Unsolved Mysteries

Gun silhouette in window
Photo by Maxim Hopman on Unsplash

Perhaps I shall do a multiplication twice to make sure, or perhaps get someone else to work it over. But shall I work it over again twenty times, or get twenty people to go over it? And is that some sort of negligence? Would the certainty really be great for being checked twenty times?

–Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty

Here was the evidence I’d collected as a child: He left the house early each day at 5:45 a.m. and did not return home until 7 p.m. He would not talk about his childhood or why he left England at such a young age. He lied about his parents being dead. He kept an old German Luger pistol in the basement. The evidence was slim, but I thought one day my father would appear on an episode of Unsolved Mysteries as a fugitive who had murdered his British family and was now hiding out in a small Southern Ontario town.

My father had always been mysterious. I wanted to solve the mystery of my father, but even as a child asking him questions only led to more mystery. It also led to the narrative of my life—that I was “pushy”—that I was willing to “ruin” a Christmas party, for example, just to get an answer out of him.

As a child, Unsolved Mysteries presented mysteries to me. Mostly, the mystery of how Robert Stack could speak without moving the top half of his face. Now I realize the answer to this mystery might be Botox, but am I any richer for knowing? I used to be mesmerized by Robert Stack. Who was he? How did he know about so many unsolved mysteries? How many cases did he solve? Why did he always dress like a detective out of central casting?

My father was also a mystery to me. Where did he go all day dressed in his casual dress shirts? Why didn’t he talk about his childhood? Why did he seem so angry? I started to tell friends I thought my father was a serial murderer, and they nodded solemnly. They also found my father puzzling with his dry British humour and muddled Midlands accent.

On Unsolved Mysteries, Robert Stack steps out from the shadows of some dark alley. Behind him, mysterious smoke rises from the gutter. He walks towards the camera with smoldering intensity. Shrill synthesizer music plays in the background—like an organ hymn gone wrong. Join us for our dramatic season premiere, Robert Stack says. Perhaps you may be able to help solve a mystery.

I am watching Unsolved Mysteries from the comfort of my deceased mother’s bed. I am home on Canadian soil after fleeing London in the middle of the night because a mysterious virus had taken over the UK. In the wake of this virus, the university had chosen to end my contract instead of extending it. I made the last train to the airport the night before the London Tube shut down.

On the plane, I begin reading a book called In The Wake Of The Plague: The Black Death and the World It Made. I underline a passage that reads: The Black Death was not the advancement of a worker’s protocommunist paradise but further progress along the road to class polarization. The gap between the rich and the poor in each village widened. The wealthiest peasants took advantage of the social dislocations caused by the plague and the poorer peasants sank further into dependency and misery.

In truth, I was both broke and miserable. I had spent my meager savings on a plane ticket to Canada, and now I was back at home for the first time since my mother died. Her absence was overwhelming. I was confronted by her absence in her bed, in her kitchen, in her huge backyard garden, which had already become overgrown. The garden reminded me of another television show I watched once called Life After People, which described how long it would take vines to regrow and completely cover Big Ben if people suddenly disappeared and how long it would take pure-bred British Corgis to turn back into packs of wild roving beasts. This show was also a mystery to me. It described only what happened to the earth if all humans disappeared, but didn’t address where all the people had got to.

Here is your mother, my father says, pointing to an urn stuffed into the back of my mother’s bedroom closet. I take out the urn and put it on the window ledge in her bedroom. In an act of magical thinking, I think perhaps my mother would like to see the garden or bask in the sun. I stare at the urn, but it does not compute. How could she fit in such a tiny container?

An irony: I am glad my mother does not have to live with breast cancer in the age of Coronavirus. I don’t think she’s still in there, my father says, shaking his head.

In Season 6 Episode 6 of Unsolved Mysteries, I learn about Ed and Mary Woods, a couple who moves into a house in Vancouver, Washington. About seven months later, strange events begin occurring. Mary claims that she began hearing a music box playing, but there was no music box in her home. Her husband claims he hears someone playing with the doorknob in his office, but when he opens the door, no one is on the other side. On another night, Mary sees the ghostly figure of a woman wearing a scarf around her head and a long flannel nightgown. Mary thinks this ghost is a former resident of the house who died of cancer. I don’t feel my mother’s ghost anywhere in our house. Instead, her presence is marked by what is missing—her missing clothes, her missing cancer drugs, her missing pillows stained with iodine left by hurried homecare nurses.

My mother’s 15-year-old Shih-Poo also feels my mother’s absence acutely. He sits in the corner of the living room, unamused—a mop of black and white fur. When I pass, he barely lifts his snout to look at me. Every day he goes searching for my mother around the house, and not finding what he wants, he flops back into his dog bed, grumpy and defeated. I try to imagine him as a wild beast roaming the British countryside, but it feels impossible.

At 38 years old, I am embarrassed to be home. I’d been roaming wild for years trying to secure a permanent job. I couldn’t believe I was at home without an income or a plan. I did not want to think about Coronavirus. I was hoping it would just go away.

Instead of learning about Coronavirus, I read Camus’ book The Plague and am struck by the scene where Dr. Bernard Rieux finds something soft under his foot. The soft thing is a rat, which he kicks off his steps. Later, he sees another rat die right in front of him, but he thinks nothing of it. Dr. Bernard Rieux is distracted by his own life and his wife’s sickness. He doesn’t see the plague coming. He sees horses and he thinks horses. He sees rats and he thinks rats. Even the doctor doesn’t anticipate the plague—the onslaught of zebras storming towards him.

Coronavirus was also not on my apocalypse Bingo card. I had planned to stay in England, to learn about this strange place my father came from. I felt I was making progress. My uncle took me on a tour of my father’s childhood home, and I learned my father was at the top of his class and was invited to teach in the art school he graduated from. I also learned that it was in this moment my father decided to come to Canada, shocking his entire family.

My uncle tells me my grandmother cried for weeks and weeks after my father left. Eventually my father stopped writing too, and everyone wondered where he had got to. I never met my grandmother. All I knew was a vague rumour I learned from my mother about my grandmother’s fiery temper—that once, in a fit of rage, she came after my father with a carving knife.

It took weeks of kicking rats for the full force of the plague to hit me—the scope and tragedy of sickness and death. I started to watch CNN for hours each day, worrying about the state of the world, worrying about vaccine hoarding and whether my loved ones would survive. At first, CNN seemed optimistic. They interviewed “experts” who thought the virus was “controllable” or “under control.” They quibbled about which actions were overreactions, and whether masks really needed to be worn in public.

After a few weeks, these “experts” started to disappear and were replaced by other “experts” calling for harsher measures. In Camus’ book The Plague, the plotline is similar. An official notice with control measures is posted, but the announcement is sunny and cheerful, downplaying the impact of the plague. As the death toll rises, more drastic measures are taken, but it is too late. An outbreak of the plague is declared, and the town is sealed off. A supply of plague serum arrives, but there is not enough for everyone.

I alternate between CNN, Camus, and re-runs of Unsolved Mysteries. Sometimes my dad watches Unsolved Mysteries with me and talks over the television, saying things like, That guy is definitely a killer – just look at his mustache! In the 80s, Unsolved Mysteries would come on after my bedtime, and I would fall asleep listening to the deep voice of Robert Stack and my parents laughing quietly together in the living room. Possibly this explains why I still fall asleep to what my ex calls my “unsolved scaries.” These are episodes of shows like Unsolved Mysteries or Forensic Files. I am ashamed of using these shows as bedtime fodder, but I know it isn’t uncommon. In fact, there is a Facebook group called “Forensic Files puts me to Sleep” that currently has over 3000 members.

I thought I might interview my father to create a database of solved mysteries about him while the plague was forcing us together, but he has never been forthcoming. At dinner one night, I try to ask why he left Britain, but he dodges the question. When I push the issue, he looks at me, disappointed: I don’t know. I just had to get out of there, OK?

Before their marriage, my father also told my mother his parents were dead. Later, my mother realized his parents hadn’t been dead at the time of her wedding after she received a newspaper death notice for one of his parents in the mail. She was hurt by this revelation, but she didn’t ask too many questions. Unlike me, my mother accepted my father’s mysteries. She never forced my father to unearth his secrets, and she certainly never made the connection to serial killing.

While driving, I ask my father about his mother, and he doesn’t answer. Instead, he pulls me over and points to a cloud cap. He spends fourty minutes talking to me about lenticular clouds; how there are three different kinds of lenticular clouds that can form in the troposphere in parallel alignment with the direction of the wind. You see—commercial pilots avoid lenticular clouds but glider pilots love them, because it gives them “wave life,” which allows gliders to soar to higher altitudes and for longer distances.

Sometimes I wonder how I came from this man, who loves all kinds of man-made machines. I am still afraid of learning to drive—afraid my clumsiness will somehow lead to vehicular manslaughter. My father taught my mother how to fly glider planes and drive motorcycles. On weekends, they used to take motorcycle trips into the Caledon Hills, where the roads are scenic and winding.

I look up lenticular clouds on Wikipedia, but I am thinking about them as a poet who is not cool enough to drive a motorcycle. I am thinking of Shelley and Wordsworth, and how, like me, they probably did not know the technical terms for clouds.

When my sister calls that night, she is excited. She has been looking at my father’s old flight logs and sees that he has taken the astronaut Chris Hadfield up in his glider plane. When I ask my father about this, he draws a blank. I don’t remember that, but one time I gave a flight to a guy named Ronald McDonald!

During the pandemic, Chris Hadfield makes a video with his advice for dealing with isolation during Coronavirus. Hadfield says he has spent a lot of time in self-isolation on spaceships.  He lays out four steps for dealing with isolation: “knowing the risks,” “knowing your goals,” “knowing your constraints, and finally, “taking action.” I can’t help but apply this advice to my goal of learning about my father in isolation. I have never fully accepted my father’s constraints. His temper makes me feel like my questions put our entire relationship at risk, but it doesn’t stop me from taking action.

In Season 5 Episode 3 of Unsolved Mysteries, a man purchases a plane ticket from Portland, Oregon to Seattle, Washington. On the plane, he presents a note to a flight attendant demanding 200,000 dollars in cash. He shows the flight attendant his attaché case, which is filled with dynamite. The FBI puts together the ransom money and records each serial number. When the plane lands in Seattle, other passengers deplane, and the plane takes off again. Around 8:10 p.m. over the Lewis River in Southern Washington, the suspect opens the rear exit door while in flight and jumps out. He was never seen again. To date, this is the only unsolved skyjacking in the history of aviation. I doubt this was my father, but Unsolved Mysteries has taught me not to rule out even the most outlandish of possibilities.

I accompany my father to Canadian Tire to buy essentials, but my father seems confused. He is confused about masks. He is confused about social distancing. He is angry he needs to stand on his assigned sticker in line. In his haste to skip the line, he bumps into a woman carrying a Hibiscus flower in from the garden centre. Instead of apologizing, my father tells the woman the Hibiscus is violent-looking.

For a moment, I see my father reflected through this woman—his sad hunched posture, his lanyard of keys around his neck and two pairs of glasses hanging on strings. I wonder if she feels sorry for him—this frail old man who has nothing better to do than insult her taste in outdoor plants. It is difficult to reimagine my father like this. To me, my father has always been so capable, so thoroughly unknowable in his grumpiness. When I chastise him about the Hibiscus lady, he shrugs: Don’t tell me you don’t agree it looks violent. Aren’t poets supposed to be invested in beauty?

My father is the kind of person who can quote poetry verbatim. He knows entire poems by heart. As a child, when I was being impatient, my father would quote Milton’s On Blindness: They also serve who only stand and wait. When I was stressed, he would recite Edna St Vincent Millay: My candle burns at both ends; It will not last the night; But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends— It gives a lovely light!

On the car radio, a Maria Callas opera comes on, and my father starts singing along in French. When we get home, he tries to ask Google Home to play him more Maria Callas, but Google Home does not understand his accent and instead plays “It Wasn’t Me” by Shaggy. My father stares at Google Home in disbelief. Maybe the Hibiscus Lady put a curse on you! I yell down the stairs.

With Coronavirus looming, Camus’ The Plague becomes a bestseller again. Penguin Classics struggles to keep up with sales and demand for the book. The Guardian newspaper interviews Camus’ daughter Catherine about what we can learn from her father’s book. Catherine believes the message of The Plague is about responsibility: We are not responsible for Coronavirus but we can be responsible in the way we respond to it.

One day I come down for breakfast and my father has taken one of my mother’s decorative glass globes and stuck a bunch of plastic suction cups onto it. When I ask why he looks at me with his characteristic deadpan: I made you your own personal Coronavirus!

My father has always been funny, but mostly in a dry schadenfreude type of way. One time as a child, I had a loose tooth, and instead of pulling it from my mouth, he laid out a selection of power tools and pretended he was going to use them to take the tooth out while simultaneously video recording my reaction. Another time, he came home with a giant glass bowl of candy from work and said we could eat it the next day. That night, my father hid the candy and pretended he’d already eaten the entire bowl. My father was a pioneer in this type of humour, long before the internet was rife with upset your kids “humour” challenges. As a child, this only added credibility to my theory—that my father was a runaway criminal who took delight in the sadness of children.

In Season 1 Episode 6 of Unsolved Mysteries, authorities are looking for a bank robber nicknamed “Fumbles” who has been active since 1984. Fumbles is so named because he amuses police officers with his clownish antics when robbing banks. In his first robbery, Fumbles pulls out his weapon and immediately trips on a rug and falls on the floor. In another robbery, Fumbles can’t manage to keep his mask on. In yet another robbery, Fumbles drops a pile of money on the floor in the middle of the heist. Police warn that although Fumbles may be funny, he is still a dangerous bank robber and has been successful in over thirty armed robberies between 1984 and 1988.

I ask my father where he got his sense of humour. He says what humour? and goes back to reading his book about The Big Bang. I ask him about The Big Bang and he talks for 45 minutes about how television static is actually the afterglow from The Big Bang and how cosmic microwave background waves can help astronomers understand “dark energy,” which is causing our universe to expand at an ever-accelerating rate.

I want to tell my father that he is like dark energy to me, but my father doesn’t like the idea that he is inaccessible as a person. I know him just well enough to know he wouldn’t appreciate my joke.

In Camus’ The Plague, there are many different reactions to the coming of the plague. One character named Cottard, who is eccentric and silent before the plague, becomes suddenly agreeable and tries to make friends. Cottard also takes advantage of the crisis to make money by selling contraband cigarettes and liquour to townsfolk. When the quarantine of the city ends, Cottard experiences severe mood swings. On the day the city gates are opened, Cottard shoots people on the streets, wounding some and killing a dog.

I, too, have been moody during the plague. I snap at my father when he interrupts a Zoom meeting with a student. My father is 83 years old and has managed to muddle through life without ever learning to use a computer. My father has come to ask that I load the dishwasher in a particular way. I snippily explain that I am on the phone, but he looks at me skeptically: How can you be on the phone? You aren’t even holding a phone! I explain that I need to be professional, but it is too late. I have neglected to mute the Zoom meeting and the student dissolves into laughter.

Later, I try to explain the finer points of Zoom to my father, but he isn’t listening. It’s strange to see you sitting in mom’s old bed, he says after a long pause. I am instantly ashamed. When I speak with my sister on the phone, I realize she, too, is afraid of my mother’s bedroom, and when she visits, she chooses to sleep in the basement on an old mattress. We all have different reactions to our grief.

The next morning, I come downstairs, and the dog is not in his bed. I look around, but I don’t see him anywhere. I start calling his name, looking around the house for a pile of fur. Finally, I hear a tiny moan coming from the basement. In the night, the dog has fallen down two sets of stairs. I check him over, and he looks to be unharmed so I carry him back upstairs and put him in his dog bed. He looks suddenly lethargic and wheezy. His eyes glaze over. When I wake my father up, he says the dog had also fallen downstairs the night before. He says that for months the dog has had vision trouble and has been peeing on the floor. I’ve been putting it off, he says, I’ll call the vet. It takes me a few moments to realize what he means. The drive to the vet is solemn and quiet. I call my sister who loves the dog. She weeps on the phone. I never got along with my mother’s dog, who hated almost everyone except her, but I feel a guilty pang. I don’t want to be a dog killer.

In the car, the dog sits quietly on my lap, too exhausted to even lift his snout to the open window. The vet puts the dog on a metal table. We say goodbye to the dog and tell him he is a good boy. He lies down and is asleep in seconds. We buy a pink gardenia flower to plant by the dog, and I bury him in the backyard beside our childhood cat, Pumpkin, who has been dead for almost twenty years.

That night my father speaks about illness for the first time. He asks if I know that my grandfather was my grandmother’s Diphtheria patient. He says Diphtheria is the only thing he can think of from his lifetime that reminds him of Coronavirus, and it happened before he was born. He asks if I know that he had scarlet fever as a child. He says he has been thinking about scarlet fever and how he used to peel off his own skin and hang it on his Meccano crane while he was sick.

He also reminds me of a story I had heard before—that one time my uncle was locked in his front room for two weeks with chicken pox, and my father was angry the entire time. His mother finally asked him why he was so jealous that his brother had Chicken Pox. What’s Chicken Pox? my father asked earnestly. In his child-brain, my father thought his brother had spent two weeks locked in a room playing with a chicken and a fox.

How many of these anecdotes had I heard before? Was it possible my child-brain wasn’t listening? I ask my father what he thinks about Coronavirus, and he shrugs. I feel like a high-speed train is barreling down the track towards me, I guess. My eyes well up with tears at this tiny confession. For weeks, I had been watching CNN, filled with secret fear about the future. I was so busy asking my father the “tough questions” that I had never bothered to ask him if he was also afraid.

I tell my therapist about the mystery of my father and the mystery of Robert Stack. I tell her about my moodiness and my father’s stories. I tell her about his sense of humour and his interest in clouds. It sounds like there is still a lot of love between you, she says. And there is. My therapist asks why I can’t accept the mystery of my father, and I don’t know the answer. There is so much more to know, I say, And besides that, there is no one else to ask!

I look up Robert Stack on Wikipedia in a fit of curiosity. I learn he appeared in over 40 feature films before I came to know him as the voice of Unsolved Mysteries. His name was originally Charles Stack, and he spent his childhood in Adria and Rome, learning Italian and French at an early age. He did not learn English until he was 7. Both his maternal grandfather and his uncle were opera singers. In his autobiography, he included a picture of himself and his mother that he captioned “me and my best girl.” By the time he was 20, he had achieved minor fame as a polo player and skeet shooter. He set two world records in skeet shooting and was inducted into the National Skeet Shooting Hall of Fame. Stack’s father died when he was ten, but Wikipedia does not say how. Another mystery.

That weekend, I am tasked with dividing my mother’s ashes into four smaller containers. Our plan is to scatter my mother’s ashes along the Bruce Trail where she used to like to hike when she was healthy. I don’t know anything about dividing ashes, and I don’t have any beautiful containers. I try taking the urn outside to decant, but it is raining. I finally decide on using four plastic margarine containers and I carefully pour the ashes out standing in the bathtub trying to get as much as possible into the containers. When I bring down the ashes, my father dissolves into laughter. One margarine container says “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter” in cursive lettering on the side.

In truth, I didn’t want to scatter my mother’s ashes or confront a future where my mother had disappeared from the earth. My mother was the centre of our family and I worried about what would happen when the centre did not hold. I felt I understood my mother, and some part of me was afraid I would never know my father.

Along the trail, my father asks if he’s ever told me about his shoe-fitting fluoroscope machine. I tell him I don’t know what that is, and he regales me with a tale of a machine children would put their feet to see an x-ray view of their feet and shoes. My father says the point of this machine is to observe the child’s toes wiggling to see how much room for the toes were inside the shoe. Soon we are all laughing at my father’s insane x-ray shoe fitting machine story. When I get home, I am shocked to find it isn’t one of my father’s weird jokes. In fact, the British pedoscope was used in a variety of shoe stores in the UK between 1920 and 1970.

Sometimes I still imagine my father as a child in 1946 wandering over the rubble of bombed out Birmingham and coming across the mystery treasure of a German Luger buried in the dust. I wonder how it felt for him to hear air raid sirens as he was eating breakfast or how sweet sugar might have tasted to him when it was under ration for so long. I imagine it would be fascinating to try out the shoe fitting fluoroscope. Perhaps I will never have any sense of what that is like.

In Camus’ The Plague, the story ends with the end of the plague outbreak, but there is no happy ending for Dr. Rieux. Dr. Rieux looks at the jubilant crowd of people rejoicing and wonders if they realize the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years in furniture and linen chest; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves.

Dr. Rieux knows the mysterious plague could return at any time with ferocious intensity: perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.

Lately, when I watch re-runs of Unsolved Mysteries, they are less satisfying to me. Some of the mysteries have been updated with explanations of how the mysteries were solved. Fumbles, the bank-robber clown, was arrested in 1989 while he was test-driving a pickup truck. He turned out to be a rather plain-looking 23-year-old student from Clearwater, Florida. They never found the plane highjacker, but the FBI closed the case in 2016 due to lack of leads. At least the ghost stories cannot be easily confirmed or denied.

I don’t know how my plague story will end. On my last day at home with my father, I don’t ask him anything. Instead, we sit together in the sun drinking wine and admiring our overgrown backyard. Perhaps the gift of the pandemic is that I no longer need to solve these mysteries. Perhaps my relationship with my father is built on dark matter and lenticular clouds.

At the end of Unsolved Mysteries, Robert Stack always appears out of the shadows in his trademark Gabardine trench coat. Fog dampens the lamplight. He looks at the camera, accusingly: For every mystery, someone somewhere knows the truth. Perhaps that someone is watching. Perhaps it is you.

The author's dad

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