Only about half the bulbs glowed in the sad string of colored lights strung over the door of Dugan’s Bar. That gap-toothed arrangement and the small radio that piped out a mixture of carols and inane ditties in chipmunk voices were the sole acknowledgement of the holiday season. At Dugan’s, the main holiday cheer flowed from the row of bottles behind the bar. In the words of Big Dan Dugan himself, “You want decorations? Go to the fucking mall.”
The noon crowd was gone now leaving the two of them alone, except for Jimmy the bartender, who dozed on a stool at the far end of the room.
Glenn Becker turned his chair halfway toward the nodding figure. “I always worry when he does that.”
“Why?” His friend Larry had come straight over from work and still had his nametag clipped to his shirt pocket.
“Someday he’s gonna fall. Break his skull or something.”
“Jimmy? Nah. He’s been practicing that routine for years, got it down pat.”
“This place depresses me when it’s empty like this. You can see how crummy it really looks.” Glenn moved his beer glass around in a little circle. “Think they’ll ever upgrade?”
“Change Dugan’s? Hell no. The way it is it’s kind of a landmark, like, with historical value, you know? Besides, if they upgrade Dugan’s the rest of the neighborhood will look even more crappy by comparison.”
“Maybe you’re right.” Glenn turned back toward the table, the legs of his chair grinding on the dusty floor. “Jeez, how long we been coming here now?”
“If you count when we used to try to sneak in after school I’d say fourteen, fifteen years. But I don’t get over here so much anymore. No reason to, not with you off teaching at that college. Besides, Ruthie gets pissed when I do. I swear that woman can smell a beer at two hundred feet, at least.”
“Why two hundred feet?” Glenn laughed.
“That’s how long my driveway is. Says she can smell it as soon as I turn in off the street.”
“At least you got somebody to come home to.”
“Stop, dammit. Stop right now.” Larry smacked his palms down on the table. “It’s three days to Christmas and I’ll be damned if you’re gonna get all mopey on me. Would it kill you to cheer up some?”
“Okay. I hear you. Look, I’m smiling.” Glenn tilted his head back and bared his teeth, more grimace than grin.
“Shit. I’ve seen better smiles on dead people.”
“I’m gonna go wake up Jimmy, get us a couple more beers.”
“Get a pitcher.” Larry threw a five on the table. “And don’t sneak up on him. If you scare him he really might fall.”
When Glenn got back to the table Larry had lit up.
“When did you start smoking again?”
“I didn’t. I just keep a few around for emergencies, and, from the looks of you, I think I’m gonna need one, or several, maybe.” Larry took a deep drag then blew a column of smoke toward the ceiling. “Because now you’re gonna tell me what’s got your panties in a bunch. I don’t really wanta hear it but I don’t seem to have much choice.”
“You sure?” Glenn topped off both their glasses and foam spilled over the rims.
“Go ahead, dammit, before I change my mind.”
“Well, I been thinking.” Glenn leaned forward, elbows on the table.
“That’s how it usually starts with you. Maybe if you didn’t think so much….”
“Listen, have you ever wondered, like, if they gave out letter grades for life, what
you’d get?” Glenn said.
“Oh, God, I’m not ready for this.” Larry rubbed his eyes with his fists. “In the first place, I don’t know what you’re talking about, and second, push those peanuts over here. The way you’re wolfing them down I’ll be lucky to get any.”
“How can you eat peanuts and smoke at the same time?” Glenn shoved the bowl across the table.
“That’s my problem. It just so happens I can’t stand the taste of cigarettes. Now go on or you’ll be at this all afternoon.”
“What I mean is, based on how good you’ve lived, you’d get a grade--A, B, C, or something like that.”
“Wouldn’t make any difference.” Larry took a long swig of his beer. “Everybody gets an F.”
“Everybody dies, moron.”
“That’s not what I mean. The grade would depend on how good your life has been, not whether you live or die. A good guy would get a good grade and a bad guy….” He looked straight at Larry. “I won’t mention names, but a bad guy would get something else.”
“Man, I shoulda’ seen this coming. Every time you get drunk around the holidays you start dishing out some senseless philosophical bullshit. To begin with, who’s gonna say whether you’ve been bad or good? Santa Claus?”
“I don’t know. God, I guess.”
“No way, sport. Last time we talked you claimed to be an atheist, remember?”
“I’m rethinking that now.” Glenn tore his paper napkin into little strips and piled them neatly in front of him.
“Just tell me how getting drunker helps you think clearer. And why the hell can’t we just have a normal conversation sometime?” He threw a peanut shell at Glenn.
“How about basketball?”
“I think I’ll go over and talk to Jimmy. Even half asleep he makes more sense than you do.” Glenn pushed his chair back.
“Hang on, my fine-feathered friend.” Larry pinned Glenn’s arm to the table. “I’ll explain this so even you can understand it. What happens at the end of basketball season?”
“Leading to what?” Larry leaned in closer.
“A national champion.”
“And how many national champions can there be?”
“Oh, that’s a tough one. Lemme see. Is this like, multiple choice?” Glenn cradled his chin in his thumb and forefinger, frowning as if deep in thought.
“Come on, you turd, how many?”
Glenn stuck up his middle finger and smiled.
A man wearing grimy blue coveralls stepped through the front door, took a look around the room, then left without a word. Jimmy appeared to nod at him, or maybe it was just a forceful sigh.
“Right. One national champion.” Larry held up his own middle finger. “Every other team fails. So, there’s one A, and only one. If you want to get technical about it you can give the runner-up team a B, maybe Cs to the semi-finalists.”
“I suppose somewhere in your twisted mind you think you’ve made a point.”
“What I’m trying to show you is how ridiculous your idea about grades for life is. Who gets the A? The one and only A? And, for that matter, what difference does it make? By next season nobody remembers anyway.”
“That’s not what it’s all about. It’s not just a matter of winning or losing.”
“Oh, my God, you’re not gonna say it. Please, tell me you’re not gonna say it.” Larry let out a little groan, then leaned back and covered his eyes with his forearm.
“It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game. Spare me that one.”
“That’s exactly what I mean, you asshole.”
Larry laughed as he drained his glass. He snorted and a trickle of beer ran out his nose. “Damn, this is the best part of you coming home for the holidays--talking nonsense. What was it last year? Global warming? Save the whales?”
“Coming from you, who’s never had a serious thought in his entire life, I’ll take that as a compliment.”
“Look, I know you’re serious. But the only way that grading thing could ever work would be if you got some kind of mid-term report. You know, when the old professor tells you where you’re doing okay and where you need to improve. Otherwise the idea of a final grade is inherently unfair. You oughta know that, being a teacher.”
“Much as I hate to admit it, there’s some logic to that.”
“Why is this bothering you so much? You worried about something? Damn, wait, I can guess. You finally got into Marcia’s pants, didn’t you? You dog. Now you’re having some sort of stupid guilt trip. Leave it to you to have remorse over sex.”
“No, that’s not it.”
“What, you didn’t get into her pants?”
“You’re missing the point, as usual. This is not some sort of post-coital remorse thing.”
“Post-coital remorse, now there’s one I haven’t heard before. Maybe I oughta write that down.” Larry pulled a pen from his pocket and made a big show of scribbling on a damp cocktail napkin. “Spell coital for me, will you?”
“Don’t bother. Premature ejaculation would be more your style anyway.”
“Me? Premature? Never.”
“You know, once again you have succeeded in destroying a perfectly good conversation. Don’t you ever step back and look at your life, wonder if you’re doing what you should be doing?”
“I know one thing, Glenn, my boy. In the end, whether you’ve done good, bad or indifferent, all it amounts to is a bunch of people standing around a hole in the ground—probably in the rain—and when they lower you in they don’t put a letter grade on your casket. All they put in is dirt. And that’s that.”
“Full of sound and fury signifying nothing.”
Glenn sighed. “Shakespeare.”
“Oh, yeah. I forgot you’re a big college professor. But I agree with the part about signifying nothing.”
“I’m sure he’d take great comfort in that fact.”
“Fuck you. For that matter, fuck Shakespeare, too. What grade did he get? Come on, before we get too drunk let’s go over to the park and shoot hoops. That’ll give you a chance to contemplate the perfect arc of my jump shot as it soars over your head and lands in the basket.”
“Fat chance, asswipe. The only arc your jumper’s gonna take is the one where I swat it up into the bleachers.”
They ambled off down the street, crossed over by Davie’s Dry Cleaners where a single wreath embossed with red ribbon hung in the doorway, and took the path that ran alongside the rusted chain link fence. The narrow lane they followed had, over the years, been worn down several inches below ground level by countless pairs of sneaker-clad feet. At one time or another most of the residents of Centreville had followed that short path, diverging then along other routes, toward other destinations. But being on it again was to slip back in time; feet were quicker, lighter, younger somehow.
As they walked, trading the occasional playful shove, an elbow prodded into ribs, carefully barbed insults exchanged, a passerby might have suspected animosity, a fight to follow, perhaps; but it had always been this way. True, skirmishes had occasionally erupted over the course of their long friendship but any breach always healed over quickly. Relocation and the transition into adulthood had brought new responsibilities and limited their time together to holidays, but some things didn’t change.
Ahead lay the public basketball courts with worn tufts of yellowed grass peaking through cracks in the tarmac, and much like the bar they’d just left, empty on this late December afternoon.
Larry dribbled the ball to the top of the key and launched a shot that caught the front rim then caromed off toward the fence.
“Do you have to make so much noise when you shoot?” Glenn whined. “All that clanking hurts my ears.”
“I’m just getting warmed up, dickhead. Pretty soon all you’ll hear is swish swish—nothing but net.” He retrieved the ball, panting, then took another shot that hit nothing but air.
“Much better. That was a lot quieter.” Glenn held his sides, laughing, then made a big show of looking at his watch. “How long you figure it’ll take you to get warmed up? It’s only light out for another hour or so.”
Larry slapped the ball back at him. “Here, hotshot. See if you can do anything besides talk.”
When Glenn’s shot wedged between the rim and backboard Larry fell to his knees howling in laughter.
After many futile leaps at the ball both stood gasping, hands on their knees. “Damn,” Larry said. “In high school I could dunk.”
“Your memory’s gone south, my friend. The only time you ever dunked was standing on a chair.” Glenn found a broom handle lying against the fence and with a few vigorous pokes dislodged the ball. “Let’s get started. First to twenty. Loser buys the beer.”
After half an hour of lunging, shoving, grunting and cursing, after a barrage of shots, most of which clanged off the rim or hit nothing at all, Glenn dropped to one knee and rasped out, “You know, we suck.”
“You do for sure. I’m winning, remember?”
“Oh, yeah, what is it now? Six to four? At this rate even if we combine our scores it’ll take us the rest of the weekend to reach twenty.”
Larry bounced the ball a couple of times then kicked it into the corner. “We could set aside this childish contest and behave like reasonable men.”
“Head back to the bar.”
Later, seated at the corner table again, a fresh pitcher in the center, Larry leaned back and burped loudly.
“Charming, thanks for sharing that,” Glenn tossed a pretzel at him.
“I knew you’d appreciate it.”
“You know, it’s amazing.”
“Jimmy. He woke up, filled the pitcher, took my money, now he’s back asleep
like nothing happened.”
“Told you, years of practice.” Larry tapped his forefinger on the table. “Say, listen, I’ve been thinking about your project, your letter grade idea. I can see how to solve your problem using my excellent analytical skills.”
“If your excellent analytical skills are anything like your excellent jump shot I don’t want to hear about it.” Glenn threw another pretzel at him.
“Listen and learn, and stop throwing food. Is this how you behave at that college? What I’m gonna do is make up a spreadsheet. Four columns: Good things you’ve done, bad things you’ve done, good things you could’ve done but didn’t, and bad things you could’ve done but didn’t. You get a plus one for every good thing you’ve done and for every bad thing you could have done but didn’t. And a minus one for every bad thing you did and for every good thing you could have done but didn’t. It’s a straight pass-fail system; more plusses, you pass, more minuses, you fail. Brilliant, huh?” Larry leaned back and folded his arms across his chest.
Glenn gazed up at the ceiling. “Brilliant is not the first word that comes to mind.”
“You got a better idea? I mean, you started the whole thing, remember? Besides, I think it’s pretty damned clever. I bet, once I get the kinks out of it, I can sell it, make some money off royalties. This could be big. There’s probably plenty of neurotic bozos out there, like you, who’ll pay for it.”
“Forget about it. I’m sorry I ever brought it up.”
“You know what your problem is?” Larry leaned forward. “You’re afraid to find out the truth. You’re afraid you might fail the test.”
Glenn ran his fingers up and down the frosted sides of his glass, tracing random patterns in the moisture.
“What’s with the silent treatment? You not gonna talk to me any more?”
“You’re right,” Glenn said softly.
“Yeah. I’m afraid I might fail it, and it scares the shit out of me. I mean, look at me. I’m pushing thirty and I teach philosophy at a community college to a bunch of people who could care less. It’s not like I’m grooming next year’s big thinkers. So, yeah, I’m afraid I might fail.”
“Ahh, now we’re getting somewhere. You, my very good friend, are having your usual holiday existential meltdown.”
“What the hell?” Glenn’s eyebrows shot up like twin question marks.
“Hey, I read books too, you know.”
“Hell, you make me sound like a mental case.”
“No worse than anybody else we know. But don’t worry; I’ve got you covered. First, lighten up, will you? Don’t be so damned serious. As usual, ol’ Larry is gonna save your worthless ass. Remember what I said about everybody deserves an interim report, so you know what to work on before the big final exam? Just for you, because you’re an old friend and you’re buying the beer, I’m gonna let you have a trial run of Larry’s Amazing Life Grade Assessment Device. Fill it out in the comfort of your own room, after you’ve paid me for it, of course. Then when you face that big final exam in the sky—assuming you still think there is one—you’ll ace it for sure. How’s that for a deal?”
“Damn.” Glenn let loose a long sigh, then chuckled. “I was dead serious about this thing when I brought it up. I’ve been stewing over it for a whole month.”
“I knew you were, dimwit. I know you a lot better than you think. You were like that as a kid; you’d latch onto something and worry it to death. And holidays were always the worst. Damned sure, next time you come back here it’ll just be something else. For all that high powered philosophy you teach, you haven’t changed.”
“You make it sound so simple.”
“It is, you big doofus, it is.”
“Hey, I’m the philosopher here, remember?”
“But you’re on the inside looking out. I got a better vantage point.”
For a moment the only sound in the room was Jimmy’s soft snoring.
“The worst part, what I hate most, is when you’re right.” Glenn shook his head slowly.
“Hold on. I’m gonna get Jimmy over here. I want a witness to hear you say that.”
“How in hell does your wife put up with you?” Glenn laughed softly.
“Same way you do, good buddy, same way.” He slid his glass across the table and clinked it against Glenn’s. “To old friends, one of whom has an amazing jump shot.” Larry thumped his chest, ape-fashion.
The lights over the doorway flickered, just before the entire string went out. Jimmy looked up from his barstool perch. “Aw, shit.” Then went back to sleep.