John Kenny is a freelance writer, editor and creative writing tutor. His short stories have appeared in The World SF Blog, Jupiter, First Contact, Woman’s Way, Emerald Eye (an anthology of the Best of Irish Imaginative Fiction), Transtories and many other venues. He is currently hawking his novel Down and Out to publishers. John lives in Dublin, Ireland, with his wife, two daughters and neurotic cat.
WILD WEST HERO
By John Richard Kenny
It was like walking more than a century into the past. But there was nothing Victorian about the place. I actually stepped back out of the porch and looked up at the façade of the guesthouse, then at the business card the event organiser had sent me along with the programme details. The Alamo. College Road. Yes, this was the place. I stepped back indoors and tried to take it all in; inside what looked like an unassuming semi-de, a veritable museum to the western greeted me. Cacti filled the porch. In the hallway, every square inch of wall space was taken up with movie posters, Indian dream catchers, muskets, spears, shields. Tom Mix jostled with Dean Martin jostled with Richard Harris. Roy Rogers and Trigger in Susanna Pass, Gene Autry in Son of New Mexico, Buster Crabbe in Outlaw of the Plains. A vast array of posters demanded my attention, all painted in the rich, extravagant colours of that era.
Out from what was evidently a kitchen came a barrel of a man, in his sixties, snow-white beard and shock of hair swept back from a lined forehead. He practically exploded at me in rough good humour. “Ah Jeesus, is it you? Are you the fella Peter booked in?”
I took a step back and answered, “Yes. I’m here for just the two nights.” This must be the ‘Bill’ printed on the business card.
“No problem, no problem,” Bill shouted, grabbing up a key and forcing it into my hand with a glint in his eye that put me in mind of Captain Hook. He grabbed me by the shoulders, steered me towards the stairs. I half expected the giant to wrestle me to the floor for a good-natured grappling match.
“Well? What do ye think?” Bill said, as we reached the foot of the stairs. He turned his head to survey the mighty landscape of glass, frames, posters and paraphernalia surrounding us. “Ah, ye can’t beat a good western,” he went on before I could say anything. “Ye can keep your detective picture and your action adventure. Mind you, they don’t make ‘em like they used to.” I could almost feel the little hair I had left on my head wafting back in the powerfully expelled air of his verbal assault. I noted his heavy Galway accent became more pronounced as he warmed to his subject. “Have you seen that BrokenMountain or whatever? Christ. Bunch of bloody woolly woofters running around the hills. That’s not a western. I swear to Jeesus.” I hadn’t seen the movie, but I had read the short story. I opened my mouth to object to his reasoning, but something told me it would be pointless. I figured he was more of a Louis L’Amour man.
I climbed the stairs, urged on strenuously by my gregarious host. “Room 11,” he shot at me. Did that lampshade actually rattle? “I tell ye, I don’t know why they couldn’t stick to sheep like a good Irish farmer would’ve,” and he roared with laughter.
Up past Alan Ladd in Shane, Burt Lancaster in Gunfight at the OK Corral, Marilyn Monroe and Clarke Gable in The Misfits. The quality of the movies seemed to improve with altitude. There were no windows on the landing, but plugged into the wall and casting its eerie glow to show the way was a giant plastic headstone announcing your arrival at Boot Hill; the upper half of a skeleton presided over this.
Not yet ready to unpack my hold-all, I sat on the edge of my bed, staring at the wall, half afraid Bill might burst in at any moment. I was in GalwayCity to speak at a writers’ conference the next day. This gig didn’t pay; it just covered expenses and accommodation and, in fairness, the organiser didn’t have the money to splash around. Despite having a novel and a collection of short stories on the shelves, these things didn’t come along that often. So I was keen to oblige, looking forward to being the centre of attention, dreaming hazily of the day when I would become jaded by such gatherings.
I had to work, however, at keeping that dream to the forefront of my thoughts. If I faltered for the slightest moment, Amy intruded; Amy with the most beautiful and kindest smile you could imagine. Since Amy, I had thrown everything into the writing, becoming ever more consumed by a need to fill the empty hours with something new and vital. I wanted to be an originator; not a facilitator. Which was why I had chucked the job with Aiken, Aiken & Carroll. I just couldn’t handle the idea anymore of working for somebody else, of keeping them happy, of keeping their clients happy; not without Amy. But I had to be kidding myself. Sitting there, legs dangling like a child’s over the side of the bed as evening stole through the tiny window, I gazed at a picture of Laurel and Hardy hanging by the door to the bathroom. Deep down, it seemed I was somehow masquerading as a writer, like the whole thing was not quite real.
The rain just wouldn’t let up. It beat against the windows of the lounge bar of the guesthouse like the unrelenting spray of a gatling gun, whipped against rattling glass by a savage wind that came out of the dark nighttime from all directions.
“What’ll it be, partner?” Bill said in mock cowboy vernacular, heavily tinged with a gruff Galway accent.
“A pint of Carlsberg, thanks,” I replied, leaning forward in my seat at the bar, as if the place were jammed with people competing for the barman’s attention.
“No problem,” he said, a slightly dazed look in his eyes and a ready smile on his lips, as if he saw the funny side of my request. “You’ll be long enough dead,” he boomed.
I returned his smile, a little nervously, and turned to scan the bar; or should I say saloon. It was attached to the back of the building, tacked on like an afterthought, held together with spit and glue, and yet there was something safe and comforting in being cosseted in this warm bubble. The whole place was done out in wood, reeking of the smell of tobacco smoke, impregnated for many years before the smoking ban had come in throughout the country. An assortment of items hung on the walls or leaned against them: signs directing you to Dodge City, Santa Fe, and San Antonio, wanted posters, wagon wheels, lassoes coiled and hanging from nails knocked into posts dotted about the place, a photo of the great Union Pacific Railway when East met West at Promontory Point, Utah in 1869. Curiously, a massive Harley Davidson tilted on its stand in one corner of the room, anachronistic, and yet somehow fitting.
A handful of people, mostly couples, sat at tables situated away from the bar. Normally, I would have done the same, but there was something powerful and majestic about Bill that drew you to him, like a gigantic planet attracts satellites. And as the night wore on, the others slowly but surely moved closer, tilting their chairs to face the loud talking bear of a man, scraping their chairs, little by little, nearer the bar.
Despite the draw of Bill, though, after several pints I found my thoughts drifting to Amy again, circling the vast lack of her from a distant orbit, reluctant to deal with it, darting in to probe at it briefly, trying to comprehend the enormity of her absence, before snapping back to the worn path around it.
With the sensation of staring down a long dark tunnel, I found myself focusing with infinite fascination on the grain in the wood of the bar top, creating pictures from its swirls and lines. Could that be a dog? This a car?
“There you go,” Bill shouted, as he slapped another pint onto the bar counter.
“Oh, cheers,” I replied, fishing out a fiver to pay for the drink. You could actually get change from a fiver in Galway.
A particularly vicious gust of wind rattled the windows of the saloon, hurtling rain that sounded like nails against the glass, and everyone huddled closer to Bill as if he were a blazing fire. I noticed, however, Bill’s gaze momentarily drawn to the storm outside. For the briefest of instants I felt more than saw a shadow cross his features, a look I later realised was fear. Something stirred deep inside him, a memory perhaps too awful to approach but that drew him in nonetheless. The instant passed almost before I became aware of it and Bill returned to the here and now, launching into his next target.
“You see, the trouble with Bush was, he didn’t know his arse from a hole in the ground. Imagine an eejit like him saying ‘the trouble with the French is they don’t have a word for entrepreneur.’ I tell ya, he’s left an awful feckin’ mess behind him.” This directed without any form of restraint at the three young Americans who happened to be staying at The Alamo.
I winced visibly and turned a weak smile towards them, a God-isn’t-he-a-character gaze meant to reassure them that, actually, they were amongst friends. You could see the struggle going on in their young student faces. They were caught between a desire to agree with the man and a natural impulse to defend themselves and their country.
“Well, you know, a lot of Americans didn’t agree with what he did either,” one of them said.
“At least Obama’s in now,” another added.
Bill rewarded these statements with a big grin; they had passed some kind of test. You had to be on your toes with this man. A vital tension filled the air; you wanted to gain Bill’s approval, like he was an elemental force, a man free of constraints, and to see eye-to-eye with him was to be identified with that liberating energy. You were nervous around him and yet drawn to him in spite of yourself.
On into the night the banter went, along with plenty of drink to keep windpipes lubricated. Finally, up the creaking stairs we went, past James Cagney and Ernest Borgnine in Colorado, past Errol Flynn in Montana, the wind howling outside, greeted along the way by our guide to Boot Hill.
“I can’t believe that guy,” one of the Americans said, laughing.
“What? The skeleton or Bill?” I said.
I stumbled into my room and crashed onto the bed, barely able to remove my clothes. As my breathing slowed, I became aware of a noise issuing from the room next door. Jesus, is that what I think it is? I wasn’t a hundred percent sure, but by my reckoning, the room next door was occupied by that couple in their sixties who had left the saloon twenty minutes earlier. The walls were paper-thin and it sounded like they were fooling around.
“Christ, there’s hope for me yet,” I whispered, trying to force a chuckle from my throat. But as the sounds from next door subsided and the darkness of my room closed in, I wandered back in time, picking over inconsequential events, sifting through them, re-imagining alternate scenarios, where I said certain things, where I did some things differently, where Amy reassured me everything would be okay. Living another life, I drifted into a fitful sleep.
Breakfast was a garrulous affair. Bill had some help in the kitchen in the shape of a young Spanish girl. Despite this, he exclaimed, “Ah, for the love of… Why does everyone have to come down at the same time? Would some of yez not go back to bed for a while?”
Despite the gruff manner, everyone smiled. We had all grown accustomed to his explosive approach to everything. Every one of us had come under the hammer in some shape or fashion during the course of last night and that had resulted in a bond growing between us, fostered by our shared victimhood. We were all meant to take part in a ritual of sorts.
The Spanish girl bustled in and out of the kitchen with plates of hot food; your typical Irish breakfast, along with a never-ending supply of toast and tea. In keeping with the theme, Irish breakfast notwithstanding, the girl was kitted out with an off-the-shoulder, short sleeved, white blouse and a long black skirt that billowed out like something from a fifties advert for cigarettes. She was your regular Mexican village girl from countless westerns. ‘Conchita’, Bill constantly called her, and while she raised her eyes to heaven, she had obviously long since given up giving out to him about it.
The breakfast room consisted of a small number of tables, each seating no more than two people. Everyone had to sit with somebody, which meant, apart from the couples, a mix and match of people. But it was all part of the festive atmosphere and, between each burst of cursing from the kitchen, we all commented admiringly on the wide range of movie posters and weapons attached to the walls. Some of the guests expressed a desire that Bill should perhaps demonstrate the use of some of the more impressive weapons. Others paled at these suggestions and looked around fearfully in case Bill had heard the more brave-hearted souls.
“All shipped over from the States en mass,” said Frank, the man sitting across from me. “I’ll bet it took some packing.” He was from Ipswich in the UK, visiting the West of Ireland for a whole month and doing it on the cheap. “Best way to see and experience a place, I always say.”
The breakfast room opened onto a sitting-room and straddling the back of one three-seater sofa were two large full-fledged horse saddles, stirrups dangling. On one wall hung the biggest movie poster I have ever seen: The Alamo, starring John Wayne. It stretched from floor to ceiling and must have been seven foot wide. The glass in the frame alone must have cost a fortune.
After breakfast, Bill saw me to the door and stood on the threshold, hands on hips, as I proceeded down the drive. “Give ‘em Hell,” he roared after me.
The day went smoothly. When I wasn’t on a panel discussing the vagaries of getting published, I sat in the audience, throwing in my two cents’ worth in the form of a question or comment every now and then. At the various breaks between panels, I got to meet a number of interesting players on the scene: writers, editors, publishers.
A couple of times, however, I felt the need to get out of the conference hotel for a breath of fresh air and a decent coffee at one of the cafes dotted about the Eyre Square area. During these respites I found my mind wandering to thoughts of Bill.
My breakfast companion had been able to impart some small information on Bill, some gleaned from Conchita, apparently, some of it pure guesswork. Bill had spent years in the States, all around the Arizona and Colorado area and down near the border as well. Nobody had any real information on whether or not he’d been married or had kids. Conchita either didn’t know anything about this or pretended not to know. Nobody was even sure what he’d done out there for all those years. Whatever it was, however, I was sure it had to have been something different, something interesting, maybe even a little on the dodgy side. Brothel manager? Bronc rider on the rodeo circuit? Certainly not a short order cook at a diner or an office job. But it begged the question: what was he doing back in Galway running a B&B?
Perhaps he’d had a full life and was happy to rest on his laurels, happy to pass the remaining years of his life quietly contemplating his youth. Well, perhaps not so quietly. The thing that impressed me about Bill was his effortless charisma. You wanted to be his mate, to crack open a beer and while away the hours recounting past conquests. His larger-than-life approach to everything, his voluble and visible display of his abiding passion for the western, made me feel somehow insignificant. Even though much of Bill’s commentary yesterday when I’d arrived at the guesthouse and last night in the saloon was, on the surface, offensive, his expression of his opinions were delivered in such a tongue-in-cheek manner as to allow him to get away with it. By comparison, I felt grey, non-descript, and though still technically in my thirties, old before my time, and all before I’d really accomplished anything.
That evening I had dinner with Peter, the event organiser, and his wife and a couple of others at an Indian restaurant and followed up with a few too many drinks in The Quays. I got a taxi back to The Alamo even though I could have walked it, though probably not in a straight line.
I didn’t have a key, but the door was open and as I crept towards the stairs to my room, I noticed Bill sprawled out along a couch in the room across the hall from the breakfast/sitting-room. In the darkness of the room the ever-shifting illumination from a TV screen played on his form as it turned under a blanket.
“Hunigh…” Bill grunted.
“Night,” I whispered back. Was he awake? Did he wait for the last of the guests to arrive back from their night out on the town before locking up for the night? I looked at my watch: 2.30am. Christ, what kind of shape would Bill be in in the morning?
I tip-toed up to my room, dragged my clothes off and collapsed into the bed. Despite my inebriated state, I tossed and turned, unable to settle. Exposed to the phenomenon that was Bill served only to throw my own life into sharp contrast. The huge gamble I had taken going fulltime with the writing, precipitated by the lose of Amy, seemed to me then incalculable. Progress was slow on my second novel. To top that, I hadn’t even run a synopsis by my publisher. What if they just weren’t interested when I finally got it finished? It was all such a shot in the dark. I should have secured an agent at the very least before making the jump. The enormity of what was on the line came crashing home, magnified by the alcohol sloshing about inside me. It all seemed pointless; this book business was just the same as any other. At the end of the day I still had to work for other people. So many publishers churning out so many books and for what? Did it really mean anything? Did it make any difference? I might as well go back to my old job at the advertising agency or do something else. I sank into despair; I stared at pages and pages of text, unable to decipher what the words meant.
Tearing my eyes off the pages, the book disappearing into nothingness along with the words, Amy’s face appeared to me more clearly than it ever had in waking life. Her lovely smile, her shining eyes. With an imperceptible incline of her head, she seemed to be encouraging me to stick with it. But then the crystal clear lines of her face blurred and started to recede, just as the book had done, like she was on a boat drifting out to the centre of a lake while I stood on the shore unable to reach out and pull her back.
I turned on my side, glanced at the LCD alarm clock I had brought with me. 4.05am. Shite. I decided to get up and help myself to a glass of water from the kitchen. I crept down the stairs, past the Boot Hill skeleton grinning away, trying not to make any noise that might disturb the other guests.
As I reached the last step before the hallway, I thought I heard a noise issue from the kitchen. The hallway was dark, but light spilled out through the half open kitchen door. I crept along the hallway and peered around the door. Bill sat at a table, his back to me, hunched over. To his right, on the table, a knife reflected the florescent lighting overhead. His head rose and he seemed to stare out the kitchen window. I glanced in that direction too, foolishly trying to see what he could see.
He became as still as a statue, his shoulders rigid, his eyes, I felt sure, locked on the dark glass. I strained to see something, anything out there. A flurry of rain dashed against the window pane, stray leaves flashing about in a chaotic dance. I found my vision tunnelling in the effort to fathom what he was seeing. And then the leaves seemed to coalesce, to gather and swirl about each other. The wind picked up and a low moan circled the house. I stood there staring, as Bill stared, at the other side of the cold glass, and the clump of rapidly spinning leaves seemed take on a vaguely human shape. The wind escalated from a low whine to a high-pitched keening and Bill’s shoulders began to quake. My eyes were drawn towards Bill’s back again as his head drooped once more.
An unmistakable sound leaked from him. He was crying. I had heard people cry before, really cry; Amy when her dad had died. But the sound from Bill was like nothing I had ever heard before. Not loud; in fact, it was almost a whisper. But it was the most soul-shattering sound I had ever witnessed. It spoke of an awful sadness, of unutterable loss. It was the sound I imagined a banshee would make, only infinitely more compressed, and confined inside this large frame of a man. It struck terror in me.
So much so, that I stood rooted to the spot, unable to move, unable to make a decision as to whether or not I should go to his assistance, offer some words of consolation. Would he want me to see him like this? Something told me no.
Bill turned his giant head to regard the knife gleaming on the table by his right hand. He reached for it, let his bear-like hand rest gently on it. That decided me. I couldn’t just stand there and watch this. I had to do something. I made to open the door further and advance into the kitchen, when another door to the kitchen opened and in rushed Conchita.
Tears ran down the cheeks of her distraught face. She cursed something beneath her breath in Spanish and crossed to Bill. She carefully removed his hand from the knife, lifted and swung it over to rest on the draining board without the need to leave Bill’s side. Then she laid a hand on his mop of grey hair.
Bill’s head sank further and his crying grew momentarily louder before subsiding under the gentle pressure of the girl’s reassuring contact. She gathered him to her then and slowly but surely Bill’s breathing calmed to a more measured susurration. As I backed away, Conchita lifted an unresisting Bill from the chair and guided him towards the door through which she’d entered. She reached for a switch on the wall and the kitchen was suddenly in darkness.
A couple of hours later, after an uneasy sleep, I made my way to the breakfast room. A few people had arrived ahead of me and were awaiting their orders. The banging of pots and pans issued from the kitchen as usual, followed by an assault of effin’ and blindin’; everyone seated turned in my direction to greet me with incredulous smiles that said they still couldn’t quite believe Bill.
Out scurried Conchita, as hassled as ever, but in good cheer. No sooner had she dumped the plates she carried onto the table of two unsuspecting guests, than Bill appeared at the doorway and hollered, “Come on there, Conchita, would ya ever get a move on.” He spotted me. “Ah Jeesus, not another one,” and he disappeared in a good-natured huff. Conchita mumbled and muttered and dashed back to the kitchen.
I moved over to a spare table and sat down in a daze. It was like nothing out of the ordinary had happened last night. Had I been hallucinating a few hours ago? Too much to drink? Had I really seen something out in that black night? Something come to remind Bill, lest he forget?
And what was Conchita to Bill? A surrogate daughter? A mother? A lover? It was unclear, and no matter how I puzzled it, the lines remained blurred. Did it matter? At base, they supported each other; somehow, I didn’t think it was all a one-way street.
I ate my breakfast without tasting it, nodded some polite comments in the direction of Frank, who joined me at my table, and went in search of Bill to pay what I owed. I rapped on the kitchen door and Bill nipped out and ushered me into the hallway. I handed him my credit card and he recoiled.
“Ah now, I don’t be having anything to do with them plastic things. You can’t beat good ol’ plain ordinary cash,” he boomed at me, a distrustful gleam in his eyes. I searched those eyes for some hint of the pain he had suffered last night and, while I thought I could detect a new dark intelligence, all I found was a man in love with life.
He looked at me strangely. “Everything okay? Was the room alright?”
“Uhh… Oh! Yes. Of course. Sorry,” I got out. “Where can I get cash out?”
Bill gave me directions. “It’s only a five minute walk.”
As I made my way to the ATM, I replayed the events of the night before, turning them over and over, trying to match the devastated Bill with the Bill that wrung every last ounce of enjoyment from what life had to offer.
After wandering about for a while and taking a couple of wrong turns, I found the ATM and fished out my card. As I keyed in my PIN my eyes started to fill up. I blinked; blinked again. But suddenly an unstoppable flood of tears escaped and ran down my face. I looked around. Nobody was in sight. The tears washed over me like an avalanche of clean cold snow. An animal sound projected from my throat in short guttural gasps. I stood there hunched over the keypad of the ATM and, for the first time since Amy, let it all out, making no attempt to wipe away the tears or the snot streaming from my nose.
I arrived back at The Alamo, packed my few belongings, found Bill in the TV room, and made to pay my bill. He rose up from the couch and grabbed my shoulder for a hearty shake. He must have seen a new look of excited determination on my face for the bright-eyed gaze, coupled with that off-kilter half-smile seemed to say ‘I know, mate, I know.’
“I, eh… thanks… thanks for everything,” I managed to say. Bill escorted me to the hall door.
“Come back now. Anytime. You have my card,” he said, this time without so much of the boom in his voice.
“Yes. I will.”
“No problem. Next time you’ll have to stay in the Marilyn Monroe room.”
I smiled and nodded in agreement, threw my hold-all in the back seat of my car, jumped in behind the wheel, and started the engine.
“You take care now,” Bill shouted after me as I turned onto College Road and started towards Eyre Square. I waved back at him.
Coming out of the square, with a building sense of urgency, I rolled down my window and, leaning towards the opening, screeched at the top of my lungs “Yeeeee Haaaa!”
A few people glanced in my direction as I drove on, barely fazed by my performance.