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Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Just Keep Swimming

On less than three hours' sleep, I frequently opened my eyes, still very, very drunk. But everything was different.  Gone was that 'rarin' to go' energy of the night before.  In its place, just dopey exhaustion.  Heading in was always better than pulling out.

I'd brush my teeth in the shower and try to get it together.  I stood in the bathtub for a few minutes, worn out and bloated.  Waves of nausea crashing against the walls of my insides, heartburn rising up the tube of my throat.  Dry heaving seemed to clear my head.  Not much to get rid of, but still, somewhat productive.

I'd watch my bile circle the drain, hypnotized by the swirling yellow design.  I swished at it with my big toe.  Cupping some warm water in my hands, I rinsed my mouth and spit.  I used yesterday's clothes to dry my back and shoulders.

*******

I seldom had any drugs left in the morning.  A little speed, perhaps - not even enough for a substantial bump.  I always promised to save some, and I tried.  I hid portions from myself as soon as I got home, before my mind shattered.  I'd squirrel away small bits, here and there - wedged between some shirts in the closet, behind the stereo, tucked inside a shoe.

I'd forget and remember all night long, turning the place upside down.
Wait.  Where did I put it?  The panic, and then, celebratory relief.
Until all the lonely cocaine was gone.  And there was nothing left to do but drink. After many hours, I grew weary but resisted sleep.  I loved being fucked up and drunk.  I didn't want to miss a minute.

Every previous evening, I planned to care about all things having to do with the following morning.  I crawled up into my head and prepared for a busy next day. My mind spun around the wheel of a very private universe where no one could keep up with me.  I was unstoppable!  I just didn't have much to show for all my efforts.

And come sunrise, with its unbearable promise and bold sense of purpose, my illusion of imaginary progress collapsed.  I was lost.  And late for work again.

*******

Once dressed, I half-ran to the train.  My head throbbed with each pounding step. I mentally shuffled my list of excuses as to why I couldn't arrive on time.  I convinced myself that the company was lucky to have me.  I did a fine job, once I eventually showed up.  Typing and answering phones, friendliness with no extra charge.  Sure, I was a handful, but I worked the human angle very well.  So smart, I thought I was.  And God forbid my supervisors expressed displeasure with my behavior.  They automatically became unsympathetic bitches and assholes.

Standing on the subway platform, my fatigue was unbelievable.  If I got to sit, I could be unconscious for thirty minutes.  I loved the two-seater near the conductor's booth.  I leaned my face against the cool, metal wall.  I'd fall out hard and wake up with my mouth hanging open.  I often missed my stop.  Racing back to my building - eight, ten and twelve blocks.  I arrived at the job in a pool of sweat.

And oh, the days were long.  The tension was relentless.  I couldn't wait to pour myself another drink.  The hour or so at lunch broke up the monotony.  I took quick rides to score my dope, so I was high again by quitting time.  I'd buy my wine and drink a big beer on the walk home.  Once the door was shut, I prepped my gear for the evening's activity.  My big plastic beaker filled with booze, pills and powder in a baggie, razor blades and straws.  With these little tools of the trade, I could disengage from the world and its restrictive hassles.  I was free to roam around the personal jail of my own design.

I played music really loud.  I watched movies I couldn't concentrate on.  I took things apart and tried unsuccessfully to put them back together.  I picked at my face in the mirror.  Very busy - with brief, uncomfortable gaps in between when everything was still.  I must have been asleep, but it was almost impossible to tell. The time was not restful.  It felt more like waiting.

*******

God love the women in my office.  They liked me and tried to get close.  I was lonely, but I could not connect.  They seemed to have rich, meaningful lives.  I had my drugs and wine.  For me, these things came first.  I took advantage of every relationship.  I disappointed people and pushed them beyond their limits.

Lisa was my office manager.  She and her fiancĂ© shared a place on Staten Island. They were planning to get married.  I know she truly cared about me.  She didn't want me to get fired.
"I have a good idea," she said.  "Why don't I call you in the mornings before I leave the house?  Just to make sure you're awake."
"That'd be great," I found myself saying.
This is gonna suck, I thought.

I never heard the phone ring but came around to Lisa's voice on the answering machine.  I'd crawl off the mattress and yank at the cord.
"Hello, yes," I breathed into the receiver.
"Good morning!" Lisa's greeting was enthusiastic and hopeful.  "Are you up?"
"Sure," I replied.
"Okay, then.  See you in a little bit."
I closed my eyes for just a minute, and two more hours fell on top of me.

I truly could not understand how people were up and ready for things.  An early workout, coffee and the newspaper, a predictable commute.  Everything in my life was hysterical drama.  That's all I knew.  I thought people who didn't drink and get high were boring.  I tried to convince myself that I chose my chaos, that my life was so disorganized because I was special and creative.

I found myself envisioning what normal folks' twilight lives were like.  Eating meals and getting enough rest.  They watched their favorite TV programs and chose outfits for work.  Dogs were walked, children were fed and bathed.  Teeth got brushed and alarm clocks were set.  Then, they slept.

With each dawn, the rest of the world got out of bed and started their day.
Sometimes, I would cry when I woke up.  I was always in disastrous shape.

*******

"Mary, are you drunk?" Lisa asked me.
"I was.  About four hours ago," I replied.  I thought this answer was funny.
"I can smell it, you know," she said.

I'll never forget how surprised I was, how this news hit me.  I had no idea that my co-workers might be questioning my condition.  I couldn't believe my drinking was being discussed behind closed doors, as if it were a problem that wasn't just mine with which to contend.  I told so many lies, I was certain I disguised the truth with fantastic confusion.  I thought for sure that my bosses didn't know what they were looking at.

*******

I crawled up the subway stairs on a Monday.  New York was extra loud, with ambulances and police cars everywhere.  The intersection was covered in cops, directing traffic and steering pedestrians away from a frantic situation on the corner.

I saw the candy first.  It poured out onto the sidewalk slowly - chocolate bars, licorice and gum.  The newsstand it came from looked like it'd been crushed by a giant.  The walls were busted in and the magazine racks, demolished.  You could see straight through the roof of the kiosk to the blue sky that dropped a grown man to the ground in the middle of rush hour.

People were suggesting he'd jumped from the ledge, seventeen stories above the Duane Reade.  Apparently, he woke up that morning and came to work.  He got in the elevator and pressed the button for his floor.  He walked down the corridor and stepped right out the window.

When the firemen pried the front of the newsstand from its frame, I caught a glimpse of the man's face.  His body twisted up so badly, just resting on all those snacks and sweets.  The whole thing, almost too strange to understand.  Plus, I was still kinda drunk.

"C'mon, folks," one of the cops said.  "Let's keep it moving.  Nothing to see here."
In a way, he was right.  The damage was done.  And we didn't really know what we were looking at.  There was nothing we could do, so everybody just kept walking.

Sometimes, I think about my weird and lonely existence.  It wasn't really a life, just movement without direction.  Like stirring a jar with a dead goldfish in it.  For a minute, it looks like he's still swimming.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Mo' Money, Mo' Problems...

I like to give careful consideration to each thought that crosses my mind.  They all file in through the same door.  Some take seats, others lean against the inside wall of my brain.  On busy days, everybody takes a number and waits to see their case worker.  The impatient ones get loud and start fights in the waiting room.  These half-assed notions make a lot of trouble.  They are poorly constructed and lack the sense required to become full-blown goals.  Still, they are ideas.  And all ideas deserve a chance, I suppose.

When I was nine, I stole a hundred dollar bill out of the coffee can where my father kept the cash from his paycheck.  I remember thinking, This is a great idea.  For two days prior to the theft, I checked on the dough to make sure it was exactly where I saw it last.  By the third morning, I'd convinced myself that my parents wouldn't notice if some of it was gone.


I separated one hundred dollar bill from the other money it was with.  I looked carefully at what was left.  Two hundreds.  
Seems like plenty, I reasoned. They'll never miss it.  I tucked the loot into the bottom of my shoe and walked around on my crime for several hours.

I'd already gotten real comfortable swiping singles and the occasional fin, here and there.  I was familiar with the paltry sums in my mother's pocketbook and the bowl in the kitchen where my Dad kept loose change, spare bullets and a few of his own extracted teeth.

I liked purchasing school supplies from the equipment closet in the fourth grade hallway at St. Raymond's.  I bought assignment pads, lead pencils and cartridge pens for myself and boys that I liked.  I was a generous thief.  I'd score the occasional box of cough drops when Big Mare sent me into the candy store to buy her cigarettes.  This way, I could share them in class.  Everybody loved Pine Brothers, cherry style.


On the day of the heist while I ate my cream cheese and jelly sandwich, I wondered how I was gonna make change for this big an amount at school without provoking any questions. I needed to devise a plan, a way to let my folks know that I'd suddenly come into a large sum of money without being pestered about its origin. Heck, if they agreed to break down my windfall into more negotiable denominations, I'd be happy to consider a handsome tip for their efforts.  With the freedom of my own financial decision-making, I figured I could spend it as I saw fit.  You'd think.


I decided to tell them I just found it while digging a hole in the basement.  I dug a little trench near an exposed pipe in the floor near the washing machine.  I came up the stairs with a spoon in one hand and Ben Franklin in the other.  I shared the news of my archaeological find with my mother.  She promptly beat my bottom, red raw.


Big Mare started sleeping with her handbag under her bed.  The coffee can was moved to an undisclosed location that took me seven months to find - above the plexiglass insert of the drop ceiling in the living room.  I knew where it was by the fourth month.  I could see the shadow of the round container when the flourescent light was on.  But I had to wait until I was tall enough to reach it from a chair with three phone books stacked on top.

I lifted a twenty while they were at church one Sunday.  I pretended I was sick.  I secretly bought a box of Valentine candy for my teacher from the drug store on the avenue - a big pink one, shaped like a heart.  I carried it all the way to school, under my winter coat.  My purchase filled me with excitement.  Mrs. Dunne thanked my mother for the gift, and I got my ass handed to me right there in front of the rectory.


In the meanwhile, I stole a blank check from my father's checkbook.  I 
couldn't tell you how this piece of paper became money, but I was determined to figure it out.  I had my eye on a Mead five-pocket organizer.  I had a feeling this binder would really change my life.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Letter #6: Arroz Malo

May 23, 2014



Mr. David Sedaris
Little, Brown and Company
237 Park Avenue
New York, NY  10017


Dear Mr. Sedaris:

The dish I prepared for Cooking Club last evening was a total disaster.  I almost didn't go.  But I absolutely adore Cooking Club!  It's kind of like a delicious, laid-back house wedding where the bride and groom don't show up and nobody even cares. It's all food and friendly fun.

This month's theme was Mexican Cuisine.  I chose a relatively straightforward recipe.  Rice.
How can Mary possibly fuck that up?  you might be asking yourself.
I have no answer for you.  All I know is I took a wrong turn in the pantry and led some innocent vegetables down a very dark and dreary road.

Mexican Rice sounded so simple that I even chose to put the casserole together on my own.  Usually, Dave lends a hand on Cooking Club nights.  With his background in computer programming and an analytical approach to most activities, he positively excels at chopping and measuring.

I'm not even sure what happened.  I followed the directions exactly like I was supposed to.  Maybe that was the problem.  The ingredients died of boredom, right there on the stove.  My children suggested I bring my pot of gruel to the party with me and let folks decide for themselves.
"Teeny, you've just gotta try this!   Otherwise, you'll never believe what a shitty job I did."

Nobody in their right mind would ever willingly eat what happened in my kitchen yesterday.  Perhaps if we drove my rice into the jungle until we came upon a jail where they starve the inmates and punish their indiscretions by forcing them to consume large bowls of disgusting food.  Nah, probably not.

Even in jail, my sinister version of this popular side dish would be a hard sell.  If it were me, I'd sooner chew through those ropes and take my chances with the guards.

It's a good idea if we get David to cook when you come for a visit.  He's much better at it than I am.  And if you insist on having rice, let's just head over to Taco Bell. They really know what they're doing.

Yours truly,


Mary Killian

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Cold Comfort

I needed to wait for exactly the right moment - the sound of the Electrolux being rhythmically dragged across the carpet in my parents' bedroom.  I stood at the kitchen table, faking interest in a kitty cat puzzle that I could put together with my eyes closed.

I still didn't hear the vacuum cleaner.  I crept into the hall to try and zero in on Big Mare's whereabouts.  I could see her reflection in the mirror that ran the length of the dresser.  She lit a cigarette and took a long, hard pull before continuing her housework.  She turned the canister on with her foot.

I hustled back into the kitchen and quietly eased a chair over to the stove.  I stepped onto the countertop and scooted along the edge so I could open the cabinet door.  I saw her put it up here, I thought to myself.  Where is it?  I wondered as I stretched my little hand into the top shelf, groping blindly from one side to the other.

My fingers just barely reached the rim of the mashed potato bowl, the oval one with the big white rose painted across the bottom.  It used to be part of a set, but Daddy broke the serving dish.  He didn't mean to.  It slipped from his hands by accident and busted into three big shards in the sink.  He wrapped up the pieces in an old terry cloth and placed them gently into the garbage pail.

Mom was so angry.  She threw a big glass orange juice bottle right on top, and I heard the pieces shatter.  Later on, I snatched the little towel from the trash.  I tried to glue the sections back together for her, but there were too many.  I remember crying about it.  I wanted to fix that plate very badly.
I tipped the mashed potato bowl on its side, and I found what I was looking for. Thank God.  I leaned against the wall and took a few hits off the aging pink pacifier.  When the noise from the other room quit, I flung the nippy into the back of the cabinet and half-tumbled to the floor.

Just as Big Mare turned the corner of the kitchen, I overshot the chair and slid right into the screen door.
"What the hell's going on out here?" she demanded.
"Nothing," I said as I climbed back into my seat.
"Nothing, my ass," she replied.
With that, the telephone rang and my mother disappeared into her gossip.
Phew, that was close, I thought to myself as I rubbed the big welt on my knee.

*******

I'm guessing Big Mare wanted to keep at least one pacifier as a souvenir.  She tucked it away casually, not giving much thought to its relevance.  But just knowing that nylon dummy was still somewhere in the house drove me crazy.  I looked and searched and hunted for my comfort until I found it.

I was too old to suck a pacifier, and I knew it.  My sister gave hers up pretty easily, but I just couldn't.  I really needed that thing.  It felt better than having nothing. So I enjoyed my plug in secret.  I took big risks, and I lied to cover them up.

"Were you in my pocketbook?" my mother would ask me.
Of course I was, but I vehemently denied any involvement.
"No, Mommy.  But I did see Judy looking for something in there."
"Judeth!"

*******

My pacifier was a childhood amenity that became a real world problem after my enrollment at St. Raymond's.  In kindergarten, Mrs. Hughes caught me chewing on it behind the bushes at recess.  I promptly spit it into some leaves.  I suggested it might belong to my imaginary friend, Granny from the Beverly Hillbillies.  My mother was summoned to school.

Mrs. Devlin took the appliance from me on several occasions in first grade.  She routinely caught me cupping my hand over my mouth.  Once, I told her I was upset because my brother was a soldier, missing in action during the war.  At dismissal, the teacher approached Big Mare in the schoolyard.
"Mrs. Dall, my prayers for the family.  I'm so sorry to hear about your son, dear," she said in her thick Irish brogue.
"What son?" was my mother's response.

Come second grade, Mrs. O'Brien checked my schoolbag routinely.  In frustration, she confiscated my nippy and wouldn't give it back.
"Honey, you don't need this.  You're not a baby anymore," she gently told me.
I burst into tears.  She sent me home with a note, asking that my mother meet with her to review the matter.  I waited in the first floor corridor while these two women discussed my behavior.  When the door of the classroom opened, Mom's face was pale and blotchy.  It was clear that she'd gotten very upset.  She didn't mention what she and my teacher had talked about, but I never saw the pacifier again.

I gained 15 pounds the following year.

*******

Big Mare and I sat together in the kitchen while Desmond and Rory were taking their naps.  Both boys were still babies at the time.  Neither child slept with a binky, and my mother couldn't get over it.
"Why don't you leave it in the crib for them, just in case?" she recommended.
"In case of what?" The mere suggestion seemed ridiculous.
"How should I know?  You're their mother," she exclaimed.

My mom reminded me how fixated I was on my own pacifier, how I tore the house apart regularly.  She also shared the details of her various meetings with my teachers regarding the subject.
"What a lovely woman Mrs. O'Brien was.  She really cared about people," she trailed off, thoughtfully.  "We mostly talked about your father, you know."
I would've loved to have been in on that conversation.

"Hey, Mom, how come you let me suck that damn thing for so long?" I asked.  "Why didn't you throw it away?"
"Jesus, Mary.  I have no idea."  She paused to consider a reason.  "You were just that kind of kid.  You always seemed like you needed something extra."

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Letter #5: I Wonder

May 18, 2014


Mr. David Sedaris
Little, Brown and Company
237 Park Avenue
New York, NY  10017


Dear Mr. Sedaris:

Desmond bought me a fancy notebook to write in for Mother's Day.  It has Wonder Woman on the cover.  That chick is something else.  I'm flattered that he thought of me when he saw the book in the store, but hers are some pretty big boobs to fill. Wait, I meant boots.

Come to think of it, everything about Wonder Woman is intimidating.  But that costume is really over the top.  How are we supposed to believe she can concentrate on fighting crime in such a skimpy outfit?  I wouldn't be able to do it. I'm too self-conscious.  I'd be sneaking through the city wrapped in a beach towel. I'd pursue only the crooks I could easily run over with my invisible jet.  At least this way, I could stay in the vehicle.  You must admit, that's one boss ride.

I do like the crown she wears, though.  It's simple and seems to do a good job holding back all that brilliant, blue hair.  Sometimes, I wish I long hair, but I've never been particularly astute at knowing how to arrange it into fancy styles.  I much fear I'm as awkward with a blow dryer as I'd be with the Lasso of Truth.  I'd just keep that thing tucked under my armpit as a threat.  Honestly, I prefer lies if folks don't like my ensemble.  Being kind is not a crime.

I can't figure out a curling iron, either.  I can do the right side okay, but the left is so dang willful.  Rory says that most things in nature are not symmetrical - I guess I should give myself a break.  I read somewhere that Uma Thurman has a perfectly symmetrical face and then, I read somewhere else that Ethan Hawke bathes infrequently.  I wonder if that's why they broke up.  I couldn't be with someone who isn't serious about his personal hygiene.  I don't care how great an actor you are. You can't act clean.

I shaved all my hair off for many years, just to bypass the nuisance of fixing it.  I've always felt as though I possess a very nicely shaped head.  I thought this unique quality would set me apart from the rest.  I guess it did, but not in the way I was hoping.  As I've gotten older, I found myself being congratulated a little too often. I didn't think I looked like I had cancer, what with my expressive eyebrows and healthy arm hair, but I could see the worry on well-wishers' faces.  I didn't have the heart to tell them I wasn't a survivor.  I said thank you about a half dozen times, but it just seemed wrong.  So I let it grow.

I was curious to see if it was still brown.  It was.  I colored it immediately.

Yours truly,


Mary Killian

Friday, May 16, 2014

Supermarket Sweep

"If you're coming along, we need to leave now," David says.  "I have less than an hour for lunch."
I love to accompany my husband on rollicking trips to the grocery store.  If there's anyone who knows how to stuff ten pounds of fun into a five pound bag, it's me.  This is why he usually prefers to go alone.
"Did you make your list?" he asks.  He already knows the answer.  Why does he do this to himself?
"Tut, tut.  No time for a list," I refute.  "Let's just see what they have when we get there."
"C'mon, kid.  That never works out," he says.  Write something down."
"Don't worry.  I feel really lucky today."  This is my attempt at reassurance.  It is insincere.  "To the casino!" I shout, grabbing my little sweater in case I get cold. Once I arrive, I prefer to remain on the premises as long as I like.  I don't want to get run off by the air conditioning.
Dave is seldom amused.  These supermarket outings can get pretty expensive.
Too bad the boys are still in school.  I like when the four of us go together.  I get a kick out of watching them case the joint.  They zero in on their favorite departments, searching for little chunks of meat and cheese punctured with frilly toothpicks.  It doesn't matter what time my sons have eaten their last meal.  When we're in the Harris Teeter, they're always near death from starvation.

Brother will disappear first, skipping through the bakery section to the deli counter.  Most of the employees know him by name.
"Hey, Rory," a lovely young lady with thick strands of blue hair stands on her tiptoes and greets him.
"Hi, Valerie," he replies as I step toward the plexiglass. "This is my mom."
"Hey," I offer, hesitantly.  I'm a bit taken aback by their unlikely relationship.
"Do you want to try some pepper turkey, Bro?" she asks.
"Sure," he says.
The cold cut clerk tries to reach over and hand him a slice, but he is too short.
"Throw it," Rory suggests.
She does, and it lands on his shoulder.
He peels the sliver of meat off his shirt and stuffs it into his mouth.
"Hey, that's good," he comments.  "Thanks."

When Desmond finds me, he is holding two tiny cups of something.  Looks like turkey chili or maybe chicken marsala.  Actually I have no idea what kind of food it is, but it smells really good.  We knock them back like shots of cheap liquor.
"This is delicious, Mom," my older boy tells me.  "The lady over there says you can make this for us tonight.  It's easy."  He gestures to the folding table set up by the lobster tank.
I look over and the sample woman waves.  She is wearing plastic gloves and a little too much makeup for the frozen food aisle.  The lighting in this section is so harsh.  She ought to know better, but perhaps she is new.
"Thank you," I call to her.
"It's shrimp etouffe!" she yells back.  "He loves it."
"Some people are so nice," Desi adds.

*******

My husband spins through the shop, flinging items into the cart like he's on a game show.
"I have a meeting at 2 'o'clock," he reminds me.
The man I married is conscientious.  He secures the necessary components for healthy dinners that we can prepare for the next several nights in a row.  I follow closely behind, adding things like Funyuns and Cool Whip when I think he's not looking.
"We still have plenty of Funyuns at home, you know," Dave insists.
"That's impossible," I protest.  "We can never have too much fun."

While checking out at the register, I notice a little girl by the complementary sugar cookie display.  Roughly four years old, she is diligently tidying up the wafers into neat rows.  She has a violent cough and is wiping her nose into the palm of her hand.  I drift over to where she is volunteering.

"You did a nice job," I say to her.  "Do you work here?"
 "No," she responds shyly.  "I go to school."
"Well, it shows."  She smiles at my kind remark and admires her own efforts.
There is a pause in our conversation as she continues to hack her brains out.

"Are you all right?" I inquire of my new friend.
"Yes.  Mommy kept me home today," she confides, sniffling unselfconsciously.  "I'm still sick."

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Making Believe

I've been thinking a lot about my folks.  I studied them very closely when I was young.  I thought the way they treated each other was normal.  It made me sad and confused.  I pretended things were different, but pretending only works in short bursts.  Reality interrupts the dream.  It makes sense that drinking became my grown-up version of make believe.

I always find it's much easier to understand Big Mare's feelings than figure out my dad's.  Mom and I spent a lot more time together.  Humanness gushed from her like an uncapped fire hydrant.  Gene Dall, on the other hand… Well, he may be a cyborg.  Of course, we won't know if this is the case until the time of his death when scientists can actually study his molecular structure and report their findings.

I'm pleased that I can put together some reasonable explanations that make sense of the way Mom and Dad behaved.  If I can figure out my own shit as much as I have, I can certainly take a crack at decoding those two.  Putting myself in their shoes changes everything about the way I see situations.  It has brought compassion into my angry heart.  It guides my adult decisions with wisdom and grace.  It helps me dignify my elderly parent.  Still, whenever I exercise this opportunity, I realize I wouldn't have wanted to be married to either of them.

I wonder if my sons are watching the way David and I carry ourselves.  I would guess so, but they probably don't scrutinize us in the same way.  Dave and I are open and communicative.  It is clear that we value and respect one another.  There is very little upsetment in our relationship.  Desmond and Brother are not preoccupied with the condition of our marriage.  They're able to concentrate on the things they enjoy.  They can just be kids, and I'm glad.

*******

At some point early on, I'm sure my mother thought Gene Dall was a really good idea. He was gentle and quiet, a decent man with a solid work ethic.  His drinking definitely threw everything off-balance.  Alcoholic behavior may begin with one person, but it impacts each member of the family.  Booze fused my parents together and reshaped them into a throbbing ball of co-dependence.  Big Mare constantly reminded my father of this ugliness they shared, the secrets she kept.  Her anxiety swelled every time he stepped out of line.  She wanted to control and protect him from himself, but she made it worse every time she opened her mouth.  He hated being nagged.

"Mom, why did you marry Daddy?"  I begged my mother for her rendition of how she and my father came to be.  Theirs was not a conventional love story.  It was more like a running joke with a dark punchline.
"Because I felt sorry for the bastard."  Big Mare stuck to this version whenever she shared the vague details of their unholy union.  It came across as funny, and the audience laughed.
"C'mon, Mom.  Be real."  I longed for specifics.
"What?  We went to a dance, and the stupid son-of-a bitch wouldn't leave me alone.  So I married him."
"Didn't you go on any dates?" I asked.
"No.  That's it in a nutshell, kid," she insisted.  "Now, look at me.  I'm living the dream."

This story couldn't have been the whole truth, but it's how Big Mare comforted herself. Clearly, she felt like she'd been given the shaft.  She longed for the upper hand, but it wasn't hers to have.  Instead, she sucked up all of her husband's chaos and choked it down with her own resentment.

I know my mother loved my dad.  But as hard as I try, I cannot remember any instances where my parents were truly affectionate toward one another.  Surely, they must have experienced some kind of mutual fondness that made them want to become a couple and stay that way for so many years.  Maybe.  I like to think so, but it's really hard to say.

When I was a little girl, I wanted proof that some kind of love existed in their lives.  I sat between them at mass on Sundays and tried to get them to hold hands.  My mother would pull away like a bratty child.  When Dad fell asleep in the pew and began to quietly snore, she spewed directives my way.
"Rap him," she'd blast angrily.
"I'm not gonna rap him.  You rap him," I refused.
She'd reach over me and give him a shove.
He would smile, never opening his eyes.
It made me wonder if he was awake the whole time.

After we left the church, Mom would stop and talk with neighbors she knew along Zerega Avenue.  She could turn her animosity on and off like a faucet.  That's one of the ways she protected her fragile heart.  But this kind of behavior made it difficult to gage her emotional direction.  I never knew which side of the proverbial street I was on.  In a way, Dad was much smarter.  He always just kept walking.

Gene Dall would shuffle along, occasionally stopping to investigate something on the pavement - coins, a button or a piece of a broken toy.  Eyes always down, searching for something.

"He's looking for money," my mother would say.  "King Shit's gonna take over the world, one nickel at a time."
When he got home, my father transferred every little discovery into a bowl on the kitchen counter.  I sifted through these treasures, desperate for clues about the man who gathered them.  I wanted to know who he was, but all this evidence seemed like worthless junk.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Happy Mother's Day, Gene.

The boys were in the kitchen early today, preparing my Mother's Day surprise.  I sat in the bedroom listening while they tried their father's patience.  David was attempting to explain how to crack an egg without getting it all over their clothes and the floor.  Neither brother seems to know how to perform this feat of culinary wizardry just yet without casualties.  To individuals with tremendous restraint (like Dave), there is precision to just about everything.  But who needs methodology when you're making an omelette?  I hate science when I'm hungry.
"I can do it, Dad.," said one of them.
"Yes, I believe you," replied David.  "But you have that egg by its throat.  This is not going to end well.  Just let me show you one more time."
"No.  It's okay.  Really.  I know how."  Smash.  "Dang it."
How one of them managed to crack an egg down the front of my husband's shirt and into his shoes, I can only guess.  I didn't see it happen.  All I know is amidst the chaos, there was no yelling.  This was the nicest part of the whole breakfast-in-bed tribute.
At 9:40, the house phone rings.  It is Gene Dall.  Mostly, he checks in during the evening when dinner is over and he's back in his room for the night.  It's unlike him to call in the morning.  He's generally very focused on his pancakes and then a brisk nap before lunch.

"Hey there, Geno." I start us off.
"Yes, hello.  Is this the New York City Police Department?" he asks.  His voice sounds formal and concerned.  For a moment, it's unclear whether or not he's fooling around.  Customarily, I'm the one who initiates the cop jokes.  He just plays along with what's familiar.

"I need the Police Department," he repeats his request.
"This is your kid," I say to him.
"Really?" He is confused.
"Why?  What's the matter?" I question him.
"It's just that I'm not sure if I was supposed to come in for work today.  I don't want anybody waiting on me to show up."
Shit.  It dawns on me that he's quite serious.
"I don't think you need to worry, pal."  I tell him.  "It's Sunday.  That's usually your day off."
"Oh, that's good.  Because I can't remember if I need to be there."
"Nah, you're okay," I reply, matter-of-factly.
There's a brief pause in our somewhat tense exchange.

"So, what's new over there?" I move the conversation along, hoping he isn't too rattled.
"Nothing, really.  Same ol' horseshit," he replies.  He is friendly again.  Everything is all right.
"You got anything else you wanna say to me?" I ask him.
"No.  I don't think so."

"Don't you realize what today is?" I inquire.
"Now I do.  It's Sunday."  He is very smart all of a sudden.
"It's Mother's Day!" I shout into the phone.
"You don't say."  And then, he is quiet.

"Happy Mother's Day, Gene."
"Thank you," he says.
"You're welcome, Dad."

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Blue and Gold Print


The alcoholic family is rigid and inflexible.  It does not adjust to new things easily.  It is reluctant to acknowledge or accept change from any of its participants.  This seems like a contradiction, given the fact that life inside the home is reckless and out-of-control.

Such an uncompromising stance seems to develop as a result of having a problem drinker as a member  of the group.  This individual's actions are so erratic that the other players must scramble to adapt to his or her behavior.  They make attempts to control something - anything - in order to bring some measure of stability into their world. Everybody just wants to feel safe.

There is very little growth within the alcoholic family.  There is only reaction to the unpredictable.  This chaos feels like movement when it's happening, but nobody goes anywhere.  They spin around in circles and reflexively crash into each another.  This is how they communicate.  Nothing ever changes.  Unless, of course, it's getting worse.
"Judy, are you awake?" I stood in the doorway that separated our bedrooms.
"Yeah.  What is it?"  She turned the flashlight off and put the book under her pillow.
"Do you think Daddy's okay?" I asked.
"How should I know?  I guess."
"What if he dies?"
"Don't be stupid," my sister replied.  She sounded calm.  "He'll be home soon."
It had been several hours since the phone rang and Mom got upset.  She sent us upstairs when Mary Tyler Moore ended.

"Can I sleep with you?" I pestered Judy every evening, even though we were getting too big to fit together comfortably in a twin bed.
"Not tonight," she said.
"Please," I begged.
"Okay, but just for a little while.  You make everything too sweaty."
"I promise I won't sweat."  I couldn't help it.  I lied quite naturally.

I woke up several hours later when I heard the doorbell.  That was never a good sign.  It meant Dad was too drunk to use his key. 
"Is that him?" I asked.
"Probably," Judy said.  "But you hafta get off me."

We crawled into the hallway and peered down the stairs.  My father bounced unsteadily against the dark panelling in the foyer.  Big Mare stood to the side of him, trying to shake him loose from his coat.
"Jesus Christ, Gene," my mother lamented.  "When are you gonna knock this shit off?"
What a dumb question.

I can still hear Mom's voice when she was upset.  It almost sounded like fake sobbing. She would never permit herself to work up a really good cry.  I'm not sure if maybe she thought she didn't deserve to be unhappy or that it made her look weak.  Either way, she had to concentrate on mopping up the mess.

Dad mumbled something that she couldn't understand.
"What, goddammit?" she demanded.
This time, he said nothing.  It was dumb to encourage him, anyway.  He made no sense.

"Mary, move over," my sister struggled under the weight of my leg slung over her back.
"You can get to sleep now, girls," Mom yelled up the stairs.  "Your father  is home," she said sarcastically.  She always tried to shame him into recognizing and caring about us. It never, ever worked.  I couldn't stand when she did that.  It made me feel like a disgusting burden.  Big Mare could be so mean.

"Go back to your own bed," Judy decided she'd had enough.
"You don't love me," I mumbled under my breath.
"Yes, I do," she insisted.  "That's not fair."
"Well, I hate you," I replied.

What did any of us know about fairness?

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Help Yourself...

I've been doing quite a bit of reading about children raised in alcoholic households. It's fascinating stuff.  Not every piece of information I've come across on my fact-finding mission mirrors my upbringing, but lots of the material is familiar.

Self-help books are tricky.  They contain case studies that outline developmental patterns among individuals exposed to certain environmental conditions.  They lay it all out there, and the reader can decide whether the data is useful or bullshit. Sure, it sounds really scientific, and I kinda dig that angle.  I'm impressed with myself that I actually know what any of these words mean when they're grouped together like this.  Plus, I'm in a pretty good place emotionally.  I think that's a big bonus.

I appreciate learning more about what went on behind the scenes in our alcoholic home and the subsequent ripple effect of behavior.  I'm just careful not to get too wrapped up in all the details.  My familial dysfunction doesn't keep me warm at night.  I do not regret the past, nor do I wish to shut the door on it.*  I live in the present, and I am a work in progress.  I recognize my good fortune.  With God's grace, I got sober and every day, I manage to stay that way.  I look toward the future with hopeful confidence.  I just prefer to do it in 24-hour increments so I don't get too ahead of myself.

When I write, I try to be careful to not turn the privilege of sharing very intimate details into a shit-slinging contest.  If Big Mare were still alive, I'd probably not be at liberty to retell these accounts with such freedom.  I do feel as though I am respectful with the sensitive material.  I try to present my version of the truth in an honest and loving way.  I cherish my mother's memory.  I also know that she'd bust my ass in half if she ever thought I was making things up.

My past is full of moments that have already happened.  Nothing I do or say can change that reality.  Sure, not everything was awesome.  Big deal.  Thinking about some of these experiences still blows my mind.  I want to write down as many memories as I can.  I'm not ashamed that they occurred.  It's what I do with what I'm learning that's important.  I want to share these things.  I think it helps.

No matter what went on in our family - good, bad or off-the-charts insane, I can appreciate that my parents did the very best they could.  When I recognize this simple concept and approach my memories with forgiveness in my heart,  it can open doors to great emotional progress.

I tell you what…  Sometimes when I read what I've written, I think I sound really smart.  I need to be careful about that.  I'm no expert.  Last time I checked, I'm just a girl with a bunch of stories.

* The Promises of Recovery

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Letter #4: I Can't Go For That (No Can Do)

May 6, 2014


Mr. David Sedaris
Little, Brown and Company
237 Park Avenue
New York, NY  10017


Dear Mr. Sedaris:

If Darryl Hall and John Oates had a fight with England Dan and John Ford Coley, who do you think would win?  As lackluster an encounter as it sounds, I'm guessing Hall and Oates.  They've always given the impression that they're quite capable of holding their own.  Plus, England Dan passed away in 2009 due to complications from lymphoma.  It's hard to kick someone's ass when you're dead.

I've never been a particularly good fighter.  My natural reflex is to run away from confrontation.  I'm generally pretty quick with a joke but if an individual wants to argue, my snappy comebacks are forced and inappropriate.  It's unlikely I'll cry, but I can guarantee that it won't go smoothly.  I do not possess the killer instinct.

I'm actually not much better at hiding.  I get too lonely.  I ran away from home once when I was about seven years old.  I didn't actually go anywhere.  I just wrote a note, left it at the top of the stairs and crawled under my bed.  I'd imagine that I was hoping my folks would find the message and start combing our neighborhood immediately.  Instead, they both fell asleep in front of the television, like they did most nights.  I woke up at about 2 o'clock in the morning with second-degree rug burns and a stiff neck.  Never again, I thought to myself.

It's funny.  I was wondering just the other day what it might feel like to punch somebody in the face.  I'm not sure why I was thinking about it.  I was cleaning the boys' bathroom at the time the thought struck me.  It's not like the tub was even that dirty to provoke such a hostile notion.  Maybe I had some music floating around in my head.  That can happen.  I'll be driving past Chili's on Rea Road and the next thing I know, I'm singing "Do You Like Pina Coladas?" all afternoon.  I'm not certain of any songs that reference the pounding and busting of noses, but I'm sure there are plenty.

I had my nose broken many years ago by my second husband.  It was rather unpleasant.  I'm guessing that one of my ill-conceived retorts provoked Charlie's actions.  That and his penchant for angel dust.  But there's no need to worry, really.  He died last year, so the likelihood of any additional assaults is slim.

I asked David if he ever had the opportunity to land a punch squarely onto someone's nose.

"Only in Krav," he said.

I sort of forgot that Dave took Martial Arts last year.  It really helped him get into shape.  I bet nose-punching happens all the time in self-defense classes.  A solid pop to the face can certainly put someone's lights out.  I know it did mine.

"I have some pads in the garage," he added.  "I can hold one up and you can have a go, if you like."

That Dave.  He's a good guy.

"Nah, it's okay," I replied.  "I don't really have anyone in mind."

Yours truly,


Mary Killian

P.S.  I hope you're well.