It's not often that a total stranger takes a sip of your drink and starts to hack and spit like he's just swallowed a beaker of the ol' hydrochloric, but then you're probably not me.
I spotted Mike early in the evening, sitting on the patio of the bar at a table of people he didn't know. It was clear, from the way that he was nursing his drink and glancing around, that he was going to end up at our table at some point in the evening, knocking back beers, smoking somebody else's cigarettes and entertaining us with well-rehearsed stories that may or may not be complete fabrications. Nearly all bars host these kinds of guys, whom I affectionately call The Itinerant Bullshitter. They're usually in town on some kind of business, they live somewhere more interesting, and they're itching to wade up to total strangers and spill their stewed biographies.
One of the strangest and subtlest of human senses is our ability to pinpoint a stranger in a crowd. Mike didn't look particularly different than the other people at the bar – a bit older, maybe, but the place catered to people from 85 to 18 (and younger) – but he was just different enough. He had a bulky post-athletic torso that seemed tucked into a set of skinny hips and legs. He wore a blue denim shirt and faded black jeans, with a blue and grey baseball cap atop a great cubic tanned slab of a head. The hat seemed to be covering up a neglected mohawk. He had probably been a very handsome man fifteen years ago.
After an hour or so people began to drift away from Mike's table, which left him alone and searching for others. Here's the thing: me and my friends were stuffed onto a set of converted church pews between the outer wall of the bar and the patio tables, with only a few feet of space between us and several tables of drinkers. We looked like spectators with boundary issues. Mike waved us over.
Come on and sit down here, he said, I've got a whole table here. Ill be out of your hair as soon as I've finished my drink.
I'm Mike, he said, extending his hand.
I'm Rod, Rod said.
Where's that from?
It's an Irish name.
Mike leaned back and swept his eyes over my face. You could see him tallying my features and running them against a roster of Irish faces he'd known.
But you're not Irish, he decided. You're no Irishman.
My father's family is Irish. My mother's is Portuguese.
That's it, he said. You're part Portuguese. My mother was Irish. Skin white as milk.
At that point another guy named Aidan came and sat down with us.
You see? Mike said, pointing at the other Aidan's pale freckled skin and coarse, ruddy beard. This one looks Irish.
Yeah, I've got a permanent tan going with my skin.
Mike glanced around and leaned in close. Have you ever been to Africa? He asked.
No, I said, because it was true, and because I couldn't think quickly enough to change the subject.
Go to Africa and meet a black man, he said. They are black, black, blaaaaack. Like, blue-black.
Okay, I said.
Not brown. Black.
I took a swig from my bottle of beer.
What is that? Mike said.
It took me a second to realize that he was looking at my bottle.
It's called Mill Street Porter. They make it with coffee.
Get out, he said. I started to think that every other thing out of my mouth would be the most remarkable and unbelievable thing Mike had ever heard.
Go ahead and try it, I said. It's good. At least I like it.
Mike stared at the bottle a moment longer, then tipped his head back and and poured a sip into his open mouth. A ripple of shock went up his jaw and popped in his eyes, then the beer erupted from his mouth. I can't, he gasped, I can't – then he got up and ran for the bathroom.
That was weird.
Yes, Rod said. But he sipped your beer like a gentleman.
Mike came back a few minutes later, having processed the situation.
I think I've got it figured out, he said. You're half Irish, half Portuguese. He pointed at the beer. So you like that coffee beer.
That must be it, I said.
Okay, he said, I'm ready for another sip.