Archive for the ‘child of alcoholic’Category

Chapter 19 SMS

It is fall.

We are spending more time in Syracuse, and my parents are fighting. A lot. My father goes away by himself for the weekend, up to the River, and my mom lies in the bathtub for hours. When he comes home she tries to cook his favorite dinner but has left piles of laundry on all the sofas in the living room. So they start to fight.

“I’m having a nervous breakdown.” She keens in a high sobbing moan, “Why don’t I just kill myself?”  She lies on the floor, her wide, soft body made repulsive by the distortions of her mind.

“You’re nothing but a useless, fat, stupid cow,” he tells her.

Then she peels herself off the floor and starts to throw her other pair of fat pants into a suitcase.

“I’m leaving, I’m leaving!” she screams. She has said this many times before, but this is the first time that she’s dragged a suitcase downstairs. And this is the first time Rufus and I think she might really go. As she pulls her suitcase behind her through her front hall, Rufus grabs her leg and screams, “Mommy, Mommy, don’t go Mommy!” She drags him across the floor towards the door to the front porch as Jake ridicules her.

“You’re not going to get very far.  You’re fucking psycho, just like your mother.  You can’t even drive.”

“I’ll take the bus,” she says. I always thought I wanted her to stay, but tonight I just want her to get away from Jake. The coat closet is right in front of the door. She pauses there to pull her ugly thrift store coat off its hanger, and put it on. It is greenish brown with a huge weird collar and a strange plaid pattern. It is the ugliest coat in the world, and I love my funny sad mom and run across to give her a little hug and hold Rufus’ hand while we stand on our little porch watching her walk halfway down the block into the dark towards the bus stop dragging her suitcase. Then she is gone.

I let go of the breath I’ve been holding, and step back inside. I can’t look Jake in the face; instead I start to pull Rufus upstairs to go to bed. But before we get to the first landing, she stumbles back into the house, falling defeated just inside the door again.

“You’re back, fat cow.” Jake says. She walks past him.

I hesitate on the landing, looking down at them…three, two, one, they are on the floor fighting, the house is shaking and I turn the corner with Rufus and take him to his room. I put on one of his records to block out at least some of the noise.

The next day, I come home from school, and the house is quiet. I walk through calling softly, “Mom. Mom?” My insides clutch as I walk into each room: living room, sewing room, bedroom. I keep thinking I will find her, that I will walk into the room where she is hanging by her neck, swinging slightly, her face unrecognizable. I sit alone on the love seat in the living room watching the room get darker and darker. When she comes in and cheerfully tells me she’s been at the neighbor’s, I am angry with her because I was so worried. Whenever she is a little bit happy, I’m mad at her about it.

After dinner, the phone rings. “I’ll get it!” my father calls out gaily as he takes the stairs three at a time, up to his attic. He picks up the line, then runs back down the attic steps and slams the door to his study shut, just across the hall from my room. I can hear him run back to pick up the red phone at his desk. “Hello, how are you?” I hear the intonation through the heating vent that connects our rooms. I curl up on the floor near the vent, realizing that the mumbles of what sound like a long tender conversations have become a pattern this fall. His sweet voice continues and I stare at the pink gingham wallpaper my mother chose for my room in the new house. Jake’s voice comes through the vent soft and loving. I close my eyes and pretend he’s speaking to me.

Now it is the third Saturday in October. We are at the Island. It is so cold, Jake even says maybe we won’t come back for Thanksgiving, but I know we will. Mom is far in the back of the house, in the kitchen. I am bundled up, sitting at the bar in our living room, drinking my own little glass of sherry that Jake has given me while he tries to help me have some friends:

“Making friends gets a lot simpler when you’re old enough to drink.” I watch him as he looks out at the gray water through the window.

“You just have to say, ‘wanna go for a beer?’ and that’s it, people either go or they don’t.” I’m optimistic about this strategy because it’s working already. Here I am sitting up at our bar and Jake is talking to me. I spin on the spinning bar stool while he is talking, then I see it: it is a silver lighter. Like a Zippo lighter, the kind army guys have in movies. I pick it up and open it, while Jake says,

“If they don’t want to be your friend, fuck ‘em.” The manly lighter has very girly fancy engraved initials on it: SMS. Who would spend money on that? Who is SMS? And how did SMS come to leave a lighter on the bar of Bluff Island?

“What’s this?” I hold up the handsome brushed stainless steel into the dirty late afternoon light of the room. I expect him to walk over to me, look at it in my hands, and shrug maybe. Instead, he lunges at me, moving faster than he runs up the stairs for the phone, and grabs the lighter from my hand.

“Give that to me.”

I look at him. What he has done has told me everything. Suddenly I know.

“Who’s SMS?” I ask.

“A guy from the marina,” he lies. I know the guys from the marina. Guys from the marina don’t have girly shit on their Zippos. The voice on the other end of his phone is SMS and he is bringing her here. We look each other in the eye, and he realizes I know. He has a big secret and now I know it. As he stares at me, he does not say, “don’t tell your mother.” He doesn’t need to.

I look him in the eye. I slide down from the bar stool and walk through the dining room, down the scullery hall, towards the kitchen. Towards Mom. I can feel him watching me. I am willing him to tackle me, to take me down, then I can start screaming. Mom will come out of her fog in the kitchen, and his injustice will enable me to tell all. But still, I don’t hear him behind me. Not yet. The warm air hits me as I push open the heavy swing door into the kitchen. Mom is sitting in front of the heater, wearing a sweater and a coat, huddled over a thick Daphne DuMaurier novel as if that’s what’s warming her. She squints up from it, pushing her glasses up on her nose to see me. The door closes behind me,

“Hi, honey,” she says. Her hair is sticking out.


Now that I’ve come all this way there is something I must tell her.

Daddy talks on the phone. Daddy grabbed a strange lighter from me.

I cannot say that, he would ridicule that away.

Mommy, Daddy brought someone here who left a lighter and I know something is going on.

How am I supposed to talk about something I have no idea about except from movies?  Instead, I say it again—


Now I hear Jake’s footsteps sounding down the scullery hall. His footsteps stop just on the other side of the kitchen door. I feel the lighter in his pocket through the door. Telling her about it would help her finally leave him.

She smiles at me. I love her crooked smile. I don’t want her to go away.

“D’you want something to eat? A snack?” she asks me.

I want to tell her now, but I am afraid. I am afraid of her darkness, afraid of what Jake will do to me, afraid that saying anything will cause one last fight, will cause everything to change forever.

“What have you got?” I ask her even though I know there are three chocolate-covered grahams in the freezer, and two bananas on the counter.

“Well…” She puts a little scrap of yellow paper in the DuMaurier, and stands up, pulling her coat around her, and goes to the refrigerator. I know he can hear me now, but I will not be afraid of him, I will not be afraid that he will hit me. I do not care, because it would be so wrong.

“Mom…” I start again, talking to her butt, which is sticking out from the refrigerator.

“Um, Mom…”

Jake pushes the swing door in like he and the lighter haven’t been listening. Mom starts talking, half to herself.

“How about some potatoes. Is it too early for dinner?” She looks across our heads at the clock on the wall.

“Hey why don’t we get started on those steaks?” Jake says, the most cheerful ever. “Let’s make a fire.” He smiles and holds open the door for me into the hallway to the dining room. Cold air rushes into the kitchen as I hesitate. I turn back to see her pulling tomatoes out of the fridge. She is happy we are getting along. I pass under my father’s arm, out into the cold little hallway. I walk back into the dining room and kneel in front of the huge fireplace. I pull apart a newspaper from the summer and start scrunching up reviews of films we didn’t see, scores of games we never knew about and listings of events we’d never consider attending. My dad surprises me by kneeling down next to me.

“It’s nice when your mother’s in a good mood, isn’t it?” I nod. By not saying anything, I can keep them both happy. The tension in me pushing me to tell gives way to a weakening wash of gray betrayal that flows into my stomach. So what if I don’t tell my mother? So maybe my mother won’t know he’s making a fool of her. I turn and look at him. He is pulling logs off the pile, logs we chopped together that summer. Did he know SMS then?

I ball up a story about Nixon and throw it into the fireplace. My father hates him. Then I ball up a picture of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. My mom loves them. As every second passes that I don’t tell her, the gray seeps into me deeper and deeper, convincing me that acquiescing is the better course. When the wood and paper are stacked according to our scientific configuration, it is time to light the fire. I lean back on my heels, and look at the weight of something, the lighter, in Jake’s jacket pocket. But he doesn’t reach into his pocket. Instead, he reaches up, over my head and pulls down the cardboard tube of long matches. He hands them to me; he thinks I’m grown up enough to light the fire. Even though I used to beg him to be the one to light the matches, today I don’t take them. Not at first. Then I do.

I stare into the flames as I light the fire: first here, then there. In an hour or two we will all sit and chew on our steaks, and they will taste good. Mine will taste different, because now I’m holding Jake’s secret. Mine will taste different because now I’ve done it; I’ve picked a parent. I should never have to do it, but now it is done. There is no going back, and really, no matter how many times I do think about it, I can’t let myself think twice about it. I must be ruthless. Besides, if mom ever really finds out, it will push her over the edge, and I don’t want that to happen.

Maybe SMS is just a guy from the marina.

End of Part One


05 2010

Chapter 6 Lana

Since the bucket full of blood, my new plan is to walk across the island to the Nadlers.

I don’t know what I will do or say when I get there, but I know I have to get there.

I get a pillowcase from the linen closet, my favorite one with a little plaid pattern in purple and blue and yellow and white, and I first fill it with my favorite books, and Bernard Bear. I look in the “emergency closet” in my room, where Daddy keeps his British army uniforms and five-gallon jars of rice and flour—“emergency rations,” he calls them—to see if there is anything useful for me to use. There is not. But it gives me an idea for real rations, and I go to the kitchen and put cans of hash and beans into my pillow case, then I go to the kitchen drawer, and, proud that I have remembered, I pull out a can opener and a fork, and I put them with the cans. Then I drag my very heavy pillowcase out to the windy overcast yard, where my mother plays with Rufus.

“Goodbye,” I tell her.

“Where are you going?” she asks. I don’t want her to feel bad that I want to join another family.

“I’m going to ask the Nadlers for a ride to the mainland,” I tell her.

“Now why are you gonna do that, honey?” I look at my feet. I just can’t tell her.  I am afraid I will make her like the sorrowful Indian again. I’m afraid she will cry.

“We don’t even know the Nadlers,” she points out. I stare up at the tall oak trees, waving their top branches to me, showing me their freedom in the wind. I don’t care if we don’t know the Nadlers. I know they will not shout and shoot things. I just know it. I stop staring at the trees, and drag my bag towards to the gate that leads out of the yard.

“Mommy, will you please open the gate for me?” I ask her. The latch is a piece of string at the top, but it’s too tall for me to reach. I wish she wasn’t here, because I would have just opened it myself, standing on a folding chair or something.

“Stephie,” she says. “Why don’t you have some lunch first?” she suggests. That sounds like it might be nice, but I know I have to go.

“No Mommy, I just have to go to the Nadlers.”

“No, you’re not going to go there. You are not going to talk to them about us.” I hear fear in her voice. And then everything is clear. She knows why I am going; she just doesn’t want anyone else to know about why.

“I won’t talk about us,” I tell her. This is one of my father’s rules.

“I know you won’t.” She wraps one hand on the edge of the pillowcase I still hold tight in my hands. “They would just bring you back to us anyways,” she says. I look up at her face, greedy for the pillowcase, and for a second I think maybe I can still go, and not say anything, not hurt anybody, but then she pulls the pillowcase from my hands, and when it is gone, I know my attempt is over. I decide I won’t let her see me cry. I quickly wipe my tears away, but she has already walked back to Rufus with my bag in her hand.

Since running away isn’t going to work, I decide to become a child star so I can get away from them. I know how to do it too, once mommy tells me the story of Lana Turner. The next time we go to town, I sit at the soda fountain counter in the drugstore and order a malted. While I drink it, I keep my eyes glued to the door. I suck on the straw like I will bring my stardom into being, suck it here, pull it to me. The first malted is almost gone now, and still I haven’t been discovered.


“Yes sweetheart?”

“How many times did Lana have to get a chocolate malted before she was discovered?” “Well, honey…” she starts.

“Because I can drink a lot of them, I mean, if that’s what she did.” I want everyone, but mostly Mom, to know that I will not be deterred. I will do whatever it takes to be discovered.

“Well, I think that guy found her the first time she went in…it was called Schrafft’s, I think.”

“Is there a Schrafft’s in Clayton?” I ask.

“No—it was Schwab’s. Schwab’s. It’s in California.”

“Oh.” My head falls, but only for a second. “Can we go to California?” That place again, I can hear Mama Cass’s voice: California dreamin’…

She hesitates to answer; I can see she’s not figuring out how to go to California, she’s figuring out how to tell me that there is no possible way. My mom will not go anywhere. She will not leave my father—he is irresistible to her. There will be no California; there will only be being here with Daddy. I smile at her and try to pretend that California is just a silly joke.


03 2010

Chapter 2 Treasure Island

“Remember this moment so you can tell your grandchildren.”

My father and I stand on the veranda, looking out across the water, back at the mainland.

My grandchildren. It is a funny thought that tickles me deep inside, but it seems unimaginably far away, like the long line of admirals that he always tells me we come from.

“Family is the most important thing,” he says, and then steps to the old wooden wheelbarrow.

“Get in,” he tells me, and once I’m in, he runs down the narrow path as fast as he can, and I bump all the way back down to the dock, my breath still on the veranda.

“Fifteen men on a dead man’s chest, yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!  Sing it, sing it out!” I don’t really want to sing about a dead man’s hairy chest. He sees me hesitate.

“It’s a work song,” he tells me as we load the barrow, and when he starts to sing it again, I join him, and we bring the barrow up the narrow path, singing all the way, and start to unload it on to the back porch.

“Wait,” he says, “smell.” I pause in front of the screen door, puzzled for a minute. “Go in, go ahead, just remember the smell,” he says. I push against the screen, and then I smell it: cedar—an overwhelming rich, wooden welcome—binding me to this place more surely than a blood pact.

Here is Mom, waiting to put away the first boxes of groceries that we bring her. Just to the right of the door is a huge restaurant-style black Garland stove, with six anvils, two ovens, a grill and a separate broiler. On the next wall to the right is the three-foot-long wooden sink, lined in copper. The most modern thing in the room is a greasy black wall phone, hanging by the eastern window.

My father pulls a can off the red chunk of a six-pack on the round oak table and grabs a glass.

“Come on.” He beckons me with his loose shoulders. I follow him past the bags waiting to go upstairs, outside again to the veranda, where he pulls out a folding chair with faded webbing. While he arranges the chair, he sets the beer and glass down on a broad yellow table whose buckling wooden surface makes the beer’s perch precarious. I gently touch the veranda railing, and the brittle paint pops off more satisfyingly than any scab.

“Blub, blub, blub,” says the beer as my father carefully pours it. He takes a first sip, and gets foam on his lip. Looking south, back at the mainland, back at the rest of America, he smacks his lips and says softly, into the gentle constant breeze.

“This—this right here—this is the best place on earth.”

Then he hands me the beer can. I love the warm feeling I get from my little sip. It’s the warm feeling of being just like my father. After a few sips, he gets up to take down the plywood boards protecting the windows against the winter. I walk past him, to the far western end of the veranda where I can look out across a little harbor to see a small modern looking house. There are kids jumping off the dock into the water, they are hooting and hollering. They are having fun.

“Look, Daddy!”  I have discovered my new lifelong friends, but when I turn to him, he is scowling, and grumbling. “What’s a matter?”

“First of all, they shouldn’t be there. Jack Cutler wasn’t supposed to build right where we could see. Then to go and turn around and sell it to a bunch of rowdies…” He trails off in disgust, shaking his head, continuing to pull down the boards.

“What are they called?”

“The Nadlers.”

The name echoes, like the name of a mystical golden kingdom. I decide I like seeing them, giving each other towels, shivering and grinning.

“Can I go play with them?”

“No,” he says. “No way.” His voice is clear: they are a blot on the perfect panorama.

He turns away and walks back down to the other end of the veranda. I stick to my spot, staring west. One of the kids waves at me. I wave back.

“Bring me another beer,” he says over his shoulder, but I don’t hear him.

“Bring me another beer!” he roars. I jump out of my Keds. “Come on dreamer, look alive.” I run back to the kitchen. I am useful. I am his assistant. Those kids might be having fun, but I get to assist.

I go back to the kitchen and my mother has made me a peanut butter sandwich.

“Have a seat,” she says.

“Daddy wants another beer.” She hands me the red can that gets me back to the front porch. When I come back with the beer, he is sitting down, holding a worn brown book on his lap.

“Remember that song, ‘sixteen men on a dead man’s chest’?”


“Well it’s in this book here called Treasure Island.” He takes the beer.

“Just like this island?”

“Well, a little different—but they’re both islands. Here, I’ll read it to you.” He refills his glass with the new beer, and hands me the nearly empty can so I can take my second swig as I settle onto the porch near his feet to listen.

I love learning about this pirate place—the place we go together to escape. I love my mother. She is musky, she is earth. When she’s not mad at me, she washes my face with a warm wet washcloth. But today, my father, smelling of cedar and beer, reads me the first chapter of Treasure Island before dinnertime.

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