I'm almost the only one around here who drinks anymore. But I like to sit out back and look at the steep walls of Topanga and sometimes--after or during a third glass of Chardonnay--I dream a little bit about my family.
I've been writing a history of how drugs and drink have worked in our family for the last 50 years. We've been here since before the Revolution. How lucky for those starving peasants--to make it out of England, Ireland, Scotland, over here to a land of unimaginable opportunity. The trouble was, they were starving peasants, so they really couldn't imagine the idea of opportunity or dream. It took about 14,000 drinks for them to calm down.
Once in America, they divided: You could say they became the poor and the rich. The losers and winners. The former have a particular set of belief systems. They are prone to dreaming, wool-gathering, calling in sick. They lose the deeds to their houses and cry easily. They are often eloquent and intelligent, but they succumb to melancholia, drink and drugs. The latter? When they hear about clinical depression, they say, "Oh, everybody gets discouraged sometimes." They do not see the abyss. Maybe in their world the ground is flat and safe. Maybe it's a golf course.
This is partly the story of the abyss, a family finally getting enough of it. It's history seen through a purple haze, full of secrets and chaos and distortions, and secretly remembered joys. I'm beginning to think it may be the unwritten history of America.
THE YEAR IS 1940. THE PLACE IS EAGLE ROCK, A WORKING-CLASS--BUT very pretty--suburb of Los Angeles. The address is 5212 Townsend Avenue. The house is pale-yellow painted wood, a small but inviting California bungalow with a wide front porch. A fence runs by the driveway, smothered in Cecile Brunner roses.
The time is just a little before 4 o'clock in the afternoon. My mother has picked me up from St. Dominic's Elementary School. We've stopped off at the Safeway to shop, and I've run around in the aisles, so she's beating the living s - - - out of me. I stand in the back yard holding my skirt up so she can get easy access to my legs. She crouches down in front of me, pulling switch after switch off a convenient hedge and using them until they break.
She's breathing heavily and her cheeks are pink. She's smiling. She's beautiful.
After a long time she rests. She can't be said to lose her temper because she's already lost it, but she loses something more. "Get that look off your face!" She's panting with exertion. I don't and won't get that look off my face. (There's another reason I can't get that look off my face and she knows it and I know it. I've got a birthmark, something I've already begun to think of as a map of North and South America, on my right cheek. It's purple, with a fingerprint of dark blue at the bottom. So I can't get that look off my face.)
I raise my chin and look right at her. Whatever she can give, I can take. She pulls another switch off the hedge, peels the leaves off with one skinning gesture of her left hand and whales away at me again. The roses shimmer behind her, and the sky above is a deep, deep afternoon blue.
She sends me in to wait for my father, a newspaperman working cityside for the Daily News, the cool paper of the day. In my room, I sit on one of the twin beds and look out the window. It must be close to 5 by now. I can hear Mother getting dinner ready. She'll be scrubbing down potatoes with an awful scrub, or snapping string beans with an awful snap. She'll be peeling a clove of garlic to put in her French dressing. She'll shake the living daylights out of the dressing in its big mason jar and put it on the kitchen sink right next to Daddy's bottle of Scotch and her bottle of Hill and Hill Blend. We use jelly glasses for everyday, and mother will, in the middle of cooking, pour out half a glass of Hill and Hill Blend, toss it down in one gulp, make a terrible face, pour a belt of tap water to chase it down, then go on cooking.
When I come out, I set the table, under my mother's careful eye. Then I go into the little living room to wait for Daddy. He's always glad to see me. By dinner time, the levels on both the bottles have gone down considerably. My father is cheerful as always.
From 7:30 to 8 we listen to the radio: "I Love a Mystery. The Decapitation of Jefferson Monk--a New Carlton Morse Adventure Thriller." My dad gets a kick out of this show. He gets a kick out of anything. He gives it his best shot. My mother, exasperated and bored, insists I finish my potatoes and beans and halibut.