Praise | Book Description

Coming August 16, 2007

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The new house where Rachel now consoled Josh was the first home I’d ever owned. I made a good salary and had plenty in the bank I’d stashed away during my single years. I was a good bet for a mortgage. Because of her real estate background, Rachel knew just what to put on the forms. On paper we looked like Ward and June Cleaver, less a marriage license and a roll of foreskin. As the movers hauled in the furniture, mixing our musty, dusty cardboard box smell with the chemical new carpet smell, I noticed Rachel take her one suitcase into the master bedroom and leave it there, a welcome development after her chaste months on the sofa. I didn’t say anything then, or later when she unpacked her clothes into the dresser, or later still when she killed the light and slipped into my bed for the first time in nearly five years, as if she’d done the same thing every night for the last decade. She slid close and I put my arms around her. Then she kissed me. Then she kissed me like she meant it.

We were in our first real clinch when it crossed my mind that she was doing this out of gratitude, or worse, obligation.

“You don’t have to,” I said.


It was one beautiful dream later that Josh slapped the bedroom door and woke us up.


Now she hauled Josh’s forty pounds all around the dark house, weaving between boxes and flipping lights on as she went. “No monsters,” she said. “Nothing.” I followed her through the hall, the living room, the dining room, the kitchen. She turned and we locked eyes. I’d known her first as a beautiful, young, sober career woman. Now she was a drinking mother, thrust into middle age and domesticity. Maybe she was embarrassed. But we understood each other.

Something scampered across the roof. Josh gasped.

“Sh. Shhh,” she said. “It’s only a squirrel.” She smoked and hummed a tune in a minor key. It sounded like a gloomy lullaby, until I started to recognize it as “My Funny Valentine.” I knew a little about Rachel’s childhood, enough to make me wonder if she’d ever heard an actual lullaby. As a cop, I spent a generation working on the front lines of domestic violence—battery, murder and rape—and if there were worse parents than Rachel’s, I hadn’t met them yet. Rachel’s skills as a mother weren’t much, but she put her own mother to shame. Soon she started making up a song.

“Joshuaaaa… And Mommy. And Daddy.

In a big new house.

Joshuaaaa, and Daddy. And Mommy.

Love to whine and gr…”

She shifted to just humming.

Rachel could boast French parentage. I imagined her folks as a beautiful young couple in a 1960s French film, or a black-and-white print of a man and woman kissing on a Paris street. Rachel had no such romantic notions about them. Her father was an émigré, a professor, and pathologically charismatic. He bore the surname Gagnon, which Rachel dropped as soon as she could, taking her mother’s maiden name, Renier, pronounced “Ruh-NEER” in central Texas. Her last name became Velez when she married Joey in her early twenties, then Renier again when his early demise pre-empted their divorce. Joey was my mentor on Homicide. A legend. Everyone who’d worked in the department in the Joey days still addressed Rachel as ‘Mrs. Velez,’ even when she answered the phone in the house she shared with me. “It’s Dispatch, Mrs. V. Is Lieutenant Reles at home?” (Reles, rhymes with trellis.) Mrs. V, widow of a hero cop, a martyr, his crimes and excesses washed away in death. That she was sleeping with Joey’s protégé once played in HQ gossip like a soap opera; time fatigued the story into the ordinary, a flaw in the wallpaper. That Rachel and I had a son together was starting to put a dent in her status as Joey’s widow, and that seven years had passed since 1988 when he died, meant there were more people in HQ every day who didn’t know me as Joey’s pupil, Rachel as his wife. The scandal became a footnote, and Joey’s identity shrank to a photo on the lobby wall.

“Why you sleep in there?” Josh asked, fatigue allowing for lapses in his grammar.
She took a drag on her Marlboro. “That’s what mommies and daddies do,” she said, then let out smoke. “They sleep in the big bed, in their own room.”


Silence, then, “Because they smell funny and it keeps children awake.”
Josh considered that carefully and didn’t argue.

We’d been in the new place less than eight hours and Rachel had already fought with a neighbor. He stood his stereo speakers in his windows and broadcast Christmas carols as an unsolicited gift to the neighborhood. She pounded on his door and told him that she was Jewish (a lie) and that she found the music personally offensive. But in the interest of healthy Jewish/Christian relations, she asked if he wanted to make a donation to the Jewish Defense League.

“We need guns and ammunition to protect our homes,” she claimed

“In…” He hesitated. “In Israel?”

“Oh, no. Here in Texas!”

He didn’t donate any money, but he killed the music, closed the windows, locked them, and pulled the curtains.

It was December of 1995. Chip giant Intel was dwarfing Austin’s Motorola and Advanced Micro Devices. American troops landed on the ground in Bosnia for some very good reason or other. They were digging in to spend Christmas there. And the President reached toward the last year of his first term, when reelection becomes the sole motivator.

I wandered into a room in the back of the house that seemed like a den, now a doorless repository for boxes and unplaced furniture. Out the window, between the two houses behind us and across the street, there stood another house, lit up like a movie marquee. Christmas lights ran along the gutters, framed the windows and coiled around the tree in the front yard, next to the sled shackled to four full-sized reindeer and weighed down by the fat man himself. Red plastic script on the roof read “Season’s Greetings.” Electric candles burned in each window.


Rachel, still holding Josh, followed my voice into the den. We stood silent by the window.

Josh gaped at the spectacle of the glowing house. Occasionally, in panic states like this, he could get distracted, his attention drawn by a balloon or a puppy or some Christmas lights, and the constant threat of his mother’s departure would slip his mind. Then he’d settle in and remember, his face reverting to its standard fear and remorse. Fear had become his most constant companion, more constant than his mother ever was. Fear of her mood swings, of her disappearances, of the monsters that would come and get him in her absence. I wanted to tell him it would go away. Or that you should only be afraid of real things, like getting fired or running out of money, or people shooting at you. But for truth, I wasn’t afraid of any of those things, not at that minute, and neither was he. What scared him was that his mother had tried to leave him once, and could leave again.

For all Josh’s tears and night terrors, the sight of him always filled me with hope. I’d watched him grow, maybe just an inch or two over the eight months since we met. His face had slimmed and taken shape. He’d become less of a baby and more of a child. And I held firmly the belief that he didn’t have to spend the rest of his life the way he was now. I’d also lived my childhood years in misery, from age ten on up. I spent my teens and beyond wondering what I’d done to make my mother leave me, what was so wrong with me that she couldn’t stay, couldn’t even call. I wanted a different life for Josh.

I knew one thing for sure: we were better off together, the three of us, than we were apart. Rachel and Josh needed someone to look out for them. And while I managed to go to work and pay the bills when I was single, I needed someone to care whether I came home or not. I decided right then, standing with them in a den we’d never use, staring at someone else’s happy home, that I’d make our home stable and I’d make it happy, if I needed to do it by force. I just couldn’t remember what a happy home felt like.

“We should spruce this place up,” I said. “Lights, trees, the works.” Josh brightened at the idea. “Get a nice big Christmas tree. Spray that cloud stuff on the windows.”

“I hate that shit,” Rachel said with venom. Josh seemed to wilt. “My parents used to do that. Making everything look good and acting happy for the guests.”
“We won’t have any guests,” I said. “And we can be as miserable as we want.”
We let the idea hang in the air. Personally, I hated Christmas and Hanukkah both. Two cultures agreeing to spend money they couldn’t spare on crap nobody needed. But we were entitled. I had a job, a good income, a nice house, a wife—more or less—and a kid. Soon we’d have toys on the floor, food in the fridge, a calendar in the kitchen with all our family activities. A real home, like none of us ever had before. If only I could keep things on an even keel.
And it was just then that Josh let out a rising, whooping scream as a ghostly white figure appeared in the window before us.

Rachel took two leaping strides backwards. I said, “Wait a minute” and flung the window open, letting in a rush of cold air as I zeroed in on the small white-haired man standing in the darkness, backlit by a thousand Christmas lights. His head was shorter than mine from crown to chin, almost abbreviated, like the head of a jockey. His Roman nose was distorted by one too many punches, never quite set right, and a faded scar ran across it, making him an object of possible terror to children. His face showed disappointment, maybe pity. I remembered looking up at the same expression from where I lay on the canvas of a boxing ring when I was eleven. I had to blink.

It had been twenty years since I’d laid eyes on him, nearly fifteen since his last postcard. Time had changed him into a small old man. But here he was popping up from my memory to real life. And no more or less a stranger than he ever was.

“I scared him,” the old man said. The “r” in “scared” was absent.
I said, “Josh, there’s nothing to be afraid of,” but I wasn’t quite sure. “This is your grandfather.”


My father measured five-foot-six during his brief boxing career, half a foot shorter than me, but he seemed smaller now as he walked stiff-kneed through the carpeted house like he was casing it for a robbery. I followed him just as a precaution.

“Nice, nice,” he said, stepping into each room and pacing its perimeter. “What’s this, an extra bedroom?”

I stood in the archway, trapping him. “It’s a den,” I said. “It’s for work.” My father’s career arc historically involved doing a variety of tasks for cash, but little that the average shopkeeper or laborer would describe as “work.” Some of these tasks made use of his skills as a boxer, but in an unfair playing field (two against one, four against one.) A few jobs involved taking some poor slob for a drive, one he wouldn’t return from. As a kid I resented not being able to answer the question, “What does your father do?” I’d respond with painful silence, until the teacher or the friend’s parent who asked it, dropped the subject and never brought it up, or looked at me, again. There wasn’t even a fake answer for that question, a feasible lie or euphemism like “He freelances” or “He’s in consulting.”

In grammar school I had to write an essay about what my father did. The kids in my neighborhood weren’t writing about fathers who were doctors or professors or bank managers. Their fathers were mechanics, janitors and short-order cooks. Their mothers were waitresses and maids, jobs which probably gave the kids great shame to write about. But they seemed like good jobs to me, legitimate and respectable. My father worked at a gym, drove a little, and visited shopkeepers on business I was not quite too young to understand. And the week of the writing assignment, he was jailed on a weapons charge. I wrote that he drove a truck.


Standing in the den, Pop avoided my eyes until the limited options led him to stare out the back window we’d seen him through just earlier. Twenty years and we still didn’t have anything to say to each other.

“How’d you find me?” I asked.

A silence, then, out of nowhere, “Who was that kid you fought in the ring the first time?”

“What? What are you talking about?”

“You know. The one who flattened you.”

“What… Why?”

“No reason.”

Some months after my mother left, I turned eleven. For lack of another idea of what to do with me, Pop dragged me along to the Mafia-owned gym where he spent his days and many of his nights. One day he got the idea of putting me in the ring with a larger kid, a blubbery, ass-faced monster who flattened my nose with his first punch, resulting in my nose’s first break and my landing on the canvas and staring up at Pop, his own mangled face tinged with shame and disgust. I became a better boxer in the following months and years, with no help from my father.

“Ferber,” I said, seeing his bulbous cheeks as if they were there. “His name was Ferber.”

“You sure?”

Like the boxers of his generation, Pop had no notion of taking a broken nose to a doctor. Some gym character they called “Doc” set mine with his hands, and he set it wrong. I would forever look like a battered boxer. “Yes,” I said. “I remember. Why?”

He only shrugged.

“Where ya been?” I asked.

“What do you mean?”

“The last postcard I got from you was, what, 1981? Almost fifteen years. Where ya been? Prison?”

He dropped his jaw as far as it would go. He was trying to look offended. He said, “I am…shocked—”

I cut him off. “Oh, Christ, you were in prison.”

I headed into the kitchen. Josh was sitting at the table watching Rachel at the stove as she stirred oatmeal and sipped wine. The midnight oatmeal was something she did once in a while to get him back to sleep. I was grateful she didn’t give him wine. I walked over to Josh and spoke softly to him. “That’s grandpa,” I said. “You dry?” I checked his overnights.

Josh waved his hands. “Sh. Shh!” I looked up and saw Pop in the archway, squinting at Josh.

“He’s still in diapers?”

Josh blushed and hid his face in his hands.

“Only at night,” I said. “How about you?”

Rachel sipped and stirred. She caught Pop’s eye, which would have been a fine time for one of them to say something, or for me to tell them a little about each other.

Rachel, this is my father, Ben Reles. He met my slumming mother in Elmira, and by the time she realized how low he ranked in the mob, she was already married to him and pregnant. He treated me like an intruder in his home, my mother’s new love. She babied me until he went off to prison when I was eight, to do a jolt for one of the big boys, and she kept babying me for those two more years. The day of his release, she called a cab, kissed me goodbye, and disappeared from my life. He came home from the Joint to find his wife gone and his strange kid still there. He raised me, but we didn’t know or like each other very well.
Pop, this is Rachel. She used to be married to my best friend, but he croaked. We shacked up, things went bad, really bad, and she took off without telling me she was pregnant. She’s been back for a while with our son who doesn’t really know me. Sound familiar? Oh, and she can drink either of us under the table, God bless her!

Pop grinned at Rachel. “You didn’t offer me a drink.”

“Are we having a party?” she said.

“Why not?”

She didn’t return his good spirit and she didn’t get him a glass. For a first meeting between my wife and my father, it wasn’t a hit. But, as it turned out, we had bigger problems.

Pop looked to me for appeal and whatever he saw caused him to twist his mouth and head out of the kitchen. Rachel dumped Josh’s oatmeal into a bowl and served it to him, joining him at the table with her glass. It was nurturing, Rachel style. I wanted to kiss her but I wasn’t sure it would be welcome.

I found Pop in the den. In spite of his stiff movements, Pop still struck me as fast, wiry and athletic, like the scrappy little boxer he once was. But his boxer’s stoop had continued curving and I was sure he’d lost at least two inches in height. He seemed to be constantly testing his reflexes. His eyes darted from one window to the other to the ceiling, then back to the door where I stood.

“Went by your old place,” Pop said. “You know you’re in the phone book?”

“I am? Fuck.” Then I said, “So why didn’t you call first? You know, instead of showing up like a ghost and scaring the shit out of my son.”

He reached into an open box and plucked out a picture frame. It held my mother’s glamour shot, one she had taken in the early ’50s, not long before they met. Her hair was bundled up on top of her head, her eyebrows tweezed to delicate arcs, and she flashed a warm, knowing smile into the camera, less a come-on than an inside joke, something just between her and the viewer. Just you and I. People who saw the photo always guessed she was a movie star, only they couldn’t remember which one. Most people guessed Audrey Hepburn.

“You still have this,” he commented. I took it away from him and didn’t explain myself. He shifted. “When you gonna get some curtains? Place looks like a fishbowl.”

“You need money. Is that it?”

“No, I’m flush.”

“Then what are you doing here?”

“We were just driving. That’s all I thought about at first. Where were we going? I could go down the east coast, but to what? Georgia? Miami Beach? Jeez, now I think of it, I could’ve blended in there. What’s one more old Yid?”

I could tell by then that he was on the lam again. Most people don’t drive across country looking for a place they can “blend in.” He went on.

“Anyway, I wasn’t thinking, I was tired. The second day, I’m wiped out. Driving through Tennessee. Snuffy Smith country. I’m driving this long stretch of highway, I can see the mountains in the distance. Five hours later I’m still driving, the same mountains and they haven’t changed. I decided I needed to go someplace, a carrot on the end of a stick. I lived here longer than anywhere. So I decided to come here.”

There was no point in telling him he’d have been better off starting over with a new I.D., in some town where he didn’t know anybody. He’d figured that out by now. I said, “Hey, try something. Say hi to your grandson. Tell him you’re pleased to meet him. Tell him he’s a big boy, he’s gonna grow up to be a giant.”

“You’re spoiling him, I can tell.”

No comment.

He said, “Come outside.”

I pulled on some clothes and led him out back. The temperature had dropped to about forty, as cold as most Austin nights get, even in late December.

“You weren’t my first choice,” he said. In the Christmas-lit night his face took on an unreal glow appropriate to someone you haven’t seen in a decade or two. “I tried everybody. Donny, and Bobby.” Old friends from his Austin days, a cab dispatcher and a bartender who took bets. “Everybody’s gone or dead or in the Joint. I figured I’d find somebody.”

I wondered if that start he’d only dropped on my doorstep because I didn’t qualify as somebody. I’d only ever gleaned details of my father’s travels. I knew he spent his childhood in the Bronx, some chunk of his early adulthood in Elmira (including part of that behind bars,) and several years in Austin, leaving some time after I came back from the army and entered college, a veteran at twenty. Since then, he’d called a thousand hotels his home, in cities all over the country, wherever it looked like the pickings were good. A casual tip was enough to get him to move from Kansas City to Chicago, chasing a name and a dubious business proposition.

It had been maybe fifty years since he left the Bronx, and he couldn’t go back to Elmira. He and I had left Elmira suddenly in 1968 when I was 15, under circumstances that suggested he’d never be safe going back. If he was going to find anyone who’d help him in a pinch, give him a few bucks or a place to hole up, I could see why he’d choose Austin. But he didn’t choose it because of me.

“You remember Ida?” he asked.

“The barmaid.”

Ida was someone my father dated when I was at Austin High. I remembered her as a mousey little woman with sweet, sad eyes and a hairstyle that looked like it had been concocted by her mother with the help of some scissors and a soup bowl. Like most women Pop dated, she tried to win me over as a son, as hard as she tried to turn him into a husband. But Pop wasn’t in the market for a wife and I wasn’t looking for a mother. I’d seen Ida through the years once or twice. The last time she was serving pancakes, warming stomachs, at a breakfast place on Barton Springs Road. She always had a sad smile for me.

“Waitress, yeah. Somebody said she’s still here but I couldn’t find her.”

“I saw her at Holiday House.”

“No shit.”

“Maybe… I don’t know, ten years ago?”

“Oh. Well, maybe it’s best, considering.”

“Considering what?”

He led me around the side of the house, where he’d parked his car, a silver four-door Oldsmobile Cutlass. It was a recent model, in good shape, not as big as the older models but with cushy light-blue velour interior and power windows and locks. It leaned in the direction of a luxury vehicle. A used car, but not so used that Pop could have afforded it legitimately. I noticed it had Pennsylvania license plates.

A girl sat in the car, asleep, with her white-blond hair mashed against the passenger window. My neighbor’s flood lights hit the windshield at an angle and the sun visor laid a shadow across her eyes. Her chin was on the small side, giving her cheeks a rounded, pouty aspect in spite of high cheekbones. She was wrapped in a yellow plastic raincoat, a kid’s raincoat.

I turned to Pop. “Is she legal?”

Pop said, “Let’s go for a bite.”

I considered the few late-night eateries available in the area and told him to meet me at the Denny’s up on Burnet. I wanted my car with me so I could leave when the conversation turned bad. And I wanted him to have his car so he wouldn’t need me to chauffeur him around. I went back inside. Rachel had put Josh back to bed, sheer exhaustion winning out over his thousand fears. I told her I was meeting Pop for a snack, a curve she seemed to take with boozy resolution. Then she turned and muttered, “First night in the house.”

I said, “I’ll be back soon,” but she didn’t respond.

If I knew what would result from Pop’s introduction of the girl, what he was bringing into my world, I would have told him to get in his car and keep going. I’d have offered him gas money. Maybe I wouldn’t have prevented what followed, but at least it would have happened somewhere else. Not in my home.


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