This is one short story from a collection of stories.
“My name is Marjorie and my father’s an alcoholic,” I said. I was standing in the basement of the brick church off Elm. I had been in this church once before, a while ago. I went to an afternoon service with a friend and her family. I thought I’d be able to find the meeting easily only it turns out the way to the basement is through the back door. I didn’t know that. And there weren’t any signs. An older man asked me what I was doing. I was just sort of standing in an empty hall with a piano in the corner and a lot folding chairs piled up. I wasn’t sure what to do next. I was thinking about leaving. He didn’t give me a chance to answer. He said, didn’t even ask, just said, “If you’re here for the Nar-Anon meeting you’re going to have to go outside, walk back, and enter that way.” So that’s what I did. Now I’m here but I’m starting to get the feeling this whole thing was a mistake.
Our high school guidance counselor was the one who recommended I come here. I told my mom I was going to the movies. First off lets get it straight why I went to the guidance counselor in the first place. I didn’t go to talk about my dad or to cry or whatever, I went because I’m applying to colleges. Good ones because I’m smart, that’s what the guidance counselor said. She said, “Marjorie, I know you’re bright and I know you work hard and the colleges will see that, too.” She said, “You’re going to get very good scholarships to very good schools.” She said, “I’m positive.” She told me how I’m going to be a Franklin High success story, how I’m going to make our town proud.
I don’t know about that. Though I do know not much tends to happen or change here. People in this part of Maine, the interior, like to stay put, plant themselves in. That’s what mom says. And I think it’s pretty much true.
After the first meeting with the guidance counselor I wrote down all those good things she said in my diary that night, even though it felt a little wrong, self-indulgent. When I was in her office and she was going on with it all, praising me basically, something warm shot up through me light and good like sunshine. It almost hurt my face not to smile. It was like I was trying to hold back the leash of a very strong and excitable dog.
She asked me if I wanted to go to school in state or out of state. She said out of state is more expensive but she could nearly guarantee I’d get a full ride. She kept saying that, a full ride. The more she said it the more I enjoyed hearing it. As if soon I would be buckling up, getting ready to take a long trip to the moon or to sail around the world. I was about to go on a full ride.
She told me not to think too much about money, that we could sort through that later. For now she just wanted me to narrow in on what sort of college I’d like to attend. Big or small. Urban or rural. That sort of thing. The guidance counselor made it all seem so easy. I could tell her what I liked and what I didn’t like and then she could just put me there. As if what I like is the only thing that matters in the world.
It was when she asked if my parents were proud, she said that at the end of our hour. I guess I should’ve probably just said Yes. It was that sort of question. A wrap-up question, a polite send-off. She couldn’t have been expecting any sort of real answer. I don’t know why I didn’t just say Yes, smile and then let myself out, that’s what I was supposed to do. What she was expecting.
Instead I sort of laughed and said, “My dad could give two cents.” It was a stupid thing to say. Inappropriate. It was one of those things you only say if you’re looking for something, looking for help or whatever. And I swear I wasn’t looking for anything, it had just popped out. I had a bad habit of letting sarcasm pop out, the same way some people accidentally let burps escape after they drink warm soda or even just because.
The guidance counselor got some look on her face, narrowed in her eyes. She turned her chair away from her desk, which was against the wall and faced me directly. She crossed her legs, leaned back and bit her pencil.
“What makes you say that, Marjorie?” She asked. I thought to myself, good move, try to squirm your way out of this one.
After I told the whole room of strangers that my father was an alcoholic I sat back down on the folding chair and crossed my arms over my chest. The man sitting next to me stood up, he must have been in his late thirties. He said his mother was an alcoholic. I thought he was pathetic. I thought most of the people in the room were pathetic actually. I hadn’t expected to be the youngest one. Not that I had given it much thought to begin with, but I guess I just assumed that the people would be about my age. Young. In high school or middle school. At an age when they actually need their parents for one thing or another. Why did a thirty year old need his mother not to be an alcoholic? Why did it matter to him? I couldn’t wrap my brain around that one.
Mom said it’d be fine if I went out of state. She said it’d be good for me to get out. Mom was just about the only person I knew who hadn’t grown up in Cording. She grew up on the coast, four hours east. Her father was a fisherman and died out there when she was a girl. There’s a picture of him standing by a horse in the hallway.
What dad will say, if he gets to talking about it, which is rare, he’ll say, “I found your mother living in the Motel 8 with a St. Bernard and a pile of books.” He says that she had gone running away from her fiancé. A high school sweetheart, mom says. Mom says she knew it wouldn’t have worked out but she didn’t know what else to do, what else there was. She says her mother wanted her to marry. Everyone just assumed it was going to happen. Once dad said, I remember, he looked at mom and said, “Going to that Motel 8 was the smartest thing you’ve ever done.”
Anyway, that Motel 8 was right on the edge of Cording. She met dad, got pregnant with me, and that was that and she’s been here, basically, ever since.
“My dad doesn’t embarrass me, with his habits,” I said to the guidance counselor.
She said, “Well Marjorie, it must have some effect on you. It must be difficult. I know how it can be.”
I had brought my legs up, had my feet on the edge of the chair and my knees covering my chest. She had told me to make myself comfortable so after a while I did. I had started to hug my legs a little. My backpack was on the floor. Mom said I was too skinny for my own good, but I liked it. The way I was turning out. I liked how my hair was long and thick as a horse. I liked the way I could compact myself, fold my body up if I wanted to or how I could spread out and just be tall. I liked how I was turning out. I know most girls don’t say that when they’re my age, or aren’t supposed to at least, and it’s not like I’d tell anyone, but it is what I thought.
“How much does your father drink?” The guidance counselor asked and I thought that was a pretty stupid question. What does how much matter? You either drink or you don’t. You’re either a drunk or your not. You’re either dead or alive. You do it or you don’t. I didn’t even think it was possible to measure. How many cups did he drink? How many ounces? Of liquor or beer? Does it count more if he’s drinking a glass of vodka at breakfast than if he’s drinking a glass after work even if it’s the same size glass? Like I said, I thought it was a pretty stupid question.
I told her I didn’t know. Then she asked what my mother thought of it. I said she worked around it. I said that’s what I do, too. Just work around it. I told her it’s not like I know any other way. It’s like the old men who drink at the Knights of Columbus, my dad used to drag me around there when I was younger, the ones who have a stump for a leg or whatever, they handle it. If you lose a part it’s a big deal in the beginning but after some time you handle it. You just adapt.
“So,” she said leaning her head to the side, “You view your father’s alcoholism as a disease then?”
I didn’t see how that mattered either. He had just turned off. It just didn’t matter to him. I got that. What else was there to say? Anyway, it was about that time she recommended I go to this meeting.
The man sitting next to me had been talking for over twenty-minutes about how his mother only bathes herself every five or six days and that’s after he practically begs her to. I mean that was the only thing he was going on and on about. His sixty year-old mother’s bathing habits. I didn’t understand why he wasn’t just getting to it. Getting to the point. It was like he kept dodging it, running around in these inane laps. Just say it, I thought. All he had to say was he was sad because he doesn’t think his mother loves him enough to care about herself. That’s all he had to say. Not all this stupid bathing, moo-moo wearing nonsense that he was just jabbering on and on about endlessly.
This is when the meeting really started to get to me because I just felt like, you know, not to be arrogant, but I felt like I got it.
I was narrowing in on Boston and I think that was only because of the movie Good Will Hunting, which I rented from the video store practically every Friday night for two months solid. Mom said it was getting ridiculous. She even offered to buy me the movie. When she said that I said no, I didn’t want to own it, I told her this was the last time I planned to rent it anyway. So after that I stopped but I still found myself thinking about it from time to time.
It wasn’t the actual storyline that I liked though that was fine; it was the background. I enjoyed watching the background. It made me feel comfortable and warm. The old sweaters the characters were wearing. The colors of paint on the walls. The stacks of books in the corners. The picture frames. Coffee mugs. I wanted to find that background and put myself in it. That’s why I told the guidance counselor, during our second meeting, I wanted out of state. I wanted Boston, I said. She was scribbling down some note on her desk and gave out a long smile when I said it, like I had answered a difficult question correctly. Like I had decided to join her club.
She said, “That’s good.” She said turning towards me in her chair, “I think that’ll be perfect, Marjorie.”
So, since then that’s been that and now I’m pretty sure I’ll be going to some college in Boston.
It’s not as if my dad’s a bad drunk, that’s something most people don’t understand about drunks, there all different kinds. I know about bad drunks. Luke’s dad two houses down is a bad drunk. I know. Dad will go over there himself if it gets real loud. One time it was so loud it woke me up. I had fallen asleep on the couch. I must have been in elementary school. I fell asleep with my head in my dad’s lap. I remember that. Dad was watching some history program. Or at least that’s what was playing on the television.
“What’s that?” I asked, arching my back and raising my arms up in a stretch. I was tired, didn’t know what was going on. If I had put together that the sound was coming from Luke’s house I probably wouldn’t have said anything, I know when to keep my mouth shut.
Dad said, “I’m going to see if everything’s alright. C’mon.” He never told me to come on, so it was a surprise but a good one. I didn’t even have time to lace my sneakers or get a coat. Mom must have been in her room because she wouldn’t have let me go if she was around. Especially without a coat. It was cold but I wasn’t bothered by it. I followed Dad down the road, had to hurry to keep up, but I kept behind him. When he walked up Luke’s front stairs I stayed back on the sidewalk; thought that was best.
There was more yelling and throwing and finally the door opened. It was Luke’s dad and he was red and steaming. He looked like some half boiled lobster just pulled from the pot.
“What’d it?” he said and looked dad up and down once.
“Just want to make sure everything’s okay here, Bob, that’s all. Heard some noise down the way, just wanted to see if everything’s okay. Dorothy here? The kids?”
“Fine Dale,” Dorothy said poking her head out, behind Bob’s arm. “Thank you.”
“What the hell that’s supposed to mean, buddy? I know why you’re here, buddy, and there’s no business for it.”
“Don’t mean to get into anything, just checking, I’m with my kid, just making sure,” I remember dad paused then, said, “just making sure everything’s peaceful.”
“Sure, yeah, okay,” Bob said, turning back, going to shut the door. As it closed Dorothy said, Thank you Dale, real sweet of—” then the door shut with a rattle.
Dad walked down the front stairs to the sidewalk. I wasn’t sure if he was going to say anything to me about it or not so I just stood there waiting. His face changed. He said, “I’ll you carry you home on my back, kiddo.”
At that time in my life that was just about the best thing my dad could have said to me, that was about all I ever wanted.
After the meeting, which I thought was a complete waste of time I had to drive an hour west to Auburn and pick up dad from the protest. I had agreed to that condition when mom let me take the car out in the first place. Dad was in the Union and every once in a while he’d have to drive out somewhere and picket with the other workers. Dad hated it, but he did it anyway, said it was all part of the job.
See, that’s what I’m trying to say here, what the guidance counselor doesn’t understand, my dad may be a drunk but he gets his work done. He does his part. There’s a big difference there. A big difference from a lot of the other fathers.
Dad’s a turn-off drunk. That’s just what he is. He drinks enough in the morning so he can go to work and get his job done. Dad always goes to work. Goes to the grocery store. Mows the lawn. He does the things he’s supposed to do. Then later, afterwards when he comes home, well then he keeps on drinking. He’ll set the bottle of vodka on the coffee table and a glass next to it. Put a pack of cigarettes on the table, too.
Sometimes mom will come in. Sometimes she’ll sit on the chair next to the couch and smoke a cigarette and watch what dad’s watching. Then she’ll get up and go into her room and do whatever it is she does in there. I’m always at the kitchen table, doing my homework. I always do my homework. I do more than I need to. My teachers always say, “Marjorie, you go above and beyond.”
I don’t do it for them though, for my teachers. I wasn’t even doing it to get into college, to get out of Cording and get a full ride to Boston. I didn’t understand that whole side of things when I was younger, when I would do extra projects and readings and papers for no good reason, that weren’t even assignments to begin with. I just did all that because, well, what else was I supposed to do? I mean that. I honestly had no idea what else I was supposed to do every evening. So I just sat at the kitchen table and kept at my books.
Thing is, I mean basically, if you want to get down to it, I know how it is exactly. Dad has to get drunk to do things. I get that. If he doesn’t drink he’ll be sick. And when dad doesn’t have anything to do, that’s when, like I said, he just keeps on drinking until he can turn-off completely. He just goes away. He doesn’t say a word, doesn’t get loud, doesn’t hit us, but he’s gone. I get that.
But how’s that any different than mom going into her bedroom for all that time? Or from me reading all those books at the kitchen table? How’s it any different? How aren’t we all going away? That’s the main thing the guidance counselor doesn’t get, even though she said, “Marjorie, I know how it can be.” She doesn’t. The people in the meeting don’t get it either. They were all there because they were sad. Because they felt unloved. Well, the difference is I’m not sad so I don’t see why I have any business being with those sorts of people in the first place. I don’t think I have much in common with them. That’s why I’m not going to the meeting again. I don’t think it’s necessary.
I parked the car on the curb about a block down from the protest, which was clear as day. There must have been about two or three dozen men standing around. Holding signs, holding styrofoam coffee cups, they were just standing around. They weren’t yelling out chants or marching, nothing like that. It almost looked like they had all just gone out to mingle with one another.
I saw dad standing by a giant blow up rat and walked towards him.
“Heyyah Marjorie!” A man yelled. Mr. Stinsky, he used to pick up dad for work in his blue truck each morning. He’d come over for dinners some nights, when I was younger, with his wife. I remember that. They didn’t have any kids though they were about that age. You would have assumed they had kids at home. But they didn’t, I remember mom commenting.
“How are you sweetheart?” he asked, patting my back. “Boy oh boy you’re growing up. You’re going to give your dad a headache with all the boys chasing you, bet you’re already starting to.” He laughed, patted my back again.
“Not exactly,” I said.
“Give it time, honey,” Mr. Stinksy went on. “Ah, hell,” he said looking up at the hotel. “You know you have to put in your time with these things. That hotel over there’s employing all these illegals to do the new wing, that’s why we’re here. Dad probably told you that though. I could give a damn, honestly. Yeah, you’re dad, he’s right over there somewhere.” Mr. Stinsky turned his head, squinted his eyes and pointed off into the crowd.
“I see him, thanks,” I said and continued on towards the blow up rat.
Dad was just standing there minding his own business. He had a cup of coffee in his hand. He was looking off.
“Hi, Dad,” I said, “Ready?”
He looked at me for a second. Processed I was there. Then he nodded and we headed to the car.
Mr. Stinksy yelled out a goodbye as we walked passed. He yelled out to dad, “Lucky bastard, I’m here for another hour.” Laughed. Dad gave a nod. I waved. We kept walking.
When we got to the car Dad went around to the passenger side and got in there. I didn’t say anything, just got in behind the wheel and started up the car. I was pretty hungry but I knew dad wouldn’t want to stop anywhere. He would say it was fine if I wanted to get food, but I knew he wouldn’t get anything. I figured I’d just wait until we got home. I could make a sandwich there. It’d be easier.
There was some traffic getting through the main road in Auburn. Bates in Auburn, it was a college town, you could tell that pretty quickly. It was different from Cording in a lot of ways. There weren’t any flyers in Cording, for one thing. I always noticed that. The different colored fliers stapled on top of each other on the telephone poles. There were coffee shops here, too. The kinds with blackboards behind the counters and all different colored chalk used to write up the menu items. There were board games and books piled in the corner. The sort of places that invited you to stay as long as you wanted, even if you had only bought a one dollar coffee. In Cording there was a Dunkin Doughnuts but I didn’t think anything about that place felt inviting, at least not for more time than it takes the average person to eat a doughnut.
When I was younger, mom would take me into Auburn. If she had a doctor’s appointment that was out of Cording, something like that, if we were around the area. We would go to Cafe Bon-Bon and mom would buy me a sandwich and a smoothie. Mom would pick up the paper and read it while I ate. I remember that because mom doesn’t read newspapers at home. I didn’t ask her about it, but I remember thinking it was strange, that she read the paper.
In fact, I wouldn’t say much at all. I was just happy to be there. I liked watching the students. I liked it there. I didn’t say anything to mom because I didn’t want to remind her I was there, that I was sitting at her table. I thought if she remembered I was with her it would remind her that she had to leave. That she had to go back home.
Dad turned on the radio, which I was surprised about. Whenever I wanted to listen to the radio, to the stations I liked, he’d let it go on for about two blocks before saying, “Please Marjorie, I just can’t listen to that noise.” He didn’t say it meanly. He just said it and I would turn it off. I started bringing my walkman and listening to tapes when we’d go somewhere that was further away than the grocery store. Dad never commented.
He turned at the dial until he got to a classical station. He listened for a second and then he brought his hand off the dial, rested it on his lap and leaned back in the seat. There was a song playing that was just the piano. There was piano and there was silence and the silence sounded just as loud as the piano. The piano keys dropped like hail on a moon roof. That’s what I thought of. Right in the beginning of the storm, before the hail comes down hard, right in the beginning when you hear one hit, then a space, then another hit, it was like that. I wondered if dad was thinking about the song, too. If he was even listening.
I was stopped at a red light. I was the first car stopped at the intersection. There were two or three cars behind me. In front of me was the bridge crossing over the gorge, the gorge was to the right. Mom, Dad and I had gone hiking in that gorge the day after Thanksgiving a long time ago. I was young, really young, must have been five or six. Dad had to carry me on his back half the time. The trail was too much for me then.
Well, we were just sitting at that red light when I saw the boy. Or man I guess. But he seemed young. He was a college student though. That much I know. You could tell by the way he dressed. In this messy sort of way that was still cool, I thought so at least. He had longish hair it was coming out of the bottom of his hat. He was walking like he had some place to be. I remember I was just listening to that piano song and I was watching him. I didn’t even think about where he was going. I never thought it was strange. I was just watching him. I wasn’t thinking a thing. Just watching.
He crossed the street right in front of me. Right in front of the car. He turned and he looked at me. First he looked at the hood of the car then his eyes came up and he was looking right at me, but only for one second. But it happened, I remember that. I was embarrassed, I remember, because I knew dad must have noticed and I wondered if that boy had just looked at me or if he had looked over and I just happened to be there, where he was going to look anyway. I didn’t know which it was.
It didn’t matter though because after he looked at me he brought his head right back down and then up to the place he was going, which was the side of the bridge over the gorge. He just walked to it, briskly, like I said, it was like he knew exactly where he was going. Like he had a clear destination in mind. He didn’t pause. There was no hesitating about him. He just walked to that railing on the other side of the road, the railing that looked down into the mouth of the gorge. He gripped the rail with both hands, brought his head down into the gorge, swung his body up and over and he was gone. He was just gone.
I didn’t get it at first. What had happened, I didn’t understand, it was like any old thing. Then the light turned green, or maybe it had been green, a car behind me blew its horn and then, then, I got it. It felt as if my insides had been waiting at the peak of a very high rollercoaster and suddenly they had just dropped.
Dad got it one second after me because I had just started to shake when he grabbed me, grabbed me and pulled me down into his chest. And he held me there. He just held me there. Covering my face, pushing me so hard into his chest I could barely breath.
I have no idea how long dad held me like that. Tight and deep in his sweater. Neither of us said a thing.
The police told us we had to come to the station to answer some questions. Dad said it was because we were witnesses. I knew as much. I knew we were the last people who saw the boy alive. I knew, couldn’t shake it, I was the last person the boy looked at, but I’d never tell anyone that, of course. It didn’t matter, I didn’t think. Though it would come into my mind from time to time afterwards. For no good reason that memory would just flutter in and settle down. The look, for that one second.
When we got to the station it became pretty obvious we were going to be there a while. Dad didn’t like it. I could tell he was uncomfortable, his hands started to shake and he kept rubbing them over his lap. They were like worn leather, his hands. His nails were always bitten down only I never saw dad actually bite his nails. I never asked him about it, but I would wonder about that sometimes. When he did that.
We were just waiting. Sitting on a long wooden bench. We must have been there for over an hour, maybe two. I had no idea. I was fine. I wasn’t hungry anymore. Just sitting there for some reason was fine by me. It made me feel comfortable. Dad went up to the officer at the desk. They talked and then dad came back to the bench, said he was going out but he’d be back in thirty minutes. Asked if I wanted anything. I said no, said I was fine. I knew he was going to the bar. I had seen it and so had he, when we parked the car. It was on the corner. It was nearby.
I watched dad walk out of the station. He let the door swing shut behind him. I just sat there. There was a lot to take in. I had never been in a police station before. Everyone seemed pretty slow moving, the officers. That surprised me. I thought they would move faster but I guess there wasn’t much to do around here.
The door opened again and I looked up. It wasn’t my dad. I didn’t know what sort of person it was. He didn’t look like anyone from around here that’s for sure. He was older. Dad’s age. He was wearing a pressed button up shirt. It looked like it had been starched. He was pale with a white puff of hair. He looked delicate like some old bird. Like a vacationer. That’s it I thought. The sort you see in Bar Harbor in the summer. That’s exactly what he looked like.
The man walked to the officer at the desk, the same one my dad had talked to, they said a few words, then the officer walked around the desk, led the man to the same bench I was sitting on and the man sat down. The officer went back to the desk. The man crossed his legs and then uncrossed them. After a moment he crossed them again.
He turned to me. I could feel him looking at me. I kept on looking straight ahead. I didn’t see what he would have to talk to me about.
“Are you here for Peter?” he said after a time. I didn’t know if he was talking to me. I turned. He was staring straight at me. His legs were uncrossed again. They were spread open and his hands were clutching his knees.
I didn’t know who Peter was. That’s what I said. The man kept looking at me like he didn’t believe me. He was nodding, looking like he was assessing the situation, working something out in his head. An officer came out of a room, went up to the man and put a hand on his shoulder, introduced himself. The officer said, “I am sorry for your loss.” Then he said, “We’ll make sure this stays brief.” He led the man to a room in the back. I was happy to see him go.
A while later dad came back to the station. He sat down next to me. He smelled of liquor and cigarettes. At that time in my life I still liked the smell of that. The smell of liquor and cigarettes hanging off my dad’s sweaters. Like I said, it was all I had known.