By Carole Lynn Jones
The old saying, “you can’t pick your family,” definitely applied to me as a child. I grew up in the toughest of households. My mom checked out of life when I was eight. My father worked a minimum wage job and childcare wasn’t in his budget. Beer and weed were. Happy was his nickname. I couldn’t see why. Sure, he knew a ton of jokes and he told the wildest fish tales about the fish that got away, but he wasn’t much of a father figure for schoolwork, projects, cooking, or cleaning. Luckily, my sister was four years older than me. Not old enough to be left home alone caring for me while he worked or fished, but it didn’t matter, because no one ever checked. By the time she was 15, I became a rebellious 11-year-old, so she took on the role of my mother. I rebelled, we fought, and she told my dad. He punished me by making me spend the day down at the river with him. I left home at 18, determined to find a better life.
Luckily, you can “pick your friends.” I met a girl at “Chancey’s Inn,” where I was a cook. Denise came from a family of doers, achievers, and dreamers. Her dad was a contractor, her mother a teacher, and she had one sibling, a younger sister with her sights set on getting into Harvard. Denise was going to school to be an occupational therapist and waitressed at Chancey’s in the evenings. She encouraged me to follow my passion.
“David, you are so good at solving these cases, you could be a detective.” she said as I once again beat the “Cold Case Murder Mystery Game.”
I took Denise’s hand in marriage and her advice to heart. After a twenty-year stint on the force with the NYPD, I moved into their special unit investigating cold cases.
“Do you think your sister’s family and your dad would like to come to Easter this year,” Denise asked after she hung up the phone from her thirty-minute conversation with her mother.
“D, whatever works for your sister and parents is fine with me,” I said, my attention fixed on the case file I had brought home that day.
“You’re not listening to me, are you, David.” Denise gently closed the folder, hiding the paperwork I was staring at, and tilted my chin up to meet her pleading brown eyes. “I said, your family. Mine are coming, but it would be nice to meet yours.”
“I’m sorry, D,” I said. “You know I haven’t spoken to my sister in three years.”
“I know, I just thought, maybe, you would call and invite her and your father? You need to put your stubborn pride aside.” She wrapped her arms around me.
“Maybe, I’ll see,” I said. That was enough for her hopeful heart. She kissed me softly and headed to her kickboxing class.
Alone in the house, I thought back to the last time my sister Rose and I spoke. She had called me once again to ask if I would come home to Confluence.
“Has he changed?” Silence was my answer.
“I didn’t think so,” I said. “How much has he borrowed from you lately, Rose? He still owes me $500. Said he needed it to fix his truck. Did he?”
“He tries, David. He might borrow money, but most of the time now it is to buy the boys’ presents. Speaking of the boys, they would love to see their uncle again soon. They turn seven next month, remember.”
I looked at the artwork and letters Rose’s twins had written me hanging on the refrigerator. “Is he still drinking and telling tales?”
“He seems to forget a lot lately.”
“It’s probably from years of alcohol,” I said as I looked at my second half-drank nightly beer next to me on the kitchen table.
“He still goes to the river daily, and I try to call and check in nightly. I can’t keep running over to his house. When he doesn’t answer, I go crazy with worry, afraid he fell into the river or got lost.”
“Your imagination is taking over. He knows that river better than the guides who kayak down it. He loves Ohiopyle.”
“But, his forgetting lately worries me. I could really use your help. Maybe you could come home and talk to him?”
I don’t know why, but I laughed. Not a snicker, or a humph, but a non-stop, nose ‑snorting, belly laugh.
This angered my sister. What she said next, I will never forget.
“Well, if you don’t care to come and help me with Dad, I won’t care enough to let you know when he passes.”
Two hours later, Denise returned from kickboxing, and she was exhilarated when I told her about my latest case and my travel plans.
“It’s fate, babe,” she said as she rubbed my back. “You have no reason not to visit your family. You will only be ten miles from Confluence checking on your lead. Please, for me, I know you had a rough childhood, but people change. You changed.”
The next day my plane touched down at the Arnold Palmer Regional Airport in Latrobe, Pa. I rented a car and checked my map directions. Denise was right, it was fate or a crazy coincidence. The informant I needed to speak to at the Fayette County Prison put me within a half hour of Ohiopyle and Confluence, PA.
After checking my credentials, they buzzed me through the security locks and led me into the meeting room with my informant. He was serving time for his first offense. A pale, pimple-faced young man barely 18 years old who had committed armed robbery. He hesitantly walked into the room. He wasn’t a seasoned criminal; he was someone who had made some terrible life choices.
“I’ll get right to my reason for being here. I was told you had some information about Sid Wilson’s murder.”
The kid ran his hand up over his buzzed blond hair and leaned in.
“I heard this, from a guy visiting. But you need to keep it in the vault, for my sake. Check out Bobby Lewis,” he said, his shaky voice a mere whisper.
A guard walked through with another inmate. My informant leaned back and crossed his skinny arms.
“You fishing for information I ain’t got,” the young kid said. “Guard, I’m done here.”
I needed to go back to New York and run my lead. If my informant’s info checked out, maybe I could return the favor with a call before his next court date, maybe even secure him a bump up on the calendar. Cutting my trip short and not visiting home I knew would sadden my loving wife, but maybe I could pacify Denise by doing a few spring cleaning tasks on her “Honey Do List” by coming home early. I started north to the Latrobe airport and for whatever reason, probably at the thought of disappointing my wife and the kid’s mention of fishing, I turned off and headed east to Route 40.
It was typical March in Pennsylvania weather-cloudy with a temperature of 55 degrees. Not ready to face my sister or my father, I drove instead into Ohiopyle State Park. I pulled my flannel jacket out of my bag. My wife had thrown it in at the last-minute saying, “In case you take the boys to the river. It is youth fishing this weekend, and, I remember you saying how much your dad loved to fish.” She was right. The only time he was truly “happy” was down at the river fishing. There, he didn’t drink, and the only line he cast was from his reel.
I pulled the rental car off to the side of the road. It’s funny that I didn’t need GPS. Childhood streets and directions to spots in the area forever engraved in my brain. The path was still there. Now overgrown with weeds and low-hanging branches, it was a lot narrower than I remember as a young boy. I got out of the car and headed down the dirt trail toward my dad’s favorite fishing hole. Rose and I used to walk to the river several days a week in the late spring and early summer. Most of the time, it wasn’t to spend time with my dad; it was because Rose hoped to find him there catching fish, so she had something to make us for dinner.
As I walked along dodging rocks, I thought about my career choice. Did I take my current position because of the need to solve things since I couldn’t solve my childhood and family problems, or simply the need to help others that drew me to the police force and now a cold case investigator? “A little of both,” I said out loud. There was no one to hear me except the silent trees.
The path widened and split to the left. I knew to stay right. I could hear the water rushing below and could see a glimpse of the bending Youghiogheny River. I walked about ten yards and the river loomed ahead, water from the recent rain rushing over the rocks causing small rapids. Dad’s favorite fishing hole was about 20 yards away now. Like a young boy, I stepped from rock to rock until I stood on a piece of flat sandstone and quietly took in the picturesque scene.
That’s when I saw it.
About five feet up the hill, directly above his favorite spot. A white wooden cross with a blue bow neatly tied to it. I walked to the cross and bent over to read the words written on it. I recognized the writing immediately. It was my sister’s neat handwriting and what I presumed was now my two nephews’ careful printing of Pap. The “y” in “We love you,” turned up and looped twice, her signature “y.” I dropped to my knees, my hands grasped the white cross. It had been three years, eight months, and some odd days since I had spoken to Rose, but I will never forget the last thing she said, “Well, if you don’t care to come and help me with Dad, I won’t care enough to let you know when he passes.”
I stood for about ten minutes on the bank in his favorite spot, skipping rocks into the Youghiogheny, wondering how my dad had died. Then I slowly trudged back up the path. It was too late to undo my past with my father, but I still had a sister who I hoped would understand, forgive me, and let me back into her life.