Monday, May 9, 2016

Chapter 4, Bad Novel

Dear Marc,

I don’t blame you—I would have done the same as you. After all, there was nothing pleasant about either the journey or the task last Saturday.

I still don’t know why Mom didn’t just drive me up here herself. I mean, why stick you with the task? I know, we’re best friends and all, but it’s not like you’re the father of my child. And don’t tell me that Mom couldn’t face the shame of facing a couple nuns with her pregnant daughter. After all, it took her about five minutes to make the plan, to call you up, to haul you in, and to send me up—a day later—to what has to be the ugliest part of Wisconsin.

If anything, I was the one who was strung out about it all. Remember when I told you, about three weeks ago, that I might be pregnant? Well, that took me days to get up the courage, and you’re my best friend. And if I still worried about how you would take it, can you imagine what it was like for me to tell my mother?

She says she cares, but don’t let it fool you. She’s a phony, just like all the rest. Oh, she’ll come to all the band concerts at school, and she’ll lie about how Dad couldn’t make, due to his work. Work—that’s a good one! Like draining a bottle of whisky every night is work!

And she goes to all the parent / teacher nights, and talks to all the teachers, and they all tell me, the next day, how wonderful my mother is—she never misses an event!—and how lucky I am to have such a devoted parent. A father who works so hard to provide a good life for his family! Second in his class at Dartmouth Medical School, fellow of the American College of Neurosurgeons, head of Neurology at the University of Wisconsin! And there his wife is, taking care of their children, go to parent / teacher conferences, volunteering for the PTA! What a wonderful family!

On the outside, sure. But maybe somebody should talk to the garbage man, who can tell you that the bag of bottles makes a quite distinct, quite unmistakable clang every Wednesday morning. Do the neighbors hear? Do they know what life is like?

The trick, if I can manage it, is to get in as soon after school, grab something to eat, say hello to mother, is she’s around, and then go to my room. Why? Because I don’t want to be around when he’s downstairs, drinking.

Have you ever lived with a drunk? The thing is, 99% of the time, they’re fine. You play by their rules, you make yourself scarce, you have homework in your room, or are reading a book in bed, or you’re doing something—anything—to be where he won’t be. Because he will have stopped by the liquor store on the drive home, and the first thing you’ll hear, when he gets home, is him going to the kitchen and getting a glass. No, he doesn’t take off his coat, doesn’t change out of his work clothes, doesn’t go to the bathroom and wash his hands.

He also doesn’t open the refrigerator door to get anything to eat, because he stopped eating a long time ago. Did you know that? He’s getting all his calories from alcohol, which is also the reason his belly hangs over his belt. That’s not fat, that’s liver.

He’s made it through the morning by having a glass of vodka, which he keeps in the freezer. Why vodka? Because it’s not supposed to leave any scent on the breath—but let me tell you, any alcohol leaves its mark on the breath. So then he drives the half mile to his office, and spends the morning shuffling papers.

He isn’t, thank God, seeing patients, though he did for years, and God knows how many of them knew, or cared, how drunk he was. Because he had two things going for him: breath mints, and a very gruff bedside manner.

Oh—and a third thing: the patients were both in awe of him, and terrified for their own lives. You don’t go to a neurosurgeon for a tetanus shot: you go because your regular doctor has decided he can do nothing for you. Then, you get into the car, drive two or three hours from your small town into Madison, Wisconsin. Have you ever been there? Probably not, and even if you have, that was thirty years ago, for state basketball tournament. You were with friends then, it was late, you had had your first beers….

Maybe you remember that—that first exhilarating time out with friends in one of their cars. The big city—or so you imagined it. No cares, no worries. Life opening up, and this night was the very first taste of it. You imagined your life unfolding as beautifully as the lotus flower, and there would never be blight on the blossom, or a petal that would not unfold.

But it’s thirty years later, now, and you’ve done pretty well with your father-in-law’s car dealership in Antigo, or Colby, or Necedah. Never had time to get to Madison, and you wouldn’t be here, either, if the double vision hadn’t started. Or your speech became slurred. Or suddenly, your left foot seemed heavier, and then people began to notice it, and your wife told you—time to go to the doctor. You do, and you see his face, as he taps you left ankle repeatedly. You have perfect reflexes on the right foot—nothing on the left.

How do I know all this? Because my father used to take me into his clinic, when he worked Saturday mornings. Then, my mother would be sleeping, and my father would load me into the car, and we’d drive down to the hospital.

We must have made a pretty picture: the young, good-looking neurosurgeon, fresh from the Ivy League, with his little daughter in tow. OK—I admit, I idolized him. He knew things without anyone telling him.

“How long has it been since your wife left you?” he’d ask some farmer.

“Have you switched crops on your fields?”

“Why did you think a new pair of shoes would help?”

They would always be astonished. Later, he told me his tricks. Many were just guesses, but he got a surprising number right. A farmer comes in with smooth hands—well, what farmer has those? Unless, of course, he’s been washing dishes, since his wife up and left him.

So yes, he got away with it, in those early years when he was still seeing patients. There was the god-like status, there was the fear, there were the distractions of breath mints and little girls.

He was a God to me, then—if I saw him drink, I never saw him drunk. All right—I remember late at night, hearing him talk angrily to my mother. But why was she so cold to him? Why, when everybody else was in awe of him, why did she nag him, scold him? He had the admiration of the entire world, but there was no love for him at home, at least from her.

Or so I thought. I went on loving him, admiring him, for years, until one day I came home late from a concert, and found him asleep in his chair in from of the television. The bottle was empty, the glass was half empty.

And he had wet his pants.

I know what I should have done: tiptoed out of the room, let him sleep in his filth until morning. Then, he would have gotten up, realized his predicament, and crept to the shower and cleaned himself up. But I was horrified. Was he sick? What had caused him to wet himself? Had he blacked out?

I knelt next to him, I shook him, I called his name. For the longest time, he didn’t respond, and then he did. And even I, who had never seen a drunk before, knew that he was wasted.

Wasted and embarrassed. So he tried to cover himself, and when that didn’t work, he tried to get up. But he had wrapped a throw around his lap: it was January, and the night was cold. As he stop up, the wrap fell, and he tripped on it, falling to his left against the side of a glass coffee table.

“How dare you,” he shouted at me. “Can’t you see I was sleeping? You should have woken me up gently, and not forced me to get to my feet at once!”

The words were a slap. No, not the words, but the anger in his voice, the defiance, and the unjust accusation. I had done no such thing, and I stood there with my mouth agape. And that only made him angrier.

“Know where you’ve been,” he said. “Out with boys, likely. You give ‘em what they want? You putting it out good? Hah—how many boys did you let feel you up tonight, hunh? Five? Ten? Put out for the football team?”

I could only gape in horror, turn, and race up the stairs.

Sorry—dinner now. More when I can.