A Short History of Fraud
Our mother told me and my sister we were about to learn a secret. She walked us to the far end of the house and nudged us into our father’s downstairs den, a sunken room where he smoked cigars and read newspapers and played out hands of bridge with himself, occasionally scratching at the bald spot on the back of his head. We sat on the rectangular purple sofa, and our mother stood near the doorway. She patted the hairpins in her lacquered French Twist and lit a Chesterfield cigarette.
“You’ve seen this,” my father said, holding out a certificate embossed on an oak slab. He knew I’d seen it, up on a shelf in a built-in cabinet, above the rarely opened bottles of rye and bourbon. He sometimes let me hold it. He had a way of making a case by starting from a point he knew you loved, and then proceeding from that point with methodical, inviting precision.
“I was in the Army, in World War II. You both know that. The government gave me this award for honorable service in the CID, the Criminal Investigation Division. I investigated criminals. You both know that.” He paused to suck the chewed end of his cigar, then blew the smoke up toward the ceiling in a thin stream. He looked back at us. “Now they want me to come back, to go on a special mission for them. A secret mission.” He pointed the cigar at us. “You’ve got to keep your mouths shut.”
My sister Lisa’s knees swung like well-oiled hinges. Her feet wobbled above the wormy little yarns of the shag rug. Her heels kicked the couch. She was a wiry, double-jointed sort of kid who was already distracted, but I sat at attention as we were instructed not to tell, not to tell, not to tell.
Although I was still in the dark about my own secret, I’d seen other people’s secrets wash up on the rocky beach behind the house: fraying, knotted ropes, doll-heads with seaweed tangled in their hair, odd bits of clothing. Whatever washed up was sopping wet and stained brown. And at school, we heard of atomic weapons and communists; we practiced hiding under our desks in the event of a secret missile attack.
That night, I was embarrassed to realize the secret mission had been going on under my nose for quite a while. It was probably the reason the big house seemed to be shrinking in on itself. Our parents sometimes broke into lilting or guttural languages when we entered a room, and they wouldn’t teach us those languages. They must have been talking about the mission and worrying about it. I drifted toward sleep, listening to the waves break, to our parents downstairs shouting, as more debris crashed and piled on the shore.
We’d lived in a boom time up until then. We were shana madelas, pretty girls, in a big house that sat on a cliff overlooking the Atlantic. The house held our father’s dressing room, his upstairs den, his downstairs den, and four bedrooms, but my sister and I shared a room because that was supposed to make us close to one another. Our mother had grown up sleeping in one bed with her four sisters.
A mural of petticoated, bonneted French girls, labeled Fifi and Gigi, was painted on the wall above our twin beds. Our mother had a closetful of silks and furs, bottles of Chanel No.5, and domain over the cleaning and ordering of the house. She hired a live-in maid, and fired her, and hired another. She hired a decorator to help her choose colors and furniture. At bedtime in winter, she sometimes brought our pajamas to us still warm, right from the dryer in the basement. She talked about how we would be debutantes and have coming out parties at an as-yet-to-be-selected country club, one that wasn’t “exclusive,” one that allowed Jews. She dressed us in stiff lace and posed us as little dancers, then stepped back to snap Polaroids. She planned for us to go to charm school. Not bad for the youngest daughter of Italian immigrants in a family of thirteen children, a Depression-era shicksa married to the youngest son of a fatherless Jewish ghetto boy.
In the winters, our family flew from New England to Miami and stayed in hotels serving fresh orange juice in the mornings, and clear consommé as the first course in the evenings. Under the high sun, mirages appeared over pavement, and my skin turned the color of caramels, my favorite candies. The ocean was warm and aquamarine; the beach was crushed shells and corals.
Our names sounded French – Michele Jolie and Lisa Cherie – although we were supposed to be Italian and Jewish. Some piece in the puzzle was out of place. But before the secret mission, before the pink Princess phone in our kitchen began ringing, ringing, ringing, our family looked like the ones on TV – our mother wore wide belts around her slender waist, our father drove a big car, and we all ate homemade dinners together.
“We’re adopted,” my sister said to me one summer morning before the phone began ringing and the cursing began. Our parents slept late, so weekend mornings were ours to watch cartoons on television: Bugs Bunny pulling one over on Elmer Fudd, the Roadrunner crushed by an immense falling object. Elmer Fudd was always fooled. The Roadrunner always resurrected himself. I wondered why those stories never changed, and why they had the power to make me squirm, even when I knew how they’d end.
Our father’s temper hid much of the time, a special-occasion belt left hanging in his dressing room. When he took that belt out, though, I cringed. It could lash at anything: a dent in a car door, a dead cigar, a lukewarm restaurant dish, or us. When the belt came out, so did the Yiddish words, the ones we knew were bad, although we often didn’t know their exact meaning.
The phone kept ringing. We were forbidden to answer it. Sometimes our father did, but it made him angry, and he often slammed the phone back into its receiver. “That putz. They can’t get away with that chuzzarai. Bupkis! They’ll leave me with bupkis.”
And gelt. And gonif. The last two we knew: money and thief.
I put my hands over my mouth, like one of the triptych of monkeys I’d seen in a book – one with its hands over its eyes, one with its hands over its ears, one with its hands over its mouth. I liked the way they all held their shoulders lifted, shrugging, making themselves small. I put my hands over my ears.
But I always listened attentively when our father told his story about getting into the C.I.D – the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division. With a smirk on his face and a twinkle in his eye, he’d tell how he’d been drafted into the Army in World War II and assigned as an office clerk in France. Word came that the clerks would be sent to the front as foot soldiers. He’d heard enough of what the Germans were doing to the Jews. He saw a job posting for a man with college training and investigative experience. He was ready to reinvent himself. It didn’t take long to type up a résumé transforming a ghetto boy into a Harvard man.
The boy who’d made his money by playing poker with schmucks invented a man who’d earned a criminology degree and worked in organized crime investigations. It was wartime; no one checked his references or spotted his lies. He spent the rest of his hitch in Marseilles with a private cook and housekeeper. He had the chutzpah to take a chance, to bluff, to reinvent, to gamble against consequences that might come later.
Part of me loved that story. My father was a clever survivor. But another part of me recoiled at the lie, and how he bragged about taking advantage of others’ stupidity.
Later, after the cartoons were over, Lisa and I huddled on the floor between our twin beds under cover of a tent fashioned from our sheets. Sunlight streamed through the picture window overseeing the Atlantic, filtering through smoothly ironed white cotton smelling slightly of bleach and starch. “They have brown eyes and we don’t,” she said.
That was true; as children, we both had eyes that changed, blue to green to gray, but never to brown. I didn’t want to believe her logic, and luckily, my fourth-grade science class had covered dominant and recessive genes that year. Drawing a picture explaining the concept, I wound up conclusively with the deduction that since our Aunt Marion had blue eyes, non-brown eyes were a recessive trait, a trait that could have been passed on to us. Even at that age, I too, could build a case.
There was, of course, no secret mission. It took a long time for the FBI to build a case against our father, but eventually he was sentenced to federal prison for loan fraud, and our parents came up with the secret mission story to explain his absence. In the years leading up to his prison sentence, our family took mysterious trips to Boston, where my mother and sister and I waited for our father in rooms with granite floors and high ceilings and shelves of books that all had the same strange title, Proof of Facts. My sister and I sat in oxblood leather wing chairs and whined, and our mother shushed and threatened us, lowering her penciled eyebrows, tapping her pointy-toed, high-heeled shoes against the stone floors, pursing her lips in waxy, red disapproval. After each lipstick application, she kissed a tissue to remove the excess, and then let one of us hold the kiss.
After numerous appeals, all the way to the United States Supreme Court, our father went to federal prison for loan fraud in October of 1967. I was ten years old, but I believed he’d gone on a secret mission and for a while, I kept believing. It was only when adolescence kicked in and the whole adult world became disappointing that I felt betrayed by my own gullibility, and ashamed of it, and then angry about being kept in the dark.
I cut myself some slack now. Distance makes it clear that I was just a kid who wanted to love her father. In the 1960’s, easy money gushed through the economy in loans guaranteed by the Federal Housing Authority. Our father’s company sold home improvements, roofing and siding, and to increase sales, he convinced homeowners to participate in a kick-back scheme. He’d exaggerate the costs of the improvements on the FHA loan applications so the homeowners could take out loans for more than the actual cost of a job. Then he and the homeowner split the extra cash in this win-win situation for those who had the chutzpah to falsify a document, to take a little chance.
When the economy tanked, and people started to default on these loans, the FBI got wise to the kickback pattern. Eventually, they cultivated some witnesses against my father. I know the exact dates of events in their investigation, even though they took place nearly fifty years ago. It’s not because the events etched themselves into my brain – I still believed in the secret mission then – it’s because I have my father’s FBI file now.
For example: on October 7, 1964, Special Agent Anonymous took a statement from a married couple who’d defaulted on their loan. Their names are whited-out in my copy of the report, but I’m sure they were the Conboys – a Thackerayian name that I’d often heard paired up with “schmuck” in my childhood. “Anonymous” characterized them as “hillbilly-type people,” and Mrs. Conboy as “an incompetent and irresponsible person of low mentality.”
They seem like average working-class folks of the mid-twentieth century. Mr. Conboy, as of 1964, had been in the same job at Homestead Woolen Mills since 1938. He and his wife had purchased furniture from Sears on credit and had fallen behind on their payments. They’d never managed to get ahead.
Our father’s kickback scheme was a way for the Conboys to get some extra money to pay off other debts. Later, testifying against my father was part of their plea agreement with the FBI, a way for them to avoid going to jail.
The word “fraud” comes from the Latin, fraus, although it sounds Germanic, even Yiddish. Deception carried out for purpose of an unlawful gain. The assumption of a false self for a deceptive end. Keeping someone in the dark for one’s own benefit. Those who commit fraud take on a magical ability to re-form history and identity. I must have believed in magic at ten years old, when my father went to prison. I lay in bed re-reading Nancy Drew mystery novels, solving cases along with Nancy while I refused to be clued in about the Case of the Secret Mission, let alone The Case of the Strange Green Eyes.
Then shortly after I turned twenty-one, a favorite cousin gave me a birthday present. As we sprawled together on a hippie tapestry at the Fire Island beach, she told me my sister and I were both adopted.
My sister – who was not really my sister – had been right. Everything began to make sense: the atmosphere of secrecy, the awkward silences, my feelings, even as a young child, of being such an oddball. But most of all, it began to make sense that I didn’t believe in so many of the things my parents – who were not really my parents – believed. I’d never bought into my tissue-kiss mother’s debutante ideal, or my father’s delight in luxury earned at the expense of gullible fools, or the idea of wealth as a virtue. Those values may have been pounded into them while they grew up poor during the Great Depression. But my parents also didn’t love the things I loved: books and poetry and art.
They each had their own temperament, but neither was similar to mine. And in appearance, I was both lighter and darker than them, with light eyes and dark skin. At least now there was a reason for feeling different. I was no longer an impostor, although I wasn’t sure who I was.
It was the happiest day of my life.
I was so happy, there was little room for anger at being kept in the dark. But soon, I realized that I was one of those schmucks my father had fooled. I was one of those he held in contempt. I’d felt this at fourteen-years-old, when he’d whipped me with the buckle end of that belt hanging in his dressing room, over and over again over a stretch of days, until my thighs bled.
Before that beating, I’d felt like an alien, but my sense of self was intact. Afterward, I’d felt broken, but strong. There was no telling what I could survive, and that made me brave enough to take risks.
Learning that I was adopted sent the thrill of truth through me, but at the cost of knowing I could be fooled. There was no telling who I was, and that gave me permission to do anything.
Love survives betrayal, sometimes, but disappointment can be lethal. I disappointed my father one step at a time, both before and after learning I was adopted: by taking drugs, by taking up with boys and having sex, by dropping out of high school, by running away from home, by living in a slum neighborhood when I was in college and later, by walking away from the law practice I’d built from scratch. He disappointed me by lying to me, by whipping me with the buckle end of that belt hanging in his dressing room until my thighs bled. He disappointed me by losing interest in me once I left my law practice and was no longer useful to him. And I disappointed my tissue-kiss mother by turning twelve. I stopped being useful to her once I was no longer an adorable child.
When I found my real family, my first mother, who was fifteen when she gave birth to me, had already died. She – who gave me green eyes – never saw fifty. The rest of my family is a poetic, loving gang of what the FBI might call hillbilly-type people. They have a lust for touch and alcohol, a talent for turning a phrase and for dying young, with a rich history of mothers giving up their children. I spoke once with the distant relative who’d housed my mother while she was pregnant with me. “They told us you were going to a good home up North,” she said, “that you would be with a good family.”
But what does that mean? If all family rules forbid telling secrets, if all families struggle with shame, is the good family only the one that succeeds at keeping its shames to itself? Is the good family member the one who keeps the secrets? Well, I have never been good.
My adoptive parents’ marriage didn’t survive the secret mission. Maybe what kept them together in the boom times was their skill at reinvention, and perhaps their dread of revelation. Now, their secrets are so old, they might wash up as sodden debris on the present-day shore. A doll whose belly is barren, holding a discolored photo of our tissue-kiss mother with her two adopted daughters; the frayed rope around its neck ties her first-time-wife-and-mother story to the stones of two secret divorces. Our father’s oak CID plaque might be there too, engraved with the secret mission story, listing beside a prison cell built from a child’s construction set.
A rusted metal box holding damp paper that’s stained brown. The fictional birth certificates saying my sister and I were born to those parents when we were not, and the baby books with photographs and made-up tales of our births, reinventing our identities. And the marriage certificates, divorce papers, FBI surveillance notes. And if there’s a page that looks blank, I’d like to think it was being saved for someone to write me a letter with something like the truth, and nothing but the truth. So help me god.
Michele Sharpe, a poet and essayist, is also a high school dropout, hepatitis C survivor, adoptee, and former trial attorney. Her essays appear in venues including The Rumpus, Guernica, Catapult, and The Sycamore Review. Recent poems can be found in Poet Lore, North American Review, Stirring, and Baltimore Review. The author of the Kindle Singles memoir, Walk Away, Michele is currently at work on a second memoir. More at www.michelesharpe.com