The Boy and Girl Detectives of Albany

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The boy and girl detectives lived in Albany in an old Victorian orphanage, The Children’s Home of Upstate New York. They had been abandoned by mothers who couldn’t raise them, didn’t want them, or had died and by fathers who didn’t know they’d even been born. They grew up wanting to solve the great mysteries of their pasts: for Nate, the owner of the dented, sterling silver pocket watch left in the folds of his baby blanket; for Emma, the identity of the woman in the locket around her neck. Julianna wanted to know her actual birth date; Harvey wanted to know whether he had his mother’s or father’s eyes. The boy and girl detectives went to the Albany Bureau of Records and poured through birth certificates, death certificates, property records. They went to the prison and studied mug shots for resemblances to themselves. They interviewed nurses at Albany General, asking them about single, pregnant women who gave birth the same years they had been born. They helped wash mugs at the local Bottle and Pint in exchange for information from the bartender Stu bout the besotted, still-fertile men who drank there night after night.

The detectives ran their numbers through regression analysis, isolated categorical variables, calculated covariances. They studied the mean and standard deviations of their data. They pinned evidence to a corkboard in the common room: cocktail napkins with the fingerprints of suspected fathers, lipstick-stained tissues they took from the trash can at the Albany Diner, where a disproportionate number of single women waitressed. They constructed speculative family trees of third-removed cousins and the homeless man at the Albany bus station who kind of looked like Nate. They read through their case histories and personal testimonies, gathered from anyone willing to answer a few questions: did you ever have a child you gave up? Do you know anyone who did?

No one knew anything, or anyone. Who their parents, if they’d been raised by them, really were. Why their sisters ignored them. Why their brothers teased them. They had their own children and told them the world was a magical place, that they could do anything they wanted. They didn’t tell them they themselves were dying of mesothelioma or that Grandpa Owen hung himself in the shed where they played hide and seek. If Uncle John touched them in that place, it was implied to their children, never tell anyone, and especially not to remember themselves. Married couples slept in bed beside strangers. Wives walked out of houses to get eggs and never returned. Fathers returned every day, from work, but were never really there.

The boy and girl detectives pondered this. They ran their numbers again. They paced the linoleum floors of the common room. They re-read Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys and Encyclopedia Brown. How could so many people not know who they were, who anyone else was, they pondered, despite documented evidence to the contrary?

The boy and girl detective agency disbanded. Overnight, they put their fingerprinting kit, their magnifying glasses, their plaster casts (for footprints), and their decoder rings into a bag and buried it behind the orphanage. Their pasts still haunted them, but less. They did what anyone else would do; they started a tarot card rock band, complete with stage names: The Empress, The High Priestess, The Emperor, The Hierophant. They created a mythic history for themselves and told fortunes for twenty dollars after shows. They made the fortunes up, mostly: new husbands, inheritances forthcoming, reunited siblings, but people paid to hear them. They pressed them into the holes of their lives, little fingers that staunched the bleeding.




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About Author

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Jen Michalski is the author of the novels The Summer She Was Under Water and The Tide King (both Black Lawrence Press); a couplet of novellas, Could You Be With Her Now (Dzanc Books); and two collections of fiction, From Here and Close Encounters. Her work has appeared in more than 100 publications, including Poets & Writers. In 2013, she was named as “One of 50 Women to Watch” by The Baltimore Sun and “Best Writer” by Baltimore Magazine. She is the host of a fiction reading series in Baltimore, called Starts Here! and editor in chief of the weekly lit journal jmww.

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