The summer after I dropped out of college, I found a job washing dishes at a small barbeque joint in Rockwell, North Carolina, a town that was little more than a crossroad to nowhere. I worked fourteen-hour shifts, five days a week, for a few cents more than what, at that time, passed for minimum wage. I can’t say that it was all time wasted. I learned a few things while employed there. For instance, if you take a whole chicken (before you throw it on the grill and char the sin out of it) and hold it beneath its fleshy, naked wings, it looks disturbingly like a small child. You can’t get this from a college education.
I would leave work every night, drenched with foul dishwater, soaked as a newborn baby, and smelling like a dumpster, to walk home so that I could take a shower and fall prostrate across the floor of my younger brother’s bedroom. Being in a position convenient for speaking to the Lord, I would melodramatically pray for God to kill me in my sleep. Nothing fancy, just a nice, peaceful aneurysm. When I would awake the next morning to do it all over again, I’d think, Maybe it’s time I start worshipping a darker god.
I said that I dropped out of college. I have to admit that this is an evasion of the truth. I didn’t so much drop out of college as fail miserably. Not in the sense that I was kicked out of school for bad grades or anything of that nature…I never made it that far. When I started college, I was like a dog that has just been let off the leash for the first time. I went nuts. I stayed up most of the night, drinking enough to pickle my brain like an hamster fetus in a biology lab, drinking as though I expected to find salvation in a ninety-proof bottle. Then, I would sleep until noon, waking with a look of sheer horror on my face at the sight of sunlight streaming through the window. At that point, I expected Professor Van Helsing to step through the door of my room, brandishing a crucifix and rebuking me in the name of Christ. Then he would drive a stake through my heart.
Two years later, I began to suspect that I might be an alcoholic. By the end of my sophomore year, I was a complete washout. I had no goals in life, no idea what I wanted to do, and, honestly, didn’t really care. So, I decided that it was time to seriously rethink my life. I did what any self-respecting failure would do. I moved back in with my parents.
I had intended for that summer to be a time of reflection and personal growth. At the very least, I planned to knock off the booze, dry out, and regain some semblance of perspective. I believe Mr. Robert Burns had something to say about “the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men.” My situation was probably more common to men than mice. It turned out that many people trapped in jobs that lead nowhere, living boring lives and leading existences devoid of purpose turn to alcohol as an escape from existential angst. Who would’ve thought?
The manager at the restaurant where I worked was this guy named Jeff, a charming individual with a gun rack in the back of his pick-up truck. He kept the walk-in coolers in the kitchen well stocked with cases of Coors Light. Each night, after we had closed down and cleaned up, we sat at the counter and enjoyed a time that we referred to affectionately as Communion—this, of course, being stale cigarettes and a cold beer…or two or ten.
That summer, on the day before Independence Day, we were one of the only restaurants in town that remained open. It was a busy day, with people dropping in to pick up smoked barbeque shoulders for their Fourth of July celebrations or simply stopping by to shoot the bull. Although things were hectic, everyone seemed in a good mood. Jeff, knowing my disposition for being easily embarrassed by matters of sexuality, had taped magazine cutouts of hard-core pornography to the wall in front of my workstation, seeking to elicit one of those blushes that I was so famous for, the ones where, all of a sudden—WHOOSH!—my head spontaneously combusts and my body is a flaming heap on the floor. Then he festively informed everyone that I was masturbating on the job. After that, in a fit of high spirits and good will, he announced that we were shutting down to attend a party at his house.
As I pulled into the driveway, Jeff was standing on the front deck of his house, waving a beer at me like an air traffic controller flagging down a 747. I walked up to the deck and he pushed a Heineken into my hand, admonishing me, “If my wife gets drunk and takes off her clothes, goddammit, you better not tell anybody.” At that point, I made a solemn promise to myself that I would just have one or two beers. Gang aft a-gley. Several hours later, I was lying bare-assed in the kiddie pool, holding a half-empty bottle of Jim Beam in much the same way a newlywed couple, spent and vulnerable, hold each other after that first night of passion. I think it was Jeff’s six-year-old daughter who tapped me on the shoulder and asked what the hell I was doing.
It was daylight by the time I left Jeff’s house. I drove home, looking like I’d just survived an ethnic cleansing, with a headache that pulsed in a perfect salsa rhythm. I consoled myself, saying, At least you’re putting what you learned in college to practical use. Fresh out of college, I had could pull a hangover as well as anyone. As a general rule, alcoholics are a gullible bunch. We tell ourselves that we don’t have to drink, or when we do drink, we can do it like normal people. The comedy of it all is that we can’t even tell that we’re lying. It’d be funny if it weren’t so damn sad.
After I parked the car in the driveway of my parents’ house, I staggered to the front door, wanting nothing more than to crawl into bed and sleep until the Second Coming of Christ. As I stepped through the door, I heard a clatter and my sister sprang out of nowhere, flinging her arms around my neck. I was prepared to slaughter her and leave her lying in the doorway while I went off to bed. I would’ve, except that she was sobbing into the front of my shirt and later the curiosity would’ve killed me.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” I asked, hoping that this wouldn’t take too long.
“Mom and Eric had a fight,” she said.
That my mother and stepfather had been fighting was by no means a life-changing revelation. It wasn’t Moses and the Burning Bush. The two of them had spent the entirety of their marriage pissed off at each other and their frequent battles were epic. Think Gilgamesh versus Humbaba. Luke Skywalker versus Darth Vader. Mike Tyson versus Evander Holifield. You’ll get a pretty good picture of Saturday night at my parents’ house. My sister, seeing that I wasn’t exactly blown away, clarified herself.
“Eric hit Mom. He was drunk and they were arguing. Eric started screaming in Mom’s face, calling her a bitch, and Mom slapped him in the face. Then he kinda snapped and starting hitting her. Brandon jumped on his back and had to pull him off her.”
“She’s in bed. She won’t come out of her room.”
“Is she hurt?”
“No, I don’t think so. Just a little bruised up. Eric left, and took Brandon with him. Where were you last night? I kept hoping you’d come home.”
I didn’t want to admit to her that, while she was dealing with all this shit, while I should’ve been there, I was busy getting drunk. Looking down at the floor, trying to avoid the question, I noticed a knife lying on the floor behind her foot, one of the long butcher knives from the cutlery drawer in our kitchen.
Though I knew the answer, I pointed to the knife and asked, “What’s that?”
My sister’s face hardened.
“When you pulled in, I thought it was Eric.”
I just nodded. There was nothing to say. I told my sister to go to bed. I didn’t imagine that she’d slept much the night before. I picked the knife up and stepped out onto the front porch. Gazing across the yard, I noticed that the glare of the sun on the morning dew had given everything a sort of faded-orange look, like an old photograph. I sat on the steps, watching the blade of the knife as I turned it over in my hands. I relished the feel of the cold steel.
For the next two weeks, my mother was a wreck. She went through crazy mood swings: giddy one moment and bawling the next. My sister told me it was because she was taking pills and drinking too much wine. One day, she and my stepfather miraculously reconciled their differences and decided to get back together. Not surprising—my mother had never lived alone in her life, and I’m not sure she even knew how.
I should’ve stayed to make sure that she would be okay. It’s a little-known truth that most alcoholics, deep down in their hearts, are selfish bastards. Wrapped up in our own problems, we don’t like to consider the possibility that other people might be suffering as well. Maybe we’ve lost the emotional capacity to care. Or, maybe, we feel incapable of giving moral support and we’re afraid to see others suffer so. Maybe we’re dead inside. Maybe. So I moved out. I found a roommate, a better-paying job, and took an apartment a couple of towns away. For the better part of three years, I stayed away. I found reasons not to visit. I never returned their phone calls.
One January evening, I was driving through Concord, enjoying the nightlife. I had gotten the night off from work, telling my boss that I was attending the funeral of a fictitious family member, so that I could spend the night in a bar, have a couple of drinks, bullshit around a little, maybe entertain the possibility of getting laid. As I waited at a red light, my cell phone rang and, when I answered, my aunt told me to get to the hospital.
My mother had had a massive heart attack. No one is sure how long she stopped breathing before the paramedics revived her, but they know that she died three times before they got her to the hospital. The deprivation of oxygen damaged her brain beyond repair. Her body hung on for three days, though her brain was all but dead. When the doctors finally removed her from life support, I watched her vital signs fail from the nurse’s station.
I was hung over when I went to my mother’s funeral. The night before, deciding that we would send Mom off in style, my three siblings and I broke open a gallon of cheap vodka and a mason jar of black cherry moonshine and proceeded to get shit-faced. In retrospect, I can’t really understand why people consider getting wasted a tribute to someone who passes away. It’s not like the deceased is present, with their arm thrown over your shoulder, laughing along in drunken revelry. Consequently, we all showed up at the funeral home looking worse than some of the residents.
I was the pianist for the reception. A young preacher (who had never met my mother) presided over the service. I sat on a bench at the piano, sweating alcohol through my pores while the preacher spoke passionately of my mother, as though he weren’t being paid to do so. He clenched his fingers as though he were trying to wring tears from the air, and you could tell that he was imagining himself in some dramatic role, like someone Paul Newman might portray. I waited for him to finish off with a speech: “I’d like to thank the Academy….”
Listening to him, I was overcome by the morbid urge to break into a cheerful rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” I stifled a giggle at the thought, but, luckily, anyone who might’ve heard me probably thought I was trying not to cry. I wish I’d done it though. Mom would’ve laughed.
After the funeral, for a while, I fell back into the familiar pattern of staying away from anyone who cared about me. The phone would ring and I would just let it switch to the answering machine. I wouldn’t call back. From time to time, one relative or another would show up at my apartment to check up on me, frown at the collection of empty bottles lined up like so many little dead soldiers on my coffee table, and report back to the rest of the family that I was still alive. I stewed in my own self-indulgent misery.
I can’t remember that there was ever any single moment of epiphany. No one imparted any profound words of wisdom. God didn’t speak to me as a disembodied voice from within my microwave oven—or any other appliance for that matter. At that time, I would’ve told you that there are no divine revelations, but there comes a point when it becomes physically painful for a body to remain in decline. Imagine a river cutting through a vast countryside, slowly eroding away the edges of the land until it finally carries those fragments of the earth into the sea. I was sobered by the thought that I was on a superb track for a career as a professional failure. I began to envision myself in twenty years: drunk, bald, lonely, sitting in a La-Z-Boy recliner, watching especially grotesque pornography while whacking off to cheerless, unfulfilling orgasms (surely the only kind drunk, balding, and lonely men can have). This sounds funny, but I’d bet the house that it’s not funny to the guy in the La-Z-Boy. Just ask him. I decided that, at twenty-four years old, maybe it was time to put the booze down and give college another try.
A week before I returned to college, I dropped in to see my stepfather, more out of a sense of duty than any real desire to see the man. He had moved out of the house that he and my mother had shared and into a small apartment up the road. I hadn’t seen him since the funeral. When I knocked on the door, he opened it and grabbed me into a bear hug that nearly jerked me off my feet. My first thought was, Shit, he’s gotten fat! Ushering me into the living room, my stepfather pushed me onto the couch and then plopped down into an adjacent armchair.
I was horrified to see that every square inch of the coffee table in front of us had been plastered over with photographs of my mother: holiday photos, wedding pictures, even her driver’s license. I looked at my stepfather, waiting on him to comment, but he just looked confused, as though he had forgotten what he was doing.
“So…how’s things been going for you?” I asked.
“Good…Good. I’m getting by the best I can. But, sometimes, it’s hard, you know?”
I nodded, not sure what to say. He gazed at the pictures that had been so obsessively scotch-taped to the glass surface of the table. A hundred images of my mother smiled up at us. He touched one of the pictures, as though he could reach through the surface to caress my mother’s face. I looked away, embarrassed because he had nothing left but a silhouette of the woman who had been my mother.
“I talk to her…every night. Sometimes, I just sit here alone and I talk to her and it’s like she’s still here. I can imagine her talking back to me. I’ll see her again someday. We both will, you know that? I believe it.”
“Yeah, I know you do.”
I thought at that moment that perhaps my stepfather had gone insane, and I couldn’t blame him if he had. I wondered what it must be like to be severed from the one with whom you shared the marriage bed. It’s probably like losing part of oneself.
He slumped in his chair, deflated.
“I don’t know what to do anymore. Sometimes I think I should just kill myself, so I can see her again, you know? I just miss her so much and I feel useless without her.”
Seeing that he was crying now, and desperately wanting to change the subject, I excused myself to get something to drink from the kitchen. When I open the refrigerator, I saw that the inside was empty except for several bottles of Night Train. On a hunch, I checked the wastebasket in the pantry and found several more bottles, empty. As much as I wanted to feel contempt, I couldn’t muster up any sense of exasperation or moral superiority. This was something I understood all too well. I went back into the living room, carrying a glass of water.
“I’m leaving for college next week,” I said.
“Yeah, I know. Your Aunt Jann told me. I wish I’d found out sooner. We could’ve done something together, spent some time together.”
“Yeah…that would’ve been great,” I said, and the truth of it is that I think it might have been.
I imagined that my stepfather had pictured the two of us together on a boat, in the middle of some lake, fishing. Perhaps the two of us would have shared a beer as we laughed, reeled in catfish, and recalled fond memories, remembering that time when…. The prospect seems pleasant now.
“Before you go, I got a bunch of stuff of your mother’s. I’m sure you want to go through it. You can have anything you want,” he said.
“No, that’s okay. You hang on to it. A college dorm room probably isn’t the best place to keep Mom’s stuff.”
“No! I want you to have it. Just wait here a minute. I’ll go upstairs and get it and we’ll go through it together. We’ll go through it together and you can take anything you want. Just wait here.”
My stepfather stumbled up the stairs, talking aloud to himself. I stood by the foot of the stairs for a long while, listening to him fumbling around up there. He was talking to my mother. I waited in the living room for maybe half an hour and, by then, all I could hear from upstairs were sounds of my stepfather weeping. I started towards the front door, stopping to take one final look at the coffee table.
She looked more beautiful in the photographs than I remembered her being in real life. A picture at the corner of the table showed her holding a bouquet of sunflowers. Much younger versions of my siblings and I were standing beside her. I remember the day that photo was taken. It was Mother’s Day. We had asked her what she wanted for Mother’s Day, and she told us that more than anything, she wanted us to go to church with her. We didn’t usually go to church, but we wanted to make her happy. She won the bouquet for having the most children of any mother at church that day. I’ve never seen her smile like that before.
The night before my mother died, while the rest of the family slept in the waiting room, I had stood beside her bed, holding her hand. The doctors were trying an experimental treatment, cooling her body in order to give her brain a chance to cope with the damage. Her skin was tinged blue, and her hair (which she had always been so particular about) was plastered, lifeless, against her head. Her hand felt cold as glass, but I held onto it, hoping that the heat of my body would somehow flow into hers. I prayed to God that night, as I never had, making every promise I could think of, asking Him to give my mother back to me. For a moment, I thought I felt my mother squeeze my hand. I sat in the armchair beside her bed and fell asleep, secure in the conviction that the following morning would bring a miracle.
A year later, that night in my stepfather’s apartment, standing in front of all those images of her, I prayed again. It was a real prayer, precise, not just an empty pleading directed out into the cosmos. This time I knew to whom I was speaking.
I’m sorry, Mom. I don’t want to do this anymore. I don’t want to be just some fuck-up. I swear to God or whoever is out there listening, I don’t. I’m sorry….
I walked out of that apartment for the first and last time that night. Days have come and gone, and I’ve tried to live in way to be deserving of the most intimate connection to my mother, who bore me into this world on a river of amniotic fluid and blood.
It’s a strange thing, blood. Across the span of human history, civilizations have made blood sacrifices to appease their gods. You hear stories of how the Son of God shed his blood to restore Man to salvation, how we’re all washed in the blood of Christ. Maybe that’s how it happens. In the beginning, God created Man, and from Man came Woman. God gave them the gift of passing along a part of themselves to create new life. The mother, wracked with the pangs of birth, suffers to bear a child, and by virtue of her sacrifice, that child comes into the world baptized in her blood. I don’t know. I just hope my stepfather is right. I think—I believe that one day, we will see her again. All bad memories will be shed like a wet raincoat, and there’ll just be that one perfect moment. It’s a sobering thought.