Dr. Jac Fitzenz
The pub air is heavy with the odor of ale and spirits. There’s more smoke than oxygen. Yet, no one seems to worry about breathing as they tell stories, guzzle their drinks and burst into song. Eamon Delaney looks with rummy eyes over the rim of his pint, through the smoke at the pub’s television.
“Seamus”, he asks his mate, “Why do those riders lash themselves to their bicycles for two weeks and struggle up and down the bloody mountains of France?”
“Delaney, you eejit, it’s because the winner gets a million francs”.
“Ooh, I know that, but why do the others do it?”
Seamus gives his mate a disbelieving look. “Come, me daft old man, it’s time to go. You’ve too much drink taking for one night, and so have I.” With that, he sweeps Eamon’s tweed cap off the bar and pulls it down over his friend’s head till it touches the man’s ears.
“I’m blind! I’m blind!”
“Ya bloody fool, pull your cap off your eyes.”
Taking him by the sleeve, Seamus drags Eamon the length of the bar past the fellow inebriants toward the door. The little man lags behind, greeting each soulmate while Seamus continues to tug on him.
With a final heave Seamus propels Eamon through the door into the cold night air. A heavy mist greets them causing Seamus to shiver and pull the collar up on his friend’s tattered woolen coat. Eamon doesn’t seem to be feeling the cold or anything else. He sways uncertainly for a moment and then turns up the street.
“You’re going the wrong way man,” Seamus shouts. Grabbing Eamon’s shoulders he spins him around, then catches him as the man’s knees betray him. Holding him upright and looking deeply into his unfocused eyes, he mutters half under his breath, “If you weren’t me best friend I swear I’d leave you in the gutter.”
Slowly, arm in arm, they weave their way down the old village’s broken stone street. Stumbling repeatedly over the rough surface Eamon burst into song, “Oh Danny boy, the pipes…”
“Hush up. You sound like a choking frog. You’ll wake all the cats and dogs in town.”
Delaney mumbles, “Seamus, you’re the best friend a man could have. Have long have we been mates?”
“Tis nigh onto seventy years, ever since we was in knee pants.”
“Yes, you was always pulling me out of scrapes.”
“True, but there was times when I thought of leaving you to get yourself out.”
On either side of the narrow road stand ancient, thatch-covered stone cottage stores —small green grocers, bakers, tobacconists, butchers, meagre haberdasheries, and another watering hole. It’s hard to imagine such an undersized village supporting two pubs.
Just visible on one side-street slumps an auto repair shop. There, an ancient, beaten down, small truck of unknown manufacture almost leans against the door waiting for service.
The mist has turned into a persistent cold drizzle that penetrates the bones of the old men. Still, they wobble on and in time, stop in front of a whitewashed stone cottage. Seamus steadies Eamon with one hand while he pounds on the heavy green oak door with his other. After a long wait a large, red-faced woman in a heavy flannel night gown opens the door.
“The prodigal son has returned,” Seamus announces, casting his arms wide, presenting Eamon as though he is a trophy.
“Seamus Duffy, ya can send him off again for all I care,” the lady replies. After an exasperating pause she takes a deep breath, reaches out and grabs Eamon’s coat. “Well, ya might as well come in ya blooming fool. You’re letting the heat out.” Once the poor man has tripped in over the threshold she slams the heavy door leaving Seamus alone in the rain.
He snickers to himself as he turns, bends into the wind, and continues down the road, “What a homecoming there’ll be in that house tonight.”
Slowly, Seamus winds along the crooked lane past the nondescript dwellings of the small community, ruminating about his neighbors inside. He knows them all having lived here his entire life. Boy and man he’s played, worked and shared a simple life with these folk. He married, fathered a son and labored till he couldn’t continue. His neighbors have laughed, cried, sworn, fought, suffered, cared for and rejoiced together for small successes—no one rich, no one alone in their poverty. This is truly his home.
Eventually, the old man comes upon the fieldstone church at the hamlet’s edge. The sanctuary is always unlocked. Seamus decides to get out of the wet and pay an overdue visit.
Inside it’s empty and pitch black except for the red perpetual candle in the tabernacle and the votive candles’ flickering lights. Seamus makes a sign of the cross and attempts a small genuflection before lowering himself into a last row pew. The sharp cold penetrates his threadbare Macintosh. He remembers his days as an altar boy serving six-thirty mass. Then, he would walk uphill from his cottage across the bottom of the village through darkness and all types of weather to join the priest and celebrate the mass. Inside the stone church there would be shelter from rain or snow, but there’s nothing as cold as a church before dawn, he recalls.
Looking around he sees the confessional box on his right. He remembers his boyhood days receiving penance of three Our Fathers and three Hail Mary’s for his supposed sins. Haven’t been there for years, he thinks with a thin rueful smile. At my age I’ve no longer the energy to sin.
Farther into the nave on the left is the black iron candle table, in front of the cracked statue of the Blessed Virgin. She’s not looking all that spry herself, he thinks. The candles in the small red holders waver, yielding immeasurably tiny slivers of heat and light into this frozen tomb. One of the wicks sputters, pops and goes out. Just like a man’s life, a short flame, then a sputter and that’s it. Cold dead. He sits and ponders that bit of forlorn philosophy. Life in the village has been difficult, but also rewarding. His neighbors and little family were all he had, but he wasn’t bitter. “To each his own as God commands,” the priest always reminded the parishioners. At last, the old man pulls himself up. Attempting another small genuflection he turns to the door.
Outside, the clouds can’t decide if they should rain or not. Seamus pushes his cap down on his ears and pulls the damp collar up to cover his neck. Out the door—he steps tentatively down the worn, slippery stone steps. Turning left, slowly he rounds the corner slipping onto the waterlogged grass of the little cemetery. Following a path over the wet, rutted sod he passes the familiar plots and stones of the townspeople; his neighbors and ancestors. Their faces flash past him, some friends, some not.
Nearing the short, cracked, stone back wall, in the darkness he can’t make out the symbols of the trinity he knows are carved along the top rim. He stops between a pair of tombstones rooted so closely to each other he can touch both without stretching. He pats the cold wet marker on his right. Etched into the rock is the name, Mary Katherine Duffy, above the years of her birth and passing. “I miss ya lass. What a treasure you were. You made my life bearable in bad times and so joyful in good. I’m sure the good lord is happy to have ya there lighting the streets of heaven.” He pauses, leaning forward, totally still, except for rasping, heavy breaths. He raises his right hand to his mouth, kisses his fingers and places them on the stone.
He turns to his left, bends slightly, and rubs the rough top of the smaller stone. The inscription reads, Michael Christopher Duffy, and shows a short life span. “Well lad, at least you’re no longer in pain. All the pain is here,” he mutters, tapping his chest.
A few minutes after seven the next morning, the church caretaker ambles slowly into the cemetery. The rain has stopped and the clouds have moved on. It’s a bright, fresh morning, the type that only Ireland can produce. On the ground between the two graves lies Seamus Duffy, face down, like a crucifix with a hand outstretched to either stone.