Part 81: What Did I Know and When Did I Know It?

1977, Oxnard, California. Pleather jacket, fake leather boots, and a random squash nearby. Photo by Jan Svetlik,



Around the time my sister was evicted from our house, I’d seen and overheard enough to know that something wasn’t right. I began to question our situation, comparing our lives to other people’s. Sudden moves from one place to another, lost checks, my father’s daughter from another woman showing up out of the blue–– it was weird. We were weird.


Now I wonder, what did I know and when did I know it? When I try to think about this…when did I know my father wasn’t who I thought? In the past, when I’ve tried to explain the situation, I’d have trouble saying it. Perhaps my brain could never quite handle it, and as I grew older, this information about my father was so compartmentalized, that it became shrouded in a haze of irrational thought and denial.


*


Someone contacted me at the end of July, a man in the music business from Austin, Texas. He texted to say that he’d been thinking about my father’s life story since the “Hidden Brain” episode. He’s exploring writing a feature film or series. When we spoke on the phone, I tried to explain that I did “sort of” know that my father was sketchy, but after the call ended, I realized nothing I said made sense.

The story would be so much better, for the movie script anyway, if the knowledge of my father’s grifting came as a big moment, a big reveal, and after that, everything changed. “That was the last time I saw my father” type story. Or “After that, I never saw my father the same way.” Maybe I could be a small side character, one of the many children, and Riley portrayed as the misunderstood genius.

As an adult, I tricked myself into believing that Riley’s shady side wasn’t so bad. I told myself that Jan exaggerated the conman stuff when she was mad at him, or that he only did a few grifty schemes out of desperation… just those few times. I realize grifty isn’t a word, but it should be.


If I had to pinpoint a time when it became clear that Riley had a dark side, it was when I was almost thirteen, the day an old man called our house, the story I’ve told before in this blog, in a published essay, and on “Hidden Brain.” If you don’t know the story, here’s what happened:


The call came at the end of 1977. The sun was going down, Riley was still at the restaurant. School was out for the holidays. I answered the phone on the second ring, hoping it was my friend, Nancy. It wasn’t Nancy, it was some old man asking for my father.

When I told him Riley wasn’t home, the caller said, “Sure he’s not,” as if I was lying.

“But…he’s not,” I said, confused.

“Your father’s a crook, did you know that?” The caller sounded mean, his words cutting. I didn’t speak or move.

“He ripped off my entire life savings,” he said.

The man’s voice was shaking with anger, he said a bunch of other stuff, but my ears were ringing, my body frozen. He repeated the word crook over and over before slamming the phone down. I stayed on the line for a moment, the dial tone drilling into my ear, trying to understand what I’d just heard.


Maybe if there hadn’t been so many other strange events, I would’ve thought the old man was just a crank. Afraid he might call back, I left the phone off the hook.

Slowly, I walked to the back yard, where I saw Jan hunched over her tomato plants, her hands covered in dirt. I told about the old man and what he’d said. I expected her to be shocked, to tell me the old man was full of shit, but she didn’t.

“Riley probably did rip off that old man,” she said. She got up, wiping her hands on her jeans.

“I tell everyone not to give him money. People don’t listen. It’s not my fault they don’t listen.”

She went on and on about Riley, how money slipped through his fingers like water, how she had no idea where it all went. She got all worked up to the point of no return. I wished for the kind of mother who could lie and cover things up, to protect me from knowing everything. I felt humiliated and ashamed, knowing my mother ran around telling everyone my father couldn’t be trusted. I cried. Then I was angry about crying, then just angry.


It was dark when Riley finally came home. I’d wound myself into a rage by then. I yelled at him right when he walked in the door, an ambush–– using the same word the old man shouted at me, I called him a crook. He looked at me, his face went slack, his eyes wide. He opened his mouth as if to say something, but no words came. His face drained of color, the cigar he held shed ashes on the floor. I expected him to defend himself. Instead, he looked like a child in trouble. He stood frozen like for what seemed like forever, smoke swirling around him, and he wouldn’t–– or couldn’t speak.

Finally, he turned around and left, slamming the door behind him. I felt powerful. My righteous anger spooked him out of the house. I was proud of myself for telling him off–– for a while, anyway.

“He can’t help it, you know,” Jan said, looking at me like I was the jerk.

After a few minutes I looked out the window and saw Riley sitting in the driver’s side of his Oldsmobile, smoking his cigar. He stayed out there for a long time.

Finally, he came back inside.

“My own daughter thinks I’m a crook?”

Our eyes met for a moment, but I quickly looked away. He went into the kitchen, slammed a cupboard door and yelled, “Who keeps food in this house? Who pays the rent? Where do you suppose your gonna live?”

He didn’t speak to me for the rest of the night. I went to bed more anxious than angry.


In the morning, something had shifted. Riley was no longer pouting and withdrawn, he was upbeat, chatty, making enough buttermilk pancakes to feed a dozen people––a stark contrast to the previous night. I was relieved. I didn’t want to stay mad at him. I didn’t want him to be mad at me for calling him out.

“All the investors will get paid off. You’ll see. They get impatient, that’s all. Stick with me, kid, you’re getting all my royalties,” he said.

It was nice to hear, this version made me feel better. I tried to forget what I’d heard.


*


The old man who called that day in 1977 lived in a trailer park nearby. He didn’t have money. I wonder how much he gave to my father, and what was said, what was promised. I used to rationalize my father’s behavior by deciding that these “investors” could afford it, that Riley would never rip off someone who was in the same boat as we were. But he did. He befriended that old man, got him to believe there was money to be made on the encyclopedia of folk music, then stopped taking his calls.










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