EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a pre-publication draft of a chapter from a fictionalized non-fiction, ‘sorta memoir’ book titled “CRAZY DAYS: Confessions of a Fallen Altar Boy.” For news of the book’s release, free subscribe to: TheStoryIsTheThing.Substack.com
By Douglas John Imbrogno | TheStoryIsTheThing.com | june 2, 2023
The Irishman swings his fiddle like a metronome in time to the aire, its butt end clutched beneath his pepper-grey beard and chest. His bow hand draws out a keening line from the old instrument, a sound timeless as a storm wind whistling through the eaves. The fiddler’s bowhand drops to his side, the instrument now pointing earthward. The fiddle — held securely by his chin — sways back and forth to the melancholic tune as the bodhran and pennywhistle players urge the tune forward, all of them seated on stools in a corner of the doctor’s living room. The only light comes from several candles, a whiskey bottle on a sideboard refracts their gold-yellow flicker.
A pulsating ‘beat-beat-thrum’ springs from the bodhran’s goatskin surface, as the player—a pretty, blonde-haired woman with green eyes—beats out a heartbeat rhythm with her doubled-ended drumstick. A tipper it’s called, isn’t it? Meanwhile, the pennywhistle’s sweet, high-pitched tenor cascades down the scale until the bow returns to meet it in the middle, rejoining the aire.
“You know … ” the doctor says, leaning to speak into the young man’s ear as the song proceeds. “The bodhran was first used by Irish clans as a battle drum. It gave a steady rhythm for Celtic warriors facing conflicts. Warrior time.”
The young man tries to look convivial, yet his grin back at him probably look more like a grimace, he thinks. Is the doctor telling him to man up? He is, himself, a guitar player, in happier times. The doctor pours a slug of Irish whiskey into a shotglass. Offers it to him. Should he be having whiskey? The doctor insists, the shotglass pushed his way twice.
“We’ll be leaving soon. You’ll be okay,” he says, trying out a paternal smile.
An American voice in an Irish drawing room. The doctor has a mop of brown, undistinguished hair. Penetrating black eyes are his most distinguishing feature. How had he found him? An ad in the back pages of The Irish Times. Dr. Thomas. Or was Thomas his first name? Or is it Tom Thomas? His head is muddled from the last, frantic hours.
He tosses back the whiskey in a gulp. His mouth and throat burn with a gingery hotness that tastes something like the squirt of biting into a banana pepper. He hands the glass back to the doctor. The young man leans in toward the players while the trio finishes, as each of the instruments interweaves in a sinuous line, alighting together on one last island of notes. Then, silence.
“What is the name of that tune?” he asks the fiddle player.
“‘Carrickfergus,’” the man says in a broad Irish brogue.
The fiddler rests his instrument in an open case on the floor. Coming upright, he smooths his unruly beard into a long point. He, too, accepts a whiskey from the doctor. The players have no clue what is going on with the young man, who the doctor has greeted at the door after his arrival at a nearby bus stand. They were just here at the house. Neighbors or friends. A living room jam lubricated by drink on a Saturday within view of the Irish Sea out the windows. The doctor is not supposed to be seeing patients on a Saturday night. But these are extenuating times.
The fiddler tosses back the whiskey. Proffers the glass to Doctor Tom — that is how the young man addresses his shrink. He bobs the glass in the air, seeking another.
“It’s fairly bog-standard for a sad Irish air,” says the fiddler, turning his eyes back to the young man. “The usual. Love. Drunkenness. A sorry death. It’s a regular at funerals …”
He beams from Irish delight in dark drollery, his thick-bearded face splitting into a wide grin. The doctor hands the fiddler another shot, but has stiffened a bit. The young man notices. The doctor speaks.
“Let’s get you going,” he says.
He has not offered him another whiskey.
In the car, they say few words. “You’ll be fine. Your folks on the way?” The young man looks out the window. The Irish Sea toils, whitecaps peaking everywhere as a chill breeze whips them into a froth. “I called. Got my sister-in-law. They’re coming …”
Ten minutes later, he parks the car. The Gothic building off the parking lot is where they greet you. They already know him. Some more paperwork. He passes the perfectly serviceable room where he had stayed for a couple weeks while continuing to work at the restaurant. It has a window. A narrow bed with clean, white sheets. A sink. They bypass this room for which he no longer qualifies. At some point, the doctor waves goodbye after a last grasp of his right shoulder. Squeezes it. Once. Twice. Then, gone.
A man with unruly black hair in need of a comb, wearing an institutional white shirt and matching pants, appears at his side. He has a coiled strength the young man can feel through the hand that grips his right arm. He leads him out of the building into a dirt- packed yard. In the distance, stands an even older, higher Gothic structure. Its large, rough-hewn stones appear blackened as if by fire, but more likely by a century or more of aging. ‘Time’s stain,’ the young man thinks. Lives lived behind stone. They pass a mound upon which grows a clutch of blood-red poppies, like the eyes of feral animals at woodland’s edge after midnight. They take steps across the yard, the attendant never letting go. Would he try something again? Would he run if he could? He is too tired to run. Where would he go? Steps closer to the the building at the back of the property.
More hillocks, more poppies.
Steps closer. Closer.
From ten feet away, he sees the bars on the building’s windows, thick as iron. Maybe they are iron rebar. Footsteps to the metal door, which is dirty white with dents and pocks. The attendant raps upon it. An evening wind rustles a copse of tall trees to one side of the building, flattening the leaves out. The sound is washed away as the door swings inward.
And out pours a cacophony of cries.
NOTE: My thanks to Diane Zinna for the writing prompt that led to this piece, during a productive, month-long group writing ZOOM workshop.
MORE DRAFT EXCERPTS from “CRAZY DAYS: Confessions of a Fallen Altar Boy’
‘CRAZY DAYS’: ‘When ‘Frankenstein’ Came to Town‘: “Listen to this!” say Tommy. He shifts the Les Paul to his lower back, rock star-like. “Edgar Winter,” he says, almost reverently. “Johnny’s brother …”
‘CRAZY DAYS: ‘Stormtroopers & Grandmas‘: The balls of his black pupils stare at me intently, oddly echoed by the round marble of a self-shaved head. Moments later, I have second thoughts about my diplomacy as “Speak English or Die” batters the room.
‘CRAZY DAYS’: ”Looking Down on Paris, 30 years gone‘: Exiting the spartan, Napoleonic era apartment building I have sort of broken into, I head for the highest hill in Paris. I am intent on seeing what I can see this Christmas Eve in Paris, 1986, while my Moroccan fellow traveler and Buddhist temple-builder in a Parisian suburb snores toward Christmas Day.
‘CRAZY DAYS: “Happy Again,” in Longridge Review. Tommy Helms ranges into the pocket at second base. He scoops the ball to Darrell Chaney, who whipcracks it to first. A picture-perfect double play. The Dodgers are done for and the win vaults the Reds into first place in the National League West. Then, several things happen at once, none of them good.
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