on two wheels, goingin circles, not stopping. And there they go, one after another, to do what you dowhen a life stops. Coming to close the circle.
# # #
“What do you remember about that day?” I ask my grandmother as we sit toe-to-toe,her in her wheelchair.
She tells me that after they broke it to my brother and me, she went upstairs to thebathroom.
“I needed a place to cry,” she says. “That’s when I saw them, right there in frontof the radiator—your father’s slippers.”
My grandmother stares at the slippers for a minute, hesitates, and then—she stuffsthem into her purse.
All that long day, she carries my father’s slippers with her. When she goes back intothe kitchen to comfort my mother, his slippers are in her purse. When she is waitingat home with my brother and me while my grandfather takes my mother to buy the coffin.While she is helping to serve us dinner. My father’s slippers stay in her purse untillate that night when she and my grandfather return to their silent house on KennethAvenue. Slowly, my grandfather will back his red Impala into the garage and then,when he turns the engine off, they will both get out of the car and, together, pullthe heavy door down.
They walk with no words between them.
My grandfather pushes open the cyclone gate to their yard and stalks toward the house.In the darkness, behind him, my grandmother considers the battered fifty-five-gallonoil drum that has been their garbage can for as long as they have lived here. Sheunlatches her purse, clutches his slippers, slides them into the dark can, hides thembetween bags of trash.
“All I could think was your momma was never gonna see him in those slippers again.I couldn’t bear for her to see them.”
# # #
I went to school that day. Kindergarten. My mother asks me if I want to go or stayhome.
“Your brother is staying home,” she says.
“I’ll go,” I say.
Not go on a day like this? More than ever, I want to be present.
Thomas Alva Edison Grammar School.
I walk to school alone.
And then there I am, cross-legged, Injun-style, on the floor. It is my favorite time:story time. Miss Nome reads to us. And in my wandering mind I become aware of someoneat the classroom door: the principal and my brother’s second-grade teacher. The principalsays something. I see her lips move but hear no words. They stare at me, point. Theyshake their heads and then they are gone.
At the end of the day, my brother’s teacher reappears at the door, and then all ofmy brother’s classmates file in, bearing gifts for me. Well, sort of. There are notrinkets. No furs. No wampum. Instead, each has made a card for my brother. All ofthem big, multicolored, construction-papered, glue-and-Crayola’d sympathy cards. Ihold out my arms, receive them all. When it comes time for me to go home, Miss Nomehas to help me carry them toward the curb outside, where Uncle Dick waits. I get inthe car, and she piles the sympathies onto my lap. I have never felt more alive.
# # #
My mother used to be afraid that people would know anything about our family—to knowour weaknesses. Like the fact that my father was dead, or that she was a widow atthirty-three. A fear we’d be seen as strange. Or not right. As I got older, I hadto keep telling her, Every family has skeletons. The family that you think is perfect,the one sitting front and center at church every Sunday, the kids all smiles and wellscrubbed? They’re probably the most in need of sympathy. At our church—Mary, Seatof Wisdom—it was the _________. How many times did I sit at Saturday Vigil Mass whenI was a kid, wishing that I were in their family, not mine? They’d stride the aisleto take a pew, the mother beautiful as Mary Tyler Moore, the father all JFK. And theirkids? I envied them. I’d imagine how nice it would be to go home after Mass with thatfamily. Only years later did I learn the truth: one daughter estranged; one of theirsons living a life they didn’t understand; the parents with heavy hearts.
It was my mother who told me about them.
“Family secrets,” she said when she finished telling me the story, waving her handacross her face.
“Family?” I said. “Secrets? Sometimes I think they are the same thing.”
# # #
I come home from school bearing all those cards and find our house crammed with people.In walks a neighbor, Phil James, carrying a giant ham in a roasting pan. If you askedme what I rememberabout that day, one of the first things I’d say is “ham.” He’s weaving his way throughthe crowded room, holding the thing above his head like some priest raising high hissacrifice, and it’s hot out of the oven all sizzling and smelling good and everyonesmiles and laughs.
# # #
We waked him on Sunday. Ryan-Parke Funeral Home.
“Visitation,” they called it.
In my high school class was a girl named Cristen Ryan. I never knew her. There’s noway I would have—she was a cheerleader. Dark hair and dark eyes and thighs soft andsmooth and olive-skinned. She was like a Gauguin painting on Game Day in her pleatedwool cheerleader skirt, the one that was white but had black and red panels hiddenunderneath that I would get glimpses of as she passed me by in the hall: black, red.Profit, loss. And that thick turtleneck sweater, the big blockMSstitched onto her chest. Pointy Keds white as her teeth. She was always smiling.Walking the hallway, hugging her binder and her books to her chest, laughing at whateverit was the person walking with her was whispering.
I wish she would’ve noticed me, talked to me. I believed she didn’t because she knewmy father had been inside her father’s funeral home. I was sure that she didn’t talkto boys with dead fathers. I was positive her father told her who we were. It allmade me feel ashamed. Weak. A failure. Why do I have to drag this dead man with me,wherever I go?
Still, she was lovely. A vision.
Sometimes, at Thompson’s Finer Foods—where I started workingat fifteen, selling fruits and vegetables—she’d come in with her mother. Her mother,perfectly tan, even in December, always wearing a black fur coat that didn’t stopuntil her ankles. In the winter, the pelt rubbing against the wet wheel of the shoppingcart. Their cart, piled high with provisions for what I was sure was a never-endingparty that I’d never be invited to. I imagined their house, aglow, bursting with laughter,with life and beauty.
And me, standing there, rotating my stock, uncrating another rickety crate of peppersor beets, scraping off the caked, crushed ice. Stacking sack upon sack of potatoes.My hands, soiled from my 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. shift. “Secondhand dirt,” my boss calledit—the grime of the earth that would work its way into the grooves of my fingerprints.My hands, blackened, cracked. Transformed into dirty relief maps. And my mother, alwaysafter me to scrub my hands when I returned home. “Go into the basement,” she’d say.“And don’t touch my walls.”
At the wake, I’m on one of my mother’s hands. My brother, the other. She leads usdown the aisle, past the rows of gray metal folding chairs, toward his waiting coffin.
“Kneel,” she says.
I’m next to his face. It is as though he’s asleep on the couch. He even has his glasseson. Brown frames, thick.
I look to my mother, but I can’t see her face. A mantilla? Behind the coffin is acurtain. Like the kind through which a host would make his appearance on a televisiontalk show. Floor to ceiling. Shimmering. Suspended in the midst of it, a crucifix.
I touch the wood of my father’s coffin. It’s smooth and shiny, deep and brown. Likehis Buick. He always drove a Buick. That’s what he was driving the night he died.Beer-bottle brown with a black hardtop.
The rest of the day, I sit in the back of the parlor and people walk in and pointto me and say, “He’s one of the boys.”
# # #
We buried him at Maryhill Cemetery. A town away. Us, one long row of dark black cars.But we didn’t really bury him. It was that Catholic thing, where you have the funeralMass and then the procession to the cemetery and then the final prayers in the cemeterychapel. The body left behind.
No ropes. No lowering of the box bumping against the grave wall. No fistfuls of dirttossed on top.
A few years later, we are at the kitchen table, the three of us, and my brother saysout of nowhere, “How come we didn’t get to throw dirt on Dad’s coffin?”
My mother says, “What did you say?”
He says, “Like they do on TV.”
“Because we didn’t,” she says. “That’s why.”
And then she walks out, her food sitting there, going cold.
# # #
A few weeks after he was dead, a man in a white shirt, white pants, and a white capcomes to our house and starts working on our doors, front and back.
“What are you doing?” I say.
“Deadbolts,” he says.
Not until I was in my thirties did my mother let slip that for months after he died,phone calls came for her in the middle of the night. Obscene phone calls. She tellsme she has a theory: There are men who read the obits in the paper, looking for whatshe calls“fresh widows” to prey upon. “It’s easy,” she says. “Everything is right there inthe obit. Everything you need to know to hurt someone. It’s like a burglar drivingthrough a neighborhood and looking for a dark house. A vulnerable target.”
My mother calls the police. They come to our kitchen and take her statement. In theend, they do nothing, just tell her to take the receiver off the cradle at night.
One of the cops tells her, “You don’t want to be inviting any of this.”
I can only imagine her terror. Alone in that house with her two children, aware thatsomewhere out there is someone who knows where you live. Someone who is watching you.Someone who has your number.
# # #
I asked her about her friends. Who was there for you after he died? Who was therefor us? Who stepped up?
“For a month or two, I got invited to dinners or to parties. The things we alwayswent to as a couple. But then that stopped. Just like that. I’d hear talk about theparties the morning after, when I was in town running errands. I think it was thewomen who cut me out. They all thought I was out to steal their men.”
She is playing solitaire at the kitchen table.
The shuffle. The cut. The deal to herself.
“Married women don’t like single women,” she says. “If one appears in the group, theycast her out. That’s when I saw that I was alone.”
She looks back at her cards.
1, 2, 3. No match.
1, 2, 3. No match.
1, 2, 3. No match.
“I’ll never forget the women who cut me loose,” she says, not lifting her eyes fromher cards.
# # #
You are being raised by a single mother. You are growing up in a house where silenceis the rule. Still, you can’t help yourself. There are times you forget the rule,times when you want to ask a question. About him. About life. About her. And yourmother always answers your questions with the same question: “Michael,” she’d say,“remember the last scene?”
From the time you are a small boy, she has drilled this scene into you. Some kids,their parents make them study the Bible, learn piano. Speak a foreign language. You—you’retaughtThe Godfather.
Even before you ever saw the movie, she tells you about the last scene, acting itout for you and your brother as you sit at the dinner table, your Green Giant nibletssimmering yellow and bright in the CorningWare, next to your tuna casserole and perfectlybrowned Pillsbury crescent roll.
She tells you how Michael, the not-firstborn son, becomes, upon the death of his father,what he never wanted to be—his father.
She tells you how Michael, so seemingly gentle at first appearance, so seemingly immuneto the rage that burns in the blood of the family, slowly and surely becomes the completeembodiment of this rage. Rage drives Michael to settle family business. But Michaelis blind to the truth that he can never settle the score. He wants revenge for whathas been taken from him. Yet he cannot see that revenge will not bring back to himwhat is lost.
Your mother tells you then about the last scene—her favorite scene, she says. Yourmother says it is her favorite scene because in it, Michael has finally become whollyhis father, and as he stands there in his father’s study, being attended by his deadfather’s lieutenants, his wife, driven to doubts about her husband, confronts him.
Your mother says this is her favorite scene because it contains her favorite lineof dialogue.
“And then,” your mother says, “Kay asks Michael, ‘Is it true?’ Is it true that heordered the murder of his sister’s husband? And Michael looks at her and says, ‘Don’task me about my business, Kay.’ ”
Your mother smiles and says, “I love that line.”
All through your childhood, whenever you ask her a question about her life or whatshe is doing or where she is going, she will fix you in her gaze and say to you, herson: “Don’t ask me about my business.”
# # #
My mother often has more interest in the lives of TV characters than those of realpeople. It’s easier for her to talk about their problems, their story lines. We talkabout their lives more than we talk about our own lives.
She loves Joseph Cotten inGaslightbut thinks William Holden is the sexiest man ever. When I was fourteen,Picniccame on one night and she asked me to watch it with her, then told me how she sawit as a teenager and fell in love with Holden after he, the dark and mysterious manwho drifts into a small Kansas town, gets drunk at the Labor Day picnic and takeshis shirt off and dances with Kim Novak.
She especially loves movies and TV shows about cops or prisons or men doing bad thingsand getting caught and punished. If I happen to call her while she is watching one,she picks up the phone and says, “I’ll call you when this is over,” and hangs up.
When we were boys—my brother and I—and we’d come home summer nights after playingKick the Can or Ghosts in the Graveyard, before we were allowed to take a bath, she’dsend us to the laundry room to take off our dirty clothes, strip to our underwear.As we’d head down, she’d always shout after us, “Taking it off here, Boss!”
Only years later, when I sawCool Hand Luke,did I realize she was quoting the line Paul Newman and the other prisoners had tosay to No Eyes when they wanted to remove their shirts.
She reveres Edward R. Murrow. When I was thirteen, there was a special on PBS abouthis life. She made me watch it with her. As the show ended, she looked at me and said,“Cotten was the sexiest. But Murrow? Oh, he was the most handsome ever.”
# # #
Summers we were ghosts in the graveyard. The game was simple: Every kid save one transformedinto a ghost. The neighborhood, our graveyard. The game begins when the undead childis sent away from home, told to disappear. Then the ghosts come a-hunting. The ghostslook to capture the one among us who is not a ghost—the one who is undead—and changehim into a ghost before he can reach “safe,” reach “home.” Victory depends on defyingthe ghosts. Evasion. Elusion. Finding home.
# # #
After he died, silence descends. Silence and fear. My twin poles: my binary blackholes. I live in fear of upsetting my mother, of even uttering my father’s name. Ibelieve that even by saying his name, I might kill her. Or she might kill me.
Three of us remained. Three atoms that retreat to the outer edges of our chamber.A nuclear family flawed, reduced. We drift apart. Unable to bond. Not knowing how.Survivors who stagger into a shelter or a bombed-out ruin, each eyeing the othersfrom our shadowy corner. Wondering. Calculating.
He died and we never spoke again about him. Every once in a while, I’d find the courageto ask about him. Every once in a while, the question nagging in my head—How did he die?—would become too much and I’d forget the rules and ask.
My mother, at the kitchen table, playing solitaire.
The shuffle, the cut, the deal to herself.
Depth of summer, dead of winter, she is forever dealing. The only other thing alivein our kitchen, the radio atop our refrigerator. It’s always on.
My grandmother carried a transistor radio the size of a pocket Bible. The two panelsbound together with a thick rubber band. Come bedtime, she’d place it beside her onher pillow and keep it on all night, tuned to WGN. The talk shows, the call-ins. Shenever slept much. Most nights she’d walk room-to-room, look out thewindows, into the night. She was like that, she said, ever since her mother died.But she had that radio, always on. When I was a boy, she told me, “The voices remindme I’m not the only one out here.”
But my mother’s radio was forever tuned to WIND. “Chicagohhhhh’swind!” is what the men say when they have to identify themselves. “Five-sixty onyour AM dial.”
Even now, there are songs I hear—songs that make me think of then.
If you could read my mind, love, what a tale my thoughts could tell. Just like anold-time movie, ’bout a ghost from a wishing well . . . You know that ghost is me.
Then another song. A woman has had a man leave her. The woman ends each day the wayshe starts out, crying her heart out.One less bell to answer. One less egg to fry. One less man to pick up after.
Another song.Stones would play, inside her head. And when she slept, they made her bed.
Another song. The first line is like a word problem. Something I’m not at all goodat.By the time I get to Phoenix, she’ll be rising . . . Each time, I wonder who the woman is that this man has left behind. And howfast is he moving away from her? Vanishing.She’ll find the note I left hanging on her door. . . . By the time I make Albuquerque,she’ll be working. . . . But she’ll just hear that phone keep on ringing off the wall.
Songs of loss. Of missing men. Of men leaving. . . .Leaving, on a jet plane. Don’t know when I’ll be back again. . . . Already I’m solonesome, I could die. . . .
Even now, there are songs that can make me cry. Like “(They Long to Be) Close to You.”
I’m not afraid to admit it.
On the day that you were born, the angels got together, and decided to create a dreamcome true . . . Aye, da-da-da-da-di-i-i-i-i-i-i-ie, close to you.
I remember riding my bike in the alley, singing that song and thinking that that girlliked me. That she was going to lift me up and take care of me. In the summer, thosedays long as the Crusades, I’d ride my bike everywhere. It was a way to keep moving.I learned to look forward to the day after Independence Day. Get up early, ride theneighborhood, scan the gutters for duds. That endless search for what we called thenon-pops. Gather them up. Stuff them in my pockets. Then unroll them all. Scrape thepowder in a pile and throw a match at it.Pfffft!A flash and a cloud of smoke, and then—gone.
I lived for that.
My mother comes home one afternoon that summer. My brother and I are sprawled on thefloor, watching a show about a beautiful woman married to a man who makes her hideher true self. She has magic powers. A good witch. My mother says to us, “I don’twant you to get the wrong idea about why we’re going. This is Uncle Dick’s treat.And you are not getting to go on a vacation because your father died. But—would youlike to go to Disneyland?”
I think,Are you kidding me? I can’t get there fast enough!
Three memories of that trip:
1. I eat pancakes cooked in a silhouette of Mickey Mouse’s head.
2. We never see Mickey or any of the characters. I start to think that they don’texist. Then, on our last day in the Magic Kingdom, we come upon a lone figure shamblingalong in what looks like a soiled oversize bathrobe. Turns out he’s one of the Dwarfs.Not one of the famous ones, like Dopey. One of the C-listers. My mother grabs thelittle man, pushes my brother and me in front of him, and snaps her Instamatic.
3. My mother, my brother, and I squeeze into a small car that is borne by means unseendown a dark path. The Haunted Mansion. A restraint lowers, locks us in. I feel themachinery underfoot, pulling us forward. A driverless car, yet we move.As our car makes its way toward the end of the ride, we come to a stop in a shadowyroom.
Still, I can see something. There’s just barely enough light. Yes, there it is: ournew family. The three of us, reflected in the mirror before us on the wall.
But I look again, and there, in the mirror—in the car with us, sitting between mybrother and me—is a ghost of a man. Hair, crazy. Teeth, cracked and black. Clothesbut shreds, full of holes. For a moment, I think the man is real and I try to hidemy fear.
Our car passes from the mirror.
The ghost is no more.
Halloween. After he is dead. My brother says he wants to be Dracula. My mother sewshis cape and makes a kind of royal, count-like medallion for him by tying an old broachto some thick red yarn. She slicks his hair with Dippity-Do, brings it to a pointon his forehead. My brother completes the transformation with a pair of ninety-nine-centplastic vampire teeth he buys at the Kroger.
I tell my mother I want to be a bum. She digs up one of my grandfather’s suit vestsand one of his cast-off hats. I wear the vest over a T-shirt. She gives me a pairof old trousers. They’re my grandfather’s, too. He’s so short that even though I’ma boy, they are almost the right length. I wear the bottoms of them rolled. Then Icinch them around my waist with a length of frayed twine, knotting it tight.
In my mother’s basement, there’s a photograph she took of my brother and me standingon the back porch in the dying light, winter’s chill already in the air. Her two sons,transformed. Her elder, one of the living dead. Me, a tattered, meager man doomedto wander without a home.
# # #
Halloween night, the rain always came. Winter’s advance troops.
Chicago in winter? Not for the faint of heart. Even now, I go back for Christmas andI can’t take it. “Your blood has thinned,” my mother always tells me. “That’s whathappens when you leave.”
I step beyond the terminal, into the air outside O’Hare, and it’s like inhaling shardsof glass. And then there’s the snow. Endless shoveling. People get nutty about it.After a storm, people emerge blinking but single-minded, their only thought to digout their cars, buried in drifts before their homes. And then, when they finally freetheir cars, they drag old kitchen chairs out to mark their places. Stake their claim.Drive down a Chicago side street in January. Amid the snowbanks, chair after batteredchair. Like so many thrones for Old Man Winter.
Chicago. I am of that place. Spires loom. The sky, a soiled shroud. Even as a kid,I knew it was my Old Country. Where leaves get trapped and battered in dark gangways.Where cabbages boil in every kitchen and bitter steam stains dim windows. Where oldPolacks nurse Old Styles in taverns on Ashland Avenue and, outside, women wait huddledfor buses grinding streets that stretch to the horizon. From my grandmother’s attic,I could see the garbage dumps beyond the railroad tracks. They had been filled yearsbefore I was born. Covered with new soil. Sodded with fresh grass. New land. And pipeswere stuck here and there, spewing fire. Burning off the methane. At night, I’d stareout the window, watching pale blue flames flicker like hopeful campfires of settlerson the prairie.
Winter, my mother always kept the house as cold as possible. “Put on a sweater,” she’dsay whenever I tell her I am cold.
I am cold every day. Some days, I wear three sweaters and two pairs of socks, sittingthere in the basement with my brother, the afghan pulled over us, watchingHogan’s Heroes. Imprisoned men having fun.
At night, my mother would drop the thermostat to fifty-nine. I’d sleep in a knit hatand socks.
In the depth of winter, mornings still black as sin and the wind blowing jagged crystalsof ice-snow against the bedroom window, I’d go downstairs for breakfast and my motherstill would not raise the thermostat. What she’d do instead: Turn on the oven andopen it. I’d pull my chair in front of it. Eat my breakfast and stare at the flames.
One night I couldn’t stand it anymore, and on my way to bed I turned the thermostatup. To sixty-two.
The next morning I come into the kitchen, and as I sit down she plants herself beforethe oven and blocks my warmth.
“Did you touch the thermostat?”
“Don’t gaslight me,” she says.
I look at her.
“Do you know what gaslighting is?”
“No.” (I’m ten. What does she want?)
“It’s a movie,” she says. “It’s all about this man who tries to drive his wife crazyby dimming the lights in their house, and whenever she asks, ‘Is it getting darkerin here?’ he says, ‘No.’ And she starts to lose her mind. But this detective, JosephCotten—oh, you know I’ve always had the biggest crush on him—saves her from her cruelhusband. Turns out not only is he trying to drive her mad, he’s also leading a wholedouble life outside the home.”
She looks at me.
“That’s gaslighting,” she says.
“I didn’t do anything,” I say.
I went out into the frozen morning. School. The only sound the crunch of my bootson iced-snow and the scream of another Final Approach.
Over and over, that’s all we heard.
Life in the shadow of O’Hare. ORD—what this land was beforethe airport was: orchards. Men took it for the airport’s original name: Orchard Field.The origin of ORD. Acres and acres of apple trees. As a boy, I rode my bike to O’Hare,circumnavigated its fenced-in perimeter. That’s how I found the forgotten orchards.A patch of the past. In the fall, their apples rot unwanted. All that remains. Thatand the cemetery. Graves at the far edge of a runway. Chain-link fence. Weathered,worn stones. The remains of settlers. Germans. Some Swedes. Their church was here.After the war, men came with money, bought out the flock, tore down the church, builtour runways. Yet the dead remain. Unless you know where to look, you can’t see them.
Today, still, when I fly to Chicago, I search out the gravestones during my descent.Final Approach. A game I play. My landmarks, the graves. Then I know I am home. ORD.
Jets rattle our kitchen window. In the wake of each departure, the disturbance sostrong we cease speaking.
“Hold that thought,” it seems my mother always says whenever I try to speak.
One day, while I’m waiting for her to cook my lunch, my neat round spaghetti you caneat with a spoon, another jet rumbles overhead. My mother slams her wooden spoon againstthe counter.
“This home is a flight path,” she says, and walks out of the room, the stove untended.
Eventually, she is drawn to it, to the world of airport jobs.
O’Hare. A world of transit. Of long-term lots and frontage roads, of courtesy shuttles,of men in flight.
When I am ten, she takes a job as a cashier in the gift shop at the O’Hare Marriott.Walking distance from our house. When I miss her, I go to see her. But she is unaware.I stand in the lobby, hide behind a column or a wingback chair. Somewhere I can watchher ring up people, make change.
Hertz came later. Her job is to hand out agreements tobusinessmen. Circle the relevants, ask the men if they want additional coverage, highlighttheir penalties for late returns. I become drawn to O’Hare. The Marriott has a shuttle,and in the winter, as a young boy, I hitch rides. I make friends with the driver,cut a deal to be a porter. Men appear and I carry their baggage. Sometimes they tipme. I buy a bad-tasting hot dog and roam the airport for hours, watch jets ascendand descend. I come to love the terminal. It feels better than home.
In the weeks after he is dead, I sit on my mother’s bed and watch as she and her brotherwork their way through my father’s closet. Whatever suits my uncle wants, he handsto my mother and she stuffs them in her Glad bag. Black. Huge. The kind you use toget rid of the dead leaves. The clothes my uncle rejects, my mother tosses into acardboard box, and a few days later she tells me to carry it out to the front stoop.
“What are we doing?” I say.
“Goodwill is coming.”
“You can wait if you want, but it never comes when it says it will.”
I sit on the front stoop, my father’s box next to me. Finally a man appears.
“Are you Good Will?” I say.
# # #
Mail continues to come for him.
ROBERT CHARLES HAINEY
915 C PETERSON AVE
PARK RIDGE, ILLINOIS 60068
I ask why.
“Junk mail,” my mother says. “Computers,” she says. “They don’t care.”
For years after, whenever I can get home before my mother, I pluck out the piecessent to him. Bills, newsletters, solicitations. Envelopes with little plastic windows,his name framed, on display. I hide them in a blue Keds shoe box beneath my bed. Nightswhen she is not home, I carry the shoe box out to the back porch, bury the lettersin the bottom of our family’s trash.
It’s the fall after my father has died. I’m in first grade, September. The air stillwarm with summer’s afterburn. I come home from school. My grandmother is working thestove. In the months after my father’s death, she and my grandfather stay with us.They want to keep an eye on my mother.
I hold a picture that I drew that day: two large white candles, one on either sideof the paper, each attached to a large yellow candleholder. Small orange flames burnsteady from their wicks. Between the candles there is a coffin, propped atop two blackwheels.
My grandmother asks, “What is this?”
I tell her we were told to draw a picture of our father.
My grandmother crumples up my portrait and stuffs it deep into the trash. She squeezesmy arm, kneels down in front of me on the linoleum.
“Don’t ever tell anyone about this. Don’t ever tell your mother what you made. Orwhat I did.”
How his death hung over that house.
It’s part of what I know to be true—your absence is greater than your presence.
# # #
1970. The first Christmas without him.
Father Clark sets up a Christmas tree next to the altar, blocking out Saint Joseph’sshrine. There are no ornaments on the tree, only pieces of white paper, paper-clippedto the branches. Like paper snowflakes, waiting to become. After Mass, my mother plucksone off. “What’s that?” I ask, and she tells my brother and me that we’re going tomake a care package for a bum. We all saidbumback then. Back then, any man without a home was a bum.
Father Clark has started a neediest fund and our church has adopted Pacific GardenMission, deep in the city. We sit at the kitchen table as my mother unfolds the pieceof paper that still smells of mimeograph. She reads the name of the man to herself,and then she hands the paper to my brother, who hands it to me. In black ink, a man’sname is written. Below are mimeographed purple instructions saying that the best giftsto include are toothbrushes, toothpaste, disposable razors, warm socks, knit hats,long underwear.NO AFTERSHAVE.
My brother and I watch our mother pack our gifts into a box. Her fists crumple oldnewspaper into loose balls. Something to preventbreakage. Then she slides toward my brother and me a Christmas card and a pen.
“Write something,” she says.
For a long time, I stare at the card, unsure of what to write to this man I do notknow. I’m mystified at how to begin. “Dear sir”? “Dear Mr. Bum”? I write simply, “MerryChristmas.” As I’m about to sign my name, something else trips me: Do I sign “Love,Mike”? If I write “Love,” am I betraying my father? Will I anger my mother?
I scribble my name and poke the card back to my mother. She seals it and says nothing,just drops it into the box.
“Why can’t bums have aftershave?”
“They’ll drink it. That’s what they do on skid row. Hold this down.”
I put my hand on the lid as she cuts the tape. I say, “Where’s skid row?”
“Where bums live.”
“Because they’re lost men.” She pushes our box to the center of the table. “There,”she says. “That looks like it will stay closed.”
For years afterward, whenever my mother drives us into the city and we pass by thegiant red neon cross-shaped sign for Pacific Garden Mission, I stare at the men standingin line, the men waiting to be fed. Their eyes never meet mine. I look at them all.I think about what they were. Whom they left behind. I scan their faces, thinkingthat someday I will see my own. That I will see his.
# # #
Maybe my father knew he would never return. Never walk through the kitchen door again,hang his suit coat over a kitchen chair, make a pot, listen to the percolation, watchthe sun rise, wait for us to wake to find him.
At some point, doesn’t every man think of not returning?
The pack of smokes? The carton of milk? The errant errand?
And if he did return, what would be the same?
Summer of ’72, an F2 tornado hits in the night, tears a hole in our roof. Rain poursin. A deluge. Water runs down the walls, seeps into the floors. We spend the nexttwo days, the three of us, ripping up gray, soggy carpeting and the padding underneath,dumping it in the alley.
“We have to get to the floorboards,” my mother tells us.
A day or two later, men come in. They break holes in the walls. They’re looking forrot, they say. “Before you can go on,” one of the men tells me, “you gotta make sureyour walls are strong.”
Come the fall, the house is different. Each room, remade. Fresh paint and carpetingeverywhere. Wall-to-wall is my mother’s mantra. And the shades of the ’70s, shadesof earth and canned vegetables, now rule. The thin gray carpet in the living roomis replaced by thick pile, the color of an Idaho potato. If my father were to entertheir bedroom, only the bed remains unchanged. Cherry. Four-poster. The carpetingshag now, pistachio green. If he walks in the back door, into the kitchen, slippingin like he always did—the walls, once white, now papered over in a print of avocadoand lemon. Carpet—something my mother tells me is “indoor-outdoor”—covers the linoleum.Everything reskinned. Only the clock, built in to the wall above the sink, goes untouched.Slim black hands circling a tin face.
After the repairs are made, I cannot sleep. I ask my mother to put the kitchen backthe way it was. I am convinced he will return and, opening a door on a home he nolonger recognizes, he will believe he is in the wrong house and he will leave us,to go on searching for his home.
# # #
I walk with my grandfather on a summer night, the summer my father is dead. We walkthrough the alley of the Kroger grocery store. In the setting sun, the bricks turna deep, warm orange, like the color of that powder you mix with milk to make the “cheese”of macaroni and cheese.
My grandfather is a quiet man. He holds my hand. We walk in silence. It will be thisway, always.
For the rest of my childhood, I want from him what I want from any man in my life.A voice. Someone to talk to. Someone who will tell me the knowledge I should know,tell me of the ways of the world, guide me. An arm around my shoulder.
At the end of the alley, I stop at a manhole. Years to come, this will be home platefor baseball games back here with boys.
The manhole cover is not solid but a grate, metal bars maybe an inch apart. I am onthe edge, not wanting to stand on it, afraid I will fall through the spaces.
My grandfather holds my hand. Somewhere at the bottom, in the darkness, I can seemyself. I let go of my grandfather’s hand, kneel down on the edge of the grate. Ifind pebbles on the pavement. I drop one into the dark hole, then another, and a third.My reflection, shattered. Ripples on the black water.
My grandfather presses more stones into my palm, says to me, “Maybe your father willcatch one.”
# # #
In junior high, I see a story inNewsweekabout the USSR. This is around the time Brezhnev is fading. 1979. The story has twophotos: One shows a wall of grim, stiff men standing shoulder to shoulder on a reviewingstand. It’s a May Day parade in Red Square. They are cloaked in heavy woolen coatsand homburgs. Some dress like military men. On the far end of the stage, a man salutesan unseen crowd.
Next to this photo is its duplicate, except: The Saluting Man is gone. Where he was,now there is nothing. A red circle around the spot where he stood: placed by the magazine—ared circle to highlight his void. The caption informs readers that party officialshave removed him. “Purged,” they call it. The man never lived.
Everyone in the USSR knows his nonexistence is a lie, but no one will say anything.
What is a purge but a collective agreement not to speak of the dead? Complicit silence.The mind, however, still remembers.
I marvel at the brazenness of Brezhnev: Did he believe he could force an entire peopleto agree that this person didn’t exist? Surely everyone knows that the photographhas been doctored. That a man with a name and a past and a family is now deleted.
And yet it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter what the Soviet people thought, it didn’tmatter what the world thought, and it certainly didn’t matter what a boy in Chicagothought. Life, I learned then, belongs not to the just but to those who do whateverthey must do in order to maintain their vision of reality. I had more in common withthose Soviet citizens than I knew. I learned never to mention the name of the nonperson.I worked to crush my desire to know him and smother my instinct to keep him alive.
In the end, he lived on in scrapbooks. Six of them. Brittle, faded pages bound withstring. Out of these fragments, over the years, I created his narrative. And my narrative.
I discover the scrapbooks when I’m eight, wedged in a cabinet beneath the bookshelf.They are my father’s life, created by hismother. The books stop when he marries my mother. From boyhood to newspaperman, hismother kept the evidence of a life lived. First-grade report card. Cub Scout awards.Elementary-school class photos. Ticket stubs for football games (the scores notedon them). Birthday cards. Mother’s Day cards he made for her. High school prom photographs.The first stories he wrote for theTribune. Stories about him from theOmaha-World Herald—such as the one from 1947 detailing how, as a boy of twelve, he delivered an award-winningessay (“What New Horizons I See”) at the dedication of a Reclamation Bureau dam inthe Republican Valley. There is a photograph of him and his mother, the caption saying,“Bob, a seventh-grader, says he hopes to be a newspaperman.”
I live in fear my mother will catch me. I have this idea that she will take my readingof his scraps as a sign of disloyalty. I go to him in secret and in silence, and inmy time with him I try to make him whole again. Reconstruct him. The books are mytalismans, my way to conjure him. Maybe I could not raise him from the dead. But withthese scrapbooks, I could bring him to life.
What will be left of us when we are gone? My father? Bits of faded newsprint amidsheaves of crumbling construction paper. Serrated-edged black-and-white photographsshot by Kodak Brownies. A boy of six, on his back porch, hugging his black dog, squintinginto the great American Dust Bowl sun of 1939. A book of scraps. Brittle pages. Itwas left to me to reassemble him. I learned to make sense of the remnants, to findmeaning in the missing pieces. A man of paper.
The more I touch it, the more it crumbles.
# # #
That fall, she signs up for figure-skating classes at the park district field house.
I ask why.
My mother tells me that if she could live her life over, she’d want to come back asan Olympic figure skater. She says, “I just think it would be the best life ever.”
All through that fall she learns to skate.
“I’m learning the ice,” she tells me one morning. “Getting familiar with it. That’swhat we call it.”
I come home from school and she’s in her solitaire chair. But there are no cards onthe table. She’s just sitting there, her right arm before her, motionless and brightwhite.
She tells me she made a bad turn. Something in the ice. One of those things, she says.
“I tried to catch myself.”
She moves her arm. There’s a slight grinding sound, plaster on wood.
I ask her if I can sign it. She tells me no. She wants to keep the break clean.
Sometime after that, I’m reading the paper and I say to her, “What’s a mia?”
“MIA,” she says. “Missing in action. It’s a soldier who is not dead but not found.”
“So where are they?”
“Are they ever coming home?”
“No. But no one will tell the family the truth. This way, the family can believe theyare still out there, somewhere.”
# # #
It’s Christmas that year. We’re at the mall. My mother goes her own way. My brotherand I head for the toy department. On the way there, I see a woman, dark-haired, infront of a glass case. In it, she has metal bracelets. I pause.
“C’mon,” my brother says, and he keeps going.
The woman says, “Would you like one?” and hands a bracelet to me. A man’s name isengraved on it.
“That’s the name of a man,” she says. “He might have a boy at home, just like you.”
She tells me that the bracelets are for men who are missing in Vietnam.
“Wouldn’t you like to keep a man’s memory alive? Maybe you can get your mother tobuy you one for Christmas.”
“My mother says these men are never coming back.”
The woman yanks the bracelet off my wrist and says, “If you don’t leave right now,I’ll report you.”
When I got older, nine or so, I began to ride my bike to his cemetery.
Three and a third miles, door to gates.
The first time, I wandered, searching stone-to-stone. A man cutting grass tells meto go to the office.
A woman there asks if I am lost.
“No one just looks here,” she says.
I tell her I am looking for my father.
She points to a big book on the table near the door.
“Get that,” and she pulls her black-framed glasses to her face, from the silver chainaround her neck.
It’s a heavy ledger. So big I can’t get my arms around it. I end up dragging it acrossthe floor. Dead weight. The lady sits behind the counter, watching me, smoking a thinbrown cigarette. When I get close to the counter, after what seems like a foreverhaul, she reaches down. Ashes fall in my eyes.
She turns page after page and then takes out a map of the cemetery. She makes a blueXand then a dotted line from the office to theX.“There you go, Captain Kidd,” she says. “A treasure map.”
I’ve always wished my faith were stronger. Like the four men who punched a hole inthe roof of the house, tied a rope around their crippled friend, then lowered himin where Jesus sits, preaching. Imagine—Jesus, cross-legged on the floor, and descendingfrom above comes a man, twisted, trussed up, broken. Jesus considers the cripple andthen looks toward the hole where his friends peer down. They tell Jesus that men blockedthem from entering the house but they were determined to place their withered friendin His healing presence.
I have often prayed for such faith.
Our Father, who art in heaven . . .
Aren’t in heaven?
How many times did I puzzle over that?
And if my father aren’t in heaven, where are he?
As a boy I longed to be a prophet. Saturday Vigil Masses, I knelt beside my mother,my mouth musty with His body melting to paste on my tongue. Watched the purpled incensesmoke rise into the unseen reaches of the dim and darkened dome. The bishops’ hatshigh in the rafters, fading. Changing to dust in the spaces above us. The threadsthat bind brim to crown failing. And me, kneeling, still. Praying for alms and supplication.Sureness of mission.
My mother. She left the Church when I was still a boy. Something, she said, aboutthe Parable of the Prodigal Son. “It’s just not fair,” she said. “Stories like that.”
# # #
Not to say I have not had my doubts. Consider the story of Matthias. Christ, crucified.Judas, suicided. And Peter gathers the remaining apostles.
“Men,” he says, “Judas now dwells in the Field of Blood, flat on his face, his bowelsspilt out of him. Rejoice. Yet, it is written—to witness Resurrection, we must makeour body whole again.”
In other words, they are only eleven. But they must be twelve.
Peter points to two men he has found—Matthias and Barsabbas. Tells them to kneel beforethem. Lots are cast. Matthias in. Barsabbas out. Just like that.
And since the whole story is taken on faith, what do you believe? Does Barsabbas getoff his knees, humbled? Stand in the dirt as they link arms around Matthias? Or doeshe walk away filled with rage, spitting at dogs? Cursing what could have been, ifonly the Lord had willed it?
What signs have you pretended you did not see? Looked askance, away? Given in to thatvoice inside: “Stay on the main road. There’s nothing that way!”
And yet—we wonder.
What if how we are told it happened is not how it happened? What if the story we havebeen told is just that? A story. Not the truth.
Each of us has a creation tale—how we came into the world. And I’ll add this: Eachof us has an uncreation tale—how our lives come apart. That which undoes us. Sooneror later, it will claim you. Mark you. More than your creation.
All my life, I’ve felt the story I was told about how my father died did not add up.
Here’s the story I was told by my mother. And it’s not like we sat around and recitedthis story. I had to pry this out of her. I was ten and I could no longer stop thequestions in my head. I defiedomertá. I asked her to tell me the story of how he died. We were in the kitchen. It wasJanuary and it was growing dark, even though it was only three.
“He was working late, and on the way to his car, he had a heart attack.”
“And then what happened?”
“Some police officers found him.”
“Was he dead?”
“I don’t know.”
“Did they take him to the hospital?”
“I think so.”
“Why didn’t the police come and tell us? How come Uncle Dick came and told us?”
“Because the police found his press pass and called the paper and someone there calledDick.”
“But why didn’t the police come and tell us he was dead?”
“I don’t know.”
“That’s what they do on TV. They always do.”
“I told you: The police found his press pass, so they called the paper. Then, becausethe guys at the paper knew Dick, they probably thought it would be best if they calledhim first.”
The story never makes sense to me. Not that I say that to her. But there are holes.
Careful where you step.
So I do what I know best: I keep quiet. But I think about it all the time—about thatnight. How many nights did I lie in bed, the sound of my little washing-machine heartchurning in my ear,trying to picture him, a crumpled mass on damp asphalt. Facedown. Blood on his headfrom where he hit it, going down. An arm twisted beneath him. Dead man, alone in thenight. Helpless. Abandoned.
Does he feel it coming? A dizziness? Shortness of breath? A shooting pain. Air won’tcome. He steadies himself against the hood. Touches his hand to the metal. Tries tobreathe. He drops to a knee. And the other. He presses his face to the cold metalof the car. He’s squinting hard, trying to squeeze away the pain. . . . Black.
# # #
My senior year of high school, I’m eighteen, working on a term paper. I have to goto the main library down in the city, since it has a full collection of Chicago newspaperson microfilm. The library in my neighborhood has only theTribuneand theSun-Times,not theDaily NewsandToday.
I look up my father’s obituaries. I’ve never seen them. I don’t even know if theyexist. But I figure theSun-Timeswould have run one. Here’s what it says:
Then I look to see what Uncle Dick’s paper,Chicago Today,printed:
And then I find this in theChicago Daily News:
TheTodayobit claims that my father died “as he walked” in the 3900 block of North Pine Groveafter he had “just left the home of a friend.” In theDaily Newsobit, they report that my father died “while visiting friends.”
I’m sitting before the microfilm machine, squinting at the screen. Friends? Who arethese friends? And why have I never met them? And the 3900 block of North Pine Groveis five miles away from theSun-Timesbuilding.
Buttons pushed. A light flashes. Gears grind. My prints emerge. I put them in thebox beneath my bed and never mention my discovery to my mother. But I think aboutit all the time.
And now, every night, instead of conjuring my father dying alone, now I see this alternate,secret narrative: him, friends, far from home, late at night . . .
The week before I leave for college, I drive to the Cook County offices and buy acopy of my father’s death certificate. On some level, I was trying to prove to myselfthat he was indeed dead, because a part of me always believed that he simply ditchedout on us, faked it all. So when the clerk gives me the death certificate, I havea small thought that he’s not dead at all—because his name is misspelled: Someonehas writtenHANEY, then at some point corrected their error by jamming in the missing “I.”
I go to a coffee shop across the street, get a booth in the corner, and study thedocument for clues. The first thing I learn: My father didn’t die of a heart attack.Also, contrary to what my mother has told me, he was, in fact, autopsied. The officialcause of death, as determined by the coroner: “Spontaneous rupture congenital (cerebral)aneurysm, anterior communicating artery.”
Then there’s the fact of the hospital to where he was taken: “American—D.O.A.”
American Hospital—now Thorek Memorial Hospital—is on the city’s North Side, five milesfrom his office. Not exactly the closest hospital for two cops to take a man theyfind lying on the streets downtown. There are at least three hospitals that are closer.
The second curious thing is the time of death: 5:07 a.m.
My uncle was at our house less than two hours later. Which means he must have movedpretty fast.
I hide the death certificate in the shoe box beneath my bed, along with the copiesof the obituaries, and then I do what I know best to do. I go silent.Omertá.
Until a few years ago, when I turned thirty-five.
For most of my life I have believed I was never going to outlive my father, that Iwould never make it to thirty-six. I believed his sentence was my sentence. So whenI turned thirty-five, I cracked. My doctor called it a functioning breakdown.
That sounded about right.
During the week, I worked among the living. But the weekends I passed in solitude.By day, I wandered the city in silence. At night, I sought out old-man bars, placesI knew I’d see no one and could drink alone late into the night. Every day, I hadit in my head that this day could be the day. And yet rather than energizing me, mortalityfroze me. I wanted to live but felt powerless. I felt fate had already decided. Iwas already locked in a box. Somehow my father had tricked me into taking his place.My own Houdini.
Volunteers from the audience? Someone to test the box in which I will seal myselfand then escape? You, young man. Excellent. Step right up!
Somehow, he deceived me—then vanished. And I—I remained, trapped in my father’s box.5
In August 2003, I go home for my grandmother’s birthday. But I am determined to dosome reporting as well. And question my mother.
My mother is the half-hugger. Whenever I see her, she can only give me a one-armedhug. It’s like having that guy fromThe Fugitivefor a mother.
I land at O’Hare in the early evening and call her. “Last American,” the only wordsshe says, even though this has been the drill for the past twenty years when I comehome at least three times a year and walk out to the curb and stand under the lastAmerican Airlines sign and maybe ten minutes later the Regal pulls up. I hear thetunk!of the trunk popping as she sits inside. I drop my bag in the carpeted cube, notethat her emergency kit is still there: flares, Band-Aids, an orange distress flagto hang on her antenna in case she is buried in a snowdrift—even though she has noantenna.
I slam the trunk and walk around, open the door.
I lean over, peck her cheek.
One arm goes around me, pats me on the shoulder.
We drive the seven minutes home. Past my old high school.
Tackling sleds on the practice fields, silent in the setting sun.
We get to the house and don’t say much. She has a pizza for me from one of the take-outplaces. She always does that for me. I pull a High Life from the refrigerator. Shealways does that, too.
We don’t talk about much—work for me, the grandkids for her.
The silence kills me. I want to ask her about everything I’ve come to town for—butI decide to wait. It’s late now—9:30.
I tell her good night.
As I close my bedroom door, I hear the banging—one of my mother’s routines. Each nightbefore she goes to bed, she dumps the ice cubes from the ice-cube maker into the kitchensink.
“I like to keep my ice fresh,” she says.
She never uses ice.
But every night she pounds the plastic tray against the side of the sink, and theice cubes clatter toward the drain’s black mouth. Maybe, for a moment, she’ll stareat the dark outside, at the small oak outside her window that clings to its dead leavesall through the long winter. Bark, dark as creosote’d field posts. Maybe looking,too, at the fragile wood carving she keeps on her windowsill. Don Quixote. She gotit forever ago, a gift from someone I do not know. Long as I can remember, she hasstationed him there, astride his small beast. His helmet, broken. That was my fault.Sometime when I was a boy, I was playing with Don Quixote and dropped him. Ever since,I’ve never touched him and he’s never moved from that place above the drain whereshe keeps him, standing sentry.
# # #
The next morning. I find her at the kitchen table in her Solitaire Chair. Her CrosswordsChair. Her Jumble Chair. Head bowed, filling in the boxes, letter by letter. Words,solved. Words as solutions.
I pour my coffee, sit down perpendicular to her.
“I couldn’t sleep,” she says. “That damn sump pump was going all night.”
My mother is obsessed with water levels. Her bedroom is above the sump pump. It churnsaway in the basement, in the dark, through the night. Pushing her overflow down. Keepingher safe.
“I don’t want a flood,” she tells me.
“You’re not going to have a flood.”
“Well,” she says—and she says that word in a way that’s so damning.
I go into her basement. I look at the hole, the dark water up to the stone lip. Itell her everything’s fine, not believing a word of what I’m saying. I mean, do Ilook like a sump-pump specialist? Like I can read water tables? But her? Twice a day,she’s in the basement, looking for leaks.
“You don’t understand,” she says. “If it all came flooding in, it’s a disaster.” Andshe descends. She doesn’t trust me. She stalks around, slippers and robe, flashlightpoking lazy streams of yellow light into her corners. Tracing the walls for signsonly she seems to know. Palms to the stone.
“We’re safe for another day,” she says when she reappears.
“Does anyone else have these problems?” I ask. “Your neighbors?”
“None of them run their pumps. Look out back at their plots. See the water sittingthere, rising up? I’m the one who pushes everything down.”
Her puzzle waits half completed. As a boy, I would find her crossword unfinished andlook to see if I could give her any words. To this day, she has me send her the puzzlefrom the SundayTimes. I tear it out, then come Monday, drop it in the mail. No note. Just the puzzle.If I forget, she calls me, late in the week, says, “I didn’t get your puzzle.”
She looks over at me now and says, “You know I have to ask you this, so don’t getangry.”
“What?” And I know what she’s going to ask me. But I make her ask.
“Your boxes in the basement? Can you move those one of these days?”
Every time I’m home—the same question. When I moved to New York all those years ago,I left six boxes in her basement. High school yearbooks. College papers. Some photos.Battered apple crates from Thompson’s, where I weighed fruits and vegetables for pickyold women who always looked at me as though I were overcharging them. It was a goodjob. The worst part was cleaning out the Garb-el on Sundays. The Garb-el was the trap—agarbage disposal where we trimmed all the lettuces, dumped all our bruised and rottedfruit. The trap was built into the floor of the back room, three feet by three feetand just as deep. I had to get on my knees and dig all that muck out. The stench washorrible. I’d pour in a jug of bleach, try and neutralize the muck. And I’d excavatethe peaty mess with the ice scooper I’d snatch out of the ice machine. It was allgood training. I learned early that sometimes you have to dig through garbage to getanywhere.
When I left for New York at twenty-five, I went with two suitcases, nothing more.I thought I’d be back in Chicago at the end of my six-month internship. So I askedher, Can I put my boxes here? She said sure.
Her basement is enormous. And there is nothing in it, save for one small corner oppositethe sump pump where there is a metal storage rack. Her Christmas wrapping paper ison it. Her suitcase for the trips she takes a few times a year, a cruise or a bustour through Europe. She loves bus tours in Europe. She has this whole system forher vacations—months before she leaves, she starts sorting her clothes and underwearinto “good” and “not good.” The “not good” being frayed, worn, torn. She packs thisgroup for the trip. Each day, she wears a pair of the frayed underwear and then atthe end of that day leaves it in the garbage. “One less thing to pack for home,” shesays. “It’s great.”
And then there’s my six boxes. That’s it.
“You know I have to ask,” she says.
“Mom, there’s nothing in your basement.”
She tilts her head down, eyes back to her crosswords. Goes silent.
“I just don’t understand it, Mom.”
She doesn’t raise her eyes, even. Just the scratch of the pen adding letters to boxes.
“I’ll take them to UPS today.”
She looks up.
“No. Leave them. Just leave them. It’s fine.”
That’s what she always says when she’s decided our conversation is finished: Fine.And then she gives the air a little horizontal slice with her hand. The thread, severed.
I come downstairs later and find her with her ironing board set up outside the kitchen.A week’s worth of my work shirts, white and damp, hang near her. She loves to do laundry,loves to iron. She told me once she liked it because “you can see what you accomplish.”Living alone, she doesn’t have much laundry or ironing to do. Whenever I’m about tocome home, she’ll call me.
“Are you bringing laundry?”
“I wasn’t planning on it. I—”
“Please. You know how much I like it.”
And then it’s me, stuffing a week’s worth of dirty laundry into my bag for the flightto Chicago.
Anything to find common ground.
Back when she had just married my father, she and Lorraine, my godmother, would calleach other while they were doing laundry. To make the time go faster, they would haveironing races. Whoever finished all her husband’s shirts first was the winner.
When I heard that story from Lorraine, I asked her, “But how did you know the otherperson was finished?”
“What do you mean?” Lorraine said.
“You were on the phone. So how could you actually see if the other person had won?”
She looked at me, crazylike. “The heck do you think this is? We would never cheat.We’re good girls from Gage Park High.”
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve known this scene. This sigh of the iron as she presseson my shirt.
Sitting at the foot of the bedroom stairs, I’m terrified even now to ask about myfather. Part of me still believes that just invoking his name will send her into arage or spasms of grief.
I summon my courage. I say, “Iwanttofindthetruthaboutdadandthenighthedied.”
She folds back one of my arms, brings her iron down on it. Just says, “You know thestory.” And she tells me the story again.
When she finishes, I say, “But—didn’t you ever notice? The story doesn’t add up.”
I lay it out for her—the obits, the addresses, the “friends.” I’m waiting for herto crack. But she doesn’t. Just the unbroken sliding of her iron and fist, back andforth across the upholstered board.
“I’ve never heard any of that,” she says.
“But didn’t you wonder, when you saw the obits?”
“I never saw the obits.”
“Dad was dead. Why did I need to read a newspaper to tell me that?”
Thehissss-hohhhhhexhale of her iron.
“I had work to do that day. Beginning with you and your brother. I didn’t have timeto sit around and read the papers.”
“But the ‘friend’? Or ‘friends’?”
“What are you talking about?”
“The obits say he had been visiting friends. Do you know who they were?”
“Isn’t that strange? That no one ever said they were with him the night he died?”
“All I know is he got off work and some cops found him.”
“But 3900 North Pine Grove is nowhere near his office.”
She looks up from the ironing board. Her face a mask. She never betrays any emotion.
“Let me ask you this,” I say. “How did you get Dad’s car home?”
“Dick took care of everything. He identified the body and had it transferred to thefuneral home. He told me where to go.”
“What happened after Dick did all that?”
“I went to Ryan-Parke with Grampa. Picked out the coffin. Gramma stayed with you andChris.”
“And what did Dick tell you about how he died?”
“I don’t even remember what Dick told me. I think I was just in shock. It’s strangenow to think about those days. I haven’t thought about them in forever.”
“What else do you remember about that morning?”
“All my friends started to come over. Lorraine. Mary Lee. Diane.”
She puts down her iron. I hear water gurgle inside as it finds its level.
“Did you know yesterday was Dad’s birthday?”
“Yes,” I say.
“He’d be almost seventy.”
She reaches for another one of my shirts, pulls it tight across her board. For a momentthe only sound is her iron. I watch her hand pass it over the material in smooth,strong movements, the wrinkles being erased, pushed out.
“Hard to believe, isn’t it?”
“I guess so,” I say meekly. “But you’ll be seventy soon.”
She turns her face back to the board.
“If you want to,” she says, “we could take a little driving tour of the places Dadand I used to go when we were dating. Old haunts.”
“Mom, I would love that.”
And as I say it, I think about how I underestimate my mother. Maybe she wants answersas much as I do. Underestimating her. Isn’t that the last thing I should do? Justas when my father died, so many underestimated her.
She brings her iron to a rest on its foot.
A puff of steam emerges. A little cloud between us, rising. Ascending. Dissipating.
# # #
Driving the Northwest suburbs. The two of us, searching for places she and my fatherwent when they were first dating. Joints like the Bit & Bridle.
When we get to the corner, it’s gone. A Mobil station where it was.
“Well, that takes care of that,” my mother says. The statement isclassic her. Concise. Unsentimental. Final. What I hear is the door closing. A closed,latched, bolted door with no handle.
We sit silent as she executes a three-point turn and spins us back toward DempsterStreet. I want to ask her more. This is why I came here this weekend. But I’m eightyears old again, nervous to ask her questions. I’ve spent decades as a journalist—Iget paid to ask people questions they don’t want to answer. But here I am, as intimidatedas I’ve always been. Are all of us locked into a psychic age with our parents? Me,it’s somewhere between six and nine. I can’t even work up the courage to ask her asingle opening question. So the silence congeals here in her Regal. Her Buick.
My mother still drives a Buick. It’s all she’s ever driven, except for the Monarchthat a husband of a friend persuaded her to buy because he could get a deal on it.It spent more time in the shop than it did on the road. Winter nights, she’d sendme out of the house to put a blanket on the engine block. And there was the MonteCarlo. That was during high school, the one I crashed. Twice. In six months.
Finally, she speaks. “Want to see Talbott’s?”
“A bar up near Evanston. Dad went there during college and sometimes with the guysfrom the paper.”
We get to the Evanston border near the Howard El stop.
“There used to be an alley around here,” she says.
She scans the street.
“I puked in it once.” She pauses. “Not like I was drunk. I’d gone to the Cubs gamewith Dad and some friends, and I was pregnant with your brother and I was sittingin the sun and at some point I said I needed to go home. Dad stayed, and I rode theEl home—we were living up here—and when I got off, I went into that alley and puked.”
Suffer in silence. In solitude. In the shadows. Don’t let your weakness be seen. Andlater, maybe, tell a story for laughs. Maybe I’m more her son than his.
She can’t find Talbott’s either.
“There used to be a bartender there, Jack Gannon? He was nice. I wonder what happenedto him.”
We drive toward the city limits. The sun is bright and hard and I roll down my window,let some fresh air in.
She points to a storefront, a used-furniture store.
“That was my Laundromat when we were first married. Our apartment was around thiscorner. But you’ve seen that.”
“I’d see it again.”
She pulls up in front of a small apartment building.
“Which one was it?”
“The second floor, near the door. See?”
“Uh-huh,” I say, but I’m not sure. “How long were you here?”
“A year or two.”
She eases away from the curb.
“So who is alive from back then?”
“What do you mean?”
“His buddies from back then. The newspaper guys you all went drinking with. PeopleI can talk to.”
“So many of those guys are dead, Mike. Every time I open theTriborSun-Times,I see an obit for them. A lot of guys who smoked and drank and beat themselves up.”
“Someone must be left.”
“Well, there’s Wiley. Roy Wiley. And Jim Strong, too. Everyone else . . . I thinkthey’re dead.” She pauses. “Can you believe that?”
On our way home, she says, “There’s one more place we can see. Only if you want.”
“We could go to the cemetery.”
“That’d be good,” I say.
I can count on one hand the number of times my mother and I have been to his grave.One, the funeral. Two, I was nine and the three of us were on our way home from seeinga movie just up the road about people trapped on a sinking ship.The Poseidon Adventure.I hated when we had to go to that theater. Always passing by the cemetery. His cemetery.I lived in dread that she’d pull the wheel left and spin us into the cemetery: “Whatdo you say we go see Dad? We got some time to kill before the movie.”
Happened only once.
She makes the left now, through the green wrought-iron gates. Maryhill Cemetery.
Part of me can’t believe she wants to do this—see him. But the other part of me hasone thought: She’s not going to know the way to his grave. She’s been here three timesin forty years.
We’re silent. The Buick rolling slowly through the graveyard.
When she took us here afterThe Poseidon Adventure,somehow I found the courage to ask her why she buried our father at Maryhill. Therewere cemeteries in our own town. She told me, “He and I always said we wanted to bein one of those cemeteries where there’s not all that junk and decorations. Lots ofcemeteries, they’re full of plastic flowers and gaudy tombstones. So Polacky. I likedthis place because all you get is a headstone, flush to the ground. Nothing marringthe horizon. It looks like you’re in a big park.”
From somewhere I cannot see, the distant drone of a lawn mower and, closer, a cicada’sdesperate ratcheting.
I bolt my eyes straight ahead. If she’s going to miss the fork in the road, I wantto spare her the embarrassment of me witnessing her.
She follows the fork, left.
Maybe a hundred yards or so down the quiet road, she eases her Regal to a stop.
She found it.
Before she can unlatch herself, I’m out of the car, headed for his plot. There’s noway I want to see her not be able to find his grave.
A moment later, she is beside me. I can feel her. Not a touch. Just a presence.
Isn’t this what I’ve wanted for so long? My mother to take me to my father’s grave?To confirm to me in her silence, Yes, he existed.
I’m frozen. Eyes fixed on the middle ground. All I can do is stare at his tombstone,flat and gray. Granite. Barely bigger than a shoe-box lid.
ROBERT C. HAINEY
I put my arm around her. My mother, stiff as my arm is awkward.
“Okay?” she says.
We walk to the car, quiet again.
We’re at the graveyard gate, waiting for an opening. Down the street, a brick building.Like a dentist’s office in some small town, or an insurance agent’s. There’s a five-slotparking lot in front and a jumble of tombstones awaiting names.
“Remember when we got Dad’s headstone there?”
“Did I take you?” she says. “I don’t remember that.”
I do. I remember being so alive to the moment. Observing the man, heavy and sweatingin a short-sleeve shirt with a pocket protector where he kept a Parker pen with itsarrow clip and a calibrator. How he stood too close to my mother as he showed hershades of what he kept calling “memory stone”—black, white, gray.
I felt her aloneness in that decision. What was it? Her pain? Her embarrassment? Hershame? All these years on, I can articulate what I could not then. I wanted to protecther from this man who wouldnot stop asking questions that she did not want to answer. Like when we sat at hispaper-strewn metal desk, the three of us together on one side, the man asking my motherwhat she wanted cut into the stone. And her saying, “I already gave you his name.”And the man saying, “Don’t you want to say something like ‘Husband and Father’?” Hersaying, “No. It’s fine.” And her hand, coming down.
“How am I?” she asks. “Am I safe on your side?”
She’s looking down the road, away from me.
“There’s an opening,” I say.
# # #
That night, as I close my bedroom door, I hear the crash of ice cubes getting dumpedinto the kitchen sink. My mother making her rounds. Shutting down the house.
A moment later, the voice of a man unseen—automated, tonally off—echoes throughouther house.System armed! No delays!
Some people count sheep. From the time I was a boy, I have counted possibilities.I have conjured the scene. Night after night, before I fall asleep, I envision hisdeath, complete.
Now I lie in bed and think about what I am up against. So many dead sources. Not justthe guys he worked with, but foremost Uncle Dick and Aunt Helen. They were both ChristianScientists. In 1994, he had a heart attack. They called the healer. He died. Helengot a tooth infection, and it just went from there.
I was angry with myself for letting fear hold me back. I should have talked to themwhen they were alive.
I roll over and stare out the window. Listen to the dull hum of traffic on the tollway,cars driving north. Sometimes I think about my father driving home in the night. Whatif he’d made it to his car? What if he had been driving the Kennedy, 4 a.m.? Is heable to pull over? Does he spin out of control? How does it happen?
Cars, driving north in the night.
Once, I was a boy in the back of my mother’s car. We were coming home from the Loop.It was night. I watched the headlights of cars behind us. People gaining on us. Peoplepassing us. Somewhere between the Morton Salt billboard and the Budweiser billboard,the headlights of one car veered off the freeway and the car slammed into a lightpole. Then, fire. I said nothing. Just watched the flames grow smaller and the wreckagerecede as our distance increased, as our mother drove us toward our home.
I roll over. The bed creaks. It’s the same bed they slept in when he was alive. Allthe furniture in the guest room is their bedroom set. The mattress so saggy that sometimesI think it is left over from then, too.
When I am twelve, I sneak into my mother’s bedroom and rummage through her dresser,desperate to find pieces of him. In the top-left drawer, beneath some leather glovesand her First Communion prayer book and her rosary beads, I discover the remains ofmy father’s wallet. What he carried the night he died.
She never knew I found it. I was always careful to put it back just perfect. Partof my education in restoration. Another trait I learned early: stealth. To searchand not be seen.
I get out of bed and turn on the bedside light—an ornate oil lamp that my father’sgrandparents used in their sod house. It has a base of claw feet and a glass globewith a Currier & Ives wintry scene painted on it. A family in a horse-drawn sleigh,going silently through a cold white world. When my mother and father got married,a relative gave it to them as a gift.
I open the top-left drawer. Faint perfume. All her life, my mother has torn scentstrips out of magazines and tucked them in her sweater drawers. The scents all blendtogether.
I find the remains of his wallet and, like a novitiate in a reliquary, gently layout each piece on her afghan. How many times have I done this—placing and replacing,arranging and rearranging, these objects. Looking for his story to reveal itself.
• A photo of my mother, brother, and me standing on a bridge at the Morton Arboretum.The red stripes on the side of the Kodacolor print say Oct. 68. Dead leaves carpetthe ground. Over my mother’s shoulders a small sapling, its leaves bright yellow.My mother wears an Irish fisherman’s sweater. She has her arm around my brother. I’moff to the side.
• December 1965. Another Kodacolor photo. My brother and I sit on a kid-size rockingchair. Green velvety curtains behind us. I’m excited. I can tell because I’ve turnedmy hands into a tangle of fingers and I am smiling. There’s a gap in my smile, likea jack-o’-lantern’s. A few months before, I ran face-first into the knob of the kitchendoor. A couple of years later, my brother and I will be playing a game with this rocker.We call it Pirate. We turn the chair upside down and stand astride the rails, onearm raised high, imaginary sabers in hand, like mutineers at the bow of their galleon.One night, I fall and hit my mouth against the rail with such violence that my remainingfront tooth gets impacted. My father scoops me in his arms, wraps a dish towel aroundmy bloody face. My mother screaming: Car keys! The hospital! Get your coat, Chris!And my father, me in one arm, reaches down for the rocking chair and on his way outthe door heaves it into a snowdrift on the back porch, where it stays the rest ofthe winter, appearing and disappearing as the snow falls, melts, and falls again.Until spring, when it is there, alone and untouched on the patio. One day, I camehome and it was gone.
• December 1966. My brother and me, sitting on the staircaselanding, both wearing red velour sweaters over white turtlenecks. Miniature versionsof the Beach Boys or the Smothers Brothers.
• My mother, black and white, 1953. White blouse, pearl cluster. Beautiful. Seventeen.
• My brother’s first-grade class photo. 1968. His smile is the happiest, biggest grin.
• My brother’s second-grade class photo. 1969. His adult teeth have started to comein.
• My kindergarten photo. No front teeth. Toothless grin.
• Black and white: my brother, age four, in our grandparents’ backyard. He’s wearingshorts and saddle shoes and holding a small baseball bat. His tricycle is beside him.
• Black and white. My brother. A day after he’s born. A close-up. His left hand, curledinto a small fist; his right hand touching his ear, like an old man trying to hearsomething he cannot.
• Sigma Nu fraternity card, issued 3-6-56. On the reverse it’s stamped: Life SubscriberNo. 21615.
• Kodacolor, 1964. My brother clutches a stuffed blue donkey beneath our Christmastree.
• My brother, black and white, on a blanket beneath the silver maple in my grandmother’sbackyard. Someone has written in pen, “4½ months.”
• Me. Black and white. December 1964. Handwriting on the frame: “9 months.” I’m inmy high chair. Behind me, a spice rack on the wall, empty. I’m raising my right arm,and from out of the frame, a man’s left hand is reaching to touch my head.
• Black and white of me right after I am born. I’ve pulled my hands to my face andI’m knitting my fingers.
• Social Security card. The reverse advises, “Tell your family to notify the nearestSocial Security office in the event of your death.”
• Selective Service Registration Certificate dated August 13, 1952, his eighteenthbirthday. Number 25-76-34-54. Height:Six feet. Weight: 125. Under “other obvious physical characteristics that will aidin identification,” someone has typed: 1½" oblong birthmark on inside right knee.
• Selective Service System Notice of Clarification, September 22, 1969, V-A Issuedby Red Willow County Local Board No. 76. McCook, Nebraska.
• 1970Chicago Sun-TimesID noting he is Assistant Chief Copy Editor.
• Chicago Police Department Official Press Pass (1970) No. 1747. Ditto, 1969 (No.453) and 1968 (No. 442).
# # #
I want to talk to my brother about all of this. After our father died, we weren’tso much brothers as prisoners serving the same sentence: life in solitary. Brothers.We were our father’s sons for such a short time.
My brother and I take his children to the playground—probably the first time in thirty-fiveyears that we’ve been on a playground together. He has two children. My nephew, Glenn,is nine. My niece, Eleanor, is four. She was adopted from China. A few months beforethe adoption happens, my brother visits me in New York. A Saturday night and we gofor beers at Corner Bistro. Lousy jazz on the jukebox, some game overhead. But theadoption has been on my mind since he first told me he and his wife started the process.At the time, I could not understand how you love a child who is not your own.
I ask my brother, “Aren’t you scared? You have no idea what you are going to get inthe kid.”
He says, “You never know what you’re going to get in life. You have no idea what you’regoing to get when you make a child. All we know is that somewhere in the world thereis a child without a mother and a father who needs to be loved. And we have love togive.”
He shrugs his shoulders like it’s nothing.
But it isn’t.
We sit on the edge of the playground, watching his children run back and forth ona rickety wooden footbridge that connects two miniature watchtowers across a pit filledwith cedar chips, and I outline the mystery. I walk him through the holes. Show himthat our father died somewhere on the 3900 block of North Pine Grove but we don’tknow anyone there. What’s more, I say, that would not be his route home.
“Sometimes Dad would take long drives along the lake,” my brother says. “Rememberthat?”
“Chris,” I say, “I don’t remember anything.”
“He used to do that with me. He loved to drive along the lake. All the way from theSun-Timesbuilding to Lake Shore Drive to Sheridan Road to Devon Avenue to our house. We didthat a lot. He’d take me. And you, later. All of us, we’d go to the newsroom. Rememberhow he’d do that on his days off, take us downtown?”
“I remember the newsroom,” I say. “But I have no memory of driving with him. I haveno memory of him taking us home.”
For a minute, we sit in silence.
“Maybe he was driving home and didn’t feel well and pulled over and he died there.”
“But it doesn’t say that in the obits,” I say. “The obits say that he was ‘visitingfriends.’ So how come, in all these years, we’ve never heard from anyone who was withhim that night?”
I look to the playground. The kids run after each other, run back and forth on thebridge suspended above the pit.
I ask what he remembers of that morning. He tells me that he refused to go to schooland went to Julie Slade’s. “Mrs. Slade answered the door and when she saw me, shestarted crying. Then she hugged me and said, ‘Oh, you poor boy. Why aren’t you home?Does your mother know where you are?’ I said, ‘Can Julie come out and play?’ She said,‘She’s at school, dear.’ And I said, ‘Oh, right.’ ”
He tells me that he remembers me going to kindergarten that afternoon and how I camehome with an armload of cards for him. He remembers the house filled with people andhow Uncle Dick and our grandparents talked about what would be appropriate for usto wear to the wake. He says, “I remember we were scared to go to bed that night.”
My brother is silent for a minute, then says, “What day did he die?”
“The twenty-fourth of April.”
“No, what day?”
“Friday morning, the twenty-fourth. Pre-dawn. We were told on the morning of the twenty-fourth.”
“Did you know he was supposed to come talk to my class that day, ‘Life as a Newspaperman’?For days before, he’d been having me bring all this newspaper stuff—things he wasgoing to pass around and talk about. Old marked-up stories that were edited by him.Pasted-up headlines. Weather maps. Wire-service copy ripped off the ticker.” He pauses.“I’ll always remember how much I was looking forward to having him in my class. Dad.You know?”
He looks to his two children chasing each other in a widening circle.
“After the funeral, when I went back to school, Mrs. Zink gave me all Dad’s papers.I stuffed them in my locker. I left them there all year, piled up at the bottom. InJune, when I had to clear out my locker, I dumped them. What was I supposed to do,you know?” He picks up a wood chip and tosses it at nothing. “I’ve never told anyonethat.”
“What else do you remember?”
“When we walked into the funeral home for the family viewing,Grampa Hainey started to cry. And then Mom made us go up to the casket. She was pointingout the flowers.”
“Then they closed the casket.”
The kids are far away now. They’ve left the bridge behind and are stumbling aftereach other in the summer sun, laughing. Their shadows long and thin and vibrant onthe blacktop.
“I remember the funeral at Mary, Seat of Wisdom. Walking into church and seeing StephieJames and Mrs. James on the aisle, looking at us. But I always remember that momentthey sealed the casket, the last time I saw his face.”
He stops again. From above, high in the aged Dutch elms and cottonwoods, the buzzof cicadas fills the silence.
And I’m sitting there marveling at the details I’ve never heard before. Decades later,and this is the first time. This is the price of the years we dwelt in silence, notknowing how to communicate. And I hear myself saying, “Let me ask you something else—andbefore I do, I need to apologize.”
“What do you mean?”
“When Mom told us Dad was dead—do you remember how I laughed at you because you werecrying?”
And I tell him the story I’ve carried with me all these years, and he listens andsays, “Huh. No, I don’t remember that.”
The thing I remember so vividly, he has no memory of. And vice versa. And part ofme thinks, Did any of this happen? Or did we all black out so much of what we didn’twant to remember?
My niece, Eleanor, wanders over carrying a shoe box, holding it like she’s at Mass,bringing up the Offertory gifts. Inside, she’s arranged handfuls of pulled-up grassblades and a leafless, broken twig.
“Will you look for cicadas with me?”
Summer of ’73, I’m nine. I stand in the alley behind our house,counting cicadas falling from the sky, thinking that the next time I will see one,I will be twenty-six, married. Thinking, If I live long enough, I will be showingcicadas to my son.
My niece and I walk from tree to tree, their trunks cluttered with copper-coloredcasings. Old skins. Buried for a generation. Even now, looking to the ground, I seeanother, crawling out of the dark earth. Clinging to the first firm thing it finds,to what is rooted. Then splitting open. Husks. Maybe this is the way it would be,if Lourdes were real—the roadside littered not with cast-aside crutches, but withthe shells of our former selves. Pilgrims all, reborn. Made new.
My niece picks up two cicadas, their wings still curled, wet. She places them in herbox and tells me, “The real name of cicadas is magicadas. That’s what scientists callthem.”
She circles the thick roots, eyes fixed, searching. She tells me she will set thetwo of them free before dinner.
“Before it gets dark,” she says. “So they can go home to their mommy and daddy.”
I’ll be sixty next time this happens. Sixty. Will I still be without a son, even then?
Above us, the chorus continues.
# # #
In 1972 my mother signs up to be a den mother for my brother’s Cub Scout pack. Everyweek, a dozen or so boys, eight- and nine-year-olds, make a mess in our basement,usually involving some combination of balsa wood, Elmer’s glue, Testors paints, pipecleaners.
They’re preparing for Scout-O-Rama, a weekend-long gathering of Scouts held at thelocal horse-racing track. Every Scout pack or troop presents a play or stages an event.My mother has decided the boys will perform a “Meet the Solar System” pageant. Oneby one, the boys appear onstage, each holding a painted Styrofoam ball. Some of theboys are planets. Some, constellations. Some, meteors. Some, comets. One by one theboys emerge from behind the curtain to tell the audience of parents about their placein the heavens.
I do not understand the heavens. I do not understand orbits. I do not know about gravitationalpull. I do not know about escape velocity or why stars shoot and why comets streak.I do not know how to navigate by the night sky.
When the show is over, I go backstage to find my mother and brother. My mother ispreoccupied with the other boys, trying to gather up their costumes and props andmake sure they do not wander off. I see my brother in a far corner. He sits alone,holding a Styrofoam ball, yellow as French’s mustard. He does not see me, and fora moment I watch him turn his sun over and over in his small hands.
Years later, I ask my mother where she got her idea.
“What are you talking about?” she asks me.
“You know,” I say. “For the show you did when you were a den mother.”
“I was never a den mother. Was I?”
“Yes. I remember.”
# # #
I call my grandmother. Tell her I want to take her to a birthday breakfast. When Ipull up, she’s at the front door, waiting, dressed in pale purple pants and a whitesweater. The sweater, white as her hair. Before I even get the car into park, shecomes down the path, pushing her walker with the sliced green tennis balls jammedonto the bottom of the rear legs.
I lean down to kiss her, and she feels my lapel between her thumb and index finger.
“Seersucker? Sharp, kiddo. But you always were.”
We start driving to Mac’s, this local diner where I always take her. Where she likesto go. Where, every time, she says to Barbara the waitress, “This is my other grandson.From New York. He’s not married.”
At a red light, she says, “Hey, where’s your honey?”
I tell her that Brooke, the woman I’ve begun to date, is traveling for work.
My grandmother reaches over and touches my right hand.
“What do they say?” she asks. “ ‘Absence makes the heart wonder’?”
“No, Gram. They say, ‘Absence makes the heart grow fonder.’ ”
She rubs her thumb along the back of my hand. My grandmother’s hands have always been—backto when I was a boy and she’d squeeze my hand two times under the dinner table tosignal me that she was going to sneak my vegetables off my plate and eat them forme when my mother was not looking—the softest hands I’ve known. Softer, even, thanmy niece’s delicate hands with their tiny, deft fingers that pluck stunned cicadasfrom ancient trees.
I look at my grandmother studying my hand. All I see is the top of her head, a whitecrown.
The guy behind me honks. The light is green. My grandmother looks up at me.
“That’s what I said, Mike. Absence makes the heart wonder.”
Later that day, I start in on the old gang. I call Roy Wiley, one of the guys my mothergave me. He’s not a newspaperman anymore. He tells me that he and my father had fallenout of touch by the time he died.
“We were at a party and he said something about Bobby Kennedy. I took a swing at him.That put us on ice for some time. But I’ll tell you this—your dad was the best newspapermanI ever knew. He was a stand-up guy and I’ve always regretted our feud.”
“What do you know about the night he died? The obits say he was on North Pine Grove.Did you know anyone up there?”
“I don’t know anything about that night.”
“You didn’t hear anything in the newsroom?”
“You guys are newspapermen, the nosiest group in the world. You live to know the story.”
“No one who was with him that night ever said anything to you?”
He says, “Imagine if you are the guy who dragged him out that night.”
And he switches voices, like he’s living that moment.
Bob, let’s get a drink.
Nah, I gotta get home.
Whaddya mean? C’mon.
“Imagine you’re that guy. Are you really going to go up to your mother at the wakeand say,Hey, I’m sorry. I was the guy who kepthim out. When you’re the guy who had him in a bar or wherever, and he should have been home?You know how guys are.”
“So you don’t know anything?”
“Like I say, I’d drifted.”
“You know how guys are.”
# # #
I create stories of that night. I fill in the holes. I create scenarios.
Here he is. Off work. Two a.m. Wife and children at home. In bed. His boys, six andeight. His wife, thirty-three. Him, thirty-five. But tonight he is ageless. Tonight,he doesn’t think about them or himself or tomorrow. Tonight, he is free.
He walks out of the office building. Late April. Chill in the air slaps his face.He can feel the dampness off the lake—big and dark and voidy. Out there, where the horizon turns black. In the east.
He flips the collar of his tan raincoat against his neck as he pulls his shouldershigh. This is what Murrow did in London. This is what we do, he thinks. Journalists.Newspapermen. We are men alone.
He pauses. Looks at the IBM Building rising across the street. Miesian monolith. Hethinks, This is not a building. Buildings are made of stone cut out of the ground.Buildings have windows that a man can open at lunch, windows that require him to havepaperweights on his desk on the piles of papers that he needs to get rid of.
He turns. He knows where he is going. The route. The loop. Thecircuit. Every man has one. Point A to Point B to Off the Map. The places a man goesto forget and perhaps find himself.
The man walks down Wabash. Makes a right onto Kinzie, then a left on Rush. The firststop of the night, Radio Grill.
Hands reach out. Pats on the back. Nods. Shot of J&B and a Schlitz. On the bar. Waiting.
It’s good to be a regular. This is what it means to be a man.
Drink up! Join the party! Here’s to ya! What’s the good word?
He knocks them back with his pals. Carps about the bosses. Cracks wise about the day,what has gone down. Cigarette smoke in the air. Jukebox. Bullshitting. It goes onthis way for an hour. Maybe two. Three drinks. Maybe four.
More of the same. More drinks. More gossip. More drinks. More laughs. Blow off steam.This is what they do. Newspapermen, after their shift.
Going on 4 a.m. Someone says, “Hey, let’s go up to so-and-so’s place. Keep the partygoing there.”
Next thing, they’re heading north along an empty Lake Shore Drive. They turn off atIrving Park Road. Stop at the corner store. Grab beer. Grab bourbon. Grab Pall Malls.
Eight, ten, a dozen of them all at so-and-so’s place. Drop the needle on the record.Turn the music up. Open the bottle. Let’s get it going. Let’s forget about it all.
It’s a small place. Nothing fancy. There’s a couch in the living room, the arms stainedfrom hair tonic and sweat. A couple of chairs. A black-and-white TV pushed up againstone wall. Couple of tin TV trays holding magazines—Look. Life. Time.And ashtrays. There’s a coffee table, someone says. Let’s get those goodies out here.From the kitchen come glasses. Ice, in a soup pot. Booze.
My father grabs a seat on the couch, presses a cold beer can against his forehead.
Damn headache, he thinks. Maybe I’m more looped than I thought.
Someone slaps him on the back.
“Bobby, you gotta keep up.”
“My head’s killing me.”
“Have another drink. It’s good for what ails ya.”
My father tilts his head back. He’s having trouble seeing. It’s like someone is makinghim stare at a white-bright spotlight. He’s getting hot. Clammy. Nauseated. He touchesthe shoulder of the man beside him on the couch.
“Something is wrong with me.”
“Nothing a drink won’t fix, Bob.”
A couple of people wander over.
“Overserved,” someone says.
My father can’t hear them now. Doesn’t have the strength to hear them now.
They turn back to their drinks, to the party.
A little later, his head is slumped onto his chest. A man shakes him, but he doesn’trespond. The man raises my father’s head. That’s when he feels it is cold. “Something’swrong with Hainey,” the man says to no one.
He says it again. This time, louder.
The guys close in around him.
“Someone call an ambulance!”
“No,” someone says. “No, wait. Call his brother.”
# # #
I always knew where my mother had been by the matches she brought home. She doesn’tsmoke. She just likes having matchbooks in the house. I always find them in the kitchenthe morning after. They’re Checkpoint Charlies on her dates with men. Like passportstamps of her voyages through Chicago at night.
My brother starts to collect them. Every other kid in the neighborhood is collectingbeer cans. That’s the big thing. I spend stretches of a Saturday walking in the weedywoods lining the Kennedy Expressway, looking for the cans hurled out of cars speedingback from Wisconsin. Point. Blatz. Leinenkugel’s. Trash that I can make somethingof. It’s a strange time. Kids going nuts, telling you how their uncle just came backfrom Pittsburgh with something called Iron City beer and there’s a picture of theSteelers on it.
My brother keeps the matchbooks in Folgers coffee cans in his bedroom. Red can afterred can rings the baseboard. His collection, an exhibition of her life outside thehouse. Sometimes, when he is not home, I go to his room and study them. Cricket’s.Le Perroquet. La Strada. The list goes on.
I start my own collection: miniature bottles of booze. The kind you get in first class,or that drunks on skid row buy with fistfuls of sweaty coins. Change they’ve beggedfor. Men my mother dates bring me empties from their business trips. Sometimes I findone flipped in the forsythia bushes in our alley. I line them up on my bookshelf,sort them from clear to dark.
My mother remarries. A man named Paul. This is 1988. When my father was alive, Paullived across the way with his wife and two girls. The girls are older, and sometimeswhen my mother and father have a date, the girls babysit my brother and me. When Iam four, his daughter Cathy plays “Up, Up and Away” by the 5th Dimension on our hi-fiand teaches me how to dance.
Then they move away.
In 1977, my mother runs in to Paul. He’s divorced by now.
With Paul she gets the life she never got with my father. They travel. Fly to Europeon the Concorde. Eat at swank places like Chez Paul.
From the time my brother and I are maybe thirteen and fifteen, my mother spends everyweekend with Paul. He lives in a tall black tower on the shore of Lake Michigan. Sheleaves us on Friday afternoon and returns Sunday night around the timeMcMillan & Wifeis coming on, orThe ABC Sunday Night Movie.
I get home Friday after school. She’s gone. Always the same note on the kitchen counter:
Pizza tonight. Money on the counter.
Saturday, steak in fridge. Pre-heat to 350. 5–7 mins per side.
Number you know.
Paul once said to me, “Your mother is the classiest woman ever.”
He died, too. January 1994. In the depths of a brutal cold spell. Us, one long rowof mourners’ cars, winding our way through the cemetery. From the backseat I watcha solitary deer shin-deep in the snow slowly chew evergreen boughs—a dead man’s graveblanket.
Paul’s death was different. He lingered.
How we sat at his bed in the midst of too much medical. Watched his face fade to askull. Waited for him to cease his heaving. The patient drip of a morphine bag.
Paul dies. Pre-dawn.
As a boy I heard a story about Jackie Kennedy returning from Dallas, her dress stillbloody, wandering the stacks of the Library of Congress, flashlight in hand, lookingfor books about Abraham Lincoln’s funeral. She wanted to know how to do This Thing.She wanted to do it right.
Some women just have it. That coolness in the moment.
That morning, when my mother and I return to her house, she walks straight from thegarage to the kitchen and, not even bothering to remove her coat, digs a paper grocerybag out from under the sink, then continues on to the bedroom.
She opens a closet.
“What do you think?” she asks.
In one hand she holds a navy suit; in the other, a gray pinstripe.
I point to the navy.
She drops it on the bed and pulls a blue shirt and dark red tie from a drawer, thengathers up socks, underwear.
“Find some shoes,” she tells me.
I marvel at her ability in that moment to compartmentalize. She remembers the drill:a trip to the funeral home to select the casket and the Mass cards. Name the hoursof visitation. All the minutiae of tying up a life. And they’ll ask for clothes todress him in. Yes, she will be way ahead of them. She will come prepared.
Their wedding was a small thing—just family. His daughters. My grandparents. Paul’sthree brothers, one of whom works for the State Department, one of whom is a Catholicpriest, and one who lives in the house they grew up in, near the steel mills outsidethe city. Also my mother’s brother and his family. And then there’s my godmother,Lorraine, and her husband, Clarence.
I’ve always loved Clarence. He died maybe ten years ago. Big bear of a Polack. ClarenceRychlewski. Six-four, maybe 250. Just enormous. From the North Side. When he was inhigh school he was in a gang of Polack kids called the Addison Bears. Graduated highschool. Got a job selling aluminum for Alcoa. The kind of job for a kid with not muchbehind him, but the kind of job that let him put his hand on the throat of the AmericanDream and squeeze all that is good out of it.
After my father dies, Lorraine and Clarence are two of the fewwho step in to help us. We start to spend a lot of time at their house. My motherand Lorraine have been friends since they were thirteen. A Polish girl and a Czechgirl on the Southwest Side. They meet at Gage Park High School. They get married ayear apart. Clarence once referred to my mother and Lorraine as “the Gage Park virgins.”I remember thinking at the time that it was right and funny. But if he had said theopposite, then what would I have felt?
Lorraine and Clarence have three kids about my brother’s and my ages. Fourth of July,when I’m ten, they have a cookout and when night falls we launch bottle rockets towardthe thin creek that snakes behind their house. Later, Clarence breaks out Roman candles.A sloshing rocks glass of bourbon in one hand, cigarette in the other, he weaves throughthe yard, setting fireworks ablaze. Suddenly, there’s a flash. The bourbon on hishand has caught fire. For a moment, Clarence stands still, considering his hand asthough it is not attached to his body. He is quiet. Until all at once he swings hisarm aloft and says, “I’m the Statue of Liberty. Happy Fourth! Wait! Get the marshmallows!”Then he laughs one of those cigarette-hack laughs that starts as a laugh and becomesa cough and then he buries his hand in the washtub full of icy cans of Old Style.His hand hissing, like a torch in the rain.
The night my mother marries Paul, we have dinner at the hotel, then go to the hotel’sbar, Cricket’s. And if I remember anything about that night, it’s not what my motherwore or my feelings that she was remarrying and closing the door for real on my father,on being a widow, on being defined by his name or anything. No, it’s Clarence andme at the end of the bar, drinking. Him, martini on the rocks. Me, twenty-four andtrying to imitate what I think Chicago reporters do—I am just starting as a stringerfor theTribune—and I’m drinking Scotch on the rocks.
And by now, Clarence and I have had a few, and he leans in to me, breath all sweetwith vodka and says, “I never got over your old man dying. He and I?Sssshhhhhhhit. . . . ”
He waves his hand across his face, past his eyes, and then, for a moment, stares atnothing I can see.
He says, “I remember the night your brother was born. Your old man, throwing pebblesat my bedroom window. I look out and there he is. Crazy guy had driven across halfthe city in the middle of the night. ‘Hey!’ he says. ‘I’m a father!’ And he used to . . .He used to . . . He had on that raincoat. He had this raincoat. Wore it everywhere.Like he thought he was Bogart or Murrow. Sometimes we’d meet downtown, after work,go drinking. He’d take me to those newspaper bars and never take that coat off. Isaid, ‘Hey. What’re you? A flasher?’ ”
He takes a gulp of his martini.
“But I’ll tell you . . . something. I’ll tell you something. Something I’ve nevertold anyone. Not then. Not since. Not my wife. No one. I never forgave him for dying.Never. He and me? . . . He and me? . . . You know, every Sunday I go to church withmy wife. With my kids. And I walk in and drop to my knees on that crummy kneeler andpray. And I don’t pray for my wife. I don’t pray for my kids. I don’t pray for me.I pray for your old man.”
I can see a tear in the corner of his eye. Then I hear a clutch in his throat. ButI do what I learned to do from old Westerns, what a man does for another man whenthat man’s falling apart. You pretend you don’t see it. Give a man that courtesy,pardner. I keep my eyes straight ahead, at a point somewhere over the bar.
“Not a day goes by that I don’t think of your old man.”
“He was the best friend I ever had, and then he was gone. And it’s not right.”
He raises up the remains of his watery martini and looks at me and says, “Your oldman.”
I raise the remains of my watery Scotch. Clarence knocks it. We drain our glasses,put them on the bar.
Glass on wood, the only punctuation.
And in that moment I think, I want to be that man. The dead man. I envy him. I wanthis power. The power, years later, that you have over someone. Still. Your absenceis greater than your presence. Presence is fleeting. Presence is easy. But absence?That’s eternal. The great constant.
Absence is everything.6
I telephone the other guy my mother gave me, Jim Strong.
“He and Dad went way back,” she says. “We all did.”
They all worked together at theTribune. Strong met his wife there, too.
“TheTribwas like a marriage factory,” my mother tells me.
“Sure, I remember you,” Strong says when I call. “And call me Stormy. How’s your mother?”
“Fine,” I say, and I tell him why I’m calling.
He says, “I miss your dad.” He tells me about being at theTribwith him, on the Neighborhood News desk—what they call Metro now. Stormy laughs loudand talks loud and has a thick Chicago accent. Long, nasala’s ando’s. Newspaper becomesnoose-pay-per.
When I think he’s comfortable, I ask what he knows about that night. “Maybe you werethere,” I say. “With him?”
He says, “Where was your dad, again?”
I tell him.
“Phil Cooper lived up there. But he’s dead. Bob mighta gone there with some of theold Boul Mich gang. That was theTribbar. That’s where I was when I heard the news. I was covering a Teamsters strikethat night. But you know, I kept a diary. Lemme dig it out.”
A day later he calls and says that the only entry he has is about the funeral.
“I was a pallbearer. I got a list here. Cooper, dead. Bob Morris, dead. Freddy Farrar,dead. Armstrong, dead. Jesus, we ain’t doing too good here, huh!” He laughs.
“So nothing about that night?”
“Nah. Guess I was remembering wrong.”
I have a hope that face-to-face, Stormy will open up. I want to look in his eyes.Then I’ll be able to tell.
We make a plan to meet for lunch at Riccardo’s, a joint halfway between theSun-Timesand theTribune.
“It’s where the old Radio Grill was,” he writes in an e-mail. “We did many a nightthere.”
I take the El from my mother’s house and walk north from the Loop, toward the WabashAvenue Bridge.
As a kid, I loved the Wabash Avenue Bridge for one reason: It was in the opening creditsofThe Bob Newhart Show. I always felt a secret pride when, for a split second, I could see theSun-Times/Daily Newsbuilding, hunkered down on the bank of the backward-flowing Chicago River, lookinglike a giant barge waiting to head downriver, its yellow sign shining out in the graygloom of long Chicago winters.
CHICAGO DAILY NEWS
Not like the Tribune Tower. All peacocky.
But as I cross the bridge now, theSun-Timesbuilding is gone.
I see men toiling in an ever-deepening black hole. Men and machines labor to drivepylons into the heavy wet clay and try tonot be swallowed alive. I watch the clumps of earth being dug and dumped and piledand I want to take a piece of this ground. I want to climb the cyclone fence thatrings the site. I want a shovel. I want to dig.
My brother and I are with our father, walking through theSun-Timesnewsroom. His day off. My brother and I—excited, proud. The old men in the newsroomshake our hands. My dad takes us down to the press room, where screaming metal machinesslathered in ink and oil and grease transform enormous rolls of paper into news. Anold man with thick glasses and hands stained black as crows squats down before mybrother and me and magics two sheets of hot-off-the-presses newspaper into hats thathe pops atop our happy heads. Our hats the shape of small lifeboats.
I look at the hole again. In that distant corner—is that where it happened?
In front of me, a sign.TRUMP INTERNATIONAL HOTEL AND TOWER CONDOMINIUMS. There’s a number—FOR THOSE SEEKING INFORMATION ABOUT THIS SITE.
Stormy tells me to meet him at 11:30 a.m., and when I walk in, he’s already at thebar. Place is empty. But there’s a rocks glass in front of him. Cubes of ice. Half-drainedbrown booze.
“Jeez, you look just like your old man.”
I still take pride in that. Pride that I’m keeping his memory alive.
I grab the stool next to Stormy.
“Drinking?” he says.
He jabs his thick index finger into the bar, like he expects to conjure a drink fromthe worn-out bar top.
I don’t want to drink but I feel compelled to match Stormy. Maybe this is how theydrank. And I don’t want to do anything that won’t align the spirits. Isn’t that whatI’m hoping? That somehow I’ll channel Stormy back forty years and he’ll talk to menot as me but as him—my father? I ask what he’s drinking.
“Same thing your dad did. Same thing we all did. J&B, rocks.”
I’ve never had Scotch in the morning. I order one.
We knock tumblers. I hold his eyes.
Stormy grins and breaks the gaze.
“See my picture?”
He points to the far wall. Black-and-white photos of old Chicago newspapermen rimthe room. One is of him. A slimmer version.
“Was there a ceremony when you went up?”
“Nah. Budja realize I’m right above the door to the can?”
Stormy looks like an aging baseball manager. A happy freckly face from years in thesun, square and plump and reddish.
“How’s your mom?”
“Good,” I say.
“Didja know she was the queen of the Maidenform Mafia?”
“What was that?”
“There were a group of gals in the newsroom that all wore tight sweaters and pointybras. Your mom was one. Your mom was the most gorgeous girl in the newsroom. All theother women wanted to be her.”
He lifts his glass again and we laugh, and I ask him if he came to Riccardo’s a lot.
He says, “Whatcha gotta understand is every paper had its own bar. But everybody wentto Radio Grill. You could get a great martini for seventy-five cents and beers fora quarter. There was a bartender there, Frank Morgner. Had a peg leg. But they torethat place down. I don’t want you to think your dad was a dipso or something. We alldrank. And we did it hard. But you know, your dad was a great guy. He wasn’t likeyour uncle. A lotta reporters at theTribthought Dick was mean-spirited. But everyone liked your dad.From the reporters and the pressmen to delivery drivers. Everyone. And, like I say,great newspaperman. Starting with makeup.”
“A makeup man? Your dad could look at a blank page and he could see it. He could seethe news and how it fit on the page. Your old man was a master on makeup.”
We decide to have lunch at Gene & Georgetti, an old red-sauce-and-chops place in acreaky wood-frame building next to the El. Years ago, this area was all warehouseand industrial, a part of Chicago they called Smokey Hollow. Now the “River NorthEntertainment Area”—so says the map in the back of the taxi.
We walk in. Handshakes. Backslaps.Where you been? Ain’t seen you in forever. Thought you were dead. Hey, it’s good tohave ya. The usual?
And Stormy slaps his palm twice on the bar and says, “Thank God, yes.”
It’s something about guys this age, when they run in to one another for the firsttime in ages. There’s a shock in their faces—or is it joy? maybe relief?—of seeingan old pal they didn’t expect to see again. And so the backslapping and handshaking.The need to touch—the confirmation of the physical.
Stormy looks me over and says, “How about a canarbo?”
“Jesus, you don’t know a canarbo?” And he says it kehn-arrrrb-oh.
“I don’t. Where’s it come from?”
“Bill Bender at theTribune. He was a photographer there. He called ’em canarbos. A drink! A drink! So we alldid. So . . . how about it?”
“Sure,” I say.
The bartender brings two drinks. Stormy raises his rocks glass eye-level. He smiles.His face, distorted through the glass.
“You know, if your dad had lived, he’da been running theTrib. Clayton Kirkpatrick loved him. We all thought he was going to bring him back. Buthe was at theSun-Timesat a great moment. It was more freewheeling. And they treated him better. He lefttheTribbecause he wanted a raise, and when they wouldn’t give it to him, he walked acrossthe street to theSun-Timesand started on the spot. He was the guy they wanted. He was a ball to be with, I’lltell you that. He was irreverent. Sharp-witted. He couldn’t stand someone who wasfull of themselves or who didn’t treat someone fair. If he didn’t like you, you hadproblems. And he could cut someone up pretty good and pretty fast. And I’ll tell youone thing: I never heard a bad word about him, may God strike me dead. And I bummedwith everyone.”
We’re into it now. Lunch on the table. Three drinks in each of us. I tell him thatone thing I still can’t get a handle on is what happened to my father the night hedied. Who are these friends? Did you hear of anyone who was with him that night?
“What are you saying?” he asks me.
“I’m saying that it doesn’t add up. What’s in the obits and all.”
“Look, I never had any clue as to what the guy’s interests were. Fishing? Hunting?Ball games? No. I think he was one of those guys who lived for the paper. It was hiswhole life.”
“But from the perspective of a newspaperman, doesn’t it seem like the story doesn’tsquare?”
“What are you saying?”
“He was with someone that night.”
Stormy waves his hand in front of his face. Takes a slurp of his J&B.
“Look, the guy was no Paul Newman.”
“But what? Here’s one for you: Maybe he was with a gay that night.”
“No! But it’s just as crazy an idea as him being with a woman!”
“I never said he was with a woman. I just said he was with someone. The obits saidhe had been visiting friends.”
Stormy nods to the waiter in a red jacket and holds up his glass, then knocks backthe last of the Scotch. He wipes his mouth with the back of his hand.
“What does it matter? He’s dead.”
Stormy looks around the room for his drink. Head tilted up, like a man searching forhis driver at airport arrivals. He’s silent. When his drink appears at last, he gulpsit in. Again with the hand wipe.
“Didja know Fire Commissioner Quinn went to your dad’s wake? Mayor Daley couldn’tgo, so he sent Quinn.”
“Why would Daley have gone?”
“He always went to newspapermen’s funerals. It was good for business.”
Stormy refuses to let me pay. On our way out, more hugs, more backslapping. Then weopen the door, stand blinking in the harsh white late-afternoon sunlight.
Stormy puts his hand on my shoulder.
“Know where we gotta go? Billy Goat. We should do one there. See some of the old gang.”
Billy Goat is pretty much empty. A couple of wiry old guys sit at the bar, beers infront of them. We find a table in the back. The walls are crammed with grainy, fadedphotographs of newspapermen and athletes like Stan Mikita, Bobby Hull. We order moredrinks, and Stormy grabs his and wanders about the room, looking at the photographsand framed old clippings, pointing at each of them as he moves down the wall.
“Harry Romanoff. Dead. Tom Fitzpatrick. Dead. Jack Griffin. Dead. Dave Condon. Dead.Kup. Dead. Royko. Jesus. Look at ’em all, will ya?”
He raises his J&B to the wall and takes a swig, then drops his head and stares athis feet. He’s quiet. Then—his head pops up.
“Hey, what time is it?”
“Just about four,” I tell him.
“Jesus, I gotta catch a train.”
Outside, Stormy shakes my hand. His eyes look like bloodshot oysters.
“This was a good day,” he says. “Your old man was a good man. Remember that.”
Then he turns. I watch him walk down Hubbard Street, across Rush Street, westward.The sun is low and sharp. All I can see is the backlit outline of him as he amblestoward the train. I wonder how my father would be now, if he were alive. And maybe,I think, maybe it’s better not to know.
I climb out from lower Hubbard Street, take the stairs up to Michigan Avenue. There’sa spot near Michigan Avenue and Chicago Avenue where, if one stands just so, the oldWater Tower appears in the foreground and the Hancock Building looms high behind it.The Water Tower—storied survivor of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The Hancock—symbolof the new Chicago—built one hundred years later.
I stand there for a moment, my package still strong, trying to take stock of whatI learned today. I’m only two friends in, but these guys stick together. I’m convincedthey know more than they are telling me.
October 1971. Second grade. We celebrate the centennial of the Great Chicago Fire.For a whole week, our teacher makes us examine the legend of Mrs. O’Leary. Filmstripsevery day. The lesson: Here is the city this woman begat. All because she had to havesome milk in the night.
The cow kicked the lantern and the city kicked the bucket. A city built of nothingbut wood.
“Can you understand that, children? How careless our forefathers were? Wood! Not liketoday. See our walls? Cinder block. Stone. No conflagration will touch us.”
I look at the map projected on the screen. “The Swath of Destruction,” it says. Fromone woman, all of this blooms. The blackness bleeding out from one home. In one night,a city destroyed.
More images unspool. People huddle in the lake, desperate to escape the flames. Embersof pine, red-orange remains of someone’s home, fall all about them,ssss-ing into the water.
The filmstrip demands our attention. Our teacher moves it forward.
# # #
The next night, after my session with Stormy, my friend John comes to my mother’s.We’ve been best friends since we were fourteen. He’s looking at snapshots my motherhas on her refrigerator—the grandkids, my brother, me. He taps a photo of me at mydesk in New York. My mother took it last time she came to see me. She almost nevertakes photos of me.
“I want to take your picture,” she said, waving her disposable.
“Okay,” I say.
“Good,” my mother says, looking through her lens. “I needed to kill this.”
John taps the photo. “Is this your dad?”
“I could’ve sworn it’s him. It looks like a picture I feel I’ve seen of him.”
My mother goes to bed. John and I sit at the kitchen table. I tell him what I’m workingon. All these years, and I’ve never told him of the mystery. We decide to drive tothe 3900 block of North Pine Grove. I need to see it. Walk it.
It’s a T intersection with Irving Park Road. Two enormous high-rises hulk on the southwestand southeast corners. Honey locust trees that were no more than saplings when myfather died on the street. Are these the only remaining witnesses?
I was hoping for something big. Something hiding in plain view. Part of me was evenbelieving that we’d turn the corner and see him crumpled in the street. I know thatI can’t save him. But I want to see it. It is our human need—to circle back to thestations of our sorrow.
I understand you now, those of you who build your roadside shrines.
Your frail white cross, lashed to the guardrail. Two wooden garden stakes bound withrusted wire. Your son’s name, stenciled. Or your wife’s. A plastic bouquet. Fadedflag. We see your shrine as we speed by, rounding our curve. A glint of color catchesour eye. Maybe remnants of that weathered teddy bear. All of it marking that placewhere someone loved left the road.
The sod black and torn. The gap in the guardrail. The tree trunk, shorn.
It is our need to mark. To witness. Our need to create sacred ground.
“History happened here,” guidebooks like to say.
No, we say—personal history ended here.
I think about a show I saw on TV. Scientists looking for an “impact crater” from whatthey believed killed off the dinosaurs. Without a crater, no one believes them. Sothe men spend their lives searching the earth for a depression that’s big enough.The place where they can stand and say, “This is what remains.”
And standing there with John, my lifelong friend, I wonder what kind of friends wouldwatch my father die. And then never speak of it again?
I think of what Wiley said: You know how guys are.
Is this what unknowability is?
John and I head back to my mother’s, up Lake Shore Drive—the lake black and empty,wind blowing off of it, filling our car. John playing Johnny Cash. The album he didbefore he died. We drive through the summer streets. Not talking. Because we don’thave to talk.
We stop at Superdawg. The lady comes to our car and takes our order. Like it’s still1961. We order Whoopercheesies, fries. The works. Sit there, eating, watching thetraffic lights and cars coming and going on Milwaukee Avenue. Across the way, theforest preserve is quiet, dark. As a boy, I sledded there on the ancient tobogganruns. No one able to steer.
A car drives by, no headlights.
“Lights!” John yells. “Hey, lights! Lights!”
I yell, too.
No use. The driver drives on, into the night. Ghost-riding, we called that when Iwas growing up.
“Guy’s gonna kill someone,” John says.
The next morning, I eat breakfast with Detective Clemens, a Chicago Police Departmentcold-case investigator I’ve made contact with, thinking that I need to check off withhim.
We meet at a diner near my mother’s house. I ask if he can pull the records of thatnight.
“Was your old man murdered?”
“Not that I know.”
“Then there’s nothing.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s a burn. Standard procedure—if it ain’t a homicide, the file is burned aftera couple of years. I mean, unless there’s something special about your old man. Isthere?”
“Yeah.” He stabs his spoon in and out of his oatmeal.
Later that morning I get an e-mail from Stormy:
Thanks for my enjoyable, if prolonged, lunch. Hope you were in better shape than JamesB., my twin brother reportedly at Gene & Georgetti’s. Keep in touch, your friend JamesB. a.k.a. Stormy.
It’s an e-mail from a man who is comfortable in dualities. In wanting to be able topass off out-of-the-norm behavior on his “twin brother.” Maybe I’m a fool to believeI can go back into the past and men will tell me the truth simply because I ask themto. Maybe I’m as naive now as I was at six.
# # #
I leave Chicago.
At O’Hare, sitting at the gate, waiting for the others to board, I look out my window.A dog jumps out of its cage, runs across thetarmac, toward a fence. Two burly men—their orange mesh vests flapping in the wind—chaseafter it. All too soon, they’re out of view.
On the flight, I drink bad wine and take stock. I keep thinking, Why didn’t you doany of this when Uncle Dick and Aunt Helen were alive?
My uncle had a son. My cousin Mark. He was a junior in college, living at home, thatspring my father died. Our families grew apart, so I never really knew Mark. I probablyhaven’t spoken to him in more than thirty years. But I also know that I have to reportall the angles.
A few years earlier, I received a Christmas card from him. He was living near DesMoines. He’d moved there to work on theRegister. I remember the Christmas letter had his e-mail address. I dig out the card. Sendhim an e-mail.
I know it’s been a long time. I have a favor to ask. I’m working on a story aboutBob. Would you have time in the next week or so to talk?
A day later:
Sundays are best.
Crisp blue autumn Sunday in New York. The kind of day that can break your heart, it’sso perfect. The kind of sky and sun you imagine when you imagine moving here.
I call my cousin. For the next hour, Mark tells me stories aboutour family. He tells me how our grandfather, C.P., went to McCook in the early daysof the twentieth century. Orphaned, he always claimed. Tells me how he worked on therailroad, hustled stray jobs here and there.
“On weekends, C.P. booked bands for dances in McCook. He bragged about how he managedLawrence Welk and his Hotsy Totsy Boys when Welk was just some hick out of North Dakota.I have no idea if it’s true. He also told me stories about how he worked in the circus,pitching tents and carnival barking.”
He tells me how my father was, in the words of Dick, “the best newspaperman of hisgeneration, head and shoulders above everyone else.” Then he asks me, “You know C.P.was a drinker, right?”
“Yeah, I’d heard that.”
“Did you ever hear this story?”
He tells me how C.P. got drunk one night after work and wandered to the switchingyard, then crawled into a boxcar and passed out.
“When he comes to, it’s morning. He stumbles out of the boxcar. Figures he needs tobe getting home. Figures he can be home in time for breakfast. But as he starts upthe street, he can’t get his bearings. So he says to someone, ‘Hey—which way is NorrisAvenue?’ The guy says, ‘Norris Avenue? There’s no Norris Avenue in Denver.’ C.P. standsthere blinking and says, ‘What? Where am I?’ The guy says, ‘I told you—Denver.’ C.P.got so loaded he didn’t notice when they hooked up the boxcar and hauled him to Denver.”
After an hour or so along these lines I say, “My father’s obituaries say he died aftervisiting friends or after leaving the home of a friend. But I’ve never heard anyonetalk about that night. It seems odd that in all these years I’ve never met anyonewho was there that night. Or even heard a name. I mean, something doesn’t add up.”
Then: “I always knew this day was going to come, and I always knew it was going tobe you. That you were going to figure it out. Even when you were a kid, I could seeit in you. When I got youre-mail, after not hearing from you for years, I knew. I debated what I’d say. AndI decided that if you asked me, I’d tell you.”
“It’s your right to know the truth. Don’t you think?”
“Here’s all I can tell you. I’m home that night. In my room. Upstairs. It’s late.Two thirty, maybe. The phone outside my door rings. My folks didn’t have one in theirbedroom. Different times, you know? Anyway, my dad answers. And I can hear him givinginstructions. InvokingChicago Todayand his title. After maybe fifteen minutes, he hangs up. I open my door. He’s standingthere, my mother next to him. He looks at me and says, ‘Bob’s dead.’ Next thing Iknow he’s left the house.”
“Bob died in a woman’s apartment. I don’t know the whole story. But I’m pretty suremy father arranged a cover-up. After Bob died, we never talked about that night again.”
“Is there anyone you think knows who the woman is?”
“Two people I can think of. Did you ever know Craig Klugman?”
“He worked with Bob. He and I drove to the funeral in my car. Last I heard he wasin Fort Wayne.”
“You probably don’t remember my first wife, Nancy. I was dating her when Bob died.She used to claim that she knew everything that happened that night. She said thatmy mother had told her.”
“Do you know where Nancy is now?”
“No. Her maiden name was Verzano. I don’t know if she’s remarried. But her best friendwas Pam Smicklas. A few years ago I saw a wire story that she was the mayor of SantaMonica. Maybe ask her.”
“I can’t believe all these years, I was right in my gut.”
“Let me ask you something,” he says. “Was it really the obits?”
“I knew it,” he says. “The truth was sitting there, in plain sight. It was a sloppycover-up waiting to be exposed. I knew you’d figure it out.”
“But how could Dick pull off a cover-up? How did the cops let him do it?”
“The cops helped him. It was a different time. In some ways, it was the last daysof cops and newspapermen being on the same team. Dick carried a lot of weight in Chicago.In the end, it’s just a big brother taking care of his kid brother.”
“But if Dick covered it up, how did he forget to tell the papers not to print thetruth?”
“Like I say, it was a sloppy cover-up. And if you think about it, the papers didn’tprint the truth. They printed clues. That night, what happens, I think, is this: Bobdies in this woman’s apartment. The woman panics, calls an ambulance, calls Dick.Dick gets to the woman’s place and does two things. One, he persuades the cops tolet him—not them—break the news to your mother so he can give her the cover story.You know, kind of like, ‘Officer, c’mon—this guy is my brother. He has two kids anda wife at home. No need for them to know.’ I think the second thing Dick did is callthe night editors and tell them to print that Bob died on the street, outside, aftervisiting friends—and not in any woman’s apartment. It was a bad cover-up, becausethe detail about ‘friends’ raises more questions than it answers. But I imagine atfour or five in the morning, when he’s trying to sweep all of this up, he’s not thinkingeverything through. He’s racing the clock till your mother wakes up.”
“If Dick had enough time, none of the papers would have printed those details about‘friends.’ Your dad—heck, both of them—Dick and Bob were undone by the thing theyloved: solid,101-reporting. The fundamentals. But you have to understand—Dick did it all to protectyou guys. And Bob was his kid brother.”
“I know. I mean, what are you going to do? Woman calls you in the middle of the night,hysterical.”
“Exactly. Your brother, dead in her bed. His family asleep at home, waiting for him.The cops, about to knock on the door and break the news to your mother. Dick wantedto keep that pain from your mom. I’m not saying he was right, but.”
“I wish I would’ve asked him about all this before he died.”
“I think he was always terrified you were going to.”
“So you guys talked about it?”
I went to a bar. For a long time I stare at my reflection, what I could see of methrough the bottles and glass, through the browns and greens. Over and over in myhead I think, Now I know I am not crazy.
Sitting there in the bar, a man of a certain age—in my forties and I’ve outlived himby a good few years now—I get it. Who among us does not know that such temptationsexist? He just had the dumb luck to die in her bed. Thirty minutes earlier or latereither way, and he truly does die out on the street. Or driving home. Crashing intoa light pole. His head, seizured. His secret, safe. His name, clean.
I look down the bar and part of me expects to see him. I always do. Part of what itmeans to lose a parent early: You never accept the truth that they are dead. You can’t.You won’t. In your head, you always believe that somewhere, they exist. And someday,you will find them and all your questions will be answered. Most of all: Why did youleave me?
Like now. There he is, roosting alone at the end of the bar, clad in that beat-up,battered raincoat, the one Clarence said he never shed.
He sees me. He hoists his rocks glass high—his salute to me from across the room.He winks and says, “Well, kiddo, you found me.”
“No,” I say, “I found you out.”
“You heard what Mark said today.”
“What the hell does Mark know?”
“He knows how you died.”
“Does he? Think about it, pal. As we say in the newspaper game, you got nothing. Youhave a dead man and no witnesses. No first-hand sources. They’re all dead. Or missing.Where’s this woman? You got a statement from her? Where’s the police report? You’vegot a story that’s based on a telephone call that someone overheard in the hallwayat two in the morning thirty-some years ago. And by the way, what’s Mark’s motivation?Ever think of that? You call yourself a reporter? Face it: You got nothing on me,kid.”
My father raises his glass again, shakes it at me, and grins. His ice rattles likelaughter.
# # #
It’s Reporting 101. In the newspaper game, it’s the Five W’s plus one: Who, What,Where, When, How, and Why.
Who?Robert Charles Hainey.
Where?Somewhere on the 3900 block of North Pine Grove Avenue, Chicago, Illinois.
When?April 24, 1970.
Surely there must be a why. That’s what they teach you about reporting. There’s alwaysa why. Dig deep enough and you will find it.
A newspaperman knows the why is the key to the story.
# # #
After grad school, I get a part-time job reporting for theTribune. I cover city-council meetings in the suburbs. I’m what newspapermen call a stringer.
Because council members work day jobs, the meetings all take place at night. My bureauchief—the editor of the Northwest Suburban desk—calls me during the day and givesme that night’s assignment. Elk Grove Village. Mount Prospect. Schiller Park. Suburbslike that. I sit in the first row of an auditorium in some 1960s-era municipal building,listen to people argue the finer points of opposite-side-of-the-street parking. Orwhether residents should be allowed to park on the street overnight. Or if parkingmeters should be removed in the downtown business district. Every meeting involvesdebates about parking. And every meeting goes late. Eleven. Midnight. After, I drivemy 1972 Chevy Malibu to the bureau—a glass-paneled office tower near O’Hare wheretheTribuneleases a floor. This is where I file. I have a pass code. Let myself in. Turn onthe lights. Walk the carpet of the empty newsroom. A field of cubicles and computerslinked to the Tribune Tower on Michigan Avenue. I have to file a brief on the meetingfor the Metro section. Those 250-word squibs they run in your paper. What usedto be called Neighborhood News. If the news is big—and it never is—the desk mightgo long with it. For hours, I sit there, cursor blinking. My notes a mess of namesand city ordinance numbers and quotes about nothing. What I wanted and what I was,two different things. Newsman in the night. Me walking the beat, the mean streetsof the Northwest suburbs.
I wanted so much to belong. In my head I saw myself continuing my father’s work. Learningthe trade so I could finish what he began. A newsman in the city. In a line with him.And in a line with my uncle. Keeping the line going. Strung together.
The cursor, blinking.
# # #
I start with what Mark gave me—I’ll try to find his ex. I Google: Pam Smicklas MayorSanta Monica. Turns out she’s Pam O’Connor now. I call her office, and she tells methat Nancy remarried some years ago but that she hasn’t talked to her for years. “Shemarried a man named Bonetti,” she says. “She was living in the Bay Area. Hayward?Fremont? We lost touch. I remember when your father died. That was a huge shock. Nancyalways talked about it and how shook up the whole family was.”
She says if I find Nancy, can I say hello for her?
“Give her my number. It’d be good to get back in touch.”
I go on ZabaSearch and find a Nancy Bonetti in Denver, North Carolina.
It’s a strange thing, being the hand that reaches across time. You feel awkward atfirst in your phone calls. I find myself talking fast, like a teenager calling andasking for a date to the dance. I find myself nervous about losing my opening. Hearingthe phone goingclick!Hi-you-don’t-know-me-but-my-name’s-Michael-Hainey-and-I-think-you-knew-my-father-Bob-Hainey-and-I-hope-this-is-not-a-bad-time-but-I-was-hoping-you-could-help-me.
A woman answers.
“My God! Of course I remember you! How is your mother?”
“She’s fine, thank you.”
“Oh, I have the fondest memories of you two boys and your mother. And I always feltso sad for your mother. Please tell her I said hello.”
“Well, that’s something you could help me with,” I say. “That night my father died.I was wondering if you could tell me what you remember.”
“Well, Mark called me late that night and told me the news.”
“This is going to sound strange, but I have to ask you. I was talking to Mark—”
“Mark? Oh, how is he?”
“Fine. Can I ask you something?”
“Mark told me you know the truth of that night. He said that you used to claim thatyou knew the name of the woman.”
“Mark and I had our troubles, but I never said that. I hope he’s found some peacein his life. But no, I never knew what happened. Have you asked Dick?”
“He and Helen are both dead.”
“They really loved you two boys. I know that.”
“Your father’s death was one of those things that was never spoken of. The circumstancesjust hung there, unspoken. And his presence shrouded that house. It was suffocating.Dick was always invoking Bob. Especially to Mark, when it came to him being a newspaperman.Dick was forever telling Mark, ‘You’ll never be as good as Bob.’ Did your mother evertalk about that night?”
“No, it was the same in our house,” I say. “I mean, we didn’t know the circumstancesof his death. We were told a different story. The one that Dick made up. But his deathdefined our house, too.”
“I think that on some level your mother knew there was foul play. On some level, everywoman knows. She’s a smart woman. I always remember her as being so elegant and witty.I wanted to be like her. She had so much grace.”
A few days later, I get an e-mail from Nancy:
Though it was “out of the blue,” I want you to know that I am happy you contactedme. I hope whatever memories I have of those early years are of use to you in yourquest. I sincerely hope it helps you to find the answers you need to move forwardin your life. But, keep in mind that you may never get all the answers you want. However,it may just be the beginning of a closer relationship with your cousin, which willtie you and your brother to your past. And that would be a very good thing.
My brother calls. A catch-up call. I clutch. I don’t want to be the one who destroyshis world. What am I becoming but my father? A keeper of secrets. Worse, I am a keeperof his secrets. A co-conspirator.I hear my brother talking about the kids, his week. Then he asks if I’ve talked toMark yet, and I say yes.
“You know,” I say, “Mark and I were talking about McCook and I had this thought togo out there.”
“I’d go with you. I want Glenn to see it.”
So, next thing I know, we’ve got a reunion weekend planned for McCook. Chris, me,Mark, and my nephew. Three generations.
It had been years since I had seen McCook. The last time, I was a year or so out ofgrad school (Medill, almost thirty years to the day after my father got his master’sthere, too) and I rented a Century and drove I-80 flat and fast to McCook. Lookingfor him. Roy Orbison’sMystery Girlhad just come out, and I play it over and over as I drive from Chicago.
And now that I am reporting all of this, trying to get inside my father’s head, Ineed to go back again and see the streets, the house, talk to people. I need to inhabitthe space. The fact, though, that I was now leading a group tour freaked me out. Especiallywhen I added in my deception of my brother:Hey, want to come to McCook? It’ll be fun. We can bond. Oh, but by the way, I’m carryingan enormous secret about him and I’m going to keep it from you.
So often I wonder, do all brothers end up at Kitty Hawk? Flipping a coin to writehistory. One will fly. The other stands slack-jawed with awe. Maybe chasing his brother.The wind in his face now. The wind that lifts his brother.
# # #
What do you know of it? If you and I were paired onPasswordand you gave the clue “Neh-brass-kaaaaahhh . . . ,” I’d shout, “Boys Town!”
Nebraska—where orphans went. A place where the stronger brother hoists his weakerkid brother onto his back to tote him through the blizzard to the orphanage that willtake them in and, when a stranger assumes it must be a wearying weight, tells theman, “He ain’t heavy. He’s m’brother.”
Makes me think of the movie.
Sunday afternoons, WGN ranFamily Classics, a movie show hosted by Frazier Thomas—a rotund, jovial man whose day job was hostingGarfield Goose and Friends.
But—Boys Town. If you’ve never seen it, true story. 1938. Trough of the Great Depression. SpencerTracy plays Father Flanagan, a renegade reverend who starts a home for orphaned boysliving on the streets. So long as a boy can get himself to Boys Town, he’ll have aplace to live. And the thing is, the place is entirely self-sufficient. There’s afarm, a machine shop. Everything. You see it in the movie and think, Who would wantparents when I can live in a town run by kids?
That’s where Mickey Rooney comes in. He plays Whitey Marsh, the boy who was “bornto be hung,” and he spends the first chunk of the movie fighting with Tracy. But there’sthis little kid named—what else?—Pee Wee. He’s eight to Rooney’s twelve, and he followsRooney like a stray. Rooney hates him.
Until Pee Wee gets hit by a car.
Rooney cracks and spins into one of those Rooney performances, wailing and sobbinglike only Rooney can. But in this moment, his life changes. He is a boy reborn. Hebecomes a leader of other boys. All is well. But this is not a good movie for a seven-year-oldto be watching if he has a dead father from Nebraska.
It is, however, a good movie to see if you are a boy who is terrified of becomingan orphan. It’s Americanized Dickens. It teachespluck. Determination. And it gives comfort. Comfort in the knowledge that somewhereOut There, in that place called Nebraska, that place whence I sprang, I could, ifand when it all falls apart, find a safe home. It was all so simple. So right. SoNebraska.
For years after he was dead, an envelope would come each Christmas from Boys Town.Their yearly appeal, addressed to my father. I took it as a sign that he was Out There.Somewhere. That he was okay. Alive. Signaling to me, his boy.
For years, Boys Town was all I knew of Nebraska. That place somewhere Out There.
That’s why I knew that to go forward, I needed to go back. Back to where he’d comefrom. What he’d left behind.
A few days before my cousin and my brother and my eight-year-old nephew and I areset to gather, I get an e-mail from my sister-in-law, Wendy, the subject line being“Glenn”:
I know he’s very excited about the trip. He went online yesterday and wanted to seewhat the weather is going to be in Nebraska. Can you do me a favor, though? Keep aneye on him for how much he is talking about dead men. Recently, he made a couple ofcomments to me about how he doesn’t have any grandfathers. He said, “Dads don’t livevery long, do they?”7
We meet in the terminal. I am the first, so I wait at the gate for my cousin. Eventhough I have not seen him in a good thirty years, when he ambles off the jetway,I know him immediately. He looks just like his father: big eyes, gray mustache.
Soon after, my brother and nephew arrive, and then the four of us start driving eastout of Denver, with the remains of the day and Highway 34. For the first few miles,I’m made to trail a rusty combine, bleeding seed before me, across the access road.But then the highway. How the road unreels. Driving out here—the blue sky blanketingyou from horizon to horizon—it’s almost like you feel you are driving along the bottomof a gigantic aquarium. The fields, burnished gold and brown like sand on the oceanfloor. I always think about the early maps of this territory, where this whole swathof continent from the Rockies to the Dakotas is labeled the Great American Desert.Dry land, smashed flat by the crush of time and ice. Out here, you can almost feelthe frontier crack open.
For centuries, no one really thought much of anything could grow or live here. Thenmen discovered an enormous lake. Buried. Stretching from Texas to South Dakota. Whatremains of the glaciers. Ten thousand years ago, when they were leaving the Rockiesbehind, their cold runoff seeped into the earth and filled up a huge emptiness hiddendeep beneath the surface. The Ogallala Aquifer. That’s what scientists call it. Inthe 1950s, men figured out how to drill pumps deep enough to tap it and harness thewater to grow crops. If you’ve ever flown over the flyover states and seen those greatwheels of green amid barren brown flatlands, that’s most likely cropland nursed bythe Ogallala. “Wheels of Life,” they call them out here.
I like driving. Relaxes me. Especially out here, places like this. The void of theroad lets you meditate.
That’s not the case now. Not with these guys in the car.
I’m stressed. Thinking over and over: I am my father. A deceiver. A keeper of secrets.His secrets. I can’t get it out of my head that when I tell my brother what I’ve learned,he will be furious with me. What right do I have to shatter his world?
So I do what I always do when I am with others and uneasy: I ask questions. Get themtalking. Anything to shift the spotlight from me. Some of it is a need to set othersat ease. And some of it is a never-ending search for answers. These are key traitsof those of us in what I think of as the Dead Fathers Club. I can always spot a member.If you are one of us, you know the traits. We’ll do anything to keep the focus offus. To not talk about who we are. But if you are made to enter the DFC early enough,you are presented with no end of situations in which you are forced to reveal yourmembership.
Here’s how it went in first grade. Mrs. Glendon making us do that thing you have todo every year—circle the room and tell your new classmates who you are.
Mrs. Glendon: “And what is your name?”
Mrs. Glendon: “And tell us about your family.”
Me: “I have a big brother named Chris and a mom.”
Mrs. Glendon: “I think you’re forgetting about your father.”
Me: “I’m not forgetting him. He’s dead.”
CUT TO: Shocked look on Mrs. Glendon’s face.
CUT TO: Me at my desk, unease coursing through me, sure that I will be punished for this.
And the older I got—it only got richer.
CUT TO: Spanish class, seventh grade
“¿Miguelito, y tu familia?”
“Yo tengo mi madre y un hermano.”
“¿Y tu padre?”
“Mi padre está . . . ¿dead?”
“No, Miguelito. No se dicedead.Se dice tu padre está muerto. Mwer-toe!”
“Mi padre está . . . muerto.”
The Dead Fathers Club.
You’ve seen our photographs. Newspapers love a good shot of new members being inductedinto the DFC.
A cop or firefighter dies in the line of duty. A few days later, a funeral. The man’sson stands atop the church steps as the burnished box is borne toward a black hearse.And the boy, he’s maybe eight or ten, maybe for the first time in his life he wearsa suit, and maybe for the first time a necktie that his uncle knotted for him, teachinghim that morning that bit of male knowledge. There’s so much morethat his father won’t ever teach him about what it takes to make one’s way as a manin the world. Never will he know those moments when his father sits side by side withhim, his son, and shares the lessons of life. His wisdom. Perhaps his sorrows. A secret.And on this boy’s head now, a battered fire helmet or cop hat, lopsided on his too-smallhead. And still the boy stands, watching his father’s coffin, aloft. A solitary bagpiperpiping the pallbearers to the idling Cadillac. Men in uniforms and white gloves salute.Another new member.
One reason I ask so many questions, maybe why I became a reporter: It’s what happenswhen you have a dead father. Even now, my boyhood so far behind me, I believe I mighthave made something more of my life had my father lived. Had he lived to share withme his secrets to life. His knowledge. To this day, still, I scavenge for scraps inthe hearts and minds of men I meet. Forever searching, believing the answers are outthere. Somewhere.
Because we without fathers must out of necessity create ourselves.
It’s true that necessity is the mother of invention. But for those of us without fathers,there is a deeper truth—necessity is the mother of self-invention.
My cousin is all too happy to talk. He’s that guy. And because he’s twelve, fourteenyears older than my brother and me, he knows parts of the Hainey family story thatwe’ve never heard. Like with our grandfather, C.P. All I saw was a skeleton in flannel.After my father died, for a few Christmases, C.P. would take the train to Chicagoand Dick would plop him at our house for a day or two to visit. He’d sit in the rockingchair, watching reruns on TV with my brother and me, popping out his dentures andfiddling with them, and smelling of that old-man smell. Once, my mother thought hewas dead and she had to call an ambulance.
That look in his dull, yellowed eyes as the paramedic shone a light into them.
It was during that visit, just before he left, that C.P. gave me his wallet. It wasleather, the color of watery bourbon. Whipcord stitching on the sides and westernimages hand-tooled on it. And in big letters, CPH. We were watchingHogan’s Heroes.He says, “I want to give you this.” And he pushes it into my hands.
“A man’s got to have a wallet. That’s the only way anyone knows who you are.”
I open it.
He says, “What’re you looking for? I gave you a wallet, son, not money. Just becauseyou have a wallet, that doesn’t mean someone fills it with money for you. That’s yourjob.”
Then he laughed. Head like a jack-o’-lantern.
For years I kept that wallet in my dresser drawer. Sometimes at night I’d take itout and wonder if my father had ever carried it. I tried to use it in high school,but it was big and bulky, and one day a kid in the cafeteria made fun of it. Calledme Ranger Rick. I never used it again.
C.P. told people he was an orphan. That’s as much as I really know of him. That, andhis roots were in Ireland. No one knew which town. I never knew if he was orphanedin Ireland or in America.
My cousin says, “He was orphaned in America. That’s what we think.”
“But how did he come to Nebraska?”
Starting in the 1850s, orphans in the East Coast slums would be packed onto railroadcars and shipped into the prairies, their names pinned to their chests. The locomotivesrumbled west, from New York to Kansas, Chicago to the Dakotas. Farm families desperatefor extra labor met the trains at the stations and the orphans would beparaded onto the platform, where people would inspect their teeth, examine their hands,test their muscles. If you wanted a kid, you signed the papers, took one home.
My brother and I are quiet. Just the hum of wheels unseen as we push into the darknessof the High Plains. I think of my grandfather, maybe a boy of eight. Maybe the sameage as my nephew now. I think of him on a locomotive to nowhere he knows. Confused.Scared. Leaving his past behind, leaving his dead parents behind. A boy becoming hisown man.
1972. My mother tries to get involved with our church—Mary, Seat of Wisdom. One afternoon,I see her setting the dining-room table, not the kitchen table.
She tells me that we are having an orphan to dinner. It’s for her church group.
Ever since my father has died, I’ve obsessed about becoming an orphan. I lie in bed,contemplating the countless ways my mother could die, and what will happen to my brotherand me. I am determined not to be caught unprepared.
Each night in my mind I run through what will be required of me in my orphan life.I foresee talk about splitting up my brother and me, maybe him being sent to livewith our grandmother and grandfather, me dispatched to Uncle Dick. Or we will haveto live with our grandparents in the house where our mother grew up. We would sleepin the converted attic bedroom and be made to attend Saint Turibius School and beknown as the Orphan Brothers.
Each night, I double-check the shoe box beneath my bed where I hid those things Iwould take with me at a moment’s notice. My Scramble Box, I called it. I got the ideaone night, watchingThe World at Waror one of those shows. An old man spoke of how, as a child, he had to flee his homeone night.
“There was no notice,” he said.
All that remained of his family, he said, was what he carried, he said. “Nothing.”
I’d be prepared.
The Buick. Dark winter night. My mother and I. We drive to get the orphan. An areaon the other side of the forest preserve. No homes. Outside our car, nothing but adeep blackness.
We come to a clearing. The road rises. I see lights on the top of the hill. I askmy mother what this place is.
“It’s where the orphans live.”
I fight the voice in my head that believes, in truth, she is making arrangements toleave me here.
We sit at the dining-room table, my brother, the orphan, and me. My mother makes theonly sound, bashing her potato masher against the pot.
The orphan has long black hair and bangs. She wears a blue dress, and in her hairthere’s a bow of red yarn.
“Our dad’s dead, too,” I say.
The orphan looks at me, says nothing.
I hear my nephew, a voice from the back of the car. In the darkness, I strain to seehim, but I can’t make him out.
He says, “At school, I signed up for Journalism Club.”
I look at my brother in the rearview mirror. My brother says, “He wanted to.” Andthen my nephew says he’s working on his first story.
“It’s about hidden things,” my nephew says. “Things you can’t see but are really there.Some men came into our school and knocked down a wall to fix something, and now youcan see what was hidden inside. I’m writing about that. Things you never knew werethere all along but hidden inside.”
I say to Glenn, “Do you know where we’re going?”
“You know we’re going to see where Grampa Bob grew up, right?”
Glenn says, “Oh.” An “Oh” that I know is not comprehending. But I let it go.
My cousin breaks in.
“You know your father was a mistake, right?”
“What?” I say.
“Yeah. Do the math. Dick and Bob are twelve years apart. Gramma Hainey was what—almostthirty-five when she had him? And C.P. was forty-five—ancient, in those days, to becomea father. Dick told me Bob was not planned. Change-of-life baby, they called themback then. And he said Bob knew it. When C.P.’d get drunk, he’d yell, ‘You’ll neverbe more than a lousy mistake.’ ”
I get us to McCook sometime after midnight. The Chief Motel at the edge of town. BStreet. My brother picked it because it has an indoor pool.
“A little reward for Glenn,” he says, “after we’ve done our thing.”
The rooms ring the pool. Well-worn Astroturf the path we walk. In my room, the whiffof chlorine. I lie on the bed, wired from the road, staring at the ceiling, thinkingand not thinking of my father. Of a life unplanned. What am I but the son of a mistake?
I find a scratch pad in the nightstand, beneath the Bible. I write “Men of the HaineyFamily” and map our line.
In the morning, a knock on my door: Glenn.
I tell him I have something for him.
He stares at the scratch pad.
“Know what that is?” I say.
“Where I come from?”
“Wherewecome from. And you know that Daddy and Uncle Mike are going to be around for a longtime, right? We’re going to watch you grow up.”
He looks up at me and nods.
# # #
Wind blows in. Wind is all there is. The zephyr, they call it out here: the west wind.No matter where you stand in this town, the wind is always around you. Surroundingyou. Pushing you.
From our motel, it’s a two-minute drive down Highway 34 to Norris Avenue. Two-, three-storylimestone storefronts. Many empty. Shuttered. Tumbleweeds stumble in and out of theroad, blown here from somewhere out there. Sometimes they get stuck on the grilleof a pickup truck. Or you see them underneath. Dragged.
When my father was a boy here, in the ’30s and ’40s, McCook was a Dust Bowl town ofsix thousand on the high plains of Red Willow County. The immigrants who settled thisland in the late nineteenth century—Swedes and Germans, some Irish—ended up here becausethey’d been duped by the flyers that American land companies and railroads had circulatedin Europe. They came believing they were entering a new Eden.
There’s still no good reason for a man to live on this parched stretch of the Americanplains, where Kansas, Colorado, and Nebraska all huddle against one another. The drivingforces of McCook’s creation were like so much of America: necessity and money. MaybeMcCook’s most glamorous moment came in the 1930s when the Burlington Zephyr, “a cruiseship on wheels,” regularly passed through McCook. The Zephyr epitomized streamlinedelegance and ran from Denver to Chicago. On May 26, 1934, the first one roared throughMcCook on a dawn-to-dusk run; that day, it set a record for train speed. The Zephyrstill runs, under the Amtrak banner. And it still stops in McCook—at 3:43 a.m.
We go to Bieroc’s, a café on Norris, to get coffee. There are two thermoses, labeledREGULARandMIDWESTERN. I ask, “What’s Midwestern?”
“Strong,” the woman says.
We walk the main drag. We pass the JC Penney catalog store. The Ben Franklin five-and-dime.We pass the shuttered old hotel where my grandfather lived for a couple of years afterhis wife and my father had died. We pass theMcCook Daily Gazetteoffice. We pass the long-gone Gochis, the candy store/bar where, back in my father’sday, kids got candy and ice cream at one counter while their parents enjoyed “spirits”at a counter on the other side of the room.
We go to the family home, 1209 West First Street, where our fathers grew up.
The four of us on the porch, cupping our hands to windows, peering.
A woman next door comes out. “They went to Lincoln today. Gone to the game.”
“What’s the game?” I ask.
“Don’t you know? Bisons are in the state championship.”
We loop back.
The train station squats at the bottom of Norris Avenue, abrown brick building built in the 1920s. Inside, an empty waiting room. The bencheshave all been ripped out. Holes in the floor, all that remains. That and stains fromwhere they were bolted. A Shroud of Turin in terrazzo. From a window I see stringsof track fanning out to form the switching yard. Bright knots of rail. Battered freightcars, brown and green, sit silent, waiting to be delivered from here. The sky is grayand the wind rattles the glass in the window frame.
Outside, I find the others. The wind is cold, unceasing, but we gather beside thestation’sMCCOOKsign and take a photograph of ourselves. Timed exposure.
Then, like everyone else here, we move on.
The last time I was in McCook was 1989. I drove out to see my father’s house.
Four concrete stairs to a concrete stoop. Empty rocking chair. Redbrick columns supportthe overhang. Storm door. Two windows on either side. Wood siding. All of it white.Hedges, low. A mailbox in the midst.
I get out to take a picture, and as I stand with my camera, the front door opens.A small woman with gray hair pops out, waving.
“Stop! What agency are you with?”
“I’m not an agent,” I say.
“Everyone’s an agent.”
“My father was born here.”
“This house isn’t for sale,” she yells.
She steps down. Squints. Hand on the railing for balance.
“Are you a Hainey?”
The woman tells me that she bought the house from my grandfather, and then she says,“Would you like to see inside?”
Remember those dioramas from the field trips you took as a child to the natural-historymuseum?KEY MOMENTS IN HUMAN DEVELOPMENT? The beasts on the foreshortened Serengeti. Dust on theirhides. Cro-Magnons clutching spears, hunched over a papier-mâché fire, peering intothe darkening horizon.
The woman takes me inside the house, into the living room. Call it Diorama #1: Seeit? Depression, and into the War. Silent save for the tick-tick-ticking on a table.A woman sits in a worn stuffed chair. It’s a small room. A bedroom opens off of it.Panes in the door, curtained. A man walks out. Young, twenties, ranch hand. Workson the edge of town, rents the bedroom from this family that can’t make ends meet.
Diorama #2: The back porch. Winter. 1930s through the ’40s. Enclosed by windows, saggingin their frames. Straw blinds. Half up, half down. Feel the draft. See the boy, asleepon the cot. Two wool blankets. Socks. A stocking cap. This is where he sleeps nowthat they’ve given the boarder his room. See him roll over, crumple some newspaper,wedge it in the gaps between the slats. Something to stop the wind.
Diorama #3: The kitchen. 1940s. Can you see the boy at the table? Pre-dawn darkness.Winter. His father tells him, Light is a luxury. So the boy works by the last lightof the moon that reflects off the snow piled high in the yard. He’s nine, maybe tenhere.Omaha World-Heralds stacked at his galoshed feet. He creases them, snaps a rubber band around them,drops them in his canvas bag. When it’s full, he shoulders it. Walks into the dawn,into the rising light, into the prairie cold. A young boy, sure of his mission. Aboy bearing news.
The woman takes me into the basement, points at the crawl space: Diorama #4. “Lookin there,” she says. It’s filled to the walls with beer bottles. All shades. Brown,green, clear.
“What am I looking at?” I ask.
“Your grandfather,” the woman says. “We found it when we moved in. He sat down hereand drank. Filled that hole with his empties.”
Up the street from the diner there is a small 1970s-era building: the Museum of theHigh Plains.
“Let’s go in,” my brother says.
Three aged women sit behind a folding table. They’re wearing hats and gloves and wintercoats. One of the ladies tells us that they can’t afford to heat the building.
“People say we should close down,” she says. “We don’t have any more money. But wethink we’re doing something important. Someone has to hold on to the memories.”
The woman in the middle—she has a scarf wrapped around her head, in the style of asoldier at Valley Forge, so all I can see are her eyes—pushes a brochure for the museumacross the table.
OPEN YEAR ROUND!
STORE WHERE KOOLAID WAS DEVELOPED
GERMAN PRISONER OF WAR PAINTINGS
WW II ARMY AIR BASE DISPLAY
Next to me, there’s a mannequin dressed like a railroad conductor. My nephew standsin front of the lifeless form, his orange-hooded head tilted up. He says, “What doesthis guy do?”
“He rode the rails,” I say. “A railroad man. Probably around the same time as Great-grampa.”
My nephew says nothing. Not even a shrug.
My brother waves me over.
He’s in a corner of the museum, under a sign that saysRAILROAD ROOM—PAYING TRIBUTE TO MCCOOK’S RAILROAD HISTORY.
My brother points to a black-and-white Kodak snapshot—a bald man stands on a smallfront lawn, hat in hand, facing into the hard, white sunlight. It’s C.P., 1960.
The photo is in an album of men in McCook who worked forBurlington. Someone’s idea of a town history. Another album holds page after pageof men posing beside locomotives lying on their sides, off the rails, tipped over.An album of local train wrecks. Tucked inside this one is the front page of the Zephyrnewsletter of 1938. The headline:SIAMESE TWINS RIDE TRAIN. It’s a story about how America’s only Siamese twins—Mary and Margaret Gibb of Holyoke,Massachusetts—rode the Zephyr. There’s a photo of them, smiling, giving their singleticket for the two of them to Mr. Mathers, the conductor, who, as the caption makessure to point out, is from the Twin Cities.
My cousin is looking at a giant ledger from the local railroad men’s union. He pointsto a page that is C.P.’s railroad-man file:
CONRAD P. HAINEY, BRAKEMAN
DATE OF BIRTH: JULY 2, 1889
EMPLOYEE NUMBER 255,408
SEPT 29, 1916
APPLICATION 2624 NOT APPROVED
JULY 31, 1917
HIRED AS SWITCHMAN
APRIL 22, 1928
JULY 1, 1928
RETURNED TO SWITCHMAN
SEPTEMBER 12, 1959
There it is. A life. In one page. The measure of a man, in triplicate. Carboned. Bound.Put on a shelf.
There is a story in our family about C.P. He takes my father to Denver for the day.A father-and-son adventure. Big day in the big city.
My father’s eight, maybe nine. They get to Denver, and C.P. takes my father to themovies. Buys a ticket and gives it to my dad and tells him to go into the theaterand watch the show and that at the end of the movie, he’ll be back to get him. Myfather goes in, watches the movie. It ends. No Dad. He sits through the movie again.Still no Dad. A third time. A fourth. It’s 10 p.m. now. The theater manager turnsup the houselights, sees a thin boy sitting all alone. “Show’s over, son,” he says.“You need to go home.” My father tells him he can’t go home because his father hasn’treturned yet. “He told me to wait for him.” The manager calls the police. They takemy father to the station and telephone McCook. My grandmother answers, shocked, andtells them my grandfather is nowhere to be found. A neighbor named Lindstrom getson the next train to Denver and escorts my father home. Two days later, C.P. showsup in McCook. He’d gotten drunk in Denver, passed out in a freight car in the switchingyard. When he came to, he was in Los Angeles.