This room had the feel of a cozy club, but there were actually more patrons here, smoking, drinking, passing familiar conversation and tossing darts at a board in a corner. This bar was also enlivened by a lazy, crackling fireplace—and a dog.
The huge black creature lumbered out of the smoky haze like the Hound of the Baskervilles and clamped his jaws over my hand. I panicked until I realized he wasn’t biting down. Nonetheless he had me firmly in tow—I followed him to the bar without argument.
“Let him go Rudy—he doesn’t look like a terrorist,” said a voice in the far corner. To general laughter, the dog released me and curled up in front of the deep fireplace. “Rudy’s our social director,” said a sandy-haired man hiding behind a tall glass. His hair grew straight out of his head in several directions. “As long as we have him, we’ll never be lonely.”
The others snickered as I took them in. Two boys of about fourteen were playing cards in a booth. At the bar, I counted a rail-thin gent of at least 80, a 60-ish woman with a wire brush of silver hair, a thick-waisted fellow in a sailor’s hat who seemed joined with her at the hip and a thirtyish Liberal Arts professor beneath a thick beard and cable-knit sweater. The rest were wearing coats inside despite the fire. Apparently all Irish heaters were as effective as the ones at Emily’s house.
“What’ll you have?” said the ancient gentleman, stepping off his stool.
“He’ll have a Guinness.”
“Let him speak for himself.”
I usually drink wine but this really didn’t seem like a wine kind of place. “Guinness sounds fine,” I said.
“What’ I tell yeh?” Sandy-hair pronounced, to resounding murmurs from the rest. The place was a pocket of white man’s gospel—every phrase requiring affirmation, echo, call-and-response, accompanied by quality beer at a reasonable price. The old gent worked his way laboriously around the bar—his gummy hips reminded me of Dyson—placed a glass under the tap and began filling it. He took it halfway and popped the tap, letting it sit until the head went down.
“Where’re you from?”
“New York,” I answered and they all hushed.
“Sorry,” someone said and I nodded in thanks. The old lady pointed to a corner next to the fireplace. I walked over and discovered the Shrine. A glass case held two NYFD firefighter helmets, an NYPD cap, a yellow emergency jacket, axe and several front pages (NY Daily News, Irish Times and NY Times) from 9/12. A veneer of dust coated the top of the case, but someone had spent a good deal of time arranging the items inside and securing them in place.
“Some of our boys went over to help in the cleanup,” someone said. “Johnny Regan’s boy was over there for three months.”
“Thank you,” I said, again the ambassador. “Thank him for me.” We all spoke in hushed tones as though it had happened the week before. A year and a half, I thought, and it hasn’t disappeared here any more than at home.
“And to whom does this orphan belong?” came the voice from behind the bar, that Maureen O’Hara coloratura. I turned and the barmaid was there with those big green eyes and a mischievous expression on her lips, one that suited the voice perfectly.
I knew she had to be striking, just from the sound of her and she was. She had a face out of an Irish portrait gallery, a face that had surely appeared in Ireland for 10,000 years in an unbroken line. An upturned nose and a narrow mouth, auburn hair with blonde streaks for modernity, skin opaque white between freckles. Her face was a riot of laughlines; her shape curved nicely but without advertising itself. She was attractive rather than beautiful, if you were being objective. But I never had a moment’s objectivity about her. I wanted her instantly, without a moment’s attempt at understanding. Actually, I knew at that moment that I’d wanted her before I’d ever laid eyes on her.
“He’s mine—I intend to adopt him,” I answered, a bit dizzied. She filled the glass slowly to keep the head from stealing too much of the drink.
“You’ll provide him a good home?”
“With your help, I’ll at least provide him the company of his own kind.”
“You seem suitable,” she said, pushing the glass in front of me.
“He’s an American.”
“I’ve got ears. Doesn’t look like an American, though. Where’s your guns?”
“Left ‘em home. Ran out of bullets.”
“Where’s your bag o’ money?”
“Don’t use money anymore. We’re going to conquer the world on credit.”
We were both grinning—this was fun. Suddenly, I was having fun. Hell, I was on my vacation. I almost swooned at the thought.
The barmaid stepped out into the room. “How’s my little lover?” she cried, her voice rising two octaves. The Hound of the Baskervilles roused himself instantly and jumped, his paws to her shoulders, licking her face. They could have been dancing. Emily was right—the whole country was animal crazy.
Of course, this also gave me—and any of the others who cared to—a chance to admire her shape and a nice one it was too, the kind of sleek curves that always make me aware of my breathing. She popped back behind the counter for a moment and returned with a dish shallow with beer. She laid it on the floor in front of the fireplace. The dog lapped it up, then settled in front of the fireplace glassy-eyed and began to snore lightly.
“He has a condition,” said sandy-hair.
“A condition that responds to beer?”
“We don’t want him to respond,” the bristly-haired woman said and everyone laughed.
“Does anyone have a cigarette?” the barmaid said. “I need a cigarette.” No one moved.
“We’re not helpin’ her,” said sailor hat to me, taking a drag on his own.
“I smoke the organic ones—they don’t have so much chemicals,” she explained. “But the store doesn’t have them today. So I need something.” She picked up a cocktail twizzler, stuck it between her teeth and sucked hard. The others tittered.
A man a few years older than me hobbled in from the front on crutches. “Hello Bill,” the barmaid piped.
“Hello Jilly m’girl. Where is it?”
“It’s settling,” she said, inclining her head toward the tap. “Just a minute.” I don’t know how the pint got there—either she knew he was coming or she always kept one waiting, which wasn’t a bad idea, actually.
“Anyone know what won the 2 O’clock at Mallow?”
“Ooh that smarts,” said Bill, taking a stool and flapping his arms like a pelican. “It’s brass monkey weather out.” The group shivered in sympathy.
There were lots of glances thrown at the fire but no one willing to leave the bar to get closer to it. Jill (this was apparently the barmaid’s name) set the beer in front of him and Bill slurped it down in a few gulps.
“Thank you m’dear,” he said and started clomping his crutches out toward the front.
“Making progress?’ Jill asked as he disappeared.
“He’ll be months yet,” said Sweaterman once Bill had rounded the corner. He was leaning across the barmaid now, who didn’t seem to mind.
“He fell,” she explained, turning to me. “No, that’s not so. A wall fell on him, to put a point to it. He was building a wall and it came down all at once. And he’s not healing right for some reason. He should have been off crutches in September. And him a man who likes to move around.”
“Don’t we all?” said Sweaterman.
“Not all so much as you—or Bill,” Jill answered, eyes flashing.
She was flirting with him and flirting with me. And over the course of the next ten minutes, I watched her proceed to charm the room. Five new men came through the doors in that time and, with the exception of the boys in the booth, who remained glued to their cards, Jill kept us all in line, lost in her wide eyes and insinuating voice, the way she sniped at our stories and took us down a peg—but just one or two, like a spirited girlfriend would.
Every glance she threw me made me puff up like a blowfish. The look in her eyes said I was special, that I’d touched her, that she looked forward to my little glances far more than the ones she was sharing with every other man in the place. And somehow, knowing—seeing—that they felt exactly the same didn’t diminish our connection one bit.
There was a lull as the place thinned back to the original group. “Why is the building divided up like this?” I asked. “It’s a strange arrangement, all these little rooms and everyone in the back.”
“It’s a very favorable arrangement,” said sweaterman.
“When the boss starts looking for ya,” added the old lady and they all cackled. And I got it, looking around. The place was a labyrinth. If you wanted to sneak a pint during the day and you just kept moving from room to room, it would be nigh on impossible for anyone to find you. Alcoholism as architecture. I wondered what Russian bars looked like.
I finished my drink. The other barmaid was behind the counter. “I should get back to my friends,” I said, pulling five Euro from my wallet.
“It’s paid for,” the ancient gentleman said.
“No please,” I stuttered.
“You wouldn’t insult a man your grandfather’s age,” he told me and I wouldn’t.