To say that Rodney went there religiously was not just a figure of speech, for Boyle's resembled a church even at noon, when no one was yet kneeling in the Gents, asking God for His mercy.
At that hour, a shaft of sunlight shone through stained glass. Which is to say, windows whose glass was comprehensively stainedby a double-glazing of nicotine and automotive exhaust, and the secondhand smoke of a half-century of bullshit. There were just the two windowsflanking the punched nose of a red front doorso that Boyle's faced the world through befogged spectacles. Whether these were the befogged spectacles of a man who has just come into a warm place from a cold one or of aman wearing permanent, prescriptive beer goggles depended largely on what one wanted from Boyle's.
Suffice to say that over the decades the bar and its regulars had begun to resemble one another, in the way of pets and their owners or old married couples. It was now impossible to tell whether its customers smelled of Boyle's or Boyle's smelled of its customers, only that both smelled, unmistakably, of corned beef and Lysol.
Rodney sat at the bar, his right hand slapped up against his brow, so that the ballpoint pen plugged between two fingers appeared to grow from his forehead, like a unicorn horn. He looked up from his crossword, to the bottles of the back bar: there was something provocative about those jewel-toned vessels, their backs turned to a mirrored wall, as if trying on pants in a department store dressing room, as if checking out theirown bottoms in a new pair of jeans.
More than a few of Boyle's regulars regarded the bottles that wayvoyeuristically, with what amounted to lust.
A bottle of Cockburn's was shelved next to a bottle of Dry Sack. Given their proximity, Rodney thought of them not as port and sherry but as twinned male medical afflictions, the former leading inevitably to the latter.
In front of him, a pint of Guinness, with its clerical collar of foam. Behind him, four booths, snug as confessionals, their rosewood benches salvaged from St. Michael the Archangel's. Two million asses, squirming through Masses: they had burnished thepews, leaving a rich patina that looked to Rodney like Murphy's Irish Red.
He thought of how, when he farted in church as a kid, his mother whispered, "Now you're sitting in your own pew." Boyle's church pews, like Boyle's dogs, had found a better home in Boyle's. A sign above the first booth quoted Mark 2:16:
When the Scribes and Pharisees saw Him, they said unto His disciples, "how is it that He eateth and drinketh with publicans and sinners?"
Armen set Rodney's lunch plate heavily on the bar. It settled like a spun coin. Armen's name was Gary Garabedian, but to anyone who'd been to Boyle's more than once, he was Armen. Armen the Barman.
Rodney and Armen once passed a summer's evening compiling a list of notable people, like Armen, of Armenian ancestry. The list consisted entirely of famous surnames that ended in -ian: Dr. Jack Kevorkian, Cherilyn (Cher) Sarkisian, basketball coach JerryTarkanian. "Yossarian," Rodney said. "From Catch-22."
"Raffi Cavoukian," Armen said, citing a multiplatinum children's troubadour whom Rodney had never heard of. Rodney was not merely childless but as bereft of children as a man can bea kind of orphan in reverse.
Rodney played to his strength and countered with sports personalities of the 1970s: Notre Dame football coach Ara Parseghian, Miami Dolphins kicker Garo Yepremian, and NFL field judge Armen Terzian, who was knocked unconscious by a thrown whiskey bottleafter costing the Minnesota Vikings a playoff game against the Dallas Cowboys.
At the end of the bar, another man being slowly knocked unconscious with a whiskey bottle said: "Conan the Barbarian."
Rodney turned to look at the guy. He had a face like a punched pillow. His jug-handle earsand the emptiness echoing between themcalled to mind golf's Wanamaker Trophy, given annually to the winner of the PGA Championship, whose highlights were justthen playing on TV. In time, he would become known to everyone at Boyle's as Wanamakerexcept on the back of his Boyle's softball jersey, where his name would be abbreviated in the way that old baseball box scores abbreviated Gionfriddo as "G'fr'do" or Vandermeeras "V'D'M'r."
On his softball jersey, "Wanamaker" was contracted to "Wan'ker."
During nights like that one, celebrating celebrated Armenians with a group of strangers, Rodney had all the companionship he needed inside Boyle's.
As new people entered through that swinging red door, they were challenged to name an Armenian celebrity whose name ended in -ian. When an old man said, "Ruffian," Rodney recalled how the great thoroughbred filly was buried where she had collapsedat Belmont, her nose pointed for all eternity toward a finish line she'd never reach.
It was about as apt a metaphor as he could think of for the comic futility of life.
Rodney forked a piece of porterhouse into his mouth and chewed it like a cud. He fed a French fry to Edith, the bulldog who spent entire days asleep under the bar, a courtesy extended to only a few of Boyle's regulars.
He had no idea where or whether Edith went when Boyle's closed. But Rodney had seen Edith drink Bushmill's directly from a dog dish in a match race won by Wanamaker. Until a year ago, the bar had two bulldogs. But Edith was widowed when Drinketh died of pneumonia, leaving Edith that most disappointing of all creations: a setup without a punch line.
Rodney had a blind date tonight, a setup that would almost certainly have no payoff. He took a pull from his pint of Guinness and his brain began to run on its hamster wheel to nowhere: Guinness is stout, stout is a kind of porter, porter was popular among porters in the street markets of London, who drank it in porter houses, which servedsteak, which is why they call the swatch of suede I am now masticating a "porterhouse steak."
Rodney wondered if he should order a second porterhouse tonight, on his date, so that he could regale her with this history. He looked again at his crossword clue: "Spot remover." With the safecracker's disdain for the locksmith, he inked in dogcatcher. Then his right hand went back to his forehead, and the ballpoint again was unicorned to his brow. Before the smoking ban, when that pen was a cigarette, it looked like a smokestack for his brain. That brain remained a bustling widget factory, three shifts working round the clock to make a product that nobody needed, at least not outside of Boyle's.
Some people have a mind like a steel trap. Rodney had a mind like a lint trap. It retained only useless fluff: batting averages, ancient jingles, a slogan glimpsed once, years ago, on the side of a panel van, for an exterminator ("We'll Make Your AntsSay Uncle") or a window-treatment supplier ("A Couple of Blind Guys") or a septic tank specialist ("Doody Calls").
High in a corner behind the bar, beneath a ceiling tiled to look like tin, hung an ancient TV, a Zenith at its nadir. Armen turned the sound up. Family Feud, with a new host, who said: "One hundred people surveyed, top five answers on the board, name afamous Rudolph."
Rodney clicked the ballpoint pen with his thumb as if it were the plunger on Jeopardy and said: "Red-Nosed Reindeer, Giuliani, Nureyev, Valentino . . ."
Armen said, "Wilma Rudolph." Wanamaker said, "Wilma Flintstone." "It's famous Rudolphs," Armen said. "Not famous Wilmas."
"There are no other famous Wilmas," Rodney said. Armen said, "Not true: Wilma Mankiller. Chief of the Cherokee Nation."
On TV, the host said, "I need an answer."
A young woman in a lime-sherbet pantsuit held her palms upward as if waiting for rain. She cringed preemptively and said: "Hitler?"
Armen roared and shouted, "Rudolph Hitler!"
Rodney thought how "Rudolph" sounded benign, "Adolf" malevolent. He wondered aloud if names were destiny.
"You mean, would I be a barman if my name weren't Armen?" Armen asked. "It's like Alicia Keys. She plays the piano and her name is Keys." "Her real name is Cook," Rodney said. "Her stage name is Keys. Just like your real name is Gary. Armen's your stage name. You're Armen because you're a barman, she's Keys because she plays piano."
If Cook's name was her destiny, Rodney reflected, she'd be making pot pies with Vance, the Boyle's cook who seemed to pop his head out the kitchen door once a day, like a cuckoo from a clock.
"I'm talking the other way around," he said. "Like the archbishop of Manila was Cardinal Sin. The team dentist for the San Francisco Giants, his name is Les Plack."
Armen said, "I read that an unusually high percentage of people named Dennis become dentists."
"What about Wilma Mankiller?" Wanamaker said. "How'd you like to go on a blind date, you ask her her name, she says, 'Mankiller.' Probably didn't have a lot of second dates."
"Mankiller, party of one." Armen said jauntily. But the four booths of the Boyle's dining room were empty.
Rodney felt compelled to point out that Wilma Mankiller did not become a killer of men, but Armen had already moved on to Lorena Bobbitt, who famously hacked off her husband's wang with a kitchen knife and flung it out a car window. "Lorena, bob it," Armensaid. "That's destiny."
Wanamaker said to Rodney, "What am I missing?"
Rodney thought of all the possible answers: hair, brains, job, class, deodorant. But all he said was "Look it up."
Armen turned to the back bar and examined Boyle's reference library of Quiz Night argument stoppers. His fingers passed over a 1986 paperback copy of The Guinness Book of World Records, its cover torn off, its corners rounded with wear, and plucked insteadthe paperback dictionary next to it. He cleared his throat theatrically and read:
"Bob noun, second definition: Something that has been cut short, for example, a horse's tail when docked, a dog's ears when clipped, your johnson when removed with a Ginsu knife . . ."
The men at the bar roared. And so the conversation stayed aloft on an undercurrent of fear. Fear of women. Armen had a twelve-year-old daughter whom he almost never saw. Rodney once asked him why and Armen forestalled further inquiry by saying, "She liveswith her mother," in a tone that suggested, "She lives with a feral wolverine." And so women were literally castrating, metaphorically man-killing, at least until one of them walked into the bar, which didn't often happen until after five. Then, everyone sata little straighter, began smoothing out imaginary neckties, a cupped hand in front of every mouth casually checking for halitosis. At this hour of the afternoon, Boyle's was as male as a monastery.
As Rodney was well aware, monks have been synonymous with beer since at least 800 AD, when Gall began brewing at his monastery in Switzerland, a tradition that continues to this day in the alpine town of St. Gallen.
Saint Gallen. Rodney wondered if he too could be sainted for drinking beer in a holy place.
"You're not a monk," Armen reminded him. "Your celibacy is involuntary."
High behind the bar, perched on the plinth of a stereo speaker, was a bottle of Frangelicoa bottle shaped like a Franciscan friar, in a brown habit with a white rope cincture around his waist. It bothered Rodney that this Italian hazelnut liqueur wasnamed for a Piedmontese painter and DominicanFra Angelicowhen Dominicans wore white habits that were never belted by a rope.
Involuntarily, he thought of the anagram: desperation = a rope ends it.
"Think there's beer in heaven?" Rodney asked Armen.
"In heaven there is no beer," Armen said. "That's why we drink it here. Says so right in the polka."
Rodney wasn't sure. At home, he kept a laminated prayer card magnetized to the fridge: I'd like to give a lake of beer to God I'd love the Heavenly Host to be tippling there For all eternity . . ._
The Meat Puppets said hell was a lake of fire. Could both be true? Heaven a lake of beer, hell a lake of fire? Rodney liked this notionof the afterlife as a choice between beer or barbecue, a tailgate for all eternity. . . . I'd sit with the men, the women of God There by the lake of beer We'd be drinking good health forever And every drop would be a prayer. St. Brigid of Kildare (c. 451-525)
Rodney wasn't the first man who found drink to be a convivial companion in the absence of women. He thought of the thirteen men drinking wine at the Last Supper; of the lifers at Leavenworth making pruno in prison toilets.
His lunch went cold. Or rather, the warm bits went cold while the cold bits went warm. The beer was warming, the porterhouse cooling. That was the day's special, Guinness and steak, what the wipe board behind the bar called the "Murph & Turf." Rodney let his hand fall idly on a stack of Harp coasters, so that he appeared to be taking an alcoholic oath of office.
His bladder twitched, and for the first time in two hours Rodney alit from his stool, with its view backstage into the kitchen. The thrum and slosh of the dishwasher reminded him of childhood, of sitting three feet in front of the TV after dinner, thegreen shag carpet serving as elephant grass for his army men, while his parents recapped their respective days over coffee in the kitchen.
When the cool darkness of the bar had given way to the fluorescent light of the Gents, with its bouquet of disinfectant urinal pucks, Rodney stepped onto the tiled platform in front of the toilets. The riser was only six inches high, but it gave the full-bladderedman the pleasant illusion that he wasn't so much taking a leak as delivering a keynote address. Indeed, over the years, many of Rodney's fellow urinators had turned orators, delivering incoherent valedictories from these very urinals, their eyes fixed on thewhite tiled wall a foot in front of them.
Giza had its pyramids. Boyle's had its urinals, three of them, each one nearly capacious enough to be a walk-in toilet, a stand-up sarcophagus, five feet tall and filled with ice cubes, so that steam rose primordially while Rodney took a whiz. On the wall, a machine dispensed cologne and condoms, the alpha and omega of the one-night stand.
The condom machine bore a graffito: Katerina Kleszcz is easier done than said. Rodney admired the wordplay while deploring the sentiment.
He shook, shivered, and zipped. He flushed with his elbow, turned the faucets on and off with his wrists, dried his hands on his pants, and then gently kicked open the swinging door of the Gents with the sole of his right running shoe.
Only when he was back in the bar proper did he reflexively begin to breathe through his nose again.