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."
"I wish Old Dooley had taken care of his tab before he decided to kick off," Kevin countered, feeling no small amount of justification, but remorse, as well, as soon as he'd uttered it.
"Ye can be sure I'll square mine before I go," James promised him, "an' I'll be sure to treat my friends to a proper wake."
Kevin felt the sadness in the old man's eyes, so he poured another shot for each of the elderly patrons and lengthened the tab a bit longer. He screwed the lid on the bottle, tactfully put it away, and then fled to find a chore at the other end of the bar before it cost him another round. He watched the two old men from a distance as they nursed their whiskies.
More patrons came into the establishment as the afternoon wore into evening. Most were on their way home from the wake and wore their nicest clothes. Kevin was busy pouring. With the heavier crowd, James and Mike knew better than to ask for the Jameson again, and Kevin was grateful for that. It was the standard post-wake regaling that took place on all such occasions and the absence of the corpse didn't seem to dampen enthusiasm. Of course, between back slaps and hand shakes, they parsed the significance of the truancy of the stiff, and that was to be expected, for if they could not be united in the keeping of tradition, they would be in the violation of it.
Kevin moved to the opposite end of the bar to wait on a customer who'd stationed himself there. He was a respectable looking sort, and pleasant enough, but not appearing to fit in with the post-wake crowd.
"What'll you have, Mr. Schultz?"
"Just stopped in for a quick one on my way home from the shop. I just got done installin' a new drain uptown." Schultz lived in the neighborhood and owned a plumbing shop. Kevin poured him a draught. "Who died?" Schultz asked as he watched the group at the far end of the bar.
"Old Man Dooley," Kevin answered.
"Too bad, too bad," Schultz answered. "I put in a new sink for him and the Missus last year. What'd he die of?"
"Bum ticker, so they say," Kevin answered, "but I'd wager his liver looked more like a bowling ball than a liver."
"Speakin' of wagers," Schultz asked, "is it too late to get in a bet for Hialeah?"
"Should be able to," Kevin answered. "Hey—Cavannaugh—down here!" he yelled into the crowd.
The resident bookie turned when he heard his name and Kevin pointed at Schultz. He left the crowd and ambled down to where Kevin stood talking with Schultz. Kevin retreated from the pair just a bit to give them some privacy to transact their business. He resumed his observation of the crowd, watching for newcomers and those who needed refilling. He saw what he could have predicted, based on experience of a hundred wakes ago. They were singing the old songs.
"O Danny boy, th' pipes, th' pipes are callin'
From glen to glen an' down th' mountain side..."
Kevin shook his head and chuckled to himself a little bit. He wondered how many times had he heard that anthem after every wake? More than one could count, was the answer. Were they mourning or celebrating? It was both, for as they feared death, they knew it also as one of life's crossings—like a birth, a marriage or First Communion—to be shared with those of whom they were part. It was comfort, a buffer from sorrow, multiplication of their joys. A life didn't belong only to the person living it, but to them all. The traditions held it together and had to be done just right.
O'Connor had the worst voice—never with the slightest pretense to be on key—and he sang the loudest. As each wake would mark a post along the road of time, the count of singers would dwindle by one. It was, perhaps, due to their dwindling number that they so doggedly clung to the ways. It seemed that Jamie had anointed himself to make up the lost volume.
"Th' summer's gone and all th' flowers are dyin'
'Tis ye, 'tis ye must go and I must abide."
Kevin winced as he heard the verse proceed. It never failed; the words would start an argument that could not be won.
"It's 'all the leaves are fallin'," Mike Flynn insisted in a strong voice intended to be heard above the din.
"Mike, ye say dat ev'ry time. What makes ye think ye know 't better'n I do?" James demanded.
"I do know, James, and well you know it, too."
"Not true," James proclaimed. "Many a time we've sung 't an' t'was always 'flowers are dyin'."
"That's because you always got t' have it yer way, Jamie."
James became sullen. "I sung it fer m' bride, Kathleen—God rest 'er—and she never complained wit' 'flowers dyin'."
He faced his challenger with his jaw jutted forward.
"Tish-tosh. The only singin' she ever heard from you was when you came staggerin' in after a night o' drinkin'."
The woman butting in occupied a barstool between O'Connor and another man. She was about the same age as they were, but appeared more fit than the old men. She sat ramrod straight and was thin. She was dressed in a modest frock with a small hat and presented herself as a proper Irish matron. She blurted out her accusation so that all could hear, so the singers halted. At first, James was taken aback by the interruption, but recovered quickly.
"That's the way 'tis with us Irish," he proclaimed. "Th' men do all the sinnin' while de women do all th' prayin'." He laughed in triumph upon proclaiming the unassailable truth.
"Bah!" the chagrinned woman scowled. Kevin couldn't help but let out a little laugh as she turned away from her tormentor. She took a drink from her Old Fashioned and stared straight ahead. The woman was Mary Margaret Murphy, wife to Neil Murphy who stood beside her. She was born a Flaherty; the 'Mary' part of her name was for the church—'Margaret' was for everyday.
"I seen ye run out de back when Fadder McDuffy came in t' lead de prayers," she said, turning roughly to face her adversary.
It was a deft parry, turning his thrust of truth against him and keeping open the subject of his fetid soul, which was, obviously, not in the state of grace.
"I never stay fer de prayers," Jamie countered. "Besides, what good are prayers wit' out a stiff to say 'em fer?"
"God have mercy on ye!" the woman exclaimed in disgust. "You'd 'ave not skipped out on de prayers if Kathleen was livin'. Don't try to fool me, James O'Connor. Ye skipped out 'cause ye don't want t' face Fadder McDuffy."