A Reading Life Special Event
"Out of the Blue" by Eddie Stack - A Short Story
Irish Short Story Month Year III
"Out of the Blue" by Eddie Stack - A Short Story
Irish Short Story Month Year III
March 1 to March 31
In an act of supreme generosity Eddie Stack has sent me 22 short stories to post for Irish Short Story Month. I offer him my great thanks for this. I intend to share all of these short stories with my readers. He is a master story teller with a deep understanding of Ireland.
Press comments on his work
Press comments on his work
Praise for Eddie Stack’s writing
"Mr. Stack's fiction is versatile and engaging...a vivid, compassionate, authentic voice...securing (him) a place in the celebrated tradition of his country's storytelling.”
New York Times Book Review
“This second collection of short stories by Eddie Stack has a wonderful sense of unreality, of weirdness among Irish characters and of downright fun.”
“Eddie Stack’s stories jet back and forth across the Atlantic, contrasting small town Ireland and big city US. Every time they land, the author seems to test the borderline of what might and might not be possible in downtown bars, crumbling dance halls and drizzly farms. The result is a remarkably consistent collection of short stories.
"Out of the Blue"
The telegram came to Inisriggle post office, directed to nobody in particular-
Bridey Mullet died in Chicago. STOP. Remains arriving at Shannon airport Friday January 12. STOP.
“The Lord have mercy on her soul,” sighed Paddy Rodgers the postmaster, block lettering the news on a telegram form. Bridey Mullet. No addressee. He lit a cigarette and wondered who he should deliver the blow to.
There were five families of Mullets on the island and he knew they all had somebody in America. Start at the top, he thought, first lay it on the most important Mullet: Mouse Mullet, the headmaster. The ideal man, inhaled Paddy. Plus, in the absence of priests and police, Mouse was the community overseer, representative of church and state, he would know what to do. Even if the problem wasn't his, he might adopt it. Paddy slipped the telegram into an official green envelope and sealed the shock. Then he waddled to the kitchen and announced to his wife,
“Bridey Mullet died in Chicago and her remains are arriving at Shannon airport on Friday.”
“The Lord have mercy on her,” Biddy blurted, blessed herself and eased into a fireside chair. She offered up a prayer for the dead while Paddy bit his lower lip and fanned his face with the telegram.
“Was she a young woman?” his wife whispered.
“About sixty-five,” guessed Paddy.
“The heart I s'pose,” she sighed.
“She was run over by a train,” he said solemnly.
“Oh Holy Mother of Jesus!” jolted Biddy.
“The Lord have mercy on her,” muttered Paddy, buttoning his black oilskin coat. He pulled a red and blue knitted pixi cap over his head, stepped out into the chilly January afternoon and headed for the school.
There was a gale blowing. The weathermen got that part of it right, Paddy thought, Force Seven at least. His nose ran. Pellets of rain stung his cheeks and battered the oilskin coat, but he hardly noticed, he was wondering about Bridey Mullet. He couldn't place any Bridey Mullet at the age he pictured her: sixty-five. About Biddy's age. That's what came to him as he wrote out the telegram and he was seldom wrong about these things. Paddy believed he had a Gift, though he wouldn't go as far as thinking it was Second Sight. He could just pick up latent signals from the wire.
When he opened the school door the wind raged into the hall and trashed the place in one gust, blowing notices and papers into a cockfight. It took him a couple of charges to shoulder the door shut against the gale. Then a classroom door burst open and Mouse dashed out.
“Paddy!” he said with surprise.
“Sorry to bother you Master Mullet, but a telegram just came from America...and it's addressed to nobody.”
“A telegram addressed to nobody...come in Paddy.”
The classroom was empty and warm with the smell of cigarettes and turf smoke. Paddy also got the whiff of whiskey and said,
“You let them home early.”
“There's a bad gale promised,” said Mouse, stoking up the fireplace under the blackboard. Sparks showered on the floor and the teacher stamped them out asking,
“Good or bad news Paddy?”
“Kinda lonesome news, and there's a Mullet connection,”
he forewarned, sliding the green envelope from an inside pocket and biting his lower lip.
Mouse frowned: Lonesome news addressed to nobody, but it had a Mullet connection.
“Will I give it to you?” Paddy asked apologetically.
Mouse nodded. The postmaster handed him the envelope and backed away.
“I hate telegrams,” muttered Mouse, “I hate fucking telegrams.”
He stared at the news and Paddy saw his lips move and could hear him whisper,
“Who in the name of Jesus is Bridey Mullet?”
“What do you make of it?” ventured the postmaster.
“I don't know any Bridey Mullet,” he said slowly.
“I s'pose she must be related to someone here if she coming here to be buried,” Paddy said.
“Remains are arriving in Shannon on Friday,” the Mouse muttered.
He dreaded funerals, hated the darkness, the suspension of all activities and the constant wailing of the Roche Sisters who roamed the island visiting haunts of the deceased, mourning and keening like tom cats until the corpse was buried a week. Wakes and funerals spun him into drunkenness and depression, a sympathetic death with the departed soul.
“She might be some relation to Johnny Fox Peter,” Mouse suggested, “he had someone in Chicago. I'd say he's your best bet.”
He passed the telegram back to Paddy and offered him a cigarette.
Johnny Fox Peter Mullet was an island oddball. A lean heron-like man in late middle-age, strange behavior hit him every now and then like a virus. Soft in the head, was the islanders' term for his condition. One month he might be Saint Jude, next month his normal self and the following month he could be John Wayne. They said the moon influenced him; that and drink. The postmaster raised his eyes to heaven. Since Christmas Johnny was Manann MacLear, the pagan god who the old people said controlled the weather. Fox boasted he had turned the elements against the world and would keep the pressure up until the County Council sanctioned his grant for a new bathroom.
Johnny Fox Peter's wife opened the door an inch or two. She freaked when Paddy mentioned the word 'telegram' and banged the door in his face. He heard her bolt it.
“Shag off outa here,” she shouted, kicking the door from the inside, “shag off outa here, yourself and your telegram, going around the island frightening the life outa people. Shag off outa here.”
“I'm only doin' my duty,” apologized Paddy, slipping the telegram under the door.
Tuesday evening is dark at five and there's boiled eggs and brown bread for tea in the posthouse. On the radio a man talks about worms in cattle and Biddy wonders about Bridey Mullet and the train. She hears sirens and sees blood on the tracks and swarms of people running and praying. When the phone rings she snaps from her daydream, leaves the station in Chicago and chirps,
“Father Looney please.”
It was Johnny Fox Peter's son, Brian, ringing from the kiosk outside the post office door, calling the priest on the mainland. She peeped through the curtains: Johnny and the wife crushed in the box, Brian stood outside in the wind and rain, receiver to his ear.
“Insert ten pence please caller,” Biddy said.
“Put in the money!” ordered Brian, handing the phone to his father.
Johnny Fox Peter told the priest that his uncle's daughter had died in Chicago and was being brought back to Inisriggle for burial. The priest sympathized with him and asked what the arrangements were. Fox said remains were arriving at Shannon on Friday and Father Looney suggested Sunday might be a good day to inter her, when he'd be over to say Mass and hear confessions. Of course it all depended on the weather, he added. Don't worry about the weather Father, Johnny Fox Peter said, I'll fix the weather.
“That poor woman of the Mullet's is being buried after Mass on Sunday,” said Biddy when she returned to the kitchen, “she's some relation to Johnny Fox Peter.”
“The Lord have mercy on her,” muttered Paddy, relieved that the telegram found the right home. He turned up the radio to hear the weather forecast: another gale warning, Force Six to Seven.
“Fox said he's going to fix the weather,” Biddy chuckled.
“If he's not careful,” drawled Paddy, “the weather might fix him.”
By noon next day, everyone on the island knew about the Mullet woman who had died in America. Johnny Fox Peter was drowning his sorrow in the pub and men slipped in and out to shake his hand and have a drink with him. She was only thirty-nine, he told them, and she had a big job in the government and owned three houses in Chicago. She had neither kith nor kin, nobody in the world but the Fox Peters on Inisriggle. Bridey Mullet had contracted a fatal disease, he said, and her dying wish was to be buried in Inisriggle beside her grandfather and grandmother.
Mouse Mullet helped with the funeral arrangements and organized an undertaker on the mainland to pick up the remains at the airport and take them to the harbor in Ballyline. Johnny tried to settle the weather so the mail boat would ferry Father Looney and the coffin across on Sunday morning. Not a chance. On that morning the island was hurricane whipped and people wouldn't go outside the door for fear of being blown away. It was noon before Johnny Fox Peter ventured out. Lugging a kite and a battery, he set off for the top of the island to work Ben Franklin's experiment in reverse: fly the kite and charge the sky via the battery. This energy would neutralize the storm, he calculated. But the wind was so strong it whipped kite and battery from his grip and blew them away towards America.
Mouse was sitting by the fire in Harney's pub, sipping a whiskey when Johnny Fox was blown through the door like a sheet of newspaper. The bereaved man was pale as a ghost, God told me to fuck off, he muttered. Mouse bought him a drink and tried to comfort him.
Paddy Rodgers answered in the telephone exchange when Mouse called from Harney's pub.
“How're you Paddy, could you get me Senator Tot McDuil in Castletown. I think the number is four-five.”
Tot McDuil listened to Mouse's tale of woe: corpse arrived from America, family distraught because it can't be brought the final leg of the journey, from the mainland to the island. Was there any chance Senator McDuil could arrange for the coastguard helicopter to ferry a coffin the six miles off shore, as soon as there was a break in the weather. It would be seen as a government-friendly gesture to an ignored island and a moving way to bury a lost daughter of the homeland. Mouse suggested Tot come over as well, the priest could also travel over with them. Kill a flock of birds with the one stone. The politician thought it was a great idea. He loved funerals and said he'd see what could be done.
“Tot McDuil is coming over for the funeral of that Mullet woman as soon as the weather settles. They're coming by helicopter,” Paddy told his wife that evening over a tea of beans and toast.
“She must be a big shot,” Biddy said, “the Lord have mercy on her.”
On Tuesday morning early, there was a call from the mainland to say the coastguard helicopter was on standby. Winds were expected to abate around noon and the pilot would make a dash across the six miles of grey water. Tot McDuil and Father Looney would be travelling too. Mouse got word around the island like wild fire: remains arriving by helicopter at noon.
Johnny Fox Peter looked the pallor of death. A scarecrow in black suit, crooked mourning tie and dark tweed cap, he hadn't eaten for a week and his stomach wriggled like a bag of ferrets. He swore he'd never drink again once this funeral was over. His wife wore a black shawl and clutched a pair of Rosary beads as she sniffled around the house, glancing out the window at the sky every couple of minutes. Their son Brian, in blue dancing suit, sat by the fire, his back to both parents. He smoked an untipped cigarette and wondered how much did the dead Yank leave them: at least enough for a motor bike and a color television. Maybe she even left them the houses in Chicago and he'd have to go over there and keep an eye on the property. He might get a wife, a tall blonde. A six-foot Madonna.
Knock on the door. Mouse Mullet dashes in to say it's time to go to the strand where the flying hearse would land. Mrs. Fox Peter began wailing like a banshee, the dreaded moment had arrived: their show, their dead. All eyes and attention, sympathy and pity would be with them. The bereaved Fox Peters. Time for anesthetics. Mouse slipped a bottle from his overcoat pocket and asked for four mugs. Potcheen, the hoi poli of moonshine. Big measures to warm their stomachs and soothe the nerves. Down the hatch. Herself protested, but Johnny and Mouse had another swig and left the house with a shuffle in their step. The son followed behind linking his distraught mother down the sand-blown road to the shore.
It was a grey day and the wind had blown itself out, apart from short gusts that spat cold rain showers every ten minutes or so. On the strand it was ice cold and the crowd huddled closer for warmth while they waited for the helicopter. Johnny Fox Peter and family were in the front row, flanked on either side by Mouse Mullet and Harney the publican. It was a miserable wait and they strained their ears for the chopper.
Half an hour passed and the crowd began to murmur: the wind was picking up again. The moonshine was wearing thin and Johnny Fox Peter was getting grumpy and edgy. Then his wife came up trumps by announcing they should say a decade of the Rosary and led the islanders into a high-pitched mantra. Eerie prayer blown by the wind through holes in stone walls.
When they heard the chopper, prayers became more zealous. God was on their side. The white machine grew bigger and bigger; they could see the coffin dangling underneath and blessed themselves at the sight because no corpse had ever come home like this before.
But the closer the chopper came, the more they noticed the coffin wasn't just dangling: it was swinging, really swinging, like a mad pendulum. Something's wrong, jolted Paddy the postmaster. The wind charged in rapid gusts and the helicopter began jerking and lurching, pulled this way and that by the flying coffin and the elements. On board, Father Looney felt the tug of God and fingered his Holy Water bottle. Senator McDuil was already waving at the crowd on the beach, even though they were at least a thousand strokes away. The pilot apologized for the rocky ride and said they were almost there.
Father Looney muttered Jesus, when the helicopter lost control, spun around suddenly and spiraled downwards. He heard the engine scream and splutter, saw the white wave-tops stream past the windscreen like suds in a washing machine. His head got dizzy,
“Our Father,” he cried, “who art in Heaven...”
The pilot was shouting Mayday, Tot McDuil ordered him to do something, do anything.
The crowd on the beach dropped to their knees in screaming prayer. Death in slow motion. Johnny Fox Peter couldn't handle it and ran towards the water, yelling in the old language, waving his hands at the impending doom. He became Moses. Tears streamed down his face and he curled in two and hurled a most primeval scream at whoever was in control of this mess. The island electrified and for a split second, heaven and hell collided.
Afterwards some said they saw lightening strike the coffin before it exploded feet above the water and the helicopter shot to heaven in a ball of flame and was never seen again. More say lightening hit the helicopter first and that Father Looney, Tot McDuil and the pilot were nuked to cinders. Anyway, they were never seen again.
But everyone saw the coffin burst apart and saw a body tumble into the water. The island screamed at the horror. Johnny Fox Peter cried No! No! No! His wife screeched. The son was stunned and looked at the waves. The Roche Sisters keened their deadliest laments and Mouse wet his pants.
Like a sigh from God, rain came and showered pellets of hard water on the islanders. They dispersed, ran helter-skelter to the shelter of their homes, shouting, screaming, wailing. Paddy Rodgers sprinted to his phone, he'd have to notify the mainland about the tragedy. More lightening. Hard rain falling by the bucket. Distant peals of thunder darkened the sky and the sea. It looked like the end of the world.
Mouse linked Johnny Fox Peter and his wife and rushed them home. The son stood on the strand, soaking in the rain, staring at the spot in space where it all happened. He could see debris bobbing around. Jesus Christ, there was a body somewhere out there, maybe three or four bodies. His family would be blamed for the whole tragedy, branded for ever after, as if life on this God forsaken fucking island wasn't bad enough, with his father's fits of madness.
He crouched on the sand and cuddled his head in his arms. He prayed out of frustration, and pleaded with God, admitting that though he was no saint, and all the family were screwed-up in one way or another, they deserved better than this.
“Even dogs have their day,” he told God, “why not us? Why had you to ruin the whole fucking funeral on us and make a right show of us in front of the whole island? Why? Can you answer me that?”
For the first time in his life Brian had a one-to-one chat with God and laid it out straight. He wasn't going to work on Yahwee's farm no more. If the supreme being didn't come up with some retribution for the funeral fiasco, he was quitting. He gave it hot and heavy to God, hinting about the houses in Chicago, the color television and the motorbike. And while He was on their case, God might check on that grant application for a new bathroom that they had submitted months ago to the County Council. Then he went silent while God digested what he had said.
Suddenly a sheet of lightening bounced off the waves with a loud crackle and sizzle and lit the sky like a flash bulb. Brian looked up and a peal of thunder slapped him in the face and fused his mind.
It was dark when the storm passed and Brian sat on the sand, head zinging. He could see the mainland lights twinkling, beckoning. The sea was calmer and the waves were quieter, almost laid back. Debris from the coffin and the body would probably be washed up by morning. There would be cops coming to the island, maybe television people, newspaper reporters. The place would be crawling with questions. His father and mother would make absolute asses of themselves. Maybe they'd be taken away, blamed for the whole disaster and locked up for all time in some asylum.
He walked to the water's edge, thinking he saw something floating close to shore, something pale against the black sea. He looked at the surf, saw a hand rise from the water and his heart thumped at the sight of the dead. He blessed himself. Then he saw a face and heard a woman's voice, calling from the waves. Bridey Mullet. Jesus Christ, he gulped, and ran like hell.
When he had gone sixty feet or so, Brian slowed down and looked back.
“Help me you fool!” he heard and saw a woman threshing out of the tide and falling face down on the damp sand. Cautiously he walked towards her, thinking she might be a mermaid. But no, she was an American, about his own age, thirty or there abouts. Disorientated. Distraught.
“Do you know what it's like spending eternity in a coffin?” she panted as he wrapped his wet coat around her shivering body.
“I do, I do,” he said, helping her home to his father's house.
And that's the way Brandy Shotwell arrived on Inisriggle Island and became Brenda Mullet, wife of Brian Johnny Fox Peter. She laid low for a few months, never venturing outside the door while all the investigation to the Bridey Mullet affair was going on. Not even Mouse Mullet or Paddy Rodgers the postmaster knew she was on the island.
And then one Friday night, she went up to the pub with Brian and shocked the premises into silence. She was the finest lady they had ever seen and knew immediately that a woman like her could only arrive Out of the Blue.