There was a time that seems to us so far away—but it's not so distant when we measure the span of years. It was the waning of an era in which people cared more for preserving traditions than for throwing them away.
It was a gray afternoon, following a gray morning in that limbo time of year between winter and spring. It wasn't yet time to be thinking about St. Paddy's Day; people were tired of snow. It had arrived pretty and white but time had turned it dirty and stale. A strip of bare concrete had finally worn its way through the blanket of ice that had covered the sidewalks for so many weeks. It was too warm for overcoats; too cold to venture outdoors without one.
That was outside. Inside the bar, Kevin was polishing the glassware. There were no patrons yet and it was a Wednesday. He, nevertheless, had reason to expect brisk business a little later in the day—and well into the night. He wore the standard uniform that he dressed himself in each time he stood behind the bar; white dress shirt, sleeves folded halfway back up his forearms, and black tie with black trousers. He glanced at his reflection in the mirror behind the back bar, which reminded him that (although he once thought it impossible) the years were weaving a space for him in the fabric of time. He still had burley forearms and a barrel chest but his belly pushed his belt out farther than he would have liked. His black, curly head of hair that he'd taken for granted in his twenties, was retreating from his forehead as he stepped over the line of forty, but hadn't quite surrendered. He had the square jaw of the Irish.
Kevin kept the lighting on the low side in the long, narrow barroom, but not overly so. He wasn't sure why; the effect was to soften some aspects of reality and make it easier to add a pretense or two. At any rate, that was the way it always was. It could have been a neighborhood saloon in 1970, or 1960, or 50 or...
Most of the patrons had Irish names. There were a few Germans, too, and perhaps an Italian sprinkled in here or there. The Poles and Ukrainians had their own places on the north side of town. A few, but not many, of the Irish could trace their lines to the tarriers who dug the Erie Canal, or the desperate refugees of the Potato Famine who later fought and died in the Civil War. Most families had come later, for whatever the reason, but they still claimed kinship with those immigrants who'd brought them so much fame.
The brogue was mostly a sound in their memories—of grandparents, or parents when they were living. There were few who could not recall at least one who was born on the 'auld sod' and the way words trickled from their tongues like music. The brogue was a frame of mind, too, that decades were slow to erase. It mattered not if one was born in America or across the sea. The bond was a secret one, known only to those it touched; it grew stronger over the years as the world pulled and grasped at them, trying to tear them away from what they knew they were.
Kevin thought little of all that while he polished, awaiting his first patron of the day. If he'd had a few spare moments he might have reflected on how his little tavern was the neighborhood gathering place for so many decades—even before he took the place over from his father, Big Bill Higgins (God rest his poor, tired soul, and of his dear mother lyin' b'side 'im."). He had to think about business—and the bar business was getting tougher all the time. The younger crowd didn't seem to care about a bar without a juke box blasting out rock and roll which would have drowned out conversations amongst neighbors and friends—and chased away the established clientele. It was Kevin's dilemma, for he needed new faces to fill in the barstools made empty by the ages. It was different times.
He kept polishing the glasses and was re-checking the bowls of pretzels when the door opened at the far end. The blast of light pouring in the open door from behind the figure blinded out the details except the short, portly silhouette in a trench coat ambling with a slight hitch in his gait to the place at the bar where Kevin polished. It didn't matter; he knew at once who it was. The patron entered as an actor—stage-right.
"Good afternoon, Mr. O'Connor. How are you this day?"
The older man deposited his trench coat on a hook mounted on the wall and claimed a barstool. He was overdressed for the bar in a gray suit. Muttonchops framed his round face. His red, wavy hair was thinning and threads of gray were woven throughout what remained.
"Ah, Boy-o, ye know I need a whiskey. A shot o' Corby's, if ye please—an' a chaser."
"Been to Dooley's wake? I went early— before I had to open."
"Aye, I was jus' there, an' it was a sad sight—a sad one, I tell ye."
"I'll have one with you—in honor of Old Dooley, of course. But, we'll keep the Corby's on the shelf for right now. I brought out a bottle of the Jameson-18 for the occasion. I'll buy the first one."
"Kevin-boy, I swear yer a saint."
The proprietor lined up two shot glasses. With great ceremony he broke the seal on the bottle of Irish whiskey and carefully filled them.
"No chaser needed with that!"
"No, I wouldn't think so, Mr. O'Connor. Well, here's to Old Dooley." He swept the shot glass from the bar and raised it to his lips, tilted his head back and let the dram slide down his throat. He set the glass back on the bar. O'Connor was sipping his.
"I'm seventy years old, Kevin-boy. I got t' take my time."
He took another tiny sip.
"This 'ere whiskey's better for the sippin', anyway." He tenderly raised the shot glass to his lips again. "An' I'd be pleased if ye'd call me by de name m' mudder gave me; ye got t' call me James."
"You tell me that every time you come in the bar; it's hard to get used to. It was 'Mister O'Connor' when I was ten and sweepin' out the place for my father and you were sitting on that very same barstool."
"Yer d' owner now, Boy-o. Try a little harder, will ye?"
"That, I'll do," Kevin promised.
"To Old Dooley," James said and threw his head back and poured down the balance of the shot. "Sad, I tell ye, 'tis truly sad."
Before Kevin could answer the front door opened and both men's heads turned to meet the intruder. It was old Mike Flynn.
"Mike, bring yerself right in an' be quick. Kevin's buyin' Jameson in honor o' Old Dooley."
Kevin sighed. "Just the first one for the old-timers," he cautioned. He poured a shot for Big Mike.
"I'll have another, Kevin. Put it on my tab." The bartender sighed again and refilled the shot glass that was still in front of James. Flynn raised his to his lips and sipped it like James had.
"To Old Dooley."
"To himself," James confirmed and took a sip as well.
"That's good whiskey," Mike said. "It's a shame that one of us has to die ev'ry so often to get it out on the bar."
Kevin might have taken umbrage at the comment, but it promised to be a long night and some things were better left unsaid. Mike Flynn was a larger man than James, but the same age. Their two sets of parents got off the boat together seventy-two years before.
"Mike," O'Connor said, "there's not many of us old-timers left. It's sad."
"I'll miss Dooley," Mike said, "but, let's face it; he was ready to go."
"T'aint dat Dooley's gone," James thundered. "It's de way they did it."
"You mean the presentation," Mike confirmed. "It was a shame, but these are modern times, Jamie."
"A wake wit' out a stiff," James lamented. "I've not see the like of it—nor do I hope to again."
"It was the daughter's choice," Kevin said. "And the widow didn't seem to care."
"They put out old pictures in place o' de corpse."
"I kind of enjoyed seein' the pictures," Mike said. "You know, the black and whites of the old days..."
"No! A corpse—a corpse! What good is a wake wit' out a corpse?"
"Hey, take it easy," Kevin said. "I doubt Old Dooley cares at this point."
"It don't matter about Dooley," James proclaimed. "It don't matter at all. A wake is not a wake wit' out a stiff. It's always dat way. I bin to hundreds of 'em, Boy-o, and I never bin t' one wit' out a corpse laid out in its finest attire."
"Well, 'tis somethin' new, I got to admit," Mike conceded.
"An where do ye think Ol' Dooley is now?" James demanded. "Shoved off in some refrig'rater, cold as ice, when 'e could be out, injoyin' his wake wit' his friends."
"Unless the body's lost," Mike pointed out, "like a drownin', or somethin' like that."
"Then, it's not a wake—more a remembrance reception," James insisted. "D'ere's a Church teachin' governin' this—I'm sure of it."
"I wouldn't stake much on what you know of church teachin', Jamie," Mike said.
"Perhaps ye'd find it in the ol' Book o' Kells," James speculated, undaunted by his friend's doubt.
"So, I guess Dooley's Missus wanted a remembrance instead of a wake," Kevin said from the other end of the bar, where he'd repositioned himself.
"A wake's always pr'ferred," James declared. He turned to Kevin. "I'll take another shot o' Jamesons if ye please, and one fer m' friend Mike, too. Put it on my tab."
"Your tab's getting a little long in the tooth," Kevin told him.
He looked at the older man, half in apology, but had to say it. The bar business wasn't what it used to be.
"Oh, Kevin-boy; don't bring that up when we're tryin' to give Old Dooley a proper send—off. It's hard 'nough wit' out de corpse."
.... There is more of this story ...