She was shooting pool with a kid. He was hitting the cue ball, but just barely. She kept pointing out how to do it, but he couldn’t so she knocked the balls in one by one herself.
Good, I thought, teach him how to lose early.
Later she approached me sharply from the right, asking why I was drinking Bud Light Platinum when Corona was the same price.
I pointed to the man at the bar and said “He seems like a man who knows his beer and he suggested it.”
Lie. It wasn’t that. I just wanted a beer that wouldn’t get me stares. It was hardly a bar, and even further of a cry from the “tavern” the sign outside claimed it to be, so I ordered whatever the drunkest man at the bar had.
“What’re you drenkin’?” I asked him rhetorically, staring at his Budweiser product. I didn’t care and neither did he apparently. He remained silent.
I asked for a Bud Light, but he rotated his beer to show that it was Anheuser’s new-fangled beer — the Platinum. Lah-dee-fucking-dah.
I asked if it was any good.
“I’ve had six and I feel fine,” he said, as if his sparkling endorsement of Bud Light’s 6 percent ABV version was gospel.
What the hell? I asked for the Platinum and here we are.
She turned to confirm who I was pointing at.
“That’s my dad,” she said.
I could scarcely contain my guffaw.
Despite her father’s four-hour residency at the corner of the bar (and let’s face it, I secretly wanted to be anchoring that barstool next to him instead of covering the damp festival outside) she seemed incredibly adept at making conversation. She was from here, but now lives on the coast.
I’m not sure I had ever been picked up at a bar so effortlessly, but it was like looking in a mirror. She had whisked me outside for a smoke before I even knew I was stepping out and we settled in on the deck.
The wooden porch bore the weight of a strange crew of characters — the type you would expect to be drunk and dragging smokes out back of a dive bar at 1 p.m. during a festival in north Wayne County.
Among the natives where I live there are a variety of accents, although sensing them is like picking out the individual tannins in a two-dollar wine — it doesn’t matter what part you focus on, it all tastes, well, just awful.
What I call the “hick” accent is a nasally-produced dialect. How they talk during allergy season is beyond me, but those who are especially good at it find careers as country music stars, so it must work on some level.
This is not the land of the deep, “suhthun” drawl, no. It’s a land of higher-pitched snippets of English spliced together with unseen apostrophes where entire words should be and syllables simply pulled from the heavens to make words as drawn out as possible so speakers have more time to sound out the next word in their nicotine-addicted minds.
The man who approached me on the deck was not a hick. His drawl was redneck — a term of dialect I reserve for those who just don’t seem to care enough to speak their words fully and choose to embrace the middle of the road accent somewhere between hick and “suhthun.”
The redneck accent is something of a drunken parody of the “suhthun” accent, which was particularly appropriate in this man’s case since he was stumbling drunk toward me in a way that almost suggested his entire body was shaking.
He was friendly enough, to start. Shook my hand as so many people who don’t have serious concerns about other people’s handwashing hygiene do. But then he asked me something…well something fucked up, I guess.
“You look like a Mormon. Are you a Mormon?”
I stepped outside of myself for a moment and peered back at what I looked like. My hair is a bit matted from the torrential spitting the sky was doing on the festival and my beard could use a trim. I’m wearing deep khakis with dress shoes, a blue polo with my paper’s name where my chest pocket should be and a light tan sportcoat that I picked up out of my car when it was raining.
I knew what Mormons looked like. Mormons had been at my house just a week before, looking for my dad who joined the church decades ago when the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints had the best basketball gym in town. If you wanted to play basketball, you joined that church. His name is still on the roll there, so they come by once a year and I tell them he’s not home. Sometimes he is. Last week he wasn’t.
These Mormons were clean-cut. No beard. Short hair. They wore white button-down shirts with name tags showing their first name was “Elder.” They carried the Book of Mormon and carried a cheery disposition, as if they knew they were going to the highest heaven imaginable from where they could visit us non-Mormons after Judgment Day but where we could not go.
Most of all, though, they weren’t holding beers.
The Mormons I’ve known have always been the kindest people I know, almost to the point of making you sick. They didn’t drink caffeine, much less alcohol.
Hell they didn’t even curse.
I remember in high school there was a set of twins that played football with me. One was strong safety and the other was the toughest running back we had.
We handed the ball to him out of the wishbone 30 times a game and ran him between the tackles where he scraped for every inch. He would be smashed, scratched, knocked down and fell on, but popped up every time the pile rolled off of him.
There was one time my junior year when he was coming up to the huddle. We were losing by a couple touchdowns and we were tired. The quarterback was trying to talk us up, but his lisp could only do so much to inspire. He turned to see where our Stormin’ Mormon was and he stood before us.
If it had made any sense, I would remember it better, but the collection of curse words he chained together were nothing less than a goddamned shit-covered cluster fuck of fucks, shits, damns and other four-letter words that had been festering within him for years.
It was beautiful.
There was silence in the huddle for a split second as 10 adolescent minds processed what had just happened before we all erupted into our own self-assuring man grunts. We won that game.
As he peered at me through his mishapen eyes, it occured to me that I could set him straight. Try to educate him a bit on the Mormon faith, then, when it ultimately failed, kick his ass and burn him with his own cigarette before turning on his buddy just in time to prevent him from practice his fourth amendment right to shoot any self-righteous yuppie that dares speak ill or punch the hell out his friend.
But practicing (yes, like abstinence) journalism has altered my state of mind to an acute understanding of small moments. Each part of an event becomes a decision — is it newsworthy or not?
That kind of microscopic inspection of moments in time can help when you’re the subject of the story of your life. You’re slower to anger over the bigot in your face just like you’re slower to have compassion for the woman who thinks the fact that her son killed himself five years ago makes her news calendar announcement about a benefit yard sale for suicide prevention more important than the cemetery reorganization meeting news calendar item you just filed. It’s not news just because you think it’s important. You can think it’s bigger than Relay for Life, but it’s still just another non-profit selling unwanted junk. Oh you just so happen to think it’s just as important as Relay for Life? Every single one of my editors said it’s not and you can’t lobby the newsroom. Fuck off.
I took the submissive journalist route, opting to coddle my new clandestine friend with familiar words so he would leave me to speak with Ms. Billiards.
“No sir, I’m a Southern Baptist.”
It’s nice to have a membership at a church that’s accepted in the crackpot south for just these occasions. I’ve also been known to mention I dated a Catholic girl and went to Mass with her, attended annual Hanukah parties in college and, oh yeah, my dad is a “member” of the Mormon church. It’s not that I have any problem with lying to dumbasses to get them out of my face, it’s just that it’s easier to lie when there’s a hint of truth in it.
In journalism I do it a lot. You would be surprised how comfortable some people can become just because you know the mascot of the obscure college they attended. You put them at ease and they’ll talk to you. I don’t think I’m good at interviewing. I think I’m good at talking.
He seemed impressed. A high five turns into a handshake. Germs.
He goes on to talk, closer and closer to my face (We both believe we’re going to heaven no matter what sins we perform so we may as well be making out, right? Except that shit sends you to hell. Wait…)
He tells me we need to work on me still. We need to straighten me up.
I’m lost because I thought we had already bonded on our shared love for organized religion that discriminates based on race and sexual orientation.
And that’s when it hits me. I’m not dealing with a human being. I’m taking on an entire culture.
I may as well have Rick Santorum clapping his unwashed hand on my shoulder telling me to straighten up. This is a sickness. The public education system that failed this man has long since dried up, but that didn’t mean the effects weren’t still rippling through the world.
I knew that I could pick any of a thousand topics that my friends and I have discussed over the past two weeks to convince him that the world has gone to hell and my generation is the one that dropped it off there. He wouldn’t listen to any of them, I knew, and it would only galvanize him and his kind further.
So I took his criticism and promised to shave my beard. It was the only uncouth quality I imagined he could see that didn’t fit the mold of what he wants in the next generation of good ole boys.
He waved me off. “Naw the beard’s fine,” he said before beginning to explain what a righteous man he was. How he prays. How he knows the lord so that makes him right.
I’m certain I could scripture him to death. His head is too mishapen to have much room for long-term, detailed memory. Beyond that I can tell his interpretation of what the bible says is more of a communion wine-stained solute derived from oft-summarized pulpit sermons with a few Bushisms and some Glenn Beck- and John Hagee-inspired hate speech mixed in for good measure. How else could he conclude that I “looked Mormon.” I wasn’t wearing a Romney button so clearly he had been wired to discriminate based on appearance by some higher power.
He explained that what was wrong with me was that I was messing with his girlfriend.
His gray teeth notwithstanding, this middle-aged man did not look like the type of imbesile who would have a girlfriend my age. His dress communicated that if gold diggers were knocking at his door they came with an embrace of the literal interpretation of that term — they would be digging him up to remove his gold teeth if they wanted to profit from him.
She gave me a 48 percent smile to indicate that he was 100 percent full of bullshit. Still, there was sincere anger buoying within the sea of the cheap beer in his belly.
His buddy approached as well, like two seagulls divebombing the last piece of bread on the beach when it’s too big for either to fly off with. He insisted that she take his number, but didn’t have a pen. To end the awkwardness, I volunteered mine.
I had my reporter’s notebook as well and realized too late that I should have offered up a piece of paper as well when I looked up to see him carving his number into her soft forearm.
He returned my pen and the two made a surprisingly quick exit, considering how suffocatingly long the introduction was. They stumbled off the deck and into the alley, where redneck’s mom was going to pick them up.
Thankful he wouldn’t be driving, I still couldn’t help but marvel that his mother was both alive and well enough to pick him up from an afternoon of binge drinking. When I’m in my 50s, I aim to hire a cab.
I wheeled to the girl who had dragged me into this firestorm of cigarrette smoke and forced acquaintance and jokingly asked why she had included me. She said she had never seen those men before.
Still, there was damage inked into her skin — with my pen no less. I apologized for providing the cromagnum with the instrument while reading what he’d scratched onto her milky white arm.
A number with “Itz Kenny” at the bottom. Charming.
I joked that she would be scrubbing for a while when she got home to remove his digits and deep-fried grammar from her arm. She suggested it would come even sooner.
Her son, whom she had been teaching Darwinist pool to earlier, came to the deck. He was ready to go and asked for her to finish her drink.
She eyed the Corona of which she had scarcely finished the neck and said soon, but not to rush mommy.
I made small talk with him as best I could, but he was tired, cranky and not in the mood to address a stranger he caught drinking beer with mommy.
She asked if I was having another and I declined. I had to get back to the office to write. She gathered her things and her child and prepared to go back into the tavern, but I slid her my business card.
“A little more classy,” I noted.
Unnecesary, yes. It went without saying that I was a professional standing among hungover wifebeaters, but it seemed so right in the moment — like a player throwing down a wide open dunk when the game is sealed instead of being noble and dribbling out the clock. “The exclamation point!” Vitale would call it.
She followed me inside and thanked me for being a gentleman. I’m unsure what that means now, but, then at least, I owned it.
I said goodbye and made my exit. Found my car and by then I already had a text message from a coastal area code.
“My number if you want it.” She even included a name which I had been remiss to acquire on my own.
A woman who can woo me, quietly withstand the advances of men twice her age without batting an eye and wrangle a child in one hand and a Corona in another? She’s worth a look.