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--- C h r i s t o p h e r D a g o n s t i n o
for my grandfather
I am a fisherman.
My name is Thomas Wieler and I am fifty-nine years old. As things draw towards their end and my life has progressed past a certain point, I find myself moving into old age. I have fished for as long as I can remember and though I have been a police officer for almost forty years and sheriff of Grand Haven, Michigan for nineteen of those years, in my heart I would like to be remembered as a fisherman. Once, I told my wife Arlene that when the time came I wanted my epitaph to read: "Beloved husband, fond of fishing." We were lying in bed at the time, with the TV on.
"Don't be silly," Arlene had laughed.
That was years ago. I thought about that as I sat behind the wheel of a 1986 sky blue Ford pick-up truck, rust running around the edges of the hood. I was parked on an overpass above I-90, watching an endless line of cars shoot up the highway, disappearing behind me towards the skyline of Chicago. The truck belonged to a friend of mine, Earl Mulvaney; he lent it to me for a week so I could make the trip. Arlene and I own a white Mercedes Coup that we picked up used for a good price five years ago. It's only 200 miles or so from Grand Haven down to Chicago, I had driven it by myself. I didn't feel right taking the Mercedes and leaving Arlene without a car. She offered to accompany me, but I told her it was something I had to do alone.
I am a fisherman; or so I would like to believe. This is the story of my son, Christian. And how over the years, I lost him. Like any story, there are countless reasons why the things that happened between Christian and I happened and like any story, in the end, those reasons mean nothing. I am left with only regret and doubt and fear that he is gone forever.
I married Arlene the summer of 1964, I was twenty-three years old and she was twenty-two. We lived across the state back then, in Saginaw. Our fathers worked next to each other on the assembly line at a GM plant and our families were close friends. On nice nights in the spring and summer we would all get together and barbecue. I have a brother named Charles and Arlene has two older sisters. While our parents drank beers and talked around the grill, Arlene and I would sit in lawn chairs and look at the clouds. Arlene and I spent a lot of time together growing up. When we graduated high school, she went off to school in Ann Arbor and I stayed in Saginaw and got an associate degree in business management and took the test to become a cop. She came home from school in '63 and we married a year later. My father drove us down to the courthouse on Congress Avenue. I wore a borrowed suit and Arlene had on her mother's wedding dress and Judge Harris married us in his chambers.
After that we lived in a two family house off route 15 between Bay City and Saginaw for twelve years until I was offered a position as deputy sheriff in Grand Haven. Arlene and I packed up everything we had, including Christian who was five at the time and moved west, across Michigan. Grand Haven is a beautiful town. Perched on the banks of Lake Michigan, it is a small beach community with a boardwalk and views of the water. We settled in a house on Spring Lake, an inlet off the big lake. We got comfortable; I ran for sheriff and won.
I own a small twenty-foot fishing boat that I keep docked off our backyard. Nothing makes me happier than spending a Sunday on the water with my rod and tackle box. I'm good at it; I've taken the time to learn the theories behind it. Fishing is an exact art; it takes patience and knowledge. I know what kind of fish have become dominant in Spring Lake; I have taught myself how to move the rod and how to drag the bait through the water in such a way that fish will mistake it for prey. When I fish, I sit in the boat and listen to the water lapping up against the hull, insects and birds alive like fire in the trees. Sometimes, when he was younger, Christian would be there too. We would fish and talk. We threw most of what we caught back. Christian didn't like the idea of killing animals and I just liked being on the water with him. Christian would let me keep one or two so that I could brag to Arlene at the dinner table.
Christian lived with us until he was seventeen and then he was gone.
This is the story of my son and how I drove him away. Like any story I believe there is hope; hope that I haven't lost him forever.
Christian is an only child. Two years after he was born, Arlene was pregnant again, but she lost the baby and without ever really talking about it, we never tried for more children. As much as I wanted Christian and I to have a better relationship than I had had with my father, we drifted further and further apart with each year. Then one night during the summer he turned seventeen; I came home from work late to find Arlene sitting by herself at the kitchen table. She looked at me, with anger flickering behind her brown eyes and told me that our son had run away.
My father loved to fish and I suppose that's where I was first introduced to it. Not directly by him though, he never asked me to go fishing with him. Not once.
As much as my father loved to fish, he never took it seriously. He didn't spend any time learning about rods or reels or tackle or technique. He never bothered to learn that a jig lure, when manipulated carefully could be used to catch nearly any gamefish. I knew this. I liked the jig lure, more than a plug or fly or a soft worm lure. I liked it because a jig doesn't look like a fish or insect, so success with one relies on the fisherman's ability to impact action. Proper casting, retrieval and strikes are needed. My father knew nothing of spinners and spoons. He had never been trolling for Mackerel in the Gulf of Mexico. I had. He didn't care that Chinook and Coho Salmon were best fished for in Lake Michigan during the summer and early fall. He wasn't aware that Redfish fed mostly on shrimp and crabs. I was.
For my father, fishing was just a pass time that let him be alone with his thoughts and relax. He didn't really care whether he caught anything or not. He would just don his waders and drive up highway 25, along Saginaw Bay, to Port Crescent and fish Pinnehog River. My father didn't have many hobbies; fishing was his only escape. He always went alone, my brother Charlie and I were never invited. My father's fishing was a fixture when I was younger. I remember most Sundays, if the weather was nice, he would leave before dawn and not come home until after it was dark. He would smell of chum and mud and sometimes we ate what he caught, if he caught anything at all. And then on Monday he was back at GM, welding bumpers onto station wagons.
When I was sixteen and a junior at Saginaw High, Charlie and I decided to go fishing on our own. We had saved up and split the cost of a cheap rod at Sears and Roebuck. We walked down to the Saginaw River, on the outskirts of town and discovered an inlet that we thought looked fishable. The Saginaw runs swift, but the place we found dipped in off the main part of the river, like a fat appendage. We made our way down to the water and stood on the bank. Then, we took turns with the rod and fished.
I went first and waded into the river; I could feel the cold current sweeping past my legs; my pants quickly soaked through. I cast out the rod and waited. Slowly, I wound the line back towards me and in my mind I imagined that this was what my father looked like when he fished. Standing thigh deep in the water, his mesh hat drawn down to block out the sun. No expressions on his face only quiet indifference to his surroundings. I squinted against the bright sun and watched as the bobber rose out of the water and then the hook.
Charlie and I spent most of that afternoon in the Saginaw River; neither of us caught anything. I learned later that the spot we had decided on was one of the worst areas of the river and that no one ever fished there.
Before that day, I knew nothing of fishing and afterwards I was determined to learn more. I didn't know what it felt like for my father when he fished, since in all the years I knew him, I never once talked to him about it. I know though that for me it feels like a kind of freedom I haven't been able to capture anywhere else in life. Over the years, I read books and went on fishing trips and slowly I was able to develop the skills of a good fisherman. Once, I took a week in July and traveled to Alaska and fished for Salmon in Ketchikan. The sun never sets there in the summer.
I looked at fishing as both a pass time and a challenge. It was the idea of knowing about a thing, to be better at it than most people; that is what I like about fishing. My father never took me fishing with him on his weekly trips. He never shared with me the feeling that he got from it; I had to find that out on my own. When Christian was born, I told myself that I would try hard to show him as much of what I knew about the world. I told myself that I would be a good father. But as he got older I learned that being a father is nothing more than a reflection of who you are in life. I didn't realize until it was too late, but my eyes were closed to the world that my son lived in.
One night, during the summer he turned seventeen, I came home from work late. Arlene was sitting by herself at the kitchen table. She looked at me with anger flickering behind her brown eyes.
"Christian's gone," she said.
"What do you mean, gone?" I asked.
Arlene turned her head and looked out the window. I could see moonlight reflected on the surface of the lake out back.
I am a good police officer. Aside from fishing, it's the only thing I've ever been good at. Grand Haven is an easy place to be a cop. Not much of anything goes on here. In the summer months lots of tourists come up from Chicago or across out of Detroit and the most excitement my office gets usually involves drunk and disorderly revelers coming out of the bars on Washington Street or on the boardwalk by the beach. The year Christian ran away, I remember I got a call one night when an intoxicated college girl had decided to take off all her clothes and climb into the Musical Fountain at center of town. By the time I got down there in a squad car, a crowd had gathered and was watching her dance. High school kids knock over tombstones in the graveyard and egg houses. My officers chase them. Someone needs to be fingerprinted for a job. I do it for them. A car is parked on the street overnight. They get a ticket. These are the things that occupy my days. In the nineteen years I have been sheriff of Grand Haven I have never drawn my gun. I rarely even have to turn the lights on when giving out speeding tickets; I just point to the side of the road and people seem to know I want them to pull over.
Christian ran away after we had a fight and I told him he disgusted me as a son. He ran away because I was unable to keep him close to me. Arlene has always told me that I should try to put myself in Christian's shoes, to imagine life as if I was him. She says I take things too personally. When Christian left our house we didn't hear from him for months. Then one day, a letter came in the mail, addressed to my wife. It was from Christian, there was no return address, but the post office stamp was out of Chicago. He said he was fine and that he had found work and was living with a friend. That was all. He hoped that she was doing fine and he was sorry about the way things had turned out. Arlene wanted me to find out where he was and go to see him. She wanted me to make things right. She blamed me for everything.
I didn't know what to say to her
Three years went by after our son left home before we saw him again. He came into Grand Haven on a greyhound and phoned us from the bus station. Arlene picked him up and the three of us had dinner. We ate at a restaurant where the waiters wore ties and the napkins where folded into triangles in the water glasses. He and I didn't talk much to each other during the meal; in fact we didn't even really make eye contact. He mostly answered his mother's questions and assured her that he was fine. It had been so long since I had seen him last, but he looked well, he looked happy. He said he was working at a nightclub in Chicago and making good money and was with a man named Anthony. After dinner he came home with us and spent the night. The next morning when I woke up, Arlene had already taken him to the station and he was on his way back to Chicago.
When she came home, I could tell she had been crying in the car.
"I miss him," she said.
I didn't know what to say to her.
When Christian was sixteen, I found him with another boy in his bedroom. The lights were off and it was dark, but I could see their shirts in a pile at the foot of the bed. They were under the covers. And for a few seconds they didn't realize that I was in the room.
I will forever remember this moment, not because I was angry with him, but because I was unprepared. I didn't know how to feel.
The boy was Lucas Bell; he was one of Christian's best friends. They went to St. Joseph's Prep together and swam freestyle on the varsity squad. Lucas' father was a doctor at the Ottawa County Medical Center. Lucas had climbed up onto the balcony off Christian's bedroom window while Arlene and I were watching a movie in the den downstairs. The only reason I stumbled upon the two of them was because I had gone upstairs to see if Christian wanted to watch the movie.
I remember standing in the light of the open door, waiting for someone to say something.
Christian spoke first. "Dad," he said. "You know Lucas."
The next morning, I asked Christian to take a walk with me down to the water. It was cold and I remember my shoes getting wet with dew as I walked across the backyard.
"Is everything okay?" I asked, as we walked towards the water.
"I don't want to talk about it."
"That's fine, I just want to make sure you're okay?"
"What does that mean?" he was angry.
"I mean…that you, know what you're getting into."
"What I'm getting into?" Christian said, moving a few feet ahead of me. "That sounds so ignorant."
"I don't want it to sound ignorant."
Christian picked a rock up off from the grass and threw it out into the lake. I watched it land in the water, saw the ripples spread out in circles.
"How long has this been going on?" I asked.
"Do you have to be such a fucking cop about everything?" Christian said.
"Look," I said. "I just…"
"You just what?" he cut me off.
"I don't want that going on in my house." I said. And as I said it, I knew it was something I would regret for a long time.
Christian didn't say anything; he just spun around and went back up to the house with fast, hurried strides. I turned my back to him and watched clouds pass behind the trees. I stood there for what felt like hours.
It was weeks before I told Arlene about Lucas Bell being in Christian's bed.
After that day by the water, Christian and I began our separation. It wasn't apparent to me at first that it was happening. He hung out at the house less and less and started spending more time with his swimming friends. My wife and I discussed the situation at length and I decided it was best to pull him out of the all boys high school that he attended in Grand Rapids and put him back into public school in Grand Haven. I didn't like the idea of encouraging him in any way. I knew it was a shallow thing to do and part of me felt like a bigot but I didn't want him to think that I supported his choices. I knew that it would be hard enough for him down the line. In my mind, it was a phase he was going through, experimentation. Something every kid thought about, whether it was drugs or drinking or sex; I was convinced it would pass. Arlene told me that she was getting the feeling that I was thinking too much and that Christian wasn't doing anything on purpose; he wasn't making any choices like I thought he was. They were making him. She felt that I was taking it personally, as an attack against the things I believed in.
It was September of that same summer, the summer I found Christian in bed with Lucas Bell, when I decided to have another talk with my son. I took him into my study off the TV room. I sat in the large leather chair behind my desk and he sat across from me, like it was some kind of job interview. I asked him what was going on between him and Lucas.
"Nothing's going on between me and Lucas."
I nodded and sat silently for a moment. I didn't really know what I had brought him into the study for; I didn't really know what I wanted to say to him.
"I don't want you to see him anymore. I'm okay with what's happening to you, but I don't want you spending time with Lucas anymore."
"I don't need you to be okay with it, don't you see that?" Christian said and then got up and left the room. My chest felt heavy, it felt like weight pressing down on me. I knew it was my fault for turning my back on him, but I had done it anyway.
It wasn't long after that that Christian started getting in trouble. First he stole some clothes from a department store downtown. I got a call at the station and had to go pick him up. I was in my sheriff's uniform when I went and I was able to talk the manager out of pressing charges. He knew Christian was my son and as a favor to me, he agreed to let it go. A few months after that, I found marijuana in a tiny plastic bottle in Christian's sock drawer. After Valentine's Day that year, he told me he had quit swimming. He also told me that rumors were spreading about him at school and that he didn't want to go back in the fall. I told him he had to. And so in June, he and Lucas threw rocks through the front windows of the police station. I was alone there that night, doing paperwork, when I heard the glass breaking in the lobby. I ran outside onto the street, just in time to see the back of my son's head as he rounded the corner at the end of the block and disappeared into the night.
"I've never seen a bullet wound before," I said.
"How long have you been the sheriff?" Randy Meyers, my first deputy asked me.
"Nineteen years," I said. "There hasn't been a homicide here since 1973." I moved into the bedroom and looked around. The curtains were drawn and tiny shafts of light were falling across the bed. There was a wallet on the nightstand next to the door and after putting on rubber gloves I opened it. Inside was an Illinois driver's license, a MasterCard, Social Security, all registered to Carl Velez. There was also two hundred dollars and a picture of a man in a bathing suit standing on a beach, who I assumed was Carl.
"Well, we got one now," Randy whistled.
"He could have killed himself," I said, looking at the body. He was lying face down on the bed; blood had soaked through the sheets all around him from a large hole in the back of his head.
"What should we do," Randy asked. Neither of us had ever had to deal with anything like this before. We had gotten a call at eleven that morning from the manager of the Khardomah Lodge on Lake Avenue complaining of a loud noise that sounded like a gunshot in one of the rooms. Randy and I had taken a car over and found the body on the bed. The room was registered to Velez, but until a coroner ID'd the body, I wasn't going to guess as to whom the dead man was. "Tom?" Randy said again.
"Yeah?" I asked, not really paying attention.
"What should we do?" He asked.
I thought for a moment. "Nothing. We're gonna leave everything the way it is and call Joe Morton from Grand Rapids PD down here and he'll help us out. I don't want to fuck this up."
"Alright," Randy said nodding, obviously relieved that I had decided to pass the buck along. "Do you want me to put the call in?"
"Yeah," I breathed. Randy turned and left the room. I could hear his heavy footsteps in the hallway as they descended the stairs towards the lobby.
I was alone in the room with the body. I looked around, trying to find anything out of the ordinary. I had never dealt with a scene like this before, but I had been trained for it and I knew what to look for.
I moved back to the dresser and with my gloves still on, I opened the top drawer. There was a neatly folded stack of boxer shorts and some socks and an envelope of pictures. I picked up the envelope, took out the pictures and flipped through them in silence. They were all of men, naked for the most part. There was bondage and leather. Men kissing each other, doing things.
Then everything stopped.
Somewhere in the middle of the roll, there was a picture of Christian. I hadn't seen him in almost nine years, since the time he came up from Chicago to have dinner with Arlene and me, but I knew it was him the instant I saw the picture. He was naked, smiling, standing in a shower, water flowing across his body. I held my breath. I could hear Randy coming back upstairs. His footfalls getting louder in the hallway.
I am fifty-nine years old and I have been a police officer for almost forty of those years and in that instant, as I stood holding a naked picture of my son, I did something that I have never done before. I silenced the voice in my head that told me what was right and what was wrong. I put the picture of Christian in my pocket and closed the drawer. And then Randy was behind me, in the doorway, breathing heavy.
"Find anything?" he asked.
I looked at him and shook my head.
After Christian ran away and it was apparent that he wasn't coming back anytime soon, Arlene and I went to see someone. It was her idea. She felt that I had to learn to accept people, I had to learn to accept Christian if we ever hoped to get him back into our lives. I sat through the first session and listened to what the therapist had to say. She spoke to us both about the concepts of family and degrees of tolerance. As I listened to her talk I wondered what her family was like, I wondered if they had any problems. It seemed silly to me, to be talking to a stranger about things that were so personal, so private.
"Did you ever talk to Christian about his sexual orientation?" she asked me.
"Yes," I answered.
"Good," she said. "And what did you say to him?"
"I told him it disgusted me."
The therapist fell silent for a moment, nodding softly to herself.
Afterwards, I told Arlene it had been a waste of time. Arlene and I had been together for almost thirty years then and I felt that any problems we had, we could work out.
"Well, obviously we can't," she told me in the car ride home. "Look where that's gotten us so far." Arlene believes that life is full of compromises and that happiness lies in opening up to other people.
I am different. I have tried to achieve happiness through work my job and smaller things. Fishing brings me happiness. Hot coffee on cold mornings. Sitting in my boat on Spring Lake, the line tense in my hands after a fish has taken bite. These are the things that I take comfort in. I don't think these are profound moments. They are just moments. And in them I find solace.
Arlene says that living like that isn't healthy, I need to connect with the people around me, I need them to connect with me and the only way to truly do that is to compromise. To give a little, to love someone for who they are.
"You don't accept Christian for who he is," she said. We were on our way home from the therapist. Our son was gone and we were trying to piece things back together before they got any worse.
Finding the picture of Christian in the dead man's motel room crystallized something inside me. It had been nine years since I had last seen my son and twelve since he ran away and over so long a time, I had thought I was used to it. I thought I was okay with the fact that he was gone. The picture changed all of that. In a heartbeat, Christian had become a child again; a baby, my son and I felt that after a lifetime of not being there for him he needed me now.
I decided it was time to see him. To find out what was going on in his life, what he was doing and most importantly to make sure he was safe. It seemed in part a foolish idea and I felt like a con artist, but I wanted to seek him out, to try and set things right, before it was too late. Arlene had been trying to convince me to talk to him for years, ever since he left and she had never been successful. It took something as small as a 3x5 Kodak print from CVS to sway me. I wondered if I had never found the picture, if Carl Velez had never taken a room at the Khardomah Lodge and died, would I still have tried to contact Christian? I told myself it didn't matter; that what ifs didn't matter. What if I had never found Lucas Bell in Christian's bed? Then perhaps nothing would have happened and he would never have left. It was fruitless to think of such things.
It was a Friday, two days after Carl Velez's body was found and I sat in my tiny office with the picture of Christian staring up at me from my desk. I called a friend of mine in Chicago PD and got Carl Velez's last known phone and address. He lived near Garfield Park in a blighted neighborhood on the West Side of the city, not far out on the CTA from the loop. I wrote the information on a steno pad. I placed the picture of my son in the top drawer of my desk, next to a line of unsharpened pencils and dialed the phone number; I didn't know who I expected to pick up. A roommate. A relative. Anyone who might know Carl's connection to Christian. After seven rings, a man's voice answered the phone.
"Hello," it said, light, pleasant.
"Hi," I began. "Is Carl at home?" I tried to listen to my own voice, to see if I sounded nervous, suspicious, but I was surprised to find my tone was normal. My voice steady, deep, like it always was.
"I'm sorry," the voice said. "Carl's away on a trip until next Tuesday."
"He is?" I said.
I didn't know what to say next. I wasn't calling as a police officer; I was calling to find my son. I tried something. "Is Christian there?"
"Uh, no, Christian doesn't live here anymore." I heard the phone go down and there was silence for a few seconds, then the voice came back on the line. "I thought I had his number but I don't, sorry."
"That's okay," I said.
I hung up the phone, breathing a little faster.
I glanced down at Carl Velez' address. 110 Harrison Street it read in my sprawling, awful handwriting. I had also written the El stop, Kedzie-Homan.
I wanted to see my son. I wanted to tell him that it had taken me twelve years, but I had learned that in the end, nothing mattered. There was no one to blame. Things just happened. People became who they were and it didn't matter. Nothing mattered when there was no one to share it with.
I was a fisherman and I was good at it. And so what? I was father to a broken family.
I grabbed the address off my desk and left the station. I drove to Earl Mulvaney's house and found him out back sawing wood for an addition he was putting on his deck. He looked at me, squinting against the sunlight in his eyes.
"I need to borrow your truck," I said.
I turned forty-seven the year Christian left home. One night, a few months before it happened, I remember Arlene and I sitting out on the back porch of the house. It was a beautiful evening, stars were glowing above us and I could hear loons out on the lake, calling.
"I think you should try to spend more time with Christian," Arlene said.
"I don't know," she shrugged. "Take him fishing with you maybe, like you used to."
"He doesn't want to go fishing with me, he thinks it's boring."
"Have you asked him?" she said.
"He doesn't want to go." And we fell silent.
"I think we should all spend more time together maybe," she went on. "I think it would be good for us."
I nodded slightly, almost imperceptibly and let my eyes fall out across the water. I imagined myself sinking down like a stone thrown from a hand. There would be so much darkness to pass through on the way to the bottom. And then I thought of Christian, when he was a child. The two of us spent a lot of time together on the lake, in my boat. It was fun, I think, for both of us. The older he had gotten though, the less and less we fished together.
"Okay," I said at length. "Maybe Christian would like to come with me on that trip to Ketchikan I'm making next February. I could ask him, I suppose."
Arlene smiled. "I would like that."
"Fine," I said and I stood up, stretching in the moonlight, my back sore and my knees aching with arthritis. I looked around, the sky was clear and the lake was glowing. "I'll be back," I said.
I walked down to the water and out onto the small wooden pier that marked the edge of our property. I spent a few hours that night out on the water, in my boat, fishing rod in hand. I caught two smaller Salmon and a Catfish, but I threw them both back. After a while, I stopped fishing and just sat, watching. I tried to take everything in, to be aware of nature. Insects were buzzing in the trees; cicadas and crickets sounded a symphony in the grass and leaves. Fish broke the surface like darts, in tiny concentric circles. This was how I felt I needed to try being with Christian. I needed to pay attention to what was going on in his life. I needed to make an effort. I sat there that night, alone, in a fishing boat off Spring Lake and thought about my son and my family. In the distance, stretching across the horizon, outside the inlet, I could see the giant expanse of Lake Michigan.
I took Interstate 196 down through South Haven to get to Chicago. I left at eight in the morning, the day after I spoke with Carl Velez's roommate. I drove through Benton Harbor to Saint Joseph, the highway hugging the coast of the lake the whole way. I picked up I-94, which continued on, down around the southern tip of the water and then up into the windy city.
I passed beach communities along the way; ones just like Grand Haven. A dozen just like Grand Haven. I hadn't been to Chicago in years, not since the last sheriff's convention in the early 90's. In fact, as I drove, I realized it was only the third time I had ever left the state of Michigan in my life. That made me feel empty. As I drove, I thought about how when Christian was ten we had taken a trip to New York City. We drove the whole way, stopping in Pittsburgh for a night. When we got to New York, we stayed in some dorm rooms in Hoboken for thirty bucks a night. We saw all the sights, the Empire State Building and Central Park and The World Trade Center. Then, on the last night we were there, we took a circle line tour around the island. It was something I will never forget. I remember leaning against the railing of the boat, standing next to Christian. The city was alive with lights, the skyscrapers ablaze, like a giant canvas of black and gray and yellow. Everything was moving, cars, people, the FDR drive, boats in the East River, the bridges illuminated in silence. I held my breath; my heart beat faster. Eventually the tour made its way down past the southern tip of Manhattan and rounded Liberty Island and the Statue of Liberty. It was a beautiful night and I felt stupid, I felt like the man I was, a small town tourist, but in many ways, I hadn't wanted it to end.
Earl's truck was old and it bounced down the highway. I struggled to stay in one place on the slick, leatherette seats.
"Do you want me to come with you?" Arlene had asked that morning. She had gotten up with me at six; I had had trouble sleeping all night. She made coffee and eggs and toast and we sat eating together as the sun rose over the trees in the yard.
"I should go alone," I said after thinking about it for a while. I told Arlene that she had always loved Christian and he respected that. She had nothing to be sorry for, no regrets. I was the one who needed to set things right, or at least try.
Then, I showered and shaved. I wore khaki pants and an oxford shirt. I felt old, I felt out of the loop. I imagined Christian laughing at me, the way I looked, the unsure steps with which I moved.
Arlene packed me a tuna fish sandwich in a brown paper bag, along with a peach and a small bottle of apple juice. She walked me out to the car and kissed me on the cheek before I left.
"Think things through," she said. "Be patient."
"I'll try," I whispered.
"You aren't as bad a person as you think you are."
I put the car in reverse and backed out of the driveway.
I was running out of steam when I rounded the corner of Washington Street and came to a stop. I saw Christian and Lucas run past the bank and then disappear down a side street. They had just thrown rocks through the windows of the police station and I wanted to ask them why they had done it. I knew I wouldn't catch them the way I was going about it. I figured if anything they were heading for the high school three blocks over. So I doubled back, past the station and up Charles Street, towards the school.
When I got there, the parking lot was empty. There were lights everywhere, bathing everything in orange, but I was alone. I didn't see Christian or Lucas. It was hot out, the middle of June and I was sweating through my uniform.
I was heading for the main entrance, there was a large metal awning that flung itself from above the large wooden doors. I sat down on the ground, in the shadows and waited. It was dark and I knew no one would be able to see me where I was hiding. Ten minutes passed and I began to think that my plan was off and that Christian and Lucas weren't heading for the school at all. Then I heard whispers coming from across the parking lot. I stood up quietly and backed against the side of the school, I tried not to breathe. Shadows surrounded me. I recognized Christian's laugh.
I waited for the two of them to get closer and they would have walked right past me had I not stepped out into the walkway, into the orange light.
The two of them froze for a second then Lucas turned and bolted across the lot. Christian didn't move; he just stood there, looking at me. I realized then the absurdity of the whole situation. I was a police officer. My gun was hanging in its holster at my side and the gold badge glinted in the streetlight. I was a police officer and my son had just broken the windows of the station where I worked and now he was cornered, caught. If I was mad enough, I could have arrested him.
"So you got me," he said.
"I just want to know why," I asked. "What the hell?"
He didn't say anything for a few seconds, then: "There is no reason."
"There has to be a reason,"
"What difference does it make?" he said. "I hate it here, that's why. I hate this town, I hate everything here."
"You hate your mother?" I asked.
"No," he said.
And then it happened.
"You disgust me," I said. And it came out in such a way, that I knew neither of us would forget it for a while, maybe not ever.
We stood together for many minutes, just looking at each other. Christian's brown eyes gleamed with hidden anger that had risen to the surface. Then he turned and walked away from me. It was a challenge. He wanted me to follow him, to insult him further, to fuel him more. But I didn't. Instead, I sat back down on the ground and leaned up against the side of the school.
Three days later, I came home from work and found Arlene sitting at the kitchen table by herself. She was holding a note from Christian.
"He's gone," she said.
Once I got down to Chicago, I didn't really know what to do first.
I got off I-90 around W. Harrison Street and made a left turn at the exit. There was an overpass and I pulled over to the side of the road, watched the cars fly by below on the highway. I had the windows down and I could feel the sun on my arms. I took my badge out and placed it on top of the dashboard in case a cop came and asked me to move. And so I sat, thinking for a long while. Then I put the car back into gear and drove east along Congress Parkway into downtown Chicago. I turned onto North Michigan Avenue and went up past the Sun Times building and the Virgin Records Megastore and the water tower mall. I drove slowly; I didn't really have a destination. When I reached the black framed John Hancock Building, I parked the truck in an underground lot and told the man I would be back before midnight. Then I rode the blue line of the CTA towards Forest Park. It was slow travel through the Loop; the stops blurred into one another. People filed on and off, Washington, Monroe, Jackson. By the time we got to the Medical Center, there were only a handful of people on the train. I got off at Kedzie-Homan and ascended the stairs to the street.
Carl Velez's apartment building was on Harrison, around the corner from the El stop, a quiet side street. It was cold and I turned the collar of my coat up against the wind. The neighborhood seemed mostly black and I watch a group of children playing with a tennis ball in the street. I walked past them and in through the front doors of Carl's building. I studied the mailboxes; on the bottom row, two from the left I saw it: 3B Velez / O'Gorman. I stood for a moment at the buzzer, not moving. I turned slightly and caught my reflection in the glass of the doors. I looked tired, lost. I felt like leaving, turning back. Then, as quickly as that feeling came, it passed. I turned back to the row of buzzers; I reached out my hand, rang the bell.
And I waited.
When Christian came into town on the greyhound, three years after he left, my wife called me at the police station. I left early and met them at the restaurant. She picked the place, a fancy French bistro off the boardwalk. I felt silly being there, I hadn't had time to change and so I ate in my uniform. At the table, Arlene ordered a bottle of wine. She was happy to see Christian and she talked non-stop. A thousand questions. She asked him what Chicago was like and what he was doing for money.
"I work at a club," Christian said putting a forkful of salad into his mouth.
"What kind of club?" Arlene asked.
"A night club?" I said.
"Yeah," Christian nodded, chewing. "I dance."
"How long do you plan on doing that for?" I asked.
He glanced over at me, his face a wall. "As long as I need to."
I looked around at the other people in the restaurant. I imagined why they were there, what occasion had brought them together. I wondered how a stranger would view the dinner I was having. My son: a dancer at a nightclub, home for a day after being gone for three years. Myself: an old policeman, with nothing but contempt in my heart. And my wife, trying her hardest to make the best of the situation, a smile fixed on her face.
"You look good," she told our son. "Are you happy?"
"Yes," he said. "I'm doing what I want."
I couldn't stay quiet, "Which is what?"
Christian was silent for a moment, and then he said, "Living my life."
Arlene switched subjects; starting talking about Grand Haven and how she thought things were changing for the
worst. More and more tourists were coming every summer since Christian had left and she only saw that as a bad omen.
I fell silent and picked at my food. When the waiter came to take the plates away I hadn't even touched my steak.
In my life, the problems I have had with my son and even with Arlene have always been at their hearts concealed. Sure, I say things to them, we argue about stuff, but for the most part, the things I really want to tell them remain unsaid. It was because of this that I had let Christian go, that I had never really talked things through with him.
Arlene and I only went to see the therapist twice after our son ran away. After the second session, I told my wife I wasn't going back. She cried in the car, but I wouldn't talk about it with her any further. Nothing good could come of it. The woman wanted to see just me, by myself, to try and work out some of the communication issues I had. In my mind it all meant nothing.
As I stood in the foyer of Carl Velez's apartment building, waiting for someone to answer the door, I thought about this. About how I was so afraid to deal with things.
A soft voice, the same one I had heard on the phone the day before, startled me. "Hello?" it said, through the call box.
"Hi, I'm looking for Christian Wieler," I said. "May I come up?"
"Christian's not here," the voice said.
"I'm a police officer," I used my cop's voice. "Buzz me up now."
I climbed the three flights of stairs, my knees throbbing. Carl's roommate met me at the door, introduced himself as Paul and didn't let me in until I showed him my badge. The apartment was sparse, two bedrooms joined by a living room. Maroon wall-to-wall carpeting lined the floors and there were dishes piled high in the sink.
I walked around, taking everything in. Paul took me into Carl's room.
"Carl's a little messy," he said. There were clothes everywhere, in piles on the floor, heaped on the bed. The room was an explosion. "What's this all about? Is Carl in trouble?" Paul asked.
"No," I told him. "I just need to find out some information if I can."
"Well," Paul laughed. "Feel free to snoop, if you can stand the smell."
He watched me. I walked into the room and looked about. There were black and white photos of men in their underwear on the walls, cutouts from fashion magazines and mail order catalogues. There was a dresser under the window and a small desk, covered in envelopes and notebooks.
"Carl writes," Paul told me. He moved to the desk and picked up one of the books, flipped through it. I nodded.
"He doesn't like people in his room," Paul added. "He'd have a fit if he saw us now."
I moved to the window and looked out. I could see abandoned apartment buildings further down the street. And above everything, the Sears Tower rose like a spire up to the clouds. The sun was dipping low towards the trees in Garfield Park.
"Do you know Christian?" I asked, still looking out the window.
"Sure," Paul answered. "He used to live here, for a few months anyway."
I turned away from the window, back into the room.
"Where is he now?" I asked. "Do you know? I need to find him."
Paul put down the notebook. "You need to speak to him about Carl?"
I nodded, "And other things."
Paul was silent for a second, then he shook his head. "Christian said he was going to Milwaukee, he didn't want to be in Chicago anymore."
I tried to remain passive, to not let anything show on my face. I needed him to believe I was there as a cop. "Do you have an address or telephone number?"
"I may," Paul said. "I'm not sure. Someone called yesterday looking for it too, but I couldn't find it. My room's a fucking mess, let me go check again."
He disappeared into the living room and I heard him go into the other bedroom.
I moved in front of the desk and opened the top drawer. There was a ruler and a handful of pencils, most of them broken in two. I pushed aside a box of paper clips and picked up a letter opener. It was heavy in my hand, like a knife. I put the letter opener back. In the next door was a stack of magazines; they looked like porn, and a small brown paper bag. I opened the bag and inside lay a mass of hundred dollars bills wrapped in a thick rubber band. There had to be at least fifteen thousand dollars.
I was alone.
Paul was in his bedroom; I could hear him talking to himself.
I did something then that I had only done once before as a police officer, as a person. I quieted everything inside my head, until I was aware of only the smallest things. The feel of the money on my fingertips. The smell of dirty laundry in the air. Dust, illuminated by light from the window. Specks of time.
I put the bag inside my coat.
Paul returned a few moments later, smiling. "I found it," he said.
I swallowed, steadied myself. "Found what?"
"The number, silly. Christian's phone number in Milwaukee." He laughed.
Sunlight glimmered off the water. I pushed the throttle of my fishing boat forward, faster, and moved out towards the middle of Spring Lake. Behind us, the white faces of the water front houses got smaller, until they were no more than grapes in my eye.
Christian sat up at the bow of the boat, his arms dangling over the railing, reaching towards the water as it flew past. Wind parted his brown hair. The boat cut a small wake and I watched its waves spread outward like wings. Beyond us, I could see Lake Michigan, an endless table of blue, a horizon. Steelhead and brown trout roamed the water in abundance. There were Chinook and Cho salmon, as well bass. Fishing was better up north; the closer you got to the Canadian border. But I rarely ever made it out of Spring Lake; there was no real need. I could fish for bass and smaller sized salmon right there.
We fished for hours that day. We talked and drank root beer from a cooler. We threw most of what we caught back. Christian didn't like the idea of killing animals and I just liked being on the water with him. I remember he let me keep one or two so that I could brag to Arlene at the dinner table.
We fished and I can still see him in my mind. He cast out his lure; it sailed through the air, the line reeling out. I listened to the sounds around us. Water lapping against the hull of the boat. Christian, breathing quickly in and out, his eyes on the water. He began to reel in the line.
"Not so fast," I told him.
He nodded. His small hands slowed on the reel and the line slackened a little, just the right amount. "Like this?" he asked.
I nodded. He was ten years old and I had just turned forty, it was the same year that we drove to New York City as a family. It was before everything got so complicated.
It was before the night Christian decided to throw rocks through the window of the police station where I worked.
Before I waited for him in the shadows and confronted him.
Before I told him he disgusted me as a person, as a son.
As many times as I have thought about fishing Spring Lake with my son, I have thought about that night twice as much. I remember so many little things. The heavy breaths we took, both of us tired from running. The awkward distance between us as we argued. The way he turned away from me when I said those words. The way the stars shone above, bright in the cloudless sky.
With the brown paper bag tucked into the inside pocket of my barn jacket, I rode the El back into town and got my car from the lot. I tipped the attendant two dollars and pulled the pick-up out onto North Michigan Avenue. The sun was getting low in the sky; it would be dark soon.
I looked down at the slip of paper in my hand. Christian it read, in Paul's elegant script. 414-271-0841. I thought for a moment.
I thought about how I had taken the money, stolen from a dead man. I knew it was wrong, but it didn't matter. Like I have said, this is the story of my son. And like any sad story, there needs to be some hope. Hope that I haven't lost him forever. In my head, I imagined leaving the money for Christian on the nightstand in his room, maybe while he wasn't even there. And I would go without even talking to him, but at least I would know that he was okay, that he was safe. It didn't matter. I was trying to do what Arlene had said; I was trying to think things through.
Before I knew it, I had crossed the Chicago River and was heading into Wicker Park. I had heard the area was becoming a popular place for college students and young people.
I drifted to a stop at a red light; I could see the interstate flowing like a river to my left. When the light changed to green I knew there was no way I could go back to Grand Haven, not yet. So, I put on my blinker and slowly, with patience, merged onto I-94 north. After a few minutes, a sign told me it was 92 miles to Milwaukee. Evening was falling all around me as I drove and I hoped to make it there before nine o'clock. The weight of the bag was heavy against my chest, I felt heavy.
I flipped on the radio, turned the dial until I heard music; it didn't matter what it was. Sound filled the car. I was never someone who listened to a great deal of music; I never really understood what people got out of it. I liked to be able to hear my own thoughts and music always distracted me. But as I drove that night, it comforted me. I let it run through me. A man with a fragile voice sang of darkness and the coming of sad things and how the person he loved might save him from that darkness.
And for a moment everything looked salvageable.
For a moment I was that person.
If only for a moment.
© crossconnect, inc 1995-2004
published in association with the |
university of pennsylvania's kelly writers house |