I stumbled into the dimly lit, dark chestnut paneled bar with faded stained-glass lights hanging from the ceiling. The smell of stale beer was like rotting leaves in the woods after a massive downpour. The stench of fried food hung heavy in the air.
This was the bar where I’d first met Al. He’d gone out with a group of friends, and he’d been set up with someone’s colleague. She had walked out, clearly unimpressed. As he stared into his gloomy beer, I’d popped in to pick up class notes from one of the guys and he’d flashed his trademark goofy smile. The rest was history.
My stomach gurgled a warning, but I ignored it. My stomach was not in crisis right now. I found a sticky red stool at the corner of the well-worn, mahogany bar. It wobbled when I perched on it, but that’s how I felt already. Gerry the bartender eyed me warily.
“Whachya doin here?” Listening to his thick Irish brogue in the midst of chattering heads around me was like clutching at a heavy bough in the middle of a windstorm.
“Two beers” I held up my fingers.
“Who’re you drinking with?” Gerry raised his eyebrows.
He sighed and placed the mugs on the bar. I downed them so fast, I didn’t even taste them.
A pleasant underwatery haze undulated around me. No barb could pierce me, I was floating behind a thick wall. My eyes lost focus and I rocked slightly. Or was that the stool?
“Hey there! You alone tonight?” A tall, dark-haired man wearing a checkered flannel shirt with similar unfocused eyes squinted in my general direction. I was aware that his gaze also traveled over my head as he simultaneously searched the room for possible easier options. He was strategic, at least.
“Why’re you staring at me?” I huffed.
“Because I’m waiting for your answer.” His leer made me shudder as he looked me up and down. He leaned in toward me with a wet pucker. I pondered my next move. The floor dropped below me as I slid in toward him.
“Amos, get lost, buddy. Over there’s a poor lass in the corner strugglin’ to hold up the wall. Go check on her, will ya?” Gerry motioned to the opposite side of the room and held on to the guy’s beer until he got off the stool next to me.
As Mr. Barfly lurched away, I pointed to my mug and signaled for one more.
“Listen, Jen, you’re an awful mess. What’s the matter with you?” Gerry dried with a grayish rag and placed a glass carefully back on the shelf behind him.
“I’ve got troubles.”
“Yes, erm, I know something about the Troubles.” He smiled.
Gerry had been a staunch IRA supporter and had held numerous unofficial fundraisers during the 90s in the bar to finance their activities. Even when the immigration authorities had come around warning him about being deported, he’d kept on.
“What you need, young lass is to get some coffee, pick up the pieces of yourself and go after what you want. Period. Otherwise, you’ll be wearing off the upholstery on me stool.” His eyes narrowed. He put a mug of coffee in front of me and waved at Nuala who dashed over with a plate of crackers and a steaming bowl of beef stew with huge chunks of vegetables. The aroma of the hearty broth made my stomach jump for joy.
“There’re no tables at the moment, but eat up, Luv.” She placed napkins and a spoon on the bar and scurried off.
I crumbled a cracker in my fingers and watched the crumbs fall in slow motion onto the bar while I ignored the pleas of my desperate hunger.
“Jen, Sorry to sound so fatherly and all,” Gerry started.
“No-that’d be a first in my life-go for it.” My laugh was bitter.
“Jen, you’ve usually got your head straight on. I don’t know what’s goin’ on with you, but you’ll not find what you’re lookin’ for here.” He placed a glass of ice water in front of me and rushed off to another customer further down the bar.
Mr. Barfly got back onto his stool, glanced at the food, and rolled his eyes. “Lightweight, are ya?” He sloshed some beer on the bar while waving his mug.
To keep him from advancing again, I stabbed a huge chunk of carrot and jammed it into my mouth, making sure my cheeks bulged. He turned away and chatted up a young twenty-something blonde sitting on the other side of him.
The bar was buzzing with laughter, loud voices, shouting, and clinking balls from the pool table in the other room. Every table had a clear, membranous, protective dome over it and the people inside were unaware of any other conversations in the room. And here I was again, on the outside looking in, slithering around in the ether, not fitting in anywhere.
I scrolled through my phone. On Bernadine’s home page, she’d posted more pictures and I saw a banner that said ‘NYC District Attorney Dinner’ hanging on a wall behind her. There was a picture of her standing with DA Mather and a few other ADA’s she’d introduced to me in the past. She’d mentioned the work dinner before and how she’d dreaded the boring evening. In my anger, I’d decided that she’d posted that picture of Tom and herself just to taunt me. The barrier around me crumbled a little- at the edges.
The air grew sharper in the room as my vision slowly cleared. The stew quieted the stirrings in my stomach. A cold blast blew in as someone held open the door and a large party filed in.
Nuala came over with the check. “How’s Al doin, then?” She placed the paper on the bar.
“He’s been away on a project. He’s due back any day now.” My throat got very tight with the realization that I’d spoken that sentence so many times that I’d forgotten it might not be true. I choked back a rising lump.
“Huh? I thought. I saw him earlier tonight.” Her eyebrows drew in. She looked up and caught Gerry’s eye. “Erm, maybe I didn’t see him, I saw the…erm…back of a head and..uh assumed it was him.” Nuala was in a fluster.
“Whaaaat? Here? Are you sure?” My heart pounded quickly as I scanned every male’s face in the room. My face was cold and beads of sweat dripped from my forehead.
“Are you all right, Luv?” Nuala gently put her curled index finger under my chin and scanned my face.
“Yeah. Yeah. You’re probably right. You thought you saw him. Was he with someone?” My mouth was dry, and no amount of water would help.
“Erm yeah. A short man with sandy hair and a droopy mustache.” Nuala searched through her pockets. “Here, look at this though. As I rang up the ticket, this was on the back.”
She handed it to me.
There, in Al’s distinctive scrawl, I saw these words: Just hold on.
I asked if I could keep the receipt and shuffled out into the bleak, wintry night. Shadowy trees loomed and harsh neon lights glared from over-bright tourist shops as I let the tears freeze on the walk home.
Time won’t follow the path we came
The world you left, it forgot your name
Stay with me and be mine my love
Spare my heart the pain**
*To Track on Foot in Gaelic; also a mythical paradise where you are always youthful
** English lyrics translated from a song entitled Tir Na Nog
- : Thriller/family drama