Outside of just another neighborhood bar, humming streetlights illuminate a cracked sidewalk littered with torn plastic wrappers, cigarette butts, spent and broken bottles and cans. A neon sign flickers the name Killian’s Irish Red Ale, and in the dark of the bar’s recessed doorway a cigarette tip glows frequently. This is the neighborhood where last year a couple was mugged on the way to their car around one in the morning, both of them, stripped of everything.
The nights are cool now that September has arrived.
The concealed smoker flings his cigarette a couple of yards toward the street. He apparently turns in the dark, swings open the bar door and steps forward. He is wearing a worn black leather jacket and ragged jeans. He is Sam Gant. Chains on his black boots rattle like spare change. His jeans are stained from years under automobiles. Gant wears a thick leather belt with a large nickel-plated rodeo buckle. He’s never ridden a horse. The buckle is from a bar in the city where he outlasted everyone there in a contest on a mechanical bull.
He’s ripped. He’s known. Heads turn, some in his direction, others away. Gant’s swagger comes naturally from years of being unopposed. A few women still smile at him. Most of the men are suddenly preoccupied. Those in the bar who have had run ins with him pray in four letter words that he has not come for them, violent as he can be. He has not.
Gant has come for Megan O’Shay. It’s her weekend on stage and she sits at the piano playing and singing in her style, Irish ballads interspersed with a few lively tunes, accompanied and not. But at the moment she is at the piano. Her left hand plays adagio, slow rumbling the lower octave keys in rhythm with dark surf rising against a shore of rock. Her right hand imitates currents far out to sea—adante, rising and falling in intensity as she sings in a timber that is light, warm and sweet. “… long forgotten are the hearths on Celtic shores.”
In the past hour Megan has taken the hearts of those assembled into her own. Any other night the fiddles will whale and the crowd is lively, but Megan is special and has a following. Most of those seated on the beer-stained chairs, resting at round worn tables, have a soft spot for Megan.
At the bar, balanced on his favorite stool, Aidan is drunk again and sobbing in sodden reverie. The piano is possessed. The sweet voice of fair-skinned Megan is beyond words, it is, and plies at his chest from the inside out. So magical is the experience for him, every time she performs, that he will not stay away. Now, as she finishes her son, he brings his palms to the top of his balding skull in disbelief. Could it be any more beautiful.
Gant takes the stool just behind him at the bar. Aidan, who faces the stage, is unaware. The bartender approaches. His name is Johnny. Gant raises his chin a twitch and points toward the bourbon. Johnny nods. A shot and draft are poured without a word and Johnny jots the order in a tablet that he carries in his back pocket, pencil behind his ear, he has years of practice.
Aidan’s gaze remains on Megan well past the end of her song. He claps wildly because as if in love, pure love, though the woman is as distant from him as are the hills of Ireland where her songs were born. He spins, grinning, toward the bar, to Johnny, to request another round. He sees Gant sitting there. His smile changes and he is instantly as alert as a drunk can be. His back stiffens as he takes in Gant’s is stone face. Gant stares back in banal disapproval. The letters L, O, V and E are apparent on his right fist he uses to grip his beer. Aidan has seen the tattoos on his other hand more often.
“Sammy,” Aidan says, the high-pitched voice of a surprised acquaintance. Gant doesn’t speak acknowledge the greeting at all. “Do you know why I didn’t commit suicide after lunch?”
Gant still doesn’t smile. Aidan thinks it might be a line he’s used before on Gant, not totally sure.
“I didn’t commit suicide after lunch, and this is on my mother’s eyes, so I would be alive this evening to buy you a round.” Aidan raises his finger to the bartender. “A round for Mr. Gant and two for me,” he says. “On my tab, Johnny.”
“You’re drunk,” Gant says. “You cry like a goddamn sissy every time you get into the scotch.”
Johnny says, “Maybe you should sit this one out, Aid. You’re tab is already over $30. Save your money.”
Aidan holds up a finger to Johnny as he replies to Gant. “The drink goes in, the tears come out, Sammy. Can’t be helped. I’m Irish.” Aidan turns back to Johnny. “It will be three drinks,” he says emphatically. “Don’t worry if I have the money. I have the money, a whole paycheck worth.” And he leans forward. “It’s I who will say when I’ve had enough. I served the country …”, he starts to say but Johnny doesn’t want to hear it, shakes his head, holds up a palm, and turns away. As he does he grabs the towel that always rests on his shoulder and starts to dry shot glasses. Aidan speaks louder. “I’ve got the money, Johnny. Flush as an oil baron.”
Aidan turns away from Gant, away from Johnny, back to the stage while Johnny pours the drinks Aidan has ordered.
The Henson’s stand up, table near the stage, and offer Megan a few dollars tip. She thanks them and tucks the money into her shirt. The elderly couple says goodbye to a few other friends and they leave.
Megan remains standing and toys with the gooseneck microphone stand. As she fiddles with it she speaks loudly, probably so people in the back can hear her talk about what she’d going to do, an a cappella song. The microphone squawks due to feedback but only for a second. When everything is set she announces the title, Bantry Girl’s Lament, another ballad about home, loss and longing, and of Ireland and “better days to come” as she calls them. A few raise their glasses. It’s one of her the most popular songs in her repertoire. Aidan turns enthusiastically to the bar and grabs his mug. He raises it to Johnny and Gant, expecting to honor the toast.
Gant gulps a measure of beer then drops his free shot into the glass. Aidan waits for the toast, about to comment on bubbles rising and Gant’s mug but Gant chugs the whole thing while Aidan looks on. With the last ounce, his mug tipped high, the shot glass slides to his lips.
Aidan says, “Pete’s sake, Sammy. Learn to make things last.”
“Jesus,” Gant mumbles in disgust. He expels air and wipes his mouth with the back of his hand.
Megan sings, “The boys will sorely miss him when mun-a-hoor comes ‘round’.” Aiden turns toward her and within seconds cannot contain himself. It’s not the lyric so much as her sound that tangles his thoughts in knots. He sobs openly.
Gant, drink in hand, steps around Aidan and walks to the recently freed up two-top near the stage. As he passes Aidan his arm brushes against him roughly. Aidan assumes at first that it is not intentional but then he has to wonder. “Asshole,” he whispers, careful not to be heard by anyone.
Megan’s gaze follows Gant as he walks forward. She is smiling but then closes her eyes through the next stanza of the song, “… we’ll resign ourselves to our sad lot and die in grief and pain.” The song is nearly ended. Her last set of the evening is coming to an end. The bar will close soon but not before she sits at the table with Gant to sip bourbon, unwind, and wait for Johnny to pay her. If Gant were not there Aidan would join her and happily buy the round – anything she wanted. She’d let him do that once before and she was so friendly.
An hour later the night ends. The bar is empty save for Gant and Megan. Aidan’s had enough. He pays Johnny with a crisp one hundred dollar bill and shoves the change into his pocket. He’s set for the weekend and will still have plenty to make it through the week.
Now, he fixes his attention on the door and the effort at hand. With one hand on the bar he steadies himself and slides slowly from the stool. He walks. His left hand is unwittingly jacked up to his short ribs, fingers curled into a soft fist. His right hand faces forward, chest high, elbow extended for balance. He walks stiffly out the door, turns to the right, and begins the mile-long trek home.
Less than a block up the street, concrete uneven beneath him, Aidan falls to the sidewalk. His knee hits first then the heels of his outstretched arms, then his face. He rests momentarily in that position with the grit of sand on cement beneath him. It takes everything he has not to give up, just lay there, but he wants to wake up in his own bed. “Fucking cops,” he says aloud.
He struggles to sit upright, then to stand, but it’s impossible. He takes a few strides toward home on knuckles and knees. It hurts.
Soon a truck stops at the curb to his left. He hears a woman’s voice, lady Megan, it is, but he can’t stand. He turns his head and sees her face framed in the open window of the truck. Resting the weight of his drunken frame on one arm, he says “Mona,” but can’t remember the rest of it – Lisa.
Gant bellows Aidan’s name. He hears Gant but doesn’t yet see him in the blur of truck, concrete, memory, darkness and exhaust. Just turning his body enough to hunt for Gant is dificult and he collapses again, right elbow and face. “Jesus Pete,” he whispers, and tries to say something like, “so embarrassing,” but can’t form the words.
“He’s all right,” Gant says. Megan is saying something as he opens the back of his pickup and walks to Aidan’s side. Aidan catches almost all of that.
“Oops,” he finally manages to say.
Gant picks up Aidan ‘round the mid-section with one arm, like a farmer hauling a gunnysack of dried corn. Megan shouts to be careful. Aidan is too weak to resist as he’s manhandled onto the truck bed, head bouncing once again, this time against the bed liner. Gant pushes Aidan’s legs forward and closes the tailgate. “Puke in my truck and I’ll kick your ass,” he says.
Inside the truck Aidan can hear Megan cursing. It’s a muffled sound, her being in the cab. “You’re so mean sometimes,” Aidan thinks he hears her say. All he can think is for her not to piss him off. “You’re going to hurt him,” Megan may be saying, or words to that affect. Gant replies that, “he won’t remember a thing,” and closes the driver’s side door. What Gant said brings laughter out of Aidan.
“Yup,” he says and then the truck is rolling, bouncing, uncomfortable; but different and exciting at the same time.
The streetlights come and go above him. He fights to stay conscious, not to be sick, to maintain his dignity. The breeze helps.
How did I get in a truck?
Aidan raises one arm, and then the other. He and the moon are the same, perfectly still, the moon just there between the palms of his hands. It is everything else that passes by – streetlamps, the underside of branches, wires hung across the street, even time.
“Angels,” he says.
Within a few blocks though, even the world stops. Gant steps out of the pickup. Megan is telling him to be gentle, for Christ’s sake. Aidan gets some of that.
Gant grabs Aidan by the lapels and one leg. He drags him to the back of the pickup bed liner. Aidan’s legs dangle off the end of the tailgate and he is suddenly sitting upright.
“Can you fucking make it?” Gant asks. He sounds angry.
Aidan doesn’t speak but steps to the street, or attempts to, and falls forward. Gant catches him and now he’s being carried, sack of oats, up the few steps at the sidewalk’s edge, along the short walkway, out of breath from the position, to the landing of his screened-in porch. Gant opens the screen door and muscles Aidan up the three remaining steps onto the porch where he forces Aidan to stand, leaning on the door jam, while he kicks magazines and empty cans from the sagging couch. He flops Aidan onto his back. The springs moan.
Aidan sees Gant look toward the truck. He tries to stand. He wants to say thank you but can barely move. He feels Gant’s hand in his pants pocket.
“Gas money,” Gant says. He leaves.
Even in his drunken state Aidan knows better. “Ash …” he mumbles, looking for the word asshole, but it’s too late to put off any longer. He disappears into heavy darkness, waves of exhaustion, and sleep.
Gant has left Aidan on the porch among bushel baskets full of rusted bicycle parts, old newspapers, cycle magazines, firewood and recyclables, as Aidan calls them; hundreds of cans he intends to cash in someday when things get tough.
He wakes up hours later and is sick. He throws up on himself and the couch then disrobes. His house key is just there, in the flowerpot, but he looses consciousness again.
The porch faces east. Sun enters through the screen in a bright uncomfortable shaft. That, and the buzz of flies, forces Aidan off of the couch. Stench. It’s another unmistakable moment of humiliation and he is further disoriented – no shirt or pants? “Oh Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,” he complains, and glances toward the street, to Mrs. Ehrman’s house, the busybody.
His head is pounding madly, a deep throbbing pain made worse by the torment in his neck, shoulders, and knee. Dazed, he grabs up his clothing, unconcerned with anything but moving slowly. Bending makes everything worse but he manages to pluck keys from the flowerpot and enters the house.
“Mary help us,” he says, shutting the door behind him and standing in the breezeway. There’s blood on his hands. He steps to the hanging mirror left of the door and sees dried blood caked on his forehead and chin. “Christ all mighty what now? What have you done?” And then he thinks of his clothes, trying to recall anything at all, praying he didn’t take off his pants before he got home. And he hopes he didn’t spend all of his paycheck.
Aidan turns, nearly falling, and heads for the kitchen, the icebox, and the freezer. He hits the iced vodka then crumples into a chair at the kitchen table, bottle resting in front of him, frosted and inviting, hair of the dog, even if that dog is nearly dead. His left temple rests on folded forearms. His bare chest presses against the cool metal edge of the table. The floor feels funny. Maybe he is only wearing one sock.
Moments later, another shot of freezing vodka, not poured into a glass but taken from the bottle, as was the first. The alcohol burns it’s way along the throat with welcome familiarity. Except for his nauseated stomach and pounding skull, he tells himself that he feels better already.
Was it Garvey’s Bar or Ted’s Tavern? “Pants,” he says aloud and stands slowly, hands on the table, then walks back to the front door where he grabs them off of the floor. He hunts through the pockets once, twice, a third time. “God damn it, Aidan! Every penny?”
He feels as if the room is spinning. He is depressed, believing he’s spent everything, his entire week’s pay, again, in one forgotten night.
Aidan grabs a small blanket, sits on his La-Z-Boy, grabs the lever and is soon prone. He pulls the blanket to his chin and nearly writhes in sorrow.
At 6 pm he wakes up a second time, takes another shot and gets into the shower. He feels mildly better but needs food now to lessen the nausea. In the kitchen he retrieves eighteen dollars from a baggie in his coffee can. There’s another emergency twenty tucked into his pillow upstairs. He takes heart.
As he puts a slice of cold pizza in his mouth, he thinks with remorse about the apologies he’ll have to make. Surely he got into a fight, but where and with whom? Was it Ted’s Tavern? Johnny might know. He’ll buy a round for whomever it was when he finds him and smooth things over. He was drunk. They can’t hold it against him very long. At least he wasn’t driving.
Nearly like clockwork, at 8 pm, he walks into the tavern. “Johnny!” he barks in an accusatory tone. He has no ill intent. Saddling up to the bar on his favorite stool he shakes his finger at Johnny and asks, “What the hell was I drinking this time?” It’s funny, or so he thinks, so he wheezes with laughter.
Johnny smiles but doesn’t say anything just yet. He glances toward one of the tables, takes the towel from his shoulder and gives the bar a light dusting in front of Aidan. “Heard you passed out last night,” Johnny says. “Passed out on the sidewalk.”
Aidan is surprised. “No sir. I don’t think so. Can’t be. I woke up at home snug as a but,” he says.
Two men step up to the bar and sit on stools, one on either side of Aidan. Johnny says, “I’m giving you a beer on the house but to earn it you have to talk with these two for a while, friends of Megan’s.
“You’re a nobleman, Johnny,” Aidan says, staring at the tap. “You really are.” For some reason, an impulse he doesn’t understand, he crosses himself.
Johnny nods at the man on Aidan’s right, clean looking guy, and steps off to pour a draft. The guy says, “Pleased to meet you. My name is Harry and my friend here’s named Zeek. Megan and Johnney say we have some things in common and we’d like to tell you our stories over here at one of these tables. OK with you?
Aidan looks at Johnny. “Megan you say?”
Johnny nods and puts a frosty glass of beer on the bar. Aidan wraps his hand around the cool glass, takes a lick of foam and thanks Johnny again. “The first round is on me,” he says to these guys.
“We’re all set,” Zeek says.
Aidan looks toward the table the men have come from and sees glasses of orange juice, screwdrivers no doubt; party drinks, barely respectable, but what did it matter. He didn’t have a lot of cash to throw around anyway.
“Gentlemen,” he says. “Any friend of Megan’s is a friend of mine. Stories you say.”