01 April, 2017

Before Breakfast, at the Old-Man Table

Another morning in 3B. Three plastic mugs of coffee steam on the table in front of us, still too hot to swig from. Jim is filling little squares with letters. Opposite him, Chris's glasses perch at the tip of his nose as he studies the latest New York Review of Books. I'm focused on blinking, following six and a half hours of having my eyes closed. Our usual fourth is unusually absent from the table. Larry's usual laundry day is Friday, tomorrow, yet I spot him (fuzzily) wringing out a T-shirt in the utility closet. He'll be along shortly.

"Okay," Jim pipes up, pausing to ensure that we're paying attention. "The clue is 'Tesla CEO Musk.' Four letters. I think the third one's — "

"Elon," I tell him. "E-L-O-N."

"Sounds like a cologne. Who the hell is Elon Musk, and why should anybody know?"

"The CEO of Tesla," says Chris. "Pay attention."

"As in Nikola Tesla, the electricity guy? I think I went to school with him." Jim's absurd exaggerations might mitigate his unease about getting older; he turned sixty-seven last month.

Chris says, "I have no fucking idea what Tesla is." His face reveals evidence of appreciating ten thousand bygone jokes.

"Well then how do you know who's its CEO?" Jim demands, setting down his Bic in exasperation.

"Because Byron just said."

"Oh, fine. Fine. Let's ask the nerd a question about something not computer-related and see how he does."

"Tesla makes electric cars," I say, and both of them suddenly register total recall. Typical. "Jim, why don't you just give up crosswords and take up a more age-appropriate hobby — like cave-painting or inventing the wheel?"

"Or getting your affairs in order," Chris adds.

One of Jim's most amusing characteristics is a willingness to let his sarcasm unspool gradually. "I'm pretty sure my affairs are about as ordered as they're gonna get, in this place. My legacy will be you guys squabbling over my newspaper clippings and half-eaten bag of pretzels. And that's only if you're lucky enough for me to die before I can eat them. Granted, that's looking pretty likely."

"Pretzels? Woo-hoo!" It's Larry, joining us at last, his Droopy Dog features perennially at odds with his six-shots-of-espresso enthusiasm.

Jim flails his arms like a windblown scarecrow. "Oh, great, now Larry's here. Can my day get any worse?"

Larry ignores the slight. "You know, I did two years in the service — airborne division — and never once jumped out of an airplane…"

"Oh, here it comes." Chris covers his eyes.

"…they had to push me every time."

Groans all around. Jim says, "God damn it, Larry, nobody laughed at that last week. What, did you think it'd be funnier a second time, or are you getting too senile to remember who you tell your shitty jokes to?"

"I told you, but Chris and Byron weren't around to hear it."

"And our lives," I say, "were measurably better for that fact."

"No doubt," says Chris, ruffling his paper like a man shaking off an unpleasant memory.

Jim invokes his usual archaic stereotypes, calling Chris on his failure to side with a compatriot. "Or is it only when there's whiskey involved that you Irishmen ride together? Bunch of potato-eating hypocrites."

"Sour old Kraut."

"Sour, yes," Jim concedes, "but at least we Germans aren't lazy bottle-suckers."

"No, of course not. Whoever would associate the inventors of beer halls with drinking?"

"Well, we're industrious and efficient, anyway."

"Then why," I ask him, "aren't you finished with that crossword? It's almost time for breakfast."

"I'm taking it slow, letting you help, because I want you guys to feel like you're actually useful."

It's Chris who puts the brakes on this frivolity, asking Jim if he watched last night's episode of Nova. An earnest back-and-forth about science ensues, by a couple of blue-collar sexagenarians. Since Larry and I had no PBS in our Wednesday-night lineup, we're treated to a muddled (but amusing) recap before the table returns to silence — Jim to his crossword puzzle, Chris to his reviews, Larry to a new issue of Smithsonian, me to my janky eyesight. It's quiet enough that I hear someone's stomach rumble for food.

"Okay," says Jim, after a bit. "Here's one: 'Sailor, e.g.' Three letters."

All those nineteenth-century naval novels he reads, and yet… "Tar," I answer.

"Ohhhhhh, of course."

"See, this nerd knows all kinds of stuff, not just computers."

He squints. "What d'ya know about sailing, ye cack-handed lubber?"

"All kinds of stuff," I repeat. "I've even got jokes: which is a pirate's favorite letter of the alphabet?"

Rolling his eyes, Larry takes the bait. He growls "Arrrrrr!" with aplomb.

"You might think it'd be R," I tell him, "but it's actually the C!"

More groans. I go for a sip of my coffee and think, This is why I fit in so well at the old-man table.

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