Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Tonight, Let It Be (Chapter 4)

The difference between a drunk and a alcoholic is that
a drunk doesn’t have to attend all those meetings.
     — Arthur Lewis


Eddie’s mother, my step-grandmother Helen was a real piece of work in every sense of that term. She probably had as much to do with her son’s drinking as everyone else put together. She was drunk the entire time I knew her. I imagine there must have been moments after she woke in the morning that she was sober but I don’t ever remember having witnessed one of those times. Helen was married to Harlan, and they had a son and two daughters together, plus Eddie.

Harlan was not Eddie’s son, he was his step-father. Eddie did not know who his father was. If his mother knew, she wasn’t talking. Though I have no way of knowing, what I pieced together from what I was told by her other relatives was the picture of a woman with very loose morals, especially for the time. The rumor was that Eddie’s father was a catholic priest who had an affair with his mother. Harlan had supposedly married Helen to save whatever reputation she had, though I have a hard time believing her social status was ever anywhere near reproach, much less above it.

Eddie seemed very sensitive about this and no one ever mentioned it in his presence. Of course, that was the family credo. They never mentioned anything about anybody except in hushed whispers and behind closed doors. Eddie’s family was held together by countless little secrets that no one ever talked about but which everyone knew. That was the glue that seemed to hold them together.

The other rumor about Eddie’s mother was less believable but the fact that you couldn’t totally dismiss it, either, said something about their family. It was said that Helen had put booze in Eddie’s bottle when he was just an infant. That might sound fantastic but I think my mother actually believed it. She never once left me alone in her care and constantly warned me about her, though she was nice enough to me. As I aged, it became more and more apparent to me that she was quite literally in some state of inebriation every waking moment, or at least every time I saw her.

Eddie claimed to be very close to his mother, but in that comic way gangsters were in old movies. I don’t think he did actually even like her, because he spent as little time as he could with her. We’d visit them from time to time, and they’d visit us during the holidays, but that was about it. It seemed that he’d do almost anything to get out of visiting his mother, not that I could blame him.

Helen was quite difficult to be around. She had no internal logic for anything. She was filled with odd, quirky prejudices. She seemed to dislike just about every person or group at some point. It was exhausting because she demanded attention and expected those around her to agree with her unsupportable prejudices and opinions. Even from an early age I realized there was no point to disagreeing with her. She was as dogmatic about her opinions, even as they changed frequently. One day she would insist it was the blacks who were ruining her neighborhood — a favorite topic — the next day the sole culprit was the Puerto Ricans. And like Oceania in Orwell’s 1984, her internal history had been re-written such that blacks were now her dearest friends and allies in the struggle against the neighborhood interlopers, and always had been. And woe be to the person who wasn’t aware of this 180-degree change of heart, they would be lectured long and caustically. It was a trap from which few could escape. The only real way to win was not to play. And so almost nobody ever disagreed with her, furthering her own self-importance and her cherished belief that she was always right.

And all of these opinions were delivered drunk. She appeared to float through life in a constant state of drunkenness. How she accomplished such endurance seems remarkable today, now that I understand how difficult it is too avoid sobering up. The careful monitoring of her state and carefully timed periodic injections of alcohol would seem to require a sober intelligence that you would not think her — or anyone — capable of, yet she carried it out effortlessly. It was second nature to her and I suspect the pain of her own life was best kept dulled in this way, or at least that what she believed. Since no one in her family would ever talk about this, I have no way of knowing how long she had been this way or when she began but I knew her like this for almost twenty years. And she was exactly the same from the time I was five until the last time I saw her on the day I buried my mother when I was 22. She was as drunk at her son’s wedding as her daughter-in-law’s funeral.

She drank anything that contained alcohol in it, as far as I could tell. I imagine she would have tried paint thinner, if there was nothing else around. She didn’t appear too picky, except when it came to her beer. She preferred Lowenbrau for some reason. I think it was because she desperately wanted to appear more sophisticated than she was. She always carried that air about her. I think deep down she knew what and who she was and tried whatever her feeble mind could think of to create the image of the person she wanted to be. And Lowenbrau’s advertising itself as a premium German import at that time obviously worked on her and played into her desire to be the sophisticate she flamboyantly pretended to be. Lowenbrau’s pale blue label and it’s rampant lion must have seemed like a fancy dress ball to Helen’s white trash world. Its packaging certainly looked different than almost everything else out there, which must have seemed provincial and inferior by comparison.

I think that was also the reason she seemed to like my mother so much. She was from the the suburbs, the classy part of the world Helen longed to belong in, though whenever she did visit us she seemed hopelessly out of place. She often wore clothes, especially during the holidays, that were much more fancy than was called for by the occasion. It was if she thought we spent all our time at the country club. It reminds me of today how whenever you seen porn stars at awards shows, they try to dress like the big stars who attend the Oscars. Invariably, they look ridiculous, with two-story stiletto heels and ill-fitting or too-tight revealing dresses. Too often, they look like just what most are, cheap imitations. It’s a little sad, really. In the insulated and, I imagine, somewhat surreal world of adult film they all silently agree not to notice, while the rest of the world can’t help but see. And that was Helen’s approach. She pretended to be high-class and adopted a bent personality that her family — or anyone for that matter — could not penetrate to dissuade her of these notions while the rest of the outside world laughed at how glaringly obvious the deception was.

If she had been that way through much of Eddie’s own childhood, it was not hard to understand why he turned out as he did. She would have driven anyone to drink, and Harlan, Eddie’s step-father, was a victim, too. Though he was a sweet, almost gentle man, he too, drank to excess, though only from time to time. I imagine he did this only when he’d had enough and needed to numb himself to her, if only for a time. His long-suffering life with Helen could not have been a happy one, yet he was easily the sanest among them. The other kids all drank, too, of course, though none to the level of either Eddie or their mother.

From what I could glean of his childhood, Eddie ran with a rough Marlon-Brando-in-The-Wild-One sort of crowd. He grew up on the streets of Reading, worked on hot rods, got into fights and basically adopted the persona of a tough guy, a role which although he learned to play quite well I don’t think was his true personality. There was a suppressed warmer, poetic, more thoughtful soul lurking inside Eddie, though you caught glimpses of it — flashes, really — only on very rare occasions. It was as if he had a split personality and his tough guy was the winner of his internal struggles with his gentler self. As alcoholism and psychosis overtook him, the victory of his vicious self was complete.

Right after high school Eddie enlisted in the Marines and was among the first battalion to be sent to Vietnam. He was a helicopter mechanic and spent something a year there. He seemed very proud of his service but rarely talked about the specifics of his experiences there. He had a friend from his unit who lived near Pittsburgh — a seven-hour drive — that we visited every year or two. Several times on Christmas Eve, drunk as usual, I overheard him making phone calls to buddies that he’d served with. It was apparently a ritual thing that he did once a year, though he never talked about it, either.

Up in our attic there was an ammo box that Eddie brought back from Vietnam. As a kid, I used to like looking through it and imagining what it must have been like to be a soldier. Inside he kept mementos from his time in the Marines. There were papers and his medals and a stack of black and white photos. Most of these were people I didn’t know, really the only one I knew was his friend from Pittsburgh, and Eddie was only in a couple of them. The bulk of the photos were group shots of men in uniform, some in front of helicopters and others around tables at exotic bars with glamorous Asian women wearing silk dresses. The women invariably wore forced smiles while the men, with indistinct beer cans or bottles in their hands, had broader, more genuine grins. There were a couple of mysterious landscapes and photos of a bustling city, presumably Saigon. These would have been taken at the start of our involvement in the affairs of Southeast Asia and was well before the protests of the war changed our society forever.

As a result, Eddie was a relic of just before that time and supported the war throughout. Though a lifelong Democrat he invariably saw violence as a reasonable course of action, perhaps from personal experience. And his time in the Marines had, despite any unspoken trauma, been a positive adventure and a temporary escape from his home life. That he was not able to find a permanent escape from the influences of his childhood may be what ultimately led to his degeneration into madness and alcoholism. Who can say? Perhaps the damage had been done long before and it was all but inevitable and my mother and I just happened to be in the way.
In one of the Vietnam bar photographs, behind the Marines and behind the bar was a sign for, of all things, Lowenbrau beer. Only a portion of the sign could be seen so that it read simply. “Tonight, let it be …”

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