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Nosy White Woman
Excerpt

Excerpt from Nosy White Woman:

When I finally stole a look inside my sister Hayden’s refrigerator last year, I was startled. Much had changed in the way of healthy-food-sounding alcohol. Hayden was basically doing her grocery shopping at the liquor store. She had coffee ale, presumably for mornings; apricot IPA and plum porter, I guess for her produce needs; pecan beer (her version of Southern cooking), and lemon hard cider; there’s your vitamin C. Also chocolate stout.

“What are you looking for?” she demanded.

“Is there any way at all that I can help you with your drinking?” I asked, closing the fridge door very very gently, as if I hadn’t quite taken in what I’d just seen.That’s my last-ditch way of dealing with her: try to be frank but also leave a little escape clause in there.

“Paige, I do not have a problem. I have been extremely clear with you about that. On the other hand, you unquestionably have a problem with trying to control my life,” she said—her standard reply to my muted annual or biannual declaration that she was out of control.

She always stayed on message, and the message was that opting for beer rather than coffee when she woke up was not odd, because our mom’s dementia and the stress of her caretaking were creating understandable extra drinking that would taper off, with no effort on Hayden’s part, when things got easier. Presumably after our mother died, which her doctors were saying could be a long time indeed.

Twenty years earlier, on Thanksgiving, I had watched Hayden nearly burn the sweet potato pie and then, evidently rattled by the magnitude of this near-tragedy, down a tall glass of Ravenswood zinfandel, like a child finishing her milk in order to leave the table. Of course I’d seen people drink beer that way, but it was startling to watch someone slam back a twelve-ounce tumbler of wine. Her eyes cut over toward me from the side, with her throat lifted and the glass tipped all the way. She was watching me watch her, and she wasn’t trying to hide. It was as if the lack of surreptitiousness could make it normal.

“Look, this is insane. You’ve really, truly got a drinking problem,” I said then, jarred nearly much by the essentially private nature of what I’d just witnessed as by the size of the glass. It was the first time I tried to talk with her about it.

“I do not,” she said reflexively, as if she’d been waiting for me to say something. “Plenty of people these days use water glasses for wine.”

“They don’t inhale it like cigarette smoke,” I said. “It would be even faster if you just stuck a straw in the bottle. Carried around an IV pole.”

That was probably eight thousand bottles of wine ago.

Spending more time with her now, one development I saw was that hand in hand with the drinking went her lying. She did it automatically, to me and to our younger sister, Carlin; to each of us individually or both of us together, on any topic or pretext. It didn’t have to be about our mother or her needs or anything with the house. She lied as a means of self-protection, to stockpile a little time or credit, to gain a few points that she might or might not need later; she did it to throw up a cloud of words and fuzz and confusion that might have no immediate purpose or benefit while she was talking, but, who knew, could come in handy sometime. She lied because it was a skill she still had, perhaps something that made her feel competent or gave her a sense of privacy.

Our mother lived for another two years after I saw the fridge of liquor groceries, and Hayden was her caregiver—a symbiotic relationship that meant she could stop pretending to job hunt altogether, and she felt entitled to budget the household money however she chose. She moved the two of them into a small rented bungalow close enough to all necessary stores that she rarely had to drive.

Carlin and I tried to make changes, but our mom was decent good care, albeit from an alcoholic. Hayden might go to bed early, but I also saw how gentle she was.

“Let’s get you set up here in your big chair,” she’d say, clucking around with shawls and footstools. “You want a snack? Want some of those fig cookies you like, with some lemonade?”

Our mother was washed and fresh-smelling, dry inside her diaper, wearing her special stockings to keep the swelling down. Hayden cooked Mom’s scrambled eggs the way she liked them, and she popped the tricky denture plate out deftly, then patted her on the cheek. Yes, Hayden was a slow-moving crisis, but the truth was that she never had a DUI and wouldn’t get behind the wheel of a car when she’d had a drink. (This was one of the sources of her employment problems.) Why should she listen to us?

She’d turfed Carlin out, when she moved home from Arizona with no money and no place to stay; but Carlin, who was mad for a long time, had gotten over it.

“No, I wouldn’t want to move back in there,” Carlin said. “I was always more conflicted about living with Mom than Hayden is. Besides, I’ve made a new life now.” She was even talking about maybe dating again—not that she had signed up for Plenty of Older Fish or whatever, but her attitude shift was healthy.

So we made an uneasy peace with having our mother in Hayden’s hands. Two different doctors told me that alcoholics could sometimes be excellent caregivers. And if we were to step in, where would Hayden go?

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Damages

Damages

Selected Stories 1982-2012
edition:Paperback
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