I always look at the hands to learn the true character of a person. The face tells you what someone thinks or feels, but the hands tell you what they do. This man's face was rugged and leathery but his hands were delicate and smooth, like he was an actor or a musician. I don't usually trust guys who have smooth hands because they didn't do any real work to earn their money, or they spent all of their time trying to figure out how to get other people's money away from them.
Leaning back on my stool, I looked at my own hands, callused and yellowed with tar and nicotine. My fingernails are tan and the cuticles are enormous. There's a scar between my middle finger and pointer on my right hand from this awful habit I have of falling asleep while smoking, often right on this very bar stool. I take pride in my hands because I feel that they speak of a man with an interesting life, not a soft, easy one. I took the last drag of my cigarette and put it out in the half-full ashtray.
This guy was probably in insurance or something, judging from his very functional navy suit, or maybe he was a salesman of some sort. I could see him looking at me from time to time trying to get a conversation started so he could sell me something. I had a way of looking really interested in TV shows so people wouldn't talk to me if I thought they wanted my money. I stared at The Young and the Restless intently.
Jojo's Happy Hour bar seemed to attract a lot of salesmen in the afternoon for some reason, although why had always been a mystery to Charley, the owner of the bar. Whenever someone with a briefcase came in with that "hey, pal, howya doin'?" look on his face, Charley would slink to the other end of the bar and pretend to be occupied washing glasses or dusting the counter until the guy got brave enough to call him over and order the obligatory cocktail. Charley would try to get away as quickly as possible after taking his four dollars before the guy launched into the "Are you the owner of this bar?" spiel. If he got cornered into a conversation, he would weasel his way out by claiming that he was just the bartender and he wasn't allowed to order a CD jukebox or ten kegs of the new hip beer that nobody would drink. Some of these guys just won't let up, so sometimes he would just tell them to get the hell out before he called the cops, and that usually did the trick. Even then, on their way out they usually tried to give him a business card.
This guy wasn't in the bar to drink, that was for sure, because he had been nursing the same gin and tonic for thirty-five minutes now. I was on my second Bud of the day. I don't usually drink during the daytime, but I was home from the factory this week and I was bored to death since my wife was at work and I had finished fixing all the things around the house that needed fixing, so I headed over to Jojo's. Unfortunately, all of my friends were still at work too, so the place was empty. It's strange to be in a bar during the afternoon because it seems so empty and quiet, almost like a funeral parlor. You'd never know this was the same place I spent most evenings in- at night this place is full of regulars and kids from the university, all talking and having a good time, dancing and playing songs on the old jukebox. Maybe it was the music that made it different. While I was thinking about that, the guy on my left was starting to get antsy, and I knew he was going to speak to me any minute now.
"It's a doggone shame, that they got all these guys around trying to sell you things all the time," I said, nodding at the commercials on the TV. Always caught them off guard if you complain about the very thing they're trying to do.
"Yes, it is," He replied, "especially because most of it's garbage anyway." Now, all I had to do was not respond and he didn't have a casual way to keep the conversation going.
There was silence for a couple of minutes, while Charley wiped the same shot glass for the tenth time over by the window. The light coming from behind him made him hard to see, but I could still tell that he was avoiding any kind of eye contact with this guy. I went back to watching the doctor on TV tell the pretty woman about how her half brother had some rare disease. She seemed rather upset about it, and I tried my best to look concerned. It's so much easier to dodge these guys when there's a ball game on. I don't really care for sports, but every guy in the world knows that it's considered a sin for a man in a bar to talk during a game. I could sense his mind working on how to get me talking again.
"My name's Frank. Frank Perkins. What's yours?" he asked me, as he moved to the stool next to me and held out his hand. Oh hell, here it comes- the introduction.
"Jack," I said and gripped his hand awkwardly. I've had trouble with my handshake because of that Tunnel Syndrome thing I got at the factory back when I was in the assembly division. Back then, it wasn't a "syndrome" yet, so I couldn't get worker's comp for it.
"Well, Jack, I gotta tell you, you're one handsome man. I'll bet your wife hates to see you at the bars in the afternoon." Oh god, I thought, I hope he's not trying to pick me up. If you ever feel bad about yourself, just spend a minute talking to a salesperson and they'll make you feel like Paul Newman.
"She knows I can't hardly handle one woman let alone two. I took the week off for personal reasons," I replied. I know nobody can resist the old "personal reasons" thing. The object for me now was to keep the conversation on my terms so he couldn't get started on his pitch. Sometimes, if you keep them going long enough, they forget all about it and have to leave because they're late for a meeting or something. Seems like all these guys do is go to meetings and harass people like Charley and me. I guess at the meetings, they discuss how to get people like me to buy more stuff.
"What was it, if you don't mind my asking,"
"I had to take care of something back home."
"Over in West Falls. My uncle passed on and I was the only family left in the area, so I had to settle all of his affairs."
"You took off a whole week for that?"
"Well, I had all this vacation time coming, and I sure don't have the money to go anywhere, so here I am drinking beer on a Thursday afternoon," I said and took out a Winston Light. I fished for my lighter, but settled for the matches by the ashtray. Someone always left matches on the bar. I put the match in the ashtray, which was a little on the full side, but Charley wasn't coming anywhere near us to empty it.
"I'm sorry to hear that. Was he old?"
"He was sixty-seven. He was a plumber back in the old days, but he got in with the wrong crowd after he retired." I said. I was making that last part up. I like to tell outlandish stories to people I know I'll never see again, just so they'll have something to tell their salesmen friends back home. I just have this sort of gift for coming up with bizarre tales that seem sort of believable. Truth be told, my uncle did die recently and he was a plumber, but here's where I start embellishing.
"He started hanging around with all these hot rodder kids from over in Birchtree. I think he met them at the liquor store when they were trying to find someone old enough to buy them some cheap wine. He was a little lonesome since my Dad, who was his brother, moved down to Phoenix. Couldn't blame Daddy after the stroke, really, what with the awful winters here." I said. In reality, my uncle spent all of his time playing pinochle with his old Korean War buddies. He had a heart attack in the middle of a really good hand and fell face first into a bowl of Chex party mix.
"Hot rodder kids?" he asked. He looked pretty eager to hear the gossip about someone he'd never met, and especially someone who had actually led a more boring life than his own.
"Well, I guess they hit it off and he started letting them hang around his place to do their work. It was a pumpkin farm at one time, but most of it had been sold off, so my Uncle had this house on about three acres of ground. He was always real friendly, that Bobby, friendly to a fault."
"They took advantage of him?"
"No, not really. They just needed a place to take their cars apart. He used to buy them beer and go out and help them a little, with what he knew about car engines, mainly he did welding for them. He loved all the company- made him feel like a teenager again. At first, they were just restoring old muscle cars that they got from the junkyard. I remember one kid had this '71 Charger that looked just like that car from The Dukes of Hazard, and I was over for something or other, and he's asking me if I know anything about electrical wiring. I tried to help him, but that thing was so backwards that the only way to get it started was to turn on the windshield wipers."
"So what happened to your uncle? Did they run him over or something?"
"Well, they started putting larger and larger engines in these things, seeing how fast they could make them go. They first one was a diesel engine from an old flatbed they got down at the scrap yard. Then on Bobby's farm they found a busted engine in a broken down crop duster in his barn, and it just kind of escalated from there. They'd take their contraptions over to the dry river bed and see how fast they'd go before they blew up. More than a couple of them lost an eye."
"That's DANGEROUS!" He was on the edge of his seat now, visualizing these juvenile delinquents and an old plumber flying through the canyon on souped-up death machines.
"Darn right. Those parents must have been dumb as dirt to believe these kids who'd come home with multiple fractures and third-degree burns got them riding their bikes. Anyway, they started going farther and farther from here to get bigger engines for their machines, and finally they found the biggest one they'd ever seen."
"What was it?"
"Well, out by where highway 173 hits route 22 there's an old army base. I think it was closed in the early 90's with all the military cutbacks. Anyway, they cut through a couple of fences found all of these ballistic missiles that had been torn apart. I guess the army guys kept them there for parts or something."
The police were pretty baffled about that part, but they think the kids used a tow truck to drag it onto the car frame.
"Yep, they took one and tried to mount it on the body of an old Ford Country Squire station wagon frame. This thing must have weighed about five or six tons before the... well, it barely fit on the thing. The police were pretty baffled about that part, but they think the kids used a tow truck to drag it onto the car frame. So there's my sixty-something uncle out in the middle of the desert using his expertise as a plumber to mount a ballistic missile engine on the back of a family car." I said. Charley had determined that this guy didn't represent any sort of immediate threat and had moved in close to empty the ashtray and hear my story. He loves it when I string one of these guys along.
"He did it?"
"Yep. It maybe would have worked too, but Bobby didn't know too much about what kind of fuel one of those things uses, so he mixed a whole bunch of things up- turpentine, lacquer thinner, gasoline... whatever he had in his truck. Then he hooked up the butane tank he used for welding, and he wired it all up with an ignition system that he jerryrigged from an old gasoline generator. He wanted to be the first one to try it out because he put so much work into it and all, so he gets into the driver's seat, fastens his safety belt, checks his rear-view and flips the big red switch."
"What happened?" Frank asked. I took a slow drink of my beer to add to the suspense, and to try to come up with a good ending.
"The damn fool electrocuted himself. Turned out he knew less about electricity than he did about rocket fuel. The kids panicked and took off." Charley smiled and walked back to the other end of the bar. I wasn't sure if Frank bought it or not because he was just sitting there with his mouth hanging open.
After a few minutes, he gathered his thoughts and ordered another gin and tonic, no lime. Then he turned to me and said, "Was he properly insured? So many men aren't these days."