Happy Times vs. The Power of Shame, Part One

Two of the central themes of my personal story are abandonment and abuse, where a sense of shame arose from situations or conditions particularly caused by my dad’s inadequacy to provide a wholesome and affirming family structure. Vast lapses of responsibility were common for my dad.  He was an alcoholic, and it seemed whenever good things came to our family–a good job for my dad, a respectable place to live, a reliable car, personal possessions–they were often taken away without warning, as though by a strong, unannounced shift of wind.

Although my story is packed with unscrupulous situations, happy moments did exist, but they lived in a long, broad shadow cast by bad times and the shameful feelings they generated. After I turned sixteen, a stretch of two years occurred in which I lived with my sister. Dad was out of the picture, and I discovered what it was like to breathe fresher air, to get my creative footing and to figure out who I was meant to be without feeling embarrassed by, or ashamed of, my dad or my living situation.  For the first time, I had the chance to see what life was like outside of the shadow.  Getting to that point, however, was quite a journey.

The following excerpt, quoted from my book Security Bound, shows what I’m talking about (another excerpt will be posted in “Happy Times vs. The Power of Shame, Part Two”).  For about six months in 1958, my dad, mother and I lived in Tulsa, Oklahoma.  We had moved there from Denver so my mother could be better treated for the cancer that had invaded her body.  One evening, with my mother in the hospital, Dad took me to the movies, “to get our minds off things.” Unfortunately, a bar was near the theatre, and Dad decided to pop in for a beer, first. He wound up sending me to the theater alone.  When the movies (Boys Town and Way Out West) were over, I returned to the bar only to discover that Dad had left sometime earlier.

“Excuse me,” I said, trying to get the bartender’s attention. “Excuse me. Mister?”

“Hey, Kid! Didn’t expect to see you again.”

I was glad the bartender remembered me from before.

“Do you know if my dad is still here? Maybe in the bathroom?”

“Your daddy left a long time ago, kid. Sorry…You know, you shouldn’t be in here on your own,” he said, wiping hands on a stained apron. “Do you think your daddy‘s comin’ back for ya?”

“I didn’t know he was gone. I’ve been to the movies. He was supposed to meet me there.”

The bartender rang up a sale, and I caught his reflection looking at me from the long mirror behind the bar.

“I suppose I could give you a ride,” he said, counting change. “But you’d have to wait till after I close her up.”

When he glanced at the roman-numeral clock hovering on the mirror above his head, I checked the time on the wristwatch Grandma had mailed me for my tenth birthday, last December. I was surprised to find my watch was fifteen minutes slow and re-set it.

“That’s a couple hours from now, though,” the bartender said.

I looked around the smoky room, deciding what to do. Six customers were seated at the bar. A couple that I recognized from earlier in the evening still huddled in a dark corner booth.

“So what do you think?” he asked me.

“Thanks anyway, but I know how to get home.” I slipped off the barstool and headed into the night.

The door swung shut behind me, cutting off the bartender in the middle of saying that he’d be there if I changed my mind. A surge of blood flushed to my head, a bitter taste filled my throat. Standing outside the door, I realized Dad had left without me–just like those times when we lived in California…

     — Excerpt from Chapter 15, “Boys Town,” from Security Bound

“Happy Times vs. The Power of Shame, Part two,” in a day or two…


About Ken Lutes

Ken Lutes brings his background in memoir and fiction writing to his work at the North Denver Tribune (northdenvertribune.com). He enjoys interviewing his neighbors in Northwest Denver, where he has lived since 1999. After hours you will find him playing hot gypsy guitar with the Paris Swing Set band.
This entry was posted in Memoir, My memoir, Philosophy of writing, Security Bound, Why we write and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Happy Times vs. The Power of Shame, Part One

  1. luministblog says:

    So poignant. I’m there with you in the story. Thanks for writing.

  2. LindaG says:

    Oh ugh, but thanks. I still hold my breath as I walk past moldy old bars with that terrible stale beer smell. Reminds me of Saturdays parked on a bar stool sipping Shirley Temples as my dad got totally wasted in my presence…

    • Ken Lutes says:

      Thank you for reading. It’s a shame that our childhoods have this in common. For me, it was a Hopalong Cassidy (the boy’s version of a Shirley Temple).

  3. suecarolrobinson says:

    Bravo! I’m reading Mark Doty’s memoir, Firebird. Such power in owning the past. And bravery.

  4. It’s eye-popping, isn’t it, Ken, how many of us suffer from saloon abandonment. You capture the feeling beautifully. Solid dialogue. As I read your excerpt, I naturally recalled all of those times when, as a preteen, I was left spinning and spinning on an out-of-way bar stool, while my father led — not joined in, but led — one Irish Rovers song after another. I was thinking, as I got to the end of your excerpt, if only we’d been abandoned in the same saloon; we might have turned to each other and said, “Hey, let’s get out of here.”

    • Ken Lutes says:

      It’s incredible how universal stool-spinning is. I’m doing that in an earlier part of the chapter. Thanks for your comment, Ray, and the kind words regarding dialog.

  5. Lia Woodall says:

    Hi Ken, I’m enjoying these posts, the combination of exposition about the book project and the actual excerpts from Security Bound. I just read this one now and it reminded me (a bit) of one of the poems we looked at in Mark Doty’s craft talk this past weekend. Shore Leave by Lynda Hull. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/browse/153/2#!/20601816/1 I’m still spinning from it. And your powerful story echoed how I felt.

    • Ken Lutes says:

      Thanks, Lia, for keeping up with my project. And thanks for the link to the poem. What does it say about our culture that so many children share the commonality of Shirley Temples, Hopalong Cassidys and stool-spinning in bars while a parent got shit-faced?

  6. Thanks for following my blog Ken. Good luck with your revision. From what I read here, it will be a very good read. -Mimi

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