I don't drink so much anymore, and anyway it disagrees with my stomach, so when I go to a bar, it isn't for the beer or the whiskey. Sure I enjoy them, but my dread of the morning after seemed to get oversized about the time I turned seventy.
No, I go to the bar for the conversation. Or rather, if I'm really going to honest with myself, I go to the bar to tell one of my stories.
You see, I think I've got great stories. I take any opportunity I can to spin them. So much so that my family and the majority of my friends have heard them all five times - once with genuine appreciation and four times with mounting irritation. My children have long ago stopped protesting. They used to say, "aw come on, Dad, we've heard this one before," but now they just put their head down, their eyes glazed over, and they wait it out. My wife just gets up and leaves the room.
So about once every other month, I go to the Palace Bar. Stepping inside, I plant myself next to whoever is lucky or unlucky enough to be on one of the stools. In this instance, it's a man about ten years my junior in a bomber jacket and a trucker hat. I've never seen him here before. So much the better.
I sit down, order a beer, and turn to him.
"Yeah, I think I saw an angel once. In the middle of the night. I wouldn't have thought an angel would smell bad, but the Lord works in mysterious ways."
The guy looks at me as if to decide whether to bite. Finally, he takes a pull of his mug and drawl, "oh yeah?"
"Yeah," I continue without missing a beat. "It was 1982 or 83, and the train was stopped on a siding somewhere past Billings. The conductor had told me he thought we had a rider. Most of the time I let people ride, thinking what's the harm, but on this night, I felt compelled to check because it was cold. Cold, cold. Sure enough, as I was walking along a boxcar, snow up to here, I hear a voice behind me. I turn around, and I see this rangy guy standing there. Long hair, beard, the works. Gamey, too. You could smell him even in the cold. For a second, my hand went to my bowie knife. Sometimes you got to watch it with the kind that rides the rails."
The man looks at me with brow slightly furrowed, as if he can't make out what I'm saying. "The bum was an angel?"
"Don't say bum, that's a derogatory term. So this feller's standing there, and I might add he's dressed basically in rags. An old jersey cut t-shirt, and a pair of filthy corduroy pants. I noticed that he only had one shoe, and the other foot was wrapped in rags. Finally, he speaks. He asks something about how far away the highway was, and I told him it was a few miles in that direction, pointing him towards the glow of a truck stop in the distance. Then I says to him, 'But you look mighty hungry, buddy. You'd better take this,' and I hold out a twenty, right?"
My captive audience runs his fingers through his hair and puts his hat back in place. "Yeah, okay, then what?"
Now I know I've got him right where I want him: mildly curious. At this point in the story, my youngest son would be rolling his eyes so hard I'd be afraid he would give himself a concussion.
"The guy looks at the twenty, and then looks back at me like I had handed him a fish wrapped in a used athletic sock or something. 'I don't need that,' he says, kind of enigmatic. 'Sure you do, I tell him. 'Its cold out, and this'll buy you a coffee and a hot meal up the road, so just take it.' Now he gives me this kind of eerie look, like a calm passes over his face, and the shivering and the grimacing against the cold just goes away, and he says, 'give it to your children.'"
My audience smirks and gestures to the barkeep for another beer. "What a line."
"You like that?" I say. "You'll love this. Now I've got sons, but at that time I didn't have any kids yet, and there's something about the way he says it to me that feels significant, you know? Weighty in some hard to define way. And then, for the first time, I begin to think - not to feature the idea, but to at least entertain the notion that this might be an angel."
The smirk becomes a scoff, but I continue anyway.
"I still had just enough Sunday school in me to remember that when God was trying to figure out whether to save Lot or just kill everyone at Sodom and Gomorrah, he sent angels in the guise of humans to test the people of those cities of the plain. Them folks acted like jerks to the angels, and as a consequence everyone was vaporized, if you believe that kind of thing. Pillar of salt, so on. Well, I get to thinking, what if this feller is an angel? Maybe if I don't give him the double sawbuck, God might nuke the train, or Billings, maybe even the whole Treasure State. So I says to him, 'You are my children.'"
The guy at the bar laughs. "Cheesy line. So that's it?"
He's halfway to turned back around in his stool when I go in for the killing blow, the denouement.
"No, that's not it at all. The best part of the story is still to come. So anyways, I press the $20 bill into his hands, and I says to him, 'go ahead and take it, get warm.' Then I turn around for a moment because I hear my brakeman shout something to me and when I turn back around, he was gone. And I mean gone. I looked all around, and again, and this was in two, three feet of snow. But the guy didn't leave any tracks. And his tracks, having only one shoe, would have been easy to find, but they aren't there. Or there are exactly two tracks - the ones he was standing in, and then I turn around, and he's gone. No other tracks. Nothing. Now, what do you make of that? I think he was an angel, and I was tested."
"What happened to the twenty dollar bill?"
This throws me off for a second. "What do you mean?"
"I mean that if he blinked out of existence, did your twenty float down, or did the angel take it with him to heaven? You were still out the twenty, right?"
I have to admit. I'd never thought about that before. Still, I've never met passed up an opportunity to be pious.
"It's not really about the money, you know. It's about the spirit of generosity. That twenty dollar bill is only a thing, after all."
Now the guy turns on his stool to face me. "Okay, if that's true and you're so damn righteous, why don't you give me a twenty?"
I scrunch up my face into a frown. "What are you, a moron? Didn't you hear the story at all?"
He stares at me, blank.
"He was the angel, not me! I ain't giving you nothing!"
He examines the dregs of his glass, morose. "Then buy my next beer for making me listen to that load of horseshit."
I can't prove that this isn't another test from God, so I'd better not fail in my generosity this time.
"Sure, why not," I say. "Say, let me tell you another, about the time I saw a UFO hovering above the train one night. It was one of the coldest nights I can remember. Yes sir, you wouldn't believe the noise it made."
For a moment, I think he's not going to take the bait.
But then he bites, helpless.
"Alright, what the hell noise did the stupid UFO make?"