“Learning to Talk,” by Patricia Henritze

Truth is for Sissies

My father never uttered three honest words in a row. He lied like it was a gift, like it was his right, like there was no difference between truth and lies and it was petty and small minded to think otherwise. He taught me to parcel out truth in the smallest increments – grains of truth, layered between lies to confound the listener and make them doubt themselves. Or maybe I’m lying, because fathers don’t do the things I want to write about. They don’t pour bright capsules of speed into their daughter’s young palms or visit pornographers who gaze through boozy eyes, as if you were a pastry and they were starving men. Father’s don’t give grocery money to the tailor and eat steak when their kids can’t afford to eat at all. It’s preposterous to think that a father, the defender of the family, the symbol of God himself on earth would let a child float off into oblivion when he could easily reach out and simply save her.

Besides, I can’t remember what the truth was; who can say what really happened? I dreamt my life into being everyday and invented my memories until I’m not interested in the ‘real’ story anyway. Did she try to kill me? Did he bring the thief to dinner? Did they wash my hair in a waterfall? Did I jump off the roof to prove I wasn’t afraid?

Following in my father’s sly footsteps, I became a liar, too. Not gifted, perhaps, but I was thirty before I could answer a simple question like “What did you have for lunch?” I would tell you tuna when it had clearly been egg salad. It wasn’t any of your damn business, anyway. The trick, and this I learned from Daddy, is to be committed. Never give it up. No matter how they pound with accusations, stand your ground, because a normal person will not believe that another human being whom they love and trust could continue to lie to them – look straight into their wide eyes, and swear it was TRUTH. This will work every time, in every situation, with mothers, lovers, teachers and even cops. Police are people, too. And even if convicted, maintain your innocence and you will be forgiven. My father was a lawyer and the first man in the state of Georgia to ever be readmitted to the bar after having served federal time for a felony. We were all so proud.

In this upside down world I learned to live my real life inside art, embracing it with its easy lies. I loved music because it sang a kind of truth that wasn’t binding or substantiated. There’s no proof for a song or a short story, only an authenticity borne of the singer or writer. Guarded in all other things, I abandoned myself to lyrics, movies and books. I spent my days wrapped up in novel after novel, where every single false word rang true.

But I myself couldn’t say or write a word. I couldn’t speak up in a crowd, I couldn’t make a toast or answer a question because it might reveal something about me or him or them, and a life of deception requires vigilance. Thank-you notes were too personal and letters impossibly long and detailed – out of the question for someone private to the point of phobia. My handwriting, with its lurching letters askew on the pages, painfully revealed too much and I took to sending postcards. Short missives, with the fewest words scratched across the back, were left to speak through the eloquent images on the front. Announcing their arrival with famous art or evocative photos, I chose them to be oblique, but brilliant, and the pictures told you everything you were ever going to know about me. Being knowable is a liability.

My father taught me to laugh, to dance, to charm, to talk and talk and talk. And never say a word.

Hide Your Stash – Here come the Feds.

In September 1974, the FBI entered an office building in downtown Atlanta where my father practiced law. They slipped quietly past his secretary in their dark suits with warrants in hand, slapped handcuffs on his wrists and confiscated a square package sitting on the edge of his desk. Then they took him straight to jail and booked him for the importation of a controlled substance. The substance was a pound of golden, aromatic hashish mailed from Holland. It had crossed the ocean layered between delicate Dutch chocolates. The package had been tracked since entering the country a few days prior having been mailed in Amsterdam by a man my father once represented.

In those days, before mandatory sentencing, an attorney could make a good living defending drug dealers. In fact, he could have a damn good time doing it. The dealers paid in cash or motorcycles or, sometimes, drugs. The money flowed and the good times rolled. Sometimes they rocked.

I imagine my father’s ride down the elevator, dashingly rumpled in one of his striped suits, his hands snuggly cuffed behind him. He’d started drinking again, after fifteen years of abstinence, and the arrest was the culmination of the thousand “screw you’s” he’d flung at everyone around him. He’d begun to feel dangerous to me.

I wasn’t afraid he would intentionally hurt me, but he couldn’t or wouldn’t protect me from the fallout of his recklessness. Madness ricocheted around him and it seemed inevitable that anyone standing nearby would end up taking a bullet for him. With dark Irish good looks, he was impervious to the consequences that splattered those of us closest to him, but this time, headed for jail, he seemed good and caught.

A long, long time before the day they led my father away, my mother, my brother and I had indulged in a period of great hope. When my father moved into the building they eventually dragged him out of in handcuffs, it was a great day. We went to see the offices for the first time and my brother and I rode up and down on the elevators, hopping with glee at every floor. I felt shy about the grandeur of the shining office building, knowing, perhaps, that we were imposters and bound to be found out. The building still stands out in the Atlanta skyline with its strange mix of curved concrete and wide windows. It reminded me of a pagoda. It was brand new when my father rented suite 1313 to start his own practice. He was given a substantial break on the rent due to the unlucky numbers 1313. I’ve often thought of those numbers since. Most buildings today don’t even have a thirteenth floor, but my father, who didn’t believe in that particular superstition, gladly took the bargain. He reveled in his large office overlooking downtown. He loved being a lawyer.

We had the kind of hope lots of people had in the sixties: that everything was going to be all right, that we would drive a new car, that there would be no more suffering and that our house would be clean – literally and metaphorically. The Kennedys were in The White House and my mother went every week to the hairdresser and returned curled and dried until her hair itself looked like the stiff pillbox hats that the young Mrs. Kennedy wore. We went proudly to the Laundromat; my mother had done all the washing – sheets, towels and clothes – by hand until then.

I went to grammar school, scrubbed and eager, but crushed that I couldn’t be parochial like my cousins with their uniforms and mysterious rituals. My father was as fallen as a Catholic could be and there would be no Sister Mary to teach me the enigmatic prayers my cousins recited rapidly each night, droning the words. I admired the great speed with which they prayed – chanting their prayers with heads bowed, their faces blank and lips flying. My school was called Garden Hills. It had a large, wide yard in

the front encircled by a long drive. I was pleased with it. The name rolled gently off my tongue: Garden Hills Elementary. Who wouldn’t be safe there?

Two kids, a father in a suit – we were like a TV family. Everything was perfect, but we hadn’t gotten there easily (and wouldn’t stay there for long.)

In the old days you didn’t need a college education to become a lawyer. The phrase “read for the law” meant just that and if you could pass the bar, you could become an attorney. My father never graduated high school; he dropped out at seventeen to join the Marines. After he returned from the Pacific, he briefly attended William and Mary College, or at least signed up for some classes. However, he was not the normal kid who yearned for knowledge and a higher education on the GI bill. He wanted to drink.

My father spent his nights in dark bars, living his own Raymond Chandler novel full of tough guys and broads. He went to boxing matches. He read great books – from Bertrand Russell to Ford Maddox Ford to W. H. Auden – but had no interest in regurgitating his thoughts in a classroom. Never capable of doing anything that required discipline for long, and with a deep hatred of authority born of his Catholic School years, he quickly forgot about college and started laying bricks. Enamored of himself as a blue collar scholar, he lay bricks by day and drank by night. Oh, and somewhere in there he married my mother. She casts a small shadow on this time. She was virtually captive in a small house with a toddler and a belly full of her second child: me.

Without money for groceries, a telephone or a car, she sat at home on those long nights waiting for the contractions to announce my entrance into the world and wondering if my father would come home at all. Mostly he didn’t. When I finally did arrive, my mom took my brother by the hand and walked to a neighbor’s house. She didn’t really know the family, but they had a phone. She called the bar where she knew my father would be. It’s time. He drove home, picked her up and dropped her off at the front door of the hospital. Then he went back to the bar. No doubt she strode into the hospital, lovely in spite of her condition. No doubt he garnered a few free drinks that night, aglow in the glory of pending fatherhood while my brother slept at a stranger’s house. He’d been left at the neighbor’s and my father wouldn’t retrieve him till the next day.

But all that was before my father stopped drinking, before he had divorced and married my mother again, before he buckled up or down and passed the bar and long before we embarked on our own pursuit of Camelot, with our pillbox hair, two floor apartment and dreams to match our new shoes.

When my father was arrested, I was at college. My grandfather, my father’s father, had left my brother and me some money when he died; knowing that leaving it to my father would have been the equivalent of setting it on fire. With that money and a scholarship, I headed north to school. I was free. The whole summer before college, I took deep breaths as if to relish my goodbye, breathing in the air of my past and exhaling it forever. North. My father insisted on driving me up. He was the only person who seemed excited to see me headed out into the world.

My aunts and uncles, barely looking at me, asked the air why I couldn’t go to school in Georgia; I was both extravagant and irresponsible. After all, who would care for my long divorced, beautiful, martyred mother? It had always clearly been my job to act as daughter/husband/nurse/confidante to my mother. I don’t know whether my family thought that it was my duty or whether they believed that I flourished under the system, but I do know that nothing was as foremost in my mind when searching for

colleges as distance from Georgia. It had to be far enough that I could live unfettered by the demands of southern daughterhood. Away. I had made my escape.

On the day my father came to pick me up for the long drive to New York, my mother looked at me with her orphan eyes, as if to say “I’ll die,” as if to say “don’t go,” but aloud she whispered “Call me when you get there.”

It’s hard to imagine how my mother, straitlaced and puritanical, ever let me in the car with that man. Of course, I was eighteen and wasn’t asking permission. Gazing at him through the open car door, he was already so high he was almost blurry. He pulsed with a kind of Dr. Gonzo vibrancy and I surrendered to it as I threw my duffle bag into the trunk. Here we go. He poured some speed into my hand as we pulled away from my house, my mother waving from the stoop of our now empty house. I took a pill. And we’re off. We drove all the way to Delaware where I got drunk on daiquiris and spent my first night in a hotel room alone. The TV in my father’s room buzzed through the walls between our rooms. I got in the shower and washed myself sober enough to sleep. Later that semester, I got a clipping in the mail that my father had been arrested. The details were all there: the Feds, the drugs, the pending prison sentence.

I was living in an old Tudor house that had been reborn as an all-girl dorm. Thirteen freshman women lived there. Cut loose from home, we drank bourbon on our single beds and danced in our PJs at night – every man’s fantasy come to life. With leaded glass windows and a grand piano in the living room , it was as far as you could get from anything I had ever known – but not far enough to keep news of home from finding me. Away.

Sitting in the French windows, I wept with annoyance. In the doorway was a nice boy (well, not too nice) who had come to take me on a picnic. He had a bottle of wine and sandwiches in a basket and I shooed him distractedly. The clipping lay on the floor. It had been too hard to call and tell me so someone had simply dropped the article into the mail. It might have been my mother. Don’t go.

Of course, I knew immediately that it wasn’t some misunderstanding. My father wasn’t persecuted or wrongfully accused. I wouldn’t stand on the courthouse steps, weeping in dismay. The road he had been traveling always ends this way: he’d go to jail, he’d be disbarred. I had a friend, many years later, who practiced law; she too was a defense attorney and they are a special breed of individual. Living in the nether world between the law and crime, they resemble gamblers and cowboys more than business folk. When I asked her how her law practice was going after the death of her child and her divorce, she grinned at me. “I flew that plane into the side of a mountain,” she told me, referring to the destruction of her practice with a sort of wild pride. Ah, I thought: I know that mountain well.

From the moment my father was arrested it was the beginning of a new period for our family. We didn’t talk about it. Fractured and isolated, we drifted along not noticing how far it took us from one another until we found ourselves miles and miles apart. I remember sitting on that window sill, looking out the dorm window at the sky, crisp and blue, and every detail of that time is etched clearly and forever in my mind.

Dark Comfort

I was always afraid of the dark. As a child I lay in bed after being gently tucked in, not resting but waiting – waiting for the creak of the steps, the stirring beneath the bed, the strained breathing of the

soulless man who lingered patiently in the hall closet or the cellar or the bushes just outside the door ready to grab me. Once in his massive grip, he’d kill me and then slip back into the dark night, unnoticed.

We lived near the railroad tracks. “There’s the train,” my mother would smile and I would nod, comforted by the swaying sound of the endless cars. In the house where we lived during the Daddy Years, the years when I remember my father actually coming home most nights, you could see the train tracks from the front or back doors. The trains ran all night long, chugging through the dark anonymously. It was my job was to walk the dog for the last time in the evening and I paced, terrified, right outside our front door. Across the footbridge and up the hill lay the tracks with shadowy figures who wandered from North to South along the rails. Worse than the silent, empty tracks and their promise of hoboes and murderous thieves was the sound of the train moving slowly through the night when I was outside. The trains would slow down, sometimes, when passing along this stretch of track and they’d roll by forever, car after car emerging and then disappearing into the deep woods on the other side of the road.

Standing in the yard, the leash in my hand, the dog always barking at something just beyond my sight, I envisioned caskets sliding off the freight trains like old Dracula movies. I was convinced that Dracula and Wolf Man were both real and I lived my young life somewhere between terror and passion for these creatures. The casket, I was sure, would slide to the ground in the moonlight. A pale hand would slip out from the satiny inside and push open the top to reveal the vampire. Escaped and hungry, this monster would open his red eyes, able to sense, to smell a young girl with her clean, damp hair on a still summer night. The dog wouldn’t stop barking. The rhythmic hum of cicadas hypnotized me. I trembled with fear and anticipation as I broke free from my trance and dragged that damn dog back inside. I listened to the lock click behind me. My back against the door, my palms sweaty, the living room was glowing and warm. My mother glanced up from her reading. There’s the train.

Upstairs in my room, my own room, I would look out the window and play my radio, hoping to surrender to sleep even as I fought it. I had rituals. I would leave the window open in case Peter Pan came by – just an inch or so – hoping we would fly away together. I didn’t believe in tooth fairies or fat bearded men at Christmas, but flying boys who promised freedom were worth the small effort of an open window. After raising it just enough for Peter’s strong fingers to reach in, I would wait for my favorite song to play on the radio. Willing myself to sleep while it spun around for a few short minutes, I’d hear the train coming and let it rock me safely asleep inside the house and away from silky caskets and grinding metal wheels.

One night, when I was afraid, my father came in and sat beside me in the big metal bed and I told him. I’m afraid. The soapy scent of his cheek was close in the darkness. He always smelled clean shaven and perhaps he was. Most likely he was on his way out somewhere; he was always in motion and leaving was his favorite form of movement. With unruly clients a good excuse for disappearing at any hour of the night or day, he dashed in and out of lives daily, weekly, and eventually yearly. He sat next to me on the bed, smiling and handsome, freshly showered, his pants creased and his shirt starched. He held my hand, called me pet names and tried to soothe my fears before he left us. “There’s nothing to be afraid of,” he said, brushing the hair away from my face. “No one’s going to come in and hurt you. Don’t worry.” He smiled. Leaning in toward me, he spoke in a smooth whisper, telling me, “Ninety-nine percent of the people who are murdered are murdered by someone close to them, someone they know and trust.” Patting me on the head, he walked downstairs and out the front door. Thanks Dad, thanks. I feel better.

Gold Out Of Straw: Jack spins his truth

Everything from my father’s arrest is etched clearly in my mind. Or is it? My father’s friend, whom I’ll call Jack, had represented him at the trial. In fact, the case had gone all the way to the Supreme Court before they were finally defeated and my father headed off to prison. He was sentenced to 7 or 8 years, although in the end he served less than three. So, I’m talking to Jack and telling him what I remember from that time, when he starts laughing, “Not Amsterdam, you’ve got the A right. It was Afghanistan.” Afghanistan? “Yeah, and your father had nothing to do with it. Nothing. He really wasn’t guilty of anything. Just some guy he knew mailed the thing to him without telling him. He never even opened it.” Then exactly what do I remember? Not Amsterdam?

Jack is one of my father’s oldest friends, possibly his only real friend. Many folks had come and gone but Jack was the only person who seemed to survive knowing my father without having it end badly. My father tossed dynamite behind him as he moved through his life, blowing up bridges without looking back. He rarely held a grudge and seemed dismayed that other people did, even those whose lives he had carelessly dismantled. To say my father was difficult doesn’t quite give the flavor of the situation. I always tell people “My father may not be conventional, but when the chips are down, whenever the shit really hits the fan, whenever I desperately need someone to turn to, you can always count on my dad to let you down completely.” My brother likes that joke. Jack somehow seems to have avoided the bitterness that accompanies most people’s memories of my father.

When I met Jack, he was married to his first wife and I was madly in love with her. I wanted to be her. She was so not southern. She put my father down in joking asides as she breezed by and argued with him about books. He hardly ever talked to her like she was an idiot. She and Jack lived around the corner from my father and one of his wives: the third one. I would babysit my two-year-old half-sister while they all went out for steaks, which was what people ate when they went out in those days. I’d smoke a joint from my father’s stash (which he kept ill-hidden in his sock drawer) and crank up Simon and Garfunkle on the large stereo. I’d dance all night with the baby on my hip, afraid to turn off the music because of what I might hear outside in their dark, looming yard. It was a happy time, except for my father’s other mistresses, my mother’s depression and the rumblings of the future debacles.

Now, a lifetime later, Jack has troubles of his own and has been disbarred. He brushes it off when I asked him about it on the phone, but when you read the details on the Internet it sounds pretty serious. Nerves of steel, those cowboy attorneys; he laughs at his own folly. “I’ve got most of that straightened out,” he promises as we’re making plans to meet for lunch.

“This is what happened,” he tells me. “It wasn’t the Feds, it was Postal. The Postal guys came in. They delivered the package and left it on the secretary’s desk. She took it into your dad’s office and put it on his desk – it was addressed to him by this guy he’d represented and gotten off and the guy had mailed if from Afghanistan. Your dad probably knew something was up, so he took the package off his desk, and dropped it off on the front desk again and left the building. A couple of minutes later, the Postal guys came in, handcuffed the secretary, then drug her off and booked her.” Okay. It was sometime later that my father was arrested, after his secretary had been cuffed and humiliated. There was no dramatic scene in the elevator as I had always imagined. Hearing this story, some of it rang true to me. It nudged my memories and they began to resettle in Jack’s version. Evidently things had shifted and rearranged in my mind over time. Facts had mingled; separate events had melded to become a composite. Now, as Jack began to straighten me out on certain facts, I remember that the secretary

never forgave my father for getting her involved and happily sealed his coffin at the trial. Of course, all she had to do was tell the truth and he was a goner. The new information prods my lazy brain and I can see memories reemerging through a dusty, sepia drenched past. Jack was there at the time and I know his account is correct. How could I have forgotten such important facts?

Snapshots from the Other Life


My mother locks all the doors. And windows. On her knees, she peers into the oven to find a flame. She sniffs for danger and holds her hand beneath the kitchen faucet, hunting down drips and danger. What if there’s a leak? She unplugs things – toasters, percolators, lamps and even TVs just in case: they could explode. Convinced of a room’s safety, she strolls out, popping back in to surprise the unruly appliances. They might come alive when you’re not looking – like the Land of Misfit Toys – and begin to burn and fume, killing us all in our sleep. If we could sleep. Windows, already locked, are nailed shut, and our old car is surveilled through sweeping blinds – my mother daring the engine to sputter and start on its own in defiance of her vigilance. Not tonight. With the whole world locked and secure, she sits in the dark, smokes a cigarette and falls asleep in her chair. Year after year.

My Mother in Love

Late at night the phone rings and I know it’s him. Only my father calls after we’re in bed. I’ve never met him; my parents divorced when I was six months old. I’m sleeping with my mother. We have only one bedroom and my brother is tucked away in it with model airplanes dangling from the ceiling and boxes of Tinker Toys crowding the floor. My mother and I are on a pull-out underneath the bay window in the wide living room. The moonlight splashes the walls and I can see everything. She rises at the sound of the phone. Down the hall, through the arched door – my mother is whispering now – the bright dot of her cigarette leads me to her in the dim kitchen. I stand in the hallway, three years old, silent in my bare feet. She inhales. The tip burns orange as she draws deeply and my mother laughs out loud like a young girl. She speaks in a voice she saves for him. Although I’ve never met my father, I know him. He’s the man who calls in the dark.

The Bulrushes

We walk across the field, my mother, her mother and I. Three generations of quiet company on a hot summer afternoon. Slicing through the tall hay, we swish along as it parts just enough for us to pass and then closes the path behind us. The golden sea grows up as high as my head. Bugs and heat throb in the air around us. I keep my mouth shut so nothing flies in. The walking stick my mother swings ahead of her is taller than I and as big around as my arm. It protects us from the copperheads and rattlesnakes. The noise in the hay, as the stick leads us forward, warns the snakes and other critters of our approach. They’re more afraid of you than you are of them. My grandmother carries mismatched towels and hums mindlessly, hopping a step now and then to the songs that never stop playing in her head. She dances a turn and catches up to us as we make our way toward the rumbling creek to bathe.

Each year we build a dam – messy and ill-constructed. The slick rocks are piled high by children’s hands; the dam holds just enough clear water for us to wash and play. On one side of the creek a heavy rock is wrapped in wire. The other end of the wire is twisted around the branch of a deep green hemlock tree that grows on the edge of the bank. The fluttering pine creates a curtain to ensure our privacy from

the dirt road that winds along the other side of the creek. Cars rolling down the gravelly drive are rare, but when they do pass we stop like deer in the forest, alert and still, invisible in our bathing hole. My grandmother sits naked on a warm rock that’s as round and smooth as she. Her body, speckled with auburn freckles, is white as fine china. I’m fascinated by her breasts which hang all the way to her waist. She’s fat and her skin is loose, but she’s famous for her showgirl legs which stretch out from beneath her voluminous belly tapering off into slim ankles and perfect, pretty feet. My mother is dark-haired and muscular in contrast to my grandmother’s softness. They soap me up until I’m covered, slippery as a fish, and I dive under the freezing mountain water and come up clean.

The Burn

“Your father ought not of done your mother that way,” is all my grandmother says. He’s everything a man should be in her eyes: handsome and attentive to her. They flirt and dance, and his betrayal takes her utterly by surprise. His dishonor smolders inside me as if I had done the deeds myself.

Our Rememberers

“I was never naked,” my mother insists, sitting in her chair, working a crossword puzzle. Without her false teeth she looks like a sweet, wrinkled baby and talks with a pouty lisp. “Maybe in my bathing suit,” she concedes, but I remember her body, strong-legged and shiny with water. But I don’t argue. Shrunken and lost in the big chair across from me, my mother doesn’t meet my gaze. “I was never naked,” she says again, then pauses. I sit quietly looking out the windows of her tiny apartment. She never goes outside. “Then again, you remember everything,” she says, “My forgetterer is better than my rememberer. You remember everything.”

“I don’t remember anything,” my brother says, “And I don’t want to.”

Say What? The Supreme Court.

Somewhere in my bookcases, tucked between god-knows-what is a slim volume from the Supreme Court of the United States with my father’s name on it. Every appeal gets its own booklet that outlines the original case, details the appeal and then discloses the decision. Even though I haven’t seen it for years, I’m sure it’s there – it‘s not the kind of thing you toss away. After several minutes I find it in my office on the top shelf among my old book collection. It’s a faded, thin blue tome. With water marks drizzled down the front and a broken spine, the frail book looks like a refugee from a hard life. It is.

IN THE Supreme Court of the United States, October Term, 1975. Walter Henritze, Jr. Petitioner. PETITION FOR A WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FIFTH CIRCUIT.

Certiorari is simply another fancy word for writ, I think. Dictionary.com defines it as, “A writ from a higher court to a lower one requesting a transcript of the proceedings of a case for review.” Whatever the particulars, and I’m not a lawyer on purpose, I’m glad to see the book again.

Jack is listed there on the front along with his address in the Healy building, which he had informed me was where my father had his office when he was arrested. It wasn’t in the tall pagoda building of my childhood, he assured me. Besides, during the pagoda years the office had been run by an ex-Playboy Bunny and she was not the one who had been arrested. I remembered her well; she wore her platinum hair piled a foot high and it easily exceeded her skirt in square inches. Wrong secretary, wrong building –

there was almost nothing of this momentous time in my life that I had remembered correctly. Thank god for Jack and this book. Now I know what really happened.

Well, not exactly. When I begin reading the appeal, the first word that jumps out at me is Amsterdam. It was Amsterdam. Even Jack, the Attorney of Record on the case, had updated his memory into a more modern reading. Afghanistan is much more sinister in the days since 9/11 and Jack has somehow converted his memories into our current lexicon for danger and drugs. I was right. Reading further, I notice another discrepancy:

On the following day, September 12, 1974 (Pops had driven me to college a week before) DEA Agents Dorsett and Faz entered the premises at 2311 Bank of Georgia Building, between 9:50 and 10:00.

Okay. No Postal guys, DEA Agents went into the building. They’re Feds of a sort and to top it all off, the Bank of Georgia Building is the pagoda. However, most what follows seems to fit Jack’s description.

In the interim, the defendant had proceeded down stairs to the lobby of the Bank of Georgia building (pagoda!) He had been followed down stairs by Agent Williams. Defendant was searched after being apprised of the fact that a search warrant was existent. Nothing being found on him, he left to go to the Federal District Court.

Left to go to the District Court? I have to smile at the idea of my father leaving the DEA agents behind, stepping out into Marietta Street on a September morning. He must have reveled in that day of freedom, running all the way down to the courthouse. He must’ve gotten really drunk that night.

After that, of course, everything hit the fan. My father gathered his whole life into a pile and set it ablaze while we danced around the bonfire. He had a contest with himself to see how much a man could lose, topping his own personal best over and over. The only work he did was on his appeals and the endless motions that were sent to every court in the country right up to the Supreme Court – a mad lawyer’s dash to the finish line. We all stayed stoned just to survive.

Midday, you could find him with his girlfriend, the shades drawn, the music pounding the speakers. We would sit all afternoon, listening to the same song over and over, while he pontificated on his philosophies of life, pronouncing all others fools and himself a hero. I’d sit in the dark with a cold beer and he’d tell me how much alike we were. It’s not exactly what a young woman wants to hear from a man who’s about to go to prison.

Denial of Motion

“I never worry about you,” my father said to me. Bobbing atop an ocean of secrets I stay easily afloat – I know your mistress has blue eyes: I won’t tell. I know you check the stove all day: I won’t tell. I’m the port in their self-created storms, their pint-sized confessor. The opposite of an Oracle, they come to me for silence. There’s only one catch. You can’t teach a child to lie and expect her to be honest. You can’t bind her to your secrets and be surprised that she craves freedom. With no call for help, no hint of distress, I began to float away.

No one seemed to notice; no one worried. I was the ‘happy child’ and it didn’t take much to keep that illusion going. Or maybe it wasn’t an illusion. Split in two, I could be the happy child and the other

girl who lived along side her. My duality kept me alive. The well behaved, happy little girl kept people from looking too closely. I was a magic mirror; you could gaze at me and see only yourself smiling back. My soothing voice promised, like a little doll with blind eyes, that all was well. Everything is going to be all right.

It must have been very reassuring, but maybe parents aren’t meant to be reassured. Maybe children aren’t meant to be so well behaved. They should make a ruckus. They should be annoying. They should ask for help. Teaching yourself to tie your own shoes isn’t precociousness; it’s the act of a child with her eyes wide open. If you’re on your own, you’d better figure out how to keep your shoes on.

In the end, the petition was denied. All the motions were denied. My father served two and a half years. People who’ve never been to jail always say “just two and a half years.” Anyone who has been to jail, whistles and shakes their head. He disappeared one day, weeks before he was to report to the prison to begin his sentence, and I never knew where he went. Three weeks after he got to prison he married a woman I hardly knew, although I had met her a few mistresses ago. “Married men get out first,” he told me.

Opening the Supreme Court booklet from my father’s case, some papers fall out into my lap. One is my father’s Order of Restoration of Civil and Political Rights Commutation from the State Board of Pardons and Paroles. A legal length sheet of crusty paper, it’s dated and sealed for March 28th, 1980. He was fifty-six years old. I hold the stained paper and scrutinize it, searching for him there. Was this a good day, when he got this in the mail? Or do you go down to the court house and pick up your Restoration of Civil Rights? It was years before he was readmitted to the bar, but this must have meant he could vote again. There was an election that year, 1980. Carter vs. Reagan – we all know how that went. My father, a yellow dog Democrat, would have voted for our homeboy Jimmy.

I can see him, sauntering in to cast his ballot, winking at the old lady volunteers who marked off his name. They’d have murmured and blushed as he floated by them, but then didn’t women always? To this day I run into women who have stories to tell me about my father. Their eyes flutter – young, old, black, white, gay or straight – and they whisper to me about the red, red roses he sent or some other kindness he extended. Their warm, throaty memories are recounted to me conspiratorially, as if we all knew what a saint he was. He was always kindest to strangers.

Reading the Supreme Court account of my father’s initial trial, there’s a page that summarizes testimony relating to whether or not he had prior knowledge of the infamous package full of hashish. Two women give conflicting testimony; each swears they had lunch with him that day and each swears the other wasn’t there at all. I have to laugh: A court room cat fight. One of the names clangs a long silent bell: a married mistress? Was she lying? Or was the other? Or did they both have lunch (or more) with him that day? Did he manage to slide between tables and charm them into thinking they were the only ones – a gigolo ninja, moving unseen from breathless woman to breathless woman?

Putting down the book, I realize there is no more truth inside it than in Jack’s memories. Or mine. Who knows which woman tells the truth? Maybe neither. There is no past to be discovered or verified. There are only memories and perhaps my mother is right: our forgetterers are better than our rememberers. Did I ever sit on that window sill? Was there really a clipping in a letter? Or did someone call and sensibly give me the news that my father was going to jail. Even if I caught those moments on film, they wouldn’t necessarily be more decipherable. Viewed through a lens, the picture is still

misleading. What’s taking place just outside the photo or behind the camera? Why does the Mona Lisa smile?

There is no single truth to find. As carefully as an archaeologist, I sift through my father’s history, my history, piecing it together, tenderly guessing at the meaning. Did he wear a new suit? Did he love me more than all the other girls? These court papers only offer another version, an alternate biography written by an unknown author. Even for the people who were there, every moment is only remembered as witnessed and, as my father taught me, eye witnesses are notoriously unreliable. The tree fell in the forest. Can we at least all agree on that?

Nostalgia for the Gutter

Mixed with the queasiness that comes over me when I think about those days, is a longing. The jittery fear that must have carried my father down to the Federal Court the day after the package arrived is kind of hyper-living that I sometimes miss. It wasn’t all bad. Or maybe it was, but the jolt of danger was invigorating. My best friend lived with a drug dealer in New York in the eighties and we would ride around in limos, vibrant with possibilities – both good and bad. AIDs had not quite hit and crack was just beginning to bubble itself into being. Each day held the promise of adventure and disaster.

In the wee hours we would return to her illegal loft, surveying the dim streets as we picked our way through the messy New York night. Only life at its most uncertain felt like life at all and I found a kind of happiness mixed into that madness. We slept all day and spent our last pennies on liquor and fresh flowers. Of course, my beloved friend is long dead and her boyfriend served eight years in a jail out west somewhere.

Abandoning respectability altogether rewards you with a freedom that ‘the straights,’ as my father used to call them, never know. These days, when I’m off to some appointment, my hair smoothed down and important papers folded crisply into my briefcase, I sometimes see a ne’er-do-well sitting on a brick wall, drunk in the bright light of day and there is a part of me that envies him, however briefly.

For a while there was a couple I watched around town. He pushed her along the streets in an old wheelchair; she had one entire leg wrapped in bandages. I would see them careen down the street, drinking out of paper bags and laughing. They seemed in love. I’d follow them, sometimes, for a block or so, almost wishing I could ditch my life and go live in their box under the bridge. I’m not being cavalier. I know the value of a hot shower and a visit to the dentist. Having done without both, I revel in a long bath and a good floss. But there is something insidious that seeps into your life along with safety. Petty fears arise and you begin to judge yourself as others do and sometimes the desire to piss it all away beckons me loud and clear.

The French call it “nostalgie pour le boue.” Nostalgia for the gutter. The beauty of defeat can be as freeing as triumph. Freedom’s just another word. No matter how grown up I seem or how different I am from my father, some days the oasis of respectable living is hard for me to see when the sun is in my eyes and there is mayhem to be made. I’m a grandmother now, through marriage, and a step-mom. My youngest grandbaby calls me “Cha cha” and I’m a safe place for her to play. I have degrees from universities and insurance for my car, my health, my home. My husband loves me and the cats count on our routine: awaken, go downstairs, open the blinds and start the new day. And yet.

I am not altogether a full citizen of my own happily ordinary life. I love the soft sofas, pets and children, but am never certain that I’ll stay, despite the evidence that I already have stayed. Am staying. I live my life in reverse. Where others feel comfortable, I feel constrained; where others are settled, I’m a visitor. ‘Safety’, for me, is the possibility that things could change. Years of decent living have left me content and secure, but there is a wanderer inside me who looks through the window every day and thinks about leaving. Away. The wild, blue yonder calls as clearly as my husbands voice on any given day and I keep one foot in the land of the disreputable, just so that I can feel at home.

Learning to Talk

Sometime in my thirties I began to speak. Small truths leaked out. I began to consider the difference between truth and a lie. Or did it exist? Did people deserve blanket honesty or did they earn truth which remained mine until it was meted out? As I saw fit? I practiced answering questions. At first it took an act of will just to respond. “Is Patricia there?” was a threat from the other end of the phone. “What are you doing tonight?” was a minefield. Physically restraining myself, I forced myself to tell the truth. I’d choke out the facts, spitting them like sand from my mouth. Planting my feet where I stood I’d answer questions, trembling and exposed as if I had confessed to murder. “I had tuna for lunch,” I would blurt out, sweating with effort and honesty. Sometimes I cried. Becoming knowable was like scraping off my skin.

To someone who’s always told the truth it must sound like a lie to say that I weighed every word as if it were priceless and once given away, irretrievable. Loose lips sink ships. Growing up in a world where keeping track of ‘who knew what’ was required of toddlers, my chronic deceit was as much survival as trickery. My ‘coping’ skills were more suitable to an international spy than a regular girl in a regular world. Close friends nicknamed me Secret Squirrel and even when I stopped lying I was so accustomed to silence that I would forget to mention important things. I still forget. Recently I spoke to a good friend. She asked me how my mother was. “Didn’t I tell you she died?” I asked, “…Last year?” Apparently I forgot to mention it.

After I practiced talking for a few years, I started to write. Scratching out sentences in a journal, I protected them like the Grail. I shopped for invisible ink. I wrote in my will that the books should be destroyed. The more honest I was, the more terrified I became. The more terrified I became, the more I wrote. Writing was my religion, my daily practice. I had faith in it – although like any good disciple, I had doubts. I wrote to become human, to see myself on the page and to prove it wouldn’t kill me; for a long time it felt like it might. And of course, I did it in secret as I had done everything else.

The View from Here

Ultimately, my own descent lacked the flair of my father’s. There were no newspaper articles or Supreme Court documents. I wasn’t notorious or even very interesting. I floated away as thousands had floated before me: one drink at a time. Mystery bruises and stranger’s beds were painful, but unavoidable evils. Blackouts were mercies; gifts of darkness. Mostly, I didn’t want to remember anything, anymore, anyway.

When I finally flew my own plane into the mountain, it was my father who appeared out of the smoke and wreckage. Not fixing it, not talking about it (god knows), but not judging it either. He didn’t ask me how I’d fallen so low or how I’d failed so utterly. He didn’t give me advice or make any promises.

He bought me lunch, gave me a hundred dollar bill and lent me an old clunker to drive. Slowly, I began to piece things back together.

When I think of him now, I remember these last chapters of our story best. Instead of giving me a lecture, he gave me books. Instead of taking me to a shrink, he took me to the movies. Instead of telling me he loved me, he hooked his arm through mine and proudly walked around downtown Atlanta introducing me to everyone we’d meet including, and especially, the guy who parked his car. He allowed me the privacy of my own personal hell and stood by me when others could not stand to watch.

My father never lived to see me write, get published or win awards. He remained reckless and unashamed, practicing law in his tiny office into his seventies and dying quickly one crisp October. In those last years, however, we often met to squander the afternoon and gossip about family. We’d laugh until we couldn’t breathe – causing a scene in the café and then tipping the waiter outrageously. Sometimes we told each other the truth, although neither, perhaps, knew when. As I remember it, we became friends. As I remember, he saved my life.


Printed with permission by Patricia Henritze, copyrighted by Patricia Henritze @ 2009.

Author: A Room of Her Own

Share This Post On