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
Uncle Henry was a crazy, obsessive Scorpio and had the goods
on everybody. The previous evening, he’d driven me around my grandmother’s
neighborhood, pointing out the hidden skeletons behind every door. Grandmother 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,
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
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
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
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
“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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.