"A blisteringly funny, wrenching account of wrestling way too close to—and later loose from—booze, sex and drugs and his adorable, infuriating mother. Bravo!" —Mary Karr, New York Times bestselling author of The Liars' Club
"Whoever said you can't get sober for someone else never met my mother, Mama Jean. When I came to in a Manhattan emergency room after an overdose to the news that she was on her way from Texas, I panicked. She was the last person I wanted to see on that dark September morning, but the person I needed the most."
So begins this astonishing memoir—by turns both darkly comic and deeply poignant—about this native Texan's long struggle with alcohol, his complicated relationship with Mama Jean, and his sexuality. From the age of five all Brickhouse wanted was to be at a party with a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other and all Mama Jean wanted was to keep him at that age, her Jamie doll forever. A Texan Elizabeth Taylor with the split personality of Auntie Mame and Mama Rose, always camera-ready and flamboyantly outspoken, Mama Jean haunted him his whole life, no matter how far away he went or how deep in booze he swam.
Brickhouse's journey takes him from Texas to a high-profile career in book publishing amid New York's glamorous drinking life to his near-fatal descent into alcoholism. After Mama Jean ushers him into rehab and he ultimately begins to dig out of the hole he'd found himself in, he almost misses his chance to prove that he loves her as much as she loves him. Bitingly funny, raw, and insightful, Dangerous When Wet is the unforgettable story of a unique relationship between a son and his mother.
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About the Author
Jamie Brickhouse has been published in the New York Times, the International Herald Tribune, Salon, Out, Lambda Literary Review, Publishers Weekly, Poz, Shelf Awareness, TheFix.com, Addiction/Recovery eBulletin, and the Latin American travel magazine, Travesía. He is also a guest blogger for the Huffington Post. Brickhouse spent over two decades in the publishing industry, most recently at two major houses as head of their publicity and lecture divisions. He is founder and CEO of redBrick Agency, a lecture bureau for authors. Dangerous When Wet is his first book and was named an Amazon Best Book of May 2015 and is “Required Reading” in Mary Karr’s bestselling The Art of Memoir. Brickhouse is a Moth StorySLAM winner, has performed stand-up comedy and recorded voice-overs for the legendary cartoon TV show, Beavis and Butthead. A native of Beaumont, Texas, he is a graduate of Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas and the Radcliffe Publishing Course (now the Columbia Publishing Course). He spent his junior of college at Goldsmiths College, University of London. A native of Beaumont, Texas, Brickhouse lives in Manhattan with his common-law husband, Michael. He is at work on his next book, I Favor My Daddy, a memoir about his father Earl.
Read an Excerpt
Dangerous When Wet
By Jamie Brickhouse
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2015 Jamie Brickhouse
All rights reserved.
Break Out the Booze and Have a Ball
I had no business being a child. The playground and its mewling habitués were not for me. What I saw at my parents' parties and in movies and TV shows is all I wanted. To be at a cocktail party with a drink in one hand, a cigarette in the other, and my head thrown back in laughter was my idea of heaven. Everything outside of that was filler.
Before I could read, I loved looking at the photo albums of my parents' wedding day, April 24, 1965. I wondered why Mama Jean was in a cocktail dress and not a long, white gown and veil. But more than that, I was pissed off that my half brothers, Ronny and Jeffrey (nine and eight years older than me), got to go to the wedding and the reception, but not me. I couldn't stand the thought of missing a party.
My tour of the wedding always began with the black-and-white, eight-by-ten, glossy photo of Mama Jean's marriage announcement. She is in a pose you rarely see anymore: she gazes over her shoulder, which is in the middle of the frame, perpendicular to the viewer. I could almost tell that the triple-pleated shawl lapel of her chiffon dress was a blurry green, the color of a Spanish olive submerged in a martini. Her hair was one solid bouffant flip, a Cat Five—as in it could withstand a Category 5 hurricane, which was often a threat in semitropical Beaumont. The newspaper ran this photo as if she were a movie star, which she was to me.
Next I dove into the photo albums, starting with the wedding mass at St. Anne's Catholic Church on Calder Avenue, the church where I was baptized and already knew well its altar of pink and green marble statues flanking a disturbingly handsome Jesus on a cross. The photos were snapshots in black and white, three-and-a-half-inch squares with white borders. Most of the shots were taken from the rear of the church looking toward the altar so that you saw the anonymous backs of the wedding guests staring at the backs of my parents as they knelt before the priest. A permanent hush preserved these somber photos. I couldn't imagine that any of the guests spoke, or if they did, it was in whispers.
Opening the wedding-reception album was like unlocking a soundproof door on a party in full swing. I could almost hear the clamor of laughter, music, and clinking champagne saucers. These photos were in color—cotton-candy, lickable color. The women wore dresses of lemon chiffon, strawberry ice cream, birthday-cake blue icing, all trimmed with white gloves and crowned with matching pillbox hats. Mama Jean's miniature pillbox hat and veil were barely noticeable. Her hair was her crown. Why don't the ladies still wear outfits like that? Already I was nostalgic for a past I hadn't lived; felt as if then was better than now.
There was Dad—James Earl Sr., Bubba to his family but never in front of Mama Jean, J. Earl to colleagues, but usually just Earl—without a trace of gray in his close-cropped, dark hair, laughing as he fed a piece of bunny-white wedding cake to Mama Jean. He looked like Dick Van Dyke and had the comedic, easygoing personality to match. My brothers, Ronny and Jeffrey, six and four, were on either side of Mamou, Mama Jean's mother. She was the only redhead in the bunch and the person from whom I would inherit my red hair. So where was I?
It was explained to me a few times before I got it, accepted it really. Mama Jean, who grew up in Beaumont down the street from St. Anne's on Calder, got out of town for a while. After college at Louisiana State University, where she was a Chi Omega, she moved to Louisiana and worked as an elementary-school teacher. She met a man, Len, and he knew how to fly. He was in the Air Force. They got married in Beaumont at St. Anne's and were celebrated at the country club on the banks of the Neches River. Earl was at the wedding.
They left Beaumont for a honeymoon in Acapulco. After the honeymoon they went wherever the Air Force asked them to go—Louisiana, Alabama, Kansas—creating a Ronny in 1959 and a Jeffrey in 1960. Once, in August of 1963, when the Air Force asked Len to make a quick trip across Kansas with three other officers, he didn't come back. The plane went down in a wheat field. Everyone survived. Except for Len. Mama Jean, a brand-new widow at twenty-nine, put her boys in her new, black Ford Fairlane with shiny chrome bumpers and returned to Beaumont with a letter of condolence from President Kennedy. Earl was at the funeral, and he remembered thinking how pretty she looked in her black lace veil.
Three months later and just six days after President Kennedy's assassination, Mama Jean's father, Big Daddy, died in his sleep. "It always strikes terror to my heart whenever I hear 1963," Mama Jean said ever after.
Earl had grown up in Beaumont too, but he never wanted to leave, save for his college years at the University of Texas in Austin. He had never married. Earl had been school friends with Mama Jean's older brother. That's why he got to go to her first wedding and to Len's funeral. When Mamou, who had always been fond of Earl (everyone loved Earl), ran into him at Luby's Cafeteria at the Gaylynn Shopping Center, a couple of blocks from St. Anne's, she told him to call Mama Jean.
He did. He took her dancing at the beaux arts costume ball in the Rose Room at the Hotel Beaumont. She was a señorita to his caballero. "I needed to have fun and I hadn't danced in a long time. Your father's a marvelous dancer." They were crowned the king and queen of the parquet after they jitterbugged the night away. She liked the way he moved. He liked the way she moved. Everybody liked the way they moved that night. With his ribald jokes—"A guy watches a wobbly floozy on a barstool and asks her, 'How many does it take to make you ... dizzy?' She answers, 'Two. And the name's Daisy'"—he made her laugh for the first time in a long time. "And I needed to laugh," Mama Jean always said.
Once during their six-month courtship they were necking like teenagers in his red Mustang when she abruptly pulled away. She yanked her hand from the side of his rump and stared at him: "Did you just fart on my hand?"
He had, but he was going to let it go, so to speak. That's when he learned that Mama Jean never let anything go.
"Yes," he admitted.
"I can't believe you would fart on your date's hand."
"Well, you shouldn't have had your hand down there."
At that they broke up laughing. They always quipped that it was then that they knew it was true love.
On those early dates they both had a window into the future of what life would be like together. Dad remembers her getting out of the car and bumping into the headlight as she rounded the corner. She reprimanded the car with a "God ... damn it!" and slapped the hood with her hand. "I'd never seen anyone get mad at an inanimate object before," Dad would recall. After a night of drinks and dancing, and more drinks, Mama Jean found herself in the driver's seat with an overserved Dad feeling no pain in the backseat. "I should have known then," Mama Jean always said.
At thirty-four, Dad was ready for a family. At thirty-one, Mama Jean had a family, and a new, little house bought and paid for with government money. A white, aluminum-sided, one-story "ranchburger" built in the fifties, this rectangular shoe box was topped by a pitched roof and fronted by a three-columned porch, door in the middle, two sets of windows on either side—a one-story mini–White House. It had three bedrooms, one and a half baths, living/dining room in front, open kitchen/den in back, attached one-car garage. The only thing missing in her new house was a father. Jeffrey had already asked her if she could get a daddy for Ronny and him at the 7-Eleven.
By 1965, Mama Jean was back at the altar of St. Anne's, but not in white. "You only get to wear white at the first wedding. After that it's tacky." As she wore that green dress, I was not even thought of, not even a twinkle in her eye. How can there be a time in her life when I wasn't thought of?
After that day it took three years for me to arrive. Their first stab at growing the family ended in miscarriage. When I finally made it out of the womb, in 1968, the stakes were high. I was placed in a crib positioned before one of the front windows of the mini–White House, as if on display. My brother Jeffrey said years later with good humor and a twinge of resentment, "It was like the second coming of Christ."
Mama Jean and Dad were hoping for a redheaded, brown-eyed baby girl. "Oh, I wanted a little girl so bad. So I could dress her up like a little doll," Mama Jean said. They were going to name me Julie. "Well, we came close, but there was something hanging between the legs," Mama Jean joked. Tally Whacker Baby was her first nickname for me.
Dad and Mama Jean danced throughout their marriage. I loved to watch them dance, because even if it was just the two of them and me watching, it felt like a party. They danced whenever their song, "More," came on the radio. A song meant to be danced to, meant to fall in love to, it had lyrics about the greatest love the world has ever known and being in a beloved's life every "waking, sleeping, laughing, weeping" moment. For them, those lyrics might have been a bit heavy-handed, but Andy Williams, Bobby Darin, Doris Day, and Frank Sinatra sang that song to them wherever they went while they were dating. Why don't couples have their own song anymore?
They fought just as well as they danced, maybe even better, and they did plenty of that in front of me too. I always wished that they would dance as much as they fought, so we could keep the party going.
One of my earliest memories seems more like outtakes from a dream, the before and after pieces having dissolved after waking. There is no sound, only images that flicker like a home movie on Super 8 millimeter film. I am standing in my crib before the double-sash window and staring at a frantic Mama Jean, who is on the other side, outside in the dark in her nightgown and robe. Ronny and Jeffrey stand by her side, wide-eyed, their fingers in their mouths. She is scaring me, the way she yells and impatiently stabs her index finger at the middle of the window. I can't figure out what she wants me to do. When I can't figure it out, she shakes her head no, no, NO! I want to cry, but I don't want to make her any more upset than she already is. Why is she mad at me? Somehow I figure out that she wants me to unlock the window, and my little toothpick fingers release the cold metal locks. Mama Jean throws open the window and pulls me out of the crib and into her arms. She runs with me to her blue Chrysler—or was it her new, white Mercury Marquis? The next thing I know, I am looking out the car window as she speeds out of the driveway. The front door of the house is open; the light inside casts a dim glow in the middle of the dark house like a night-light. Dad comes running barefoot across the lawn, yelling and pointing as if he is trying to catch us. The memory ends there.
* * *
If their song was "More," mine was "Is That All There Is?" I must have been around five when I saw Peggy Lee on some variety show singing that haunting, fatalistic song. She was wearing about two hundred yards of white, diaphanous chiffon. Her platinum-blond hair was upswept into a cascade of sausage curls, and she had a black dot on her right cheek.
"What's that?" I asked Dad.
He stopped drying the dish in his hand and stood in the middle of the room next to me. "That's a beauty mark. My God! Jean, come quick! You've gotta look at Peggy Lee. She's fat as a pig!"
A beauty mark? Just like that dot on Miss Kitty's face from Gunsmoke, a show I had zero interest in, save for Miss Kitty. If only they would tell me when her scenes were on, I'd watch. She was the only character from that show I remember besides Little Joe. Or was that Bonanza? Anyway, when Dad said to look at Peggy Lee, I looked. How could I not? She was mesmerizing, and "Is That All There Is?" hooked me from the first verse. Even though it is a very grown-up song, it wasn't that odd that it spoke to my five-year-old mind. It was a story song, after all. To the tuba vamp of a gentle oompah band, she told me that when she was a little girl, her father gathered her up in his arms and they watched their house burn as the whole world went up in flames. Her little-girl, pragmatic answer to the situation? With a shrug she asked:
"Is that all there is to a fire? ... If that's all there is ... let's break out the booze and have a ball."
Wow. That's my kind of little girl. I couldn't wait for the day that I could break out the booze and have a ball.
Around that time I took my first drink. It's a memory I didn't remember until after I stopped drinking. It wasn't a full drink, but a sip of one. It was Dad's. The memory is a Polaroid snapshot the color of autumn—orange, brown, and yellow—framed in knotty-pine paneling with my copper-red hair lighting the center. Dad was sitting on a sofa laughing; a Kent 100's cigarette dangled from under his mustache, which matched my hair, but curiously not his own. Mama Jean loathed that mustache almost as much as she hated his drinking. His drink was on the corner of the coffee table. The tumbler was swimming-pool blue, globular, with circular crater depressions throughout, like a glass moon. I liked those depressions because they made the glass fun to hold. Inside was amber liquid with frothy bubbles swimming among the "rocks" on top. That's what they called ice when it was cooling the brown stuff. On the rocks. I liked that phrase.
I don't know if Dad offered me a drink, or if I asked for a sip. Maybe I just took it. I know that I stood at the corner of the coffee table with my little hands pressed into the craters of that magic highball and took a sip of a drink that I knew was only for adults. I hesitated and let it stay in my mouth a few seconds longer than any other liquid I'd ever drunk. I winced and swallowed. It was as if I'd stepped inside from the oppressive heat of a Beaumont summer to the arctic blast of central AC: startling, mind-altering, and so refreshing. I don't remember any warm or fuzzy feeling or a feeling of ahhh. But I do remember the taste. It tasted like being an adult.CHAPTER 2
"Earl! Come quick! I think Jamie has a hard-on!" Dad came, as he always did when Mama Jean called, and stood next to her as she peered at me in my crib. He stared for a few seconds and a smile crept over his face.
He turned to her. "I believe he does. And it looks like he knows what to do with it."
She faced him with a mixed look of horror and fascination, and then they both cracked up. Maybe that's when I earned the nickname Tally Whacker Baby. I was two.
I have no recollection of this moment, but Mama Jean and Dad loved to repeatedly tell this as one of my early-childhood milestones. It's a shame that my baby keepsake book didn't have a place to record Baby's first erection.
I did know what to do with that thing, and I was fearless about using it. "Pressing," Mama Jean and Dad called it, because I did it lying on my stomach, my hands pressed into my gonads. I didn't realize it was something that simply wasn't done in public, like on the den floor in front of the TV, alongside the rest of the family. "Jamie, stop pressing" was a constant refrain. They never told me it was naughty or "self-pollution"—the official definition of masturbation from Mama Jean's 1952 edition of the Merriam-Webster dictionary—but to keep it to myself, so to speak. I sometimes forgot.
Once when I was pressing, I closed my eyes, and when I opened them, I was facing Mama Jean's Christmas-red toenails. They were spying from the trenches of the white shag carpeting of her bedroom. Busted. I looked up at her face, the window on top of the lookout tower of her body. "But it feels good" was my weak—and completely true—excuse.
As fearless as my pressing was, water was a different story.
From before I can remember, the mere suggestion of aquatic submergence was enough to make me "scream bloody murder," as Mama Jean would say. Dad could merely hold my toddler body between his outstretched hands over a motel swimming pool and I'd scream, "No! No! NO!" as I balled up like a doodlebug.
Excerpted from Dangerous When Wet by Jamie Brickhouse. Copyright © 2015 Jamie Brickhouse. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Prologue: Ready or Not, Here Comes Mama! (2006/1987),
Part I: Golden Triangle (1968–87),
1. Break Out the Booze and Have a Ball,
2. Press On,
3. Let Me Let You Go,
4. Driver's Seat,
5. The Pink Pantsuit,
6. The Neon Lights Are Bright on Broadway,
7. Lost in Acapulco,
8. Bottoms Up,
Part II: Mr. Golightly (1990–2006),
10. Swingin', Baby, Swingin'!,
11. A Frog in Cha-Cha Heels,
12. Verboten in Zurich,
13. The Short and Long of It,
14. Is That All There Is?,
15. Alcoholics Can't Count,
16. Hides: Persian and Raw,
17. Forgive Me, for I Have Sinned,
18. Lost in Rio,
19. Where Have You Been, Lord Randall, My Son?,
20. Account Past Due,
21. Lost in Paterson,
22. The Bare Truth,
23. Gown Days,
24. Dangerous When Wet,
Part III: Palm Springs Follies (2006),
25. Ready or Not, Here Comes Jamie!,
26. If They Could See Me Now,
27. Feelin' Good,
Part IV: The Hair Is the Last to Go (2008–11),
28. The Seven-Month Itch,
29. Gown Days (Reprise),
30. Driver's Seat (Reprise),
31. Destiny (Reprise),
About the Author,