If your uncle yammers for hours about alcoholism, and how it fucked up the entire family, you don’t expect him to take you to a dive bar afterward.
Crazy Scorpio guy. Henry was obsessive and had the goods on everybody. The previous evening, he’d driven me around my grandmother Mildred’s neighborhood, pointing out the hidden skeletons behind every door. Mildred lived in the wealthy North Bay section of Racine, Wisconsin. She played bridge with Johnson Wax executives and voted a straight Republican ticket.
Henry pulled up in front of the most expensive house on the block and idled for a full minute. “Real can of worms in this place,” he said, without elaborating.
Mildred seemed happy to go to the bar with us, though she usually drank at home. She’d nursed her second husband through senility until the bitter end and was having a great time without him. I didn’t blame her. Henry Sr., a racist, sleazy dentist, had a bad temper and a poor sense of humor. All of us were better off with him gone.
At 29, I was always glad to visit a bar, even one in Racine. Henry had talked non-stop since I arrived at Mildred’s house two nights beforehand. I’d paid her an impromptu visit, just so I could flee Chicago for the weekend. As soon as I saw Henry, I regretted my decision, but now it was too late.
Aunt Donna had left Henry for another man, so he’d gone home to live with his mother. My uncle’s old bedroom featured zebra skin rugs and African spears. Mildred’s twisted idea of boy’s room décor. She’d picked up these items during transcontinental excursions, when her son was still young and impressionable.
Henry married Donna, his high school sweetheart, a couple of days after graduation. The two of them looked like two mid-1960s caricatures of young adults. Henry sported a stylish crew cut and Donna wore tight capris. They adored each other.
This arrangement sufficed for many years, until the couple’s inevitable midlife crisis. Donna went nuts, drinking and crying and screaming and fucking other men. She had a breakdown and spent a few weeks in a mental hospital.
Henry had already devoted several hours to the task of warning me about the destruction alcohol wreaked upon families. A bar would be a nice change of pace. I climbed in the back of Mildred’s Lincoln Continental and stared out the window.
My uncle fidgeted in the passenger seat. “You sure you want to go?” A weaselly attempt to walk back the invitation and avoid responsibility. Typical Henry behavior.
Mildred smirked. “Of course, or we wouldn’t be here.” She turned the key, and her engine roared to life.
We headed straight downtown and pulled up in front of a dive. Multicolored neon lights shone on the hood of my grandmother’s Lincoln. Mildred killed the engine and climbed from her vehicle, slamming the door. “I’m ready for a drink.”
“Don’t worry, I’m buying.” Henry sidled up to the bar and waved his hands until the bartender came over. The poor man looked ancient. Most likely the owner, but jobs were scarce in Racine.
“Um, O’Doul’s for me,” Henry said. “Mother?”
“I will have a Manhattan,” Mildred said, in the imperious tone she reserved for drink orders.
The bartender glanced at me, and I deliberated. “You got Point on tap? I’ll take one, please.”
The delicious local brew sold in Madison’s college bars for two bucks a pitcher during happy hour. I didn’t share Mildred’s love of hard liquor, preferring to drink for quantity.
On the other hand, my grandmother could really put it away. She tossed back her Manhattan and signaled for another. The aged bartender picked up a bottle and a glass and began his arduous task of pouring and mixing.
Mildred’s eyes traveled down the bar and came to rest upon a middle-aged man. He sat at the far end, nursing a can of Old Style. Handsome but tired-looking, the fellow appeared to be in his late 50’s. At least 20 years younger than Mildred, who planned to celebrate her 80th birthday in April.
My grandmother already had a new boyfriend named Clay—a millionaire who took her dancing every Friday. Mildred had made no promises of fidelity. She leaned over the bar and squeezed my arm. “He’s cute,” she said in a stage whisper. “Don’t you think so?”
“I guess.” I gazed down at my glass. Henry had revealed that Mildred was almost broke. She’d burned through two million dollars and was down to her last $100,000. It still seemed like a lot of money to me. My college fund had gone into my grandparents’ expensive liquor glasses, a few dollars at a time.
College was bullshit anyway. I took a gulp of beer and stared straight ahead. Harry sat on my left and nursed his can of O’Doul’s. He appeared to be deep in thought. It was a welcome switch from his usual mindless chatter.
Suddenly, Mildred draped her body across the bar’s Formica surface and gestured towards the man. “Hey, handsome,” she slurred.
Looking startled, the man raised his head and slowly rotated in her direction. Mildred flashed him a lascivious grin. “What are your feelings about oral sex?”
My grandmother’s voice was so loud that the bartender almost dropped her Manhattan. Undeterred, Mildred continued to lounge on the counter like an octopus, her long limbs scattered willy-nilly amongst the ashtrays and empty glasses.
The man’s eyes grew huge, and his mouth fell open. After a moment, he composed himself. “It depends.”
Henry burst into laughter. He set down his beer can and covered his mouth with his hands, but the guffaws escaped through his fingers anyway. Rivulets of beer streamed from his nose.
I gaped at Mildred, horrified. The concept of her as a sexual being had never occurred to me. Like a couple in a 1960s sitcom, she and Henry Sr. had shared separate beds for years. I’d often helped my grandmother clean the conjugal bedroom. She’d tried, in vain, to teach me how to construct hospital corners with her crisp, imported sheets.
Mildred shrugged. “I need to visit the ladies’ room. Be right back.” She rose to her feet and staggered towards the rear of the bar.
I leaned towards Henry. “I’m afraid she came on a bit too strong.”
Henry emitted a final snort, then shook his head. “She prefers the direct approach.”
I swiveled on my barstool and turned my back on Mildred’s would-be paramour. Most likely, he didn’t relish the sight of our dysfunctional family—three generations of social misfits, all lined up and staring at him like vultures. The poor guy was entitled to some privacy.
After a moment, Mildred wandered back into the room. She sank into her seat, then rotated in a clockwise direction, hoping to attract the man’s attention again. Feeling apprehensive, I allowed my eyes to travel slowly towards his end of the bar. I didn’t want him to think Mildred’s seduction was a family affair—some sort of unholy foursome, too ghastly to imagine.
His seat was empty. An abandoned can of Old Style remained on the counter, beside a half-drained glass. The man had tucked a couple of dollars underneath an ashtray and wandered off into the winter’s night.
My grandmother sighed. “I guess he got cold feet.” She raised a hand and signaled the bartender. “Another Manhattan, please.”
The bartender scuttled towards the sink for another glass. His face assumed an implacable expression. The man had undoubtedly seen some weird shit during his years behind the bar. “A bit stronger this time,” Mildred snapped. “The last one was weak.”
“I think you scared that poor fellow,” I said.
“Who? The guy at the end of the bar? He wouldn’t know what to do with a real woman.” Mildred accepted her drink from the bartender and took a hearty gulp. “That’s all right. I’ll find someone who will.”
I didn’t doubt it. Mildred always got what she wanted, one way or another. In an hour or so, we’d return to her palatial home. The Lincoln would idle on my grandmother’s pink driveway for a few seconds. Then Mildred would guide her vehicle into the garage and retire to her pink bedroom.
The woman loved pink, and she finally had it all to herself—as soon as Henry Jr. moved into his new apartment. Friday was only a few days away. Clay would come over with a dozen roses and his usual invitation for a steak dinner and ballroom dancing. Meanwhile, in the dark of her bedroom, Mildred might conjure up an image of her fantasy lover. If she even cared or managed to remember.