“It’s a quarter to three, there’s no one in the place except you and me…”
Well, first off, it wasn’t a quarter to three. It was more like 12:15AM. 12:15AM on a Tuesday evening at the Ash Creek Saloon. But the bar was dead. A half dozen souls at most.
“So set ’em up Joe. I gotta little story I think you should know…”
And the bartender wasn’t Joe… but “Mags”. Still, there was something about that Sinatra tune that buzzed in my head… it just seemed that the sound fit as a backdrop for the story that was about to be related to me. Not by Mags… but by a nameless stranger.
I wasn’t at Ash Creek to listen to a stranger weave a tale. When I’m there, I keep to myself. I was there to begin writing a piece on the “Cult of Personality.” I wanted to re-visit Khrushchev’s famous speech to the Politburo when he condemned the excesses of Stalin and Stalinism and it’s cult of personality. I had a different slant that I was tinkering with, and I do some of my best tinkering with a Wild Turkey Straight Rye in front of me…
So when I saw this stranger in a navy beret sitting one stool over enjoying the same sippin’ whisky, I took note and found it impossible not to extend a friendly nod and a raise of the glass in salute. Not too many folks drink Wild Turkey Rye Whisky.
“We’re drinkin’ my friend to the end of a brief episode… “
I thought that the nod and a shared hoist of the cup would satisfy the rules of the bar… as it pertained to hospitality. I was anxious to return to my personal thoughts and scribble out a few words. But his voice cut thru the quiet of the bar… and stopped me.
“What would be your best day?”
There was a richness to his voice. Mellow, but intensely strong and with a bit of a scratch… fueled perhaps by years of cigarette smoke and good whisky. It sounded like he had studied for the stage… he had that “documentary narrative voice”… a voice that both soothed and commanded. Imagine Morgan Freeman doing the voice over in Shawshank Redemption.
“Think about it”, he continued. “Strip away all that is a trial in your life and build a day… what would it look like?” He sipped his whisky. And I mine.
OK. I could picture getting up just after sun break and looking at a curve of sand, blue water turning slowly on to shore. A day filled with warming sun, a cooling sea breeze and a piercingly cold dry martini at four. That sounded close to perfection to me. But I wasn’t sure that I wanted to share that with a stranger… even if he sipped Wild Turkey Rye.
“Well… I’m not sure. Can I get back to you?”
If I thought that my response would put him off from taking this conversation further, I was mistaken.
“How often do you dream about a perfect day? Particularly if you’ve taken one on the chin the day before. You know, you had a perfectly rotten Monday. Then Tuesday comes… wouldn’t it be great: going to your morning coffee place, buying an ‘instant lotto’ and hitting it, then hitting on the new hire at work and scoring a date, and then hitting it off that night and scoring? You know the type of day? Perfect, huh?”
I nodded. It seemed the appropriate thing to do. I was really trying to separate from the conversation. But his voice… His voice lulled me. It was like putting on a pair of soft slippers. It was something you couldn’t ignore or take for granted. It was as if it was a privilege just to hear his very words.
He continued. “Well, I know this fellah… who lives for making every traffic light on his way to and from work. It’s his dream.”
I nodded, although my instinct was to ignore his intrusion into my thoughts. But I identified with the description of this guy. I hate red lights. So I put down my pen. Sipped my whisky and prepared to listen. The Cult of Personality could wait.
“This guy… he travels the same road from his home to work and back again. In the morning he is on that road every day within three minutes of the same time. He knows each turn and bump. Every house, place of business, strip mall. He knows where the cops perch in ambush.” He sipped his whisky and shook his head. Took off his beret, placed it on the bar and ran his fingers thru his neatly combed silver hair.
“He knows the cars and vans that travel the same stretch. Which one turns off on Route 59, and which one pulls into the Doughnut Inn. Folks who are complete strangers are ‘known’ to him… that’s the green Outback, left tail light out. That’s the white van with the ‘SCREWU’ plate. Each driver shares a portion of their day, alone but together.”
“You have to see that for this guy, his ride becomes emblematic of his life… its successes, its losses. Miss the light by St. Paul’s Church and his day would be diminished. But it is more than missing a light and possibly delaying his arrival time… missing a light for you or me? We would think of it as a chance occurrence. No. This guy feels he is responsible. Not making a light becomes his fault. He might not have been helped by the car in front of him that stopped at the light to make a turn. Never mind… he gets angry. Missing the light? He sees it as a failure.
Well… I don’t take it quite that far. I hate missing lights. But me? I would be blaming the asshole who was stopped to take a left at the light.
“Everyday this guy dreams for the perfect ride. So today he comes down Route 6, make the light at Canfield Corner, then the light at St. Paul’s, then the light at the Ovens of France… proceeds smoothly… no cops in sight, make the light at Turkey Hill, green at the Heritage Village turn-off, and green at the big shopping plaza intersection before the I-84 ramp… first leg of the ride is done!”
He took time for a smile. “It’s like reaching the fifth inning and you’re still working on a perfect game. His first thought is: ‘I am not going to think about it!’ Of course he can’t help himself… how can he not get a wee bit excited? But he doesn’t want to jinx himself, you know what I mean?
“So there he is… ‘unscathed’ by the time he swings on to I-84. Route 6 had been a straight ride, not even a hint of a slow down. And now a clean ride on 84… no trucks, no annoying lane hogs… and most importantly, no gendarmes. Get off at Exit 11… clean to the Toddy Hill short cut, and connect with Route 25 at Swamp Rd. 2 miles on Route 25, a ‘blinky’ and three greens and then right on to Route 59. Ha-hoo!”
We both take a sip at the ha-hoo.
“Well, you know what they say. The first six innings are a snap… lotsa pitchers carry perfect games to the seventh frame. But this guy is in the middle of a charmed ride… maybe it’s destiny? He gets thru the light at the junction of Route 136 and 58 and has a 5.7 mile stretch with no lights… just a twisting lane thru Easton, Fairfield and Westport. No lights… and plenty of time to think. To think how great things are going so far.
“In Westport he has seven lights. This is the supreme test. There had been other mornings when he had made all the lights thru to 136/58. But he had never made all the Westport lights. Many of these lights have a ‘pain in the ass’ reputation… and glory of glories… this morning he makes each and every one! No need to rush thru a ‘yellow’… no need to slow down to encourage a green. No, his timing is perfect… and he is feeling on top of the world. What luck! He is a success! Do you think that he is thinking that perhaps he had been too greedy in making all those lights? That maybe he should have left ‘something on the table’? Saved a ‘key green’ for another ride? No, he has no thoughts along those lines. He is as happy as a kid in a sweet shop! And the ‘cherry on the sundae’ is that he gets the perfect parking spot at work… that in itself is a treat of treats! He has gotten that spot exactly twice in six years! A perfect ride, and then a perfect parking spot! A perfect day!” He raised his glass in triumph.
Yeah, I could see that this would make for a great Tuesday. “I guess that guy is happy now.”
“Happy? Well, maybe you could say that… I think he finally has a degree of peace.”
He looked at his glass of rye. Shook the ice a bit. “About this story… I should tell you, there is one incorrect detail. I said that I know the guy. I should have said that I knew the guy. You see… that fellah died this morning just after he parked his car. You might say that he was called to his greater reward.” He raised his glass again in toast.
“Died? How did you hear?”
This was more than I expected. I didn’t know what to think, what to believe. I fiddled with my glass. I used the pause to hit the “john”. And when I got back to my stool, the stranger was not to be seen… nor was there a trace of his presence. No empty glass or wet bar nap or navy beret. Mags was talking to someone down the other end of the bar. I thought about asking him where the stranger went to…
I decided against it.
I didn’t want Mags to say, “what stranger”? I didn’t want to think that I had just been sipping Wild Turkey by myself and that I just lived thru a Rod Serling script from the Twighlight Zone. Maybe he had been there, and maybe he hadn’t. But the possibility that he hadn’t been there scared the shit out me. It’s not too often you get to share a drink with the angel of death.
The Sinatra tune came back into my head… “Make it one for my baby, and one more for the road…”
I looked at my unfinished rye… and decided to leave some on the table. All in all, I’m not ready to have a perfect day.