Flim-Flam Man The True Story of My Father's Counterfeit Life
By Jennifer Vogel
Simon & Schuster Copyright © 2004 Jennifer Vogel
All right reserved. ISBN: 0-7432-1708-X
Chapter One We moved to a remote farmhouse
I have no recollection of Dad from before I was three. The years prior are shadows cast by scraps of paper, secondhand stories, photographs. I have a picture of him in a pressed suit and tie, riling the fat, tiger-striped cat splayed on my lap; we're both laughing. I can't tell whether it's day or night. I can't tell whether he's getting up from the sofa or sitting down. And no matter how hard I look, I can't decipher whether our interaction is genuine or staged for the camera. There are stories to suggest that he doted on me during the earliest years of my life, that he thought me the most beautiful baby ever born, despite my Eisenhower-size forehead. I'm told he proudly wheeled me around the neighborhood in a stroller, stopping for anyone who wished to rub my chin and spit out a coo-chi-coo, and that he toted me to work with him at the lightbulb company where he was a door-to-door salesman. I'm told also that I adored the attention, so much that I insisted on being held very close to the chest. Any embrace deemed less than intimate drew long, piercing wails. Apparently, I wished to remain a baby forever. I refused to walk, though I could rattle off fairly complex sentences. I continued to suck from a bottle even after Nick, my junior by over a year, had moved on to a sippy cup.
It was at three that, in blurs and flashes, I began recording events to memory. That was the year, 1970, that Dad moved me, Mom, Nick, and Liz, just an infant, from Minneapolis to an abandoned sheep farm near Annandale, Minnesota. The farmhouse had long been vacant and the kids from town considered it either too spooky to approach or the ideal partying spot, depending on their age. Leaves had piled like snow against the wide front steps and many of the windows were broken out.
The house was three stories tall with a dormered attic at the top, but it had the feel of a much larger place. It stood imposing on a hill, surrounded by old oaks that had stopped growing just as they reached the roof's peak. Built along straight lines, the house was almost perfectly square if you took into account the double-decker wraparound porches. The porches were picketed with spindly pillars that grinned menacingly at anyone who approached the front door. In summer, the porches were encased in rusty screen, but in winter, you could walk right off the floorboards and land on your back in the yard. Inside were six bedrooms, a mammoth fireplace made of big round stones, and a grand oak staircase that started on the third level and wound down like a spine until it splayed elegantly to meet the main floor.
Mom and Dad spent months repairing the farm. Dad opened an account at the hardware store in Annandale. Trucks laden with lumber and windows and stacks of paint cans motored slowly up the long driveway. The deliverymen appeared genuinely pleased that my parents were putting such care into the old place. They stepped from their trucks and looked the house up and down, shading their eyes with their hands in salute. Sometimes they whistled and shook their heads. Dad stood on the gravel in his shorts and loafers with no socks, one hip chucked out, talking with the men. He was tall and thin and tanned brown. He waved a lit cigarette as he spoke. The men laughed on cue.
My parents stood atop tall ladders with scrapers in their hands for entire afternoons and sometimes into the dark, when it wasn't safe to stand atop tall ladders. They hammered into place bright new pieces of wood and shaped fields of carpeting with razor blade knives. They replaced the broken windows and painted the entire structure gray with white trim. Dad insisted on yellow doors for accent. The house began to look beautiful, as though it'd never been haunted at all.
My family, however, was no match for the farm. We were too small and loosely bound together to inhabit such an expansive property. We may as well have been vagabonds who'd accidentally happened upon it, dragging in our meager belongings, playing house among the ringing echoes of families much grander and heartier. We moved furniture and toys and clothing into the most desirable rooms and left the others empty. It was easy to disappear among the vacant caverns, to get yourself into trouble without anyone knowing.
Nick and I were fascinated with the attic, painted white and honeycombed with closets. We designated one particular closet the Store because it had a Dutch door that split into two parts, a top and bottom. Nick was usually the storekeeper and I the skeptical customer. One afternoon, we were dickering over the cost of grass and rocks when I caught a glimpse through the nearby window of a white glob stuck out on the roof. I walked to the window, which was smudged and dirty and had a long crack at eye height. I pointed for my brother to look. The two of us peered at the mysterious white clump growing out of the roof like a mushroom. We jimmied open the window with a butter knife and crawled out, one after the other.
There was no wind, but I stuck close to the wall of the house, never before having been so high off the ground. After a little testing, I discovered that my feet clung to the warm shingles. I moved toward the white clump. My brother was already there, down on his haunches like a farmer examining corn sprouts, staring at it. He grabbed the clump rather suddenly with both hands and began pulling.
"It's underwear!" Nick declared. He stretched them out with some difficulty - they were dried stiff - and held them against his scrawny body approximately where a pair of underwear would go. They hung past his knees.
I moved in for closer inspection. The clump turned out to be a pair of extra-large men's Fruit of the Loom briefs. Streaked brown from rain and infested with seeds, they'd obviously been lying on the roof for some time.
"Yuck, put those down."
"I'm gonna wear 'em." Nick lowered the white-and-brown underwear as if to slip a leg into a leg hole.
"Don't you -" I snatched them from my brother and flung them over the edge.
I could see everything from the roof: the expanse of our patchy yard and the gravel driveway where my red tricycle lay on its side; the dented plastic swimming pool in which I kept the turtle Dad had picked off the asphalt; the clothesline, where towels hung like dead geese; the buildings and broken-down structures that surrounded our house - three decaying garages and an empty, rusting water tower. Beyond that, stretches of a two-lane road peeked from between dense trees. The blue water of Lake Sylvia glistened. I saw land crisscrossed with barbed-wire fence. I knew that through the pastures were trails, some obvious and some hidden, leading to milkweeds and raspberries and the foundation of a burned building. The foundation reeked of charred garbage, but if you plugged your nose and scavenged hard enough, you could find treasure. I'd once unearthed a tiny, golden ballerina.
A group of brown and white cows luxuriated under a tree in the pasture nearest the house. I bellowed "Mooooo," trying to get them to look up, but they just lay there staring into the heat and flicking flies with their tails. Grandma Margaret had delivered the cows one afternoon in a big red trailer. They'd clomped down the metal ramp and stepped nervously onto foreign grass. Grandma had stood there smiling, hand on hip, counting them as they exited while Mom poured feed and filled the water trough. The cattle were restless and frequently broke loose and ran through the yard. Usually, they made it as far as the road, then lost steam and stood around. Somebody always came to the house when the cows were blocking traffic or eating someone's garden, and Mom would round up whatever help there was and herd them back to the barn. Grandma thought a bull might impose order upon the unruly group, so she'd brought out a brute named Oscar. The cows assimilated Oscar right off, though, and the number of escapes increased.
Standing on the roof, I noticed that the sky was flawlessly, abysmally blue and fixed with white puffy clouds that looked like the clouds on the cover of a church bulletin I'd seen. A woman who lived down the road had taken me to a service. During the long sermon, the minister talked pleasantly about angels. They sounded wonderful, better than people; they had harps and wings and didn't have to worry. I asked the woman about them on the way back to the farm. She explained that people became angels when they ascended to heaven, which was a perfect place in the sky. Becoming an angel seemed to me the best anyone could hope for, floating up into the endless blue. I asked Nick if he'd like to become an angel. He said yes.
We were holding hands at the roof's edge when Mom came around the corner with a basket of laundry. She looked like a stick woman.
"Mom," I yelled, "we're going to be angels!"
My mother glanced around and up and, upon seeing us, dropped the basket of laundry. She stuck out one hand as if stopping traffic and ran off sideways. "You kids stay right there!" she yelled. "Don't move!" She disappeared into the house. Next thing I knew, Mom's face was in the open window. Then came her arms, then her whole body. She grabbed me and Nick by the backs of our shirts and dragged us into the attic. "Are you trying to give me a heart attack? You are not to play up here anymore!" Her face was red. I saw that she was shaking.
We sat at the bottom of the oak staircase, chins in hands, as Mom marched up with a screwdriver and removed the brown enamel doorknobs from both doors that led to the attic. She marched back down, past us, with the knobs in the pocket of her shorts. They clacked together as she hurried silently outside.
Dad wasn't home that day. For reasons yet unclear to me, he came home less and less often as the months passed. It got so his returns felt like visits, his departures shadows that kept his place at the kitchen table. By winter, he'd all but abandoned us. I remember seeing my father only twice after the snow covered the ground. One time, he and Uncle Tom showed up with a snowmobile and a sled shaped like a disc. Mom bundled us in thick coats, scarves, mittens, and boots with plastic bags inside, and Dad and Tom pulled us across Lake Sylvia on the sled. They shot us over snowdrifts and we flew into the air, landing with a thud on the ice. We laughed so hard tears welled up and frosted our eyelashes. I thought we were having a wonderful time until Dad looked back at me from the driver's seat and forced a sad, scrunched smile.
The other time we saw him was Christmas Eve. The house was decorated with the Santas and snowflakes Nick and I had cut from construction paper. The plastic tree, set up at the foot of the staircase, was covered with red balls and tinsel. My brother and I lay in bed, sleeping fitfully, anticipating reindeer patter. We woke to a loud bang at the door and Mom speaking in an angry tone. "Where in the hell have you been?" It was Dad's voice that answered, but it sounded cold, unfamiliar. "None of your goddamned business! Can't you just leave it alone?" There was more loud talk and then a messy crash. My brother and I ran out into the upstairs hallway. We saw the Christmas tree, upended and shimmering against the staircase. Red ornaments rolled down the steps, tapping plink, plink, plink, plink. Dad looked up and gave another awful, scrunched smile. He accused our dog Sandy of knocking over the tree. Nick, in his brown-and-red cowboy pajamas, ran up to Sandy and yelled in her face, "Bad dog! Bad dog!"
Days and weeks and months on the farm were defined by Dad's absence. The phone rarely rang. When it did, Mom used her explaining voice. "He's not here. No, I don't know. I'll tell him. I said I'd tell him." Or, "He's not here. No, I don't know. Unfortunately, we have no way to pay that. If you must." Dad had stopped paying the bills. The hardware store demanded reimbursement for the building supplies. The gas company refused to fill the drum that fed our furnace. One night I turned on the faucet to brush my teeth and nothing came out. The well had run dry just when the ground was too frozen to dig a new one. All we had to separate our home from a cave was electricity. It was illegal to shut off someone's power in the dead of winter.
Mom gathered buckets of snow and melted them on the yellow electric Sears stove to make water. She left the oven on for heat, the door propped open and surrounded by a barricade of chairs. She trolled the yard in the bitter cold with a red wagon, gathering piles of sticks to keep the fireplace roaring. Sometimes we roasted hot dogs or marshmallows in the living room; it made the fire seem cozy, by choice. At night, the four of us slept huddled together in one bedroom with an electric heater under Liz's crib. Mom slept on the floor between the beds occupied by my brother and me. She wedged a chair under the doorknob for security. There were chairs wedged against most of the doors in the house because the locks were broken. The doorjambs were loose and splintered from loud crashes and angry voices.
"Are we safe?"
Mom rose to her knees in the dark. She leaned over and pulled me to her chest. "Don't you worry. Nobody is going to come in here and touch you kids. I'd be just like a mother lion. Nothing is as fierce as a mother lion."
Our only regular visitor was Dad's mom, Grandma Margaret. She showed up at the farm each week bearing a carload of supplies - potatoes, meat, milk, eggs, marshmallows. She always brought a case of beer and a bottle of vodka for Mom. The two would share a few drinks in the living room and talk in low tones. Mom would even laugh sometimes. Then Grandma would drive off and we'd be alone again.
The booze Grandma brought served as Mom's tonic for getting through the days and nights. She fell into a stupor, so that sometimes you'd ask a question and she wouldn't hear. The kitchen table was her podium. She sat there for hours, entranced, gazing out the window toward the garage that housed the blue Plymouth. Dad had taken the license plates off so Mom wouldn't drive away. If she was planning something, she never mentioned it. She kept us fed and warm, but she'd disappeared.
Spring arrived with green buds that shoved their way up through the earth and purple storms that swept across our property. The air would fall completely still, charged with an eerie green cast. Then would come the escalating gusts of wind. The windows would rattle and small items would roll by as we stood watching: branches, paper plates, tufts of cow hair. Finally, as if the momentum were too great to withstand, the sky would open up with torrents of rain. Spidery lightning bolts would flash, followed by thunder that sounded like splitting wood.
One afternoon, I awoke to find Mom rustling through our dresser, cramming handfuls of clothing into paper grocery bags. Her hair was combed flat and wet against her head.
"Mom, what are you doing?"
"Let's get up, we're going for a drive."
"We're leaving. We're going to stay with Mugs and Bernie."
"I'll explain later. Let's get up and get dressed. Help your brother get dressed."
Mom finished filling the bags with our most portable belongings - clothes, toys, photographs. Then she herded us down the grand staircase. My aunt Mugs and uncle Bernie, along with Grandma Bernice, Mom's mom, stood on the landing. They tried to sound upbeat.
"We think you should come home for a while," they said.
The four of them grabbed armfuls of bags and rushed in and out the front door, loading the back of the Plymouth, which Bernie said he'd drive, plates or no. "Let a cop pull me over," he said. "See what he thinks about all this." We headed down the driveway, away from the farm, me and Nick in the backseat surrounded by pants and shirts and blankets. I examined the house and trees through the car window. I'd just built a home out of sand for the ants that lived in our driveway. I worried that the ant cave would get crushed, that a car would drive over it because I wouldn't be there to direct traffic.
Mom turned around from the front seat and told us everything would be okay. She was holding a lit cigarette close to her face. She looked scared, but I believed her.
Excerpted from Flim-Flam Man by Jennifer Vogel Copyright © 2004 by Jennifer Vogel . Excerpted by permission.
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