Land of the Lost Daddies
By Harriet Rohmer
A season is set for everything . . . a time for seeking and a time for losing, a time for keeping and a time for discarding.
North Coast of California, 1985
Jasmine and I were looking for Bart, and we knew in advance he wouldn’t be living anywhere nice.
“Mom,” Jaz said, “I’m only along to make sure you don’t get into trouble. I mean, after all these years, why would I want to see the sperm donor?” That’s what she called her father, who hadn’t crossed her path since second grade.
Jaz walked ahead of me in full paramedic gear, including steel-tipped boots. She was carrying emergency rations, oxygen, and antibiotics––just in case.
This was more than a hike.
The rabbi had said I needed a get, a Jewish divorce, in order to break my spiritual connection with Bart and get on with my life.
“Look, Aurora,” she said. “What you’re telling me is that this ex-husband of yours still has his hands all over you.”
“Well, not exactly hands,” I said. “I haven’t seen him in years.”
“My reference is figurative. He still has you in his clutches.”
The rabbi was short and stocky with freckles and frizzy red hair. She kept her tiny kipa, her religious head covering, locked down with a dozen bobby pins.
“It’s true,” I told her. “He was a painter, you know. He used to paint my picture all the time. Well, I think he’s doing it again. I think he’s out there somewhere, painting me. When I look in the mirror, I feel like my face is not my own.”
The rabbi was wheeling her bicycle out of the closet and fitting clips on the bottoms of her pants so they wouldn’t catch in the gears. After her talk with me, she was on her way to the city jail where she ministered to multiple offenders. I’d heard that she mended hearts with her tough compassion.
“You need to cut the cord, Aurora. You were married in a religious ceremony, but divorced only in a civil one. Not good enough.”
I agreed. “But Bart’s never going to hand me a divorce paper. Not all by himself.”
“Well then, if the regular way won’t work, we’ll have to help him.” She looked up from the bike gears and smiled at me. “Don’t worry,” she said. “God is kind.”
She peeled a sheet from a homemade-looking prescription pad and handed it to me. “I divorce you!” was what it said. And then there was room for the date and Bart’s signature. “I designed it myself,” the rabbi said modestly. Above the text was an impish angel snipping a thread. The angel bore a striking resemblance to the rabbi.
“Aurora, I want you to hand Bart this get. And then anything you need to do to make him sign it––that’s what you need to do!”
It shouldn’t have been so difficult to find Bart. My ears were burning with the stories he was concocting about me. Almost every day some friend or neighbor sidled up to me with new reports.
“Aurora! I ran into your ex the other day. He’s back on track. Looking good. And isn’t it beautiful how he takes the baby every weekend—so you can have your rest?”
That was Gizela talking. My neighbor who tried to sue when Bart’s goat munched up her yard a zillion years ago. Bart must have launched the old charm.
“Gizela, do you realize that ‘the baby’ is nineteen years old? He hasn’t seen her in years!”
Gizela recoiled, her eyes blinking at me like something had gotten loose inside. “But I’m only telling you what he said,” she murmured.
Even my old buddy, Gil, who worked in sanitation, had a story going on. “He says you’re getting back together and it’s going to be like old times. He’s painting you in green. He says you’re crazy about green.”
This infuriated me because I was kind of sweet on Gil.
“Come on, Gil, I haven’t heard from the guy in ages. I’m only trying to track him down so I can say goodbye forever. And you know what happened when he painted me in green the last time? I left him.”
“Uh-huh,” Gil said. “Well, I guess I’ll be seeing you around.”
Damn that Bart! He’s got my face. He’s telling my story. And where is he?
I took the matter up with Jaz because she was an adult now. I started as I usually do with how proud I was of her.
“You don’t have to go through all that, Mom. I’ll help you look for Dad. But don’t expect me to hang out with him.”
“You’re not even a little curious?”
She let out a sigh. “Mom, we don’t think the same way. Why would I be curious about some loser who treated you bad and hasn’t been around since I was seven years old?”
“Well, because he’s your daddy, and he’s been lost to you all these years.”
“Mom,” she interrupted. “You’re the one who didn’t want him around.”
“Jasmine, he almost killed you.”
She shrugged. “That’s your interpretation.”
I got a little weepy. “Maybe when you have your own kids . . . “
Jaz came and put her arm around me. “Mom, after seeing everything you went through, why would I want any kids?”
That really made me cry.
“Well, don’t worry about it,” she said. “Let’s go find the sperm donor.”
One of Jasmine’s police sergeant friends opened files for us on “Lost Daddies,” a group of homeless men who lived out on one of the Northern California beaches. He didn’t exactly know which one. He showed us folder after folder of poems and letters from the broken-heart kids they had deserted.
Jasmine sat beside me at the big table where we were going over the documents. Her hands were suddenly tight fists in her lap.
“They should just get over it,” she said. “Like I did.”
I tried to put my arm around her, but she shrugged me off.
A few hundred files later, we were looking at photos of a wildlife refuge, a public/private partnership, home to endangered species of predatory birds.
“I know this place,” Jasmine said. “It’s not in my area, but I know it.”
The sergeant said that he knew it, too.
“This isn’t any bird sanctuary, Mom. Well, maybe they have a few birds, but that’s not what it is. You know what it really is?”
I didn’t say a word.
“It’s where they keep the deadbeat dads—like the sperm donor.”
She picked up the photographs and scrutinized them. Steep cliffs. Landslides. Killer waves. “Yeah. They take them in and out by police launch.” She looked up at the sergeant.
“Sorry, sweetheart. Can’t do it. Not even for you.”
“Well, I guess we’ll have to get in by land.”
She got up and went over to the file cabinet and started searching through folders. The sergeant politely chewed a hangnail and gazed out the window.
After about ten minutes, she said, “Okay, I know how to get there.”
We drove as far as we could and parked. It was a bony, accusatory finger of land hidden in Pacific Ocean fog. On either side of the road were sheep and cattle ranches belonging to the descendants of California railroad barons. We saw dwarfed deer drinking at water holes ringed with bright green grasses and patches of pink and purple wildflowers. As we watched, a giant hawk swooped down and carried away a tiny deer in its claws.
“If this were one of my calls, I’d be asking for police backup,” Jaz said.
“Listen, Jaz. I can go alone.”
“Mom, I said I was taking you. I just have to be back in Oakland to do my shift.”
That’s how it was with Jaz sometimes. Bossy. As if she thought that she was the mother. But still, I had my protective feelings.
“Jaz, you might not even want to see him. He might look really bad by now. You know, some disease or other . . .”
“Mom, I see things every day I wouldn’t even tell you about.” She stopped to examine a road-marker: shards of welded glass and twisted tin. She lifted it with her glove. “See? It’s a false sign. They don’t want any lawyers coming down here looking for child support. The path is really this way.” She turned us in a new direction.
“It’s amazing how much you know, Jaz.”
“Mom, it’s my job.” She laughed. I could tell she was pleased.
“And you’ve turned out to be so good-looking,” I said.
She laughed again. “Just follow me, Mom.”
I zeroed in on the big yellow circle on the back of her paramedic jacket. We were headed straight down the hill on a nasty snaking path that smelled bad even at the trailhead and rapidly descended into a smoke-choked gorge. Jaz handed me a wet handkerchief for my eyes. The pathway ahead of us was scarcely visible, more like a mirage. We went step by step until the place where our feet had been a moment before fell away. I heard it crashing into the ocean below.
“Run!” Jaz ordered. “Run!”
I grabbed onto her and ran. After about fifteen minutes, we reached the beach. Wheezing coyotes joined us on the path. They were skinny, toothless creatures with matted hair and all manner of disfigurements.
The coyotes led us to the cigar stores. Row after row of them. And behind them, on a railroad siding lashed to the mountain we had just descended, the Chesterfield factory floating in a putrid cloud of fifty-five-year-old cigarette smoke. “They do satisfy!” was written in fading yellow letters on the chimney. Lining the route were old “Burma-Shave” signs and piles of leftover Life magazines, documenting the day in 1945 when the Second World War ended and the daddies started to disappear from the life of my generation.
We stood there, looking up, breathing hard. Jaz’s radio crackled.
“Hey, Jaz. Where in hell are you? I got a helicopter evac on the Bay Bridge.” It was her paramedic partner, Julie.
“Listen, I’m going to be a little late. I’m visiting my dad. Yeah, first time in twelve years. Sure. Of course I am––”
And then I saw the daddies,
lined up, waiting impatiently at the doors of cigar stores, newsstands, convenience stores (for the younger generations of men). Some of them were silent, absorbed in their plans for greatness, their strategies for obtaining the wherewithal to make their dreams come true. Others chatted aimlessly with the next in line, emptying their pockets distractedly, touching their bodies with ritual, repetitive gestures.
They talked to each other. They convinced each other of their motives. I guess they hadn’t had visitors for a while. They were all holding up pictures of the women and children they had deserted. Some of the men were well-dressed. All were smoking. They gawked at me and Jaz. They called us “Baby.”
“I’ll make it up to you, Baby. I will. I will.”
The daddies were everywhere. Some of them were even building little shacks out into the ocean. Did they live in those places? Did they build them twice each day? Were they destroyed twice each day when the tides came in?
I couldn’t bear it, but Jaz was busy assessing the situation.
“Mom. This is nothing compared to Oakland. Don’t worry.”
Jaz got on the radio and checked the tides. “We’re okay now. We just need to watch for the next one which is going to be super big.” Then she talked again to Julie, who was at the scene of the helicopter evacuation. “Don’t worry, sweetie, you can do it!”
The coyotes padded along in the damp sand. We walked beside them, past the daddies who were holding out their photos of abandoned wives and children.
“Hey,” Jaz said. She grabbed my arm. “There’s Grandpa! I recognize him from the pictures.”
He danced toward us, my father with the limp, holding out my picture as if some terrible government decree had caused our separation, and not his own free will.
“Daddy?” I said.
“Sure, sweetheart.” Daddy and I sat down at a little café table with flaking blue paint, its legs half buried in the sand. He showed me his Paris album. He told me how he played the piano at The Blue Note.
“Aurora, sweetheart. You never came to see me in Paris, did you? I wanted to see you. We could have had such fun.”
My memories were starting to get all twisted up inside. “I didn’t know that, Daddy. Did you write me?”
He smiled. Got up and demonstrated one of the dance steps he’d been working on.
Carefully I rephrased my question––no longer a question. “Maybe you sent a letter to Mom, and she forgot to give it to me.”
“Ah, your mother, sweetheart. How is she?”
“She died, Daddy. Almost fifteen years ago. Killed herself. You didn’t know?”
I was crying now for my tough, beautiful mother whose shell dissolved when Daddy left.
“A wonderful woman, your mother. Ahead of her time. You look a little like her.” He did his little song and dance routine on the wet sand, and he was gone.
Then it was Bart’s turn.
“Mom!” Jaz called. “It’s Dad! My Dad’s here!”
And so he was. And there was Jaz, like a little girl again, all crazy about her daddy.
“My angel!” Bart was saying to her. “Still my angel! Never mind how many years. Such sweet thoughts I’ve held of you. There isn’t anything I wouldn’t do for my Jasmine angel.”
“Why didn’t you come to see me, Daddy?”
“Your mother took you, Angel. I couldn’t do a thing. Not a thing. After all, a mother is a mother.”
Jaz glared at me with the same look I remembered from years ago, when she said that Daddy was there for her and I wasn’t. Bart was still telling his lies and my Jasmine still believed him. But I was a fighter now and I loved her too much to be silent.
“And a father is a father!” I said. “I pleaded with you to come and see your daughter. All those times I pleaded with you, but you never came!”
He didn’t deny it, and Jaz didn’t press him. But now she knew. It hurt me how she suddenly looked like an old, old person. I guess the truth can do that to you. Then she recovered and turned away from him with troubled eyes.
But I was suddenly back in Bart’s picture. He was as handsome as the first time I’d seen him—when Auntie Dora Goodtimes, the matchmaker, brought us together in Paris. Bart was just deciding to become a painter. “So I can create my own world,” he whispered to me back then. “I can see that you have a little of that spirit, too.”
“Careful with that one. He can charm the paint off the walls,” Auntie Dora said to me later. I should have listened.
Instead, I went walking barefoot with Bart from the Contrescarpe to the Champs Elysées. Remembering my joy on that afternoon, I took off my shoes and wiggled my toes in the sand.
“I wouldn’t do that, Mom,” Jaz warned. “You never can tell what the tide brings in around here.”
Bart offered to show me his studio. My God! Even on this forsaken edge of California, he had a studio. “Come,” he said, tempting me with those sad, brown eyes.
In the distance I heard Jaz’s voice: “Watch it, Mom!”
But I didn’t. I was caught up in his spell. I was back in the first studio, the one in Paris. On the easel in front of me were two of Bart’s paintings: a king and a queen. But they were not real people, only embryos of people.
“Why, they are beautiful!” I said.
“Yes, but not finished. I need someone to be my inspiration so I can finish,” Bart said.
“Me!” I thought. My heart opened. He wanted to paint me. Love me. Be with me forever.
I heard Jaz urging. “Wake up, Mom!”
And then I remembered where I was. I pushed the divorce paper into Bart’s hands.
He looked at it, blinked, and broke down in tears.
“You need to sign this paper, Bart!” I said.
And he did.
The tide came rushing in. Jaz and I evacuated the beach. The water pursued us like the Egyptians in the Bible, but I was not afraid. I had the paper, the signed Jewish divorce paper in my hand, and Jaz and I were running together.