When I left the farm / To make it on my own / He didn’t take it well / Sitting home alone / Without me to disagree / The bottle started to win / It burned a hole / Into his soul / And cancer filled it in.
Alan Reuss’s understanding of what happened to his father had been best expressed by Johnny Cash one night during an appearance with David Letterman. The difference between someone who merely drinks and an alcoholic was “one drinks from the bottle, and, the other, the bottle drinks from him.” The bottle started drinking from Frank Reuss sometime while Alan was in college.
After graduation, Alan spent several years out of town. Deciding to return had been the greatest mistake of his life. He found a job, but what he’d stupidly thought was that he could do something about the collapse of the whole family around Frank’s decline. Alan was only a crutch. Nothing healed. The house was a perfect indicator. Inside there were holes in the walls. The shrubbery outside was overgrown. The old swimming pool was cracked and dry. An olive-drab pool collected in the deep end, turning the playground into a place where only frogs and snakes frolicked.
One day Alan stopped by the house at lunch. Frank sat in the living room on the couch, a quart of Heavenly Hill vodka half empty on the coffee table. Even by Daddy’s standards, cockeyed at noon was a tad extreme.
Alan sat down.
“So … Pop … what’s the deal?”
Frank stared at him, cockeyed.
“Back when me ‘n’ ya mama was dating and ‘Giant’ come out, I thought Rock Hudson was the biggest hero they ever was,” Frank said.
Alan looked at the television. CNN was covering the impending demise of the actor, who had contracted AIDS and would be dead within a day.
“Goddamn!” Frank yelled, the force of the profanity causing his whole torso to shake. “Come to find out, the whole time, he was a goddamned faggot!”
Alan looked at his father and pitied him. Even back in high school, he’d never been able to talk with him unless he was drinking. Sober, he was always standoffish, paranoid, and angry. Drunk, he made no sense. They’d stopped talking.
Within a year, Frank was dead, too. The doctors said it was colon cancer, but Alan knew that was overly specific. He drank himself to death. If booze hadn’t pickled his colon, it would have shut down something else, but Alan found some serenity in the way his old man died. He’d have never imagined Frank taking it with such dignity. He’d grown resigned to his fate and succumbed with the full knowledge that it was all his own doing.
Alan wept regularly at his father’s bedside. So, too, did the procession of old friends who stopped by, mostly to pay their respects but sometimes more. His sad plight hit his old drinking buddies hard. They brought food Frank couldn’t eat. One spent the night after passing out on the floor. Frank Reuss was beacon to where they were headed.
Death taught Alan the meaning of irony. Back in high school, Daddy had tortured him with angry accusations his friends never heard about “the great guy.”
“You ain’t nothing but a goddamned baby!”
“Well, I’m sorry, Daddy.”.
“You goddamned right you are!”
As Marty Robbins once sang, “The shoe is on the other foot tonight …”
Alan had gone off to college and become a man, but, by the time he got back home, his father was nothing “but a goddamned baby.”
Frank Reuss died knowing it, but Alan took no satisfaction. He just tried to remember the good times, and as time passed by, it’s mainly what he did.
TO BE CONTINUED