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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?
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.
The Call of Springtime in the Fallow Days
We walk now in the coldest, the cruelest of winters, this winter, with its deep sorrows. But it will not always be this way, and we must believe this. We must know these things. We must know that in the renascent warmth of new spring, we shall find ourselves again, find the best, lost parts of us that had been forlorn while icy winds bite across our necks and kill the senses on cheeks and eyelids. It is in these days, the days that dawn darkly and end quickly, that the world seems entranced in black , and adrift. The days hopeless in scope and despairing of relief, bracketed by blown snow, ice, and winds that never seem to die. But spring puts the lie to this despair, and once more we emerge from our frozen stasis. In the celebration of our rebirth, when our limbs grow once again strong, our blood flows high, and there is joy and purpose in our days, we are once more as young as we ever were, as alive as we ever might be. So, do not think of the times when the bleak and desperate days will once again hold dominion over our time, over our souls. Do not choose to remember the lonely dark nights and the short grey days where clouds press down like damp, cold cloth and breath itself comes hard. Do not dwell on these barren times. Not now. Be willing to forget for a time, to embrace the delusion that life is warm and full and grand, that the soft new grass will feel full beneath our bare feet, that the reclaimed sun will infuse comfort and wellness through each pathway until it descends into a gentle nightfall. Be willing to forget for a time, even within the certainty that the cold days will come again, that nothing on this earth ever truly dies, that power and beauty and grace and strength and pleasure and love itself are forever haunted by flesh that grows weary, by spirits that seep into nothingness, by souls turned as numb as uncovered hands on a snowy winter night. By a disease that runs laughing through these cold days. Be willing to forget for a time the lost faces left behind through a comet’s fleeting arc. Believe for an instant that the virtuous and the holy hold sway forever in the newborn warmth of springtime, that gentility governs each action, that an abiding nobility beats within each breast and welcomes each new face into a community that will never die. Grasp the hand of God Himself, clasp His shoulder, and look deeply and fully into His infinite eyes. Do this in the promised rebirth of the warm and breathlessly golden days. Nothing on this earth ever truly dies.
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?
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.