This is a work of fiction. It never happened. But it contains elements of the experiences of children who grow up in an alcoholic household. Alcoholism affects not only the person who is addicted, but also those who share the addict’s life, including children, and there is a resiliency within all of us.
Buddy Holly was Cassie’s favorite singer. She thought it was great that a nerdy-looking guy who wore glasses could be a rock ‘n roll star. She had two 45’s of his music, well worn from being played over and over on her old portable record player. Her family couldn’t afford a stereo.
“All of my love, all of my kissin’,
You don’t know what you’ve been a-missin’!
Oh boy! When you’re with me
Oh boy! The world will see
That you were meant for me!” *
She closed her eyes and swayed to the rhythm of the familiar song, and for a few moments she imagined she was on American Bandstand. She pictured herself in a red dress with a full twirling skirt, her hair in a pony tail, executing impromptu steps with total abandon. Her partner was the handsomest boy in the group. They were dancing so beautifully that everyone else stopped to watch. Even Buddy Holly was looking at them through his thick-rimmed glasses and smiling as he sang and strummed his guitar.
When the song ended Cassie slowly eased back into reality. She was not on American Bandstand. She was in the cramped, cluttered bedroom that she shared with her sister Elaine, looking out the window at the roofs of the other houses along their small backstreet. Theirs was the only two-storey house in the neighborhood. When their parents bought the house the Mancini kids had been thrilled about having an upstairs, but the euphoria had soon evaporated after they moved in. The room the two sisters had to share was tiny, almost sunless and drab and there was no opportunity for any real privacy. Cassie’s bed and dresser were on one side of the room and Elaine’s were on the other side. There was only one closet, which had to be shared by the two sisters. The closet was on Elaine’s side of the room. This might have been one reason Elaine felt so free to borrow Cassie’s clothes without asking permission, a bad habit that drove Cassie to distraction.
Cassie got up, lifted the needle from the 45, took the record out of the machine and carefully put it back into its jacket, gingerly holding it by its edges. Then she went downstairs and through the kitchen where Mom was taking a tuna casserole out of the oven.
“Dinner is almost ready. Go sit down,” Mom said as she took two potholders, lifted the hot casserole dish out of the stove and closed the oven door with her knee.
“I will, Mom. I just want to do a little practicing first. The competition is tomorrow.” Cassie left the kitchen and walked through the dining room and into the living room, over to the old upright piano, and lifted the lid. Elaine was sitting at the dining room table reading Teen Magazine. Dad was not in the room, and Cassie thought she might be able to practice a little before dinner without aggravating him. Cassie played a few quiet, tentative scales, and then began the Chopin Nocturne in E-Flat Major. She wanted to make sure that she would play her best in tomorrow evening’s competition.
Her full name was Cassandra Anne Mancini. Her family called her Cassie, but in school she was always called Cassandra. She had insisted on this when she started elementary school, because one of her kindergarten mates had called her “Cassie Assie” and the name had stuck. Her elementary schoolmates hadn’t treated her any better, but at least they hadn’t tormented her with humiliating names. The name Cassandra had been her mother’s idea. Mom thought the name was exotic. It was her father who started calling her “Cassie.” Cassie thought of it as his first cruel trick, one of many.
She wished she could tear the name Cassandra out of her life, toss it in the trash and start all over again as Anne Mancini. She would be an entirely new person, with a new name and a new personality. But she knew that she would never be able to escape Cassie. Cassie would follow her and cling to her like a leech all the days of her life. She would always turn around and find her self grinning and taunting, no matter how hard she would try to lose her.
She knew she was a disappointment to her family. She was pathologically shy with people she did not know well. She had been a lonely, homely child, tall for her age, big boned and awkward. She had bad, crooked teeth which she tried to hide by never smiling. She had had her first period when she was in the 6th grade, and quickly began to develop a full figure, complete with prominent breasts. Her father’s reaction was to point to her in front of everybody in the family, laugh loudly and shout “Ahhhhh, look at that!” Eventually he stopped, which made Cassie think that her mother had finally said something to him. But the damage was done. She tried to hide her breasts by slouching, which only earned her more criticism for bad posture.
About five years earlier, Cassie’s talent for music had become evident, and she had begun taking piano lessons from a very good teacher at a local music school. Mr. Holloway had a special gift for inspiring his students while making them work hard, and Cassie had blossomed. She had become something of a virtuoso. As much as she liked rock ‘n roll, it was classical music that pulled at her. When she was at the piano she was no longer a shy, awkward teenager. She had hope. This year she had made the finals of the High School Division of the Statewide Young Musicians’ Competition. It was the first time she was eligible for this competition, and she was proud of the fact that she was the first contestant in its history to make the finals the first time. All of the previous winners had had to enter the competition two or three times before becoming finalists. The preliminaries and semi-finals had been closed affairs, with only the judges in attendance, but the finals would be open to the public. Cassie was eager and nervous. The finals would take place tomorrow, Saturday, in the auditorium of the local community college. One of the requirements was a complete sonata of at least three movements, and she had chosen Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14 in C-Sharp Minor, the Moonlight Sonata. She had also chosen two Chopin Etudes, his Nocturne in E-Flat Major, and a couple of short pieces by Bartók. The judges could choose which of these shorter pieces they would like to hear.
Practicing was a problem in the Mancini household, mostly because of Dad. Although he was always telling Cassie that she should practice, it was almost impossible for her to do it when he was home. He wouldn’t tolerate the noise. Cassie was able to get in about three hours a day at the music school, where they were eager to nurture her talent. Mom would pick her up after work and they would go home together. Dad was away from home as much as he was there, so she could sometimes sneak in more practicing at home, especially on weekends, but she couldn’t depend on it. Sometimes she would not be able to practice at home at all.
Al Mancini, Cassie’s father, was a short man with thick black hair and blue eyes. His startlingly blue eyes set him apart from most other Italian-Americans. He had been through the Great Depression and World War II, having been a technical sergeant in the Army Air Corps, stationed in England. He had met and married Jane Frasier, Cassie’s mother, before being shipped overseas. After his tour of duty was over, he returned home. Cassie was born shortly after the war ended.
Dad and Mom had been happy at first. Al made a good living doing construction work, mostly bricklaying. He was gregarious and popular. Jane was quiet, reserved and well mannered. They had a wide circle of acquaintances in the small town where they lived. And within a seven-year span they had two other children, Elaine and Rob. What nobody in their community knew, though, was that over the years Al had been slowly developing a drinking problem. This problem escalated when he was involved in a bad automobile accident that left him with a permanently damaged left leg. He could no longer work construction jobs. He worked as a weekend bartender, a used car salesman and an owner-operator of a gas station that eventually failed. His drinking quickly became out of control, and his bartender job gave him easy access to an unlimited supply of alcohol and drinking buddies who encouraged his addiction. To his drinking buddies he was “a great guy.” To his family he became a monster of verbal and emotional abuse. For reasons known only to Al himself, Cassie was his special target.
“Cassie! Dinner’s ready!” Mom’s voice cleaved the music like an axe. Cassie finished the phrase she was playing, got up from the piano and walked into the now crowded dining room where the rest of the family was already seated at the table.
“Glad you could join us, Your Majesty!” Dad was in good form tonight. He was seated at the head of the table near the entrance, and Cassie had to squeeze past him to get to her place. He had been drinking as usual. His face was red and his words were a little slurred. Cassie knew what was coming, and felt her heart sink into her stomach. She didn’t dare say anything, and tried to brace herself for whatever he would say next.
Dad had noticed her difficulty in squeezing past him. “You’re so big and fat. You should be playing tackle for the 49’ers!”
Cassie shrugged her shoulders, slowly sat down and started to spoon tuna casserole and string beans onto her plate. She hoped if she didn’t answer Dad when he made these remarks he would get tired of baiting her and change the subject. Mom had always told her to “just not pay attention” to people who were teasing her. But Dad never took Cassie’s silence as a signal to stop. Her silence and shrugging of the shoulders only angered him.
“Hey! Pay attention dammit! When are you going to play tackle for the 49’ers?”
“Never, okay?! Never! You’re just being mean!” The words were no sooner out of Cassie’s mouth than she wished she could pull them back out of the air and into herself. It was too late, though. Dad went into one of his endless streams of abuse. He jabbed his right finger in Cassie’s direction as he shouted about how nasty, disrespectful, stupid, ugly and useless she was. His cheeks turned fiery red and his eyes became slits in his face. “You think you’re so smart and so damned much better than everyone because you can pound a lousy piano! Well, I got news for you! You’re not! You’re not better than anybody! You’re worse than nobody and you always will be!”
The only thing Cassie could do was lower her head and let him talk. The rest of the family did the same. Dad went on and on non-stop with a stream of cutting words. He didn’t seem to notice the looks of shame on the faces of Cassie’s two siblings and the look of anger on his wife’s face. These looks hurt Cassie almost as much as her father’s cruel alcohol-fueled words. Nobody spoke in Cassie’s defense because nobody wanted to become Dad’s next target. Cassie could feel the unspoken accusations, especially in the eyes of her mother.
After about 10 minutes of this, Elaine took advantage of a couple of seconds of silence to get Dad on another subject, so there was a little bit of reprieve, although not for long. This time the question had changed from playing football with the 49ers to “Why can’t you be more like your sister here?” Cassie chose not to answer this one, which was okay with Dad because Elaine and Rob were joining in and agreeing with him. Cassie felt like a cornered deer surrounded by a pack of wolves. Mom finally spoke up and told Elaine and Rob to stop picking on Cassie, but she didn’t dare say anything to her husband for fear of making him angry again. In the meantime, Mom was shooting Cassie some very sharp looks and silently mouthing what looked like, “Why did you have to get him started?”
When dinner was finally over, Cassie made a beeline for the piano and began to practice again. Her family’s verbal and silent attacks had wounded her, and she needed music very badly. But she had only played a few phrases when she was stopped abruptly by Dad, who screamed at her to “shut up that damned thing” because he wanted to watch the Friday night boxing match on TV. Dad never watched the boxing matches at home. He always went out to the bar where he worked and watched them on the TV there. But tonight he had apparently decided to stay home.
“Please, Dad, I have to practice. I have an important competition tomorrow!”
Dad charged over to the piano and jabbed his finger in her face, causing her to recoil and almost fall off the piano bench. Cassie could smell the whisky on his breath.
“Who the hell cares?! What important competition?!” The last two words were given a special sarcastic emphasis. Dad shrugged his shoulders, spread his hands out and gave her a sardonic look. Cassie looked at him blankly, not daring to say anything more. He stared at her for a moment, then took a deep breath and shouted, “How could it be important if they let you in it? And if you’re not ready for it by now, you’re never going to be! You’re not going to win anyway! Get that through your thick head! Some spoiled rich kid always wins! I work all week and I have a right to watch the fights! So shut up that damned piano! NOW!”
He slammed the cover over the piano keys, narrowly missing Cassie’s hands, then stomped away from her and over to the television set, snapped it on and turned the volume up to the loudest possible level.
“There! Will that get you to stop banging that damned thing?!”
Deeply shaken, Cassie slowly put her music away, turning her head so that nobody would see the tears in her eyes. She rose from the piano, left the room and quietly climbed the stairs to her bedroom. As embarrassing as it was to break down and cry, she couldn’t hold back the tears this time.
She put on her pajamas and went to bed, finishing her crying alone, silently. Eventually she fell asleep.
The next morning, Saturday, Cassie slept late. She awoke around 9:30, got up and went downstairs, careful not to make noise so that she wouldn’t awaken Dad if he were still asleep in her parents’ bedroom on the first floor. She poured herself some corn flakes and milk and sat at the kitchen table eating it while thinking of what she needed to do to prepare for the competition in the evening. She had gotten permission to spend some time in the music school in the afternoon, to practice and warm up. She didn’t want to practice too long today because she didn’t want to make herself too tired. Her biggest problem would be Dad. If he stayed home today she would have to stay out of his way.
After eating her breakfast, Cassie opened the door of her parents’ bedroom a crack and peeked in. Dad was asleep in the bed, so she knew she would have to tiptoe around, and any thought of warming up her fingers at the piano would have to be abandoned. Instead, she went back upstairs, got dressed and sat looking out the window. The neighbor kids were playing a game of garage door basketball next door and she watched them for a while. Cassie was something of a tomboy, and normally she would have gone down and asked to join the game, but of course today was different. She couldn’t take a chance on injuring her hands.
The practice session at the music school was uneventful. Cassie was beginning to get nervous, and she had one big memory lapse in the third movement of the Moonlight Sonata, but she quickly found her place and went over the offending passage several times to make sure she would not forget it again. After a couple of hours she found herself beginning to tire and decided to quit and go home. She called home and Dad answered. His voice sounded subdued and, more important, sober.
“Hey, Sweetie. I been thinking. This competition thing is important to you. I should go and kind of cheer you on, you know what I mean?” It was obvious to Cassie that Dad was ashamed of his behavior last night, although he would never admit it.
Cassie smiled. Her father’s approval was a balm to her. At times like this she even thought he might love her a little. “I’d like that, Dad. Really I would.”
“Okay. Well, I’ll tell your mother to come and get you.”
As she hung up the phone, Cassie closed her eyes and gave a deep sigh.
The finals were due to start at 7:00. Cassie was there early. She had insisted on leaving the house in plenty of time, and Mom had backed her up. She was wearing the pretty pink dress that she had worn for her 8th grade graduation at Holy Innocents Catholic Elementary School. Her thick dark brown hair was done in a French twist, and teased to give it fullness. She was wearing Cover Girl foundation and lipstick, a touch of rouge and some mascara. She had taken a good look in the mirror before leaving the house, and had been surprised at how nice she looked. “I am pretty!” she had thought to herself.
The whole family came with her. Mom always came to her performances, but for Dad this was a rare occurrence. He had put on his nice dark brown suit and the blue tie that Cassie had given him for his last birthday. Cassie was pleased that he wore the tie, although she was sure he didn’t remember who had given it to him. He had not taken a drink all day and he was quiet and gentle. He had even called her “Sweetie” again and told her how nice she looked. Dad sober and Dad drunk were two different people. Sober, he was a good man. But he was a mean drunk, at least to his family. Cassie treasured his sober times, which unfortunately never lasted more than a day or two at most.
Mr. Holloway, her teacher, had also come, along with a few of his other pupils and a contingent of teachers from the music school. Mr. Holloway was almost as nervous as Cassie, but he had given her a wink and an encouraging smile as he left her to take his seat in the auditorium.
There were five finalists: Cassie; two other pianists; a violinist and a cellist. Each one was required to play a complete sonata. Then the judges would choose one piece for each performer from among the short pieces they were prepared to play. The judges would then retire to another room to choose the first, second and third place winners. If the judges could not agree, they might ask one or two of the performers to play one more piece.
Cassie was happy that stage fright never affected her hands. Her stomach always felt like it was carrying a ten-ton weight and her throat hurt but her hands were free of any kind of shaking or tension. It was a blessing. She could use her stage fright to enhance her performance instead of being blocked by it.
Cassie was the third of the five finalists to be called to the stage. She shyly walked out onstage and sat at the grand piano for about 15 seconds to compose herself, then she began the beautiful, slow first movement of the Beethoven Moonlight sonata. She could sense immediately that she was playing well and was able to relax and pour all of her energy and concentration into it. When the first movement was over, she paused for a few seconds before starting the allegretto second movement. Competition rules required that she play all three movements. She played the second movement simply and effectively. She then launched into the passionate presto agitato third movement. All of the passion of her life went into her fingers, and into the music that Beethoven had written so many centuries earlier. Cassie could feel an almost mystical union with the troubled composer as his music flowed like raging rapids from her hands. When she finished playing, there was a hush in the auditorium, then a sound that Cassie had never heard before – enthusiastic applause. For a moment, she was shocked into immobility. Then she turned around and looked at the audience. They were all applauding, and some of them were even standing! Mr. Holloway, who was in the first row of the theater, had tears in his eyes. She didn’t know what to do, so she stood up, made a short, timid bow and left the stage. The applause continued until one of the judges finally walked out to announce the next contestant.
Cassie couldn’t believe what had just happened. They were applauding for her, Cassandra Anne Mancini, the ugly kid that nobody liked. She thought of Buddy Holly, and the applause he had received on The Ed Sullivan Show. Now she herself had performed onstage and received something like love from the audience. She had given them something they found beautiful, and they had given their love in return. She felt confused and incredibly excited at the same time.
The second round, where the judges chose from the lists submitted by the contestants, was almost anticlimactic. Cassie was asked to play one of her Chopin Etudes. Again, she was on. And again she received decent applause from the audience, although not as much as for the Beethoven. Still, it was enough.
The judges only deliberated for about 20 minutes before they were ready to come out and announce the winners. They awarded the third prize of $100 to one of the other pianists. Then they awarded the second prize of $300 to the cellist.
After giving the second prize, the judge who was acting as the announcer gave a short speech about how all the contestants had been wonderful and how they were sorry they couldn’t give a first prize to everyone. He only spoke for a few minutes, but to Cassie it seemed like two hours. Her stomach began to hurt. She couldn’t take the suspense any longer. She bit her lips because she felt she wanted to scream. Then she heard her name being called and applause and shouts from the audience, and she knew she had won. She had won! She was rooted to the floor, though, and couldn’t move. One of the judges had to go backstage and give her a little nudge to get her to walk onto the stage to receive her prize. The applause swelled again one more time when she appeared onstage. The judge handed her a small golden trophy in the shape of a treble clef, an embossed certificate with her name and the names of the judges on it, and a check for $500. She was crying so hard the tears were falling all over her face and her dress, but they were tears of happiness this time.
When she was finally able to leave the stage, she was greeted by Mr. Holloway and the entire group from the music school, who hugged her, kissed her, shook her hands and told her how wonderful she had been. Her family eventually managed to make their way backstage, too, and Mr. Holloway introduced them to the others and remarked how proud everyone was of Cassie.
The ride home was not bad. Dad was honestly proud of her this time, and he had given her a big hug and a kiss and told her so. His eyes were red, so Cassie thought perhaps he had also had tears in them, as had Mr. Holloway earlier in the evening. Mom was smiling. Elaine and Rob were happy, too, because Mom and Dad were happy and because they could finally find something in their older sister to brag about.
That night she lay in bed and looked at the trophy, which she had placed on her dresser next to her bed. She knew now that she was not going to be plain, ugly Cassie Mancini for the rest of her life. She knew that she would again receive that something that felt like love from the audience. She would not always live at home, and where she was going was going to be better than anything she had ever known. Tomorrow Dad would be drunk again and life would go back to the way it was, but right now even that thought couldn’t depress her. She had had a triumph, and there would be more to come. She would survive and come out ahead. Things would not be easy, but for the rest of her life she would have her music, and nobody would ever take that away from her.
She fell easily into a beautiful, deep sleep.
My own imagination
*Oh Boy!, composed by Sonny West, Bill Tilghman and Norman Petty, published by Hal Leonard