Voices on Addiction: Jokerman
When my sister and I were teenagers, in the mid-90s, my family took a couple of trips to Fort Myers to stay with my uncle and aunt during spring breaks. After decades in Madison, Ohio, Clyde and Ruby had retired to the broiling Florida coast to escape the Midwestern winters. They bought a condo in a private community with white plastic boardwalks, a pool and jacuzzis, tennis courts, and a small bay with docks where residents parked their boats. Every once in a while, as you watched the water from the dock, the gray-brown hump of a manatee would surface.
My uncle was a boat guy. He had his thirty-four-footer, the Nauti Fox II, towed from a yacht club on Lake Erie down the coast to his new place of residence. He knew the upkeep would cost him; it was a freshwater boat, and the Gulf saltwater would corrode the hull and kill the engine if it wasn’t properly cleaned every year. So, he paid to have these things done.
My dad and other uncles called Clyde “the grand mariner,” referring both to his boating and to a moment from years before when he misread the label on a bottle of orange liqueur.
“Hand me a bottle of that Grand Mariner,” my uncle had said, at a wine and spirits store.
“Grand Marnier, you mean?” my dad said, leaning into the French. He punched Clyde in the shoulder, his voice going high. “Geez. That’s the first time you’ve gotten your booze wrong.”
Each time the story was told, Clyde howled. It was even better than the doozy from my parents’ wedding, where Clyde stood with his champagne flute, toasted the bride and groom, and wished them “many few problems.” As the oldest, he was quick to rag on his three brothers, but he always seemed to laugh hardest when he was the butt of a joke.
After settling in at the condo, I wondered secretly with my parents and sister about the state of the refrigerator: it was empty except for condiments and ice. Aside from a few fried shrimp while out at a local seafood place, I rarely saw my aunt and uncle eat during our stays.
In the past, I’d seen them load up plates with turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and coleslaw, like we all did, during holiday dinners at my grandparents’ house near Pittsburgh. I have memories of them, my uncle in a loud reindeer sweater and my aunt with her corona of red hair, playing pinochle or bridge with my grandfather and other uncles, the sound of ice clinking in tumblers and the hiss of a stadium crowd lulling me to sleep on the brown wool couch. As the night wore on, bickering came in spurts. “Goddammit Ruby!” my uncle would say, out of nowhere. “Oh, shut it, Clyyyde,” my aunt replied in her signature whine, drawing out her husband’s name like the mew of a petulant cat. But these spats passed quickly, and they always seemed happy to be among family. Clyde was a fierce hugger, burying my face in his chest, and Ruby often gushed sweetly about her affection for us. After they moved south, though, we saw them on holidays less and less often.
My family rarely throws the word addiction around. If we do, it is whispered. As teenagers, my sister and I rolled our eyes at slurred words and goofy antics. When we saw a plastic bag pulled tight around a handle of gin, we thought about the act of consumption itself, and its most obvious effects. Neither of us had much experience with substances, then. A warm forty behind a church. A drag or two off of a mentholated Marlboro. We were old enough to recognize symptoms of dependence, but too young and self-involved to wonder about its causes, the reasons someone we loved might have for seeking relief, escape, oblivion.
On long afternoons in Fort Myers, she and I strolled down the plastic boardwalk to the pool. Sometimes we saw other young people, but usually it was only a few white-haired, carrot-skinned residents, most of them older than my aunt and uncle. After swimming for a while, we would test our limits in the hot tub, submerging our faces in the froth until we felt dizzy. When we’d had enough we climbed out and wobbled back to the condo, flushed.
“My legs feel like jello,” my sister would say, a towel wrapped around her like a dress, her blond hair straggly with chlorine.
“Maybe we overdid it,” I said, thinking of the sign posted near the jacuzzi: a warning not to stay in too long. “Don’t pass out or anything.”
I liked the marina best when night began to fall, when the automatic lights along the pathways switched on and the dark bay caught the oranges and pinks of the setting sun: a smeary cocktail of color.
Most nights in Florida, we sat around my aunt and uncle’s ocean-themed living room, talking and cracking jokes. My uncle made margaritas and occasionally refilled the glasses of the adults. My mom didn’t usually drink, but she made an exception on vacations. Clyde’s morning irritability had melted away—aided in part by reruns of Pinky and the Brain, a cartoon about a mad scientist mouse and his dim-witted sidekick he watched religiously—and we all enjoyed his daily spike of good humor. He and my dad reminisced, hurling playful insults at each other.
“Remember when we were kids, and Dan put Paul in a garbage can and sat on the lid for two hours?”
“How about when he shot me in the knee with the BB gun? That jerkoff.”
“Was that Dan? I thought that was me.”
“No, you’re the one who strung me up on the clothesline.”
My sister and I smiled, our cheeks shiny with sunburn, relishing the fact we were a thousand miles from Pittsburgh and the obligations of school. My dad let us try a sip from his glass, just for kicks.
My aunt and uncle weren’t much for beach days—they preferred dancing at reggae bars by the shore at night—so some afternoons my family headed out, the four of us, and drove across a bridge in our rental car to the more touristy, crowded part of town. We sprawled on oversized towels, periodically wading into the ocean to cool off. My mom hung back with her US Weekly, saying she would watch over our stuff, but really we knew she was avoiding the unpredictable waves. She was afraid of being sideswiped, losing her footing.
More adventurous, I tucked my head, extended my arms, and gave myself up to the breakers. I rode them in again and again, until sand skinned my chest. I loved the awful thrill of stretching out on a swell and realizing I had timed it right, the wave was about to take me. The calm swirl of green below, the body surrender, the sense of peril just before I dropped.
Before moving to Florida, I know Clyde taught seventh grade math, became a school principal, and later, assistant superintendent of the district. I know he and Ruby raised my two cousins and put them through college. I know my aunt and uncle were social through their middle age, hosting parties at their home, carousing with friends and neighbors late into the night.
My uncle Paul would spend time with Clyde and Ruby during those years. In a photo, the three of them sit together at a table in a club or restaurant, or maybe outside; the background is so dark it’s hard to tell. It’s probably the early 80s. Clyde and Paul smile at the camera while my aunt looks away, also smiling. She wears a sea green blouse with pearl buttons, and dangling earrings like jade guitar picks. Waves of red hair curl across her brow. Clyde’s teeth are bared under his mustache in a snarl of joy. Paul tips a beer can toward his face, his pinky finger raised like an English gentleman’s. They look self-assured and happy and impossibly young—people leaning toward versions of themselves I’d come to know. Six gold-rimmed cans of Stroh’s sit on the table, along with two ice-filled tumblers and a pint glass. One can is half crushed and slumps against an ashtray, casting a long shadow across Clyde’s wrist.
I see my own recycling bin, huge and blue and packed with cans by Thursday morning. Not Stroh’s or Miller, but craft beers with artfully designed labels. Sometimes vermouth or whiskey bottles, green or brown, their contours timeless. I try to imagine what life would feel like with the bin only half full. A quarter full. Full, instead, of juice cans and root beer bottles. I think of habit, how far the word can stretch before it is redefined. By me, by others. I consider the distance between want and need. I think about diminishing returns.
One morning, Clyde took us out for a ride on his boat. It was a sunny day, like every day I remember in Florida, light blazing on the cresting waves. My sister and I wore bathing suits, orange life vests cinched around our necks. Seeing my dad’s and uncle’s brown, unencumbered torsos made me feel like a child.
After untying the ropes, Clyde slowly backed the Nauti Fox II out of its spot, engine humming and water foaming white below. He drove us through the bay into a kind of channel that widened and curved as we went. The ocean was calm, with only a slight wind. My uncle stood at the steering wheel, looking out at colored buoys lolling on the water, which demarcated the best path to cruising depths. I don’t know what lurked to either side of us—shallows, giant coral formations—but the waters beyond the lines were deemed unsafe.
Usually loose and jovial, my uncle was stiff at the helm. The salt air whipped his brown hair around, but his face was stern. I had the vague sense he wasn’t sure what he was doing. He had lived in Florida for years at that point, but I don’t think he took the boat out very often; he was used to navigating the simpler and less restricted waterscape of Lake Erie.
While I wasn’t afraid, I felt nervous for my uncle. My dad, younger by eleven years, hovered next to his brother, asking about the boat’s controls, other vessels in the distance, the nearest waterfront bars and grills. Buoys spun confusingly in all directions; it was clear my uncle wasn’t sure of the way out.
Eventually we circled back, never reaching the open water. Any disappointment was tempered for me. I was accustomed to the gray skies and landlocked hills of suburban Pittsburgh. The only water I saw on most days was in drainage creeks, or less often, the muddy, metallic skin of the three rivers. My uncle had taken us far enough to catch a glimpse of the Gulf, reflecting sharply, endlessly blue.
By American standards, Clyde and Ruby had earned their freedom. They had put in full working lives and achieved in retirement what many dream of: a permanent vacation. It’s not my place to guess if they were running, and from what, but I suspect after a certain point, we are all running. Life haunts, it keeps taking, and most of us are not superheroes. We reach for what we need, as we need it. Do I need this? Does it make me feel better? Can I do without it? Can I not? Is it doing harm? The answers are never simple. The answer is usually: Yes and no. No, except. Yes, but.
In most of my memories of them, my uncle and aunt are drinking. They are also bright, floating, full of manic happiness. I don’t know how to untangle those two sentences. If I’m being honest, I’m not sure I want to.
On another night at the condo, snipe hunting came up. It was a game my cousins used to play as kids, but my sister and I had never heard of it.
“You’ve never been on a snipe hunt?” my uncle said. “Ruby, they’ve never been snipe hunting!”
“What? You didn’t hunt snipes when you were little?” my aunt said, her voice reaching a siren pitch.
“No,” I said. “What’s a snipe?”
“You really missed out,” my uncle said, feigning pity. The laughter was already bubbling up in him. “You have to go on your first snipe hunt.”
“Yes,” my aunt looked at us. “Right now!”
My sister and I laughed. We looked at my parents, who smiled and shrugged. My uncle was out of his chair and headed for the door, wobbling a bit in his boat shoes, his Hawaiian shirt still riotous in the dim light of the screened-in porch.
“Come on!” he called back to us. “You need a stick.”
Outside, near the shrubs behind the row of condos, we found a couple of sticks. We positioned ourselves next to two large palm trees, as instructed.
“Now start tapping,” my aunt said.
My sister and I exchanged glances, not sure what the point of all this was. I began knocking the stick against the grainy bark of the palm, looking up into the dark leaves.
“Faster!” my uncle said, like an overzealous sideline coach. “You have to really mean it! The snipes can tell!”
I knocked harder and faster, sending a muffled staccato into the humid night. Standing there, I think some part of me expected something would happen. I kept thinking, What the hell is a snipe? I imagined a rare species of skunk or possum, native only to Florida. I was maybe seventeen at the time, way too old for kids’ games, but I didn’t quite grasp that what I was doing was entirely for my aunt and uncle’s benefit. I was a willing participant in a joke I only half understood.
My uncle watched us, chuckling, lapping it all up. When an elderly neighbor of his emerged from her lanai in a nightgown, wondering what violence I was perpetrating on her tree, Clyde came undone. He buckled over, holding out his drink and dipping into a kind of wild bow. His laughter split the night. I mumbled an apology at the woman and shuffled back down the sidewalk, followed by my sister.
As I got older, I learned my family worried and talked about my aunt and uncle’s lifestyle more than I realized. “It was their choice, to be down there,” my mom once told me on the phone. Down there being Florida. A few years before Clyde died, I remember my grandmother listing a handful of relatives on her side—uncles, grandparents—who were alcoholics. She was tempted to blame herself on the basis of faulty genes.
“I just can’t help thinking it was passed down,” she said, her voice breaking as she reached for a tissue.
We all reassured her genetics are a minor factor when it comes to addiction, though we knew this was a lie. My sister was several years into recovery for depression and addiction, after a heroin overdose nearly killed her. We knew about predisposition. I hadn’t yet read that twenty million Americans struggle with substance use disorders, but I might have guessed. My own slide toward dependence—in my case, heavy drinking—would be grayer, more workaday. Soon I’d be done with school, wrung out after long bakery shifts, anxiety-addled, and a six-pack at night would become a norm. Around 180 drinks a month. 2,160 drinks a year. Give or take.
We dismissed my grandmother’s concern, saying what we hoped would ease her mind. Now I’d like to take her cue and have the conversation she tried to initiate for us. I want to ask about that legacy of heartache, hear her stories of black sheep and blue moods and trouble, absorb more of what’s in our blood. I’d like for us to stop whispering. I’d like to tell her our family is most families.
But it seems too painful to bring up. She is now ninety-five, a widow for over a decade, and has outlived her oldest son by eight years.
The last time I saw Clyde and Ruby was in August 2010, at my uncle Dan’s house in Moon, Pennsylvania. The local chapter of my dad’s kin had gathered for a cookout. Burgers sizzled over charcoal, and my cousin’s kids assailed a neighbor’s trampoline at the edge of my uncle’s immaculate lawn. Clyde and Ruby were in town for their fifty-year high school reunion, which was later that night. It had been a few years, at least, since they’d visited Pennsylvania.
Sitting on the patio, I talked with Ruby about what I was up to, which wasn’t much. The year before, I’d fled Boston and was living back with my parents after buckling under the stress of grad school and a hard breakup. My first big quake, exposing fault lines that were probably always there and now waited for whatever I poured into them. She and I didn’t go into much detail. In an attempt to jumpstart my psyche, I’d taken up running, and Ruby seemed glad to see I looked fit and well-fed.
“And I love you,” she said, as if the thought followed naturally from what we were talking about. Of course, it did follow naturally: We are family, I am grateful for this moment, I love you, and I’d like you to know. At the time, such confessions made me uncomfortable, though the past year of sleeping in my childhood bed had beaten some of the young pride out of me. I managed to tell her I loved her, too.
Soon after, I chatted with Clyde in the kitchen. He was wearing one of his loud shirts, a black button-up short sleeve with green palm fronds all over it. In his hand was a tumbler with a red splash of wine, an indulgence Paul, who had quit drinking, wasn’t happy about, I would later learn. I don’t know how we broached the subject of menopause, but we did. My mom and aunts were nearby; they may have brought it up.
“I think men actually go through something similar to menopause,” he said. “Hot flashes. At a certain age things start to get weird.” He laughed. I couldn’t tell how serious he was about this theory; you never really knew with my uncle. His tone always seemed pitched on the edge of hilarity.
I went along with it. I always did. We always did. I nodded and bit my lip thoughtfully.
“Manopause,” I said. “I could see that.”
“Yes!” he said, and raised his hand for a high five. I smiled and reached up. But instead of slapping my palm, he grabbed my hand, clenching it, and held on for few seconds. “Manopause,” he said, and gave a little whoop of delight.
“You know,” he went on, “I think this is the longest conversation we’ve ever had.”
“Really?” I said. I tilted my head at him incredulously.
“Yeah. You never used to say much. It’s nice to talk with you like a grown-up person.”
“I guess you’re right,” I said. It was true. I’d hardly seen my uncle since I was a teenager. I didn’t discuss my recent crack-up with him, though it’s possible he had heard something through family backchannels. I sipped my drink, warmed.
“Let’s keep this up,” he said, grinning. His face was full and brown, and strands of hair clung limply to his forehead. He was sixty-eight years old. I think he knew he was living on borrowed time. Several years before, he’d had a liver transplant his body eventually accepted with the help of medication. The cause of his bad liver was unrelated to his years of drinking, he told my dad, but either way, on doctor’s orders, he was forced to cut back. Still, he looked fairly healthy, good for his age. Not like a man who would be dead in six months.
My parents and uncles flew with my grandmother to Florida to see Clyde, and to support Ruby and my cousins. The anti-rejection medication for my uncle’s liver had weakened his immune system, making him susceptible to an aggressive cancer. (No one could know or fathom Ruby would follow within a year, also cancer.) My uncle Paul arrived last, and when he saw Clyde, who was by then in a coma, he fell apart.
“Oh, my bro!” he said. “I’m going to miss you, bro!”
Paul hugged his brother in the hospital bed, saying over and over how he would miss him. When my mom told me this on the phone, my throat caught, and I felt relieved I wasn’t there. Busy with classes, already deep in student debt, I couldn’t afford to travel so far. Down there. At least that’s how I explained it then.
If it happened again today, I can imagine getting on a plane to Fort Myers, offering sympathies, standing quietly near my uncle’s bed until visiting hours end. I can imagine hugging everyone goodbye, leaving the hospital, and heading straight for the hotel bar. Rye Manhattan with two cherries, the first sip burning like a mouthful of wood smoke. My mind easing to soft focus, taking a grateful step back from the world. Then another.
As I write this—in truth, because I am writing this—I know the accident of my brain chemistry grants me a choice not everyone has: I can curb my intake of alcohol, separate want from need, stop. I’ve weaned myself off nightly drinking with each new day of writing, of reckoning. My body is shocked but functional. It seems I can do this on my own. And yet I know those trips to Florida, those raucous holiday dinners, those slips of emotion—that sodden, inescapable love—have everything to do with whatever strength and resolve is in me.
Hours after learning of Clyde’s death, I was riding a bus in Boston, headphones in, tuned out, still feeling the weight of the news. At some point, my shuffling music files landed on Bob Dylan’s “Jokerman,” a song I didn’t realize I had. It was from a best-of anthology, an impulse buy from years before. As Dylan wailed over slide guitar riffs and drum cascades, the words caught me by surprise. The song describes a trickster figure, born during a hurricane, who stands by the water watching ships sail into distant mist. In the refrain, the jokerman dances like a flying bird by moonlight, and Dylan’s vocals get warbly and crazed, reaching toward a place that is irresistible, ecstatic, wrecked.
It felt as if Clyde had thrown a quarter in a cosmic jukebox. One last gag at my expense. Another wild bow, another belly laugh in the night. Runny-nosed among the late commuters, I did all I could to hold back. It wasn’t easy. It isn’t.
Rumpus original art by Elizabeth Schmuhl.
Voices on Addiction is a column devoted to true personal narratives of addiction, curated by Kelly Thompson, and authored by the spectrum of individuals affected by this illness. Through these essays, interviews, and book reviews we hope—in the words of Rebecca Solnit—to break the story by breaking the status quo of addiction: the shame, stigma, and hopelessness, and the lies and myths that surround it. Sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, adult children, extended family members, spouses, friends, employers or employees, boyfriends, girlfriends, neighbors, victims of crimes, and those who’ve committed crimes as addicts, and the personnel who often serve them, nurses, doctors, social workers, therapists, prison guards, police officers, policy makers and, of course, addicts themselves: Voices on Addiction will feature your stories. Because the story of addiction impacts us all. It’s time we break it. Submit here.