Of all the adventures I had over the years with my cousin Henry, I think the one everyone found hands down most entertaining was the time he traded me to a Mexican for a pitcher of beer (“And a t-shirt!” Henry would always add).
Over the last (almost) 16 months since losing Henry, I’ve gotten requests to share that tale, among others, but I needed to get to a place in my grieving where I could talk about him and not break down. Last year, his birthday, which is today, was difficult to get through. As Henry used to say, “Your dad died on my birthday” to which I’d always answer, “No Henry, he died the day after your birthday” to which Henry would reply, “Well, your mother called and said (and with this he’d launch into a pitch perfect impression of my mother) “Happy Birthday Henry, Uncle Bob is dead” which then proceeded into the conversation we had countless times about that particular subject.
Last year was the first Henry birthday with no Henry, but on the heels of that day was the anniversary of my father’s passing where I was the same age as him, which was a whole other head trip and so all of it sort of got tangled up in my head and seemed like just too much sadness for one soul to bear, but my dear friend Betty gently told me that I needed to not jumble it all up together, that it was all just a coincidence, which is exactly what Henry would have said, because that’s exactly how Henry talked me off various ledges over the years.
It’s been hard to square in my head how we lost Henry – by taking his own life for reasons we will never know – with the Henry that I knew. They just simply don’t match up and my dear husband has told me time and again I will drive myself nuts trying to make them match up, so I’ve gotten to this point where I’ve given up trying. I can only deal with the loss of Henry, not the how and I know Henry, of all people, would totally understand this and probably tell me that was just fine and it was okay to stick with what I could handle.
And so this year, on Henry’s birthday, I want to celebrate him and remember him fondly. While I have many tales of our adventures – how he fostered and definitely nurtured my not-so-secret fondness for food that’s not food (one of my earliest memories is being at the penny candy counter at the drug store that’s no longer there on Reisterstown Road in Pikesville, where he very convincingly told me I needed to try the chocolate twizzlers), how we seemingly couldn’t walk down the street without stopping for a beer (except for that one road trip to Syracuse where we had Edie with us and Henry promised Pat we wouldn’t drink in the car with her and he kept his word), how we’d go into a bar and because neither one of us had ever met a stranger (something we inherited from our Granddad), Henry and I would start chatting up the bartender (which we both were for a number of years) and next thing you’d know, Henry would have gotten me a free shot or three of tequila, how we could pick up a conversation (or a game) started years ago and keep going, how we could talk about anything and everything, with some of our best conversations happening not over beers, but over coffee first thing in the morning. He was always reminding me to not take myself so seriously (sometimes by just leaving me a box of frosted brown sugar pop tarts for breakfast), to be good to Pat and to set a good example for Edie. Although he never had kids, he taught them, which gave him some insight I suppose and he felt free to give me unsolicited parenting advice, most of which involved telling me what I could do better, from the standpoint of someone who never failed to tell me how much he loved me or how strong he thought I was. He was kind, he was wicked smart and he was funny as hell. He left a mark on this world and I know I’m not alone in missing him, especially today.
Which is why I now share with you the time Henry traded me to a Mexican for a pitcher of beer. I always thought he told the story better – at the very least, it was one that was best told in tandem, but I’m going to try it on my own. It was the summer of 1996 – I was living in Birmingham, Alabama, which was two hours from Atlanta, which was hosting the Summer Olympics that year. Because Birmingham was so close, it was hosting some sporting events as well. I had mentioned to Henry when I had seen him that previous February we were getting Olympic soccer tickets, he said to count him in, because Henry was always up for sporting events. The games were being played at Legion Field and we ended up going with a carload of folks that day. The plan was to meet up at the bar across the street – the Tide and Tiger I believe – after the game, since our seats were all over the place.
The game itself was a qualifying round I think – Nigeria vs. Mexico. The stadium was overwhelming filled with Mexican fans, who were tossing a large, paper mâché jalepeño like it was beach ball all around the stadium. They were a darn good time. We can only imagine how much fun the celebration would have been had they won.
After the game let out, we went to the bar across the street. It was totally a dive bar, with a band playing in a big back room filled with long tables and chairs, with a small dance floor. The band was a group of older African American gentleman from the nearby neighborhood. I imagine they played some smoking blues, but this day, they were playing to the crowd, which meant they played an extended version of “Tequila” over and over again. We sat there taking in the scene, including watching the oversized jalepeño move across the hands in the air on the dance floor. The place was jumping.
As we sat there waiting for everyone else in our party to arrive, a fellow walked up to Henry and sat a pitcher of beer down. Henry looked at him, nodded, then looked at me and pointed. “You have to go dance with him”. What? “I told him if he bought us a pitcher of beer, you’d dance with him”. After a few “seriously?”‘s on my part, I finally got up and danced to a round of “Tequila”. I walked back to my seat, only to find Henry attaching a pin – I later realized it was an Olympic pin – to his baseball cap. He nodded in the direction of another young Mexican and said, “it’s his turn now”.
(This is where Henry would add that he was merely acting as my closest male relative and taking dowry-like bids for my dancing. Something about following some custom somewhere. He really could sound convincing, I’ll give him that.)
Everytime I’d finish a dance, I’d go back to the table, if I even made it that far, because a line had formed to dance with me, cutting Henry out of the bidding process. Eventually, when Pat walked into the bar, he said he knew I was girl in the center of the dance floor that had everyone’s attention before he could even see me. Henry, meanwhile, was back at his seat, collecting the ‘tokens of esteem’ from would be dance partners. I know there was at least one pitcher of beer, a t-shirt or two and other spoils, none of which he ever shared with me, but he did take me out that night and buy me dinner (and tequila shots). And we’ve had many laughs about it.
To this day, I can’t hear the song “Tequila” after that and NOT think of the time my cousin Henry traded me to a Mexican for a pitcher of beer.
(and a t-shirt Henry would say. Don’t forget the t-shirt!).