When he had finally mustered enough courage, he looked up.
He stood in front of the ruin and took a moment to remember it. The dirty, butt-stained sidewalk that had hosted dozens of drunk denizens who smoked their cigarettes in the Boston air, the flower boxes that had sheltered and nurtured his mother’s favorite purple butterworts, the green and red sign that had proudly cast the name “Flaherty’s” over the tiny side street now burnt and crumbling and black, 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, if he wasn’t a coward and an idler, James thought, maybe, just then maybe when the over due bills in piles in the unkempt backroom 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 American pride, billow and ascend, smoke colored black by all that carbon and shame.
The claims adjuster was late. James kicked at some fallen wood near the door, careful not to venture too far inside the building, worried that it was still in the middle of its death throes, still capable of collapsing a little bit more at 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 car clumsily hopping up the curb while trying to park. A young, fat man, maybe 29, 30, struggled to lift himself out of the driver’s seat. His pants were an inch or two too short, his tie was a hideous spotted yellow, and his receding hair line was barely visible in the stubble of his closely trimmed blonde hair. James could smell his Old Spice, old school, from 50 yards away. “James? James Flaggerty?”
“Flair-tee.” The mispronunciation of his name, his father’s name, at this moment, in this place, felt like a poorly timed punch to the gut.
“Oh, sorry.” The adjuster pulled out some papers, shuffled them trying to find a specific line on a legal-sized form, 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 another beam of wood, uncovering a half-burned coaster. A tiny shamrock, the only Irish cliche next to Guinness that his father perpetuated, was still clearly green and alive on the bottom corner of the cardboard.
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 the homemade Irish red ale was just as his father would have liked it: overly malty, crisp, sneaking hints of Irish moss 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.
James didn’t stumble home, his careening so practiced that it was almost 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 that both his father and the bar were, in the waking tangible sunlight of reality, gone.
He looked at the clock: 10:49. His phone buzzed. For a moment, he thought about letting his head slam back down onto 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 claims 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 inspection found something I think you should see.”
The pub looked less dejected now that the fire had completely gone out of her, the shiny black of the beams reflected the midday sun almost defiantly. Most of the debris had been cleared from the entrance and the street. She looked scarred and damaged but respectful.
“Mr. Flag…Flaherty. Thanks for showing up so last minute. 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 claims adjuster did his best to gracefully move through the rubble, trying to avoid getting his ill fitting khakis stained by any soot, leading James near the back of the pub where they’d taken keg and food deliveries. They passed the slumping, massive piece of oak that had been the bar; two tarnished tap stems, standing proud, the only things that seemed relatively undamaged by the fire.
Near a large hole in the floor was 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, only remembering the back of the bar as a place of refuge from the commotion of the patrons and the trajectory of drunkenly tossed darts, James didn’t know what this man was talking about. He inched closer, pushing past the combined girth of both inspectors, trying to look down between the broken floor boards. A few boxes, an old filing cabinet, nothing really shocking, except for the fact that this pub, a place he’d literally and figuratively grown up in, been reared and scolded and taught to drink, had a hidden secret.
“I’m going to try and climb down there.” The fire marshal huffed and recommended otherwise. Ignoring the man, who probably wouldn’t have even fit down the hole had he wanted to explore it, James threw his legs over the edge and slowly lowered himself into the room below.
The room was small, but not tiny, stinking of mildew and oldness, the kind of place you’d expect a pub manager to turn into an office if a pub even needs something as official and business-like as an office. James used his cell phone as an impromptu flash light, shining it over the boxes – no crates – that we stacked neatly along one back wall. Clear glass necks poked out the top in rows of 6, columns of 4, case after case of the stuff, hundreds of bottles of whiskey left sleeping for decades.
He grabbed a bottle and brushed away the dust and blackness. Eyes wide, he read the years on the bottles: 70, 73, 85 years old, some even more ancient. All intact. Perfect, pristine. An army of golden soldiers in glass armor.
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 forced 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, short of an old, 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 OK. 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 little green shamrock, perfect mimicry of the one his father had so insistently included on anything associated with the bar.
The claims adjuster’s head appeared, upside down, from the hole above. “Are you OK? Looks pretty messy down here. You’re lucky you didn’t get hurt.”
James smiled. “Yea. Lucky.”
“You never know what worse luck your bad luck has saved you from.”
― Cormac McCarthy