Mark Murphy eyed the baseball game projected on the big screen television across the bar. He eyed his beer as he drank it down notch by notch. But mostly he eyed the single blond sitting by herself three seats to his left.
Most nights he came here in his exile. A beer or two, five or six innings, and then back home to climb into a cold bed with a cold wife and reset himself for the next day. During those nights he had seen this woman a time or two. She drank alone, smiled politely to the bartender, paid her tab promptly after a single drink, then left her seat to walk back out to the street. She was in her forties, as was Mark, or so he surmised. Nothing about her was extreme or flashy, but she carried an aura, an intrigue that piqued Mark’s curiosity. Attractive enough, with hair tied back from a softly rounded, calm face. And at this point, what was there to lose?
She had finished more than half her drink and the home team trailed badly. What, indeed, was there to lose?
Mark slid off his seat and walked two seats down to sit next to her. “Excuse me for being bold, but I just wanted to introduce myself. I’ve seen you here before, and always alone. I thought maybe you could use a friend. I’m Mark.”
The woman turned her head to face him. With no expression she said, “You’re the first person to speak to me here. Where have all the real men gone?’ She sipped her drink, a vodka tonic. “Laura.”
“Any chance I can tempt you with a second drink?”
And so it began that night, a casual dalliance that salved a festering void with anticipation, romanticism and a hint of risk. All of it proved more exciting than rational as Mark and Laura met nightly to sit no longer at the bar but at a small table near the corner where they exchanged stories, frustrations, abandonment and despair.
Laura no longer stopped at one drink, or even two. In the second week she placed her hand on Mark’s knee, leaned into him and licked his ear, and so the assignations began. From the bar they would head back to Laura’s apartment nearby, where she lived alone and had a wide bed which they put to good use, testing the limits of their own athleticism with lust that had been subliminated far too long.
Mark came home later and later. Gwen Murphy, ever loyal, ever the faithful wife, came to dread the sound of Mark’s key in the lock. An interruption, it was, and a return to a normality that wore her down. She had no issue with Mark’s absences, which cleared her time with her daughter of any complications or deflections. Mother and daughter were fine by themselves. Better by themselves.
At one point a few weeks past their first coupling, Laura rolled to her side, propped herself on an elbow and with a rare smile asked, “Why do you do this?”
“What do you mean? Why do I do what?”
“Why do you risk everything? A wife and a daughter. Maybe even a job. And don’t tell me I’m irresistible. I know I’m not. To you, sweet baby, I’m probably no more than meat. So don’t tell me that. Just tell me why you’re doing this. Why every few nights I can bring you to my bed.”
Mark rose and pulled a sheet around his nakedness, then walked to look out the bedroom window onto the small courtyard between the buildings. He thought in silence, then spoke slowly. “Did you ever look closely at a geode?” he said.
“What the hell is a geode?”
“A geode is a rock, I guess. Just a rock. But it’s hollow inside, and lined with crystals. Quite beautiful, actually, when you break it apart and look inside. It’s all sparkly and pure, like something that doesn’t quite belong in your hands. Something almost magical. You never know what colors will sparkle back at you when you crack it open.
“So,” he continued slowly, “I feel like that geode. Hollow inside, with all this empty space. Big parts of the center missing. And it took me years to get that way, with all this pressure pushing everything out of the middle.
“But there’s still some beauty there. There’s still something that sparkles when you look at it closely. Something that changes in the way the light plays with those crystals and makes new colors. Something that coats the edges of all that emptiness. All you have to do is crack it open and look.
“That’s why I do this, Laura.” He turned back to her, threw the sheet to the floor, and climbed back into the bed. It wasn’t yet time to go home.
Everything Slips Through These Cold Fingers
Gina Morelli shut the clasp on her carry-on bag, a scarf no longer needed in the warmth of the bar tucked next to a gathering of cosmetics and the book she’d read on the flight south. She fluffed her collar, now free of the scarf or any covering, and smiled back across the table. On the other side, Donal Mannion sipped his scotch.
“You’re bent on going, then?” he asked. “No way I can talk you out of it?”
“No choice, my love. We’ve been over it too much already.”
“Your ma’s 87, Gina. What are you really hoping to accomplish?”
“She’s 87, Donal, and I want her to see 88. Company and care, and all those things that become more precious as we grow older.”
“But she’s been on her own forever, Gina. Ever since the old fella passed, what, 25 years ago. She’s got her jigsaw puzzles, and her television, and her cats. She can walk, and drink, and cook. Christ, Gina, she won’t starve, and she won’t be spending her days any differently than how she’s been.”
“Except I’ll be there. In case something happens.”
“Except you’ll be there,” Donal sighed again. “And I’ll be here. And no telling for how long.”
“It’s got to be done, Donal. We’ll talk, and send each other silly messages, and maybe even text each other naughty pictures. Time will pass. It all will pass.” Gina turned to gaze out the wide windows of the bar. In an hour or so a plane would bear her in presumed sterility 1500 miles away in a gesture of daughterly obligation that she could not allow herself to doubt.
Gina sipped the last of her wine, gathered her things, and pushed back the chair from the wooden table. Donal already had the check.
One last sip of the scotch, and a quick suck of the dwindling ice cube that floated on it. ‘Courage, Donal. Courage, lad.’
“Gina, I need to ask you something before you go.”
Standing now, Gina looked to the door, then distractedly back to Donal. “My cab is waiting, Donal. What is it?”
Donal hesitated, and said nothing. At length, he stammered, “You know, I’ve never met anyone like you. What we’ve had…what we have…...”
“Jesus, he’s honking for me. I’ve got to go Donal.” She leaned forward to grant a quick peck on his cheek, placed her mask back in place. “I’ll text you tonight,” she said over a shoulder disappearing out the door. Into the cab, and then away.
Donal Mannion sat back down. No rush now. No need for courage. He summoned the server. “Another scotch. A double if you can.”
When she left he reached into his wallet and took out the picture he carried of he and Gina, taken last winter in front of a Christmas tree, taken before the smothering cloud of viruses and masks and restrictions wafted down onto them all. He placed the picture on the table. ‘The Before Time’, he said to himself. ‘Will there ever be an After?’
When the scotch came, he drank it slowly, then ordered another. By the time he left the bar, Gina’s plane would have landed. He searched his phone for a text, but no message had been sent. Donal Mannion walked back to his flat, staggered, really, through the detritus that grew deeper each day.
Hosanna In The Highest
A cold night, one of the coldest he could recall, and cursed by a wind that whipped and snapped off the river to rob all feeling from fingers, toes and hearts….
Matthew Cooney crumpled up the newspaper that served as his pillow and nestled as best he could under the overcoat that doubled now as his blanket. Enough of an overhang from the tacky tobacco store, closed now behind an iron grid, kept him from absorbing most of the snowflakes that shot on the wind like tiny darts. He had seen nights like this, far more than he cared either to count or remember. He would face this dark night as he had faced every night for the past two years, resolute simply to see the next morning.
Almost no one was on the streets, the combined effect of cold, wind, snow and Christmas Eve, which, if nothing else, promised the rarity of a White Christmas. Christmas Eve meant little to Matthew Cooney. Christmas was just a day, the same this year as any other Friday. He would spend it as he spent most days – shuffling among strangers who chose not to see him, wending his way to the mission where, at the end of the priest’s blessing, he would find at least a cup of hot coffee and a muffin, then setting himself up in the park with a paper cup in front of him and a look of quiet pleading in eyes that scoured each passerby for sympathy and spare change. If he were fortunate, he might collect enough for a meal at McDonald’s, filling his stomach with grease and gristle and quieting his mind enough to allow him to get an early start in his quest for the perfect door front. It would have to be recessed from the sidewalk, dark enough to afford him some bit of privacy, and close to a heating grate. Those were hard to come by.
Cooney’s Christmases had always been a blur. Even as a child, one blended into another, and none of them held any enchantment or wonder. The yelling, the slaps, the cold were indistinguishable one year to the next. He had grown too old too soon, the excitement of holiday meals and Christmas carols and cards sent or received obliterated by poverty and the resentments it engendered. The best Christmas gift he ever received was a carton of smokes from his father. His mother rarely left her bottle long enough to give him anything.
When Cooney’s father left them and his mother passed the point of all concern, Matthew set off on his own. He was 13 at the time, incapable of sustaining himself without the usual crimes – theft, some petty and some not so petty, a few drugs bought at wholesale and sold at retail, and, in a grand gesture of hubris, an attempt at armed robbery. He was an amateur, though, and no match for a liquor store that was a regular target for those on the edges. The owner stepped on a hidden alarm and feigned confusion and fear long enough for the squad cars to roll up to the door. The police drew their arms, Matthew Cooney threw his down, and he found himself a temporary home through a six to eight year sentence.
When his sentence finally ended, it was back to the streets. No one hires an ex-con, he thought, especially one with no schooling, no skills and no hope. Cooney knew his lot, and he accepted its heartbreak. There was, he believed, no longer a heart to break.
And now, on this bitter Christmas Eve, Cooney settled into his doorway. No miracles. No bright star to light his way. Nothing but the cold and wind and snow. In the early evening of it all, he drifted into what passed for slumber. - - - -
“Cooney. Matty Cooney. Is that you?
Cooney roused at once as a man’s hand gently tapped his shoulder. Instinctively he reached for the knife he kept in a side pocket of the coat. “What the hell? Get off me,” he barked, squinting against the darkness to see who this was.
The man drew off at once. “Jaysus, Matt, it is you. What the hell are you doing out here on a night like this? I knew you once, don’t you see. Johnny Duncan, you recall. I’m Johnny Duncan.”
Cooney peered upward, scowling as he wracked his memory for a Johnny Duncan. Maybe, once, a few years back. When he was another man in another time. When he was a boy, there might have been a Johnny Duncan.
“My family and I lived three doors down from yours. We ran together a bit before, well, before you left. A bit of mischief, a game or two, all that. D’ye remember at all?”
Cooney grunted as the vapors of recollection put a face to the name, and he saw the grown version of that face kneeling before him now. “Johnny Duncan,” he whispered. “Yeah.”
“So what the hell are you doing out here, Matty? You’ve no place to go? No place to be? Christ, man, it’s Christmas Eve.”
“Just the way it is, Johnny, and nothin’ to be done about it. Go on your way now. There’s nothing for you here.”
Duncan reached down and placed his hand under Cooney’s arm, then pulled him upward. Cooney resisted, stumbled as he tried to pull his arm away, but found himself too weak. Duncan got him to his feet.
“And there’s nothing for you here either, Matty. I don’t have the first clue what happened to you, but I’ll tell you, lad, I don’t give a damn. I see a man I knew sleeping in a doorway on Christmas Eve and I know he shouldn’t be there, no matter who he is or what he’s been. You’re coming with me.”
Cooney stepped away as best he could but Duncan held tight to his arm. “I’m goin’ nowhere, Johnny. Leave me be.”
Duncan let go his grip and turned to face Cooney fully. He sighed, shook his head, then said, “Do you recall that we were in the same catechism, Matty? Do you remember what we learned? More than just a few chosen words, the rubbing of the beads and Sunday Mass. That teaching gets into your blood and you can’t ignore it. Christmas, Matty. It’s part of who we were as boys. Part of who we are. Even if it’s only for one night. You’re comin’ with me, Matty. You’re not sleeping in this cold. Not tonight.”
Cooney said nothing and looked hard at the other.
“I have a flat not far from here, with a spare bedroom. It’s yours for the night, along with a hot meal. Tomorrow you can sort things out. Stay or go, as you choose. But every Christmas Eve demands a stable for those in exile.”
“Those in exile. I’m hardly the Christ child, Johnny.”
“You’re as close as any of us from what I can tell. Come along, now. For old times, and for who we used to be. There’s no star, and no wise men, and you won’t have to sleep with the goats. But there’s a manger for you tonight, Matty, if you’ll have it.”
Matthew Cooney hesitated, then gathered his overcoat and a small bag of belongings. With an unsteady step he came to Johnny Duncan’s side. Together, then, into the night, through the wind and the cold and the snow, to hear the angels singing hosannas in soft and gentle voices.
Cooney In The Blue
Matt Cooney paused at the window of a three-room flat, a cluttered, disjointed space of failing plasterboard and exposed wires. He looked onto the street two floors below him. A cold day, and no one about. Papers blew through the soggy gutters, and he could sense again the near-carpet of cigarette butts and candy wrappers that coated the sidewalks there. Dingy, it was, all of it, both inside and out. Dingy, too, the man who regarded it.
Cooney turned back to what passed for his kitchen, took a final sip of his morning coffee, and headed out. Nowhere, really, to go, but it was the thing to do. He would add to the clutter of the streets and leave the flat behind him to its rightful owner.
Two weeks prior, on a blustery and bitter Christmas Eve, Johnny Duncan had plucked him from a storefront with a heat grate and brought him here, to this place only slightly less sad than the streets themselves. He had known Duncan as a boy, years ago, before his youth shattered in abuse, and abandonment, and petty thievery. The streets had become his home, panhandling his new profession, and failure his newest and most constant companion.
Cooney had not seen Duncan in years, not since the before-time, when he had a semblance of family and neighborhood. Before his father left them and his mother drank herself into another dimension. Before the years in prison. He had known Duncan then, mostly from a distance, in the purity of boyhood. When Duncan passed him by that cold night, he did not walk on, but stopped to recognize him, and, in a gesture of grace that perhaps meant more to the donor than the recipient, took him in, just for the night, he said, and lent him the second bedroom in the small flat.
Two weeks on, and nothing really had changed. Duncan made a hot breakfast the next day, Christmas. What he did not make was any suggestion that Cooney go back to the street, or stay just long enough to fit himself back together and find a place of his own, or even to help him look for space in a local shelter. Duncan said nothing of the sort, that day or any of the days that ensued, so the two of them fell, into a routine of comings and goings.
Duncan drove a city bus, sometimes at odd hours, and so Cooney often had the run of the place. He did not abuse it, this special situation. He took nothing, other than the comfort of a predictably warm bed at the end of cold days. When he rose he would go back to his streets, back to the park where he would put out his paper cup and try to look both downtrodden enough to engender pity and endearing enough not to generate fear or disgust. Most days it worked, and he would come home with enough coins to make himself feel as if he were contributing to this very nontraditional household.
This day, cold and lonely, Cooney took his place on the usual bench near the bust of Thomas Moore. He was not a reflective man, but today, warm enough under his thick coat, well enough fed and well enough rested, away from the immediate dangers of loss and abandonment and irrelevance, Matthew Cooney regarded this very small sliver of time, this accidental comfort against the series of failures that had deconstructed the fibers of his life.
It wouldn’t last, this he knew. There would come a day, very soon no doubt, when he would take his smattering of belongings, give Johnny Duncan a firm handshake, and set again on his damaged journey. This was who he was – Matthew Cooney, architect of grand failures. He would fail again, and fail better, and he knew it to be his lot.
But on this morning the sun still shone through air so brittle and cold it might break, and ducks quacked plaintively on the nearby pond, and a church bell tolled Matins. A young mother scurried by in a bundle of gloves and scarves pushing a pram with an equally bundled baby. The city breathed alive again in short and small sips.
Matthew Cooney looked upward, shuffled on the bench, and looked up to the sky’s piercing blue. Failure perhaps, but Lord, wasn’t some of it grand and beautiful?
Where Can a Man Run
Donal Mannion walked the afternoon streets of Washington in a dead humor. A leaden heart pumped his thick and dull blood through limbs that did not want to move against the freakish late October heat and the humidity that pressed his skin like a wet, warm cloth. He walked in small steps. No rush to it, because there was really no place to go.
Across from the Treasury Department, the Old Ebbitt Grill pulled him like a magnet. In this deadened afternoon comfort could best come from the familiar places. Donal stepped through Lafayette Park to H Street, then around the corner on 15th. A block and a half to the classic pillared doorway, where he wrapped a tired hand around the great golden handle and pulled it open, Cold air slapped his face, he breathed in the scent of leathers and wood, then claimed a seat at the long bar.
“Scotch, neat. Johnny Walker Red,” he said as the barman came his way. With a silent nod, the older man grabbed the relevant bottle. When the drink arrived, Donal raised it first to his nose and breathed in the rich, smoky aroma of days gone by. He sipped fire into his throat and felt its burn match the fury of his troubled soul.
So many times here, this, his favorite place to decompress after long days on the Hill. Most often he would be with friends, and they would digest the day’s events, argue about politics, disparage their colleagues who weren’t there with them, and, if luck combined sufficiently with a cavalier attitude born of too much alcohol, cheat on their wives. That last act become less and less uncommon as time went by. The Ebbitt had its share of young women who came for the same reasons.
Donal Mannion sipped his drink quietly. A drink was a drink no matter when he might have it. He relished the calm this one imparted to his unsettled thoughts, drank it down, then gestured for another.
As he received it from the still-silent barman, Donal turned to his left to look into a face he had not seen before. A young man about his age occupied the seat next to him. Donal had not seen him enter, had not heard him sit down, had not felt the jostle of another body so close to where he sat.
The young man had his own drink, Scotch, or so it appeared. He raised his glass and smiled over the rim of it.“I hope I’m not disruptin’ ya here,” he said. “This seemed to be the place for me to sit.”
Donal regarded this stranger with a silent eye. The newcomer had a glint of mischief about him, a twinkle in his soft smile. About his height, sharing the same slight build, the same shock of dark hair, and nothing remarkable in any of it. Donal turned back to his own drink without a word.
“I don’t mean to be presumptuous, lad, but it seems as if you might be in need of a friendly voice.”
Donal sighed. “Don’t really know what I need. Maybe some space. Maybe just another drink.”
“I’ve seen you here before, I believe. Not recently, mind you, but a few times a while back. Seemed you were never alone then. And it seemed you were having a grand bit more fun than you are now.”
Donal turned to study the other. “You look familiar.” He nodded. “But I can’t really place you. Didn’t notice you here. But it’s a big place, and lots of people come and go.” He sipped again at a drink now a bit more necessary than it had been a few minutes prior. “Maybe I’ve seen you.”
“Do you have a name?”
“Donal. Donal Mannion.” There was reluctance in his reply. A conversation it would be, then, and apparently no getting away from it.
“A fine name. And how did you come here to be drinking by yourself on a summer’s afternoon? That’s not your habit, I’ll wager.”
“It becomes a habit when there’s nothing else to fill the time. I come here. It’s as close to comfort as I find these days.”
“Not how it used to be,” said the other. “I recall you drinking, and laughing, and making a grab at the lasses. Good fun in those days, no?”
“Good fun. But nothing lasts forever.” Donal finished his drink quickly, and another appeared before him, seemingly of its own merit. He looked at the Scotch, then back to his new companion.
“I took the liberty,” he said.
Donal sighed once more. “Nothing lasts forever. Not even good Scotch.”
“So you’re drinking alone now. I’ll dare to ask what happened.”
“I took myself too seriously. Thought I was the hottest ticket ever to work on Capitol Hill, and no one could possibly know more about what I should be doing than I did myself. Not even the Senator I worked for. I knew the issues better, I knew the heart of his constituents, I knew everything he needed to do. I was smarter than he was, too, or so I thought.” Donal set into his new drink, his head lighter and his heart grown darker.
“One day I told him all that. He had cancelled a project I had worked on for three months, another in a long line of stupid moves. So I unloaded on him – every insult I thought I had suffered, every ridiculous, hypocritical move he made, every time he acted like a pompous ass.” Donal sipped again. “He didn’t like it much. Let’s just say I’m ‘between jobs.’”
“Ah, but there’s more to it than that, am I right?” replied the other.
Donal chuckled a mirthless laugh. “Yeah,” he said. “A bit more. Turns out at the same time that my darling wife of ten years came to the conclusion that I had been unfaithful. Probably a rumor she heard. She came down here one night when I wasn’t on my best behavior. I didn’t expect her.” He sipped again. “She left with my son the day after I lost my job. I haven’t talked with her since, although I’ve tried. She won’t answer her phone, or any texts. I expect I’ll be hearing from a lawyer quite soon.”
“Sad, Donal. Truly sad. But it seems you’ve dealt your own hand.”
“For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Someone said that once,” and he drank again. At length he turned to the newcomer and said, “Do I detect a bit of Ireland in you?”
“More than a bit. I was born there. Came to this country when I was nineteen.”
“I’m Irish myself. Two generations. My grandfather came over and married an Irish girl. Never met him. Their son is my father. Dad named me after the Old Fella.”
“That’s how it happens. We seek out our own, especially when we’re lost and a bit afraid. And I was certainly both of those things. As you are now.”
“More than a bit lost, my new friend. And most definitely afraid.”
“But I’ve come to tell you this. It gets better, Donal. It has to, or else we die. No matter how fast you sprint from all the shite, you can never outrun yourself. You’ve done what you’ve done, and that’s placed you where you are, but that’s not all there is to it. You face it, and it gets better. Ask yourself where you need to go. What you need to do. You’ll learn the proper answers.”
“And you’re telling me this.”
“I see it. Give yourself about three months. You’ll be amazed. New job, new woman, and a very precious, new humility that will keep both of them with you.”
“You seem pretty confident in your predictions.”
“They’re not predictions, Donal. As I said, I see it. Janey will be a painful memory, and you’ll be missing Tommy the Lad fiercely, not seeing him grow up the way you want to. You’re broken now, Donal, but you’ll grow stronger at the broken places. It’ll all be fine in the end. And, if it’s not fine, it won’t be the end.”
Donal turned in his seat to face his companion. He stared into a face still hinting mischief. Still hinting a secret wisdom.
“You say you were born in Ireland. Where?”
“In the small town of Schull, County Cork. The western part, not far from Mizen Head.”
Donal Mannion’s heart beat a quick tattoo, and small beads of perspiration formed at once near his temples. “You know my wife’s name, and my son’s, but you’ve not told me yours.”
The companion smiled. “You know my name as well as your own, lad. And it’s time that I go. But you’ll see me again, to be sure.” With these last words Donal Mannion’s gaze clouded over, and a fine mist painted his vision with a delicate and fair whiteness. He closed his eyes against the glare.
When he opened them, the seat next to his was empty. He reached over a shaking hand to feel its leather, and found it cold to the touch.
Where can a man run or where can he hide when he looks behind him and sees that he is only pursued by himself?