Book Excerpt: 'Lit' by Mary Karr

Photo: Book Excerpt: Lit, by Mary KarrCourtesy HarperCollins Publishers
Mary Karr's latest memoir, "Lit," tells the story of her struggle with alcoholism.

Excerpt appears courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers

Before the rehearsal dinner, I'm lying in a shampoo chair with my head in the black sink, neck arched upward in a perfect position to have my throat cut, and I catch a distant whiff of marijuana.

Mother, I think.

With that single word, an unease comes shimmering into my solar plexus. My stylist, Richard, who's been vigorously scrubbing my scalp, twists my soapy hair into a unicorn horn, saying, Maybe you should wear it like this down the aisle. I interrupt him, rising up. Do you smell that? I say.

What? he says.

Pot, I say.

Lifting his nose in the air, he gives a stuffed-up snuffle, then says, Allergies.

It's dusk, and I've warned Richard and his beautician colleague Curtis in advance not to offer Mother and me their usual convivial glass of wine. Twice.

Reluctantly, I lie back down, but some engine of vigilance has been kick-started in my middle, and it's starting to rumble. I say, Curtis wouldn't give her marijuana. Curtis can't afford marijuana, Richard says, adding, It's probably floating up from the alley.

And with that, I tell him how -- visiting me once at college -- Mother got gunched out of her brains with my pals. In my twenties, she sat in on a poetry workshop with Etheridge, and afterward, I found her on his back step sharing a blunt with him and a bunch of young brothers. Which embarrassed me at the time, since she flirted like a saloon floozy, but also since her lack of maternal posture always unconsciously felt like some failure of mine on the child front.

By the end of the Mother stories, Richard's finger-combing through the suds in my hair with warm water has sent an ease from the scalp down my spine and along my limbs. She's in good hands with Curtis, Richard says. He's wrapped my hair in a towel, and I sit upright.

And there's nobody else here?

We closed the shop for you two. Very exclusive, Richard says, adding, we have caught kids getting high in the alley before.

Not long after, Curtis swans in, giving off an odor of patchouli oil as he rifles a drawer. He says, Your mom's a riot. I'm gonna visit her in Texas. She knows a place I can buy ostrich-skin cowboy boots.

I'm sure she does, I say.

Some time later, when Curtis presents her, I see he's jacked her hair up into a concoction only a drag queen could relish. Her eyes are glassy, and her neck has that bobblehead swivel.

Mother! I say.

Don't I look precious? she says, hands on her hips.

You look high!

Do you think? Curtis says. She made me do it that high.

Mother tips her head coquettishly, which, with the giant hairdo, has the effect of a topiary starting to topple over. She says, We smoked a little maryjane.

Then we're in Warren's tiny backseat. As he navigates the river road traffic to the Ritz, I'm violently trying to de-escalate her hair. Why now, Mother? I say, almost in tears. Why'd you have to start now?

Ow, she says. She's holding her ears as I tug. Don't ruin your mascara.

You reek of marijuana, I say.

The city of Cambridge is sliding away behind us. At the boathouse, we pass somebody hauling a lone scull from the water. I apologize to Warren as I work at the vast rats' nest of her head.

I don't smell anything, he says. With Warren, you can never know if this is impeccable denial or politeness. Maybe at all those heavydrinking WASP country club events, he'd learned to ignore the average soused-up human.

I stop yanking at her hair and notice the buildings of Harvard--carved from various fine types of stone--slipping by like a kingdom I'd never gain the keys to. The whole city is so profoundly Caucasian. One of the city's signature food items is a slablike whitefish devoid of the southern paprika and varicolored peppers that might make such a thing edible. Even its basketball team is thick with knobbyjointed midwestern farm boys whose pasty torsos evoke the aforementioned fish.

Nobody ever wants me to have any fun. What's the big deal? Ow, she says.

This is payback for all those Tonette permanents you scalded my ears off with.

Mother tries to catch Warren's eyes in the rearview, saying, Warren, you've gotta come to Texas and see the pictures, of your wife. Do you think I look bad?

You got in the back so quick I couldn't see you, he says. His eyes are fixed on the lights of Boston.

Master of diplomacy, I say. A compliment, this is, since--without such detachment--I still get whiplash from my own family's turbulence.

Warren, can you hand me my purse? she says. I'll find the Shalimar.

Can we stop and buy some Visine? I say. And some mouthwash, maybe?

It'll make us late, he says.

And I need some cigarettes, Mother says, rummaging through her purse. She stops suddenly and looks at me. She touches her mother's cameo at my neck, saying, I'd like to paint you like this.

The road's lights steamroll over us. I can see the sweat break out on Warren's temples as I beg him to stop, though he hates being late. I've mostly tamped down Mother's ash-white hair, and I'm using my fingers to comb through its natural waves, saying, You do have the best cheekbones, Mother.

I can't tell if there are tears in her eyes or she's just high as she says, I don't want to go if I'm gonna embarrass you.

Warren pulls up outside a bodega and leaves us in the puffing car. Seeing his runner's form in the unfamiliar structure of a suit brings a surge of ardor. Soon as he's out of sight, Mother says, Harold and I share a glass of wine every now and then, when we go out dancing--Harold being the somewhat prissy young man of color hired to help care for Daddy.

This gives me a sick feeling in my chest. I look toward the door Warren disappeared through, his presence an antivenom to the snakebite of Mother's disarray. Our family's so inadequately small compared to the profligate Whitbreads. My own daddy's so out of things, he probably doesn't actually know I'm getting married.

Inside, I keep trying to squash down the image of my blear-eyed daddy, since a buried part of me longs for him to be reborn all tall and sober, to loop my arm in his, to wrap my hand on his biceps, then squire me to Warren's side. A father walks his daughter down the aisle. Such a wholly unoriginal wish could dismantle me if I permit myself to dip into it. In my head, I shoo it off like an insect.

Warren gets back in the car, handing me a small paper bag over his shoulder. I fish through it for the eyedrops. Mother has her Shalimar out and is studying the cap for where the nozzle is. I tell her, They'll be unfailingly polite. They always are. She squirts behind her ear, and the scent of rose attar touches some reptilian area of my brain, where lies whatever faint recollection of beauty I have.

Warren, she says, you know what they say a mother-in-law's job is at a wedding?

I don't, he says, pushing his glasses up his nose.

Just shut up and wear beige.

He actually snorts at the prospect.

Mother takes my hand in her scented one. My heart was thumping so bad in my chest. I was scared to take another valium in case there was a toast or something because I'd fall into my plate. I take no comfort in sharing anxiety with my once towering, powerful mother, for any ways we favor each other feel distinctly unbridal. I show her my throat, adding, Make me smell like you. Then we draw up into the gilded light of the Ritz, and the doorman helps me out.

We enter the paneled bar to find the Whitbreads plural--six siblings, two daughters-in-law, one son-in-laws--scattered among the low tables. Taken together, they're the tallest people in the room, and possibly the best looking. My chic sister and her lawyer boyfriend have been chatting equably with them over drinks when we bluster in. There's the hubbub of shaken hands, and I can see Mother's turned out nice and smiling. The martini that lands before me gets tossed down.

Drinking to handle the angst of Mother's drinking--caused by her own angst--means our twin dipsomanias face off like a pair of mirrors, one generation offloading misery to the other through dwindling generations, back through history to when humans first fermented grapes.

The next thing I know, Lecia's grabbing my arm as we stride up the stairs to the table, saying, What is she on? Then we're seated at enormous tables draped with enough linen to clothe a convent. Sometime after the first course, Warren turns to me, asking if we can speak privately in the foyer. I rise on numb legs. The pre-wedding joke Lecia kept nudging me with was this: Soon as the Whitbreads met Mother, the wedding would be off. From across the room, my sister's eyes lock on mine, brows raised. I shrug at her, and her napkin seems to wipe off her own smile.

Walking behind Warren, I'm approaching execution, till he stops and draws from his breast pocket a small blue velvet box. It holds a platinum ring with a sapphire the size of a chiclet flanked by diamonds of equal size, which--with all the drinks in me-- makes me wobble. He slides it onto my shaking finger, saying, They're family stones. Mother had it made. I joke I'll need a bodyguard to wear it in public. When I lean back to stare into his green eyes, I resist the urge to kiss him--a public display he'd hate. But our gazes are so interwoven, I feel neither Texas trash nor WASP-itude can touch us.

It doesn't matter that my mother-in-law sobs through much of the meal, not--I'm guessing--from joy. Warren's brother Dev says with genuine puzzlement as we head down the grand staircase, She was crying? And I think, How do they block this stuff out? Nor does it matter that Mother offered to paint Mr. Whitbread in the nude and quote fix anything you need fixed close quote.

Excerpt appears courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers