Chapter 1: FIRST TASTE
Forty-eight hours after I answered the phone, my world changed. The call was from Sara Shelby, my eighth-grade classmate. With a whisper, she said, “Come to a badass sleepover.” It sounded mysterious and I jumped at the chance to go.
Sara was a rebel, but also a popular and confident girl. Me, I was a rebel as my sister had taught me, or at least I thought I was, but I wasn’t exactly sure what rebellion meant. All I knew was it was the opposite of the Goody-Two-Shoes stereotype my parents wanted me to be. I didn’t have a place among my “peers.” Not yet, anyway.
Sara’s lifestyle intrigued me, being the exact opposite of mine. Her mother was divorced, scandalous in our small East Tennessee town in 1972, and she left Sara alone when she went out on dates, another scandalous act. The most shocking was that Sara sometimes hung out with her juvenile-delinquent stepbrother who lived with his father on the bad side of town. Jason fed Sara outrageous ideas, alcohol, cigarettes, and the occasional joint.
My parents knew none of this story. Mom’s blind innocence and naivety wouldn’t allow such possibilities to exist. She had taught me better than to hang out with troublemakers, she thought, so if Sara was a “bad girl,” then her baby daughter would surely run from such trouble.
I pleaded, “It’s a simple sleepover, Mom, with tents in the backyard. Anybody who’s somebody will be there.”
She answered, “But I don’t know Sara or her parents, Lela. I’ll call Mrs. Shelby first, to make sure it’s okay.”
With crossed fingers, I hoped Sara’s mother wouldn’t say there was no Mr. Shelby or that we’d be unsupervised. If she didn’t say these horrific things, Mom would assume everything was okay.
It was easy to fool my mother. I had done it many times.
After a short chat with Ms. Shelby, Mom gave her permission. Then she crossed her ankles just-so, in accordance with the Southern Lady Book of Etiquette.
“Go get ‘em, tiger,” Daddy offered with a snort, meaning nothing but his normal silliness. As his last chance for a son, he appeased me whenever possible. I worshipped him, but I’d learned to play him like a fiddle. And the music was beautiful.
Just like Mom, Daddy had never shown disrespect to his elders and couldn’t imagine I would or could. His head was happily in the sand, and, at the time, both of them thought I was the ideal, innocent young teen.
As I “played nice,” I searched for a place to put my rebellious attitude. Just as the search came to a precipice, Sara called. I jumped off the cliff and straight onto her bandwagon.
Sara’s invitation on that warm Thursday night opened the starting gate to a race I ran at full-speed for 27 years.
Marcy and I were lifelong friends, living just a few streets apart in our Swan Terrace neighborhood. Mom took us both to Sara’s house on that fateful Friday night. Sara lived high on a hill, about four blocks from our school, Catawba Middle. Her backyard was flat and green and still had lush grass for such a dry summer.
In the back, Sara’s mom had planted Tiki torches in a circle at the mouth of the tents and lit a small fire. She made cherry punch and a few snacks, happy to create the perfect venue for a teenage-girl party.
Burgess, Tennessee didn’t offer much entertainment for girls in the seventies. We had to create our own fun.
Up to now, fun meant flying around the skating rink, going to the mall, and other could-be-innocent activities. That would soon change.
I brought a sleeping bag, a flashlight, and six albums to join with Laura Cole who brought her portable record player. My claim to fame: I could recite every lyric to every song on David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust album, complete with the backup oohs and aahs. Everyone giggled as I sang my heart out, dancing and chanting song by song, all night long.
We took turns around the circle, showing our questionable talents. Sara’s skill was gross. Her eyes were bulbous in the first place and she folded her eyelids upward and pushed those gristly, bloodshot things out an inch farther. We urged her to do it a dozen times and, each time, rolled in the grass laughing and acting like we puked.
Lynne Westland had a stiff, black hair growing out of her tongue. We used our flashlights to confirm it; all ten of us took a long peek as she lay on the grass. Laura Cole’s talent was a convincing baboon imitation. Her extra-long arms dragged the ground as she lumbered around and grunted. Sharon Moore made the loudest tongue-cluck ever heard. Belinda Strong could put her entire fist in her mouth.
We shared our developing social selves that night, laughing hard and loud. Loud was funny, I thought, and I had the upper hand in that department. Daddy said people in the next county could hear me.
When it turned dark, out came a pack of Marlboro Red and a fifth of vodka. Sara had smuggled the contraband into her tent, transferring it from under her bed while her mom ran out for last-minute punch ingredients.
She dangled the bottle and chuckled, “Our own punch ingredient!”
I didn’t know a thing about alcohol. My parents didn’t drink a drop and didn’t approve of those who did. I reasoned it was because both my grandfathers were alcoholics, violent and abusive men who beat their wives and kids.
My parents had never warned me against drinking, never told me the gene pool wasn’t stacked in my favor. Maybe they thought I was still too young for it to be a concern.
I had seen people drinking though. The past Christmas Eve, my uncles drank daiquiris made in Aunt Jill’s Oster blender. The aunts drank Cold Duck and I snuck a sip of Aunt Jolene’s glass when she turned her back. It tasted like battery acid but warmed my belly in a sneaky and enchanting way.
This lovely, intriguing vodka didn’t smell like battery acid at all. It was a colorless liquid and smelled like nothing at all. The bottle said SMIRNOFF in bright-red letters. “Where did you get it?” I asked, with Laura leaning over my shoulder to look.
“Easy,” Sara answered. “I called my brother Jason, and he brought it the next day. He can get you anything you want.”
“Is it German or something, with that name?” Brenda Solomon studied the label.
“It’s French!” Laura demanded.
With her slow drawl, Lizzie Burrelson said, “Maybe it’s from Siberia becau--”
“No, you dingbats, it’s American, okay?” Sara huffed, with her hand on her hip. “American and kick-ass. You can get drunk on one little drink if you do it right. Watch me! Just pour it in your punch and drink it slow.”
A few gasps came from the back of the group. Sara snapped a look at Joann and Charlotte, the gaspers. “Relax, children.”
She poured a glug into her cup and sat back on the lawn chair. “See, that’s all you need to get drunk,” Sara concluded her demonstration.
My mind clicked into high gear. Get drunk? Awesome! If Sara does it, it must be cool. A second thought replaced this first one, and I froze in fear. Drunk? What if I act mean, like Mom’s father?
If I wanted to be the enterprising hell-raiser of the group, and I did, I must do the daring and outrageous. I rationalized; we’re a group of crazy young girls on a tear to grow up fast, so it’s natural that we misbehave tonight. But conflicting thoughts gnawed at me. Mom said just a sip could change everything. Could it? But it’s American vodka, Sara said. Doesn’t that make it okay?
My friend Marcy looked at me with wide eyes as if to ask if this was a wise thing to do. I could have stopped everything then and there, I suppose, but instead, I clicked a pretend toast with my cup. With a slight nod, I gave my approval while shaking in my boots.
Sara passed the bottle around the circle. Despite my fear, I took a double-glug and grinned at Sara, who threw her head back and howled in delight.
All the girls spiked the punch with a little or a lot. The giggles started early and increased as we neared the bottom of our cups.
Then came the refills.
The more we drank, the more we laughed and the more outrageous our antics became. We talked about boys, trading gossip about who-likes-who and what-they-should-do-about-it. Uninhibited, we created impossible tales of middle-school mysteries, building on the thrill of our changing hormones.
Of the original eleven in the circle, two wimped out and went to bed early. Three crawled into bed after the second cup, one more after the third, leaving five of us to stumble around the fire and act like fools.
At midnight, it became a party of two: Sara and me. We slurred jokes and made fun of the wimps who had gone to bed early. As she told me about her brother Jason, she tripped on the pole of a Tiki torch and almost fell into the fire. Then she crawled to her tent, laughing and crying at the same time.
At one o’clock AM, the party was just me. I stayed up and took the last sip from the bottle. It was my fourth strong drink.
Sara’s mom had put two buckets of water next to the house for us to extinguish the fire when we went to bed. “Be aware of Smokey the Bear!” she sang her instructions. Of course, we all groaned, but Sara’s mom was cool and we wanted to please her.
I repeated the chant as I poured water onto the ashes. “Be aware of Smooookey the Bear… bear-bear, lions and tigers and Smokey the Bear!” I sang a few more variations, laughed at myself until I rolled on the grass.
On my back, I looked up at the stars. A voice in my head whispered. You’re plastered, Lela Fox, and happy. Smokey the Bear and I were both happy.
With more rebellious ideas in mind, I giggled until I heard a shout from a tent in the back, “Shut up, Lela!”
Doubled over with laughter as I tip-toed to my tent, I stumbled, and then crawled the rest of the way, howling at the moon. I crawled over Karina’s legs and fell into my sleeping bag feeling like I’d found gold at the end of the rainbow.
I chased a repeat of this happy-drunk feeling for nearly three decades, landing myself in a series of jail cells and stumbling through a tangle of hellish circumstances.
With incredible luck, I survived, but on the way down, I had a myriad of close calls with death and a dozen brushes with the law. The remnants of me kept going in a turbulent story.