The Four Horses turned out to be the kind of dive bar Alex loved going to. The floor was bare concrete, the tables and chairs looked like they’d probably started to look beat-up in nineteen seventy, and there wasn’t much light besides the glow coming from the neon behind the bar. The clientele seemed to be a mix of blue collar workers and, incongruously, a group of men and women in what Alex would describe as academic clothes. There were a lot of tweeds and, yes, patches on elbows.
Alex and Harold took a seat at the bar in between a kid in a grey work shirt that looked like he was in his early twenties, and a middle aged man in a brown corduroy sport coat, faded blue jeans, and tortoise shell glasses. All he needed was a pipe to complete his look. Alex was willing to bet he was probably a professor.
The bartender came over and asked what they wanted to drink. He set down a bowl of pretzels in between Alex and Harold.
“Pabst Blue Ribbon,” Alex said.
“A gin and tonic, please,” Harold said.
The guy in the corduroy jacket turned to Alex and said, “PBR? Hey, you know why PBR is like having sex in a canoe?”
Alex groaned inwardly. Great, a beer snob.
“Why’s that, chief?” Alex said, bracing himself for the punchline.
“Because it’s awful and no one should do it, ever,” the guy said.
That’s not even the right punchline, Alex thought. So he’s a drunk beer snob. This could work out well after all.
“I don’t know about that. I like it because it’s cheap, refreshing, and it gets the job done. So, it’s still like sex in a canoe, at that. Anyway, what are you drinking?” Alex said.
“Murphy’s Irish Stout,” he said, with entirely too much pride. “It’s a man’s beer. It passes the lighter test.”
“What’s the lighter test?” Alex said.
“Have you got a light?” the guy said.
“Can’t say that I do,” Alex said.
With a discrete flourish, Harold produced a slim, chromed, cigarette lighter, and handed it to Alex.
“I didn’t know you smoke,” Alex said.
“I don’t. I like to be prepared,” Harold said.
Alex handed the lighter to the guy sitting next to him, and said, “OK, so, what’s the test?”
“Easy,” he said. He clicked the button on the lighter, and a small flame popped up immediately. He then picked up his beer, held it where Alex could see it, and put the lighter behind it.
“It’s so dark, you can’t see the flame,” he said.
“And that’s a good thing?” Alex said.
“Damn right, it’s the way beer ought to be. You know they use peat in the brewing process?” the guy said. He handed Alex the lighter back, and Alex passed it back to Harold, who made it disappear into one of his jacket’s pockets.
“Jesus,” Alex said. “And you enjoy that?”
“Hell yes,” the guy said.
“Well, whatever turns your crank. You know, roofing tar and swamp water will pass the lighter test too, I’m not sure it’s a real good measure for tastiness,” Alex said.
“What do you know, you’re drinking PBR?” the guy said.
“I guess. So how much does a glass of that much cost?” Alex said.
“About eight dollars,” the guy said.
“You know how much a PBR costs? Two bucks. So I can have three of them, catch a buzz, and still leave the bartender a tip for what you’re paying for one glass of peat beer,” Alex said.
“It’s quality over quantity,” the guy said.
“In a dive bar?” Alex said.
The guy next to him dismissed him with a wave. Alex figured it was time to move the conversation in a different direction, and see if he could get a bit of information out of this guy about Dr. Porter. If not, he and Harold could move on to chat with one of the other folks in tweed.
“Don’t be like that, man,” Alex said. “Anyway, what do you do when you’re not drinking Irish mud?”
“I teach philosophy, over at the U of M,” the guy said.
“Really? Cool. I took a philosophy class once. I didn’t do so well. Just couldn’t get it. They asked me if the cat in Schroedinger’s box was alive or dead, and I told them to open the box and find out for themselves. You must be a smart guy, anyway,” Alex said.
“Ah, if you didn’t get it, that just means you had a bad teacher,” the guy said. “Ultimately, it’s all just about the search for the truth.”
“So have you found the truth, or are you still looking?” Alex said.
“I figure I’ve gotten close enough,” the guy said.
“OK, so what is it?” Alex said.
“You may as well be drunk as much as possible, because it’s all meaningless and we’re all fucked,” the guy said.
Alex laughed despite himself.
“That’s quite a philosophy you’ve got there, man. Must be a hit with the ladies,” Alex said.
“Yeah, I’ve got to fend them off with a stick,” the guy said, bitterly. “Anyway, what do you do?”
“I’m a consultant,” Alex said.
“What kind of consulting do you do?” the guy said.
“Depends on the day,” Alex said.
“OK, whatever. Most guys only claim to be James Bond when they’re trying to pick up women,” the guy said.
“That works?” Alex said. Shit, I could have just been telling the truth and had better luck.
The guy next to him shrugged.
Alex tried to think up a way to get the conversation around to the subject of Dr. Porter. Asking straight out if this guy knew her probably wasn’t going to work. At least, not when he asked the follow up question of how he could get ahold of her.
“Well, I don’t know much about philosophy, but you know what I am into? Comparative religion,” Alex said.
The guy next to him looked over, somewhat skeptically, and said, “Really?”
“Yeah. It’s fascinating to me how much they all have in common, when you look at them from a ten thousand foot view. But then they get so intricate and unique the closer you look at them,” Alex said.
I really hope this guy doesn’t ask me any heavy religious questions, Alex thought. If he does, I’m going to be up the creek without a paddle.
What the guy said was, “Cool. So what have you been looking into lately?”
“Well, I’ve been interested in this guy called Thomas Smith, he…” Alex said, before being interrupted.
“Oh, I’ve heard of him. Wasn’t he, like, a wizard or something like that, though? That’s not really a religion, is it?” the guy said.
“I don’t know. I guess I’d call it religion. He was pretty devoutly Christian, he was just exploring the boundaries a bit. He was searching for the truth, too,” Alex said.
“Sounds more like philosophy to me, then,” the guy said. “One of my colleagues is really interested in that guy, you know. She’s written some papers on him.”
Bingo, Alex thought.
“Oh yeah? That’s cool. I’d love to talk with her sometime. Does she come in here ever?” Alex said.
“Yeah, she comes in here all the time. I haven’t seen her tonight, though. Jackie Porter is her name,” the guy said. “She just took a leave of absence to work on a research project.”
The bartender came by and asked if they needed some more drinks.
“Sure, how about another round for the three of us,” Alex said, gesturing to Harold and the guy sitting next to him.
“You’ve got it,” the bartender said. He came back a few minutes later with fresh drinks.
“Cheers, man,” the guy next to Alex said.
“Cheers,” Alex and Harold said nearly simultaneously.
“Do you think your colleague would be willing to chat with me a bit about Thomas Smith? If she’s an expert, I’d love to pick her brain and try to understand some things I haven’t been able to get on my own,” Alex said.
“I don’t know, I guess you could try her, though. I can give you her phone number, but I’m not sure if she’ll be eager to help you or not. Of course, you’d be amazed how helpful we academics can be if you promise us beer and pizza,” the guy said.
He pulled a cell phone out of one of the pockets in his corduroy jacket, pressed a few buttons, and then told Alex what Dr. Porter’s phone number is.
Holy crap, that was too easy, Alex thought.
“Thanks man, I’ll give her a call,” he said.
The man in the work shirt sitting on the other side of Harold had been quiet until now, but he seemed to notice them then. He turned a bit, and looked Harold up and down.
“Hey, man, what are you all dressed up for? You getting married tonight?” he said.
Harold looked over at him, and answered as though it were a serious question.
“I dress well out of respect for myself, and respect for others,” Harold said.
“Are you saying I’m not dressed well?”
“No, I would never say that,” Harold said. “There is dignity in a workman’s uniform.”
The worker sitting next to Harold started talking in sarcastic tones then.
“Workman? So you think you’re better than me, is what you’re saying,”
“Certainly not. You’re putting words in my mouth,” Harold said.
“I’ve got something to put in your mom’s mouth.”
Harold, stone-faced as ever, turned away from the worker sitting next to him, saying, “I don’t have to put up with this.”
The worker said, “Oh, so you think you’re a badass too, huh?”
Harold said nothing.
The worker poked Harold in the chest, and said, “I’m going to kick your ass, fancy man.”
Alex had been watching all of this, concerned that things were going in exactly this direction. He realized that at some point, the academic that had been sitting next to him had vanished.
“No, you’re not,” Harold said. “We’re going to sit here, and enjoy our drinks in peace, like gentlemen.”
The worker stuck his finger in Harold’s face, and said, “What I’m going to do is wipe the floor with your face.”
“I’m not going to fight you,” Harold said. “Drink your drink, and leave me alone.”
“You a pussy or something?” the worker said.
As quickly as a cobra strike, Harold had grabbed the back of the worker’s head, and bounced it off of the bar in front of him, just hard enough to stun him. Harold pulled him back up, and let go of him again. The worker seemed to wobble for a second, before getting his bearings again. The bartender looked over to see what the noise had been, but saw nothing amiss and went back to what he was doing. Harold seemed completely unruffled.
“Now then, as I was saying, we’re going to sit here and enjoy our drinks in peace, like gentlemen,” Harold said.
The worker said, “You know what, man? You’re all right. Let me get the next round.”
“Thank you, that’s very generous. My associate and I need to be on our way, however,” Harold said.
He turned to Alex.
“Are you ready to leave, Mr. Minor?” Harold said.
“Sure, let’s roll,” Alex said. He finished up the last of his beer, and looked around to see if the guy who’d given him Dr. Porter’s phone number was still around. He was nowhere to be seen, however.