You walk into the bar on a Monday night and at first it's one like any other. You recognize its sorrow-killing aspects: the overly saturated reds and greens, the pedestal of booze bottles behind the bar, the gently humming loneliness—a place once populated with drunken inmates just like you. Inmates who used to be older but now they're not, or they're dead. This bar is empty of customers tonight, how you like it these days—emptiness as a living, breathing thing. You recall how you'd visit these spots with regularity like atonement.
The swamp cooler is blowing hard enough to rustle the hair on your arms, and it's comforting, like how Tucson summers are time-stamped to your childhood, and so it feels like the moment is forever slipping away. That motion.
A youngish street urchin of 33 or so steps in off the dark street and hits up the bartender for matches. You notice the street-corner Army green, and mean eyes trying hard to be kind, and wonder how long it has been since he bent out of the shape of someone who could be loved. He makes you sad because you might've been him in some other time. He turns and looks right at you and his face shows warning, and he mumbles something but it's overpowered by the cackle of the basketball game on one of two flickering TVs. He ambles out of the bar in a hazy glow of real or imagined menace and steps out into the night. You figure he would've stayed longer if you weren't there. He would've kept his gaze on the bartender because he obviously regards her like you do in that quiet sunken way that withdrawn people do around anyone who is beautiful.
Louie, an employee from Luke's Italian Beef restaurant next door, wears a kitchen apron and moves with slow tired ease, like maybe he carries the tragic nature of the universe on his sloped shoulders. You think maybe he does carry such weight because he's black and he's a legend on this tiny stretch of Alvernon just south of 22nd Steet—he's cooked at Luke's for 30 years. He totes in food for Chatterbox bartenders—a long-standing, recurring gesture of kindness, bread and salad and things, all wrapped up. Sometimes he brings crossword puzzle magazines and pizza and candy.
You notice the bartender's name penned in cursive on the dry-erase board hanging in light near the bathrooms: Isabel. Louie chats with Isabel about water dripping through a keg-sized hole in the ceiling. Isabel places a bucket in the center of the floor to catch it.
You know of the lady who was living in her car with her Chihuahua who Isabel befriended. Then she'd come into The Chatterbox and plug in her rice cooker and drink free soda until one day she was gone. Just like that.
Without a goodbye, Louie the Legend moves like an apparition through the open door, and heads south, back to his home of 30 years.
Isabel looks at you and looks up at the hole in the ceiling. She giggles. Says, "Like I said, this place is a hole...."
You wouldn't want it any other way. Not the lovely Chatterbox, a bar that's been around since just after World War II, and has been owned by the same guy since '74. It's had some glory years, serving well the neighborhood regulars and unemployed machinists and broken newlyweds and alcoholic liars and the hit-upons and best friends and anyone you can personally name who'd manned a stool here. It's had some downer years and you guess it's probably in the middle of a downer year or five right now. It makes you happy that there are no craft cocktails here, and no preeners who look like an unfortunate cross of Garth Hudson (circa '69) and Haircut 100. It smells of wet concrete and warm beer, not the hygienic pong of new money and fresh interior design. Only marketing here: glowing Bud and Coors signs.
In this moment, there's no one here but you and the bartender. There's no jaded air of drink-slinger responsibility about her; you understand how she's comfortable in her skin in that way people are who've not let life punishments erode trust and curiosity in others.
She extends her hand to show you the ring her man David Anthony Doc Holliyday Lopez gave her three days ago. Its many diamonds shimmer. You're not lying when you tell her it impresses. You marvel at her fiancé's name too. She tells you his parents give their children names after western heroes, complete with spelling variance.
You learn the 37-year-old began working in the bars at 18, and has worked in every local dive you can recall, The Buggy Wheel, Home Plate, The Buffet, The Silver Room, Lazy V, Alfie's Pub, The Runway, The Office and others. She's been at the Chatterbox on and off for at least a decade.
You understand how bars helped lift Isabel from what she terms "a rough childhood." You learn of the book she composed in third grade, the one that landed her on local news, the true account of how her uncle killed her pregnant (eight months) aunt and wounded her five-year-old cousin and then committed suicide. The uncle was a "drunk, and that runs in the family" she explains. That family devastation devastated the extended family.
Her dad drank, hard, he was never around. He had another family. A tattoo on her shoulder tells of familia solidaria, depicting Isabel and her sister.
Drive-by bullets sprayed her government-subsidized childhood Tucson homes often and her brother is lucky to be alive even though he's in prison. He went to the big house at age 16. He got out for a few months and now he's back in. Lifer.
She always wanted to be a writer, but life has a way of getting in the way. Sometimes she writes when she's alone in the Chatterbox. She'd earned young author awards at Wakefield Junior High and Pueblo High. She says she learned what not to do by watching others in her family.
In all your whiteness, you think of this woman with the rose and heart tattoos, jeans and tight top, as a tough Latina, in the best way possible, hard and beautiful and with a soft, quietly beating heart. You think of how lucky bar patrons have been over the years to have had her do the pouring. You figure none had much idea.
You wonder if she's ever frightened to be behind the bar here alone at night, this bar near 22nd Street and Alvernon, with the "tweaker zombies" as one patron put it one night.
"No. Not really," she tells you. "Except the young gangbanger kids, with the rags on them. They make me more nervous than anyone else."
That's when she reaches below and pulls out a glimmering Taurus 1911 .45 pistol. You know very little about guns but even you can see it's a formidable weapon that could easily take your own head off. She tells you how David, her fiancé, "wants me to be prepared for anything."
Her man has a huge gun collection and she shows you pictures on her phone: She points out a Glock 26 that holds up to 200 rounds, a pair of AR-15s, a 12 gauge, and so on.
The bartender's fiancé David comes around often and in him you sense at first a lazy kind of agitation, see how she's hyper attentive to his needs. He leaves for an hour, drives off in his shiny big pickup, and then he comes back around. You consider him hovering danger, tattooed machismo moving in an inflexible bubble of jealousy. You watch close and soon learn how you're judgmental, and wrong. There's no domestic crisis in the air, or tension, but you sense his burden of Isabel working alone in a beat bar after dark.
Then he leaves. Returns an hour later with a brand-new chainsaw. Opens the box and admires its contents on the bar. Got a deal on it, he tells her. She admires it too. The display of domestic tenderness aches.
David was a tattoo artist who had his own shop and now he's a bootmaker too (a rising apprentice working for the Osuna custom boot family), a rodeo star (they both wear his championship belt buckles), and he co-owns a mesquite-shaded ranch in South Tucson called Rancho Bravo where he boards horses and other barnyard animals. There's chickens and goats and a goose they rescued after its beak had been cruelly clipped. The ranch is lovingly done up with found objects, from bull skulls to water tanks. David's got street entrepreneurial skills and his presence is powerful.
He shows you pictures. Of his old Southside tattoo parlor called AZ Ink Tattoo, with the stripper pole and come-hang couches and liquor store located sweetly across the street. The parlor closed because David was getting hassled by cops all the time after it became a destination for lowrider clubs. David grew up around Arizona ranches, and knows and loves animals.
You now see David as a protector. You're no fan of guns and he shows you Facebook videos of himself shooting automatic weapons in the desert, and you see how he lives by some kind of code, rules of safety, which carry over to his life, his fiancée, his 18-year-old son, his ranch, his rodeo riding.
He talks of touching people's lives, through art (tattooing), through animals (his ranch) through kindness ("It's about helping people get to the next place"). You hate yourself because you are surprised. You know you would likely worry too if she was your fiancée. He tells you, "What are you going to do?" You can't tell anyone where to work. She loves dive bars.
Their first date found them delivering a baby horse on that very ranch, three years ago. David had a crush on Isabel for years, but she was with someone else. That same someone else once snapped her back and he let her suffer on the floor for hours before calling an ambulance. It was a show of boundless brutality and terror, and it's a wonder she wasn't paralyzed for life. Still she suffers heavy back pain, needs one more operation so as not to wind up in a wheelchair. That's why David doesn't let her lift heavy things. You watch him help her at The Chatterbox. He tells you how he met her working on the tattoo on her neck that spelled out the name of the man who broke her back.
Still you marvel how Isabel is not lost to chaos. Because you are, still. She has her code and so does David. You walk out of there. You tally the ways how the two people are nothing like you, and you suddenly care about them so much it surprises you. At the Chatterbox on a lonely Monday night in June in Tucson.