Just shy of his 50th birthday, Jarvis Bagley’s life has become an awful cliché. Long divorced, long single, estranged from his children, working an unfulfilling job, Jarvis has long since dropped courtesy and decorum for acrimony and rancor.
So lost is he in his contempt for others, that he finds his most meaningful relationships interacting with his favorite craft beers and the anthropomorphized caricatures he turns them into.
His lone solace is competing Tuesday night trivia at Grendel’s Tap & Pub. His greatest dream is winning the coveted Saxon Keg—the Pub’s prize awarded to the best trivia team of the year.
But if he wants to win the Keg, and maybe put his life in some kind of order, he’s going to have to put together a winning team. Worse yet, he’s going to have to get along with the real people who will form it.
Chapter Five: Jarvis and Leo Lift Off Talk Courage and Fear
Saxon Keg Point Standings—Early June:
- The Ken Dolls: 710
- Jarvis Bagley and “Friends”: 710
- Isaac Newton’s Missing Apple: 650
- Make Trivia Great Again: 460
- Saxophones and Saliva: 240
- Zen and the Art of Beer: 140
- The C-Chord Walk Downs: 40
- The Off-Road Commuters: 30
- Others: 20
By the end of May the Ken Dolls evaporated. Not the team’s lead, mind you. I mean the team itself. None of that was particularly surprising. Ephraim moved from the average grind of the spring semester into the pressing grind of finals week, and that was it.
I suppose we all knew the Ken Dolls would call trivia quits for the summer. Sarah wondered if maybe their lead might convince some of them to commute or grab summer jobs around town. But nope. They didn’t care. For half the year they had waltzed into Grendels’ with their lighthearted humor and their dazzling smiles and their polite handshakes and their sincere banter. Then they sat in their booth and laughed and joked and drank happily. And they didn’t just take the lead in the standings, they ran away with it.
But once school ended, they up and left. Just walked away from the whole thing.
It was as if it was a game or something to them.
“Hey guys, can I hang out with you all tonight?” The question came from the only member of the Dolls still in the pub. When he introduced himself I tensed my face and braced for the off-chance his name was indeed “Ken”… or Alan… or Bobby, Steven, Devon, or any of the other official Barbie names I happened to know thanks to one too many boredom-infused, stream-of-consciousness deep-dives into depths of Wikipedia.
“I’m Jordan,” he said answering Max’s introduction.
Of course. Jordan. How fucking millennial.
Jordan Parmeter was an economics major from a rich family living north of Chicago. So far, this kid was ringing the bell and scoring 100’s in every single category of Let’s Be a Cliché!
“Which mammal has the longest gestation period?” Paul asked.
“Yeah,” Jordan muttered to us. “That’d be the elephant.” I flashed a glance to Max, who stared at Jordan with gushing aplomb. Meanwhile Sarah dismissively raised her eyebrows and shrugged her shoulders, the closest thing to a begrudging olive branch I suppose I would ever get from her. And to my left, Catharine Addleson-Smith sat unfazed, gently rubbing her chin with the pad of her index finger, her mind far off one of her internal, tangential parallel universes.
“That’s right…” I finally said, my voice trailing. I’m pretty sure Jordan didn’t pick up on the politely suspicious tone in my voice. No sooner had he uttered the answer than he picked up his phone, resuming the four or five-person group chat which had been underway since before he walked through Grendel’s front door. Never taking his eyes off the screen his expressions ranged from grins to outright chuckles, and from furrowed concentration to bland serenity.
“Okay,” Paul continued, “your sports question for tonight is this one: Where did the New York Knicks get their nickname?”
“Oh yeah…” Jordan said offhandedly. As Paul asked the question, he instinctively rolled his phone, planting it face-down on the table. Nodding, to himself more than the rest of us, he delivered again.
“That’d be Washington Irving,” he said.
Thus, it went all evening. This is not to say that Jordan Parmeter went full one-man team that night. Max threw out a half-dozen of his own answers just as quickly as the young college kid. Often, they spouted them synchronously. Well, as synchronously as the two of them would ever get. Max’s tendency to snap his fingers, break out into a euphoric smile, and get straight to the answer typically put him about four syllables ahead of Jordan’s “Yeah…that’d be…” preamble. The effect was something tantamount to a strangely engaging, if not unharmonious, echo.
But he never once turned to his phone for an answer, which is a weird observation to describe given that he was never off his phone for any span of time longer than fifteen or twenty seconds. If he flat-out didn’t know an answer, he would shrug, pick up his gadget, and get back to his long-distance hang-out session with his buddies. God knows what they were talking about. What could be so goddamn important that it had to be said then? And over the phone? And by typing it out no less?
Running the last three months through my head, I thought about all those college kids, as well as older people with phone fetishes—lonely divorcees, social divas, and widowed old men trying to score 30-year-old waitresses on Tinder.
For the first time I considered the fact that maybe they weren’t looking up answers at all. In a world where those tiny supercomputers in their purses and pockets had effectively deprived them of the ability to sit (or stand) for minutes at a time doing nothing but staring at a wall or watching Emily serve beers from behind the bar, their phones were less a means to circumvent the rules of trivia and more a line of cocaine designed to feed the instinctive need for a fix.
“Your movies question tonight is this,” Paul announced. “What brand of golf ball did James Bond and Auric Goldfinger play in the 007 film, Goldfinger?”
“Slazenger,” I said.
“Are you sure?” Catharine Addleson-Smith questioned. Sighing discretely, I turned a bit of side-eye her way, concentrating most of my vision on a random row of pint glasses behind the bar, over Emily’s head.
“Yeah,” I replied. “Very.”
“I don’t know,” Catharine Addleson-Smith said. That seems a little too esoteric for a film designed to be consumed by the masses.”
Carefully and deliberately I proceeded to lay out the details from Goldfinger’s famous (or so I thought) golf scene. From Odd Job slipping a ball down the leg of his pants to Bond letting Goldfinger play out the 18th hole with the wrong ball before calling him on it after the final putt.
“He holed out a with a Slazenger 7,” I explained…obviously too emphatically. “But he had announced he was playing a Slazenger 1!”
“So,” Jordan asked…phone in hand.
“So?!” I replied. “So…?! Every time you change a ball, you’re supposed to announce it. If you change without doing that you, risk forfeiture.”
“I don’t know…” Max said his voice trailing. “Wasn’t Club Special a popular ball in the ‘60’s?” Max was clearly supplicating. He saw a chance to score some “cool points” with his new pal, Jordan, and the little shit seized on it. At this everyone else in the group nodded emphatically. That is, everyone except Jordan, who flippantly waved his hand in agreement as he texted his posse of friends.
I countered, laying out that while Club Specials were popular in the 60’s they were primarily American balls. The odds that Bond and Goldfinger would be knocking around US ball in Stoke Park, Buckinghamshire, England, UK were infinitesimal.
Be it because I was emphatic in my confidence… Be that Catherine Addleson-Smith was testing me in some way… Whatever the reasons, the group acquiesced. Max wrote “Slazenger” on our slip of paper and briskly snaked his way through the tables that filled the Grendels’ floor before handing it to Paul. By the time Mellencamp’s “Small Town” repeated its chorus for the third time, Paul softly pulled on the volume slide on his amplifier, and Mellencamp’s rasp faded. On cue, two dozen conversations among as many tables grew silent with the music.
“What brand of golf ball did James Bond and Auric Goldfinger play in the 007 film, Goldfinger?” Paul repeated, as he often did in order to build up the aesthetic effect of delivering the answer.
“That’d be a Slazzzzzz-enger!” He growled.
Silently I gave everyone a hard look. Several seconds at a time with each person.
Grumbling to myself I turned my attention to the fresh pint of beer in front of me. Some people dislike Daredevil Brewing’s Lift Off IPA because of the heavy “nutty” taste that hits them on the finish. And yeah, it’s true that the malt flavors are strong on the back end of a good swig of this beer. But Lift Off is more than its finish. The beer leads with a solid wave of citrus and pine, both of them balanced, and both of them not overbearing.
And even though it’s every bit as hoppy as any good, self-respecting IPA should be, Lift Off figures out how to be strong enough to win over guys who want some bite in their beers while dialing it down enough to lure in the girlfriend next to him who is nervously fingering her White Claw.
Etched onto the can sitting next to my glass, Lift Off’s iconic Flying Man wrapped himself around the curvature of the aluminum. I rotated him in my hand. Leo, as I called him, flew from the can’s surface and hovered in the air, suspended by the propeller-driving flying machine that held him aloft. Grizzled and old, his beard splaying out from his face as the remaining spots of graying hair danced on his bald head, Leo flung himself across the heavens in spread-eagled fashion.
“Wha-hooo!” he shouted as he swirled off the can and around my head.
Sometimes, when the belt snaking its way through the pulleys attached to his torso slipped … When the subsequent stall in the propeller rotation caused a five- or six-inch drop in altitude… Those were the moments when Leo’s expression shifted from exuberance to wide-eyed panic. Those outspread arms, which had moments before hung in air with the steadiness of a trained yoga instructor suddenly flailed, as did the legs behind him.
“Uhhhhnnnnnggggg…” Leo said as he dropped.
It happened maybe three or four times. Every time that I expected to see him turn into a splat of animated goo on the tabletop, the belt abruptly squeezed into the pulley’s channel. Once again, the props started whirring more rapidly. And like that Leo shot back into the air, returning to about eye-level as he zipped around the booth table.
“You’re not living…” Leo shouted. He left the sentence unfinished as he looped away from my face, out over Jordan, Max, and Sarah’s heads before circling his way back to me.
“…unless you’re living…” Again, he swooped away, circling the span of the booth table.
“…on the edge!” As he flew away for another loop, he let out another “Whaaa-hooo!” And again, his belt slipped. And again, he dropped a half-foot in a steep dive for the table, again flailing his limbs like a small dog picked up by a child.
“Alright folks,” Paul’s voice carried from the speakers snapping me back into the moment. “Put these historical events in chronological order, with the most recent event listed last.”
“Our first event,” he continued, “is the Tank Man standoff at Tiananmen Square…”
I was a college sophomore when Tiananmen Square happened. I had planned to drop out after my freshman year, but I changed my mind in late July. While I had been able to enroll without much problem, finding an open spot in one of the dorms was a “no-go,” from the first phone call. Stuck by myself in a two-room efficiency apartment south of campus, I had no other recourse to salve my boredom except watching the news.
With a month left in school, I followed every ebb, and the hung on every flow of Dan Rather’s gyrated tonal inflections. Rather had walked the jungles of Vietnam in the 60’s carrying his microphone as if it were an M-16. He even crawled into the tunnels when he spotted the chance. If ever a reporter lived like Hemmingway, Rather was the guy. So, when the last stable, lynchpin of the Communist Empire showed signs of cracking… When arguably the most boring decade in modern history looked to be ending on a very exciting note…? Rather flew to Beijing the way Hemmingway darted back to Europe in the 40’s.
“Thank God,” he must have thought, “another war!”
I found out pretty quickly that I was the only one on campus watching the news. The rest of my classmates sat limp-faced in class, downed their Meister Brau in their dorm rooms, and assumed that Deng Xiaoping was city in Japan…or something like that.
Tiananmen ended badly. I sat there every night watching Rather squat on his haunches as he excitedly listened to a striking mill worker talk about his dreams for his children.
“That poor motherfucker is going to die,” I thought. Most likely he did. The rich college kids with important fathers and grandfathers got out of it okay, but the poor, ordinary schmucks holding broomsticks and shovels were slaughtered.
So much for Communism.
“Next we have Baby Jessica stuck in a Texas well…”
I remember sitting in the bleachers of my high school gym when Mr. Archer, my chemistry teacher who side-gigged as the public-address announcer at basketball games, extended a time-out to let us all know that Baby Jessica had been rescued from that well in Texas. Everyone broke into emotional applause. All of us in the cheap seats, the players, the coaches, the cheerleaders, the pep band, the referees… Everyone.
In retrospect—especially after things like Oklahoma City, 9-11, the financial meltdown in ’08, and the whole “invading the wrong country after a terrorist attack” matter—a toddler stuck in an eight-inch well seemed weird at best and inconsequential by any other standard.
But like I said, this was the 80’s. And also, like I said, the 80’s were boring. Epic Billy Joel songs aside. Okay, the Challenger explosion was definitely a big deal.
And Regan’s shooting, also a big deal. Mostly because the assassination attempt generated a wellspring of sympathy for the President, and every member of Congress who thought Supply-Side Economics was the dumbest fucking idea since the Ford Edsel enthusiastically voted in favor of it.
People were outraged when John Hinkley, Jr. landed a sweet “not guilty by reason of insanity” verdict. And yeah, attempted murder is bad… But indirectly causing four decades of corporate feudalism ought to be worth at least a life sentence spent bagging produce, beer, and personal lubrication products at Walmart for a buck or two more than minimum wage.
Quickly I tried to place myself when Mr. Archer made the Baby Jessica announcement. I couldn’t recall if I was still in high school or I had returned to the gym as a college freshman. Most likely it was the latter. Having struck out at every attempt to get laid on campus I threw on my senior letter-jacket one more time, crossed my fingers, went to that ball game. That didn’t work out, either.
“Then we have the Branch Davidian standoff in Waco, Texas…”
Of all the things about the Waco-Whacko incident that still befuddles me, it’s hands-down the “whacko” part. As soon as Paul finished speaking, I placed the moment in history. April of 1993. April the 19th, to be specific. That’s an easy one to recall. First because the bombing of the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City happened on the second anniversary of Waco, for obvious, and symbolic reasons. And second, because I was sitting in the maternity ward at Ephraim General waiting for Bart to be born. While my ex-wife groaned, occasionally screamed, and sunk her fingernails into the flesh of my hand, I watched the Branch Davidian Compound burn with rapt attention.
When James Jones lined everyone up in ’78 for that big Kool-Aid party, we later learned that hundreds of the would-be disciples actually wanted no part of a mass suicide. Alas, held in line at gunpoint, they downed their “Black Cherry” and “Tropical Punch” Dixie Cups and wondered how in the hell they had gotten themselves in French Fucking Guyana with a couple ounces of dissolved cyanide at their lips.
By the same respect, I watched that hideous barn in Texas shoot torrents of fire out of the windows wondering how many of those poor bastards regretted the moment they threw themselves at David Koresh’s feet.
Coincidentally or not, one of the TV’s suspended over Grendel’s bar had shifted from Duke’s freshly completed thrashing of Wake Forrest and had switched to the news. There, a replay from last year’s rally filled the screen. And there, I watched again as the Republican nominee for President of the United States cocked his arm at and odd angle, let his wrist fall limp, and mocked the disabled Washington Post reporter who had called him out on his bullshit.
Behind him, hundreds of his followers gawked in admiration. A pair of white-haired grandpas in thirty-year-old Arrow shirts under beige Carhart jackets grinned while dozens of middle-aged women sat next to their fat, bald husbands wildly shaking their “Make America Great Again” signs. Rounding out the spectacle were the handful of Paul Ryan wannabes—draped in dark blazers which accentuated their groomed crew cuts—forcing smiles and masking their horror all those modern Alex Keatons must have clung to the dearest hope that…
- This guy would lose, and…
- If he won, he would grow up.
Yeah, I thought to myself. Fat chance of that. Those dumb bastards are going to be dropping their cyanide in Coors Light, decaf coffee, and sweet tea.
“And finally, we have the fall of the Soviet Union…”
In retrospect, those of us alive in the early ‘90’s all saw the U.S.S.R.’s implosion happening on a weird sort of slow-motion, instant-replay reel. Sitting at my girlfriend’s house watching the cast of some long-forgotten ABC sitcom spinning an episode in the Soviet Union at the height of Glasnost, I laughed at the dumb, 80’s jokes, prompted by the cheap, canned laugh track.
But the fact that I was even watching this was profound. Growing up the U.S.S.R. had been a kind of haunted house, a place you watched guardedly from the fence by the sidewalk and hurried past as quickly as possible. Now we were seeing it. The veils were lifted. Sure, the placed looked alien in some respects—the dilapidated infrastructure and outdated cars standing as “Exhibit A” in that regard. But the people walking those far away streets seemed all too normal. Many bore expressions of irritation, their eyes screaming, “Get your damn camera out of my face.” Others turned profile to the cameras, let the film roll, sucked on their unfiltered smokes, and said, “Welcome to our shitty lives” with an ambivalent shrug.
I watched the news unfold from a TV mounted to the wall of my first classroom, during the first year of my grown-up life. It was a day or two before school, and the old guard’s coup had failed. In his victory, Gorbachev had all but declared that the “Evil Empire” was finished.
I suppose that was probably the catalyst that started all which followed. I looked across the table at Jordan. His face still lost in the glowing sheen of his pixelated lobotomy, he sat there unaware how different his world was from mine. Here sat the sum and total of falling skyscrapers, desert wars, crashing stock markets, and oafish despots running for office. I wondered what the kid would have been like had we sat at the same table thirty years earlier. He’d probably still be the same swirling mixture of genius and stupidity that sat in front of me now. Only, I’d be able to make more direct eye-contact with him.
We didn’t discuss the answer very long. As I rattled off the dates, everyone nodded, and we penciled in the list:
- Baby Jessica, ‘87
- Tiananmen Square, ‘89
- USSR Falls, ‘91
- Waco Compound, 93
As Paul read off the answers, while Max enthusiastically tried to get Sarah to take joy in something…anything… While Catherine Addleson-Smith stared off into nowhere… While Jordan Parmeter thumbed his phone like a safe cracker… I replayed the list I’d handed to Paul in my head.
“Oh shit…” I said in a low voice. Everyone froze, turned their glances to me, and hesitated.
“What?” Max asked.
Painfully I told them. The list we’d agreed on, wasn’t the list I’d handed in. I had gotten excited. I wrote the correct years next to each entry, but in a sudden flurry of energy I had written them down like this:
- Baby Jessica, ‘87
- Tiananmen Square, ‘89
- Waco Compound, 93
- USSR Falls, ‘91
And we had bet everything on it.
Outside in the adjacent parking lot, Catherine Addleson-Smith shouted at me from two cars over.
“Goddammit,” she said.
“Look,” I replied. “I’m sorry.”
“I don’t care if you’re sorry,” she answered, her voice still raised. “You got sloppy, and now we’re not getting paid!”
Getting paid? For a half-second I imagined the $50 gift card that would have sat in front of us had I not fucked up the answer.
“Two hours’ worth of work pissed away!” she screamed. As she shouted, she turned away and began her sauntered march to Buchanan Street. Alone, I turned my eyes to the paned window fronting Grendel’s. Through the glass I spotted Leo, still flying in circles over our vacant booth table. Every ten seconds or so he dipped below the windowsill, his arms and legs thrashing violently as he fell. Every time he popped back up, resuming his loop with exuberant confidence.
“One of these days,” I muttered as I unlocked my car, “that motherfucker’s gonna make it all the way to the table. I can’t be the only asshole in this world to hit the bottom.”