Eventually, Mike’s mother took his father to court to force him to pay child support. Mike was eight or nine at the time. His father gave the judge a sob story about how he didn’t have the money and couldn’t make the payments. But when the judge threatened him with a night in jail, Mike’s father took out his checkbook and wrote a check.
“He paid up what he owed, and then we didn’t see him again for years.”
Mike’s mother never received another payment. The family went on welfare and lived in subsistence housing. Every Saturday, Mike’s paternal grandmother and his father’s brother, Uncle Cookie, brought Spam and Velveeta to the kids. They sat together with Mike’s mother and talked in the kitchen all day.
“They would rave about my father. His name was Robert, but they called him Boobie.”
Mike sucks down the last of the gin in the blue glass.
“They’d say, ‘Oh, Boobie was so good.’ My mom sat there, and I think she was just tortured by that shit. Year after year of them telling her how great [my father] was, and he was nowhere to be found. But, on the reverse side, there they were every Saturday, taking time out of their day to come visit the grandkids and bring at least a little food. I don’t remember a Saturday without them being there.”
When Mike was 13 or 14, his father reached out to the family and invited the kids to south Jersey for Thanksgiving. His mom said, “Whoever wants to go can go.” By then, Mike’s oldest brother had established himself as Mom’s loyal protector and refused to go. He hated their father “like he was the devil,” and Mike’s sister “couldn’t be bothered.” But Mike and his two middle brothers decided to go and spend the weekend.
“We went to his house, which we thought was the greatest, because it was on farmland. He actually lived in a small apartment, but he had this girlfriend — beautiful girl, really sweet — who had a big house out in the country.”
Mike’s voice lightened with the memory. His face softened.
“We shot BB guns with him and stuff. It was fun to be around him. There was green grass and open land. We did outdoor things that we hadn’t done in the city. It was kind of cool. I actually had a good time.”
A couple of weeks later, his father called again and asked if the kids could come back for Christmas. This time, his mother said no.
“She blew up about it. She figured, ‘You took three of my kids for Thanksgiving, and now you want to take them for Christmas, too? You haven’t been around forever.’ I just remember she had a huge fight with him over the phone. The next thing I knew, he dropped off some gifts for us, and that was the day he disappeared.”
This time, Boobie disappeared for decades.
“While he was gone, he was gone. There was no change from what it was before. So, big deal. We were all mad as hell at him. To be honest, I think if he had come around when we were in those late-teenage, early-20s, early-30s years, he would have gotten his ass kicked. I think we were all pretty much united on that.”
At one point, Mike’s grandmother let it slip that his father might be in Florida, but by then, Mike and his brothers and sister had written Boobie off. As far as they were concerned, he no longer existed. The only time any of them had attempted to contact their father was when Mike’s sister got married. She sent Boobie a wedding invitation through their grandmother.
“When he didn’t come, she never talked about him again. In other words, that was the last opportunity he had, if he was ever going to participate in our family.”
Fast forward to 1998. Mike was living in San Diego. The company he worked for sent him all over the country to open regional offices and train new employees. This took him to Tampa, Florida, for a couple of weeks.
“I’m doing my job, and it hits me that I’m in Florida. That one thing that my grandmother said about Florida kind of stuck in my head.”
He asked around about the best way to look for someone. This led him to the real-estate assessors’ office in Pinellas County.
“I just happened to be in the right county. Sure enough, I make one phone call, and I say, ‘Hey, do you have anybody under the name of Robert Thomas Elliott that has property in this county?’ And the guy says, ‘Yeah, we have one person living at this address.’”
Mike wrote the information down and pocketed it. When the weekend came, he spent Saturday at the beach. He thought about the address, still unsure what he would do about it.
“At the beach, I had this kind of heavy feeling that I was in the vicinity of him. The fact that they found one person with his name spooked me a little bit.”
The next day, on his way back to the beach, it began to rain. He returned to his hotel, got the address, and made the 25-mile drive from Tampa to Seminole.
He drove through the cruddy trailer parks, thinking, No, my dad wouldn’t be here. Then the scenery changed. The houses were big and the palm trees tall, and Mike knew, This is where he would be.
Mike leans forward on the loveseat. He wrings his hands. Tension concentrates in his tightened neck.
“So, I drive down the block, and all the mailboxes are white. I get to the Elliott house, and it’s a black mailbox. With my name on it. All the way there, I was rehearsing what was going to happen. It was 27 years after I last saw him. I hadn’t really thought about him a whole lot, but when I was going to the beach that day, I said, ‘Oh, shit. Something’s going to happen.’”