I'm pregnant, and I'm desperate to have my father be a part of her life, read the Facebook message. Mom refused to tell me anything about him, but I found this in her nightstand drawer. I'm hoping it might help.
I reviewed the digital attachment, then messaged the sender – Carmen – to drop by my place that night after work with the original.
Carmen had come to the right gal: I advertise on Facebook as Snapshot Holmes, Crack Image Detective, but my small following of fans just call me “The 2-D P.I.” Librarian by day, my true loves are photo analysis and mystery resolution… oh, and coffee.
My usual cases involve outing crashers in family reunion shots, spotting a stolen pooch in a dog park line-up, verifying if a spouse is starring in a below-the-waist Big Mistake… you get the idea. Reuniting a kid with her long-lost dad (and soon-to-be grandpa)? Refreshing. I was all-in!
The 8"x10" photo she'd brought with her depicted a beautiful sunny day, smiling young people in swimsuits and trunks clowning around together in front of a pool surrounded by palm trees. Taking a seat, the very pregnant Carmen declined an offer of my most exquisite bean brew (because, of course; I'm clueless sometimes), then said, “The one in the center that everyone's lifting is my mom. I’m not even sure when this picture was taken.”
There were a dozen people in the shot, but half of them were women and could easily be discounted as anyone’s father (as a semi-professional, I always nail these trickiest of clues). It appeared to be from the late ‘80s or early ‘90s, given the hair and clothing styles.
The woman that Carmen pointed out was in a bikini, plus a long-sleeved red cover up, a scarf around her neck, and a smile that didn’t extend to her eyes. The man in striped shorts standing closest to her head - “Knuckles” - had one red-knuckled hand clamped on the woman’s shoulder possessively, helping the others lift her up into a semi-prone display.
I took a hearty swig of Jamaican Blue, then grabbed my loupe for a closer look. “Do you already suspect any of these men?” I asked, as delicately as I could phrase it.
“Mom was in a common-law marriage when I was born, so there's no legal record, of course," she said, "but that same guy might’ve been my father and seems most likely. It’s just that I don't even know if he’s one of the ones in the picture.” Lingering on her mom's face, she added: “She died of late-stage syphilis last year, so that's all I know; I only found the photo last month when going through her things.”
I murmured my condolences. “What about any siblings who might be able to shed some light?”
“Mom always said she really wanted another child, but she miscarried three times after I was born." Carmen instinctively cradled her belly out of the corner of my eye. "Guess she stopped trying after that."
Tall for a woman, her mother had brilliant blue eyes which would have been mesmerizing under different circumstances. My petite client’s honeyed-brown eyes? She got those somewhere else. I searched the photo again under the loupe and discounted two of the men right off the bat, but I didn’t say anything to my client just yet: the man clutching her mother was one of those men.
I chugged my cup empty and poured another. “Do you know anyone else at all in the photo?”
“The one lady standing on the far right is my aunt, but she’s also deceased.” She indicated a smiling woman wearing sunglasses and a t-shirt depicting a broken cinder block wall with graffiti. I could make out the word “Fall” on the shirt, but nothing else.
“My aunt was my guardian until I was three; Mom was doing drugs when I was born, so social services took me away." Carmen had certainly had her share of hard times; my heart went out to her. "She cleaned up her life after that, though. Miraculously so. She was a fantastic mother, really committed to doing right by me after our rocky start… except when it came to talking about my father.”
While she was talking, I was pouring my third mug-full and beginning to reach Javana. Consequently, I noticed that Mom had a slight bulge beginning to distend her fit midsection; though barely perceptible, my suspicions were confirmed when I noticed a slight swelling of her legs on an otherwise slim form. I asked Carmen her own age: she was 33.
One stroke of luck was that Mom had written the names of the subjects on the back (though, I still credit the caffeine with this groundbreaking discovery). With nothing else to go on, I had Carmen leave the photo with me, telling her not to worry: I was on the case and would give it my all to reunite them.
I began the hunt on Facebook.
Even though I had already ruled him out, I looked up Knuckles first. When I told him why I was getting in touch and asked if we could meet for coffee, he readily agreed: turned out he really loved mochas. (Oh, also turned out that he remembered Carmen as a sweet little baby.)
Across from me sat a clean-shaven man in his 60s. Knuckles admitted – apologetically – that period of his life was mostly a blur: they were all bound together only by their love of partying and scrapping. He'd been sober for a couple of decades since.
“I can’t make amends now that it’s too late, but I can tell you that I loved her.” He looked at me in earnest. “We hadn’t had sex for months when she turned up pregnant the first time. That broke my heart in a way I never got over.” He hesitated. “When it happened again, that was it for me. I admit I got violent over it… the drinking didn’t help, of course.” He turned his face away, hastily swiping at a tear.
I pretended not to see, asking him about the other men in the photo. “Well, you’d have a hard time tracking “Patches” down,” he said with a sniffle. “He died probably 30 years ago in a botched home invasion.” He tapped on a guy holding a squirt gun aimed at the camera. “Guess he never gave up the booze – they said his mind was destroyed by the time he was killed.” Shoulda stuck to joe.
Knuckles barely remembered any of the other men in question, even after seeing their names. He apologized that he wasn't more help, then encouraged me to give his number to Carmen so they could get together and share happier memories of her mother.
Next, I looked up the one I thought of as “John Holmes.” You didn’t have to be a sleuth to notice him in beachwear. Medium-height and gaunt, with indigenous features but lighter, pock-marked skin, he was holding Mom’s legs in the photo.
He declined to meet in answer to my Facebook inquiry, responding that he’d always been gay and had never slept with a woman. I guess I should have seen that coming. I asked What about the remaining men? but for some reason, he never responded.
Next up was “Lurch,” the tallest of the group, who was standing next to Knuckles in the photo. Despite a common surname, I easily found him on Facebook still living locally. He had become an undertaker at a nearby mortuary but didn’t want me to come to his office, so we met a couple of days later at Midpoint Coffeteria.
He hadn't changed much: solid for his height, with clear, pale skin that set off his dark eyes and curly black hair. Women would have considered him a catch, with his arresting looks and lucrative career. Plus, he ordered his "black," the hallmark of a man of good taste.
I showed him the photo: he remembered that day and said the background was a local swimming spot that had since been developed into tracts of McMansions.
“She and I hung out a few times,” he admitted. “She was living with "Knuckles," so we had to keep it on the down-low. I’d be willing to take a DNA test for Carmen, but I would be very surprised if I was her father. We were only intimate one of those times, and we didn’t go all the way. Are you sure it isn’t "Knuckles?"” I told him how I knew.
He said Knuckles was their de facto leader at the time; most of the people in the photo were drinking buddies of his and their girlfriends. He remembered the group used to party at one of the industrial clubs downtown, making this one of the rare daytime outings they would've had.
I interrupted him a moment to order another round, then asked if he remembered any of the other men in the photo; he remembered two of them.
Patches was a guy he steered clear of: “That guy just seemed off. He’s not smiling right because he’s missing a couple of teeth, possibly from a fight, but he also had crazy eyes.”
I peered closely at the photo and saw what Lurch was calling crazy eyes: Patches simply had mismatched pupils and patchy eyebrows. While generally not bad-looking, he definitely looked like he'd seen better days. Hard partying will do that to you.
Intriguingly, Lurch also remembered that “"John Holmes" was definitely there with the mousy girl on the far right of the photo.” He tapped the image of Carmen’s aunt.
Taking my leave, I thanked him for his time and paid up for the perks. At this point, I only had one more interview with potential: I messaged “Hairy.”
Hairy was now a mechanic working on the outskirts of town, and he invited me to drop by his shop the next day. He seemed very open and friendly, even offering me a demitasse; he was having one, so I knew I was gonna like this guy.
I showed him the photo and asked some routine questions about the gathering, which he recalled quite well. I noticed his eyes lingering awhile on Mom before he responded. I found that odd, since the others had lingered on their own “glory days” images; perhaps the scrawny scrapper with an already-receding hairline held no interest for him.
Pointing to the stunning redhead next to him in the photo, he said, “That’s my wife. She’s the only woman I’ve ever been with, and we were together even back then.” The smiling pair had their arms around one another.
Just then, a pretty, somewhat older version popped her head around the corner from where she’d been tinkering in the bay: “Can confirm!” She added a brilliant smile and a wink at her husband.
Stumped, my brain percolated for a moment before it finally occurred to me that there was a 13th man: the photographer. I asked Hairy who took the photo. He said they’d balanced it on a tripod and used the timer.
Unusual. Who would have been carrying around that much equipment for a day at the pool? “"John Holmes,"” he responded.
Arriving back home that night after snagging some drip at the brew truck down the street, I texted Carmen with an invite to come by in the morning – thanks to cumulative caffeine, I had her solution.
She arrived early, tense but anticipatory. “Well,” she said, taking a deep breath, “I was surprised you’d have an answer this soon, but I think I’m ready.”
“Your mother was probably pregnant in this photo. It’s subtle, but her belly and legs are fairly good indicators. When exactly were you born?”
“Wow, my first portrait! May, 1989.”
I shook my head; it wasn’t her. “See this t-shirt your aunt is wearing? It celebrates the fall of the Berlin Wall. It happened that same year, but after you were born. This must have been taken the following summer.”
She paused, then perked up. “It's possible I have a brother or sister somewhere out there?”
“Unfortunately, I don’t think that's likely," I said sympathetically. "You said your mother died of syphilis. Judging from the clues, I think she already had it by then, which would've made carrying a child difficult.”
“Oh." She drew a deep breath. "So then, who’s my father?”
“You had two, actually. The man who lived with your mother when you were born was "Knuckles." He would really like it if you'd contact him to catch up, by the way; he misses her, too, and would love to share memories with you.”
I didn’t tell her about the situational violence: from his red knuckles to the scarf and cover up that her Mom was wearing, she was probably hiding evidence of a domestic assault. Her canned smile also pointed towards a contemporary unhappiness. The daughter could find out for herself whether Knuckles was worth getting to know better, and I wasn’t going to screw up her chance to learn more about her mom… maybe over a decaf.
That led me to the grand finale: “Choosing from only the men in this photo, which isn’t definitive, your biological father would likely have been "Patches." I’m sorry to say we may never know for sure, since he died 30 years ago. Do you want to know more about him? It isn’t good.”
Her eyes searched his face on the image, trying to see herself in it. “No.” She paused and looked up at me. “But how did you find out?”
I took another jolt, then walked her through how I first discounted Knuckles and the other blue-eyed subject: two blue-eyed parents can produce a brown-eyed child, but it's so rare as to be statistically improbable.
Of the remaining possibilities, only one of them had the telltale signs of the syphilis that he’d spread to her mom: the uneven pupils, patchy hair, and tooth loss were all signs of the disease. Unfortunately, her mom probably did not know.
“You’re very lucky. She must have been in a remission phase during her pregnancy with you. The important thing, though,” I continued, “is that, while their paths may have briefly crossed, they were fortunately going in completely different directions. His life imploded, and your mother picked back up her life with you and made it amazing.” Carmen nodded, with tears in her eyes.
I asked – now that she had her answer – whether she thought she might contact Knuckles.
"I'm not really sure yet," she said. "Maybe there's a reason Mom never mentioned him to me."
"You know, he never got the chance to apologize to your mother for whatever happened, but 'I'm sorry' is just a promise to do better," I said gently. "The changed behavior is the real apology, and I think he's changed. Having a grandfather in your child's life is what brought you here; it might be worth a shot."
After she left, I breathed a sigh of relief. While I love solutions, I prefer happier ones; this wasn’t one of those. I glanced out the window and saw the sun. Maybe I’d hit the beach later and shake it off with some refreshing iced brew.