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Sometimes a mayfly skates across a pond, leaving a brief wake as thin as spider silk, and by staying low avoids those birds and bats that feed in flight.
At six feet three, weighing two hundred ten pounds, with big hands and bigger feet, Timothy Carrier could not maintain a profile as low as that of a skating mayfly, but he tried.
Shod in heavy work boots, with a John Wayne walk that came naturally to him and that he could not change, he nevertheless entered the Lamplighter Tavern and proceeded to the farther end of the room without drawing attention to himself. None of the three men near the door, at the short length of the “L”-shaped bar, glanced at him. Neither did the couples in two of the booths.
When he sat on the end stool, in shadows beyond the last of the downlights that polished the molasses-colored mahogany bar, he sighed with contentment. From the perspective of the front door, he was the smallest man in the room.
If the forward end of the Lamplighter was the driver’s deck of the locomotive, this was the caboose. Those who chose to sit here on a slow Monday evening would most likely be quiet company.
Liam Rooney–who was the owner and, tonight, the only barkeep–drew a draft beer from the tap and put it in front of Tim.
“Some night you’ll walk in here with a date,” Rooney said, “and the shock will kill me.”
“Why would I bring a date to this dump?”
“What else do you know but this dump?”
“I’ve also got a favorite doughnut shop.”
“Yeah. After the two of you scarf down a dozen glazed, you could take her to a big expensive restaurant in Newport Beach, sit on the curb, and watch the valets park all the fancy cars.”
Tim sipped his beer, and Rooney wiped the bar though it was clean, and Tim said, “You got lucky, finding Michelle. They don’t make them like her anymore.”
“Michelle’s thirty, same age as us. If they don’t make ’em like her anymore, where’d she come from?”
“It’s a mystery.”
“To be a winner, you gotta be in the game,” Rooney said.
“I’m in the game.”
“Shooting hoops alone isn’t a game.”
“Don’t worry about me. I’ve got women beating on my door.”
“Yeah,” Rooney said, “but they come in pairs and they want to tell you about Jesus.”
“Nothing wrong with that. They care about my soul. Anybody ever tell you, you’re a sarcastic sonofabitch?”
“You did. Like a thousand times. I never get tired of hearing it. This guy was in here earlier, he’s forty, never been married, and now they cut off his testicles.”
“Who cut off his testicles?”
“You get me the names of those doctors,” Tim said. “I don’t want to go to one by accident.”
“The guy had cancer. Point is, now he can never have kids.”
“What’s so great about having kids, the way the world is?”
Rooney looked like a black-belt wannabe who, though never having taken a karate lesson, had tried to break a lot of concrete blocks with his face. His eyes, however, were blue windows full of warm light, and his heart was good.
“That’s what it’s all about,” Rooney said. “A wife, kids, a place you can hold fast to while the rest of the world spins apart.”
“Methuselah lived to be nine hundred, and he was begetting kids right to the end.”
“That’s what they did in those days. They begot.”
“So you’re going to–what?–wait to start a family till you’re six hundred?”
“You and Michelle don’t have kids.”
“We’re workin’ on it.” Rooney bent over, folded his arms on the bar, and put himself face-to-face with Tim. “What’d you do today, Doorman?”
Tim frowned. “Don’t call me that.”
“So what’d you do today?”
“The usual. Built some wall.”
“What’ll you do tomorrow?”
“Build some more wall.”
“For whoever pays me.”
“I work this place seventy hours a week, sometimes longer, but not for the customers.”
“Your customers are aware of that,” Tim assured him.
“Who’s the sarcastic sonofabitch now?”
“You still have the crown, but I’m a contender.”
“I work for Michelle and for the kids we’re gonna have. You need somebody to work for besides who pays you, somebody special to build something with, to share a future with.”
“Liam, you sure do have beautiful eyes.”
“Me and Michelle–we worry about you, bro.”
Tim puckered his lips.
Rooney said, “Alone doesn’t work for anybody.”
Tim made kissing noises.
Leaning closer, until their faces were mere inches apart, Rooney said, “You want to kiss me?”
“Well, you seem to care about me so much.”
“I’ll park my ass on the bar. You can kiss that.”
“No thanks. I don’t want to have to cut off my lips.”
“You know what your problem is, Doorman?”
“There you go again.”
“Wrong. I’m not afraid of cars.”
“You’re afraid of yourself. No, that isn’t right, either. You’re afraid of your potential.”
“You’d make a great high-school guidance counselor,” Tim said. “I thought this place served free pretzels. Where’re my pretzels?”
“Some drunk threw up on them. I’ve almost finished wiping them off.”
“Okay. But I don’t want them if they’re soggy.”
Rooney fetched a bowl of pretzels from the backbar and put them beside Tim’s beer. “Michelle has this cousin, Shaydra, she’s sweet.”
“What kind of name is Shaydra? Isn’t anyone named Mary anymore?”
“I’m gonna set you up with Shaydra for a date.”
“No point to it. Tomorrow, I’m having my testicles cut off.”
“Put them in a jar, bring them on the date. It’ll be a great ice-breaker,” said Rooney, and returned to the other end of the bar, where the three lively customers were busy paying the college tuition for the as-yet-unborn Rooney children.
For a few minutes, Tim worked at convincing himself that beer and pretzels were all he needed. Conviction was assisted by picturing Shaydra as a bovine person with one eyebrow and foot-long braided nose hairs.
As usual, the tavern soothed him. He didn’t even need the beer to take the sharp edges off his day; the room itself did the job, though he did not fully understand the reason for its calming effect.
The air smelled of stale beer and fresh beer, of spilled brine from the big sausage jar, of bar wax and shuffleboard powder. From the small kitchen came the aroma of hamburgers frying on a griddle and onion rings crispening in hot oil.
The warm bath of agreeable scents, the illuminated Budweiser clock and the soft shadows in which he sat, the murmurs of the couples in the booths behind him and the immortal voice of Patsy Cline on the jukebox were so familiar that by comparison his own home would seem to be foreign territory.
Maybe the tavern comforted him because it represented, if not permanence, at least continuance. In a world rapidly and ceaselessly transforming, the Lamplighter resisted the slightest change.
Tim expected no surprises here, and wanted none. New experiences were overrated. Being run down by a bus would be a new experience.
He preferred the familiar, the routine. He would never be at risk of falling off a mountain because he would never climb one.
Some said he lacked a sense of adventure. Tim saw no point in suggesting to them that intrepid expeditions through exotic lands and across strange seas were the quests of crawling children compared to the adventures waiting in the eight inches between the left ear and the right.
If he made that observation, they would think him a fool. He was just a mason, after all, a bricklayer. He was expected not to think too much.
These days, most people avoided thinking, especially about the future. They preferred the comfort of blind convictions to clear-eyed thought.
Others accused him of being old-fashioned. Guilty as charged.
The past was rich with known beauty and fully rewarded a look backward. He was a hopeful man, but not presumptuous enough to assume that beauty lay, as well, in the unknown future.
An interesting guy came into the tavern. He was tall, although not as tall as Tim, solid but not formidable.
His manner, rather than his appearance, made him interesting. He entered like an animal with a predator on its trail, peering back through the door until it swung shut, and then warily surveying the premises, as though distrusting the promise of refuge.
When the newcomer approached and sat at the bar, Tim stared at his Pilsner glass as if it were a sacred chalice, as though he were brooding on the profound meaning of its contents. By assuming a devotional demeanor, rather than a pose of sullen solitude, he allowed strangers the option of conversation without encouraging it.
If the first words out of the newcomer’s mouth were those of a bigot or a political nut, or the wrong kind of fool, Tim could morph from a pose of spiritual or nostalgic reverie to one of bitter silence and barely repressed violence. Few people would try more than twice to break the ice when the only response was a glacial chill.
Tim preferred quiet contemplation at this altar, but he enjoyed the right kind of conversation, too. The right kind was uncommon.
When you initiated a conversation, you could have a hard time putting an end to it. When the other guy spoke first, however, and revealed his nature, you could shut him down by shutting him out.
Diligent in the support of his yet-to-be-conceived children, Rooney arrived. “What’ll it be?”
The stranger put a thick manila envelope on the bar and kept his left hand on it. “Maybe . . . a beer.”
Rooney waited, eyebrows raised.
“Yes. All right. A beer,” said the newcomer.
“On tap, I have Budweiser, Miller Lite, and Heineken.”
“Okay. Well . . . then . . . I guess . . . Heineken.”
His voice was as thin and taut as a telephone wire, his words like birds perched at discreet intervals, resonant with a plucked note that might have been dismay.
By the time Rooney brought the beer, the stranger had money on the bar. “Keep the change.”
Evidently a second round was out of the question.
When Rooney went away, the stranger wrapped his right hand around the beer glass. He did not take a sip.
Tim was a wet nurse. That was the mocking title Rooney had given him because of his ability to nurse two beers through a long evening. Sometimes he asked for ice to enliven a warm brew.
Even if you weren’t a heavy drinker, however, you wanted the first swallow of beer when it was at its coldest, fresh from the tap.
Like a sniper intent on a target, Tim focused on his Budweiser, but like a good sniper, he also had keen peripheral vision. He could see that the stranger had still not lifted the glass of Heineken.
The guy did not appear to be a habitué of taverns, and evidently he didn’t want to be in this one, on this night, at this hour.
At last he said, “I’m early.”
Tim wasn’t sure if this was a conversation he wanted.
“I guess,” said the stranger, “everyone wants to be early, size things up.”
Tim was getting a bad vibe. Not a look-out-he’s-a-werewolf kind of vibe, just a feeling that the guy might be tedious.
The stranger said, “I jumped out of an airplane with my dog.”
On the other hand, the best hope of a memorable barroom conversation is to have the good luck to encounter an eccentric.
Tim’s spirits lifted. Turning to the skydiver, he said, “What was his name?”
“Funny name for a dog.”
“I named him after my brother.”
“What did your brother think of that?”
“My brother is dead.”
Tim said, “I’m sorry to hear it.”
“That was a long time ago.”
“Did Larry like sky-diving?”
“He never went. He died when he was sixteen.”
“I mean Larry the dog.”
“Yeah. He seemed to like it. I bring it up only because my stomach is in knots like it was when we jumped.”
“This has been a bad day, huh?”
The stranger frowned. “What do you think?”
Tim nodded. “Bad day.”
Continuing to frown, the skydiver said, “You are him, aren’t you?”
The art of barroom banter is not like playing Mozart on the piano. It’s freestyle, a jam session. The rhythms are instinctual.
“Are you him?” the stranger asked again.
Tim said, “Who else would I be?”
“You look so . . . ordinary.