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Living in a Free State
Vanity of Vanities; all is Vanity – Ecclesiastes 1:2 Another day to the streets, the crawling, creeping, beeping streets and those who drove them. It had been three weeks now, and Donal Mannion had found his place. A revelation it was, to recognize that that place was behind the wheel of a taxicab, but his life to that point had carried its share of surprising revelations. This was no different, really, and, on the whole, a bit more reassuring than the other realities that had punctured his younger years. The panoply of characters that crawled into and out of his cab kept him fresh. Stories floated through the air like the scattered remnants of dandelions, and his capacity for absorbing them, for finding each one peculiar in its own way, made the days pass sharply. At first, during the early days of his driving, he just listened, the ready ear that many of his fares had sought. But occasionally there would be a tale, or a lament, or a loss, that touched him inexplicably, and he might offer a response. Nothing profound, or much beyond the acknowledgement that his passenger had been heard by another human being, and that that human being had a like heart. It was enough. In the late morning a young man, tattered and more than a bit disheveled, flagged Mannion down near Union Station and gave him an address in the northeast part of the city. The young man settled into the back seat with a dirty backpack and muttered a profanity. “Rough morning, is it?’ "No rougher than most. It’s the nights that you have to be wary of.” Mannion drove, and the two said nothing until the cab turned up New York Avenue. It was the driver who broke the silence. “We’re heading for my old neighborhood,” he said. “I grew up on these streets. Never really left them behind.” “No one ever leaves these streets,” said the young man. “It’s what we’re born to, and there’s no call in fighting it. Just make the most of it all, and grab what you can.” “Has the grabbing been good for you lately?” Mannion asked. The young man smiled and leaned forward, his arm on his backpack. “Yeah. A good week this has been. Let me ask you, did you ever have a really good teacher? Someone who taught you everything you really, truly needed to know, then showed you how to make it work for you?” “If I did I wouldn’t be driving this cab.” “I do. Knows everything there is to know about these streets. Who walks the sidewalks and where they live. How they live. And what you need to do to find your way through them. How to take what you need and never think about the costs, then disappear like a whisper. Do you know how much freedom there is in knowing these things, then having the courage to act on that knowledge?” “You sound to be fortunate young man,” said Mannion. “It’s the brave who are truly free. The rest of us cower into our little holes and mistake safety for comfort.” “You know these streets, you said. Do you still live around here?” Mannion chuckled, “And if I did, would I be telling that to you?” “No worries,” replied the other. “You don’t seem the type to have riches stored up, at least to the point where it would interest me.” “Ah, the storing up of wealth is the stuff of vanity, haven’t you heard? I’m a simple man, my young friend. And I’ll spend the rest of my days in that simplicity.” “But you’re not brave.” “No. Not brave at all. I’m as courageous as a churchmouse.” “Then you’ll never be free. And there’s great freedom to be had on these streets.” Mannion pulled the cab to the curb. “Here we are. It’s $6.50 on the fare.” The young man pulled a $20 from his back pocket and gave it up the seat to Mannion. “No change needed.” “Jaysus, that’s generous.” The young man stepped out of the cab to the curb, then leaned over to the driver’s window. “Consider it a gift from the Free State of Andrew Gentry”, and with a laugh he turned to the streets and lightly strode into his new day.
To See Through the Dark
For Conor Finnegan, the drive north was a drive into his past. Out of Washington on Interstate 95 and through the mangle of Baltimore on the way to the blink of Delaware and the sprawling mess that was Philadelphia, and then changing to the road to the coast, through the flatlands of New Jersey. Each time he made this drive Finnegan felt young again, the spirit of the naïve and wondrous lad who first came to this place so many years ago, this place of departures, where old certainties became banal half-truths and new realities spun him off his self-assured gyrations. Conor Finnegan loved New Jersey. He made this drive now out of confusion and wonder. When he experienced such things, he sought the ones who knew him best, the ones who could strip away the veneer that comes from overthinking things. Dan Rosselli had been Finnegan’s college roommate for four years, both of them emerging from the cocoon of a fallow youth together. They came to know each other as brothers, intuitively sharing their times, their thoughts and the marrow of their souls. Now, thirty years on, their closeness mellowed with age and wisdom, they remained close. Rosselli, a prominent plastic surgeon, still lived near his boyhood home on New Jersey’s coast. Finnegan turned off the highway to the local roads that led to the club where he would meet his friend for dinner. A tawdry, faded blue sign, too large by half, welcomed him to Asbury Park. ‘The town that gave us Bruce Springsteen and Dr. Daniel Rosselli,’ he thought. ‘Who says there’s no diversity in the suburbs?’ Later, after two scotches, a full dinner and countless reminiscences, the two sat in the curved seats of the lounge. Rosselli had been a member of this club for years, twice serving as president. He knew it to be a charade, but it was one he gladly played, a manipulated prestige. But this club had its comforts. It was the only private social club on the Jersey shore between New York and Atlantic City, open to anyone who could pay the outrageous initiation fee. And now, in the corner of the lounge, Rosselli and Finnegan sipped their port and felt the warm glow that Finnegan had anticipated, the glow that would provide assurance, and a safe space. “So tell me about your love life, Conor,” Rosselli said with a Cheshire-cat grin. “Tell me about this new woman.” ‘What makes you think there’s a new woman?” “You’re as subtle as a runaway bus, my friend. There are moons in your eyes. I thought you had passed that stage.” Finnegan leaned back and looked out the window onto the water. “Ah, Danny boy, the central question. This new woman. Adrienne.” “Gorgeous, I assume. You’ve always had high standards.” “Yeah. Gorgeous, and well out of my league.” “As are most women.” “As are most women. But Adrienne is special, my friend. Blond, petite, heart-shaped face. Soft voice, as gentle as a whisper. But it’s her eyes. My God, Dan, I’ve never seen such eyes. As blue as a summer sky. And wise. Those eyes see things no one else has ever seen. Sometimes I think she’s some type of sorceress. She’s told me things about myself that I’ve never acknowledged.” “How’d you meet her?” “At the airport. Crowded morning with no place to sit at the Starbucks. The only empty seat was next to me. We hit it off right there. Had dinner together that very night, then off to it.” Rosselli sipped his port. “Sounds serious, Conor.” “I think it is. So should I dive right in?” “Only you know that. But trust her eyes. If she’s looking at you, if she’s looking into you, then there’s something there that’s far too rare. And it looks like you have no choice in the matter. You’re as stuck as a fly in hot tar. Danny boy can always tell.” They finished their port, then hugged their goodbye in the lobby. Finnegan usually dreaded the three-plus hour drive back home in the dead of night. But not this time. The eyes. He trusted the eyes. His, to see through the dark.. But especially hers, to see through the fool.
A Bit of Heat, A Bit of Light
Winter swept into an April night like a vapor, crawling under doorways and wafting itself into the air, chilling what it touched and numbing those who touched it. April, when daffodils poked their tender heads haltingly toward a nurturing sky and birds hopped from branch to branch, reveling in the simple pleasures of sun and seed and song. When a man’s thoughts might turn to dance and music and love itself. But on this night winter made a reappearance, a final thrust across a city at once too eager to see it go. Families huddled in their homes and turned their thermostats up. Cabbies drove with their windows rolled up tight, and the windows of buses fogged up with the moisture of artificial heat. Grocers sold hot chocolate and marshmallows. In Farragut Square, Matthew Cooney hunched on his usual bench. The iron slats ran shanks of cold along the back of his legs, and he arched his shoulders forward under the tatty blanket that had tried to keep him warm for years. Another night at least before he could stuff it into his backpack and pretend that he might never need it again. Next to him sat one of the other regulars. James, his name was. Never ‘Jim.’ Or, God forbid, ‘Jimmy.’ He would react almost violently if someone called him that “My name’s James, God damn it. James. Jimmy, that’s a boy’s name, or something you sprinkle on ice cream.” Sometimes the teasing would continue, though, the taunts from those younger, and bolder, and stronger. James wore the broken teeth and battered bones with pride that he stood up for something. “I’m a man, Matthew,” he had told Cooney when they had first met. “A man with a man’s name. Don’t ever call me Jim.” Now James sat with his shoulder against Cooney’s, and the two of them tried to breathe warmth into their hands. “Ah, Matty. We should be sittin’ someplace warm. Not stuck out in this damn park with nothing but our wits to keep the blood circulating. And pass me a bit of that bottle, would you?” Cooney obliged, and James took a deep draught of the cheap brandy Cooney had snuck out of a package store around the block. Nasty, it was, but its fire lit the belly. “Nah, James. Nothing warm for the likes of us. We’re living the pure life.” “Christ Almighty,” and James took one final swig before passing the bottle back to Cooney. “Think of all the worthless bastards that are sleeping in warm beds tonight and wrapping themselves around their women. And none of ‘em any different than us. Flesh and blood and dreams, just like us.” “Ah, that’s where you’re wrong, Jamesy. We’ve the flesh and the blood, but the dreams are gone. Don’t really know what happened to them either. But gone they are, and we’re left with what we’re left with. And tonight that amounts to this bench, and this brandy, and blankets with as many holes in them as our souls.” “I’d like to get my hands on one of those rich bastards,” James said. “I’d show him what life is really like. Maybe toss him into a trash can and light it on fire, just to keep us warm for a bit.” “And what would that do, James? You’d show him what life is really like, you said, but what would he learn? We build our own boats, my friend, and it’s those boats we must sail. He sails his, complete with the dreams we’ve lost, and we sail ours.” James looked hard at Cooney, who continued softly. “I don’t resent those who’ve made it, James. They’re part of the game, don’t you see? Every day we play the game, seeing what we can get away with, seeing what we can take. Seeing how we can kick ourselves up a notch, or maybe knock someone else down. If there were no rich bastards, there’d be no game.” “Not sure I understand you, Matty.” Cooney smiled, and sipped from the bottle. “Not sure I understand myself, James. There’s some newspapers under that bench over there. Go grab ‘em up and we’ll see if we can burn up this trash can. A bit of heat and a bit of light. That’s all we need. That’s all anybody needs.”
Notes of an Invisible Man
‘A man could live for years in this swarming mass of streets and time and never be seen,’ Cooney thought to himself. The blinders that we wear, the obsessive focus on what’s directly in front of us and what must be done, those to whom we owe allegiance or money or time - all of it the clutter of obligation. And the streets teem with it all, a jumbled mass of interchangeable bodies with interchangeable parts and interchangeable worries. No room for anyone else, and no call to notice what has no immediate value….. Matthew Cooney thrived on invisibility. ‘Nothing to it, really,’ he would tell himself. ‘Just go about your day as if you knew every move to be made. As if you owned the city and everyone in it. No one pays any mind.’ The mistakes came about when one tried not to be seen, or thought himself too bold. Lurking in doorways or clambering down dark alleys – any unnatural action – drew suspicion. Cooney detested attention, unless he were the one to be paying it to complete whatever task was at hand. His one great mistake had been an attempt at daylight robbery, right in the open, hoisting a small gun in the face of the owner of a store that he frequented. Youthful exuberance, it was, mixed with a touch of hubris. It cost him two years behind bars, although even those dull months were not without their rewards. With a youthful charisma Cooney had made friends among the others with whom he shared his time. Some of them came in handy on the outside, providing contacts, leads, and sometimes even partnerships in enterprises too grand to be pursued by one man alone. He had been invisible for years, and had made a living of it. Cooney the Hustler. Cooney the Petty Thief. Cooney the Entrepreneur. The streets provided his sustenance, even as they hid him. Cooney the Invisible Man. On a sunlit late winter morning Cooney walked through the square where he usually spent his days. He surveyed this day – sunshine and enough warmth to keep away discomfort, the chatter of birds, the ever present white noise of car traffic and the shuffling of the swarms coming and going to their places, heads down, absorbed and unsmiling. Cooney had become familiar with the neighborhood and knew the surrounding houses well enough to identify those that might be worth a clandestine visit. The best thieves were patient, and really, there was no need to rush things. He had enough for the day, and for the next several day s. The last house he had visited had proven generous. Again, he had taken just enough, but not so much that the losses would be noticed right away. Cooney set off down the street adjacent the square, the one where the fattest houses stood in sentrylike rows. A reconnaissance mission, that was all. No need to press things today, on this glorious morning. Whatever he might see he would catalogue for future reference, for those days when things might not be so flush. For now he was a happy man. On the way he stopped into a convenience store, the same one he had sought to rob those years ago. “Mornin’, Joe”, he said to the man behind the counter, the same man at whom he had pointed his small gun. They had become friends. “Mornin’ back at ya, Matt,” came the reply from one of the few people on this planet who knew his name, who recognized that Matthew Cooney walked this world. “The usual smokes?” “Indeed. And I’ll take a pint of the Four Roses, too. Something to warm me against a winter’s day.” When the goods appeared Cooney reached into his back pocket and drew forth the bills to pay for it all. This day he had money. It had been a good week. Back to the street, then, and into his walk. No rush. No hurry. He had the day to himself, and he might fill it with anything that caught his fancy. And, best of all, no one would notice him, this lone figure walking the dense streets, owning the city. This blurred human cipher, Cooney the Invisible Man.
The Black Hand, and Nothing To It
The glass was almost empty now, nothing but the crispy bits of ice chips floating in the final puddle at the bottom. Donal Mannion picked it up and licked out the last bits, then gestured to the bartender. “Another, Johnny, when you can.” “Walker Red is it, Donal?” “Exactly. And be generous with your pour.” Mannion frequented The Black Hand, a small bar three blocks from his flat. Three or four nights each week found him at the bar, bantering with whoever might be near him, teasing the girls who ran drinks to the handful of tables near the back, and trading stories with Johnny the Bartender and Leo the Cook, and anyone within listening distance. While The Black Hand was Mannion’s local, it was not his only resting place. There was Clover and Gold, four blocks over, with its Wednesday drink specials, and The Irish Coup, a bar with a horse racing theme that Mannion found amusing and was only a fifteen minute walk. In each place he knew the bartenders by name and the servers by reputation. Johnny of The Black Hand returned with the scotch. “Anything new for you. Donal?” “Not a bit, Johnny. All these days run together like red pants in a white wash, so that everything comes out pink. Not my favorite shade.” “Ah, but change is the order of things, Donal. Nothing lasts forever. Not even the pink.” Mannion chuckled to himself. “Maybe so, my friend. But in the meantime we make do, don’t we?” He paused to take his first sip of the new drink. The cold, smoky richness of good scotch wrapped his throat, a comforter made of liquid rather than cloth. “You know, it didn’t always seem this way.” “Sorry, Donal, I’ve got to tend to these folks,” and Johnny the Bartender hastened to the far side of the bar, ostensibly to greet some newcomers but in truth relieved to be away from the stories, which never varied, and the self-pity, which never waned. “No,” said Donal, now to himself alone, “It wasn’t always this way.”……. “Damn it, Mannion, this report is five days late and tells me nothing. We need analysis, not speculation, and certainly not fantasy. This may as well have been written in crayon. What the hell am I supposed to do with this?” “You can jam it up your arse, Davis. Or boil it into a stew and serve it to your dogs.” “I’m done with it all, Mannion. Done with your laziness, and your lip. A last warning, this is” “Save it, Champ. I’m done with it all, too.” The clutter on Davis’s desk went flying as Donal Mannion swept it with his forearm. Pictures, papers and books flew to the floor, and Mannion heard the tinkling of broken glass. “Done with it all,” shouted one last time, as he stormed out of his last office, out of his last job ……. Ten years ago,’ he thought to himself. ‘And here I am. Still drawing a breath and a pension. Could be worse, I suppose.’ He nursed his drink in relative silence. As it drew once more to the bottom of the glass, he looked through the wide front window of The Black Hand and saw a young couple looking inside, deliberating whether a drink in such a place might be worth their time. The two held hands, and at one point the girl looked up at her man and laughed, a gentle and genuine burst of glee. Her man smiled back at her, the two shook their heads and walked on. Donal Mannion sat where he was, and watched them head to someplace else. He did not do so. Instead, he gestured once more to the bartender. “Johnny.” He waved his empty glass. “Another, if you please. And be generous with your pour.”
Cleaning the Shattered Bits
"I’ve something to tell you, Gina.” Donal Mannion took a sip of his scotch, the pathway to his courage and the herald of his greatest mistakes. It was wine that soothed his soul, and scotch that fired it. This had always been so, from the days of his first taste of each, a 13 year-old boy running the streets with his equally wild friends. He had formed a quick and lasting relationship with both, wine his confidant and scotch the instigator of mischief, of boldness, and, in the end, of honesty. Tonight was a night for the scotch. Gina sat back in her chair and held her own glass. The banter of the evening had been tense from the start, none of the easygoing back and forth between lovers accustomed to the other’s moods and rhythms. Gina had prepared a simple dinner of salmon and rice, most of which Donal had uncharacteristically left on his plate. “Something to tell me, is it? I can only imagine.” “Ah, Gina,” Donal took one last sip, then leaned forward. “It’s hard enough to put it out there without your darts. Please just listen.” Gina said nothing through a thin smile, then sat back in her chair, cradling the wine glass. “Okay then, here it is. You know we’ve made something of a path together these past months. I’ve tried to tell you how I feel, tried to crawl inside that locked vault that passes for your heart. I still don’t know what’s in there, to be sure. “But I’ll tell you what’s in mine,” he continued through another small sip. “You know me for who I am. All the flaws, all the tempers. All the losses. You’re perhaps the first woman I’ve ever known who’s seen me away from any romanticism or idealization. Not that there’s ever been much to idealize. So I know to you I’m no ideal, and God knows I’m no Adonis.” Gina held up a hand. “Wait, Donal. Just wait. I don’t want this to go any further,” but Donal plunged on. “You recall that afternoon when I took you to the airport when you flew home for your mother’s illness. I was trying to bark out these things then, but the time ran out and I lost the nerve. Same things on my mind today, and in my heart.” “And I don’t want to hear them, Donal. Damn it, man. I’ve told you from the start that commitment leads to tragedy. We have no need to punish ourselves through a false bonding. So stop it, and let’s carry on as we are. There’s enough in that for both of us, I think.” “Ah, Gina. I know all that. But this is you and me.” Donal paused, then continued slowly. “And next month the lease on my flat runs out and I was hoping maybe I could join you here, a place for the two of us.” Gina Morelli sipped the last of her wine, fingered the round glass, then flung it into a far wall. The tinkling of shattered glass reverberated for several seconds. If this were not her own apartment, she would have headed for the door. Instead, she turned to her man. “So what’s in your heart is rental space, is it, Donal? Perhaps a place where you can lay your head and ride your lover after she cooks you her meals and pays for the very place you claim as your own. Damn your ass, Donal Mannion. You’ve just put the blessing to all my notions. And all my fears.” Donal sat back in his chair shyly, and let the quiet return. “It was just a thought, Gina. Just a notion. Might do us both some good.” Gina nestled deeply into her chair, quietly brooding. “Christ, you didn’t think I was going to suggest marriage, or something foolish like that?” He gave a small laugh. “I’m fond of you, lass, but I’m not suicidal.” “No, Donal,” she sighed. “You’re not suicidal. Just a user. And very cunning at it.” “Aren’t we all, darlin’ Gina? Here, you sit back. I’ll fetch the broom and pan, and get this mess cleaned up.”
In the Blurring
It was along 14th Street on a hot summer’s afternoon, and Donal Mannion needed a drink. Donal Mannion often needed a drink these days, as well as days past. In fact most of his past dozen years or so had called for the bracing of his favorite scotch, or asional beer. Something to dull the edges. Something to break the stifling, meaningless stagnancy of his days. Into the Old Ebbitt then, a place he knew well, and that knew him. Sad it was that he had come to know most of the bartenders by name. Afternoons or evenings, it didn’t matter. He knew them, knew them by name and by the strength of their pours. “Afternoon, Johnny,” he called to the overdressed figure bent below the bar, tending to something or other that needed tending. “Good afternoon, Mr. Mannion,” Johnny said as he straightened himself. “What can give you pleasure today?” “A beautiful woman and a stronger bank account, but since I’ve got neither, I’ll settle for a Dewars.” Johnny smiled as he made his pour. “Ah now, you wouldn’t be using alcohol as a crutch, would you, Donal?” “Not at all, Johnny. A crutch helps me walk. Alcohol is more like not seeing the last step when you’re climbing a stairway.” The familiarity of it, here, in this place, as Johnny turned back to the other end of his bar, where another afternoon drinker beckoned his service. And into the afternoon Donal Mannion sipped his scotch, then another, faintly glowing an internal heat that balanced the hot and heavy air from the streets. He sat there blurry and blurred, as he preferred, until a soft hand touched his shoulder. Donal started at the touch, a rare thing, and his nerves jolted him to sharpness. He turned, and looked into a face once as familiar as these bars. “Annie.” “Hello Donal.” A smile to her face, neither pleasant nor warm. Amused perhaps. “I thought from a distance it might be you at the bar. Why am I not surprised to find you in this place?” “You always seemed to know my habits, Ms. Annie. You always knew where to find me. How’ve you been? It’s been a while.” “A while, yes, and time well spent. Back on my feet, I suppose you’d call it. Doing well, Donal. A new job. A new man. One who doesn’t chase the ladies in bars like this.” “Ah, a thinly veiled reference to my past indiscretions,” Donal chuckled. “You’re a bit of a fox, Annie, in your sly and cruel approach to things. Tough times those were. But it’s good to see you, despite it all. Good to hear you’re back to being yourself.” “It took a bit to recover from the detour you set me on. But it’s all good now. You know we’re better apart.” “Better perhaps than we ever were together. It’s good to see you, Annie.” “I wish I could say the same. But I had to know it was you over here, drinking your scotch. I’ll not wish you well, Donal. It’s too soon for that, and the wounds are still too fresh and deep. I’ll just leave you here to your pleasures, and acknowledge only that we’ve met.” She walked away. Donal raised his glass toward his ex-wife. How many years had it been? Three, he thought it was, perhaps four. Too soon to forget it all. He emptied his glass and gestured for another. Nothing left to do but drink on, and drink away the day, until the blurring returned. When it did, as it inevitably would, he might give Gina a call, and see if she would join him here. Pass the time a bit together, until a new sunrise called him back to wherever he was, and whatever he had become.
Dancing with Anna Livia
There are fourteen river Gods in Ireland, though, in typical Irish style, one of them is the God of the Atlantic Ocean. Of these Gods thirteen are hairy men and one is the epitome of female beauty, Anna Livia Plurabella.……. On that morning years ago, the morning of the crowded airport and the dawnings of time and life, when he first heard her voice, when he turned and first saw blue eyes that would become for him a constant beacon, Conor Finnegan recognized that the matrices of his narrow, focused existence had shifted. He knew this instinctively, the whisper of a soft and subtle voice telling him that his axis had just been displaced, slightly at first, but with an immense potential to whirl around in increasingly wider arcs. There had been no place else for her to sit, or so it seemed. She stood there balancing a travel bag, a briefcase and a Starbucks latte, frazzled, disjointed, and perhaps the most beautiful woman Conor’s eyes had ever found. It took an act of concentrated will just to be able to stammer out a response, “Please”, as he jolted to his feet, bumping the table as he pushed back his chair and sending a few drops of his own latte over the edge. Adrienne, her name was. Conor had never known an ‘Adrienne’, and the name itself burrowed into his delicate psyche with a lyricism that would never leave him. Later he would marvel at the prescience of her parents, who at her birth found for her a name that echoed the grace and elegance that every movement, every phrase seemed to carry. So then, on that faraway morning, this dance had begun. As time passed, Conor mused at the series of accidents, curiosities and whimsies that had created their space. What if the airport that day had not been so crowded? What if his plane had come in late, or hers? What if the man in line ahead of him had taken more time to make up his mind – latte or double espresso? – and Conor would have been standing in a queue instead of claiming the next-to-last of too few seats? What if she had looked at him then, and seen him for what he really was? But life’s elliptical journey is defined by the accidents that intertwine our destinies, and this was no different. Hadn’t Thomas Wolfe written that “Each of us is all the sums he has not counted: subtract us into the nakedness and night again, and you shall see begin in Crete four thousand years ago the love that ended yesterday in Texas.” It was love, indeed, and everything that went with it – the struggles of two arcing careers, where to be, what to do, how to live. Children and schools. The arguments, and then the gentle repairs. The worries and frets of money, and relationships, and that greatest of all concerns, the specter of time. Conor Finnegan sat now in a well appointed living room and gazed across at Adrienne, reading her book, a blanket tucked around legs drawn under her delicate form. Still thin and light after these years. Conor sipped his wine, then looked out the back window to the woods, shadowed now in a setting sun. The sun was in fact setting, for both of them. It had been twenty-five years since the flusters of an airport morning had thrown them together. Conor had not broken her, although he was sure that there were times when he had come close. He was, after all, who he was. Let the sun set, then, and let the tyranny of time sweep down the last of their years together. There was no sorrow in this, no sense of loss. Conor Finnegan had married Anna Livia, the most beautiful woman he could ever know. He looked to her again, as he always had, and the river of time flowed through them, and around them, more softly than he could ever have anticipated.
Summer in the City
A clear day it was with moderate heat under a sky broken with the occasional cloud and a breeze that came and went just long enough to cool skin the sun had warmed. Days like this were rare enough, a departure from the oppressive heat and humidity that beat down Washington’s streets and made those who walked them cross and sore. Summer in the city. But this day dawned differently, and Donal Mannion rose with a mind to take advantage of it. Begin it at the corner bistro with the treat of a fine breakfast and then see where his feet might take him. The city was built for walking, everything accessible within the rectangles and diagonals of its well ordered streets, and ample parks and greens along the way to rest, to sit under some shade and talk with the birds. This day, this bright anomaly within this withering season, would be his alone. Within this city of museums and monuments, someplace glittering and alluring could be found. The Museum of Natural History, or perhaps the magnificence of the National Art Gallery, those strong and proud buildings along the Mall that drew tourists like gnats. One of those places that sparked something deep within him and stirred life into hopes and ideals dormant or afraid to show themselves. A day to savor the grandest achievements of man, he thought. Donal Mannion began to walk southward from his small flat, down Connecticut Avenue toward DuPont Circle with its bookstores and cafes, the shops and boutiques that lined the northwest streets, then to the Mall beyond. A grand day, it was, and Donal felt it in every vessel, every artery, every spark of idea or thought. Great it was to be alive on such a day, and in such a place. At 14th and K Streets a crowd had gathered, milling about, with faces drawn, or some leaning forward to see through it all to what lay beyond. Something to see here, and Donal crossed the street from 15th to see what it was. He pressed himself into the mass of bodies. “Ah God,’ he muttered when he saw the trickle of red behind the police line. Donal nudged the man next to him. “D’ye know what went down here?” “No idea. A drive-by shooting. Or a random one. Who can tell? Another one.” “We’ve got quite the body count this year, no?” “Every year, friend. We just keep shooting ourselves, and there’s no end to it.” A young man lay on the other end of the trickle, a white covering that could hide neither his form nor the lifesblood that ran from it.; Another one, and more to come. Police kept the line tight and the crowd began to disperse. “Move along, folks. Nothin’ any of us can do.” The officers moved in well practiced procedures, expressionless and automatic. Nothing any of us can do. The National Art Gallery, where the grandest achievements of his species hung on walls, while the brutality of the day played itself out in regular rhythms. Donal Mannion shrugged, then frowned, then turned back toward 15th Street. The Old Ebbitt Grill was around the corner, and this day, bright, beautiful and more typical than he had thought, called for a drink.
Angels In The Dark Days
In early April in 1994 a missile shot up from the hillsides near the Kigali airport and brought down a small plane holding Juvenal Habyarimana, Rwanda’s president, and a few others, including the president of neighboring Burundi. Much of the wreckage crashed into the presidential palace, perhaps a fitting symbol of what was to come. The western news media paid little mind to the incident, and most of us went about our daily routines without even a passing curiosity. Rwandans had no such luxury. The presidential assassination unleashed an ethnic turmoil that had burbled sporadically for generations. In the coming weeks, the western press came to analyze and debate a relatively unusued concept – genocide. No one really knows how many were killed before a fragile peace was won three months later. Some estimates runs as high as a million, and the floor seems to be set at 800,000. No one knows. What we do know is that most of the killing was intimate, committed through machetes and clubs, neighbors slaying neighbors. Piles of bodies lined the roadside checkpoints where the militias exercised a drunken authority over life and death. Churches where the targets sought sanctuary became killing centers, places where God turned his back and the worst impulses of the sorry creation of man acted out in violence and despair. Now, nearly three decades later, almost no one pays heed to the Rwandan genocide. Our lives have gone on from the news, as they should, and we regard now the challenges and crises that mark the new days. But I cannot do so, and each April on the anniversary of the onset of this incredible slaughter, I think back to Rwanda. A few years after the genocide I visited Rwanda for a week in the springtime. I was working with the American Refugee Committee (now renamed Alight) and was sent to tour the work done in the conflict’s aftermath. What I saw – what I felt – during those days changed who I was forever. In my second novel, Through the Waters and the Wild, I drew from that trip to dwell on those changes. Conor Finnegan, the immensely flawed central figure in the narrative, visited a Rwandan refugee camp and encountered a small girl, no more than six or seven, who came to represent one of the book’s central themes. This girl exists, or at least she did then, and continues to haunt my thoughts and flare my conscience. While I fictionalized parts of the encounter, I did not fictionalize her. When she first saw me she rushed to me and grabbed my hand. For the remainder of my time in the camp she did not let go. She did not speak, or smile, or laugh, or do anything one might expect from a small child encountering the new phenomenon of a white man walking through her world. I knelt before her several times to ask her name, to smile at her, and to pat my own heart as I tried to bring her out. No response other than an intense stare through dark eyes beneath a furrowed brow. The other children teased us, telling me that she was ‘votre cherie’ – my sweetheart. Still she held on to me until I reached the point where I had to leave. I turned to her one final time and whispered words that I hoped she might understand, that I was going but that I would never forget her. As I climbed into the truck to drive away, at last she gave me a response: While all the other children had run back up the hill to the camp, she stayed to continue looking at me through the fencing. Two giant tears ran down her face. To this day I see those eyes, see those tears. And I have no idea what to do with that. I’ve tried to ascribe meaning to the incident, tried to make sense of it and use it as some type of impetus – for thought, or action, or even just feeling. But what impetus can there be in the suffering of children caught in the crossfire? What possible value is there in the sacrifice of this young girl’s childhood – and the childhoods of millions of young people around the world – who become the currency of conflict, and whose lives are nothing more than the byproduct of hatred, greed and the violence that goes with it all? I have no answers. None of us do. And so each April I regard the genocide in Rwanda, and think of this little angel who had no chance to be a child. I cannot imagine the trauma she faced in her young life. I wonder what it is she had lost – a home, perhaps her parents, a family dispersed, the identity, security, discovery and joy of being a child as the world opens up. I wonder where she is today, and what became of her. At the end of these days when Rwanda comes back to me, I try to sleep while the images float through me and around me. And before I make the effort to sleep, I will say another prayer for the soul of this girl, and thank her, although she could never have wanted to proffer the gift, for making me wiser by showing me what I cannot know.
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.
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?