Sponsored in Part IV: Unpredictable Addicts: Fun!
“Your constituency has declared that three consecutive days in absentia from the Jewish Community Center pool is grounds for impeachment, unless you produce a note from your doctor, or a wad of cash indicating that you have gone to Foxwoods and won big time.” — Comment on my dad’s Facebook page
If the Sopranos were Jewish, steeped in massive credit card debt, and lived in a dreary middle class Boston suburb where flabby white trash girls with high, hair-sprayed bangs walked around with their pants sliding down the crack of their tramp-stamped asses, that would give you a pretty decent idea of the kind of environment in which I was raised.
My dad’s not in the mob; he’s a retired high school social studies teacher with an advanced degree in political science who now sells counterfeit t-shirts with unlicensed sports team logos to drug stores across the country. Once a few years back, my younger brother, a successful bankruptcy attorney in Manhattan, had to write a cease and desist letter to the owner of a national pharmacy chain after one of the managers discovered that the Red Sox merchandise my dad and his business partner were selling them was fake.
“I had no idea they were fake,” my dad swore up and down. “I knew but I didn’t know. I didn’t know. I’m telling you, I had no idea.”
My dad likes to convince himself of certain things, like that he’s not a compulsive gambler, even though he drives an hour-and-a-half on 95 South to Foxwoods Resort Casino in Mashantucket, Connecticut about as often as he can, a reckless sport my mom blithely refers to as “going to work.”
My dad put my entire childhood on a series of twelve different credit cards.
Me: “Dad, you should really stop gambling.”
My dad: “I don’t gamble.”
Me: “Dad, I hear slot machines behind you. And ice clinking in glasses. And a guy just said ‘Can I put ten on red and –’”
My dad: “Malina, I’m telling you – ”
Me: “What are you down – fifty, a hundred, two hundred?”
My dad: “Nothing.”
Me: “How much?”
My dad: “Not that much.”
Me: “Three hundred? You don’t have money to pay your mortgage this month. Or your phone bill –”
My dad: “I’m playing with bonus points. They gave me money to play with.”
Me: “Walk away, dad. Walk away.”
My dad: “How can I walk away if I’m not even here?”
My parents are broke and my brother is pretty much supporting them, so on the one hand you can’t really blame my dad for gambling, even if gambling is part of the reason they’re broke. My dad’s addiction is essential motivated by the belief that someday he’s going to actually strike it rich. He’s delusional, my dad. Or, depending on your perspective, you might call my dad optimistic.
A few weeks ago, my dad and I were standing over my grandmother’s headstone in the Jewish cemetery in Everett, Massachusetts. She died last June. A year later my father had finally financed the head stone.
“The guy gave me a good deal on it and he spelled everything correctly,” said my dad.
Mason and I had flown back, along with the kids, for the unveiling, a Jewish ritual during which a cloth covering the headstone is removed.
Boaz, our four year-old, was sobbing in the parked car as a light mist fogged up the back window. He wasn’t crying because the great-grandmother he barely knew was “up in the sky,” but because five men, including my dad and my two brothers, were hovering around a head stone wearing rain coats and yarmulkes on their heads (my dad’s concentric bald patch extended far beyond the skull caps’ circumferences), reciting a litany of transliterated Hebrew prayers that my dad had printed up at Kinko’s. What Boaz wanted was to be home eating popcorn and lollipops while watching the Pokémon movie for the ten billionth time.
Ayla, our two-year-old, clung like a banana slug to my mom, burying her head in her neck, which is wrinkled from long term sun exposure back when everybody thought UV rays were good for you. My parents spent the entire 70’s and half of the 80’s lying on their backs on a big orange beach towel angling matching silver light reflectors up towards the sun to maximize all tan potential. My dad wore a gold herringbone chain necklace and my mom wore sunglasses the size of a small spaceship. All of their friends had names like Elliot and Janice and Lou and Carol, living their own microcosmic version of a Paul Mazursky movie, except instead of swapping spouses they traded bottles of Hawaiian Tropics suntan oil with an SFP of 2.
To this day, George Hamilton IV is one of my dad’s biggest inspirations: “You can never be too rich or too tan.”
The day before my grandmother’s unveiling, my dad had gone to the beach.
My grandmother was ninety-seven when she died, her mind perfectly intact until she drew her last breath at the Chelsea Jewish Nursing home, where she spent exactly eight hours before peacefully expiring. She never wanted to go to a nursing home, and she didn’t, not until the last possible second when her body gave out and her legs folded beneath her and an ambulance whisked her way from the Jewish retirement community overlooking Revere Beach to a bed in a room with pale yellow walls and a 24-hour nursing staff.
My dad: “Ma, do you know where you are?”
My grandmother: “Chelsea.”
And that was that.
“I want to be buried in Everett,” sighed my dad, staring down at the family plot where his mother, father, and sister – she died in a car wreck when she was 20 – were tucked away in pine caskets to rot away in the earth. There was nothing left of my grandfather or the aunt I never knew except bones and stories and black and white photos.
The plot was prime underground real estate, purchased decades earlier by my Great Uncle Maurice, a multi-millionaire businessman-cum-philanthropist who made his fortune in the life insurance racket. Gravesites were filled on a first-come-first serve basis, the assumption being that the elder members of the family would pop off first. But you can’t exactly map out in what order people die, and over the years far-distant relatives had finagled their way in, squeezing out the rest of us. There was another Jewish cemetery in Sharon for the overflow, but my dad was a city boy. Neither her nor my mom had any interest in spending the afterlife in an affluent Boston suburb.
“We could exhume them,” my dad brightly suggested, pointing to the plots of twice-and thrice-removed cousins whose exact branches on the Saval family tree he couldn’t firmly establish.
“Or,” I enthusiastically interrupted. “We could hold a giant gala fundraiser to raise cash so you and mom can buy your own plot a few headstones down. There’s probably a discount rate in the special section for spouses that aren’t Jewish. You could lie and say mom is a Muslim.”
“We can get the guy who does the local cable TV access show to broadcast – ”
“And get the waiters at Chinatown to answer telephones – ”
“And hire a Doo Wop band to play music.”
“And sell t-shirts –
“With my picture on it –”
“And maybe get Jerry Lewis to host.”
“Or.” My dad paused for emphasis. “We could put the cemetery plot on a credit card.”
“But you’ve maxed out all your credits cards.”
“No,” said my dad, as though this were a dark family secret he’d been saving for just the right moment to share. “I haven’t. I’ve got $200 left on a Sears Mastercard and $150 left on an American Airlines Visa and I think my credit score rose a point from doing that Credit Solutions thing–”
“We could charge admission for the funeral – ”
“And have a cash bar at the shiva house – ”
“Three bucks a herring plate, four bucks for a Nova lox and bagel –”
“And then I’m dead so you wouldn’t have to pay off my credit cards anyway.”
“Dad,” I said. “That is an amazing idea.”
My parents use the word “fuck” about as casually as they do the prepositions ‘and’ and ‘the.’ Fuck is a filler word, like ‘um’ or ‘huh.’ Fuck is also one of my dad’s favorite verbs, as in “He can go fuck himself.” Conversely, my dad rarely uses “fuck” as a noun, as in “You dumb fuck!” This I think says a lot about his curse word etiquette. The older my dad gets the more often he seems to use the word fuck, to the point where if you didn’t know him you might think he has Tourette’s.
My dad had said ‘fuck’ a sum total of forty-seven times – mostly in various contexts having to do with food items on the menu and fellow restaurant patrons – by the time our waiter at the Chinese restaurant brought our first round of ice waters and Shirley Temples to celebrate my mom’s 66th birthday.
“Control your kids,” mumbled a guy at the next table. Boaz and Ayla were chasing one another around the restaurant, bopping one another with silver and blue party hats.
My dad flicked his wrist. “They can go fuck themselves,” he said.
“We’re a firm believer in that,” said my mom.
“In telling people to go fuck themselves?” I asked.
My dad reached across the table for the broccoli in black bean sauce. “Whatever,” he said loud enough for the guy to hear. “If they don’t like it they can go eat at their own fucking restaurant.”
That’s when my aunt Marcia stormed in.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” said Marcia, blowing into the room like an Oklahoma tornado. Not that anyone had asked her about anything. She wore a butterfly clip in her flame-red hair with little mesh wings that fluttered as she sat down in her seat and tossed her giant red purse onto the table.
“What is it?” asked my dad.
“I said I don’t want to discuss it.”
“I spoke to Elizabeth today after she saw the doctor. ”
“Jerry,” she said, slamming her hand on the table. “I don’t want to discuss it.”
“OK.” My dad threw up his arms and cracked open his menu. “Fuck, whatever.”
Elizabeth has stage-three ovarian cancer and is soon going to start chemo. Marcia is overweight and hypoglycemic: “My blood sugar is dropping. I need to order. Now.”
My mom cocked her head and nodded at Marcia as she spoke. Marcia is the classic middle child. She believes simultaneously that the entire world is out to get her and that the entire world revolves around her. She’s always fighting for attention. Elizabeth is the oldest child and went to Radcliffe when she was sixteen and lives in northern California with my common-law Uncle Ken, one of the first employees at Apple who now writes software programs for fun. He’s got cancer, too (stage three colon).
“I’m starving,” said Marcia, slapping the menu down on the table. “How are we ordering? I’ll take one of everything.”
Marcia frightens my mom. She pretty much frightens everybody. Marcia is crazy, and I’m fairly certain this is fact and not opinion. Her kids think she’s crazy. Her friends think she’s crazy. She thinks she’s crazy. If they conducted a scientific experiment at M.I.T to determine the root of all the world’s craziness, they would conclude that it all stems from my aunt Marcia.
In all fairness to Marcia, my mom walks around the house talking to herself, starting conversations long before she enters the room and continuing them long after she exits. She tells people that I’ve published three books when really I’ve only published one. When they meet me and discover the truth, their mouths turn down in a disappointed frown. Either that or they’ll say through a tight smile, “So when are you publishing your next one?”
My mom tells everybody that my dad is going to win the lottery and that they’re going to buy a beach house in Malibu to live closer to their grandkids. She makes up stories about people dying of AIDS when really it was diabetes. She makes up stories about relatives dying of suicide when really it was cancer. If I mention that I’m interviewing George Clooney for a 350-word profile in Variety, my mom tells everybody I’ve written a movie that he’s starring in. She scoops ice cream off the floor with her hands and sniffs her food before eating it. She’s also pretty much convinced that everybody hates Jews (She thought Cars 2 was anti-Semitic because there’s a Volkswagen in it).
My mom spent the good part of my childhood jumping up and down and screaming “I wish I were dead.” She spent the other part in bed, the covers yanked over her head. My parents could never afford to fix the dishwasher when it broke, so she’d wash dishes by hand, late at night, ceramic plates thrashing and clanging against one another. Dinner was an entire package of Empire kosher turkey dogs dumped into a plate and left on the kitchen table. There was no matching cutlery in our house, and no shelves in the kitchen cabinets. My parents bought boxes and boxes of Styrofoam cups.
Five years ago, around the same time Boaz was born, my mom discovered drinking. Before Mason got sober, whenever she’d come visit she’d stick six-packs in the fridge and vodka in the freezer as housewarming gifts. She smoked cigarettes for a while, too, but once I caught her and she shook and cried and made me promise not to tell my dad.
“He’ll chop my fingers off,” she shivered.
“Mom, dad is not going to chop your fingers off.”
“He will,” she wept. “He told me.”
My dad wasn’t going to chop my mom’s fingers off, but he also wasn’t going to admit that anything was wrong with her. Once in a great while, he’d mention the shock therapy she underwent in the late 1960’s, but if any of us asked why she wasn’t under any regular psychiatric care and why the only medication she was currently prescribed was sedatives, my dad would say, “How the fuck do I know?” Then he’d say, “She’s fine.” Growing up, everything in our house was always fine, even when they weren’t.
The more things unraveled, the more fine it all became.
Straight after dinner Mason and I drove to an open AA meeting, which means that anybody can go, even if you’re not alcoholic. We thwarted Marcia in the parking lot – she threatened to come with to see if there were any eligible single men – and parked in the lot of the old Methodist church on Pleasant Street across from the dollar movie theater with the ripped up seats and the wet pretzel/day-old popcorn/Coca-Cola combo.
I’d initially wanted to find an Al-Anon meeting. Since there wasn’t anybody for me in L.A., there I could find a long distance sponsor I decided. After all, I’d had long distance boyfriends before and granted they never worked out in the long run, there were a couple of good years in there before things imploded. Maybe I could Skype with my long distance sponsor. Or we send Blackberry messages back and forth. Maybe he could fax me the serenity prayer every morning as a general reminder. Or just text me like everybody else, because nobody sees one another anymore in person anyway.
L.A. is a really easy place in which to feel bad about yourself – everybody is beautiful, everybody is rich, everybody is famous, everybody’s life is so much better than mine – so maybe having an Al-Anon sponsor in a boring beat-up Boston suburb with a Pentecostal church on the main drag of town that doubles as a nail salon would help keep things in perspective.
But this wasn’t L.A. and there weren’t ten thousand Al-Anon meetings a day, so I had to take what I could get. And for the first time since he got sober, Mason let me tag along to his AA meeting. It was really sweet of him and the experience brought us a little bit closer, even if the main reason he let me come was that our rental car didn’t have a navigation system and he wasn’t sure how to get around.
People at the meeting were friendly and thought it was cool when I told them I’d grown up there (but wanted to know where my Boston accent had gone). Still, it was all a little depressing. Everybody in the church function hall had either logged time in prison or threatened to beat me up in junior high school. I looked around and counted tattoos of crucifixes and dragons and the name JESUS on people’s arms and bare shoulders. I’m pretty sure one of the girls that got up and spoke once backed me up against a locker and told me that my hair looked like a matted dog’s.
At one point during the meeting Mason leaned over and whispered into my ear, “I feel like their bottoms are a lot lower than mine,”
“No,” I whispered back. “Yours was really, really, really low.”
There were a few upsides to my dad’s gambling addiction. Like that he had accumulated so many wampum points on his Foxwoods Casino Dream Card – the great thing about gambling? Even when you lose you win! – he was considered an official High Roller and got a comped room at the MGM Grand whenever he wanted.
Which is how Mason and I wound up standing in front of R.E.M bass guitarist Mike Mills in the hotel check-in line.
“That’s Mike Mills,” said Mason.
“Who?” said my dad.
“Mike Mills. You don’t know who Mike Mills is?”
“How the fuck do I know who Mike Mills is? I know Doo Wop. I know the Flamingos. I know Johnny Maestro and the Brooklyn Bridge – ”
“He’s the bassist for R.E.M.”
“Is he big time?”
“Yea,” said Paul. “He’s huge.”
“Do you think he’d be interested in buying some t-shirts?”
“Oh God,” I said.
Which is how my dad wound up having a twenty-minute conversation with Mike Mills (who was in Connecticut for a celebrity charity golf tournament), wrote down his email address on the back of his counterfeit T-shirt business card, and promised Mike that if he sent him his mailing address, that he would send him a free t-shirt.
Six weeks later my dad is still waiting.
Mason and I were well aware that we were enabling my dad by accepting his offer of a free hotel room for the night, plus access to the MGM Grand health spa and a clam-shaped heated swimming pool with Satellite radio pumping out from underwater speakers so when you did handstands in the shallow end you had music from the motion picture soundtrack of Singles blasting in your ears. And if I had an Al-Anon sponsor I might have been able to talk through any misgivings I might have had about spending the night in a room that was bought with the money my dad lost on slot machines over the last fifteen years. But I didn’t have a sponsor, so I had a free pass (didn’t I?). And I really wanted to get away. Mason and I hadn’t spent a night alone – together – since I gave birth to Boaz.
Besides, my dad promised to leave the casino right after he checked us in (she says sarcastically).
Two hours later, in our air-conditioned suite with a view of the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center that lends a little Native American culture to the soulless money suck that is a casino, Mason was flipping past channels on our high-def TV while sprawled out on our king sized bed as I dialed the front desk from the room phone requesting they remove the bottles of Grey Goose and Southern Comfort from the mini bar.
“He can’t just not touch it,” I explained. “He’s an alcoholic. Don’t tell me you’ve never had a guest that was an addict call up – ”
Then my cell phone rang.
“Malina.” My dad’s voice was flush with happiness. I could hear the dinging of slot machines.
“Have you been here this whole time?”
“How much? A hundred? Two hundred? How much did you lose?”
“You lost four grand. Dad, what the fuck –”
“No. I won. Four. Grand.”
“Four grand?” asked Paul.
“No you didn’t,” I said to my dad.
“I’m telling you. On the Sex and the City video poker machine.”
“You played the Sex and the City video poker machine?”
“The siren on the top of the machine is spinning around.”
“Cash out, dad. Walk away. You can do it.”
“Oh, God,” said Paul.”
“I feel good,” said my dad. “I’m booking tickets for California.”
“That’s great dad. You can come out for Bo’s birthday.”
“Can we go to the beach one day?”
“We can go to the beach two days.”
“Can we go to Malibu?”
“And the Annenberg Family Beach House in Santa Monica. There’s a huge pool, snack bar, playground, a splash pad – ”
“This is so exciting.”
My dad let out a little cheer. “Malina,” he said. “I know why this happened.”
“Why?” I asked.
My dad paused for a moment. I could hear the tinker of gold chips in his hand.
“It’s grandma,” he said, absolutely believing it. “She’s up there in heaven looking out for us.”
art by Danny Jock