Rough, Grooved Surface

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Chapter 16

16

“And in that time I was alone,

So many years without my home,

I made brothers of a different kind instead.”

—Greg Holden, ‘The Lost Boy,’ I Don’t Believe You (Bonus Track) 2011

As the next few days passed, a strange malaise settled over my daily activities on campus. I kept trudging through ‘Business Ethics’ and ‘Elizabethan Literature’ and ‘Intro to Biology’—mercifully, Werner had been so shook up by the previous class’ events that he had canceled further meetings for the week—but I found it impossible to focus on anything.

It was as though Brett’s religion-class tirade had taken the sheen off of everything. Somehow, he had pulled up the curtain and given me a look at the greasy mechanics. It wasn’t even what he said, exactly. It was the way he said it. That tone of self-assurance and revulsion. He had attacked Werner as a figurehead of a damaged and broken system, as if the spittle-faced religion professor were a cog in a much larger, sinister machine.

Even worse, Werner had been completely ineffectual and bumbling in his attempts to counter the attack. The look on his face was that of a guilty suspect caught in a lie on the witness stand. The mysterious interloper in his class had challenged his authority, even the authority of the entire school and the vast network of knowledge it represented, and he had stood there stammering and spitting like some forlorn old fool in a nursing home.

I had placed the address that Brett had given me on top of my dresser, and I found myself glancing at it every time I left the room. At first, I had talked myself out of going. It was too risky, too far outside my comfort zone, but by Wednesday, my fear had turned to interest, and by Thursday morning, I had resolved to visit the address that very evening.

Though Whitehaven doesn’t exactly have enough urban sprawl to truly have a ‘bad area’ of town, the address on Brett’s paper was one of the sketchier neighborhoods in town. The building was located a few blocks past Dunham’s, the older of Whitehaven’s two liquor stores. Though Dunham’s was quite a bit closer to campus, the clientele and atmosphere left something to be desired. Rather than selling full cases of beer, Dunham’s typically used a box cutter to slice full cases in half, sealing the half case with packing tape before stocking it on the shelf. You could also buy single cigarettes for fifty cents from a cup behind the counter. Needless to say, it didn’t exactly service the highest caliber of customers.

Passing Dunham’s probably should have been all the omen that I really needed, but I kept walking, undaunted, towards the mystery address. I had spent the better part of a week convincing myself to come, and I wasn’t going to turn back on account of a shady little liquor store.

Though I had toyed with the idea of inviting someone from the dorm on my little quest, the plan fell through rather quickly. Of the handful of people who I would have considered inviting, three already had plans, and the rest seemed perfectly content to sit in black-lighted dorm rooms playing video games and smoking weed.

The fact that I couldn’t find a single friend to take part in my under-aged night pass to a local bar spoke volumes about my first few months at Whitehaven. I had many friendly acquaintances, but I wasn’t sure if I had truly made a single friend. My roommate was a nice guy. He even knew Culver County a little bit, but we rarely said more than three or four words at a time to each other.

I had spent a not-insignificant amount of time sitting in my dorm room, pondering the reasons for my lack of social interactions. Those deep periods of introspection generally lead to two alternating conclusions—either this school was filled with a bunch of pompous, self-important assholes or I was a broken and clueless social misfit who was destined to live the long, fruitless life of a hermit. Though I tried desperately to convince myself of the former, I had a deep, unrelenting fear that the fault was my own.

Of course, I was probably just holding the people around me up to an impossible standard. My friendships with David and Mark had developed over the course of a lifetime, but everything between us had been so easy, so effortless. They had always been like brothers, even more so after Tommy died. When I turned my back on Culver County, I think I did so with the naïve notion that those friendships would somehow be easy to replace. I should have known better, of course, but knowing an idea and understanding an idea are two different animals, and each passing day served as a clearer and clearer reminder.

If my relationships with David and Mark had created an impossible standard of friendship, Aimee had left me positively deaf and blind when it came to women. From the moment I crossed the Culver County line, every meeting, every stolen glance, every chance encounter with the opposite sex had wound up as a sort of silent competition. I remember when I was young, right around the time that puberty and hormones had turned my body and mind into a sort of non-stop electric carnival, young women were a kind of mysterious, alien species. To view them, or be near them, or god-forbid touch them, was an event of euphoric chaos. But then, Amiee changed that.

From the very beginning, she had been a calming influence over everything in my life. That was her great gift as a person, the ability to smooth out the rough edges, to apply a calm surface.

For a river rat like me, a college campus—even a small one like Whitehaven—was a museum of the exotic. Beautiful, interesting creatures of all shapes and sizes surrounded me at every turn, but none of them could seem to hold my attention. After only a few moments of staring or absentminded fantasy, the truth would inevitably bubble to the surface. Mysterious and stunning as they were to behold, each and every one of these women seemed like a pale facsimile of Aimee. A dull, clouded copy of a copy.

Aimee was on my mind once again as I walked toward the bar, and thoughts of Aimee had a tendency to mutate into thoughts of home in general. I had told myself that what mattered most was distance. A set number of miles. A long tract of blacktopped highway.

In truth, leaving a past behind is never that simple. One thought of Aimee brought a thousand thoughts of home, and, in an instant, I was transported back. One passing thought was all it took to feel the dampness of the river on my skin, to hear the low blast of tugboat horns distantly echoing through the air.

Though fall was approaching, the air was still thick with the humidity of summer. I could recall a thousand days like this back home. Long Saturday afternoons spent in cornfields or on a gravel sandbar. As summer begins to fade, nightfall gains the power to break the spell of the day. The setting of the sun shatters the bonds of heat and humidity that grip an Illinois summer so fiercely. But like all real and powerful things, summer has a way of hanging around much longer than it should. Just when you think it’s slipping away, it rises back up again.

Even though it was early October, the summer heat had returned with a vengeance, and although the sun had almost completely set, I could feel sweat rolling down my temples in a steady drip, the cotton from my shirt clinging to the small of my back in a clammy heap.

At home, on a night like this, we would have probably driven down to a parking spot along the river, stripped down to our underwear and jumped in the water. From the blistering heat of August until the middle of fall, the temperature of the river only changes a few degrees. Any time summer decided to return for a little encore, it was our cue to fill up a few Styrofoam coolers and have an impromptu night swim in the cold, crisp water.

There was a time when those days were commonplace, a forgone conclusion. We had done it so many times that we didn’t even need to discuss our plans. We’d all just show up, like moths drawn to an open flame.

Aimee would arrive with a rotating crew of a few girls, and David and Mark would bounce from one to the other like honey bees sucking up nectar. All the while, Aimee and I would be together, embracing in the strong current, or lying together on the bank, letting our skin dry slowly in the cooling night air.

Every now again, we’d all have enough beers that we’d lose all the clothes completely, dipping naked into the cold water, embracing together below the rough surface.

I tried not to think about those days. Thoughts like that always left me with a dull ache in the pit of my stomach. I knew that I had the right to leave, and I believed that I was making the right decision by going, but knowing doesn’t necessarily ease remorse. My mind knew that I deserved a break, and I could make a logical case for following a path that led to a bright future. Still, in my chest, I couldn’t shake that lurking sense of shame.

I was still lost in thought when I came upon the bar. It was an old, red-brick building. It’s shape suggested an early twentieth century schoolhouse, and though the brick façade had seen better days, it was nevertheless an impressive-looking structure. In fact, the building would have seemed austere and respectable if it hadn’t been for the neon Bud-Light sign hanging in the window facing the street. That bright, glowing call to the lonely and disenfranchised.

A few people milled about on a long set of wooden stairs that led up to the front door of the place. As I mounted the stairs, I saw a hand-carved wooden sign hanging above the door that read ‘Whistler’s Mead Hall.’ Before I could push the door open, a massive individual with a thick beard and a dark, black unibrow stopped me with a meaty outstretched palm. “Gotta have an id,” he grunted. I fumbled for a few minutes before finally managing to spit out Brett’s name. As the words exited my lips, the ogre’s expression immediately changed, as if I had shown some magic talisman or performed an ancient ritual. “You know Brett?” he asked. “Then get the hell in here!” The bouncer kicked the door open with his foot, and I stepped past him into the bar.

I found myself standing in a small foyer that divided the bar into two halves. The doorway on the left was illuminated by multi-colored dance lights, and I could feel the pulsations of hard, rhythmic base pounding through the air. The room on the right seemed to be a completely different place all together. I could see a pool table, and though the dance music from the other room was all I could really hear, it was easy to see that the room on the right was a much more relaxed atmosphere.

I was about to walk into the pool table room when a crowd of five or six young women came flooding into the main door. As I tried to step out of the way, the girls corralled me into the dance room. There was a bar running longwise directly opposite from the doorway, and at the far end of the room was a DJ booth. The wall I was standing against was lined with short, padded chairs, and the entire dance floor was filled with writhing, enthusiastic bodies. Though there were a few men on the dance floor, the floor was mostly filled with young, attractive women wearing short skirts and skin-tight tops.

Feeling crowded by the swarming mass of bodies on the dance floor, I backed up against the wall and stood up on one of the low, padded chairs. From my perch, I had a view of the entire floor. Though the room was filled with young, beautiful girls, there was one girl, in particular, who stood out. She was tall and blonde, wearing a silver, backless blouse and a pair of dark jeans with fashionable holes up and down her legs. Though the rhythm of the song was upbeat and fast, she was swaying slowly, turning at her own pace and bending sporadically at the waist, each movement contrary to the general flow of the room around her. She should have looked awkward and out of place, but her dancing was beautiful and hypnotic, like a salmon swimming gracefully against the current.

As she turned, the colors of the dance light reflected off her exposed, glistening skin, and the whole, glowing spectacle left me transfixed. Her long body, the carefree, graceful movements of her limbs, even the strands of long blonde hair sticking to the sweat on her back—it all left me standing gap-mouthed and stupid on the chair.

I’m not sure how long I watched her dance, but when I felt a tug at my sleeve, it was as if I had been abruptly woken from dream. I looked down to find Brett standing at the foot of the chair, holding up a can of Coors Light.

“Let’s get the fuck out of here!” Though he was shouting, I barely heard the words over the volume of the music blaring from the speakers. Stepping down off the chair, I lost sight of the blond as she disappeared into the mass of bodies.

I followed Brett back into the vestibule, and as we walked through the doorway into the opposite side of the bar, it was indeed as though I was walking into a completely different building. Compared to the sweaty humidity of the dance room, the air in the other side of the bar was almost cool—though it was clear that the air conditioning unit in the ancient building was unable to handle the small throng of people filling up its innards. The room I found myself standing in was filled with two pool tables and was surrounded on all sides by aging leather couches. A few dozen people lounged around the room, filling up the couches surrounding the pool tables. The main bar sat along the back wall of building, separated from the pool tables by a doorway and a half-wall. A small cluster of men sat playing cards in the back corner, a few feet off the edge of the bar.

I followed Brett through the pool room towards the bar along the back wall. “Come back here,” he said. “There’s someone you should meet.” He led me up to a few bar stools sitting near the card table, and we had a seat on a few of the stools, facing the game and drinking our Coors Lights.

Though most of the bar was filled with college students, the man sitting directly across from me at the card table was older. He wasn’t quite old, but his balding head and slightly greyed goatee gave him an air of seniority compared to the young faces that surrounded him.

Brett violently waved his arms at the older man. “Whistler,” he said, pointing over at my chest. “This is the guy I was telling you about.”

The older man raised a finger in Brett’s direction, and then halfway stood in his chair. He slammed down a card in the middle of the table. “Jick-Jack mother fucker!!”

As he slapped the card onto the table, two of the men in the group groaned loudly, while the man directly across the table cheered. After a few minutes of commiseration and celebration, the three men at the table dispersed and walked up towards the bar, while the older man stayed in his seat, clearly enjoying his win.

Brett slid off the stool and landed on a chair at the card table. He motioned for me to sit across from him, next to the older man. “Whistler,” he said. “This is Travis. The guy I told you about.”

Whistler turned to me, and he looked me up and down. I got the same feeling that I did when I first spoke with Brett at the bar. That same silent test. After a few seconds, Whistler smiled and spoke. “Bonnie said you were helpful with that,” he waved his hand vaguely above my head. “The situation with our little, angry friend, I mean…I like that. Tae is kind of a loudmouth, but he can be intimidating.” He stopped and yelled at one of the men standing behind the bar, and the man starting launching cans of Budweiser back towards the table. Whistler caught them and gave one to me and to Brett.

“So, I’m assuming this is your place, right?” Whistler said nothing and stared at me blankly. I pointed back towards the front of the building. “Whistler’s Hall, right?”

Whistler chuckled and slapped me on the shoulder. “Well,” he said, “you’re right and you’re wrong at the same time. You see, this is my place, but that’s not why it’s called Whistler’s Mead Hall. It’s the other way around.” I looked at him and scrunched up my eyebrows, unable to follow his reasoning. “I don’t own the building, but I took over the bar years ago from my old boss, but his name wasn’t Whistler either. In fact, I don’t know much about the real Whistler at all.”

“So, Whistler’s just a nickname, then?”

Whistler leaned back and smiled, tipping the can of Budweiser back to his lips. “That’s right,” he said. “We’re big on nicknames around here. And I’m the second coming of Whistler.”

He made a grand sweeping gesture. I remember thinking that I should have been annoyed or put off somehow—this man playing king of the castle at the back of his dingy old bar. Somehow, though, I wasn’t annoyed at all. From the first moment I saw him, I was intrigued. He had the kind of naked charisma and expansive smile that made you feel acknowledged and validated. I felt as though he was prejudiced in my favor in some way, even though we had only just met.

Brett leaned forward. “This is kind of a crew,” he said, motioning towards some of the men standing about the room, “and you aren’t really a part of the crew until you get your Whistler name.”

Though it seemed a bit juvenile, Brett’s earnestness told me that he wasn’t joking. Whatever this place was, it was an exclusive club. “Ok,” I said. “Then, what’s your Whistler name?”

Brett frowned and looked back at Whistler, who burst out into a loud, hooting laugh. At first, I was a little taken back because it seemed almost fake—a piercing, hooting shriek. When tears formed at the corners of his eyes, I realized that there was nothing fake about his amusement.

The massive bouncer had appeared just behind my shoulder, seeming to materialize out of nowhere, and catching the end of our conversation. It seemed impossible that such a large bulk of humanity could sneak up on anyone, even in a crowded barroom, yet I had been completely oblivious to his standing there just a moment before. “We call him Bon-Bon, or Bonnie,” he said. “Cause he’s a fucking candy-ass.”

Brett frowned again, and looked back at me. “You’ve just got to go with it,” he said. “If you fight it, the names only get worse.” He pointed at the large unibrowed man. “Zevon here doesn’t really care for his name either, do you?” The man shrugged his shoulders and frowned. “We used to call him Hormone because he would hang out of the windows and scream at young ladies on the street, but Whistler changed his name a while back.”

The bouncer nodded grimly, as though he were still mourning the loss of the former name, then drifted away, suddenly bored with the conversation.

“Why Zevon?” I asked.

Whistler piped up again. “Cause he’s hairy as shit. He’s like a goddamn werewolf.”

I recognized the reference instantly. One of Tommy’s many guilty pleasure songs, the kind he would blare at earsplitting volumes whenever it played.

“Oh, I get it,” I said. “Warren Zevon, right? Werewolves of London?”

Whistler howled again, slapping his palm down on the table with delight. Though there was something off-putting about the laugh, I couldn’t help but laugh right along with him. The sound billowed up from such a deep place of raw glee that you couldn’t help joining in. “You see,” he said. “This guy gets it!”

Brett shook his head violently as Whistler continued to shriek. “I think maybe I like this guy,” he said, slapping me on the shoulder and waving towards the bar for two more beers.

We sat for several hours in the back corner of the bar, drinking beers and playing cards. It didn’t take me long to figure out that Bonnie was right. This place was more like a clubhouse than a bar. All of the workers running the place seemed more like Whistler’s trusted circle of friends than his employees. Though there were only about four people working at a given time, Bonnie said ‘the crew’ consisted of eleven guys. Even those not technically ‘working’ that night were all there, lounging about the bar in various states of drunkenness, hitting on girls or shooting pool—a state which Bonnie assured me was completely normal.

“It’s kind of communal, you know? Half of what we’re working for is just to pay off the bar tabs.” He motioned back to the men working the bar. “You’ll notice that none of our guys exactly pay for their drinks.”

I also learned that there were a handful of men dedicated to working the dance room bar, while others worked on the pool room side, based primarily on their personality. “Don’t you have any women bartenders?” I asked.

Whistler nodded his head as he dealt another hand. “We have in the past,” he said, “but they tend to come and go.”

“I always thought you needed girls at a bar…for better tips.”

Whistler smiled and nodded. “That’s true, I suppose, but I’m not overly concerned if the place makes any money.” He held his palms up towards the bar like a proud farmer displaying his fields. “This place is more of a diversion for me and my friends. I’ve got other interests as well.”

I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was taking part in some kind of larger process that I didn’t understand. At times, Whistler’s comments and questions had felt more like an interview that a casual meeting, and it seemed strange that this apparently important and busy person had spent the bulk of his evening casually talking with me. The whole night felt like a vetting.

“Our core group of guys is pretty tight,” he continued. “Most of us even live together in some apartments off of Hollis Drive. Been that way for a while now.”

Someone from the bar threw me another beer. This time is was a Coors Light again. It didn’t take long to figure out that everyone in Whistler’s circle was drinking Budweiser or Coors Light. Which one you were served depended entirely on the person grabbing the beer.

I tried to pay for drinks a few times, but Whistler wouldn’t have any of it. “You’re a guest,” he said.

Whistler taught me to play a card game called Pitch, which seemed to be the group’s preferred diversion. The game was played in partners, two players working against two. It didn’t take long to pick it up. It was pretty similar to Euchre, a game that almost everyone back home played, so it wasn’t hard to learn.

As we sat at the table and played, I got to know several of the other members of Whistler’s band of workers, each of them sporting a different nickname. In addition to Zevon and Bonnie, there was Karl, who got his name from the movie Sling Blade. Evidently, when Karl got drunk enough, he started agreeing with everyone by grunting just like the mentally challenged protagonist of the film.

Once I got the hang of pitch, I partnered up with Johnny for a game against Bonnie and Whistler. Like Karl, Johnny also got his name from a film, but in his case, he was named for a striking similarity to Johnny Lawrence in Karate Kid, which prompted everyone to harass him with random shouts of “Sweep the leg!”

Farley also got his name from physical resemblance. In his case, it was the Saturday Night Live Comedian, Chris Farley—an attribute that he often played up with impromptu impressions of Matt Foley or an out-of-shape Chippendale’s dancer.

Some of them men, however, got their names from personality quirks rather than physical features. Flatrock’s name came from one of his favorite lines, “Go piss on a flat rock.”

When I asked him what that meant, he rolled his eyes and threw up his hands, as though it were the dumbest question he had ever heard.

“You ever piss on a flat rock?” The question came out more as an accusation than inquiry, and he didn’t really wait for me to respond. “Exactly, right? And what happens? You piss on a flat rock, the piss splashes up, and you get piss on your shoes…so, piss on a flat rock. It’s like saying ‘Go fuck yourself,’ only a little more polite.”

Okie’s name clearly came as the result of his thick Southern drawl, though in truth he was from a river town not much farther south than Drury. When I asked Bonnie if I had an accent, too, he didn’t hesitate. “Yes, but not like that hillbilly. I mean, I think he’s full-on-fucking-his-sister redneck.” He smiled brightly over my shoulder at Okie, who was fuming at the bar. “Though I can’t blame him…his sister is pretty hot.”

Okie had apparently been waiting for the mention of his sister to completely lose his mind. The eruption occurred, complete with a slammed beer bottle and a string of inventive cursing, to Bonnie’s incredible delight. Watching this interplay reminded me once again of David and Mark, as well as our larger group of friends. With nothing else to do, pushing one another’s buttons and needling each other to the breaking point was one of our standard pastimes.

The two strangest names, by far, were Mule and UB. Most of the nicknames were invented directly by Whistler, but a few came about more organically. UB’s moniker came after Zevon declared him to be the “ugliest bastard I’ve ever seen.” Though he was a little too thin, and a bit bug-eyed, UB took great offense to being called and Ugly Bastard. The protests, of course, only ensured that the name would stick for good.

Mule, on the other hand, got his name as a result of his tendency to slur his speech after a few drinks. One night, during a particularly indecipherable stretch of speech, Karl made the observation that he looked and sounded “like he got kicked in the head by a donkey.” When Mule woke up the next morning and took offense, he had already been christened with the new name.

The final member of the group was Toke. Like everyone, I assumed that he got his name as a result of marijuana habit, but Toke informed me, that he didn’t, in fact, do any drugs, and that the name was completely racist.

“You see,” he said, resting against the bar and leaning out towards the card table. “These guys like to talk about old Okie being a redneck, but the truth is, they’ve all got a little bit of redneck in ’em.” He enunciated the last few syllabus, doing his best imitation of Okie.

Whistler raised his hand to protest, but Toke cut him off. “Oh, yeah, I’m talking about you, too, Whistler. It’s bad enough that you guys started calling me Token, for obvious reasons…”

Looking around the room, his point was, in fact, obvious. Besides two black sophomore girls sitting on one of the couches, Toke was the only person of color in the bar.

“…but then you shorten it to Toke, which makes people assume that I smoke weed, thereby perpetuating a shameful, and frankly unfair, stereotype.”

Okie, who had recovered from his temper tantrum and re-planted himself on the same barstool, immediately responded. “Personally…” he said, before a dramatic pause, “I don’t really give a flyin’ pig’s ass if you don’t like your name. None of us like our goddamn names, that’s half the point.”

“But I…”

“Just a minute,” Okie continued, “I ain’t quite finished yet.” It was clear that Okie rarely got a chance to pontificate, and he was taking full advantage. “Fact is…black, white, yellow, or pink, you’re still an asshole, and as such, you deserve an asshole’s name.”

Toke rolled his eyes and opened his mouth to refute the obvious flaws in reasoning before shaking his head and walking off. “Whatever,” he said. “I’ve got to work.”

Though it was clear Toke simply didn’t have the energy to argue, Okie sat up with a wide grin, happily wallowing in the moral victory of the exchange. Farley patted him on the head in mock congratulations as if Okie were a Labrador retriever, but Okie didn’t seem to mind.

As each of the men drifted in and out of the bar room, I got to know them little by little. They all treated the bar like their home, and, by extension, I felt completely at ease in their company. The beers, the free-flowing insults, the repetition of inside jokes and stories they had all heard a thousand times—it all reminded me of a time before Tommy’s diagnosis, when everything was free and easy. A time when none of us was worried about mortality or the future.

Towards the end of the night, I was playing pitch with with Bonnie, Whistler, and UB when I asked about betting. “You guys ever put any money on pitch?”

Bonnie piped up immediately, “Nope,” he said. “It’s against the rules.”

“Rules?” I asked.

UB shook his head as he laid down trump on Bonnie’s ace. “Not really rules, so much as a set of guidelines, an understanding.”

UB shot Whistler a look before proceeding. Whistler was half-way through a joint. He took a long pull and exhaled a deep breath of thick, white smoke. Whistler nodded at UB, and he continued.

“No gambling at the Hall, not with any of the brothers.”

It was the first time all night that I had heard the term brothers used to describe the circle of friends. On the one hand, I knew what it was like to have a brother, and I knew what it was like to have that bond broken, to have a brother taken away. On the other hand, I had been thinking about Tommy—as well as Mark and David—for most of the night. ‘Brother’ seemed like as apt a term as any.

“What happens if some outsider wants to gamble, on pool or something?”

Bonnie jumped right in. “Then we cheat,” he said, stamping out a cigarette.

“Ok,” I said, “what other rules are there?”

“Not rules,” UB said.

“Alright, what are the other guidelines?”

UB leaned forward and patted me on the arm. “The specifics aren’t important,” he said, “because it all boils down to a simple point.” He reached out and grabbed the joint from Whistler’s lips and took a toke. “We watch out for each other,” he said. “No matter what.” As he spoke, he reached the joint across the billowing a thick cloud of white smoke in my direction.

I had only smoked weed once or twice before, but I took the joint and took a long pull. I could feel the smoke filling up my chest, smooth at first, then causing a slight burning sensation. I began to choke hard, which elicited hearty laughs from everyone at the table.

“That’s it,” Whistler said. “Choke it out. It’s the best way.”

As I caught my breath, Zevon walked into the room and caught the attention of the people still lingering in the bar by banging loudly against a plate glass window. “Closing time,” he yelled. “You don’t gotta go home, but you can’t stay here.”

I reached down to stand up out of the chair, but Whistler grabbed hold of my wrist. “Not you,” he said. “You stay here. You’re still our guest.”

I sat back down in the chair and Bonnie passed the joint back in my direction. I took a second pull, this time holding the smoke in my lungs for a few seconds before exhaling. “See,” UB said. “Easy as pie, man. Easy as pie.”

As the patrons filtered out of the bar, and the sounds blaring from the dance room died out, I paid attention once again to the stereo in the bar room. All night I had been commenting on songs that I liked, a few Bob Dylan tunes, Pearl Jam, Ben Harper. I think I had recognized all but two of the songs, which Whistler informed me were two of his personal favorites, Phish and Folk Implosion.

As the mellow buzz of the weed settled in, a new song started playing on the stereo, one that I recognized instantly. “Thank-You,” I said. “From Led Zeppelin II, 1969…This track was one of my little brother’s favorite songs.”

Whistler nodded as he took the last pull of the joint.

“Mine, too,” Whistler said. “Your little brother has good taste.”

I thought about correcting him, changing the ‘has’ to ‘had,’ but it didn’t seem like the right time or place to get into it. “It’s one of the albums we listened to together,” I continued. “Over and over again as we drove up and down the river road. I’ll bet we listened to that album two hundred times.”

Whistler nodded and took a final toke off the roach. “I knew there was a reason I liked you,” he said. “A fellow aficionado.”

Then, he roared again with that high-pitched bellow of a laugh before slapping me on the back.

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