Mike is his name. When I enter PT's bar in Winslow, there are only six or seven people there, and the lone empty barstool is between him and a young woman. So I take it. Mike pays no attention through the subsequent exchange, which goes like this.
The bartender sidles over (I always feel bartenders sidle, is that true?). Asks me what I want. I think, then say I'd like a minute to decide. "A Miller Lite? OK!" says the bartender. I say, no, not a Miller Lite, I want a minute to decide. A MINUTE TO DECIDE! No effect on him. He sidles off to the bar, saying almost to himself, "One Miller Lite coming right up!", yanking out a glass and starting to pull down on a lever for draft ... I'm trying to stop him, but he is not listening. Then the girl next to me calls to the bartender: "Sam, Sam, he doesn't want a Miller Lite! He wants to think about it!"
That stops Sam the bartender. I turn to her to say thanks, but she has her back to me and is looking at something off in the distance there.
Mike on my left has been silent through all this. Next time the bartender sidles by, I tell him, give me a beer and a Sprite, I want to make myself a shandy. I forget to specify that I want just Sprite. So when he delivers it to me, it is a huge glass filled as full as possible with cubes of ice, and Sprite sprayed into it. So what I really have is a glass of Sprite flavoured ice-cubes.
When I mix it with the beer, two things happen. The first is that I produce something that can by no means be called shandy. Anyway, at least it takes the edge off the beer taste, which is what I want. The second is that Mike is looking on incredulously. "I've never seen anyone drink beer like that," he says finally.
It's the only way I can consume beer, I tell him. Straight up, I can't stand the taste.
That's our ice-breaker. From there, he and I have a long conversation about everything from religion to religion in politics to cars to the brutality in the Bible to elections to his move here from Seattle.
"You've heard of the Old Testament?" he asks. Somebody went into the Temple of Jericho and killed everybody there, women and kids too. Fire and brimstone, vengeance, that sort of thing. "We don't live like that now. But people who do those things today," he says, leaning closer, "they scare me. When people take their religion that seriously, they scare me."
Me too, I say. Me too.
The chit chat moves on to guns and old cars. Mike says he once took away some guy's girlfriend. Didn't want to confront the guy because he was "way bigger'n me, y'know?" But at the time, he had a '66 Chevy Malibu and a gun in the glovebox. Had he used the gun, he says, the guy would be dead and he would be in jail. Instead, he just outran the guy in that '66 Chevy. (Boyfriend had a Dodge). When Mike's dad found out, he took away the gun and the car.
Silence. So I had to ask: "And what happened to the girlfriend?"
"Think she went back to him," he said, laughing uproariously.
So let me get this straight, Mike, I say. All you got from this little exchange was the satisfaction of your Chevy outrunning the man's Dodge?
Mike laughs some more. "Sure! But it felt good!"
Mention of a Malibu has perked up the ears of Tony, a big shambling guy with a belly and a straggly beard, sitting on the other side of Mike. He asks about the car, and then a conversation ensues, largely between them, about the glory days of the American muscle car. "You remember the Pontiac something-or-the-other?" asks Tony. "Shee-it, that baby could move! You could take a curve and accelerate out of it, shoooom, she's gone!" (He claps his hands and extends the right, indicating the bat out of hell he has in mind). (I think of Jan and Dean's harmony-laden classic, "Dead Man's Curve").
When I get a chance, I ask Tony, so what car do you drive today?
He looks at me sheepishly. "You won't believe it," he says. "It's a Nissan pickup with a hardtop." He has the apologetic air of a man admitting to a serious let-down after all this talk of muscle cars.
Which, come to think of it, a Nissan pickup probably is.