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 Two: Jarvis Gets Close with Dirty Helen
Saxon Keg Point Standings—Early March:
- The Ken Dolls: 320
- Isaac Newton’s Missing Apple: 280
- Make Trivia Great Again: 250
- Jarvis Bagley and “Friends”: 200
- Zen and the Art of Beer: 90
- Saxophones and Saliva: 30
- Off-Road Commuters: 30
Dirty Helen Brown Ale was named after a Prohibition era bar matron who would cuss out customers who ordered liquor she didn’t have in stock. She looks a little different on the bottle label than she probably looked in real life. The woman I saw wrapped around my amber bottle was a softer, more seductive figure.
She was a woman I’d loved for a long time. That illustrated Helen, her bare shoulder askew floods the right half of every six-pack. Her eyes seductively peer at us from under her wide-brimmed, Prohibition-era Cloche hat. Her bobbed haircut exposes more of her shoulders than any self-respecting woman in pre-Prohibition America would stand for, covered only by small spaghetti straps leading to a swimsuit? A bra? A summer dress? Whatever Helen’s wearing, the church deacons will be sure to talk about it before Sunday.
Like the woman she was named after, the booze in her bottle was every bit as unique. When most folks think of “brown ale” they think, Newcastle. You know…? That English stuff mostly made in New York? Newcastle was cool when I was a novice drinker, back when I was making that flip from Miller to something meatier. Now I know better. Newcastle is little more than Kool-Aid. Brown water with sugar and the slightest tinge of octane.
Dirty Helen, on the other hand, was like nothing I had tasted before. The soft nutty taste on the front end blended beautifully with the slightest hop-bite and thick texture. But on the back end the rest of the “farm” cascaded over the tongue. No other beer compares. Dirty Helen took me back to my great grandma’s kitchen—where I could see myself inhaling half a box of her oatmeal cookies. It also took back to my grandpa’s garage—where I almost taste the alcohol swimming in the air between us.
“Hey Jarvis, are you ready?”
Max’s question pulled my eyes off my bottle. He sat wide eyed. Of course, he did. Every time Maximillian Beauregard Anderson answered a question—and he answered them all—he raced to those answers. I don’t know if he did it because he just had to be the guy at the booth to spout the answer or because he was madly in love with the process of knowing shit. Whatever… Every time Max answered a question, he did it with all the overacted theatrical punch of Grace Kelly in a fucking Alfred Hitchcock film.
I looked at him. I’m sure I looked annoyed. As long he assumed it was because I am always annoyed…not because he interrupted the best spine-tingling bit of metaphorical phone sex I’d had in months, even if it was with a beautifully drawn woman on a beer bottle.
“Okay, folks,” Paul was also chipper. I’m not sure why, but Paul’s upbeat demeanor didn’t irritate me the way Max’s did. It’s probably because Paul exuded a sort of natural coolness which I knew I’d never achieve. Don’t get me wrong, I wanted “Paul-level” coolness. I craved it actually. I’d been craving it all my life. Who doesn’t want to be that guy who seems a hundred-percent happy to be in the room, breathing the air, peeking at the sun over the ledge of the building across the street? Who doesn’t want to be the guy who can pass that happy-bug shit onto other people like an Ebola virus?
But Max’s “happiness” is that sort of enthusiasm that makes me want to stick my head in a fully primed crock-pot, tamp the glass over down over my neck, so that I could wait six hours for my brain to bake itself into a pork loin
“What is the real name of the Irish rock-and-roll singer and anti-AIDS humanitarian who became good friends with President George W. Bush?” Paul announced.
The shout came from a crowd of college types. Not the Ken Dolls, mind you. No, those pristinely molded specimens of carbon and silicone were, as usual, tearing through the night. They nailed everything from the “spelling difference between the founder of Toyota and the cars named after him,” (the original name was Toyoda) to “the only apple native to North America” (the crabapple). Nope, those boys would never deign to shout out an answer…not when they can write it down, Tweet about it, shoot a picture of their answer, and upload it to Instagram. They never needed to broadcast their success. They were all too happy keeping their evening to themselves, downing every beer like it was their last orgasm as they methodically scored on every single question.
Every. Single. Question.
Nope. The dude who spouted off the answer, and thus ruined my own answer, hovered around a throng of sorority coeds. His white, zip-up sweatshirt hung open over his rounded, flabby upper body. His shorts stopped above the knees, and his pasty-white, wiry legs ran to a crappy pair of Chuck Taylors wrapped around a bunched-up pair of tube socks. Capping it off was his flat-brimmed baseball hat, worn backwards, the Adidas leaf bobbing to the rhythm of his own jive. Whereas the Ken Dolls looked the image of comic book, superhero perfection, this kiddo looked the part of a life-size pushpin.
Pushpin stood there, proud of himself. He knew something! He was sure that he was cool when he said it, and he beamed at the coeds—who returned their own gazes with oozing degrees of contempt.
There are two kinds of dudes in the “desperate to get laid” category. There are those like me. The kind who won’t give anyone the satisfaction of knowing just how desperate we are. We compensate with suffocating degrees of self-destructive, acerbic behavior. We mouth off, we insult, we play the distanced, pretentious, intellectual snob. We don’t particularly do it that well, but we convince ourselves that we do. That’s usually good enough. We go home feeling smug, and in the comfort of our living room we pop open our laptops and masturbate to airbrushed supermodels, firmly convinced that they really get us.
Then there are clods like Pushpin. Good God… When one is forced into a life of involuntary celibacy, the least he can do is strap on some dignity… not stand there like a wide-eyed Labrador by the front door happily waiting for someone to turn the knob.
“Ah…” Paul announced. “Okay folks scratch that question. We’ll try this one again.” He was surprisingly matter of fact about it.
“What did the 70’s rock band, Blondie name themselves after?” I had no idea (The answer, it turns out, was Hitler’s dog). Just like that, six points evaporated into the fermented ether of the pub.
“Goddammnit, Pushpin,” I shouted.
Pushpin turned my way, his eyes scanning for the source of the insult. Moderate fear clouded his eyes. He wanted to know who said it, sort of. After four seconds of terrified, yet aggressive scanning, he shrugged his shoulders, grinned, and returned his face to the coeds.
Despite my best intentions, I turned my head to my former teammates. They’d heard me, too. Hell, the entire pub heard me. Phil, Jan, and Grace flashed that quick bit of judgment that all people give when they forget they’re awful people in their own right. Then they turned to one another, rolled their eyes, and reacclimated themselves on their barstools, their backs squarely my way.
Lisa held her gaze a little longer, obviously wondering what it was about me that convinced her I was worth getting naked for. I’m not going to lie. I was embarrassed. Sorry, even. But like hell I would let her see that. I stared back. Even. Expressionless. My fingers massaged my bottle of Dirty Helen. Gently, I ran the tips of my fingers along the curves of that bare shoulder. The matron on the label nodded her head and winked at me in support.
“That question hurt,” Max said snapping me out of my fog. “We needed those points.”
“No shit,” I replied. It wasn’t the first time I snapped at Max, nor at his girlfriend, Sarah. The first time I flippantly tossed a jab Max’s way he blinked hard and stared at me dumbfounded. Sarah did likewise. Gradually, Max’s demeanor calcified. At this moment held his gaze on me with gently pursed lips. Shock and a sense of betrayal had given way to resigned tolerance.
“There’s no need to be rude…” Sarah’s courage has been percolating for the last 75 minutes, and when she spoke, she tensed. I gave her a glance. It was quick. Then I looked away.
“Your final question is this:” Paul announced. “Put the following four Madonna songs in chronological order, with the oldest song first.”
“Holiday” was Madonna’s first hit, from her self-titled album released in 1983. I was somewhere between middle and high school when the first song aired, when all of us heard her for the first time. The song itself is brilliant. It’s not “Eleanor Rigby” brilliant…God, no. But from that miasma that was the early ‘80’s it counts as a masterpiece, at the very least in terms of the way that good rhythm and musical balance can somehow make otherwise insipid lyricism sound like William Butler Yeats. That or, more likely, every time I hear the song a part of me turns age 13 again. Maybe that’s it. Sometimes you can’t take the horny boy out the crappy music video.
By the time my old man fired up that monstrosity of a satellite dish he sunk into our back yard, MTV had worked up a full chamber of steam. With one flick of a switch…
Okay… scratch that thought.
This was one of those C-Band dishes, the kind that looked like giant, upside-down umbrellas mounted on three-inch steel pipes. You didn’t “flip a switch” to watch something. You punched in the name and number of the particular satellite you wanted—there were something like 12 or 15 of them—and then you waited for two to seven minutes watching whatever faded in and out on channel 11 as the dish rotated outside.
The awkwardly smiling, middle-aged woman with gilded earrings selling paste jewelry on the Shop at Home Channel faded into electric salt-and-pepper rectangles of static. Moments later the screen was filled with a gangly dude with a hideously protruding Adams-apple and accompanying thick moustache enjoying an aggressive blow job from a curly-haired, pale brunette wearing thick, scarlet lipstick.
Back then, I would hit the “Stop” button on the remote. I was usually “all-clear” and ready to resume scanning about one or two minutes later (today I typically need 45 minutes and absolutely NO distractions), and then the blowjob—like the cheap jewels—slipped away into an electric haze.
Classic cinema cartoons from the ‘30’s were replaced by an Australian-Rules Football match, which was replaced by Roger Clemmons on the mound for the Red Sox, which transitioned into a much younger Pat Robertson praying that Jesus would destroy Tip O’Neill. Satcom 4 gave way to Telestars 301 and then 302, which surrendered to Anik D, then Satcom 1 then Morelos 1 then Satcom 5, Spacenet 1, Westars 4 and 5, then Telestar 303, and finally (finally), the receiver box clicked hard at Satcom 3. The humming of the dish’s motor just outside the window went silent, and there, on my screen, was my favorite channel 11: MTV. There, on that channel, in those humid 80’s summers, I fell hard for Madonna.
I didn’t realize how transformational and transitional “Material Girl” was when I watched it over and over and over in the summer of ‘86. I didn’t even know it was a classy knockoff of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.” I just knew that it was the specific moment Madonna won my heart. Of all the music videos I watched through my old man’s satellite dish, I will take the image of Madonna doing her best Marylin Monroe to my grave.
Every time I sat in front of the screen, I nearly tumbled into it in a manner of speaking. Madonna wasn’t singing to the camera, she was singing to me. And no, I didn’t see myself as one of those tuxedoed schmucks cavorting her around that grand staircase, but yes I did see myself happily offering the combined total my first six years of adult wages in crystalline form…all for her to look down her nose at me, smile, and blow me gently puckered air-kiss.
But then she turned around and married Sean Penn, and she got herself all sorts of that miserable, hollow, overblown, turgid sort of seriousness that is Sean Penn.
“Live to Tell” was the sort of god-awful song totally designed to repeatedly plug an equally god-awful movie. All I know about the film is what I saw in the music video. They were a couple, they did something bad, they got tied up. It looked like they were going to die—hopefully Sean Penn’s character did—but everything, mostly, worked out.
I still watched the video, almost as over and over and over as I did “Material Girl.” But my hot blonde girlfriend who would wink at me and pull me into the backseat of a ’78 Oldsmobile had turned into the mature woman who would keep me at arm’s length and point to the filled trash can. I mean, I get it… We all have to grow up, but the wafting smell of artistic condescension in that Madonna was simply too much.
Then she made “Like a Prayer.” To this day I still don’t know what I loved more about that song—that it marked the moment when “mature” Madonna grew a backbone and did some full-on, legit, hardcore adulting, or that it was one of those songs that pissed off all those hyper-conservative, late 80’s Jesus-freaks. Everything about that song, from the slow intro to the explosive beat that followed to the beautifully offensive imagery in the video… all of it won me back.
As Paul rattled off the answer, I gently tapped on the tabletop, and compared his answers with mine:
“Material Girl” 1985
“Live to Tell” 1986
“Like a Prayer” 1989
Despite the Bono-fiasco, we had racked up enough points for the win. A golden evening for Team Jarvis.
“I’m glad we didn’t go with my suggestion,” Max said, breaking me out of the slow dance I was having in my head with the matron of rock and roll. Max had insisted that “Live to Tell” preceded “Material Girl.” The very idea. I laid out Madonna’s complete metamorphosis, explaining in the most polite terms possible that there was “no fucking way” that she could have “grown” into “Live to Tell,” regressed to “Material Girl,” only to pivot over “Tell” and into “Prayer.” I’m pretty sure that I…
- Ignored the fact that Max single-handledly answered seven questions for which I had no idea what answer to write, and…
- He was just being earnest. That he was legitimately happy that we pulled out a win on a tough night.
Either way, I proceeded to…
- Openly roll my eyes at him, wave him off, and “pffffttt” him.
“You know,” Sarah said icily, “you should be a little more grateful given that he carried you most of the night.”
“I tell you what,” I snapped. “If he’s so good at carrying people, have him carry you to the sack. Then you can whip out your electron microscope and hunt for his dick.”
I had never been punched in the face before. I still don’t exactly know how someone as small and lithe as Maximillian Beauregard Anderson sucker-punched me, but as soon as my insult left my lips he was out of his seat, over the booth table, and landing his haymaker on the left half of my nose, where its base meets the check.
I heard that speed kills. I don’t know how true that is, but I know for sure that it hurts like a motherfucker.
I would love to say that Max’s punch sent me sprawling. I would give anything to be able to tell people that I flayed backwards in full James Bond fashion, that I shoulder-rolled over the bar, wiped out three rows of premium liquor, and sent the Saxon Keg bounding across the floor of the pub. It would be cool if the end result sent dozens of people out the door screaming in fear as the two of us traded blows, threw chairs, and did our very best Indiana Jones impersonations.
But yeah… That didn’t happen. Instead I whimpered (loudly apparently) and collapsed on the floor, assuming the fetal position under the booth.
When you watch guys like Harrison Ford take fists to the chin and cheek under that fedora of his, you almost allow yourself to think that a good fistfight is something akin to an aerobic workout, maybe with a little step-action at times.
Actually, a fistfight is more like laying down on the floor, holding up a cinderblock over your face, and letting go. Everything turned purple when Max leveled me. It came as a flash, then blue, then purple. My ears wouldn’t stop ringing. My adrenaline carried me as I gradually scrapped together my senses and hoisted myself off the floor. By the time I had worked halfway through another Dirty Helen, the pain flooded me.
“Holy cow,” Paul consoled me. “Your year is off to a shitty start, my friend.”
I nodded and turned what vision I had to Helen. The real-life, barroom Helen probably would have mocked me. Told me get off my ass and throw some punches back. But this was my Madonna Helen. All she did was smile softly and blow me a kiss.