An American Family (sample)
In the holding pen at the Milwaukee County Jail, Patty and Allen Muth are waiting for the deputy sheriff to turn his back. They are both handcuffed and wearing prison-issue jumpsuits with white socks and flip-flops. She has hazel eyes and dark-blond hair and weighs ninety-five pounds. He is taller by a foot, a lanky redhead. The deputy is distracted by another inmate. Patty and Allen finally do what they’ve been plotting for months. It is the moment they have been living for, and it is over in one second. They kiss.
Ten minutes later, they are escorted into a hearing to get the results of a court-ordered test to determine the paternity of their fourth child. As Allen is taken by the sheriff’s deputy to the other side of the room, Patty’s gaze never leaves him. She’s worried that he’s losing weight. All she ever sees is his quiet tenderness, his kindness. How he would say he was going out for cigarettes and return with a bouquet of her favorite flowers. He’s the only man she’s ever loved, and she whispered that in his ear before they entered the courtroom; she wanted to make sure he knew. Allen rakes his fingers through his red muttonchops and buries his face in his hands. He can’t even look at her, his despair is so great. If he is the father, the state will take away their child forever.
Large shamrocks are taped to the wall behind the judge, who is wearing a green tie under his black robe. It is Saint Patrick’s Day. The judge announces that a DNA test shows a 99.98 percent certainty that Allen is the father. Patty and Allen request a photo of their child. Their request is denied.
Downstairs, Patty is shackled around the ankles, and a chain is locked around her waist. It makes her feel like a dog. The metal links are cold, like they’ve been refrigerated. The deputy shackles Allen’s ankles. A chain is also locked around his waist. When he submits his wrists for the handcuffs, her eyes search his face. She sees that he wants to cry. She strains toward him, but the guard tightens his grip.
They need to touch once more. Allen reaches for her, but the deputy yanks him toward the door. They are marched outside to different vans. She presses her face to the window and watches him being driven away, tears streaming down her face. They are returning to separate maximum-security prisons, where they are each four months into felony sentences—five years for Patty, eight years for Allen. Their crime: Allen is Patty’s brother, and Patty is Allen’s sister.
Most people think incest laws are to keep fathers from having sex with their daughters, not to punish someone whose only sorry crime is to have found as one’s mate the single most inappropriate person in the world, and to have started a loving family, well, a family anyway, with that person.
Most people manage to get through life without sharing a conjugal bed with a sibling, and most people are socialized in such a way that they cannot even fathom such a need, and if that isn’t the case, then most people certainly don’t make a blood knot the one lasting relationship of their lives, thirteen years and counting, up until the moment that they are mug-shot and shackled and led away to prison—to prison!—to keep them from sleeping with a big brother or little sister. But then, most people don’t ever feel that intensity of need about anything. The kind of need where you’ll get an offer to stay out of jail, and maybe even get your babies back, if you’ll just stay away from him or her, and you instead offer the state your bare wrists for handcuffing and say, Take me away. No, most people are not the Muths, proud parents of Jennifer, eleven, Crystal, seven, Paul, two, and Lisa, five months.
Although they didn’t meet until Patty was eighteen years old, she and Allen have the same biological parents. Patty was the youngest of Dorothy and Ernest Muth’s nine children. She was born in Milwaukee in 1967. Four years earlier, Dorothy Muth had been convicted of child neglect and spent six months in the same prison where Patty is now serving her time. On Patty’s birth certificate, her father’s job is listed as union truck driver; in truth, he was also a shiftless alcoholic with a mean streak. He would use the family money for liquor and leave Patty’s mother with a few dollars a month for diapers and food. They moved often, leaving behind filthy houses, to evade the Milwaukee County Department of Public Welfare, which made more than fifty visits to the Muths’ homes. As far as her father was concerned, the social workers could all go to hell, and he threatened to kill those he found on his property.
Patty’s older siblings had already been removed by social workers before she was born, and they were scattered across Wisconsin. Some were in foster care, and a few, like her oldest brother, Allen, were in a county orphanage. Three months after Patty was born, the state also placed her in foster care.
Patty’s foster home, where she had her own bedroom and pet rabbits, was on a Wisconsin farm. There were a half dozen other foster children. Growing up, she thought this was her real family. Her foster parents taught her to milk cows and ride horses, and she has mostly good memories of those years. But when Patty was six, her foster mother packed a suitcase for her, and the little girl was brought before a judge. She was being adopted out. Patty screamed, clinging to the leg of her foster mother. The patriarch of her new family, a bearded Dutchman, stood in the courtroom, his arms open.
After running away from the Milwaukee County Children’s Home, Allen was returned to his father. The oldest and quietest of the Muth children, Allen bore the brunt of his father’s abuse. To pay room and board at home, he was contracted out to paint houses. Allen got through those years by dreaming of one day driving a big-rig truck. In the back of his Bible, he drew a picture of a truck, and in the picture he was behind the wheel, escaping his father. He quit school after the eleventh grade and went to work at a Big Boy restaurant, making cakes and pies. For two years, he operated a machine at a bindery, shrink-wrapping magazines—Playboy, Hustler, and Better Homes and Gardens. He saved his money, and by 1979 he had the $1,800 tuition to attend the Sun Prairie Diesel Truck Driver Training School.
In her first few years with the Dutch family, Patty had a temper and was defiant. She missed the farm and the only family she had ever known. Her new family lived in Milwaukee, above their craft store, the Dutch Connection. She grew into a pretty girl with a wild streak. She often skipped school, but she loved reading, especially novels, and she played violin in the orchestra. She kissed a few boys in high school, and in her junior year she had sex with her boyfriend, a black classmate. She got pregnant. When she delivered the child, her adoptive family insisted that she put the newborn in a foster home. She was told that if she kept the baby, she would no longer be welcome in their house. Three months later, in June 1985, Patty graduated from high school.
Standing against the back wall at her commencement that June night were members of an extended family that she had never met and did not even know existed. They watched her cross the stage and accept her diploma from the principal, who wished her good luck and a good future.
Late that night, a strange woman’s voice on Patty’s phone announced, “This is your biological sister Barbara.” For the first time, Patty learned that she had brothers and sisters, that she came from a family of nine. They had hunted her down. It was the end of a long search to reunite the Muth children, and Patty, the little sister, had been the missing piece of the puzzle. Barbara was up from Texas; most of the rest lived in Milwaukee. The family met two days later at a Dunkin’ Donuts downtown.
The only one missing from that gathering was Allen. The others told Patty about him, that his job was long-distance trucking and that he was on the road. He had gotten married, but that was in trouble, they said. She liked this new family. They felt familiar. Within days, Patty moved out of the Dutch Connection and in with her sister Ruth, who was a registered nurse. Ruth wanted to help her get into nursing school.
Patty met Allen a few days after her graduation. He showed up unannounced. Patty came downstairs, and he was outside, smoking a cigarette. He had red hair and was tall, which surprised her. He was wearing cowboy boots, blue jeans, and a T-shirt, and she thought he looked nice. His voice was gentle, and she liked his shy, polite ways immediately.
He showed her his car, a ’69 Olds Cutlass 442 with fur seat covers. He was proud of the car, and he kept it clean and polished, the wheels chromed. She told him she was a neat person, too. Neither of them could abide a mess. He invited her to breakfast at Big Boy, and he opened her car door. He was a careful driver, and when they got to the restaurant, he told her to order whatever she wanted, which she did, and he ordered the same thing.
They sat in silence and looked at each other across the table. Finally, she asked, “So you drive trucks?” She didn’t know what else to say.
He told her he’d driven all forty-eight states. And about “reefer” units, short for refrigerated produce trucks. And that his rig had twenty-one gears. She’d never thought much about trucks before, but she was fascinated by this stranger who looked so much like her, and so she paid attention.
Allen drove Patty out to the airport after breakfast and parked in a grassy spot near one of the runways, and the two sat in the Cutlass and watched the planes take off and land.
Patty asked Allen to tell her about their mother. “She was pretty when she was young,” Allen said. “You look just like her.”
“I appreciate the compliment,” Patty said.
They talked all afternoon, sitting in the car with the windows open. She told him about her foster family and her rabbits and how she’d learned to milk cows. How afraid she’d been at age six, when she was adopted and had to leave the farm. She kept studying his face, looking for signs of herself in him. He didn’t say much. When he did talk, it was quietly. She asked him what the good things were about his childhood, but he couldn’t think of any. She reached over and traced the long scar on his face, and he said it was from a car accident.
As the sun set, they watched the lights of planes taking off, the vapor of contrails lingering in the violet sky. Elvis was playing on his eight-track. She said she wished she were on a plane going to someplace with a beach, like Hawaii. Allen said his truck could take him anywhere he wanted to go.
Copyright (c) 2021 Daniel Voll
Patty and Allen have four beautiful children. Patty and Allen are in love. Unfortunately, their relationship is illegal. So Patty and Allen are in prison.
A true story.
About The Stacks Reader Series
The Stacks Reader Series highlights classic literary non-fiction and short fiction by great journalists that would otherwise be lost to history—a living archive of memorable storytelling by notable authors. Curated by Alex Belth and brought to you by The Sager Group with support from NeoText.