Part 91: A Radical Departure
Our landlord said he wanted to sell the house, so we had to move, at least that’s what Riley said. I didn’t fully understand why our lives were so chaotic, but I was beginning to see that a lot of what went wrong was Riley's fault. No one was in the driver's seat. This was our fourth move in four years, over a dozen since I was born.
I’d been excited about leaving the horrible house we were in, until I laid eyes on the place we were moving into. The new address was near the railroad tracks on Jaye Street, although I had no idea what that meant back then, being close to the railroad tracks. I didn’t know about property values, or how public schools were funded, or that bathrooms and kitchens are the most expensive to fix up, (why our places often had rough ones) or what it meant to be a tenant, or a landlord, or what it meant to be evicted, or credit scores, (did we have credit scores in the 1980s?) or which colleges were “prestigious” and which weren’t. I didn't know how serious it was that Proposition 13 passed in California, or what that meant for the rest of my high school years–– my drama classes would be cancelled for my senior year, we'd have to have a "drama club" outside of class, after school, if we wanted to put on plays. We formed one, but it wasn't the same.
The Jaye Street house would be last place for us, the last place we’d all be together–– but I was clueless about that, too. At least for a while. It didn’t occur to me that anything was different between Jan and Riley. They weren’t getting along, but they never really got along, or they did for a while until they didn't.
The house, at the end of a long dirt driveway, was much smaller than the place we'd left. My “new” bedroom was off the kitchen, so small it may have been a storage pantry. “Snob Hill” loomed right above our new street, where all the big houses (what I thought of then as fancy places) were built, occupied by the better off residents of Porterville. The little rental house sat on a large lot, an acre or so. When we first moved in, I saw that it was a horrible place, a mess–– much worse than the house we’d moved out of, and I fell into a funk.
When all the garbage was cleared away from the inside of our “new” place, Jan painted the wood floor a cobalt blue with a high shine. The electric wall heater, which faced the front door, she painted a matte finish fire engine red. She draped an old, tattered and torn American flag in one front window instead of a curtain, in the other window she made a curtain from sheer bright red fabric with big white polka dots.
One day, Jan pounded a rusty nail into the siding right near the front door and hung a cow’s skull there. At the time, I didn’t appreciate the nod to Georgia O’Keefe. I just wanted normal floors and heaters and curtains, but my friends thought Jan and Riley were cool. Teenagers were free at our house. One boy carved a flaming "A" into the wood furniture in my room. He fancied himself an anarchist, something he would discuss with my mother. None of this, the skull, the wacky curtains, scared away the Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons that knocked on our door. They were always there at the worst possible time. I wonder what you’d have to do to keep them from visiting…a human skull on a rusty nail?
Around this time, our high school band and choir were invited to tour Europe. We were supposed to be selling chocolate bars to raise money, a task which seemed impossible to me then. I don’t think I sold even one chocolate bar. I’m a terrible salesperson to this day. I thought maybe I could save money from my job at McDonalds, not knowing how much plane tickets and everything would cost. When I realized I would fall short, I pestered Riley about it. He said he’d get the money. Back then, I didn’t know what “get the money” meant. He had income from songs he wrote, although I was never clear how much, he’d filed for social security payments early, plus the restaurant jobs he sometimes had, wasn't that the source of his income?
It turns out, Riley was taking money from investors for various projects. In this past blog, Part 46, I posted some of the letters I found mixed in with Riley's journal. Someone had become suspicious and reported Riley to the sheriff's office in October of 1983. In Part 46, I posted letters to an investor in which Riley accuses him of being the one who called the authorities. In this blog, Part 60, I posted agreements Riley wrote up for various investors. I've removed names to protect people...or the marks. I've marked off the names of the marks.
One day, Riley told us that he was going on a short trip to Los Angeles. The trip and the reason for it remained hazy. He still had friends in LA, Joe, Bud, Yvonne, and others. Maybe he was staying with one of them. In Porterville, he’d taken some local musicians under his wing. One was a young drummer named Charlie, a teenager with talent and ambition. Maybe the trip was something about that, or maybe Riley was doing something with the encyclopedia. Back then, I didn’t really understand that the encyclopedia project was much too large for anyone to publish, although Jan seemed to know. I didn’t know he’d sold shares to who knows how many people, including the former Porterville Mayor and another man. They’d formed a partnership that went sour, but I was unaware of that, too.
Two days after Riley took off on this "short trip" to LA, I woke up to the sound of Jan crying. I rolled out of bed, and followed the sound of her weeping. She sat, slumped on the couch with her head in her hands, her brown hair tumbling down over her shoulders. I’d never heard such desperate sobbing. I stood frozen for a moment, not sure what to do.
“What’s wrong?” I said.
She couldn’t speak at first. She wept uncontrollably.
I sat down next to her and put my hand on her back. Her jagged sobs stopped, then her whole body spasmed–– she vomited all over the blue floor.
“I’ll clean it up,” I said.
“No. I’ll do it. Just give me a minute,” she said. She wiped her mouth with her sleeve and walked to the kitchen. She came back with towels and began to clean the floor. “He’s left me. Riley finally did it. I’m just like the others.”
“What?” I was confused.
“All his stuff is gone. He’s gone.” Jan said. She started to cry again.
Back then, I didn’t understand how relationships worked. (Twenty-three years together! A bond, even if a twisted one.) I thought she’d be more relieved. He seemed to drive her crazy, and yet, I’d never seen her so distraught. I wondered how many “others” she was referring to. I only knew about two ex-wives at that time, and I thought those women didn't want him around for some mysterious reason. I wondered, too––did Riley leave Jan for someone else?
“It’s going to be OK. Maybe better,” I said. A side of me knew it probably wasn’t going to be OK. At least not anytime soon. I knew my mother didn’t have a steady income. But that's what you say, isn't it?
Jan told me that the day he left, she became suspicious, so she went to their shared studio. She was shocked to see that he’d cleared out–– he took stuff he didn’t need for a short trip, all the stuff that mattered to him. She called everyone we knew in Los Angeles, asking if they knew anything, or if Riley was there. They either didn’t know, they said.
“He left behind a drawer full of uncashed checks,” Jan said.
“Paychecks? Can we cash them?” I started to panic about money and getting evicted from the house we were in.
“No. You don’t understand. He took money from people around here. He told them they’d get a return on investing in the encyclopedia. He sold songs,” she said, pausing for a moment. “It’s not legal, do you get that? It’s good he didn’t cash those checks.” She began to cry again.
“Are you going to get divorced?” I asked.
“Divorced? We were never married.”
“What? You’re not…" I paused, gobsmacked. "Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I did tell you,” She looked at me and frowned. “I told you that.”
“When? No, you didn’t. You never…”
“No, for the last time. I never divorced my first husband,” she said, looking at me and shaking her head. “I’m still married to my first husband.”
I tried to think back to when I was told this. “I thought you were married," I said, almost to myself.
Over the next several days, we didn't hear anything. We soon realized that Bud, Joe and the others weren’t our friends, they were Riley's. We never heard from them again. Jan told me disturbing stories about him, and things he did, including the story about how Dad had gone out to see the movie “The Producers” when it first came out, and came home buzzing with excitement.
“The plot of the film got inside his head, and that’s when Riley decided to keep selling shares of the encyclopedia to different people,” she said. At the time, I found this story hard to believe.
(Here's the blog about the story Jan told, about the night Riley first saw "The Producers." Part 41. )
Everything was a disaster. If what Jan was saying was true, he’d turned his "life’s work" into one big scam. I felt betrayed and foolish. I wanted nothing more to do with my father. I swore I’d never speak to him again. We were stuck in this stupid town without him, a town that was small in so many ways. I felt as if everyone knew we were the “sketchy family,” and now, not a family at all. My head spinning, trying to piece together all the events, everything Jan was telling me... the weeks after he left were a blur of confusion.
I went with the choir to tour Europe, thinking it was all paid for, because Riley said it was “all taken care of.” I remember, shortly after we returned from the trip, the music teacher was extremely upset about something. We hovered outside his office door, usually left open, now shut tight, wondering what was wrong. It had something to do with a shortage of some kind, a money thing. Only recently (last year) I had a phone conversation with a high school teacher from back then, she's still a good friend of the music teacher. She and I spoke about that time, the trip to Europe, that something had gone haywire, and I realized that this retired teacher knew something, too–– but she talked around it, telling me not to worry, that it was a long time ago.
Something I’ve always wondered about––the music teacher ended up with a landscape that Jan had painted, I saw it hanging in his office after we returned from the trip, just like I’d seen the painting hanging in the plastic surgeon’s office. I don’t think my father ever paid anything for my trip, and the painting was some kind of...what? Partial payment, perhaps. All these years later, I wonder what problems that caused everyone else, and how my trip was paid for.
Our choir and band went to several different countries, Scotland, Norway, England. We stayed in Sweden for four days. My friend Julia and I stayed with a Swedish family, the father worked for Volvo. He loved sailing, so they took us out to sea one windy day. Here's me on the family's sailboat on the Black Sea, biting my knuckles like I’m in a melodrama, with our Swedish host the captain. It was rough sailing, the boat was often tilting to one side, you had to hold on tight. It was scary, my first time on a sailboat, but my eyes tell a different story. I was happy. The Swedish father knew how to sail, how to keep the boat from falling over no matter how strong the winds were, we all had life jackets on, there was a plan, and he knew exactly what to do.
We were safe.
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