She thinks of you as Sheepskin Man. Or perhaps Sasquatch Man, but we’ll give you a break and say Sheepskin Man. That’s in acknowledgement of your four-year degree, your newish Honda, your taste for craft beer and Thai food, and the job you hold down in an office or classroom that pays better than some machine shops.
Hi there, Sheepskin Man! She certainly has taken note of your elite education and hoity-toity manners and discretionary income, especially since she lacks all these attributes herself. Yes, she’s quite a different deal from you, maybe didn’t finish high school, and confesses to drinking a bit.
Whoa, quite a bit! And has she ever visited an orthodontist? Whatever, she was attracted to you when she waited your table the other night, and now you’re suddenly on the town with her and negotiating for her to clean your apartment, since she’s underemployed. And you, Sheepskin Man, are attracted to her, too, even if the attraction is sort of inexplicable. True, she’s kind of cute, and her drinking promises an interesting night, but what of that? Can she really be your type? Your usual date is Sheepskin Woman, who owns fifty pairs of shoes and a master’s degree, but this evening you’re off on a hazardous tangent.
Your night takes a decided turn inside the bar she directs you to. It isn’t her favorite, she explains, but an out-of-the-way place you’ll likely be left alone. If you went to one of her favorite spots, where there was a nice crowd, some he-man would be liable to beat you to a pulp, she says. You don’t argue.
You enter a dark, forsaken hellhole whose blackened interior makes it clear that it almost burned to the ground in a recent fire. “Charming!” you think. At first the place seems deserted, but when you step up to the bar a kindly middle-aged fella with a tube gut flicks on a tiny TV on the shelf behind him and takes your orders. Draft beer for you, six Jell-O shots for her. This is only your second date, but she got bombed on your first also, so you’re concerned, but not much.
After her third shot, she wants to dance. You give her change for the jukebox, since she hasn’t a dime to her name, and then you’re on the barroom floor, trying to find the tempo to “Wonderful Tonight,” a song she picked and the beat to which, although you played snare drum in your high school marching band, you can’t lock onto. Why couldn’t she choose one that goes and-a one, and-a two, and-a three, so you don’t stumble around like a lame donkey? Bad luck!
Now a guy steps out of the dark woodwork and cuts in. Meet Piney Man. You haven’t named him that yet, but you will in about a minute. Piney Man doesn’t seek your permission or acknowledge you in any way. He simply asks your girl to dance, and she, without knowing him, accepts. In retaliation, you give the dude exactly one glance as you retreat to a bar stool. He’s about your age, mid-twenties, and damn it all he’s good-looking, even well-dressed in a country-and-western sort of way. He would fit in well in the fifth or sixth row on a televised Lyle Lovett concert.
He also has a GED, works on roofs or construction sites, drives a domestic pickup with actual tools on board, drinks domestic beer and hunts domestic animals for food. Yes, you take in all that at a glance. And one more thing: he smells of pine trees or some other outdoorsy, labor-intensive thing. So you think of him now as Piney Man, though his aroma may actually come from cologne or motor oil or, as is common to all Piney Men, cigarettes. The one thing he won’t smell of is peach and strawberry blend shampoo, like you.
Piney Man knows how to move to the funereal song oozing over the ether, and you suspect that he’s well-versed in sashaying, probably having memorized the entire jukebox at Joe’s, which is the name of this place, where he may be the only regular who didn’t die in the fire.
While you can’t help but admire the graceful pair, you try not to stare directly at Piney Man for fear of proving conclusively that he’s got you in the looks department. A sneak glance, however, confirms that he does. That doesn’t leave much room for you to compete, but there’s still income and brains to be considered. These are not ordinarily your strong suits, but tonight they’ll have to be. How else will you impress your date, who of course is none other than Piney Woman, Piney Man’s natural soul mate? You suddenly feel you’re wearing a back brace and a sweater with a kitten embroidered across the chest.
As the entwined couple continue to dance to the mournful guitar licks, you’re idiotically counting the beats from your bar stool, still trying to see how they can move together as one column of swaying liquid. When you think you’ve got the tempo at last, there’s still no other female in the joint for you to dance with. You’re stuck with kindly barkeep, no doubt Joe himself, who keeps you company from behind the bar.
You follow his gaze to miniature TV behind him. Jeopardy is on, and Alex grills a contestant in the category of Legendary Smart People: “This Old Testament King, renowned for his wisdom, once proposed to cut a baby into halves.” You know the answer but say nothing, not wanting to look like an intellectual show-off in front of average Joe. But Joe pipes right up with “Who is King Solomon?” And since the bartender, in your mind, is another Piney Man, he stands in for the good-looking dancer, and you realize you’re now losing in the brains department, right when it counts.
You again glance over at Piney Man. That was quick thinking, sir, you tell yourself. But you say nothing to him, since it’s already crystal clear that you two won’t be exchanging any words. Neither of you came to the bar tonight to talk to another guy, and most likely, if he notices you at all, he’s come up with some derogatory name for you, something as bad as Piney Man for city slickers.
What might it be? You think you know it: Shaft. But in that case you’d need to be like the vibrant man of machismo from the song and movie, wouldn’t you? You’d also need to be black, most likely. You’re flattering yourself; he isn’t thinking of you as Shaft. More like Mr. Peepers, on account of your glasses.
“Wonderful Tonight” ends at last, and you place your next drink orders with Joe: another draft for you, and a second half-dozen Jell-O shots for the lady. Piney Man buys himself a bottle of lager. Joe gets busy, and Piney Man, behind your back, puts in a quarter to hear “Rough Boy.” Of course, it’s another arrhythmic ballad that only contortionists can enjoy. Briefly you get up to examine the jukebox song list, looking for “Sweet Home Alabama.” You’re certain you can boogie to that. Amazingly, you don’t find that dive song in this dive. You sit back down.
Once again you’re locked out of the dance floor, and watch as Joe turns up the little TV for tonight’s final Jeopardy question. Alex reads from the category of Legendary Rich People: “The first gold coins were minted during the reign of this ancient King of Asia Minor.” “Who is Midas?” you blurt out, but Joe looks skeptical, and sure enough, it’s not Midas but Croesus. Joe smirks. Maybe he thought it was Midas too, but you blew it and that makes him, and by extension Piney Man, the winner. Piney Woman is his.
Except you’re the one who drives her home later, and it’s your car she pukes in.