Thursdays were never met with much anticipation in our home. Thursdays meant paydays, and paydays meant dad had money to waste getting wasted at the bars. Meanwhile, my hardworking mother was suffering through another 12-hour night shift so my sister and I could enjoy humble activities like eating and continuing our education. And so my sister and I would walk home from school, fingers crossed that dad would be inside the house when we arrived.
Ever hopeful, we’d step foot inside the backdoor, using the spare key our mother had given us. Silence awaited. We’d beckon with trepidation, “Dad? Are you here?”
We’d rationalize that maybe he was sleeping, as he was oft to do because of his daily cocktail of booze and pills. Plus, to his credit, he did just work a long day on his feet in a sultry foundry. Tiptoeing to our parents’ bedroom, we were often greeted by nothing.
That series of events, while not rare in our household, was the reason my sister and I grew up so quickly. We matured at our early ages, learning how to fend for ourselves, while one parent was doing her damnedest to give us a better life and the other one doing his best to tear it all down.
We consoled and supported one another. We picked up cleaning, helping with homework, and cooking. In my youth, I was a culinary master, knowing how to cook and bake things that most never master. And we became very good at the art of luring a drunken father out of local taverns.
Commence Thursday-night drama.
In a small town like ours, bars outnumbered grocery stores five to one. My dad visited them all, so everyone knew my notoriously drunk father. That also meant most knew who my father’s kids were. Having memorized the phone numbers for our local watering holes, my sister and I sat by the phone, calling each bar until we found the one in which my father dwelled.
Bartenders knew us by name, so we never got a strange reaction like, “Why the hell is a kid calling the bar?” It was more like, “Oh, hey, Cory. No, your dad’s not here tonight. Sorry.” They knew our names. We had become the town drunk’s kids, not necessarily legendary stuff.
Once we finally located my father and got him on the line, we begged and begged for him to come home. Resistance. No drunk ever willingly leaves a bar, in the same way no drunk ever willingly admits he’s not OK to drive. Sometimes, you need to take action and use physical coercion.
Way past our bedtime, we’d occasionally walk or ride our bikes to retrieve our father from those heathen temples called bars. We knew we lacked the physical strength to drag him home, even by outnumbering him two to one, but we possessed childlike eyes that carried an innocent, guilt-laden gaze. Usually – and I repeat, usually – that did the trick.
To say it was embarrassing is an understatement. We’d break through the wall of odd looks from the local patrons, who put up defenses like it was their bar, their VIP territory. They looked at us as if to say, “Go home. Your dad is happier here.” But they fed his problem; they were culprits just the same. Yet I couldn’t really blame them for their unwelcoming glances because no other kids were around. We had invaded their happy little land of “what happens here, stays here.” We had brought the outside world and reality into their space. Moreover, bars aren’t meant to be playgrounds for children just learning long division and cursive writing.
Many times after our arrival, my dad would opt to stay. The cops would later escort him home like some small-town rock star. With blue and red lights pouring into our bedroom windows, my sister and I would awake from our not-so-deep sleep to meet him at the door, a look of sympathy in the officers’ eyes. Off in the distance, we could see neighbors peering through their blinds as the swirling cop-car lights disturbed the peace of the entire subdivision.
Other times, he’d walk home, usually resulting in catastrophe. Like the time he tried wading through the five-foot-deep creek instead of using the sidewalk. That, too, resulted in a 911 call and a police escort.
But if we were lucky, our physical presence could lure him home. After helping him stumble home, the smell of alcohol emanating from his breath and pores, he’d try smoothing everything over with various trinkets he had purchased en route to the tavern. Those precious items were his only defense, his only hope for no hard feelings, and his final plea not to tell mom. As we got older, we saw through those handouts, knowing they were bribes preemptively purchased in a sober state as part of a master plan to get drunk. He knew he’d need them later, after his plan came to fruition.
With a passive “thanks,” we dismissed the gifts and moved onto the task at hand: making sure dad got to bed. Many times, he’d just pass out wherever his sorry ass landed (yes, even on the toilet while taking a shit, with us banging on the door until he emerged). Or he’d continue his drinking at home, tapping into the beer-stacked fridge until he passed out on the couch. When that happened, we were there, taking the beer from his tired hands, resting it on the end table so it wouldn’t spill, and letting him sleep it off till morning when the healing process and empty apologies would start anew.
That was the best-case scenario. My sister and I also picked up the art of bathing and cleaning a full-grown man. If he’d soil himself, we’d clean it. If he needed a shower, we’d help him. If he vomited, we’d pick it up. We also knew all his secret hiding spots throughout the house; those nooks and crannies held his prized possessions: booze and pills. Dad liked to couple his cocktails with any type of drug he could access, from over-the-counter medication to the most potent prescriptions.
He was addicted to Vicodin (for some pain he always professed), Clonopin (apparently for his mental anxiety) and many others, even habitually using Alka-Seltzer, aspirin, and allergy-relief medication for whatever buzz they might offer. If there was a medical condition, my father found a way to be diagnosed with it; in many respects, he was a con artist who found ways to feed his addiction. Did he have medical problems? Sure. Did he exaggerate them? Yup. He loathed the idea of being cured. He couldn’t live with himself, without the thought of being sick.
Regardless of his drug of choice, we knew his hiding spots, occasionally going on little treasure hunts – not like the treasure hunts our fellow classmates were enjoying – to purge the house of every bottle we could find. Deep down, I think it was our way of letting him know that we were onto him. It was our way of saying, “Please stop. This is getting out of control.”
That’s not to say we didn’t do other things to make him stop. In fact, we tried everything. We begged. We pleaded. We laid on guilt trips. We testified in court. We had him admitted to halfway homes and hospitals. We sent him packing.
Unfortunately, some people never learn, not even the hard way.