When my mother died in prison ten years ago, she left behind two clear garbage bags of “personal property” carefully inventoried by the prison, a fur coat in storage somewhere, unanswered questions, and a trail of missing people. Among those people: my two younger half-brothers, several ex-husbands, even more ex-boyfriends, my father, and his other (legitimate) children.
In 2004, soon after she passed, I requested her medical and legal files and filled boxes with her paperwork. I dragged those boxes from house to house and, later, country to country. I packed carefully organized files into a red duffel bag and nervously checked it on a flight from Indianapolis to Singapore, as if my mother herself were inside. What if the bag gets lost? I worried. I could never replace the documents; I could never get my mother back if the airline lost that red duffel bag.
A year after her death, I went in search of an apartment on the Upper West Side, where she lived for a year when she was nineteen. I took the Metro North from Mount Vernon, where I was living while in graduate school, to Grand Central Station. I took the number 7 train to Times Square and then the number 1 to 72nd Street. I turned the wrong direction on 70th and walked towards Broadway, but within a few minutes, I turned myself around and made my way to the apartment where my mother lived before I was born. I snapped a few pictures with my digital camera and then just stood there awhile, imagining her coming out the door wearing her full-length fur coat, her blonde hair swept into a low ponytail.
There was a restaurant across the street from her apartment building. I looked through the windows at the families eating brunch. Then I walked back to the subway.
Years later, I can virtually stand in front of my mother’s apartment building whenever I want. I can look at the man frozen mid-walk in front of the brick building: he wears a suit and carries a briefcase. In front of the neighboring brownstone, two women check their phones. The camera on the Google Maps car makes a shadow on the street.
I can go right through the door of the restaurant across the street. Two waitresses bustle behind the bar while the hostess, with her face blurred out, stands by the computer station at the front door.
I set out to track down people I knew and didn’t know, the people my mother had left behind. Through the internet, I’m able to find many of them, for others the trail is cold. Two pieces of information my mother gave me years and years ago, when I was in high school—the name of my father and the name of his company—lead me to a street in the Bronx on another Google map. I turn circles, zoom in and out, and look for what, I don’t know. There’s a sign for a law firm on the building that my father owns: it’s his last name. The website for the law firm leads me to a man who might be my half-brother, which leads me to the website of a woman who might be my half-sister. I stare at their pictures, looking for some resemblance, some confirmation that they, that we, that I have been found.
Feverishly, I waste hours online searching for more information. I write imaginary emails in my head to all of them: my father, my half-brother, my half-sister. I think about writing real emails to them. I imagine traveling to visit them. Would they pick me up at the airport? Or would it be better to just meet at a restaurant?
I turn my attention to the other missing people. I search online for Lamar, one of my mother’s old boyfriends, the father of one of my half-brothers who disappeared into foster care when he was a few months old. For a minute, I think I’ve found Lamar in Florida. He’s been booked into the Polk County Jail twelve times. The lengths of his sentences vary: ten days, two months, six months. The charges: possession of cocaine, retail theft, battery, nonsupport of children or spouse, aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. There’s a mug shot for each booking. I compare them to the single photograph I have of him from when I was a child: my brother in his arms.
Is it him? The nose isn’t quite right. The forehead of my Lamar is longer. But the mug shots are of a man in his 60’s, and my picture offers a profile shot of a Lamar in his early 30’s. I want these mug shots to be him. I want to believe I’ve found him, that I’ve solved one part of this puzzle, one corner filled, the background emerging: blue sky, a bit of puffy clouds.
There’s no address for him online. I write him a letter on those soft white clouds: Do you remember me? But there’s no way to send it.
Sometimes I browse prison pen pal websites, looking for a perfect match, looking for someone like my mother. A second chance. I’ll flood her cell with long handwritten letters, full of encouragement. I’ll be her connection to the outside world, her support system; I won’t judge the choices she’s made. I’ll keep her inmate account flush so she can order whatever she wants: stamps, V05 shampoo, Wet n Wild lipstick, Ramen noodles, sardines.
I find my mother’s ex-husband on Facebook. She was married to him during the time she had the baby with Lamar. He accepts my friend request and we exchange a few Facebook messages. I ask him some questions and he skirts providing any actual answers. But, every now and then, he comments on my posts or pictures and in some small way, this is a connection to my mother. He may have known her better than me.
Once I wrote to the New Hampshire Division of Human Services, to ask if it would be possible to search for my missing half-brothers, who ended up in foster homes or maybe they were adopted—I don’t know. A woman wrote back and said Yes. It is possible. She gave me a phone number to call for more information, but I never called. I search adoption registries from time to time, looking for a match. I think about getting my DNA tested, which is now easy and affordable to do and can match you with relatives in their database up to distant cousins.
My mother brought one normal-looking man home once. His name was Paul. By normal, I mean he wasn’t a criminal and he wasn’t rich (the two categories of most of the men she dated). He wore a plaid shirt and jeans and carried on a pleasant conversation with my grandparents through dinner. A police report reveals that later that weekend, trouble ensued.
I find him online, or at least I think it’s him. There are two last names in the police report, but I’m pretty sure he is the man I’ve found online. I email him. I explain who I am, and try to articulate what I’m looking for but, since even I don’t know what that is, it’s hard to capture in text alone . He doesn’t respond.
What right do I have to reach out to these missing people? Every now and then, my ex-husband sends me a message on Facebook. We are not Facebook friends and our marriage didn’t end amicably. Every time one of these messages pops up on my computer, I feel the need to duck, as if he can see me. I do not want to hear from him. A friend says he’s “fishing” to see if anything might still be there. There isn’t.
One of my mother’s ex-husbands is dead. I didn’t even know he existed until I found a marriage certificate among my mother’s personal property from the prison. They were married on June 20, 1992, in Stowe, Vermont. I would have just finished my sophomore year of high school. I Google his name, thinking maybe he can tell me something about my mother. Maybe he is kind. An obituary reveals this: he was struck by a vehicle on I-89 while aiding a stranded motorist on the side of the road. He was a hero, a volunteer fire fighter. He enjoyed camping, sculpting, drawing, golf, skiing, dancing, feeding wild birds and caring for his plants. He will be remembered for always giving to others. I think this: if he had been alive, he would have been the one to tell me about my mother.
In my mind, pictures of all these people line a wall, like a police investigation board. If I were a one-woman police department, would these people be missing or wanted? What is the difference?
One day my mother’s ex-husband, the one on Facebook, messages me and says he wants to tell me about my mother, but he’s going to the doctor that day. His message is strange, as if I he’s responding the day after I first wrote to him, but it’s been six months since I sent him the first message. I reply and say I hope everything goes well at the doctor’s office.
The next day there’s a new message from him: HATE TO SAY THIS BUT I WAS HER PIMP. SO DON’T BE MAD AT ME.
I’m paralyzed by what he’s typed, as if screaming at me, a confessional in caps. For years, I had imagined what her relationship with this man was like. He defended her in a newspaper article, where an ex-boyfriend suggested she had murdered all her ex-husbands.
When I was in grade school, I visited my mother in the hospital. She had a broken jaw. Her mouth was wired shut and she could only drink liquids through a straw for months. No explanation was offered to me at the time. I had no idea how she broke her jaw, how anyone breaks a jaw. I was in third grade. Like most kids, I was a fan of jawbreaker candy. Sometimes I would suck on those hard globes, try to catch it in between my teeth. If I could get it in the right position and crack it in two, maybe I too could snap my jaw, I thought.
The medical records I carted around for years told me it was her pimp who broke her jaw.
It never said: Her husband broke her jaw.
My mother married her pimp. And then he broke her jaw.
Or maybe my mother’s pimp broke her jaw and then she married him.
Does it matter which?
I thought I wanted to know everything about my mother but now I’m not so sure. The ex-husband/pimp said things with my mother got out of hand and then she just lost her mind. He said she is everything I knew and more. He types and yells: SHE IS EVERYTHING YOU KNEW AND MORE. HATE TO SAY THIS BUT I WAS HER PIMP. SO DON’T BE MAD AT ME.
What if Google Maps let us time travel? What if I could visit wherever my mother lived with this pimp-husband, turn virtual circles on the street outside, enter the front door, sit down on the sofa? What if the only thing I needed was the address of her home with the pimp-husband? Would you call it a home?
Like my ex-husband, occasionally my mother’s ex-husband sends me random messages: happy easter it seems you are doing very well for yourself happy for you.
But none of his messages tell me anything I really want to know.
What is it that I want to know?
What was my mother’s drug of choice? How many men was she with? How much did she charge? How did he break her jaw? What does he mean by “out of hand” and “lost her mind”? But the answers are not in the boxes of files I move from office to office, they are not inside the pockets of her fur coat, they are not inside the two clear garbage bags of “personal property,” they are not in the men I find or the children I will one day find. Nor will these answers bring her, my mother, a stranger, back to me.
SHASTA GRANT is author of Gather Us Up and Bring Us Home, a forthcoming chapbook with Split Lip Press, the 2016 SmokeLong Quarterly Kathy Fish Fellow, and Spring 2017 Writer-in-Residence at the Kerouac House in Orlando, Florida. Winner of the 2015 Kenyon Review Short Fiction Contest, judged by Ann Patchett, her stories and essays have appeared in cream city review, Epiphany, Gargoyle, wigleaf, and elsewhere. Shasta is a previous contributor to Proximity and served as editor of Issue 14. A graduate of the MFA program at Sarah Lawrence College, she currently lives in Singapore and Indianapolis. (@shastagrant)