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
Liam Rooney–who was the owner and, tonight, the only
barkeep–drew a draft beer from the tap and put it in front of
“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
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
“It’s a mystery.”
“To be a winner, you gotta be in the game,” Rooney
“I’m in the game.”
“Shooting hoops alone isn’t a game.”
“Don’t worry about me. I’ve got women beating on
“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
“What’s so great about having kids, the way the world
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
“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
“Who’s the sarcastic sonofabitch now?”
“You still have the crown, but I’m a
“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
“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
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
“No thanks. I don’t want to have to cut off my
“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
Rooney fetched a bowl of pretzels from the backbar and put them
beside Tim’s beer. “Michelle has this cousin, Shaydra,
“What kind of name is Shaydra? Isn’t anyone named Mary
“I’m gonna set you up with Shaydra for a
“No point to it. Tomorrow, I’m having my testicles cut
“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
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
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
Tim expected no surprises here, and wanted none. New experiences
were overrated. Being run down by a bus would be a new
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
These days, most people avoided thinking, especially about the
future. They preferred the comfort of blind convictions to
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
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
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
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
“Okay. Well . . . then . . . I guess . . .
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
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
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
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
On the other hand, the best hope of a memorable barroom
conversation is to have the good luck to encounter an
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,
The art of barroom banter is not like playing Mozart on the piano.
It’s freestyle, a jam session. The rhythms are
“Are you him?” the stranger asked again.
Tim said, “Who else would I be?”
“You look so . . . ordinary.