A Special Event
"Waiting for a Fare" 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.
Ian Wild, Southword
"Waiting for a Fare"
Bridgey Looney was filling a pint when she saw the two-tone cream and green car park in the town square. It was an odd looking vehicle, curvy like a candy in Christmas box with a taxi sign on the roof . When the driver got out and stretched himself, she almost dropped the pint: he was a foreigner with sand coloured skin. A short man with long black hair and curly beard, he wore a white turban, grey tweed jacket over a pale ankle length robe.
“Jesus, Mary and Joseph,” she whispered.
There was a lot of movement on the streets that day as people strolled by the square to see the new cabby. They wondered where he came from, what make of car he drove. He's a Pakistani, Moll Tobin said, I used see them in London. An Indian, Pat Carroll guessed but John Hartigan thought he came from Nepal or maybe Tibet. Mrs. Hogan the church organist said he was like one of the Magi who went to pay homage to the infant Jesus in the manger and suggested there was no harm in him.
That day he stayed till late and seemed cheerful when leaving, though he collected no fare. He returned early next morning and when Bridgey opened the bar, he was reading a newspaper, spread on the bonnet of the car. She noticed he was wearing a different jacket and thought she saw the glint of an earring through his black hair. He collected no fare that day or the next but the sun shone brighter and warmer than it had in years and Bridgey thought,
“Well at least he brought the good weather with him.”
After a week without customers, people thought he'd go away. When he didn't, some grew agitated. Peter Berry said he was a 'quare hawk' and doubted the man was fully insured or held a valid driving license. He mentioned his fears to Sergeant Malone and a few days later the policeman approached cab.
“Viry hoppy to meet you, offy-sur,” the driver smiled with outstretched hand. Malone observed he wore a wrist of blue-green bangles and a gold ring with a big ruby. But his papers were all in order. So were his indicators, brake lights, hooter, tyres. The policeman checked everything in the car except oil and water.
“And what's his name?” Peter Berry asked the sergeant when they met for a drink that night.
“Manji Jadpul or something...”
“Jesus Christ,” Berry spat, “if I had to walk from here to Russia but I wouldn't travel with him.”
A month passed and nobody patronized Manji Jadpul, but he still arrived every morning and parked in the middle of the square. They wondered where he went at night, where he lived, if he had a family. Bridgey Looney noticed he brought his own lunch with him and ate in the car. One day she got the whiff of aromatic spices and saw him stir a saucepan over a camping gas stove beside the taxi. The smell got strong as rabbit stew and lay on the town for hours after. Lala Logan thought it like curry she had once in Liverpool and it reminded Ray Flynn of ban-gang he'd ate in Hong Kong after the last war. Coyne the butcher said the smell would knock a horse and came from no meat he knew of. Peter Berry put a tissue to his nose and claimed it was a bad sign to see the foreigner cooking on the street: he was really settling in. Coyne nodded in agreement, saying
“And mark my words, next we'll see a couple of more of them landing in town.”
This bothered Berry and his jaw twitched. Coyne then whispered that Manji might be a 'homo' or a queer.
“Well he's some sort of a sexual anyway,” Peter Berry agreed, “cause no right man would dress like that.”
When Mary Delaney had to go visit her mother in Foxhill, she glanced anxiously at the taxi from her house. Over an hour she stood behind the lace curtain, wondering if she'd hire him. It was a terribly public action and it took a decade of the Rosary to shift her qualms. Leaving the house, she blessed herself with holy water. There was not another soul on the street, but she felt the eyes of the town watching her and her breathing got heavy. As she approached the car, Manji hopped out and bowed. Mary balked. The color of his skin, his shimmering silk robe and smell of sweet cologne overwhelmed her. She briskly veered away and crossed to Casey's shop and bought a newspaper.
Sam Callahan the street sweeper got close to the taxi one afternoon and even said hello to Manji. The driver greeted hello and something that sounded to Sam like: Who invented water? He shook his head, drew a blank and gazed at the book on Manji's lap. Sam tried to read the title but couldn't. It was in a strange language, he told Bridgey Looney when he went for a pint after work. She nodded and said that men from the East were very brainy. Callahan had a swallow of porter.
“Jesus Bridgey,” he said, “if I'd anyplace to go to but I'd hire the poor hure.”
“You would sure,” she agreed, “t'would even be worth finding somewhere to go to, to give the creature a few shillings. Even if three or four people got together and went on a pilgrimage to Knock, wouldn't it be something for him.”
Bridgey passed Sam an untipped cigarette and looked out the window at the taxi.
“It's terrible to see the poor wretch sitting there day after day and doin' no business,” she sighed.
Manji came to town seven days a week all that summer, and left empty handed in the evening. And yet he smiled through, riding home to strange music seeping from his car. One evening, just outside the town, Hacksaw Casey hitched a ride from him and Manji stopped, tyres screeching. Casey cautiously approached the car and asked,
“How far are you goin'?”
“No, no,” said Manji, “where do you go sir?”
“To Lavahossle,” Hacksaw replied and the driver shook his head and said,
“Sorry I do not know the way there....but...”
“That's fine,” Casey mumbled and backed away from the car which he later said smelled like a perfume factory.
On hearing Casey's experience, Coyne the butcher pronounced that Manji was not a taxi if he didn't know the way to Lavahossle. Even a blind man could find Lavahossle, he announced with a sharp jerk of the head. Martin Coffey agreed and Peter Berry suggested it was time to run Manji out of town. But it will have to be done discreetly, Harry Considine whispered. For a couple of nights they huddled in the back room of Dodo Ryan's bar, muttering like members of a secret society. The plan came to Berry while he relieved himself in the lavatory and when he told the others, they clapped him on the shoulders. Later, bellies full of porter, they crept to the square and laid a carpet of two inch nails where they figured Manji parked. The job took an hour, each nail head set in the tar.
“That'll fix him,” growled Coyne and they stood back and admired the spikes.
They were at their windows next morning when the taxi arrived in the square. Manji parked, got out and laid a newspaper on the bonnet and began to read. Berry hurried down the street to Coyne and said in disbelief,
“The little bastard parked in a different spot...” the butcher suggested. They watched Manji fold his newspaper and gaze around the square. He spotted the nail trap and walked to it, hunkered down and touched the points. Manji took off his brown tweed jacket, joined his hands and seemed to be praying.
“What the fuck is he at?” Berry whispered as Manji carefully lay on the bed of nails and relaxed in the September sun. By mid-morning, clumps of spectators hung at street corners and shop doors looking at the reclined foreigner. Manji stayed still for the Angelus and a little while later rose from the bed, stretched himself, tipped his toes. They peered at his back: no sign of blood. Bridgey Looney blessed herself and muttered that as true as God, poor Manji was a saint. Only a very pious being could punish the body so hard and not damage it, she thought.
Coyne the butcher was enraged and said there was only one way to run him out of town: The Gun. Peter Berry flinched and suggested violence might be extreme. He proposed a delegation should approach Manji and fair and square, tell him to leave town. Coyne disagreed and muttered,
“From my experience, The Gun is the only answer.”
While Coyne brooded on using The Gun, the weather changed and winter arrived with little warning. The crows roosted early and night darkened the town before children were home from school. Manji came every morning and sat in his car, reading and listening to the radio. He stayed until well after dark, reading in the dim car light and left without earning a shilling.
Early in November the frost began and a stillness settled on the town. People stayed indoors and the streets were silent. Manji sat in the taxi, starting the engine every so often to heat up the vehicle. For days that was the only sound in town, until a muffled racket started in Upper Clare Street: Rita Lally and the husband were fighting again. It began on a Tuesday afternoon and continued in bouts and spasms until Friday morning. Then furniture crashed, Rita screamed and glass broke. The town froze as a door banged, it's brass knocker clattering three or four times.
Rita quickly walked down Clare Street carrying a small suitcase. Her husband shouted after her, called her a warping bitch, a rotten gall-bag. She made for the taxi in the square and Manji was out before she reached it. He opened the back door with a bow and a smile for the young woman with tears in her eyes. The cab quickly turned and took the north road out of town, Manji smiling, nodding his head.
When he didn't return that afternoon, they thought he must have taken her far away. And when Manji didn't show the following day, they reckoned he had taken her further still. By the end of the week, he still hadn't returned and they began to realize that he never would.
“I should have used The Gun,” Coyne the butcher muttered, “that fella was only waiting for his chance.”
Song for Angie
Sunny slept with her mouth open, one arm over the bed clothes. Her hair was short, platinum blonde and her oval face had refined features. Over her bed was a poster of John Lennon, on the floor her clothes sat in a heap where she'd undressed. The phone rang and she stirred, pulled the covers over her head and let it ring. Awake, eyes closed, she waited for the answer machine to click in, but the caller hung up without leaving a message.
She lay still. Her mouth was parched and she wondered what time it was. On the sidewalk outside, somebody tinkered with a car engine, wrenches clinked, metal winced. A tape of Mexican music played across the road. Barbecue smells, empty beer cans being crushed underfoot, more cans opening. Saturday in San Francisco. Probably early afternoon.
Sunny pieced together the previous night. She'd played a gig at the Brown Cow on Polk Street, just herself and her guitar. For a while she pondered on the performance and then the phone rang again. She waited for the answer machine to take the call and heard her mother's nervous voice calling from Ireland.
“Hel..hello? Sunny? Hello...”
She tumbled out of bed and grabbed the receiver.
“Mama!” she said, her voice echoing in trans-Atlantic static.
“Is that you Sunny?”
“Yeah.. How are you?”
“Not too good, love. I'm afraid we have a bit of bad news for you.”
“Oh God. What is it?”
“Aunty Angie is dead.”
Telephone clamped between head and shoulder, Sunny searched for cigarettes, while her mother gave her the news from Ireland: Angie had taken her own life.
“Christ,” gasped Sunny, “I can't believe it.”
“We can't either, love. The whole parish is in a terrible way about it. Timothy found her in the cow house. “
“My God that's terrible.”
The news shattered Sunny and after the call, she sat on a floor cushion and had another cigarette. Angie hung herself. She frowned at her purple finger nails, blurring out the world, replaying her mother's news. The cow house. Timothy found her. Your father was talking to her an hour or so before and she was in great form. It didn't make any sense. Sweet Heart of Jesus. The poor soul left a note for Father White. It'll be read at the inquest. Christ! Why would she leave a note for Father White? Maybe it was her way of making a last confession. But what would Angie have to confess? A sixty-three year old woman, married half her life and probably died virgin. That would drive anyone to the gallows, a stray thought whispered.
Images of the cow shed floated into Sunny's mind and she saw Timothy, standing in the dung splattered yard, wearing a brown coat and cap, Wellington boots with tops turned down. She turned cold, felt her blood draining. Timothy, that bird of a man with the drooling nose, eternally wandering in and out of the house, searching for something, oblivious to everything. Oblivious to Angie until he found her hanging in the cow shed. She felt the loneliness, smelled the dampness and the dung, heard the emptiness and saw the toes of her aunt's brogues swaying ever so gently in the gloomy shed.
“Oh Christ Angie, what in the name of God came over you?”
The telephone rang again and she scooped up the receiver.
“Sunny? Marty Spelman here.”
“Oh Jesus, Marty...”
“How're you doing'? I'm down here at The Shamrock and was wondering if you'd like to join me for a pint...”
“Listen Marty, I got a bit of bad news and I'm afraid I'll have to give it a miss.”
“Sorry to hear that. Is there anything I can do?”
“No, thanks all the same...my aunt just passed away.”
“Oh Christ. Sorry to hear that Sunny. I can drop by...”
“No, no please Marty...I just want to be alone.”
“Look, these are times when you need someone to be with you. I'll drop by and bring a bottle of something.”
He was gone.
“The fucking idiot!” flamed Sunny crashing the receiver on the cradle. “I'm getting out of here...”
She stormed around her flat, distracted, rooting for clean clothes. It was a day for wearing black. Black jeans, t-shirt and black leather jacket...How could Angie do it? How could she get a rope, make the knot, climb up and hang herself from a beam in the cow shed? And the note for Father White, what was all that about? Sunny sat on the bed and pulled on her boots. Zipped up her leather jacket, tied a black bandanna around her forehead and grabbed sunglasses from the top of the refrigerator.
Down stairs she clattered, two steps at a time, rattling the house to hell. Out the front door and into the sunlight, she turned left without looking and broke into a run. Keeping close to the wall, Sunny went down 20th Street, strung tight as a fiddle, expecting the Good Samaritan to land beside her at any second. If he did, she was ready with a bellyful of curses. She turned into Mission Community Center, hurried through and out the back door to Harrison Street.
Derelict warehouses, grey corrugated workshops, red brick buildings leased to pigeons, rusty railroad tracks-forgotten San Francisco. She walked along the bright side of the street, heading for nowhere in particular, feeling hunted. Haunted. It was as quiet as an Irish village in the evening sun. Surreal. America gone on vacation. Not another soul on the street, no traffic, just a few stripped down cars parked here and there. Abandoned chariots in the backstreets.
A few blocks later, at the corner of Lime and Harrison she stopped to get her bearings, plot a course. Then she noticed Jonah's Bark, a shanty bar wedged between two carpet outlets. Something drew her to the pub.
Once inside, she remembered having been there before. You couldn't forget the decor. It was fitted out like the deck of an old sailing ship: masts, tarry ropes, brass ships chandlery. And the stuffed sea birds, gulls of every description perched in the most unlikely places-the bathrooms, telephone box, bar stools. She'd found this place one Saturday when Borg and herself were tripping, but could never remember where it was. Strange. Someone said it was once a waterfront bar, but was moved inland-lock, stock and barrel when the bay-view rents soared.
A few solitary drinkers hunched along the counter, staring silently at the barman who fed tropical fish in a huge tank behind the bar. A skittle shaped giant with a shaved head and a white apron, he said in a high voice,
“I'll be right with you, honey,”
Sunny settled herself on stool, put her sunglasses on the counter and lit a cigarette. She wanted a pint of Guinness, but he didn't have any, so she settled for cider. Like the others, she drank in silence and watched the feeding fish. She crossed her knees, left foot swinging nervously. Angie, above all people. I thought I knew her. She must have been desperate, really desperate. What went wrong? Was there nobody she could have turned to?
Sunny hadn't been in touch with Angie for almost a year. That was when her aunt called from Ireland to announce she'd got the telephone installed. Sunny never followed up with the promised call, and that was the last contact they'd had. Now she was gone. A hole in space. Sweet Jesus.
For years they had been like mother and daughter, but sort of drifted apart with age. Growing up, Sunny spent more time in her aunt's house that at home. Angie's house was peaceful, there were no brawling brothers or wailing wains, no martyred mother or drunken father. Angie's place was warm and calm, a blessed place of refuge.
Sunny drank in long draughts and called for another pint of cider as she was coming to the end of her glass. She took a break from thinking and looked at the fish in the tank, following a blue-tailed bullet until she drifted back to Angie's kitchen. It was here she did her school homework on a green covered card table that had belonged to Timothy's mother. When the learning was finished, she ran errands for Angie and later helped her prepare the tea. All this time Timothy would be shuffling through the house, opening cupboards, rooting in drawers, running his hands under the old Phillips radio, always searching, a mystified look on his face.
After tea, if there was Rosary or Benediction at the church, Sunny would attend with Angie who was the parish organist. They'd be alone up on the choir gallery, Sunny gazing down on the worshipers, wondering who was praying and who was dreaming; Angie at the keyboard, a scarf tied around her head like an aviator's cap. She looked straight into space, face full of fantasy, as if driving some huge flying machine. Angie passed into another world when she revved up the organ, sometimes still whirling out streams of consciousness long after service was finished. Stained glass windows glazed by the moon on a winter's night, the smell of quenched candles, Angie and Sunny floating above the stars. Father White often had to flash the church lights, like a barman does at closing time, to get them to go home.
Before she was church organist, Angie played piano and sang with Jack O'Donnell's Orchestra, a local quintet which played weddings and dances around the county. That stopped when Timothy's mother died: he couldn't bear to be alone in the house at night, couldn't sleep if his wife was out late. Angie stood by her husband, stepped off the stage and stayed at home. As a tonic, once a week or so, Jack O'Donnell and James Grimes would drop by and they'd play for hours in the sitting room, while Timothy made tea and sandwiches in the kitchen. Sunny loved those nights: Angie on the piano, Jack O'Donnell playing saxophone and James Grimes on fiddle, bouncing out fox-trots and quick steps to a room of invisible dancers. Every now and again a drummer would come along, a thin, dark hair man with a crooked eye.
And sometimes, like at Christmas or holiday time, loads more musicians turned up and a hooley cooked and went on till morning. Then the sitting-room would be blue with cigarette smoke, everyone blasting away to beat the band, and drinking like fish. That's where Sunny first tasted alcohol, a lukewarm hot whiskey someone had forgotten about. She took to it easily, the sweet almost medicinal taste, the hint of lemon and cloves, and the afterglow that warmed her heart. Later she found another one on the kitchen table and when she had it finished, she felt the buzz. Pure magic, and she would never forget it, a night between Christmas and New Year's Eve, freezing hard outside and she was the happiest girl in the world. A few days later at home, her father clattered her on the head with his fist when he caught her making a hot whiskey in the bathroom.
That was when she ran away to Angie's for the first time. Bawling her heart out she fled up the street in the snow, blood pumping from her nose. She pounded at Angie's door and when Timothy opened it, rushed past him and into the kitchen to her aunt. Sunny refused to go back home and stayed in the spare room for at least a month, praying that Angie might adopt her. It was a happy month. Angie explained to her the rudiments of music, introduced her to the piano and set out to teach the girl all she knew.
“She's the daughter I never had,” she snapped at her husband when he grumbled about all the attention being feted on the stray child.
And then Sunny's father did a strange thing: he bought his daughter a guitar for her birthday. She cautiously returned home, like the prodigal daughter, but lodged the guitar at Angie's. There was nobody in the county who taught the instrument and Sunny was beginning to think a cruel trick had been played on her. She was losing faith in all gifts from heaven until one day, Angie showed her a small advertisement in the Independent-Learn the Guitar by mail! Play Red River Valley in two weeks with Victor Berginstein's new method.
Angie wrote away for the information on Mr. Berginstein's Method and mulled over it for a week before subscribing to his correspondence course. It worked out great and between them, Angie and Mr. Berginstein had Sunny bashing out Red River Valley in ten days. The girl took to the instrument like a duck to water and Jack O'Donnell whispered that she was a natural.
By the following Christmas she had a stock of carols and seasonal songs and herself and a few mates busked at the turkey markets in town. The music stopped when her father, drunk as a lush, bawled from his car that he'd make a necklace out of her guitar if she didn't go home and stop annoying the people. That was a nightmare Christmas. The house was a den of drunks. Her brothers were back from England for the first time since they'd left home and they weren't boys anymore: they'd become brutes in blue suits, hungry, thirsty, obnoxious young men with calluses on their palms from shoveling concrete. Morning to night, her father was demonic from drink and when he knocked over the tree on Christmas Day and a brawl broke out between himself and two sons, she retreated to her aunt's house again. Nobody missed her.
Sunny dreamed that maybe Angie and herself would start a band. At night in her bed, she'd lay awake in the blue light, conjuring up combos with Jack O'Donnell, Mattie Tracy, Toba Quin, the drummer with the squint. That winter she got lost in the guitar, playing for hours in front of the wardrobe mirror in her room. Going through numbers in the sitting-room with Angie. Writing out the words of songs. Hoping someone would come to the door with a saxophone or a fiddle. Even a drum.
She had her first period the following Spring and thought she was dying. Angie calmed her, got sanitary towels and aspirins and holding Sunny's hand, told what lay ahead. The hard facts of life, birds and bees, vultures and wasps. Suddenly the world got very complicated. Sunny cried and Angie wept: her niece wasn't a little girl anymore. That was a sad night. Time for another pint and a cigarette.
Sunny had been drinking sporadically since she was fourteen and she played at her first dance when she was sixteen. It was a fund-raiser for a new parish church and Jack O'Donnell asked if she'd like to join the orchestra for the night. There were rehearsals in Angie's sitting-room for a few weeks and eventually the excitement got so frenzied that Angie announced she'd play with them for the big night, and to hell with Timothy and his phobias. Everybody chuckled and Jack O'Donnell said,
“Speak of the devil,” as Timothy stooped through the door, laden down with a big tray of sandwiches and cups of tea.
It all seemed so long ago now. Angie bought her a black velvet dress and white blouse for the occasion. On the night, she drank two miniatures of vodka before going to the hall and her head was in a whirl. They were on stage an hour before the doors opened, tinkering with microphones, testing, testing. The guitar was amplified and it was hard to get used to its sound. Angie smiled and vamped out a handful of chords on the piano to stretch her fingers. The drummer with the squint did a few rolls, Grimes tuned his fiddle, the banjo player plonk-a-plonked and Jack twiddled on the saxophone. Then the doors opened with a rattle and people filed in until the smell of perfume and after-shave lotion filled the small hall. Jack O'Donnell stubbed out his cigarette and said to the orchestra,
“Nice and easy now, two sharps, 3-4 time. Away we go.”
And that was it, in a few seconds the floor waltzed with dancers. Sunny's eyes followed them from the stage, watched their heads bobbing to the beat as they circled the hall like balls in a whirlpool. They smiled at her as they passed and her confidence improved as the night went on.
After the dance a few people came to congratulate Sunny on her debut and Angie introduced more who wondered who she was, and what breed of instrument she played. When the band had tea and ham sandwiches in the back room, Father White joined them, wedging between Angie and herself. She didn't know what to do when he put his hand on her knee and gently squeezed it. Then he moved up her thigh, talking at the top of his voice about what a great job they all had done that night. It was very weird and she didn't know if he was grabbing her for himself or mother Church. But it gave her a bit of a zing, and afterwards, for weeks she was tortured with guilt that it was she, and not he, who had sinned. Father White, Jesus Christ, sighed Sunny.
Angie's suicides was a sin, a mortal one in the annals of the Catholic Church. The Big M. Self inflicted murder, whose victims were not buried in consecrated ground. Where would Angie be buried? That might be what the note was all about, a plea for clemency, a request to be interred with her people in the cemetery on the hill. Father White really couldn't deprive her of that dignity, after all, she had been part and parcel of his show for decades, rambling away like an organist at a silent movie. Theme music.
The barman put a pint in front of her and said,
“That's from the gentleman down the counter.”
“The gentleman down the counter.”
Sunny nodded to the man and he doffed his cap. She'd seen him around the Irish bars, a man in his late fifties, one of those Irish building workers who came here as a youth and never went back. Never married. Never got over the heartbreak of leaving home. But like many more, he was maybe grateful to have gotten out. He was wearing a blue suit and white open neck shirt, dressed for the Sabbath, probably coming from evening Mass at the yellow wooden church up the road. A tubby man with a ruddy face and big innocent eyes, he stared at her like a cow looking over a fence. Then he made his way up the bar towards her, staggering against stools and stuffed birds.
“Hullo,” he said, offering to shake her hand, “pleased to meet you. You're the singer.”
“Yeah,” she said, “thanks for the drink.”
“That's alright, I didn't mean to intrude. Just wanted to shake your hand. I'll leave you in peace.”
He returned to his drink and frowned at the tropical fish. The day herself and Borg were here, she must have stared for hours at those fish, naming them, talking to them in whale sounds. That was a good day. Borg had come over to her place the previous evening to borrow a guitar and he stayed the night. The next day, they took LSD and floated around San Francisco, high as kites. It was about this time of evening when they reached here, and it was nearly empty like now. They sat at the counter where the Irish man was sitting. Then Borg played the guitar and Sunny sang until the barman pleaded with them to leave. Jesus! Her heart thudded. Borg still has that guitar: the Hofner guitar Angie bought her when she joined the Silver Star Showband.
Her heart beat fast. She got agitated, lit a cigarette, upset her drink. She'd forgotten all about that guitar. She'd lost track of Borg, hadn't seen him for months. He stopped calling around when he hooked up with a lady from Berkeley who dealt cocaine. Pity, she liked him, they were lovers once. Well not lovers in the classic sense: they hung out together and made love nine times. She counted and even marked the calendar. He melted away and took her guitar with him. She kept meaning to retrieve it, but he never returned her calls and she eventually gave up leaving messages for him. What was his telephone number? It was in the directory. He managed an apartment block near Market Street, Alpine Villas or something.
Borg's number was engaged and she stood by phone, gazed upon by a glassy eyed stuffed albatross. She dialed again after a minute or two. Engaged. At least he's at home, she thought and returned to her jar. Better order another one, have a shot of brandy this time.
She called a drink for herself and the Irishman, had a slug and went back to the phone. Still engaged. Fuck you Borg, hang up. Back to the counter. The man in the blue suit toasted to her health and she smiled. He looked at her curiously for a while and then turned back to the fish. Christ, she thought, what a lonesome journey.
The brandy reminded her of her father, Angie's brother. He drank brandy all the time, day and night. Pappy was knocking back cognac even when he was working, driving around the countryside hawking insurance policies and money plans. He was drunk solid for the first seventeen years of her life and then he fell from the high with a bang and disgraced everyone belonging to him. It happened one grey Thursday evening in the month of March. Sunny was cycling home from school when she saw the crowd standing around the monument in the town square. The police car was there, so was the fire engine, the ambulance and the Father White's black Volkswagen. When she got closer she could see there had been an accident, someone had run into the monument, a car was mounted on the steps. Firemen were trying to cut the driver from the wreckage and she heard people ask in a whisper,
“Who is it?”
“Pappy Horan,” a man said.
It echoed in her ears. Pappy had rammed the monument in broad daylight. Sunny backed away and went up to Angie. For ten days she refused to go outside the door, wouldn't go to school, wouldn't go to church.
When the newspaper printed a picture of Pappy's car, riding the steps like a stunt from a Hollywood movie, the caption read: Lucky Escape for Ballygale man. As it turned out, nothing could have been further from the truth, the incident landed Pappy in hot muck. Not alone was he drunk and delirious, but he had no insurance. Then it was discovered that nobody else in the town or neighboring seven parishes had insurance either. Not even Father White nor Sergeant Malone, nor Benjy Mack the court clerk or old Ma Whelan the mid-wife. And their Blue Chip Bonds and pension plans were pure junk, not worth the paper they were written on. Pappy had fiddled the barony for brandy and the law threw him in jail for three years. It broke him, he aged two decades and never drank again. Never did anything again except pray, pray, pray.
“Oh Jesus” Sunny sighed, “but how could I be normal?”
She emptied her glass and tapped the counter for another.
“No,” protested the man in the blue suit, “no, this is my round. I'll get this.”
Oh Christ, she thought, what have I bought myself into. She hopped from her seat and bounced to the phone, bangles jingling, heels clicking. Still engaged. Sunny bit her lip. Borg, who are you talking to? Maybe the phone is off the hook, or there's something wrong with the line. Get the operator to check it.
“Nope caller, that line's fine. There's a conversation on that line.”
“Thank you operator, I'll try it again.”
“You do that. Have a nice weekend, caller.”
Nice weekend my ass. Back to the counter for more fuel. At least he's at home. She had to get that guitar back. Maybe the best thing is to get a cab up to his place. It can't be too far, up Thirteenth Street or whatever you call it and left on Market. That's what she'd do, get a cab there before he left for the night.
It was a quick ride to Church and Market and Sunny got out across the street from Borg's place. Twilight was creeping from the east and gusts of night-wind whirled litter and dust in the air. Cars sped left and right, propelled by anticipation: Saturday night in San Francisco, Bangkok of the West. The shops were shut and the homeless were taking over the doorways with their supermarket carts of junk and clothes, street soiled sleeping bags and cardboard cabins.
“Spare a little change, lady?”
“Have a quarter for food miss?”
“Excuse me miss, could I talk to you for a moment?”
“Wanna help an ol' soldier?”
She climbed the steps to Borg's apartment building, anger and alcohol pumping through her veins. God help Borg if he hasn't got my guitar. She pressed his bell once, twice, three times. Immediately the door buzzed and she pushed it open.
Junk mail covered the hall floor: pizza coupons, missing children cards, newsletters, parking tickets, invitations to church. The place was grubby, dimly lit and much more rundown than she remembered it. Apartment buildings are strange places, different worlds within a bigger world. Trotting upstairs the spicy smell of Indian curry hung in the air like temple incense. On the first floor she heard snatches of John Lennon, Vanilla Ice and Joni Mitchell. On the next she heard people praying, mantras, Bob Dylan, Madonna and a domestic squabble.
Borg lived on the third floor and when she got there, the smell had changed. A grungy damp odor blocked out the curry and as she approached his flat the air got ranker. He had the door open before she had a chance to knock.
“Christ! Sunny- I was expecting someone else...” he said in alarm, turning and rushing into the kitchen, “come in...sit down somewhere. Pardon the mess, I'm just tidying the place. What's up?”
“I won't be delaying,” she said, looking around the living-room for a somewhere to sit. The place was chaotic. Clothes thrown everywhere, mounds of them, dirty and forgotten. Months of newspapers and heaps of bulging black refuse bags. The coffee table was covered with dirty cups and glasses, beer bottles and milk cartons. In one corner, a bedraggled green parrot pecked its shoulder and squawked around a filthy cage. There was bird shit all over the television, streaks of it on the screen. Borg was talking to her from the bathroom, a hundred words a minute. She couldn't understand what he was saying over the noise of running water and the squawking parrot.
Sunny cleared a space on the black sofa under the window, sat down and scanned the room for her guitar. All the shelves were bare. The stereo was gone and so was the psychedelic light machine. Not a single tape or record in the racks, even the pictures were gone from the wall. His keyboard wasn't to be seen and neither was her guitar. I hope the fucker hasn't pawned it, she thought in alarm.
She stared at four black flies hovering in formation under the light bulb, like vultures, waiting, just waiting. The long glass case where the tortoises lived was smashed, the escapees probably on the floor somewhere. Then she noticed something crawl from under the table: the rabbit, Rodger, a piebald creature with flopped ears. She remembered him from the last time she was here, but he looked sadder now, forlorn. Sunny lit a cigarette and looked for an ashtray. She found one on the floor beside a small mirror and a red and white MacDonald's straw: Cocaine itsy bitsys. Then she noticed more paraphernalia on a dinner plate- dark stained tin foil, matches, safety razors. Oh Jesus, a smack den.
“Oh that,” chuckled Borg, striding into the room, “I had a visit from the muse last night.”
Close up, she was taken aback at how wasted he had gotten. Just flesh and bone. Borg busied himself picking up things and leaving them down again. Frowning at the blank walls. Scratching his neck. Yawning nervously. Wired. Skid row on the third floor.
“I see you're playing at Rita's Place next week.” he babbled, “things are going well.”
“Yeah, that's why I'm here...Borg, I need that guitar of mine you borrowed. The semi-acoustic Hofner.”
Borg shook his head and walked towards the parrot, muttering:
“Guitar? Hofner? Semi-acoustic...”
She retraced the day of the loan for him, their visit to Jonah's Bark, returning here with a bottle of Tequila and two burritos.
“Yeah,” he said, “vaguely, vaguely...but as far as I remember, I brought guitar back to you.”
“Yeah, remember, I brought it down to you the night you played the Sheehan...”
“No Borg, you never brought back that guitar. You never even bothered to return my calls.”
“Look, there's been a lot going on in my life...”
The door bell rang and he leaped like a cat and buzzed the ringer in.
“Look Sunny,” he said anxiously, “this is not cool...this is not a cool time to call.”
“Borg, I'm not leaving without my fucking guitar.”
“Well it's not here Sunny.”
While Borg did business with his dealer, she sat in the bathroom; the best she could hope for was that he still had the pawn ticket. She'd drag him by the scruff of the neck to the hock shop and redeem the instrument. Borg had gone to a different planet. The loo stank, fetid, fishy smell. She turned on the fan and opened the window. Smell or no smell she was holding out here. She stared in disgust at the boat shaped mound in the bath which was covered by a fallen shower curtain and wondered what was under it.
She lifted the curtain like she was about to identify a corpse and stared speechless, her head reeling. The bath was full with stranded tortoises and turtles, abandoned and forgotten. On their backs lay a guitar case, like they were carrying it somewhere.
“Jesus Christ,” she gasped, “that's like mine.”
She grabbed the case, laid it on the bathroom floor and flicked the clasps. There it was, like a corpse in a casket, the Hofner guitar Angie had bought her, sunburst body, ebony finger board with mother of pearl inlay.
Kneeling down, she took it from it's purple velvet bed and strummed a chord. Still in tune. It filled the white tiled room and she strummed another chord and another still. Life makes no sense she thought, tortoises in the bath, suicides in the cowhouse, junkies in the sitting-room. She heard Angie's voice, the thumping piano, the saxophone, fiddle and drum. Hot tears flooded her eyes and Sunny beat out defiant blue chords and let her heart flow into a song.
My greatest thanks to Eddie Stack for allowing me to share this wonderful story with my readers.
He is the sole owner of this story and it is protected under international copyright laws and cannot be published or posted online without his permission.