It wasn’t often I felt such an urge, such a need for a drink. I could probably count on one hand the number of times the urge was so great. It usually had to do with a funeral. The death of a loved one. Today was no different.
The place was small, dark, and well known to the locals. I wasn’t a local so it was safe that I could tip maybe two drinks then get back to where I was supposed to be. The bar was mostly empty except for a few stools. I grabbed one, careful to leave enough empty seats between me and the next drinker. I scanned the bottles crowded on the bar back, looking for a familiar friend. Clear vodka bottles with fancy doves etched in the frosty surface mixed with cheap whiskey bottles featuring a cock or a bridge.
“What can I get for ya?” The bartender asked. She was skinny and short. Probably a mother, but I’ve been wrong before.
“Makers Mark on the rocks.”
“I’ll have to order another bottle.” She said as she emptied the last of it over the ice cubes.
The golfers on the television over head were in short sleeves. Somewhere warm. Somewhere sunny. They wore colorful shirts and some wore white pants which stood out against the dark green fairways. It was a stark contrast. Not unlike the stark contrast of weather, which was cold and grey here.
A senior couple sat around the corner of the bar. They sipped beer and watched the same thing I was watching. They didn’t say a word until another couple of seniors arrived, then it was endless health updates.
“Frank has an appointment for a scan next week.” She said it nonchalant, like Frank had been scanned before. The other couple just nodded. I wondered what they were thinking. If they looked at Frank like he was a dead man. Frank sipped his beer and watch as a golfer tee’d off with a sharp ping from his club.
The funeral that I was hiding from was just down the street. My family was to meet me at the funeral home in two drinks. That’s how I measured the time, by how many I could get in me before I had to go. She lived for 92 years, a nice long existence by any measure. She’d be missed, of course, but not really.
She devoted her life to her husband. Feeding, cleaning, and caring for his every need. Their five children, including my mother in law, said she was warm and caring. Cooking, cleaning, and caring in typical Italian fashion. She never drove, spoke little English, and rarely left the home without her husband. 12 years ago her husband died, but she never slept a night alone in her big house with a full kitchen in the basement. Her daughters took turns spending the night. When they grew tired of that they began shuttling her from house to house in month long streches.
The ice rattled in my glass and the skinny bartender showed up. “Another?” she motioned toward my empty glass. “It’ll have to be something different.” I scanned the bottles for a familiar sight. Nothing caught my eye. I ordered a cherry infused mass market bourbon. She apologized for not having more Makers as she gave me a healthy pour of the cheap shit. With the flavor of cherry swirling in my mouth instead of the healthy oak flavor I enjoyed, I began to think of life and how short it could be. Should a man, given how precious and uncertain every day is, drink anything but his favorite drink? Should he eat anything less than what it was he truely craved? A car crash, a sudden blockage of a main artery to your heart, or your brain, and suddenly you’re the one being euligized while family talked about your life and how great it was, whether it was great or not. Should we settle for even one day of mediocre? Should we drink the cheap shit?
Frank and the seniors at the end of the bar discussed retirement communites near Fort Myers. I wondered if Frank would even make it to Christmas given the grave nature of impending scan. I glanced at the golf and the young, fit guys that played it. Now that was living. That was the type work every man dreamed of. To earn a living doing what others did as play. What others did in their free time, away from the office, from the factory floor. With life hanging on such a delicate balance, should a man spend even one day with even mere inconvenience?
There were picture boards positioned near the casket. Large white boards that the family had spent the last few evenings preparing, no doubt discussing Grandma’s life. Posed pictures with babies. I seen a lot of these kind of pictures taken in the 14 years I’d been around. I’d seen how it went with my own two children, her great grand children. The child would be placed on Grandma’s knee and she would immediately begin to kiss the baby with such vigor and recklessness that the on lookers would shutter in fear that she would smother the poor thing. A flurry of 20 kisses to each of the baby’s cheeks would leave the baby crying and the photo opportunity missed. Her role as grandmother was not the typical grandma that society had painted a vivid picture of. Very different indeed, she was a grandma, a great grandma in title alone. She never took her grandchildren. Never babysat. Never bought them anything or spoiled them. It was as if her role as mother and wife had worn her thin as wire and when her first grand child was born, a moment looked upon as spectacular by most, she looked at the ugly infant then at the parents and said, “Good luck. I’ve already done my raising. My caregiving.”
The flowers sent by the various families we outlandish. She wasn’t a member of any civic or church groups. She didn’t have a best friend. Her life was devoted to her husband and her 5 children. Once her husband departed, she was lost. The basement of the funeral home was appointed with fine furniture. The walls were adorned with paintings and there was even a small fireplace, gas of course. The children stayed in the basement, lounging on the couches and drinking soda from the fountain in the small kitchen area. Soon food was delivered to relieve the grieving from the arduous task of preparing a meal after a day of crying. Only, I didn’t see much crying. Maybe it was the booze that clouded my judgement, but this was a funeral unlike any I’d ever been to. There were few funny stories of the deceased being passed around like I’d heard when my aunts, uncles, and grandparents passed. No embarrassing antidote of a wild moment that would make one wish they knew the dead when it happened. “Grandma? She did that? I would have never thought it was possible.” But no. None.
Chicken arrived and the grieving family, in small groups as to not let the visitors wonder where they were, came down and made plates. They ate something that was never served in Grandma’s home. And store bought at that. When I was asked if I would deliver a plate of food to a family member too sick to attend I felt as if I had been granted a pardon. A file baked into a cake. My freedom imminet. I was careful to contain my excitement. A plate of chicken and various salads was hastily put together and I was off, under strick orders of course, but free nonetheless.
“I came with food, Jim.” They only lived three miles away so the plate and food contained was still warm.
“Thanks. What are we having?” My orders were precise. Move him into the kitchen because he will make a mess if he eats in the Lazy Boy.
“You wanna eat right there where you’re at?” I purposely broke the rules. One could decide on his own where best to feed. Plus, Jim was a man of 62 years. He’d worked his entire life only to, at the age of 59, be struck with a massive stroke that paralyzed his left side. He spent most of his time in the Lazy Boy now, watching TV. He walked back and forth to the bathroom, with the assistance of a cane, but not much else. His days were planned around doctor visits and what would he watch. Many times I stopped over for a brief visit only to be subjected to his choice of television shows. The Housewives of Orange County. The Next Top Chef. And the time I cut my visit rudely short after suffering through an episode of, Say Yes to the Dress. It was a marathon and when the episode ended I mentioned that the Tigers were playing. But he didn’t budge. Another episode of pouty women making such an important life decision, a decision about a dress that would be worn for a matter of hours. Jim was riveted, I was not.
I moved around the kitchen like it was my own. Plate, fork, napkin. “What do you want to drink?” I moved his tray into the living room and set up his plate. “How’s it look?” I draped a bath towel over his shirt, a marching order I chose to comply with, then sat down on the couch while he ate.
“How’s things at the funeral home?” He asked. He was eating chicken off the bone while crumbs stuck to his lips and fell on the towel. There was a time when Jim was the president of a professional association. He spoke before large gatherings at meetings and dinner parties. A lifelong salesman, his manners were impeccable. But here he was, bound to a small condo because he couldn’t manage the three front steps without assistance. Back and forth to the bathroom, his left hand clenched and paralyzed.
I sat with him for a few minutes and then decided to head back to the funeral home, or maybe not. “Jim, I’m gonna head back. What do you need before I go?” I left him to finish his dinner doing the only thing he could, watching tv.
The stools at the bar were mostly filled now. It was that time of day when people needed a drink to unwind from a day at work, or to prepare themselves for the evening ahead. I slid into a stool, and ordered what I had been drinking before. The stool next to me was empty but the glass of wine and long trench style coat hanging on the back of it suggested its occupant was outside smoking, or using the bathroom. When she returned she started talking right away.
“I’m Phillis. What’s your name?” her voice sounded as if it had been attaced by a cheese grater and it was immediately apparent by the smell of her breath where she had been.
“Ken. Nice to meet you, Phillis.”
“What are you drinking?”
“Bourbon. Cheap stuff.” I held my glass up but continued to look only at the television.
She sipped her wine. “My day has been shit.” I immediately wanted to be somewhere else. Why had I chosen this seat? I knew my luck of having a quiet drink with only my thoughts would be in jeopardy now that happy hour had started.
“Yeah?” Drink your drink and let her talk, I thought.
“I got thrown off my flight to Florida this morning.” I could tell she was staring at me.
I didn’t look toward her, “Drinking?”
“Fuck no!” The boredom of the funeral home was looking better and better with each word. I downed my drink and set the glass down. “You need to start drinking better stuff, honey.”
“I know what I like. They ran out earlier.” The bartender noticed my empty glass and started toward me.
“Carol, go in the basement and see if there’s any good bourbon.” Phillis knew the place well. A regular. Maybe an employee, or former employee. Fired for drinking in the basement or for being an overall pain in the ass. Carol followed orders, turning and going thru the double stainless steel clad doors to the back room.
An empty glass means decision time. Have another, or get the hell out of there. I wanted another, but I also wanted to have it in peace, not next to a spiky haired woman who looked and acted like she never stopped drinking since being removed from a flight by a county sheriff some eight hours previous. Carol returned proudly holding a bottle. She set it in front of me and, after struggling to pull the fabric string that cut the famous red wax, I offered to help. She went to help another customer so once the bottle was open, I poured my own drink. Phillis looked on, commenting the whole time. “Let me buy that for you.” she said. “My husband drinks the best bourbon money can buy.” She was at it again. I could feel the gravel move in her throat with each word. Years of smoking, drinking, and talking over the noise in a crowed bar had taken it’s toll.
When I got back to the funeral home the rosary was being read in the parlor so I went to the basement and hung out with the kids, they better suited my current frame of mind anyway. When the rosary was done I found my wife and we said our good-byes. We’d see most of them at the church in the morning for the funeral and burial. The final lowering of the physical being.
I tucked the kids in then poured an inch of bourbon over two ice cubes. In the darkness of the living room, lit only by the light over the range, I thought of my own life. Funerals do that to most of us, I think. What will be said when I’m eulogized? Will I be a grandparent in name alone, a figure at the top of the family pyramid or will I climb down on the living room floor and play legos like I did as a kid and then as a father?
I lost an uncle a year ago that lived such a clean, god-fearing life that there was little to eulogize about the man. Nothing fun. Nothing embarrassing. 65 years but so little to say about it. I lost a friend when he was 23 and his friends eulogized for almost two hours because he had crammed so much living into his years. What will be remembered, mentioned, and what will be buried along with the body?
What will be our demise? A clogged artery that leaves us paralized, living out our final years watching reality TV? Will we drink beer with friends one day, only to have a scan reveal serious trouble the next? We live a life so delicate, balanced, like tip-toeing on a razorblade for years on end. We eat right to avoid this ailment, we exercise to avoid that ailment. We live recklessly, drinking to excess. We go to far in the quest to live life. Some, like Phillis, being removed from an airplane at 9am. I wondered if she would be allowed on the flight they rebooked for her the next morning.
While I was writing this a co-worker passed. 45 years old, two kids, separated from his wife but working it out. He didn’t show up for work one evening and was found in his apartment. His heart decided to quit while he slept.
We are fragile, but that shouldn’t prevent us from living a little reckless now and then.