Neil always carried one of them small New Testaments in the back pocket of his work jeans and a hard pack of cigarettes in the front pocket of his shirt. He never smelled of smoke, just of wood chips and turpentine. Neil walked through the front door every Friday at 3:00 and eased up to the bar. I always watched him whisper his usual down to Mary Carter. She didn’t never ask him anything, just smiled, poured him a pint and brought me the order.
He was a white man with a voice like Barry White. Once I told him that and he laughed. He said his voice had more gravel in it, like Tom Waits, whoever that was. Neil was a modest tipper, just a furniture maker by trade, but he was always kind to me. He was good to leave a cigarette with the extra dollar.
Last Friday I brought him his order and he noticed my forearm. He asked about my tattoo, the dark blue outline of a cross with the words “by his stripes” written underneath. I tried to tell him it was a long story. He smiled. “Can’t be that long,” he said.
“My brother Ronnie and me got them tattoos when we was sixteen,” I told him. “We used to live out on a county road in Mississippi. Me and Ronnie got into hubcap stealing, sold them to this fella out of Jackson. One day the police came to our house on a tip. Daddy knew we’d done it, but he told the police it was him. Said he was trying to make some side money. The police dragged him out the front door and beat him with an old horse whip. Cut him up real bad and dragged him off to jail. I didn’t see him after that.”
Neil listened carefully, didn’t ask me whatever happened to Ronnie. Instead, he reached for his front pocket with his left hand and his back pocket with his right. He pulled out bible and the cigarettes, stacking them up like dirty dishes. He slid them to me across the bar. “Merry Christmas, William,” he said as he reached for his pint and raised it to his lips.
“It’s July, Neil,” Mary Carter chuckled behind me. Over the top his glass he looked down at Mary Carter, then back to my arm. “Peace on earth, and goodwill to men.”