When I was five, we visited my dad’s parents in Florida for Christmas. I rode down to Nokomis Beach with my grandpa. He stopped by the bait shack and purchased a Budweiser.
“That your grandson, Al?” a fisherman asked.
I was half hiding behind a dock piling.
“That’s what they tell me.”
My grandpa was a first-generation German immigrant. A child of the Depression. I had Nintendo and all the games. His blonde-haired blue-eyed grandson. We walked out on the jetty to watch the boats leave the marina.
On the way home he cut a sharp left. We ended up at a bar under a bridge. It was dark and smoky inside. He ordered me a Coke and lifted me onto the bar.
“Ginger, this is my grandson.”
“Al, I didn’t know you had a family,” Ginger said.
He ordered a Manhattan. I sipped my Coke as they chatted.
When we left, he said, “Don’t tell anyone I brought you here.”
I nodded that I understood.
“If you do, I’ll never take you anywhere like that again.”
As we drove home, I stared out the window. The palm trees and retro houses of Nokomis gave way to the sprawl of Venice before opening to fields of sawgrass on the town’s edge. We returned to their house in a subdivision of houses that all looked the same. But all Florida.
We entered through the garage. My dad looked at me like he knew I was hiding something. My mom glanced up from a magazine.
“You okay?” she said.
“Boy,” my dad said. “Answer your mother.”
I didn’t answer.
My grandma, who’d been outside doing aerobics, stepped inside sweating.
Feeling the weight of their collective gaze, I caved.
“He took me to a dark place under the bridge,” I said. “There was a lady who liked him. She gave me a coke.”
My dad laughed.
“Honestly, Albert,” my grandma said.
His stare was burning me alive. He and my dad went out on the Florida room with beers. My grandma squeezed fresh orange juice. My mom returned to her magazine.
I crept out to the Florida room. When my grandpa noticed me, he shook his head in devastated disappointment.
We visited every Christmas after that. As the years passed, I sat with him in his Florida room. On Sundays we watched Dan Marino. Believing the Dolphins could win. Me on the patio couch, him in his chair with a beer and The Wall Street Journal. My dad at the table in the corner, cracking wise. The Dolphins perpetually losing. Marino carving up defenses in vain.
On weekday afternoons, we watched the stock market ticker tape. I’d watch for the symbols of the companies he held to roll by and tell him the price.
Florida in December was humidity and short days. Afternoon storms. Gators that might wander calmly through the yard or right up to the screen door.
My grandpa saying, “Hey, you, look at there,” as my eyes globed.
The orchard in his backyard where I ran in circles to release youthful energy. Even in winter, the grapefruits and oranges glistened on the branches. I gazed up at them with one eye shut so their circumference eclipsed the sun as it burnt still over the treetops.
“Get in here,” he’d yell. “Marino’s got the ball again.”
And for years that’s how it went. Until I got older and he got older and bone cancer, assisted living and dementia. Until the Christmas we didn’t visit, and my dad went down to handle the estate and help my grandma move out of their house and into a retirement community.
I didn’t see him when things got bad. My parents sheltered me from that.
I figure we owe it to our parents to stand by as they fade from this existence, but not our grandparents. There’s a buffer that goes both ways. Maybe that was why me telling the truth about the bar allowed him to connect with me in ways he couldn’t connect with his own children.
If nothing else, he taught me a timeless lesson. And maybe that’s all he ever wanted. I regret never saying how much it meant to me, but I take solace in believing he knew.
For as long as we visited, anytime he and I were left alone on the Florida room he reminded me about the bar. He let me know he hadn’t forgotten. We could watch football together. Go pin fishing under the drawbridge down in Nokomis or on his Wednesday drive to every grocery store in Venice to check the marked down meats. Walks on the jetty and the snacks at the bait shop. The countless hours of silence we enjoyed together. But never once did he take me to another bar or offer me his confidence again. On that he never broke his word.
Wilson Koewing is a writer from South Carolina. His work has recently appeared in Bending Genres, Schuylkill Valley Journal, The Loch Raven Review and New World Writing.