The first story—the tabloid headline, page 5—is that my father was murdered, shot, before I had a chance to really meet him. Later, in my mid-20s, I’d learn that Paul Allen Hayes was executed with a .38 pistol, a Saturday Night Special, beside a remote Tennessee highway on my fourth birthday. Growing up, however, I knew only that he was shot to death in the South in 1975. And because Paul had dropped out of the picture well before some unsuspecting campers discovered his brutalized body about forty miles from Knoxville, I had no direct recollections of my father. I only had this basic story, as translated by Mom via a small-town California sheriff.
Still, you don’t need much detail for this kind of story to open up a world of strange, thrilling opportunities. For example, it’s an excellent way to solicit affection and pity. It’s a sure-fire way to cultivate a budding sense of self-importance. Not that it starts out that way. I don’t have the best memory of those early years, but I certainly had no real comprehension of “shot” or “killed,” only the way in which others reacted to the story. And there was significant divergence between my fellow kids and the adults. With those my own age, there was the usual curiosity children have toward other children with different basic foundations than themselves. They thought it curious, like an unfamiliar TV show or movie or game. But it wasn’t overly dwelled upon. If anything, they envied me: I only had one adult to boss me around. The reaction of adults, however, was an entirely different matter. They would magically transform. It was an instant sort of intimacy. They would stroke me with words of heartfelt consolation, and I would purr as I nuzzled in closer.
Mom, for her part, avoided the topic. Aside from getting a fun-loving kid out of the deal, she’d considered their youthful marriage—she’d just turned nineteen, Paul was twenty-one—a mistake. She’d been wooed by Paul, the handsome southern hippie guy visiting blue-collar Waterbury, Connecticut, where she’d just started studying chemistry at a nearby technical college. It was a swift young love and they were soon married, much to the dismay of Mom’s large Roman Catholic family: her father had worked as a buffer for a factory producing high-end sterling silverware and fixtures, a skill he learned as a first-generation Irish-American kid shining shoes in Manhattan during the Depression, and her mother, a first-generation Italian-American, had done part-time secretarial work while raising five children, including a stint in Fort Myers, Florida, where she worked on warplanes during World War II. The newlyweds moved to the town of Cottonwood in the backwoods of southern Alabama. I was born the following year, in 1971. But Paul wasn’t ready for the serious pressures and responsibilities of family life. He was rarely around, leaving Mom to take care of me alone, causing her to give Paul an ultimatum: his family or his friends? He chose his friends. We left Alabama when I was nine months old, first back to Connecticut for two unhappy years, then out west to California, where Mom was determined to make a fresh start. Paul was to be left in the past, where he belonged. So, when the news of his murder knocked on the front door (we had little money and didn’t have a phone), she was shocked and saddened, but she didn’t want to dwell upon it. That’s not to say Mom forbade me from talking about Paul; she just discouraged it. That’s why I usually had to wait until Mom was preoccupied with adult matters before I bounded onstage and told the story, meager as it was.
It typically opened with an adult asking me some mundane question about my father. I’d say something ambiguous, like I don’t know him, or he’s not around. Their responses would naturally follow that they were sorry to hear that, you’re a great kid, he’s missing out, etc. I would wait for the next inevitable question, asking where he was now. “He’s dead,” I’d say matter-of-factly, sometimes even blithely, on occasion outright enthusiastically. People’s friendly smiles would slacken. I was fascinated by the stunned silence, the power of it, this instantaneous heightened intensity. Look what I can do! I had power, and to wield this power I merely had to speak of Paul’s death. To be clear: if they didn’t ask about my father’s whereabouts, I would offer the information up voluntarily, pausing to get the full impact. But it was immensely more satisfying if they asked of their own accord.
After revealing this basic fact, people generally split off into two distinct categories, because some considered it improper to pry further, while others were less decorous. As to the former group, they tended to simply drop the subject, maybe going to Mom directly, assuming the story may be too traumatic for me to elaborate upon. Others, however, would bluntly ask me what had happened. I liked blunt. Blunt became part of my own repertoire of dramatic devices. I’d reply that he was killed, shot. I didn’t know much more than that. Which was true. I didn’t. As for the polite ones, who tried to change the subject, I told them anyway. It’s too late to turn back now.
They love me! Sure, I was funny, lively, charming, but I was also a tragedy child. I mean, I was amazing, but even more amazing because I was suffering through the absence of a much-needed father. (I’m not sure I really believed that I needed a father, though I did envy other kids who had fathers.) I took my bows, basking in the cheers and accolades. So strenuous were my acceptances I didn’t notice that behind the pitying smiles and condolences, the kind words, there lurked fear and concern. We moved often back then, easily averaging a dwelling or less per year, so it was easy to miss the signs. It would take me years to really get it: what I perceived as a story that made me interesting and unique was also a story that contained a surreptitious menace. It was a bad omen, heavy-handed foreshadowing toward a sinister or tragic outcome. Would I become a threat to myself, to others? Does the apple fall far from the tree? I thought I was special but, in truth, people looked at me as abnormal. Inevitably, misgivings became manifest, as when chatting on the bus with someone who has a knife scar across his or her face. In time I sensed that people were looking for signs of violence. I would even sense a broader suspicion—how did this kid’s father get himself in that situation? Maybe whatever happened isn’t over. Their loaded pity turns toxic. Not everyone’s, but enough to enter your bloodstream in a lasting way. That’s how the self-importance, once so exciting, twists into a sometimes-debilitating self-doubt: you’re unsure how to interpret people’s reactions. In time you learn to be careful about what you say, what details you reveal, and to whom.