Who You Gonna Believe

Chapter 5: Back Home Again in Indiana

For all his many, many faults, Rodney wasn’t really a drinker. He told me he’d been drunk once or twice while at IU but that being drunk hadn’t really taken. “I remember sitting at a bar in Bloomington. My nose was tingling, and I felt like I was wearing earmuffs. And I was just like, ‘Nope. I’m not going to be like him. I’m not going to beat the shit out of my kid over a peanut butter sandwich.’”

Ed was the archetypal mean drunk. He tried to play it cool around outsiders. Pretend he was just your friendly blue-collar steamfitter in need of a cold one after a long day of pipe installation. But he wasn’t fooling anyone. The mean streak he fueled with domestic swill radiated a good five miles from the room-temperature beer can he was perpetually clutching. He didn’t prefer warm beer. It’s just that he could never wait long enough for it to get cold.

There were other things that Ed couldn’t do. Like respect a human with two X-chromosomes, admit he needed to see a dermatologist about that wicked spot on his arm, or live three and a half states away from a suitable object of abuse.

And so it wasn’t long after Ruth’s suicide that Ed announced he was taking early retirement and moving back to Indianapolis. I wasn’t surprised. I also wasn’t happy.

According to Rodney, it was Ruth who had pushed for the move to Myrtle Beach in the first place. I’d wager Ed went along with it because he thought it might shut her up for a while. Also, from what I gathered, Ruth’s bipolar depression took a more prominent role in her life after her kids were grown and the nest was empty. She was desperate to be happy. Unfortunately for her there was no one more poorly suited to help her get there than her abusive, perpetually drunk husband. 

Because Rodney’s disinterest in alcohol turned out to be about the only way he wasn’t like his dad, I am pretty comfortable speculating why Ed agreed to leave Indiana: A move to the East Coast meant that during Ruth’s episodes of discontent he could say, “What more do you want from me, woman? I bought you a house near the beach.” Then Ruth would have to be happy, and he could spend another 25 years avoiding the emotional work healthy marriages require.

The way Rodney described Ruth’s excitement during house hunting, and the way she relayed the story of moving day to me later, I’m convinced the upheaval took place during a manic episode. She picked out the pretty white house with the gabled roof and the pretty front porch that sat prettily on a quiet cul-de-sac because she “saw it in a dream” and “had to have it.” It was a gorgeous house, and it was only about ten minutes from the ocean. She’d read somewhere that the salt and sun would be good for her psoriasis. The first time Rodney and I visited together, she gave me the official tour. She gushed over how Southern the screen door sounded when it swung shut and the way the potted plants on the back deck could stay outside all winter. She’d explained how she’d painted the brick fireplace white to get the shabby-chic look she loved, and she showed me how she’d picked pastel colors for all the bedrooms. She’d even hand painted a dresser in the guest bedroom with cheerful daisies. The bathrooms were outfitted with embroidered hand towels and seashell shaped soap that no one was supposed to use.

In the living room along the wall adjacent to the kitchen, she’d decorated a little spot with brightly colored drawings and paintings. Some of it crayon art clearly drawn by a child with talent, some of it oils painted by a very skilled hand. Underneath the wall arrangement was a small table with a couple of scented votives and a school picture of a bright-eyed, blond ten year old. It was like a shrine to Jennifer. And though I thought it was odd there wasn’t a similar display of Rodney’s photography somewhere in the house, I didn’t bring it up.

Not surprisingly, though, Ed wasn’t keen to keep the house where Ruth had hanged herself—a place literally situated on a dead end. By June he had cashed out his 401(k), bought a brand new pick up truck, and moved into a crummy little house just outside the city limits of Indianapolis in the little village of Clermont. Population 1,400. He was within walking distance of Clermont Liquors, Raceway Pub, and the discount cigarette shop, and—bonus!—there were only two stoplights separating him from our house. Two stoplights separating him from Rodney, his favorite child to shower with drunken antagonism.

Emotionally damaged Rodney might not have been able to produce any tears after looking at his mother’s corpse, but it turns out he could sure get fired up over his dad moving back to town and pretend his wife had something to do with it.