The woman who was not my mother was named Sheila Stanton, and at the age of nineteen she was held captive for ninety-one days by the Red Ribbon Strangler. That was during 1967, the Summer of Love. After she was freed by a SWAT team, Stanton found herself the nation's celebrity du jour. She performed a duet of "Rescue Me" with Aretha Franklin on the Ed Sullivan Show and went on to win a pair of back-to-back Grammy nominations for her folk-rock ballads "Don't Hold Me Hostage" and "Stockholm Syndrome." Growing up in Creve Coeur, Rhode Island—whose other claim on history was a late-life visit by Lizzie Borden—my male classmates all passed through [End Page 9] a phase where they begged their parents to let them trick-or-treat disguised as the kidnapper.
By the time I was conscious enough to be interested, at the height of the first Reagan recession, the Red Ribbon Strangler, Wayne Zane Minsky, was long dead. Natural causes: an antibiotic-resistant skin infection. The serial killer had been five months into a three-hundred-plus-year sentence, and he'd never explained what had motivated him to spare his final victim—why he hadn't abandoned Stanton's naked body on a front lawn or porch swing with a crimson bow festooning her waist. But what interested us most in grade school wasn't the psychology; it was the house. Every weekday, my bus climbed Banker's Hill, past the three-story Victorian mansion from whose flagstone path Stanton had been abducted. Towering hollyhocks dominated the steep street-front garden, punctuated by stands of sinewy tiger lilies. An American flag hung backward on the door-face; the brass knocker was an owl wearing spectacles. One Thanksgiving, the LaRue brothers and I made a closer investigation of the crime scene, which had been constructed, according to the plaque on the portico, by a retired whaling magnate. We were examining the walkway for bloodstains when a plump, small-eyed matron came to the door and asked courteously what we wanted in her hedges. We ran off. For many years afterward, I mistakenly believed this to be Sheila Stanton's mother.
As for my father, if he ever wondered about his ex-fiancée, he didn't let on. His concerns were those of an ambitious but thoroughly small-time lighting retailer: Christmas displays in December, fireworks shows in July, staving off discount merchandisers during the slow months in between. Also getting me a university education, transforming his only son into a diplomat or a law professor—in short, anything far removed from the grind of spring clearance sales and voltage conversion. So when my parents argued, it was over whether it was safe for me to go target shooting with Eddie LaRue and his uncle. Or how much they could afford to spend on a sailboat. Or if Gary Hart's affair with Donna Rice made him, in my father's words, "unpresidential." But never about old flames or new temptations. Those possibilities were miles off either of their radar screens. On the rare occasions that a Sheila Stanton ballad played over the car radio, my mother didn't even care enough to switch the station.
One August, the summer I turned fifteen, my father decided to expand and remodel his showroom. He quadrupled the floor space to nearly sixty thousand feet, buying out the blind Judaica dealer and the two Portuguese bait vendors who had hemmed in the enterprise since Grandpa Abe had founded it in 1958. [End Page 10] The highlight of the renovation was a store-length panorama of the Providence, Rhode Island, skyline, looking north from Narragansett Bay—every office window illuminated with a twinkle bulb. Another section of wall, beyond the alcove for ceiling fans, had been fashioned into the façade of a Tudor-style house. Hurricane lamps dangled from the porch beams...