The International Writers Magazine: Dreamscapes Fiction
Bring Me the Head of Padraic O Conaire
Frank Glasson sat, legs up in the recliner, looking at the opposite wall, as if hypnotized, not by the swing of a timepiece, but by the swing of his eyes back and forth across the face of the sunburst clock, an ugly wedding gift from Claire’s Aunt Rose, a favorite aunt, so there it must hang.
After sneaking a peak at his wristwatch to keep the clock honest, he was fascinated that he’d extended the last fifteen minutes into what seemed like an hour, just by frequent surveillance of the big hand on its incremental move to the next second marker. Fuck you, Jack Kerouac! This is safer than speeding through life in a rundown jalopy to slow down time.
A silly smile appeared on his face, sitting alone, dressed to leave for work in a starched white shirt and black bow tie, like an organ grinder’s monkey ready for a Saturday night performance, dinner night at Fagin’s where he tends bar, where he’ll be stirring more martinis than drawing pints of stout. Silly smile aside, Frank was having what he might call a St. Vitus moment.
Frank’s life allows little silliness, filled as it is with job, school, his art, and above all, the family. Sometimes after a few pops with his best friend, Ligos, the pair get silly, parodying the Irish types they both know so well: the uncle sitting forward, pant legs hoisted, showing his striped garters, addressing you by your brother’s name; the red-faced blow hard, entering a room, hands on hips, scanning the place as if he’s going to buy it; the widow, still wearing black after three years, beating her breast in church, then beating the kids at home because they look like himself, that bastard resting in peace while I slave. Ligos sometimes doubles up when Frank performs, giggling like a tickled child, brought on as much by a few scotches as by the mimicry, until another belt of Johnny Walker Black clears his tears. Frank’s silly moments mostly have been a way out of a black funk or a survival tactic under threat, started as long ago as the first half of his eighteen years in Dublin, the times when his mum chastised him. (Why can’t you obey like your brother, Peter?) To cope, he’d danced around like St. Vitus with a hotfoot, knowing she’d melt from the heat.
Frank was abruptly transported from silly to serious, as his wife appeared with the baby, freshly changed, smelling of baby powder. “Here’s your little angel, Daddy,” Claire said depositing the child in his lap. “She came to say good night to her Da.” Claire knew that he favored the girl child, attending more to her than their two active boys. She wasn’t surprised, however, surmising that it was an Irish thing, seen in both their fathers who kept the male kids in the family at arms length. Or it might be his artistic temperament, his sensitivity to the feminine within, his passion to paint, rather than follow sports. Talk at Fagin’s bar told him everything he wanted to know about the Yankees and the pennant race.
He gently lifted the tiny bundle in his lap to his chest, embraced the infant, saying in baby talk, “Sweet dreams, Kathleen. Daddy will see you tomorrow morning.” He raised the tiny girl in the air, turning her tiny body side-to-side, getting his reward from her cute smile and a gurgle, ignoring the dread he’d felt when Claire first appeared with the child, a feeling he’d been fighting for weeks. The demands of a family were nothing he hadn’t asked for, so he’d fight off those sudden rushes of regret, telling himself that he can handle it, staying above the flood, sometimes feeling like the Dutch boy with a finger in the dike.
“Frank, don’t shake her up too much before bedtime. I don’t want her all worked up so Maria has to run to her all night long.”
“I hear you, love. Where are the others? They were too well behaved at the dinner table. A plot to destroy us, maybe? ”
“What bosh, Frank. Where else would they be but watching the telly in the bedroom. I plan to tell Maria to let them stay up later if they behave and don’t interrupt her studies. Go say goodbye to the brood before you go.”
“No time, now. I’ve got to catch a subway train right off, love. Sorry you got stuck with a Saturday night shift at the hospital, but I’ll see you and the brood in the morning for the late mass. The Glasson’s will crowd the cry room in Saint Stephen’s, and hopefully I won’t hear the homily.”
Claire screwed up her face in a pretend scowl, actually comforted that her Frank, a confirmed liberal, rare among the Irish Catholics she knew, still has concerns about the salvation of his immortal soul, still attends the holy sacrifice of the mass, and is still in communion in his cafeteria style of the times. He stood, carrying the child to her mother, embraced her, and in the same motion, returned tiny Kathleen to Claire’s arms. He was out of the apartment door in an instant, missing Claire’s parting, fading words to him: “ Frank, if you see Kevin Ligos tonight, invite him …tomorrow… for… dinner…I’m going to cook…”
On the short walk from his Stuy-Town building to the subway. Frank’s eyes were drawn upward by the striking color of the sky behind the buildings, a hot, saturated red, bleeding into pastel pink at the extremities. His thoughts went first to thinking of it as a forecast about tomorrow’ weather—he heard his mother’s words: red at night, a sailor’s delight—then his painterly mind took over, puzzling over how to duplicate the color with pigment on the palette, unable to find pleasure in remembering his mother’s words.
The subway entrance arrived too soon. He descended the steps, his feet sliding on the worn out edges, like a slinky over ice, his pupils widening to accommodate the light- deprived labyrinth underground where thought gives way to mindless movement, first through a turnstile, then onto the next southbound train, rushing, always rushing, even when there was no commuter rush to rush about. Seated on the train, he picked up the folded newspaper next to him, a tabloid, something to look at, rather then stare at the passengers across the aisle. He tossed it back on the seat at the sight of the headline: FIVE DEAD IN BRONX AFTER EVICTION NOTICE, black ink with the urgency of red, demanding to be read, he thought, pleased with the pun, annoyed by old news, a two-day old copy of The Post, detestable rag.
Frank had a short ride to his stop, staring for awhile at the reflections of his face in the window across the way, flashing intermittently, as if seen by strobe light through the stations, then seen steadily through the black tunnels, a face not puggish and freckled like the map of Ireland, but angular, molded, a touch of olive coloring and dark eyes and hair, begat by the Spanish Armada? He didn’t know. Then his eyes shot up to the advertising running above the windows, an ad for a temp agency, the face of a lovely girl, pictured, trained and ready to help, his Claire, the girl looked like his wife. The picture returned him to the night he met her at an Irish dance in Mineola. He was struck immediately by her beauty, fascinated to learn as they danced that she arrived in New York from Ireland on the same Aer Lingus flight he’d been on, neither noticing the other. He remembered, wanting to forget, his corny line on the dance floor: ‘tis fate that we should meet, fair Claire.’ After several dates he knew that he represented everything she’d learned to want in a young man. He was a confident suitor for a girl with the beauty of a model, dark gleaming hair, playful green eyes, but was studying to be a nurse, a fit vocation for wife and mother, an ideal mate for this young man. That was about six years ago; Claire would remember the exact date.
Fagin’s was located midway between the Financial District and Tribeca, just a few blocks from his stop, an easy walk on a Saturday without the crowded streets of a work day. But Frank preferred day work, happy hour time, time when the vultures from the Exchange and the big banks soar from their coop-like cubicles and offices to his oasis, first stop before Grand Central and trains to Connecticut, before the jousting in the club car to get at the bar, before pulling their Bimmies into their circular driveways, confident their kids are already tucked away, free to enjoy without interruption the pleasures of their ladies of the universe, waiting for them in the doorway, wearing something new and sexy, stirring a pitcher of gin and vermouth for their mighty lords.
On a day when the market is up, and it has been lately, Frank can expect more in tips than he makes in a month of Saturday nights, tips to put him into a tax bracket well above cops, fireman, and most teachers, jobs for Irish immigrants, if he were to declare it all. A minor cover-up, a perk of the job, he rationalizes. Doesn’t everybody get perks? Doesn’t everybody cheat on taxes? He also finds in the job a devious pleasure, starting the young lords off into a night of decadence, to return another day, to face again the shadow profiteer behind the bar, like an evil, yeah, a Fagin out of Dickens, sending them off. Is it wrong to feel superior to these intemperate men? Am I feeling the return of my early training in guilt? You ditched that unhealthy part of the Church years ago after they found Cousin Vincent floating in the Liffey over some hidden sin. So why- oh- why in God’s name, Frank, can’t you ditch those parts of your life that keep you from your real passion, the palette and the paint brush, a question that shamed him, one that he’d never asked anyone, not even Ligos.
Frank first met Kevin Ligos one late night at the bar, empty but for a drunk at the far end, Ligos, himself halfway in his cups, bragging about making it in America, Frank in a talkative mood, defending the underprivileged. At the time, Frank didn’t know that it was the start of a beautiful friendship, that Ligos would become the closest thing to a confidante he’d ever had. They learned many things about each other that first night: Kevin’s comfortable life in Connemara, outside of Galway, his coming to America six years ago against his dentist father’s wishes, his education in economics with laurels at Trinity College, his acceptance by a monster financial power, seen as a novelty, facilitating his rise in just six years over the cookie- cutter Ivy League toadies; Frank’s arrival after high school in Dublin, his father’s struggle to support the family on a railroad man’s income when he’d rather read poetry, his mum’s rigid piety, his marriage to Claire, the kids, his passion to paint, set against family responsibility, like his father. Each saw a person of interest to the other, two Irishmen in 1999 New York City, opening up on first meeting, rare in itself, seeing just enough commonality, enough mystery, a good blend, like a good whiskey.
Arriving at Fagin’s entrance, fronted by its highly shined, gold filigree decorated door that opened to an old, but kept-up restaurant, a place you might expect to find Diamond Jim Brady, Frank was stopped for a moment by a black panhandler. He slipped a buck into the man’s hand, warning him not to loiter or “the man” will take him in. Upon entering, the first thing he saw was Mario, the day bartender, already with his apron off, waiting for his relief. “Hey, Frankie,” he said in a welcoming way, bringing up Kenny Fagin’s head from under the bar, his red face redder than usual from bending over. He greeted Frank with a forecast of the night ahead, a sign that Kenny couldn’t wait to get out of the place, perhaps to fill his season ticket seats at the Stadium.
“You should be all set for the night, should be a busy one, Frankie,” he said without looking at him. “Fifteen reservations already. Expect a lot of walk-ins. Tourists all over the city. Better get three more bottles of Sapphire and a couple more white Bacardi’s from the back, babe, Denis has rack of lamb tonight. My joint might be the only place in New York where you can get rack of lamb or corned beef and cabbage. See if Mario chilled some white wine. Okay. Good. Frankie, did you watch the game last night? Yanks swept the Sox. Hot damn!”
“Missed it, Kenny. I had painting time to get in,” Frank replied, knowing that to Kenny Fagin’s mind, painting was a fool’s pursuit when you can be a bartender in his restaurant. On the way to the back, Frank nodded to the waiters setting up tables, slipped past the chefs bursting out of the swinging kitchen door with complaints for Kenny before he ran off, and eyed the lone occupied table in the place, a young couple staring angrily at each other, empty bottles of Heineken in front of them, as if they were playing a game of ‘who- blinks- first- leaves- for- good.’ After depositing the gin and rum under the bar, Frank went to the customer’s men’s room, recently cleaned, took a whiz in the urinal, washed his hands, straightened his tie in the mirror, ran a comb through his hair, smiled hard, an exaggerated smile, stretching his lips to check his teeth, but a smile of approval, el Torero, ready to face el Toro.
“Cohen, party of five!”
“The waiter will carry your drinks to the table, Mister Cohen.”
“Hennessy, party of four.”
“No, Mister Hennessy, we prefer that you settle the bar tab now.”
Pouring, shaking, stirring, working in a liquid world for five hours, the time passed quickly for Frank, (unlike the fifteen minutes watching Aunt Rose’s clock), taking orders, filling glasses, moving almost rhythmically, set to meaningless background conversations, droning on, then shooting upward into raucous laughter, or the soft, articulate waiter voices describing entrees, then the crescendo of dish hitting dish, like a cymbal clash, despite how carefully the bus boys performed their duties, set also to the restaurant’s piped in music, alternate music, a Kenny Fagin production, Irish ballads for the soup, U2 for the nuts, blowing diners off the Cliffs of Maher, especially after three cocktails, a half-crocked, happy crowd wishing there was room in the place for a conga line. When the tables emptied, some customers left, some headed for the bar, time for a night cap, time for the voice of another Frank, a confident one, requesting: one more for the road, late night bar music, segueing into softly as I leave you, helping the drinkers out the door. It was the time when bartenders all over the city were sweeping drunks out the door, thinking of going home, feeling cool sheets and a warm woman’s body next to them, but not Frank. There were other things on his mind.
After wiping down the bar, rinsing out a few empty glasses, he stood with his back to the bar, looking in the mirror to the right of the register, an open space before the shelf where top shelf booze begins, thinking about painting tomorrow, seeing not his face but Vito’s, one of several painters sharing his studio time, his struggle to become an artist, a little Italian who Frank admires for his tenacity, painting for perhaps ten years, his humility, not a single sale in all those years, his never complaining, his joy in earning a good living making ricotta cheese. When they were at the studio at the same time, they’d talked a lot about art between brush strokes, Frank, the more knowledgeable one, expressing his admiration for the work of Francis Bacon, Vito, admitting to not having an art IQ, not following any well known artist as a model, awed by the things Frank had been telling him, searching unsuccessfully for ways to blend it into his painting. Could Frank possibly tell Vito tomorrow what was in his heart today.
You’re the pure one, Vito, you emulate no one, you paint from your soul without influence. What I’ve told you about Bacon, my admiration for him, his defiance of classification, expressionist, cubist, symbolist, modernist, is already in your soul, man. One day, you’ll get it down on canvas, painting like Bacon’s best work, his Crucifixion, his Popes, work that doesn’t invite you in, that comes out to grab you. And you’ll do it without any fucking thing I’ve ever told you. It’s in you, Vito. You’re your own school of painting, all the rest is bullshit. Let me into your school, little man. Let me in.
Frank jumped. A man’s voice from the other side of the bar behind him turned him around as quickly as a pivoting NBA center. “You’re one helluva good looking bartender, Frank,” the voice said with a hint of sarcasm about his mirror staring.
Frank faced a young man, one he’d seen at the bar before, likely part of the happy hour throng from the Financial District, dragging a young blond on his arm, a familiar face he couldn’t place, yet the sight of her brought the word, ‘school’ to mind again.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t hear you come in,” Frank said with a smile. What can I get you?”
“Two stingers?” the man said, looking at the blond.
“Hmmm, yeah, on the rocks,” she replied in a mellow voice, not looking back. “I’ve seen you before,” the blond said to Frank. “Could it have been at Pratt?”
“Could be,” Frank said, mixing the brandy and crème de menthe, “I sit in on lectures for a fee. They let me cherry pick courses I’m interested in.”
“That’s quaint,” she said, “a bartender interested in art. I’m in Pratt’s advertising design program. Love it,” the blond said, leaning her head on the man’s shoulder, no longer looking at Frank, her way of saying that she was finished talking to him about art school.
The couple had one more round, grappling passionately on the bar stools, their urgency building, ‘get a room’ someone might have said, if anyone were there, finally leaving two untouched stingers and two twenties on the bar, and headed for the door. Frank knew that the guy wasn’t going back to Connecticut tonight, if that’s where he lives. On their way out, they bumped into Kevin Ligos on the way in. Always the gentleman, Ligos held the door for them, bade them good night, and said he hoped they had a grand evening, as if he owned the place. Frank stood behind the bar smiling, seeing in Ligos’s action a model for mimicry. They spoke at the same time, neither hearing the other.
“Top o the morning, Francis. It really is morning, by the clock, you know,” Ligos said, the words layered over by Frank’s words: “Where the hell have you been, Kevie. You look terrible when you’re sober.” Frank thought: If there’s anybody who can unscramble my brain, it’s Ligos.
Ligos settled into his favorite bar stool, away from the door, to the right of the taps, all twelve of them, seeming to fill the empty bar with his presence. Frank filled a low ball glass with ice, snatched a bottle of Johnny Black from the top shelf without looking, and poured. Ligos took a long sip, let out a gratifying, “Ahhh,” leaned forward and said, “I had the most delightful evening, Francis. Have I told you about Jackie? Charming girl. We went to see three one-act plays by Synge in the Village, but, Oh! First, I have to tell you about an amusing story from the Irish Times.”
“The Irish Times! You’re such a professional Irishman, Ligos.”
After another gratifying gulp, Ligos continued. “Yesterday’s paper carried a story about the statue of Padraic O Conaire in Eyre Square, vandalized for the second time, decapitated by some idiot, but the head was recovered.”
“Francis! You’re not serious. For shame. If you came from the West of Ireland, lad, you’d know all about Padraic, a writer in the Irish language in the Twenties, the most famous one, compared by some to Chekhov, and a flaming socialist with the Irish League for a time. If you knew him, Francis, you’d love the lad.”
“I’m not a professional Irishman like you, Kevie, nor am I set afire by socialism.”
Ligos, a man who takes pleasure in informing the uninformed, smiled and went on with every bit of minutiae about Conaire that came to mind, driving Frank to pour one for himself after refilling Ligos’s glass.
“Padraic moved to London, worked not too diligently at a civil service job, married an Irish lass named Moll, sired four kids with her, only to abandon them, return to Ireland, wander the country, write stories, a novel, and take to the drink.”
“Abandoned his family? Like the painter, Paul Gauguin?”
“Not quite, Francis. Galway in no way resembles Tahiti. Now, about Jackie.”
“Hold on, Kevie, it’s closing time. I’ll douse the lights and lock up. Don’t want Kenny’s precious front door scarred by some cop’s nightstick. As he moved from behind the bar, Frank wondered: Why is Kevin telling me all this about Padraic O Conaire? He looked in the kitchen, checked the rest rooms, everyone gone, delaying the impatient Kevin’s ode to Jackie, a hymn to his latest infatuation. Frank had heard the song before, sung about other fabulous girls, only to observe Kevie’s waning interest after a few months, cold feet, Frank surmised, about losing his freedom.
Frank returned, sat on the stool next to Kevin, poured two more toddies, turned and looked at Ligos, forcing his face (Frank’s) to look enthusiastic and his voice to sound interested. “Tell me about Jackie,” he said.
“Yes, Francis, I loved the Synge plays. Good productions, lad. You should go. This was only my second date with Jackie. She’s a chorus dancer, currently in a revival at Lincoln Center. No beauty like your Claire. You might call her cute. When I asked if she liked the plays as we were leaving the theater, do you know what she said?”
“How could anyone like keening old ladies in shabby shawls on stage and banshees wailing in the night off stage?”
“Wise ass! Rather, she said the language was synge-song, s- y- n- g- e —spelling it out for me. Imagine? Isn’t that a darling review? How could I not fall under the trance of such a witty lass?”
“With big titties and a nice ass?” Frank replied, unable to resist the rhyme, feeling impatient about hearing the latest about Kevin’ s latest.
Ligos smiled pathetically, and went on, not to be side tracked, describing how he’d met Jackie through an associate at his office. Meanwhile, Frank’s mind wandered, tortured thoughts building, filling his head, like the pressure of a developing migraine, nodding occasionally at Ligos.
“Jackie was named after Jackie O, her parents were big Kennedy supporters—
a quaint bartender part time painter story of O Jackie mushy as ricotta maker Vito a quaint cheese maker a hobby artist that’s part time art must hobby lobby Vito hobby lobby full focus ahead does a painter go to be a painters Paris once Tahiti next
“She turned down a job dancing in Hair when she was told she’d have to show her body. Her parents were against her coming to New York, same way my Da was against—"
“Where are her parents from, Kevie?” Frank interrupted, in a conscious, frantic moment.
“Boston. Jackie said they’d never leave Boston. Father still sells insurance—
New England Life painters in Gloucester poor man’s Paris before Tahiti or Florence not New York Dublin back to Dublin cheap living full focus quaint painter part time bartender Bacon’s starting point without body parts all in your head little Kathleen’s smile wrong headed Gauguin’s head Padraic’s head right head an escape valve!
“She wants me to meet them, spend a weekend in Boston, when the show breaks—
Frank stood suddenly, grabbed Ligos’s hand in his, as if grabbing for a life line, looked down at his friend and shouted in his face:
“BRING ME THE HEAD OF PADRAIC O CONAIRE!”
“Francis! Are you alright?” Ligos said, jumping up, shocked, easing Frank back onto the bar stool, pushing the untouched glass of scotch away, thinking the drink could have got to him, not knowing what to say, feeling his friend’s embarrassment, welcoming Frank’s sudden silence, as he placed his hands, fingers linked, on the bar. Finally, Ligos realizing that there were words that needed to be spoken, said softly, “What’s the trouble, Lad? How can I help?”
Frank looked straight ahead, counting the liquor bottles lined up in front of the mirror, three, four, five, thinking his explosion of a few minutes ago was unfair to Ligos, his closest friend, a thirty year old man on the edge of a serious relationship, anticipating Kevin’s reaction, worrying about the risk of damaging their friendship, Kevin loves the Glasson’s, but remembering the relief he felt moments ago after his silly outburst about the head of an obscure statue in Galway.
“I’ve been drawing pictures since I was a kid, Kevie, did a few water colors in school before we left Dublin, and when I could afford supplies and studio time, an addiction set in. You and I met after I was hooked, convinced that I wanted to be a serious artist, working at it as I was able, seeing some flashes of really good work—”
“Indeed, Francis, I’m no critic, but you have talent.”
“Now, I feel that the only way I can develop is to immerse myself totally, to put all other distractions aside, this job, the family, to get the hell out of here, to paint madly, passionately, maybe fail miserably, but start again, moving back to Ireland, Dublin, living cheaply, maybe starving, what the hell. How wrong would this be, Kevin?”
“Leave Claire and the kids, Francis, is that what you mean?”
“I know it sounds crazy. Cruel and selfish, even. But for a few weeks, I’ve been unable to think about anything else. Can’t get any meaningful work done in the studio. Claire is starting to sound to me like my mother. The kids don’t even seem to be mine any more.”
Ligos picked up his glass and stared at it. Frank thought that he heard the gears in his brain grinding, pulverizing what had been said, extruding it into a new form, directions out of his weeks of madness.
“You are unique, lad, not into an affair with another woman, but with a paintbrush, lust not for good sex but for acclamation.”
“Kevie, I knew that you’d see it through a moral microscope, see the sin in it.”
“I’m not hearing sin in what you tell me, Francis, nothing that needs absolution, something like a calling, a vocation, a refusal to bury a talent like the foolish servant in the parable. Gauguin and O Conaire apart, what greater precedent is there for you than that of the Nazarene leaving his family to do the work of his father?”
“The work of his father? Kevin!”
“Francis, we are at the beginning of a new millennium, the fin de siecle, wondrous things await us, not the chaos of a computer glitch, but great art created by great artists, Dublin awaits you, my friend, the Dublin of your idol and namesake, Francis Bacon, a gay lad, an artist who never let love get in his way, or allowed lack of acclaim stop him from his work.”
“I will miss you, Francis, our serious conversations, our silly moments, the laughs, the good laughs. A good night, for now, dear man.”
Frank sat stunned, watched Ligos empty his glass, stand and pat him on the shoulder, and head for the door. Before it closed, Frank ran to the door, watched his friend walk into an empty street, disappear into an empty night, leaving him behind with an empty heart, abandoned. He returned to the bar, activated the security controls, locked up, and walked to the subway station. The trains run infrequently this time of night. He waited on the platform for about fifteen minutes, but it seemed like an hour. But time enough to allow Ligos’s last words to scour his mind.
Three riders sat apart in the car when he entered, a black man in denim near the door, a spray of keys hanging from his belt, eyes closed, probably a maintenance man; a heavy, muscular, Slavic- looking, older woman wearing socks, to his left, a cleaner of offices; a thin, hungry- looking man, slinking in the corner, cap too large for his head, mismatched jacket and pants, not going home, hoping to ride out the night underground; three fellow travelers, the magi bearing gifts, three Hail Mary’s at the altar rail, a subject to paint tomorrow.
The train stopped at the first station. The doors opened and closed. He didn’t see anyone get on or off. Frank looked up at the advertising above the windows across the way. There’s the ad I saw earlier. Could I be in the same car I was in earlier tonight? Am I sitting in the same seat? The ad is in the same place. The temp girl. Nice smile, but she really doesn’t look like Claire.
© Joeseph Guderian December 2010