Thursday, June 23, 2005


In Which I Investigate the Obvious...

Somewhere in Illinois, my father had stopped at a motel for the night, then went across the street to a bar for a drink. After about an hour, the manager told him he'd have to pay a cover charge--a band was playing that night and anyone who was staying would have to pay. My father refused. Harsh words ensued and in a display of protest, my father grabbed a large ashtray off the bar--it was about the size and shape of a Frisbee--and winged it behind him. The ashtray whickered across the room and, defeating all odds, severed a chandelier that was above the pool table. My father was arrested for disorderly conduct (later, we found out he was both drunk and disorderly) and put in jail for three days. On the fourth day, he saw a lawyer. The owner of the bar agreed to drop the charges if my father paid damages. So my mom had to wire $500 to him and got him out of jail.

He arrived home a couple days later, a bit shame-faced. He never explained why he hadn't called us, and my mom was furious with him. But he took it and spent the first couple of weeks trying to make amends. He was especially attentive to my brother, who was about to go back to college. But he also took time to spend with me, taking me fishing, teaching me how to drive, essentially trying to make up in a week what he had missed in three years.

I really wanted to respond to his attention. But something was holding me back. I kind of went into my boy-detective mode, as a protective instinct I guess. It's occasionally very useful to imagine you're someone else, and by slipping into my boy-detective persona, I found that I could detach more easily from what was happening around me. So I told myself that I was on a case, that my father had some big secret that I needed to get to the bottom of. I had no idea what it might be, which is so stupid to say, looking back now and seeing how obvious it all was. But as I may have mentioned a time or two, denial is amazing in it ability to cloud your perception. Some part of me saw through it, but not all the way through it.

After the first week or so, my father was gone for long chunks of the day, signing up at the local union hall, hooking up with old colleagues to drum up work, spending time at the unemployment office. While he was gone, I began my investigation. I didn't know what I was looking for; I figured I'd know when I found it.

My father had brought home a ton of boxes in a small U-Haul trailer. These were all up in the attic of our house and I began rummaging through them. I found nothing unusual: old clothes, a portable 8-track player and a stack of cassettes. Lots of small items were stuffed into individual purple Crown Royal bags, such as they sell with that brand of whiskey. In one bag I found a few journals which I thought would prove interesting. But all my father had recorded in them were mileage numbers, which he used for his income tax.

Then I came to one of his suitcases. I opened it up, and there was the usual: clothes, socks, a few baseball caps, and two more Crown Royal bags. Both were heavy. One was full of change. My father was a coin collector and was always finding wheat pennies and buffalo nickels in his change. The other bag was likewise heavy and sounded metallic, but it wasn't loose like the change bag. I opened the bag, and there was the pistol.

It was a small .25 automatic, with an extra magazine and a box of bullets to go with it. It was a shoddy, cheap-looking gun, a real Saturday-night special, and seeing it scared me in a way I can't easily describe, even now. I guess it bothered me because my father had always respected guns, had been brought up--and brought us up--to treat guns like tools. They were for hunting. They were for sharpening a skill. This pistol was too small to be useful for hunting. It was a close-range weapon, not suitable for target practice. Really, it was the kind of gun that existed only for one reason: to kill people.

Instinctively, I opened the gun. No bullet in the chamber, but the magazine was fully loaded. I removed it and laid it next to the extra magazine, then looked it all over. I wasn't sure what to do with this discovery, wasn't sure what it meant. Why would my father have a gun like this? I was sorely tempted to take everything, stuff it back in the Crown Royal bag and get rid of it. But if he realized it was missing, somehow he'd know it was me who took it and I'd be in big trouble. Or worse, he'd think my mom took it and come after her. So I left the gun where it was and put everything back just as I found it.

To this day, I'm not sure whether that act saved my life or not. Maybe I'm making too big a deal of it...

After about a month of being home, my father was acting screwier than he'd ever been before. He was 41 years old and unemployed for the longest he'd been in 20 years. We told ourselves this had to be weighing on him (it sure weighed on us. Money was getting tight. My mom had to go back to work, getting a job in a sewing machine store at the local mall). But he also seemed to be having some health problems.

He started complaining of dizzy spells. Some days he would lie in bed, completely incoherent. My mom had one time accused him of being drunk, but we never once smelled liquor on him. So we took him to the doctor. They did a whole battery of tests, including a CAT scan, and all they found was that he had severely low blood sugar. He was going to have to change his diet and keep his blood sugar from dipping. It seemed like a relief. Suddenly, we had an explanation for his behavior, perhaps even his behavior going back to when we were little.

Which would have been nice, had it been true.

Instead, my father got worse. One day, Gina, the girl I was hot for in high school, (and who you recall from an earlier entry), drove me home. My brother had gone back to college just a week or two earlier and my mother was away at work. So we were sitting in the driveway, about to engage in a little light mashing, when there came an ungodly caterwauling from the house.

(I can laugh about this now, and often do. So if you feel the urge, go ahead. It'll take the edge off. And what happened later won't seem so funny, so laugh while you have the chance.)

We turned to look, just in time to see the living room window jolt up. A second later, my father came flying out, taking the screen with him, and landing in the hedge just below the window. His bald head poked up out of the bushes a second later, and he looked around wildly. Bits of hedge and leaves were stuck in his unruly beard, which only added to the overall effect of insanity. He caught sight of me and Gina, staring at him slack-jawed in her car. Then with a cry, he leapt out of the bushes and tore off into the back yard. I can only thank God he was wearing clothes.

I was too shocked to be embarrassed (although having your father do a commando special out the front window while you're trying to get busy with a girl could qualify as a fairly mortifying moment for a 16-year-old). I simply turned to Gina and said, "I've got to go," then ran after him.

We lived in the mid-Atlantic states then. Our back yard was over an acre long and bordered a fairly busy state highway, the main route to a popular shore destination. By the time I caught up with my father, he was panting and lying on his side in the breakdown lane of the highway. At first, I thought he'd been clipped by a car, but when I got to him, I realize he was just catching his breath. I got him to his feet and walked him back to the house, trying to figure out what caused his outlandish behavior. At first he wouldn't answer me at all, but as I pressed him, he muttered things about people watching him, the phone being bugged, people under the couch. It made no sense.

We got back to the house and I saw with some relief that Gina was gone. Inside, the kitchen was a mess. On the stove, a pot was boiling over with some strange glop. As near as I can tell, it was a combination of instant gravy, some macaroni and cheese mix, and about a half-dozen cinnamon sticks. It smelled awful. All I could figure was my father must have gotten hungry and tried to make something, but his blood sugar must have dropped in mid-prep and he just started throwing crazy stuff together. While he lay on the couch, babbling, I made him a sandwich and forced him to eat it. He took a couple of bites, then asked for some seasoning salt. "There's some in my bag," he slurred, pointing to a corner of the kitchen floor, where he had a paper bag of kitchen supplies he'd brought back with him. Inside, he had cutlery, and several jars of spices, all neatly arranged in a series of Crown Royal bags. I pulled out the appropriate one, found the seasoning salt and gave it to him.

I sat in the kitchen, watching him eat. Finally, he finished and laid back on the couch. He seemed calmer. I guessed his blood sugar was normalizing. I caught my breath and stared absently around the kitchen. I shut off the stove and carried the boiling pot of glop out to the back porch, where it wouldn't stink up the house. When I came back in, my gaze fell on the bag of spices.

The question came from nowhere, and it was completely, stupidly shocking in its implication.

Where did he get all these Crown Royal bags?

When the curtain of denial falls, man, it drops like it has 40 sand bags pulling it down. It was like that moment in the mystery books when the detective suddenly solves the case, only in those cases the detective usually had an actual mystery to solve, where my realization was more akin to suddenly waking up after a long sleep and discovering something stupendously obvious. In a flash, it hit me that the blood sugar problems weren't a disease, but a symptom. The erratic behavior made sense. He was drinking. A lot more than we thought he was. A lot more than he wanted us to know, if he was indeed hiding a bottle somewhere (if indeed he had always been hiding a bottle somewhere). I couldn't explain why we hadn't smelled liquor, but everything else seemed to fit.

But where was the proof? In all my rummaging through the bags and boxes, I'd never found anything, except an inordinate number of empty Crown Royal bags. In all my years of growing up with him around, I had never seen him with a bottle anywhere but in the house. Could he really have hidden something like that all this time? Surely my mom would have caught on. Nothing escaped her (and that was one thing I knew about).

My father seemed to be sleeping now. I hunted around the kitchen, found my father's ring of keys and headed for the back yard.

We had four sheds at this house, very much like the ones we had at our house in the Midwest. Two of them were old, with open doorways and windows. But two of them were sheds where my father kept his more expensive tools and welding equipment, and it was these I went to now.

Both sheds were dark, and I wished I had brought a flashlight. But eventually my eyes adjusted and I began looking. For a moment, I was reminded of my detective adventure in the Midwest, and the afternoon my friend Shawn and I had searched a dimly lit bus, looking for a stolen stuffed dog. It was an afternoon that seemed impossibly far away now.

Neither shed revealed anything. There were just too many nooks and crannies to search in the dark. So I headed back to the house, more confused than before. On the way, I walked by my father's old Galaxie, parked slightly askew there in the backyard. I still had the key ring. I wondered: would he have done something so obvious?

I opened the car and rooted around, under the front and back seats, in the glove compartment. Nothing. Finally, just to be a completist about it, I found the key to the trunk and popped it open.

And about a dozen empty Crown Royal bottles came clinking out onto the ground.

The trunk was absolutely packed with bottles, most empty, of whiskey and blackberry brandy, that old favorite. I was astonished by the sheer number (later, mom and I took them out and counted over 70 bottles in that big trunk).

As I stared at the bottles, I felt this awful sinking sensation as I thought, Well, there it is. He's a drunk. My father's an alcoholic. All this time. All this time!

It was like hearing the worst news you could imagine, and although I suppose it's an all-too-common realization for far too many people, it didn't feel like the sort of thing that was happening to other people. I felt like the loneliest person in the world. It felt worse than finding out someone you loved was dead, because this was a problem that clearly had legs, that didn't have any obvious solution. I was so overwhelmed by it, I felt myself starting to cry. I had no idea what to do next.

Then I felt someone nearby, and whirled. My father was standing by the hedges near the back yard, swaying slightly. He looked at me, then at the trunk full of bottles. For a second, I was scared he'd come after me. But then he got this wild look on his face and said, "We gotta get rid of these bottle before your mother gets home." With that, he slouched past me and began to take the bottles out, one by one. I stood there, kind of numb, watching as he took each bottle out. And I remember this: As he took each bottle--and some were covered with oil and gunk from the messy trunk--he would unscrew the cap, and take a pull from it. He did this even with the empty bottle, hoping to get every last drop. It makes me shudder to think about it.

He began lining up the bottles on an old garden fence.

"What are you doing?" I asked.

He looked at me. "We're gonna get in some target practice," he said...


That's messed up man. It's situations like that, that made us grow up a lot quicker in certain area's of our lives.
So, did you ever find out how he kept his breath from smelling like alcohol? I'm very curious. Not that I'm an alcoholic and want to adopt his methods of secrecy, but because that's the first question that popped into my head at the end of the story....

I really admire how you can tell your painful stories with such honesty and beauty. I am not at that point yet, and am afraid I never will be. I'm still in "girl detective" mode. Does it maybe help that you have kids?
I am speechless. And that is not easy.
Wow MM. Powerful stuff. Written beautifully.
Wow. You are a brave soul MM. It must be at least a bit cathartic to get it all out, no?

Thankfully, I was much more blissfully ignorant.....but, I do recall a plentiful supply of empty nip bottles back then.

The only thing that is keeping me from balling at the tragedy of it all is that I know there is a happy ending.
You once wrote to me,

"--Because your style and candor motivate others every single day to follow your example."

Right back atcha. I await the conclusion with 'bated breath.
After reading your words, thank you.

When my dad mentioned target practice I did not know if I was going to have an apple on my head in 15 minutes or not.
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