When I was in first grade Miss Charles (whom we called Charlie because of her mustache) marched us into the auditorium to learn "My Country 'Tis of Thee." She sat down at the piano and led us through the song word by word, playing the piano with one hand and directing us with the other. When we came to the phrase "Land where my father died," I couldn't figure out how they all knew. At home my father's death was this big secret. There wasn't even a photograph of him anywhere, as if a picture could suddenly whisper the truth. Since all the other kids had fathers I reasoned it must be my father who died on the land they were singing about.
He vanished without a trace of the ordinary clutter and detail of a life, leaving not a shadow nor footprint. There were no letters or insurance papers or tax receipts to find. Not a watch or drivers' license or birth certificate or deed to a house. No marriage license or diploma. No fading photograph that he carried, maybe of me. Not a wedding portrait or snapshot at the beach. It was as if during the 29 years of his life on earth he was already a ghost.
So I embarked on a search for the father I never knew.
My brother, Kenny, old enough to remember him first-hand, told me of his charm, violent temper and generosity. My mother's sister talked to me about their marriage; a cousin remembered the night my bootlegging father and (innocent) Uncle Addie were murdered in a turf war with the Mafia. Another aunt related details of the funeral; an uncle told me stories about his vitality and lust and ambition. And they all knew who his killer was.
I was given a few pictures. In one, my father is a dark-eyed child on a tricycle. Another shows a muscular youth standing with his brother, Marvin, in front of a horse and delivery wagon from the family bakery. The picture is slightly out of focus, his grin blurred, but you can see his physical strength and his readiness to use it. In another he stands serenely in a handsome tan suit looking for all the world like a gentleman of banking or the law. His lips are thick and sensual, his eyes deep-set. He is a beautiful young man.
He wears the same tan suit on a date with my mother. It is probably 1915 or 1916. In my family it does not seem strange that I don't know when my parents met, or even the month and year of their marriage. I come to this estimate by counting backwards from my brother's birth. My father is 20 in 1915 (I know this from the date inscribed on his tombstone) my mother, 18. I do know -- or think I know -- that they met at the Elysium, an indoor ice skating rink located in Cleveland at the corner of Euclid Avenue and 107th Street,
He dresses carefully for his date. The tan suit and vest, a high stiff collar. A hat. His wingtips gleam. He looks in the mirror and tilts his skimmer to a jaunty angel, tucks his gold watch in his waistcoat picket, arranges the chain, and after another look in the glass pounds down the stairs.
When he arrives at my mother's, the neighbors peek through their curtains at his Winton, and five or six children gather around and touch its gleaming black surface. He gets out of the car, reaches in his pocket and gives each of them a dime. He squeezes the horn, summoning my mother. He squeezes it again. He leans against the door, jiggling his leg. His energy crackles the air. It makes passersby look up and shopkeepers stare and whisper. He is a magnetic field. He paces up and down the sidewalk. He shoos the children away who are now climbing all over the automobile. Suddenly he starts pounding urgently on my mother's door as if his energy will implode if he doesn't expend it on something, somewhere. He burns. He makes you hot. In my dreams I see him emanating a low, wired by his own power.
Finally my mother comes out. He takes her arm and almost runs with her to the car. She smells of soap and Coty's powder from its flowered box. She is wearing her sister Mabel's good blue dress and her mother's feathered hat. When Mabel and Anna find out, there will be hell to pay, but now my mother is smiling. Aware of the neighbors' stares, she proudly lets herself be handed into the splendid automobile by Mr. Lou Rosen.
Did this really happen? I believe so. But it really doesn't matter, not to me, because I have absorbed so many reports and whispers and been told so many confessions and recollections for so long that they have become part of me and are fixed as the moon.