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Daddy Was a Bank Robber

Author's note: My father, John Vogel, was a counterfeiter, bank robber, and arsonist. But aside from all that, he wasn't a bad man. He was a charmer, artistic in temperament and given to sentimentality. He favored underdogs, always passing his counterfeit bills at Wal-Mart for political reasons.

Growing up, I spent summers and birthdays with Dad and even lived with him a few times. We once traveled to Seattle together and moved into a town house on Lake Washington. Things were moving along splendidly until a cop called to tell me Dad had been arrested for robbing four banks. We remained close during his imprisonment. He'd phone me on Sundays to talk about the unbearable noise, his latest effort to quit smoking, and the wretched food. (Once, he told me, he heated an illicitly obtained BLT on top of the light bulb in his cell; it tasted flat, however, due to the absence of Miracle Whip).

When he was turned loose in 1991, I was apprehensive, but certain of my ability to help him build a rewarding new life. I'd just started writing for City Pages and was well on my way to becoming a legitimate citizen after a rather touch-and-go adolescence. The situation headed south in a hurry, as most situations involving my father tended to do. We got into a cruel screaming match in a car, and that was that. The next I heard of him, in 1995, he had been arrested again, this time for counterfeiting nearly $20 million in $100 bills. The papers said it was the fourth largest seizure in United States history. They also revealed that my father had been released on bond and had left town without a trace. Dad led federal marshals on a six-month chase before finally surfacing with a gun at a bank in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

In the end, my father wound up dead--just as he intended, I believe. The following is an excerpt from my upcoming memoir, Flim-Flam Man, in which I describe moving from horrible Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to my dad's town house in Minneapolis when I was 16.

 

My father was waiting at the bus terminal when I hopped down off the Greyhound from Cedar Rapids, black garbage bag in tow. Hed paid for the ticket, just as hed mailed me $100 every month since Id left Moms, keeping me in Marlboros and hot lunches. When I'd called to explain what had happened, he'd sounded genuinely pleased that I wanted to move to Minneapolis. I remember what he said: "Of course, honey. I've always wanted you to live with me. You know that."

Still, I was apprehensive. I'd spent summers and birthdays with Dad, but this was different. I was asking for stability, reliability, a warm bed, and unexpired cartons of milk. All these years, my father had avoided the pedestrian travails of parenthood--chicken pox and boils and heartbroken daughters who flee school lunchrooms in tears. He was unaccustomed to being inconvenienced. He'd never had to weigh permissible behavior, enforce rules, say "no, you can't."

I was relieved that he wanted me and I hoped the fact of me wouldn't change his mind. But then, so what if it did. I'd simply strike out on my own again. I could take care of myself.

Since leaving Mom's, my taste for independence had grown sharper. I'd spent the last two months bouncing from one friend's basement to the next, doing exactly as I pleased while still finishing tenth grade. Pitying parents shared their dinner tables. The most accommodating couple allowed me to stay for nearly three weeks in their daughter's bedroom. One morning before school, I convinced the daughter to get soused on lime vodka. With the door closed, we curled our hair and sang along with the radio, "We're gonna rock down to Electric Avenue, and then we'll take it higher!" We even packaged shots to go in tiny Tupperware containers. I handled the drunk pretty well, but she threw up on her desk in homeroom. When her parents said I was a bad influence and had to go, I didn't argue.

Dad swung his Cadillac into a parking spot near a large tan garage, part of the Westbrook town house complex.

"I've got everything set up. I moved into this place last month. You can have the whole basement to yourself. That way you'll have some privacy. A girl your age needs privacy."

"You didn't have to go to all that trouble."

"Nothing's too good for my number-one daughter." He threw the transmission into park and switched off the engine. "By the way, I've got a surprise for you."

Dad exited the car, long legs first, and lifted the garage door. Inside, like Cleopatra rolled in the rug, was a Fiat Spider convertible with the top down.

 

"It was orange when I bought it, but I had it painted red for you. Convertibles should be red, don't you think?" He was running his hand along the car's back end. "Why don't you hop in?"

I was stunned. I opened the door and slid onto the driver's seat. My eyes darted from the glossy wooden dash to a panel of elegant meters, then to the racing-style steering wheel emblazoned in the center with the Fiat emblem. I'd never been so near anything so fine. I said, "Wow." It wasn't a short, bursting wow, but a long, drawn-out one. A wow with steam coming off it.

"It's Italian. It should go pretty good."

"Dad, thank you so much! Is it really mine?"

"Sure. A girl your age needs her own wheels. Now, just a few rules. I only want you to drive it during the day and only when I know where you're going and when you'll be back."

"No problem, Dad. No problem."

The car was a bribe. He may as well have fallen to his knees and pleaded, Love me! It was only the first day and already he'd placed himself at a disadvantage. He wouldn't judge me. In fact, he anticipated that I would do the judging. The car meant Dad wasn't prepared for an authoritarian role. I knew this, just as I knew that the rule about driving only during the day wouldn't stick. I swiveled on the leather seat to face him. "I should have moved in with you a long time ago."

My father stuffed his hands into his pockets and stood in the driveway beaming.

The town house was minimally furnished. There was an earth-toned sofa and love seat arranged in an L, the glass dining table from the Brainerd cabin, a shelf that held a television and a meager book collection (various how-to manuals, a Rockwell retrospective, and Sir Richard Burton's The Erotic Traveler, page-marked with a Chinese cookie fortune that promised "Your love life will be happy and fulfilling"), a couple of wall hangings, and ashtrays.

The basement had no windows, but Dad had provided a ceramic lamp that infused the beige carpeting with a warm glow. He'd also installed a king-size waterbed that occupied nearly half the room. It was made up with a jungle-print sheet and bedspread set and crowned by a clunky wooden headboard with two sliding doors. There was a Fisher stereo with speakers the size of cupboards, and a clothes rack where I could hang my blouses and jeans. Dad had made an effort and I, generally expecting little from adults, considered it a stroke of honest love and generosity.

Unpacking in my room, I could hear the faint sounds of revving engines and honking horns emanating from the Hopkins strip, which sat less than a mile from Westbrook. Hopkins, it turned out, boasted one of the best cruising stretches in the entire Minneapolis area. The distant, chaotic melody of other people's good times sank me. I turned off the lamp and listened in the dark, floating and bobbing on the waterbed like a message in a bottle.

I wondered whether people rescued from house fires sometimes wished they'd burned with their possessions. I didn't miss Cedar Rapids or Watertown, exactly. I missed familiarity, a world larger than the claustrophobic one in my head.

 

Dad put on a suit and tie and left the house every weekday morning at ten. He returned at three or four smelling of liquor. I knew he spent the better part of his days at a businessman's bar called Jennings, but I didn't say anything. The bills were being paid and I could see that being a father, even a poor imitation of one, was crucially important to Dad. He'd been granted a purpose and was trying like hell to set a good example. Finally, he'd found an altruistic goad to lying.

Dad actually did have a job at the time. He owned a company called Jarco Home Services, which built, installed, and removed "For Sale" signs for local real estate companies. The trunk of his car was puzzle-fitted with signposts, but they were always the same signposts. There wasn't much turnover in his stock.

Jarco was only the most recent in a long line of entrepreneurial endeavors. Dad had previously owned a franchise of the Lectroglaz corporation, which refinished bathtubs; according to an ex-business partner, Dad had installed a flimsy finish and sold the franchise just before the complaints poured in. He'd also owned a company called Economy Foam Insulation, a drive-in restaurant near Annandale, Minnesota, and RED Inc. (Real Estate & Development Incorporated), a real estate firm with pens that expelled red ink.

 

Dad had never been interested in the slow, dutiful mechanics of becoming successful--only in the serene, wrapped-in-cashmere end result. The way he saw it, you were either a garbage collector or a CEO. He was too impatient. He couldn't fathom how people slaved away for years, slowly building equity in their homes, putting their kids through college, saving up for retirement. No, success was a fruit to be plucked and devoured. Dad cut corners and took advantage of people. Each of his businesses was a charade, a box of snake oil he had to unload before his customers wised up, before they rubbed their eyes and realized that the well-heeled charmer they were following was merely John Vogel, cheat; John Vogel, coward; John Vogel, nobody. He tugged and pulled at the nooses he constructed until they slipped away, occasionally catching the necks of those nearby. Then he kicked the ground and pleaded with the sky, Is this all there is?

The only substance sticky and solid enough to patch the hole in Dad, to stave off the constant draining of his self-confidence, was success. And success was measured in terms of money. Money meant a person was important, above reproach. Money equaled peace and happiness. Who could blame him for the mistake? In America, it's practically true.

Once Dad told me, "There are only two kinds of people in this world, givers and takers. Find yourself a giver and you'll have it made." He was ostensibly offering romantic advice, but I've come to understand this bit of wisdom differently. What he really meant was, there are only two kinds of people in this world, those who are doing the screwing and those who are getting screwed. Givers were suckers. And though my father, deep down, believed himself a giver, he had no intention of behaving like one.

There were enemies. When the phone rang at Westbrook, Dad rarely answered it. If I picked up the receiver and the call was for him, I knew to take a message. Though Dad was almost always home, he was never home. Just before sunset each evening, he wheeled about the town house in a maniacal ritual of shade pulling. He was uneasy, hiding out, yet trying mightily to maintain that air of legitimacy. It didn't elude me that his bills were mostly in other people's names or variations on his own, like Bryson Vogel and John Johnson.

One afternoon, my father introduced me to the invention that was going to make him a millionaire. He kept the prototype in the laundry room, which was adjacent to my bedroom in the basement. He pulled it out from behind the door and raised it up for inspection.

"It's a jean stretcher."

"A what?"

"A jean stretcher. It makes jeans longer."

"Really?" The stretcher was constructed of two pieces of plastic pipe threaded together. There was an oarlock at one end and two slits cut into the pipe at the other.

"Sure. You know how my jeans are always a little too short? I buy them long enough and then the washer shrinks them up. There must be other people out there with the same problem."

Dad asked me to retrieve a pair of jeans for a demonstration. He placed the oarlock at the crotch and hooked the pant leg bottoms into the slits. Then he twisted the pipes so they threaded out longer.

"Of course, the jeans should be wet."

"Hmmm. Yeah, I see how that could work."

"Oh, it works, all right. I use it all the time!" He pointed toward the hems of his Wranglers, which fell just at the tops of his loafers.

His enthusiasm made me want to cry. He completely misunderstood what society might accept from him.

Dad advertised the stretcher in the newspaper, under the company name Voco Products. He designed the ad, which featured a doodle of an unhappy man with short pants next to a happy man with long pants. He offered his invention for $12.95 (or two for $25). I suppose it was possible that there were stilt-legged beanpoles out there who'd never heard of Levi's and that my father received and deposited a handful of checks. But I know for a fact that he never built another jean stretcher. Then he kicked the ground and pleaded with the sky, Is this all there is?

We didn't rely on Dad's inventions or businesses for food and shelter. Grandma Margaret had died in April 1983, just a few months before I'd moved to Minneapolis, and left a small inheritance. It wasn't the settlement she'd intended--Dad blamed her husband, Lloyd--but it was enough that Dad didn't have to worry about money for a while.

 

Grandma's death weighed on my father. His shoulders sloped and he watched increasing amounts of television. His mother hadn't been much of a shield, but she'd been something--a body, an idea. Now he stood on the Vogel family frontline, ready to take a bullet for the next generation. "I won't live past 50," he said, leaning against the sink holding a dish towel as I scrubbed a frying pan. "None of us do. We all die young, mostly from heart attacks. I've got a heart murmur, did you know that? You've got one too." Grandma was 63 when she died of cardiac arrest. Her brother Warren had been 47. And Dad was right, I did have a heart murmur.

It was obvious that Dad's drinking was on the wax. He kept a bottle of vodka on top of the refrigerator, in plain view to signify he didn't have a problem. He'd been ticketed for drunk driving in May, just a month after his mother's heart attack. I expect he'd been drunk since the funeral, when he'd made a splendid entrance by stumbling over a chair in the back row. Sadness filled him like wet sand; when he tripped, it felt like slapstick and he almost laughed. I watched with a cool eye. I knew how careless Grandma had been and I didn't feel particularly sorry that she was dead. I didn't feel anything save concern that I didn't feel anything.

 

A few months into eleventh grade and I was failing, even the classes I attended. I'd only narrowly averted a fistfight with a bruiser named Hillary. What's more, my small-town idea of beauty (big hair, blue eye shadow) didn't play well in the suburbs. On the upside, I'd acquired two new best friends: Jennifer and Anita. The three of us evolved intricate, all-consuming philosophies. We loathed Ronald Reagan and pitied rich people. We shared disdain for hypocrisy and never tired of divining it in teachers, school rules, and society at large. We ditched classes and drank and smoked pot and congratulated ourselves on our honesty.

Dad loathed my new friends. He liked neither their clothes--flannel shirts and old jeans with pen scribbles on them--nor their rebellious attitudes. He complained that they traipsed through our town house like they owned the place, helping themselves to whatever was in the fridge. They didn't say "yes, sir" or "thank you, sir." They disturbed the sanctuary of his slump. My father suggested that I search higher up the social ladder. When I explained that Jennifer and Anita were the best friends I'd ever had, that they understood me, he said that what I really needed in the long run were friends who understood success.

In Hopkins, with my Fiat and king-size waterbed and newly honed skepticism, I'd discovered a life where every penny didn't count. I took chances, dug deep to nurture tiny bits of character. I ceased compulsively cleaning. Finally, I got some sleep. This new life came at the expense of the old one. I pretended as though Cedar Rapids had never happened and my mother, brother, and sister didn't exist. I didn't write to them or talk about them. I was the lone gunslinger, the mystery girl with no name. I forgot, moved on, closed my heart. This ability to be cold and blank about people--I'd perfected it as a child, each time I left Dad's house for Mom's or Mom's for Dad's. I used to cry and cry and cry until one day, once and for all, I'd stopped.

When my father told me that Nick and Liz, my brother and sister, were coming for a visit, I acted indifferent. When they arrived, quiet and blond, I showed them to my room and said they could play my records, sleep in my bed, even smoke my bong if they wished. Then, due to an awful clawing in my stomach, the familiar urge to repair what was wrong, I deserted them. As I bolted up the stairs, leaving the two tentative and alone on the edge of my bed, I swelled with the kind of love reserved for fellow soldiers. I kept running because I thought they wanted something from me.

The next afternoon, my father was sipping gimlets and preparing an extravagant meal for the four of us to share around the glass dining table. This was a rare event: Dad and I hardly ever used the table, our meals instead gobbled in front of the television, which seemed to aid his digestion. He marinated steaks and sliced fresh mushrooms, but there was no pepper. "Where the hell is the goddamned pepper?" he growled, fumbling through the cupboard. He got into his Cadillac and headed for the strip mall a few blocks away. As he approached the grocery mart, he saw a black man strolling with a white woman down the sidewalk in broad daylight. My father, on the verge of providing an expensive, delicious meal for his three children, feeling paternal, even righteous, veered onto the curb and tried to strike the black man with his front bumper. "Go back to Africa!" he hollered and sped off.

 

Dad's hatred for blacks was so virulent that my family had spent countless hours theorizing about its roots. There were suppositions that he'd been beaten or even raped by a black man while in prison years prior for a series of convenience-store holdups. Others thought his racism originated in childhood, from the moment he was rejected by his supremely handsome German father. Maybe he simply needed to feel superior to somebody. His hatred toward black people seemed directly proportional to his hatred toward himself.

My father returned to the town house in a lather, his jaw muscles spastic. After he mumbled something to 14-year-old Nick about unfinished business, the two set out on foot toward the store.

By the time they arrived, the Hopkins police were already on the scene. Dad, in his agitated and mildly drunk state, assuming, perhaps, that because the officers were white they would automatically side with him, marched confidently toward the small congregation of lights and people. Nick hung back, having been ignored when he'd suggested that the two keep moving.

Dad was arrested and placed in the backseat of a squad car. He called for Nick, tried to wave him over, but Nick turned his back and returned home. The three of us were now alone and would remain so until Monday, when Dad would be released from jail. I showed Nick where Dad kept his pot pipe, barely hidden in his bedroom closet, among sock balls, passports, and occasional cocaine packets. I retrieved the vodka bottle from the top of the refrigerator and poured drinks. We lounged on the furniture--loaded, even little Liz--playing the stereo and thinking life certainly was strange. Just for that night, it was once again the three of us against the world.

On Monday, my father came home in crumpled clothes, hung over. When he sipped from the cocktail he mixed (which amounted to a water gimlet because we'd refilled the vodka bottle from the tap), he gritted his teeth. When, upstairs, he realized that his pot had been raided as well, he railed at us about the importance of privacy. It takes real nerve to scold your children for smoking your pot and drinking your vodka, especially just after you've been arrested for trying to kill a man, but he was still our father, after all.

 

Dad wasn't a demanding parent. Mostly, he expected that I show a modicum of respect (beginning with staying out of his stash) and share dinner with him a couple of nights a week. It was crucial to him that I not drift away completely. He could forgive almost any transgression, but he wouldn't stand for being shut out. I was allowed to go anywhere, return home at any hour, as long as I was tucked cozily against the belly of my waterbed in the morning.

My father believed in an idealized version of me. He held the same illusions about me that he expected me to hold about him. Fooling him was easy, because he was so willing to fool himself. He was unaware that I skipped classes every day. He had no idea I sold pot to my classmates or drank booze in a van parked in the front lot of the school; nor did he know about the bacchanalian events that took place in my bedroom. Dad kept his word regarding privacy. He hardly ever descended the stairs to the basement. Instead, he called from the doorway and waited as I spastically showered the air with deodorant and stumbled up. At least in the basement I was safe from the world, he figured, a place he patently mistrusted because it was full of people just like him.

Sometimes, when I was in my room with friends, Molly, Dad's girlfriend, would sneak down for a bong hit. Short, almost dwarfish, with a head that appeared too large for her body, Molly was mostly Irish with a wide smile. The first time I met her, she hugged me and winked and, like the big sister I never had, demonstrated the method by which she styled her blond hair; it involved hot rollers and sheets of hair spray. Molly was seven or eight years younger than Dad and regarded him as an old fuster one had to circumvent in order to have any fun. She locked him out of the town house; he splintered the doorjambs to get back in. She sped away in her car; he snapped off the door handle trying to stop her.

 

Molly would sit cross-legged on the carpeting, inhaling mightily from the bong. She'd exhale and cough and smile that big, shiny smile of hers. With a glint in her eye, she'd groan conspiratorially, "Oh boy, is John in a mood tonight." Then she'd borrow a bud or two with the intent of getting him high. She'd rush back up before he awoke from his nap or returned to the television from the loo.

One day, Molly bestowed upon me a collection of records perfectly preserved from her teenage years. It included Led Zeppelin's II, III, IV, and Physical Graffiti; the Beatles' Rubber Soul, Revolver, and the White Album; the Rolling Stones' Between the Buttons, Some Girls, and Sticky Fingers; Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks and Another Side of Bob Dylan; Simon and Garfunkel's Bridge over Troubled Water; and Janis Joplin's Pearl. I played one after the other, over and over. The albums sounded genuine emotions. Just as they once must have for Molly, they captured the dourness of my abiding mood.

The world was fucked, its priorities ludicrous. At school, I started fires. I'd hide in a stall in the girls' bathroom until everyone had cleared out; then I'd drop a lighted paper towel into the giant garbage barrel full of paper towels. I'd get most of the way down the hall before the black cloud billowed from the bathroom. More than once, the top floor of the school had to be evacuated. Fires were simple, so beautifully destructive, and yet so easy to get away with due to the lag time between ignition and full-blown flames. I could see why Dad was always burning things down.

 

About halfway through the school year, word circulated that a boy named Rob was hosting a cocaine party. Rob supplied most of Hopkins High, and the party promised to be an unprecedented "blowout." That Saturday night, my friends and I pulled up to a landscaped rambler and were personally greeted at the door, Rob's way of regulating the influx of people while at the same time taking orders for coke. He pointed the way to a wood-paneled basement, the central fixture of which was a pool table covered by a tremendous mirror. All around it, people sat on chairs and bar stools, straws up their noses, sucking on long white stripes of powder.

I wasn't a novice. With a razor blade, I adeptly chopped rocks into dust and scraped piles into lines. I sucked up the first hit through a plastic straw and felt the balloon expand in my head. I took another. As I bent down to inhale a third, I caught myself smiling in the mirror. The face didn't look like mine, yet it did. I glanced around the room at the Budweiser sign on the wall, the people laughing and snorting. Everything gleamed with a shimmering light. The stereo pounded Eric Clapton and Led Zeppelin and I talked like crazy, which was unusual for me.

Just as I put my straw to another line, a woman with dark curly hair, who I hadn't noticed sitting right next to me, pulled a gun and screamed, "Freeze, police!" She stood and backed slowly away as a group of pumped-up guys in dark uniforms poured down the basement stairs with more guns. Rousted from the sparkling table, we were handcuffed and shoved into a paddy wagon.

Rob was eighteen, so he went to jail, but I was released pending a hearing. I convinced the police not to call Dad; I lied that he'd beat me. Before court, I met briefly with a public defender who got the charges knocked down to "unlawful gathering" by playing up my clean record and describing me as a small-town girl overwhelmed by big-city life. I pled guilty and promised to stay out of trouble.

But, of course, I didn't. I liked cocaine. It was an adult drug that bestowed adult qualities such as confidence, glamour, and the knack for witty repartee. I appreciated the drug's scarcity and was drawn to its surrounding rituals, the pretty silver and glass accompaniments. I snorted coke whenever I got the chance. I knew who to look for at parties and they knew to look for me. Soon, I augmented my marijuana sales with cocaine sales, just enough to pay for what I inhaled.

Cocaine eyes were difficult to hide from Dad, in part because he'd done plenty himself and recognized the twitchy mannerisms. He must have noticed the changes in me, but he didn't say a word. Nor did he mention the gash in the driver's side door of the Fiat--inflicted when, high on coke, I'd misjudged the placement of a gas pump (a few months later I'd run it into a Buick). I'd done plenty, but I hadn't yet broken the rules we'd tacitly agreed upon. I was still home each morning. I still carved time for pepper-steak dinners and father/daughter banter, allowed him to believe that he was on the inside of my life and I was on the inside of his.

 

Then, one night, I dropped acid and couldn't drive home. I thought if a friend called and explained my state to Dad, if she offered to gladly see me home in the morning, he'd let it lie. I misjudged. It was after 3 A.M. when the ringing woke my father from the sofa. He said, "No, that's not okay. Put Jennifer on the phone." He told me he was dressing and coming right over. He was no fool. Tight and mad, he ordered me to wait by the curb. The car ride was a test of wills. We didn't speak.

In the living room, I attempted an explanation.

"Dad, I just overdid it a little." My pupils must have been expansive black ink. "It's no big deal."

"Just go down to your room." He pointed forcefully toward the door, commanding me to the dungeon.

"But, Dad!"

"Just go down to your room!" When I didn't budge, he came at me hands first, as if driving for a tackle. He hustled me toward the entryway that led downstairs, swung open the door, and shoved me through. Shocked, I turned to stare at him. That was when he lobbed the insult meant both to conjure images of unsavory behavior and indict my affinity for losers: "You're exactly like your mother!" He slammed the door in my face.

I'd been packing for weeks. I'd boxed the most nonvisible nonessentials first (sweaters, photographs, books), items whose absence Dad wouldn't notice should he come down to use the jean stretcher or iron a shirt. I'd stacked the laden boxes in a shadowy corner behind the waterbed. Items from my room slowly vanished until I was left with my toothbrush and the clothes I was wearing.

Then, one day, after my father left for "work" in his business suit, my friend Anita and her mother arrived. The three of us moved quickly, loading everything into her car. When my bedroom was empty except for the waterbed, the lamp, and the stereo, I perched a note on the coffee table in front of the TV:

 

Dear Dad,

I know this is going to come as a surprise, but I've moved out. It's nothing personal. I love you very much and am very glad I came to live with you. It's just that I want to be on my own now. I knew that if I told you, you'd never let me go. Don't bother trying to find me, because I won't come back. And don't worry about me, I can take care of myself.

Love,

Jennifer

 

My destination was a first-floor apartment my boyfriend Crip and I had rented on 15th Street in a crummy section of Minneapolis. It had been difficult to find a landlady willing to rent to us--a jobless teenager and his runaway girlfriend. My father had despised Crip from the beginning. He'd recognized right away the smart, smooth, crooked quality, the smirk behind the smile. Crip was English and looked it: thin, with chocolate brown eyes, a large nose, and gray teeth. He was dangerous, cruelly magnetic.

In the apartment's living room, Anita and I unpacked the boxes I'd so clandestinely filled. We sang to records with the windows open and hung posters and memorabilia. We were discussing my great new life when I glanced outside and spotted Dad's Cadillac at the curb. A chill stole over me. I panicked. My father had never beaten me, it was true, but certainly his temper had been triggered by my sudden departure. Then came pounding on the door.

"Jennifer, are you in there? This is your father! Open the door!"

Instead of opening the door, Anita and I crawled out the apartment's back window and, barefoot and in shorts, dashed away in the spring rain, tramping along downtown streets. When we returned a few hours later, there was a note scribbled in Dad's hand on the kitchen table. Apparently, the landlady had let him in. The note said if I didn't come home immediately, I'd be consigned to a center for delinquents. You're still only 17, you know! But the threat was hollow. I knew my father wouldn't go to the police. He mistrusted the law more than I did. I waited a few days and called him from a pay phone. He'd softened. We agreed to have dinner together.

 

Not long after, Dad parked at the curb again, this time when I wasn't home. Crip, feeling every bit the man of the house, strode into the street. He expected that the two could discuss rationally my quitting high school to move into a broken-down apartment building with a male of dubious prospects. He approached the Cadillac. Just as he made it to the window, my father swung the massive driver's-side door square into Crip's kneecaps. Dad followed up the bruising with some threats--man to man--about taking better care of me, about moving me out of the goddamned ghetto. Then he drove off.

Crip admired my father after that, described him to our friends as a gangster, a truly scary man. I have to admit, I was touched that Dad was willing to fight for me.

 

Jennifer Vogel will read from Flim-Flam Man at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, February 17 at Ruminator Books, 1648 Grand Ave., St. Paul, 651.695.1184; and at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, February 18 at Barnes & Noble, Galleria Mall, Edina, 952.920.0633.


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