June 21, 2019 by The Citron Review
by Phyllis Reilly
The year is 1951.
I am nine years old.
For most of my life my father drinks. Not just now and then, it’s his full-time occupation. The electric bill is unpaid and we live by candlelight. This is not dinner for two at some fancy downtown restaurant—just catsup sandwiches in a dimly lit kitchen in Brooklyn. My mother is waiting for the welfare check that is always late. With no money in sight, I hear her crying in the living room. She stays out of the kitchen…stays far away from my father. There is no food, but there is enough sherry wine to keep him drinking. She floats around the house like smoke from my father’s Camel cigarette—an invisible angel keeping me safe in the dim apartment. She checks the candles to make sure we don’t burn down the house. We sit close to each other on the couch and wait, hoping he will pass out…hoping he is too drunk to see us is the dark.
It feels to me like we spend our whole life waiting. We are not just living in the dark without power, we are powerless to change our lives.
My father continues to drink. He tries to stop and is sober for a while, but then he starts again. When he gets the DT’s he goes to the G Building at Kings County Hospital, where all the crazy people go. When he dries out, they let him come home. He tells me stories about the terrors of withdrawal—the spiders crawling all over the room, all over him. He tells me things I don’t want to hear about. Over time, I learn words that are atypical for a child my age—words like hallucinations, delirium tremors, and assault and battery. I am old beyond my years and wish it were otherwise. He tells me that this time, he is going to stop drinking.
I have heard it all before.
My mother doesn’t say much. I think she has given up.
Father McLane visits him in the Crazy House hospital and tells him about Alcoholics Anonymous. He offers to take him to a meeting. My father is willing to try anything to stop drinking. I don’t hold out much hope. That night I say a prayer to St. Jude, patron of lost causes to help my father.
For the next few weeks my father doesn’t drink. He attends AA meetings…sometimes two a day. He has a sponsor to help him with the struggles of staying sober—someone who has been through the program and knows the difficulties my father is dealing with. When my father falls off the wagon, he goes to meetings and his sponsor is right there to help him.
In 1951, there is no support group for the children of alcoholics. I don’t know what to expect and try to figure things out on my own. No matter how long he is sober, I still wait and watch, wondering when his drinking will start again. I can never really relax. He could start drinking again. I don’t talk to anyone about my feelings. I am lonely and scared much of the time. My father manages to stay sober. He gets a job and is active in AA. I should relax now that he is not drinking, but that awful waiting, like a weight on my mind, stays with me.
The year is 1956.
I am thirteen years old.
My father comes home from work with a bottle in a brown paper bag. He has twisted the bag at the top, the way he did when he was drinking. I get hysterical. Once again, I am that little child hiding his bottle in the back of the closet. I am hiding behind the living room chair pretending to be invisible as he lashes out at my mother, shouting at the top of his lungs for all the neighbors to hear. I am walking with him to hock his coat at the pawnshop in the dead of winter when it is snowing and he is wearing a white shirt and drinking a bottle of Four Roses wrapped in a brown paper bag. The fear never goes away. It sits and waits for that one moment when all the mirrors break and all the lies that were ever spoken march out of my unconscious and I’m six years old again. He has no idea what is going on. I point to the twisted paper bag. He opens it to reveal a bottle of Stephens’s hair tonic.
“I thought you started drinking again.” I’m sobbing.
That night he goes to his meeting and talks about what happened. He has been dealing with his recovery. It never occurs to him how his drinking affected me. Someone at the meeting suggests he take me to The Club (that’s what he calls it) and maybe I will be reassured that he stopped drinking and that everything is OK.
The Club is on Sterling Street. A large black twelve is painted on a green metal door. There is no sign to identify that it is Alcoholic Anonymous. It is like a secret society that only the members know about. We climb a narrow flight of stairs and enter a room with worn linoleum. There is a large soda cooler, a counter with stools, tables and chairs, and a giant pot of coffee that never empties. There are mostly men who smoke cigarettes, drink the coffee and talk to each other. I understand why this is my father’s safe place. Honestly, it looks a lot like the bars he went to—the bars he took me to when I was little. The only thing missing is a jukebox.
This is his safe place, not mine.
For me, there is no safe place.
Phyllis Reilly is seventy-seven years old. She lives along the Croton River in New York with her husband and her cat, Zoey. She has published in Brevity, Ponder Review, pif Magazine, Flash Fiction Magazine, and others.