By Tim Brost
Outside of just another neighborhood bar, humming streetlights illuminate a cracked sidewalk littered with torn plastic wrappers, cigarette butts, spent and broken bottles and empty 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 with every puff. This is the neighborhood where last year a couple was mugged on the way to their car at ten minutes after one in the morning, both of them, stripped of everything but their jeans.
The nights are cool here, in September. A coal bounces off of the curb as the concealed smoker flings his cigarette into the street. He turns, swings open the bar door and steps inside. He’s a big man in a worn black leather jacket and ragged jeans—Sam Gant is his name but everyone close calls him Gant. Chains wrapped around his right boot rattle like spare change The jeans he wears are stained from years under automobiles and the thick leather belt around his tight waist features a large nickel-plated rodeo buckle. He’s never ridden a horse but nobody challenges the authenticity of anything he does. The rumor is how he took it off a guy that year he spent in Oklahoma City.
Gant is ripped. He’s known. Heads turn, some in his direction, others away. Swagger comes naturally to men who are used to being unopposed. A few women still smile at him, even whisper the words ‘hey baby’ when he walks by but for the most part, men in his path 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. She sits at the piano as he comes in, playing and singing Irish ballads, some accompanied, sometimes not. Her left hand plays adagio, slowly rumbling low octave in the rhythm of dark surf against a shore of rock. Her right hand imitates currents far out to sea—adante, rising and falling in intensity as she sings 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 will be loud, but Megan is special. She has a following that longs for distant places and better times. They sit in reverie on beer-stained chairs, rest at round worn tables and each of them have a soft spot in their hearts for Megan, for Ireland, for the past.
Aidan is drunk again and sobbing in sodden. He balances precariously on a bar stool and claims the piano is possessed. The sweet voice of fair-skinned Megan is beyond words, plying at his chest. As she finishes her song he brings palms to the top of a balding skull in a gesture of solemn appreciation.
Gant takes the stool just behind Aidan, but Aidan is so lost in the spectacle on stage that he is unaware. Johnny the bartender approaches Gant, who raises his chin a twitch and points toward the bourbon. Johnny nods. A shot and draft are poured without a words and Johnny jots the order in the tablet 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 as if in love, pure love, though the woman is as distant from him as are the rolling Myrddyn Deweys of Ireland. He spins, grinning, toward the bar, to Johnny, to request another round, and sees Gant sitting there, which makes him sober as a drunk can be. His back stiffens into Gant’ stone face and Gant stares back in banal disapproval. The letters L, O, V and E adorn the knuckles of his left fist. Aidan has felt the tattoos of his right hand and those memories bring a shudder to his chest.
“Sammy,” Aidan says, in high-pitched surprise. Gant doesn’t acknowledge the greeting. “Do you know why I didn’t leave town this morning?”
Gant still doesn’t smile. Aidan thinks it might be a line he’s used before on Gant, not totally sure.
“This on my mother’s eyes, I wanted to stay here and buy you a round this evening.” Aidan raises his finger to the bartender. “One 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 hit the scotch.”
Johnny says, “You’re going to sit this one out, Aid. Save your money.”
Aidan holds up a finger to Johnny but speaks 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 fret the tab.” 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 rests on his shoulder and dries a shot glass. Aidan speaks louder. “I’ve got the money, Johnny. Flush as an oil baron.” He reaches into his pocket and slaps a wad of ones and fives on the bar.
Johnny pours drinks.
The Henson’s stand up, table near the stage, and offer Megan a five-dollr tip. She thanks them and tucks the money into her shirt. The elderly couple says goodbye to a few others as they leave.
Megan returns to the microphone Bantry Girl’s Lament. Before she begins she says, in a sultry distant voice, “Better days to come.” A few raise their glasses as he begins.
Aidan raises his mug to Johnny and Gant as Gant gulps a measure of beer then drops his free shot into the glass. Aidan waits for Gant to return the toast, but the big man chugs the whole thing without even a nod. Aidan looks on till the shot glass slides reaches Gant’s lips.
“The boys will sorely miss him when mun-a-hoor comes ‘round’,” Megan sings. 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 and releases tears. He sobs openly.
Gant, drink in hand, steps around Aidan and walks to the empty two-top near the stage. As he passes Aidan his arm brushes against him roughly. Aidan assumes at first that it is not intentional, then comes wonder. Careful not to be heard, he whispers the word, “Asshole.”
Megan’s gaze follows Gant from stool to table. She smiles when he sits then closes her eyes and softly sways into the next stanza, “… we’ll resign ourselves to our sad lot and die in grief and pain.” It is her signature song, the one she always sings as her final set comes to an end.
When finished, the small crowd cheers for her and she joins Gant to sip bourbon, unwind, and wait for Johnny to pay. If Gant were not there Aidan would buy that round – anything she wanted. She’d let him do that once before a few months back and he swears he’ll never forget.
Johnny barks last call. The night breaks in two, and within minutes the bar empties, save for Aidan, Johnny, Gant and Megan.
Johnny snatches the last swig of bourbon away from Aidan, and drops his shot glass into the washing tub. Aidan would protest but even he knows he’s had enough. He fixes attention on the door and gingerly slides from the stool. With one hand on the bar he steadies himself for a few moments then inches forward. Aidan walks with his left hand jacked up to his short ribs. The fingers of his left hand are curled into a soft fist, right hand probing in front of him like a blind man reaching for the door, but he is proud. His chest is puffed up, chin high, shoulders thrust back for balance. He walks stiffly out the door, turns to the right, and begins the mile-long trek home.
One block up the street, concrete uneven beneath him, Aidan falls to the sidewalk. His right knee hits the concrete first, followed quickly by the bones of outstretched arms and chin. He is stunned momentarily, a fallen angel, face bleeding into the grit of sand on cement. He rolls to one side then rests half-prone, waiting for the street to stop spinning. “Fucking cops,” he says aloud and moves homeward on knuckles and knees trying to stand.
A truck slows to a stop at the curb. He hears Megan’s voice and tries to make a joke of it all, but still cannot stand. There she is, her beautiful face framed by the open window of Gant’s truck. “Mona,” he mumbles, but can’t remember the rest of it – Lisa.
Gant bellows Aidan’s name. He collapses onto his right elbow and face. “Jesus Pete,” Aidan whispers, and tries to say something like, “so embarrassing,” but can’t form the words.
Megan is saying something as Gant opens the back of his pickup and walks to Aidan’s side. Aidan catches that part that says, “He’s all right.”
“Oops,” Aidan manages to say.
Gant lifts Aidan as if he were a gunnysack of dried corn. Aidan is too weak to resist as he’s manhandled onto the truck bed, head bouncing once again, this time against the bed liner. Megan shouts to be careful as Gant pushes Aidan’s legs forward and closes the tailgate. Gant leans over the bedrail and whispers into Aidan’s ear. “Puke in my truck and you’re dead.”
Though Megan and Gant are in the truck cab now, he faintly hears Megan curse. “You’re so mean sometimes,” she says. All Aidan can think is for her not to piss him off. “You’re hurt him,” Megan may have said saying, or words to that affect, but Gant only laughs, revs the engine and accelerates, sliding Aidan’s damaged body backward
Streetlights pass above the drunk and Aidan fights to stay conscious, not to be sick, to find his dignity. As they speed forward, the breeze helps, or maybe not. He wonders. How did I get in a truck? But then it is fun. He raises one arm and the other in response to the passing streetlights. He and the moon above it all are exactly the same, perfectly still! The moon is just there between the palms of his hands and they are speeding through the universe in unison. Streetlamps, the underside of branches, wires hung across the street, even time are flying by them.
“Angels,” he shouts.
Then the world stops moving. Gant steps out of the pickup. Megan implores him to be gentle, for Christ’s sake. Aidan gets some of what she says, and is so proud of her, but Gant grabs him by the lapels and drags him across the bed liner. He is suddenly jerked upright and his legs dangle are pulled to dangle from the tailgate.
“Can you fucking walk?” Gant asks angrily.
Aidan springs to the street and immediately falls forward. Gant catches and supports his weight across the lawn to the landing of Aidan’s screened-in porch. Gant opens the screen door and muscles Aidan to the couch on the porch. After kicking magazines and empty cans from the sagging sofa, 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 as he feels Gant’s hand in his pants pocket.
“Gas money,” Gant says. He leaves.
Even in his drunken state he calls out. “Ashhole …” he says, but it’s too late. He couldn’t have fought back anyway. Within minutes he disappears beneath waves of exhaustion, self-loathing and disbelief. In spite of his determination to do otherwise, he’s done it again. Aidan is left on the porch among bushel baskets full of rusted bicycle parts, old newspapers, cycle magazines, firewood and recyclables. These are all things Aidan intends to cash in someday, a bounty to be used when things get tough.
Aidan wakes up hours later and is sick. He vomits on himself and the couch then disrobes. His house key is just there, in the flowerpot, but what does it matter.
The morning sun pushes through the porch screen, across the clutter and into his swollen eyes. That, and the buzz of flies, forces Aidan off of the couch. This moment of humiliation is worse than the others as he discovers he wears no shirt or pants? “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,” he complains, and studies the street. His fear is Mrs. Ehrman, the busybody, but she’s not at her window as usual.
His head pounds madly, a deep throbbing pain made worsened by torments in his neck, shoulders, and knee. Dazed, he grabs up his clothing and laboriously slides into them. Bending makes everything worse as he plucks keys from the flowerpot. He enters the house.
“Mary help us,” he says, shutting the door behind him. There’s blood on his hands. He steps to the hanging mirror left of the door in his breezeway and sees dried blood caked on his forehead, nose and chin. “Christ all …. What have you done now you piece of shite!” He prays he didn’t take off his pants before he got home. At least he didn’t spend it all this time, or did he? Pockets empty, he has.
Aidan stumbles toward the kitchen, the icebox and freezer. He grabs iced vodka then crumples into a chair, bottle resting in one hand, hair of the dog.
His left temple rests on folded forearms. His bare chest presses against the metal edge of the kitchen table. The floor feels odd until he realizes that he only wears one sock
Another shot! The alcohol burns his throat with welcome familiarity. Except for his nauseated stomach and pounding skull, he tells himself that he feels better already.
Was it Garvey’s or Ted’s? What bar?
“Shoes,” he says and slowly stands, hands on the table at first to steady himself. He walks back to the front door where and grabs them off of the floor. He hunts through the pockets of his pants and shirt, once, twice, a third time. “God damn it, Aidan! Every penny?”
Aidan settles into his La-Z-Boy and pulls a blanket to his chin, writhing in sorrow and self-pity as he slips again into sleep. At 6 pm he wakes up a second time, takes another shot from the vodka he forgot to return to the freezer, then showers. Within an hour the headache is bearable, but he needs food now to lessen the nausea. In the kitchen, he retrieves eighteen dollars from a baggie in his coffee can. Then he recalls another twenty tucked into his pillow case upstairs. He takes heart.
As he cracks the shell of a hard-boiled egg he plans the excuses and apologies he’ll have to make. He must have gotten 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.
At 8 pm, he walks into the tavern. “Johnny, you lovely bastard!” he barks in an accusatory tone. The smile on his face shows no ill intent. Saddling up to the bar he shakes his finger and says, “What the hell was I drinking?” his private joke causes him to wheeze with laughter.
Johnny takes the towel from his shoulder and gives the bar a light dusting. “Heard you passed out last night,” he says. “Went down on the sidewalk.”
Aidan is surprised. “No sir. I woke up at home snug as a bug,” 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 guys for a while, friends of Megan’s.
“You’re a noble man, Johnny,” Aidan says, staring at the tap. “You really are.” He crosses himself to underscore the compliment.
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 Johnny 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?”
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 does it matter? They just want to talk.
“Any friend sof Megan are friends of mine. Lead the way.”