3. Trouble in Connecticut

 

Everything changed when Cedar Lake Camp’s manager resigned and Billy aggressively pushed to apply for his position. Mom was pregnant and with my sister on the way it was only a matter of time before the trailer would be inadequate for all of us (the manager and his wife lived in a large house near the entrance gate to the camp). Billy was not viewed as management material, and he was passed over for the position. Instead, the camp’s owners chose someone who managed the nearby Girl Scout camp. Billy took it badly, not just seeing it as a situation where he needed more experience, a role requiring someone who’d shown more responsibility over time, but instead as a conspiracy against him. He angrily quit, which in effect meant we had to leave Cedar Lake. Mom was upset with Billy over this rash act. She loved living there, and she had never liked the idea of joining management. Sure, being a maid was hard work, but she could make the rounds at a reasonable pace while enjoying the beautiful mountain surroundings as she walked between the lodges and cottages. It was her idea of a real-life Eden.

But there wasn’t much Mom could do about the situation. Billy was no longer the friend, then boyfriend. He was now a future father and, unlike Paul and Sunshine, assured us he would stick around for the long haul. We moved back down to Big Bear itself, where my sister Katrina was born, and Billy took up bouncing at a true dive bar right behind Chad’s Place, the more mainstream biker bar in town. We moved a couple of times in those turbulent months, including a short stint back at Cedar Lake, Billy managing to swallow his pride for much-needed cash (steady work was still not easy to find in the area, and bouncing didn’t pay much), but it wasn’t the same and it couldn’t last, as Billy’s resentment was constant. Talk of moving back east, which Mom and Billy had batted around on occasion, took on more weight. Billy wouldn’t be far from his aging parents in Larchmont and his sister’s family in Boston, and I would get a chance to spend time with Mom’s side of the family, whom I barely knew, including a multitude of cousins, mostly girls.

And so we returned to Mom’s native Connecticut in 1980 to live the lifestyle that Mom and Billy, in their separate ways, had repudiated years before. It was another long cross-country drive, my sixth such trip: aside from our initial journey, we took a spur-of-the-moment road trip from L.A. to Key West, Florida, with Sunshine back in ’75, and we’d gone back and forth via bus a couple of years later to visit Mom’s family for the holidays, the trip featuring a dramatic blizzard and us getting stranded in St. Louis (I vaguely remember being on TV). When we arrived at my grandmother’s in Southington, Connecticut, in 1980 (Nawnie, as we called her, had divorced my grandfather and now lived in their large home alone), I was in for quite a culture shock. Turns out Cedar Lake and Big Bear Lake have nearly nothing in common with places like Southington or Meriden or Wallingford! Going from the quiet beauty and relative isolation of the mountains to decent-sized towns where you were just another in a pack of scrappy kids was a huge shift. Added to that, our living situation was chaotic, as we bounced between homes (and different schools with many more students than North Shore Elementary) before settling in a decent-sized trailer park in Wallingford, where Billy landed a good-paying factory job. Mom and Billy took out a mortgage on a large three-bedroom mobile home—a mansion compared to our Cedar Lake trailer. They bought newer cars: Mom an AMC Spirit and Billy his beloved Jeep Renegade. We were heavily in debt, but we were making that all-American attempt of working-class folks stretching for the security and comfort of the lower middle class, just as Mom’s and Billy’s parents had done, and which they had once rebelled against. After many years together, Mom and Billy married in Wallingford in 1982—Mom’s third marriage. In the traditional ways, the family was doing well. 

The deep problems in the whole endeavor reared their head fairly quickly. At the heart of it, Billy hated his factory job. He had moved to California to avoid just such jobs. Sure, he’d worked hard-labor jobs between the bouncing and rattlesnake hunting, on construction sites and in auto shops, but the cost of living was cheap and he could exist on very little (especially when he was living in the woods), so he was free to work part-time and come and go as he pleased. He hardly expected to one day be faced with obligations to support a full-fledged nuclear family in New England. Like many on the wilder side of his generation, he half-joked, half-believed that he’d never live past thirty, an implied suicidal tendency, but also a romantic mist obscuring the inevitable workaday grind to come if you didlive to be over thirty. Now the joke was on him: here he was, back not far from where he started, attempting to live the lifestyle that he had once disavowed—and it was even worse than he expected! He wanted to accept the responsibility and do right, but he was ill-suited to do these things. It began to eat at him.

Mom, for her part, didn’t like her new job, either. She had gotten used to being away from the constant social pressures of waitressing. Even more, if she did waitress, she preferred diners or coffee shops, not the more upscale place where she was now working to afford the family’s mounting bills. This new place was full of snobby or just miserable customers who treated her more like a servant than a server. Even in Tahoe, where the wealthy were common customers at the nicer Seafood Cove, they were there to play, to have a good time, not merely exist.

For me? It was in Connecticut that the anger began. Eventually, the visceral, paralyzing hatred. 

***

 

Guns were important to Dad, a serious sign of masculinity—strong men have guns and know how to use them, have used them—and his favorite, the gun I always associate with him, was an expensive Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum, which he bought in those dark Connecticut Gothic days.

400px-smith-wesson-model-66.jpeg

Connecticut wasn’t all bad: I liked being near family, and made some of my first lasting friendships, and there were some fun trips up to Tannersville in the Catskills, where I felt more at home. Broadly speaking, however, life was miserable and I was unhappy. There were many reasons for this, aside from the frequent sense that I was living on a different planet among aliens. There was the addition of my sister, Katrina, which put new responsibility on me as her big brother: I was no longer the golden child, the solo featured attraction. School became a bit easier after we settled in the trailer park, but before that I had struggled with the different curriculums, always ahead or behind, and being the new kid in the class was no fun, making you ripe for random teasing, something I had a hard time dealing with. There had been teasing in Big Bear, but the central Connecticut kids were rougher, nastier. Then, near the end of our stay, puberty began. But the biggest factor, at least what looms in my memory, was the change in Billy—or Dad as I now called him. (I don’t recall if he suggested I call him Dad, or if I did this of my own accord, though my guess is the former, if anything simply to not confuse my sister Trina; I do remember hurting his feelings when I didn’t agree to have my last name changed to Brennan: I liked my name, Hayes, even if it did belong to a dead man, someone I’d never known, a family I had no connection to.) 

Now that we were a family, Dad changed—and he expected my behavior toward him to change as well. It was time I started treating him like a proper father and not just a fun friend of Mom’s. I looked up to him and liked the idea of having someone I could call Dad, but that wasn’t the same thing as actually treating him like a father. The only person whose authority I truly took seriously was Mom’s. It was that essential tug-of-war that stepparents and stepchildren have in these situations: the stepparent earning respect and eventually claiming some level of authority. Authority to discipline. Back in Cedar Lake, Billy had asserted himself somewhat, though it was more a matter of him losing his cool than any consistent parenting. Once he threw me against the wall and I landed on the couch; I was more frightened by the sensation of being thrown, and his strength, than actually hurt by the flight. Another time he punched a hole through the wood paneling inside our Cedar Lake trailer. He’d caught me in a lie—lying and not paying attention (i.e., not taking him seriously enough) were his triggers—and he put his giant fist through that cheap wood-paneling wall within inches of my head. He hit it so hard that it actually made a convex dent, somewhat in the shape of a fist, in the trailer’s exterior aluminum paneling. Later, fixing the hole and the dent, he spoke kindly to me, apologetic and conciliatory, but with the “look what you make me do when you do the wrong thing” conversation, the go-to guilt trip for the alpha male. Really, the incident, as I remember it, seemed to serve as a warning shot: you better start taking me seriously and do what you’re told or next time it won’t be a wall. But these instances weren’t common. Really, considering how often Dad was drunk, and his rowdy nature, it’s surprising he wasn’t more violent at times. Underlying this struggle for power and authority that came to a head now in Connecticut, where Dad attempted to become more consistent, was the fact that my own father was gone and never to return, so there was no sharing of the father’s authority: he demanded it absolutely. And for that very same reason I fought it, first outwardly, and then only inwardly.

Dad’s main method of gaining authority over me was rough teasing, jokes that weren’t jokes, or at least not merely jokes, a sophisticated form of behavioral manipulation, as callous as it can be effective. He could be very kind and considerate in his way, and extremely protective when it came to outsiders, but that didn’t mean he wouldn’t tease you about even the most sensitive topics. The worst part of this, as I recall, were the mood swings, or moments when everything seemed good and you’d feel a lot of love and then suddenly he’d make a cutting, nasty comment. It’s when you reveal the softest part of your belly that the knife comes out. For him, this was how men behaved. It was what he respected. He didn’t want a crybaby for a son (he supported my eager bid to play Pop Warner football, despite Mom’s serious reservations and his own deep-seated antipathy toward team sports, because he figured it would toughen me up). He’d also make me feel guilty: my disobedience was hurting the family, setting a bad example for my sister, making him angry at work, etc. Of course, as I got older, I thought the hypocrisy here was exceptional: after all, Dad loved to tell stories about thumbing your nose at authority figures! 

 Flipping off Dad in our trailer in Wallingford, Connecticut, 1983.

Flipping off Dad in our trailer in Wallingford, Connecticut, 1983.

Dad’s dislike of his job only made matters worse. He got embroiled in a serious feud with his foreman. He believed his boss was abusing his managerial power and out to get him, a common theme for Dad. The abuses had gone on for months, with every day bringing new stories of inconsideration, personal digs, outright belittlement. His work-anger grew into work-rage, and he took that out on us: needling insults, even more unpredictable and erratic mood swings, which in turn were imposed upon my own moods, the family’s moods, like being in the middle of a rock concert crowd (he’d later be diagnosed with bipolar disorder, an affliction my sister must also contend with). Sometimes I felt like he was toying with me simply for his own amusement. Always a heavy drinker, Dad drank more, and he pretty much became an asshole more often than not. There were constant arguments between Mom and him about money, parental responsibilities, partying. I started having recurrent nightmares where Dad would hurt, torture, and/or kill me: knives, guns, fists. It pains me to recall how much I couldn’t stand him, and was scared of him, back in the later stages of the Wallingford trailer park. I came to believe he just didn’t like me at all (never mind love me), that he viewed the family as a form of imprisonment, since his miserable job, as he frequently reminded us, was required for the sake of the family, and that, more generally, the only reason he tolerated the whole arrangement was because of Trina, his true flesh and blood. I’m not saying these feelings were fair. I’m also not saying they were unfair. It was how I felt. Seeing that, for better of worse, he was there for good—others had left, so perhaps I never really believed Billy would stay—I hoped for this father what had already happened to my biological father: I hoped he’d die. 

***

 

Dad’s work troubles escalated. One day, after calling in sick, Dad did some day-drinking. In a moment of clarity, he decided it was time to go and shoot his boss. While driving to the factory, however, Dad was pulled over for drunk driving, which back then didn’t automatically result in a visit to jail: it was the loaded handgun in the Jeep that got him arrested. We had to go and bail him out. They confiscated the gun, a .32 pistol, I believe. Not long after, he bought the .357 to replace the gun the cops had taken from him. It was a giant gleaming silver revolver, heavy, at once menacing and attractive. Somehow this newer, bigger firearm to replace the seized gun made him feel good. It was a symbol of strength, freedom, a sort of equalizer for his work- and life-related powerlessness. Dad had a couple of other guns, rifles he used for hunting and which saw little action after we left California, but this new .357 was different: it was nothing less than a source of true pride for Dad. All this mystified me. I just saw a threat. 

But the new gun didn’t ameliorate Dad’s problems. At home, his dissatisfaction was constant. He drank and watched TV. He wanted to be left alone, or he simply didn’t come home at all. His and Mom’s relationship became seriously strained after he got in touch with a high school sweetheart down in Westchester County and started having an affair with her. At one point, he left us to stay with her. My anger turned into a conflicted but nasty hatred—obviously, I’d wished him gone, but then again I didn’t want him gone, not really. I just wanted him to be like he was before. I felt like he blamed us, blamed Mom, blamed me for his own self-centered actions. I remember Mom weeping on the ground, heartbroken, talking to one of her sisters on the phone. I despised Billy for what he was doing to her. He returned and they patched things up, though his fidelity was suspect, and his relationship with Mom remained tense, but now I felt a deep distrust of him, something I would never lose. Then Dad got sick. 

This wasn’t the first time he’d gotten ill with acute pancreatitis. Back in California, before moving up to Big Bear, he’d gone to the emergency room with it. The doctors there had told him if he continued to abuse drugs and alcohol, he’d kill himself. Dad did ease up—instead of pot, heroin, acid, peyote, pints of Jack Daniels, pills, coke, etc., he’d winnowed it down to cases of Budweiser. Besides, doctors (especially “head-doctors”) were second only to cops when it came to people you can’t trust: they were just trying to control you, using arguments about health and well-being to make you conform, make you a good, obedient wage-slave. Now in Connecticut he had another serious pancreatitis flare-up and was in the hospital for a week. 

Not long after he returned home from the hospital, Mom and Dad sat me down and talked about returning to California. I had mixed feelings. True, I remembered being much happier in Big Bear. On the other hand, I would lose my friends in the trailer park, and I was starting to get used to the area. And I liked being near family. Still, Big Bear—I had warming memories of the tall pines and cedars, their branches sagging under the weight of freshly fallen snow, the perfect blue sky above—sounded appealing and I supported it.

Mom quit her job and we sold the mobile home. We were nearing the move when Dad ended up back in the hospital—he hadn’t stopped drinking—but this time it was much worse. He was in the ICU for six weeks. He was fighting for his life. The doctors told us he could die. We made frequent trips to the hospital, where we saw him far too pale, rapidly losing weight. The smells and sounds of the hospital, where we spent hours upon hours, were awful. As you might expect, it’s a bit severe when you wish someone dead and then, there they are, sitting in a hospital bed, perhaps the last time you’ll see them. I felt guilty—with good reason!—especially around Trina, who was too young to know anything different, terrified and confused by Dad’s sickness. To exacerbate the guilt, the anger and resentment were still there and Dad knew it. At one point, the worst point where it looked like he was about to die—he was thirty-two at the time, not far past the life expectancy that he and many of his generation had romanticized as the end of youth, ergo the end of life—I remember him being apologetic, saying that he loved me, telling me that if anything happened I’d have to be the man of the house. He said he believed in me, that he knew I could do it. 

Dad survived the ordeal, but he would never be physically whole again. He’d have chronic pain, sometimes so agonizing that he’d yell out. He’d develop addictions to painkillers, which could as much inflame his condition as provide him small reprieves of relief. He’d have trouble holding down work, sometimes completely incapacitated. And he’d have a strict, tasteless diet, a grim parody of the joys of a good meal. He returned from the hospital and we moved back in with my grandmother for a few months while Dad recuperated. Then, in December of 1984, when I was thirteen, we packed up the U-Haul and started our drive back west. I was no longer the happy, lively, outgoing kid who had left California, but instead a deeply taciturn and depressed teenager, in the midst of real family turmoil, entirely unsure of himself and where he stood in the world. But I was optimistic that the future would be better. 

 

Previous  |  Next