Reckoning with Family Legacies at an Ohio Drive-Thru Liquor Store
Athena Dixon on the Long Reach of Addiction
We are the only car in the drive-thru convenience store. This is a place where you can, from the comfort of your vehicle, purchase what you need. Chips and candy. Cigarettes and lottery. Vodka and beer. We are here on a quick run—nothing more and nothing less. So, it was not a surprise she said nothing of my fancy European SUV when we climbed into it a few minutes ago—just ignored its insistent dinging when she forgot the seatbelt. She didn’t seem to care about the heated leather seats, the bright navigation screen, or the matching black rims and tint. The bar attached to the drive-thru is of no interest, either. Our destination is in and out with no need to leave the warmth of this space. My faux, big-city success means nothing during this weekend visit.
It is January-cold and I can see my breath as the window slides down. The clerk who approaches the driver’s side worries me. The camo jacket, the beard, the whiteness of his skin in the middle of Ohio is not unusual. But we are nearly three weeks removed from insurrection and I don’t know if he is an enemy or simply indifferent. But he knows her. From beside me she leans around, and he asks if she wants a pint or a fifth. This must be ritual. This must be daily. I don’t hear her, but he returns with a fifth and she balances a twenty toward me in fingers capped by long, curling, natural nails. I pass her the bottle in exchange for the money. Four dollars and sixty cents is the price for an icy-cold plastic bottle of vodka.
Imagine the 16.7 million gallons of spirits sold in Ohio in 2020. How this mass would crest over the landscape creating joy and sorrow in its wake. How it would wash away foundations and build a slope of bottles clattering across generations. I think of the liquor as slow—a crawl of destruction propped upon tradition and necessity. Whether it be long factory days and broken bodies scratching toward an American dream or keeping up middle-class appearances behind crystal glasses, it all goes down the same.
She relaxes back into the seat, the change crumpled in her hand, and we drift toward the mouth of the drive-thru. I can’t see her face fully, but I catch a glimpse of her eyes in the sideview mirror. An hour ago, before this impromptu store run, she cried when she recognized mine behind the mask. Her eyes remind me of my favorite picture—a close-up of my grandmother peering through her fingers. The family eyes, equal part round and almond, sometimes hold a yellow tint from alcohol. If I place a scent to some of these memories, they would smell like gin. Like quilted glasses filled with ice and Seagrams, the condensation falling down the sides like juice.
Liquor has been in my orbit since I can remember. Friends and family soaked and joyous. Angry and addicted. It’s made me fearful of sinking too deeply into the taste of it. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve lost control and let it consume me. I know the way it can creep into your days and spread like smoke until you are suffocated.
We leave a trail of exhaust behind us, bouncing a bit as we hit the potholes in the block. Across the street, I can see the shell of the factory where my mother used to work. Even farther down is a skeleton-like playground and then a junkyard full of car parts and metal. It eventually buttresses the rise of the steel foundry where my father spent his working years.
Above the rumble of the railroad tracks, the SUV holds steady. Its smooth ride is worth the money. The steering wheel is heated in my hands. It’s pushed off the cool memory of the plastic bottle so I can pretend it no longer exists. It’s an osmosis of forgetting. I loop the block back toward her house. I already know I don’t want to come back inside. I always mean to visit her when I am home, but it all feels too close. Too close to loose limbs and tongues slick with liquor. Too close to secrets I’m now old enough to know. Too close to troubles I’m still pretending are manageable.
I want to take a longer way home just to see things. Maybe they will be as I remember. I doubt that will be true. On the corner, there is another shell. This one a store where the school bus let out and a rush of people could loiter inside and out. We glide past it and roll to a stop across the way from her front porch. A glance shows the indent of her fingers fogging the bottle. There is no bag to buffer it.
The two of us lean into each other, cheek to cheek, like dancing. I promise to bring back a bowl of greens from my parents’ the next day. I won’t. I am ashamed of this lie, but it gets me through while I watch her cross the street and linger until she is inside. The lie lets me shake off the cold from when her door opened. It gets sucked up into the heat of the seats and I pull off. I skirt another corner, and behind the chain-link fence of the city impound lot, the vehicles are twisted toward the gray sky.
I talk about the alcohol as if I am removed from it. This is a half-truth. The addiction of it is in my veins so I try to temper it. I try to distill it down to something I can handle. What is left of the addiction is like vapor in my hands. There is still the potential of danger, but, somehow, it is easier to exist this way. It is cleaner to live in the distance I’ve put between me and my lineage until there is only a shot of the troubles left. What remains is smoother to swallow and better than what could be.
From here, home is a straight shot. I’ve driven this path so many times I don’t even know the names of the streets. It’s just instinct and landmarks until the driveway appears. I travel a little out of my way—a short block that adds only a few seconds to the ride. It puts a bit of distance between where I was and where I’m going before arriving at the intersection where her road crosses the street that will take me home.
This essay was published in the Spring 2021 Issue (Volume 70, Number 2) of Shenandoah under the title “Distillation.”