My father was the kind of alcoholic who lined the tabletops with beer cans as souvenirs of his weekend accomplishments. I was the kind of nine year old who proudly invited my best friend over to Dad’s place without taking into consideration that most kids my age did not have fathers like mine.
The Saturday night I invited Ezzie Johnston to sleep over, my father had been having a particularly productive weekend. The coffee table’s centerpiece was a beer can pyramid stacked twelve cans high, and I was in the delicate process of crafting a life-sized castle out of the cans on the kitchen table. I was precariously balanced on a kitchen chair, adding the finishing Old Style flourishes to the castle’s tower, when the doorbell rang.
Ezzie arrived carrying her sister’s My Little Pony sleeping bag in one hand and her brother’s Transformers lunchbox—which held her good, “only for church” t-shirt—in the other hand. Although a stranger might have thought Ezzie was going through a third-grade identity crisis, I knew the truth was that her parents did not have time to worry about who left the house with which sleeping bag or lunch box. I had slept over at Ezzie’s house, and it was wall-to-wall Johnstons. Only the oldest two of the eight kids had beds and the rest slept in the living room on sleeping bags. This might explain why she always was eager to sleep over at Dad’s place; his spaghetti-stained, second-hand couches were a step up from sleeping on the floor. Ezzie never seemed to notice that my father’s apartment smelled of stale beer and sweaty socks. She also liked to build beer can castles, which I thought was the most important quality in a person. Ezzie Johnston was the kind of best friend who somehow managed to fit in at Dad’s place even though her own was a church pastor who called alcohol the gateway drug to hell.
Dad greeted Ezzie in his usual manner, by belching her name and laughing. Ezzie entered as she always did, by tossing her sleeping bag and lunch box on the spare couch as though she were habitually claiming a sleeping spot for the night, and by saying, “Whoa, Dan! That’s a lotta cans!” My dad was the kind of dad who let other people’s kids call him by his first name. He was not the kind of dad to discourage other people’s kids from playing with beer cans, which was good for me since I thought Ezzie was a beer can creative genius. It was not long into the evening before my best friend convinced me that the kitchen table castle would be much more enchanting if we moved it to the living room floor so that we could crawl in and out of it. My dad assured us that he would have another half-case of cans for us to add to the castle by morning. That was when Ezzie got a brilliant idea.
As it happened, her dad’s church was organizing a recycling drive. Recycling was something I had never heard of, since we usually just made a bunch of trips down to the dumpster with our cans every few weeks once the neighbors started to complain about the smell, but the concept sounded thrilling. There was a contest, Ezzie explained, and the person who brought the most cans to church on Sunday would win a $10 gift certificate to McDonald’s. Well, Ezzie and I happened to love McDonald’s. In fact, we had planned to get jobs there someday so that we could get free fries. Clearly this would be the contest for us! Who could possibly have more cans than my dad?
Forsaking our castle for our new goal of getting to eat at McDonald’s without having to get jobs there, we started right away. Sunday was tomorrow, after all, and we had to count the cans and crush and bag them. But first, we had to convince my dad to let us take the cans to church—a hypocritical institution my father loathed. “Church,” my dad would always lecture before giving me permission to go to church with Ezzie, “is the place people go to feel less guilty about the bad things that they are going to keep right on doing once the service is over.” We had to allow time for the lecturing, plus the convincing and the counting and crushing and the bagging. To our surprise, Dad agreed straight off and saved us some time. In fact, his whole face became a Cheshire Cat grin as he helped us count and crush and bag. He thoughtfully volunteered to pick up his drinking pace that night so that we could win. But to really help us out, he staggered downstairs to his buddy Elmo’s apartment and collected all of Elmo’s cans. Elmo was the kind of alcoholic who was usually passed out by dinner time, but by some miracle Elmo was still awake and able to answer the door. All together, we had a grand total of 1,052 cans. It was a proud moment for all of us.
The next morning, Mr. Johnston arrived to drive Ezzie and me to church. Boy was he surprised when we told him that my dad had some contributions for the recycling drive. He opened the trunk of the van and helped us haul down the bags. Ezzie and I could barely contain our excitement as the cans crinkled against the staircase railings. That sound of metal-on-metal clanking was like our victory song. We knew no one else could possibly have 1,052 cans. We were going to win. We were going to get to eat at McDonald’s without getting jobs there. For the whole drive, we discussed what we would buy with our winnings. We could get 20 small fries or 20 cheeseburgers or some of both. Or chicken nuggets. How many chicken nuggets? This sounded like honey-dipped heaven until Mr. Johnston informed us that we would have to share with all of Ezzie’s brothers and sisters. That amounted to one cheeseburger and small fry each. But still, it was McDonald’s. It would be a huge win.
The senior pastor and his wife helped unload the bags of cans. Pastor Bill was a large scruffy man who I imagined wore flannel shirts when he was not wearing pastor clothes. He had the kind of beard that grew around to the back of his neck, so that he looked like the Bigfoot from Harry and the Hendersons, and he even had hair on his knuckles. I was scared of Pastor Bill at first, but then I learned how nice he was. He was the kind of guy who high-fived kids when they got their bible verses right. He even built an extra swing set in the church yard so that the Johnston kids would have something to do while they waited around for their own dad to get finished doing whatever it is assistant pastors do that takes so long. Pastor Bill’s wife, Mrs. Melanie, looked more like the women in The Stepford Wives. She was scary looking and also scary. I imagined that she kidnapped little kids from the playground during non-church days and stored them in her basement so she could French-braid their hair and paint their toenails. It was bad luck for me that Mrs. Melanie opened the first bag of cans.
The smell of stale beer flooded the church parking lot. After all the bags were open, Mrs. Melanie asked where we got the cans. When I proudly announced that they were my dad’s, and that he could probably make almost that many more by next weekend if she needed them, Mrs. Melanie did something that would scar me for the rest of my life. She took me into a special pastor-wife office and told me some bad news: my dad was an alcoholic, and he needed help. Now, I had already known for two years that my dad was an alcoholic. My mom had told me after the separation, and she explained that alcoholism was a disease that made people drink too much. I thought this was like how fat people ate too much, but who cares? Pastor Bill was fat, and he was a pastor. Did he need help, too? It was too confusing, but I did not have long to think about it. It was then that Mrs. Melanie broke the truly devastating news: Ezzie and I would not win the contest. In fact, the church would not accept the cans on principle. She explained that it is not God’s will to enable an alcoholic. I was too upset to ask what enabling meant, but I took my mind off of it by imagining that we could bring the cans back to Dad’s place and rebuild the castle. Cans could be uncrushed, right? I was disappointed about not getting McDonald’s, but at least it wouldn’t be a total waste; I would get my castle back.
The drive home felt like a funeral. Ezzie’s dad didn’t try to start a conversation about the sermon or lead us in a sing-along like he usually did. Ezzie’s brothers and sisters didn’t fold their church programs into paper airplanes to have an airplane fight. All the kids sat quietly with their hands folded in their laps and stared at their scuffed shoes. Ezzie had tears in her eyes, but she wouldn’t tell me why. No one put the cans back into the van. There was suddenly too much empty space, even with a car full of Johnstons. I felt more alone than I had ever felt in my life.
I didn’t start to cry until they dropped me off at Dad’s place and I was greeted by the empty tabletops. Dad didn’t belch my name. He didn’t ask if we won. He knew I had lost. Dad said that Mr. Johnston had called him from church and told him Ezzie was not allowed to come over anymore. Alcohol was the gateway drug to hell, and Mr. Johnston was forbidding Ezzie from ever speaking to me again. My father told me he was sorry, but I didn’t know why. It wasn’t his fault that I lost.
It was not until years later, when my dad became the kind of alcoholic who switched from beer to hard liquor, that I understood why my father was sorry. Alcoholism turned my father into the kind of statistic we are supposed to learn a lesson from. But even before my dad died, alcoholism created a kind of loneliness in my family that felt like a life-sentence at an empty table. I spent the rest of my childhood wishing I had never crushed the last beer can castle, wishing I could get that castle back and transform it into a time capsule just large enough to contain the nine year old who was innocent enough to think best friends were forever. I don’t know what ever happened to Ezzie Johnston, but I will probably always miss her.
IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Macrorix