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.
With all the men gone, we boys became men. Suddenly, the week of my sixteenth birthday, in that thick, humid mess of a summer, I became an adult male. Chris and I drove to the Black Lantern and ordered vodka shots and then beer after beer. Around us in the bar, everyone was drinking illegally. Spiros shrugged as he made thirteen-year-old Billy Markovich a vodka martini. “Nobody else is here to drink,” he said. “I need to make a living, don’t I? If you have money, you drink.”
Billy nearly gagged on his olive, but he knocked the drink back and motioned for another one.
Boys of thirteen and fourteen howled wildly, glasses raised, bottoms up. The television was switched from ESPN to MTV. We made lewd comments about the women in the music videos.
We took summer jobs to help our mothers pay bills. You could find us gutting abandoned houses, cutting lawns, cleaning pools, pumping gas, flipping burgers. After work we’d come back to the Black Lantern. Vodka, our fathers’ drink of choice, coursed through our veins and through our minds and hearts and finally down to our pubescent cocks, which were alive and on fire. Every sixteen- and seventeen-year-old male in Maple Rock was a commodity that summer, and we lost our virginity like it was spare change. I had sex with Mrs. Gagliardi, a large-breasted woman in her early thirties, who came to the Black Lantern one Saturday evening, drunk, and led me up Warren Avenue to her house. In the morning, she had me get dressed immediately and leave. She didn’t want to see me in the daylight, and because I was young, and unskilled in these areas of the heart and flesh, I was hurt by her coldness.
Chris, always more precocious and confident than me, was having sex with half of the women who worked at the Kroger store where he was a stockboy. His redheaded manager, Sue Parsons, he said, was the best. He said there were rainbows in his eyes when he came. He said he didn’t care if the fathers ever returned from the moon.
Older women didn’t seem to have the same consistent interest in me, but many nights I did go over to see Sonya Stecko, who was my age, and we made out in her basement for hours. Since her father had disappeared long ago, I pulled off her sweatshirt and she undid the zipper of my jeans, knowing that there was nobody who’d come tearing down the stairs, wanting to kill me for what I was doing with his daughter.
Walking home from Sonya’s one night, I saw Chris sprawled out on the front lawn of Tanya Jaworski’s house. He had a puffy eye and blood all over the front of his shirt. He said he thought his nose was broken.
I said, “Is Tanya’s father back?”
He said, “No. Her mother did this.”
And, believe me, if we became men, our mothers did too. They took jobs. Those who already had jobs took second jobs. Some of the mothers even came to the Black Lantern and drank with us, they arm-wrestled and hollered and broke bottles for emphasis when making speeches. They were working ten, twelve, sixteen hours a day. Once the police even brought my mother home. She said it was all a big mistake, and I stood there in the living room, appalled by her behavior. When the cops left, telling me to get my mother some aspirin and put her to bed, my mother yelled “fucking fascists” and the cops simply nodded and said good night. The cops were thinking, I imagine, what I was thinking. These strong women were doing the best they could. So what if they acted a little out of character, if sometimes they let their responsibilities slide? Their husbands were on the moon. Who could deny them some happiness?
My mother worked two jobs. Days, she taught music at St. Joseph’s grade school, and three nights a week she cleaned offices in Plymouth, one of the suburbs to the north where men could still be found on Saturday afternoons, mowing lawns, washing cars, fixing bikes. Meanwhile, our house was in chaos. Kolya and I tried to keep up with things like laundry and dishes, but we failed. My mother would come home tired, her face blank and void of worry thanks to a few beers. On her bed, there would still be a pile of clean laundry that I had not had time to put away. She’d crawl in under the fabric-softener-scented towels and sheets and underwear and sleep the sleep of the hardworking, under heaps of clean linen. The next morning, she’d try to get some housework done, but she could do little more in the mornings than drink a half-pot of coffee, shower, get dressed, and drive off to work.
That doesn’t mean that we gave up hope that our fathers would return: Chris had the idea that he knew where some, if not all, of our fathers had gone. There was an old hunting cabin on forty acres near Cadillac where his father, and many of our fathers, went a few times a year.
Kyle Hartley was pretty much sober, and he owned an old work van, so there was room for almost a dozen of us to cram into the back of that Dodge. My mother was working that night, so little Kolya was with me, smiling like God’s grace itself. I let him have a can of beer. We all sat in the back of the van on paint cans and crates and toolboxes and headed north. Hitting the interstate, we yelled and sang and roared, whiskey fires in our bellies. We made Kolya dance. We boasted of the women whom we planned to sleep with, the jobs we were going to get in places like Texas and Alaska, the houses and cars we were going to buy someday.
Somewhere near Muskegon, people started to fall asleep and it got quiet. Kyle kept driving, Chris in the front seat egging him on, whispering, telling him how he knew this would be the place—the only place—that all these men would go.
“What will we do when we find them?” Kyle said.
“Kick the shit out of them,” Chris said. “And then drag their asses back home so they can take care of everybody the way they’re supposed to, the cocksuckers.”
I stayed awake, sitting on an overturned five-gallon bucket, picturing a sandy lot on a small lake, a lot covered with a rainbow medley of small tents, where our fathers slept under the stars, the sounds of nature lulling them into dreamless sleep. And now, this is stupid: I started to tell Kolya about it. Oh yeah, Kolya, they fish for their supper there, they wear deer skins and make fires for heat. Oh yeah, they have a nice time, and at sunset, they sing all the Ukrainian songs, the ones Grandpa used to sing to us. Man, Kolya’s eyes were about to fall out of his head. He kept standing on his tiptoes to see out the window. It was too dark to see, though, so I kept up the stories about this place we were going to be at by morning.
Kolya laughed so hard he about wet himself. I let him pee in a coffee can, which I emptied of its contents—nuts, bolts, screws. He thought peeing in the can was hilarious and I saw a joy in his face I hadn’t seen for a long, long time. Of course, he was eight, and he’d had a whole can of beer. But I didn’t see that then, didn’t realize my little brother was drunk. I just saw myself as the best big brother in the world. Which I wasn’t. I maybe was the worst—at least at that time, I think I was.
It was almost dawn when we arrived at the cabin. Chris hadn’t remembered the directions perfectly and we drove down a number of wrong roads, curvy tree-lined gravel roads with small animals darting across them.
The driveway to the cabin was rough and narrow. Those of us in the back of the van half stood, looking out the windshield. The sun was close enough to the horizon now that even coming down the driveway we had enough light to see there was nobody there.
Somebody suggested that we might as well get out and swim in the lake for a while, but nobody else wanted to do that. It was late August and had already turned cold up north. We were already all going to be late for work anyway. We turned around and went back home. Kolya was asleep for the whole thing, curled up on my down hunting vest like a cat. I didn’t wake him until we got home, and then I told him it was all a dream.
Chris and I did not go back to school that fall. We did this partly because we wanted to work, and partly because we could begin drinking in the mornings at the Black Lantern. I was beginning to shave and had the first markings of serious stubble. Chris didn’t shave much yet, but his curly hair had grown long and frazzled and he chain-smoked Winstons like a movie star.
We ate bacon and eggs every morning and scarfed down fast food for dinner. We put on weight. Our faces grew fat and square. We kept ball peen hammers and thick chains under the seats of our cars in case there was trouble. Once I watched Chris take a hammer to a man’s face.
In November, Chris and I and some friends went back up north, to hunt deer. We went back to Camp Kiev, the abandoned hunting cabin where we had hoped to find our fathers a few months before. We figured, if we’d gone through all that trouble to find Camp Kiev in the first place, we could at least take it over and make it a hideaway of our own. We loaded the car with coolers and guns and blaze-orange hats and coats. We were all smoking and drinking coffee. Our mothers watched us get into our cars and trucks and drive away. We knew what they were worrying about, and the week we were gone, we knew they would stand staring at the moon, wondering if we’d disappear too.
I had always been a good shot, though my father was one of the few men in Maple Rock who did not hunt. I learned how to hunt from Uncle John, who’d been manic in his pursuit of venison for the winter. I had shot bucks before, though I was in no mood to do it that season. Chris, however, was on fire with determination. The first two days, he sat in the woods for ten hours or more. He’d come back to camp after dark, dehydrated and empty.
On the third day, we were walking back to camp around noon when a buck, obviously frightened by another man’s shot, came tearing across the path and then, seeing us, froze. Chris lifted his gun. The buck was easily an eight-point, maybe ten. I didn’t want Chris to kill it. I almost yelled to scare the buck away, and I should have. I realized that the last thing I wanted to do that season was kill a deer. But maybe I should have taken the shot myself.
Chris lifted his gun, fired three shots, and the buck staggered and fell.
I do not know how to explain what he did next, but it hangs in my memory as something sad and hopeless and sick. Seeing the buck fall, Chris let out a howl as shrill and as eerie as the call of a wounded coyote. He ran down the path to the deer. He spit on the deer and kicked at its back legs. Then he dropped to his knees, yelled and screamed and began to punch at the deer with his fists. Blood covered his knuckles. “You’re mine, you bitch,” he yelled. He yelled and yelled it, over and over. Like his father, Chris has large hands, and as he punched the deer, you could hear tendons and bones snapping, and the dull thud of flesh pounding flesh, which echoed off the trees and must have carried for miles.
I watched his war celebration from down the path. I lifted my gun, took the safety off, and aimed it at Chris’s head. I yelled, “Hey!” but he ignored me. I yelled three more times and he ignored me. Finally, I shot the gun straight into the air. Chris fell on the ground.
“What the fuck?” he said.
“Get up and leave that buck alone. Quit fucking around. I mean it. Now, or I’ll blow your goddamn head off.”
Chris has his father’s temper and I knew that what I was doing might lead to one of us getting killed. We were angry and young and full of adrenaline and booze and there were firearms in our hands. Chris stood up and brushed himself off and dropped his hands to his sides.
“Okay,” he said. “Help me drag this fucker back to camp.”
I could see his heart was swelling with the anger and violence of his father, and I could tell that he did not know where it was coming from or what he should have done with it. I feared he would go mad. Who would do such a thing to a dead deer?
This anger was what was becoming of us. Don’t think for a moment that because we were good, strong boys we could handle all of this: we couldn’t. We almost killed ourselves with rage. We would grow up trampling over things, tearing things down, and people would look at us and wonder why we had such violence in our hearts.
Chris and I dragged the buck through the woods. Behind us, the carcass crunched through leaves and snapped sticks. Chris was fighting tears, his hands shaking.
“I feel sick,” he said, his voice breaking. “My heart’s going a mile a minute.”
When we came home from deer hunting, the buck tied to our roof, we smelled of sweat and the woods and blood, and our mothers cupped our faces in their cool hands and kissed us and cried out of joy. For a moment we were all boys again.
Did we miss them? We did.
I know the women missed their husbands, but we, the boys, we missed our fathers.
At night, we looked off to the distance for a set of headlights that might signal that one of the disappeared was home. I sometimes imagined several buses would pull into the parking lot of the Kmart and our fathers would stream out of the bus doors with ball caps and pennants, like they’d been away at a baseball game somewhere. Sometimes I imagined aliens would land in spacecrafts and release the men, like the hostage situations you’d see on the news. Our fathers would come down the ramp with their hands on their heads, tears on their unshaven and greasy faces.
Inexplicably, I felt a war was coming on, and for many nights I had dreams that I died in battle. I dreamed of mountains that crumbled and rivers that flooded. My dreams were apocalyptic and savage. I began to fear that I was a prophet and that I would soon be called upon to speak. I waited on God’s voice.
By Christmas it was clear that we were not going to see our fathers anytime soon. We ate turkeys and learned how to carve them alone. I ruined our turkey; the bird ended up in ugly chunks, like a carcass ripped apart by dogs. My mother had become a vegetarian and Kolya was spending Christmas with his friend’s family, a richer, larger, father-still-there family that had moved from Maple Rock to Northville that year. They had taken Kolya to Disney World for the holiday, so I was the only one there to eat that turkey. I ate turkey for a week, and still there was some I had to throw away.
One night, a January blizzard dumping snow on Detroit, I fought a Serbian guy in the parking lot of the Black Lantern, a guy who said he was nailing Sonya Stecko. He broke a glass bottle across my back, cracking a rib and knocking the wind out of my lungs. Things went black and then things got clear and started spinning in a lovely fog. Finally, when he hit me with another bottle, this time across the back of my head, I passed out. The bottle didn’t break.
Chris woke me up in the empty lot. He said, “Thank God you have a soft head.”
He helped me off the ground and I dusted myself off and cleaned my face back inside the bar’s rest room. When I came out, Spiros had poured me a tall glass of beer. I drank the beer and checked my jaw. I felt fine. I was going to be okay. Please understand—I missed my father, but I was having one of those moments when I didn’t want him to come back home. I would survive many things without him and I was capable of doing things on my own.
For the most part, we pictured our fathers sad and alone. We could see them riding in flea-ridden freight cars on bumpy tracks. We could see them struggling to make campfires on a beach as the wind whipped off the ocean and sand stung their faces. We saw them in anonymous cities, dwarfed by skyscrapers, trying to get together enough spare change for a hot dog or a bowl of soup. We saw them climbing desert mountains, muscles tearing and burning with fatigue, tongues swollen with thirst.
True, as much as these desolate images appealed to us, we also pictured our fathers happy. We imagined our fathers on the moon, with castles and pools and huge wooden tables of food and beer. We imagined them lounging nude in hot tubs and saunas with women half their age, women whom we’d never seen before, women who maybe were already on the moon when our fathers arrived. We imagined the climate of the moon to be temperate and we imagined our fathers sang songs praising the lives they had there. We sensed that there was music on the moon. Sometimes, we imagined, a man, one of our fathers, would glance down at the earth and feel a vague memory and the sting of loss, but we knew such an action would be rare. As we grew older and the men stayed away, such images of happiness became stronger and seemed more realistic. We saw our fathers in a paradise. We could not escape these images and certainly we could not escape the truth—men had disappeared and their sad lives became happy ones.
Sometimes, when we drank too much and such thoughts angered us in the parking lot of the Black Lantern, we threw stones and bottles at the moon, and we imagined that we were tearing the hearts from our chests, sending them hurling through heaven where our fathers could see them and know this: we, their sons, were below them, bleeding.