He was at the bar two patrons down from me, leaning over and pointing at the drinker he had buttonholed. He jabbed the air with every point he made, leaning his head down to wait for confirmation on each, because it’s not fun being right if no one says it.
It was the same tone he used to take with me when I was the one leaned into and pointed at. I nodded then just as rigorously as the drinker was now. “Yes. Yes. Yeah, you’re right. Yeah. I should write about that.”
But it was to the same effect. My agreement then and the nodding drinker’s agreement now egged him on, not shut him up.
I turned away, moved over to the counter where they sell “no fries, chips” to wait until the line cook finished my Billy Goat cheezborger.
I hadn’t seen the man in at least 10 years, since before he got fired for doing a damn fool thing. He had worked on the downtown riverboats all his life, as his dad had before. He used to joke that he was conceived on the boat he captained, not noticing the shiver of how creepy all us deckhands found it.
The boats were his life, the four-bar epaulets on his shoulders his proudest possession. Epaulets are the Cap’n Crunch shoulder stripes that give rank on a boat. Two bars for deckhand, three bars for senior deckhand, four for captain.
Once when I was called up to the top deck to clean up half a pigeon a hawk dropped mid-ride, three bars on my shoulder, I announced to the audience that I had a college degree.
He got on the loudspeaker and said everyone on the crew but the captain had a college degree, and laughed a little at us.
There he was 12 years later at the same bar, drinking the same beer, with the same thin-framed round glasses and center-parted brown hair, pointing and telling no doubt some of the same stories, wearing a navy blue jacket with three-bar epaulets on his shoulder.
He was a deckhand now. A senior deckhand. Some companies call it first mate.
Before we well with pity, he deserved to get fired. The damn fool thing he did endangered lives.
I texted a friend to get the story of where the ex-captain had spent the decade. Most of it wasn’t happy, but he worked some old connections and had been decking for a rival company for the last three years.
I finished my burger and skittered out, hiding from the man who used to call me “Paulie” and laugh at my jokes.
He would feed me terrible bits to tell on my tours, break into the loudspeaker to let the audience know whenever the crazy guy with the multicolored suits waved from one of the downtown bridges. He would steer into waves because he found it funny and raise a bottle in toast at the Goat after a double shift, then slam his beer on top of mine so my drink would foam over my hand and shoes.
And somehow, in the writing of this story, rehearsing and getting the mouth feel of these lines, the former captain became my hero.
He was wearing the three bars.
He didn’t hide them. He didn’t take off the jacket or sneak away from the old bar the way I snuck away from the table. He wore them with pride for what they were, didn’t hide them because of what they once had been.
Maybe I’m feeling charitable, confusing courage and self-delusion. Maybe I’m feeling guilty for telling this story. But I know this man I hid from, and I choose to see a bit of nobility in the captain’s lost bar.