“Like, just call one? Do they still have detectives?” I picture Humphrey Bogart in a fedora, spinning to face me in a creaky wooden chair. I pull the phone book from a stuck drawer and haul it to the kitchen counter, where we sit on bar stools, intent. “Detective, detective,” I murmur, thumbing the pages, which are thin, like a Bible. There are three entries.
“What do I say?” I press.
“Tell them you’re looking for a missing person,” Janell says.
But my father isn’t missing, I think.
Once I was sure I saw him in California. I was walking to a bar, carrying a bag of take-out Chinese food, when I passed a coffeeshop where an enormous man sat poring over a tiny softbound dictionary. He had a huge head of auburn hair. The sun was setting; third-story fog swirled overhead. I felt haunted, as I usually do in San Francisco; it is the place where my parents were last together. One picture of him survives from my mother’s collection in a mildewing cardboard box: it is orangey, taken in the late 1970s. He’s looking down, as though through a cloud of pot smoke. His red hair snakes out; he has bulgy eyes and a big nose. This man looked like my father more uncannily than any of the hundreds of times I thought I had seen him, on subway platforms, in airports, in line at theme parks.
I passed by twice without going in, my skin crawling. I have to pee when I’m nervous.
Finally I went in. I marched up to him and said, “I’m sorry, but you look like someone I know. Is your name Steve?” He was alarmed, like an agoraphobic out for the first time in years.
“No,” he said.
Some people get hushed, apologetic, when I tell them I never met my father. They get conspiratorial: “We must find him,” whispered my co-worker Irena, a Lithuanian woman nearing retirement. Fatherlessness is common; I want to say it’s almost as common as divorce. Most of the people I knew in school—an expensive, tiny liberal arts college—knew both their parents, who were usually married. But the line cooks I’ve worked with, the postal clerks, the waitresses, the kids at my local high school, nod in agreement.
“Me neither,” says Ben, a cook, when I tell him. He’s dismissive, matter-of-fact, as he chops onions.
“How do you do that without crying?” I ask.
“Just used to it,” he says.
Janell hands me the phone and I dial the first number. It’s nine or 10 o’clock; we assume we’ll get an answering machine in an office. We are shocked when someone picks up.
“Um,” I stammer, “is this a private detective service?”
“No,” says the person and swiftly hangs up. I check the date on the phone book: it’s three years old. The next number is disconnected. The final number yields another human voice. “I’m calling for a detective,” I say.
“I do investigation work for businesses,” he explains. “Not missing person stuff.”
The first time I felt like uncovering my father, I was 20. I bought a postcard in Vermont on the way back from seeing a friend. I wasn’t sure why I bought it: a close-up of a woman in the 1940s, wearing a pair of cat’s eye glasses, one lens thick with condensation. It was an advertisement for anti-fog lenses. I brought it home and tacked it to my wall, where, a week or so later, it dawned on me how much I looked like this woman. In fact, I had taken a Polaroid that summer of myself in a pair of cat’s eye glasses, with the same expression, staring into the California sun. This woman could be my grandmother, I thought. It seemed sad to me that there might be an old, or dead, woman somewhere, maybe in Massachusetts (my father was born in Boston), who didn’t know she had a 20-year-old granddaughter who looked just like her.
I started having dreams I met him. He and my mother would sit in a labyrinthine, blue-lit banquet hall at odd, stilted parties, not saying anything. In them, he was quiet and unremarkable, and I was relieved I didn’t have to mount some years-long search for someone who hardly seemed to exist.
I had no idea where to begin. I put it off as I finished college, toiled through an internship, and landed my first desk job. What was I going to do, walk into the Hall of Records and find his name? Hall of what records? Do those still exist? Isn’t everything on computers? Aren’t all official phone lines answered by automated recordings telling you everything but what you’re looking for? First, there was no way to prove I was his daughter, and little chance I’d be given access to any record belonging to him. Second, it’s not like the person you’re seeking is actually behind one of these doors, sitting in a file somewhere. I would see his name on a birth certificate, and then what?
The next day at work, I lock myself into a conference room with another phone number. I dial, and a polite male voice answers and says yes, this is a private detective service. I tell him what I’ve got: first, middle, and last name; approximate date of birth; presumed city of birth; an address and an employer from 1979. He tells me a basic search costs $300. What then? I ask. What if nothing turns up? He tells me there’s no guarantee they’ll find anything on the first try; the harder they look, the more it costs.
I don’t have $300. I haven’t paid off the car I bought from a friend; I have $16,000 in student loans. My salary barely covers rent, gas, and groceries. I thank him and hang up.