Chapter 1: On the Way
The morning after I’d run from my roach-infested apartment and begged my parents to save my life, Mom was on the phone at 8:01. She said she hoped to be first in line with the Admissions Office at Tennessee State University.
The woman who answered told Mom after-the-deadline student admissions were impossible – period, end of story. Yet Mom had persisted, working her way up to speak to the Big Kahuna. She had briefly stepped out of her prim-and-passive southern-lady persona and refused to take no for an answer. A half-hour later, she got her way.
“What can we do over the phone to make the admission process go faster?” Mom had pushed the Kahuna to the limit.
“Nothing over the phone ma’am, only in person.”
“What time does the office close today?”
“Five o’clock on the dot, whether or not you’re finished with your business.”
“We’ll be there.” Mom ran upstairs to wake me and tell what she’d done. “Lela, get dressed. We’re driving to Rockville and I mean now.”
“To Rockville? It takes two hours!”
“But you’re off today, right?”
“Well, yeah, but, Mom, I just woke up!” At eighteen, I could have slept until noon or later. I winced when I touched my painful, swollen eyes – the result of last night’s crying and blubbering. It had been the night I admitted defeat and ran home to do what my parents wanted me to do: go to college. A sudden and emotional transition from a drunk, independent dumbass to a soon-to-be-drunk college-bound freshman.
“Come on, get up! No excuses. The university has approved your late admission, and I’m not giving you a chance to change your mind. Up and at ‘em!”
Thirty minutes later, we had left Burgess, Tennessee for Rockville.
TSU was on the quarter system, not semesters, and I would start fall quarter 1977, pending receipt of the contract Mom had re-assembled last night. (I had torn it to pieces when my seventeen-year-old-self decided I was too smart for college. After my change of heart, Mom had taped the tiny pieces together.)
A better choice than going to college, I had thought, was a life in California with my heartthrob boyfriend. But just days before we were to leave, I caught him in bed with my best friend’s sister. Blind with rage, I’d been close to choking the life out of the “other woman” when my shithead boyfriend called 9-1-1, and I ran. Yep, I ran straight to the liquor store for a bellyful of Jack Daniels.
By then, Mom and Daddy knew I was crazy and fragile, knew of my Bi-Polar diagnosis and my struggles with it. And they knew I drank. They just didn’t know I was already alcohol-dependent.
Their pure and innocent minds had ignored my rebellious and drunk behavior. Despite my history, they could never imagine I would disrespect my elders. Maybe it was wishful thinking, but I had been a sneaky one. I hid my misbehavior well.
See, the disease of alcoholism had bitten me when I was thirteen, drinking beer in the alley with two albino sisters. That night, the gut-wrenching primal need arose. A visceral and relentless monster had reared its head and snatched my soul. I felt it happen and couldn’t fight it. And the bumpy ride on the back of this alcoholic demon had lasted five years as I had almost skirted trouble and trauma.
I felt lucky to have just been arrested once and only fired twice. See, I was what you might call a functional drunk. Then again, I was only eighteen.
On the way to Rockville, we passed the exit where Mom and Daddy owned a plot of land. “The farm,” in Browne County, Tennessee, in the middle of nowhere. I remembered one of the weekends I’d been grounded and had to go with them to “visit the land.” What the hell? Who does that?
Bored as crap, I’d spend the first hours hiding in the hay fields smoking weed. Once, Daddy taught me how to repair the fence and I reattached rusty barbed-wire, side-by-side with him and his muscles.
Another day, Daddy and I had explored the barn together, finding random shit I thought was cool. Like the rusty tines of a pitchfork, the handle long-gone.
While waiting for us in the car, Mom had rummaged through my oversized purse - the big, black hole, she had called it – and found four airline-sized bottles of vodka. She freaked out and came looking for us.
“Lela, you’re so young! Where do you even get alcohol when you’re underage?” Mom had asked questions like this each of the six times I was caught red-handed. Then I would be “100 percent grounded” for two weeks. Each time, they thought I had learned my lesson after fourteen days without using the phone. Yeah, right.
Passing into the next county along the way, Mom interrupted my reminiscing. “Oh, it’s exciting, Lela! College! Now you can start a new life on the right path. You can get away from those tacky friends, the ones who have made you misbehave.” Oh, if she only knew! I did all that on my own, dear mother!
“Yeah, I’ll meet new friends, but face it, Mom, it’s college and my freshman year. Even though I’ve lived on my own for a while, I don’t think I’ve finished playing around.”
She ignored my point. “I’m just so glad you have come home, Lela. Your dad will go to that slummy apartment tomorrow and pack your things. Sorry that I can’t go. It’s too… nasty there. And I hope you don’t have bed bugs.” She shivered. “Eeew! I can’t stop thinking about that!”
My reply was a sarcastic hmmph. “It wasn’t that bad.” I stared at the guardrail whipping past and changed my mind. “Yeah, it was pretty bad, wasn’t it?” I expected a laugh, a light moment of merriment with Mom, hoping for a new beginning, a newfound and more-adult relationship, but she said nothing, clenching her jaw.
What a whacko situation I had created with that apartment! On the night of my eighteenth birthday, when my parents insisted my curfew remain in place, I had moved out. The next day, at age eighteen-years-and-one-day, I’d became a naïve tenant in a crappy one-room apartment with neighbors who were the exact definition of what Mom called “trash.”
But my place became the premo party house for my buddies, the hard-core drinkers and druggies of Boone High’s senior class.
Also within the months of that summer, I had a… what should I call it? A sexual encounter with a woman, an older woman who wined and dined me.
Yet I thought I was normal and A-OK. The Invincible Lela Fox. “Normal” still means “screwed up,” right? After all, I was only semi-medicated with Lithium. The rest of the medication, the part that made me feel normal, came from the bottles found at Burgess Liquors.
I had faced the facts in mid-August. I awoke to the plink of a fifth of gin placed at my front door. It was a normal occurrence; a weekly “payment” from my next-door-neighbor the Roto-Rooter man, for letting him read my newspaper before I woke to read it myself.
On that fateful day, as if it would be a regular day, I had been getting ready for work, running late to my job as a picture framer and retail clerk. Trying to apply makeup through a veil of sweat in the non-air-conditioned apartment… seeing the orange rust-ring in my chipped toilet… hearing my neighbor’s thunderous argument through wafer-thin walls… watching a cockroach eat a baby fly… I had an epiphany.
With sudden clarity, I had realized that if I didn’t go to college, I would always live in a dump like that and trudge to a minimum-wage job. I’d burst into tears, and that moment had changed my world.
Suddenly I wasn’t invincible, I was stupid.
With my head down in the shame that had dictated my life so far, I had rushed home for an emotional reunion with Mom and Daddy. A plea for help in going to college.
I had come close to asking for help in quitting the booze, too. I knew I had a problem; the signs all pointed to addiction and misery, and it was easy to see I was self-medicating. But I had chickened out of telling the parents and they remained oblivious to the core of my plight.
Through tears of their own, my parents had promised to do anything possible to help me get into college, despite my past-the-deadline decision, despite my history of drinking, drugging, and cutting school.
The way they saw it, they had said, was that I had taken the first step toward a new beginning. It was a new beginning, in a way, or at least it could have been. The roadblock to change was alcohol, and it was one helluva barricade.
Mom merged onto I-40 West, now just twenty miles from the TSU campus. “You can sow your wild oats while making good grades, I hope. This is no small deal for us, financially. The Fox coffers aren’t limitless but I have set money aside for a four-year education for you, and that’s what I expect to happen. With good grades.”
“But I made good grades in high school, didn’t I?” Despite my drinking and drugging, I had kept a B average, even when you threw in a failing grade in algebra.
“Yes, you did. But college will be different. You must apply yourself.” Apply myself? Ha! Apply myself to partying!
I wasn’t quite finished destroying myself. Though I had refused to accept the blame, it had been a horrific five years since my first drink. In those years, I’d vacillated between cloud-nine happiness and subterranean despondency. When drunk, I was the laughter and life of the party, a magnificent cover for my feelings of worthlessness, shame, and self-hatred.
I still became pompous when my weaknesses were in danger of being revealed, still dared anyone to question me.
Shame followed me in a cloud, maybe because of the violent rape at age sixteen or maybe because I felt guilty over the petty crimes I continued to commit, or because of the pain I had caused my parents, or guilt about the easy way I dismissed people who didn’t agree with me.
Yet I had every opportunity to succeed. My parents were respected, upstanding citizens in Burgess; parents who loved me without end. And in my senior-year job, I had learned business management skills from two fine women who tried to mentor me. I had desperately wanted to please them, but couldn’t be a drunk and a do-gooder at the same time.
In the end, my choice was to be a drunk. As if it there was such a thing as a choice by that time.................