Daddy had disappeared. Again. He was having money problems, which was nothing new, sculptors don’t make very much money, but he’d been gone from his huge stone house in Germantown for a whole week.
“Nicole,” Mom said. “We’ve got to find your father before he tries to kill himself again. I’ve called his psychiatrist and Burke has no idea where he is.”
My mother, who, with her deep low voice, is always bossing people around, told me to go over to Dad’s and see if he was home.
My parents have what they call an “amicable divorce.” That’s what they tell people, anyway. Daddy didn’t have to tell me that Mom controlled his every move. She texted him constantly to see what he was doing and to give him orders on what to do next.
How a grown man can’t say “no” defies reason. So it was quite a surprise when he actually got up his nerve and dumped her.
A woman named Debbie was the catalyst. She wrote about him for the New York Times magazine:
“Johnny DeLeone has outdone himself in the series of elaborate gates he created for the family of Michael Klineman, of the noted fashion firm Klineman’s of New York.”
Quoting Daddy, she wrote, ““Each gate is different. My client and his kids like animals, so each of the gates has intricately wrought creatures like lizards, mallards, tortoises. I forged them here in my studio in Germantown.”
She described Daddy’s three-story stone house where the four of us used to live before the amicable divorce.
“Whatever a medieval castle used to look like, DeLeone’s stone carriage house in Germantown is a small reminder,” she wrote. “Are we in Pennsylvania or have we flown across time and space to the grandeur of the manor-born?”
Dad sent me to live with my mother. All that girly stuff – clothes, makeup, dating – Dad said I needed a mother, not a father, to help me grow up. My older sister Jessica had moved in with her boyfriend when she was seventeen. Can’t say as I blame her. Mom and Dad argued every night, their words flying out the windows like pitching horseshoes.
Though I moved into a rent-controlled highrise for artists with Mom in downtown Philadelphia, I’m out of the house as much as possible. I took out a small business loan and started “Nikki’s Boutique” on South Street. It’s filled with flashing bracelets and earrings, Indian-patterned dresses, stockings with crazy designs, and crystals, you know, the kind that heal you. My best friend Jennifer works with me and sends in all her friends.
When I got to Dad’s house, it looked no different than before. On a perch above the red front door, was the extra house key. The door creaked open. Same smell as always – the sweet smell of my father, coffee, and that jug of hand-cleaner he uses after sculpting in the backyard.
“Hey Dad!” I called.
He was usually in the backyard when I stopped by, working on a project. The yard was so big I could never find him and he’d peek out, wave to me, and call “Hello Little Darling!” The leaves were turning orange. They formed an orange carpet upon which sixteen or so of his sculptures stood as if the Blue Fairy would blow into them and make them come alive.
He rarely did personal portraits. He liked magical creatures, which is why I was surprised to find a new sculpture he forged of Debbie, the Times Reporter. She didn’t have much of a face, a big, old rectangle actually, but she did have a body, very few lines, arms, torso, and huge long legs that stood on tiptoeing feet.
I’m not a critic. I only know what I like. And I sure liked the one of Debbie. I searched everywhere in the fenced-in backyard, hearing old Cyrus, the black lab, barking in the next yard.
He was not in the yard. As I walked through the back door I realized he may have gotten sick and was lying quite ill in his bed. I began to panic. “Calm down… relax,” I told myself, which is something Dad often said to me.
He was not in the kitchen, where he kept his Cheerios box on the table and his favorite coffee mug I once gave him for Father’s Day – “World’s Best Dad” – and a butter dish he kept at room temperature for his English muffins.
“Dad!” I called. I love my dad more than all the rivers and seas and creeks that empty into the oceans. Our uncle up in New York State, where dad is from, died of a heart attack while he was on the toilet. Dad was not in the bathroom, thank goodness. I went into the bedroom, half expecting to see him still in bed, covered over with his navy down quilt. The bed was made. I lay down on the quilt, soaking up his smell, his essence, looking up at the ceiling and trying to imagine where he had gone.
I took my cell phone out of my pocketbook and dialed his number. The phone on the bedside table next to me began to ring.
“Johnny DeLeon here,” he said in his soft voice. “Please….leave….a message.”
“Hi Dad, it’s me Nikki. You know my number. Please call me back.”
Then I called mom. She was ready for me.
“We’ll hire a psychic,” she said.
“A psychic? Mom, are you nuts?”
“I’ve made up my mind. Bring some of his clothing from the hamper and meet me at the apartment.”
Pushing open the sliding doors of his closet, which he had painted with swirls of white, red and black, I lifted up the lid of the hamper and chose one of his flannel shirts, a pair of jeans, and his striped boxers for good measure.
As I left the house, I stuck my hand in the mailbox. Naturally he’d painted it himself, his favorite colors: white, red and black.
Among the ads, was a large white envelope addressed to Mr. John DeLeon. The letterhead was embroidered in gold. I slit it open with my thumb and read the entire letter. If only dad were here to see what it said. He told me how rejections and acceptances arrive by mail, rather than a congratulatory phone call.
The acceptance appears in the very first sentence, he told me, while the rejections are padded with flowery language before the beheading comes.
I stuffed it in my pocket. No way would Mom know about this.
We sat in the huge bright yellow living room of Mom’s highrise. Philadelphia, in all its autumn glory, beckoned out the window. Framed photographs of the covers of mom’s children’s books – The Little Red Hen, Murray the Cowardly Tiger, The Lost Baby Seal – hung on the wall near the stone fireplace, which was chugging away.
Mom was a charming woman, who looked like an Indian princess in her long black hair, tied back in a single braid. Dad says I look a lot like her. I could certainly see how he fell for her.
Unlike Dad, she loved company and I could hear her and the psychic chatting away when I walked through the door.
“I had the damnedest time finishing up the baby seal book,” Mom laughingly told the psychic. “Could not for the life of me think of an ending.”
“It came to her in a dream,” I popped up as I entered the room.
“Ah, the deep unconscious,” said the psychic, whose name was Yvonne Catelli.
She told us how she got her powers. One day she was down on her hands and knees scrubbing the kitchen floor. She heard a whooshing sound. “Of course I paid no attention,” she said. “You ever hear all the creaks and squeaks a house makes?”
We laughed as we listened to the slow burning of the fire on the fake logs in the fireplace.
Then, said the psychic, it happened again. And a third time.
“I dropped my sponge and stood up to look around. Would you believe that directly in front of the sink was the saint Teresa D’Avila?”
She paused and then told us she recognized her right away.
I wondered how she knew who it was, but I didn’t dare say a thing. We were brought up with no religion at all. Mom is Jewish and I don’t know what religion dad’s family practiced in upstate New York.
“Light was streaming all around her,” continued the psychic. “The saint was very young and had a high-pitched voice that sounded as if she were singing.”
Yvonne looked at us to see if we were following the story. My goodness, who wouldn’t be?
“I fell onto my knees again, right there on the linoleum floor, but Teresa d’Avila” – which, when she said it, sounded like one long name “TeresaD’Aveela” – “said, ‘Arise, my child.’”
Mom and I were silent.
“I swear it’s the truth,” said Yvonne, making the sign of the cross on her black sweater, that revealed both a bit of cleavage and one of those crosses that show Christ on the cross. Not my favorite thing. How can you wear an ornament with a man writhing in pain?
The psychic took a sip of tea and bit on one of mom’s homemade shortbread cookies.
Yvonne said the saint told her, “I’ve kept my eye on you since you were a small child and have been impressed with your devotion. Should you choose, Yvonne, I will confer the gift of psychic powers upon you.”
“Please, my lady,” she told her.
“Use them only for the good,” the saint told her.
Yvonne Catelli had been written up in the trendy Philadelphia Magazine: “Soothsayer or Prankster?” The article, which both Mom and I had read, said her husband of twenty-some years left her after she received her powers.
“I knew he would,” she told us from the red leather couch. “That was one prediction I couldn’t miss,” she said with a laugh. “A week before he left, I knew he was packing his bags when I wasn’t home. Fine with me. The kids are gone and he’s gotten to be quite the bore.”
I felt terrible for her husband. My dad was always filled with one great story after another. He knew about all the great sculptors. Together we went to the Rodin Museum where Dad showed me the shiny black sculpture of The Thinker, which towered over our heads.
“Look at the way he’s sitting,” Dad had said. “Is that really the way a person’s hand would be placed when he’s deep in thought?”
The psychic now sat deep in thought with my dad’s clothes on her lap.
“I must do my work,” she said, crossing herself, and taking his clothes with her to the window.
The mirrored Comcast Building scaled the sky and dwarfed City Hall with the tall-hatted William Penn on top. Everyone calls him “Billy Penn” but you know what? He was a great man, who loved the Delaware Indians, and fought for their rights, so I prefer his real name, the good Quaker William Penn. Whenever I come home from work, I look out the window at William Penn and ask him to bless me with success for my new boutique.
Yvonne was a woman who seemed very sure of herself. As she looked out the window, her salt-and-pepper curls bobbing, as did her earrings, which were tiny little wooden crosses, she closed her eyes. I wondered if I should sell something like those earrings in my store.
Eyes closed, stroking Dad’s clothes, she nodded a couple of times. I don’t know how long she stood like that – five minutes, ten? – but she never moved an inch.
Mom’s stereo was on low, set to the classical music station.
Mom and I were startled to hear her speak, softly at first, like she was surfacing from a deep scuba dive.
“He’s in the woods in a park, most likely in Philadelphia,” she said, holding dad’s flannel shirt against her chin. “He has a beard, doesn’t he?”
“Yes, a goatee,” said my mom.
The psychic explained he was lying on some sort of ground cover and looking up at the sky.
“Wait a minute,” she said, still looking out the window. “He just got up and is strolling about the park – it’s Fairmount Park – looking at the grass and the trees and the same blue sky we have right out the window here.”
At least he was alive. He had these awful periods of doubt, when he would start yelling “I have no fucking talent. I’m totally useless” and would destroy some of his sculptures, throwing them about the back yard, kicking them and hurling horrid curse words at his beautiful work that was exhibited all over the world, including the Hirshhorn in D.C. and I forget the names of the ones in Paris that bought his work.
“Of course he’s alive,” said Mother. “But how the hell are we going to find him in FairmountPark? It’s the size of a small city.”
Indeed the park is notable for its sculptures, all ancient ones, the perfect place for Dad to go and feel sorry for himself.
“You might hire detectives to find him,” said Yvonne. “Be sure to give them the clothing,” she said, placing them in a pile on the couch.
Mom went over to her desk and brought out her checkbook.
“That’ll be the special rate of two hundred fifty dollars,” said Yvonne, who slipped it into her purse and we walked her to the door.
Now it was up to us to find my dad.
The next day we started off around noon. I brought along some of my healing crystals and jingled them in my pocket as we walked across the moist grass of Fairmount Park. We’d summoned a posse: Mom’s new boyfriend Chuck, a couple of my girlfriends, and two sculptor friends of Dad’s.
We brought sandwiches and thermoses of black coffee.
When the sun began to go down, we left. We thought it would be easy.
Next morning we asked the help of the police. Look, if you fly up in a space ship and look down upon the earth, you could find my father. How hard can it be?
The Southampton Police Department arrived at Tamanend Park with their marijuana-finder German Shepherd “Amigo.” It was Mom’s idea to try the park. She knew Dad got artistic ideas from nature. Even Dad told me a sculpture is simply a tree in disguise.
When I was little, Dad had taken me and Jessica to Tamanend Park. We saw some huge rocks that had the names of real Indians who used to live on this very land. Dad wouldn’t let us climb on them. He said it was disrespectful.
Jessica and me were a little old to play in the playground at the time, but Dad was in one of his playful moods. He climbed up the slide of the sliding board as we stood on the side and laughed our heads off. He also had us push him on the swing, sitting there laughing in the very same flannel-type shirt Amigo was sniffing.
If you must know, I don’t much like cops – I drive too fast and am always fearful of getting a ticket and losing my license – but I was grateful for Buzz and Joe, the two cops who were helping us. I was pretty positive we were going to find my dad here.
After sniffing dad’s flannel shirt and boxers, Amigo bounded forth, tail wagging, and disappeared into the woods. Mom and I loped behind. Mom, who is always working on a new book- the new one is about a misunderstood donkey – had her long dark hair tied in a pony tail which was wagging across her back as she sprinted in front of me. I could hear her fast breathing. She sure loved my dad.
Suddenly the dog stopped. All confidence seemed to drain out of him. He gave a mewling sound, like a whimper. These dogs are smart. He knew he’d failed his masters. One of the cops walked up to Amigo, patted his head, and held dad’s boxers again in front of his nose. The dog seemed to get his second wind.
He proceeded onward, past a stand of yellowing beech trees, one of which was cut into with love initials. I kept picturing my dad striding up to us, imagining he was just behind one of the trees, and thought I saw him many times, a bearded man in jeans, a flannel shirt, down vest, and hiking boots.
“Where are you Dad?” I said out loud. Then, gaining confidence, I called out louder: “Dad! Dad! We miss you!”
The dog was now trotting through a clearing in the woods. We could smell a fire. Sure enough, inside a pavilion, there were picnic tables and a campfire was burning, sending its fragrant smoke up in the air. People stood around the fire, maybe twenty of them, Boy Scouts they looked to be with their green uniforms, holding what looked like sticks to make S’Mores.
What a good portent, I thought, jingling my crystals.
But the park was so big. Even though it was beginning to get dark I decided to break from the group and ran around calling “Dad! Dad!”
I kept seeing him emerging from the trees. Everywhere I looked there he was. I rubbed my eyes.
And then he did appear. All rumpled like. He looked like he was a hundred years old. Exhausted, rumpled, defeated.
“Dad! It’s me, Nikki! Are you all right?”
He came toward me, stumbling and falling. His eyes were bloodshot and looked as if he hadn’t slept in the week he was gone.
“Dad you’re not useless and a failure,” I said.
He looked confused.
“You know, your work. Your beautiful work.”
A hint of a smile appeared on his face. He held out his arms and I fell into them.
He held me tight.
“Got something for you, Dad,” I said, and reached into my jeans pocket.
He blinked a couple of times and looked at the envelope.
“Fancy-shmancy,” he said, in that voice I loved to hear. He opened the big white envelope and took out the letter. He held it up to the dying light and read it out loud, then kissed me on top of my head.
“Dad, can we make a pact?” I asked.
“Sure,” he said, taking my hand as we crunched on fallen leaves and walked toward the parking lot.
“Never again, Dad. Never again doubt yourself.”
“Let’s get out of here,” he said, with what sounded like a sob. “I saw some pretty cool patterns – rocks and trees and sunsets – that got stuck inside my head. That goddamn museum won’t know what hit them.”
About the Author
Ruth Z. Deming, winner of a Leeway Award for Creative Nonfiction, has been published in Haggard and Halloo, Creative Nonfiction and her work will soon appear in Raphael’s Village and Metazen. She lives in Willow Grove, PA, a suburb of Philadelphia. A mental health advocate, she runs New Directionss Support Group for people with mood disorders and their loved ones www.newdirectionssupport.org. Her blog is www.ruthzdeming.blogspot.com.