I’m sitting on a high top bar stool next to my grandfather who is sitting on another to the right of me. We’re drinking cocktails and ordering appetizers because neither of us had anything to eat and a few mornings ago we woke up woozy because we got drunk on empty stomachs and it wasn’t going to happen again tomorrow.
We’re at the 19th Hole, my grandfather’s favorite bar in Green Valley, Arizona, a retirement community twenty miles from Tucson and forty from Mexico.
“Well, honey, we could sit here and I could mix us another cocktail … or would ya wanna head over to the 19th Hole for one?” my grandfather asks.
His eyes, a hazier shade of blue. It’s a mischievous shade, the one that tells me we’re going to be up late.
The bags underneath them say he’s been dancing with brandy Manhattan, but I’m no saint.
“I’ll go to the 19th Hole with you, Papa,” I say.
“You will!” He slaps his hands together, almost like he’s praying and then pushes them apart. “Well let’s go then!”
The 19th Hole is a grill and bar attached to a Best Western three blocks away from one my grandparent’s villa.
On our short walk over, we pass large saguaros cacti and I’m envisioning this place to be filled with senior citizens — mostly men — huddled under dim lights playing cards, drinking bourbon, listening to old Southwestern music, and talking about which John Wayne films their fathers used to quote the most.
“The one with the Indians,” they’re going to say. “Yeah, that one was great.”
I’ve had three Bloody Mary’s already and my grandfather sucked down the same amount of Manhattans, so we’re holding onto one another’s arms like we’re off to see the Wizard.
The hotel is bright, nearly blinding, and the desk clerk glances over a book to see which way we’re walking — we turn left and she rests her eyes again.
The 19th Hole is different than I assumed. Rather than men huddled around a stack of cards, there are families finishing up meals, and large televisions casting sport stations aside from the one behind the bar that’s on the weather.
“Bright and sunny!” I’m expecting the weatherman to say, “Always in Arizona!”
Much to my surprise, the focus is on the Midwest.
“Another polar vortex in the Midwest! Excruciatingly low temperatures. Forty below freezing wind chill.”
“Jesus Christ,” I say, rolling my eyes toward my grandfather.
“I bet you can’t wait to go back to that, eh, Mamesy? Hah hah hah!” he says as he rubs my shoulder, eyes squinting. We grab a seat at the bar.
Yeah, Papa, I can’t wait.
We spent the last few days traveling up and down Arizona, bottom-to-top, top-to-bottom. Through Tucson, Phoenix, up to the Grand Canyon, Flagstaff and Sedona.
We drove through the mountains and listened to malt shop oldies.
When you’re from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where winter plagues the area for six months of the year, Arizona is a dream. It’s fucking nirvana, baby.
When the sun shies away for drawn-out periods, a deep depression sinks to the bottom of my gut and it drags my mind down with it into the mud, worsening every year.
I wither up like an old snake, ready to lash out and coil around any poor bastard that doesn’t put up much of a fight. And those who do, I still try.
Every day is the same when the sun doesn’t shine.
My grandparents, the snowbirds, they drive to Arizona shortly after the end-of-year holidays for a month or three and then drive back.
They throw a party every year before they leave the U.P., where we eat, drink beer, and then I usually stay up talking with my grandparents for the evening.
This time was different. Grandma went to bed early, and my grandpa, well he reminisced about his life, how wonderful it’s been.
He talked about a friend of his who died at fifty-five from a heart attack. His brother-in-law’s cancer came back. How his sister was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. He talked a lot, as he does with a shine on, but what really stuck with me is when he said he couldn’t believe he’s the one who’s still alive.
I didn’t know how to respond at the time, so I bought a plane ticket to Arizona a few days later.
At The 19th Hole, we order chicken wings and mozzarella sticks. I notice a man sitting by himself in the corner, drinking alone.
“I really hate that,” I say.
My grandfather looks over at the man and tells me that being alone is apart of being alive.
My grandfather orders another brandy Manhattan.
“No cherries or the juice, throw a coupla olives in there if you have ‘em.”
My grandfather always orders Manhattans this way, his way. He takes his glass, winks, and drinks. He’s stern but God help the poor son of a bitch who makes his drink too weak.
We start talking, and have the same conversation every time we drink together.
He off starts by saying I’ve come a long way from the shy little girl I once was. He tells me one of his favorite memories when I asked him to escort me to the father-daughter breakfast in elementary school.
“Your mother made you call me. I remember how happy it made me—that she made you call!” He looks at me, “And I brought ya! Two years!” and he smiles.
He puts his arm around me and says, “Maymes, I can’t tell ya how proud I am you decided to come here to visit your ole Papa and Gramma. I would have booted ya in the ass if you went anywhere else, but man, I just can’t tell you how proud that makes me.”
“Well, I wouldn’t have wanted to go anywhere else,” I tell him.
My first night in Arizona we stayed up later than we should have. He said the same thing, how proud he was.
I told him how scared I was. How the last time I saw him, it really bothered me how casually talked about death.
“You’re my guy, you know that?” I said to him.
And he listened to me, wholeheartedly.
He’s a stubborn man, but he listened to me and I saw the twinkle in his eyes, the same one that’s been fading the last few years.
He looks at me, and says “Maymes, I know you don’t like me talking about this stuff—but this means a lot to me.”
“I’ve been to a lot of funerals. Many of them I always had a story to share but I didn’t because it involved drinking. Now, listen to me. I want you to tell everyone about what a great life I had and how happy I was, and how I loved everybody, and they loved me.
“But most of all, Mames, I want you to tell everyone about how you could have went anywhere, but you came here. And now you’re here, with me, drinking a cocktail at the 19th Hole and that’s the happiest I could be.”
We finished our drinks and staggered back toward the villa, arm in arm.
Me too, Papa — me too.