Don't Let Them Catch Your Gaze
Maybe the best thing about drinking with Pickens is that he won't stop as long as you don't. It's like those wrestling bears that you used to run across at those weird little rest stops along the smaller highways in northern California. You would always hear that the bear would only squeeze you about as hard as he thought you were squeezing him. I don't know if that's true. I never did and never will wrestle a bear. There were always the stories, though, of the tough guys who would come along from time to time with the idea of teaching a bear a lesson.
Let me say here and now that I was never going to teach Pickens Klay any lesson about drinking. I've been called lots of things, "lightweight" among them.
"Socially awkward" is another one. I'm pretty sure that I'm just shy.
Well, I would usually head up to Flynn's around four in the afternoon so that I wouldn't have to struggle with small talk. Most weekdays would be empty enough so that I didn't have to sit right next to anybody and there would be enough folks so that I didn't have to make awkward chitchat with the bartender. Usually it was a pretty, young girl and I hated the idea of making them feel obligated to entertain me. Most of the time I would have a major crush on them by my second or third visit on their watch. The really pretty ones didn't usually last for more than a month or two.
Flynn's advertised as a restaurant, a grille. It was a dive bar that served a little bit from a menu to keep their liquor license legal. I've never understood how that works. I've never really been interested. Smoking had been prohibited for several years but you still left Flynn's reeking of tobacco after a minute or two in the place. There were four or five little round tables and an L-shaped bar with seven or eight stools, usually with at least one or two of them broken.
The first time that I made eye contact with Pickens was when I looked up to see who had played Clarence "Frogman" Henry on the jukebox. He might have been testing me. Within a month I knew his name and I knew that he drank rum. Well drinks, usually rum and coke. I'm pretty sure that he usually had a crush on most of the pretty bartenders, too. Of course I found it admirable that he didn't seem to flirt with them. Maybe it's just that he didn't make me jealous.
By the time that we actually spoke to each other he seemed like one of my closer friends. I think we talked about hot rods. Either that or Donald O' Connor movies. Pretty soon I was getting there by three or three thirty. I wasn't really drinking much more, I was just having fun.
It was probably close to a year before I had any idea about just exactly who Pickens Klay really was. Neither us was at all the type to ask, "What do you do?"
It could be that I'm not comfortable telling strangers that I'm a writer, knowing that their next questions are all going to be about what I write and how I manage to support myself. I don't much think so. I'm pretty sure that if I practiced law and wore suspenders and drove a new Audi that I still wouldn't go for the "What do you do?" stuff.
Pickens? I suppose that he had official reasons not to lay all his cards on the table. Practical ones, too. This story that I'm warming up to tell you could get a fellow shot or locked up. Or both.
By the time that he mentioned the CIA I had already figured out that my pal had been around several blocks. I mean he knew stuff.