By The Front Porch Talker
My father was a sociopath. He was many other things too. To my mother—and the world—he was an alcoholic and a sex addict. In those days, back in the sixties and seventies, they didn’t use the word, “sociopath.” Things were more black-and-white: either you were a psychopath, like, say, Richard Speck, the man who killed those nurses back in the day; or, you were an average American. To the world, my father was an average American who, by all appearances, was normal. Well, except for the booze and sex…
My mother, on the other hand, while also an alcoholic, just viewed herself as a bundle-of-nerves. And, a victim of my father who, as I found out forty years later, had not only cheated on my mother throughout their marriage, but also had an affair with his brother’s wife, who was also an alcoholic.
As I would come to find out, many years after the following story took place, my father and his sister-in-law moved in together after we left Florida, and proceeded to “drink-up” everything we ever owned.
And now that I’ve written the following essay I’ve had my own break-through, as a victim of a sociopath (or sociopaths): I became my mother. My mother, myself …
Crossing the road
I was fearless as a child. My mother told me that she would send me—her only girl— into our darkened house first whenever we arrived home at night, without our father. As the oldest child and only girl, I served as my mother’s scout for all-things-fearful—and later on, for all-people-fearful. It was a natural conclusion, then, a fait accompli, that I would become the consummate diplomat.
I learned the fine art of detente in the theatre of family battles and wars. As a world ambassador, I translated and interpreted all matters regarding borders and boundaries. I was named ambassador to the world to translate and interpret in all matters regarding the distant views of the archipelago that was my family.
In my earliest childhood days, my mother sent me on little nagging missions to test my abilities to negotiate—a skill I would later refine. My first mission was cigarettes: My mother pinned a note to my sun dress and patted me out the door to buy cigarettes at the gas station up the road.
“But don’t cross the road,” she said, “unless I am there to hold your hand.”
In my grey-felt saddle-shoes I ran down to the gas station. When I saw the attendant pumping gas at the full-serve island, I dutifully handed-off a permission note that said: “Please sell my daughter a pack of Pall Malls—non-filters, please.” It was signed in her wobbly handwriting.
My next mission was down the road, but across the street lights. I waited for the “Walk Now” sign, then tore through the intersection for the half-mile walk to the revolving sign that said, “Best Alibi Bar” on one side, and “Package Liquors,” on the other, with “convenient drive-thru service,” quoted in smaller letters. The red neon lights flashed on and off in a blinking eye as if the whole world was in some kind of cahoots or conspiracy against booze and boozy places that had become my dad’s second home.
I pulled the heavy door open, and bee-lined straight to my father’s bar stool saying only, “Mom says it’s time for dinner.”
“What are we having?” he asked as though that might sway him in one direction or another.
“I think something good,” I lied, trying to sell him on the idea.
He raised a finger, in the same way you would call a cab, opened his wallet and told the weathered woman bartender he called Peg, leaning in and saying, sotto voce: “Gravel Gerty will have my hide if I don’t get home.”
Peg looked disgusted if you counted her deep sighs of cigarette smoke. Unlike my mother, who was a delicate southern belle with bad nerves, Peg looked lived-in. She was one of those hard women you meet sometimes in local bars in small towns in the south. She was a divorcee, which was nearly unheard of back then.
She lived in a trailer park on the edge of town. Her trailer had a sign above the door that said: “PEG’S PLACE” in shell art. Our father had taken us to visit her there one time after the bar had closed. In Peg’s kitchen there was a sign that said: “PEG’S KITCHEN.” Everything was named, I guess, in case you’d forgotten who owned what.
“Well, then, you SOB, you’d better get your tail home before your ole’ lady calls here,” Peg said, ignoring our father’s money that he’d slapped against the bar.
I began to notice my mother’s fears, more and more; but, at first it was a hazy realization, like the realization that you’d forgotten to turn-off a burner of the stove, but then remembered you’d checked. At first, I was sent as my mother’s stand-in at my ballet recital in first grade; then, at all school events, and then at all social events. Then, fears began to take-hold of everything where you question all your decisions equally, small or big ones.
Fears begin as a singular controlled event that eventually spreads like a wild fire taking on a life of its own—the same way fire will take to dry, hay-colored grasses after a lightning strike. Things and people become hazy-smoky, while the borders remain clear and hot. Pretty soon, everything in your life is engulfed in flames and shaky burning leaves and timber. I don’t recall now what the particular order of her fears was—only that things and people haunted her, for no particular reason.
She had fears of so many things—of nearly everything related to living and life, for that matter. It’s hard to pinpoint a particular thing that set her fears ablaze. The first thing was probably bridges. My mother feared bridges, which presented a tight-wire act in a place like Florida. She drove us miles out of our way to avoid driving over a bridge, especially one that involved water. She told us it was just a matter of Snowbird traffic, which she also feared because, “old people drive so slow you might as well ram into their cars, to speed them along,” she said.
My mother drove with her two cigarette fingers, leaving the wheel now and then for a deep drag. It was the day we were forced with the decision to drive over a bridge to drop us off at our Sunday school for some church event. It was my mother’s first and only Draw Bridge. We sat in the back seat of our station wagon, as we saw the grated metal bridge and warning post looming in the distance, just beyond the putty-soft black tar rising off with the heat of the highway.
We considered turning back and missing church altogether. But no, she told us. Our souls were at-stake here. She was not a religious woman, having been raised in a strict, Southern Baptist household. But she insisted on our salvation, nonetheless; that our souls be saved in place of her own.
“Okay,” she said, gunning the engine, “hold your breath everybody, and touch the ceiling—close your eyes!”
We heard but did not see the event unfolding: her terror; her rigid body holding down the steering wheel, her panicky nerves. The station wagon rolled up the little hump that signified a bridge. Then we heard the whirring sound of rubber tires rolling over metal grating—a comforting sound to us kids. But to our mother it was a terror likened to the way a roller-coaster slowly rolls up the steep track and sits there at the top, for a flash of a second, just so you can realize that the sudden descent is completely out of your control.
Our mother stomped on the brakes, just short of the little warning gate. We waited. Then, as the gate lifted, signaling us to pass to the other side, she must have realized that it was too late to turn back. Eventually, we passed to the safe side of the world, just beyond the other half of the bridge, and went on with our lives. But that day left a permanent sun spot on her. From then on, our mother avoided bridges altogether—all bridges—especially toll bridges, which, in her mind, were the devil’s workshop.
As I got a little older, during our school years, I became my mother’s self-appointed diplomat for all matters relating to myself and my brothers—and later on, for my father too. I was her doppelganger. I was the sunny to her cloudy days. I was the funny to her depressed. I was extroversion to her introversion. In those days I was more outgoing—out of necessity more than anything else.
The truth was: my mother was painfully shy, unless she was nursing a Vodka martini, which my parents drank at home before dinner, during “cocktail hours.” After dinner, they called it something else. The fact was that she never had friends of her own, due to her bad nerves, which many women of that time had. Our father, on the other hand, was friends with all the neighbors. He made up the difference, and then some, inviting his whole college football team over to our house on one occasion. Or, if she didn’t feel like socializing, my father would be off on some mission of his own for the night.
In her world as a southern woman and mother from the late fifties and sixties, fears were part of the feminine mystique, along with proper manners and keeping a good home. She was afraid of normal things: spiders, driving, and everything else across the spectrum of what was to be expected of a woman. It was somehow vulgar to not be fearful, as though it were some signal that men could sniff-out and track as some scent of conspiracy or independence that was not to be trusted.
Men, on the other hand, led wholly separate lives from women. They were charged with the duties of protection and chivalry as though they were nagging chores, like mowing the lawn. This afforded them the freedom to be a rascal or an enfant terrible as long as it was done quietly and behind the scenes—a habit as common as smoking cigarettes and drinking after a long day at the office. They kept a sense of decorum about all matters concerning sex, adultery and other dubious matters of the day.
Pretty soon, my father was spending more time at “The Alibi,” it seemed, than at home. Since it was already his second home, we—my mother and us kids—often went there on family occasions the way some families went to pizza parlors together. It seemed normal—other families gathered there too on Sunday afternoons.
The bar was alley-dark inside, leaving little sun dots in our eyes from the too-bright early morning Florida sun. It slid beneath the cracks of the door and met with the bar’s air-conditioning. It felt perfectly cool, as though you’d stood inside the grocery store refrigerator with all the mixed-vegetables and popsicles long enough to cool-down the summer heat. The light circled the bar, like a center ring of activity in a dark place, or the Hopper painting of the café.
Our father waited at the bar for us in a swiveling naugahyde barstool. His head rested on the bar, but Peg rousted him. “Come on, George, act like a gentleman and introduce me to your family.”
Peg introduced herself. First to my mother, and then leaning down to our level, to us. Her hair was a combination of whispy grey and Florida bleached blond. My mother waited for me to make the introductions, which I did. Peg nearly knocked our mother over with her playful roughness. I expected her to wrestle my mother to the floor had she not laughed loudly. My mother was not accustomed to women who spoke with raspy voices and cussed, for no particular reason. Peg’s vulgarity was totally alien to my mother who had grown up as a Southern Baptist whose most common words involved coffee cakes and urns of coffee.
Our father ushered us over to the smoky interior of the bar where the regulars sometimes entertained their families—and where we children could sit. The maroon, naugahyde booths were overstuffed and slick as you slid into the half-moon booth.
Peg was an efficient bartender. Before we could get comfortable, she delivered a “Shirley Temple” with a cherry for me, and “Roy Rogers” drinks for the boys. Peg brought my father’s regular without asking, smiling down at his hands. He was not wearing his wedding ring. Peg leaned down and whispered something at my father, while pretending to take my mother’s drink order.
Then, they’d chase us kids off to play the pinball machines or the duck-pin bowling game, so that the adults could drink in peace. Or as they called it: “getting us kids out of their hair.”
At the pinball machines, we were completely taken in by the flashing, garish lights of the one-eyed Jack or the red-nose of the happy clown. As we poured our change into a new machine, bells and whistles and rolling lead balls celebrated every little victory of the pinball flappers that we controlled.
Throughout the alley-darkness of the bar, I glanced around for my parents to see if maybe they had disappeared into the lightness of the day outside. They sat in the penumbra shadows of the maroon, naugahyde booths, with their sad and wistful expressions, waiting for their friends to arrive. Their cherry-red lighted cigarettes marked their positions on opposite sides of the half-moon shaped booth. I stood in the distance, mesmerized, like our first trip to the airport when I’d watched the airline mechanic’s marking lights guiding the nose of our grandparents’ plane into the tarmac to meet the breeze-way, which had been squeezed out to make a connection.
After playing all the pinball machines, we moved on to the duck-pin bowling machine, without a moment’s thought about our long waiting-time ahead of us. It was pretend-bowling, the kind where you rolled your ball down a short-lane, following the red stripes on either side, towards the small bowling pins. With my first strike, I saw how my parents’ faces had completely lit-up, as though clicking on a night light, when their friends had finally arrived, teasing and laughing, and shoving their way into the booth. We felt happy too.
So the day a neighbor revealed the truth—that our father had been cheating on her for most of their marriage, she first blamed the woman who had told her—one of my father’s liaisons. Pretty soon though, her anxieties and fears took hold of her—believing and then not believing the neighbor. Then, believing and not believing our father’s lies. But without solid proof, she probably told herself, she would not act on these accusations. Her family had to be saved, at any cost.
My next mission, acting on my mother’s behalf, came a few months later. It was an undercover operation—very hush-hush and covert, like Mission Impossible, which was on television weekly. It was my assignment—should I accept the mission—to spy on our father, then report back to my mother with one simple word: YES or NO. That simple word, I told myself, would seal the deal for her.
Then, I imagined a “second honeymoon” for my parents—they’d never had their first–somewhere off in Hawaii, maybe, where they would sip Mai-tai drinks and do hula-hula dances, then return with presents for us kids—leis and grass skirts. We’d heard so much about Hawaii because our father had been stationed there in the Navy, before heading off to the Korean theatre of war. I pictured them returning home happy: My father would finish his degree in Architecture and my mother would have time to raise us, without my help.
On the day that I revealed the truth about our father’s secret life –that it was YES–with Peg, from the bar, my mother’s world collapsed entirely, like a thin, frail paper shade. From then on, she drew her eyebrows into permanent surprises. She had been stunned into The Twilight Zone, a near-catatonic state where all women and girls were her enemies, including me–her daughter.
It is one of life’s wonders why we tend to defend those who harm us most, while we despise those who have defended us. That fear pattern was woven into my diplomatic immunity clause, later on. I knew that telling the truth was not really what the world wanted to hear. They wanted to hear that everything was just fine. That nothing had, nor would ever change in the world. They wanted comfort, at any cost. Above all, they wanted to know that the world, and all the people in it, was good and pure and innocent, like Jackie Kennedy was in the early days of her husband’s presidency.
So, without explanation, we were whisked out of the state with our uncle’s help, leaving only our father standing in the carport shaking and crying. It was the first time I had ever seen a man in fear, much less my own father. He was erased from our lives for good, leaving us to guess about his whereabouts.
Back at the Alibi
It would be ten years later, while running away from home, when with the help of a friend’s attorney, I found him again, still in Florida. I had always been my father’s favorite child, and now I was a teen. I returned to Florida and found him sitting in a bar nursing a drink, first thing in the morning. It was his regular watering hole, “The Alibi,” but the sign did not revolve with “Drive-thru Package liquors” on the other side, or the little words, “Convenient Drive-thru.” The neon blinking light was dark now as though somebody had blackened it.
On the last morning I would see my father, I would also see Peg craning her neck out the drive-thru window, as if pretending to send the smoke outside. She was my father’s look-out. I waved at her as though she were some familiar neighbor, not really saying hello. Her face had taken a toll on her after so much darkness. She had dark circles under her eyes and her cheeks were puffed out as though she’d been bitten by a snake a long time ago and hadn’t quite healed right.
In the distance of the parking lot, I heard Peg’s gravely voice calling me inside the cavernous bar. “Your daddy’s inside,” she called, pointing to the bar door. “He’s dying to see you—been waiting all morning!” The door to the bar had been painted bright pink, the color of Pepto bismol, along with the rest of “Alibi,” as a cheap alternative to the revolving sign and neon-blinking eye. I discovered my father sitting at the bar. Now, he sat on a maroon swivel-bar stool at the bar, where all the serious drinkers sat first thing in the morning . It was utilitarian; they encircled the bar and the bartender as protection the way wagon trains circle. The vulnerable bar kept their secrets, with Peg as their sheriff.
These were men, and a few women, who had established themselves as serious drinkers. They didn’t bother with the niceties like napkins and straws, nor did they waste their time eating nuts or watching television. I spotted my father as one of them—men who no longer had any reasons to lie or hide the fact of their hard-drinking –against the bright morning outside, against time and reason—and anything else beyond darkness. He had slid into oblivion on the day after our mother had discovered him cheating on her—the day our uncle had arrived to whisk us off to a new life in the Midwest, leaving our father sobbing in the carport. This was his calling now.
Now I was old enough to be dating boys. When I saw my father, already near-passed-out at the bar that morning, my selfish, impatient genes kicked-in: I told myself that I would only stay long enough to say hello and to rattle-off a litany of my teen-aged interests; then, I planned to be off water-skiing with some boy for the rest of the day. As I let the pink bar door close behind me, I was taken in by the cavernous darkness. Peg stood behind the bar serving drinks with one hand, while the other handled her cigarette. She welcomed me, as though we’d been old friends.
He’d been waiting for me, but by mid-morning when I had arrived, he was already nursing his way through a bottle of Scotch. The woman rattled him awake. “Your daughter is here—wake-up for Chrissakes!”
Slowly he lifted two of his fingers, with a cigarette smoldering between them, and gave me a little wave over at the door. “Oh, my God! Oh, my God! Oh, my daughter, God-damn it,” he said, barely managing whole words. He tried scooting off the bar stool, but the weight of it all pushed him back down again. After hugs and small-talk, he ordered me a ginger ale and told me to sit next to him.
“How did you find me here?”
“I just figured,” I said.
“I stopped in for just one. I was just on my way back home.”
We both knew that that wasn’t true. Apparently, my visit warranted his re-joining that part of the world that I, and the rest of the sober world, occupied. Mine was a world where people regularly lied and still bothered to make excuses for their fallen-circumstances in life. Mine was a complicated world where some things were both good and bad; where some choices would become deep regrets; where years might waste-away with indecision, bad relationships—or worse—mediocre relationships. And, you had to live it all to find out how it would all turn-out, not knowing the ending.
As I sipped my ginger ale he sipped his scotch, we traded stories about our lives in the small, neat world that was his. His world was simple, and sublime in some way that I would come to understand in the next hours.
My father had compressed his life into simple, declarative sentences: “I’m heading to the bar.” Or, “I’m just stopping in for a quick one.” Or, maybe he said nothing at all and simply got into his car after his first cup of morning coffee, and drove here to open the doors with the bar; and, maybe he would stay until it closed again.
My life, on the other hand, was messy and complicated, back in my dreary world in high school, a thousand miles away. I did not want to talk about it with my father: it seemed to take me away from the present moment, the only moment that seemed real to me, then and now.
It was as though he had already made all the toughest decisions in his life, or they had been made for him, and now that he’d seen each one to the point of utter failure. After the surety of that realization, there was just a cool stream of relief left now—where all you had left to do in life was to sit on the banks of the stream, and, having answered all your questions about how life would turn-out, you just had to see your way to the end.
In our new life in the Midwest, far from the carport in Florida where we had left our father, I took on a new role with my mother, in my later teen years. I spoke to the world for her: I was my mother’s World Ambassador for all-things-and-people-fearful. I had always been the negotiator, especially in matters of sensitive diplomacy and détente during our family’s conflicts and battles, speaking in the theatre of war and peaceful settlements.
We did not always speak to each other, my mother and me, especially as I became an adult. But, I still spoke for her– at her insistence—or, she did not speak at all. And especially, she did not speak about my father, who had now died. It was the occasion of my mother’s third marriage, when she returned to her roots in Florida.
And, on the next occasion, ten years later, I would see her for the last time, too, when she beckoned me back home to Florida. When I arrived in the thick, muggy heat, my mother was too weak to do her own chores, and her husband—many years her senior—was too ill, as well. He spent most of his days in his bed, listening to “books for the blind,” while my mother told me that she was on a “liquid diet now.” Now, meaning for the past ten years or so.
So, as the Chief ambassador for my mother, I made weekly trips to the Package Liquor store where my parent’s favorite bar had been. There, at the drive-thru window, I gave the same weathered woman I’d seen years before my order: a case of Vodka to-go.
At first, I didn’t recognize her as Peg. Her bony body and sucked-in cheeks made it impossible to know until she spoke in a sore, strained, raspy voice. “You’ll have to drive around and come on into the bar,” she told me, “while I pack it up for you.” She could not hand the box of half-gallon Vodka bottles through the drive-thru window, she explained, with a cigarette hanging out the side of her mouth.
I walked through the heavy, dark door of the bar for my order. The door was no longer pink, but an ashen grey-brown. It had decorous totem symbols carved into the wood, and had taken on an encrypted vaulted appearance with strange coding or secret messages carved into the door, in a Masonic sense.
Inside, the bar itself did not match the door. Maybe several different owners had worked the place over, while never changing the name: “The Alibi.” The place had a garish and worn appearance now. The maroon, naugahyde booths looked as if they’d been sat on for too many years; the fake plastic coverings were cracked in long, vertical tears bursting along the seams from all the weight. The bar stools smelled of cheap cologne and perfume.
A jukebox had replaced the pinball machines and duck-pin bowling. I watched as a young woman punched-in her musical selections, while her friends or family waited over in the booth. With each selection she seemed to look back for approval, as if the songs, like watered-down drinks from the well, had been ordered for her to play, without having a choice in the matter.
First, she took care of her music order from her friends over at the bar. She looked back at the booth to be sure they were still there. She waved, just to be sure. Then, she mechanically made her selections, which weren’t hers at all. She punched A7: “Louie, Louie.” Then, it was B4: Tom Jones. Then, D8: Elvis. These were songs for “old-times.” The Juke box tooted out the songs that sounded tired, as though they had been played too many times.
The woman stood there staring down at the Juke Box for a long minute. Her long, blond hair flopped down, and lightly swept across the selections. She seemed to be contemplating something, maybe nothing having to do with music. Maybe the faux machinations of the lights caught her attention. Or it was the hypnotic actions of lifting and dropping records down to be played in the queue that made her contemplate.
Now, her long hair dragged across the Juke box when she leaned down, as if to read a title of a song; then, to think if she remembered the song; then, to choose the very song that she would finally play—over and over, again and again. She chose blindly, without regard, punching at the same buttons each time, as if to punch an impression through her own body—so that in repeating a song she would never forget it.
And then, mindlessly the spell was lifted. In a whirl of the same instant as the weathered bartender was delivering my mother’s case of Vodka to the table, the young woman looked away, carelessly forgetting all that, to some other pin-point place in the hide-brown paneled ceiling where the stale smoke gathered into little irregularly-shaped dark clouds above the bar.
The Front Porch Talker