All Stories, General Fiction, Short Fiction

Family Traditions by L’Erin Ogle

“I have a headache,” I told Clark, and came upstairs.

It was nine o clock and the kids were asleep, and I didn’t have a headache.  But I didn’t want to sit downstairs and watch Clark get drunk on screwdrivers while watching old Seinfeld episodes, and then have to come upstairs and try to have sex while his penis stands at half mast no matter what I do.
It isn’t me.  I have no doubts about that.  It’s the booze.  We aren’t as young as we used to be and after the kids are out, Clark can’t put the glass in his hand down.  I guess I don’t care much anyway, anymore.  I just don’t want to spend twenty minutes flogging and sucking a soft penis then trying to stuff it in while it wilts and bends.  Then the excuses and the pity party. Having to make him feel good about himself while my vagina crawls up into my uterus.  Might as well skip the whole shebang, and head upstairs with a book, and escape.

I’m married to an alcoholic, and its my own damn fault.  Clark did warn me, after all.  The first time we had sex, he couldn’t orgasm, both of us falling down drunk, and then he got up and got a drink.
He was smart and funny and employed and attractive.  “What’s your catch?” I had asked him, lounging nude on his ugly red couch.

“I probably drink too much,” he said.

I can hear the ice cubes tumbling around in his drink from upstairs, and I can hear him getting up and down.  By the time I’ve read two chapters, I can tell by his movements he’s to the point where the liquids will slosh over the rim of the glass, and tomorrow the counters will be sticky with the spills. I’ll wipe it up while I pour the kids cereal and I won’t even be angry anymore.  I got over that.

I have a lot of migraines.

I don’t.  That’s what I tell him, I don’t think he believes it.  I never had them before.  I blame medication, hormones, and if he pretends to believe it, it allows us to both pretend everything is fine.  And it is.  It’s fine.  Not ideal, but what life is?

Sometimes, I can see all these nights stretching out before me, like I’m treading mud.  The kids get bigger but nothing else ever changes.

My mother died of a brain tumor.  She had headaches for a long time, ignored them.  Months, maybe even years.  When they started making her vomit every morning, and she couldn’t see straight, she went in and they found it, a grapefruit sized mass of rotten cells, inoperable.  She lost her hair and became skeletal in a month, hospice in two, dead a week later.

Even with the history, Clark doesn’t tell me to go get checked out.  He doesn’t even notice.

More often than not, he falls asleep sitting up in his recliner.  A glass in his hand, hand on the armrest, head tipped back, snoring.  He comes to bed at two or three, whenever the need to pee wakes him up, settles in, snores some more.
My mother died single, divorced after my dad ran off, after a series of affairs.  Before he ran off, he used to tell me, “get me a beer, kiddo.”  I’d fetch him a Coors Light and he’d pop the tab, and hand it to me.  “A sip for being a good girl,” he’d say, and I’d take a swallow of it and force myself to smile.  I’d say I liked it even though it burned my nose and throat.  He left when I was seven.  Then it was just me and her and my brothers.  My brothers left first, to high school and college, married while I was in high school.  I was the youngest.  “Daddy’s little girl,” Mom used to sneer at me, when the tumor took control.  Or maybe the meanness had been there all along, waiting to be freed.

Clark is a good father.  He loves all our kids, and he leaves me alone.  My first husband always wanted me to change, and he had a temper.  There were a lot of open cupboard doors and slips on the stairs.   Better a mellow drunk than an angry one.

My dad always had a drink in his hand before he left.  He wasn’t mean, but absent.  An outline of a person, chalked in.

I am careful with my booze.  I only drink once a week.  When I do, it goes down so smooth, I can’t stop.  I will drink until I’m completely blacked out, wake up face first on the bed, usually naked, mostly at home.  It’s in my genes.  It’s a way to control it, for now.
Clark loves it when I drink.  I get obliterated, and it’s one less reason I have to say a word about his drinking.  Also, I become much more fun.  Apparently.  I don’t always remember.  I think it’s better not to.  I favor Red Bull Sugar Free mixed with the grapefruit of Bacardi.  It tastes nothing like the thick pungent Coors.  I hate beer.

I can hear Clark stumble into the wall.  It’s awful early for him to stumble, but drunks deteriorate.  It’s a fact of life.

I remember once, my father ate a ghost pepper drunk.  Mom was out of town at her parents.  She took my brothers but not me.  That happened a lot.  His friend was there, had brought it, was also drunk, and then Dad started gagging and ran to the bathroom.  He stood over the sink and I followed him.  His face was beet red and he was gasping and choking.  Thick ropes of saliva hung from his mouth, and I thought he might die.
I was eight years old and I stood there, silent.

He didn’t die, of course.  He just left.

I hear a thud, a significant one this time.  I get up.

“Clark?”  I call.

No answer.

I can see my dad’s face, cherry rotten, tomato burst.


I go downstairs.  The bathroom door is shut, and Clark isn’t on the couch.  I open the bathroom door.  My heart locks up in my chest.  Clark is lying face first on the bathroom carpet.  His orange juice and vodka has spilled onto the cream carpet, making a shape that almost looks like a person.  I can’t tell if he’s breathing.  Always the goddamn bathroom, and I just washed this rug because none of the boys can keep their piss in the toilet.

I step over his legs, and the mess.  I squat down and put my fingers to his neck.  For a moment, I think there’s nothing.  Then I fell the steady murmur of a pulse underneath my fingers.  I lick my fingers and stick them in front of his nose and mouth, feel air moving across the tips.

I stay there for a moment.  Then I get up and go upstairs, back to bed.  I turn the light out and pull the covers to my neck.  Tomorrow is another day. Clark will live or he won’t.  It would be easier if he would just die, because otherwise there are lawyers and custody battles and the kids love him more than me, because he’s the fun one, not the one lecturing about piss in the toilet and homework and hovering, waiting for the first sign they are becoming their father, or their grandfather.  Am I my mother, a rattlesnake inside the skin of a housewife?

Sometimes, destiny feels more like quicksand, a downward spiral into repeating the sins of our families against each other, ghost haunting graveyards that we call family traditions.


L’Erin Ogle

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7 thoughts on “Family Traditions by L’Erin Ogle”

  1. Reading this was like swimming in the artic sea, cold and full of danger from floating ice. this may be fiction, I don’t know, but there is a lot of truth involved. Well written.


  2. Recently, I always feel like this asshole. Wondering if my wife feels the same way about me. Alcohol is a more social painkiller, which for a somewhat seasoned vet like me leaves me open to interaction. Painkillers do not. Still, I often get caught in the dichotomy of being laced with alcohol or being vaguely present on painkillers. Numb is a feeling I seek with alcohol, and achieve with pain meds. (Though I never take both.) My goal is to be present and numb at the same time.
    Still, you have provided an acute, possibly dynamic perspective- from those who empathize with all parties in compelling fashion. My main curiosity is given the speakers background, why does she stay? Is a change on the horizon? Is it the devil better known? There is a dynamic of failure coupled with success here. I must agree with the above comment, this piece has been expertly executed. I really enjoyed it. Not slow. Personable. Never bored.


  3. Thanks for all the comments!
    I think the narrator stays for several reasons-the family is dependent on two incomes, divorce can be financially devastating, it’s difficult to get full custody based on one parent being an alcoholic if there is no proof such as legal charges or witnesses other than the spouse, and despite her own father’s drinking, his absence scarred her childhood. And there’s the old fear-the devil you know is better than the devil you might meet.


  4. Hi L’Erin,

    I think all the comments have a theme and that is the realism that comes across.
    I reckon when you are writing certain subject matter, that word is as big a compliment as you can get.
    This is a story that has stayed with me since I read it and I know that it always will.
    I am very interested to see what else you have for us.


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