White Wedge Sandal
(A story about my love for an alcoholic father)
I listened to his ragged breath . . . my little body curled up in his arms, jolted with every pounding step of his run. My right hip throbbed and burned in pain. I wondered if my dad was still alive.
Suddenly, I realized one of my shoes was missing. A precious white wedge sandal that dad let me pick out and my first pair of big girl high heels. “My shoe” I whispered desperately into my rescuer’s chest. “I need my shoe”.
“It doesn’t matter,” he breathlessly replied as we continued to run from the morbid scene of twisted metal, lights, sirens and blood . . . so much blood. I closed my eyes and clung to him, tears spilling down my face as I mourned the loss of my treasured shoe.
Earlier that day . . .
The day was October 20, 1978. My mother’s birthday and my eighth year.
It started off like many other days. My dad told me we were headed into town, only this day it was to get mother a birthday gift. It was late morning.
I was a daddy’s girl and loved spending time alone with him.
As a young child, I was his ever-faithful companion, which meant I was a frequent visitor at many local bars within a 20-mile radius.
We always sat saddled up to the bar, side-by-side. I was petite and could barely yet climb up onto the high stools; my head reaching just at chin level to the bar tops.
I’d sit in silence for hours on end, carefully observing everyone and every detail of my environment. Listening to stories, the swearing and the vulgarity, too young to understand the conversations or the fact that it was unacceptable I was privy to them. The bartenders gave me unlimited amounts of maraschino cherries, lemon wedges and olives that I’d eat off of brightly colored plastic swords while sipping on coca cola. They’d call me honey and sweetie and everyone in the bar would tell me how cute I was. The men would give me pats on the head and money for the jukebox. I learned how to balance any coin standing up on its side – even a quarter, which is not always an easy feat. I’d line up perfectly balanced rows of them in front of me, knocking a few down when I needed to replenish the music. I loved the dark and dingy atmosphere – the smell of cigarettes and stale beer. Mostly, I loved feeling important. Like this was some secret society I was given access to. I never saw any other children like myself in these places, so I figured I must be special.
On our way to town that day, dad announced we were stopping off to see the guys for a bit. “The guys” were a group of his drinking buddies that were working at a local car repair shop just outside of town near the one and only car dealership in the area. The dealership sat on a busy corner facing the main road and the repair shop was just across the street.
Once inside, I was instructed to sit down on a tall stool next to where my dad stood. Beer cans were cracked open and the socializing began. I sat patiently in silence, swinging my legs back and forth in the air admiring my newly acquired high-heeled wedge sandals. I breathed in the smells of the garage. The grease and oil mixed with cigarette smoke made an appealing aromatic concoction in my opinion. I watched the empty beer cans stack up into a large pyramid formation on the top of one of the nearby worktables. As the hours went by, I listened to the talking and laughing get more and more robust. The sun started to get lower in the sky and it streamed in through the western windows casting shadows on the floor. One, created a long straight line, which the fellas jokingly walked back and forth on. My dad mocking a sobriety test, wobbling down the line foot in front of foot, arms straight out to the side trying very hard to maintain his balance. He declared loudly in a slurred voice “See officer, I’m completely sober”. The group exploded into laughter and I joined in eagerly.
The sun was almost gone when the guys decided it was time to close up shop and head out. My dad declared that he’d better hurry up and get the wife something for her birthday or else she’d have a fit – cue another round of laughter.
We hopped in the Mercury and headed the half-mile into town with intent to hit up the local drug store to pick out a card and box of chocolates. Next to the store however, was a favorite watering hole of my dad’s, so we stopped in there for “just one more to top him off”. I was happy because I knew I’d be able to get a pop and plenty of maraschino cherries in this place. One drink turned into several and when we finally left, it was night out. Feeling the pressure of the time, my dad hurried me into the car and we headed toward home.
Not far down the road dad must have realized he had pushed his appropriate drinking to driving ratio a bit much. In an effort to sober up, we stopped at a local restaurant. The kitchen was getting ready to close but the waitress must have sensed the urgent need for sustenance and agreed to take one last order. Dad requested french fries covered in gravy and to keep the black coffee coming. Together we popped the savory gravy covered fries into our mouths and in between bites I listened to dad tell his tales of life on the road as a young boy. His stories were always filled with magic and wonder. A boy of twelve, running away from his unloving family to be cared for by truck drivers and waitresses along Route 66; part nonfiction-part fantasy. My dad was a giant to me – strong and funny and safe. He did no wrong in my immature eyes. He made me feel like I mattered and without him…I felt invisible.
After devouring all the fries and dad downing as much coffee as he could, we left the restaurant. I didn’t know that the next few minutes would change my life forever.
Pulling out of the restaurant parking lot, dad pushed a protruding cassette tape into the stereo on the dash and turned up the volume. It was a recording of his friend Deano and his band, singing a cover of Barry Manilow’s Copacabana.
Over the car speakers, the drums and bongos began thumping out the latin beat, then Deano’s voice started in . . .
“Her name was Lola, she was a showgirl
With yellow feathers in her hair and a dress cut down to there
She would merengue and do the cha-cha
And while she tried to be a star
Tony always tended bar
Across the crowded floor, they worked from 8 til 4
They were young and they had each other
Who could ask for more?
At the copa (CO!) Copacabana (Copacabana)…”
In an eerie slow motion world, my brain registered every next second as if it was extended minutes in time.
I heard the music abruptly stop.
I felt my little body weightlessly fly forward.
Darkness surrounded me and my ears rang with a piercing, high-pitched tone.
I was curled up in some small place and my muscles wouldn’t move.
I was frozen in time.
All of a sudden, as if forcibly being thrust into real life, I was present once more - on the car floor, wedged under the dash. I slowly unfolded my aching limbs and began to crawl back up onto my seat.
The floodlights from the car dealership beside the road brightly lit the interior of our car.
We were stopped.
In confusion, I looked over to search for my dad. I saw his lifeless body slumped over the steering wheel. Upper chest and head curled forward. Face and the front of his clothes covered with immense amounts of dark red blood that was pouring out from the front of his head.
He was dead, my young mind determined.
I began screaming.
I screamed for what seemed like forever, when a man appeared outside my dad’s car window. I recognized him as one of the guys from the garage visit earlier that day. We were at the exact location we had started out that very morning on the street, at the corner, right between the car dealership and the repair shop.
The man pounded on the driver’s side window with his fists and desperately yelled my dad’s name over and over.
“Brad, Brad, Brad!!”
Pounding, pounding, pounding.
All the while I screamed.
Either the pounding on the window or my unwavering screaming, miraculously roused my dad and he started to move, groggily picked his head up and lifted his face. Not being able to see out of his blood covered eyes, he reached over with his hand and searched for me. He made contact and giving me a pat, hoarsely whispered, “I’m ok”. The man outside his window was yelling for him to open it. With his left hand, dad fumbled around for the window crank and rolled it down a few inches while his right hand tried to wipe the blood out of his eyes. He mumbled to the man, “Is Jenny ok?“
“She’s ok” the man replied. “We’re gonna get her out of there”.
The man then looked me sternly in the eyes and said “Honey, you have to stop screaming”.
“Frank, give me a cigarette” my dad demanded as he leaned his head back against the headrest. The man I now knew as Frank took a Marlboro Red out of the pack in his front pocket, lit it with his zippo and handed it to my dad through the small opening of the window.
I stopped screaming and sat with muted tears and fear watching my dad leaned back, soaked in blood, smoking his cigarette. The smoke curling around him in a swirling sea of white against the dark red blood that continued to pour down his face and chest.
I still wasn’t convinced he was alive.
Emergency vehicles started to arrive; blinding red & blue lights and screaming sirens.
At some point the passenger car door was pried open, I was helped out and escorted to a young man that I recognized as a family friend who promised to take me to safety. I had injured my hip & back and couldn’t walk without pain, so he scooped me up in his arms and ran.
The rest of the evening was much of a blur to me. Even now I barely remember it – stark contrast to the incredible detail I have of the earlier day and accident.
I was brought home by the family friend whose house my rescuer had taken me to.
I stayed awake into the early morning hours, curled up in our living room chair until my mom brought dad home from the hospital. He walked in with a large amount of white gauze wrapped around his head like a turban. It was guessed that during the impact of the accident, a tripod stored in the back seat had flown forward and on its trajectory back, caught the top of my dad’s head ripping the front of his scalp back with it.
The next day dad spoke to me.
He explained the accident happened because a car coming from the other direction had failed to stop at the intersection. He felt, however, that if he had not been drunk he would have been able to avoid the collision.
I saw tears well up in his eyes as he offered me a heartfelt apology and pledged he would never drink again.
My seemingly minor injuries were never looked at by a doctor, so there was no way of knowing that the impact from the accident had likely been the cause in creating a significant curvature in my lower spine that would later cause me so much discomfort.
Now, so many years later, this day is forever etched in my mind.
I’ve never again eaten french fries with gravy and any time I hear the song Copacabana, I get an eerie shiver up my spine.
My treasured white wedge sandal was never found, but that’s the least of what I lost that day.
My dad never again spent time with me like he had those years when I was his drinking companion. Perhaps it was the struggle of trying to quit that distracted him, or maybe he never completely stopped but instead had to hide it from me. My mind has never been able to sort the reasons out. It just wasn’t ever the same. I had lost my giant and I was invisible.
My injured hip and spine give me more troubles now that I’m older. Perhaps that’s why I needed to write this story – my attempt at releasing a memory and clearing some of its pain.
My dad has been gone now for 24 years, passing away from pancreatic cancer in 1994.
Despite all his difficulties, I have many fond memories of him; most especially of the years when I was his constant companion. He was an alcoholic, but he loved me the best way he knew how and oh how I loved him.
I still smile every time I recall sitting next to him on a high top stool in a dingy bar, drinking coca cola, eating maraschino cherries and wearing my high heeled, white wedge sandals.