When the older man enters the soda shop, Nev ignores him and continues wiping down the counter. The usual customers are teenagers right after school. But it’s 5:30 now, and Nev just wants to finish up his chores and get home.
“Coca Cola, son,” the man says. He must be over 40, and wears a business hat and fedora, carrying a briefcase. Nev fills the glass and takes it over to the bar stool.
They share some incidentals. The man works in the city and takes the train to work every day. The high schooler relates that his mom works two jobs; his dad hasn’t been around since he was 2, so he pitches in when he can.
“That you I see smoking with the Zoot suiters some days near the train station?” the man asks.
Nev straightens up, ready to defend his friends. Only outcasts wear Zoot suits in their small New Jersey town – blacks and Hispanics. Nev is neither, but he likes to be a rebel.
“You ever dress like that?” the man asks, not unkindly.
“I’d lose my job,” Nev admits. “Plus, I’ve got my eye on a girl. She wouldn’t approve.”
Ignoring this, the man begins to tell Nev an off color joke. Surprised, Nev listens and laughs uproariously at the punch line. The man throws him a tip and saunters out.
Two days later, the older gentleman reappears, drinking a soda and bantering with the teenager. “You hear the one about the fisherman and worms?” the man asks. He’s never revealed his name, so Nev never does either. “No.”
“Well, a man drinks a shot of whiskey every night before bed. After years of this his wife wants him to quit, so she gets two shot glasses, filling one with water, the other with whiskey. She gets him to the table with the glasses and his bait box. She says ‘I want you to see this.’ The wife puts a worm from the bait box in the water, and it swims around. She puts a worm in the whiskey and the worm dies. ‘So what do you have to say about this experiment?’ she asks her husband. He replies, ‘IF I DRINK WHISKEY I WON’T GET WORMS!’”
Nev laughs so hard he begins to hiccup. He feels so emboldened that he tells a joke to the older businessman. A joke he heard from his Zoot suit friends. A very dirty joke.
When he recites the last line: “And he never asked her to do that again,” Nev pauses, afraid he’s crossed the line and lost a friend. Silence ensues for a long moment, and then the man says, “That’s a good one, but this one is even better.” Within a minute, Nev’s blush is redder than the shop’s bar stools.
Nev mumbles about enjoying jazz and pizza with the guys.
“I’m gonna marry the cutest girl in our senior class,” Nev boasts.
“Really? When?” the man sips his soda and checks the time on this watch. He always leaves by 5:45, saying his wife expects him by 6 p.m. on the dot.
“I’ve got to ask her out, first,” Nev confesses.
“Good god man, where are your balls? Ask the girl out and be done with it!” Then he narrates another dirty joke, and Nev does the same.
But Nev realizes that his old friend, a man he wishes were his father – though Nev knows of no fathers who tell their sons dirty jokes and drink Coca Cola after work – is right. So the next day at school he asks Marcia out. She’s the most popular girl in school, flirts with all the good-looking boys, and dresses like a fashion model.
“Sure!” she says when he tells her he’d like to take her to the new place in town where jazz is played all night long. “But you’re going to have to meet my parents first. My dad is strict!”
Nev picks Marcia up at her home in a neighborhood much nicer than the one he lives in. He wears his best pair of pants and his only dress shirt, shines his shoes, and slicks his hair back with cream. Heart pounding, he bangs the brass knocker on the large oak door.
What if her parents don’t like him? What if they can tell he’s from the other side of town?
He considers turning around and running, but then he thinks how he’d disappoint his older friend the next time he comes to the soda shop for a Coke and a joke.
Marcia opens the door with a sunny smile, “Come on in and meet my dad and mom!”
Standing there, right behind the girl he loves, is the soda-shop-gentleman with his arm around a petite older woman.
Marcia’s father doesn’t bat an eye. “So you’re Neville,” he says, hand out for a shake.
Not one word that they know each other.
Not one word that they’ve bandied dirty jokes twice a week for the past two months.
“Nice to meet you, sir,” Nev replies. He promises to have Marcia back by 10 and walks her out of the house, waiting with baited breath to see if the father, his old friend, stops them.
“Have a great time!” Marcia’s dad shouts.
And the two young people step out into their future.