If you ever want to see how big my smile can get, play the Steve Miller Band’s “The Joker” and wait for the line, “Get my lovin’ on the run.” I immediately think of Mike, and I almost break my face.
I threw a little Miller into the jukebox and sat down with a Jack and Coke. It’s what Mike used to drink, I think. I’m frustrated with myself because I can’t remember for sure. Today marks seven years since he passed away, and some details are fading. Tonight, he’s a Jack and Coke. I poke at the ice with the straws and take methodical sips as the first verse plays through.
The picture in my head was taken at the Maplewood Lids he managed when I ran the Duluth one, back when $26,000 a year made friends jealous and a dollar bought more than ONE FUCKING SONG from a jukebox.
I remember shooting the shit after he had closed down that night. He leaned against a step stool in a white newsboy hat, argyle vest over a white Oxford shirt all dorky-looking, and the tattered-style jeans Michael Jordan gets raked for wearing. I don’t remember exactly, but it might’ve taken me more time to deliver a punchline about his outfit than he needed to score a phone number when we got to the bar.
In fact, the favorably-shaped, potty-mouthed bartender who just slid my drink over resembled a woman I’d seen him escort out once. I’m overhearing her talk to a friend; she talks hard with her sailor tongue, but this tale of blacking out in a Vegas hotel hallway is making her sound pretty easy. From the drink’s location, I heard Mike’s voice: “I’d hate-fuck her.”
Some call me the gangster of love.
I’m wearing the ring he gave me. Now that I think about, he leaned on that bar chair the same way he leaned on the step stool when he wrenched this ring off his finger and gave it to me during a game of pool at a squalid little Annandale bar. Reason: “Because we’re bros.” Eight years ago, it was too big; two years ago, when I found it in a shoebox, it was too small; now, it fits perfectly. As “The Joker” plays its final chorus, I rub the sides of it with my other hand and sigh at the glass.
It’s comfortable to nose-laugh at how he’d talk this bartender into bed, but I my throat gets tight when I think about how he was my pillar during my first real crisis as an adult, or the great lengths he took to make sure I knew he was there for me. He was the type of person I’d say everyone needs. He was more than a supportive friend; he had a weird way of making me enjoy the worst. It’s surprising how much a simple “Want me to come up there and kick their asses?” can do for an unraveling person.
But let’s not cry at the bar, huh?
The Jack and Coke is tasting more and more like a Coke and Coke and I decide it’s time to level it up. The supposedly-blonde asks me what’s next.
“I’ll just take the Jack in a shot this time.” And then I level up the music, throwing in Buckcherry and gliding back to my barstool. Now, Mike is a shot.
For three-and-a-half minutes of “Lit up,” I stop being sentimental and just reflect on good times. The bar is brighter, my notepad fills faster, everything is gold like the ghost in the glass. I realize just how much I’ve hung onto, and I decide I’ve done a good job. The drink soaks the tunes up with me, in a glass even dirtier than this bartender is making herself sound. On the last “Oh yeaaaaaaaah” I slam the shot.
I put down the shot and exhale. The bartender asks, “What’ll it be now?” I click my pen tip into its sheath and answer: