Yahtzee, Smokes, and Screwdrivers

Short and slight, a beehive hairdo, hypochondriacal, a Salem 100 perpetually dangling from her wrinkled mouth, and a purse full of Valium. That’s Lorraine, my father’s second wife. I never really called her stepmother because technically she wasn’t—and she was far from the mothering type.

I don’t remember meeting Lorraine, but later I learned the story of her entanglement with the Duffy clan. My father, while on duty as a Newcastle County cop in Delaware, met Lorraine, a recent divorcee who was forlorn and living alone in an apartment at the time with her cats, Smuffy and Baby. She had three children of her own, some of whom were living with her ex-husband and others who were grown. As I explained in another post, my father was a sucker for a damsel in distress—mostly because lending a helping hand made him feel better about himself and also provided him an opportunity to exercise his unquenchable desire to control other human beings. Classic Type A.

Soon after that chance meeting, their regular rendezvous began; my mother, who had been married to dad for at least a decade at that point, was ignorant about the affair. She was eventually educated though, when dad boldly invited Lorraine to pack her meager belongings and join our family caravan as we moved to Florida. Ballsy, huh?

I was seven years old, and I had unknowingly enjoyed the most stable part of my childhood.  But life was about to become much more colorful. For reasons unknown to me at the time, mom, dad, my brothers and I packed the station wagon to the brim with all of our belongings, bid farewell to our yellow, two-story house near Kirkwood Highway in Wilmington, Delaware (the only house I had ever known), and headed south. I imagine my father had secured a job on the police force in Bradenton, Florida, and we were all following his career aspirations. And yes, Lorraine tagged along.

You might be wondering how the hell something like this could work? Recently, my mother said to me that she thought it was strange—there was this lady she didn’t know, packing her undies and shoes and cats next to ours, who was taking this journey with us. But for all his violent tendencies, my dad was a clever SOB. He finessed it by telling a half-truth. You see, there was this vulnerable woman who he met while on duty who was in a bad situation and needed a new start. And since we were heading to sunny Florida already, she asked if she could accompany us, not wanting to travel solo. Apparently, the story was believable enough that my mom agreed. She has since described herself as dangerously gullible. If I were the snarky type, I’d say it was probably less like a caravan and more like a mini-harem. But I’m not the snarky type, so I won’t say that.

After our family settled in Florida (with Lorraine only living a few miles away), dad’s half-truth became a full-truth, and mom filed for divorce. Strangely, that’s where the focus of the story shifts away from Lorraine and towards other actors and events, some of which led me to changing my home base (sometimes with mom, sometimes with dad, sometimes by choice, sometimes by force). Rather than telling those stories now, though, I feel like I’ve not really explored Lorraine’s both complex and clichéd character, the details of which I discovered while intermittently living with her and dad (they eventually married). This is best done with a series of tiny snapshots:

Lorraine taught me how to smoke. She paid me in Salem 100s for vacuuming the apartment. I could only smoke them when dad wasn’t around. I was 14.

Because she wanted company at home during the day when she was alone, she regularly let me stay home from school to play Yahtzee with her all day, sip on her screwdrivers, and, of course, smoke, smoke, smoke. I still like Yahtzee.

When dad exploded in one of his biweekly rages and began beating her silly or choking her to unconsciousness (incidents she often helped to enflame in some way), she always screamed out my name to come and save her. Having no power, all I could do was watch.

Her cats were king. Randy, my younger brother, was highly allergic (even asthmatic) to them, but none of that ever seemed to matter much. The cats ran the place, and Randy wheezed all night in his bed, the ubiquitous inhaler on the nightstand. I would lie in bed and listen, wondering what would happen if he stopped breathing.

One of our rituals was grocery shopping: Lorraine would park the car, I’d light up two cigarettes for us, and we’d enter the store with billows of smoke trailing behind. This was the mid-70s after all.

I know nothing of Lorraine’s previous marriage, but it must’ve been a doozey. More than one of her own children, with whom I have only passing familiarity, is highly dysfunctional—unable to work, nervous dispositions, living on welfare, prescription drug addictions, jail time. I’m not laying blame, but none of this surprises me greatly.

I’ll add some more snapshots if they occur to me, but that’s the gist of it. With a mother like her, who needs a mother? Lorraine hated Randy, my younger brother who often chose to live with dad and hence had to tolerate Lorraine. They fought like cats and dogs. Oh, the names Lorraine called Randy under her breath to me. (The perennial “That goddamned little bastard” was one of the less offensive ones). I’d smile and snicker along with her, mostly to keep the peace.

Honestly, the friendship that existed between Lorraine and I had no real foundation—most of it was feigned on my part just to help pacify the warring factions. Things were broken, but they needn’t also be soul-draining. It’s amazing to me the complex roles that even emotionally undeveloped adolescents can play, unwittingly or not. But having said that, living with dad and not having Lorraine around was a much more terrifying notion. And for a short while, I had to face that scariness: Due to her nervous disposition, Lorraine had been living on doctor-prescribed Valium for years by the time we became friends, daily doses. Needless to say, this habit caught up with her. One weekend while she and I were hanging out (probably playing Yahtzee), she abruptly arose from the table, lurched into the bedroom and locked herself into the bathroom. I knew something was wrong and followed a few seconds later. By the time I reached the locked bathroom door, I heard a loud THUNK which was clearly Lorraine hitting the tiled floor. This was followed by a series of smaller thuds as her legs began flailing against the door. Completely confused (and half thinking this was a joke or something), I screamed out for dad, who was under the carport engaged in his favorite hobby—detailing his emerald green Pontiac Bonneville. He rushed in, assessed the situation, forced the door open with his shoulder, and we stood there staring at Lorraine who had gone into full blown convulsions on her back. I was horrified as dad dug into her dentures while forcing a tablespoon through her clenched teeth to depress her tongue (a maneuver I now know is generally unnecessary). But I was more horrified when we left the hospital 3 hours later without her. It was just dad, Randy, and I in the car. What would life be like without the buffer (and antagonism) of Lorraine?

My fear must have been greater than the reality of it though. Things get hazy after that, and she must’ve returned home with a new set of dentures (and a modified prescription for her daily sedative) shortly thereafter. My next memory involving Lorraine concerns our next, short-lived family move to Arizona; but that story is less about Lorraine and more about having to straddle the shat-in litter boxes of her two cats, which were placed strategically on the floor of the car underneath the backseats where Randy and I sat. Yes, yuk.

The last time I saw Lorraine, she was in a nursing home, several years after dad died from lung cancer–I had an inexplicable urge to visit her after being out of contact for five or six years. But this being real life, there were no teary-eyed reunions. When I entered, she recognized me eventually. I sat with her in her small bedroom that had a curtain for a door; her beehive was still there, but it was thin with age and lopsided from a pillow dent. She wore a housecoat. In an irritated voice, she asked me why I had come, and then she complained for five minutes about not being allowed to smoke in her room. We walked outside, where she lit up; I had since quit smoking and the smell of cigarettes turned my gut, so I stood apart from her. More than anything, we avoided each other’s glances for another ten minutes, and then we said goodbye. She went back inside. I suspect that by now, Lorraine has died. But she was a tough bird. Maybe she’s playing Yahtzee in that nursing home right now.


A Coat for Ricky

Specific dates get sketchy, but it was December 1995 or 1996. I was visiting my mother in Delaware on Christmas break. I was in my first or second year of my doctoral program at Bowling Green State University in Ohio and had not been living at home for the last 6 years or so; spending time with mom seemed the right thing to do.

More miraculously, spending time with dad seemed the right thing to do as well. I had not seen him for about 18 years at that point. After having experienced a childhood full of his violent shenanigans, and then another four or so years in therapy trying to get on with my life as a damaged adult, I was ultra-estranged from him, actively hating him for his behavior and despising his very being. Like most victims of family abuse, up until that point I had blamed most of my own shortcomings and stuntedness on him solely. But something had happened to rotate my perspective. Maybe it was being in Ohio completely on my own for years, or maybe it was the continued therapy, or maybe it was my academic studies examining the role spirituality (writ large) might play in expanding ideas about postsecondary writing pedagogy (which became my eventual dissertation topic). For whatever reason, I had come to the mature understanding that it wasn’t all about me any longer. It wasn’t about my problems or my past or my unhappiness or my inability or my lack of willingness. The world was so much bigger than me. It was a freeing experience, a graceful place to find myself in (and one that, I’ve since discovered, is not a permanent address).

So, suddenly, visiting my father on Christmas—an act that hitherto would have been absolutely impossible—was natural, simple. I could visit Dad easily because life, at least in that precious moment, wasn’t about me or my issues. In fact, it wasn’t even about me visiting dad at all. I could visit him for him, not for me. It was all so clear. And lucky for me, he and his long-time second wife, Lorraine, had moved from Florida to Delaware, only 20 miles from my mother’s house, and I was already in town. Everything fell into place like during the last 10 seconds of a sitcom.

I found his apartment complex, ascended the stairs to his door, and rang the bell, no trepidation. The door creaked open slowly, and Lorraine poked her head out. She was, plainly put, a nightmare. Unkempt gray hair, maybe some of it in rollers, ghastly white face, glazed eyes, a faded pink housecoat. She had reached her final destination, one that had been circled on the map for a long time: Valium-zombie-ville.

[My relationship with Lorraine is another post entirely—it has to be. If I were to sidetrack here and explain the complexities of my “stepmother” Lorraine and my relationship with her, I would not do it justice. And it requires justice. For now, I leave you with this much-too-brief insane collection of words:  At the tender age of 14, having recently run away from my mother and her second husband (who this day is living happily as a gay man) and into my father’s controlling embrace, I learned how to smoke Salem 100s (and sip on screwdrivers) while playing Yahtzee for hours on end with Lorraine. Lorraine and I were best friends in the most dysfunctional way possible. More forthcoming.]

Lorraine either didn’t recognize me, since I had been out of touch for almost two decades, or she wasn’t recognizing anything at all, which was more likely. I entered the apartment and what I found was darkness—both kinds. The shades were drawn against the cold midday sun; the place was draped in shadow. It was bare, except for a few sticks of flea market furniture—a card table for eating on, a sunken-in couch, and another tray table with a 13-inch black and white TV straight from 1970, rabbit ears and all. No pictures on the bare walls. I didn’t think it at the time, but only a few minutes after leaving, the reality dawned on me:  Their lives—full of fragmentation, violence, transcience, minor run-ins with the law, prescribed sedatives–had led to this. They had no things. But more crucial, they had no people. They were in the dark. Lorraine, now a ghost, slowly faded into the background.

My father sat on the floor of the mostly empty living room, vigorously working away at something I couldn’t see in the darkness. He got up, quickly shook my hand and said he was glad to see me, and then kneeled back down to his task and began to explain what he was doing. He was not the strong-voiced, cold-staring, blackhaired, strong man who I remembered from 18 years ago. I mean, of course, right? But as much as you can tell yourself all of this makes sense and should be expected, it never is. He was gray, wrinkled, wore glasses with thick lenses, and he was shorter. Of course, I was taller, but you just can’t ever know how these realities will hit you. For me, I was sure I was standing in some elderly couple’s home, both of whom were strangers and had accidentally let me in. I followed dad into the living room and stood looking down on him, since there were no chairs to sit in.

What my father said next epitomized him perfectly, a man I eventually came to understand as a codependent caretaker, a violent martyr—someone who found all his self-worth and self-definition in helping the helpless. But doing so also allowed him to exercise his unquenchable need for control over others, even to the point of physical harm if his wards were uncooperative. This was the nature of his relationship with Lorraine, his relationship to my mother, and his relationship to his children:

“I found this leather jacket in the dumpster here. It’s a good coat. It’s in good shape still. I’m cleaning it with some Windex. It will fit Rick. I visited him the other day. He told me he needs a coat for when he gets out.” Ricky, my eldest brother, was in jail again for who-knows-what—as I grew older and disconnected from the drama, I lost track of it all.

There was some small talk following that, I’m sure, but that’s not what remains. What persists is the image of Dad, squatting in the middle of his empty life, furiously attempting to resurrect someone else’s garbage as a present for my imprisoned brother, while the sedated shadow of Lorraine lurked somewhere in the dark void of the apartment.

Captured Pawns

At six years old, I couldn’t discern my father’s intentions. Nor could I understand his actions. Twenty years later, a therapist would provide me with the word sociopath as a descriptor. That helped some.

I was sitting on the grass with my younger brother Randy; we were in the front yard of someone’s pretty little white house in Florida. I wish it were our house, but it was a friend of my mother’s, yet another good Samaritan providing safe haven from the oft-violent, unpredictable George Dennis. The little house was much different from our low-rent property with the cat-piss rugs and the dead palmetto bugs in the cereal bowls. At this moment, the world extended only as far as I could reach; blue sky, white clouds, green grass—the contrast turned way up, the colors impossible, everything close enough to breathe on. I was playing with a truck or a rock or something, oblivious. Randy and I had been dropped here in haste, like canned goods unloaded from the car. But I don’t know why. To a six year old, details don’t stick; it’s still all about the moment, only as far as you can reach.

I’m not sure how long we sat there in our own little worlds, but without warning or sound, three feet away, I saw Randy float into the air, leaving a small buttprint in the grass. I turned my head to get a full view; yup, he had disappeared. But he was not floating. He had been sloppily scooped up by someone who was trotting him down the long, manicured lawn, away from the house my mother had disappeared into with her friend. I watched the figures continue to shrink in size until they reached the curb. There, a large sedan was idling. The back door opened from within, and Randy was tossed inside. The door closed, a trap. Then the figure turned and began walking back up the yard. My turn.

For years, I was convinced I was unique because by the age of 4 or 5, I had already experienced complex feelings like sharp panic and dull dread while my peers were still throwing simple tantrums at the toy store. I don’t think of myself in those unique terms any longer—as I aged, I finally saw that we are all broken in big and small ways. But even at this tender age, my flight response kicked in as I saw the figure approaching me, and I can confidently say it was a well-practiced response, one that had already served me well on many occasions. I knew none of the particulars—who this collector of children was, who sat behind the darkened windows of the car, whose house was serving as the safe haven this week—but I did know I was alone and I needed to run. On my feet, that’s what I did.

Even though I’m desperately trying to characterize myself as a world-weary, jaded preadolescent, the truth is I was a scatterbrained six year old. My flight response may have been practiced, but there was no logic or planning behind it. There’s probably some Freudian diagnosis to explain why I simply didn’t run inside the haven/house to cower under momma’s skirt—that sort of response is something a more normal kid, living under more normal circumstances, would do. Being abnormal in just about every way, I instead turned a sharp right and began vaulting over property boundaries—the small brick fences, hedges, and flower beds of strangers—my little legs carrying me to some unknown destination far away from the danger. But in many ways, this was a regular Tuesday.

Alas, this isn’t a race I would win. In the background, underneath my heavy breathing, a growling voice from the car: “Get him!” I looked to my left, towards the road paralleling my path, and the ominous sedan with the darkened windows was effortlessly rolling along, matching my Olympian stride. I heard heavy footsteps falling in the grass behind me. I don’t know how far I had gotten, but I was already out of breath and slowing down.

Then, just like my brother before me, I was suddenly no longer making contact with the grass. I was flying, my feet kicking at the air in front of me, my heart pounding from fear and sprinting. The children-gatherer had caught me, scooping me up like a sack of potatoes. Who was this? Though I had still not yet seen his face, he hauled me over his shoulder and started trudging to the curb where the car-door-trap waited. It opened as we approached. I was tossed in, door slamming after. The groceries had been delivered.

Ultimately, no surprises here: My dad was behind the wheel, arm draped over the back of the bench seat and glaring at me, his hair blacker than ever and his face red with irritation. Randy was deer-in-headlights still to my left. The front passenger door opened and Rick, my 13-year-old brother (and dad’s unwilling, but effective, kidnapper) hopped in. I immediately grabbed the door handle to escape. This time, duh, I might run directly into the house where my mother was likely weeping at her friend’s kitchen table. Or maybe I’d run to a nearby house and hide under the couch. Or maybe–Dad barked fearsomely: “Don’t touch it!” He reached toward me, not to hit me, but to slam his hand down on the door lock. He never hit me.

We drove away, somewhere, only to be returned to mother a few days later following half a dozen telephone calls to the police, the reissuing of a restraining order, and a series of angry confrontations. Once I hit adolescence, crap like this was just one episode in a never-ending string of bland Lifetime family dramas. As much as I hate to drag this old chestnut out, the chess game analogy works so well–pawns, calculation, control, defense, capture, sacrifice–with lots of threatening, smacking, and hiding thrown in for good measure. These days, I imagine seeing my mother exiting her safe haven to find only an empty yard, children gone, the grass impossibly green and the sky impossibly blue, the contrast turned all the way up. It must’ve been devastating–“checkmate” as far as my father was concerned.