By Robert Yoder
“What children of a marriage rarely witness is the nature of the love that brought the whole thing – themselves included – into being in the first place.”
– William Trevor, May 1993, New Yorker Magazine
The most surprising thing my mother ever told me was her account of the time she put a .38 Saturday Night Special in her purse and went downtown one bright sunny day to shoot my father. For almost three hours she waited for him to come by, standing first on the street corner, then inside Woolworth’s looking out through the large plate glass windows fronting Main Street before finally giving up and returning home. We were standing in that same Woolworth’s looking out that same front window when she told me this. I was thirteen or fourteen. It was a cold winter day, but sunny and bright, and we were waiting for the bus inside where it was warm. It must have reminded her of that day. As she told me this story in her matter-of-fact way, a bit sheepishly, I listened to her words without the slightest comprehension. It was impossible for me to visualize what she was telling me. I could not imagine this calm, placid, undemonstrative woman, my mother, driven by a passion so strong that she would put a gun in her purse and resolve to murder her errant husband.
Except for this single glimpse into their personal lives, through all their years of trouble, through his drinking, carousing, flagrant display of girlfriends and mistresses and finally, abandonment, never did she reveal emotion, never did she complain or discuss her problems with anyone, not with her family, not with his family, not with my brother, not with me. He had gone from our lives for good by then and we rarely spoke of him.
My brother, who is fourteen years older than I, claims our father was different than the person I knew and two aunts, my father’s sisters, both agree. They say my father was a god-fearing man, a deacon in the church, a devoted and loving family man, a man who gave thanks before every meal, a man who got down on his knees every morning and every evening and led the family in prayer and gospel songs. They say he was a responsible man, hard working, caring. I think they have my father mixed up with someone else; this was not the man I remember, not the law-skirting, skirt-chasing good-time-Charley who loved bowling and boozing with the boys, the cigar-chompin’, gamblin’, back-slappin’, “buy the bar a drink on me” big spender who, when he bothered to think about it, regarded his wife and kids as a pain in the ass, an anchor around his neck and a drag on life. But then, maybe I’m being a little hard on him.
Assuming for a moment that my brother and aunts are right, there were two distinct periods in our family’s life separated roughly by my birth. In the first period, the period before I was born, they were a close family, rooted in Amish culture and conforming to a religious tradition tempered in the crucible of the Protestant Reformation. Their speech, their thought, their dress, had been passed down unchanged from generation to generation for three hundred years. It was an austere life, a life of endless work and struggle centered on the husbandry of animals and land, a life of humility based on scripture. It was, my parents had been taught, the path to everlasting peace and joy with God in the kingdom of heaven. This was a family of whom I have no knowledge. I would arrive too late.
In the second period, the period after I was born, my father was a distant shadow who appeared only occasionally and smelled of cigars and booze. By then he had already shed the church and was in the process of shedding us like an old skin. I now understand it was nothing personal, it was just that, for him, commitment to family and the nurture of others no longer worked. My mother did what she could to hold him, to preserve her unraveling life, not understanding that no matter what she did, he was already done with her, the connection was broken and he was not coming back. He no longer felt loyalty or obligation, he had lost faith in their shared beliefs and strayed too far to ever return. While she waited patiently for his return, he did what he did unchecked. For years. And finally she had enough, and in a single moment of blind rage and despair at the public flaunting of his latest mistress, a red-haired floozy named Polly with painted lips and nails to match, decided to track him down and put an end to his profligate ways and her humiliation.
I saw Polly once. It was soon after we moved from downtown Niagara Falls, a flat on Whitney Avenue, to an apartment on Krull Parkway near my father’s restaurant, the Mil-Pine, on the outskirts of town. I was still unfamiliar with the area and one day I wandered off in a new direction and found myself at a housing project a mile or so away. I realized this was a project I had heard about before, a dangerous place where Negroes lived and the police were often called, where violence was common, where fights broke out and people had guns and shot each other. Long rows of identical two-story whitewashed apartment buildings lined the street and even though I was only nine, I could see the difference between these places and where I lived. These were poorly constructed thin-walled apartments with patchy grass and no sidewalks. Where I lived, the buildings were brick, solid, well-built and well-maintained, with lawns and courtyards and places to play.
As I stood in that weedy field across the road from the project, I began to feel a vague sense of unease, a kind of foreboding; it was mid-afternoon but there was no activity anywhere, no cars passing or people outside; the place looked completely deserted. I was about to turn and walk away when, to my astonishment, my father came out the door of one of the apartments. Instinctively, I jumped in the ditch alongside the road before he saw me.
The first shock of recognition was followed by a feeling of disbelief and anguish and then a sense of betrayal, for what I saw as I peered over the top of the ditch was my father carrying a little girl in his arms. She was no more than three years old and the joy in her face, and in my father’s, the delight they took in one another, was obvious. A woman with flame red hair and bright lipstick, bangles and bracelets on both arms, followed them out the door. This was Polly although at the time I had no idea who she was, or the little girl, or why my father was here with them. But the sight of him with that little girl in his arms laughing and talking stunned me. It felt like a spear had ripped through my chest, through my heart, through my very soul. I could not breathe, I was suffocating, everything was spinning and I laid flat in the ditch and closed my eyes for a moment.
Through the din and confusion in my head, I heard my father’s voice and then a car door opened and I poked my head up again and saw him get into his blue Buick, the one I steered and pretended to drive when it was parked behind the Mil-Pine restaurant. I watched him put the little girl in the front seat next to him, watched the red-haired woman get into the passenger side, watched them drive off, turn the corner and disappear. It was only then that the tears came, the sobbing and my shame.
I knew my father didn’t like me. Or Mom. He moved out a few days after we moved to Krull Parkway and no longer came to our apartment even though it was only a block from the restaurant. And that day in his moving out when he came back to gather the last of his things, he knocked me down the stairs, the only time I remember him hitting me, and I saw the contempt in his eyes, the loathing in his face, but the hurt and anguish of seeing him with this little girl in his arms, talking to her, loving her, was even worse, more terrible than the physical violence. He had never held me that way, never laughed or talked to me with such joy, never shown interest in me like that. On some level I must have always known or sensed his disregard and lack of love, but here, now, it was clearly visible and irrefutable and in that terrible moment of blinding revelation, I had no protection from it.
What had brought me here to this place, the most notorious project in town? Why this particular time of day and day of the week? I have never believed in predestination, not even as a child. No matter how much my mother tried to explain it, it never made sense to me. But still…
Mom told me the .38 Saturday Night Special story only once but there was another story she related many times and even though she always said it was only a rumor, she told it as fact.
When he was seventeen, my father impregnated the bishop’s daughter and refused to marry her. As a result of his refusal he was asked to leave the community and did, moving from Wayne County, Ohio in the eastern part of the state to Defiance County in the west where he met my mother.
Although my aunts, his sisters, never confirmed this story (I asked but they hedged), they did say that he was wild in his youth, that he ran with a wild crowd and that he was one of the wildest.
So if the rumor my mother told me is true, then I have a half-brother or sister somewhere out there and if this is the case, then I wonder if Polly’s daughter, that little girl I saw in his arms that day might also be his daughter, another half-sister.
I had always assumed that Polly was the woman my father had taken up with when my mother went downtown to shoot him, but now I am not sure. My brother tells me that our father had many girlfriends and many affairs, including most of the waitresses he employed. He also tells me that before Polly, Dad had a long-term affair with Midge. Midge! Midge was the first waitress at the Mil-Pine and our next door neighbor on Krull Parkway, a woman I would come to know and love and call my second mother.
My brother says he only became aware that Dad was messing around sometime in 1942 when he took his girlfriend to the movie one night and sat down in two empty loge seats that, by sheer coincidence, were right next to Dad and a woman he, my brother, did not know. As soon as Dad saw him, he and the woman jumped up and raced to the exit. At the time he had no idea who the woman was, but later he realized it was Midge.
Dad met Midge sometime in 1940 when he got a job as an electrician with the DuPont Chemical plant in Niagara Falls. We lived in Clarence at the time and it was a long drive to work, so my father rented a room during the week and drove home on weekends. Midge worked in a restaurant close by his rented room and Dad ate there almost every night. That’s when they began their affair that lasted for more than five years.
In doing research for a memoir, I requested old issues of the Niagara Falls Gazette through an interlibrary loan and when the microfilm came in, spent several hours each day at the library. Once again, by chance or synchronicity or predestination or cosmic convergence, on page two of the February 4, 1946 edition of the paper, a two-column header in bold type caught my attention: “Bandits Drop Robbery Plans when They Find Big Crowd in Restaurant.” I began to read:
“Two masked men, one armed with a shotgun, who appeared at the door of the Milpine restaurant, Pine Avenue and Military Road at 4 a.m. yesterday … were believed by police to have abandoned a plan to rob the place when they saw that there were nearly 75 persons in the restaurant.”
Holy cow! The Mil-Pine restaurant! That was us! Instantly the memory came back of this event, of hearing my parents talk about it, although I don’t remember, and maybe never knew, any of the details.
“The bandits were described as being about 19 or 20 years old. The one with the gun wore a long topcoat and no hat. Both had handkerchiefs tied over the lower part of their faces.
“A car belonging to Nelles Burnham, 1552 Pierce avenue, stolen from Main street and Willow avenue at 2 a.m. Sunday, was found yesterday… at Niagara and Prospect streets. A shotgun and a box of shells were found on the floor of the car and it was believed that the car had been stolen and used by the two bandits.
A case containing an expensive saxophone and clarinet belonging to Burnham were still in the car when it was found.”
As I read this, one revelation after another exploded in my head. Burnham. An expensive saxophone and clarinet. 1552 Pierce Avenue.
Although the paper gave his first name as Nelles, it had to be Roy Burnham, Midge’s husband, the professional musician. Then it came back to me. I think he had another name but went by Roy. Yes, it had to be him.
It was the address, however, that was the biggest revelation. Nelles Burnham, the paper reported, lived at 1552 Pierce Avenue. Pierce Avenue was the next street over from Whitney Avenue where we lived at the time. We didn’t move to Krull Parkway until six months after the attempted robbery. I googled the map. Sure enough, Burnham lived kitty-corner across the alley from us. They were our neighbors there as well as on Krull Parkway!
I called my brother. “Hey, Elton, remember Roy Burnham, Midge’s husband?”
“Remember he was a professional musician and played the violin? Did he play the sax too?”
“Oh yeah, I really liked it.”
“Do you remember if Roy was his nickname? Was his real name, Nelles?”
“Maybe. I don’t remember.”
“Well, did you know they lived on Pierce Avenue right across the alley from us?”
I read the article to him. We both had trouble believing so many people were in the restaurant at four a.m. on a Sunday morning but, unlike me, he had no trouble with it being open at that time. “When I came back to New York after I got out of the service in 1950,” he said, “I ran the third shift for him at the Dinette in North Tonawanda. He was open twenty-four hours a day seven days a week.”
A few nights later I was relating the story to a friend but doubting that there were seventy-five people in the restaurant at four o’clock on a Sunday morning.
“Four a.m.,” she said. “It’s after hours. It’s what’s called a New York party.”
Well, that made sense. Dad was a party guy. He knew everybody in every bar and roadhouse in town. The Mil-Pine was a popular place, lots of regular customers, and even though he didn’t have a liquor license and couldn’t sell hard liquor—he railed at the corrupt Alcohol Beverage Control Board that kept denying him a license to open a full bar—he sold a lot of beer. I had been seeing it through the prism of a child’s perception—a straight restaurant open for breakfast, lunch and dinner and Mom’s home cooking. It never occurred to me that it might also have been an after-hours hangout. Lack of a liquor license wouldn’t have stopped Dad. People might have brought their own or maybe he sold it illegally under the counter. After all, he had illegal slot machines and punch boards in a windowless side room that he unlocked for some people.
Over the next few days I read the article at least a half dozen times and with each reading I became more and more convinced. Right from the start I knew those guys weren’t there to rob the place. They were there to murder my father. There’s just too many coincidences. The getaway car the would-be robbers used happened to belong to Roy Burnham? Roy Burnham, the husband of Midge Burnham, my father’s waitress and mistress? Who lived right across the alley from us? The car reported stolen at 2 a.m. and used in the robbery at 4 a.m.? Come on!
Neither the police nor the reporter put any of this together but it seems pretty obvious to me. Roy got pissed. Got tired of his neighbor, who was also his wife’s employer, fucking his wife. Hired two young thugs to go out there in the middle of the night and shoot him. They’d make it look like a holdup, not premeditated murder. But they didn’t expect to find the place jam-packed with people, got spooked and left.
Once again my father was lucky and I’m sure he knew it this time. I’m sure the coincidences were just as obvious to him as they were to me. Mom probably saw it too. I think right about then was when Dad ended his affair with Midge and took up with Polly. Maybe he’d been seeing Polly on the side for awhile already. Or, maybe, when he dumped Midge for Polly it was Midge who hired the thugs and not Roy. My brother is convinced this is the case and the more I think about it the more I think he’s right. And now I begin to think maybe it wasn’t Polly that sent my mother over the edge but Midge. Who knows. There were no followup articles in the paper and no one’s left who can tell us, but it certainly makes sense. And there’s also the irony of both women—Mom and Midge—being so hurt, so violated, and so enraged, that they wanted to kill him. And almost did.