Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Friday, February 4, 2022


Bars are frequent settings for stories -- and bartenders commonly the ones who draw the story out of the teller. "Beneficiaries" is a bit of an homage to two writers who set a series of delightful stories in a pub, L. Sprague deCamp (Tales from Gavagan's Bar) and Arthur C. Clarke (Tales from the White Hart). I hope I did the idea justice.



“Scotch.  Double.  Neat.”

Jim Quick, for twenty years the bartender at O’Donnell’s Irish Pub, wiped his hands on a towel, tossed it on the counter behind the bar, and turned to his newest patron with a smile.  “Do you have a favorite, then?  Single malt?  Blend?”

“It doesn’t matter,” the man said, slumping on the barstool and running his hand through hair still damp from the rain.  “Whatever’s handy.”

Jim selected a bottle, and filled a glass with amber liquid.  “Here’s a Glenfiddich.  Always popular.  Cheers, mate.”

The man held up the glass to Jim, and took a sip.

It was a quiet night—the only ones in O’Donnell’s were the regulars.  And this guy, who Jim had never seen before.  Despite having the downcast look of a dog that had been left alone in the back yard during a thunderstorm, and being just about as wet, there was something curiously compelling about him.  Jim leaned on the polished mahogany bar.  “You look like you need some cheering up.”

One corner of the man’s mouth twitched.  “I suppose.”

“Let me guess.  Problem with the ladies?”

“Oh, no.  They beat down the door to my bedroom, honestly.”

Jim looked at him, smiling and frowning at the same time.  The man in front of him was completely ordinary-looking, and in fact, the most striking thing about him was how nondescript he was.  If he’d had to describe this fellow to the police, Jim would have been hard-pressed to name one feature about him that didn’t begin with the word “average.”  But even so, there was no doubt in Jim’s mind that the man was speaking the literal truth.

“Lucky you.”

“I suppose,” the man said again.

Jim gave him a crooked grin.  “Hey, if you’ve got more than you want, you could send one or two over to my place.  It’s been too long since I had a nice tumble.”

The man shrugged.  “Okay.”

“Come on, then.”  Jim layered on all of the kindly reassurance that he’d learned from twenty years of dealing with despondent drinkers.  “Out with it. What’s eating at you?”

The man raised an eyebrow.  “Did I tell you that my name is Ted Cruz?”

Jim’s eyes opened wide.  “Seriously?  As in the weaselly Senator guy?”  He shook his head.  “That must be a bit of a burden, having a famous name like that.”

The guy slumped down even further.  “No, it’s not really.”  He stared into the depths of his scotch.  “I lied.  My real name is Britney Spears.”

Jim stared at him, and then burst into guffaws.  “Oh, mate, I’m sorry to have a laugh at your expense, but… oh, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, whatever can your parents have been thinking?”  Then he dissolved into helpless laughter again.

The man put both hands over his face, and leaned into them, sitting motionless for nearly a minute.

Jim finally got a hold of himself, and wiped his streaming eyes with the back of his hand, then reached out and thwacked the man on his shoulder.  “I’m sorry for laughing, mate.  That was unkind of me.  Next round is on the house, to make up for my bad manners.”

The man didn’t move.

“Ah…”  Jim frowned, and tapped the man’s shoulder.  “Are you all right?”  There was no response.  “I’m heartily sorry for laughing at you, um… Britney.”

The man dropped one hand, and glared at Jim with the one exposed eye.  “My name is not Britney Spears.  I was lying again.”

Jim shook his head.  “You were just having me on?”

“Yes,” the man said, one hand still covering half of his face.

“Well, you’re the finest liar I’ve ever met, and I’ve met a few,” Jim said.

Finally the other hand moved.  “No, I’m not.  I’m a terrible liar.  I just make stupid shit up.  It’s not even halfway to believable.”

Jim shrugged.  “Suit yourself.”

The man gave a harsh sigh.  “Look. I’m going to tell you something, and see if you believe that.  Tell you a story.  Okay?”

Jim looked down the bar.  The other patrons seemed to be in no imminent need of refills, and no one new had come in since the conversation had begun, so he leaned on the bar.  “Sounds worth hearing.”

“My uncle Harry died three months ago,” the man began.

“A pity,” Jim said.  “My condolences.”

“Thanks.  Uncle Harry was a bit of an oddball.  He was my mother’s brother, and was filthy rich.  He never married, and so when he died we inherited a good bit of his money, his house, and his stuff.”

“Lucky,” Jim said.

“Funny you should put it that way.  I’d always been jealous of Uncle Harry, because he had everything.  My mom and dad always just barely scraped by, but Uncle Harry made money without even trying.  My dad used to say that he could mint gold coins with his fingertips.  He always seemed to succeed at whatever he tried, and had a new girlfriend every week—and each one was always prettier than the last.  But even so, he never gave us anything while he was alive.  Not one cent.  I remember at one Christmas dinner, he came over, ate our food and drank our wine, and didn’t give a damn thing to anyone—not a single present to any of us.  He even told us that he had no reason to give away what was his, why should anyone expect a handout?  And the funny thing is—at the time, we all just sort of swallowed it.  ‘Harry’s a rogue,’ my mom said, in this kind of indulgent way.  And my dad said, ‘He’s a charmer, that’s for sure.’”

“Bit of an asshole, sounds like.”

“Well, maybe it seems that way now.  But no one was saying it then.”  The man nodded toward Jim, as if to point out how significant that was.  “He almost seemed to make a point of saying outrageous shit, just to see if anyone would challenge him.  Nobody ever did.”

“And you inherited his money when he died.  So you got the best of him, in the end.”

“Yes and no.  Just from his bank balance, my parents will never want for anything again, and that’s a blessing.  But the kids… he specifically willed each of us something.  He gave my sister a silver ring, and my brother a suave-looking felt hat with a leather hatband.  Me… he gave me a necklace.”

“A necklace?”  Jim peered at the man’s neck, which was bare.  “Not your style, then?”

The man gave a mirthless laugh.  “Actually, it was beautiful.  A gold Celtic cross on a thin gold chain.  When my mom gave it to me, said that Uncle Harry had wanted me in particular to have it, I thought it was pretty cool.  But I don’t wear necklaces much, so I just put the box in my pocket and forgot about it.”

Jim smiled.  “A nice keepsake of your uncle, still.”

[Image is in the Public Domain courtesy of its creator, Petr Vodicka, and the Wikimedia Commons]

“I got woken up by the telephone the morning after we got the gifts from Uncle Harry’s estate—it was a Saturday, I remember.  Seven o’clock.  It was my brother, calling me up to tell me he’d won the lottery.”

“Your brother won the lottery?” Jim said, in awe.  “That’s stupendous!”

“Yeah,” the man said, without much enthusiasm.  “But what I didn’t tell you is that he was on the verge of bankruptcy.  He’d gone out the night before with some friends, sort of as a last fling.  He was so embarrassed by his financial problems that he hadn’t wanted to ask any of us for help.  But he said that evening, he’d put Uncle Harry’s hat on, and suddenly had this feeling like… he couldn’t lose.  He bought one lottery ticket—just one—with the last dollar in his wallet.  And now he’s a millionaire.”

“That’s quite a story.”

Again there was that momentary twitch in the corner of the man’s mouth.  “Yeah.  And my sister… I didn’t tell you about her, either.  She recently was diagnosed with ALS.  You know, Lou Gehrig’s.  She had the tremors, weakness, and all… she was pretty despondent about it.”

“Isn’t that…”  Jim stopped, bit his lip.  “Terminal?”

The man nodded.  “Yeah.  Two years, they said.  Five, tops.  Most of it you’re bedridden.  One of the most horrible diseases around.”  He paused, took another sip of his scotch.  “Only, thing is—she went to the doctor two weeks ago, and he said she’s cured.  No sign of illness.  In fact, they’re looking into whether she was misdiagnosed in the first place, because no one, he said, ever is cured of ALS.  If you get it, you die.”  The man looked up at Jim, his eyes intense.  “She was wearing Uncle Harry’s ring when she went in for the checkup—the one where they told her the disease was gone.”

Jim stared at the man in astonishment.  “That’s… that’s fantastic.”

“We were all thrilled about it.  First my brother strikes it rich while wearing Uncle Harry’s hat, and then my sister is cured of a fatal disease while wearing his ring.”  He looked at Jim, his eyebrows raised.

“So… the necklace?” Jim prompted.

“It went missing.”

“No!” Jim said, aghast.

“When I found out my sister had been cured while wearing his ring, I thought, ‘I wonder if there’s something about Uncle Harry’s stuff that’s making all this happen?’  So, I took the necklace out of the box, and put it on.  I slipped it inside my shirt, and wore it all day.  I didn’t notice anything different.  Then, that evening… I suddenly realized that it was gone.  I turned my apartment upside down—I looked inside the sofa, under chairs, everywhere I could think of.  It was gone.”

“Well, that’s devastating,” Jim said with feeling.

“Mmm-hmm.”  The man didn't sound particularly devastated.  “So, anyway, that night, I was in the bathroom, and getting ready for bed, and I took my shirt off.  And I saw this.”

The man stood up, and lifted his shirt.  In the center of his upper chest was a small mark, shaped like a Celtic cross—a circle with a cross through it.


“Not one I asked for.  But it’s the same shape as the design on the necklace pendant.  So I called my brother and sister, and we got together the next day for lunch.  And guess what I found out?”

“I wouldn’t try,” Jim said.

“Both the hat and the ring had had a Celtic cross design—it was on the hatband, and engraved into the band of the ring.  Both the hat and the ring had gone missing, too—the hat the day after my brother won the lottery, and the ring the day after my sister was given a clean bill of health.  And then they told me the best part—my brother now has a tiny Celtic cross mark on his temple, right at his hairline—you have to look close to even see it—and my sister has one on her right ring finger.”

“Sweet mother of God,” Jim said, under his breath.  “Wealth, health, and…?”  He looked at the man, a question in his eyes.

An attractive young woman, a cosmopolitan in one slender hand, came up to the man, and said, “I’m sorry to interrupt, but I couldn’t help but notice…”  She laughed nervously, reddened, and set her drink down on the bar.  “This is… this really isn’t like me.”  She stopped, and looked at him, smiling.

“It’s okay,” he said, as if he already had the script memorized, and was just waiting for her to recite her lines.

“It’s just that… when you had your shirt pulled up, I couldn't help looking at your bare chest, and I thought, Wow, he is so hot!  It just… it just came over me so suddenly, and I thought, hey, you only live once, right?  So I thought…”  She looked down coyly.  “Are you doing anything this evening?  I thought maybe we could go to my apartment, and you know… get to know each other a little.”  She looked up, smiled.

The man looked at Jim.  “Wealth, health, and I sure as hell would just like to be believed because I’m actually telling the truth.”  He sighed, and glanced over at the woman, who was hanging on his every word, even though there was no way she could possibly have had any idea what he was talking about.  “Not to mention women finding me attractive because I actually am.  The brother who was poor gets money, the sister who was sick gets well, and you know what that implies about me?”  He shook his head.  “Oh, well, I guess there’s nothing to be done about it.  Uncle Harry did the best he could, all things considered.”  He looked up at the woman, managed a smile, and said, “I’m really good in bed.”

She wiggled her eyebrows.  “I’m sure you are.”

“My name is Margaret Thatcher.”

She gave a coquettish laugh.  “That’s fine with me.  Mine’s Terry.”

The man slid a ten dollar bill across the bar, told Jim to keep the change, and Jim watched as the two of them exited into the rainy night.  Leo Corcoran, one of the bar’s regulars, came up, pint of Guinness in hand, and said, “It’s a right quiet night, Jimmy boy.  Who was that nice-looking young man you were talking to?  Dashing sort of fellow, I thought.  I’ve not seen him in here before.”

“Interesting gentleman.”  Jim picked up a towel and polished a glass with it.  “Quite a lady’s man, I fancy.  I think he’ll be scoring a nice little home run this evening, with that sweet blonde who left on his arm.  But odd thing, you know?  Fellow’s name is ‘Margaret Thatcher.’”

“Is that a fact?”

“It is,” Jim said.

“Never know what you’ll hear next, some days.  Stretches your capacity for belief, sometimes.”

“That’s God’s honest truth, lad,” Jim said.  “God’s honest truth.”


It's obvious to regular readers of Skeptophilia that I'm fascinated with geology and paleontology.  That's why this week's book-of-the-week is brand new: Thomas Halliday's Otherlands: A Journey Through Extinct Worlds.

Halliday takes us to sixteen different bygone worlds -- each one represented by a fossil site, from our ancestral australopithecenes in what is now Tanzania to the Precambrian Ediacaran seas, filled with animals that are nothing short of bizarre.  (One, in fact, is so weird-looking it was christened Hallucigenia.)  Halliday doesn't just tell us about the fossils, though; he recreates in words what the place would have looked like back when those animals and plants were alive, giving a rich perspective on just how much the Earth has changed over its history -- and how fragile the web of life is.

It's a beautiful and eye-opening book -- if you love thinking about prehistory, you need a copy of Otherlands.

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]

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