How I Learned to Crack My Father’s Code . . . With Love
Bang. Bang. Bang. Strike three. You’re dead.
I practice these lines because the world is a dangerous place. I lie in bed at night with my yellow-daisy sheets up to my nose, and Dad comes in my bedroom to snap shut my window. He is like one of those monks from Robin Hood, moving slow, his toes cracking as he walks from one room to the next. He does not explain why he locks everything up, but I have figured it out: the world is packed full of criminals, and it is the job of my father, Special Agent Joe Conlon, to keep them out of our house.
I pull my sheets closer, fall asleep thinking about the smell of criminals in the trunk of my father’s car.
On Saturday morning, Dad stands just outside the doorway, with his hands in his pockets, waiting for me to look up from my book and notice him.
“It’s The Clue in the Crumbling Wall,” I say. “Nancy Drew is just about to crack the case.” I can barely read all the words, but Dad must be proud that I am holding such a book, so advanced for my age.
“Uh-huh,” he says, rocking back and forth. “I am asking you and the others if you’d like to go up to the St. Bede field in fifteen minutes and play ball.” Dad never asks us ahead of time. It is always a surprise, one that doesn’t happen all that often. It’s like it has to boil up inside him, and then his invitation comes like a dandelion that I wish upon, its feathers blowing through the air, whooshing farther away in the wind.
Before we play baseball, we kids — Michael and me and Julie and John — rush to complete our weekend chores. Julie and I make our beds, then we grab Windex and swipe the dining room, living room, and family room windows. I’m older — seven years old — so I reach for the high spots. We compete to see who can squeak the loudest. Mom dusts the furniture after she’s finished typing up all the news for the St. Bede Catholic Church bulletin. Michael mows the lawn because he’s the oldest. Dad vacuums the new pool in our backyard and then inspects the lawn-mowing effort. His hands make fists in his pockets. He shakes his head no to Michael’s job.
“Can I be in charge of collecting the baseball mitts?” I ask Dad before anyone else gets the chance. I ask this every time. He pulls his head back as if an idea has landed in the thin air between us.
“Come with me.”
I follow him into the house, down the hallway lined with framed pictures of our New York relations. We are the only ones who live far away in California, just us four kids, Dad, and Mom. I follow as Dad turns into his bedroom and walks straight over to his ash-blond dresser, which is a foot taller than the curls on my head.
In the top left drawer, Dad stores his white, folded handkerchief, ChapStick, brown comb, and the little black pens that say U.S. Government. In the middle drawer, he stashes car keys and the blue-and-black-covered booklets that say Savings. In the top right drawer, Dad stores his badge and FBI gun. I have never seen him stash the gun there, but I can tell it’s in that drawer. When I walk past his dresser, slow, with crouched fingers like Nancy Drew, I feel that haunting gun stare at me. I keep the perfect distance, three feet away. I know if I get too close, the gun will go bang and Dad will discover that I spy on him.
He takes his keys from the dresser and thumbs through them as if they are dollar bills, then hands me the specific one for the trunk of the FBI car. The special key is as silver as the fish Mom cooks Friday nights. He looks at his watch like I have exactly two minutes to complete the mission. “Go ahead and get the mitts in the trunk — and come right back.”
“Can I wear your mitt?”
“Just get the mitts.”
I hold the key up to my chest, skip out into the hot and dusty sun, past the red-rose bushes that Mom says always bloom too late in summer. I climb through thick, tangling, ankle-high ivy until I reach the trunk of Dad’s black FBI car. The silver key fits, twists perfectly, just like the last time. It makes a popping noise as I turn it, like the loud snap of bubble gum. The trunk lifts higher than my arms can reach, so I let it sail up like a kite into the air.
Heat rises from inside the trunk, spreading the smell all around me. I look down and see the mitts: Dad’s black and oily one stitched with white shoelaces, Michael’s with his handwriting that says Mickey Mantle in its meat, mine with its fresh leather, and two shrimpy junior mitts for Julie and John. The mitts are scattered among the golden bullet shells, hundreds of them, everywhere in the trunk, swimming in the creases of the leather gloves. I close my eyes and breathe deeper. The bullet shells smell like the clothes gangsters wear. Mitts and golden bullet shells and gangster smells lying in Dad’s trunk, on their bellies, their sides, on their backs.
Bang. Bang. Bang.
The shiniest bullet shell stares at me. I pick it up and blow on it like it could be a whistle, making a whirring sound, then I hold it right up to my nostrils and breathe deep. Its smell is serious — a blue smell, like the cannons exploding in the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland, where Father Jack takes us when he visits from New York. Father Jack isn’t like Dad at all, even though they’re brothers, and I remember how my uncle put his hands over my ears when the Pirates’ gunfire scared me so bad. His hands landed like butterflies, and the cannon pounding got softer, but the smell of blue smoke kept coming.
I reach up for the trunk, high on my tiptoes, muscles twitching in my legs, and slam it shut. I take Dad’s mitt, throw it as high as I can, and catch it right at my belly. I love the smell of Dad’s mitt the best. Inside my throat, I yell yahoo, then run back to the house and find Dad where I left him, standing next to the ash-blond dresser, his palm open, waiting for the safe return of the silver key.
We play ball at the St. Bede field, which is on the same block as our parish church. Michael is the first to push out of the car. His cleats dig into my white sneakers and I thwap his leg with my mitt.
“Slow down, will ya.” Dad hates it when we get so excited. I settle down, pull myself out, and after me come John and Julie, jumping up and down next to Mom’s belly that’s large as a watermelon. Mom is about to have our new brother or sister. Mom loves babies. She and Dad tried for seven whole years after Michael to have me. She says she will take as many babies as God will give her.
When Mom is not having a baby, she throws the baseball left-handed. She calls herself a southpaw. I am proud to have a mother like that. She loves the Brooklyn Dodgers even though they are not in Brooklyn anymore. “Isn’t it funny how the Dodgers followed us from New York to Los Angeles!” That is what Mom said to Dad once, like she had something to do with it. Dad hates the Dodgers. Mom says he is a Yankees man, even though he’s just switched to root for the California Angels. They play not so far from our house, and very close to Disneyland.
“I get center field.” Michael swings his arms around. He thinks he can take any position he wants since he is the oldest.
“Maura, why don’t you stand in the outfield this time?” Dad pulls two fingers out of his green pants pocket, motions for me to go position myself. I scratch my head because I usually just hang around shortstop and pick up slow-moving grounders and try hard to get them back into Dad’s mitt, even though I still can’t throw that far.
Dad trudges to home plate and I follow. The closer I get to him, the farther away the outfield seems, so far away a covered wagon would have to pull me there. I walk on the dirt, which is red, like brick dust, and follow Dad’s shadow, so quiet behind him he has no idea I am there until he turns around and almost hits my head with the bat.
“What are you doing?”
“I don’t know.”
“Come on, we don’t have all day, get out in the outfield.”
“Can you just tell me something?”
Dad lights up a cigarette. He stands behind home plate and signals Michael to scurry deeper in the field. He tosses the baseball, speaking through his cigarette smoke that I should back away so I don’t get hurt. He tosses the ball again and swings, and the ball sounds like a greasy cheeseburger as it flies away. Michael screams weeeee-hah as the ball swerves into center field, where I am supposed to be standing.
“Okay, make it quick.” Dad keeps his stare to the outfield, sending out puffs of smoke that look like small balloons.
“Those gold things in the car?”
“What are you talking about?”
Dad lifts his arm as Michael throws from center field, snatching the baseball flat in his naked palm. Dad backs away, pelts the next ball, this one sounding like a firecracker. A shriek, then it’s gone, the ball whirling way out, past Michael’s head, all the way to the boundary fence, where the St. Bede baseball field runs right into the Jacaranda Navy Base.
“The golden bullet shells, Dad. The trunk is filled with them.”
Dad drops his bat, ignoring Michael’s return ball, which goes sailing by, banging against the wooden backstop behind us. He bends to pick up the bat, gripping it in the middle.
“Who said you should be paying attention to those?”
“They’re all over — they smell like gangsters.” I watch gray cigarette smoke snaking all around him.
Dad wipes sweat off his thick arm, then lifts his cigarette so that it’s staring down straight into my eyes. Its red lava glows as he sucks on it.
“You ignore the bullet shells, you hear. Otherwise” — he shifts his jaw — “otherwise, I’ll have Michael be in charge of the equipment.” He tosses the ball, once, twice, three times, snapping it up louder each time as I wonder how Dad can smoke and snap at the same time. “Now, are we here to field balls or talk about something we should not be talking about?”
Mom, in her green-and-white-striped shirt, stands up in the dugout like she is my coach, and claps her hands like maybe it’s more important to catch balls than pester Dad. “Maura, aren’t you going to play today?”
Michael yells from center field, “What’s the holdup?” as Dad leans on his bat, folding his tight arms. I tie both my sneaker laces, then run past shortstop. It seems like it takes me forever before I leap into center field, stepping on boatloads of dandelions. Even though Dad doesn’t say a word, I can tell by his posture he is pleased I am standing out in the field. I wonder if the next ball will come my way, but before Dad swings, I inhale deep into my mitt. It has the blue smell. Dad hits a high fly ball. I wobble, trying to spot it, my arms outstretched to the sun.
On Sunday night at eight o’clock, our whole family watches The F.B.I. It is our tradition. After we eat mashed potatoes, green peas that taste like mushy Wonder bread, slices of beef that float in red meat juice, and ice cream with Bosco chocolate syrup, we pile into the family room. This is after Dad has washed the dishes and dried them — it’s never good enough just to wash them without drying them — and Mom has asked us to put our brown-checked St. Bede school uniforms and clean socks out for the next day.
During the first commercial break, I roll over on the spindly green carpet and look at Dad. He sits in the corner of the blue tweed couch, wedged in like apple pie.
“Dad, I think Inspector Erskine — I mean Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. — is the tannest movie star I have ever seen.”
“Is that right?” His eyes zoom like a fastball from the TV to the Los Angeles Times open on his lap as the commercial continues.
“Dad, do you have to go on car chases and jump over buildings and handcuff those smelly gangsters, just like Inspector Erskine?” I ask, nice and slow.
Dad does not say anything. He stretches the newspaper past his face, like it is a curtain. I wait for it to drop. Instead, he keeps turning pages. I wait for him to speak. Dad turns another page, the newspaper crinkling in his fingers. Maybe he would be put on detention at work if he told how they catch criminals. Maybe that information is top secret, to keep the gangsters from finding out.
Billy Romero, the first kid on our block to get a ten-speed bike, tells me they are out to get us. Every time I pass his house on my way home from St. Bede Elementary School, he zooms out of his driveway, sits on his seat, and crosses his arms, right in the path of my stingray bike.
“Hey, Maura, your father could be killed by criminals anytime — did you know that!” That is what he yells.
“No. Never,” I say, veering past, like I am the mermaid captain of my own ship, although I say it so soft Billy Romero must not hear, because he already blurts his next warning.
“And you — you could get kidnapped on your way home from school. FBI kids get nabbed all the time.”
I keep riding my bike, faster, in my heart of hearts saying, Bad things will never happen to my family, because Dad is tougher than the worst criminal out there. No gangster would dare come close. They could never outmaneuver Dad. He is the smartest special agent in the whole FBI.
Dad clears his throat when the second commercial comes on, finally dropping the newspaper.
“What is your baseball mitt still doing in here?”
The mitt, which I have worn all day, sticks to my left hand. I shrug my shoulders.
“Why didn’t you give it to Michael to put back where it belongs?”
Before I can answer, the Crest toothpaste commercial ends, and that special-agent music starts up again to tell us we are back to The F.B.I.
It is time for the epilogue. Inspector Erskine and his agents capture the bad guys each week and sentence them to prison. After we know they are locked up for sure, spicy FBI music begins.
I stare straight ahead to the picture of J. Edgar Hoover, my dad’s boss, that hangs on the wall above the television. Mr. Hoover must wear that stiff Brylcreem, like Michael does since he started St. James High School, to keep his hair straight and narrow. Mr. Hoover’s looks are serious, like he has not had a dessert for twenty years. I switch my eyes back and forth, from Mr. Hoover to the television screen. I imagine it is really Dad’s boss talking to me as Inspector Erskine points to the poster behind him with the black-and-white photographs of the Ten Most Wanted. Inspector Erskine’s voice sounds like gravel. He tells us to be on the alert. The gangsters are armed and dangerous. They could be in our neighborhood.
I roll over on the carpet and look at Dad and wonder if he thinks a gangster would ever sneak around Thrifty’s Ice Cream or the Fox Movie House or the St. Bede ball field. I wait for Dad to notice me, but he is busy inspecting the faces of the Ten Most Wanted.
“Dad, does that mean armed and dangerous with golden bullet shells?”
Dad’s eyes clamp onto the television screen in such a way I know I should stay quiet. He folds his legs, the newspaper dropping to the floor, and he barely opens his mouth. “The inspector means you should play it smart. Otherwise, you’ll get hurt.”
“How do you play it smart?” I crawl just a bit closer toward his dark shoes.
He lights a cigarette, cups it, curls of smoke escaping the cracks between his fingers. Mom stares at Dad like she would prefer for him to talk about pleasant things, to switch the topic away from how we have to worry about all the danger. Dad looks back at Mom with that face that says he has nothing pleasant to say. Then he slants his head and squints his eyes.
“Avoiding dangerous areas is one way to play it smart.”
I gulp. I watch him turn up his sleeves and stare straight ahead like one of the Ten Most Wanted has just jumped through the television screen into our family room. I turn back to watch the set. The camera zeros in on one criminal, the gangster’s face hogging the entire screen. I lower my face and let it rest in my mitt.
“Maybe you shouldn’t watch this part, Maura. This may be what’s giving you those nightmares.” Sometimes Mom rubs my back when I have my nightmares of houses catching on fire, but lately, she just sleeps when I tug at her at night. I stand in the dark room and watch her pregnant belly go up and down like the ocean, and listen to Dad snore until I am so sleepy I am forced to go to bed alone.
“No, I like this part — it’s my favorite.”
I dare myself to stare the guy in the face. I drop my mitt and watch from under my eyelids. This criminal looks like a grizzly bear, like he is so hungry that if he found you on the playground, he would kill you for your hot dog or Cream-a-ling apple pie. He’s got scars and bruises and a crooked nose. His eyes look watery and silver, like our steak knives when they soak in the sink.
I grab my mitt again and lift it up and smell it and wait for Inspector Erskine to end this Ten Most Wanted part. I sniff closer. I smell the stitches in the leather, the meat of the mitt where Dad says you should catch the ball. I bury my face in it, breathe in and out like the doctor says to do when you sit on his cold table. I breathe so much that soon I can’t smell or even see anything else.
“What in God’s name are you doing with that mitt?” Dad says as he gets up to turn off the television. He steps my way and grabs the mitt stuck on my hand. “I’ve never seen a house like this in all my –“
“Dad, I don’t want us to ever get hurt. Can’t you teach me –“
“Maura, come on, now. Don’t let your imagination get the best of you.” Mom stands up with her hand on her belly. “No one is going to get hurt. Now — bedtime!”
It looks like her belly is smiling, which makes me think my imagination is getting the best of me. Still, I study Dad to see if he agrees with Mom. He waves at the air, then walks out of the room without saying a word, just like he does every Sunday night after we watch The F.B.I.
From Monday to Friday nights, I sit in my corner bedroom, by the window, and wait for Dad to come home. I look up and down our street, Margaret Rae Drive, and think of all those pictures that come on the news every night, all the guns and soldiers and hippies in torn clothes who yell and shake their long hair.
Finally, Dad’s FBI car rounds the corner, slow, and pulls into our driveway. The headlights stream through the holes of my yellow lace curtains. I duck so Dad can’t tell I watch him take off his black hat, which is called a fedora, as he gets out of the car. I get ready to run and greet him at the front door as he goes slower than a snail up the walkway. The fedora rests in his hand, soft next to his important black trousers. I tell Dad he is the smartest father in the whole world, and then I lean into his cheek and smell the blue smell.
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