By Paul Merrigan
"Cheez, Bob, you're walking great these days," he said. "In another year or two, you'll be as good as you ever was."
It's been fourteen years since I broke my back. The first anniversary of that car crash, I got so drunk I passed out on a blaring juke box in the middle of a nightclub. The permanency of the injury had sunk into my fragile young mind and I tied one on at the prospect of limping for the rest of my life. I feared what was going to become of me. Afterwards, I felt ashamed, but not terribly. It had been a dreadful year after all and I was still very young. I have tied on buzzes for far less.
"Yeah, right thanks," I said, then turned to Mayo. "Let's go in."
"Right," Mayo said. "Last time I was here, this place was really hopping with girls."
Mayo had driven us in his unmarked car, a big blue Chevy clunker that screamed cop. We had been quiet on the short ride to the Ale House.
Six years before I went to a cousin's wedding where I met a beautiful red-headed girl tall as I. She wore a cast that ran from her to the base of her hip. A dancing match made in heaven, we made beautiful music for the whole evening, the best wedding I ever attended. That night, our limbs intertwined, her left leg encased in a plaster cast and my right leg in my leg brace, we lay on a dark couch and exchanged soft kisses and softer talk. "Girls must bother you all the time with your leg."
"Sure. It's macho."
"I'm not kidding. Guys bother me all the time since I've got the cast. I've always heard crippled guys make the gentlest lovers."
"That's what the Amazons thought."
"I had a dance teacher who used to tell us to study people with limps because they learn to move so gracefully." I almost cried. Sometimes athletic girls give me long stares. I love athletic girls. Sometimes I feel sorry for guys with good legs. I pleaded with the red-headed girl to see me again, but she wouldn't. She said she loved her boyfriend.
That night at the Ale House with Danny and Mayo, I drank Bud on tap, my favorite beer, easy on the wallet. The acrid aroma of cigarette smoke lingered in the air filling up my every sense. My nostrils flared and my pulse raced. After this initial excitement, my senses constricted as if trying to repulse that odor's effect on my body. Still, my heart roared like a booming furnace. An eager sweat budded on the lip of my pores. I thought I might explode. On the side of the tavern that faces into Dedham stands the bandstand in front of a dance floor lined with flimsy tables that seat four. There, groups of one to six musicians play Irish music.
Irish music, like country and western, does not often stir me, but sometimes it can provide a good background atmosphere or even dance music if I'm in the mood or a friendly girl accepts my offer. That night we did not dance as the place lacked girls except for the two at the end of the bar. One of these girls was the personification of what every Irishman dreams about during the long, cold nights of Boston winters. This girl stood a buxom five-seven with dark blonde hair tied back with a white velvet band.
She looked about thirty. She had large limbs thick through the forearms and calves. She wore a black wrap around shawl-like blouse and a peasant skirt. I wondered why a woman living in Boston in the 1990's would want to dress like a peasant woman from the 1880's Irish countryside. My friends descended upon these two girls like buzzards upon defenseless lambs. I stayed back until Mayo came up to me and told me that the peasant woman wanted to talk to me.
"Why me?" I asked.
"Go find out."
I gamefully hobbled up to her and said hi, then we exchanged names -- hers was Devonne Quinn -- and something of our pasts.
An eerie quality about Irish girls often bothers me, a certain unwholesome gloominess. One evening when I was six, Mrs. Mulcahy, dressed in black and living on our street, offered me brownies in her large, dark house, then started crying.
"My Patrick has just died," she keened sorrowfully. I was six years old, a little boy. I had done nothing to cause her husband's death, nor could I do anything to bring him back to life or replace him. Her brownies tasted delicious. I ran home. I always think when I'm uncomfortable around a weird Irish girl who seems to ask too much of me that she has the Mrs. Mulcahy Syndrome.
Devonne introduced me to Carmel, her dark-haired sister. Devonne said she had lived with Carmel in Brighton for all of her life.
"Did you go to St. Columkille's?" I asked as an educated guess. She said she had.
"Did you know John McGill?" I asked.
"Was he tall, blond and played hockey?"
"I'm glad to meet a friend of his."
She pressed herself heavily against my side. Our breath came in heavy gasps. We sounded like race cars roaring in neutral at the beginning of a race. I became nervous at the prospect of getting lucky.
"Would you do me a favor?" she asked.
"Anything," I said.
"Would you ask the band to play Waltzing Matilda?"
"Why not ask them yourself? They're right there."
"They won't play that song for me if I ask them."
"Sure they will. They're a band. They know all those songs. They'll play anything for anybody. That's their job. That's why they're here. That's why we're here."
She inched closer to me and stared into my eyes.
"They won't play that song for me if I ask them. I'm dying to hear that song especially with you. Won't you please ask them?"
"Hokay," I said.
I told myself some girls want guys to do favors for them. That makes them feel important.
I was not familiar with the song though I had a vague idea of the melody and I heard it was the unofficial national anthem of Australia. I could not remember the last time I had requested a song from a band. Nervous, I labored up to the bandstand and asked the lead singer so he said they would play it. Happy, I returned to Devonne and her dark-haired sister Carmel. "That was nice of you to do," Carmel said.
I wondered why. Something about the way she looked at me made me itch. A few weeks after I had passed out on the juke box, I joined the Moonies for three weeks. Carmel's question and stare at me reminded me of the way the Moonies used to look at me. Then Devonne turned close to me.
"Why do you limp?" she asked.
"I broke my back," I explained. Breathing heavily, she put her face close to mine.
"I really want to hear this song with you."
Her toe ran up and down against my shin. I wanted to gather Devonne up in my arms and drop a bomb on her lips. Instead, we talked for the next few minutes while the band worked their way through two other numbers before they got to Waltzing Matilda. Goose flesh chilled me.
Devonne nestled closer in my arms. She clasped my left hand and pressed it against the pillow of her left breast.
My hand pressed against her and her warm body pressed itself against my chest. The singer sang in a plaintive voice about living life as a carefree rover in Australia and how he could no longer dance. This song did not improve as it progressed. The next verse told of a slaughter of Australians on a Turkish beach during World War I. What did all this have to do with us -- Devonne and me? The end of the third verse grew even worse.
When I saw what the shell had done . . .
I wished I were dead . . ."
When I saw what the shell had done . . .
I wished I were dead . . ."
This was terrible. That was how I felt when I had broken my back and nurses told me that I would never walk again.
Then came the even more dreadful fourth verse:
The armless, the legless, the blind and the insane."
The armless, the legless, the blind and the insane."
The three or four minutes that the song played seemed as long as the four months I had stayed in the hospital after my accident.
"Thank you," she said at the conclusion of the song. "That was lovely."
I cleared my throat. I was glad one of us thought so.
"Anytime," I said. The song was, after all, over. She kept my hand clasped against her breast grown cold to the touch. I did little to press the issue. In fact, my body numbed. Though she was lovely, I could hardly look at her. She fidgeted, then looked at me with a frown laced with disdain that made me feel like an ass.
Devonne and the bartender exchanged a glance that suggested they shared more than a passing acquaintance. She blew out another plume of cigarette smoke into the air and stabbed out the butt. I felt like a used condom. A desperate urge to go to the men's room struck so I excused myself.
When I returned, I again stood between Carmel and Devonne. Carmel told me she was an interior decorator. Devonne said she was a computer programmer. Then she mentioned that she owned two cats, a black and a white one.
"Oh I have a cat," I said. "A big orange tom. "Twelve pounds or so. His name is Raj. He's my pride and joy."
"That's nice," Devonne said in an apathetic tone but her lip turned as if she had smelled something bad. This was serious. I'm always interested whenever anybody tells me he owns a cat. I ordered another beer. When this arrived, I took a small sip.
Devonne was blowing cloud after cloud of smoke into the air, a one-woman pollution problem. She seemed nervous. My presence seemed to bother her. Suddenly, something bothered me as well.
"Hey Devonne," I said. "You said the band wouldn't play Waltzing Matilda if you asked them. Why wouldn't they play that song for you?"
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"Yes you do. You made me ask them to play Waltzing Matilda. I feel like a black guy you'd ask to light a match and as soon as he does, a burning cross appears. What, do other guys limp in here and you ask them to play that song? Is the band wise to you? Is that why I had to ask?"
"Bob, you're talking such nonsense."
"Oh, I'm sure. What, do you like gimps? Got a thing for us? You like the way we move? Or you've got a problem. You don't like us. That's too bad. Maybe you just don't like guys."
"Bob will you please shut up? You're ruining my night."
"Oh! Excuuse me. You've done so much for mine."
Silence settled between us. A cloud rose from my mind. My anger had vented itself. My eyes coursed the bar. I relished the silence. The cold beer soothed my lips. When I again glanced at Devonne, her bright eyes, yellow as any snake's, peered through her cigarette smoke haze. They tried to pierce into my soul, but they couldn't get there. I averted my eyes until she asked, "Hey Bob, do you have any scars?"
This girl was really asking for it. I wanted to give her a few scars of her own, but I checked that impulse. Instead I took a deep breath. I composed myself.
"Of course," I said. "Everybody has scars." I tried to hide behind my beer. I took another defensive sip.
"I'd like to touch your scars," Devonne said. "Run my finger up and down your backbone. Up and down. Up and down. I bet your skin's real smooth back there. Your scar's nice and smooth too."
I could hardly hear anything besides my own breathing. I wanted to tell her to shut up, but I couldn't. When a girl touches that scar the right way, it grants me incredible peace. I took another sip of beer. I wished she would vanish. I tried to ignore her.
"Hey Bob," she said. "Look at me."
""What?" I asked, my eyes half-averted.
"I'd like to lick your scars."
Beer spewed out of my mouth. I choked. I gasped. I gaped at her.
Her yellow eyes stared back at me. Her tongue flicked out to lick the sides of her lips. Her chest heaved. Her nostrils, large as quarters, inhaled deeply. Her whole torso pulsated with deep breaths. I picked up a napkin to clean up first myself, then the bar where the beer had spilled.
"You are fucking crazy," I said.
"My father had a broken back. He had a limp like yours. He had a beautiful white scar that ran down his back just like yours."
I shook my head. My whole body shivered. I grabbed the bar so I wouldn't topple over. My arms, though normal, indeed quite strong, quivered with the supreme effort of holding onto the bar. I took deep breaths until my racing pulse returned to normal. Her chest continued to heave. She was the most beautiful woman I've ever seen. Again, I had to go to the men's room.
"Hey Devonne," I said as I passed her. "Go suck your father's scars."
She took her deepest breath yet. She looked at me like a teakettle about to erupt into a steam. I bolted to the men's room. There, over a toilet, I retched three times, but nothing came up. I washed my face to get rid of tears that somehow had formed there, then splashed cold water on the back of my neck. I took the long way back to my stool so I could avoid Devonne.
After a while, the lights came on. The bar started to empty. Devonne and Carmel started walking towards the door.
"Hey Bob!" Mayo said. "There goes your girlfriend."
"Don't just stand there," he said. "Go after her."
Blindly, though I did not want to, I scrambled to the door. But when I appeared there, Devonne and Carmel just laughed and ran to their car. I went back to the bar.
There, my leg hooked around a stool that tripped me so I kicked it. A fungus that has grown on my toe since the night of my accident screamed with pain. I grabbed the bar and hauled myself onto a stool. There, I ordered a beer but the bartender said I had missed the last call. He glared at me.
"You're shut off anyway," he said. "You're a troublemaker."
Wonderful, I thought. I took a deep breath.
"You can have mine," Tom said, then pushed his beer in front of me.
"Really? It's yours."
"That's okay. I don't want it."
I needed it. I stared at the bartender as I sipped, but he avoided my eyes. Mayo shook his head in disbelief.
"You blew that one."
I half wanted to take a swing at Mayo.
"Well, she comes in here a lot. Take a run at her the next time you see her. Maybe you'll get lucky."
"I hope not."
I took a sip of beer and tried to forget the whole evening. Still, I could not get the melody of Waltzing Matilda out of my mind.
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Copyright 1996 The Ragged Edge
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