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That Time My Dad Robbed A Bank

On the last Tuesday of each month leading up to the release of The Motherhood Affidavits (April 3, 2018), I will post an excerpt that did not make the final cut for the published book:

Ensconced at our piano, I pressed my sloppy fingers against its ivory will, just as our house phone erupted, the ringtone like a frantic old woman warbling. The Winnebago County Sheriff’s Department was on the line.

“Is this Ralph Baker’s daughter?” the investigator asked me.

My dad, Dr. Baker, was tall, sinewy, and bearded, a “couch doctor” humming baritone advice. His forehead was a landscape unto itself, age-spotted and contoured, his glasses like boundary lines on the topography of his face.

“Yes,” I said. The only people who ever asked me this question were perfumed ladies and Folgers-scented men at our Presbyterian Church Fellowship hour or acquaintances prepared to shamelessly admit my dad was their psychiatrist.

“We are investigating a complaint related to your father,” the man said. His interrogation was brief, the gist of it embodied in just two unexpected words: “bank” and “robbery.” Was my father acting out-of-character lately? Did I believe he had any reason to rob a bank? Did he carry a gun? Had he mentioned anything to us about feeling angry, desperate, or at the end of his rope?

“No,” I said. But, secretly, yes, my mom and dad were disentangling their wedding knot after seventeen years.

“Do you feel safe with your father?” the investigator asked.

“Yes,” I said. This was entirely true.

Even if, after the divorce, our father-daughter moments were limited to the solitary confinement of his car, as he chauffeured me between homes. We’d listen to Billy Joel’s Storm Front, Grammy-nominated that year. “We Didn’t Start the Fire” played like a soundtrack for family demise. Understanding world events seemed suddenly easier than comprehending my own parents. We listened to the cassette tape, re-winding and re-playing it repeatedly, seemingly far, far away from the home I once knew, my dad extemporaneously foot-noting all of Joel’s references.

Starkweather, Homicide, Children of Thalidomide.

“What is ‘Starkweather'?” I asked.

“Charles Starkweather was some 19-year-old serial killer,” he said. “The last guy to get zapped in the Nebraska electric chair.”

“Was that his real name?” I asked.

My dad laughed.

“He was one of these anti-social guys,” he said. “To compensate for being bullied, he deluded himself into believing he was above the law, and everybody else was beneath him.”

This was pre-iPhone. My dad knew everything off the top of his head; intelligence became, ever after, a precursor to love.

Starkweather himself was a lovesick man, who kicked off his killing spree only after his girlfriend’s parents forbade their courtship. The serial killer worked for minimum wage as a garbage collector, but what kind of future could that money buy? After plotting a series of bank robberies, which he never committed, Starkweather held up a service station when the clerk refused to sell him a stuffed teddy on credit. He killed the employee, then his sweetheart’s family. She accompanied Starkweather on the remainder of his murder spree, as a hostage or accomplice, nobody ever knew for sure. The take-away message was clear, however. Our brains go haywire on grief.

“We will continue to investigate this matter,” the police investigator told me. I felt light-headed, confusion bottle-necked in my throat. Was this some hilarious prank? Perhaps I had entered a comic strip in which a psychiatrist who resembles Freud, loading a gun with hearts, instead of bullets, says, “Let’s not overreact here, but this is a pick-up.” Any Freudian slip could be traced, not to my dad’s penchant for violence – he didn’t have one – but rather to his sudden and shocking loneliness.

As it turned out, my dad, having been demoted to apartment dweller and bachelor, coped by detour, stopping in parking lots and along country roads, between Oshkosh and Green Lake. A small bank was his respite, a place for learning how to tie his life back together with a single string. From the sanctity of his driver’s seat, he’d also listen to phone messages, record dictation, and read psychiatric case reports. From behind the drive-thru glass at the bank, a lonesome father, buried in work, and a hold-up artist with a pistol in the glove box, presumably adopt the very same crooked and bewildered expression on their faces.

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