Gus got to the front door of the Saloon first, but when he turned around to say something to Dom, he saw that a woman and a college-age boy had fallen in step behind them. Without fanfare, Gus held the door open for them and gave the woman a smile and nod. She smiled back.
The kid said, “Thanks,” and Gus gave him a nod, too, but wiped the smile from his face. They locked eyes for a moment, with Gus’ expression saying, ‘Don’t worry, I wasn’t smiling at your mom.’
After they passed, Dom headed through the door, but Gus grabbed him and gave him an arched eyebrow look that clearly conveyed ‘Wait.’
When the woman and son were out of earshot, Gus asked, “You know who that is?”
“Looks like the lady owns the gas station.”
“S’right. Gasoline Peggy. Man, she’s still a looker.”
Gus released Dom and they headed in, Dom falling in step behind Gus. As Gus had lived in Babel for nearly 40 years and Dom fewer than four months, Dom deferred to his friend in many ways. As they bellied up to the bar, Dom asked, “She single?”
“Widow. That’s her boy. All growed up, as they say.”
“What happened to the dad?”
Gus looked at Dom, feigning disappointment. He liked having the upper hand with his new neighbor. Back in May, Dom had moved into the house next to Gus’, over Memorial Day weekend. A summer of friendly barbecues revealed how much the two had in common. Married, kids in grade school, each a boy and a girl. Dogs, who also got along. Wives as well. Gus was an electrician, and Dom ran his own commercial print shop.
Gus ordered two scotches from the bartender – who he insisted on calling Tom, despite everyone in town calling him Tongue, and the establishment being named ‘Tongues Saloon.’ Gus was simply put off by the nickname. The bartender was friendly enough that he didn’t seem to mind Gus calling him Tom.
Realizing Dom wouldn’t have known about Gasoline Peggy’s husband, Gus said, “Don’t you know anything?”
“Only what you tell me.”
The bartender placed two rocks glasses in front of the men, atop Tongues Saloon coasters. “Gentlemen, start your engines.”
“Thanks. Tongue.” Dom winked at Gus.
Gus shot Dom a look. “Drink up wise-acre and remember, you’re buying. Now let me tell you the tale about the husband.”
“I’m all ears.” Dom toasted his friend, but accidentally spilt a splash of scotch over the rim of the glass.
Gus looked at him. “And thumbs.”
“Never mind. Listen up. Something like twenty years ago it must have been, Peggy and her husband, his name was William…”
“Bill or Billy?” asked Dom.
“Actually, he called himself Liam.”
“I never like Williams. Can’t trust them the way you can trust a Bill or Billy.”
“What about Jack?”
Dom was confused. “Jack who?”
“Jack-ass. Stop being one and listen up.”
“So they buy the old Harrison’s gas station and fix it up. Pour good money into it. Paid off in the long run, though. Place must be a gold mine. Anyway, the husband got killed.”
“You don’t say.”
“I do say. In fact, I just said it. Why do people say ‘you don’t say’ when someone just said something? Drives me nuts.”
Dom offered his insight. “People say things all the time, don’t make any sense, but doesn’t keep them from saying it.”
“You can say that again.”
Dom stared at Gus. “Are you giving me an example or did you want me to repeat myself?”
“Funny. Still writing your own material?”
The men laughed and enjoyed more of their scotches.
Dom chimed back in, “That reminds me, I saw a comedian on the television the other night. Had a whole thing about the letter B and how it’s silent in the word ‘subtle.’”
“Really. Must have been fascinating.”
“No, really. Funny stuff, you would have liked it.”
“Dumb,” Gus said.
“Alright, you don’t have to be mean. I thought it was a funny routine. Guess you had to be there.”
Gus lightly slapped Dom’s arm with the back of his hand. “Don’t be so sensitive. I was giving you another example.”
“Example of what?”
“Silent b. Dumb.”
“Oh yeah. Good one. Can you think of any others?”
“Yeah. Dumber and dumbest.”
Dom assessed his friend for a moment, but then had a eureka. “Dumbbell’s an interesting one. Two B’s. One silent, one not.”
“Kinda like us.” Gus smiled broadly. “Think about that one while you work on that drink.”
The bartender, Tongue, came over and asked, “Two more, gentlemen?”
“Sounds right to me,” answered Dom.
Gus consented with a slight nod. “Tom, tell Dumb here… sorry, I meant Dom. Tell him how you lost your tongue?”
With a big smile, Tongue answered, “I didn’t lose it. I just forgot where I put it down. I’m sure it’s here someplace. Maybe I dropped it in a martini, instead of an olive.” He winked at Gus.
“Please!” Gus feigned disgust. “I’ll lose my appetite.”
Tongue leaned in. “Wanna lose your appetite? Let me tell you about the time I was licking the lid from a can of cream of mushroom soup, when an earthquake shook my hand so hard, I cut off the tip of my tongue.” Tongue started to laugh heartily, egging Gus to join him.
Dom spoke up. “I like the one about you daring the ranch-hand to knock a caterpillar off your tongue with a bullwhip.”
Tongue coughed out a little laugh, privately pleased with himself. He backed away along the bar to pour fresh scotches. He called out, “Dagnabit Dom, I never said any such thing. My earthquake story, now that’s the truth.”
Dom said to Gus, “He is a funny guy.”
“Yeah, and subtle, too.”
The men lifted their glasses to finish off their first drinks.
Wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, Dom announced, “I got a question.”
“I’m sure you do.”
“Why is a drink from Scotland called a scotch but a man from Scotland is called a Scotsman?”
Gus countered. “Oh yeah, well, let me ask you this one. If a man from Scotland who drank Scotch, was named Scott, spelled with two Ts, why is he a Scot spelled with one T?”
“He’s not. He’s Scottish, with two Ts.”
Gus conceded, “Good one. For a minute there, I thought I got off scot-free.”
They laughed and clinked glasses again.
“Psst.” An unexpected voice suddenly got the attention of both Gus and Dom. They looked to their right, past a few empty bar stools, to an old man, whom Gus had seen perched in the same spot at the end of the bar plenty of times before. Next to him was a younger man, whom Gus recognized as the owner of the local hardware store.
In an exaggerated stage whisper, the old man said to Gus and Dom, “Drambuie is from Scotland.”
At that moment, Tongue placed two fresh drinks in front of Gus and Dom, noting loudly for all to hear, “But not Jim Bowie. He was from Kentucky.”
Gus and Dom were totally dumbfounded. Still, Gus raised his new glass of scotch and toasted the old-timer, in a poor attempt at a Scottish brogue. “To yer ’ealth, lad.”
The old man didn’t respond, just turned his attention back to his hardware store companion.
Dom looked at Tongue and Gus and shrugged. He was curious about the random exchange, but he didn’t care enough to ask for clarification. Instead he leaned over and poked Gus in the arm with his index finger. “Knish.”
Tongue took that as a cue to move on. “Cheers, gentlemen.”
“What in the world is a ka-nish?”
“A knish, my friend, is an urban delicacy sold, once upon a time, by street vendors selling hot dogs. Nowadays, you’re lucky if you can find them in a delicatessen.”
Gus smirked at Dom. “You’re not really telling me what it is, now are you?”
“Think of it as a mashed potato burger, but instead of a bun, the potato, made with onions, has fried dough sealing it, like an envelope.”
“And this would be something you’d eat?”
“Oh yeah. Hot. But first you slice it open and spread in some mustard.” Dom closed his eyes to savor the image. “Delicious.”
“Maybe. Sounds interesting, I guess,” Gus conceded. “ But my real guess is you ain’t finding no ka-nish in these parts.”
“These parts. That’s a funny expression, too. Like it’s random parts of a chicken or something.”
Gus squinted at him. “Okay, I don’t think you’ll find a knish in this part of the country.”
“Wish I knew that before I moved to Babel.”
Gus smiled at his friend, “Before you moved to Babel, you probably wish you knew that no one moves to Babel. They only move away.”
Dom waved his glass. “I wouldn’t have come if I knew there were no knishes.”
Gus looked away. “You’re not waiting for me to say something like, I’m happy you decided to come to Babel or something like that, are you? Because this ain’t no Lifetime movie or Hallmark card.”
“Not at all, Gus. I’m waiting for you to ask me why I said ‘knish’ in the first place.”
“Getting crafty, ain’cha? Okay, Dominic, how come you said, ‘ka-nish’ in the first place?”
“How come it’s pronounced ka-nish, and not ‘nish,’ like knife. Knife has a silent K. Or knit, or knowledge, or knack. So how come ‘nish’ gets the ‘ka’?”
Gus took a long sip of scotch and thought over his response. “Let me say this about that. First off, having no prior knowledge of a knish, I don’t really have a knack for answering you, so I’ll just stick to my knitting and say that there are some things in life that are just useless. Like the K in knife.”
Dom smiled at his friend, always amused at his less-than-subtle comic turns. “Well done, Constantine, well done. Cheers.” Dom offered up his glass.
Pleased with himself, Gus accepted the tribute and clinked glasses with Dom, “Cheers.”
After his sip, Dom swirled the ice cubes in his glass. “I have another question for you.”
“Oh good. For a minute there I thought we’d die of embarrassment in a prolonged awkward silence.”
Dom held up his glass. “Rocks. Why ‘rocks’? Rocks don’t make liquids colder. Rocks don’t melt. Ice cubes. Ice. Cubes. Why not just ‘cubes.’ ‘I’ll have a scotch and cubes, please.’ Or, ‘Scotch on ice.’ I don’t get it. Why ‘rocks’?”
“You know, if you freeze a rock, you can use it instead of an ice cube, and it won’t melt and dilute your scotch. A glass of frozen rocks is actually better than ice when you’re drinking scotch.”
Dom considered this. “But you can’t really freeze a rock, can you? Besides, wouldn’t it make your drink dirty and crunchy?”
“I think you’d wash the rocks really well before you freeze them.”
“Okay, but you could still break your teeth drinking a drink with rocks.”
Gus pondered another retort. “Maybe they should serve scotch in a thermos. This way the scotch stays cold and you don’t have to worry about ice diluting your drink. Or rocks breaking your teeth.” He drank up.
“I like that idea. The thermos was the best thing ever invented. Keeps cold things cold, hot things hot. Simple and brilliant. I wonder who invented the thermos.”
Gus responded with great self-assurance, “NASA.”
“Sure way. It’s not like they took a refrigerator and stove with them to the moon. They needed a way to keep things at a constant temperature. So they invented thermos technology.”
Dom looked at Gus, trying to decipher whether or not he was pulling his leg. He didn’t consider himself gullible, yet he knew his neighbor could occasionally weave a tall tale when the mood hit him.
“I don’t mean to eavesdrop, gentlemen.” It was Tongue, acting all sheepish as he ran a wet rag along the bar top, wiping away not much of anything. “I heard you talking about the mighty thermos, and drinking scotch from it. Well, I think you might be interested to know two true facts.”
Gus and Dom were hooked, and they leaned in for some knowledge.
Tongue spoke confidently, but without a trace of bragging, “The thermos was invented by James Dewar. Yes, he was a Scotsman. But, he was not related to his fellow Scotsman John Dewar, who created the Scotch whisky that bears his name.” Tongue just beamed. “Now what do you think about that?”
Gus and Dom looked at each other and their expressions quietly confirmed that neither believed the bartender. Not wanting to tick him off though, Gus toasted Tongue, saying, “To your subtle knowledge on the subject then, I raise my scotch to you.”
That made Tongue laugh, and succeeded in moving him back down the bar.
Gus looked at Dom, who just shrugged. Dom mentally reached back and picked up the thread of their conversation – the truth they knew. “You know, you think about all that technology that did go into sending Man to the moon, and look what they come back with. Rocks.”
Gus laughed. “Moon rocks. What a useless souvenir.”
Dom wondered, “You know what they did with them?”
“Probably stuck ‘em in a museum or in some government lab where no one could touch ‘em or see ‘em.”
Dom egged him on, “Yeah, but you know what they could do with them moon rocks?”
“Well, think about how cold the moon is. The astronauts probably used the rocks to chill their scotches.”
Gus smiled, he got the joke. “Pretty expensive ice cubes. Billions of dollars. Sure could buy a lot thermoses for that.”
Dom looked away and said to himself. “Thermi.”
Gus asked, “How’s that?”
Dom finished his second drink and looked back at Gus. “You want another?”
“What? A ka-nish? I haven’t had even one yet.”
“No, a Scottish scotch made by a Scotsman named Scottie.”
“Nah. I promised the wife I wouldn’t keep you out late. She doesn’t want you getting in trouble again. Pay the man, Dom, and we’ll be on our way.”
“You’re a wise man, Gus, a wise man.”
Dom paid the tab, shared friendly ‘good nights’ with the bartender, and fell in step behind Gus as they headed towards the front door. As Gus pulled it open, three women entered, giggling. They each thanked Gus and he smiled in return, saying, “Lookin’ fine, ladies, lookin’ fine.” When they were out of earshot, Dom said to Gus, “Well, that wasn’t very subtle.”
“Sorry, Dom, just feelin’ a little numb.”
photo credit: Max Fuchs @designfuchs