In my official capacity as assistant cultural attaché, but on an unofficial errand, I attended the Warhol opening at the Neue Nationalgallerie. Within the famous Mies van der Rohe building, I passed by the famous silk-screened faces of the famous pop artist. The Neue Nationalgallerie is a wonderful art museum except for one thing: there’s nowhere to hang the art. I didn’t care much. I stared out the glass walls at Berlin and felt stupid. Did I think there would be artists at an art opening? There were only patrons, journalists, critics, and socialites.
After accepting a glass of wine from a passing waiter, I sat down in one of the leather and chrome chairs that line the perimeter. The chairs are by Mies, too. You see knockoffs everywhere but these are original, worn-out by now, the black leather browning at the edges. I lit a cigar and smoked, trying to make myself feel better.
The crowd chattered, circulating among the Maos and Marilyns. The high ceiling made the acoustics muddy. Thin men with shaved heads darted by. Gray-haired women draped in natural shawls showed their yellow teeth. Out the windows, the Staatsbibliotek was visible across the way. The new Potsdamer Platz looked like a mall in Vancouver. In the distance construction lights illuminated the skeletons of cranes. Traffic surged in the street below. I took a drag on my cigar, squinting, and caught sight of my reflection in the glass.
I said before I look like a Musketeer. But I also tend to resemble (especially in mirrors late at night) a faun. The arched eyebrows, the wicked grin, the flames in the eyes. The cigar jutting up from between my teeth didn’t help.
A hand tapped me on the back. “Cigar faddist,” said a woman’s voice.
In Mies’s black glass I recognized Julie Kikuchi.
“Hey, this is Europe,” I countered, smiling. “Cigars aren’t a fad here.”
“I was into cigars way back in college.”
“Oh yeah,” I challenged her. “Smoke one, then.”
She sat down in the chair next to mine and held out her hand. I took another cigar from my jacket and handed it to her along with the cigar cutter and matches. Julie held the cigar under her nose and sniffed. She rolled it between her fingers to test its moistness. Clipping off the end, she put it in her mouth, struck a match, and got it going, puffing serially.
“Mies van der Rohe smoked cigars,” I said, by way of promotion.
“Have you ever seen a picture of Mies van der Rohe?” said Julie.
We sat side by side, not speaking, only smoking, facing the interior of the museum. Julie’s right knee was jiggling. After a while I swiveled around so I was facing her. She turned her face toward me.
“Nice cigar,” she allowed.
I leaned toward her. Julie leaned toward me. Our faces got closer until finally our foreheads were almost touching. We stayed like that for ten or so seconds. Then I said, “Let me tell you why I didn’t call you.”
I took a long breath and began: “There’s something you should know about me.”
My story began in 1922 and there were concerns about the flow of oil. In 1975, when my story ends, dwindling oil supplies again had people worried. Two years earlier the Organization of Arab Oil Exporting Countries had begun an embargo. There were brownouts in the U.S. and long lines at the pumps. The President announced that the lights on the White House Christmas tree would not be lit, and the gas-tank lock was born.
Scarcity was weighing on everybody’s mind in those days. The economy was in recession. Across the nation families were eating dinner in the dark, the way we used to do on Seminole under one lightbulb. My father, however, took a dim view of conservation policies. Milton had come a long way from the days when he counted kilowatts. And so, on the night he set out to ransom me, he remained at the wheel of an enormous, gas-guzzling Cadillac.
My father’s last Cadillac: a 1975 Eldorado. Painted a midnight blue that looked nearly black, the car bore a strong resemblance to the Batmobile. Milton had all the doors locked. It was just past 2A.M. The roads in this downriver neighborhood were full of potholes, the curbs choked with weeds and litter. The powerful high beams picked up sprays of broken glass in the street, as well as nails, shards of metal, old hubcaps, tin cans, a flattened pair of men’s underpants. Beneath an overpass a car had been stripped, tires gone, windshield shattered, all the chrome detailing peeled away, and the engine missing. Milton stepped on the gas, ignoring the scarcity not only of petroleum but of many other things as well. There was, for instance, a scarcity of hope on Middlesex, where his wife no longer felt any stirrings in her spiritual umbilicus. There was a scarcity of food in the refrigerator, of snacks in the cupboards, and of freshly ironed shirts and clean socks in his dresser. There was a scarcity of social invitations and phone calls, as my parents’ friends grew afraid to call a house that existed in a limbo between exhilaration and grief. Against the pressure of all this scarcity, Milton flooded the Eldorado’s engine, and when that wasn’t enough, he opened the briefcase on the seat beside him and stared in dashboard light at the twenty-five thousand dollars in cash bundled inside.
My mother had been awake when Milton slipped out of bed less than an hour earlier. Lying on her back, she heard him dressing in the dark. She hadn’t asked him why he was getting up in the middle of the night. Once upon a time, she would have, but not anymore. Since my disappearance, daily routines had crumbled. Milton and Tessie often found themselves in the kitchen at four in the morning, drinking coffee. Only when Tessie heard the front door close had she become concerned. Next Milton’s car started up and began backing down the drive. My mother listened until the engine faded away. She thought to herself with surprising calmness, “Maybe he’s leaving for good.” To her list of runaway father and runaway daughter she now added a further possibility: runaway husband.
Milton hadn’t told Tessie where he was going for a number of reasons. First, he was afraid she would stop him. She would tell him to call the police, and he didn’t want to call the police. The kidnapper had told him not to involve the law. Besides, Milton had had enough of cops and their blasé attitude. The only way to get something done was to do it yourself. On top of all that, this whole thing might be a wild-goose chase. If he told Tessie about it she would only worry. She might call Zoë and then he’d get an earful from his sister. In short, Milton was doing what he always did when it came to important decisions. Like the time he joined the Navy, or the time he moved us all to Grosse Pointe, Milton did whatever he wanted, confident that he knew best.
After the last mysterious phone call, Milton had waited for another. The following Sunday morning it came.
“Good morning, Milton.”
“Listen, whoever you are. I want some answers.”
“I didn’t call to hear what you want, Milton. What’s important is what I want.”
“I want my daughter. Where is she?”
“She’s here with me.”
The music, or singing, was still perceptible in the background. It reminded Milton of something long ago.
“How do I know you have her?”
“Why don’t you ask me a question? She’s told me a lot about her family. Quite a lot.”
The rage surging through Milton at that moment was nearly unbearable. It was all he could do to keep from smashing the phone against the desk. At the same time, he was thinking, calculating.
“What’s the name of the village her grandparents came from?”
“Just a minute.” The phone was covered. Then the voice said, “Bithynios.”
Milton’s knees went weak. He sat down at the desk.
“Do you believe me yet, Milton?”
“We went to these caverns in Tennessee once. A real rip-off tourist trap. What were they called?”
Again the phone was covered. In a moment the voice replied, “The Mammothonics Caves.”
At that Milton shot up out of his chair again. His face darkened and he tugged at his collar to help himself breathe.
“Now I have a question, Milton.”
“How much is it worth to you to get your daughter back?”
“No, Milton,” the voice corrected, “you don’t understand. I want to bargain.”
“Haggle, Milton. This is business.”
Milton was perplexed. He shook his head at the oddity of this request. But in the end he fulfilled it.
“Okay. Twenty-five’s too much. I’ll pay thirteen thousand.”
“We’re talking about your daughter, Milton. Not hot dogs.”
“I haven’t got that kind of cash.”
“I might take twenty-two thousand.”
“I’ll give you fifteen.”
“Twenty is as low as I can go.”
“Seventeen is my final offer.”
“How about nineteen?”
The caller laughed. “Oh, that was fun, Milt.” Then, in a gruff voice: “But I want twenty-five.” And he hung up.
Back in 1933, a disembodied voice had spoken to my grandmother through the heating grate. Now, forty-two years later, a disguised voice spoke to my father over the phone.
“Good morning, Milton.”
There was the music again, the faint singing.
“I’ve got the money,” said Milton. “Now I want my girl.”
“Tomorrow night,” the kidnapper said. And then he told Milton where to leave the money, and where to wait for me to be released.
Across the lowland downriver plain Grand Trunk rose before Milton’s Cadillac. The train station was still in use in 1975, though just barely. The once-opulent terminal was now only a shell. False Amtrak façades concealed the flaking, peeling walls. Most corridors were blocked off. Meanwhile, all around the operative core, the great old building continued to fall into ruin, the Guastavino tiles in the Palm Court falling, splintering on the ground, the immense barbershop now a junk room, the skylights caved in, heaped with filth. The office tower attached to the terminal was now a thirteen-story pigeon coop, all five hundred of its windows smashed, as if with diligence. At this same train station my grandparents had arrived a half century earlier. Lefty and Desdemona, one time only, had revealed their secret here to Sourmelina; and now their son, who never learned it, was pulling in behind the station, also secretly.
A scene like this, a ransom scene, calls for a noirish mood: shadows, sinister silhouettes. But the sky wasn’t cooperating. We were having one of our pink nights. They happened every so often, depending on temperature and the level of chemicals in the air. When particulate matter in the atmosphere was sufficient, light from the ground got trapped and reflected back, and the entire Detroit sky would become the soft pink of cotton candy. It never got dark on pink nights, but the light was nothing like daytime. Our pink nights glowed with the raw luminescence of the night shift, of factories running around the clock. Sometimes the sky would become as bright as Pepto-Bismol, but more often it was a muted, a fabric-softener color. Nobody thought it was strange. Nobody said anything about it. We had all grown up with pink nights. They were not a natural phenomenon, but they were natural to us.
Under this strange nocturnal sky Milton pulled his car as close to the train platform as possible and stopped. He shut off the engine. Taking the briefcase, he got out into the still, crystalline winter air of Michigan. All the world was frozen, the distant trees, the telephone lines, the grass in the yards of the downriver houses, the ground itself. Out on the river a freighter bellowed. Here there were no sounds, the station completely deserted at night. Milton had on his tasseled black loafers. Dressing in the dark, he had decided they were the easiest to slip on. He was also wearing his car coat, beige and dingy, with a muff of fur at the collar. Against the cold he had worn a hat, a gray felt Borsalino, with a red feather in the black band. An old-timer’s hat now in 1975. With hat, briefcase, and loafers, Milton might have been on his way to work. And certainly he was walking quickly. He climbed the metal steps to the train platform. He headed along it, looking for the trash can where he was supposed to drop the briefcase. The kidnapper said it would have anX chalked on the lid.
Milton hurried along the platform, the tassels on his loafers bouncing, the tiny feather in his hat rippling in the cold wind. It would not be strictly truthful to say that he was afraid. Milton Stephanides did not admit to being afraid. The physiological manifestations of fear, the racing heart, the torched armpits, went on in him without official acknowledgment. He wasn’t alone among his generation in this. There were lots of fathers who shouted when they were afraid or scolded their children to deflect blame from themselves. It’s possible that such qualities were indispensable in the generation that won the war. A lack of introspection was good for bolstering your courage, but in the last months and weeks it had done damage to Milton. Throughout my disappearance Milton had kept up a brave front while doubts worked invisibly inside him. He was like a statue being chiseled away from the inside, hollowed out. As more and more of his thoughts gave him pain, Milton had increasingly avoided them. Instead he concentrated on the few that made him feel better, the bromides about everything working out. Milton, quite simply, had ceased to think things through. What was he doing out there on the dark train platform? Why did he go out there alone? We would never be able to explain it adequately.
It didn’t take him long to find the trash can marked with chalk. Swiftly Milton lifted its triangular green lid and laid the briefcase inside. But when he tried to pull his arm back out, something wouldn’t let him: it was his hand. Since Milton had stopped thinking things through, his body was now doing the work for him. His hand seemed to be saying something. It was voicing reservations. “What if the kidnapper doesn’t set Callie free?” the hand was saying. But Milton answered, “There’s no time to think about that now.” Again he tried to pull his arm out of the trash can, but his hand stubbornly resisted: “What if the kidnapper takes this money and then asks for more?” asked the hand. “That’s the chance we’ll have to take,” Milton snapped back, and with all his strength pulled his arm out of the trash can. His hand lost its grip; the briefcase fell onto the refuse inside. Milton hurried back across the platform (dragging his hand with him) and got into the Cadillac.
He started the engine. He turned on the heat, warming the car up for me. He leaned forward staring through the windshield, expecting me to appear any minute. His hand was still smarting, muttering to itself. Milton thought about the briefcase lying out in the trash can. His mind filled with the image of the money inside. Twenty-five grand! He saw the individual stacks of hundred-dollar bills; the repeating face of Benjamin Franklin in the doubled mirrors of all that cash. Milton’s throat went dry; a spasm of anxiety known to all Depression babies gripped his body; and in the next second he was jumping out of the car again, running back to the platform.
This guy wanted to do business? Then Milton would show him how to do business! He wanted to negotiate? How about this! (Milton was climbing the steps now, loafers ringing against the metal.) Instead of leaving twenty-five thousand bucks, why not leave twelve thousand five hundred?This way I’ll have some leverage. Half now, half later. Why hadn’t he thought of this before? What the hell was the matter with him? He was under too much strain . . . No sooner had he reached the platform, however, than my father stopped cold. Less than twenty yards away, a dark figure in a stocking cap was reaching into the trash can. Milton’s blood froze. He didn’t know whether to retreat or advance. The kidnapper tried to pull the briefcase out, but it wouldn’t fit through the swinging door. He went behind the can and lifted up the entire metal lid. In the chemical brightness Milton saw the patriarchal beard, the pale, waxen cheeks, and—most tellingly—the tiny five-foot-four frame. Father Mike.
FatherMike ? Father Mike was the kidnapper? Impossible. Incredible! But there was no doubt. Standing on the platform was the man who had once been engaged to my mother and who, at my father’s hands, had had her stolen away. Taking the ransom was the former seminarian who had married Milton’s sister, Zoë, instead, a choice that had sentenced him to a life of invidious comparisons, of Zoë always asking why he hadn’t invested in the stock market when Milton had, or bought gold when Milton had, or stashed money away in the Cayman Islands as Milton had; a choice that had condemned Father Mike to being a poor relation, forced to endure Milton’s lack of respect while accepting his hospitality, and compelling him to carry a dining room chair into the living room if he wanted to sit. Yes, it was a great shock for Milton to discover his brother-in-law on the train platform. But it also made sense. It was clear now why the kidnapper had wanted to haggle over the price, why he wanted to feel like a businessman for once, and, alas, how he had known about Bithynios. Explained, too, were why the telephone calls had come on Sundays, whenever Tessie was at church, and the music in the background, which Milton now identified as the priests chanting the liturgy. Long ago, my father had stolen Father’s Mike’s fiancée and married her himself. The child of the union, me, had poured salt in the wound by baptizing the priest in reverse. Now Father Mike was trying to get even.
But not if Milton could help it. “Hey!” he shouted, putting his hands on his hips. “Just what the hell are you trying to pull, Mike?” Father Mike didn’t answer. He looked up and, out of priestly habit, smiled benignantly at Milton, his white teeth appearing in the great bush of black beard. But already he was backing away, stepping on crushed cups and other litter, hugging the briefcase to his chest like a packed parachute. Three or four steps backward, smiling that gentle smile, before he turned and fled in earnest. He was small but quick. Like a shot he disappeared down a set of stairs on the other side of the platform. In pink light Milton saw him crossing the train tracks to his car, a bright green (“Grecian green” according to the catalogue), fuel-efficient AMC Gremlin. And Milton ran back to the Cadillac to follow him.
It wasn’t like a car chase in the movies. There was no swerving, no near collisions. It was, after all, a car chase between a Greek Orthodox priest and a middle-aged Republican. As they sped (relatively speaking) away from Grand Trunk, heading in the direction of the river, Father Mike and Milton never exceeded the limit by more than ten miles per hour. Father Mike didn’t want to attract the police. Milton, realizing that his brother-in-law had nowhere to go, was content to follow him to the water. So they went along in their pokey fashion, the weirdly shaped Gremlin making rolling stops at traffic signs and the Eldorado, a little bit later, doing the same. Down nameless streets, past junk houses, across a dead-end piece of land created by the freeways and the river, Father Mike unwisely attempted to escape. It was just like always; Aunt Zo should have been there to holler at Father Mike, because only an idiot would have headed toward the river instead of the highway. Every street he could possibly take would go nowhere. “I got you now,” Milton exulted. The Gremlin made a right. The Eldorado made a right. The Gremlin made a left, and so did the Cadillac. Milton’s tank was full. He could track Father Mike all night if he had to.
Feeling confident, Milton adjusted the heat, which was a little too high. He turned on the radio. He let a little more space get between the Gremlin and the Eldorado. When he looked up again, the Gremlin was making another right. Thirty seconds later, when Milton turned the same corner, he saw the sweeping expanse of the Ambassador Bridge. And his confidence crumbled. This was not just like always. Tonight, his brother-in-law the priest, who spent his life in the fairy tale world of the Church, dressed up like Liberace, had figured things out for once. As soon as Milton saw the bridge strung like a giant, glittering harp over the river, panic seized his soul. With horror Milton understood Father Mike’s plan. As Chapter Eleven had intended when he threatened to dodge the draft, Father Mike was heading for Canada! Like Jimmy Zizmo the bootlegger, he was heading for the lawless, liberal hideaway to the north! He was planning to take the money out of the country. And he was no longer going slow.
Yes, despite its thimble-sized engine that sounded like a sewing machine, the Gremlin was managing to accelerate. Leaving the no-man’s-land around Grand Trunk Station, it had now entered the bright, Customs-controlled, high-traffic area of the United States–Canada border. Tall, carbon-gas streetlights irradiated the Gremlin, whose bright green color now looked even more acid than ever. Putting distance between itself and the Eldorado (like the Joker’s car getting away from the Batmobile), the Gremlin joined the trucks and cars converging around the entrance to the great suspension bridge. Milton stepped on it. The huge engine of the Cadillac roared; white smoke spumed from the tailpipe. At this point the two cars had become exactly what cars are supposed to be; they were extensions of their owners. The Gremlin was small and nimble, as Father Mike was; it disappeared and reappeared in traffic much as he did behind the icon screen at church. The Eldorado, substantial and boat-like—as was Milton—proved difficult to maneuver in the late-night bridge traffic. There were huge semis. There were passenger cars heading for the casinos and strip clubs in Windsor. In all this traffic Milton lost sight of the Gremlin. He pulled into a line and waited. Suddenly, six cars ahead, he saw Father Mike dart out of line, cutting off another car and slipping into a toll booth. Milton rolled down his automatic window. Sticking his head out into the cold, exhaust-clouded air, he shouted, “Stop that man! He’s got my money!” The Customs officer didn’t hear him, however. Milton could see the officer asking Father Mike a few questions and then—No! Stop!—he was waving Father Mike through. At that point Milton started hammering on his horn.
The blasts erupting from beneath the Eldorado’s hood might have been emanating from Milton’s own chest. His blood pressure was surging, and inside his car coat his body began to drip with sweat. He had been confident of bringing Father Mike to justice in the U.S. courts. But who knew what would happen once he got to Canada? Canada with its pacifism and its socialized medicine! Canada with its millions of French speakers! It was like . . . like . . . like a foreign country! Father Mike might become a fugitive over there, living it up in Quebec. He might disappear into Saskatchewan and roam with the moose. It wasn’t only losing the money that enraged Milton. In addition to absconding with twenty-five thousand dollars and giving Milton false hopes of my return, Father Mike was abandoning his own family. Brotherly protectiveness mixed with financial and paternal pain in Milton’s heaving breast. “You don’t do this to my sister, you hear me?” Milton fruitlessly shouted from the driver’s seat of his huge, boxed-in car. Next he called after Father Mike, “Hey, dumbass. Haven’t you ever heard of commissions? Soon as you change that money you’re going to lose five percent!” Fulminating at the wheel, his progress curtailed by semis in front and strip-clubbers behind, Milton squirmed and hollered, his fury unbearable.
My father’s honking hadn’t gone unnoticed, however. Customs agents were used to the horn-blowing of impatient drivers. They had a way of handling them. As soon as Milton pulled up to the booth, the official signaled him to pull over.
Through his open window Milton shouted, “There’s a guy who just came through. He stole some money of mine. Can you have him stopped at the other end? He’s driving a Gremlin.”
“Pull your car over there, sir.”
“He stole twenty-five thousand dollars!”
“We can talk about that as soon as you pull over and get out of your car, sir.”
“He’s trying to take it out of the country!” Milton explained one last time. But the Customs agent continued to direct him to the inspection area. Finally Milton gave up. Withdrawing his face from the open window, he took hold of the steering wheel and obediently began pulling over to the empty lane. As soon as he was clear of the Customs booth, however, he stomped a tasseled loafer down on the accelerator and the squealing Cadillac rocketed away.
Now itwas something like a car chase. For out on the bridge, Father Mike, too, had stepped on the gas. Snaking between the cars and trucks, he was racing toward the international divide, while Milton pursued, flashing his brights to get people out of the way. The bridge rose up over the river in a graceful parabola, its steel cables strung with red lights. The Cadillac’s tires hummed over its striated surface. Milton had his foot to the floor, engaging what he called the goose gear. And now the difference between a luxury automobile and a newfangled cartoon car began to show itself. The Cadillac engine roared with power. Its eight cylinders fired, the carburetor sucking in vast quantities of fuel. The pistons thumped and jumped and the drive wheel spun like mad, as the long, superhero car passed others as if they were standing still. Seeing the Eldorado coming so fast, other drivers moved aside. Milton cut straight through the traffic until he spotted the green Gremlin up ahead. “So much for your high gas mileage,” Milton cried. “Sometimes you need a little power!”
By this time Father Mike saw the Eldorado looming, too. He floored the accelerator, but the Gremlin’s engine was already working at capacity. The car vibrated wildly but picked up no speed. On and on came the Cadillac. Milton didn’t take his foot off the pedal until his front bumper was nearly touching the Gremlin’s rear. They were traveling now at seventy miles per hour. Father Mike looked up to see Milton’s avenging eyes filling the rearview mirror. Milton, gazing ahead into the Gremlin’s interior, saw a slice of Father Mike’s face. The priest seemed to be asking for forgiveness, or explaining his actions. There was a strange sadness in his eyes, a weakness, which Milton could not interpret.
. . . And now I have to enter Father Mike’s head, I’m afraid. I feel myself being sucked in and I can’t resist. The front part of his mind is a whirl of fear, greed, and desperate thoughts of escape. All to be expected. But going deeper in, I discover things about him I never knew. There’s no serenity, for instance, none at all, no closeness to God. The gentleness Father Mike had, his smiling silence at family meals, the way he would bend down to be face-to-face with children (not far for him, but still)—all these attributes existed apart from any communication with a transcendent realm. They were just a passive-aggressive method of survival, the result of having a wife with a voice as loud as Aunt Zo’s. Yes, echoing inside Father Mike’s head is all the shouting Aunt Zo has done over the years, ever since she was pregnant nonstop in Greece without a washer or dryer. I can hear: “Do you call this a life?” And: “If you’ve got the ear of God, tell Him to send me a check for the drapes.” And: “Maybe the Catholics have the right idea. Priests shouldn’t have families.” At church Michael Antoniou is called Father. He is deferred to, catered to. At church he has the power to forgive sins and consecrate the host. But as soon as he steps through the front door of their duplex in Harper Woods, Father Mike suffers an immediate drop in status. At home he is nobody. At home he is bossed around, complained about, ignored. And so it was not so difficult to see why Father Mike decided to flee his marriage, and why he needed money . . .
. . . none of which, however, could Milton read in his brother-in-law’s eyes. And in the next moment those eyes changed again. Father Mike had shifted his gaze back to the road, where they met a terrifying sight. The red brake lights of the car in front of him were flashing. Father Mike was going much too fast to stop in time. He stomped on his brakes, but it was too late: the Grecian green Gremlin slammed into the car ahead. The Eldorado came next. Milton braced himself for the impact. But it was then an amazing thing happened. He heard metal crunching and glass shattering, but this was coming from the cars ahead. As for the Cadillac itself, it never stopped moving forward. It climbed right up Father Mike’s car. The weird, slanted back end of the Gremlin acted as a kind of ramp, and in the next second Milton realized he was airborne. The midnight blue Eldorado rose above the accident on the bridge. It sailed up over the guardrails, through the cables, plunging off the middle span of the Ambassador Bridge.
The Eldorado fell hood first, gathering speed. Through the tinted windshield Milton could see the Detroit River below; but only briefly. In those last seconds, as life prepared to leave his body, it withdrew its laws, too. Instead of falling into the river, the Cadillac swooped upward and leveled itself. Milton was surprised but very pleased. He didn’t remember the salesman’s having mentioned anything about a flight feature. Even better, Milton hadn’t paid extra for it. As the car floated away from the bridge he was smiling. “Now,this is what I call an Air-Ride,” he said to himself. The Eldorado was flying high above the river, wasting who knew how much gas. The sky outside was pink while the lights on the dashboard were green. There were all sorts of switches and gauges. Milton had never noticed most of them before. It looked more like an airplane cockpit than a car, and Milton was at the controls, Milton was flying his last Cadillac over the Detroit River. It didn’t matter what eyewitnesses saw, or that the newspapers reported the next day that the Cadillac was part of the ten-car pileup on the bridge. Sitting back in the comfortable leather bucket seat, Milton Stephanides could see the downtown skyline approaching. Music was playing on the radio, an old Artie Shaw tune, why not, and Milton watched the red light on the Penobscot Building blinking on and off. After a certain amount of trial and error, he learned how to steer the flying car. It wasn’t a matter of turning the wheel but of willing it, as in a lucid dream. Milton brought the car in over land. He passed above Cobo Hall. He circled the Top of the Pontch, where he had once taken me to lunch. For some reason Milton was no longer afraid of heights. He guessed that this was because his death was imminent; there was nothing left to fear. Without vertigo or perspiration, he gazed down at Grand Circus Park until he spotted what was left of the wheels of Detroit; and after that he headed for the West Side to look for the old Zebra Room. Back on the bridge, my father’s head had been crushed against the steering wheel. The detective who later informed my mother of the accident, when asked about the condition of Milton’s body, said only, “It was consistent with a crash of a vehicle going at seventy-plus miles an hour.” Milton no longer had any brain waves, so it was understandable why, hovering in the Cadillac, he might have forgotten that the Zebra Room had burned down long ago. He was mystified at not being able to find it. All that was left of the old neighborhood was empty land. It seemed that most of the city was gone, as he gazed down. Empty lot followed empty lot. But Milton was wrong about this, too. Corn was sprouting up in some places, and grass was coming back. It looked like farmland down there. “Might as well give it back to the Indians,” Milton thought. “Maybe the Potowatomies would want it. They could put up a casino.” The sky had turned to cotton candy and the city had become a plain again. But another red light was blinking now. Not on the Penobscot Building; inside the car. It was one of the gauges Milton had never seen before. He knew what it indicated.
At that moment, Milton began to cry. All of a sudden his face was wet and he touched it, sniffling and weeping. He slumped back, and because no one was there to see, he opened his mouth to give outlet to his overpowering grief. He hadn’t cried since he was a boy. The sound of his deep voice crying surprised him. It was the sound of a bear, wounded or dying. Milton bellowed in the Cadillac as the car began, once again, to descend. He was crying not because he was about to die but because I, Calliope, was still gone, because he had failed to save me, because he had done everything he could to get me back and still I was missing.
As the car tipped its nose down, the river appeared again. Milton Stephanides, an old navy man, prepared to meet it. Right at the end he was no longer thinking about me. I have to be honest and record Milton’s thoughts as they occurred to him. At the very end he wasn’t thinking about me or Tessie or any of us. There was no time. As the car plunged, Milton only had time to be astonished by the way things had turned out. All his life he had lectured everybody about the right way to do things and now he had done this, the stupidest thing ever. He could hardly believe he had loused things up quite so badly. His last word, therefore, was spoken softly, without anger or fear, only with bewilderment and a measure of bravery. “Birdbrain,” Milton said, to himself, in his last Cadillac. And then the water claimed him.
A real Greek might end on this tragic note. But an American is inclined to stay upbeat. These days, whenever we talk about Milton, my mother and I come to the conclusion that he got out just in time. He got out before Chapter Eleven, taking over the family business, ran it into the ground in less than five years. Before Chapter Eleven, in a reprise of Desdemona’s gender prognostications, began wearing a tiny silver spoon around his neck. He got out before the draining of bank accounts and the jacking up of credit cards. Before Tessie was forced to sell Middlesex and move down to Florida with Aunt Zo. And he got out three months before Cadillac, in April 1975, introduced the Seville, a fuel-efficient model that looked as though it had lost its pants, after which Cadillacs were never the same. Milton got out before many of the things that I will not include in this story, because they are the common tragedies of American life, and as such do not fit into this singular and uncommon record. He got out before the Cold War ended, before missile shields and global warming and September 11 and a second President with only one vowel in his name.
Most important, Milton got out without ever seeing me again. That would not have been easy. I like to think that my father’s love for me was strong enough that he could have accepted me. But in some ways it’s better that we never had to work that out, he and I. With respect to my father I will always remain a girl. There’s a kind of purity in that, the purity of childhood.