For the Sins of My Father

For the Sins of My Father


It was the nightmare again. Somewhere before dawn I had slipped into a fitful slumber, the room filled with ghostly images as I turned and twisted in my sheets, sweat drenching the bed. I was back in my room as a seven-year-old, leaning against the window that overlooked our driveway, the glass cold against my cheek. The street outside was eerily silent, the only movement a faint scratching of tree branches on the side of the house. Major lay next to me, his head on my lap. I muttered to myself, random promises to a God who didn't seem particularly interested as I searched through the darkness for the headlights of my father's car. Down the block and across the street, our neighbors slept, undisturbed by the specters of gunshots, by the phantom plunge of a knife into a human torso. Where had my father gone that night, his trunk again filled with guns and knives and mysterious disguises? I held a coin in my sweaty palm and began to flip it. Heads he was safe, tails he was . . . tails. I flipped it again. Heads he was safe, tails he was . . . tails. Fear loomed from the darkness of the driveway and circled around me. I flipped it again. Tails. Tails. Tails. Tails.

I awoke with a start, managing just in time to stifle the scream rising in my throat. For a moment all was confusion, the terror of the night lost in the white noise of sunlight streaming through my window. Then it came back to me. This was not a dream. The police, the FBI agents, the cars, and the phone calls. All those things were real. I Forced my aching body from the bed. Eight o'clock. My uncle Louis would be here soon. We were going to the morgue to identify my father's body.

I showered quickly and pulled on some clothes. The door to my mother's room was closed as I made my way down the hall. My sisters' rooms were quiet. I hoped that they were still asleep. On the dining room table I could see the remnants of my birthday cake, seventeen candles half-burned and covered with clumps of pale icing. A few minutes later I heard a car pull into the driveway, and I went outside to climb in next to Uncle Louis before he rang the bell and disturbed my mother. I had told my mother that I would take care of the funeral arrangements, that Dad and I had discussed what to do. She'd simply nodded at me, her face blank. She seemed stunned, moving around the house like a sleepwalker.

Neither of us said a word as Uncle Louis backed into the street. His face was ashen in the morning light. My father's body had been found in Canarsie and taken to the morgue in Brooklyn for identification and autopsy. The bare branches of trees were stiff and frozen, and Uncle Louis's car slipped slightly as the tires hit the ice. As we drove through the gray January morning, a song came on the radio. It was Frank Sinatra's "Summer Wind." I felt a stab of pain, and for a moment I nearly lost control. My mind flashed back five months, to last summer. My father and I had been driving down this same highway together, the windows rolled down, warm wind blowing in our faces. Dad had thrown his head back to laugh as I reminded him of the time I was nine and put an explosive from the joke store in my mother's cigarettes to stop her from smoking. After all, the Surgeon General hadn't said anything about gunpowder being harmful. She'd lit up at Barbara's house and scared both of them half to death.It didn't stop her from smoking, but even she thought it was funny. Gina DeMeo's exploding cigarette became legendary in the neighborhood. I remembered how good it had felt to hear my father laugh again. He laughed so seldom by then.

There was no summer wind that morning, only pale January light and frozen yellow grass on the roadside. The song came to an end, and the news started. "Local authorities report that the body of reputed mobster Roy DeMeo...." My uncle abruptly snapped the radio off. We drove north, then turned along the coast again toward Brooklyn. It was beautiful along this stretch of highway. On my right was a golf course, farther along the stables where my father used to take my sisters and me riding. To my left was the ocean. I remembered my father telling me that he would sometimes "borrow" the riding horses when he was a kid and go for a gallop along the beach as the sun rose. It was the only time, he'd told me, that he ever felt really free.

My body was cold as I stared out the window of my uncle's car that morning. Somewhere in the distance I was acutely aware of pain, the sensation I felt when the dentist blew air on an exposed nerve, but this pain burned throughout my body. I knew the pain was mine, but somehow I couldn't connect with it. It was odd to be riding with my uncle Louis. I couldn't remember the last time I had been in his car. It was nice of him to go, but it made little difference to me. My father's final charge to me ran through my head "Take care of the family, Al. Take care of your mother and sisters. " It was the only thing left I could do for him. I was not going to fail him.

I looked at the clock on the dashboard. A little before nine. It seemed strange that the clock was still moving, still alive, while my father was gone. I forced myself not to think ahead. One step at a time.

It was still early when we pulled up to the morgue. A security officer in the lobby of the buildina directed us around to the back. As I ascended the stairs to the horror that awaited me below, I mentally rehearsed every moment that lay ahead, trying to anticipate each possibility so that nothing would catch me off guard. How bad was he going to look? Would he still even look like my father? Somewhere in he back of my mind, I could hear the litany of my father's voice: Stay strong, act like a man, don't let them see what you're feeling." Something icy slipped through my veins and into my muscles, stiffning my legs, slowing my progress. There was little danger of my betraying any emotion. I felt nothing at all, only the coldness that was naking my limbs unmanagable. My heart, like my body, had gone nto hibernation.

At some point during my descent of the stairs, everything went into slow motion. When we reached the bottom landing, I paused for moment before reaching for the doorknob. As my fingers closed over the knob, I recoiled from its coldness. I motioned my uncle through ahead of me, then followed a few feet behind. The room that opened before us was filled with men, far more than the staff I'd expected. My eyes went automatically to their shoes. Federal issue. Thick-soled, heavy cop shoes, not like the comfortable white ones some of the lab workers were wearing. Always look at their shoes, my father had taught me. And the hair. Cheap regulation haircuts. All of them were dressed in white lab coats like something out of a bad horror movie, but I knew who they were. Feds. They were waiting for me, their eyes on my face as I walked by. The stage had been set before we even got there.

The walls around us were a drab hospital green, and the air smelled like the chemicals that preserved frogs in my lab class at school. Nausea swept over me. I identified myself to the attendant, and he led us toward a small cubicle with a glass viewing window. The curtain was closed. I felt the "morgue attendants" gather behind me as I approached the glass. They were watching me intently, waiting to see what I would do.

A moment later someone inside opened the curtain. I heard my uncle Louis cry out and begin sobbing. He turned in front of me, trying to shield me from the sight on the other side, but I pushed past him and up to the window. I pressed my face against the glass and gazed inside. I could feel a dozen pairs of eyes boring into me as I looked.

There on a metal slab lay something that barely resembled a human being. The limbs were contorted from lying frozen in the trunk of a car for ten days. Blood had congealed and frozen under his skin, dark blue and red and purple in deep splotches. One hand was clutched against his chest, and there was a bullet hole in it. Part of my mind registered it as a defensive gesture. He must have thrown his hands up instinctively when he heard the gunfire. There were holes in his chest also, and three in his head. One bullet had blown his eye out of the socket; two others had passed through his skull behind each ear, execution style. There were seven bullet holes altogether. Seven bullet holes in my father. Yet as I continued to stare at the grotesque corpse that lay before me, I could make no connection to the man who had wrapped me in his arms so tightly ten days before. No tears came. Those eager faces would not see me cry.

I said, "That's him, that's my father," and started to turn away. A dark-haired officer in a suit and tie stepped closer and told me to look again. Detective, NYPD probably.

"You see the bullet holes, Albert? They shot him seven times. Did you notice that? Do you know who did it? Don't you want to help us find the guys who did this? Look at him, Albert. Look at your father."

The officer wore a look of concern, but somewhere behind his eyes I could see a gleam that was almost greedy. He wanted something he thought I had, and he wanted it badly. I held my body upright and replied, "I have no idea," then turned away and started for the exit. Uncle Louis followed, still crying. Two officers caught up to me.

"We need to ask you a few questions, Albert. Do you mind coming down to the station?" It was clearly a rhetorical question.

Half an hour later I sat alone in the squad room at the police station with two officers.

"Don't you care who killed your father?"

"Nope. "

"The only thing we care about is finding your father's killer. You understand that, don't you?"


That ended it. Within minutes they released me, and I was back in the car with my uncle, driving through the gray afternoon toward Massapequa.

My uncle was hungry, so we stopped at a Jewish deli in Brooklyn where I used to go with my father. They had the best corned beef in town. We sat down inside and ordered a couple of hot dogs. While we waited for them to arrive, my uncle kept crying and saying, "Did you see what they did to him? I remember when he was a baby." He looked around the deli, saying, "I used to bring him here when we were kids." I couldn't eat, but when it was time to leave, I noticed the bill still lying on the table. Uncle Louis nodded at it and said, "You going to get that, Albert?"

"Sure, Uncle Louis. Whatever you want." A lousy two-dollar hot dog, and he waited for me to get the bill. It had always been that way. The family expected my father to pay for everything. Now, apparently, it was my job.

I asked my uncle to stop by the shopping center on the way back to Massapequa. He was going to drop me off at the funeral home before he headed back to the city. I wanted to finish all the funeral arrangements that afternoon and get my father buried as quickly as possible, before anything got in the newspapers and the memorial turned into a circus. I didn't want my mother to have to go through his things, so I brought his best suit to the funeral home. Even if nobody saw him, I wanted him to be buried in something nice. I thought back to a few years before, when Louis's son had been killed in an accident. My father had made the funeral arrangements and paid all the expenses to spare Uncle Louis the pain. I wondered why Uncle Louis didn't try to spare me. The money didn't bother me. I had plenty of it. I wanted my father's brother to care how I felt.

Uncle Louis dropped me off at the funeral home shortly before noon. The morgue was transferring my father's body that afternoon, and I had to make certain my mother and sisters never saw it. The next day was Saturday, and I wanted to have him waked and buried by Sunday night. Dragging things out would only make it worse.

The funeral home was on the main highway through Massapequa, about a mile from the old neighborhood. It was family owned and run. The director was very kind. He had already been notified that my father's body was on the way. We discussed the arrangements and agreed to have everything ready for a service in the slumber room the next evening. He showed me photographs of caskets, and I chose a wooden one, a beautiful dark mahogany. I remember thinking that my father would have liked it. He'd spent hours teaching me about wood in his workshop when I was a child. The funeral director asked me whether I wanted an open coffin. I said no, that my father had been shot, and no one had found him for several days, so the body looked very bad. If the director was shocked, he didn't show it. He assured me that he could make my father look fairly presentable before the rest of the family saw him if I wanted, but I said no. We agreed on a closed coffin. I left the clothes I'd brought for my father and walked down the block to the local Catholic church to arrange for the wake.

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Excerpted from For the Sins of My Father by Albert Demeo. Copyright © 2002 by Albert Demeo. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.