In 1918, a midnight train killed over sixty of the roustabouts from the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus, and a number of their animals, too. It happened outside of Chicago, in northwest Indiana, but the victims were buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in Forest Park, the town where my dad lived. Whimsical stone elephants border the mass grave, which is peppered with ignoble markers reading UNIDENTIFIED MALE or UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE in grim Helvetica.
Woodlawn is where my grandparents are buried, as well as Billy Jean, my father’s stillborn brother. They are nowhere near the elephants, having had nothing to do with the circus.
The metal taps on the heels of the honor guard made me flinch as they folded the flag, with sharp staccato clicks punctuating each precise movement. Their footsteps echoed loudly in the indoor chapel as I sat in the middle of a comfortable couch with my dad’s two sisters on each side, clutching my hands, and I was feeling more angry than sad. By the time they handed me the standard origami in red, white, and blue, I was seething, but I stood, walked over to my uncle, Norm, and said, “I’d be honored, sir, if you kept this safe for me.”
I would’ve rather slapped him across the face with it.
On the way into the chapel for the service, I’d been intercepted by the funeral director, a tightly-wound woman whose hair was swept up into a glossy helmet of hair care products. She asked me to sign a few papers and then handed me a bill for nearly six thousand dollars. I was caught by surprise, having assumed Norm had taken care of the costs, as I’d paid the fees for the burial at Woodlawn, the cemetery that the family had chosen over the military one that would have been entirely on the government’s tab; a part of his VA benefits. I handed over a well-worn credit card.
Money shouldn’t be a factor while mourning, I know, but my dad had three well-off siblings, who sat in the front parlor, waiting for me to foot the bill, a bill that was closing in on ten thousand dollars. It just added to the sadness and feeling of having been cheated I’d been living with since I first stepped into the squalor of my dad’s apartment, wondering how he could have lived like that, how he could have slid so far.
I paid up, walked into the chapel with Dixie at my side, hugged my aunts and uncle, and took my seat. I’d mentally prepared a eulogy, not like the one I gave Billy, which I wrote out word for word as a speech as I feared screwing up my moment for my Guyster, but when it came time to speak, I let Norm do all the talking. I just sat there, crying and pissed off.
More than once, I looked back into the rows of seats behind me, searching for Sheila, but she wasn’t there. With the flag folding ceremony completed, there was nothing to do but leave. The family milled around outside, my dad’s kin leaving to visit their parents’ graves, while Mary, my step-siblings, and I talked, catching up after all the lost years, promising to keep in touch, her anger as tangible as my own.
Over lunch with the family, we continued to try to unravel the tangle of my dad’s secrets. I said I’d go see Sheila and demand answers, and then exchanged addresses and phone numbers with my aunts and cousins, assuring them I would be at the family reunion next year. I also explained I couldn’t afford the financial burden alone, embarrassed that I even had to say it out loud. There were friendly nods and a hug, but no offers of financial help.
I tried to reach Sheila all night while sitting in my seedy motel room, located on an industrial strip of Mannheim Road surrounded by auto body shops, gas stations, and strip clubs. After I’d been calling her for hours, she finally answered.
“Can I come over and see you before I leave tomorrow?” I asked.
“I ain’t home now. I been running around, trying to get things done.” What things?
“Well, I need to talk to you.”
“Sheila, I need to find out when my dad started smoking crack.”
“I don’t know anything about him doing that. Smoking crack?” Her voice sounded indignant. “He never did that. Not around me. I never saw him do that.”
“But he admitted to me and the rest of the family that he was—”
“No. I don’t know anything about—”
“When did you meet him?” I asked, cutting her off. I’d heard it all before.
“I went to work for the village around ’85. Asphalt. My girlfriend applied for a job and she didn’t know what asphalt even was so I went in and pretended to be her and got the job. I know your dad wasn’t doing any drugs when he had his first heart attack.”
“What heart attack? What do you mean? Last year?”
“No, Terry, the first one in 2000, or maybe after that. I don’t know. MacKenzie was just born.”
“He had a heart attack? He didn’t tell me that.”
“I told you. I called you.”
She never called me about his heart attack. I didn’t know. It was one more lie, one more clown in the circus of my dad’s life.
I sensed Sheila was feeling cornered, about to hang up on me.
“When did you and MacKenzie move in with my dad?”
“I don’t know. Maybe a year ago. I don’t know.”
“Were you having sex?” My head floated above the rest of my body asking these questions.
“Oh, Terry, that was over the first year I met him.” That was a detail I’d never tell Mary, an ugly new wrinkle—that my dad had cheated on her.
“Where’s all the money, Sheila? My dad made over three thousand a month from his pension. Why was he living like that? I’m not making any judgments about anyone—”
“You saying I stole money?”
“No, Sheila, I just need to know the truth.”
“I don’t know, Terry. I don’t know what you want me to say. I don’t know anything” Her voice bit into me.
I tried to calm her down, but it was too late. The conversation was over. I sat on the bed, the calculus hurting my head. I realized I’d probably never find out what I needed to know. Sheila would disappear into the dark.
I’d stopped crying for my dad. All that was left was pity for a man who constantly had to juggle his two incongruent lives, and the anger of not knowing who the hell my dad was, beyond the stories he had carefully constructed for me.
In the end, I felt like I’d bought a ticket for a traveling circus, one that crashed, and all I wanted was to go home again.