Excerpt from Smoke the Clouds & Drink the Moon
My mother, at San Francisco’s Ocean Beach, befriending a homeless band of liquored-up musicians on a summer day both haunts and delights me. It is 1995: Tom Hanks coins the phrase from Apollo 13: Houston, we have a problem. The Soup Nazi from Seinfeld makes his debut. The American rock band Grateful Dead breaks up because Jerry Garcia dies. I have just left Indiana to make a life in this enchanted city. I am Scorpio:drawn to water. Go west:my heart says. I follow its direction.
I move from the custom-built apartment above my mother’s garage in Indianapolis straight to Lower Haight Ashbury. My move killed her–she thought I would live with her forever. Her teary good-bye made me weep for the week-long drive out from Indiana, but I was happy to leave the drinking behind. Seven months later, my mother and her new husband fly out for a visit. On a blustery-cold summer day, we decide to eat lunch at The Cliff House and then head to Ocean Beach for an afternoon stroll.
As we make our way down on this Tuesday afternoon, a handful of people dot the beach. Although the wind whips through our coats, the sun shines through the Colgate-smile white clouds and the sea mist kisses our faces. We watch a family flying a Mexican flag kite. Their chihuahuas run circles around the kids. The sand is strewn with driftwood, kelp and trash. Still and always, the iris-colored Pacific Ocean dazzles this corn fed midwesterner every time I see her. Her sublime power reminds me how insignificant my problems really are. Mom and I link arms and walk. My stepfather of barely over a year traipses behind a few steps carrying two large blankets and humming Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds. I don’t know him well yet, but he’s pleasant and accommodating–clearly in love with my mother, as is everyone else I know. It is hard not to love her.
As we stroll, we catch up talking about my seven aunts and uncles. She fills me in marriage woes and pregnancy news of my sixteen childbearing-age cousins. She talks with her hands. Her enthusiasm warms me and makes me laugh. She is happy not only about having more Hoosier babies to play with, but also about being here with me. She was born to be a mother. She mothers everyone–waiters, bartenders, grocery store clerks, mothers with strollers–especially other mothers. People respond to her. She is a hearty laugher and name rememberer–I dream of being like her.
The afternoon rambles on with us laughing and talking. We write our names in the sand. Draw hearts and dance in and out of the wake. My step dad gets tired of walking–we are almost to Seal Rock. He spreads his blanket in the warm sand and lies down for a snooze. The guy can sleep anywhere. The sun darts in and out of the clouds as the day wanes. The California-plush ocean glitters and toils. We see a group of people ahead building a bonfire.
My mother, part moth (and Leo–fire sign) is drawn to the flame and starts heading to it. She stops and turns to me:
Are you getting hungry? Thirsty? my mother asks.
Well, yeah–I’d like something. Wine sounds good. Did you bring any?
I remind her. I don’t travel with liquor. Besides, you had two glasses at lunch. In case you forgot.
She whines. That was three hours ago. Is there a grocery or liquor store close?
Really? I say. There is–it will take me about thirty minutes to hike up and get something–
Perfect–I’ll just hang around here! I AM on vacation!
So I turn around begrudgingly, as I have my entire legally-purchasable years when my mom wants liquor. With or without me, she will live her life as she wants, and she wants to drink. I know I am enabling her, but since I don’t get to see her often, my twenty-six year old self makes excuses for the drinking. My future self will question the nature of addiction, and it will take me years to stop calling her an addict. That is part of the reason I left Indiana, my family. That, and I never belonged with Republicans to begin with.
I am gone for almost an hour and a half, but I procure the wine–two bottles of cheap red. As I make my way back down the stairs and onto the beach, I scan the horizon for my mom and step dad. The sun has taken refuge behind the clouds and the wind whips the ocean like a hairdryer on bathwater. The beach is now empty, but at the far end, I spy a group of people huddled around a driftwood fire down the way. I hear drums and a tambourine. In the distance, I make out my mother’s figure shimmying to some song I can’t yet hear. I wistfully wish I could be half as light as her on a Tuesday afternoon. Next to her sometimes-unbearable lightness, I am reminded of how heavy I feel, weighed down by thoughts, fears, bills, laundry. Emotionally-centered. Clairsentient. She is driven by action, by people, by kindness. By their stories.
As I get closer, the music stops and they clap and cheer. I see my mom hug one of them. The years have rounder her edges a bit, but her short, dark hair is as spiky as ever. She shuffles a bit towed the group, the bottoms of her legs moving while her middle stays still. I can tell that she has made a new group of friends and I am, in no way, surprised. I see her holding something –a brown paper bag? I watch as she brings it to her lips for a few seconds and then passes it to the person next to her. Instinctively, I cringe. My brow furrows. I shiver as I head toward her and move closer to the warmth of the bonfire.
As I approach, I realize that her new friends have bottles of magic they share with my mom. I smile, politely, at them all. She introduces me to the man that shares his bag with her. He smiles back desperately at me and I see he is missing his front teeth. I gasp. I am appalled that my mother is drinking after him. He looks twisted by the sea, cut apart by wave-break upon wave-break. Across the fire, the man holding the tambourine looks like his face has been misshapen by sharp rocks, long days without shelter, weeks without bathing. As he tucks the instrument under his arm, he walks through the fire and reaches out his hand to shake mine, I look down and see dirt encrusted in the nail beds. I do not want to touch it, so I look into the grocery bag I am holding, nod and look around at the others.
It is then that I realize they are all shoddily-dressed and dirty. Homeless grifters. I assume, for them, everyday is a workday without work. They are luxuriating in no mortgage and no children, no housecleaning. No laundry. No one cares if they don’t brush their teeth, not even my mother. The person next to the firewalker looks up in my general direction and says something cryptic, drug-induced–I am the owl who just witnessed another tree fall over in the forest of your life. HOOT!
My face turns sour–all I can say is HUH? and just like that, my wall goes up. All the sunshine leaves my eyes. Drug users are not my people of choice. Really, alcohol isn’t, either. I get judgy when I can’t connect. I can’t connect here.
As I look at her other new friends, I can’t tell whether they are male or female. Their faded, well-worn blankets hang around their shoulders as they sit on black garbage bags. One of the genderless climbs seemingly out of the fire, eyes drunk on smoke, holding a cigarette. He shoots a stare right through me. As my mom sings out their names to introduce me, she laughs as she tries to remember, making it apparent that she is having fun. She is with her people–the downtrodden, the misunderstood, the voiceless. With these people, she feels powerful.
As she leans over to kiss me for getting the wine, the whiskey on her breath makes me dizzy. I start to hand over the grocery bag with the wine in quiet submission, but I have trouble letting go. I wonder how they afford the drink. Wine plus whisky equals uncounted hours, uncharted days, lost years. Something about their unsteady stance against the working world tells me they won’t use the glasses I bought–I wonder about the corkscrew. By comparison to these people, my mom looks like an ordinary tax-paying citizen. Because she really is a beacon of responsibility. Especially with this crowd. She pays her mortgage. Manages to maintain control of her life, her finances. Goes for days without drinking.
But secretly, inside, I am fuming. Like lava. Like a forge. Smoke practically comes out of my ears. I want these people dead. I want my mom to myself, un-full of drink. One of them reaches for the grocery bag that I am still clutching. I have an urge to throw it at him. Instead, I gawk into thin air and hug the bag closer to my body. I raise my lips in the corners and nod. All I want to do is leave. But my mother wants to stay. She is tunnel-vision drunk. I do not see my step dad and my mother says he went up to the car to grab another layer of clothes because the sun has pretty much called it a day.
I tell her I am going to find him. As I retreat, my anger sticks in my throat like a razorblade.
As I talk to stepdad about my mom’s drinking, each syllable I utter tastes like blood. I imagine each syllable he utters tastes like the honey of new love. I tell him that she is an alcoholic and that he is going to have to do something about her drinking.
He defends her. Like a good husband should. He reminds me that they are on vacation in one of the most beautiful cities in the world visiting the person my mother loves most. What is wrong with a cocktail or two?
I simply can’t hear him. I watch his mouth move, but my ears fill with the sound of crashing waves. I don’t know if I’m mad simply because she is colluding with the homeless or if I am jealous that she pays more attention to the bottle. I just know the fire inside me rages. I am drunk on anger.
My step dad’s voice rings back into focus and reminds me that she is a Grown Woman. He tells me what I already know.
She has worked the same job for 25 plus years and paid the bills–without much help from your father. Yes, she likes to party–she loves life. What is wrong with that? She made some new friends. So what? Your mother told me how uptight you can be.
Then, he calls me by the nickname my mom and her six siblings call me: The Gestapo.
The name smacks me sober and I know he is right, I am a wet blanket, even if I can’t yet, at twenty-six, admit this. I hate him for this recognition. I want to be having a life full of fun, but just can’t let go. Someone has to drive the drunks home.
Upright? I scream. Sally is down on the beach with a group of homeless drunks listening to the stories that made them homeless. Drinking after a man with no teeth. Playing the tambourine to a song she doesn’t know. Perhaps she is planning her escape from social responsibility herself. Perhaps she wants to join their band. Perhaps she is ready to become one of them.
But I know this is not true. I have a flare for drama. I struggle with letting go. Self-righteousness clouds my judgement.
And so he offers a solution.
We can cut the visit short and head back to Indiana, he says.
And then I don’t get to see her at all? As if I could be even more furious. Not even negotiable. No fucking way.
Again, he denies her alcoholism and refuses to listen to me badmouth my mother.
Stop it. You can’t insist that she is an alcoholic. Who are you to judge?
Check her into a rehab center: I insist.
He chuckles. His laughter fuels my rage. I am water on fire.
He is a simple man. He asks a simple question. What can I do, Sherri?
And then I look up to see my mom heading our way sliding along like butter on a cast iron pan. As she approaches, her brown eyes shine with mischief. Shimmer like the color of aged bourbon. Sing with the music of the stories of others. She is high on connection. Although I know it is best not to argue with a drunk, I start anyways.
What the fuck mom? Drinking with the homeless on Ocean Beach?
Sherri, they are people too. They have fallen on hard times. They welcomed me into their party. That’s an honor.
I look at her like she’s nuts. Wait–she is nuts. Graciously insane, she smiles at me. Tries to hug me. I can’t be touched by her right now. I make my body as stiff as sun-dried laundry.
My future forty-something self will say that we are all nuts. That nuts is simply perspective. That nuts accompany liquor well. That I love nuts. But the twenty-six year old me can’t say that yet. I want to punish her. For drinking with the homeless. For dancing with the shapeless. For praying with the faithless.
I assume my self-imposed duty that haunts me: driving my drunk mother to safety. If I can’t fix her, then at least I can save her. In little ways. Again and again. As I have said so many times to her before.
Get in the fucking car.
I don’t usually swear, but my drunk mother has a way of making me. She starts to utter a protest but stops and gets in the back seat of my car. The party, for now, is over.
Sherri Harvey lives, teaches, photographs and writes in Silicon Valley, California. She holds an MA in Modern Fiction and an MFA in Creative Nonfiction. She spends her days pouring over words, galloping her horses, hiking with her dog, scaring her husband and drinking vodka, sometimes all at once. She loves to travel, and will go anywhere for a great story! She has published in Dime Show Review, Sunday Night Stories, daCunha Global, Animal Literary Magazine, and 3Elements Literary Review and Eventing Nation. Check out her website and find her on Instagram and Twitter: @sherricoyote