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January 2020. We were preparing for a new semester, a doomed semester, but we didn’t know it yet. On the third floor of Harned Hall, T.S. Eliot waited patiently for the chance to stare down at me from my classroom wall. Eliot called April the cruel month, but I disagreed with him. January had the better claim to cruelty.
It was like that with the virus. One week I was arguing with T.S. Eliot in Harned Hall, and the next week, we were all told to leave the building, to go home. The only thing we knew for sure was that everything had changed. That evening, I parked my pickup in the driveway where it was going to sit for a while, its services no longer needed to take me to class.
“We had an odd phone call,” said Jill the moment I stepped through the door.
I hung my coat in the closet and put my shoes away. I missed our dog who had died just after Thanksgiving. You can talk to a dog about anything: politics, medical conundrums, loneliness. Especially an old dog.
“A man,” said Jill. “He left a long message. I picked up right at the end.”
We were getting a dozen robocalls a day. Mostly we pretended we weren’t at home. It took me several tries to work the dusty answering machine.
“Oh … hi,” said a voice that sounded Midwestern.
“My name is David.”
He gave his last name as well, one I didn’t recognize. There were too many syllables, and I thought he sounded nervous. After a few pleasantries, he came right out with it.
“I think I might be your brother.”
I am not a trusting person, and I felt a dull ache in my stomach, a warning that something wasn’t right. That warning signal is one of the chief differences between me and my wife, who has once or twice been drawn into a bogus, free-prizes-for-the-next-five-callers giveaway. Jill has a healthy connection to magical thinking, a good thing; it led her to take a chance on me. I can recognize the grifter, the bullshit con artist, in an unexpected phone call.
As for brothers, depending on how a person figures these things, I don’t have any. Or I have three of them, not counting the man on the telephone. Growing up, I was the youngest child, the only son. My mother wanted more children, but being pregnant with me was hard on her. She was cautioned against trying that again.
After my sisters and I left for college, my parents found their house was empty, too quiet. At their small church, they befriended a young mother of three, her fourth child on the way. The woman was unemployed, her Native American husband in prison. I was never told what tribe he belonged to. I heard her mention Wyoming, which narrowed it down. Shoshone, Arapaho. I hadn’t been to Wyoming.
The worn linoleum and taped-up furniture of the house I grew up in must have looked good to those children. It was winter, and their mother had been heating a couple of rooms by turning her oven on low, propping the door open. After a few years, a few Christmases – my father saw to it that there were toys under the tree again – those small people felt like family to me. It was easy to speak of them as my three little brothers, my sister.
These days, I think of Tennessee as home, but most of my family lives in California, where they’ve suffered wave after wave of terrifying forest fires. In the weeks before COVID, my father was forced to leave his home ahead of one of those fires. He had recently turned 100, and was oddly energized by the thought of spending time away from his apartment. One of those boys he helped raise, Charlie, had grown up to be a good man and my father’s caretaker. Charlie bundled Pops into the car, and they travelled through the night to reach a safe haven.
For years, my father’s exhausted eyes hadn’t been able to take in anything more than vague shapes and bright sunlight. He told Charlie he’d do his best to stay awake on the five-hour drive through the San Joaquin.
“In case you need me to take the wheel,” he said, pleased with his own joke, a blind man’s joke.
“This is a bump in the road,” I told him on the phone. “Try not to worry about it.”
“What is? What bump in the road?”
“The fires. Your health. It’s going to look better six months from now.”
By the spring of our first year of COVID, my internal scam detector was running full speed, offering daily updates. The virus and the government’s attempts to provide relief to those in need left the door open to any number of con men. The world was a rotten place, filled with rotten people, and I had proof of it. No more concerts or ball games or crowded theatres. At the university, we were asked to become adept overnight at new and strange ways of teaching, all the while knowing we were failing our students. The White House was inhabited by a man whose lack of intelligence was equalled only by his lack of character. And on the television, men and women used words and actions that astonished me in their cruelty.
The story David told me, first on the answering machine and then in emails and Saturday afternoon phone calls, felt like a stretch. He knew from early on that he was adopted, his mother giving him up at birth before she slipped into anonymity. He’d had a good childhood in Minnesota where he was raised by loving people. (I was right about the accent). He went to college, got married, eventually moved to Canada and took a job there, something to do with telephones.
His adoptive parents told him what they knew about his mother: she was from South Dakota, and Indian, but they couldn’t be sure of the tribe. Crow? Sioux? She gave her baby up in the Twin Cities. It took work, but he uncovered her name and her whereabouts, and he went looking for her. By then she was quite elderly, and he didn’t hold much confidence in her stories. She had little to say about his father.
As many people are doing of late, David sent his DNA to one of those enterprises where for a fee they will load your genetic sample into a database and let you know if your genes match any other set of genes they’ve already processed. You can find out if you’re related to Scandinavian royalty, or cattle rustlers, or enslavers. David received a list of people who might be his relatives. Three of them had my last name.
I hadn’t sent my DNA to any of these brave-new-world schemes. The Kittermans who had sent away their samples were strangers to me, but so were most of my relatives. We have a condition that plays through our family like a persistent, unwelcome melody, a bipolar thing. So far, it has left me alone, though my wife says she’s keeping an eye on me. As a young man, my father drifted away from his people. All sorts of reasons, I suppose: war, and before that the Great Depression. There may have been lesser depressions.
Here’s what I know about my father. He left home at nineteen, off to see the world, at least those parts of the world he could see from a boxcar. In the 1930s, a lot of men took to the road. In South Dakota and Colorado, he lived a hand-to-mouth existence that looked increasingly untenable as winter approached. He got himself to Denver, to the Marine Corps recruiting station. In the Marines, he’d find the adventures he was seeking: far-away ports, guard duty at FDR’s White House, The Hawaiian Islands before the words “Pearl Harbor” were etched into memory.
After the war and its losses, he was discharged in San Francisco. He met my mother and moved south for a quiet life in the valley. A workaholic, my father drove used cars and went to church Sunday mornings and again most Sunday evenings, making do without creature comforts: no alcohol, no restaurants, no movie theatres. For a year in the early ‘60s, he wouldn’t replace our broken television, worrying that his children would lose their curiosity to the stupidity of the airwaves. Eventually he came around and let us dull our senses to keep pace with our peers.
I had the sense he was avoiding something, bad blood he’d left behind in Iowa.
I was a year from retirement feeling increasingly lost in the internet miasma. I talked to my father twice a week. He did his best to understand.
“Now all of these classes,” he said, “you don’t see the students face-to-face?”
“They’re on the line?”
“They are,” I said.
“Computers,” he said.
I finished the fall semester, giving as many passing grades as I possibly could, bending over backward until I felt like a man drowning in warm water. I couldn’t in good conscience fly to California. I talked to my father frequently on the telephone. Everyone was doing his best.
This is how I knew David was a good man: he had no interest in telling my father about the startling possibility that Pops had another son. David had been surprised to hear that my dad (our dad?) was still alive. He was concerned about the several members of my family who suffered from tenuous health.
“We can keep this to ourselves,” he said. “I never meant to upset anyone.”
That winter, I remembered another piece of Pops’ story. When I was nine years old, a young Native man drifted into the life of my family. I wasn’t encouraged to ask where CC came from, with his coal-black hair, his eyes as dark as obsidian. He appeared among us with a beautiful voice, a calm demeanour, and a Baptist disposition. In church, he sat still, his hands folded in his lap. He also was absolutely broke. One morning during the 11:00 service, a repo man drove out of the parking lot with CC’s car.
My parents’ church had for a long time been looking for a music director, and here was one willing to work almost for free. My father insisted CC stay with us until he got back on his feet. I hardly know how we made that happen. Our house didn’t have an extra bedroom. My father asked my sisters to share a tiny room off the back porch so CC could have a place to sleep. CC was given the use of our car to look for work, and I believe he did look for work. He was gone for hours every day, staying away until dark. My father asked me to spruce up the car after CC had been using it a few weeks, and I found a stash of magazines underneath the seat, photos of women in their underwear. I didn’t show the pictures to my father: someone must have put them there as a prank, a joke. Someone got our car confused with another car. I slipped the magazines into the trash when nobody was looking.
CC and I didn’t hit it off. I wasn’t an only child, just an only son, displaced from my version of royalty by this twenty-five-year-old man who soon began dating a young woman in the church, a Mexican girl old enough to love a gentle man. I suppose they spent their first nights together in the back seat of our car. When she got in trouble, my father stood by them. My parents helped as much as they could with the wedding, and a little more when the baby came. CC moved from his job as a hotel porter to another job as a deliveryman for a uniform service. These were not good jobs.
CC seldom spoke about being an Indian, but one afternoon, he showed me photos taken before he came to the valley. Why he came to California puzzles me. He was slender and sensitive, not cut out for farm work. In one photo, he sat on the ground alongside four elders at some kind of ceremony. The other men (Dakota? Cheyenne?) wore headdresses of eagle feathers, but CC was dressed like he would be on a Sunday morning. He had the white shirt and the skinny tie he wore when at the end of a service, we sang the invitation.
He and his wife eventually drifted away from us. Once in a while we ran into them at the dollar store. My older sister got her bedroom back. I missed them. I missed the baby. I didn’t know how you could be part of someone’s life for a while, and then not be there anymore.
I had much to learn in order to teach on the line. It was hard to focus. I was worried about my father, his future and his past. Cautiously, I tried to find out if the dates of Pops’ military service made David’s story possible. David thought my father might have met his mother in 1942 at a large Pow Wow in South Dakota, that they could have formed a connection when they learned each had lost a parent at a young age. David was something of a sleuth.
I asked my father about those months. His memory could play tricks on him, latching on to things he didn’t want to think about, refusing to bring up the things I thought were important. In December of 1941, stationed at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, he was getting ready to go downtown on a Sunday afternoon when the story came over the radio. Pearl Harbor. Waves of Japanese bombers. The loss of ships and sailors. Within hours, the country would be at war with Japan, and soon enough with Germany and Italy. He was ordered to report to the West Coast.
I asked him how he travelled to San Diego, if after eighty years he could remember the trip.
“I don’t know,” he said, a note of curiosity coming to his voice. “A train, I guess.”
A passenger train this time, a series of them taking him across the country. He might have left the train in Iowa for a few days to see his mother. Where he was headed next, there was no guarantee he’d make it back. He must have been afraid and bored. Were the events of 1941 enough to make a South Dakota Pow Wow sound like a good idea? And if he made it to the Pow Wow, was the coming war enough to make a few days’ company with a young Indian woman seem like a good idea, a woman out on an adventure of her own?
I didn’t have the heart to ask those questions. My father and I were fearful of the virus, of another fire, of time. He’d grown weaker in recent phone calls. Those evenings when I could get him on the phone, he never failed to ask about the progress of a vaccine. It wouldn’t be safe for me to travel to California without one. One night I found it impossible to have a conversation with him, his voice far away, muffled. I used another phone to call Charlie, to ask what had happened. Charlie said it was nothing to worry about.
“I don’t know why Pops is doing it,” he said. “He’s stopped holding the phone to his ear. He’s holding it to his chest, like over his heart. Sometimes he stops talking. He’s just remembering.”
I told David my father was failing. In a pandemic winter, I sat in front of a computer at my kitchen table and talked to students in front of computers at their parents’ kitchen tables. I could sit on a cushion. So could they if they wanted to.
A few weeks before Christmas, my father fell from his chair, but it was a low chair, a carpeted floor, not a thing to worry about. He’d been suffering from an inadequate red blood cell count, and had been given a transfusion, then a second transfusion. Each one brought him a few lucid hours. It appeared he had an internal bleed. I wasn’t there to ride with him to the hospital. It was all on Charlie. And none of us could have visited him in the ICU. On an early December morning, a kind nurse from Santa Rosa Memorial called to tell me my father had died.
My family did all we could do to rally, and Charlie did the things a son was called to do. Between the lot of us, we filed paperwork and arranged for the burial. It was a sad holiday season. I’d been heartened by the results of the presidential election; I knew my father was pleased both by the election and the thought of the coming inauguration. I was alarmed by the events of January 6, glad my father didn’t have to see any of that. The young marine who had stood guard at the White House would have been heartbroken to picture the yahoos of 2021 invading the halls of Congress.
One more story, even earlier.
We were a family of limited means, though I didn’t realize it as a child, not until I left the San Joaquin and its farm workers, both those from Mexico and those who had been around for generations, the ones we still called Okies. Some years, there was a girl in my class from an Indian family. Yokuts? Chukchansi? Her people lived along the creek in a poverty more profound than most, and she was lonely and ignored by the rest of us.
On rainy days when we couldn’t go outside for recess, the upper grades went to the cafeteria to dance to a collection of ancient records, but I was seven or eight years old with no interest in dancing. In the third grade, we had a game we called seven up, and it was simple enough. With the lights turned low, we sat at our desks with our heads down and our eyes closed. We raised one thumb, the universal symbol that said something like “good job, way to go”, and we waited while seven of our classmates walked silently along the rows of desks, each having a single chance to reach out and touch one of our raised thumbs. When the lights came back up, those who had been tagged tried to guess who among the seven children standing at the front of the class had secretly touched them.
Of course the popular kids were chosen first. The loners, the shy kids, were seldom chosen at all. The young Indian girl would never have been chosen if our teacher hadn’t stopped the game one day and sent her down to the principal’s office with a note. It was a ruse. Once the girl was out of the room, Mrs. Joseph read us the riot act as only a third-grade teacher can. Years later, I tried to channel her indignation into my own classroom, but I could never pull it off. She made us realize we were thoughtless, lacking in kindness. There was little hope for us. When the girl returned, we resumed the game, having strict instructions to include her. What was the girl’s name? I think it was Sheila. She had been my classmate as long as I could remember, and I can’t recall hearing her say a word in class. She had no friends.
Mrs. Joseph chose the seven of us who would wander the rows. I knew we had to play the game more carefully than before, so much more was at stake now. If we chose Sheila right away, she’d think the whole thing was a setup. If we waited too long, choosing her would be meaningless. Worse, we might lose our nerve altogether. I walked the rows with the others, an unbearable panic building in my chest until my friend Clark, without a second’s hesitation, passed his finger lightly across Sheila’s thumb. I shuddered. I wanted to think I would have done it, if I had been on the right side of the classroom, Sheila’s side.
It’s the only day I remember playing the game. It seldom rained in that desert valley. At dinner that night, I tried to tell my father the story of Sheila.
“You’ll do better next time,” he said.
But in the fall, when the fourth grade began, she wasn’t with us anymore.
I wrote emails back and forth with David. I’d stopped resisting the idea that he was my brother. The story made too much sense to me. My father, a young man going off to war, could surely be forgiven his indiscretion, though it seemed he might not have forgiven himself. At the end of the war, after those ten years in the Marines, he’d been worn down. His world had changed. He met my mother in California, and if Pops didn’t go back to the Midwest, I can understand his reluctance. I know something about failures of conscience. That he kept trying to help young people, taking them into his home, feeding and clothing them, made sense to me in a way it hadn’t before. Caring for others was an atonement, part of his faith. He’d done more with his faith than most people did.
Weeks before, David and I had decided we would take a new DNA test, one more discrete and thorough than the one he’d taken previously. The lab I chose had nothing to do with anybody’s conjecture that they were related to royalty or to outlaws. It was a lab young women turned to when they hoped to establish the paternity of their children. The whole thing felt joyless to both of us, but if we were going to say we were brothers, we wanted to do so with a solid scientific basis. I swabbed my cheek and sealed the swab in an envelope, and the lab gave me David’s kit so I could send it up to Canada by pony express or dog sled, something ponderous. The mailing fees alone were higher than I could rationalize for anyone other than a family member.
I wasn’t surprised – I shouldn’t have been – when the lab sent me the results. Life is full of surprises, some big and some small. David and I, it turned out, were not in any way related. I texted him with the news, puzzled at the level of my sadness. Relieved, in a way, but alongside the relief was disappointment. David called the lab directly, wanting all the information he could get from them.
Perhaps he and I were distantly related?
If we weren’t a perfect match, was there something in between?
He spoke to a woman at the lab. I don’t think she was impatient with him. She had been dealing with the months of COVID in her own way. She was tired.
“You’re no more related to this Kitterman than you are to the man in the street,” she said.
“Twenty-five years I’ve been looking,” he told me. This, a little later, also on the telephone. “It’s hard to start over again.”
I didn’t catch the virus, but it was once again on the upswing.
I tried to stay on an even keel. I tried not to worry, but it was hard.