This is a collection of some of my earliest memories. It is probably my most personal work. My purpose in this exercise was to try to take something ugly and turn it into a piece of art. And it is a little long so I apologize for that in advance but hopefully it will be worth the time.
One Last Beer
I hadn’t been there for a dozen years or more but the place hadn’t changed. Not a single window, eavestrough, or cement step had been altered or renovated since our family lived there in the early 1970s. I reached into the trunk of my car and was soothed by the clinking of beer bottles as I picked up my twelve pack of Canadian. This had become my favorite sound, and it would sometimes make my mouth water. I didn’t think of coming here as any kind of homecoming; I was here for a Halloween party. If not for the anticipation of drinking a lot of beer and smoking a little dope, I may have had more reverence for the home that held my first memories. I might have paused a little longer, to smell the humid sweetness of something rotten and brace myself for the opening of my childhood memory box.
The building was a plain white block, with two apartments on the main floor and two in the basement. I entered our old main floor apartment and stood in the kitchen. The linoleum floor was the same, which didn’t surprise me. The place was a time capsule from about 1974. Only the furniture was different. I too had changed, though not for the better. My mother had died in May, just as I was finishing grade eleven, and it had been a difficult six months. My brother and I had lived on our own until my father moved himself and his new family back to the Ottawa Valley. Other than going to school and working, I spent all my newfound freedom drinking, smoking, and acting as though I had an unlimited supply of time. I felt lost, exhilarated, and terrified.
At the party, I felt normal for a moment, talking with my friends. I drank, I smoked, I laughed at the costumes people wore. Sometimes it was difficult to figure out who was who and this gave me an unsettled feeling, so I prescribed myself more beer. The feeling persisted, however, and I broke into a cold sweat. As I spent more time in the apartment, I was increasingly aware that I had come home. Everything, from the familiar scratches in the floorboards of the living room to the old pushbutton-style light switches, felt menacing. The humid air filled my nose with the faintest hint of rotting meat and honey. I had gone too far.
Someone opened the screen door by the kitchen counter and a cool breeze flitted through my hair. My friends disappeared by chunks like the doodling on an Etch-a-Sketch, everything was quiet, and then there were three.
I am standing at the near end of the hallway that leads to the bathroom and two bedrooms. I am wearing my pajamas, the kind with feet on them, but they are too small and stretched across my thin legs. I am looking into the kitchen where my parents are sitting at the table and fighting. My mother is crying.
“Just let me have one last beer.” She raises her finger toward my father’s face. “Let me have that last one.” Her words are slurred.
“No,” my father responds, “You’ve had enough.”
Now my mother is really crying. She is enormous, easily three hundred pounds, wearing a stained yellow nightgown. Her hair is short, black, and tightly permed. My father is small in his brown polyester pants and white undershirt. These are their drinking clothes, made for sitting comfortably at a kitchen table for whole afternoons and well into the night. They drink and smoke. My mother smokes Number 7s; the package has a black cat on it, staring out. Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” is on the record player. I like the horns.
I do not like to see my mother cry and I am angry with my father for not sharing. I have to share all the time with Michael, my little brother. It’s not fair that I have to share and Daddy doesn’t.
My father gets up to use the bathroom and he stumbles past me, tousling my hair with his hand. It scares me the way he looks at me but doesn’t see me. While he is gone my mother takes the last bottle of beer from the case and gulps it down greedily, all the while looking past me to see if my father is coming out of the bathroom. Suddenly my mother rises from her chair with her hand over her mouth and runs to the kitchen sink. She vomits, violently convulsing. It is a horrible sound. She is a giant brown bear caught in a trap. She screams her vomit, her tears, and her drunkenness into the kitchen sink. Doing the dishes will never be the same.
I shrugged nonchalantly and opened my beer over the sink. I wasn’t about to let a little time traveling ruin my night. I was determined now to continue as though my biggest concern for the evening was rationing my alcohol so I wouldn’t have to make a drunken run back to the beer store. While I was standing at the sink, one of the party guests was adjusting her wig (she was dressed as a flower child), and the wig hair flew into my face. When she turned to apologize, I was looking into the face of Sandra.
Sandra is fun. I don’t know why she lives with us. She is one of the last hippies; she wears bell-bottom jeans and headbands and has long straight black hair. She says things like “dig it” when she likes something.
We are doing the dishes. She is washing and I am drying. I am slow.
“Do you want to learn a song?” she asks. “At home when we do the dishes we always sing a song.”
“Ya, ya,” I say. This is before I learn to be ashamed of enthusiasm.
“This is a song by Janis Joplin. Okay, here’s how it goes: ‘Oh Lord / Won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz / My friends all drive Porsches / I must make amends.’” I sing along with Sandra. I like this song, it sounds like church singing but the words are fun.
“What’s a Mercedes Benz?” I ask.
“It’s a car, a fancy car. She wants nice things because she’s poor.” I could understand that, I want lots of nice things. I want a red sled for Christmas. I sing the song while I dry the dishes but instead of “Porsches” I say “pork chops.” I want a fancy car and something to eat. I wish Sandra could live here forever.
I had enough of the kitchen and so made my way to the living room. The foreign exchange student, costumed as a hobo, was entertaining everyone by explaining with wonderment and broken English that this was the first time he had ever been drunk. His mirth was infectious and we regaled him with tales of the time each of us went on our first big bender. Some, like me, had fallen hopelessly in love from the first time we pressed our lips tenderly to the glass rim of the bottle and were still chasing the intoxication of that first kiss.
There was a pause in the chatter and as I went to take another pull off the joint that was being handed around, I caught the reflection of my father in the picture window. I took a long, hard drag and closed my eyes as I exhaled. When I opened them again everyone in the room floated and curled like smoke and dispersed into nothing. I sat alone on the couch and watched myself enter the room.
I am standing in the centre of the room and it is morning. I am hungry and want some breakfast. My father is standing in the doorway to the living room, looking at me mournfully. He puts Kris Kristofferson on the record player. Before church he likes to listen to “Sunday Morning Coming Down.”
“Where’s Mommy?” I ask. I had gone to look at the black cat on her cigarette pack and I couldn’t find it. Mommy never goes anywhere without her cigarettes. I imagine the kitty is a pet even though it scares me.
My father kneels in front of me. “Mommy got sick and now she’s in the hospital. I’ll make you whatever you want for breakfast. How about that?” On this day he is kind and gentle. He looks sad and weak and I am filled with hate. I slap him across the face as hard as I can. I don’t know why I do this.
Later in the day I take a Q-tip and break it in half. I jam the jagged wooden end into my right ear and run through the house. With the Q-tip in my ear I rub the side of my head all over my bed and pillows; they are white and I think the blood is beautiful, I think I am painting. I am ear painting. I run down the hallway rubbing my ear blood on the walls as I go and then into the living room where I smear gorgeous blots of red on the yellow blanket that covers our couch. I think the colors are Christmas and this makes me happy; I laugh all the way to the hospital.
The living room was no safer than the kitchen. I needed to clear my head; some fresh air might pull me out from these chambers that diligently held the genesis of my broken heart. I stepped out onto the landing to smoke a cigarette and look at the housing development that had been nothing more than a construction site when I lived here. As I was turning around to go back inside, I saw my kindergarten class looking up at me.
We toured the construction site and I was excited that we were so near my house. I spent many afternoons sneaking into the half-built houses, spilling bags of nails and walking in the wet cement. But now I am with my teacher and my class; we walk in pairs holding hands. I beg my teacher to let the class stop at our apartment for some juice and cookies. My teacher is hesitant and I do not understand why. I am persistent and finally she relents. The class stops at the bottom of the stairs that lead to the door. I run ahead and into the apartment where my mother is in bed.
“Mom, wake up. My class is here. C’mon, wake up.”
“Wha . . . what? John, what are you doin?” Her voice sounds funny but I ignore it because I am excited that my class is here.
“I said you’d give them juice and cookies?” I want her to be a mom. She rises groggily from the dirty sheets and, now assured she is getting up, I run outside with a grin.
“She’s coming,” I tell Mrs. Windle. I am happy to be providing something as important as the morning snack to my classmates, my friends. I wait with rapt attention for the arrival of Mommy.
The door opens and she stands on the landing, drunk and barefoot, wearing her stained yellow nightgown—an enormous fat bear in people clothes. Some of the kids laugh but mostly nobody says anything as my mother stares down at us glassy-eyed. I then realize that my mother is something to be ashamed of. The shame I feel eclipses even love. I am even more bothered that it had never dawned on me until this moment that my life is shameful. It is so obvious. When I get back to school I hide in the cloakroom because I have peed my pants. I cry until it is time to go home.
“I have to take a piss,” I announced to the partiers mingling in the parking lot and made my way down the hall to the bathroom. While urinating I acknowledged that I had no safe place; I had entered a decaying museum, one with no exit. No amount of beer was going to relieve me. I drunkenly watched my pee swirl away and then sighed. When I came out, the apartment had a quiet stillness that I was coming to expect. I looked into the adjacent bedroom and saw myself lying in bed.
My parents are watching the hockey game on our old black and white T.V. I can hear caps being pried from beer bottles, and the click of lighters. Keith, the downstairs neighbor, is watching the game with them. Keith has long black hair, a full beard and moustache, and big silver rings on both hands. He is scary.
I am lying in bed and I am frightened; my father is drunk and screaming at the television. I have a red magic marker and I think it really is magic. It is my magic wand. I am a tiny wizard and with my magic wand I cast spells upon the walls of my bedroom. I cover my headboard with incantations. I wish away the drunk-talk, the smoke, and the cheering for the Montreal Canadiens. I keep the light on; otherwise I cannot see if the spells are just right. I finally fall asleep. The light is on all night. I will be twenty-five before I can sleep in the dark again.
The next morning I wake up to my mother screaming. She has seen my magic. She screams my name and I know now the spells have worn off. She lumbers to the kitchen and I follow her. I am terrified and rub my eyes to wake up quicker. She takes a wooden spoon from the drawer and comes toward me. I run into the living room and around the coffee table. I stay ahead of her for a few seconds but I am too small to outrun a bear. She swipes me up with an enormous paw as easily as if I was a hunk of raw hamburger she shovels into her mouth while standing by the stove. She roars and beats the back of my legs. I spend the rest of the day crying and hating her.
The party had exhausted itself. It was 3 a.m. as I stood in the middle of the living room of my childhood home. With Sunday morning coming down I felt as if I were standing in the dying embers of a burning ring of fire and I would spend every day like this day: making amends for the sins of my parents. I was defeated. Though still a boy I had the drunkenness of an old man. I am a drunk, I said to myself. I said it three times. Could I have been anything else?
With every swallow from my last beer I tasted the ghost of my mother. While staring at the bottle I realized that the love I sought was always in a shade of brown: a beer bottle, flakes of tobacco, the shiny veneer of a church pew. The same color as my mother’s skin, the hide of a bear. I could not tame a wild thing. No matter how much love I had, it always turned to devour me. I looked around the room which was littered with bottles, ashtrays, and the bodies of children sleeping off their night of too much. I had drunk myself sober and so, for the sake of my mother, I finished what was put before me.
“I’m sorry you’re gone. I’m glad you’re gone. I’m sorry I’m glad.” I whispered this to the ghost in the bottle and swallowed the last bit of her. Now she was inside me as I was once inside her. I will nourish her with beer, tobacco, and the holy Eucharist just as she had once nourished me. This night will last for years, until one day I vomit her out into the kitchen sink, and my stomach is empty. I hope she has gone to a better place, a place where little boys don’t hurt themselves, write on the walls, or feel shame.
But I will have miles to go before I sleep.
Miles to go before I sleep.