Niall Foley has been harnessed as a barman, labourer, clerk, lecturer and journalist – and several other functions. He currently lives in Edinburgh, and is happiest when unshackled and alone in a room with a desk, some paper, and a pencil. His website is www.foleywriter.com and twitter is @mrniallfoley
By Niall Foley
If class is having something over someone and not using it, then my aunt Bridie is the classiest person I know.
It was summer and it was Queens and it was four in the afternoon, just after Bridie had picked up my brother and me from JFK. We climbed her stoop and sat at her kitchen table and the sun felt good coming through the blinds.
Bridie said dinner would be ready in an hour and I sat cross-legged and fought the urge to rub my jaw. But then my eyes followed a big brown American car as it glided down the street and I gave up fighting and rubbed my jaw and said I might take a little walk around the block and my brother Patrick said me too and we told Bridie we’d be back for dinner.
We sauntered down the hill in a kicking-pebbles-and-cans kind of way and came to Shenanigans Bar. Shenanigans was lime green and had cracked windows and a half-headed leprechaun next to a sign saying Ceád Mile Failte.
We kept walking.
On one side of the main street was a realtor, a Baskin Robbins, a convenience store, and a Taekwondo gym. Back down the other side was a post office, a barber, a Dunkin’ Donuts.
And Clancy’s Bar.
The clear blue sky made it hard to see what lay beyond Clancy’s windows.
I checked my watch. We had been gone twenty minutes.
“You think it’s open?” said Patrick.
“We’ll just have one,” I said.
A bell dingled-dangled our entrance but there was no need. The men in the bar fell silent upon our arrival, which is to say, they turned to face us like the intruders we fucking were.
It was an L-shaped place and we avoided eye contact and headed out back where it was empty. We sat so far up the L we could taste disinfectant and piss battle it out in the gents.
“You pick up a vibe when we walked in?” said Patrick.
“We’ll leave if it’s dodgy,” I said.
A big barman in a check shirt came sighing with narrow eyes.
I asked for two bottles of beer and some quarters for the pool table and he slammed the beers down so hard it frothed over the bottlenecks. He dropped some quarters too.
I tried to hand him a twenty dollar note but his white knuckles didn’t move from the bar.
“It’s on Ben,” he said gruffly and went back to the front of the bar.
“Did someone just buy us a drink?” said Patrick.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Is the barman Ben?”
“Fuck knows,” said Patrick.
We drank the beer and played some pool. I was useless at first. It always takes me a while to adjust to the American style. But I settled into it and won.
“What do you say?” said my brother.
“We could maybe have another quick beer and game.”
I leaned over the bar and looked up towards the front. A bearded barfly saw me and nodded at the barman and the barman turned and said something out of the corner of his mouth and came our way.
“Same again,” I said, “and get one for Ben, too.”
The barman said nothing. Then he said: “Old Ben is dead.”
And then I understood.
“Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam,” I said.
“Where are you boys from?”
“Get the fuck out of here. Whereabouts?”
“Get the fuck out of here. Wait here.”
He lifted a phone from behind the bar and hit a number on speed dial. He spoke a few muffled words with his back turned and then handed me the phone.
“Have a word with my partner,” he said.
I took the phone.
“How are ya? You’re from home I hear.” The voice was Irish.
“I am,” I said. “My brother and myself are over for the few days.”
“And you’re from Leitrim?”
“Mohill,” I said. “Yourself?”
“Manorhamilton. Well, hope you boys have a great time.” The way he said that you could tell he had been in the States for years. “Could you hand the phone back to Frank please?”
I handed the phone back to Frank the barman. He’d put two more beers before us while I was talking to his partner. More gently, this time. He turned away again and I couldn’t hear what he said. Then he hung up and poured two large whiskies and placed them on the bar.
“My man says you’re okay,” he said, offering his hand. We shook it. I braced myself for a meaty handshake and got one. “My name’s Frank,” he said, and we all shared names. “We thought you were sent over by Shenanigans maybe.”
“What’s the matter with Shenanigans?” I asked.
“They’re just bad people,” he shrugged, pouring himself a whisky. We all clinked glasses and said slainte.
“Let me get this one,” I said, opening my wallet, but Frank said nah and headed back up the bar.
Patrick and I played pool with the edge off and the whisky chased the beer.
Then it was time for us to go and I leaned over the bar. Frank saw me and came over.
“We’re off,” I said, putting a couple of notes on the bar. “But get some whisky for the boys. We’re sorry to hear about Old Ben. I’m sure he was a good guy.”
Frank called us gentlemen and thanked us and took the money. Patrick took a piss and we walked out to the front. I bade slán to the men without really looking at them and had the door half way open when Frank called out to us.
“Hold on a second, fellers.”
He held a whisky bottle above a string of shot glasses along the bar.
“If you two gentlemen are buying a round in memory of Ben, won’t you have it with us?”
Patrick and I looked at each other.
“A quick one?” said I, and Patrick nodded, and Frank cheered, and the men smiled and welcomed us with open arms. We knocked back the shot and Frank passed around the whisky bottle once more and we filled our glasses.
At this point I could describe that great knot of men to you, but it would all be lies. I can’t recall that much about them. There was one who had a face like a pug dog. He must have collided with something hard at great velocity because his nose was flattened all over his face and he spoke so nasally it was hard to make him out. It seems certain to me now that he had been in a motorcycle accident, although I am also certain I don’t remember him telling me this. Another man had burn scars down one side of his face like Two-Face Harvey Dent.
I don’t remember much about the rest of them except that they all seemed to carry some scar or another, seen or unseen. Even Frank, who gets blurrier the sharper I try to make him, seemed to be hiding some painful insecurity behind his bluster. Or so it seems now, anyway.
“Say that Irish you said earlier,” said Frank.
I said it, and the men said slainte, and we downed the whisky, and then the men insisted they would be insulted unless they could buy us a beer back, and we didn’t want to insult anyone so we accepted the beer.
They told us about Old Ben, who may have had a great and adventurous life, but if he did, they didn’t say so. All they could really tell us was that he was an old guy that drank in the bar most days. As ever with death, they weren’t so much mourning Old Ben as reflecting on something lost from their own lives. A small but permanent fixture in their existence was gone and it served to remind them of their own mortality.
Two-Face Harvey Dent wanted to play pool and I said sure and the whole party moved into the back. Patrick and I paired up and played doubles against them and lost a few games and lost a few dollars too but then I played alone and clawed back some money and went on a winning streak. I couldn’t lose. It wasn’t a reflection of my skill as a pool player. The guys were just hammered. Soon I was one hundred dollars up. But it didn’t feel right. So I spilled the notes on the bar and told Frank to get the drinks in. This sent the boys wild.
It got dark outside and Frank came around to our side of the bar and a barmaid took his place. She looked the spit of that actress, Marisa Tomei. Milky coffee skin with brown hair done in a style made popular by some TV show at the time and wearing a grey t-shirt saying New York Fuckin’ City that she was starting to sweat out.
“Frank,” I said, “what’s her story?”
“She’s got a man,” he said.
“What’s your story, Frankie? Your partner on the phone earlier, what kind of partner is he? Business or romantic?”
“Romantic,” said Frank. “I love sucking his cock.”
“You’re a hell of a man, Frankie.”
He grabbed my shoulder.
“It takes a man, to know a man,” he said.
Each time I went to the bar for drinks I worked on the barmaid. I tipped her, asked how her shift was going, asked if she’d worked in Clancy’s long, I smiled and got her smiling and told her she had a wonderful smile. Some punters left and some punters came and every so often Frank grabbed me and told me it takes a man to know a man. As the hours passed the statement seemed to take on greater significance for him and less for me.
At some point the barmaid came this side of the bar too and anyone remaining who wanted a drink was encouraged to just get the fucking thing yourself.
The barmaid was necking a bottle of beer and punching numbers into the jukebox and had a nice round ass poured into blue Levi 501’s. She was as American as burgers and ice-cream and looked as good as it gets.
I went over and stood next to her. She glanced my way and said hi and went back to punching numbers and I said hi and slipped my hand in her back pocket and she tensed at first and then relaxed and that arse felt like a firm peach.
Then after ten seconds of just standing there sweetly on the edge of something a meaty hand clamped my shoulder and I took my hand out of her arse. It was Frank.
“Go fix up your brother. He’s locked in the john.”
I went to the gents and there were two fellers outside banging on the door and shouting. I told them to give me a minute and started banging on the door myself and shouted it was me and I was thinking about putting my foot through when the lock clicked open.
Patrick was pale and groggy.
“I think I nodded off,” he said.
I helped him to the bar and propped him on a stool. The barmaid was gone from the jukebox and I scanned the place and couldn’t see her anywhere and knew that perfect moment was lost anyway.
I found Frank and told him I needed to get my brother out of there and Frank said wait. A few minutes later a Hispanic guy with fantastic hair came into the bar and Frank pointed him our way.
“You guys are Irish, right?” beamed the Hispanic. I nodded. “My name is Michael Collins. He was a big Irish guy, right?”
“He was a big Irish guy,” I said, and we each took an arm and got my brother out of the bar and into the back of Michael Collins’ pick-up truck.
“Michael Collins was a big guy in Irish history, right?” said Michael Collins.
“One of the biggest,” I said, and Michael Collins’ smile grew even wider.
I told him my aunt’s address and next thing we were right there and although he was no cabbie I asked what I owed him, hoping I still had some money in my pocket, but Michael Collins stopped smiling and said nada. It was a favour for Frank.
Michael Collins helped me carry Patrick up the stoop. I checked the door and my aunt had left it unlocked. Michael Collins and his wild smile said adios and we fell through the door and I dragged my brother to bed in the spare room and I collapsed on the couch.
The next morning I apologised to my aunt Bridie. Later I found out that after several hours of worry, she had called her son in a panic and he just about talked her out of phoning the police and reporting us missing. He figured that we had probably gone for a beer and got carried away.
Bridie accepted my apology. She never mentioned it again then or since.
My aunt Bridie is the classiest person I know.