Mastodon Ray

I’m an old time smugglin’ man,

I know just what to do.
I sell guns to the Arabs,
I sell dynamite to the Jews.
—Tim Hardin

I first met Rich soon after he and my mother started seeing each other.  My mother had come from Hawaii to Connecticut for my high school graduation, and was staying with her cousin in Westport; she was still living with Steve at the time, but the night before graduation she and her cousin went out drinking, and my mom met the sociopathically charming Rich, broke off her relationship with Steve, and, I think, never looked back.

Like many others, I idealized Rich.  Quintessentially charismatic, he was an attorney who, prior to becoming a lawyer, had served a couple of years in the federal penitentiary in Danbury for international drug smuggling.  At the time I knew him, he was highly paid for defending drug dealers.  Rich drank vast quantities of Wild Turkey, and pontificated on just about everything, but especially on the importance of keeping one’s word—often with Tim Hardin, one of his favorites, playing Don’t Make Promises You Can’t Keep in the background.  I never knew the full story of Rich’s arrest and imprisonment, but always had the sense that there was a betrayal involved, that Rich’s lingering bitterness was not so much because of the time served, but because of the loyalties that had been ruptured.  And to him, loyalty was everything.

Rich grew up in Bridgeport, a tough Irish kid with a firefighter father.  He came up in the ‘60s, amidst drugs and revolution; his revolutionary spirit, though not entirely broken by his time in prison, had become somehow distorted, turned in upon itself.  His once-upon-a-time commitment to political upheaval, to transformation, was now booze-fueled braggadocio; though well-intentioned in many ways, his desire to become an attorney so as to make sure others didn’t suffer his fate was now a kind of narcissistic revelry in his own gift of gab, and in the adulation of the veritable sea of degenerates—myself included—with whom he surrounded himself.

For some reason, Rich loved the fact that I was a prep school kid; he introduced me as his friend from Choate, let me run up his bar tabs, ensconced me with bikers and deadheads and pimps and dealers of all stripes, people of the sort I had always wanted to meet—or more accurately, people I had always wanted to be.  And I did, indeed, become one of them—to the point that I once even sold a quantity of really bad cocaine to my mom.  It was from an ounce I’d gotten on credit; I’d promptly freebased the majority of it, then realized I needed to sell enough to pay my source, so cut the remainder so heavily it was next to useless.  I remember feeling horribly guilty, but it was never clear to me whether I felt badly for selling cocaine to my mother, or for selling her stepped-on rubbish at full retail price.

As the wheels began to come off their life together, my mom and Rich, encumbered with debt and fleeing from burned bridges, began to make geographic moves in the vain hope that something would be different somewhere else: the Big Island, Martha’s Vineyard, Ireland (where Rich claimed Irish citizenship and immediately went on the dole), and eventually back to Kaua’i.  In the process of mutual alcoholic self-destruction, they ran through every remaining cent, every resource, every friendship either of them had.

In these locales, drunken fights between my mother and Rich become more frequent, and the drama intensified.  I would get frequent phone calls from my mother, slurred and crying, begging me to come pick her up because Rich had again hit her, egging me on to punch him out, even to kill him.  I remember showing up at their place (in Puako, or whichever other place it might have been that time around) ready to get into a brawl, ready to defend my mother’s honor—only to find her bruised and angry, to learn that they’d gotten drunk together on tequila, that she’d attacked him with a pitchfork, and that he’d punched her rather than being run through.  Time after time, in the face of these scenarios, I remember getting in my car and driving away, sometimes taking my mother with me and dropping her someplace safe, sometimes leaving on my own and leaving her to the remnants of her life—myself not yet in recovery, but quite done with their drama nonetheless.

To her credit, my mother eventually stopped drinking, and made a number of changes in her life, including severing her ties with Rich.  Tired of being hit, I think perhaps she was even more tired of who she had become with Rich—tired of her own anger, and of the destructiveness that was given a toxic voice through that relationship.  Rich, though, remained simply himself, and a few years later I heard through the grapevine that he had died of a metastasized melanoma—the result of a combination of his fair Irish skin, the Hawaii sun, and a botched surgery, an ignominious end to a colorful, painful life.

More than anything else, around Rich I remember feeling a combination of dread and excitement—a sense of intrigue and danger that was both enticing and horrible, that required massive amounts of alcohol and cocaine in order for anyone to keep up.  We had a genuine liking for each other, Rich and I—or, at least, I liked him as much as one can like someone involved with one’s mother in such a brutal relationship.  I hated Rich for what he had done, both to himself and to my mother,probably in some sense in the way in which he hated himself.  But I loved him, too—in a way in which, in the face of his drunken smirk, his stories and his passion, it was impossible not to.  Rich told me often that if I ever got arrested to say absolutely nothing other than that I was represented by counsel, and to call him immediately, and I knew that in spite of everything, regardless of his state of inebriation, regardless of the state of his relationship with my mother, that he would keep his promise—that he would show up.

Michael Aanavi is the author of The Trusting Heart: Addiction, Recovery, and Intergenerational Trauma, from which the above is excerpted.


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