Joseph W. Flood
One might be able to depend upon the kindness of strangers, but it's altogether different to depend upon their devotion.
Mom got me the ticket. It was one of those discount fares they advertise in the newspaper. She surprised me with it on my birthday. I opened the envelope and saw the destination: New York. And the date: March 17th. St. Patrick's Day.
"Use it to visit your Irish girlfriend," Mom said brightly.
"Mom, she's not my girlfriend."
"There's nothing like being in New York for St. Patty's Day, especially among the Irish."
Mom considered herself Irish. In the kitchen hung a tapestry depicting the four provinces of Ireland. When I was young, she would point out the county where our family originated. Westmeath, she would say, that is where the O'Banions are known. Her finger rested on a black speck on orange yarn. I would eat Fruit Loops while she talked about my grandfather who emigrated from Ireland and died shortly after I was born.
Mom loved the idea of my being in love with an Irish girl. She couldn't wait to meet Maggie. I had invited her out to Chicago, but she had never been able to make it. Something always came up. I had met her the summer I was interning in New York, before I graduated from NYU. The accent was too much; it was too charming. I got to talking to her in a club and just fell for her. We stood near the dance floor and laughed and drank while her friends flittered about. She was good company, and I made sure I got her number before I left the club.
I met her a week before I left, so we never had a chance to go out. After I moved back home, I called Maggie every few weeks and we talked about this and that.
On the way to O'hare, Mom tried to teach me several phrases in Gaelic. "For Maggie," she said. I repeated the words as we edged through traffic.
"Ma, what was that last one?"
"I love you."
Maggie and I had arranged to meet in a midtown bar after the parade. I flew in, dropped my things at the hotel, and went to Broadway.
The parade went on for hours. Maggie and her friends were actually in it, marching with the members of some social club. I knew it was a group whose primary purpose was to party. I couldn't make out the name of the club on the banner -- the wind was blowing and the words were in Gaelic. I didn't see Maggie marching past, though she could have been hidden in the boisterous throng.
People were drunk, even at ten in the morning. I decided to go to the bar after a few hours. We hadn't set a precise time to meet. Maggie didn't know exactly when the parade would end. She said that her group would end up at Mulvaney's, an Irish bar on a side street.
The cover to get into Mulvaney's was five dollars. I was anxious and my heart was beating. I felt happier than I had in months.
I stepped into a wall of wet heat created by all the bodies packed into the place. I squeezed between people, trying to reach the bar. Beer spilled from a plastic cup onto my jacket. I reached the bar and somehow ordered a Guinness. The bartender was taking the orders of his favorites, so it took a while. I shuffled through the crowd into a back room.
"Maggie!" I exclaimed, spotting her. She was with two of her friends, Patricia and Mary. The three of them clustered around a table covered with empty pint glasses. Their faces were red, either from heat or from drink.
"Hello," Maggie said smoothly, her eyes twinkling. "Did you see me in the parade?"
"I looked for you but didn't see you."
"Didn't see me?"
"No, too many people," I shouted. A band was playing somewhere in the crowded bar.
"Brian, I thought you'd keep a closer eye on me," Maggie said, teasing.
I flushed red and felt my face growing warm. I took a sip of Guinness, trying to conceal it. The beer was warm, and rich. "I'll have to watch you more closely."
"I can't believe you came all this way just for me."
"You know she's not worth it," Patricia said with a laugh.
"Patty! He came all this way from Iowa just for me!"
"Illinois then it is."
I was still standing next to their table. No chairs were available. Maggie and I talked about the parade, the weather, how I missed living in New York. Patricia chimed in with the occasional wry remark. Mary merely watched the men in the bar and pointed out to Maggie and Patricia the ones she considered good-looking.
"That one. He's a handsome man."
"Him? Bit short, don't you think?"
"I don't mind."
"You'll take anything then?" Patricia asked.
"Patty, be quiet for a change."
"You're one to talk. Hey, what about that one..."
I turned to Maggie. She was looking across the crowded bar to where Mary was pointing. Maggie has very blue eyes, especially at times when the light strikes them just so. This wasn't one of those times.
"You think you'll stay in New York?" I asked.
"Oh, you mean with my life? I don't know. We'll see."
Patricia got up. Mary had dared her to talk to a man at a table across from ours. I took her seat. Patricia slowly made her way through the crowd, smiling and tapping on shoulders to get through. Mary was giggling and Maggie watched her progress. I smiled and drained my beer.
Patricia leaned down to say something to the man, brushing her blonde hair behind her ears. All the men at the table were wearing Irish soccer jerseys. They watched her as she smiled and talked. Then she came rushing back.
"She's a bold one," Mary said with a laugh.
"Quite," Maggie added.
Patricia returned with a story to tell. They were just visiting the States but had a friend at Sullivan's who could get them in and give them free drinks.
"They wanted to know if we wanted to go!"
"They are cute," Mary said. "And Sullivan's is a lot of fun."
I must have appeared skeptical because Patricia began assuring me that Sullivan's would be a good time. Mary and Patricia began gathering up their things. Maggie gave me a nudge.
"You don't mind, then?"
"No, why not?"
We all spilled out onto the street. The sun had slipped behind the tall buildings and the shadows were cold. We walked up Second Avenue, our hosts ahead of us. Nobody had bothered to introduce me. The men were talking among themselves in thick Belfast accents. I wasn't drunk at all.
The line to get into Sullivan's stretched halfway down the block. We walked past everyone to the bouncer at the door. The fellows from the North mentioned the name of their friend and the bouncer waved us past, scowling at the number of us. Inside, it was just like Mulvaney's, a melange of people, beer, and smoke. I somehow lost contact with my group as we inched forward through the crowd. I looked around and everyone was gone. I saw just the backs and heads of strangers.
I was pushed to the bar by the press of people behind me. I took out a five and waited. There were only two bartenders, and they were rushing from one end of the bar to another. I couldn't seem to get their attention. At last I caught one.
"What can I get you?"
I tried to turn around but couldn't get through. Behind me was a sea of outstretched arms, trying to reach the bar. Dripping pints of beer were ferried over me, exchanged for the wrinkled bills that were passed forward. I figured Maggie and company would end up at the bar eventually. I waited and waited, but then my bladder gave out. "Bathroom," I yelled, in order to get the crowd to part.
After I finished, I searched the bar for Maggie. I looked everywhere and didn't see her. I couldn't get back to the bar -- there were too many people. I chose a spot along the wall, trying to stay out of the way. Someone thrust a beer into my hands, slapping me on the back. I was standing under a mirror shaped like a harp.
"There you are," Maggie said. "We're back here." She took me by the hand and led me to a section I had missed. It was a smaller room, and less crowded.
"Look what I found."
Everyone was just sitting around drinking. Maggie and I talked. Mostly, she told me gossip about Mary and Patricia. She didn't ask me many questions. I felt drained by the heat and noise of the place.
"Do you want to go get something to eat?"
"I don't want to leave Mary and Patricia alone. No telling what trouble they could get in."
The two girls looked like they were about to pass out under the table.
"Could you get me a drink?"
Once the table discovered I was going for a drink, everyone wanted one.
"I can only carry so much," I protested.
"Ask for Danny," one of guys from the North said. "He'll take care of you."
I reached the bar and tried to get the attention of one the bartenders.
"Are you Danny?"
"No," he said, scowling. "He's at the other end. So what can I get you?"
When the beers were set on the sticky counter, I asked if I could pay with a credit card. The bartender looked at me as if I was insane. I paid cash.
Patricia lifted her head off the table when I returned. "Good job, Bill," she said.
Maggie had switched seats and was talking with the Irish from the North. I sipped my beer and looked at the decorations on the walls. Harps and four-leaf clovers and maps of Ireland and pictures of Joyce and advertisements for Guinness.
Maggie was still talking to the other guys. I sat there drinking my beer for a very long time, and then she returned.
"I'm staying just a few blocks from here."
"Is your hotel nice?"
"It's convenient. If you want, instead of going all the way back to Yonkers, you could crash at my place."
"Can I bring my girls?"
"You can bring anyone you want."
Patricia wanted to go somewhere else. "I'm falling asleep in here."
"Did you have a good nap, Patty?"
"I have my second wind. Mary, wake up."
As we threaded our way through the crowd, I again mentioned to Maggie how close my hotel was. Outside, people mingled in the street. A cold wind had blown all the clouds away, revealing a vast sky dotted with stars. At the corner, the wind blew hard, funneled between office buildings. I turned up the collar of my coat. Maggie was shivering as she walked, so I squeezed myself against her.
"Is this body heat then?"
"You looked cold."
"It is cold, Brian."
Maggie and I walked down the street together. Mary and Patricia were way ahead of us, with the guys from the North. Maggie was walking very quickly. I tried telling Maggie in Gaelic that I loved her. All the words came out wrong. They jumbled and hung in the air.
I tried again, enunciating as carefully as possible. I tried to remember Mom saying the line in the car. I love you.
"Oh, Brian," she said with an uneasy laugh.
The office buildings were checkerboards against a night sky. The wind suddenly gusted over us. The wind poured over my collar, down my neck, cold air settling on my chest.
"Girls!" Maggie shouted. "Wait for me!"
Maggie walked quickly ahead. We darted across an intersection, appearing briefly in the headlights of oncoming traffic.
A door was pulled open. This was the next bar. Inside was warmth, music, the smell of people. We found a table. Patricia had taken us to a sports bar. A waitress brought us menus. They served hamburgers, ribs, wings, barbecued chicken. The TV over the bar was playing an NBA game. Knicks versus the Magic. Shaq slammed one home, and the crowd in Orlando went wild. I could barely hear Marv Albert. The TV was a bright hole in the dark bar. The Knicks came roaring back. Yes! The Knicks ran and passed and shot and missed and Shaq got fouled coming up the lane. All the billboards cycled over. Nike. Coke. American Express. Tan girls in Lycra danced as the sweat was mopped up. Giant black American millionaires ran and jumped while I sat with Irish women.
We waited for the waitress to return. Patricia and Mary had gone back to their game of checking out men.
"Yes," Patricia said. "That is a handsome man. Built. Muscular."
The guys from the North seemed to have disappeared. The waitress had just left us sipping our water. We waited for a very long time. The basketball game was still going on, fast shooting and fast passing.
"That's a nice one, too," Maggie said, her accent lilting.
The game was in its final seconds. Shaq went inside and jumped toward the basket. The crowd roared and Marv Albert had to yell over the noise.
Maggie looked away from me, toward someone else.
I flew back Monday afternoon. New York disappeared under a layer of gray smog. We rose into the sky. When I looked down again, there was just mile after mile of farm country, squares of green under the sun.
On the way home from the airport, Mom was desperately curious but I had little to say. I told her about the parade. I told her how cold it was in New York.
"It was cold here, too."
Once we were home, Mom made coffee. I stood by the counter and poured myself a cup while Mom went on about an aunt's trip back home to Eire.
"Friendliest people in the world," she said.
She caught me staring at the tapestry of Ireland. The four provinces. The twenty-six counties. One island, divided.
"Which county is your girlfriend from, dear?"
Mom smiled, sweet. Both of us were looking up at the ratty old wall hanging, its patchwork of colors faded with age. I picked up my coffee and quietly left the room.
Joseph W. Flood (JoeFlood@aol.com) is a writer who lives in Washington, D.C. He just quit his job to write fiction for as long as his savings permit. Stories of his have been published on the Internet and on old-fashioned paper.
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 6, Number 3 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1996 Joseph W. Flood.