I was always a good finder. Lost toys, misplaced car keys, an errant contact lens hiding on the basketball asphalt, it made no difference. I usually found what I was looking for. And while reaching deep under the cushions of my life, I've also discovered some things I wasn't looking for, especially when it came to the loose change that was my father.
Though my anger has finally dissipated into bewilderment, I still have difficulty saying those words — "my father" — without adding the customary "that fuckin' asshole." The sweetest words when spoken by my two sons — "Da-Da," "Daddy," "Dad" — were never an option. Jack Carlat was none of those.
I first found out about him 37 years ago when I was six years old. I was in an arts and crafts class with a bunch of kids from my Brooklyn neighborhood, and we were painting various plaster of Paris statuettes. I'd chosen the tablets bearing the Ten Commandments — a favorite among the older kids, who meticulously filled in each Hebrew letter with gold paint, tiny brush stroke by tiny brush stroke. But I didn't have that kind of patience; I just glommed on the paint and was done in ten minutes. One of the older kids, still working on the second Commandment, was offended.
"Hey schmuck," he said, "you're not supposed to do it like that!"
"It's disrespectful! You're such an idiot." He paused, then added contemptuously, "You don't even have a father!"
"Yes, I do!"
"Yeah, then where is he?"
"He's working in California," I said, confidently repeating what I'd been told many times over the previous two years.
Well, this was about the funniest thing the kid had ever heard. "Nobody works in California all the time!" he said. "Your parents are probably divorced."
That was my first clue.
A few months later, I awoke early one Saturday morning to find my mom sneaking out of the house. She whispered that she'd be gone all day, visiting a friend who lived upstate.
She returned that evening with a large rectangular package wrapped in butcher brown paper tucked under her arm. The three of us — my younger brother Michael, my baby sister Patti and I — naturally assumed it was a toy. But with the first rip of paper, we were disappointed. Inside the package was a painting — a paint-by-numbers rendering of a matador triumphantly stabbing a bull. "It's from your father," our mom told us.
"Wow, Daddy did this?" I exclaimed, elated to hear anything about him.
"He didn't exactly make it," my mom said, "but he did work on the frame."
That was my second clue, the one that sent me scurrying under the cushions.
My mom kept her important papers in an old hat box at the top of her closet, and on slow Sunday afternoons she'd take it down and show us photographs of herself and my father when they were young. In their wedding pictures they looked like royalty: my mom, a slender auburn-haired beauty in a lace gown; my father, a tall Sean Connery look-alike in a white dinner jacket. They seemed destined to live happily ever after.
I was a latchkey kid — my mom worked at my grandfather's Chock Full O'Nuts — so it was easy to retrieve that box when no one else was home. Beneath the wedding photos I found baby pictures and snapshots of obscure relatives with bad teeth. Those rested on top of notebook pages filled with poetry written in my mom's neat cursive. And at the bottom was a cache of letters on cerulean blue stationery, all bearing the same postmark: Ossining, N.Y. I'd seen these letters before; my mom had even read parts of them to me. But in my excitement I'd never noticed where they came from.
The next day I looked up Ossining in an encyclopedia at school. It said something about the town having been called Sing Sing, after the Sin Sinck Indians, and how its name was changed to avoid the association with Sing Sing Prison. I realized then that my father was in jail, that he was locked up with lots of bad men. Still, it didn't occur to me that he was one of them. That didn't dawn on me until he came home.
"Guess who's coming to dinner?" he wisecracked over the phone, and I never saw my mom laugh so hard. She spent the rest of the morning straightening up the apartment, nervous as a bride. Mikey, Patti and I literally hung out of my bedroom window while we waited for a Yellow Cab to arrive. Finally, Patti yelled, "He's here!" — and it was like being shocked by a defibrillator. Eight years had passed since I last saw him; I was now twelve years old.
I bolted down the stairs, jumping half flights, thinking all the while that I wouldn't let myself cry, no matter what, because I didn't want his first impression to be that I was a sniveling little kid. Then I pulled the front door open and ran into my father's massive arms, and he scooped me up as if I were a baby, as if it was right where we had left off. Mikey scored his touchdown seconds later, and the three of us hugged, refusing to let go.
"Let's go see the girls," my father said, brushing his long, thick fingers against our crew cuts, and up we went. Patti hid behind the front door and watched through the crack as my father carried us into our apartment. My mom erupted all over him; they kissed one of those kisses that made us squirm at the movies. But since we weren't at the movies, Mikey and I started to punch each other, until my folks broke it up so we could all hunt for Patti, who was now hiding under the high-riser. My father plopped down on one of the twin beds, shot us a wink and bellowed, "If you don't behave yourself, I'm going to spank you." Mikey and I were so psyched: We routinely pulled this kind of crap on her, and now we had a new partner in crime.
Patti slept on the living room couch that night instead of with our mom. After tucking us in, my father, a king-size version of me in boxer shorts, closed the door to my mom's bedroom. It was the first time that door had ever been closed.
And it never fully opened again. After that day, none of us talked about where my father had been. Behind his back, neighbors called him a "gonif" and a "shonda," speaking Yiddish so we couldn't understand, but not much was lost in the translation. My grandfather, even many years later, persisted in referring to this earlier period as "when your father was in California." I'd say, "Pop, we know he was in jail. You don't have to make-believe anymore." And he'd just mutter something about it being "nobody's business."
When I broached the subject with my mom, she would retreat to her bedroom. I'd peek in after a few minutes, and all I saw was the ember of her cigarette as she sat in the dark, quietly sobbing.
But eventually I did hear the story, straight from the horse's mouth. I was in my early 20s, and I wanted to deal with my father like the adult I thought I was. So one night we went out to dinner, for the first and only time. After a few beers, I said I wanted to know the truth about him.
This is what he told me: He was the youngest of three, an accident born twelve years after his sister, Vivian. His dad was strict, his mom depressed, and he wasn't close to either of them. When he was six, Jack and his folks moved from Brooklyn to Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts, where some uncle promised to set up his dad in business. Bernie (his older brother) and Viv were both already grown, and they stayed behind.
He was a wild child. Fighting, stealing and lying, he was steadily in trouble until he dropped out of high school and joined the Air Force. There he became a mechanic because he was too tall to fit into a cockpit, and that kept him out of World War II. He did get to fight, though, on the boxing team. While he was in the service, his mother died.
It was after his hitch that the real trouble began. Always successful with women, he went home one night with the daughter of a jeweler. He told me that the sight of her opened drawer filled with rings, pendants and chains was more exciting than looking up her legs. He said nobody ever got hurt. He said he was known as the "gentleman thief." For this, he went away for seven years. His dad and his brother disowned him. Vivian visited him in jail every other weekend.
After doing his stretch, he met my mom, married, and banged out three kids. He worked with my grandfather as a butcher, but soon quit, complaining that his hands swelled up. They did not swell up when he and two accomplices knocked over a jewelry store, but he was arrested and did another eight years. That time his father died, but no one told him: Vivian had gone crazy, and the mere sight of my mom pushing me in a stroller one day sent her screaming in the opposite direction.
Two incidents that took place after he came back to live with us warranted explanation. As the middleman in what he called a "commodities deal," he was holed up with a partner in a Curaçao hotel for several months. The partner took off and left my father to pay an enormous bill. Since he didn't have a dime, my father was thrown in jail for almost a year. He spent much of that time hustling fellow inmates at dominoes.
Later, during the Iran-Iraq war, he tried to extort money from an Iranian businessman who lived in Queens. The guy called the cops, and my father was collared in his car. A gun was found in the trunk. He insisted that it wasn't his, and the charges were dropped.
Shaken by these revelations, I asked my father the obvious question: Why? And I remember him looking at me as if it was the first time we'd met. "You'd never understand," he said, taking a drag on his Marlboro. Neither of us had much to say for the rest of the night.
But he was right: I didn't understand, nor did I even try. I hated him for leaving us. I hated him for coming home. I hated him for his fanciful lies. I hated him for his sad truth. I hated him for not being my dad. Most of all, I hated him for being my father.
The feeling seemed to be mutual. While we were living under the same roof, my father and I would go at it like George and Martha in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" And just when the battle seemed to be over, I'd nail him with one last snotty jab and he'd look at me with murder in his eyes, turn tomato-red, and then plow his fist into the wall — a move that my brother later copied for dramatic effect.
Yet he never hit me. I remember having one of those "Who would win in a fight, Batman or Superman?" conversations with my mom, only we were talking about my father and my brother. Now an adult, Mike had grown to gargantuan proportions and had a pretty nasty rep of his own. I believed he could take the old man out.
"Your father would kill him," my mom said calmly, like this was a natural conversation to have with one of her children.
"How do you know?"
"I just know. He knows what he's doing and he would kill him," she repeated. "He wouldn't stop until Michael was dead."
Luckily, this pay-per-view event never happened. My father died 15 years ago of — a diagnosis that neatly describes our relationship — heart failure. Neither of us ever managed to punch through the walls we'd built around ourselves. After he died, I didn't even give him all that much thought.
Until a few months ago. I was watching an episode of "Law & Order" in which Sam Waterson was weighing a plea bargain for a man who had murdered his girlfriend. In the end, the perp copped to manslaughter and got seven years. I know, it was a TV show, but even so that line almost knocked me out of bed. This guy received a seven-year sentence for killing someone and my father did seven- and eight-year stretches for robbery?
Even his truths were lies! I felt like a naive six-year-old, back in arts and crafts class, and in my hands was a mold of my life painted in gold. But this time I drop it and watch it shatter because this time, I'm the older kid who needs to fill in each letter, tiny brush stroke by tiny brush stroke. When I learn the truth about my father, maybe I'll finally understand. And even if I don't, I'll at least have gotten the last word.
Investigating a life isn't easy, especially when you're afraid of what you might find. That admission alone — acknowledging my fear — is progress. That's something I would've never done when I was a kid and "the man of the house." I lived in catastrophe mode — no dad, no money, no love — and wore a big smiley-face to disguise it. Now all these years later, I seemingly have it all — I'm a dad with some money and much love — but my countenance is often that of the frightened little boy I was.
Almost everyone who would know anything about my father is dead, and for the most part, especially around the holidays, this is not such a bad thing, so I start my search by contacting the Air Force, while a researcher for this magazine tracks down my father's criminal records. Beyond that, I don't even have a birth certificate or social security number to go on, so I think, what would James Ellroy do next?
And I call my sister. Patti doesn't have any of our father's papers either, and we joke that maybe he's not really dead; after all, she never looked inside the casket. But I did — I had to — and he was dead all right. We recall his funeral, and the good laugh we enjoyed before the eulogy, when the rabbi asked us to enumerate my father's good qualities. We drew a blank, so the rabbi had to fall back on his standard repertoire.
"Jack Carlat was a dreamer," he said. "He shot for the stars and oftentimes fell short." In retrospect, these seem like fitting remarks about a man whose entire life was a lie, but at the time we didn't dare look at each other for fear of cracking up. Patti and I agree that as funerals go, we had a pretty good time.
Patti promises to email whatever she can find. Then I ask her why she never questioned any of our father's stories. "You know, I always felt sorry for him," she says, and for a moment I'm stunned. "No matter how many times he hurt me — and boy, did he hurt me — I hated hurting him. Remember the ring story?"
It's a family classic. My father "bought" my mom this gaudy gold ring with all kinds of semiprecious stone chips fitted in a "spray" setting. It was hideous. For a guy who seemed proud to have knocked over a jewelry store, he had horrible taste in rings. But my mom loved it.
Patti vividly remembers what happened next: "One day Daddy accused me of stealing the ring. I knew instantly that he had taken it. So we started to fight and he was screaming, calling me a thief, and I looked at Mommy. I was dying for her to believe me, but she didn't say a word. I was so mad, I just left.
"When I came back the next day, I went straight to his closet — I knew I'd find something — and I found the pawn ticket in one of his jackets. I showed it to Mommy, but again, not a word. I stopped talking to Daddy. But after a few days I gave in because I always felt so bad for him. It was really love-hate between us."
"I had only the hate," I say.
"I know. But when you have the love, it's very complicated. Like with you and Michael."
I haven't spoken with my brother in a dozen years. It runs in the family. My grandfather didn't speak with his brother; my father didn't speak with his. Why should we be different?
Mike and I split over money, but it could've been anything. Our true breakup happened the night our mom died, when I chose to be with Caryn, who was then my girlfriend and is now my wife, instead of grieving with the family. It was a shitty, selfish thing to do, but after my mom died I was feeling shitty and selfish. I realize now that Mike must have felt worse. Patti was married with children, I was with Caryn, our mom had just died, and it's just him and Jack, wondering who was going to cook them dinner.
Unlike my father, my brother is not a bad person. He made bad choices, ran with bad people and wound up in bad places, but after sharing a bedroom with him for the first 18 years of our lives, I can tell you, he is not bad.
And there's a part of me that would love to call him, that would love to grip him in a headlock, that would love to go with him to Chinatown in the middle of the night. Still, there's a reason my phone number remains unlisted. My brother is no longer the person I remember, the one I loved so deeply, and yes, it is complicated. Because I'm afraid of what I might find, I will not call.
You'll be happy to know then that I'm not afraid to call my crazy Aunt Vivian. I have no idea if she'll make any sense, or if she'll even speak with me. If she went nuts 40 years ago, who knows what shape she's in today? But she's the only person alive who can shed any new light on my father, and I have to wonder why I've never tried to contact her before. My knee-jerk answer: "You don't want to know me, then I don't want to know you." But there's more to it than that.
One night when we were kids, my brother was making noise way past our bedtime, and after screaming "Shut up!" until she grew hoarse, my mom came in our room with a belt. But I was the one who got whacked because, a few minutes earlier, Mike and I had switched spots under the covers.
And that's the way I felt about my father's family. You want to be angry with him, fine, I could understand that, I was angry with him too, but why blame me? As a teenager, my sister decided enough was enough and called Uncle Bernie. "Hi, I'm your niece," she said. "I've always wanted to meet you." And a few weeks later we all paid a friendly visit to his apartment on the Lower East Side.
My brother and sister stayed in touch with Bernie over the years, but I held back, doing what he had done to me — punishing him for the sins of my father. Still, I invited him to my wedding, and ten minutes before the ceremony he pulled me aside. It was like a scene out of "The Godfather" directed by Barbra Streisand. He told me how much he regretted taking out his anger on us, my father's kids. He asked if I could ever forgive him. Then he threw his arms around my neck and began to weep uncontrollably, and as I held him, I noticed how much he looked like my father and I pretty much lost it, too. I was married a few minutes later and never saw him again.
Getting in touch with Vivian isn't so difficult. Although I don't even know her last name, her grandson and I happened to work on the same magazine a few years ago. He mentioned that he had a bunch of relatives named Carlat, and I said if that's so, then I must be one of them. As it turned out, his mom, Penny, is Vivian's daughter — and my cousin. So I call Ken to get her number and then I call Penny, slowly making my way up the river into the darkness of my father's heart.
Penny and I talk excitedly, like the long-lost relatives we are, but when the subject of my father comes up, her tone shifts. She sounds like a little girl.
"God, he had movie-star looks and he was so charming. I had such a crush on him," she says, and it occurs to me that these are the first kind words about him I've ever heard. "He was so handsome, but he was also the ultimate con man. He said whatever needed to be said to get whatever he needed to get."
That's more like it, I say to myself. She tells me Vivian hasn't been well and I'm still wondering if her mom is even lucid, but I keep that to myself. "I have no idea if she'll speak with you," Penny says cautiously. "We'll find out."
Two days later, my phone rings. I never bother to pick it up because it's hardly ever for me.
"It's Vivian," Caryn calls out from upstairs and softly adds, "and she doesn't sound crazy."
"Vivian," I say. "It's been a long time."
"Hi, Larry," she says tentatively. "You know, your voice sounds familiar. Talk to me so I can hear more." And I tell her how I'm investigating my father, and how I'm hoping that she's the oracle who can fill in all the blanks.
"You know, you sound a little like him, but you speak much better," she says. "You sound like a nice person."
"So do you," I respond lamely. She agrees to help as much as she can and asks me to call again next week because she has chemo tomorrow and it usually knocks her out of commission for a few days. "OK, kiddo," she says as she hangs up, and those words are such a strong reminder of my father. "Kiddo" was the only nice thing he ever called me. It's also the expression I use whenever I'm overwhelmed with love for my boys.
The next week, sounding amazingly chipper for an 86-year-old undergoing chemotherapy, Viv tells me about the first time my father went to jail. "It was for going AWOL when he was in the Army," she says. "He left the service and began hitchhiking to California, robbing houses along the way. He stayed with my cousin for a few days, and she called to tell me about it. 'Jackie was here and now he's gone,' she told me, 'but a lady came to the house with her daughter, who she said was pregnant by Jackie.'"
I'm floored by this disclosure (to say nothing of hearing my father referred to as "Jackie"), but that's all she knows about the incident. We continue to chat about my father as a young man — how he was a Bad Seed, how he never expressed any remorse, how he resented his older brother. As far as she knows, all his crimes were burglaries. She goes on to tell me about things she did for him — giving him money, bringing him a piece of carpeting for the cold floor of his jail cell, getting him an apartment in her building when he was released — and that, finally, she simply could no longer deal with him. "He was like an empty hole," she says sadly. "You cannot fill it up."
When I say that I understand her decision to sever ties with my father, that you can only have your heart broken so many times, I can hear the emotion in her response. "Larry, you don't know what a blessing this is to talk to you," she says. "I can almost cry, really, I feel so good about it." This seems like a good place to stop and we agree to pick it up again in a few days.
"Larry, I love you," she says, "and I'm glad I spoke with you."
"Me too, Viv."
I do feel love for this woman whom I've never met. After just a few phone conversations, I feel the closeness that comes from sharing the same traumatic experience. And I wonder if I'd feel a similar bond with the now-adult child Vivian alluded to — my half-brother or sister — assuming he or she even exists. The odds of finding this sibling are infinitesimal. I'll check with the Army, but I doubt they'll have information on this. The Army! I wonder if my father was on the boxing team before or after he went AWOL? He probably concocted this fiction after seeing that Rocky Graziano movie with Paul Newman . . . .
Just minutes after I email Patti this latest bombshell, she calls me at work.
"You didn't know that Daddy had another kid?" she asks.
"How did you know?"
"Mom and Dad both told me. Dad said he went to visit him one time in California."
"California? Him? How come you never told me any of this?" By now I'm apoplectic.
"You never asked," she says. "I assumed you knew."
All I know is that the more I find out, the less I feel like I know. And what was it about my folks and California? Was that the only state they ever heard of? At this point I'm getting stuck; I'm not sure who to call next. My father didn't have any real friends, and I don't remember any of his business associates other than a guy named Blackie, who is probably not listed in the phone book. It seems like time to bring in a hired gun.
Here's how I go about it: I'm at a party and in a ham-fisted attempt to sound interesting, I mention that I've been trying to procure my father's criminal records. A woman I know overhears this and tells me that her dad is a private investigator, which is good enough for me because just a few minutes ago, we had both declared how much we had liked the cheese puffs.
The next day, I tell Al the P.I. everything I know, and he seems confident that he can obtain my father's rap sheet. Then I phone Vivian to pump her for more information. I want to get back to the first time my father went away and how he met my mom when he got out.
"You know about my father and Bernie going to speak with your mother's parents, doncha?" she asks. The only story I ever heard about my parents' impending nuptials was that my grandfather offered to send my mom to Europe to forget about my father. My mom, suffice it to say, never saw the lights of Paris.
"Well, when Jackie came out, my father and Bernie spoke with him again because he swore everything was gonna be different this time. He had met your mother, Roz, and he was a changed man," she says with a sarcastic edge that reminds me of me. "My father said, 'I want to meet Rozzie's parents,' and Jackie said, 'What for?' and my father said, 'Because I want to tell them just who you are.'
"So we went over there — they lived in a very nice house — and my father came right out and said, 'Look, he's my son, but he's no good. He has never worked, and he did very bad things, otherwise he wouldn't have been in jail,'" Vivian says, the anger in her voice building. "'And I want you to know that I don't think he's ready to marry anybody yet.' A few days later, your mom came to me and said that nothing was going to separate them, that it was between her and him."
This seems like as good a time as any to say a few words about my mom, Saint Roz, or at least that's how I saw her when I was a kid. She was so beautiful that the guys at school used to say, "That's your mother?" She was so smart that she did the Sunday Times crossword puzzle in pen. She was so selfless that she bought us toys while she walked around in ripped stockings. She was so everything to me that I scarcely minded not having a father.
I view her differently today. My mother was high-strung, often out of control, and at times verbally abusive. She lived in constant denial and wasn't as smart as she thought she was. She never stopped reminding us about those ripped stockings. She loved us based on who gave her the least trouble and the most pride. She did the best she could under impossible circumstances, single-handedly raising three kids, but her best was not good enough. She was human and, like the rest of us, flawed.
One aspect of her life never made sense to me: her taste in men. In our house, love was not only blind, it was also deaf and, especially, dumb. I never understood why she stuck by my father all those years. A few weeks ago, however, I was afforded the opportunity to reexamine what was really in her head, when I read the following, from a packet of ancient poetry written by my mom that Patti found at the top of one of her closets and sent along to me:
"You are my religion and I worship you!"
"I was born the day I met you."
"I guess I am just addicted to you, my darling, and this habit I want to have for the rest of my life."
"What can a doctor give me to cure loneliness and an aching heart?"
"Jack darling, winter, summer, autumn, spring, every day of the year I miss you for so many, many reasons, and if I haven't said it lately you are my ideal of a husband, father, friend, lover, confidant, advisor and I love you for all these things and more."
I pored over these words for days, desperately trying to decipher the code that must be contained within. And when I finally gave up, I felt more like an orphan than at any other time in my life.
One day, in the months after my father came home from prison, we were on our way somewhere and stopped for gas. The owner of the station began making small talk, while I sat quietly in the back seat, and he asked my father, "So, is the kid a mensch?" My father hesitated, then replied, "I don't know yet." And that answer still kills me. Here he was judging me, telling a complete stranger he was unsure whether his own son would grow up to be a good person. Like he was such an authority on the subject.
I'm thinking about that as I sit in a courtroom in Mineola, Long Island, on my first day of jury duty. They suggest that you bring something to read and so I have. Who needs John Grisham when you've got Al the P.I.'s report unopened on your lap? The idea of delving into it here is irresistible. Al said that he couldn't locate the rap sheet, but he did turn up files and grand jury minutes relating to the second time my father went away and the extortion scam in Queens.
As I tear open the manila envelope, a voice in my head whispers, "Wow, Daddy did this?" The report begins with something called a Warden's Record Card, and on it I notice "Jack Talrac" typed next to the word "Alias." Not exactly "redrum," but hey, he didn't finish high school, as the report also notes. All the standard stuff is here — DOB: 9-19-23, Age: 37, Color: White, Height: 6'3", Weight: 212, Color of Hair: balding dark brn. Like it wasn't bad enough to be in prison, they had to crack on his receding hairline. Next to the question "Any outstanding personal characteristics?" appears the word "none."
It goes on to record that he was sentenced to 15 to 20 years for second-degree robbery. He had two accomplices, Eli S. Lear and John L. Chernachowicz, who "in concert" (like they were the Stones) entered the home of Jerome Blane and stole $43,650 worth of goods. It doesn't say what kind of goods, but does attribute the crime to "covering business losses," which sounds better than "a blood lust for money."
Other items of interest: He worked for a rabbi while at Sing Sing and Greenhaven Prisons; he was discharged from the Army in 1947 as an undesirable; his use of alcohol was moderate and he did not use drugs; he was self-employed and his occupation was "advertising," which I find amusing and sad. Even here, he couldn't cop to what he really was. At the bottom of Warden's Report Card, like a footnote, it says "Number of Dependents Supports Under 16: 3."
Next up is a deposition, which is far more detailed. Here's an excerpt:
The defendant [that would be my father, for those scoring at home] called the informant, one Jalal Moin, on the telephone, and stated, "I am from the Khomeni Committee. If you do not want any trouble with the IRS, and if you want your family to be safe, give me the sum of one million ($1,000,000) U.S. currency." The defendant did appear at the home of the informant to collect the aforesaid currency from the informant and did threaten the informant's life. The defendant when placed under lawful arrest (5-6-79 at 12:00 noon), did unlawfully have in his possession a .25 caliber automatic serial #240871, Titan which was loaded with 7 live rounds of .25 caliber ammunition in a clip in the gun.
Lawyers for the defendant (I'm not sure why, but I like calling him that) argued that the police had no probable cause to search his car, where the gun was found, but a motion to suppress was denied. My father pled guilty to a reduced charge of criminal possession of a weapon in the second degree and got five years' probation. Below the word "Sentence," someone wrote "mitigating circumstances," perhaps the same person who knew about his lack of outstanding characteristics.
I leaf through Xerox after bad Xerox, looking for the gangland slayings and the CIA hits, but there doesn't seem to be much else here and this surprisingly bums me out. Somehow it would be easier to justify all the years I've held him in contempt if he was a serial killer or something.
Impartial juror that I hope to be, I'm ready to toss out the case when I come across a mug shot, on the back of a sheet marked New York State Department of Corrections. It's him all right, a few years younger than I am now, and I stare at his face the way I stared at him in his casket, trying to summon those feelings a son is suppose to have about his dead father. They didn't exactly get his good side, but he has a haunted look in his eyes that seems vaguely familiar. And then it hits me where I've seen it before.
My father and I were sitting vigil in my mom's hospital room as she slipped in and out of consciousness. We pretended to be stoic, though actually we were scared shitless even to touch her because she looked nothing like the woman we loved. My father was sitting on top of a radiator, his legs slowly swinging as he rocked himself back and forth, lost in his own world. He was trying hard to hold it together (just as I did when I first ran into his arms all those years ago), and when our glassy eyes met, it was the only time in my adult life that I ever felt love for the man.
Because I didn't see the man. I saw who he really was — a frightened little boy. That look touched a place in my heart, a place so secret that I had forgotten about it until now. And as I sit here quietly crying in this room where people are judged, it occurs to me that I've found something I wasn't looking for. My rage had always obscured his humanity, but now I've found him and it feels good finally to be together.
When I call Patti that evening to tell her about this memory, she's not surprised. "When we were older, that was the only way I ever saw him," she says. "Don't you remember the fights I had with him? He called me a whore and a slut, and I'd respond, 'Since you have nothing else to say in your defense, you resort to name calling like a little boy.' And that's when he would lose his temper."
He would later lose everything else. His life spiraled downward after my mom died. He was homeless much of the time, moving from shelter to shelter, and spent many nights riding the subways until daybreak. I handled it in my usual way — out of sight, out of mind — but Patti almost went out of hers.
"The last time was the worst," she recalls. "We were having a New Year's Eve party at our house, and he called that afternoon to ask if he could babysit so John and I could go out. He had nowhere to stay that night and it was snowing and John's listening in on the extension, shaking his head. So I told him no. Then I ran into the city to give him money for a cheap hotel. Larry, it was such a relief when he died. He tortured me!"
He tortured us, we tortured him. I guess we were a family after all. Only we were the parents and he was the child. This arrangement might even have worked out if the child ever came out to play, but he was buried so deep inside, protected by too many hard layers of cold calculation. His duplicity was the only way to survive in prison, but it failed him miserably when it came to being a dad.
That weekend Vivian is in New York, visiting her family for Thanksgiving, and I meet her for the first time in 40 years. I find her waiting for me in front of her daughter Lenny's East Side apartment building, and I recognize her right away because she's the spitting image of my father. "You look just like your father," she tells me as we hug and kiss, and this is the first time that I don't bristle upon hearing that remark.
"So, Larry, still playing detective?" Vivian asks when we're settled in the back of a nearby coffee shop. And I proceed to tell her what I've found and what I haven't. None of it is news to her. In fact, she tells me that Jerome Blane, the guy from whom my father stole $43,650 worth of goods, was the uncle who gave my father's father that job in Chicopee Falls. My father, we agree, lived in a small world.
Then I ask Vivian the question the rabbi asked Mike, Patti and me at our father's funeral: Could she remember anything good about him?
"I believe that everyone has some good qualities, but maybe because I was so upset with him, I wasn't always fair," she admits as she blows on her hot tea. "He was so young when the family moved away that I didn't really get to know him. But then he did such things that I couldn't believe he was my brother."
We talk about other mysteries, such as why my father served such harsh prison sentences, and chalk that one up to his recidivism. I tell her that my father led me to believe that she was certifiably crazy and she sighs and shakes her head. I tell her that any chance of finding my half-brother went up in smoke a few years ago in a fire that destroyed most of the Army's older service records, and she's quick to point out that here we are, finally, face to face.
"When Penny asked me if I wanted to talk with you, she said that you were such a nice fellow and 'what does he have to do with Jackie?'" Viv says, fidgeting with the buttons on her pink jacket, as we make our way out the door. "You may be his son, but you're made of different material."
Am I, though, or do I just wear it differently? Is this where I'm supposed to discover that I'm really more like him than I ever realized? That, like it or not, we all turn into our fathers. It's true, we shared some traits — blood, looks, low self-esteem — and probably neither of us could understand why he did the things he did. But no, I'm not like him. I was a little boy who acted like an adult, while he was an adult who acted like a little boy. I am a good finder. He was forever lost. He never grew up. I just did.
And today, as evidence of the grown-up mensch I have become, my son Zachy and I are paying him a visit at the cemetery. When we stop at the entrance to get directions, Zachy is all smiles in his turned-around Tazmanian Devil cap, running around like it's a Chuck E. Cheese. I take his hand and we go off to find my parents.
"Hey — Ben, that's my friend's name!" Zachy says, reading a name on a gravestone. "There's Alex, he's my friend also!"
When we get to my father's grave, I ask Zachy to read the inscription. "Beloved Husband, Father, Grandfather and Friend, Sept 19, 1923–June 10, 1984." The "beloved" was certainly in the right place, I say to myself. I don't know what I expected to feel, but I'm oddly emotionless, yet chilled to the bone. I ask Zachy if he's OK.
"Yup. This place is cool!"
"What's cool about it?"
"Because they're so big. Look, I'm stepping on your dad," he says while doing a few Taz-like gyrations on my father's grave. There's no one else around on this first day of Chanukah, and if there was I might yell at him, but I don't. I'm glad he's here with me.
Before leaving, I tell Zachy that instead of flowers, we place small stones on top of the graves to show that we've visited and that we care. He gathers up a handful and we put them on my mother and father, who are buried side by side, and on my grandmother and grandfather, who are buried right in front of them.
"How come your daddy's grave is so messed up?" Zachy asks. I know why, but don't tell him. No one pays the maintenance. My Aunt Joyce foots the bill for my grandparents, and I pay for my mom. "Let's hit the road," I say. The wind is kicking up and it feels like snow and just as we get to the car, Zachy turns around.
"Daddy, let's go back," he says, taking my hand, "and put some extra rocks on your daddy." And so we look for rocks.
This article originally appeared in Dads magazine several years ago.