By Leah Carroll
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Leah Carroll’s mother, a gifted amateur photographer, was murdered by two drug dealers with Mafia connections when Leah was four years old. Her father, a charming alcoholic who hurtled between depression and mania, was dead by the time she was eighteen. Why did her mother have to die? Why did the man who killed her receive such a light sentence? What darkness did Leah inherit from her parents?
Leah was left to put together her own future and, now in her memoir, she explores the mystery of her parents’ lives, through interviews, photos, and police records. Down City is a raw, wrenching memoir of a broken family and an indelible portrait of Rhode Island- a tiny state where the ghosts of mafia kingpins live alongside the feisty, stubborn people working hard just to get by. Heartbreaking, and mesmerizing, it’s the story of a resilient young woman’s determination to discover the truth about a mother she never knew and the deeply troubled father who raised her-a man who was, Leah writes, “both my greatest champion and biggest obstacle.”
One of my first memories: I'm eating a TV dinner. Each part of the meal is in its own little tinfoil compartment. I love the bright-green peas, the square of crusty, salted mashed potatoes, and the rectangle of Salisbury steak. I eat in front of the TV, my legs folded under a tray.
I'm talking to my dad but I call him Kevin, which is his name.
"Kevin, Kevin, Kevin, Daddy's name is Kevin."
Suddenly, my dad is out of his chair. He grabs me under the shoulders, knocking over the tray. Salisbury steak splatters on the wooden floor, peas roll in all directions. Dad pushes my bedroom door open with his foot, lets go of my armpits with a push, and I'm sailing through the air. I land on my bed, too stunned at first to cry. I bob up and down on my waterbed, dumbstruck. Finally, I let out a long wail. My leg hurts from where it hit the wooden bed frame and I cry, curling into a ball in the middle of the big undulating bed. Later, Mom comes into the room and pulls me onto her lap. She wipes at my grimy face with her hands.
"Leah, Leah," she says, stroking my head, "what are we going to do with you?"
"You're not going to call the police, are you?"
She looks at me for a few seconds and then runs her fingers through my hair. "No, sweetie," she says. "We would never call the police."
MOM AND DAD teach me all the words to "Rock 'N' Roll High School" by the Ramones, and Mom and I make up a dance to Michael Jackson's "Beat It." I use the coffee table as my stage and Mom and Dad blast the music on the record player and I know all the words and we dance around the living room, the dogs jumping and barking and going crazy around our feet.
At night I wake up and Dad is screaming at Mom. I walk into the living room where Mom sits on the couch and Dad stands by the window. Mom's yellow mutt, Brandy, is curled at her feet, and his tail thumps against the ground when I come in. Dad's boxer, Ali, sits next to him, ears alert.
Dad says, "We're fighting because I want your mom to quit smoking."
He crosses his arms over his PAWTUCKET PIRATES softball T-shirt, the one with the skull.
I sit on the couch next to Mom and Brandy puts his head between us. Sometimes when he goes to the bathroom his poop is orange, and Mom says it's because he has cancer. I love him so much that sometimes I squeeze him extra hard, trying to hurt him just a little bit, and he lets me. He's a ragged-looking dog, missing patches of yellow hair. Dad's dog, Ali, wins prizes at dog shows and follows Dad around adoringly. When my mom takes photos they pose with the same proud expression and upturned face. But Ali is too strong for me and once he chewed my kitchen play set to bits.
"You shouldn't smoke, Mom," I say. "It's bad for you."
Mom cries again, which makes Brandy skittish. He staggers on his weak hind legs and backs up a few paces. I don't want Mom to smoke and get cancer like Brandy.
DURING THE DAY Mom unfurls long strips of film to dry on a string over the bathtub and sometimes she lets me stand in the tiny closet next to the bathroom where she flips on a red lightbulb and warns me not to touch any of the chemicals. We watch the paper go from white to gray and then shapes begin to form as she swirls the paper around with a pair of tongs. Images of Ali and Dad appear like magic.
Most of the time my mom and I are a secret team, keeping secrets from my dad. She tells me we're going to take the city bus because her car is getting fixed and this sounds like a great adventure. We take the bus to her friend's house in Providence and she leaves me there in the living room, where I watch television until the room begins to darken. I sit on the floor pulling at long strands of orange carpet, wondering what is up the stairs. There are no stairs at our house.
When she comes back we get on the bus again. Mom says, "Isn't this fun?" and I nod, because it is kind of fun, the way the bus lurches and wheezes around the city. "If you want to do this again you can't tell Dad where we were. If you tell Dad I'll get in big trouble and we won't be able to ride the bus again. Do you understand?" She kisses the top of my head.
Later, Mom drives me in Grandma's car to a small house with long steps leading up to the front door from the street. She takes the keys from the ignition and tells me to wait in the car. She leans over and pats the space beneath the dashboard, telling me to get down there and stay until she comes back. "I'll lock the doors," she says.
After a few seconds, I peek out the car window and watch her go up the stairs to the house. She wears a black leather jacket, tight at the hips. She walks up, up all those stairs. And then she's out of sight.
I AM FOUR years old and we're going to Grandma and Grandpa's house. Mom has packed my stuff into a blue American Tourister suitcase. Her car smells like cigarettes but also something sweet. It's my favorite smell. I snap the brass buckles on the suitcase open and closed.
"I don't want to go to Grandma's house, again," I say. Mom is silent in the front seat.
When we get there, Mom takes my suitcase into the house. Grandma wipes the counter in the kitchen with a damp towel. I hug her around the knees and say, "I love you, Grandma, but I don't want to stay over anymore."
Grandma smiles like she doesn't hear and kisses my cheek. She looks like my mom, but with white hair. The inside of her pocketbook smells like lipstick and sugarless gum. I like to sneak it open and leave her love notes and drawings. I steal tissues from the little package she keeps inside and look at myself in her compact mirror. I put on her sunglasses and pretend to be her, hands around the imaginary steering wheel of her big blue Dodge, purse strap hanging off my shoulder.
Grandpa sits, where he always sits, in his reclining chair in the den. His dog, Spot, snores on his lap. Spot only gets up from the chair when Grandpa gets up. Spot's name is funny because his fur is all black. No spots.
Grandpa tells a lot of jokes I don't get and sings old-fashioned songs like, Hey good lookin' / what you got cookin'? Sometimes we watch The Three Stooges and Grandpa laughs and laughs. He tells me that the Stooges were Jewish, just like us.
I start crying so Grandpa will notice me. I tell him, "Mom says we have to stay over again."
Grandpa doesn't look away from the TV screen. "Knock, knock," he says.
I sniff wetly and keep my head buried in my knees. "Who's there?"
"Boo who?" I ask.
"Whaddya cryin' for?" He looks at me, waiting for my laugh. I wipe my face on the crocheted afghan and Grandpa adjusts the TV antenna with his foot.
Mom kisses Grandpa on the forehead and says, "Leah, if you don't stop crying, you won't get your present."
I run after her into the kitchen where a big cardboard box waits for me. On the front is a picture of a vacuum, a broom, and a mop. Grandma gets scissors from a drawer and says, "Here, Lee-lee, I'll do it."
Together we pull out the miniature cleaning supplies. I stroke the ropy ends of the mop imagining all the games I will play with these toys. I can be a mom, cleaning the house and yelling at the kids. I can be an orphan who has to clean the whole house before the orphanage lady comes back and beats me. I can be a princess, locked away by an evil witch and made to clean my dungeon. I barely notice as Mom kisses me and walks out the door. I hear her car rev up and out of the driveway as I push my broom around the orange-and-brown linoleum. Grandma ties a bandanna around my head so I can be just like a real maid.
AT NIGHT, GRANDMA lets me wear one of her velour housecoats over my pajamas. It goes down past my feet and as we walk down the stairs Grandma holds up the back and says, "Careful, careful," with each step. We make our special nighttime snack by pouring peanuts and big fat golden raisins into a bowl and then shaking them until they are all mixed together. Grandma lets me have a spoonful of peanut butter, and I lick the spoon as we walk into the den and sit on the couch.
"That kid's nuts for peanuts," Grandpa says, and he and Grandma laugh. Grandma thinks all of Grandpa's jokes are funny.
I wake to Grandma lifting me off the sofa. Grandpa snores in his chair. I fell asleep halfway through Murder, She Wrote, which is kind of scary but mostly not, because Jessica Fletcher is an old lady.
I wonder when we are going home to the little house on Dixwell Avenue. We stay with Grandma and Grandpa for what feels like a long, long time.
ONE MORNING I wake up and the sun shines bright through the window beside me, but where Mom should be, the bed is untouched. I walk down the stairs and into the kitchen where Aunty Sandy and Grandma are standing by the counter.
"Mom's not home," I say.
Grandma bends over the kitchen table and starts to cry. She and Aunty Sandy talk about Mom's car. Aunty Sandy says she wants to go out and look for it again. Grandma says we should call and let the police do that. Grandpa is in the den, sitting in the recliner, watching TV.
"Where's Mom?" I ask again.
Grandma goes to the den to tell Grandpa they are leaving. He turns briefly from the television to look at her. "We'll be right back," she says to me. Her face is splotchy from crying and her lipstick is worn away from her mouth. Her breath smells like coffee.
When they leave I halfheartedly mop the floor with my toy mop, but it isn't as fun without a bandanna tied around my head, and Grandma is the one who does that for me. I go to the living room, with its china closets and sofa I'm not allowed to sit on. There are pictures in beautiful silver frames set up on a table in front of the bay window. I make the faces in the frames talk to each other.
"Hi, Kevin and Joan," I make a picture of my Aunty Sandy say to a picture of my parents. In the picture my aunt looks extra pretty. She wears a green shirt that says ARMY and big silver earrings.
"Hi, Leah," I make a picture of my mom say to me. "Here I am," says the picture. "Here I am. Here I am. Here I am."
FOR MONTHS AFTER my mom disappears, my grandmother and I live in a world of make-believe. It's like Mister Rogers' Neighborhood of Make-Believe, but there is no King Friday or Queen Saturday. There is no shy Daniel Striped Tiger. Mister Rogers never pops up at the beginning of our day to narrate what happened the day before.
He never says, "Yesterday in Grandma and Leah's world of make-believe they went to the Rhode Island Mall. And Leah asked Grandma if they could sit in the pit in the middle filled with fake trees where all the old men smoke cigarettes, and Grandma said, 'No, of course not,' and that Leah 'should never smoke because smoking kills you.' And Leah thought, But Mom smokes."
The difference between our world of make-believe and the regular world is that in our world of make-believe my mom is still alive. In the real world, my mom's body will remain off the side of the highway, undiscovered for five months. But because there is no trolley car to signal the beginning and end of the make-believe, my grandma and I keep at it relentlessly.
AT NIGHT I sleep in bed with Grandma. Grandpa, like always, sleeps in his recliner. Before we go to bed, Grandma and I say a Jewish prayer for protection. We open the small blue prayer book and read, "Oh Lord, grant that this night we may sleep in peace. And that in the morning our awakening may also be in peace. May our daytime be cloaked in your peace. Protect us and inspire us to think and act only out of love. Keep far from us all evil; may our paths be free from all obstacles from when we go out until we return home."
Then Grandma says, "Close the light," and I jump out of bed and flick the switch. "Now we pray for Joanie," she says as I climb back under the sheets. Grandma's head is covered in plastic rollers, and her nightdress makes a zipping sound as it rubs against the sheets. Her partial dentures sit in a glass of water on the nightstand. The pink and silver of them in the cobalt-tinted drinking glass look like jewelry to me, or treasure sunk to the bottom of the ocean.
"Dear God," says Grandma, "please bring Joanie home safe to us because we love her and miss her." Even then, as we pray, my mom seems to exist only in the world my grandma and I have created. Nobody else talks about her.
SOME MORNINGS, GRANDMA takes me to work with her at Klitzner Industries, a brick factory building in Providence producing pins and medals and emblems, and—the best thing—American flags inlaid with shiny red, white, and blue gemstones.
"Rhode Island," Grandma tells me, "is the costume jewelry capital of the world."
She pins a shining American flag on my jean jacket. I work on the adding machine, sending out a roll of narrow white paper covered in my own imaginary algebra. I calculate my age, Grandma's age, Mom's age, Brandy's age, Dad's age. I add them all together, then subtract them.
After work, we run errands. Sometimes when Mom had errands to do, she let me stay in the car, but Grandma is nervous about kidnappers, so she makes me go inside every place we stop. At the market, I pluck a grape as I roll past in the shopping cart. Grandma grabs it out of my hand.
"That's stealing," she says. Grandma never gets mad at me, just a little more nervous than usual, which is pretty nervous. She clutches the grape in her fist and looks around. "You could get arrested," she says.
I say, "Mom lets me eat grapes when we go shopping."
She looks at the waxy green grape in her hand and drops it into a bin of oranges.
I THINK THAT things might stay like this forever—that it will be just me and Grandma and Grandpa—but then things change. The police find my mother's body and in March 1985 there is a funeral. Nobody tells me about it and I don't go. It's a secret but I'm the only one who doesn't know. Even though I kind of know.
When she was alive, my mom drove a blue Volkswagen Scirocco. There was rust around the wheel wells, and inside it smelled like marzipan and cigarette smoke. I remember that car. I remember standing outside that car while my mom chatted with neighbors. I remember being lifted from the backseat of that car by a man in a uniform one rainy night when we drove through a puddle and the engine stalled. Was he a policeman? A tow truck driver? I don't remember that.
On the night my mom disappeared, October 18, 1984, she attended a Simchat Torah celebration with my grandmother at Temple Sinai, and then said she was going to meet a friend named Debbie. She promised to be back before eleven, and she reversed her sweet-smelling Scirocco out of the driveway at 65 Midland Drive, turned down the cul-de-sac, and was gone.
At nine thirty the next morning, she was still gone and my grandmother called the Cranston police. Officer Derrico drove to 65 Midland Drive and wrote the facts in his police report: We'd been living with my grandparents for the last month because my parents had separated. Last winter, my mother went to Edgehill for drug rehabilitation, but my grandmother was positive she'd since been behaving herself to the fullest.
Her daughter Joan would not, according to my grandmother, stay out all night without calling. She did not have any boyfriends. And she wouldn't leave her baby daughter without contacting my grandmother to tell her where she was. My grandmother could give a description of her car: a turquoise Volkswagen Scirocco, but she could not recall the plates. They were Rhode Island plates. Maybe they were KC-??? Or maybe they were PB-??? She tried, and had been trying, unsuccessfully to contact my father.
The officer patrolled the streets of Cranston from Knightsville to Meshanticut but was unable to locate any vehicle matching my grandmother's description. He took down my mom's description: Joan B. Carroll… DOB 4-6-54… 5'1" tall… 100 lbs.… short brown hair… scar over one eye… LSW maroon print dress and tan heels.
The next day my grandmother called back. Officer Palmer reported to her house. She'd made contact with Joan's estranged husband, my dad, Kevin Carroll. The vehicle was registered in his name with RI plates KC38. A 1975 Volkswagen Scirocco, color blue. The officer put out a broadcast to all cars in regard to the plate. Officer Davies reported that he knew the car, he knew the female, he had, in fact, stopped this female in her car several nights before. She was known to frequent the Atwood Avenue area, in particular Sonny Russo's Restaurant at Atwood and Fortini Street. An officer was dispatched to the location but neither the vehicle nor the female could be located.
There was no more information to report at that time except this: "Attention: Investigators… Mrs. Goldman is quite concerned as to possibly what might have happened and fears the worse [sic] about her daughter."
THIRTY YEAR LATER I sit on the back porch of my grandmother's house with my mother's childhood best friend, Audrey. She was interested in the Goldmans from the moment they moved to 65 Midland Drive. It was the early 1960s. Kennedy was president. My mom's family was the only family on the street without a Christmas tree in the window.
"My world," Audrey says, "was very white. It was very normal. Everyone was the same. I was fascinated by your mother. No Christmas tree! Everybody talked about the Jews next door."
Audrey is reluctant to go inside my grandmother's house. She doesn't feel like she can talk freely inside. So we sit on the back deck holding enormous iced coffees from Dunkin' Donuts. The plastic cups of Dunkin' Donuts coffee sit inside a Styrofoam one. It's called a hot cup and you get one whether you ask or not in Rhode Island. One nonbiodegradable material inside another. The Styrofoam keeps your iced coffee cold and drip-free. I tried once to explain the hot cup to someone, laughing at how provincial it seemed. "But does it work?" they asked.
"Yeah," I said. My instinct had been to dismiss it. But it does work, really well.
We hear the cars speed by on Phenix Avenue, to the Warwick Mall maybe, or to the beaches, where you need to steel yourself for a full-body plunge—inch by inch is the fool's way into this part of the Atlantic. The moment the cold salt water slaps your belly, grown men shriek and make for the shore. But here on the porch, sweat drips down the back of my neck in the summer heat and everything smells like baking asphalt.
"I want you to know," Audrey says, "your mother and I, no matter how she died, no matter any of that, we were just giggly girls. We had the same sarcastic sense of humor. In a way, we thought we were better than everyone else. We didn't care about painting our nails or shaving our legs."
Audrey has fared well. Her face is the same kind one I remember from when she babysat me as a young girl. Her dark-brown hair has turned silver and is cut to her chin. "I didn't get clean right after your mom died. I knew I should, but I couldn't."
The sound of cars in the distance. We sit silent. And then, "Your mom had the rare ability to be one hundred percent honest. I could tell her anything and just by listening, somehow she made it better. When she was gone, I lost that." Audrey's crying now, big tears that cling to her chin before they splatter onto her knees.
"She was, and I mean this, she was a real person. She was a rebel, a kindred spirit. She was… she was delightful. For years I thought about her every day. But I haven't thought of her in a long time." She looks guilty when she says this.
If I were a better person I would tell her not to feel guilty. I would tell her that I hadn't really thought about my mom in thirty years. Not as a real person anyway. I would tell her it took me thirty years, thirty selfish, callow years, to realize my mom had been a human being, a woman, a person on her own and not an extension that ended where I began.
If I were a better person I probably would have also told the teenage girl at Dunkin' Donuts that I didn't need that hot cup and right then I'd be holding a sweaty, melting iced coffee and the whole world would continue to spin. But I'm not. Instead, I'm jealous of Audrey. I'm jealous of this woman and the grief she feels because I don't know the Joan Goldman Carroll she's talking about: my mother.
ON OCTOBER 20, 1984, according to the police report, they located my mother's car. It was parked in front of 17 Mill Street in Johnston, Rhode Island. The engine was cold. One neighbor told them she remembered the car had been there at least since Thursday afternoon. Another neighbor said he didn't recognize the vehicle, did not remember seeing it in the past, and had not seen anyone leaving or returning to it.
My mother's pocketbook was in the car. In the pocketbook was a license and a ten-dollar bill. Inside the car there was also a NJ Registration 374 MXU license plate, which came back as "nothing in file" from the New Jersey Registry. The little blue Scirocco was taken to the police garage awaiting BCI for fingerprint examination.
Once the police released it, nobody knew what to do with the car. My father and my aunt covered it in a tarp and parked it behind a friend's garage so I wouldn't recognize it.
"I GOT THAT car, you know," Audrey tells me, sweating on the porch behind my grandmother's house. "The Volkswagen—your dad gave it to me. It smelled like almonds. Something to do with the engine or transmission or something." This memory makes her weep but I feel vindicated. I knew I remembered that smell.
In all likelihood it's the heater core that gave it that smell. A leaking heater core that spilled onto the floor of the passenger side where the scent would linger long after the problem itself was actually fixed.
IN THE MARCH 9, 1977, edition of the Providence Journal's Evening Bulletin
- "Carroll proceeds from these haunting twin plot points [her parents' deaths] through a patchwork of vignettes, reportage and reflection that reaches after her absent parents with sensitive longing.... Carroll's writing is most evocative when she describes, with a heartbreaking mixture of tenderness and disappointment, the moments of intimate connection between her and her father."—New York Times Book Review
- "Leah Carroll's DOWN CITY drops us into a family story heavy with secrets and crackling with regret. Hers is a portrait of two parents straining desperately to find their better angels, and a daughter whose resilience is tested again and again. The fact that she proves herself both survivor and frank and generous curator of their story is a great gift, both to their memory and to readers alike."—Megan Abbott, bestselling author of The Fever and You Will Know Me
- "Carroll grasps fleeting moments and memories with confidence and disarming delicacy....So rich in mood, feeling, and genuine love, this investigative memoir is a true tribute."—Booklist (starred review)
- "Leah Carroll's writing is vivid and honest, and DOWN CITY is a clear-eyed act of regaining a father by artfully cataloging his loss."—Charles Graeber, New York Times bestselling author of The Good Nurse: A True Story of Medicine, Madness, and Murder
- "Quick and clear as glass, evocative and engaging, DOWN CITY is a story of a daughter's moving search for the truth about the parents whose dark complexities have left a mystery at the center of her existence."—George Hodgman, author of Bettyville
- "Leah Carroll's Rhode Island is seedy, charismatic, broke-down, and irresistible: so much like the characters in her gripping heartbreak of a memoir. Only a writer as brave in her heart as she is on the page could make us love the ghosts she chases through police reports, memory, and the desolate landmarks of her own tragedy. Leah Carroll is that writer, proving that no matter who haunts you or for how long, only forgiveness can set you free."—Melissa Febos, author of Whip Smart and Abandon Me
- "Raw and crushing . . . a thoroughly reported, deeply personal memoir."—The Village Voice
- "Crushing to read and intensely readable."—The Wall Street Journal
- "Driven by a ferocious demand for justice, Leah Carroll takes us with her as she extricates herself from layer after layer of lies, determined not only to find but to understand the truth about her parents' tragic lives. DOWN CITY is a riveting and heartbreaking inquiry, born of inner necessity, and written in a deceptively simple and deeply affecting prose that elevates its storytelling to art."—Richard Hoffman, author of Half the House and Love & Fury
- "Carroll's understated prose complements this daunting material, and her struggles as an unhappy, rebellious teen seem almost idyllic in contrast to the dysfunction and tragedy that shadow her... Carroll's determined grappling with the burden of her past is honestly and skillfully done."—Publisher's Weekly (Starred Review)
- Carroll's quietly powerful story offers a courageous, cleareyed vision of a broken family while exploring the meaning of forgiveness. An honest and probing memoir of coming to terms with family.—Kirkus
- "Beautiful and rich....It's an emotional, high stakes ride as Leah discovers her mother's love for life, talent for photography, and the drug addiction that ultimately let to her murder. Leah's prose is beautiful, rich and dark. With each turn of the page you find yourself laughing...then feeling truly broken for Leah....Leaves the reader nostalgic and in awe."—Providence Monthly
- "Tough and dreamy, searching and sad, this debut memoir by a collateral victim of murder delves deep."—Library Journal
- On Sale
- Mar 6, 2018
- Page Count
- 240 pages
- Grand Central Publishing