Note No. 1: Chapter One originally appeared at Indianaontap.com.
Note No. 2: This novella contains a high degree of “salty” language. Anyone likely to be offended by such language should be advised.
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 One: Jarvis Commiserates with Bad Elmer
Everybody thinks that Sean Connery is the definitive James Bond. Everybody, of course, would be totally full of shit. Darting around the globe in his pencil-thin neckties, wrinkling his face with that smartass grin, and knocking out one-liners in the Gaelic twang he picked up from Edinburgh, Connery became everybody’s favorite Bond because he was their first Bond. That, and it didn’t hurt that he played the spy at the height of the Cold War. It may not have been the best time to wake up every morning and wonder when the mushroom clouds were going to turn the bean crop in the south-forty into a glowing heap of tofu, but it was most certainly the best time to pretend to be a spy. Connery allowed men from no fewer than three different generations to imagine themselves gunning down hapless henchmen on a Tuesday evening and mourning the dead, golden body of a blonde with all the cavalier empathy of a Vegas pit-boss the next day.
Some dislike him because he heaped on the misogyny. And it’s true: Connery’s Bond was a sexist asshole (most versions of the character were, for that matter). But people call me one of those, every so often…meaning they call me one all the time. Denial is a crucial survival skill, even when you’re envisioning yourself earning your pension in British espionage. Other critics disliked Connery because of the sadistic masochism inherent in his violence…which is an argument that is somehow even more colossally stupid than the sexism shtick.
Like everyone else, I laughed when Bond cranked up the heat on Count Lippe and wedged the broomstick between the door handles of that little Whirlpool sit-n-soak aluminum sauna. Lippe was the worst kind of villain—the incompetent, arrogant type you can’t respect. Watching tools like him suffer offered the sort of vicarious thrill you take to the office and use as a coping mechanism making it possible to suffer the day taking orders from the nitwit who ass-kissed himself into your corner office.
None of that stuff bothered me about Connery. My problem is that he was so blasted one-dimensional. For a guy who would later win an Oscar for his work in The Untouchables, Connery played Bond as if he were Keanu Reeves. Sure, sometimes he would flash a moment of concern, he might even look like he was in love, but Connery’s Bond looked the same whether he was stuffing that magic cassette tape next to Jill St. John’s butt-cheek or plugging that balding dude in the chest with a harpoon gun.
At the sound of Paul’s voice, I turned my thoughts to the table in front of me. My pint of Bad Elmer’s Porter waited patiently while I read the chronological list of James Bonds scribbled on the paper under my palms. Under the fluorescent glare of Grendel’s Tap & Pub, my beer’s pristine surface cast an obsidian purity. It was a bizarre marriage, Elmer’s utter darkness and Tap & Pub’s brilliant light. An apt metaphor for the relationship between the eyes and the taste buds. At any number of glances, one’s sight reveals almost nothing about the chemical mysticism bouncing around the inside of my pint glass. The tongue, however—and those reliable Rosetta Stones spread across its top—broke the code and opened me to the wonders that Upland Brewing Company had tucked into the still blackness in front of me.
Bad Elmer’s Porter bites a bit on the front end. Not a lot—it’s a porter, after all—but it doesn’t lead off with that syrupy feel common to other heavy winter beers. It reminds you that you’re drinking a beer, not a Zima or a two-liter of Purple Passion. The sweetness does come on the back end, however, metabolizing when the last drops cross the palate. Elmer was my first craft beer. Upland, my first craft brewery experience. Like everyone else over thirty, I was indoctrinated on one of the three big light beers. As an homage to dead grandfather, I gravitated to Miller, and as a tribute to my own narcissism, I convinced myself it was different from Budweiser and Coors. Elmer’s changed that, a point I reminded myself when I wasted eleven of my final forty-five seconds letting a healthy swig wash to the back of my throat.
Setting Elmer back on the table, I glanced over my list. The question: “Name all the men who played James Bond in the order they played them.” I knew I had written the right answers. It was the easiest question of the year—hands down. But the hyper-technicality of it gnawed at me:
I was ready to walk it over to Paul’s table, but I couldn’t pull my eyes from the two “Sean Connerys” on the page. Literally speaking, I was right. Connery quit, because he couldn’t get along with Albert Broccoli. Then Lazenby replaced him, and sucked so miserably that somebody cut a deal to bring Connery back. And so it was that Sean Connery—thanks to a good, old-fashioned pissing contest with his producer—threw away the chance to play an emotionally devastated James Bond as he looks upon the face of his dead wife. That scene might have changed everything I think about Connery’s Bond. But we didn’t get Connery. We got George Youvegottobefuckingkiddingme Lazenby.
The Bond question was the final trivia question of the evening. I held my own against the two teams I chased all night, and I had scrambled my way to 68 points going into the last round. Working much like Final Jeopardy, I could bet all or none. Bet them all, get it right, and I had a shot at the win. Or I could draw my “goose-egg,” walk my sheet to Paul and hope the other two squads screwed it up.
That, however, wasn’t going to happen. For one, it’s the “name all the James Bonds” question. The ubiquity of this knowledge is not exclusive to Brits. The credo of modern, popular culture demands that you know who played all the James Bonds. If you don’t know them in order…okay… But if you don’t know them at all…? You should lose your voting rights immediately for one thing…and maybe your driver’s license to boot.
After handing my sheet to Paul, I sat down in front of Elmer. I had no team to chat with, no one to launch into a micro-analysis of whether I should have added the second Connery or not. I was alone. This time a year ago, I’d had a team. We were on our way to winning the Saxon Keg, too! It was a little wooden barrel, about nine inches high. The top was cracked, and one of the brass bands was missing from, but walking out the Tap & Pub just before Christmas with that misbegotten lump of wood tucked under your armpit meant you were the intellectual bad-ass for the next year. No matter how many times you blew a fucking Beyoncé question, you could point to the keg with the index finger of your left hand, flash people the middle finger of your right hand, and silently mouth the word, “cham-pee-yun!”
I wasn’t going to be the champion tonight. The remnants of my team sat wrapped around the corner of the bar. Some four months earlier, at 7:00 in the evening, on the Tuesday after Labor Day, we met, as we had all year, at our favorite booth, ordered beers, and enjoyed our pre-game laugh-up. By 9:30 that night, Lisa had called me a dick. Phil told me there was “no reason to be an asshole,” and Jan and Grace walked away without uttering a word. Now they sat a dozen feet from me, holding down second place.
First place belonged to a quartet of college fraternity brothers. Four life-sized Ken dolls, their plastic hair swooping into perfectly brush-stroked curls. They sat there staring at each other with their doe eyes, their slacked jaws, and their wrinkle-free skin. They called each other “dude,” all night and perpetually muttered vapid nonsense, nonsense they would stop saying mid-sentence for the sake of a Snap-Chat selfie. They also crushed every question Phil threw at them. Crushed. Every. Single. Question.
Paul: “Who was the famous pitch man for Oxy Clean until his death in 2009?”
The Ken dolls: “Billy Mays!”
Paul: “That’s right!”
Me (to myself): “Pphhfffff! Easy…”
Paul: “What are the two most common fox breeds in Indiana?”
The Ken dolls: “Red and Grey!”
Paul: “That’s right!”
Me (to myself): “Harrummmph! Logical…but lucky…guess.
Paul: “Who was the jackal-headed, ancient Egyptian god of embalming and the dead?”
The Ken dolls: “Anubis!”
Paul: “That’s right!”
Me (to myself): “How the fuck did they know that?”
I tried to sneak glances their way during the “answer phase.” They had to be using their phones, at least one of them did. Their booth was tucked in the corner of the Tap & Pub. It sat across from the servers’ station, so if they were sneaking peeks at Google, someone would have to have seen them. Every chance I could, I craned my neck. I took extra trips to the john for the express purpose of walking past them, hoping to snag some sort of confirmation out my peripheral vision. By the end of the night the only proof I had was circumstantial: those slacked jaws, that pristine skin, those empty eyes, that insipid banter, and those stunningly spot-on answers.
Paul: “What was the name of Franz Kafka’s sales clerk who wakes up one morning to discover that he’s been transformed into a bug?”
The Ken dolls: “Gregor Samsa!”
Paul: “That’s right!”
Me (to myself): “Fucking cheaters.”
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve turned to Bad Elmer when I’ve been feeling down. Not the beer, per se, but rather that confident hillbilly on the bottle’s label wearing that bowler hat, squarely set on the back of his head. The Bad Elmer I see most frequently is a new one, a cartoonish caricature which Upland had apparently spent gads of money on for the purposes of branding or uniform imaging or something like that. Whatever. Maybe I’m a traditionalist. Maybe I’m just getting old. But I always preferred the previous Elmer who graced my bottles, a man who, according to local gossip, lived near the brewery.
On a sweltering July afternoon, I would grab a seat on my deck, absorb the sun, down a swig of the porter, and make eye contact with that fellow wrapped around the outside of the glass. There was something about that stare he threw back at me. The combination of the cap on his head, the scraggly lengths of hair running down the side of his face, the shotgun casually resting along the crook in his elbow. But the most oddly reassuring spot in the picture were those eyes. No matter whether I popped one open to celebrate an especially efficient trip around the yard on the Dixie-Chopper or pulled up that chair to commiserate a particularly ugly battle with the Chevy during an oil change, Elmer was there, reminding me, in the only way he could, that most of the things I worried about really didn’t matter.
“What the fuck do you want?” Elmer asked me from the bottle. I sighed in deep relief. He was the epitome of every male figure I knew growing up in the boonies in rural Indiana.
“Okay, everybody,” Paul announced, his inflection rising. “I have the results.”
While Paul’s answers effectively doubled my point total, I decided that he must have exercised “trivia host’s privilege” and given me a pass on the second Sean Connery because I only heard him mention his name at the outset.
“The second man to play 007…” Paul said. He always revved his second and third syllables with a sort of announcer’s booth diphthong, every time sounding like an excited Slick Leonard calling out the starting lineup for the Pacers.
“That would be my favorite James Bond…Raaaaaaajjjjjjer Moooooorrrrrrrrrre!”
Boos caromed off the Tap & Pub walls. All the naysayers were wrong of course. Roger Moore was the best 007, hands down. That we even have to waste time exercising the debate is patently absurd, like debating the legitimacy of Lincoln’s presidency because he once picked Ambrose Burnside as his general.
Nevermind that Moore’s range of facial expressions compared to Connery amounted to the difference between a professional mime and a cinderblock, what really set Moore above all the others was his gift for gravitas. To loosely paraphrase the late Roger Ebert: Connery would walk around with that dab of blood on his coat collar looking for the next guy to shoot. Moore would take fifteen minutes to blot the stain, rub in a dollop dish soap, and then go look for the next guy to shoot. In short: Connery’s Bond enjoyed killing people. Moore’s Bond enjoyed killing people and looking good in the process. Add that he pulled all of that off in the 1970’s—when “looking good” was by all definitions impossible—and you have your game, set, and match.
“After Moore,” Paul graveled, “came Timothy Dalton…”
Timothy Dalton… Please… Moving on…
“And resuscitating the role after a six-year hiatus was Pierce Brosnan…”
No story strikes Bond fans with more sorrow than Brosnan’s. When he almost secured the role in the mid-80’s, we were exultant. He was perfect, and he would have been the fitting transitional actor coming out of the two-decade long duo who preceded him. Then NBC nixed the deal because he was contractually obligated to play, of all parts, Remington Steele. God, the phlegm builds up in my mouth just thinking about it. Sometime after that his wife—herself a Bond girl in For Your Eyes Only—died of cancer. And when he finally landed the role he was born to play, what does he get? One great movie, three god-awful scripts after that, and 9-11.
“And the most recent Bond,” Paul wrapped up, “is Daniel Craig.”
No matter what anyone tells you, Daniel Craig doesn’t portray James Bond. Daniel Craig portrays a spy who’s stopped attending his anger-management sessions and for the life of him can’t find his Zoloft prescription in his glove-box. But, according to the experts, he was the “appropriate response” for the new world after the acts of terror in 2001. According to them, a quirky, sophisticated spy with a dapper sense of humor, a great right hook, killer looks, and good aim had no place in the post-9-11 world. So we got Craig. But Craig’s Bond was a travesty: blonde, overtly muscular, morose, and—worst of all—monogamous.
“Tough night, Jarvis,” Paul nodded to me. He had just handed my former teammates (who still kept our old team name: Make Trivia Great Again) their second-place gift card. He also chatted a storm with the Ken dolls, who ran away with the evening.
“Yep,” I replied. I ran my fingertip around the lip of my Bad Elmer’s, gazing through the Tap & Pub’s windows, lost in the glare of the lights dangling across Indiana Street.
“You need to kiss a make-up,” Paul said. “You all would have killed those boys.”
“Sure,” I replied.
Nursing what was left of my porter, I thought about James Bond. If we’re going to be unofficially official about it, he was one of those figures on whom I had modeled my life. Granted, none of us who grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s watching those occasional Sunday night 007 reruns on ABC, exactly thought of ourselves as gun-toting GQ models with a hankering for martinis. But we did grow up thinking that real men were cool under pressure, tastefully sexist, callously in the moment. He was the cliché I grew up wishing I would be. I didn’t become that cliché, but I still managed to become one nonetheless.
One by one, the members of Make Trivia Great Again walked past me en route to the exit. One by one, they looked the other way as they passed me. Sighing, I downed the rest of Bad Elmer. I closed my eyes, and saw Elmer behind my eyelids. He had withdrawn his forearm, and his shotgun had fallen out the frame. He leaned in, those aquamarine irises unwaveringly zeroing in on me.
“Be a man,” Elmer told me, “and get yourself a team that’s gonna kick some ass.”