My uncle John—my mother’s brother—left first.
It was two in the morning, and I was at the Black Lantern, a bar on Warren Avenue where my father and his friends did their drinking. I was there with John’s wife, my aunt Maria, and their son, Chris. The owner, a big Greek named Spiros, had called us and said we should come and take John home.
A circle of men stood in the parking lot, all of them wearing grease-stained blue work shirts or wrinkled dress shirts and loose ties. In the middle of the circle, Uncle John stood with his shirt off in a weary boxer’s stance, nose dripping with blood. He was soaked in sweat and his face was dark with bruises or dirt.
My father was there. Across the crowded lot, I saw him under a streetlamp, still wearing his tie, two or three pens in his pocket. He looked as if he might be sick.
Across from John was an enormous man, red-haired and fat-faced. He was wearing coveralls and his face was black with grime. He had a crescent wrench in his hand. My uncle’s other hand went into his pocket, and I must’ve turned to look at my father again, because when I looked back the crowd was screaming and laughing, and John had on a pair of brass knuckles and had given the red-haired guy a series of chops to the head. The redhead went down and wet himself. People scattered.
My uncle, in the chaos, disappeared. By the time the police came, my uncle and his truck were gone.
“Does anybody know who the assailant was?” an officer yelled at the crowd, which was jeering at him.
Just as my aunt was reaching out to the officer, about to wave her hand and say something—I don’t know what—a woman wearing a red halter top and black cut-offs came forward. She was barefoot, and some men whistled at her as she walked in front of the mob. She turned to the crowd and flipped them off, then turned back to the officer and said, “I know him. He’s my boyfriend.”
My aunt Maria turned and walked away. We followed, because we had been waiting for a way to retreat without cowardice. We were fifteen, which was too young to join in the fight, but too old to flee from it.
For a few days, Chris and I positioned ourselves around the city and waited to run into my uncle. We went to the Black Lantern for lunch and sat for three hours, picking at a plate of nachos, looking at the face of every man who came into the bar. We sat at the mall and watched girls and drank frozen orange drinks most of the evening, waiting for my uncle John to walk by us, eating an ice-cream cone, a shiner darkening each eye. We drove around the parking lots of motels, strip bars, and movie theaters, looking for John’s rusted Ford truck.
Uncle John didn’t come home. The speculation was that he’d gone off to hide somewhere, maybe Canada, because perhaps he thought he had killed the fat red-haired man in the parking lot. But he didn’t. That man simply got a row of stitches and went on his way.
It was around this time that other men vanished as well. Walker Van Dyke’s father left for a fishing trip, muttering something about killing Reagan, and was never seen again. Nick Dempsey’s dad, whose night-light factory had been shut down the week before, tried to rob a bank and left town minutes afterward. Michael Pappas’ father, Gus, owner of the bankrupt Gus’ Coney Island Restaurant, left too.
Our neighbor and my father’s best friend, a pipe fitter named Norm Nelson, also vanished. His Corvette, which his wife had been trying to get him to sell since he’d been laid off, was found wrapped around a tree in Hines Park. Norm was nowhere to be found. There was no blood in his car—it was as if he’d vaporized out of the driver’s seat and floated away just as the car wrecked. My father went over and helped Mrs. Nelson learn how to do some things: start the lawnmower, change a fuse, set the thermostat. I went with him, and Mrs. Nelson kept looking at me and laughing. “Isn’t it silly, Michael, that a grown woman like me doesn’t know how to do a goddamn thing?”
Some of my friends’ fathers disappeared and we heard the news at lunchtime, at school. Someone would trade a roast-beef sandwich for cold pierogis and all of a sudden a kid would blurt out, “My dad’s gone.”
Some men left in the traditional fashion, slipping out at night, a note left behind. Sonya Stecko’s father wrote her a rambling sixteen-page letter before he left, in which he affirmed that he loved her, her mother, and her siblings, and in which he offered advice about marriage, money, and other subjects. It was as if he planned to miss the next thirty years of her life.
Some men left in broad daylight, giving goodbye kisses to their children in the driveway, as their wives watched from inside, hiding behind the curtains, furious and brokenhearted. We watched Sharon Mills give her father a kiss goodbye as her mother threw pots and pans at his truck.
Peter Stolowitz’s father owned Sol’s Shoes on Six Mile Road. One day he left the store unattended, door propped wide open with a rock. He’d taken all the cash from the register and the safe and left a note: “I’m going to the moon,” it said. “I took the cash.”
Across the windows of the storefront, Mr. Stolowitz had lettered FREE SHOES in huge strokes of brown latex paint.
Everyone in town went in and helped themselves to a new pair of sneakers. They opened the boxes in the stockroom like it was Christmas, tossing lids aside, tearing out white tissue paper. Some people left their old shoes behind: a formidable pile of castaway footwear grew by the fire exit. Old men took home shiny wingtips and women took high-heeled sandals. Chris and I helped ourselves to some Converse basketball high-tops.
I was friends with Peter Stolowitz. I stood wearing new shoes as he walked into his father’s store holding his mother’s arm. She wailed and he wept. “All that we worked for,” his mother sobbed. “All that I worked for.” Peter glared at Chris and me. I pointed to the FREE SHOES sign and shrugged. The gleam of the white sneakers was too much to resist. I left with the shoes.
After that, other men began using Mr. Stolowitz’s line. “We’re going to the moon,” they’d say, walking away from us. “I’ll be on the moon,” they’d say, their eyes staring through us.
All of the disappeared men were from Maple Rock, an immigrant neighborhood tacked onto the southwest side of Detroit. Our little community was made up of Poles, Ukrainians, Greeks, Italians, and other ethnic groups that came from Europe after the Second World War. The disappeared all knew each other, through churches or from the Black Lantern or from bowling leagues. Our fathers did not golf. They did not wear pressed khakis or docksider shoes. They knew how to throw punches, and they did throw punches when a situation called for it. Most of them had facial hair, beards, or at least a mustache. Most of them were not raised by English-speaking parents. Many of them had been in Vietnam, but few of them ever mentioned it. They liked to fish and hunt and left the city for long weekends in Michigan’s vast and sandy North. Many of them were out of work.
You suddenly saw unemployed men hanging around their children’s schools, as crossing guards, cafeteria monitors, field-trip chaperones, and bus drivers. Mr. Callas became our substitute health teacher. Most of the time he’d talk about lifting weights (a good thing) or smoking (a bad thing). One time, he showed us a filmstrip about domestic violence that featured a lot of unfocused shots of women in shadows, looking out of rain-streaked windows while Roberta Flack sang “Killing Me Softly.” Mr. Callas, a darkly handsome, powerful-looking man, cried through the whole thing. When the lights were flipped on at the end of the film, Mr. Callas hid his face and told us we could leave early.
Mr. Callas had been a factory rat and lost his job when the factories seemed to vaporize, big factories, small factories. With the factories gone, engineers, sales reps, and marketing specialists lost their jobs too. General Motors built a big factory in Poletown in Hamtramck, kicking scores of old Polacks and Slavs out of their homes and relocating them to the frayed suburbs north of the city. Everybody in Maple Rock thought they could get a job at the Poletown plant, but nobody did. Autoworkers, who’d been laid off for months and had been promised new jobs, came down from Flint and up from Ohio and assumed spots on the assembly line before there was even a chance for the men in Maple Rock to apply.
By far the most disturbing disappearance in our community was that of our parish priest, Father Walter Gorski of St. Joseph’s Ukrainian Catholic Church. He was last seen, late Saturday night, in his clerical collar and black smock, buying a carton of cigarettes, a case of beer, and three hot dogs at a 7-Eleven on Middlebelt Road.
We arrived for Mass the next morning, sat straight-backed in our pews, prayer books ready, the choir standing at attention, waiting for the altar doors to open, for the smell of incense to fill the sanctuary, and for Father Walt to emerge in his Byzantine robes and begin Mass.
We sat for fifteen minutes. No one moved. No one said anything. Finally, it was my aunt Maria who cried out, “No, God! Not him too!”
In the Maple Rock Observer, I read that the 7-Eleven clerk mentioned to police that Father Walt had offered him a ride.
“Where are you going, Father?” the clerk had asked.
“The moon,” Father Walt had said, leaning in closer and winking. “You know, the moon.”
After Father Walt’s disappearance, we stopped going to church. On Sunday mornings, my mother would play her violin. My mother may have been the most educated and cultured woman in Maple Rock. Very few of the women in our neighborhood had been to college. My mother had gone, had studied Russian literature and Latin and music. She had a B.A. degree, spoke three languages, and had played in orchestras around the city as a young woman. She had also played backup at Motown studios on some marginal albums of that era. One Sunday morning, my mother played “Eleanor Rigby” and my father sat at the kitchen table listening to her, tearing apart the want ads, tears streaming down his face.
My mother stopped playing and tilted her head at my dad.
“I need a job,” he said. “I lost mine.”
My father had been a draftsman, and his job was considered a good, secure one.
My father said he’d been out of work for three weeks, and instead of going to work, he’d been spending time at the Black Lantern or at the bowling alley or the mall.
The admission seemed odd from him, because he was a slight man, known for reading science-fiction novels and watching nature documentaries on PBS more than he was known for drinking and bowling. My father, he was always more, well, refined than his friends in Maple Rock. He did not waste his time drinking one-dollar taps, throwing a sixteen-pound ball down a wooden lane. My father did not fit in well with his peers. Most of the time he looked like I had seen him that night outside the bar—shaky and green, nervous, like he might be sick.
After my father made his announcement, he took his newspaper and went into the bathroom and my mother began to play her violin again.
My little brother, Kolya, was in the room. He was eight years old, and his belly hung over his belt as if he were a man in his fifties. He looked very somber all the time and was not prone to talking. He stood, always, with his hands in his pockets.
I looked at him that morning, to see if he had any idea what was going on, to see if the idea of unemployment and marital discord had any effect on his small brain. It did. His face was shadowed with sadness, and his eyes appeared so faraway and pensive that it seemed like he could see the future better than any of us adults. He stood, hands in pockets, looking at me, his blond hair sticking up like matted straw.
The very last men left, it seemed, out of a sense of duty. It was almost as if they, by hanging around, were obstructing the natural order of things. They were like robins who wander stupidly through the snow in January.
And so, they disappeared.
Who knows why these men left? Some of them still had work, their lives were following a plan and a purpose, and their horizons, if not bright, were certainly visible. My mother said, later, that all men have it in them, the capability to, at a moment’s notice, leave behind the world they know and head elsewhere, to Canada or Paris or the South Pacific. My mother said that the last men to leave did so because they felt they had to leave, to prove they were capable of acting on this buried impulse as well as any other man. My mother said she’d like to take me to a doctor and have my synapses reconfigured, so that, someday, that abandonment impulse didn’t fire up inside of me and then I, too, would be gone.
Did I think my father would be immune to these disappearances? My father was only human. How could he not leave?
My father was in the driveway when I had come riding up on my bicycle. Nobody else was home. It was a Saturday, and my mother and brother were out shopping. My father was loading a few duffel bags and a box into the trunk of his Oldsmobile. He was red-faced and puffy-eyed, wearing a blue Oxford shirt tucked into faded jeans.
“Dad,” I said, standing at the edge of the sidewalk. “Where are you going?”
He stared back at me squinting and tight-lipped, as if my head had suddenly burst into a ball of fire and the brilliant light was blinding him, as if my voice were the voice coming from a burning bush.
He drove away at a crawl, his speedometer must’ve not even reached ten miles per hour. Every few seconds I could see him glance in his rearview mirror and then avert his eyes quickly, as if my head were still behind him, burning and flaring up into the sky.
I stood alone in our driveway, throwing round sycamore pellets down the wide, empty street. They sailed over the concrete and then bounced and landed, exploding into fluff like crashing birds.
When my mother and brother came home from shopping, I said nothing.
At dinner, my mother set out meat loaf, mashed potatoes, and gravy. She called my father. “Roman! Dinner!” Kolya and I sat and watched each other, waiting. He didn’t come. Kolya seemed to know the score. He didn’t look worried or confused, just sad. My mother went to the fridge and took out a bowl of tossed salad, a bottle of Italian dressing, and a jar of pickles. “Roman!” she called. “Dinner, honey!”
She went back to the counter, got the salt and pepper shakers. She went to the fridge and brought out some butter and some slices of Wonder bread. She called him again. “Roman!” When he still didn’t come she went to the fridge and got mustard and ketchup, some leftover macaroni and cheese, some lunch meat she arranged on a paper plate. She called again. Went back to the fridge. Came back to the table with a jar of beets, some olives, balsamic vinegar, mayonnaise. “Roman, come on, honey! Dinner!”
Her voice trailed around the house and floated up the stairs where nobody was waiting to hear it. She brought out more food. Honey, marshmallows, chocolate sauce.
She smiled. “For dessert,” she said.
Kolya and I started eating. The meat loaf was getting cold.
Mom kept setting the table until all the items from the fridge and freezer and pantry were out in the kitchen. I sat between a bag of frozen corn and a box of crackers. Kolya shoved over a can of sliced peaches and drank from his glass of milk. He put a bag of frozen peas on his head and we laughed, and then felt bad for laughing.
My mother left the kitchen and opened the door to the garage where my dad’s car was missing. She looked at me hard, for fifteen or twenty seconds, and all I did was nod, which made her leave the room instantly. Kolya started to put the food back where it belonged and I sat still and listened to our mother play her violin, “Norwegian Wood” and “I Am a Rock” and “Penny Lane.”
On an aimless afternoon as the school year was coming to an end, Chris and I skipped class and drove out to a mall in Novi to get a gift at Victoria’s Secret for one of his girlfriends. I was jealous of him, having girlfriends at that level of sophistication.
At the mall, I made Chris go into the lingerie store alone and I went over to the drugstore to look at baseball cards. I wandered up and down the rows of toiletries and stopped near a display of razors. There, a life-size cardboard cutout of a man in a towel stood, his face covered in shaving cream, the razor about to touch his cheek.
When Chris found me, I was smelling a bottle of Old Spice and tears were in my eyes. Chris asked me what I was doing. I shrugged, and smelled the Old Spice a little more. Chris stood there with a white gift bag stuffed with tissue paper in his right hand.
“Are you crying?” he said.
“No,” I said, my nose still hovering over that bottle of Old Spice that smelled like my father.
“You’re crying,” he said.
I handed the bottle to Chris. “Try it.”
He took the bottle and put it under his nose. He inhaled slowly and deeply before he recapped the bottle and set it back on the shelf. He walked up and down the aisle, found a bottle of Brut, and inhaled. He closed his eyes, dropped his head, and inhaled again.
The manager kicked us out. “This isn’t a ‘free smell’ store,” he said.
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