Secret Father: A Novelby James Carroll
Secret Father is a suspenseful drama of family and politics set in Cold War Berlin. Missed signals, cloaked motives, false postures, and panicked responses echo tragically across borders and generations when, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a father and son recount the tense events of nearly thirty years before. In 1961, just before the Wall rises, three teenagers… See more details below
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Secret Father is a suspenseful drama of family and politics set in Cold War Berlin. Missed signals, cloaked motives, false postures, and panicked responses echo tragically across borders and generations when, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a father and son recount the tense events of nearly thirty years before. In 1961, just before the Wall rises, three teenagers from an American school in West Germany travel to the Communist side of the divided city to join a rally. Unknown to them, their parents have unfinished business reaching back to World War II which will pull the teens into the vortex of an international incident.
"Fine period thriller." Kirkus Reviews
"A cold war coming-of-age tale that captures both the particular tensions of the era and the universal yearnings of the young.... Carroll, telling the story in flashback through alternating narrators, ratchets the tension nicely while vividly evoking the cold war atmosphere and effectively contrasting the teens' naivete with the East Germans' realpolitik... Page-turning readability... Entertaining popular fiction."
"A beautifully textured exploration of relationships between husbands and wives, parents and sons, friends and lovers. Love, in its harsh and dreadful facets, is portrayed as a powerful force, capable of fusing hearts but also of destroying them. A wonderful bonus is Carroll's re-creation of the 1961 atmosphere and the tense facts of the Cold War in Berlin. The taut drama of history, interlaced with the emotional sagas of these marvelously drawn figures, makes for a very satisfying narrative." Library Journal Starred
"History is what always infuses Carroll's work and what has given all his books an abiding tincture of wisdom.... And this, not the little tragedies of the players, is why Secret Father is affecting." Boston Magazine
"The story's setting is political, its pace that of a thriller, but the memories are often personalof widowhood, fatherhood, first love, late love and youthful folly.... Where Carroll distances himself from the run-of-the-mill spy novel, however, is in the emotional journey that accompanies his characters.... The book's epigraph from Dostoyevsky"Real love, compared to fantasy, is a harsh and dreadful thing"suggests there is no redemption without pain. But the message of "Secret Father" is broader: for nations as for individuals, there can be no imagining the future until the past has been quieted." The New York Times Book Review
“An interesting psychological portrait of father and son Secret Father holds many secrets, the most revealing of which have nothing to do with plot but with human psychology and world history.” The Chicago Tribune
“An uncommonly intelligent espionage story, written with flair a story of parent-child love, told with quiet wisdom and an undercurrent of deep melancholy.”
The Seattle Times
"Gripping and beautifully written, 'Secret Father' is a remarkable evocation of a tumultuous era and of the power that secrets can hold across generations." Bookpage
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Read an Excerpt
For Isaiah Neuhaus
If one day can mark a person forever, what of two days? Those two days,
when I knew your father, when he was young, have marked me since. I can
tell you what I know of his story only by telling you the marked part of mine.
Your father. His mother. My son. Each life altered, or ended, by events that
for you can be a source of indelible pride, your patrimony, a legacy from
which to take the measure of all that honors the memory of your father. But
these are events that had a different meaning for me, the measure of which,
I tell you at the start, is the sadness you may already sense in the space
between these words. I have never told this story to anyone. Because your
father asked me to, I am telling it to you.
People of my generation, ahead of his, saw so little as it actually
was then, as if the Manichean division of the world into East and West, bad
and good, gave shape also to our most intimate relationships. An iron
curtain ran not just, as Churchill put it, from the Balkans to Trieste, but
between those of us who claimed to be grown and in charge and those, like
your father and my son, who seemed still so unfinished and, as I thought of
them, vulnerable. When Michael was away from me, I often feared that he
would get lost, which was my way of fearing, I suppose, that I would lose
him. It was a fear I could not acknowledge as being more for myself than for
him, because I had yet to reckon with what I had already lost.
What characterized our personal East-West division — broadly
dubbed in America a few years later as the generation gap — was that
Michaelwas the wounded one. That was presumptively a function of his
longtime status as a handicapped child, but then it also became a matter of
my efficient pretense that the loss we'd undergone together the year before
was more his than mine, as if what I did was for him, never for myself. Thus,
if the world we'd inherited was to be a jungle, I would be Michael's brush
cutter, leading the way through impassable thickets with my machete,
hacking out a path for him, calling over my shoulder, "This way, son. This
way." Not noticing until too late that he had stopped following. That he had
This story, which I've told myself a thousand times, always begins
with the sixth stroke of the clock, the grandfather clock with the elaborately
carved oaken case that I hear ticking now, not far from where I sit writing in
my old house in New York City. In our German days, the clock was in the
sitting room of the big house the bank had leased — not for me, since five
nights out of seven I was there alone, but for the holders of my position. I'd
found the clock in a warehouse near the Rhine: all Europe could still seem
a flea market in those years, with the fine things of a lost world for sale
cheap. I bought the clock, I think, to stake a claim to the timbered mansion
assigned to me, and the sonorous Westminster gong wafted through those
lonely rooms like the regular greeting of a friendly ghost.
If any house had the right to be haunted, it was that one. It was
built after the First World War in Dahlberg, a near suburb on the opposite
side of Frankfurt from the factory and rail yard district, which was why it had
not been bombed in the Second. After those two wars, Germany was a
nation of ghosts, an infelicitous place for a man and a boy yoked together
by blood and affection, of course, but also by that knot of loss. We never
asked it of each other, but our question was, If she can vanish from our lives,
why then can't you from mine?
Five, beat, six. I remember looking up from that day's Frankfurter
Neue Presse, a newspaper I felt obliged to look at as a way of improving my
German. "Improving" overstates it perhaps. In my months in the country, I
had come up against a linguistic mental block, and German had so far
remained impenetrable to me, a blow more to my pride than my professional
performance, since everyone in banking spoke English. All that week,
however, I had been especially motivated to decipher the local news. As I
lumpishly tracked through the text of a particular story, the clock had
struck six. Without being aware of it, I had kept the count, and it was exactly
then that the question first rang in my head: Where is Michael?
It was late in April 1961,a Friday evening. I looked up from the
paper fully expecting to see Michael's shyly grinning face in the archway
that marked the entrance foyer off from the sitting room. I saw the tall green
ceramic-tiled brazier on the near side of the arch, and through the arch, the
mahogany bench onto which Michael would have dropped his bag and his
stick. In a trick of a mind ready to worry, his absence supplied a vivid
sensation: an image in the vacant air of his lanky, thin frame at a slouching
angle, the loose posture of a young man with leg braces.
Is he grinning? Has he left behind his anger at me? Our first awful
"Hay is for horses," I would have said, a daring echo of what had
been his mother's good-humored correction. Humor as a ladder out of the
pit of hurt.
But where is he?
April 1961. The newspapers had been full of what came to be
called the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the first shocking failure of the young
Kennedy administration. There is no way to convey now the palpable sense
of danger with which we all lived in those years. Kennedy and Khrushchev
were like the cowboy gunfighters then dominating movies and television, men
forever on the verge of drawing weapons, but weapons that would kill us all.
Political fear was entirely personal, but personal fear, for that reason, could
seem nuclear, too. Worry that something had happened to my son, or, if I
was lucky, that he was only angry at me, was as deeply unsettling as my
fear of what I read in our awful newspapers.
But the news story I had been trying to follow that week was
about an event that had taken place right in front of me, as if to warn that
even a life like mine could be dangerous. On the previous Monday, I had
attended a conference of Germany's major steel producers at Rhine-Main
Hall, a new convention center in the reborn heart of Frankfurt. The meeting
had been called by the Bonn Ministry for Economic Cooperation. Gathered
in a function room were about two hundred dark-suited men, mostly German
but also including European Coal and Steel Community delegates and a
smattering of financiers from various countries, of whom I was one. At
meetings like this, the language spoken was always English, which was a
main reason my German never improved. The purpose was to lay the
groundwork for the creation of an ECSC consortium to develop iron imports
The third of a number of speakers in the afternoon session
approached the podium, a distinguished-looking man who — thin, tall, well
tailored, and bald — reminded me of Britain's Prince Philip. I had actually
been thinking of slipping out, but the agenda notes identified him as having
lived in Moravia for a decade as the representative of Rheinstahl, one of the
great German steel companies. He had no doubt been acquiring options on
Liberia's inland iron mines, and his on-the-ground experience in Africa set
him apart from the other speakers, and I decided to hear what he had to
say. At the podium, he opened the folder that held his notes, took a sip of
water, and was about to speak when a man appeared from behind a curtain
at the edge of the stage. He crossed quickly to the speaker, approaching
from the rear, and before the speaker noticed him, the man extended his
arm, seeming to touch the speaker in the back of the neck. Then the shot,
the first such sound I had heard since the war. It was a tinny noise I did not
recognize, since my experience of gunfire had always been outdoors. Then
the man fell forward, and an image of the crimson spray had remained with
me all week.
Michael, where are you? I am sure it was a Friday, and I am sure
of the time, because on Fridays Michael always caught the 4:07 from
Wiesbaden to Frankfurt, then the 5:20 from the Hauptbahnhof to the
Dahlberg station, and then it was a ten-minute walk to our house, even for
Michael, whose gait was awkward but steady. This distance he insisted on
covering by foot, a point of valiant stubbornness to which I relented because I
knew how he hated being taken for disabled when, as he put it once, he was
only slow. I knew also that his doctors in New York had encouraged him to
walk as much as he could. On that one day of the week, I made it a habit to
be home by 5:30 so that I would be there when he came through the door
with his sack und pack and stick at 5:50.
But quickly I remembered that this Friday was to be different.
Michael was to be home at the usual hour, but he was coming back to
Frankfurt not by train but by car, my car, which he was driving. That
realization made me sit up, the trite reaction of every parent who'd ever
overcome a qualm to let a teenager take the car. At the end of the previous
weekend, he had made a rare request, asking if he could drive back to
school instead of taking the train. He knew I didn't need the car during the
week, since my job brought with it a car and driver. And he knew, I think, how
pleased I was that he had taken so naturally to driving, despite his
handicap. It was the beauty of the then new automatic gearshift — in truth,
he'd have had trouble with a clutch — and I'd bought the snappy Fairlane
convertible the summer before thinking of him as its eventual driver. The
pleasure I'd seen him taking at the wheel since obtaining his license was my
pleasure, too. All of this went into his clear assumption that I would say yes.
"But boarders are forbidden to have cars," I said.
"Just to and from Wiesbaden," he offered. "I'll leave it parked for
the week. The dorm director will never know."
I saw how he had allowed himself to count on it, which,
perversely, may be what prompted my initial no, as if the boy needed a
lesson against presumption. Michael was seventeen years old, a senior at
the American high school in the charming spa city near the Rhine, fifty
miles away. Eisenhower had made Wiesbaden his headquarters after
crossing the Rhine, and by our time it served as headquarters for the U.S. Air
Force in Europe — "U-Safe," in the argot. The sons and daughters of NCOs
and officers who lived in Wiesbaden's several American enclaves attended
the school, but not only them. A three-story dormitory also accommodated
the teenage children of U.S. servicemen stationed across Europe. And some
additional students, like Michael, were children of American civilians with
Defense Department connections — NATO-attached tech reps for
Lockheed or Martin-Marietta, say, or cigarette wholesalers charged with
supplying the vast PX system of the occupation army.
My own DoD connection was thin, and ran through New York, not
Washington. I was chief of the Frankfurt office of the Chase International
Investment Corporation, a spinoff of Chase Manhattan Bank, which had
begun a decade before as a main funnel for Marshall Plan funds when
American investment shifted from governments to businesses. The war had
left the Continent starved for consumer goods, and German manufacturers,
with the advantage of needing to retool from scratch, had pounced on the
market. Those of us at Chase — investing not in the state bureaucracies
but in individual entrepreneurs and private companies — embodied the beau
ideal of American democracy, what would later come to be called free-market
capitalism. So we were front-liners in the Cold War, too, and it did not hurt
that returns on our investments were running at thirty or forty percent, which
set off a second-stage boom in finance as the industrial recovery of the
Bundes republik began to fuel itself. We called it the bottom-line blitzkrieg.
People like me, in our recognizably American Brooks Brothers
tailor-mades, prided ourselves on having nothing to do with the omnipresent
but culturally isolated U.S. military, who, out of uniform, favored Ban-Lons
and double-knits. We did not shop in their commissaries, and we did not
work out in their gyms. Our chauffeurs drove us in Taunus sedans or
Mercedeses, decidedly not Oldsmobiles. And we spoke German — or, as
in my case, felt guilty if we did not.
If we had school-age children, they boarded at English public
schools, Swiss convent schools, or back home at New England prep
schools. Rarely would the child of someone in my position have been a
candidate for General H. H. Arnold High School at Wiesbaden Air Base, a
putative reproduction of a small-town American secondary school. But it
seemed the right place for Michael that year, and as for me, I wanted him
When he was little, Michael was a boy who loved movement above all — if
possible, on wheels, so his love of driving was no surprise. The first real
change in his life came with his tricycle, a Christmas present when he was
four or five. It was a machine on which he could demonstrate his true
character — his daring, his restlessness, his bright assumption that the
earth was flat so that he could go fast. When I would come home in the
evening, nothing would do but that I take him down to the basement of the
apartment building where storage cages lined a labyrinthine passageway
that Michael regarded as his personal racecourse. I recall chicken wire
stretched onto lumber frames, naked light bulbs on the ceiling every twenty
feet or so, a succession of right-angle turns. His circuit was quick and, with
all that cushiony chicken wire, I thought, safe. But near the doorway to the
stairwell, one sharp cinderblock corner jutted into his path, a hazard I had
never noticed because he always cut by it easily. Once, however, I made a
pretense of giving chase, which made Michael laugh and pour it on. As he
barreled through the maze now, pulling away, he tossed triumphant looks
back over his shoulder at me. He disappeared around a last turn, I heard his
crash, and knew at once he'd hit the cinderblock angle. He took the sharp
edge on his face, breaking his nose and opening a gash in his forehead
from which blood was gushing, as from a pump, by the time I got to him. The
sight of his wrecked face filled me with panic and guilt, but he remained
calm. Stunned into calm, I thought, but that wasn't so. Michael was in pain,
awash in blood — crimson spray — but he wasn't afraid because he was
certain that nothing bad would happen to him if I was there.
But I wasn't there some years later, the day he came home early
from school — he was ten years old, it was April of 1954. He was a student
at the Cathedral School of St. John the Divine, in Morningside Heights. Edie
was a volunteer docent — a sort of guide — at the Metropolitan Museum of
Art, and she was there when the school nurse called to say she was
sending Michael home in a taxi because he had a fever. I was in Washington,
preparing to leave for Paris as part of a government delegation. Edie called
me that night and described fever, headache, loss of appetite, vomiting. I
would have come home, but she said the doctor had labeled it flu and was
confident the symptoms would abate in a day or two, and they did. Soon
Michael was back to normal and returned to school, and I boarded a plane
to Paris. Two days later, Michael's symptoms came raging back,
accompanied by the general muscular weakness known as paralysis. I was
in a meeting with finance ministers, in a room with extremely high ceilings
and Palladian windows overlooking the Tuileries, when an officious clerk
interrupted to hand me a telegram: "Come home now. M. has poliomyelitis.
I remember being struck by the fact that Edie, not spelling out
Michael's name or her own, had spelled out the full Latin name of the
disease, preferring it no doubt to the blatantly descriptive "infantile
paralysis." I remember also feeling a blast of anger at the injustice of it, since
that was the spring of Jonas Salk, and the broad assumption was that the
scourge of polio had been defeated. Indeed, Michael would be one of the last
American children to succumb.
When I saw him next, it was in a large room at St. Luke's
Hospital, also in Morningside Heights. The room contained about a dozen
iron lungs, the airtight metal cylinders that encased patients up to their
necks, helping the more severely affected children to breathe. By the time I
walked into that room, I had done my homework and knew that the virus
attacks the motor nerve cells in the spinal cord, an interruption of
communication from brain to muscles. Most cases of infection did not rise
to the level of diagnosis even, and the virus was shaken off without lasting
damage, without ever being identified. Most of those whose symptoms were
recognized did not become paralyzed. Most suffered muscle impairment
from which the body recovered. Few polio victims were left crippled, and my
desperate hope, as I followed the nurse to my son sealed in iron, was that
he not be one of those. Let the other children in this room fill out the odds, I
prayed with exquisite selfishness. I loved my son with a ferocity that would
have exchanged the world for him, to the point of killing it. My son was all
It was nearly midnight, and the room was dark. I had just come
from the airport. The hum of mechanized respiration, a dozen
unsynchronized motors, filled the room, but the sound registered as a kind of
quiet. The children lay sleeping in their cylinders with their heads protruding
like knobs, like magicians' assistants waiting to be sawed in half. Michael,
too, was sleeping when we came to him, and the sight of his eyes benignly
closed filled me with grief. I only then realized what I had been most
dreading, the statement in his blank look as it met mine: "If you had been
here, Dad, this would not have happened."
"I'm here now," I meant my eyes to say, but Michael, asleep, had
no need to rebuke me. Awake, later, he never did. I bent to kiss his
forehead and saw the salty residue of a tear track running from his eye down
across his temple to his ear. Dried tracks like that marked each side of his
face. A stoic child who goes to sleep weeping, unable to wipe the tears from
his eyes. So, naturally, I supplied my own rebuke, and it would be as
permanent as his condition.
Michael would not walk at all for a year. And without, first,
crutches, then leg braces and a cane, he would never walk again. How
could we not assume that this illness would forever mark the defining
moment of his life, and we did. But only for six years, when the absolute line
dividing before from after — mine as much as his — was drawn.
As the nurse in the polio ward said I would, I found Edie that night
in the darkened cathedral a short walk down Amsterdam Avenue from St.
Luke's. The nurse told me that Edie had been at Michael's side nearly all
the time. Only after he was firmly asleep would she go over to the hulking
church, leaving the nurse with the impression that she needed to pray.
"Your son will need you, Mr. Montgomery," the nurse presumed to say to
me, "but so will your wife."
Edie was a confirmed Episcopalian, but she had never been
devout, and I could not imagine her on her knees. She loved the cathedral,
but in the way American patricians love Gothic spaces. We had been
married there, and her father had been a benefactor and longtime vestryman.
One or two Sundays a month, she had found her way to St. John the Divine,
but for vespers; she preferred the evening service of chanted psalms to the
more showy morning communion. We presumed Michael inherited his
religious indifference from me, but what Edie really preferred, I knew, were the
soaring shadows of night — the feeling of being in Chartres, in the heart of
human genius more than in the presence of some divinity. It was no surprise
to me that she would seek rest and refuge there.
But prayer? I found her at a side altar, sitting in front of a
shrouded statue of what I took to be the sorrowful mother of God.
Approaching from behind, not wanting to startle her, I whispered her name
tentatively. In truth, I half expected a rebuke from Edie, too. She could be
angry and unforgiving, and in our twelve years of marriage I had had my
moments of both resenting her reactions and fearing them. Why the hell were
you in Paris when our son got sick?
But when she realized I was there, she stood and turned to me,
her hands clutching at her mouth. She fell into my arms with a desperation I
could not have imagined. "Oh, Monty!" she said.
"Monty" was her teasing endearment for me — teasing because
she knew that from anyone else I hated it. We were not nickname people
— her name was Edie, not Edith — which is why we called our son Michael,
and only that. Edie was trying to speak to me, but her sobbing made it
impossible. "Monty," she said again, and the only other word that made it
through her lips was "Michael." The two names prompted in me the sweet
thought that her love for her son and her love for her husband had become
the same thing, and I had the further thought, holding her as she shuddered
against me, that that was how I felt. What to her was a moment only of
unspeakable anguish was to me a revelation of this most basic fact of our
condition: one love bound the three of us.
For me, our son's illness, evoking that love, would be an axis
around which our otherwise separate lives turned as one life. But for Edie, it
would be something else entirely. She abruptly pulled back from me, as if
offended by my physical resoluteness. Her eyes were wrecked, bloodshot,
foolishly stained with mascara, crazy looking.
"I can't," she said.
"Can't what?" I asked.
"Cope," she said. "Cope with this. I can't."
"Yes you can." I pulled her back into my embrace — not to
console her but to avoid having to look into her terrified eyes.
I was right, of course. Edie coped magnificently from then on. She
was at Michael's service morning, noon, and night, as his masseuse, his
physical therapist, his coach, his tutor enabling him to stay at class level in
school. She was his motivation, the soul, ultimately, of his success.
Everyone who knew us would admire Edie's stalwart love, and Michael
would worship her for it, which he showed by getting steadily better. All of
which was more than enough for me.
But in the one thing with which heroic Edie needed help — the
thing that nurse had sensed — I was useless. In the cathedral that night
she had shown me her terror, and I could not look at it. I could not stand it.
Left alone, she coped with it by means of a savage act of will, which left her
feeling, I see now, like a woman going through the motions of love instead
of loving. She reproached herself for dutifulness, for the rigid discipline of her
care, for doing what she could for Michael because she should. All of
which, of course, defines love at its truest. But for Edie the former ease of
spirited affection and maternal fondness had suffocated in the fumes of
rubbing alcohol and the stink of soiled bandages and pus-stained plaster
casts and the dead skin of our son's inert legs, as she worked all the while to
bring them back to life.
Something inside Edie, it seemed, had turned to stone. The one
acute feeling she would allow herself from then on was that of self-loathing,
which I beheld clear as day every time she exploded in anger — never at
Michael or in his presence; always, apparently, at me, in mine; but, I
realized later, really at herself. Unconsciously, she was recruiting me to
punish her, and I was capable of exploding back, alas. But even when, as
was mostly true, I maintained a relative equanimity, she took it as a signal of
my detachment. She angrily charged me with detachment, not from Michael
but from her, which was how little she had come to know of me. This was the
emotional impasse at which we had found ourselves when the question
arose of my transfer to Germany.
As events unfolded, I started the job in Frankfurt at the end of the summer
without Edie. The assignment, not a major promotion but the prerequisite to
one, had been in the works for months. On the surface, Edie, Michael, and I
had all been looking forward to it — the transatlantic passage on the USS
America, a month's travel across the Continent before settling into the
privileged life of postwar American supremacy. But below the surface, our
family was in turmoil, stirred by every decision involving Michael. After six
arduous years of corrective operations and physical therapy, all organized
around his ongoing schoolwork, he was doing well — far better than we'd
dared to hope. Walking confidently with his leg braces and elbow cane,
working hard to think of himself as other than crippled, our son was, in
effect, recovered from polio, and had learned to manage what it had left him
with. Edie and I, in our separate ways, had arranged our lives around what he
needed from us, but what he needed from us had changed. Edie and I came
more slowly to knowing that than he did.
Taking a large clue from him, we had finally settled on a plan that
called for Michael's return from Germany to New York in September, so
that he could complete his senior year at St. Dunstan's, his prep school in
Riverdale, but now as a boarding student. Polio had tempered Michael's
exuberant personality, but we were able in the end to see that what others
took for shy insecurity was in fact the quiet resolve that had seen him
through. We knew that he was ready for life apart from us — knowledge
that Edie and I separately resisted.
But now he was a senior at Wiesbaden High School, an hour
away from me. We had decided together, in the end, that I would take the
job in Germany after all and that he would go too. As it turned out, the jovial
atmosphere of a self-consciously American high school — cheerleaders!
pep rallies! — was far better for him than the faux cloister of an all-male prep
school. His boarding five days a week at Wiesbaden seemed about right,
and his coming to be with me in Frankfurt on most weekends did move us to
a new, if unarticulated, intimacy. Beginning in the fall, we had formed a habit
of taking long Saturday drives in our new blue Ford convertible. We explored
the winding roads, hillside vineyards, and hock towns of the Rhineland wine
country. We visited half-reconstructed river cities from Mainz to Koblenz to
Cologne. We went several times to the Roman ruins at Trier, a small city
that had been home to the emperor Constantine and, even more remarkable
to us, to Karl Marx.
In November, Michael turned seventeen, the permit age in
Germany, and after that he took the wheel more often than I did. The
pleasure I took in riding beside him in the passenger seat was, I see now,
an unconscious return to the games of wheels that had been such a bond
years before. I don't recall ever giving him driving lessons as such, and in
Germany there was no question of driving school. Even with those leg
braces, his body seemed naturally to know what to do, and his right leg on
the pedals was his better leg. At the wheel of a car, Michael's physical grace
returned. That Michael was relaxed as a driver relieved me, and the routine of
those jaunts soothed us. In the car, especially with the top down, we felt no
need to force conversation, and a certain self-isolating silence came to seem
all right. It was our silence together. By the spring of that year, in other
words, we had each found reasons to regard our weekends as the matter of a
mutual compact, not something either of us would violate lightly.
Ironically, it was also then that we began, for the first time, to
differ about things, first small things, then larger ones. I knew enough to
anticipate mundane teenage moodiness, but the weight on Michael was
heavier than that, which I understood. But there were things I didn't
understand. The gulf that opened between us came as a disheartening
surprise. The silence of our rides, I began to sense, carried an undertone of
my son's resentment, which mystified me.
Driving through Trier one day, he said offhandedly that Marx had
been misunderstood, and that the only trouble with his ideas was they
hadn't really been tried. "That's ridiculous," I snapped, and he shot
back, "What would a banker know about the real meaning of Karl Marx?" His
direct challenge, offered with the pristine self-righteousness of a committed
leftist, so shocked me that at first I could not reply.
"Deutsche marks," I then deflected, as Edie would have, "not
Karl." But I wondered where the hell this was coming from. Soon enough I
In fact, at the beginning of that week we'd had what you'd have to
call an outright argument, sparked by his resentment at my first saying no,
he could not take the car if it violated school rules. "Don't treat me like a
cripple!" he had blurted, as if my mere enforcement of a rule did any such
thing. But the statement stunned us both, and, as he hoped, I suppose, his
rare open expression of anger forced me to back off. I let him take the car
despite myself, but he had still gone off angry, leaving me to fume even
more. I recalled that with horror now, because that was how Edie had gone
Michael, where are you?
Friday afternoons at Wiesbaden were marked, as I imagined it, by
an explosion of pent-up all-American energy — boys heading out to the ball
field, girls in the gym putting up crepe-paper streamers for the sock hop,
kids in dungarees and pedal pushers going over to the teen club to feed the
jukebox and the Coke machine. I pictured it all from my place at the large
bow-front window looking across the garden toward Mosbacher Strasse,
and the happy images of young people at play undid me. I took in the teeth a
blast of new self-reproach. So Michael wanted to stay over in Wiesbaden
and what, go to the big game the next day? Or take a date to the American
movie theater at the base exchange? Or — hell — go to that sock hop, even
if he didn't dance? And why not with a car? Why had I let that become an
issue? And what was it about me that sparked anger in those I loved? Did his
failure to show up now mean he was still angry? Was this my punishment for
the real offense, which he had dared to name, that I did treat him like a
Michael, where are you?
The clock was striking again, and to my surprise, the half-conscious count I
kept brought me to seven. Seven o'clock. It was nearly dark outside. He
wasn't here, and he hadn't called. If there'd been a wreck, would the
German police have a way of knowing to call here?
The thought of the German police brought me back to the scene
in Rhine-Main Hall on the previous Monday, what I had been reading about,
what I had witnessed. I replayed it — the intruder coming up behind the tall
German, seeming to touch the back of his neck; the hollow crack, the
speaker slumping forward on the podium, that red spray. The gunman
disappeared through the curtain as quickly as he had come. In short order,
the green-uniformed police arrived, the meeting was adjourned, and I
returned to my office, where, almost at once, I began to wonder if I had
imagined it all.
The dead man had been identified in the program as Markus von
Siedelheim, a name that meant nothing to me at the time. The killer had
escaped. I gathered from several days' deciphering of the Neue Presse and
from talk at the office that the police's assumption was that von Siedelheim
had been murdered by crackpot revolutionary elements who saw new
economic ties between Germany and Liberia as a renewal of imperialist
adventurism — or perhaps by rightists who opposed German participation in
the recently chartered Common Market, of which the ECSC was a
forerunner. The theories made no sense to me at the time, although such
acts of political violence would become common in a few years, with the
arrival of the Red Brigade and the Bader-Meinhof Gang on the left and various
neo- Nazi groups on the right. What jolted me instead was the rank
senselessness of the act — it was von Siedelheim's first return to Germany
in seven years. In an odd way, the murder epitomized the feeling we all had
then of living on the edge of an abyss. That was literally true in Germany,
with divisions of Soviet tanks poised to strike at any moment, igniting
Armageddon. But the feared violence of the Cold War could be de.ned by
nothing so rational as the later political radicalism, for a kind of moral
anarchy had come to undergird the East- West standoff, even if we could not
openly see it as such.
If there was a car wreck, I realized, the police would call the
school. I went to the foyer, to the telephone, and checking the list that
Mandy, my secretary, had typed and taped into cellophane nearly nine
months before, I found the number of the hall phone in Michael's dormitory.
When the operator came on, I recited it for her in my unornamented
German. Numbers I could handle.
The odd, blasting rings went on and on. Finally someone
answered, a boy whose accent dropped me back to Mobile, Alabama,
where I'd done Navy boot camp as a twenty-year-old, more than twenty years
before. I asked for Michael Montgomery. The boy grunted and the phone
clattered down. I could picture the handset dropping, slapping the wall at
the end of its cord. Bright noises in the echo chamber of the corridor made
me see a rough game of keepaway. At last yet another boy — New
Jersey? — came on the line to say that Montgomery was a "fiver," as if that
explained everything. I knew that about half of the dormitory students — who
were themselves a minority in the school — were five-day boarders, routinely
going home on Fridays to American posts, bases, and stations within a
couple of hours of Wiesbaden. I asked the boy if he was sure Michael
Montgomery was not there. He said yes, and was about to hang up. I
declared myself a parent, which made him say "sir." He went to check again,
leaving the phone to bang against the wall. After another few minutes, he
returned to say that Michael was nowhere around, that if he'd stayed over,
they would have seen him in the caf at dinner, but nobody had. I asked if
there was a dance that night or a big game the next day, and took what I
needed from his answer that he didn't know. I hung up before he did. Where
Once, at our place in the Adirondacks, Michael and I stayed up late into the
night, sitting on the deck of the boathouse with our feet dangling in the lake.
He was around eight years old, two years or so before his polio. What kept
us up was a sequence of shooting stars. At irregular intervals they crossed
the black sky beyond the even blacker silhouette of Mount Marcy. What
made the sight doubly thrilling was the way the night sky was reflected in
the cobalt sheen of the water stretched out before us, so we could see the
stars by looking down as well as up. Every falling star had its twin — until
one or the other of us raised a foot to break the glass of the lake surface, an
impulse coming, perhaps, from a need to remember which of the realms
before us was real. In the rippling water, the stars danced. "Will we ever do
this again, Dad?" Michael asked at one point. His profile emphasized the
delicacy of his features, the sharp nose he had from Edie, the small knob of
his chin that she always swore was mine. The slight upturn of his upper lip
could make it seem at times ready to tremble, and it did now.
"Sure," I said. "It's only a matter of knowing when to look." I joined
my gaze to his, facing up. Just then another bright dot of light carved its
swift arc in the speckled darkness.
Michael jumped. "Eleven!" he announced. He was gunning for an
even dozen. Soon he was leaning into me, half asleep. "That's not what I
meant. Not about the shooting stars. I meant about doing this with you."
"Sure," I answered too quickly. "Every August."
"Will I still love it?"
"Yes." I pulled him closer.
When, later, the twelfth star fell, I thought of waking him, but then
it was too late, and I let him sleep on against me.
I went to the kitchen for more ice. Nicolaus, my white-haired, solemn
steward, was sitting on his stool in the corner. He looked up from that
week's Der Stern, which had Fidel Castro on the cover, with upraised fist.
"I'm sorry, Nicolaus," I said, with a nod toward the oven, where by
now the roast would be dried out. "Something kept Michael at school.
There's no point in your waiting dinner any longer."
"And you, sir?"
"Why not just prepare a couple of plates and keep them covered.
I'll wait to eat with the boy."
"And you can go. No need for you to wait."
"I do not object."
Nicolaus never referred to me by name. To others, as when he
answered the phone, I was Herr Direktor, and the point had been quickly
made that he and I were strictly ex officio. He had come with the house. He
and Frau Marpingen, the Putzfrau, and Gerhard, my driver, had been taking
care of Chase executives for a decade. A thick scar crossed Nicolaus's
right cheek and, rising, disappeared in his hair. He suffered the wound, he'd
told me, on the eastern front. Once he spoke of Stalingrad, but vaguely.
Every time he turned that side of his face toward me, I felt him making a
claim. If what Germans told the occupying Americans — investment bankers
included — was true, then every Wehrmacht soldier who'd fought in the
West was dead, just as no surviving German had ever really admired Adolf
I had no trouble picturing Nicolaus's right arm upraised at the
infamous angle. If he and his kind hated Hitler now, it was for having lost the
war. But Nicolaus kept his resentment passive. He was efficient, talented in
the kitchen, and, for my purposes, thoroughly reliable. His only open show
of disapproval toward me was tied to my pouring my own whiskey, which I did
out of a habit tracing to my father, who used to say it was a way to remind
the servants whose house it was.
He was watching me at the ice tray. I realized he was taking the
measure of my concern.
"Die Jugend," he said.
My impulse to deceive him surprised me, as if there were secrets
to protect. "Just something at school," I said, and all at once the images I
was fending off were, first, of a tangled blue highway wreck, and second, of
Michael in his iron lung. Then I saw him falling forward, as if he'd been shot
Nicolaus was staring at me. I turned to leave the kitchen, aware
that as I did so, he turned to the oven, to do as he was told before going
I went back to my chair in the sitting room, and in the silence,
which was total but for the hum of the brazier's fire and the tick of the clock,
I sipped my drink. When it was drained, I thought of going for another.
Instead, I began a mindless set of rounds, going from vacant room to vacant
room, snapping on lights, as if a family lived there and not a man with —
what, a missing son?
Missing son. By now I was alternating between open worry and
anger, and it was anger that I preferred. Goddammit, where are you?
I could not pass a front-facing window without stopping to look
out, eyeing the moving forms of Mosbacher Strasse, the flow of cars. I
remember lighting cigarettes at those windows, watching the flare of the
match illuminate my face in the black glass. That your father was a heavy
smoker came to define him, but in those days we all were.
I climbed the stairs. Michael and I could each be in the house
without the other knowing, it was so large. When my predecessor had
proudly showed me around, I demurred at first because of the size, but then
he led me into the walnut-paneled game room on the third floor. A stout
mahogany pool table was enshrined below a hanging green lamp. On one
wall, the cue rack held a dozen elaborately carved sticks, ash and ebony.
Along another wall stretched the scoring string, and in the center of the
third was a large fireplace. The tan felt of the table's playing surface
shimmered under the cone of light. I took the house to have that pool table,
because I knew Michael would love it — a game to be played without strong
legs. Was that treating him like a cripple?
Now I racked up as if he were here. I chalked, broke, shot,
chalked, shot — running the table once, then again. The noise of the
ceramic spheres, one against the others, with the faintly erotic punctuation of
the pocket thunks, defied the stone silence of the empty house. The stick
gliding through my fingers and the kick in my right elbow at each stroke kept
my mind tethered to physical sensation.
Nicolaus had set the fire roaring in the ornate hearth before he'd
departed for the evening, as he always did on the Fridays we expected
Michael, but it was down to embers before I noticed. I remember
consciously deciding not to add a log. Where are you?
But by then the question had moved away from Michael. The raw
particularity of eight-ball solitaire had failed me. My mind had cut loose from
one snapping sequence of sounds to drift, with no leave from me, back to
that other: the slamming of the screen door that took her from the summer
kitchen out into the breezeway, then into the garage, and another slam. My
God, she could get angry! And then into the car — slam! — the rev of which
I heard so clearly because I'd followed her for once, this time to apologize.
That memory brought me back to the fight that had taken Michael
away on Sunday — "You can't treat me like this!" — and my knees became
weak. Have I done it again? The very question made me tack.
I saw her across a narrow gap of the churning water of Long Island
Sound. With her hair hidden by her long-billed cap, she was skipper of her
father's Lightning, bearing down on mine as we both drove in on the last
mark in the last heat of the Manhasset Memorial Day Regatta, a class race
that drew boats from all over the Northeast. I took her for a boy as she was
shrilly screaming, "Starboard tack! Right of way! Right of way! Starboard!
I refused to head up, exactly as she later charged. At the last
second, she fell off, and I took the mark ahead of her, to come in sixth out
of more than fifty. She came in eighth, and lodged a protest with the race
committee. Her protest was promptly overruled. Where was the collision?
Only at the hearing did I discover that my deadly rival was a girl. I
went up to her and apologized, saying that had I known, I would certainly
have given way — and she nearly spit at me. Later, at the commodore's
ball, I asked her to dance. After blatantly looking me over and tossing the
raven hair I had not seen before, she accepted. When she came down to the
beach with me, after the band had packed its instruments, I teased her that
she clearly wanted to be with a man to whom she could yield, but while
feeling superior. She did not find my remark funny in the least, because to
her, she said, the inability to rightfully ram another boat broadside was no
virtue. She regretted falling off. So where was superiority? It was a point I
conceded in all sincerity, realizing that this girl was something new.
We talked for hours, sitting on the sand, staring at the stars.
When I said good night, we kissed, and kissed again. Much later, she told
me that I knew nothing of a woman's readiness to yield, since she had
already chosen to be with me for life, and would have made love right then
on the beach had I only pressed. How she took delight, after that, in teasing
that I was more timid on sand than on water. All I knew was that with this
fierce girl I felt complete for the first time in my life, and I was not about to
risk losing that.
Although we had made our home together in the apartment on
Central Park West, and though we continued to spend weekends at her
family compound on the North Shore of Long Island, most of my memories
are of our place at the lake. Not the lake as it is, a deep blue finger pointing
through the north woods toward Canada, but the lake in my mind, which
broke free of the good times — Michael and me sitting on the dock at night;
taking the cliff walk hand in hand with Edie after the boy was in bed — to
become the hazy emblem of what went wrong.
Even the clacking of billiard balls, evoking slams, could take me
there. Now the date was May 31, 1960, nearly twenty years after Edie and I
met, and nearly one year before the start of this story. We had gone up to
the lake for the Memorial Day weekend — me, Edie, Michael, and one of
his chums from St. Dunstan's. It was Monday, and the boys had gone out in
one of the boats. Michael was a crack sailor, another sport for which one
does not need legs. Edie had intended to finish laying out her summer
garden, but instead we fell to arguing over God knows what. And the next
thing I knew she was hurling at me my having admitted the day before that I
dreaded Michael's being an ocean away once we moved to Germany in the
Edie had had her own trouble in coming to terms with that, I
knew, but now, with perverse unfairness, she accused me of needing our son
too much; "an unnatural dependency," she said, speaking of perverse. I fired
back that perhaps now that he was whole, she needed him too little, as if
only his infirmity could interest her. It was an unforgivable retort, and I
regretted it before the words had cleared my tongue, but it must have
plucked the nerve of her self-loathing because it was then that she stormed
out of the room and beyond, slamming doors along the way.
Bang! I thought of that sound in Rhine-Main Hall, then put the
I usually let Edie go when she flipped out like that, but
recognizing my own cruelty for once, I went after her — a mistake, because
to get away from me, she left the house in her rage, which she had never
By the time I reached the threshold of the garage, Edie had
already backed her car out and was swinging it around, kicking up pebbles
and gunning away, leaving me staring at the road long after she had
I stood there until at last I realized she wasn't coming back. I
didn't know yet what would happen, but I already knew for sure it would be
In the Frankfurt version of that awful scene, Michael did not slam
doors at me, but, while driving off, he refused to look back, to return my
Where are you?
Copyright © 2003 by James Carroll. Reprinted by permission of Houghton
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