Ghosts at the Liquor Store – The New Yorker

97

There’s a ditch at the end of our driveway that consistently swallowed vehicles heading home after parties at our house. My siblings and I would help drunk adults push wobbly cars out of that ditch and back up onto the road. Seeing them off on their drunken way home. We never considered the hazards. Everyone we knew drank. Everyone drove, and the ditch, streetside, late at night, was an exciting place to be: dishevelled clothes, jealous brawls, dirty songs at 2 a.m.

Our father was an editor at Reader’s Digest. His job was to read. As he was a shy man, it suited him well. He condensed books. “Like soup,” he said. Trimming others’ words, my father was loaded with language. He was also, often, loaded. He would drink, and he would strum “We’ll Build a Bungalow” on a banjo that he had carried home from the Korean War. Moments later, a searing passion would consume him. He asked my sister and me, “Do you understand what a great artist your brother Andy is?” Yes, we nodded. We did understand, but my dad wasn’t really talking to us. He was noticing things.

At the parties my parents threw, we also noticed things. We were unseen, free to observe uncles stumbling down staircases, visiting editors sleeping on the living-room floor. Or my dad. Just step over him. The Digest had editions in forty countries. It wasn’t unusual for our small house to be packed with people from all over the world, lovers of books, music, theatre, and art. Watching adults act wild meant we had total freedom. There were a lot of us. I’m the youngest of six. Our cousins lived down the road. We could help ourselves to anything—whipped cream, the barn roof, tonic water. We could dance with the adults; enough of them were jolly rather than blitzed. Like getting drunk, it was fun until it wasn’t. My mom says I’d often ask, “Can I please go to bed now?”

In the cranky sunlight of morning, we felt fine. We’d enjoy a breakfast from a leftover cheese-and-cracker plate, or a bit of cake, while my father sat frozen, trying not to move his head, his eyes, petting the family bunny or dog as if it were the only friend he had in the world.

There were non-parties too, and my father continued to drink. He nestled cans of Schlitz between his thighs on car rides. He drank gin from a bottle he’d hidden in our woodpile or in the pantry under the stairs, or underneath the kitchen sink. From the living room, watching TV, we’d hear the pantry door open. We’d hear the quiet of him trying not to make a sound, gulping Gilbey’s. Then a feeling of sinking under and down.

I have three children of my own now. When my oldest daughter was eight—near the same age I was when I watched my parents’ parties—she and I drove past a sign, “Spirit Shoppe.” “For a minute,” she said, “I thought we could buy a ghost there.” A sudden dawn. Yes, we could. Ghosts are exactly what we’re buying at the liquor store. Booze is haunted. We drink what’s fermented and distilled. We drink the dead, and, even past the point of dead, something so fermented it lives again in those of us who swallow these spirits.

My siblings and I remain uncommonly close even as adults. We are still a gang of Hunts. One friend of mine, who does not get along with his family, tried to explain our closeness. “You had a common enemy to fight against.” Maybe, but none of us ever thought my dad was the enemy. A gentler man than he would be hard to imagine. Perhaps booze was the enemy. At the time, thick as we were with shame, the enemy looked like other people. We lived in a small town, and my father’s drinking wasn’t always contained. He’d pick me up at birthday parties drunk, or he’d put on a good show if a friend spent the night. His drinking ran straight into the cruelty of middle school, mean girls, and the public nature of small-town life. At those times, the enemy was clear. The enemy was anyone not in our family, anyone who couldn’t see that my dad was swimming in the spirits because he was looking for sunken treasure, or at least looking for something buoyant enough to hold on to, a word or sentence, in the sea of his many dead. Maybe he was drinking his way back to his brother Chuckie, who died at eight years old, leaving my dad an only child in a quiet and controlled household.

Other people—the cruelty of their judgment—were what left me feeling dirty, a classification I still carry, though now with more pride. Now I know how much I like the dirt.

My siblings and I are close because we saved one another. My sister Amy protected me like the prow of a ship, breaking the waves before they hit me full force. One morning, my dad, Amy, and I left at dawn, driving in his Oldsmobile Starfire up to Vermont. Vermont was a balm, a place where no one knew our secrets. My mother and brother had already escaped to the quiet north. We would meet them there. It was so early that Amy and I wore our pajamas, so early that my dad hadn’t yet had a drink. At the end of our driveway, he said, “Oops. I forgot something.” Then a horrible wait in the car for his return and our assessment of him. The children of alcoholics are detectives, alert to the slightest changes in scent, demeanor, and language.

What our dad had forgotten that morning was to chug half a handle of gin. Off we went to Vermont with a new precarity to the drive. Just south of New Haven, the highway grew crowded. At that time the Sikorsky Memorial Bridge over the Housatonic had an open steel-grid deck with two lanes of traffic in both directions. Crossing the metal road surface was like driving on black ice eighty-five feet above the river below, difficult to navigate even for a sober person. The bridge is named for Igor Sikorsky, an aviation pioneer. Aviation was the last thing I wanted to consider as we started across that slippery bridge with a very drunk man at the wheel. Yet it was all I could think of—the guardrail, the edge of the bridge. It was close. It was easy to imagine swerving out into the air, a moment of flying in our Oldsmobile before sinking swiftly into the river below. Never have flying and dying felt as close. Amy and I held our breath. Did he want to fly off the bridge? He swerved across both lanes. I willed myself to think, This is normal, this is normal. It’s a slippery bridge. Everyone probably uses two lanes to get across. Everyone gets this close to the edge.

Amy was thirteen and in the front seat. I was nine, tucked in back. On the far side of the bridge—we made it across—Amy said, “Dad, I have to pee.” He pulled over at the Orange, Connecticut, rest stop. In a move extremely clever and loving, Amy said to me, “Come.” I climbed out, and, once she had me on the sidewalk, out of the car, she turned back and told him, “We are not getting in the car with you. You’re drunk.”

At first, he tried kindness. “Come on, girls. It’ll be O.K. Just get back in the car.”

“No.” Amy held me there, as if he were a magnet, his pull hard to resist.

Then he got louder, less kind. Amy, steel-faced, only a girl, repeated what she was certain of, “No.” Our dad left us, two little girls, at a gas station on a highway in our pajamas. We watched him swerve away, uncertain where he was going and how he would get there.

Amy explained everything to the man working at the gas station. He took us into the garage where he was fixing a car. He invited us to sit on a dark bench and gave us something to eat. Our p.j.’s were the only bit of brightness in that greasy garage, and the man’s kindness. In a few hours, one of my father’s friends came and picked us up, a ride arranged by my mom. My dad’s friend was also an alcoholic, the truth of my parents’ circle. He hadn’t yet started drinking that day. When we got home, my dad was there in one piece, petting our poor bunny.

On my cousin’s sixteenth birthday, my uncle loaded too many of us into an open dory with a weak engine and a pitiful dinghy towed behind. We headed out to one of the unpopulated islands off the coast of the town in Maine where my uncle sometimes lived. The men of my childhood loved the edge. The boat was brimming with food, drink, sweatshirts, a motley crew of people young and old. We cooked lunch over an open fire on a deserted island. It was a perfect day. We collected crabs and explored the island while our parents got wasted. I felt like I had entered the pages of one of my favorite books, Liesel Moak Skorpen and Doris Burn’s “We Were Tired of Living in a House.”

That evening, during our attempt to journey back to the mainland, it became clear that we were in trouble. My dad and his friend Roy rocked that dinghy until it capsized with them in it. They did it on purpose. Their wool sweaters were soaked. The ocean in Maine, even in September, is frigid. Such drama. They swore like the sailors we wished they’d been. We had no light on the boat, and the sun set. At one point on the journey home, my uncle tangled the engine on a lobster-pot line and cut it free, an offense for which some in that area still extracted payment with a bullet. He was not sufficiently sober to navigate. We drifted on the open ocean in the dark of night in an overloaded boat. We didn’t know which direction meant land, which meant the opposite. The stars were infinite. The men were always liquid. The moms—choking on anger at idiot men—were our saviors, our solidity and happiness. My aunt and mother drew our attention to the northern lights, to something larger. The mothers were powered by love, and it lifted us. Though this love also meant that our mom was trapped in a dangerous marriage. She had no money, no job, and few marketable skills. She’d been raising children for years. She once asked a therapist for help. She was scared that we would all die. She wanted to leave my dad. The therapist told her, “How can you leave him? You have no way to support your children.”

That night, in the boat, people kept singing and fighting. People kept drinking. No one we knew died that night. But all those men are dead now. All the women are still alive. What was inside the men of my childhood that drew them so quickly to death?

My cousin’s been sober for more than thirty years. We celebrated her oldest daughter’s sweet sixteen with a family camping trip, a late-September dip in the ocean, s’mores and singing. We went without alcohol the whole trip, as many people there were in recovery. No booze is hard for a lot of us. It’s hard for me. I thought about a glass of red wine all weekend. I sometimes need the burn of alcohol to cut through the noise in my blood. That night, sober, I measured the distance between my cousin’s sixteenth birthday and her daughter’s. I watched my siblings and cousins, those of us who’d been in the boat so many years ago, as we sat around this campfire. We made eye contact across the flames, recognizing a permanent mark in one another, an opening where ribbons of green rip across the black sky and the dark sea below.

In high school, I became best friends with girls from families living with substance abuse. These girls became my friends before I even knew the truth about their families. Somehow, we recognized this stain in one another. We found comfort and nonjudgment in other families marked by addiction.

What did the spirits do? Where did they take us? One brother jokes about digging a moat around his home. He and his wife are slowly building a cabin in a ravine a mile away from any road. Two of my siblings live so far north, the snow melts in May. Two of my siblings live on an island two hours out to sea where the ocean is wild, and sometimes I worry that one big storm might wash my sister’s tiny, basement-less house away. When bad weather strikes their island, the boats stop running. No one can leave. No food can arrive, a surrender to the weather and the water, a proximity to danger, dirt, and beauty. Amy was pregnant on the island and went into labor after the boats had stopped running for the night. She called me, and I asked her what she was going to do. “Hold it,” she said, and she did. The following morning, she boarded the boat for the mainland, where my niece was born. When we talk about the drinking, Amy says, “That’s why we live on the edge out here.” The edge is familiar. The edge feels right. We have found places where the depths are close, within view, and there, with spirits near, we’ve tried to build calm lives for our own children.

When I was a kid, adults were above me in a complex world. I didn’t enter my parents’ bedroom if I knew my dad was there. I was afraid of the adult mysteries I might witness: sex, hangovers, death, sadness. There was space between child and adult. Now, my daughters wake me at night. They join my husband and me in our bed. They tell me things, and I listen. I cry in front of them. I know the lyrics to their favorite songs. When we visit my mom, no one drinks Schlitz on the drive down. Still, my parenting skills are in no way superior to my parents’. I’m messing my kids up in my own way. My daughters live closer to an adult world than I did. That creates its own sort of damage and neuroses. We talk about cancer, climate destruction, school shootings. We talk about alcoholism and all the people we love who have died from substance abuse. There’s still a very deep sea below. Indeed, it often seems deeper than ever.

I found a box of old letters at my mom’s. Some from my grandma, some from my great-grandma, along with a number of editions of my uncle Chuckie’s “Funnies Book,” a craft-paper compilation filled with clever drawings. Ten cents a copy. The craft paper decomposed in my hands. Tiny bits of paper were airborne. The scent of old things, small bits of the drawings inside my lungs. The breath of life is also the breath of death.

When I stepped away from the box, I was dizzy, as if I’d been zooming through time, seasick, drunk on those other kinds of spirits.

When I travel for work, I am less lonely in hotel rooms if I have a glass of red wine with me, as if in drinking I keep my kin close. I use the past and alcohol in similar ways. They are comforts, reminders of our cohesion. I must moderate my consumption of both, so as not to grow senseless to the present.

I stand in my mom’s barn, looking for her rake, while I am also stacking firewood there, in 1985. Sometimes I feel years before I existed, 1967, 1938, 1802, as shouted declarations. I’m guilty of trying to drown the present moment in the past, to move through life conscious of the dead and the moments they lived in. I am comforted by the smallness of my life, and by ancient things. What if we were less drawn to the new? The new will not stop us from dying.

There is a lake near where I grew up, Lost Lake. It isn’t lost to me, but it is hidden in the woods and hard to find. No roads lead to the lake. My siblings and I grew up swimming there. It was never clear who owned the land, and we trespassed there so often, we thought we owned the lake, or, really, rather that the lake owned us. The morning of my wedding, we all swam there together, a ritual to prepare me for the day and life to come. I didn’t shower or wash my hair after our swim. I wanted to get married with the lake in me and on me. Years later, my husband and I baptized our daughters in Lost Lake. It wasn’t always a lake. Once it was a farm, and, when the light is right, you can see down into the lake, underneath the water. You can see the stone walls that divided the farm fields. Walls built by humans are under ten feet of water. I imagine the woman who lived on this land and think of her there underwater, seeing fish in the same sky where once she saw birds. The past, present, and future are all there in the water, and I swim in all three. Time is not a river. It’s a lake.

If we lived closer to our dead, if we imagined our planet populated by our dearly departed, we would take better care of the land. We’ve become numb to the earth’s kindness that allows us to become dirt again, a kindness that, at this point, I quite frankly can’t believe the earth still offers humans. That is true mother love, unconditional and unfathomable. Everywhere we walk or swim is a cemetery. Everywhere is sacred.

When my children were still very young, we met my in-laws at the beach in South Carolina. One day, in the waves, something struck me in the head. At first it appeared to be floating garbage, a box sealed in a plastic bag. I felt disgust, until I saw words through the plastic. I carried the box out of the ocean, and, eventually, with my family near, found the courage to open it. Like a small, seaworthy craft, the box was carrying some of the cremated remains of Klemens C. Walters, a man who hailed from the astonishingly named town of Mars Hill, Pa. Inside, we found a lovingly lettered card, “Here Lie the Ashes of a Good Man.” We contacted Klemens’s family, wanting to know their wishes. Should we send the package back out to sea? Back to them? They asked us to instead free Klemens’s remains from the sturdy box/boat. We said some words of peace and released Klemens into the water. Death had struck me in the head while I was swimming in the ocean. Of course it had.

At my dad’s funeral, I realized that his name, Walter, is only one small sliver of an easily eroded “l” away from the word “water.”

The ocean near where my sisters live has riptides and huge waves. There are great white sharks not far off the coast. Still, we visit every year. One of our favorite things to do as a family is put our bodies in that deadly ocean. I don’t sleep well on their island. We drink too much when we are together, and later I’ll lie in bed worrying about my kids. Like me, they love this wild ocean. The shore here gives us a gradual approach to the depths, a way to sip spirits from the place beyond the edge without drowning in them, a way to visit with our men who are floating, sinking in their ghost boat just invisible, just off the coast of us. The salt of what we once were and will be again. Before and after. We float in our familiars, swimming in the deep, the dark, the spirited sea.

This essay is drawn from “The Unwritten Book: An Investigation,” out this April from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Read More On This At “Paranormal, Ghosts, Hauntings” – Google News