Last night after I watched “Boardwalk Empire,” on HBO I dreamed that my father’s body was up there on the screen with the other murdered bootleggers.
He had vanished without a trace of the ordinary clutter and detail of a life, leaving not a shadow nor footprint. There were no letters or insurance papers. Not a watch or drivers’ license or birth certificate. No marriage license or diploma. It was as if my mother had wiped away my father’s existence like a teacher with an eraser. Or that during the 29 years of his life on earth he was already a ghost.
When I was old enough to ask my mother about his death, she told me he died of pneumonia. I was four or five years old but I knew it wasn’t the truth.
So when I was twelve, I did what I always did when I wanted to know something. I went to my brother. I looked up to Kenny at his advanced age of sixteen. Tall and street-smart, he could drive a car and work after school and figure skate at the Elysium and yell at our mother. He had already answered my questions about sex, but the answer I sought now seemed more dangerous.
“Why won’t Mom ever talk about our father?” I asked him. He was in the kitchen opening a can of chicken noodle soup.
He shrugged, dumping it into a pot.
“All she ever told me was he died of pneumonia,” I said.
He stopped and looked at me. “Pneumonia? That’s a good one.”
“What do you mean?”
“He died of murder. He was a bootlegger in a turf war with the Mafia and they killed him. You can read about it in the newspapers downtown in the library. It’s all there, everything that happened.” He said he remembered the night, the screams, the police, the reporters, the commotion.
“How do you look it up?”
“By the date. They were killed on your second birthday.”
“They? What do you mean, they?”
“Uncle Addie was killed with him.”
I didn’t know what to think about two murders on my second birthday. And who was this Uncle Addie? I had never heard of him.
“Was Uncle Addie a bootlegger too?”
“Naw. Poor guy, he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
In the Cleveland Library I got a ten-year-old copy of the Cleveland Plain Dealer . There was a picture on the front page of a handsome young man with full lips, dark hair and deep-set eyes, captioned Louis Rosen.
“That’s my daddy! That’s him!” I tell the librarian, who barely nods, as if children find their lost father on the front page every day.
Reading the article I learned the truth:
My mother and Aunt Della were upstairs, sleeping, when they heard shots. Rushing to the window, they saw two bleeding bodies in the driveway, and dashed outside.
Two or three neighbors came running and pulled the sisters in their bloody nightgowns off their husbands’ bodies as their howls reached the star-lit sky in a grotesque duet of high C’s.
My father and uncle lay in the driveway, still bleeding; my father from a sawed off shotgun blast through his heart, uncle Addie from two 32-caliber bullets through his throat and head; both bodies brutally slashed, cut down in the moment of their blatant confidence in themselves—their blood thick and fast; their muscles tight and hard; their groins ready at a moment’s erotic memory or thought or flashing sight of some random feminine leg or nape of neck; their futures untested and their minds full of the grand dreams of youth. Now, shot and slashed to death they were frozen in their heyday, old age transcended, to be passed in years by their own children.
They had fought bitterly, valiantly. Stabbed, slashed, bleeding, they got up again and again, fighting back, arm wrestling the killers for the knife, dodging, ducking, side-stepping in a macabre ballet of death. Finally, still alive, they had to be shot.
Subdued at last, dead at last, the sudden silence was so powerful it seemed to paralyze the earth’s very rotation.
I do not like watching “Boardwalk Empire.” It is too violent and ugly. But I watch it anyway, trying to find my father.
Adapted from the author’s memoir:
“Lost And Found”