My father, John Vogel, was a counterfeiter, bank robber, and arsonist. He was also artistic and given to sentimentality. The following passage from my memoir Flim-Flam Man describes our move to Seattle when I was 18.
On a Saturday morning in July 1985, Dad knocked at the door of the house in Minneapolis I shared with my boyfriend Crip and an aspirin addict named John. He arrived early, before the heat of the day made it impossible to drink coffee or discuss topics of real importance. I invited him in, offered a cup of General Foods International. My roommate John slouched on the sofa wrapped in a woman's pink chenille bathrobe, his brown hair matted, a Marlboro stuck between his lips.
My father pretended not to be irritated by my living arrangement. He averted his eyes from the cluster of bottles in the corner, the loose wires protruding from the wall, the sweeping splatters of candle wax, our mangy cat La Cucaracha. He crossed his legs and leaned forward on his elbow. When John rose and loped, yawning and scratching his lower back, toward the bathroom, Dad flashed him an unexpected smile.
I sat down on the sofa. "What brings you here so early?"
My father lit a cigarette and waved out the match in a crazy figure 8. "Oh, I don't know. I just thought I'd come over and visit my number-one daughter."
"Okay, you're right. Always getting to the point." He sipped his coffee. "I'm moving to Seattle."
"You're kidding. When did you decide this?" My father and I were equally enamored of chuck-it-all fantasies, and Seattle, with its fog and lush greenery and perch at the edge of the continent, was a favorite dream destination of ours.
"About a week ago, I guess. I don't know what else to do. I've really had it, you know? With everything. With Molly, the little liar. Did you know she was arrested for forging prescriptions? I have no idea what she'll do next. I tell you, Jennifer, only believe about eighty percent of what your heart says. Always keep a little in reserve. As you and I both know, there's always some charming and conniving little fake out there looking to break your heart."
"How will you survive out there? Do you have money?"
"I've got enough. In fact, I've got enough for two."
"For two?" I knew what he meant.
"I was hoping you'd consider leaving all this behind." He waved his hand, indicating irony. "I was hoping you'd move with me." The implication was that my life was as messed up as his. I would have picked a fight had it not been true. Dad didn't unveil the storm of catastrophe driving him from Minnesota--exposing the innards of his worry would have meant destroying the one place he could go to escape it--but he was facing plenty. Mom was staging a last stand for child support.
Convinced he'd inherited a significant sum from Grandma Margaret, she'd hired an attorney to recoup the estimated $40,000 he owed in back payments. He was also being legally pursued by a number of ex-customers and business partners. They'd filed civil suits totaling upward of $130,000. Then there was the trouble with Molly, who was high most of the time and sleeping with other men. Dad was depressed, even more than usual. I knew that on most nights, he sat by himself in the town house living room, smoking cigarettes and watching television with the shades drawn. The move to Seattle was the best he could come up with, a last chance.
I was eighteen and a high-school dropout. I lived with my friends in a ramshackle one-bedroom house owned by a short, round-headed man whose name actually was Charlie Brown. The windows were so loose in their frames and the walls so devoid of insulation that our shampoo froze solid during the winter. I worked evenings peddling the Star-Tribune newspaper over the telephone. I didn't like phone sales, nor was I particularly good at it, but my prospects were limited. I'd walked out on a waitressing job and been canned from a position selling Time-Life Books' Old West series. Several months prior, I'd bussed to the suburbs to apply for a job as a mall clown. I'd arrived early and killed time shoplifting. I was arrested and held in jail for four hours because the police found a leather-bound cocaine kit and friend's ID in my backpack. I guess they thought I might be a drug kingpin on her way to a clown job interview. To cap a generally subpar existence, I'd recently discovered that Crip was sleeping around.
I couldn't think of a single reason to say no to my father. "When would we leave?"
- - -
By August, we were headed out of Minneapolis on Interstate 394, which connects to I-94, which leads to the West. Dad had sold the Cadillac and purchased a rust-colored, 1977 Chevy station wagon. I was surprised by the trade--the station wagon didn't seem swanky enough--but he assured me with a proud pump of the gas pedal that the car possessed other, perhaps more important, attributes. Why my father needed a 350 engine, I wasn't sure. Apparently he was in a hurry. The distance between Minneapolis and Seattle is almost 1,700 miles, yet Dad insisted that by downing one cup of black coffee per hour, he could burn straight through.
Lunch and dinner comprised sandwiches and Cokes grabbed from roadside diners in Minnesota and North Dakota; "impersonal chain restaurants," as Dad called them, were out of the question. My father regaled me with topographical and historical facts about each state we passed through. These were the kinds of details he loved--charming details, vacation details. Little Bighorn Battlefield, the Ulm Pishkun buffalo jump, the Continental Divide. We snapped grinning Polaroids of each other standing before billboards and scenic overlooks, and enlisted strangers to photograph the two of us together. In the photos, we appear incongruous, I in my tube top and cutoff jeans and Dad in his dress shirt, loafers, and highway-patrolman sunglasses.
Early the second morning, as the sun rose over the Sapphire Mountains just outside Missoula, Dad reached over and shook me by the shoulder. Our belongings were packed solid to the ceiling and all the way up to the front seat, so there remained little room for sleeping. I'd pulled my knees up to my chest, forming a ball. Dad turned up the volume on Chopin's Nocturnes. Each piano stroke was like a fingertip against my eyelids. "Wake up, snickelfritz. You've got to see this."
I squinted through one eye, piratelike, trying to focus. I couldn't believe my father was still behind the wheel, that we were actually in the station wagon barreling toward Seattle. I croaked, "Oh, yeah."
"Tell me that right there isn't the most beautiful thing you've ever seen. I bet you can't." He turned up the music another notch to complement the visuals. The sun blossomed enthusiastically as I unfurled my limbs. I was half-asleep and swaddled in red and orange beams. Just me and Dad.
We moved into a moderately priced town house in Kirkland. The town house perfectly suited Dad's needs. It was clean, generic, and a safe distance from the city's core. It represented, if not affluence, at least middle-class stability. It was also anonymous enough to serve as a hideout. At forty-two, my father had been flushed of the urge to draw attention to himself, preferring to get by quietly. He furnished the place in much the same way he'd furnished the town house in Hopkins, with earth tones and prefab shelving and television stands.
I frequently rode the bus to downtown Seattle, which, in the mid-1980s, was still a romantic place. The streets were slow-paced, full of musicians and little shops selling ginseng ampules you sucked dry through tiny white straws. I got to know the people who made the sidewalks their living rooms and offices: a guitarist who played Zeppelin's "Hey Hey What Can I Do" every time I walked by, an old man who sold burritos out of the back of his truck, a hippie boy named Aaron I charmed into sleeping with me.
Sometimes Dad came looking for me, ostensibly because he was worried. He'd complain about my poor judgment, just as he had in Minneapolis: "All I have to do is drive to the worst part of town and that's where I'll always find you." He was just lonely, though. He wanted me to hide with him in the beige fortress, but that was impossible. I was just starting out and his life was closing in.
I landed a job soon after arriving in Seattle--a low-paying, part-time job that required only good feet and a healthy skepticism toward the U.S. government. Four evenings per week I canvassed the city's neighborhoods, collecting money for an anti-nuclear weapons lobby called SANE. My father, given his age and income requirements, had more difficulty finding work. I didn't know it then, but he'd borrowed the money that paid our way to Seattle. We'd arrived with $8,500, which was fast running out.
Door-to-door canvassing wasn't bad work. An old, crazy man pulled a shotgun on me but a young, crazy man declared me a bona fide angel from heaven. During my rounds one day, I knocked on the door of a pretty woman in her forties who played violin with the Seattle orchestra. She was soft-spoken and kind. We talked for nearly an hour in her living room (at SANE headquarters, I'd been instructed to resist the spiderlike temptations of lonely people), and she explained that her husband had died years ago. Sadness still clung to her. I talked about my father, with the intent of fixing them up. A quality woman to soften his rough edges. She offered two tickets to an upcoming French opera she was playing in. The seats at the opera were close to the stage, the music gorgeous. However, Dad was fidgety from the start. He whispered disparaging comments about the costumes and quizzed me on current news events until I finally shushed him. My own father, the classical music lover. Then he floated a bribe. If we left at intermission, he'd take me out for Chinese. I acquiesced.
I'd never known him to be nervous about women. I suppose this new attribute was part of his overall disintegration--the backslide in looks, the narrowing of options, the growing remorse. He kept saying, "Nothing I do is ever good enough."
- - -
I had no plans, except to travel to Iowa for Christmas. It would be my first trip to Mom's house in more than two years. There were good reasons for the pilgrimage: nostalgia for snow, a craving for homemade fudge and peanut brittle. Mostly, though, I missed my mother. I invited Dad along and, against my expectations, he accepted. I hoped to foster a cohesive, happy family, if only for Christmas.
I don't remember much of what happened that Christmas, except that it was uncomfortable. Mom and Dad sat quietly and politely, smoking from separate ashtrays. She offered a spare bed, but he insisted on sleeping on the couch. No need to put anyone out, he said. An attack disguised as courtesy. There's a photo of me and Dad commemorating the holiday. We're sitting side by side with our arms slung around each other on Mom's flowered sofa next to a wooden nativity scene. I've got bushy long hair and a clear, smiling face. Dad looks tired. His eyes are puffy and encircled by bruise-brown shading. He's grinning, but he looks as though he's been crying for forty years.
My father flew back to Seattle a month before I did. I drove to Minneapolis, in order to spend time with my friend Anita, who was engaged to a hot-tempered Harley rider. I was standing in her kitchen when Dad called. It was late January. He sounded in the dumps.
"Dad, I'm flying in on February eleventh. Can you pick me up at the airport?"
"Well, actually, I might not be home. I'm going out of town on business. Could you have a friend meet you?"
"Sure. But what kind of business? Did you get a job?"
"We'll see. The prospects look good. Got a line on one anyway. Honey, the reason I called is to say that if anything should happen to me, I love you. You're my swan. Remember that."
"What do you mean? You aren't going to hurt yourself, are you?"
"No, of course not." He tried to laugh. "You just never know. I could get hit by a bus."
"Do you want me to come home now? I could probably get a flight tomorrow."
"Don't worry. I'll see you in two weeks. Everything's fine."
"Okay, but if you get too lonely or something, please call. Dad?"
"Don't do anything drastic."
"Sure, honey. Don't worry. Have fun."
Anita broke things off with the biker and she flew with me to Seattle. I'd arranged for a friend from SANE to pick us up at the airport. The three of us sat around the town house drinking wine until it was time for bed. My father wasn't home, just like he'd said.
Early next morning, I was awakened by a phone call from a cop in Spokane. "I've got some good news and I've got some bad news," he said. "The good news is that your father is okay. The bad news is that he's been arrested for bank robbery." The man rattled off some details: Dad had robbed two banks in Spokane the day before; he'd been captured after a high-speed chase. I slammed the phone down and sobbed, "Business trip, my ass! You son of a bitch!" I rummaged through Dad's closet and observed that he'd packed two suits, an alarm clock, and his briefcase--all for my benefit. On top of the television in his room was a newspaper clipping, a classified ad for a secondhand store that purchased furniture. This was for me as well, a tool with which to tidy up. I tore the ad to shreds. Was I supposed to be thankful for this lame, booby-prize effort? It felt manipulative. My father wanted me to believe that even in his darkest hour, he'd thought of me.
Later that same day--which I have come to think of as the day of a thousand eternities--a letter from Dad arrived in the mail: "Dear Jennifer, if you're reading this, I've made my bed and have to lie in it." He wrote that he couldn't reveal where he'd gone ("Just tell people I've moved to Hawaii, okay, honey?"), but that he'd left $3,000, three gold coins, and a key under the carpet in my bedroom. The letter prompted me to sell the furniture and gather the security deposit from our landlady. It also explained that if I took the key from under the rug to a post office box in downtown Kirkland, I'd find a package. The next day, I slid the key into the keyhole and there it was. He'd mailed me a hunk of the robbery money, nearly $4,000 in a fat manila envelope. The writing on the package was a frantic mess. I stood there wondering why he hadn't addressed it before robbing the bank. The police insisted that I travel to Spokane for an interview. I purchased two bus tickets and Anita and I made the long trek, both of us miserable. Our only comfort was a nice bag of pot, which, by some cruel turn, was stolen during a bathroom break in a bumfuck eastern Washington town.
The police officer was smug. He told me, with apparent relish, that Dad had admitted to robbing a total of four banks, all the while wielding a .38. Besides the two in Spokane on February 10, he'd robbed a bank in Kirkland on December 12 and another in Eugene, Oregon, on January 30, making off with just over $2,000 each time. The first must have been for Christmas presents. The second took place the day after he'd called me at Anita's. Dad claimed to have spent the money on rent and food, the officer said, but had I noticed any lavish behavior? Did I think he'd robbed more banks? Did I know where any of the money had gone? No, no, and N.O. I didn't mention the envelope or the cash from under the rug.
I inquired about the circumstances surrounding the arrest. The officer told me that the first robbery, of Spokane's Great Western Savings Bank, had taken place at 2 p.m. The holdup netted $3,885, none of which had been recovered. He said my father went from the bank to a bar in town, where he drank vodka. Three hours later, he screwed up the nerve to rob a second branch of the same bank. This time, he ordered tellers to open the vault and turn over only large bills; he made off with $27,027. Witnesses described Dad, who wore a wig and sunglasses during the holdups, as "methodical and in control of himself" while leveling instructions to move quickly and do exactly as he said. He'd flashed the .38 but hadn't fired.
Well, that was something. He didn't shoot anybody.
Local cops spotted Dad's station wagon pulling away from the second bank and chased him across town, onto Interstate 90 heading west toward Seattle. Joined by the Washington State Patrol and the FBI, they followed him for nearly an hour at speeds exceeding 100 miles per hour. The 350 engine. A couple of semi drivers turned their rigs to block the road, but Dad swerved into the ditch and around them. The chase finally ended when an officer pumped shotgun fire into one of the station wagon's rear tires. By that time, the car had been riddled with bullet holes. After the police flushed my father from the car at gunpoint, they recovered the money from the second robbery and found a bouquet of flowers with a card for me. The interviewing officer considered the flower purchase absurd, but I understood. Dad had bought them as a superstitious measure--a connection to home that would ensure his arrival there.
Now the flowers and card were in a trash bin somewhere.
The officer led me to a holding cell where I could talk with Dad. I sat in a chair and waited, wondering what I would say. Wearing an official-issue jumper, he entered the room, staring at the floor and looking ashamed. How dare he feel shame! I took the robberies personally: the way I figured, he'd traded me for money. I didn't care that he'd been faced with the worst financial crises of his life or that all those lonely nights with the bottle had clouded his judgment. My only concern was that he'd abandoned me. Money wasn't worth walking across the street for. It certainly wasn't worth robbing a bank for. He'd thrown everything away: his life, our life.
When he finally made eye contact, I noticed a long, thin abrasion across his forehead. The mark was from where he'd glued on the wig.
"I'm so sorry, honey."
"What's that on your forehead?" I was being cruel.
"Um. I cut myself."
"You can't even tell me the truth now, with everything so obvious."
"If I could take all this back I would. Believe me, all I want is to step back ten years to when you were a little girl and everything was going so well."
"Well, you can't."
Soon after I returned to Seattle, Dad's public defender called to say he knew about the package. He promised that if I gave back the money, the court would show leniency toward my father. I turned it over.
I kept the bills and gold coins from under the rug, however. For weeks, Anita and I lived the high life--we bought and ate and traveled in the aggressive manner of desperate, angry people. Then, at last, I began addressing practical matters. I called the landlady, who informed me that the rent hadn't been paid in months and no deposit would be forthcoming. I called the used-furniture store, which bought all our major pieces for around $200. Then I sorted through my father's personal belongings, organizing everything into two stacks: One comprised sentimental items that would be shipped for safekeeping to Anita's house in Minneapolis. The other included disposable possessions that would be thrown out or given away. I cycloned through each room, reserving Dad's bedroom for last.
I stripped his bed and folded the brown sheets into neat squares. I emptied the nightstand drawers, where I found socks, various business cards, and an old, empty pot pipe. I removed the few pictures Dad had propped about the room, opening the backs to check for hidden money. Then I started on the closet. I organized his clothes inside a suitcase, to be shipped and saved for when he was again a free man. I stood on my toes and, at the back of a high shelf, spied a traveling salesman's rectangular briefcase. I set it on the bed and popped the latches. Inside was a trove of letters and school papers from when my brother Nick, my sister Liz, and I were kids. He'd kept everything: Christmas lists, report cards, name tags from our cribs in the hospitals where we'd been born.
I ran my hand through my hair and marveled at how a man could be so good and so bad at the same time.
Anita and I mailed eighteen boxes to Minneapolis. Everything else we gave away our last night in the town house. It was nearing midnight, the deadline for evacuation, when I began knocking on doors, searching for someone who'd welcome a load of miscellany. I found a fresh divorcée, living alone with her young son. She and her boy relay-raced from our town house to hers with pillowcases of ketchup, crackers, magazines, towels, and dishes. When she asked if there was anything she could do for us, we requested a bottle of whiskey. She brought us one.
We pulled the door shut and slipped away. With our belongings bundled in luggage soon to be ditched for backpacks, Anita and I ran to catch the last ferry to Bainbridge Island. The future lay wide and open.
Jennifer Vogel was editor of The Stranger from 1998 to 2001. She will read from Flim-Flam Man, her first book, on Tuesday, March 2, at 7:30 pm, at Elliott Bay Book Company, 101 S Main St, 624-6600; and on Wednesday, March 3, at 7 pm, at University Bookstore, 4326 University Way NE, 633-6443.