This is a man who looks good in doorways, backlit and on the threshold of action. The Pirate is bull-chested, a little bowed in the legs but otherwise sound. He is sea-aged and therefore ageless. Still, he might have been a boy not so long ago. The bar—let’s call it a tavern, this being the 18th century—he finds it vacant save for the Innkeeper. A rag slung over one shoulder, the man polishes tankards without looking at his hands. His eyes are not elsewhere; in the used-up light of the tavern you can’t see anything but what’s behind you. If you aren’t staring into a madeira, you’re looking back at a whole life of regrets. The Innkeeper acknowledges the stranger with a nod. The Pirate does not frighten him. He gets all types.
Interposed between them is the bar. A length of pale oak with a bullnose rail, brass fittings. The surface is stained with the footprints of mugs and snifters. They stretch out like a tedious lament: OOOOOOOO. Here is the ghost inside the joke: its breaking heart.
He does not order a drink. The Pirate is only ducking in out of the rain. Here, on the coast, a storm can reduce a tri-corn hat to a felty stew, and the Pirate is fussy about his hat. Funny, he’d come ashore to dry up. Now he’s soaking wet and damn thirsty. The Innkeeper doesn’t ask what he wants. He has a more pressing question.
“Why Are You Wearing a Ship’s Wheel Where Your Buckle Should Be?”
He asks this gently. He can see that the Pirate is in pain. The Pirate is not an eccentric man, not a man prone to embellishing his loins with steering apparatus. Clearly not that type of guy. The wheel is a cross, truss, albatross. The visible symbol of his place in the world, it checks his bodily heading like a ship on the sea. The Innkeeper watches the softness in the Pirate’s eye, the surrender. His shoulders slump, his parrot flies off in a fit of pique: “Awk! Loser!”
“Sit, captain, and tell me your story.”
“I would,” says he, “but….” An impotent gesture, he fondles the spokes of his wheel. He might be a child, thinks the Innkeeper. Might be my child. Wash off the cannon soot, shave the beard, scrub away the Maori tattoo that stains his salt-bitten face, and a pirate is but a boy. What we love in a boy we fear in a man: the idea that adventure has no consequence, that ships are never becalmed in mid-voyage, that bedtime stories have no lousy endings. Boys can not regret. The Pirate rests his burden on a barstool, wrings the wet from his beard. What he wants to say: I can’t go back.
And here (after the laughter dies down) we return to the bar, to the dense fact that separates our Innkeeper from the rueful Pirate. The bar is the Innkeeper’s wheel. It has, since his youth, marked the outer limits of experience, his window to commerce with humanity. He has never been to sea, though as a boy he felt the pull. The Pirate answered his boyhood urges and now suffers the hard consequence of that fairy-tale. The Innkeeper did not, and he suffers for what he does not know. “So,” says the Innkeeper: “What’s up with the wheel?”
“Aarrgh, It’s Drivin’ Me Nuts.”