This is part of the Meeting Mary Jane series.
When I was about eight and lived up in New Hampshire my dad typed up and printed out about 100,000 copies of a book he wrote and entitled, “Money.” It was a flimsy white book, eight-and-a-half by eleven in size, not much to look at; and, at seventeen cents to the dollar, a wise investment on my father’s part. But it was simple and to the point. Each page, in fact, was its own chapter, with titles such as “How to Furnish Your Home for Free,” and “How to Live Like a Millionaire with Less than a Hundred Dollars in your Checking Account.” I can’t say I remember the book verbatim, and surprisingly there is no trace of the 100,000 copies anywhere to be found. What I do remember, however, was the last page.
At the end of the book there was an offer. In small print, it said, “To order Ed Taylor’s second book ‘How Ed Did It,’ please send $15 dollars to P.O Box 123, Bedford, NH 03110.” What I remember most was not so much the actual printed offer, but the fact that there wasn’t one. My father had never written a second book. It was a scam, and a brilliant one at that. In his mind, if he only got ten percent of his readers to send in fifteen dollars for the second book, he would have earned himself fifteen thousand dollars. It was always a matter of numbers, he’d say. But more than numbers it was that my father knew that people, for the most part, were stupid; and that in their desperation and hope to become something less unfortunate than what they were, they’d do something even stupider, like send their hard-earned money in an envelope to an unmarked PO Box, all for the promise of making a little money and becoming a better person.
And some of them did. Who, I’m not sure, but in the end, my dad earned about forty-five dollars; just enough to pay for the PO Box. After that, the ninety-nine thousand or so leftover books sat collecting mold and dust in every garage or attic we moved them to, throughout the years, causing expense and undue stress to my mother each time she had to figure out where to stash them, until finally, they dwindled in number and disappeared.
What this says about my dad is not the obvious; that he was a victim of his own stupidity and desperation, that he tried to make a buck and failed, or even that he had a pretty severe case of OCD when it came to paper products. Rather, it illustrates the foundation on which he built his entire life and the senselessness into which he dragged his family—all of whom went willingly. In that sense, not only was my father a victim, but a genius.
It was in the spring when I decided to visit my dad at the farm and bring my kids up for lunch and to run around the place as they usually did. My boys loved “Grandpaw” and his farm. He’d take them for tractor rides or build mazes and forts with haystacks in the barn. Sometimes he would take them down by the creek at the front of his property line and pitch a tent. He’d tell them the story of Sacagawea and how her spirit was still roaming around the place, looking for lost ancestors and whispering secrets to my father in Shoshone about hidden treasure—as if he could understand the language; in his mind he probably could. But my kids loved him and he loved them and despite occasional drunkenness or passing out inside a chicken coop or a hayloft, visits to the farm had become pleasantly uneventful. One afternoon, however, just as we were getting ready to sit down for lunch with my dad and grandmother, who lived there as well, the phone rang.
My dad was a rather soft-spoken man. He rarely yelled unless he was doing business on the phone, in which case, he always yelled because that’s how he did business. In fact, I grew up for the most part thinking that “Jackass, you owe me the fucking money,” was a sort of vox populi of the corporate world. So, my dad grabbed the phone and took it into the other room and started yelling, saying things like, “Well, tell them I’m out. Tell them I’m in the fucking hospital then.” My children, who were then only three and six could hear this and so I got up and went over to my dad and told him to shut up. “Your grandkids can hear you.” I strategically used the word “grandkids” so that he’d remember to act more like a grandfather. And yet, I knew this was asking too much. Without acknowledging me he slammed the phone down and said, “Shit” and immediately ran upstairs to his room.
I went back into the kitchen where my grandmother was sitting with my boys. She was reciting a poem she had written sixty years ago, about being a little girl in a frilly white dress. It was a typical Little Bo Peepish sort of poem and the kids were getting a kick out of it. We, meaning my entire family of Aunts and Uncles and cousins and brothers, were always so amazed at her ability to remember these things that on holidays we had a special “Watch Grandma Do Tricks” hour in which we had her recite some of her old poetry or sing old songs from her youth in her signature wobbly, shaky grandma voice.
As I was wiping peanut butter and jelly from the boys’ faces and reciting the poem myself, my dad barreled through the kitchen with an overnight bag, grabbing a few items from the kitchen; artificial sweetener, powdered milk, breakfast bars, and shoved them in the bag.
“What are you doing?” I said.
“Leaving? Like, packing a bag and leaving town?” I thought that was clever, never suspecting it could be true.
“Yes,” he said. “I’m going to spend the night in a hotel in Philly. I can’t really explain right now.” When the bag was zipped he looked over at the kids and said, “Grandpaw’s gotta go right now, little guys,” and he patted them on the head and gave them kisses.
My grandmother became flustered and stopped reciting.
“Where in god’s name are you going? What about the animals? Why, Ed, you’re supposed to take me to Gail’s tomorrow for our hairdresser’s appointments.” As he whisked his way through the kitchen and wound his way out the front door, pretty much pacifying his mother with an “I’ll call you from the road,” bargain, I ran after him.
“What the hell is going on? Who was on the phone?”
“My attorney,” he says.
“Dad, we drove an hour and forty-five minutes to see you, what the hell are you doing? It’s right in the middle of lunch.” He was obviously perturbed that I was slowing him down with all my questions, so he tossed his bag in the back of his car, hopped in and rolled down the window.
“Look honey, I must have forgotten to show up for a court date or something, you know, parking tickets, and well, I think the police are on their way here right now to arrest me.”
“For parking tickets?” I say.
“Yeah, can you believe it.” He says this as shocked as me. “That’s why I gotta get the hell out of here, honey. We’ll talk later. Tell the kids Grandpaw loves ‘em.” And with that, he did a sloppy K-turn and sped down the driveway, kicking up dirt and rocks all the way to the road.
I immediately ran back into the house and decided to pack up my kids and leave. There was no way I wanted them to be around when god knows who showed up to cart my father off to jail, or wherever. For all I knew it wouldn’t be the police, but more likely loan sharks or, as my mother always referred to them, “shylocks.” I was no stranger to picking up and bolting. It was the way we grew up. We lived in over fourteen different homes across the country within a span of fifteen years. We were always on the run for one reason or another (fear of law enforcement, fear of kidnapping, fear of what a loan shark might do if my dad didn’t pay back his debts). And so, with my usual speed and agility, I threw my boys in the car, kissed my grandma goodbye and went home.
It wasn’t long after that I learned the truth surrounding my dad’s getaway. And, as usual, it had nothing to do with parking tickets. I didn’t believe that old excuse anyway. In fact, any time my dad ever had a problem with the law he always said it was because of parking tickets (no surprise that I would grow up to be an adult who only used public transportation). And while it was true that he had over seven thousand dollars in unpaid parking violations to the City of Philadelphia, no one ever showed up at his door with a warrant for his arrest on parking ticket delinquency alone.
To be continued…