observations and opinion
We were probably drunk, but I felt sober. That’s how it was with me, when I drank. The coffee table was littered with white Chinese food boxes and empty beer bottles. The Old Boy (he was always exactly that, an old boy – he said it himself once “I’m nineteen up here”, pointing to his temple, “but I can’t get the rest of the carcass to go along”) sat opposite on the burnt orange sofa –the one I’d sold him when I needed a hundred bucks and he needed a new couch. I had the black leather recliner. These were our regular spots.
We drank our beers. Conversation was easier with the Old Boy now that I drank too. Through high school I was first afraid of him when he drank, and later just contemptuous. He was always trying to explain himself and I was always willing to be a sober, superior and unforgiving prick. But lately that didn’t feel necessary. It is tiresome always being the grown up in a relationship. Besides, high school and university had given me plenty of drinking practice. I couldn’t keep up with him, of course, but who could?
So when I came back to town from law school, sometimes the Old Boy and I would order Chinese, sit in his apartment on my old furniture, drink Exports and shoot the breeze. We might irritate each other a little, but nobody was yelling. A victory for the Molson company.
“Chief” he said, staring up at the ceiling. I was almost always that, “Chief.” He took a swig of his beer. “Chief, life is like an old desk.”
An old desk. Okay. He continued: “Over the years you fill the drawers with memories.” I took in the image. “There are good drawers” he said “and there are bad drawers.”
Good drawers and bad drawers.
“And the trick is” he said. “Only to open the good drawers.”
This was him, shoving things away in drawers until you couldn’t open them anymore and then, eons later, fishing through the memories that made him feel good. Keeping all the other drawers shut tight. Who’d want to look there, do anything about any of that? Typical. How easy it was for him to pretend; how easy it was for him to set my teeth on edge.
But he wasn’t done yet. “The problem with you, son” he said. Wait – there was a problem with me? Was he serious? I stared at him, the beery good will now frozen thick in my veins.
He never looked at me, he just kept his eyes safely fixed on the ceiling. “The problem with you son” he said, “is that you didn’t get any good drawers.”
There it was. Not a criticism, but a confession. Not an apology either – that would have been unkind to even expect – but an admission. A recognition: those childhood years with him and the many more without him, stranded in parked cars outside pubs for hours, waiting; listening to their endless rages, stepping out after into the living room debris. And after we ran away from him, living alone with her in converted garages, basements and attics. Waiting for her to crack, then watering down the bottles, enduring the wrath, waiting it out, keeping the peace, keeping her going – she was all I had. The Old Boy knew what it had been like for me. So much of it his fault, so much of it not. He knew.
In some mysterious way, this changed the past: when I had felt alone against it all that time, maybe I hadn’t been alone; maybe some unseen witness had been present. A ghost, powerless but aware. Silent but in pain. He knew. And he was sorry. He was so sorry, in fact, that he was slowly drinking himself to death, so that he wouldn’t have to see it or feel the guilt.
I looked at him across the coffee table, strewn with white cartons and brown bottles. The room was silent. His eyes never met mine.
“It’s alright, Dad” I said. “I’m working on it.”
We weren’t drunk, but we sure felt like it.
The windows were down and the warm night air rushed through the car, as we tore across Paris at night. Michel’s hand gripped the stickshift (I don’t know why, the little car was always in top gear). Behind us, the girls laughed, and we all sang:You’re the top! You’re Mahatma Gandhi. You’re the top! You’re Napoleon Brandy. You’re the purple light Of a summer night in Spain, You’re the National Gallery You’re Garbo’s salary, You’re cellophane!
After a day at Fontainbleu, touring the castle and then wandering in the woods, learning rock climbing technique from Michel, we were headed back to the 13th Arrondisement, to K & M’s apartment, where some old baguette would get warmed up and whatever wine or liquor we could find, would get poured. It was a summer night in Paris. We were tired and hungry and in a rush, the lights of Paris almost blurry as the car streaked into the city.
“You’re cellophane!” I can still see her face alight in laughter at the supreme, beautiful silliness of it.
We were both absolutely sober. September daylight streamed in through the blinds. Back from Paris I heard that the Old Boy had gone into hospital. Some lung thing, a gift from the coal mine, the steel mill and forty years of smoking. Now I was there with him. It was visiting hours.
He was, unexpectedly, in the pink – he’d never looked so good. Several weeks of hospital food and no drinking had restored the roses in his cheeks and the sparkle in those flinty blue eyes. He wasn’t a bad looking guy, in his fashion.
“I haven’t had a drink in weeks” he declared, or words to that effect. This was unusual. Alcoholics never talk about drinking, except when they are lying to you about quitting (or, to be fair, after they actually do quit). “And I have more money in my pocket than ever.”
He explained that being imprisoned at St. Joseph’s Hospital had rendered him unable to throw cash at barmaids and bartenders. The result was, by his modest measure, sudden wealth: hundreds of dollars he never knew he had, lining his wallet. He liked it. “I’m not drinking again after I get out” he told me. This was new too.
I will say now that my heart started to race. He had never made such a promise before, or anything like it. When I was maybe 12, after seeing “The Days of Wine and Roses” I had phoned him and said Dad, there’s this thing called Alcoholics Anonymous. You can join. You can stop drinking. God how I wanted him to say he would. Be Jack Lemmon, not Lee Remick! But instead he said “No, I’m too old. It’s too late for me son. It’s too late.” He might have been 53 years of age.
Now, over a decade later here he was, in a hospital bed telling me that he liked the feeling of a roll of twenty dollar bills so much, he was going to give up the one commitment he had managed to keep his whole life: booze. I still wanted it to be true, but I didn’t for one second think it would last.
“Well, that’s great Dad” I said. “One day at a time, don’t they say? Let’s see how it goes.”
* * *
He never drank again. The AA rulebook says that the alcoholic should break all ties to his boozer friends, keep a wide berth from bars, chew gum and attend meetings. And it works for a lot of people.
Not for the Old Boy. He explained to me that all his friends were at the pub. Without them, he had no-one. He sure as hell wasn’t going to meetings, drinking bad coffee or talking about some higher power, “as he understood it.” No thanks. So once out of St. Joe’s he resumed his regular routine, cruising up to the Squires Tavern in his Mercury Cougar each afternoon, sauntering into the permanent twilight of the bar. All his mates were there. He was still Big Sam, still the cutting wit, the ready opinionator, the custodian of blue humour, the laconic charmer. But now he only ordered his soon-to-be-famous Virgin Caesars. And he stayed with the boys, and he stayed with the Virgin Caesars too.
Things were different, of course. The lights were on. Once he confided that being the one sober person in a room full of drunks was, surprisingly to him, boring. He would slip out home earlier than before, blaming his knee or his cough. Now he couldn’t help but see that some of the people he once liked, even loved, were truly awful. I saw tears in his eyes once at the recognition of that, of how someone was never really going to love him. But I never saw a drink in his hand. The Old Boy held up – grew up, I suppose.
* * *
Five years later we were in another hospital. He had been there months. I had learned how to give a man a shave. I had never combed anyone’s hair before, but now I was pretty good at it. It helped that he still had maddeningly great hair, of course. My brother had learned how to live, work and sleep – for months it seemed – in a wretched steel chair. He was amazingly stolid.
The Old Boy was almost gone, whittled down to the core by the cancer. Conversations were short and they weren’t about much, most of the time. He knew the score and so did I. I told him how proud I was, that at 67 he had done something miraculous, and he stuck with it, and he gave us the best five years any of us ever had. And he gave me someone to admire. He looked doubtful, but he knew that I meant it.
“I wouldn’t trade places with any other man” he whispered, “If it meant giving up you and your brother.”
That night on the long drive back down the highway, and on many nights to come, I wondered how a man could love someone so much, to say such a thing – and mean it. To trade life itself for a feeling. And then I knew: that’s how a father feels. And I knew then too, suddenly and for the first time, I wanted to feel that way myself someday.
We held the wake at the pub. The owner rented one of those yellow signs on wheels, the kind you stick the big black letters onto, to tell the world: Tribute to Sam Law. It was a good party. Nobody drank Virgin Caesars, though.
* * *
She has a miniature Eiffel Tower on a table in her bedroom. Her aunt put it there last week. There’s a small clutch purse with the word “Paris” emblazoned across it. And along with the signs that say “London” and “New York” the one in the centre, of course, says “Paris.”
“What is it about Paris, exactly?” I ask her. “Why Paris?”
She smiles and waits. She always does that now, waits. “I don’t know…” she pauses, deciding whether to say it. “I just think that, if I climb to the top of the Eiffel Tower and look out, everything will be… different. You know?” And then she smiles again.
Yeah kid, I know.
You’re the top!
You’re a Waldorf salad. You’re the top!You’re a Berlin ballad. You’re the boats that glide On the sleepy Zuider Zee, You’re an old Dutch master, You’re Lady Astor, You’re broccoli! You’re romance, You’re the steppes of Russia, You’re the pants, on a Roxy usher, I’m a broken doll, a fol-de-rol, a blop, But if, baby, I’m the bottom, You’re the top!