A year ago today, I posted the original version of this story. I, and it, have since gone through many things together: publication at Outside In, thesis revision, several glasses of Jameson, several bottles of amber ale, achievement, loss, grief, recuperation. It’s been a hell of a three sixty five.
I’m re-sharing this in part to show how important close editing is to the health of a story and a writer, but also just because I like it and it’s thematically appropriate.
When he finally mustered enough courage, he looked up. He stood near the doorway of the old building, taking a moment to remember it. The dirty, butt-stained sidewalk that hosted dozens of drunk denizens who smoked in the Boston air, the flower boxes that sheltered and nurtured his mother’s favorite purple butterworts, the green and red knot work sign that proudly cast the name “Flaherty’s” over the tiny side street, all now burnt and hollowed out, everything ruined by smoke and flame and the power of unattended random chance.
If he hadn’t been late that morning, if he hadn’t been so slow to rise with head fogged by one too many late night whiskeys, if he hadn’t needed drink after drink to quiet his guilty conscience, James thought, maybe, just maybe when the piles of overdue bills in the unkempt kitchen caught those fledgling flames from that gas oven that should have long been replaced, he might have stopped it; not had to watch his father’s dream, an Irish life reborn and infused with Americanism, billow and ascend, smoke colored black by all that carbon and shame.
He imagined his father standing next to him, ginger hair turning grey at the temples. He’d looked almost like a fox in those last few years, still wily in spite of, and now svelte because of the cancer. Not that James had actually seen him outside of the pictures he’d found on the internet; he wasn’t even in the same zip code when that grizzled pater familias left the party early, lymphoma on his arm. He’d gotten the news from his second-cousin, late one night in a craythur haze, that the family name was now his alone. Still, Sean Flaherty hovered there unable to speak, but in his head, James could hear the vitriol his father would be slinging if he’d seen the fate of the bar he’d tended for near forty years.
The claims adjuster was late. James kicked at some fallen wood near the door, careful not to venture too far inside the shell of the building, worried that it was still in the middle of its death throes, still capable of collapsing any minute. The morning air gusted, picked up the scent of charred memories, kegs and coat racks and day-old beer. Inside the doorway he could feel the warmth still radiating off of the remains of the tall tables and long bar, all the stored energy seeping out of the wood like it was bleeding.
James lost focus at the sound of a car clumsily hopping up the curb while trying to park. A fat man, maybe twenty-nine, thirty, struggled to lift himself out of the driver’s seat. His pants were an inch or two too short, his tie a hideous spotted yellow, and his receding hair line barely visible in the stubble of his buzzed blonde hair. James could smell his Old Spice, old school, from five yards away. “James? James Flaggerty?”
“Flair-tee.” The mispronunciation of his name, his father’s name, at this moment, in this place, felt like dirty fingers in a fresh wound.
They stood outside the husk, peering into the darkness just beyond where the door had been. “Oh, sorry.” The adjuster turned to his papers, shuffled them to find a specific line on a legal-sized form, and then looked up. “Oh man. You’re lucky this fire didn’t jump to these neighboring buildings. That would have been an insurance nightmare.”
James kicked a beam of wood that had come loose from the siding and fallen onto the pavement, uncovering a half-burned coaster. A tiny shamrock, the only Irish cliché besides Guinness that his father perpetuated, was still clearly green and alive on the bottom corner of the cardboard. James did not smile. “Heh. Lucky.”
That night it felt wrong to sit in another bar, drink, even kind of enjoy himself. But the whiskey burned nice and the ice melted slow, and red ale chaser was just as his father would have liked: malty, crisp, sneaking hints of hops that lingered on his tongue. It was from his father he learned to drink, so it was to his father he drank the next one. And the next one. And the next one.
Each drink washed away another sin. In the first glass of single-malt he apologized for storming out so rashly, back in those eighteen-year-old days when he thought he knew everything and his father knew nothing. In the second, he cursed his father for leaving the pub to him, making him come back to this place fifteen years later against his better sense of pride. In the third, he found the courage to keep back the tears that had been welling since the police had informed him of the incident, the damage, the loss. In the fourth, he laughed, and ordered a fifth.
James didn’t stumble home, his careening so practiced that it was just one long graceful fall from bar stool to pillow. The whiskey normally stifled his dreams, but tonight they flared and seared, father and fire and failure all whirling together in an inferno of nightmarish scenes. He woke up, head pounding, throat dry, vomit lurching in his stomach, to remember both his father and the bar were, in the waking tangible sunlight of reality, gone.
His phone buzzed. He looked at the clock: 10:49. For a moment, he thought about letting his head sink back down into the pillow. The number was familiar, but not one that he’d stored in his phone. He waited for the third buzz, sighed, and answered.
The already horrible headache intensified. “Flair-tee. What can I do for you?”
The adjuster sounded even more nasal over the phone. “I just got the report from the fire marshal. I’ve got the final coverage numbers, but the inspector found something I think you should see.”
The pub looked less dejected now that the fire had completely gone out of her. Most of the debris that had fallen loose had been cleared from the entrance and the street. She looked scarred and damaged but somehow respectable, like she refused to give up so easily.
“Mr. Flag…Flair-tee. Thanks for showing up at such short notice. Most of the worst of the mess has been cleaned up, so if you’ll just step inside for a moment, I’ll show you what I was referencing earlier.” The adjuster did his best to move gracefully through the rubble, trying to avoid getting his ill-fitting khakis stained by any soot. They passed the slumping, massive piece of oak that had been the bar; two patina-pocked tap stems, standing proud, the only things that seemed relatively undamaged by the fire.
Near a large hole between some broken floorboards at the back of the pub stood a walrus of a man, a man whose stature and uniform said authority but whose huge white mustache and kind eyes said grandpa. He looked at James then back down at the hole. “Did you know this room was here?”
Confused, knowing the back of the bar as only a place of refuge from the commotion of the patrons and the trajectory of drunkenly tossed darts, James didn’t know what the man was talking about. He inched closer, pushing past the combined girth of both inspectors, peering down between the broken floor boards. Boxes, clunky filing cabinets, three rows of large wooden shelves, and what looked like several beer casks lolling about in the dusty shadows.
“I’m going to try to climb down there.” The fire marshal huffed and recommended otherwise. Ignoring the man, who probably wouldn’t fit through the hole, James threw his legs over the edge, found his footing on the old wooden framing, and slowly lowered himself into the room below.
James used the screen of his phone as an impromptu flash light, shining it over the oak barrels with iron bands that rested on their ends, unmoving, like a dozen enormously fat men wearing belts too small. The blue light bounced through the surprisingly cavernous space, and the stone walls, all mildew and damp, radiated with eerie fluorescence. Three thin metal pipes came from the walls; forgotten hand-pull tap lines that at some point, years ago, had been connected to the casks that lined the rows of wooden racks.
Against the far wall, dozens of clear glass necks poked out of wooden crates in rows of six, columns of four. He grabbed a bottle and brushed away the dust and the ashes that had fallen from above. Eyes wide, trying to make out the text in the dark, he read the labels on the bottles. Tullamore, Bushmills, Midleton; ninety, ninety-three, a hundred and one years old, some even more ancient. All intact. Perfect, pristine. An army of golden soldiers in glass armor. He held an unspoiled fortune in his hands, felt the weight of years of Irish tradition, salivating over the idea of how much he could charge for even a shot of a vintage this rare.
The digital light made the place seem unnaturally cold, like a ghost had sapped the heat from the air. He imagine a specter of his Grandfather, hiding from the prohibition-crazed police, storing all his precious homeland still-runnings down here, beneath sealed floors, until they weren’t at risk of being poured out on the street as a warning to other bootleggers. He shivered to think even his father didn’t know of this treasure trove, and that he may be the first living Flaherty to stand in this room in nearly half a century.
James moved to the filing cabinet. Years of rust and dust had seized the runners, but with a little force and a lot of curiosity, he slid the middle drawer open. He thumbed through the yellowing paper, tilting the phone to get a better look at the faded writing on each page. The first folder housed records, names and bills and income for years well before James was alive. The second folder was empty, except for an antique wooden-handled bottle opener. The third, packed nearly to the point of bursting, fell from his hands as he lifted it from the cabinet and spilled all over the floor.
At the sound of this, the fire marshal called to him, shining his flashlight down to see if James was injured. This beam of light caught the papers on the floor just long enough for James to read the titles: Flaherty’s Oatmeal Stout, Flaherty’s Pale Ale, Flaherty’s Irish Red Ale. Next to each recipe was a hand drawn green shamrock, perfect mimicry of the one his father so insistently included on anything associated with the bar.
The claims adjuster’s head appeared, upside down, from the hole above. “Are you okay? Looks pretty messy down here. You’re lucky you didn’t get hurt.”
James smiled, picking through the rest of papers that had spilled from the ancient brewer’s book, and thought for a second, he felt a hand come to rest on his shoulder. “Yea. Lucky.”
“My heart is quite calm now. I will go back.” – James Joyce