“Ah Jeez, Frank,” Earl said, “Do you see this one coming in?”
Frank didn’t look up, but he had seen. Bartenders see everything. “Yep.”
“I mean, can you do something?” Earl asked. “Look at that hair. The beard. And the shirt. Sandals, for Christ sake. Sandals,” Earl repeated, but he had to cover his mouth with the back of his hand and look away because the man had sat down next to him.
Frank nodded at the man. “Whatta ya have?”
“Beer,” the man said.
The man considered, then smiled. “Cold.”
“Okay,” Frank said. He continued to stand in front of the man.
“Oh yes,” the man told him. He dug into his pocket and produced two dollar bills, soft as old cotton but neatly folded, and some coins. “Is this enough?”
“Yes,” Frank said. He took the bills and some of the coins, found the coldest beer he could, and placed the sweating bottle softly on the bar. The man took a long but not a big sip, closed his eyes, and exhaled.
“Needed that, huh?” Earl asked from one corner of his mouth while drinking his beer with the other.
“No,” the man said, “Just a long time since I had one.”
“Been off the sauce?”
“No,” the man told Earl.
They sat silently. Earl had the strangest feeling the man was watching him, even though he was looking straight ahead. He sure didn’t take offense easily. Earl figured he’d have to try harder.
“Not from around here, are you?”
“No,” the man said.
“I could tell,” Earl told him. “Town’s not that big. Everybody knows most everybody. And you don’t look like everybody.”
The man had his elbows resting on the bar, his fingers loosely tangled in front of his face. Eventually, he looked over at Earl. “How’s that?”
“Well, you’re kinda pretty for a boy, ain’t cha?”
“Pretty?” the man asked.
“You got pretty hair, pretty clothes. Pretty like a girl.”
“Does my beard make me look like a girl?”
“No,” Earl said. “It makes you look like a girl with a beard.”
The man smiled at Earl, then thrust his chin forward invitingly.
“I’m not saying you didn’t grow that thing yourself,” Earl said, feeling a little put out. “Don’t you think he’s pretty, Frank.”
“A little pretty,” Frank said. Frank always agreed with the person in a conversation more likely to cause trouble.
“I know you can’t help the way God made you, but you don’t have to play it up. Regular haircut, regular clothes. Get a barber to neaten that chin hair up. You’d be okay.”
The man looked straight ahead and took another long, small sip of his beer. Finally, he looked at Earl and smiled. “I’ll think about your advice.”
The way the man had of not arguing made Earl feel he was in the wrong and it bothered him.
“So, you’re just passing through, huh?” Earl asked.
“What are you? Musician?”
“Then from the look of you … I don’t know what,” Earl told him. “You’re not one of those lifestyle coaches or gurus they talk about on TV sometimes, for Christ’ sake?”
“Not just that.”
“Then what do you do?”
“Well, the man said,” pausing to take a sip of his beer and smile at his memories. “I used to be a carpenter, I guess. Worked for my father. I had a feeling for wood, anyhow.”
“Handy with a nail gun, huh?” Earl asked.
“Never used one,” the man told Earl. The man mimicked striking a nail with a hammer, twice. “Pom. Pom. And she was home.”
“Every time?” Earl asked.
“Good skill to have,” Earl said. “The old skills are good skills.”
“I miss it. You made something with your hands, and if you knew what you were doing, it stayed made.”
“If you are looking for work now,” Earl asked, “I might be able to help.”
“No,” the man said. “I gave up wood. Now I go around and talk to people.”
“You go around and ‘talk to people’? That’s your job?”
“God all mighty,” Earl said, shaking his head. “Does it pay?”
“No,” the man said. “Nothing.”
“Nothing at all?”
“Well, son … how do you eat?” Earl asked, half incredulous and half outraged.
“People feed me.”
“What – so you go around and people buy you supper, because you got a pretty face, out of the goodness of their hearts?”
“In America? Today?”
“Yes, even in America today.”
“I don’t believe it,” Earl said. “You find a bed the same way?”
The man nodded.
“Do you have friends?”
“No,” the man said.
“Well, you are a sorry son-of-a-bitch, ain’t you,” Earl said and meant it.
The man held Earl’s gaze for a long time. “No,” the man said. “I’m not.”
“What happens if no one feeds you tonight?”
“Then I’ll be hungry.”
“Well, maybe that’s the way it should be,” Earl said.
“Do the hungry not deserve to eat?”
“Now, I’m not saying that,” Earl told the man. “But I am saying we need to ask why they’re hungry. I mean … someone like you, and I’m not trying to offend … but you tell me you’ve got job skills, and you look healthy. And you spent the last of your money on that beer. Well, if you don’t have money to eat, then folks like me would say that’s your own damn fault.”
The man looked at Earl and smiled. “I understand,” he said.
The man took another long, small sip of his beer. His eyes wandered up to the television where a baseball game had started. He watched one batter strike out and another draw a walk on eight pitches.
“Damn it, you’re giving me a bad conscience sitting there,” Earl told the man.
The man turned his head to look at Earl but said nothing.
“I could eat here or go home and have what my wife made – she’s out at her cards tonight – but whatever I eat, I’d have to eat it thinking you aren’t.”
The man still said nothing.
“Tell me you aren’t playing me for a chump, okay? Tell me I won’t see you drinking from a bag later or laughing with a bunch of your hippie-type friends. Because if I do, I’m not going to take it well. And I’ll make sure you remember I didn’t.”
“I’m not playing you for a chump,” the man said.
“Okay. You like pulled pork?”
The man smiled. “Yes, I do.”
“Okay, then. I know this place don’t look it, but Frank here has got pretty good food. They got the whole platter. Big plate, it will set you up. Home-baked rolls. So we’ll get two and each eat the same thing.”
“Good,” the man said.
Earl ordered and then the man asked him about his wife and family. Earl was surprised to find himself talking about his son, how he had trouble, and he and his wife didn’t know where he was right now. Something about the way the man listened made Earl feel better than he had in months, although he felt embarrassed too, talking about his private business with a stranger. So Earl was glad when the food arrived.
“Here we go, look at that,” Earl said. “Now that roll is home-made, like I said. Try it first and I think you’ll enjoy it.”
“Thank you, Earl,” the man said. He picked up the bread, broke it in two, and vanished.
“What – where’d the hell he go?” Earl exclaimed.
Frank turned from the television and looked at Earl. “Where did who go?”
“That man I’ve been sitting here talking to all this time, who do you think?” Earl demanded.
“He got up and walked away,” Frank said.
“He was here a second ago. Right there. In that seat. And now he’s not.”
Frank shrugged. “He got up and walked away.”
“He didn’t get up and walk away,” Earl said, but mostly to himself. “What am I going to do with all that food?”
“I’ll get you a box if he doesn’t come back,” Frank said.
Earl muttered to himself and began to eat, watching the ball game. He was angry mostly because he felt his kindness had gone to waste. But underneath Earl’s anger, there was a seed planted. And the ground was good.
Word Cloud for the Story, “Things Important to Know”
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