My Old Man
My ex (husband) was in a bad way
In the voicemail he left me he said my name three times
I had his number listed in my phone under “Dad”
“Hold on,” I would say to whoever was in the room.
“Dad is calling.”
It was never good news when Dad called
He was the only person in my life who still called me Beth.
He’d been manic all summer
Ever since he’d moved back from Ohio.
His mother had given him twenty thousand dollars cash as payment for the manufactured house I’d bought him the year before.
Now his sister was living in it with her six cats.
“I can’t fucking live in a trailer with my sister and six cats,” he’d said.
I agreed, but I thought it was shitty of his mother and sister to stiff him on the other twenty thousand.
“I couldn’t stay another day in Ohio,” he said.
It didn’t take him long to blow through the twenty grand. The next time we saw him he had an old American beater, a Chevy or Ford four-door, and a run down apartment in the town where we lived when our daughter was a baby.
We sat, my daughter and I, on straight back kitchen chairs in the living room and he sat on a cot covered in a sleeping bag.
The two bedrooms were empty. There was a cat litter pan in the kitchen.
“I bought a piece of land up north near where Grandma and Grandpa used to live, remember?” he said.
“I remember,” I said – our daughter was too young to remember
“I bought a piece of land and an old camper and when my lease runs out at the end of summer, I’ll move up and live in the camper.”
That was four months ago, when he told us about the land he’d bought.
Now it was nearing the middle of September. When he left me the voicemail, there were two days until his lease was up.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do, Beth,” he said in the voicemail. “I can’t live in the camper. There isn’t any plumbing. There isn’t any heat or electricity. I’ll have to ride my bike into town to take a shit.”
I listened to the voicemail once and deleted it. I couldn’t bear to listen to it a second time. I kept hearing his words, “I don’t know if you can help me, Beth. I’m kind of out of options.”
I mailed his sister a postcard. We hadn’t spoken in fourteen years. I wrote my number on the postcard, asked her to call me.
Three days later I had a text message from his sister on my phone. I took a deep breath and dialed her number. I listened to her tell me why she and her mother had washed their hands of my ex. I listened to her talk for an hour.
It was no use yelling. I didn’t bother adding her number into my phone.
He had a father also but his father was living in a van outside a series of motel rooms. “He rents the motel rooms for the wifi but he can’t sleep in the beds cuz of his back. He sleeps in a reclining chair in the back of his van,” my ex had told my daughter and me earlier in the summer
My daughter and my stepdaughter and I were my ex’s only family. It was a lot of responsibility. He was drinking again and smoking weed again and now he was taking Klonopin, also.
“He doesn’t remember sometimes when I call,” my daughter said. “He said he didn’t remember me visiting him two weeks ago.”
I pictured my daughter’s father as one of the men I passed downtown on the street. He’d lived at the YMCA a decade earlier. He’d lived above a guy known as Shaky Jake in an assisted living apartment after that. He’d lived in a house I bought him for ten years. It was the longest he’d ever lived anywhere. Until he moved to live near his mom in Ohio.
He was forty years old and he’d been working odd jobs since he’d dropped out of school at fifteen. He’d worked as a house painter and a maintenance man and a bar cook and a dishwasher. He’d worked as a dishwasher in eight to twelve different establishments. He said, “I’m never washing another dish as long as I live.” He said, “I’d rather eat out of a dumpster than ever wash another dish again.”
I called my mom. She’d recently moved back from Florida after the death of her fourth husband. We hadn’t been talking and now we were again. I called her because my ex liked her. I called her because they’d always gotten along, even though she and I often didn’t.
We called my ex and my daughter and my stepdaughter, arranged to meet that Sunday at one pm.
It wasn’t what you call an intervention because none of us had written anything down. My current husband had spent three hours making phone calls to various organizations and mental health facilities around town.
We met at a Burger King in the town where my ex and I had lived with my daughter until I left him when she was six. We’d lived in that town another two years, my daughter and I, in an apartment across from the Kmart.
We bought five cups for soda and sat at a table in the middle of the Burger King. It was two o’clock on a Sunday. There was a woman seated alone at a table beside us. She had a small container of onions and was dipping them in a glob of ketchup.
My ex said, “This isn’t how I thought my life would turn out.”
He said, “This isn’t anyone’s fault.”
I looked up and he was looking at me.
I hadn’t thought it was my fault.
He hadn’t dated anyone in the fourteen years since our divorce.
He was wearing a ten year old pair of jeans, a t shirt and a flannel.
He was wearing an old ball cap on account of the tattoo he’d gotten on his forehead when I was pregnant with our daughter. It was a blue star and he’d tried several times to have it removed, first with a laser and then with a knife. Nothing worked.
My mother said, “Oh, honey. You just need a shower and to get yourself cleaned up.”
My ex said, “They’re legalizing euthanasia in Oregon.”
He said, “I don’t have much longer on this earth.”
He said, “I don’t want to be a burden to anyone.”
I said, “Don’t talk like that. You’re not a burden.”
I said, “You just need to stop drinking so you can think straight.”
His two daughters weren’t saying anything. One was across from me.
The other was beside me. He was fifteen and twenty when they were born. He couldn’t even buy alcohol. They both had their heads down.
He said he was staying at a Knights Inn a town over. I handed him the pages of AA meetings I’d printed out for him. I’d highlighted the ones in the town in which we’d raised our daughter.
“I haven’t been to an AA meeting in ten years,” he said, looking at the papers.
“There’s one tonight at eight at the church on Anne Street and one tomorrow morning at nine thirty at the church by the pond where we used to feed ducks,” I said.
I knew my daughter was thinking about “white duck” now. There’d been about twenty regular colored ducks and one white one when we used to go, the three of us, to feed them when she was little, walked from the old farmhouse in which we lived down to the park by the pond.
My ex hadn’t been drinking then. Or if he was, I wasn’t aware of it.
“I’ve got a hose I can run up the exhaust into the camper,” my ex was saying. “Be a lot easier for everyone.”
“No,” I said. “You’re not doing that. Don’t talk like that in front of the girls”
“Come on, honey,” my mom said. Her hand was patting his leg. The girls didn’t look up.
“We’re going to find a rehab place,” I said. “We’re going to find a place tomorrow.”
“You just need to take a shower and get some sleep,” my mom said. Her hand was still on his leg and I was grateful for it. It’d been fourteen years, maybe fifteen, since my hand was there.
“Am I that dirty?” he said. “Do I smell?”
I glanced at his fingernails. They were a little dirty.
“No,” I said. He didn’t smell.
When we stood to leave, the woman who had been eating onions stood and said something to my ex. She was in her fifties and chubby and had a perm. I heard her say, “I couldn’t help overhearing,” and then I didn’t hear what else she said.
Outside on the sidewalk my ex said, “She invited me to her church.”
“That was nice,” I said.
The girls hugged their father and my mother hugged their father and I stood by myself by the car. I hadn’t hugged him in fourteen years.
“I’ll call you in the morning,” I said.
“Get some sleep, honey,” my mother said.
That night we went to get Chinese with my husband. We played a word game and went to bed. I didn’t think of my ex in his bed at the Knights Inn. I didn’t think of whether he’d showered or not, whether or not he’d gone to AA.
In the morning my husband went to his job at the university and my mother and I started dialing numbers.
A few days earlier I had asked different friends and family members what I should do. A couple people had suggested I go to Al-Anon. I didn’t think they understood the situation. My ex was ill. It was like suggesting someone who wants to help a person with Down syndrome is codependent. No one would question your instinct to help a person with Down syndrome.
I didn’t know why I always seemed to ask other people for advice. Maybe that instinct was part of my codependency.
We weren’t getting anywhere with dialing numbers. We got in the car and drove to a building, talked to a woman. She gave us more numbers to dial. We went home and talked to more people on the telephone.
Finally there was a person who could take him, a rehab place just over the state line in Ohio. My ex hated Ohio but I tried not to think about that.
He drove down and we took two cars to Ohio. I asked my mother to take my ex because I didn’t like being alone in a car with him. I didn’t mind being in a car with him with my daughter but I didn’t like being alone with him. I would start thinking about how he’d never dated anyone after our divorce. I would start thinking about how he’d told our daughter he sometimes thought about how his wife was married to someone else now.
I didn’t feel comfortable alone with my ex.
My mother was going to drive back to her place in Ohio once they admitted my ex into rehab.
We never thought, What if they won’t admit him.
The woman my mother had talked to on the phone had sounded so confident.
We sat in the waiting room, which was smaller than your average waiting room. There were no accessible restrooms and a TV was playing Gunsmoke. My mother sat beside my ex and helped him fill out paperwork.
She said, “Do you feel like harming yourself or others?”
“That’s an impossible question to answer,” my ex said.
“Do you feel like harming yourself right now,” my mom said. “Are you suicidal right now?”
She kept emphasizing right now.
It reminded me of the scene in Harold & Maude in which the mother answers the dating questionnaire for Harold.
My mother checked, “No” a bunch of times.
People were starting to trickle in. Mostly young men and women in their twenties. They wrote their names on nametags and stuck the nametags to their chests. I avoided their chests, avoided learning their names.
It was starting to feel overwhelming sitting in the waiting room, like too much oxygen was in use. It felt overwhelming that you had to ask to use a bathroom; that someone had to take you.
Suddenly the doors swung open and all the people with nametags went behind them. Only one woman with a baby stayed behind.
“They won’t let me go back,” she said to one of the women behind the counter. “Because of her,” she said and pointed to the baby.
The baby was on the floor in a plastic baby carrier. We all looked at the baby.
“She’s two weeks old,” the woman with the nametag said. “She was born addicted so she’s small. She keeps losing weight.”
The baby started fussing and the woman got out a bottle and propped it in the baby’s hands. The baby’s hands were tiny. The bottle kept sliding around.
“Her father doesn’t have the parental instinct like I do,” the woman was saying. “I can’t trust him.”
The bottle kept sliding around and the baby kept crying. It was uncomfortable sitting in the waiting room. It still felt like there wasn’t enough oxygen.
“I’ll tell them exactly what’s in my bloodstream,” my ex said.
“At least you’re honest,” the mother of the baby said.
I don’t know why but I kept thinking of the movie, Trainspotting. I’d breastfed my daughter exclusively. It was hard for me to be around crying babies. I wanted to nurse all of them like Salma Hayek had nursed that one baby in an orphanage or wherever.
The door opened and a woman called, “Jared?” My ex stood.
“Good luck, Jared,” the mother of the baby said.
“I have to get some air,” I said after Jared had gone back.
It was a beautiful autumn day outside, eighty degrees and sunny. I lay down on a picnic table bench, my hair touching the grass beneath me.
I sent a text to my mother who was still inside, “What if they don’t take him.”
“Think positive,” my mother texted back.
I lay on the picnic bench twenty minutes, trying to think positive. My mother hadn’t gone without a drink, to my knowledge, in thirty-five years. But she was functioning. She wasn’t living in a camper with no electricity, no plumbing. She didn’t have to ride her bike into town to take a shit.
My mother was on the sidewalk outside the facility.
“Come on,” she said. “They’re calling us back.”
I’d been in similar situations with my ex in the past. Twice he’d been admitted to hospitals. Each of those times we’d taken him to the ER. A third time they hadn’t admitted him and I’d had to drive home with him, him knowing I’d tried to admit him, tried to rid myself of the burden of him. I’d gotten a motel room with our daughter that time. A few months later I’d gotten a divorce. I’d thought I’d rid myself of the burden of him, even though a week after the divorce I was driving him to a doctor’s appointment, same as always.
We walked past the mother of the baby, through the doors to the back. We were shown into a room, took seats on other side of my ex.
A young woman, not much older than our daughter, sat smiling in a chair across from us. Her smile was dumb but I didn’t yet hate her.
“We’re not going to admit him,” she said. “He hasn’t had alcohol in three days.”
He hadn’t had alcohol in three days because we’d told him not to drink. My mother had checked “no” under suicidal because she’d asked him if he wanted to kill himself right now. These were two of the ways we had fucked up.
“What about the Klonopin?” I said.
“He says he has a prescription,” the young woman said.
“But what if he doesn’t?” I said. I didn’t think he had a prescription even though he kept insisting to our daughter and everyone he had a prescription.
The young woman shrugged and smiled.
“What are we supposed to do now?” I said. “What if he’s homeless?” I said.
The young woman said my ex qualified for out patient treatment. I didn’t understand how he was going to get himself to a daily out patient treatment facility when he didn’t have a place of residence, when the only place he had to live was in a camper two hours from anything.
I hated the young woman for making me ask these questions in front of my ex. I hated the young woman for being the decider of our fates. I thought there had to be a mistake. I thought surely an older man had to make that sort of decision. Someone with more thoughts in his head. (This is an example of a Democrat being sexist.)
“I have to use the bathroom,” I said. I took as long as I could going to the bathroom. I didn’t want to drive the hour back alone with my ex. I had his nail clippers and his incense and his lighter in my purse.
My ex and my mother were waiting on the sidewalk for me. It was still sunny and I just wanted to lie down again. My mother and my ex were smoking. My mother said, “What do you want to do?” I was yelling but I can’t remember what I said. I knew my ex would think I was angry with him even though I was angry with everyone else. I was angry that I was in charge. I had gotten a divorce so I wouldn’t have to make any more decisions.
“Do you want me to drive him back?” my mother said.
I nodded even though I knew nodding was a horrible thing to do in this situation. I knew I was being selfish. I was a horrible person because I felt nauseous at the thought of being alone in the car for an hour with my ex.
I had gotten a divorce because I hadn’t wanted to be alone with him anymore.
I studied my mother and my ex in my rearview mirror. I called my husband to complain. I texted my daughter while driving.
WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO NOW? I kept thinking.
I didn’t know WHAT I WAS GOING TO DO NOW.
I wanted someone else to tell me WHAT TO DO.
I didn’t want to have to make any more decisions.
When we got back to the house my husband was there.
My ex came inside, “Can I have my keys?”
I’d hung the keys to his car on our key rack when I thought he was going to be away awhile.
I went and got his keys.
I gave him back his nail clippers and incense and lighter.
I gave him the numbers of the places I’d written down in town.
I told him to call the numbers. I told him we’d keep trying.
I told him not to do anything stupid, to think of the girls.
“I just want to get back up to my camp tonight,” he said.
My mother said, “I just want to get home.”
After my ex left I felt sick.
I was still worried he thought I was angry with him.
He’d told my mother on the drive back, “This isn’t Beth’s fault.”
I dialed his number. I was surprised he answered.
“I wasn’t angry with you,” I said. “I was angry with that woman, I was angry with everything else.”
“I didn’t think you were angry with me,” he said.
“I just want to get to my camp,” he said.
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll call you tomorrow,” I said.
We felt like failures, my mother and I.
“He took back the bullets,” my mother said. “The bullets he gave me when he thought he was going to rehab.”
I didn’t hear from him the next day and I didn’t call him either. I was tired. I needed a reprieve.
The day after that he called to say he’d gone to one of the places we’d called. He was on a waiting list for a bed, he said. It could be a few days or a few weeks. It was hard for them to predict, he said.
He sounded upbeat. He sounded okay. I threw away the pages of numbers I’d written in a notebook. I went about my life again. My daughter called her father every Sunday again. He was living in the camper up north but he was calling the place with the bed. He was on a waiting list.
Ginger and Pink
Were the names we had decided on, back in ’94 when we met.
It was the spring Kurt Cobain shot himself.
It was the June O.J. killed Nicole.
We met in April, the day before my twenty-fifth birthday,
By mid-May we were married, three months before he turned nineteen.
We were going to change our names legally to Ginger and Pink Quest.
We’d taken acid the night he proposed.
He had a friend, Matt Quest.
He’d always been envious that surname.
But it cost five hundred dollars to change your name.
You had to go before a judge.
It didn’t take much to get married.
I wore a skirt from The Gap.
We had to go before a judge in Flint, Michigan to get divorced.
We used my lawyer.
I picked him up from his apartment, drove us to the courthouse.
I had just turned thirty-three. He was six years younger.
Our daughter was six.
He was the same age Kurt was when he shot himself.
I hadn’t done acid since the night he proposed.
Hadn’t watched The Wall again either.
My Old Man II
Four weeks later I had another voicemail from my ex. It was a Sunday afternoon in October. My husband was in the other room, getting papers ready to take back to his apartment. We spent weekends together at the house. Weekdays he went to his apartment - went to his office on campus.
At the start of the message my ex didn’t sound so abnormal. He said, “I was hoping I’d never have to bother you again.”
After that, the message quickly devolved to him shouting.
I held the phone away from my ear
I was thinking about a time he’d ripped his hair from his head when he thought I was cheating on him.
I’d written about it. It sounded romantic on the page.
I was so removed from that night by then
(ten years removed)
(I’d forgotten what it was like to be screamed at in such short distance/close proximity)
(I remembered scooting across the floor of our one bedroom apartment toward the door; sitting with my back to it for hours, just in case)
(I remembered a motel on the same street as our apartment, going there ‘on occasion,’ knowing no one to call)
I held the phone close again
He said, “THEY DIDN’T LET ME HAVE MY MEDICATIONS!”
He said, “THEY DIDN’T FEED ME FOR THREE FUCKING DAYS!”
He said, “NEXT TIME THE PIGS BETTER BE PREPARED TO DIE FOR THEIR COUNTRY!”
He said, “AGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHH!”
I waited an hour and dialed his number.
I felt my stomach grow ten times heavier.
I thought maybe I’d forgotten swallowing the pits of ten thousand cherries.
I was remembering driving him to the ER the time he drunkenly got in a fight with my ex-fiance
He’d returned to our apartment barefooted, his shoulder dislocated, his Jim Morrison hair ratted and curtaining his face
He moaned and yelled all the way to the hospital
It was my first time driving the van we would later take cross country, after first selling or giving away all our possessions
“Where are you now?” I asked when he answered.
“I’m back at the camper,” he said. “I had to give them all my money and all the money on my credit card to get my car back.”
He said, “THEY TOOK MY FUCKING MEDICINE. I HAVEN’T SLEPT IN THREE FUCKING DAYS!”
I found myself standing in my bathroom, absently walking.
I was at a dead end.
I was saying things like, “calm down” and “you just need to get some sleep”
I was trying to sound unaffected but tears were streaming down my face
He said, “AGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHH!”
I kept walking and my stomach was consumed with fire
I heard myself repeating words I’d already said.
I said, “I’ll call you in the morning” and “we’ll figure something out then.”
He said, “THIS ISN’T YOUR PROBLEM.”
He said, “I SHOULDN’T HAVE CALLED YOU.”
I said, “Think of the girls” and “we’re family.”
He hung up and I kept walking around the house.
I didn’t know where I was going.
I couldn’t remember what I was doing before he called.
I found his mother’s number.
I hadn’t talked to her in sixteen years.
My stomach felt hard and hot.
She answered; it turned out he had called her, too.
But he’d hung up sooner. He told her he’d been kidnapped and then “click.”
Or that was her version.
He’d had a nanny as a child, an old lady who lived with him and his mom and his sister.
His mom had worked nights in the ER, slept off her days (with the aid of prescription drugs, he said).
Now she was married to a (retired) cop (he said).
She said, “I don’t know what to believe.”
She said, “He manipulates.”
I said, “Well now your daughter lives in the house I bought for him and he’s homeless, so thanks for that,” and I hung up.
I threw my phone because I could not slam it down into a receiver as you could in my youth.
I threw my phone because she was not going to be the person I wanted her to be.
It was like starting from scratch every time.
Looking up numbers on the internet.
Trying to figure out the system.
We didn’t know his exact location
He’d told our daughter, “GPS would be of no use to you up here”
I pictured a scene out of Into the Wild
I remembered a newspaper clipping I’d read two summers before about a man’s son who suffered from bipolar disorder dying in a jail cell –
from lack of water (they said)
the father’s guilt, of letting his son go to jail rather than rescuing him
I heard the words of my ex’s mother “Maybe the best thing for him would be to get picked up by the cops”
But he already had been picked up by the cops and nothing good had happened
They’d turned him out worse than before.
Now he was worse than before.
My Old Man III.
I get dressed, drive with the windows down, the radio tuned to the country station
I walk through the grocery store with my boiling gut
Concentrate on not being sick in the frozen food aisle
Buy Eggo waffles
I feel sick all day now
I turn off my phone
Open the book about Dylan
Go upstairs to write
Watch another documentary about Dylan
I have my own mythology
But what is that worth
At a time like this
Xmas Eve Interlude, 1994
I remember he wrapped my present – something inexpensive and rectangular, a CD, maybe – in a Rolling Stone article about Courtney Love
I remember Courtney Love’s face on the outside of my Xmas present,
In December of ‘94
I don’t remember what was inside
We had two cats - Colette and Zelda
And lived in a one bedroom apartment between Twelve and Thirteen Mile Roads in Detroit
This was our first Xmas as husband and wife
A year and a half later I would birth our daughter in a hospital in Flint
Where we’d move to escape his father who had a collection of guns under his bed and used his son’s social security number to obtain credit cards and phone bills
I don’t remember what I got him for Xmas;
Maybe an R. Crumb book.
My Old Man IV.
I got another call from my ex
He said, “I’m going to attempt to drive down tomorrow so if you don’t hear from me, they got me again.”
He said, “I know they put a GPS tracker on my car. I know they bugged my camper. I’m gonna have to get rid of my car and phone soon, too.”
It was a voicemail so I didn’t have to say ‘okay.’
I was eating my Eggo waffles.
I’d been trying not to think about my ex but not thinking about my ex was impossible because he was my daughter’s father.
When I checked my phone the next morning there was a voicemail but it wasn’t my ex. It was a man my ex had painted houses with off and on the last ten years. Gordie.
“I don’t know what I just witnessed but I’m concerned,” the voice on my phone – Gordie – was saying.
“I asked Jared for your number because I’d heard him talk about you over the years,” the voice – Gordie – said.
I dialed my ex but his phone was off and he hadn’t made it so you could leave a voicemail.
It was my (current) husband’s day off work and we had plans for the day but now my husband was calling Gordie.
I said, “Watch my phone in case Jared calls.” I had to shower.
Of course Jared called while I was in the shower!
He didn’t seem to mind that my husband had answered my phone.
He talked to him as if he was talking to me. (The audience was the least important part.)
An hour later we met him in a park downtown. I was in the front seat with my current husband. I dialed my ex’s number.
“Yes, dear?” he said. He hadn’t called me “dear” since the divorce. I tried not to stop and think about it.
“We’re parked in front of the basketball court,” I said.
“Oh, you dumbasses,” he said. “I’m parked right next to you.”
We turned to look and he was getting out of his car. It was raining and we motioned to the backseat.
“I probably stink,” he said, closing the car door. “I haven’t showered in days,” he said.
“All I smell is cigarette smoke,” I said. Same as always.
“I just wanted to give you this painting by an adolescent girl,” he said. He handed me a pastel painting with a triangle in the middle of it. Illuminati shit. My daughter’s sister’s art. “There’s a letter taped to the back,” he said.
I think he may have said, “love letter” or “goodbye letter.” I’m hoping he didn’t, though. I’m hoping my memory is faulty. I haven’t opened the letter. I don’t ever really want to open the letter.
My husband tried to ask him some sort of reasonable question. He had no experience with my ex when he was like this.
My ex’s answers had religious overtones. Same as always.
My husband asked if he was at the homeless shelter, if he’d met with a doctor, if he had a plan.
My ex said, “I checked in, I checked out. They’re always watching. They’re watching us now. God’s son is always roaming. I’m seeing a psychiatrist in a couple hours. I scared Gordie, too. I shouldn’t have told him the thing about the computer. That was my mistake. I knew it’d freak him out.”
“I bought a gun from a pawn shop but I buried it,” he said.
“I sold the camper to my neighbor for five hundred dollars. But some of that money might be on the highway,” he said.
“Oh, you did that last time, too,” I said. I was remembering the first time he was hospitalized, the night before his father taking him for a drive, our rent money flying out the window onto the freeway.
“Well let me ask you this, is it five hundred dollars or twenty-five sheets of paper?” my ex asked us.
“Twenty-five sheets of paper,” I said. “I know,” I said.
He had trailed off into speaking in tongues or in speaking in what he thought speaking in tongues sounded like. He was motioning a lot with his hands. It reminded me of an actor in a movie. I couldn’t remember which one.
“I want you to call me every day,” I said.
“Is it okay if I call your wife?” he said, turning toward my husband. He laughed instead of waiting for an answer.
“You’re so stupid,” he said, turning toward me. “You think…never mind.”
“Here, take my I.D.,” he said, and he pulled his wallet from his pocket.
“I don’t want your I.D.,” I said. “You’re going to need it.”
“No, here,” he said. He pulled something from his wallet and handed it out to me. It was a joker from a deck of cards. I was stupid.
“Oh,” I said. “I remember this trick.” It was true; I remembered once before him signing the joker card and handing it to me, before or during one of his hospitalizations.
He laughed and I noticed the hat he was wearing had a light taped to the top of it. I noticed his beard was fuller than I’d ever seen it and there were patches of white. He looked like he’d lost twenty pounds since I’d seen him five weeks earlier.
His sister, when I’d called her then to try to get her to help, had said, “He’s still quite fat,” as though any “extra” weight was evidence of emotional wellbeing.
He was easily definable as “gaunt” now. Sunken cheekbones. Sunken eyes. He was wearing a pair of jeans I’d bought him sixteen years ago. An old pair of moccasins. An old T-shirt and jacket.
My husband and I had met with my ex intending to take him to a hospital. But I could tell neither of us was up for that now. It seemed too great a struggle.
“Do you want us to go with you to the shelter?” I said. “To your appointment?”
“No, no,” he said. “I’m good. I ate an orange today. You can sleep there but you have to be out during the day. You have to sign out. I’m just going to park here for four hours, then move the car and park on the other side of the street.”
“Okay,” I said. “Well, I guess we should get going,” I said.
It’s hard to convey on the page how our presence seemed to be aggravating him, how his hands were waving about the car, the words coming more rapidly every minute he remained with us.
I sound hysterical on the page whenever I write about him. I haven’t figured out a way to write about this without me sounding like an asshole.
I was holding it together while my ex was in the car.
On the drive home I broke down in sobs. I called my mother, sobbing.
My husband and I had tickets for an event that night we no longer felt like attending. We ended up in a back booth at Denny’s, instead.
“What was that Brad Pitt movie?” I asked my husband.
“I don’t know. There are a lot of Brad Pitt movies, you’re going to have to be more specific.”
“Think of the context of our previous conversation,” I said. I was a dick like that.
“Oh,” he said. “12 Monkeys?”
“Yeah. That one.” Brad Pitt in 12 Monkeys came close to emulating my ex when my ex was like this. But an actor on the screen cannot convey
“I walked out of A Beautiful Mind,” I said. “It was too realistic,” I said. “Also it had some bullshit happy ending.”
“I remember you telling me that,” my husband said. “Also The Aviator,” he said.
“I walked out of The Aviator?” I said. “I don’t remember that.”
“Yes,” my husband said. “His behavior was too reminiscent you said.”
The first movie I remember watching in which a character “goes crazy” - is taken to a mental hospital - was Frances. My mother made me watch it with her. Though Frances wasn’t supposed to be crazy. That was supposed to be what was so sad about it.
But it’s sad even if a person is crazy.
Betty Blue was the second movie. Betty Blue poked her own eye out. I was twenty when I saw Betty Blue and Betty was around twenty when she poked her eye out in the movie and the movie was based on a real woman. I worried for a long time after that that I’d do something like that, poke out my eye or ‘go crazy.’ I didn’t leave my apartment for weeks. I sat in a clawed bathtub telling myself not to think about going crazy. I had panic attacks at night.
This was four years before I met my ex.
After I met my ex and we got married and had our daughter I came to the agreement with myself that only one parent could be crazy and since her father was, I couldn’t be. I made an agreement with myself to hold myself together.
My Old Man V.
I was terrified and I was ashamed to be terrified.
But I went around anyway, locking all the windows and doors.
I bolted the door to the garage, which I had never before bolted.
I slid the sticks in the sliding glass doors upstairs and down which I had never done before.
Previously my ex had locked all the windows when he house and dog sat for us a decade earlier.
“God,” I’d said to my husband when we returned. “He’s even locked the windows.” I went around unlocking each window and opening them to let in fresh air.
Earlier in the day my ex’s caseworker had told us he’d checked out of the shelter.
“What reason did he give?” my husband had asked.
“He said he couldn’t sleep.”
No shit he couldn’t sleep. He was manic and out of Klonopin.
I imagined him driving down our street at two a.m.
Our house was mostly windows, mostly glass.
It had never bothered me before.
Now I felt like a woman in a horror movie or a Stephen King novel,
Like I was being watched.
I kept stopping to look out the front window. We lived on a dirt road with no streetlights. Everything that had never bothered me before suddenly bothered me.
Suddenly the freedom I’d wanted and asked for felt like a dumb idea.
The nights my husband stayed at his apartment I hid in my bedroom, locked my bedroom door, listened for the sound of a car.
“Can I just park at the end of your driveway and sleep in my car?” my ex had asked a month earlier.
“No,” I’d said. “Absolutely not,” I’d said.
He was calling every day to check in, leaving me a voicemail with the date and time.
I had to keep reminding myself he had called me five weeks earlier, he had asked or begged me for help.
I sat in my office upstairs watching Alice, an old TV sitcom from the ‘70s because it took my mind momentarily off my ex.
I was starting to feel like I was going a little crazy.
I couldn’t stop thinking, I was having a hard time sleeping, I was waking up in the middle of the night unable to get back to sleep.
My Old Man VI.
My daughter came home from college for the weekend.
I was standing at the door by the garage when she walked in.
“What’s going on?” she said. “You’re never this happy to see me.”
I didn’t typically hug her when she arrived.
It was October and I’d made her favorite Halloween cupcakes.
After she ate one I told her I wanted to talk with her and her sister.
She set the computer up on the kitchen table and we sat on chairs in front of it.
Her sister was on Facetime on the computer. I knew she was sitting on her bed because I recognized the tie-dye fabric on the wall behind her.
I told them everything that had happened with their father in the last week.
I told them the ways we were trying to get him help.
I knew it was frustrating for them as well. They’d been there a month earlier when he was asking for help. The three of us believed he still wanted help even if his mania had moved him past the point of asking and the laws were preventing us from getting him any.
“It’s like, if you saw a woman unconscious and bleeding in the street, you wouldn’t wait for her to come to consciousness before taking her to a hospital. No one would be like, ‘Well, maybe she doesn’t want help. Maybe she wants her freedom lying here in this street, bleeding.’”
“Right. I know.”
We were having a bonfire that night. We had invited my daughter’s sister but at the last minute she was called into work and couldn’t go.
One of my daughter’s friends had just returned from L.A. and I asked her about it as we stood around the fire.
“I was attacked on Venice Beach,” she said. “I don’t know why this kind of stuff always happens to me. It was a woman without a permanent residence. I was waiting in line to use a bathroom and she said, ‘Go back to Puerto Rico.’ And, ‘Make sure you wipe your pussy.’ I was hoping she’d be gone when I came out of the bathroom but she was right there waiting on me. She was schizophrenic or something. She said to me, ‘Did you wipe your pussy?’ and I told her to stay away from me and she threw whatever was in her bottle at me. I didn’t know if it was water or something else.”
And then someone else, another of my daughter’s friends said, “Yeah, I didn’t know there were so many homeless people in California until I went to San Francisco.”
And someone else said, “I don’t fuck with the homeless people in Ann Arbor anymore. They’re mean now.”
I pictured my daughter’s father as one of the homeless men walking around downtown, sitting in the park, talking to passersby.
I felt like the one audience member at a comedy show who says, “That’s not funny, my ____ is ____.”
But no one had made a joke and I hated those people anyhow.
My Ex Part X
I was waiting on a call from my ex’s caseworker
For the second time in two months, my ex had agreed to voluntarily enter a rehab hospital in Ohio, the same rehab hospital my mother and I had driven him to seven weeks before
This time his caseworker was driving him
It was Halloween and I was feeling homesick for our daughter
My ex had been homeless two weeks
He’d been living in a camp in upstate Michigan for a month before that
I couldn’t remember how long it’d been since he’d given away his cats
We’d owned at least one cat since I’d met him and I’d met him twenty-three years ago
I wondered how long it’d be before he was stable enough again to own a cat
We’d camped across America in the fall of ’94, three months after we’d married
In Minnesota we’d stayed in a campground high on a hill
It was September and we were the only ones there
My ex is shirtless in the photographs from that campsite
A stray cat is on his lap; he is seated in a camp chair by the fire
His hair is long and jet black and wavy
The celebrity I always compare him to is Jim Morrison
I can’t remember what sex with him felt like but I remember we had sex every night for a year
Us and Them – Halloween evening, 2016
I went for a walk as a way of dealing with my anxieties
Waiting to hear if the rehab hospital in Ohio would take my ex was like waiting to hear about finding a liver match
I didn’t know what we were going to do if they didn’t take him this time
In the past week he’d left me seven voicemails, half of them at four in the morning,
Most of them riddles; I forget the questions but the answer to one was, “Because Santa Claus only cums once a year”
I had seen earlier in the day that Roger Waters was on Marc Maron
I leashed my dog and got out my iPod
It was four thirty and trick-or-treat started at five and I didn’t want to be home when it started
I made a sign that said “take one, please” and taped it to a plastic pumpkin filled with “fun size” candy bars
I didn’t like trick-or-treat now that my daughter was away at college and now that trick-or-treat started before dusk
When we were newly married and camping across the country, my ex and I had listened to three rock and roll bands: Led Zeppelin, The Grateful Dead and Pink Floyd
My ex didn’t like TV or movies or books
My ex was born thirty years too late
I was eager to hear Roger Waters talk about Pink Floyd
I was especially interested in hearing him talk about Syd Barrett since Syd Barrett had ended up in a mental hospital and then living the rest of his life with his mother
I wanted to know how Roger Waters had met Syd Barrett and about Syd Barrett’s contribution to the band
But Roger Waters didn’t want to talk about Pink Floyd
Roger Waters wanted us to care about his solo career while still naming his tour after a song from his previous band
Roger Waters wanted to talk about all the poor people he played music for in Mexico and the U.S.
He said, “Everywhere I go with The Wall, whenever we do ‘Brick II’ anywhere, I always have local children to come and sing and I always try to get them from the most disadvantaged background that I can find. Anyway, we did a gig in San Diego a few years ago and I looked at these kids and I thought, ‘These aren’t my kids. I don’t know who they are but…’ So anyway, I found out that they were the children of the executives from the arena who thought it’d be fun for their kids to be part of the show. So I went ape-shit and got rid of them all. ‘Find me some proper kids!’ So these kids turned up and I went, ‘These are more like it. These are my kids. This is my constituency.’”
I hated when old rock celebrities tried to convince you of how humanitarian they were while living in mansions and sending their own kids to private schools.
I wanted Marc to ask Roger about how he’d raised his own kids, about how his own kids were less “my constituency” than the arena executives’ kids, but Marc didn’t ask anything about that.
I remembered how my friend who is a teacher at a small, expensive private school in L.A. had Roger Waters’ grandchild in her class the previous year, how the mother of the child had invited my friend to stay at the family castle if she was ever in England.
I thought Roger Waters was full of shit, I mean
I thought more often than not, it was better when a rock and roll figure died at a young age, before they became bloated and self-important and boring.
I was glad Kurt wasn’t alive to disavow Nirvana or his band members or to talk about how selfish other people were while living the life of a bloated multi-millionaire
I was halfway home when a man in a parked car on a cul-de-sac rolled down his window and said something to me
I took out my earbud and said, “What?”
He said, “There’s a buck over there.”
I looked in the direction the man was pointing but I didn’t see anything
I took a step forward and looked again and on the side of the house was a tall, male deer, just like the man had said
I nodded and waved and kept walking
All around me people were readying their house for trick-or-treat and I was trying not to think about what would happen to my daughter’s father if the rehab hospital didn’t take him
I left the “take one, please” sign on the plastic pumpkin on my porch and went inside
I didn’t feel like answering my door or saying “Happy Halloween”
I didn’t know why people said that mental illness was the same as any other illness and then treated it and the people suffering from it differently
(my ex’s mother, for instance, had called him “manipulative”)
I didn’t know if I was more concerned about my ex husband being homeless or about my daughter having a homeless father
A little of both, I guessed
Us and them
I was in the basement storage room scooping the cat litter
It was almost Thanksgiving
There was cat litter all over the floor
There was a lone turd on the carpet
I reached to pick up the turd, to flick it back into the box
As I bent over my eye was drawn into a cardboard box
There was a small gap where the cardboard flaps did not meet or had come apart
I saw a photo album my daughter had made for her father
For his birthday or Father’s Day, I forgot which
The photo album said, “DAD” on the outside cover and under the word DAD was a photograph of my daughter and her father
In the photograph my daughter is five years old and standing, proudly, in her father’s work boots
In the photograph my daughter’s hair is in pigtails and her father is almost smiling
The photograph was taken the winter before we left him
In six months she and I would be living in a new apartment complex on the other side of town next to the Kmart
In six months he will be living in an upstairs room of his sister’s house
I flicked the turd back into the box and left the room
The next time I scooped cat litter I purposefully avoided looking into the cardboard box
Jared pt whatever
I don’t look at my phone for two and a half days and when I do I have seven new voicemails from my ex
Three are left at four in the morning
I put off listening to them
I ask my husband to listen to them the next time he comes over
I ask my daughter to ask my ex to stop calling me
My ex went before a judge to get out of the hospital a week after he went in
My ex is living in his car, is back on Klonopin
He rear-ends my stepdaughter when he follows her to a restaurant
He tells her, “I’m just in love with this car right now” when she asks him if he needs help finding a cheap apartment or mobile home rental
My daughter says, “I just talked to Dad”
My daughter says, “I’m so livid”
She says, “He’s back on Klonopin”
“I know,” I say
It’s the first Thanksgiving in twenty-two years I haven’t talked to my daughter’s father
I am conscious of not reminding her to call him
I don’t know if either of us can take any more loss of hope