4 Never Would Be Too Soon

People let us into their homes and this is the way you repay them? Donnelly couldn’t believe it: he goes downstairs for five minutes and he finds the guys sitting on the sofa watching the game. You got to be kidding me. People don’t trust movers to begin with; that’s why there was always some woman following you around. Maybe they were right not to trust us, he says. Maybe we’re no better than they think we are.

Donnelly had not been downstairs more than five minutes. You try walking up and down those stairs with a new knee. Hip replacement surgery was next, after the cataracts. He felt like a fricking used junkyard.

“That’s redundant,” Tom told him. “Everything in a junkyard’s been used.” Well excuse the fuck out of me. If I wasn’t so busy working my ass off to send you to school so you could talk back to your old man I might be able to sit around and say things were redundant.

It was on account of Tom he was in this mess, or partly anyway. After four years of partying in college he comes out with a marketing degree and finds he can’t get any work. So he comes to work for Donnelly just about the time he’s starting to think about retiring. He’s got a fleet of trucks, business is booming. And a little place in Jersey with a lake he built with his own hands and was hoping Tom might step in and run the business.

“But I don’t want to spend the rest of my life carrying other people’s shit,” he says, right in front of his mother.

Not that Donnelly saw him carrying that much to begin with. This was when you could still get a few Irishmen to do a job with you but a lazier bunch of bastards you never saw. The ones off the boats were almost as bad as the boys from the neighborhood; at least they needed the work. But then they’d come in hung over or they wouldn’t come it at all, and Tom’s friends were worse. It was like they hated the people they were moving, without having seen them. They’d make fun of their clothes, their books, their furniture. Tom spent most of his time on the phone and the job always took longer than Donnelly’s estimate and guess who ate the difference?

“Who the fuck are you calling all the time?” he asked his son and then he found out when they arrested him and his friends. It cost everything he’d saved to get him out of that one. Tom only did a year, which the lawyer kept saying was a miracle, and then came back with a bigger mouth than before. Worked for his dad again ‘til neither of them could stand the sight of each other then he got a job selling suits. Seriously.

“What the hell does that have to do with marketing?” he asked Catherine but she just waved her dishtowel at him from across the kitchen, bidding farewell to her prince.

“They’re Hugo Boss,” Tom said, as if that explained everything.

So now Donnelly hired strangers and tried to keep the good ones: blacks, Puerto Ricans, he didn’t care. Tom smirked when he visited, him in his suit.

“Jesus, Dad, it looks like the United Nations here.”

At least he didn’t say a police line-up.

 

The guy was giving him attitude before he even got there. Tonio called from Ditmas Park to say he was running late and what subway line was closest. The guy paused a long time on the phone like Tonio had asked him what country he was in.

“What subway line?” the man said. “Don’t you have a truck?”

Tonio waited before answering him. “I don’t need a truck, I carry my tools in my bag.” The man sighed and told him to take the C Train to Lafayette. Was that so hard? Then when he gets there he finds a bunch of black kids sitting on the stoop like they owned it. I thought this was supposed to be a nice neighborhood now. They all moved when Tonio came. He didn’t even have to say anything, they just moved.

The guy gave him the once over through the glass before he opened the door. Hey, I’m not the one with the niggas sitting on the stoop. He followed him into the kitchen while Tonio started taking the dishwasher apart. He could tell by the fact that the guy didn’t leave that he didn’t trust him. What, am I gonna steal your blender? Finally the guy got tired of watching so he turned up his radio and went off to do whatever he did sitting around the house all day. Least Tonio had a job.

By the time the man came back Tonio had his sweatshirt off and was sitting on the floor.

“When’s the last time you cleaned this trap?”

“I didn’t know you were supposed to.”

Tonio turned to look at him.

“The architect chose all the appliances and the contractor installed them for us. I don’t think I ever saw the manual.”

Tonio turned back to the machine. “You got to clean the trap.” He rubbed his nose with the back of his wrest. “I’m gonna have to order a whole new panel.”

The guy turned down the radio, finally. “Do you know how much that’s going to cost?”

Tonio shrugged. “I can call the office but I’m pretty sure it’s like a hunnert and seventy-five.”

The man put his fingers to his temple. “That’s the second time this thing has stopped draining.” Tonio said nothing. “Does this happen a lot with the Bosch?”

If you don’t clean the trap, he wanted to say but instead he said, “You know I fix a lot of these dishwashers. I never fix any American dishwashers.”

“Seriously?”

“Like the Kenmore, or the Kitchen Aid. I never fix those.”

He began to reassemble the dishwasher and the man inched the volume of the radio back up. People were still talking. “I’m going to look into that,” he said. He sounded happy now.

“So you don’t want me to order that panel?”

“No, let me do some research first.” The room was filled with the sounds of violins now, speakers hidden in the ceiling. Before he could put his sweatshirt back on the man said, “I was curious about your tattoo.”

Tonio turned his forearm out as if he were going to give blood: The number 32 in green, white and orange stripes. “You like it?”

“It’s unusual,” the man said. He seemed to be covering his mouth. “Is that like a gang thing?”

Tonio looked at the guy now. “What?”

“I thought maybe you had been in a gang or something.”

He put his sweatshirt on slow. “What did you say your last name was?”

The man took his hand away from his mouth and stepped behind a kitchen stool. “Sheehan.”

Tonio shook his head and reached into his backpack for the receipt book. “It’s seventy-five for the visit,” he said. “Plus an hour of my time.”

 

God makes a lake and everyone gives him a big fucking hand. Donnelly makes a lake so his grandkids can fish and go swimming and the whole state of New Jersey is suddenly up his ass. When he bought this property, all the DEP cared about was people draining lakes. There were over a hundred man-made lakes in Sussex County alone and most of them were privately owned. People were draining them because of the liability so Donnelly was a hero when he said he was making a lake.

Then he builds a dock so the kids can fish off of it and Compliance and Enforcement is complaining about the impact on the wildlife.

“There wasn’t any wildlife ‘til I built the fricking lake!” They were sitting on the screened porch: he and Catherine; the girls, Mary Catherine and Rose; and Tom and his new girlfriend, Mona, who looked all of nineteen. Mary Catherine’s husband was a fireman, working the weekend shift, and Rose wasn’t married, still. The kids were all in the water or sitting on what was left of the dock, fishing. Donnelly had stocked the lake, too.

“I think everyone has heard this story, Dad,” Tom said.

“Hush, Tom,” said Catherine, but not too loudly. “Mona, do you want some more potato salad?”

“No, I’m fine.” She smiled and put her half-empty plate on the glass table.

“This girl never eats,” said Donnelly to his son.

“It’s why she’s so thin,” said Rose.

“I’d kill to have legs like that,” said Mary Catherine.

“It’s just genes,” said Mona. She grimaced in what was supposed to be a smile.

“Lucky genes,” said Mary Catherine.

“Hey, grandpa, I caught a fish!” They looked outside to see Brandon holding up a carp.

“Good boy, Brandon! Now throw him back.”

He stood and watched as the boy began to mess with the hook, putting the fish on the dock as he did. Everyone else remained seated except Mona, who went to use the restroom. For the fifth time since she got here.

“You lose some weight, Dad?” asked Tom.

“You spend as much time in the hospital as I do and you’d lose weight, too.”

“Have some more potato salad,” said Catherine.

“Mom, Brandon won’t throw the fish back,” Shannon shouted from the dock. This time it was their mother, Mary Catherine, who stood.

“Brandon! You throw that fish back right now.”

The sound of brother and sister arguing, too soft for grown-ups to hear, was followed by a forlorn plop.

Mary Catherine sat back down and fished in her purse for a cigarette. The rule was no smoking in the house but their mother would tolerate it on the porch as long as it didn’t become a regular thing. “I really should quit,” she said as she picked up the lighter. “Again.”

“What about you, Tom,” said Rose to her brother. “Looks like you could stand to lose a few pounds.”

Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Donnelly smiled but said nothing.

“I’m managing the store now,” he said, defensively. “Used to be on my feet all day.”

“You were a lot trimmer when you were doing coke.”

“Okay, that’s enough!” Donnelly shouted as Catherine began to clear plates away. “What the hell’s wrong with you two?”

Rose stood up to help her mother and then Mary Catherine got up as well and then there were three women doing the job of one.

“She’s just jealous,” Tom said when they’d left. Of what, Donnelly wanted to ask.

Mona came back from the bathroom and sat down again. She put her arms around herself as if she was shivering though it had to be eighty degrees out there.

“Are you okay, honey?” Tom said. “You want to take a swim?”

She smiled and shook her head. Donnelly had shirts older than her. Tom looked around at the souvenirs on the back wall. He pointed at a big plaque and said, “Did you know my dad was a Scoutmaster?”

“Really?” Donnelly couldn’t tell if she even knew what that meant. Then she said to Tom, “Were you in the Boy Scouts?”

“No!” As if there was something wrong with it. “That was always Dad’s thing.”

“Father Kean asked me,” Donnelly said, and left it at that.

“Of course by the time Dad was doing it the whole parish had changed. You should have seen this troop. Looked like the fucking United Nations.”

“When are you gonna get some new material?” said Donnelly. “And what do you need to use that kind of language around a lady for?”

“She’s heard much worse,” said Tom. “The point is,” he continued, pulling another beer from the ice chest, “my dad was really big into the whole Irish thing then. You know, ‘Up the Rebels’ and all that.”

“I don’t know what you mean,” said Mona.

“Neither does he,” said Donnelly.

“They were like raising money for the IRA, you know. The Troubles?”

“That’s all ancient history to her,” said Donnelly.

“And he got the Scouts involved,” Tom continued. He was starting to laugh as if he was telling a big joke but hadn’t said anything funny yet. “And they would march in the Saint Paddy’s parade out in Bay Ridge carrying the Irish flag and these signs that said, you know, ‘Brits Out Now!’ Little Jorge and Keshawn.”

“You’re the only one laughing,” said Donnelly. Tom’s sisters came back into the room. Mary Catherine was holding a cake.

“What was the name of that one kid, Tokyo? I don’t know what the fuck he was.”

“Tonio,” said Donnelly.

“He was so cute!” said Rose. “He used to follow my father around. Whatever happened to him, Dad?”

“He got thrown out of the Scouts,” said Tom.

Catherine came in carrying the plates and the ice cream.

“Why don’t you have some cake, Tom?” said Donnelly. And give us all a break?

“I’ll call the kids,” said Mary Catherine and headed for the screen door instead of just screaming over everyone for a change. Before she could open it they heard Shannon yelling in her singsong voice.

“Mom!” she cried. “Brandon’s fish is dead.”

 

Tonio met his dad at Borough Hall after work and they walked up Smith Street together talking about their jobs. His dad was a courier for a medical clinic and liked to act like his job was important and he was saving lives, but Tonio knew that a lot of the time he sat around doing nothing, and some days he was supposed to work he didn’t get called in. A lot of the time Tonio took home more than he did. Sometimes he loaned his father money, even though he was trying to save enough to get a place of his own.

“How many calls did you make today?” his father asked.

Tonio made a face and turned the brim of his Yankees cap backwards and front again. “I don’t know, seven or eight.”

“I made eighteen runs today, my man.” He held his hand out like his son was supposed to slap it. “I’m not like the Maytag repairman, sitting around waiting for a call.”

He was always talking about this Maytag repairman. Tonio had no idea what he meant.

Two young women popped out of a clothing store right in front of them. They were talking to each other and on their cell phones at the same time and they did not even turn to look at Tonio and his father, who was only twenty years older than him.

His father nudged him. “Man, this neighborhood sure has changed.” Tonio didn’t say anything.

When they got to the Baskin-Robbins store on the corner of Bergen his father said, “Hey, you feel like an ice cream cone?”

“Not really.” His father opened the door and pushed him inside. He led him in back to the ice cream counter. A young Indian guy was standing in front of the open cartons with his mouth agape.

“What’s up, my man?” his father said, like they were old friends or something. The Indian kid didn’t say anything.

“How is that Mango Tango?” he asked.

The kid wiped his hands on his apron. “People like it,” he said.

“This is the part where you’re supposed to ask me if I want a taste.”

The kid took a very small spoon of the Mango Tango and offered it to his father. As he was savoring it the cell phone in his pocket rang. He looked at the phone and smiled at Tonio before answering.

“It’s your stepmother,” he said. He pointed at the glass and said quickly, “Give me a scoop of the Mango Tango and a scoop of the Nutty Cocoanut on a sugar cone.” His tone turned sweet as the kid worked. “Hey, baby, how’s my little chica?” he covered the phone with his hand and changed his voice again. “Hey, give me a whole scoop, papi. Come on.” Then back to the phone. “Hey, me and Tonio are getting some ice cream at the Baskin Robbins, you want something?”

He listened for a minute and kept his eyes on what the kid was doing. “Aw, are you gonna start this shit before I even get home? He did what? And what did you do?”

He stood up straight now as the kid held out a double-scoop cone. Instead of taking it he ran his hand over his hair, curly black with flecks of grey. “No, listen, you know what? You know what?”

He hung up the phone and put it back in his pocket. “I can’t believe this shit,” he said. He was speaking to Tonio but looking at the Indian kid.

“Will there be anything else?” the kid said.

He took the cone and turned to Tonio. “She said that your brother tried to hide in the refrigerator.”

He’s not my brother, Tonio wanted to say but knew he would lose that on a technicality. “Good thing she was there,” he said instead.

“Yeah, no shit.” He didn’t ask Tonio if he wanted anything but paid for his cone with his free hand. “Well let’s go home and straighten this shit out.” He started licking the ice cream quickly. The store was very cold and the colors on the wall, blue and pink and brown, suddenly made Tonio feel very sad.

Tonio stopped suddenly as they walked outside in the hazy sunshine. He made a show of raising his hand and looking at the sky, as if he’d been shot in a pretend battle. “Oh, shit, I just remembered. I’ve got to do this thing.”

His father’s expression was angry as he gobbled his cone, which was melting in rivulets down the side of the cone in the day’s last rays. “What do you mean? What thing?”

“There’s this one job I got to do, I forgot. I left it  ‘til the end.”

“Fuck it, it can wait ‘til tomorrow.”

“No, I promised the guy. They’re having a big dinner party or something. They made a big deal out of it.”

His father looked at him suspiciously. “I was hoping you would look after your brother later.” He peeled away the paper from the cone and sucked the ice cream out of the bottom like it was one of his blunts.

After you’re done fighting, you mean? He envisioned himself watching videos with Tito, him in his PJ’s with the feet, little snot bubbles blowing out of his nose, while his dad yelled things in the other room like, “Who’s ass is this?”

“I’ll be home later. Couple hours tops.”

“You mean I got to go face this shit alone?”

“Doesn’t everybody?” Tonio hadn’t meant it to come out mean but his dad looked stung and for a second he thought he was going to raise his hand to his son, but thought better of it. Tonio was bigger than him now.

 

Donnelly drove back to Brooklyn that night bitching the whole way. He would have been more than happy to stay in New Jersey – what was the point of having a weekend house if you didn’t stay the weekend? But Catherine decided she wanted to go to church the next day and didn’t like any of the local parishes. “They don’t even look like churches to me,” she said to her husband, which he supposed meant that they weren’t a thousand years old and in need of a gut-reno but kept his thoughts to himself. Instead he complained about everything else.

“Rose was in fine form tonight,” he said. “Did you hear her going after Tommy?”

“I wish for once everyone could just get along.” They were in the Tahoe, about eight feet apart from each other. Donnelly had 1010 Wins on the radio, hoping to hear about bad traffic before he met it.

“He was asking for it,” said Donnelly. “What was he going on about me being a Scoutmaster for?”

Donnelly himself had been an Eagle Scout but he just quit one day in high school, never even picked up his last merit badge, couldn’t remember what it was for. Then Father Kean took him aside after church one day and mentioned this troop that needed a Scoutmaster and Donnelly guessed he was feeling guilty for having missed confession for about a year and said sure, why not? He could still tie a slipknot and thought maybe he could get Tom to help him on camping trips and such, but the boy wouldn’t have any of it. Laughed right in his father’s face.

He was surprised, too, first time he met the troop but he always prided himself on being open-minded, not like his old man. He learned that on the football field: didn’t matter what color a man’s skin was when he was carrying the ball. You’d try and knock the shit out of him if he was wearing the wrong uniform and block him if he was one of yours, as simple as that. Tom didn’t play sports but in matters regarding race he wasn’t that different from Donnelly’s dad.

But they were good kids, all of them. Tonio was special; he could see that from the start. Little black eyes shining so bright. Donnelly couldn’t tell what color his skin was, and he didn’t care. The boy had some kind of family trouble. No one took care of his uniform that was for sure. Never did see the boy’s mother and the one time he saw his dad he was wearing a wife-beater and a bandana, like one of the perps in Law & Order.

The Irish thing had started as a lark. The first time they marched in the parade he had some big Haitian kid carry the flag and he heard a lot of jokes about Black Irish and such, but it was all in fun. And then they really got into it; one of the kids made a picture of Prince Charles with bloody fangs, which Donnelly thought was a little much; the IRA had blood on its own hands by then. Donnelly tried to keep it simple: played them some of the old songs, “The Rising of the Moon,” and showed them a map. Tonio knew the name of every county, north and south. “You’re honorary Irish,” he told him once.

“Traffic is backed up on the GWB, consider alternate routes,” said the radio.

“Did he say anything about the tunnel?”

Catherine had her face against the glass. “I wasn’t listening. I was looking out the window.”

There’s nothing to see, he wanted to say. He turned up the volume but it was too late. “1010 Wins, give us twenty minutes and we’ll give you the world.”

You could have the world.

Donnelly’s own father couldn’t understand his interest in Ireland. He’d heard a historian say it about the Irish in New York: a mile wide and an inch deep, no sense of their own culture. Donnelly would play the old man the Wolfe Tones and he’d laugh. He liked Sinatra, and he really didn’t get this business with the martyrs.

He remembered trying to explain the Good Friday Accords to the Scouts. Tonio didn’t trust them but Donnelly said you had to approach these things with an open mind. “Trust is a two-way street,” he said.

“Fucking Orange bastards,” said Tonio under his breath.

“Language!” Donnelly had said, but laughed a bit anyway. He was old enough to be an Eagle Scout by then but washed out the same year when he got into a fight at the Jamboree. Three-on-one and guess who walked away? Donnelly had brought some gloves in once to teach the kids some boxing. Tonio didn’t need to be taught. Kid had the fastest hands he’d ever seen, the left one as good as the right. Nobody would tell him what had happened that night; all Donnelly knew was it inside a teepee and there was blood on the ground, kids holding their noses. The theme that year was “Character Counts.”

“You have to lay off of Tom’s girlfriend,” Catherine said out of nowhere.

“What did I do to her?”

“Tommy thinks you don’t like her.”

“I like her fine. Him I’m not so sure about. Did you see how much he was drinking?”

“Seriously, if you aren’t nice to that girl he’ll never come see us.”

“Never would be too soon.”

They were driving through the wasteland, dark and twisting freeway past smokestacks and buildings no one lived in, when he saw it: Taillights for miles leading up to the tunnel.

“Here we go,” Donnelly said as he began to slow and prepared to wait for eternity.

 

Tonio left his father and walked straight up Wyckoff past the projects to Third Avenue. When he was little he was afraid to walk on that street and now people were afraid of him, white folks crossing the street when they see him coming. You don’t know what I am. He turned left when he came to Third, his tools rattling a little in his backpack. He was nervous as he crossed Flatbush, pretending he didn’t know where he was going.

He walked into the recruiting office and the sergeant was on the phone. Tonio sat down in a chair opposite the desk and looked around as if he was thinking of buying the place. He didn’t know whether or not to take his cap off.

“How’s it going?” the sergeant said when he got off the phone. Tonio got a good look at him now. He looked like some kind of Arab, which was funny when you thought about it.

“I think I’ve seen you in here before,” the sergeant said.

“I picked up some literature.”

The sergeant nodded. The air conditioner was the loudest thing in the room. “So tell me what it is you’re looking for, where you want to be.”

Tonio turned his hat around. “I don’t like talking about myself.”

The sergeant smiled. “Okay, let me just ask you some questions.”

He didn’t laugh when Tonio told him he was a dishwasher technician or that he still lived at home. He didn’t call the woman his dad lived with his stepmother since they never married. He didn’t say she was seven years older than him. The sergeant made a note when he said he had never done drugs.

“You ever been arrested or convicted of a crime?”

“No.”

“No priors of any sort? We will find out, you know. There’s no such thing as a sealed record in the military.”

“Nothing.”

The sergeant paused, his pen hanging over the pad he was writing on. “So you’re just like a perfect Boy Scout.”

Tonio ducked his head. “I’ve had some anger management issues.”

“Anger can be a good thing, you learn how to channel it. And if you are so inclined we can have you working on something more interesting than dishwashers.” The sergeant capped his pen now and looked at Tonio. “So what are you?”

Tonio felt himself tense in the chair. “What do you mean?”

“Well, take me. My father was from Lebanon and my mother was French Canadian but I was born here. People always ask. Sometimes they assume.”

“Yeah.” Tonio was wary but interested in what he was saying.

“The worst was when this one guy called me a ‘sand nigger.’ That was the last thing he said that night.”

The sergeant didn’t smile so Tonio smiled for him. “Well, my mom was Dutch and Indonesian. And my dad is Italian and Puerto Rican. So I don’t what that makes me.”

“We can help you with that one,” the sergeant said. “You know what you’ll say when people ask you what you are?”

Tonio just shook his head.

“You’ll say, ‘I am a Marine.’”

 

Donnelly was doing an estimate on an apartment in Brooklyn Heights, standing in a woman’s walk-in closet with his clipboard in his hand, when his phone rang. Tommy. He was tempted to let it go to voicemail but picked it up on the third ring.

“I’m busy,” he said, by way of greeting.

“Dad, I need to talk to you.” This was new. Even his tone was more subdued and Donnelly froze where he was so he wouldn’t lose the signal. “I’m in trouble.”

Several scenarios flashed by like Burma Shave signs. “What is it, son?”

“Are you alone?” Tom asked.

“Yeah, I’m doing a walk through, I don’t know where the lady is.” He glanced around: there were mirrors on the inside of each door, both half-opened, so what he saw was a dozen Donnelly’s, holding a dozen phones and clipboards, in a forest of women’s dresses.

“Mona’s pregnant.”

“Jesus!” That one hadn’t flashed past. “You don’t sound too happy about it.”

“We’ve been using protection,” Tom said. A good way to start a fight with your mother.

“Well, are you sure it’s yours?”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake, Dad!”

“Well, you never know.” Donnelly retreated further into the closet and faced a long black evening gown, covered in clear plastic. “You could always get one of those, what do you call it, paternity tests. Unless you want a little stranger in the house.”

“She doesn’t want to keep it.” Donnelly stepped out of closet and into the master bedroom. It looked like someone had thrown paint against a canvass and bounced a beach ball off of it. “She’s only 20 years old.”

“Jesus Christ, Tom.” He looked out the window where his car was double-parked. No ticket yet. “Your mother wasn’t much older when she had Mary Catherine.”

“Yeah but you were almost thirty.”

“Well so are you!”

“This is different, Dad.” Tom’s voice sounded sulky, like he was sinking into quicksand and it was Donnelly’s fault. “You and mom were married, for one. And I’m not really sure Mona’s the one.”

So what the hell are you with her for?

“And the timing is terrible for me,” Tom continued.     “Well, it sounds like you’ve already made up your minds.”

“Yeah.” Tom cleared his throat, a scratching sound bouncing up to a satellite and down to his father’s phone. “I was just wondering if I could get some help from you.”

“Jesus, you want me to do pay for it?”

“No, Dad.” Now he sounded offended. “They have clinics for that now. Besides, I’m going to pay for the procedure.”

“Now that’s mighty big of you! And a ‘procedure,’ is what they’re calling it now?”

Tom kept talking, his old cocksure self. “Yeah, it’s pretty simple. Her insurance covers it but you know, I’m going to handle the difference. But I was thinking of taking her somewhere afterwards.”

Now he’d heard everything. “Taking her somewhere?”

“Yeah, you know a little vacation. And I was wondering if you could help me out.”

“Last I heard you were managing that store.”

“Yeah, but business is slow, Dad. Quality suits, they’re like an economic indicator.”

The last time Donnelly bought a suit was after 9.11.

“So where were you thinking of going?”

“They have some great deals to London right now.”

“London!” Donnelly stared at the phone. It was all he could do to keep from opening the window and throwing the fricking thing into the street. “Jesus Christ, why don’t you take her to Disney World, make it a real vacation?”

Now Tom sounded pouty again. “I thought you might want to help, is all.”

“I do want to help,” said Donnelly. His voice came out in a hoarse whisper. “I want to help you grow up and act like a man. And what the hell’s wrong with Ireland?”

He hung up before he could get the answer. They’d gone to Ireland when the kids were little, Dublin and county Cork, and for the most part they had hated it. The food, the warm beer, the uncomfortable beds, the television. A lot of the shows were American but they were already old. Family Ties, are you kidding?

The people were nice but even Donnelly couldn’t understand what they were saying half the time. He remembered sitting in this one pub while a local band played traditional songs, “Rosin the Bow” he remembered. Catherine and the kids were back at the room, counting the days ‘til they left, and Donnelly was buying drinks for everyone in the place.

This one old guy got to talking to him, asking him questions about the US. “If it wasn’t for you sending all this money these boys couldn’t afford to keep killing people,” he’s said, loud and clear. Then he asked him about his family name.

“The Donnelly’s I knew all came from the north,” he said, drawing on his pipe. You could still smoke in the pubs there and you could get cancer just from inhaling. “Tyrone and county Down, were some. Not as many down here, least that I’ve heard of.” The band had started to play again, shrill little pipe cutting through the smoke like the cry of a bird. And Donnelly remembered thinking that maybe this guy was laughing at him – don’t even know where your own family is from! So he bought them another round.

And when they got back to the states he did a little show-and-tell with the troop, showing the Scouts his slides on a projector on the wall: the Liffey, the castle. And Tonio, bless his heart, had made a little card welcoming him home: a drawing of Donnelly with an American flag in one hand and the Irish flag in the other. “A nation once again!” he had written on the bottom.

Out of the blue the boy had left him a message just last week. Donnelly had to listen to it twice to make sure, the kid mumbled so. Said that he was joining the Marines and didn’t leave a number. “I just wanted to thank you for everything,” he said and Donnelly listened to it a third time, trying to figure out what he meant by that.

He looked out the window again and damn if there wasn’t a ticket, waving like an orange and white flag under his windshield, taunting him.

 

Tonio couldn’t see his watch. As close as he got to it, covering one eye, he still couldn’t make out the numbers on the little plastic Casio on his wrist and instead had to ask his friends for the time. Not that they could hear him.

“Yo, Tonio: Why are we here, man?” Raul shouted.

They had set off that night, his last before he got on the train to go to Parris Island for his basic training, with no particular destination in mind. It had only been that day that he mentioned to Raul that he was leaving, and he suggested they go out and do something. Then when Tonio went to work to draw his last pay he ran into Julian and asked him if he wanted to come along. Now the two men were seated across from him at a table in a booth in an Irish bar in Bay Ridge and neither of them looked too good.

“You’re here because I don’t have any friends.”

“What did he say?” asked Julian.

“Aw, man you’re fucked up.” Raul laughed and poured the last of the beer from the pitcher into Tonio’s mug. They had been doing tequila shots too and the glasses were still on the table, along with the beer they had spilled and some dollar bills Tonio had flung from his pocket, like birds he was trying to set free.

Raul he knew from when he was kid. They’d been in school together and Scouts together and while they have never really been friends, they had never been enemies, which was sort of how Tonio calculated friendship. Julian was just some dude, a black guy he’d been on a few jobs with and they got along okay. “You doing anything special?” Julian had asked him and it was only after a moment’s reflection that Tonio had smiled and said, “Yeah, I’m gonna be a Marine.” Julian had smiled too and it made Tonio feel good, like he was in one of those commercials he saw, and then he felt so good he invited him to come out with him and Raul that night.

“Me and a few guys are going out and hit some bars,” Tonio had added, meaning a few if you join us. Tonio’s father had asked to tag along, if you can believe it, even whispering to him over the phone, “Just do me a favor: if we meet any chicks don’t tell ‘em I’m your father.” He was mad when Tonio told him he was enlisting but there wasn’t anything he could do about it. In the end he just said, “Now Tito can have your room.” But then Tonio forgot to tell him that they were meeting at Junior’s for dinner, accidentally on purpose.

“What happened to that waitress?” said Julian, scanning the room.

“She was just here an hour ago,” said Raul.

“She’s like Halley’s comet,” said Julian, rhyming it with Bailey’s.

“Halley.” Had to tell them how to say the guy’s name, rhymes with alley. They both looked at Tonio and laughed.

“’Halley?’” Julian repeated, saying it right this time.

“You should believe him,” said Raul, raising an empty glass to his lips. “Dude got a merit badge in astronomy.”

At first it seemed like they might not get served at all, bunch of white dudes sitting at the bar, watching the game, some shit music on the jukebox. Journey, maybe. They sat at the table for a minute as some white chick in an apron bustled around, until finally Tonio went over and fed the jukebox after looking at the CD’s behind the glass: classic rock crap and Irish music. When the first song came up, “Johnny We Hardly Knew Ye,” the bartender laughed, especially when he saw Tonio singing along:

 

You haven’t an arm, you haven’t a leg

Harroo, harroo!

You haven’t an arm, you haven’t a leg

Harroo, harroo!

 

Then the waitress made an appearance, none too friendly even when Raul tried flirting with her. And they asked him for the first time, “Why are we in this place, man?”

They’d hit a few bars after Junior’s, where Tonio had an extra piece of cheesecake. The first was some disco that Julian knew about but it was lame: It took them an hour just to get in, standing outside behind a velvet rope like a bunch of chumps, until they got in the door with a ten dollar cover and found there were hardly any chicks in there anyway. It was too loud to talk and the deejay sucked so after that they tried a few other places, kind of random, and somehow ended up here. They had staggered off the subway at 86th Street and gone into this place with the harp out front, Raul and Julian looking at each other and laughing.

“Are you shitting me, son?”

“Let’s have a smoke,” Raul suggested as he stood up. “Maybe that bitch will come back when we’re gone.”

Out on the sidewalk they staggered a bit or maybe it was just him. He borrowed Julian’s lighter and somehow lit his cigarette halfway through.

“This is the kind of place you expect to find Donnelly,” said Raul and Tonio dropped his cigarette, feeling uncovered.

“Who’s Donnelly?” asked Julian.

“He was our Scoutmaster back in the day,” said Raul. “Big on this Irish shit. You ever talk to him, Tonio?”

Tonio shook his head and stared at the chalkboard menu below the harp, wondering if they had any corned beef left. He had called Donnelly once he was out of high school, looking for work, and he had hemmed and hawed and said something about his son working there. He didn’t mention the message he left for him the other night.

“I can’t see you guys as Boy Scouts,” Julian said. He was hot-boxing his cigarette, double-puffing like he never smoked before.

“Why’s that?” Tonio said, all sharp again.

They both looked at him in surprise. “I don’t know, you just don’t seem like Boy Scout types to me,” said Julian.

“He didn’t mean anything by it,” said Raul.

“What’s a Boy Scout type look like?” Tonio continued.

“Hey!” Raul stepped in between them. Julian looked puzzled.

“Everybody’s proud of you, man,” Raul said. He was up in his face now. “We’ll be back here in BK while you’re off in fucking Candy Bar.”

“Kandahar, you stupid Puerto Rican.”

They went into a clinch and staggered together for a minute, nearly knocking the harp sign down. Then Raul was holding him close and he whispered in his ear, “Hey, I love you man. Come back in one piece, a’ight?”

Tonio hugged him back, hard, his face in his friend’s chest. He hung on so tight he didn’t know who he was hugging anymore and the music he’d played still danced in his head: You’re a brainless, boneless, chicken-less egg. Finally he pulled himself apart and had to wipe his eyes.

Inside they found that their table had been cleared and wiped with far greater speed and efficiency than the woman had exhibited bringing their first rounds of drinks. There was crap music on the jukebox again and the bartender was staring at them with his arms folded. A couple of the younger dudes at the bar had stood up from their stools; their chins were raised in the direction of the door.

“You’re cut off!” the bartender shouted in his old country accent. “We’ll be serving you no more drinks tonight.”

The crap on the jukebox was louder than he was: Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow.

“What did we do?” asked Raul, coming forward with raised hands. Julian stood back, almost smiling as if he already knew.

“We saw you two Mary’s kissing out there,” the bartender said. “Why don’t you take that shit back to Christopher Street?”

“Are you fucking kidding me?” Raul exploded and the guys in front of the bar came forward in a phalanx, ready for it. “This guy’s my homey.”

“Is that what they’re calling it now?” said one of the guys. Younger, the map of Ireland in his face as Donnelly would have said: red hair, green eyes, white skin.

“He’s going into the Marines tomorrow!”

“Don’t ask, don’t tell,” said one of the other guys and they all laughed.

“Let’s get out of here,” said Julian.

That’s when Tonio stepped up. “You know what that means?” he said, showing old green eyes the tattoo on his arm. Guy hardly even looked at it.

“I don’t know, ‘I like to suck cock’?”

He hardly had the last word out his mouth when Tonio hit him with his right hand, too fast for the guy to even react. Irish eyes weren’t smiling anymore.

“Sligo!” Tonio shouted, then quick as a cricket he hit his ugly friend with his left. “Mayo!”

The guy in the middle came at him, both hands up like they were back in Golden Gloves and Tonio hit him four times before he could even take a swing, breaking something in his face or maybe it was a knuckle? He couldn’t really feel his hand but the guy went down like a sack of potatoes. You’ll have to be sent with a bowl to beg ‘cause Johnny we hardly knew ye! And even as he heard Julian and Raul running for the door, and the bartender came out from behind the bar with a baton and the two guys he hit first came back swinging wildly, he thought of the sergeant and what would happen if he got arrested, and he thought of turning off his cell phone so he wouldn’t hear from his father, and he thought of his mother getting in the car with the lady from child services, and he thought of the names of other counties – Dublin! Cork! Kerry! Limerick! – and Donnelly coming back talking of the Celtic Tiger and his ancestral home, a place he never got to called old county Down.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>