by Michael Corrigan


[This is the first story in Michael Corrigan's new book, "These Precious Hours," which will be serialized, in its entirety, in subsequent issues of TheScreamOnline.]

More frailer than the flowers
These precious hours
That keep us so tightly bound.


—Bob Dylan, after Henry Timrod, Confederate poet



Scene One

The therapist's office always gave Declan Mulligan a sense of comfort, an oasis from outside tensions. She regarded him intently before speaking.

"Are you sure you can travel alone?"

"I think so," he said, looking at her pleasant face. "I have to find out. I know I may see a ghost on every corner of Galway."

"Maybe seeing Kate's ghost won't be so bad," she said, writing in her notebook.

"I would welcome her ghost."

"See you in a month," the therapist said.

A week later, Declan Mulligan walked from the small Shannon airport to the stop marked Bus Eireann. He felt the familiar wet cold of Irish weather and when the bus arrived, he pulled up the bin door to place his suitcase. An older woman, bent over from osteoporosis, struggled with her bags. Declan helped her. When he pulled down the bin, his hand came away black.

"Jesus," he said. "Clean the bus, why don't you?"

Another traveler handed him a wet rag to clean his hand. The seated bus driver was a thick-set man with a dark curling mustache.

"Some old people out there need help with their bags," Declan said.

"I don't touch luggage," the driver told him in a lilting Irish accent. "You know what I mean?" He grinned.

As Declan got on the bus, another passenger remarked: "Maybe he would for a fiver, or ten Euros."

The bus started for Galway. The sky was overcast, and Declan watched the small towns and the green countryside as they passed. He thought of Kate and imagined her looking out the window at the wet green meadows and stone walls enclosing the pastures full of cattle and — more often — sheep.

"First time in Ireland?"

It was an American voice. Declan observed a young but balding man with a blandly handsome face sitting next to him. He returned the stranger's genuine smile.

"Second time. I came here four years ago with my wife."

The man nodded. He didn't ask why Declan was traveling alone and Declan didn't reveal he was a widower.

"You?"

"I've been here many times," the man said. "I have a sister in Galway who married an Irishman."

"How does she like living in Ireland?"

"She likes it. It gives me a chance to visit Galway," the American said.

"Lovely city."

"Don't drink the water," he cautioned. "There's a parasite they haven't killed, yet."

"No one told me that," Declan said. "Of course, who drinks water in Ireland? They drink Guinness."

"Don't brush your teeth with the tap water, either. Use bottled water."

"I'll remember that."

"What brings you here? Holiday?"

"Thought I'd see some Yeats country."

"You're an English teacher?"

"I have taught English, yes," Declan said.

The bus stopped many times along the way, and Declan wondered if the bus schedule matched the airline schedules. They rode on in silence. Declan was eager to see his favorite Irish city but also felt anxious knowing he'd be alone. He remembered the first time he and Kate took a train from Dublin and then a bus when they were bumped from the train, finally arriving at the Galway station. They walked through the unfamiliar streets toward the docks, pulling their luggage until they saw their hotel, the Jurys Inn. They watched the River Corrib flowing into the distant bay, and walked the narrow lanes with shops, sidewalk pubs, and street performers. When they left Galway for their return to Dublin and the airport, they took a taxi back to the station.

The station looked unchanged when Declan got off and nodded good-bye to the American. Some younger passengers walked toward a youth hostel at the bottom of the street. The pearl-colored sky threatened to open up and rain any moment. Declan walked, pulling his suitcase toward the tourist center. Inside were milling travelers, a rack of post cards, and a white-haired man behind the counter who gave him directions. "College Road is right outside. Your B&B is at the top of the street," he said in a mellow voice.

"Thanks."

Declan noticed a booth offering trips to the Aran Islands. He and Kate had taken the ferry to Inishmore, the biggest island, for what Declan later called "their Irish moment," riding in a horse-drawn cart down a narrow road. They heard spoken Irish as the driver, Pat, stopped and conversed with neighbors along the way. Declan's grandparents had lost their native language.

Declan walked outside and up the street toward Adrian's B&B. When he rang the bell, a young man answered and stared at him, mute and unsettling.

"Hello. I'm Declan Mulligan. I have a reservation."

The young man continued staring at him. He seemed puzzled and shouted in another language to someone passing in the hall.

"Maybe you know Adrian? The one I made the reservation with? I'm Mulligan."

"Mulligan?" the man said. A young woman with long dark hair and brown eyes appeared in the doorway. She was smiling.

"Hello," she said. "Fix pipes?"

"No. I'm Mulligan. I have a reservation for a week?"

"Weak, yes," the woman said. She muttered something to the young man who disappeared. They stared at one another. "Pipe broken."

"Do you speak English?"

"Yes," she said. "Much English."

"Check your books." He raised his voice. "Declan Mulligan?"

"Hello," the woman said, extending her hand. "Katrina."

They stood in the doorway. After a moment, Declan asked, "Katrina, could I come in?"

"Yes," Katrina said.

She blocked his entrance.

"Is Adrian here?"

"Adrian gone."

"Gone? Maybe you help?"

"Help? Yes. Of course."

Katrina went to a desk and came back with a wrench. "This help… for hand job?"

"I am a guest," Declan said. "I don't fix pipes. I am guest!"

Katrina saw his suitcase. She smiled again and nodded.

"Of course. Follow me," she said.

He followed Katrina into the kitchen where she opened a large book with many names and Declan saw his.

"See? There I am. One week."

"Yes," Karina said. She smiled. "You pay now."

The young man walked into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator. Declan took out his wallet and displayed a debit card. Katrina shook her head.

"Cash," she said. "Adrian want cash."

"Later," said Declan, raising his voice. "I get cash later."

Katrina nodded. Declan liked her face and expressive eyes.

"This way," she said.

She took him to a room outside the house that faced a small garden. The room was small but suited his needs.

"Adrian come," she said. She gave him the key. "You pay him."

"I will."

Katrina left and Declan examined the small room with its single bed and a mirror facing the bed. He took asthma medication and a toothbrush from a small bag, hung up a shirt and jacket, and placed a photo of him and Kate on a small table. They were kissing in a semi profile shot with the garden lawn behind them, and Declan knew it was an early photo since the roses hadn't appeared, yet. He looked at Kate's face and her sweet half smile as he whispered something, now lost, into her ear. Thinking about his late wife, Declan felt a wave of sadness.

"Jesus, Kate, what am I doing here without you?"

The wall television stared down at him like a dead eye.

"You'll be traveling alone," his therapist had said, writing in her notebook while holding his gaze. "And you're very vulnerable right now."

He wondered how Galway would affect him without Kate walking by his side. He also wondered if he would ever meet the mysterious Adrian. Looking out the door, he saw the cold wet day driving overhead, and decided to wear his worn Aran Island sweater and a Levi jacket. As he walked through the dining room of the main house, he saw a heavy-set man with short dark hair and light blue eyes standing in the kitchen.

"Mulligan, is it?"

"Yes. You are Adrian?"

"That's me." They shook hands. "Enjoy your stay."

"I can get cash at an ATM for the rent," Declan said.

"There's one past 'Air Square.' We pay too much interest on credit cards."

Katrina appeared and smiled.

"Katrina works for me," Adrian said.

"We've met."

"We get a lot of service workers from Poland."

Declan waved good-bye and walked down College Road toward Eyre Square where President Kennedy once addressed a crowd. He turned left and headed toward the tourist section of Galway. He walked past a statue of Oscar Wilde seated on a bench, Oscar facing a lesser known Estonian writer named Edward Wilde. Two men were drinking on the bench between the statues and waved to him. Declan liked the festive air of this medieval city, and despite the poor weather, noticed a few guitarists playing on the corners. One older guitarist with a lined face sat on the street; he wore fingerless gloves and a thin dog lay on a mat. A cap was set out for coins. Declan heard Irish music from inside the pubs as he walked toward the Spanish Arch near the river. Coming out the end of a street, Declan suddenly saw the Jurys Inn.

Declan stopped.

He could still see Kate standing on the corner, smoking a cigarette and waiting for a taxi to the station. Staring at the hotel, Declan remembered his wife's final words about Galway.

"I hate to leave this place. We'll never come back."

"Sure we will," Declan had said.

Declan did come back but without Kate.

"One good thing about Ireland," a woman friend named Molly Duvalier had told him. "You can break down and cry and no one will notice the difference with all the rain."

Declan was grateful for the light mist. He decided to walk into the Jurys Inn pub and have a drink. He sat down and ordered a small beer. The pub-restaurant seemed too bright and not as interesting as when he and Kate had lunch there four years before. Drinking his beer, Declan wondered again if traveling alone was a bad idea. He had never traveled alone, even as a young man. Now he was learning to live alone. Kate had died on a brilliant September day and he had been a widower for nearly two years. He had reached that point when friends insisted he needed a woman companion, but Declan saw Kate's warm merry eyes watching him, with perhaps a trace of pity and sadness. He missed her. There was no other way to say it.

On the television screen, Dirk Bogarde was dying on a Venice beach, a sacrifice to the plague and idealistic love. Melting black hair dye ran down the side of his aging face. Briefly, Declan recalled Thomas Mann's Death in Venice and an off-hand insult he received once at Walt Disney Studios. Suddenly, the bartender switched to a soccer game. Men were kicking a white ball back and forth on a green field. Outside the pub, it began raining and Declan realized his umbrella was back at the B&B. He sipped the beer slowly, reflecting on the ten years he stayed dry.

When he left, the rain had stopped and it was pleasant to walk toward the distant beach and Galway Bay. Couples passed, holding hands. He found a bench and sat with his eyes closed as the sun appeared and a slight breeze touched his face. He thought about Kate and her love of the same famous bay. Declan imagined dying suddenly, staring at the setting sun. How long would it be before people noticed the grey-haired man slumped on the bench?

Declan got up and walked back among tourists and shoppers, passing the sidewalk cafés, pubs, and shops. He heard a street musician playing a spirited version of Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone," a favorite song. Passing crowds echoed the chorus: "How does it feel, to be on your own, a complete unknown, no direction home, like a rolling stone?" The guitarist was young with red hair and a beard.

"You do Dylan well," Declan said. "I'm like Pavlov's dogs when it comes to Dylan. I hear his music and start salivating."

"No need to salivate," the young man said. "I do love Dylan's songs. I even met Dylan."

"I never did," Declan said. He dropped some coins into the singer's guitar case and walked on. He stopped at an ATM and got cash for the week's rent at the B&B. Perhaps coming to Galway was a good idea. If he had to wander alone, this was a beautiful city to wander alone in. It had its own live soundtrack.

Declan stopped at the Forester Bar and Restaurant for lunch. As he ate, a young man wearing slacks, a white shirt and bow tie, introduced himself.

"Patrick," he said. "Proprietor. And you are?"

"Declan Mulligan," Declan said.

"A pleasure. Enjoy your stay."

Patrick rushed off. As Declan finished his lunch he thought about Kate's daughter, Teresa, who might meet him in Galway. They had much to discuss. Over the customer conversation, Declan heard a Dylan song piped into the restaurant and caught some poignant lyrics that brought back memories of Kate: "More frailer than the flowers/These precious hours/That keep us so tightly bound."

If only they had more "precious hours."

 

Scene Two

DECLAN MULLIGAN often tired of writing biographies for various dating web sites. It seemed absurd to put his life history into a paragraph. He grew up in San Francisco, raised by immigrant Irish Catholic grandparents after his mother left and his father died in the Korean War. He attended a San Francisco university. He chose to demonstrate against the Vietnam War when police converged on students and tear gas drifted across the campus. Declan worked with various theatres, and even authored a book about his great great grandfather, Michael Mulligan, a cavalry officer during the Civil War. Declan felt his connection to and separation from the native Irish of Ireland.

After a failed first marriage, Declan had the predictable habits of a single heterosexual man: many different women, including one-night stands or quick affairs, relationships that lasted one month or two, sometimes even a year. Any quick tryst might involve a strange woman meeting him in a stranger's bedroom, both of them sprawled on jackets and coats left by party guests, a woman he might enjoy and never see again, except for a brief wink over drinks. Occasionally, he tried to remember the memorable ones. Certainly Molly Duvalier, whom he met at an orgy staged for the San Francisco Sex Information Switchboard, was memorable. The party was given on a Sausalito houseboat. Molly could walk naked into a room of nude dancing revelers, her breasts large and Rubenesque, the hair thick and curly, the smile slightly wicked, the voice low with a slightly husky rasp, and ask one question: "Who here is not having a good time?" Declan became one of Molly's good times and he found himself experiencing a world of sexual delights with windows open to let the warm love in. When asked what she was into, Molly's answer was brief: "Everything."

But one day, Molly moved on. Declan moved to Los Angeles to study film.

"There are no seasons in the tropics," a friend once said, "so you hardly notice the passage of time."

Declan didn't live in the tropics but the years seemed to pass without any pattern or drama, yet one afternoon while pitching a film idea to a young female executive at Walt Disney Studios, Declan suddenly found himself outdated, even passé.

"This ill-fated love story you're describing, Mr. Mulligan. It happens in an old folks' home?"

"No. They're young. Why do you ask?"

"Why?"

The pretty female face observed him; she could have been the daughter of a woman he seduced at a party years before and never saw again.

"Well, no offense, but you're not a kid."

"Maybe so," said Declan. "But in the old days, I was a rogue."

He lifted his eyebrows like Groucho Marx. Sitting beneath a poster for Peter Pan, the woman regarded him impassively. "A rogue?"

"Yeah. Of course, I'm older, now. I used to make love all night. Now it takes me all night to make love."

He waited for a laugh or even a smile. The pitch session had turned deadly, and like a major scene in a film, it was a turning point. Suddenly, the fast life in Los Angeles with parties and Malibu beaches full of young, well-oiled bodies against a backdrop of jagged palms seemed even more illusory.

"I think we'll pass on your story," the woman said. "It feels a bit dated."

"Dated? No love story is dated."

"If we decide to do a remake of Death in Venice about dying, love-sick old men, we'll need a veteran seasoned writer — like you."

"I'm glad you at least know Mann's novel," Declan said. "Most of you younger story editors grew up on television, not the classic films."

For the first time, the woman smiled, and then asked quietly, "Who sent you to Disney?"

"Mr. Bayard Storey liked my pitch over the phone and read a spec script."

She glanced out the window at a row of Disney offices. "Mr. Storey is no longer with us. Oh, Mr. Mulligan, regarding feature films, you can pitch your ideas over the phone. There's no need to come to the office."

"Why not? I'm too old or too ugly?"

"No, you look fine. We do have a younger demographic in mind, of course. I just feel there's no need for you to come all the way down to our office, Mr. Mulligan."

Declan leaned forward. "What's your name, again?"

"Ms. Yumkiss."

"Well kiss my ass, Yumkiss. I ain't working for the Mouse."

When he left the small office, Declan saw a film-star handsome young man waiting to go in. They exchanged glances and a nod. Declan walked out onto the lot, knowing he had drifted outside the commercial mainstream. Despite a familiar routine, Declan still considered his life varied and interesting, though producers and agents seemed more and more dismissive. A friendly agent summed it up: "Hollywood worships youth."

Then word came to him that an Idaho friend was drinking himself to death. One afternoon during spring break, a waitress who also worked for an airline booked a reservation and Declan traveled on a rescue mission. Had he not suffered from the same plague, alcoholism? It was Easter weekend and inside the bar, Tim, facing liver disease, drank seven-up with vodka and told loud stories in a big voice while an attractive woman with blonde hair, blue eyes and a warm smile sat at the table, amused until she realized their mutual friend had spiked his soft drink. Her name was Kate. She nodded to Declan as he joined them at the table, discussing his own drying out and drinking ginger ale by the gallon to cut the withdrawal.

"Tim, it's a problem you have to confront."

"I don't have a problem with alcohol," Tim said. "I can get it any time I want."

Declan watched Kate, thin, well dressed and professional. She lit a cigarette and then offered one to Tim who took it. They smoked. Then Kate reached out and pressed her hand into Tim's. His skin had a yellow tinge.

"Tim? You're too thin. When's the last time you had a medical check-up?"

"Don't have time for doctors, Kate. What do they know?"

Kate looked away from Tim's bulging abdomen. Her eyes were moist. "They know a lot."

Declan had a soft drink and they finally talked about the past, sharing old stories. Tim had been a promising writer and he and Declan shared many a glass and even a few women when Declan briefly taught at the local university. They had indeed heard the chimes at midnight. When Declan walked Kate to her car, she stopped and looked at him, studying his face.

"Listen, Declan, I am divorced, something I never thought would happen, I have two kids, Teresa in college, and John graduating from high school, and though I have a fairly good job, I would love to do something else. You live in Los Angeles, not my favorite city."

"Nor mine. I have no kids. I'm divorced and though a bit old for Hollywood, I'm writing the great American screenplay."

"I admire artists, and I realize you've had a life of wild variety. I'm just an old-fashioned girl. I attend the Lutheran church regularly. I am not a political radical, I won't attend protest meetings or burn flags, and I love reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. I can even sing the Star Spangled Banner, if off-key."

"I can sing a little blues and some Dylan," Declan said.

"I prefer Sinatra, but I can listen to Dylan again." Kate hesitated for a moment. "I also have only one kidney. I lost it when I was thirteen. I also have high blood pressure and have to monitor it constantly."

"I see."

"Do you? High blood pressure can cause strokes."

"I know. And you smoke."

"Yes, I smoke… it's a filthy habit and I won't stop."

Declan observed her face in the soft spring light. He liked her symmetrical features and soft but resonant voice.

"Do you tell everyone about your one kidney?"

"Not usually. Just you."

"I'm impressed. Why me?"

Kate didn't answer but asked a question, watching his eyes. "What are we going to do?"

"About Tim? He has to give it up on his own as I did."

"No — what are we going to do about us?"

Declan felt a sudden thrill run through him.

"I don't know. I've never fallen in love at first sight, before."

"I never have, either."

They spent that Easter weekend talking about life, love, death, and redemption, though Kate attended Good Friday services alone. They soaked in the nearby hot springs and said nothing over the steaming water. They woke up together on Easter Sunday, and showering together, he thought she was beautiful. They were married at the Hemingway Memorial in Sun Valley with a running brook and cottonwoods and guests watching from a green hill. Kate's children were polite but distant. They traveled, including a trip to Ireland and Galway City. They witnessed her son's marriage in Mexico. They lived in San Francisco and Los Angeles while Declan continued teaching and writing unsold screenplays and Kate wrote proposals for stealth bombers. He found himself living a more structured life with a beautiful woman, and he liked it.

Then, after race riots, gang shoot-outs, and jobs suddenly ending, they decided to leave California for Idaho. On their last night in Los Angeles, something memorable happened. They dined at a Mexican restaurant named Casablanca after the celebrated film. As they left, Kate's warm connection to the staff over the years became apparent as Latino servers, bosses and kitchen help lined up to murmur, "Adios" and "Vaya con Dios, Se_ora." Hearing the murmured Spanish farewell brought tears to Declan's eyes. Humphrey Bogart in a trench coat watched from behind a glass cage.

Another quieter life began in Idaho with Declan teaching English and Irish writers at the local university while Kate ran a loan program for small businesses, including the Bannock-Shoshone tribe. As Kate spread the philosophy of economic independence, Declan considered writing a novel that might serve American literature. Then one bright September morning, Kate collapsed at work and was rushed to the hospital with a brain aneurysm. He was staring at Kate on the bed, a tube coming out of her mouth, color still in her cheeks. The doctor kept his eyes averted as he explained what happens to the brain with a subarachnoid hemorrhage; Declan heard the doctor's voice but not the words.

At some point, a neurologist told him what he already knew. He remembered being curled up on a chair in the visitors' room. Their life together was suddenly over as quickly as it began. There were no good-byes, no death-bed promises, no final declarations of love. It was as though a bright sunny day had turned to night and a black wind was blowing into Declan's soul, poisoning his inner being with hopelessness and despair. After 15 years, Kate was gone. The love of his life and Declan's major reason to exist had disappeared. Declan was now an older single man — a widower.

He began to cry even as the hospital assistant quietly informed him that the organ harvest team was on the way. Declan wanted to die.

It was the beginning of an understanding of a profound isolation.

 

Scene Three

THE second summer after Kate's death, Declan revisited Galway, a test of freedom alone in a foreign country. As he walked to the B&B, he stopped to watch a puppeteer work the crowd, the large jester-looking puppet dancing to its own tune, then rushing into the crowd to hump the legs of startled women. For the first time in months, Declan laughed. He looked at a nearby pub where a few drinkers sat outside watching the passing tourists and the puppeteer. The sign over the pub read what looked like "Tis Coili," but Declan knew it was in Irish and written Irish wasn't always phonetic.

He remembered Tim who died of cirrhosis two years after his attempted intervention, and then Declan entered the pub and ordered a short beer. A Celtic group was setting up. He listened to their lively Irish music for an hour, and when he came out, the puppeteer was working another part of the street. Declan noticed the young, red-haired guitarist sitting at a sidewalk table.

"What's this place called? Tis Coili?"

"The T.I.S. is actually T.I.G and is pronounced 'Chee' for house. This pub is 'Chee Coili' or the 'House of Coili.' You don't know your Irish?"

"No," Declan said. "Why don't they just spell it C.H.E.E.?"

"Then it wouldn't be Irish."

Declan saw the guitar case. "You're taking a break?"

"I gave my spot to Emily."

The young man pushed back his bowler hat and lifted a pint in salute. "And you are?"

"Declan Mulligan, American Irish."

"I gathered that. Jamie McDonagh, native Irish. And here comes JP, the great puppeteer."

Wearing a black cap, dark glasses, tee-shirt and fatigues, JP came up to the table, put his large puppet into a black suitcase and sat down.

"I need a cider," he said in an American accent.

"This is Declan Mulligan, another Yank," Jamie said.

JP tipped his cap as Declan sat down.

"Apple cider?"

"Yes, but fortified with alcohol."

"Where are you from?"

JP looked at him. "Are you a journalist?"

"No, but I am a writer. Thought I'd do a little Yeats tour."

"I'm not a writer," JP said. "But I am from Florida."

"You visit Florida often?"

"No. I cut all ties." JP took out a cigarette. "We're buskers. We travel to different countries, cities — we perform on the streets." He lit the cigarette. "Yeats, eh?"

"You need to visit Sligo for Yeats," Jamie said. "It's a quiet town. Galway is a lively town full of blow-ins. All of us are from somewhere else."

"So one doesn't have to be Irish to play Galway streets?"

"We have all nationalities here. Emily's an American."

Others came up to the table, and it became obvious to Declan that JP and Jamie were local celebrities.

"Watch what you say," JP said. "This man here is a journalist."

Declan bowed to the gathering. Jamie stood up.

"We are all a rootless generation," he said.

"I'm a bit rootless myself," said Declan.

"I'm Steve," a large man said in a nasal English accent. He had a round bullet head with thinning hair on top and his eyes bulged slightly. "I'm a builder. This here is Trisha, my fiancé."

Trisha, a pretty woman with dark hair, smiled at Declan. "Pleased to meet you."

Steve touched her breasts. "My puppies," he said, grinning.

"What do you do, Trisha?" Declan asked.

"Right now, nothing. I was a secretary, but my boss, an English Muslim, thought he was a bloody king. I got tired of that. I'm not even a royalist," she added, laughing.

"Nor am I," said Declan. "We dumped our king in 1776."

"I knew Steve since early school days. We met again, and bought a place in Galway. Lovely city, wouldn't you say?"

"Beautiful," Declan said.

"Our English pound goes father than the euro," Steve said. "I'll get us a round." He looked at Declan's glass. "You need a pint," he said. "Why are you drinking those little beers?"

"You don't want to see me drunk," said Declan.

When Steve returned, he carried pints and shots of whiskey. The patrons drank and Declan nursed his small beer as more rounds were bought. Occasionally, JP grinned at Declan, the dark glasses hiding his eyes.

"Those Muslims should learn what it means to be English and integrate," Trisha argued. "He expected me, a white English woman from Leeds, to wear a veil."

Declan was about to reply when Steve leaned close.

"What do you do, again?"

"I write and teach."

"Teach what?"

"English and Speech communications," said Declan.

"I never was good at public speaking," said Steve. "I'm a builder. I build things."

Steve gulped a shot and then lifted up his pint to drink. Declan swallowed his beer and stood up. "I need to get some food," he told them.

"Wait! You should get a round," Steve bellowed.

"A what?"

"That's all right, I don't speak English either," said JP.

"We need another round," insisted Steve, looking at Declan.

"Maybe later."

"We'll be still here when you come back," said JP.

Declan walked up the street through the crowds that were growing larger. Declan passed more buskers on the way to Eyre Square and the Forester restaurant. After a pleasant meal, he walked back toward the medieval district as the light faded. The group still sat outside the Tig Coili, drinking and very drunk. JP waved to him.

"Hey journalist, we're going to Sheridan's Wine bar after this place closes."

"Then the Roisin Dubh," Jamie said, his eyes red.

"What's a 'Roosen Dove'?" said Declan. "A Russian bird?"

"It means, 'Black Rose.'" Jamie shot him a glance. "The black rose is symbolic of Irish resistance and romantic love. You need to learn some Irish."

There was a Celtic fiddle group playing at Sheridan's Wine Bar. Declan felt a familiar loneliness though surrounded by people. Steve and Trisha drank in a corner of the crowded bar until Trisha danced to the rapid music and shook her "puppies" at the cheering crowd. Jamie and JP stayed together, drinking and talking. It was hard to hear over the loud music and bar noise. Three older women began dancing an Irish jig, hands frozen at the sides, legs kicking. A curly-haired buxom woman who reminded Declan of Molly stood in another corner drinking a pint of Guinness. At one point, their eyes met.

Declan finally stepped outside. He glanced at a big ship moored in the docks. It had been a long time since he'd stayed up this late drinking in crowded bars. Perhaps he would skip the Roisin Dubh. He thought of Kate who would be having a cigarette and watching the ships on the water.

"Jesus, Kate, where are you?"

Suddenly, the curly-haired woman stood beside him. She held a cigarette.

"There's a poetry reading tomorrow," she said. "At BK's wine bar."

"Excuse me?"

"Bring some original poems."

"I'm not a poet," Declan said.

"No? You have that dark poet look," the woman said.

"I only write novels about the human condition."

Declan was about to tell her his name when she asked, "Do you like Yeats?"

"Of course. Who doesn't?"

"The poets at BK's. He's too classical for them."

"Actually, Yeats is one reason I'm here."

"I thought so."

He looked at her face, at the thick dark curly hair and the wide sensuous mouth, and guessed her age in the mid thirties.

"Coole Park is close, isn't it?"

"It is," she said. "Take the bus to Gort. Then take a cab since it's a good walk to the park."

"Maybe you could drive me," Declan said, feeling suddenly bold.

The woman smiled at him, but didn't answer. A young man with short hair appeared and without acknowledging Declan, lighted her cigarette. Together, they walked off, and for a moment, Declan felt invisible.

The music continued inside. Declan strolled along the waterfront, recalling his earlier walk with Kate from the station to the Jurys Inn. The ships moored at the docks were large and appeared empty. No muggers lurked in the alleys. He stopped at an internet cafe and heard people calling long distance, talking loudly in foreign languages. When he checked his e-mail, Teresa wrote that she was taking a Dublin train to Galway at the end of the week. They would spend time together after all.

 

Scene Four

IN the morning, Declan took a bus to Gort. From there, he walked two miles along the highway toward Coole Park, enjoying the beautiful green countryside. He wanted to see Coole Lake that inspired the poem, "The Wild Swans of Coole." Declan imagined the swans flying overhead in noisy profusion. On the highway, Declan saw the Coole Park sign and turned down a narrow road lined with pastures. Gradually, the paved road became a shaded forest path.

Declan crossed a parking lot and found the tourist center. After looking at videos and hearing a history of Lady Gregory's house, no longer standing, he found the "autograph tree" and peered at the faint initials of famous Irish writers who had gathered here in another century: W.B.Yeats, John M. Synge, and George Bernard Shaw. Though numbered, they were hard to read. Then he found the wooded path leading to Coole Lake. He followed the dirt road until he saw the lake through the trees, the water low, boulders exposed, a single swan in the distance. The trees were "in their autumn beauty" when Yeats beheld the wild swans "scatter wheeling in great broken rings." Declan stared at the famous body of water and recalled a stanza:

Unwearied still, lover by lover,

They paddle in the cold,

Companionable streams or climb the air;

Their hearts have not grown old;

Passion or conquest, wander where they will,

Attend upon them still.



That's what I need, he thought: passion and conquest. Even now, the voice of his therapist echoed in his mind: "Will this be some kind of a writer's pilgrimage… or a way to connect with Kate?"

Declan couldn't answer at the time. Perhaps it was both.

He meditated on the lake and where the swans had flown. An old man in boots, rain-coat and cap, walked along the water's edge. He wore rimless spectacles and suddenly turned towards Declan, laughing briefly. Slightly disturbed, Declan watched the old man continue down the rocky shore. Then he took his time walking back along the path, enjoying the dark forest and dappled meadows. He could feel Kate by his side, stopping to examine each tree, the beeches, sycamores and others he didn't recognize in the light-split gloom. He imagined them having lunch at the park restaurant and taking an expensive taxi to Gort. It would be convenient and give Kate a chance to talk to an Irish cabbie.

But he was alone.

Many families were enjoying the park. After some apple pie at the small restaurant, Declan walked back to the highway and continued toward Gort, facing the traffic which was on the left. What would he ask had he met the ghost of Yeats back there in the forest shadows? Would he write something that would last a century? When would young writers scoff at Declan Mulligan for being "too classical"? It was an amusing thought. The bus to Galway arrived and Declan rested, his eyes closed, thinking of wild swans, not falcons, flying in a widening gyre.

When he got to Galway in the late afternoon, he stopped at the Tig Coili. JP and the English couple sat outside, drinking and smoking.

"Sit down. Have a drink," JP said. "Do you good."

Declan sat down. "Where's Jamie?"

"He went to Dublin to try his luck on Grattan Street."

"Up late, last night?"

"Until four in the morning," JP said. "I took today off."

Steve was asleep. Trisha examined Declan, as though she were analyzing him.

"How are you?" Declan asked.

"I'm trying to figure you out."

"Really?"

"You seem so… so tight."

"Tight as in cheap?"

"Maybe — but I meant, tight as in dark."

"All writers are dark," JP said. "Hemingway killed himself."

Trisha leaned forward, her eyes focused and hard.

"What do you write?"

"I'm working on an expose of expatriate English people hiding in Ireland."

"You're joking, right? Why are you here?"

"Why are you here?"

"We moved here, but we are also on holiday."

"So am I."

"And?"

"I came alone."

"And?"

"It was a bit of an experiment."

"And?"

"I am doing well."

Trisha stared at him. "After what?"

Declan lowered his voice. "I got hurt in the war," he said.

JP laughed.

Trisha shook her head. "You're not telling me something," she said. She guzzled her pint. Then she wiped her lips and said, "Something is missing."

Declan was about to stand up and declaim that he was a widower and a dark wind had blown through him, sucking out all life, that this voyage was a journey to find a new reason to exist, and why didn't they all just go fuck themselves, but then a young busker with a guitar sat down at the table. He was cursing.

"Damn, I hate it."

JP sat up. "Hate what, Richard?"

"When drunk hecklers tell me to get a job. I yell back, 'Get a life.'"

Trisha sat back, watching Declan. Then they heard more cursing. Two policemen struggled with a drunk, scruffy-looking young man. Vomit soiled his tee-shirt.

"That's the earbasher there," said Richard. "What never-never land is he from?"

The drunk struggled as the officers wrestled him to the ground.

"I've never seen this kind of violence in Galway," said JP. "Never."

Steve suddenly stirred and opened his eyes. He looked at Declan.

"Jesus Christ, you're like a bloody ghost. Everywhere I look, I see you."

"Funny, I was just about to disappear."

Declan waved good-bye. Trisha waved back.

"You can stay here. You're with your mates," said JP.

"Maybe later."

"We need a round," Steve said.

"Sure." Declan walked into the pub and approached the bartender.

"You know JP's table?"

"I can hear them from inside."

"Here's 50 Euros. Use it to buy the next round."

"I will," the bartender said.

Declan stepped out the back of the pub. He saw Saint Nicholas Church and wondered briefly if Christopher Columbus had, in fact, prayed there before plundering the new world. Then he walked toward his B&B. At the top of Shop Street, a familiar red-faced drunk sat between the two bronze Wildes.

"I'm a bit wild, meself," the drunk said, waving a bottle at Declan. At one time, Declan might have joined the drunk for afternoons and late evenings of drinking and philosophizing about the world's tragedies.

Lying on the bed in his cramped room, Declan felt a powerful fatigue, even as the black wind of past longing and regret sank into to him. He looked out the window at the small garden. The sun was still bright. Declan pulled the curtain and closed his eyes. Kate had not visited his dreams in over a year. Perhaps this afternoon would mark a beginning. He slept. When he woke up, it was still light outside. Kate had not appeared.

I need to be with other writers, he thought. Poets, even bad ones.

He got up and walked toward the commercial district. The drunk was still there, joined by another drunk, sitting between the two statues.

"What state are you from?" the first drunk asked.

"California and Idaho," Declan said.

"Well — which one is it?" asked the second drunk.

They laughed, each holding a can of ale. Declan walked on. When he passed the Tig Coili, the same people sat around the same table playing a familiar game. A coin was balanced on an upright cigarette on a coaster covering a pint glass. The object of the game was to get the coin into the glass without touching it. One of the men leaned down and blew on the coaster from below; the coin shot into the air, then fell into the glass. Everyone cheered.

Declan walked on to BK's wine bar located across from the new museum. They had a poetry reading going with Irish poets reciting loudly from the lighted stage. A handsome middle-aged man with silver hair introduced the poets. Patrons sat at tables with pints and glowing candles. One poet growled and bit his arm. Another poet recited an angry poem about a "fooking freeloader named Jack." An American woman recited a poem about her lover who could "fuck but not love." Later that night as the readings ended, Declan discovered the mysterious woman from Sheridan's sitting near him.

"I don't know about the literary value of these Irish poets, but they are entertaining. We usually read poetry in America, we don't recite. What's with that barking poet who gnawed his hand?"

"He's British."

"I liked the woman who wrote about her sexual frustrations. She just needs a tune-up."

"And maybe you got just the right tool?"

"Please… she is a bit young."

"And you care? Or is it fear of rejection?"

"Neither. I'm a gentleman."

Her guttural laugh sounded like a catarrhal cough. Declan looked at the large blue eyes, observant, inquisitive. "What's your name?"

"Maeve."

"Declan."

She sipped her red wine. "Can I buy you one?"

"A beer," said Declan. "Are you married?"

"Never married."

"Children?"

"No."

"Almost everyone gets married at least once and has at least one kid."

"I'm not everyone," Maeve said. "Why didn't you read?"

"I have noting prepared."

"This is Ireland, a land of poets. Make something up."

"I'm not that confident."

They drank and talked until closing time.

"I have had a few one night stands, but not tonight," Maeve finally said. "You understand?"

Declan looked again at the sensuous lips, the wide face, the handsome features, the eyes that seemed amused at his expense. "Sure, I understand."

"Do you? There's something dark inside you."

"An English woman suggested that. Do I have a sign, 'Beware, dark existentialist on the prowl'?"

"Maybe."

"Actually, I am carrying a burden."

"Tell me later."

"When?"

"We'll meet again."

"Where?"

Maeve shrugged. "How many pubs are there in Galway? I'll be in one of them. I like Knockins pub."

Declan noticed a guitar on the stage. Some patrons were leaving, but a few of the poets were still in the pub, drinking and discussing slam poetry.

"Dylan had a birthday recently. I play a little guitar, myself."

"Play a song, then."

Declan walked to the small stage and picked up the guitar. It was in tune. He stepped to the microphone.

"Apologies to the owner of the guitar but I thought I would sing a song in honor of America's greatest song writer who just had a birthday."

The writers cheered. Declan played "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" with a dropped C tuning to create a throbbing bass. It felt good to play and sing, again. He felt the lines, "Leave your stepping stones behind, there's something that calls to you/ Forget the dead you're left, they will not follow you." He finished the song and the small audience clapped. Maeve had left.

"Next time, bring a few poems," the master of ceremonies said.

"I will."

"You might donate to the readings."

Declan gave the man five Euros and finished his beer. Then he walked outside and stood by the Spanish Arch, looking at the flowing River Corrib. At one end, many swans floated on the dark water. There was a breeze, and he could smell the distant bay. Declan looked up at the glowing sign for Jurys Inn. He remembered lying next to Kate in their hotel room above the river and hearing the flowing waters at night. It had been a happy time. He looked away from the Inn and down the river.

For just a moment, he wanted Kate's ghost to come walking toward him. He would accept a ghost. He would accept any apparition, even if he didn't believe in the afterlife or ghosts. She would appear and there would be a wind between them and she would smile her radiant smile.

The Galway streets were empty when he walked home. It gave him a strange peace to walk past closed pubs and the bronze Oscar Wilde with no drunk waving at pedestrians. He might find a few people in sleeping bags on Eyre Square's lawn. Then he saw three women wearing hoods and capes walking toward him. As they came closer in the slight mist, he saw the lead woman had painted her face and bare breasts red and green. She stared at him, chanting: "We are the three goddesses of Galway, and those who have polluted our water will die!"

"Die," the other two women echoed.

They skipped by Declan and down the street toward the bay. Declan decided to have one last beer at a pub that played the old Irish songs about lost battles and martyred Irish heroes.

 

Scene Five

DECLAN left Galway for Yeats country and Sligo Town. He walked from the Sligo bus station through the quaint city to the river, passing a statue of Yeats. Something about the statue disturbed him; there was the familiar patrician face, the spectacles, one hand uplifted on a body that looked like a cross between an insect with manta-like cape and a stork on thin legs. Continuing on, Declan found his B&B at the top of a hill. It had an Irish name sounding like "cruzkeen" that meant "full jug." Liam, the proprietor, was polite and quickly stated the rules.

"There's no breakfast served after 10:00 AM," he warned. "Make sure you have your key since I don't answer the door after 10:00 PM."

"Okay," said Declan, always annoyed at a disapproving tone.

Once again, he would sleep in a cramped room, though this time, Declan shared a hall bathroom. He put up his garden shot of himself and Kate. Then he called an Irish woman he had met online named Josie who had agreed to show him around Sligo. Josie picked him up and drove him through heavy traffic to Yeats's grave. Declan read the familiar epitaph, and snapped a photo of the headstone while ravens cawed overhead.

"So this is where the greatest English speaking poet of the 20th century lies for eternity?"

"That's himself. I used to read his 'Stolen Child' poem to my kids," Josie said. She was a small woman with dark but brittle-looking hair. "It's set at Glencar Falls."

They drove past the flat Ben Bulben Mountain to Glencar Falls which looked like a special effect, the falling water full of light like a painting of a gossamer waterfall. The surrounding woods had a mystical ambiance. It seemed an appropriate setting for Yeats's poem about fairies stealing a child from the "weeping world."

Josie drove him to a small house to meet her mother, daughter and grandchild. Declan found himself shooting photos of four generations of women in a rural Irish scene. The seated white-haired woman smoked a cigarette and peered at Declan.

"Do I know you?"

"I'm visiting."

"Oh. Having a good visit?"

"Yes."

"Want a smoke?"

"No thanks," Declan said. "I might get lung cancer."

The elderly woman laughed. "I'm ninety-six," she said.

Josie joined her mother with a cigarette. Megan, her granddaughter, ran into another room. Outside the window lay the wet valleys of Sligo County, with its herds of loose sheep grazing on green hills.

"You've come during a bank holiday so I'll be busy with my family," Josie said. "I can't spend more time with ya."

"That's okay," Declan said. "If I need to go somewhere, I can rent a car. You've been very helpful and friendly."

"We live in the country," Josie said. "We are always friendly."

"The city folks aren't friendly?"

"You're an outsider," Josie said. "A blow in."

Declan noticed the elderly woman staring at him over her cigarette. She had many wrinkles in her face but her eyes were blue and clear.

"By God, are you John?"

"No, no," said Josie. "That's Declan. John is dead."

The old woman nodded to herself. "Oh yes… dead."

"Killed one night riding on his motorbike."

"Oh yes," Josie's mother said. "I remember. He was English."

Josie took Declan on a ride around the country. The roads were narrow and cut through green meadows encircled by rock walls. He had never seen so much green: hills, fields, and distant low mountains. The light was soft and misty.

"Who was John?"

"My late husband."

"I'm sorry to hear that."

"It was four years ago. He may have had a drop taken."

"Do you miss him?"

"Oh sure, but I have a daughter, a granddaughter, and mum to care for."

"No other man in your life?"

"God no," said Josie. "It gets better with time." They took a turn, passing a man on a tractor. "You'll find peace eventually."

"I hope so," said Declan.

Josie drove him back to the B&B.

"I'll try and call you before you leave," Josie said.

Declan had dinner at a local pub and tried to make conversation, but the waitress brought him his food without comment. Customers watched a horse race on television. He sat reading Yeats's collected poetry, but no one noticed. Later that night, he stood in a packed pub and listened to recorded music. At the B&B, he studied the photo of himself and Kate, wishing he could talk to her. He made entries in his travel journal. Then he went to sleep.

The next day, Declan walked around the town with its river and visited the Yeats center. He saw the library and walked through a pedestrian area, but no buskers sang on the corners. That evening, the streets emptied early. He found another pub and watched the drinking patrons until a group of young women wearing pink bunny ears entered. They were shouting and dancing to the recorded music and demanding drinks. A young man at the bar picked up one of the women and hugged her. The others cheered. Then the woman, wearing rabbit ears and a tiara, waved a small pink object which Declan recognized as a rubber penis and testicles.

"What's going on?" Declan asked.

A man leaning against the wall laughed and said, "It's a hen party."

"And what is that?"

"That girl is getting married, soon, so she goes out with her girlfriends to have a wild time. You can kiss the bride-to-be. Maybe even hump her, Yank."

The man's friends shared his laugh.

"Don't listen to him," another man said. "He's just taking a piss."

Declan retreated to another corner and ordered a beer. Moments later, a woman tapped him on the shoulder.

"You're the tallest in the room," she shouted. "You get to run the gauntlet."

"And what's that?"

"Run through us hens." She touched the inside of his thigh. "Don't be afraid."

Declan looked at the intoxicated young women lined up, waiting for a man to run between them. At the end of the line, the bride-to-be kissed her rubber toy and drank a shot. She motioned to the men in the pub, winking and smiling. The line of rabbit-eared girls looked at Declan, urging him to enter the line. One of them fluttered her tongue.

"I better pass," he said. "I'm in therapy."

"Give it a try," the first man said. "You might get a feel."

"Where's the husband-to-be?"

"At an all men's party getting drunk… or laid."

The girls shouted over the music and laughing customers; suddenly, another man bolted through the line, the women grabbing his thighs and buttocks. He got to the end and lifted the chubby bride-to-be, kissing and pressing her against the wall. He made humping motions. The patrons clapped. The girls cheered. Two women grabbed at his belt. Though packed together, they moved to the loud music.

Declan finished his beer and left. He stood outside, breathing rapidly, feeling a meaningless panic. A woman not connected to the hen party came out to have a cigarette.

"You might have enjoyed that gauntlet," she said. "Except their real goal is to get a man's underwear."

"Maybe I should go back in," said Declan. "They can have mine."

The next day, Declan's therapist sent an e-mail praising his reluctance to participate in the local customs. "Feeling uncertain, and given your vulnerability, it was the right decision."

"On the other hand, I may have gotten lucky," he wrote back.

Declan contacted Adrian who had a room available, and then informed Liam he was leaving Sligo early.

"If I didn't have someone else to take your room, you'd be liable for it," he said.

"I have seen what I had to see," said Declan.

When the bus pulled into the Galway station, Declan felt as though he were back home. He walked to Adrian's B&B and saw a no vacancy sign. He wasn't surprised when a strange woman answered the door and looked at him puzzled.

"Good afternoon," she said.

"You speak English?"

"Much English," she said.

"I'm Declan Mulligan. I made a reservation online."

"I'm fine," the woman said.

Declan indicated the kitchen. "Book with names — in the kitchen?"

"Kitchen closed. Guests only."

She began to close the door.

"I am a guest."

The woman regarded him. "No," she said. "House full."

"Is Katrina here?"

"Katrina gone," the woman said. "Poland."

"Adrian?"

"At work," she said. "Galway."

Declan pointed to his suitcase. "Internet booking."

The woman suddenly understood.

"Internet?" she asked. "New guest… just arrive?"

"Yes. Just arrive."

He followed her into the kitchen and they looked through the book, finding his name. Declan found himself in a bigger room in the house, with a view of the garden and the distant city. The woman gave him a skeleton key.

"Susan," the woman said. Her hair was thick and blonde.

"Pipes good, Susan?"

"Pipes good, water still no good."

"No need for hand jobs, eh?"

Susan returned his gaze.

"Call the girl from Donegal — Jurys Inn on weekends," she said.

Declan tried to explain the joke but Susan had left.

He walked down to the Forester hotel and bar and ordered their lunch special. Patrick smiled while passing. The short blond man was always moving, always cheerful. "Mr. Mulligan. We've missed you. And where have you been?"

"Sligo Town."

"Sligo Town is it? Quiet."

When Declan finished lunch, he checked his e-mail and saw a familiar name. Declan walked through the square and down Shop Street toward the bay. He passed a few buskers but didn't recognize anyone. Then he saw her walking toward the Jurys Inn. Though she had blonde hair, Teresa didn't resemble her mother in any way, her body heavier, her face lacking make-up, her walk that of a person who had hiked across many countries. They met and embraced.

"So you got in this morning?"

"Finally," Teresa said.

"I had lunch but are you hungry?"

"I could have a nosh."

They walked into McDonagh's Fish and Chips. The place was busy inside; they stood in line to order, and then sat down.

"McDonagh's is famous for their fish and chips," he said.

While Teresa ate lunch, they talked about Teresa's pleasant train ride across Ireland. After a moment, she looked at him carefully.

"The day my mom passed, I heard she was agitated at a meeting. What was that all about? She wasn't feeling well? She was angry?"

"She was angry over cell phones. The company was too cheap to furnish them. Now it's standard practice."

"I happened to get a cell phone the day before it happened. Dad called me."

"When she collapsed, it was over quickly if that's any consolation."

"Tell me what happened."

Declan told her the details, about hearing the news, about seeing Kate at the hospital unconscious but fighting for life, then the emergency team placing a tube down her throat. They took Kate to be x-rayed and Declan waited in the crowded emergency room, the doctor not answering questions, except to say it was "serious." Much later, another doctor was informing him that his wife "had passed." He recalled the doctors and nurses giving him cell phones to call relatives, but his hands were trembling and he didn't know any numbers. On a ventilator, Kate's skin color appeared normal, though she would never speak again.

Declan almost enjoyed telling the story, wanting to bring Kate back, unaware of his tears as he spoke about the arrangements and his grief at seeing Kate for the last time on this earth before cremation, kissing her cold lips, then the subsequent days and nights spent in an empty house waiting for Kate to return, the dark wind blowing through him even when he stood in the garden tending to Kate's beloved roses.

Teresa listened without speaking. It was always hard to read her expressions.

"You had a long plane ride from England to think about it."

"Yes, but I was prepared," she said. "Did you ever ask her to stop smoking?"

"Yes, but she wouldn't hear it." Declan remembered their big arguments over her tobacco addiction. "I understand addiction," he said. "It might have made a difference if she quit smoking but we'll never know."

It was the old "What if?" scenario. What if they had discovered her heart problem? What if she had quit smoking? Would the fatal brain hemorrhage have been delayed, giving them more time? Or was Kate fated to die young?

"We had plans to meet in London," Teresa said. "My expensive apartment's cramped but mom would have liked it."

"You will get half of the house, you know, you and your brother."

"You need it. I'm not into money. People are slaves to money — to buying things."

"Tomorrow, we'll go to your mother's favorite place, the Aran Island of Inishmore. We can meet at the tourist office in the morning."

"Sounds good. I'd like to hear some Irish spoken."

"They speak it there."

Teresa finished her dessert.

"Maybe we could walk around," Teresa said.

They walked to the red-colored Tig Coili. Outside, JP was just finishing his show and Declan saw Jamie at the table. Steve was asleep in front of his pint. Down the street, Declan saw Trisha dancing to the beat of many drummers. She moved her hips and breasts in a sensuous grind. Teresa sipped a beer as Declan motioned to Jamie.

"My stepdaughter, Teresa, wants to hear Irish," he said.

"Do you? Well, say anything and I'll repeat it in Irish."

Teresa spoke some sentences in English that Jamie repeated in Irish. JP picked up his puppet. "Buy us some shots of whiskey, we'll even do a show."

"Sure," said Teresa. "I'd like to see it."

She went inside the bar. Moments later, Teresa emerged with two shots of Irish whiskey. Jamie played guitar while JP's puppet danced, moving its hips from side to side, beckoning to passing tourists until a young woman shrieked as the cap-and-bells puppet advanced on her. Then the puppet stopped and danced and more tourists gathered. Jamie kept strumming, a steady beat. When the show was over, Teresa gave the performers their drinks.

"You want another beer?"

"No," Teresa said. "I need to go."

"I'll walk you back to the B&B," Declan said.

"I can find the way," Teresa insisted.

She waved good-bye and walked down the brick-laid street. Declan stood among the passing crowds. JP and Jamie sat down at the sidewalk table and ordered another pint with shots.

"I had a good day, today," said JP. "My puppet was well received."

He opened the box for his heavy puppet. It lay there like a corpse with the coffin lid open. Suddenly, it was three in the afternoon in a Pocatello mortuary and Declan was staring at Kate's dead face.

"We are all puppets," Declan declared. "We have a few precious hours, and one day, fate cuts the strings."

Declan saluted with his glass. No one commented on his remark. The day was fading to twilight. Trisha sat at the table and shook her fiancé. Steve stirred and sat up, blinking. He saw Declan staring at him. "Jesus," he said. "You again!"

 

Scene Six

DECLAN bought two tickets to Inishmore the next morning and they boarded a bus to the ferry. Many trucks were still in the Galway pedestrian section, unloading supplies until 11 AM when the trucks had to leave. It would be a pleasant ride to the docks where the Aran Island ferries departed.

The day was unusually warm, and Declan enjoyed the ferry ride to Inishmore. As Teresa sat upstairs looking at the bright bay and foaming wake, Declan remembered sitting downstairs with Kate four years before, and their shared excitement at a new adventure. He was still thinking about Kate when a stocky bearded man with salt-and-pepper hair sat next to him. "Hello. I saw you at Adrian's. I'm Chris."

"Pleased to meet you, Chris."

"I'm from Texas," Chris said.

The Inishmore dock looked the same with a pub, tourist center, restaurant, large hotel, and a wool factory. There was a rocky beach with sand and seaweed. The sea was blue-green with a bright silver corridor from the glare. They saw men in horse-drawn carts and minivans. A heavy-set man approached them as they got off the boat.

"Ten Euros for a tour of the island," he said.

"Sounds good," Declan said.

He and Teresa boarded the van. When it was full, the driver drove up into the hills on a narrow road, driving past a closed pub with roosters and hens sitting on a fence.

"Those roosters are waiting for the pub to open," he said. He had a sharp loud voice. He continued his historical narrative as he drove. "We have one policeman, one priest, one nurse, and one doctor. No one ever gets sick since we drink Guinness."

The van took some sharp turns, with other cars pulling over.

"Today, we'll see an old stone fort that goes back to about 500 BC or more. They weren't Celts. Who knows who they were? Cromwell may have used the same fort to launch his attack on Galway to massacre Irish Catholics."

Chris started talking to the driver. They stopped and walked around an old graveyard with Celtic crosses. Declan felt in a reflective mood; graveyards and headstones held a fascination for him. Teresa read the inscriptions in English and Irish.

"Boy, a lotta stone on this island, wouldn't you say?"

"Yes, Chris, a lot of stone," Declan agreed. "An island of stone."

They drove to the prehistoric fort called Dun Aengus.

"You have to pay a fee and walk to the top," the driver said. "Be careful. Don't fall. The rocks are treacherous."

Declan and Teresa walked up the rocky hill. It was a difficult climb. At the summit stood a concentric stone fortress facing the slope, and Declan wondered what pre Celtic warriors defended what ancient Helen on this cliff. Past the walls, he walked into what looked like an ancient Greek amphitheatre. Declan walked to the back of the fort and stood on a cliff facing the Atlantic. For just a moment, he had a fantasy. He was Paris and Kate his Helen, and as the invading hoards surged over the remaining wall, the lovers faced the ocean for the last time. There would be a brief glance, a whispered "I love you," and then they would step into space and plunge hundreds of feet to the raging sea.

Declan imagined the orgasmic rush of air as they plummeted to death and freedom. A strong wind blew over the cliff. He was close to the edge.

"Declan!"

He turned around. Chris was facing him.

"Why does the back of the fort face the open ocean?"

"I suspect over the centuries, half the fort fell into the sea. Maybe it was a place for rituals and not a fort. I've heard stories of ancient prehistoric tribes sitting around a fire. What rituals did they enact is what I want to know."

"Let me take a picture of you on the wall. I'll use your camera."

"Okay."

Declan climbed the first level of the stone-block wall and Chris snapped a photo. An island ranger appeared and ordered him down.

"This is an ancient site," she said. "You need to keep off."

"Okay," Declan said. "Sorry."

The resulting photo was striking, Declan standing on wind-polished ancient rock silhouetted by vaporous clouds and the open dim sea.

"Nice shot," Declan said.

Chris peered at the image. "Look at this. There are angel-looking clouds in the photo but not in the sky."

Chris was right. Facing west over the fort's layered rock walls, carefully cut and placed, it was hard to tell the sea from the blue sky.

"Maybe it's a flaw in my camera," Declan said.

"At least you're visible, or I'd think you were a vampire."

Declan studied the photo again. The clouds had a female shape. Chris shot another photo of Declan and Teresa together. When they descended the rock-strewn hill, Teresa struck her leg on a boulder and sat down, holding her knee.

"Are you all right? Need help?"

"I can make it," she said. "I should have been more careful."

Teresa limped back to the van without assistance. Then they stopped at a small restaurant and sweater shop.

"I'll be back in an hour," the driver said.

Chris talked about his past travels in Europe while Declan and Teresa had lunch. He talked about his early retirement and his plans to spend at least a year traveling. He talked about his grown sons back home. He talked about his future itinerary.

"I even got a free place for a month in Amsterdam," he said. He looked at Teresa who had remained silent. "Declan said you know a lot of languages. How many do you speak, anyway?"

"Not that many. A little Rumanian."

Declan was going to list the others but stopped. When Teresa left the table, Chris had a comment. "She's quiet, isn't she?"

"Sometimes. She doesn't brag about her linguistic skills." After a moment, Declan said, "We lost her mother a little over a year and a half ago."

"I'm sorry to hear that," Chris said. "I'm divorced, and it wasn't pretty."

"They usually aren't very pretty," Declan said.

When the van dropped them off, they paid and Declan took Teresa for a walk down a road lined with stone walls. Teresa had bought some tape and wrapped her knee. They could hear passing islanders speaking Irish.

"We took this road in a horse-drawn cart," Declan said. "Your mother loved it. The driver was a guy named Pat. His horse was Jack. He told her all about his life. He was planning to go to the Philippines to find a wife."

"I'm sure Mother loved his stories," Teresa said. She looked at Declan. "This is a great place. Thanks for bringing me here."

Declan felt another wind blowing over him, but this time, it was a warm steady breeze off the bay. "She really loved it here," he said.

"I wear black on my mother's death day," Teresa told him. "In Europe, that's recognized as a sign of mourning."

They had the ferry ride home. Chris stayed on top, shooting photos. In the morning, Teresa would take a train back to Dublin, and the short flight to London and her university. That evening, they had dinner and Teresa told him of a recent affair that had ended. Normally, she didn't discuss her private life. Declan was impressed.

"He was an egotistical jerk," Teresa said. "His sentences often began with 'I can't believe this incompetence.'"

"Was he incompetent?"

"About some things," Teresa said. "I'd rather not elaborate."

They went to the Tig Coili and heard Irish music, packed in with other customers. After a while, it was as though the fiddle and banjo melodies ran through his blood. He saw Chris with an Irish woman and a handsome, long-haired Frenchman at the bar, though the Frenchman had limited English. Declan did not see any of the familiar buskers. He did not see the mysterious Maeve from Sheridan's pub.

Chris joined them. "That Irish lady is really fine, but I think she likes that pretty Frenchman."

The noise made conversation difficult. Teresa observed the musicians and dancers and then motioned to Declan. They walked outside the pub.

"I need to sleep."

"Let's meet before you leave," Declan said.

"At the Jurys Inn," Teresa said. "Tomorrow morning."

She shook his hand and walked back to her B&B. Declan looked past the bouncer into the packed pub and the few people dancing to the fast Irish music. He could see Chris drinking coffee and talking to another young woman. Declan walked up the colorful ancient streets through Eyre Square to the Forester, where he ordered a whiskey and seven up. He knew it was risky drinking hard alcohol. He could hear his therapist. "If you drink again, ask this: Were you an alcoholic or someone who abused alcohol?"

Perhaps a man who once abused alcohol could drink wisely. An alcoholic had to stay dry forever. He looked at the bartender and asked a question.

"What's better, Catholic Jameson or Protestant Bushmills?"

"I have nothing against religion, but I think both taste like shit," he said.

In bed, that night, Declan hoped for Kate to appear in his dreams. She didn't. In the morning, Declan waited at the Jurys Inn for Teresa. When she arrived, they found a sidewalk cafe to have a light breakfast. A young man washed down the alley and lane. Declan saw the taxi stand up the street near the brightly-painted Tig Coili.

"I'm so glad you took the time to come here," Declan said. "I know we were never that close." He laughed to himself. "Your mother once said we were very much alike."

Teresa said nothing.

"When I first met your brother that first summer, he was shocked when he saw me in my battered car with my long hair and floppy hat. I felt the same way about him. Here was this geeky teenager staring at me from the porch. We laugh about it, now. Kate had talked a lot about you, and I thought we would hit it off."

Declan remembered the defiant young woman who ignored him with a spectacular indifference. Summers passed and they rarely spoke, except out of forced politeness.

"Yes," Declan said. "I'm glad you came here."

Teresa finished her coffee. She wasn't looking at him. Perhaps she wasn't looking at anything, except pedestrians. Declan knew she was listening.

"I'm glad I came, too," she finally said. "I leave for Rumania next week, but I'll be in touch."

They walked up to the taxi stand and embraced. "I saw how devastated you were at mom's funeral."

"You seemed so in control."

"It was an act," Teresa said. "I will stay in touch. That's a promise."

Moments later, Declan watched as Teresa waved good-by though the taxi widow and the driver turned toward the train station. Their last moments were behind them.

Good-by, Declan said to himself. You are the flesh and blood of my beloved Kate.

He spent the rest of the day singing on the street with the buskers, including Jamie. Often as they harmonized together, particularly on Dylan songs, people at the cafes watched and listened. There seemed to be no age barrier, though Declan was much older than the young musicians.

"You should consider busking yourself," Jamie said.

"I like steady paychecks and health insurance," Declan replied. "I'm used to a safety net."

"We buskers have each other," Jamie said. "Life is for living."

That night, he searched for Maeve, and though the pubs were packed, he couldn't find her. He asked people in the street about 'Knockins' pub, and though they gave directions, he couldn't find any place with that name. In the morning, he would take a bus to Shannon for the long plane ride home. Declan was about to have a final beer when he saw her. Maeve was standing in a doorway smoking a cigarette. He looked at the pub sign over her head: Neachtain. Of course, an Irish name that wasn't spelled phonetically. He crossed the street.

"Hello, Maeve."

"Declan." She smiled, and then dropped her cigarette. "We have a lot to discuss. Let's go inside."

The pub had many small rooms off the corridors, and two bars inside to order drinks. Though packed, they found a seat in a cubicle that gave them some separation from the pub traffic. She took his hands.

"I just graduated with an art degree so I'm celebrating. It's nice to see you."

"And you," said Declan.

Talking loudly over the music and voices, he told her about his day.

"You spent time with your stepdaughter? How nice. Where is the mother?"

"I lost her," Declan said.

As he explained, Maeve's eyes moistened. "I understand a lot, now. I'm sorry. Has the trip been difficult?"

"Yes and no. Some nostalgia, some exploration."

Maeve touched his face.

"I am glad I connected with Kate's daughter," Declan said.

He could feel Maeve's intense gaze.

"How old is your stepdaughter?"

"Late thirties."

"Late thirties? How old are you?"

He told her. He could see Maeve retreat slightly, as though a bond of intimacy had been broken. Then she laughed. It was a laugh mixed with a cough. "Excuse me."

"It's okay," Declan said. "I understand. You might read Hemingway's Across the River and into the Trees. Wonderful novel about a May-December romance."

"Excuse me — but Ted wants to buy a round."

"Who's Ted?"

Then Declan saw the same young man from Sheridan's standing near the crowded corridor. He lifted his glass and smiled.

"We're going to an after hours place," Maeve said. "The band might be a bit loud for you," she added.

"Yes, of course," Declan said. "My hearing aid distorts loud music. I forgot my cane and it's past my bedtime."

Maeve regarded him with a look, serene and compassionate.

"The greater the love, the bigger the sorrow," she said.

When the couple left to hear the live band, Declan walked home. He got undressed and lay in bed, thinking about Maeve. Wasn't there a female warrior in Irish mythology called Maeve of the Friendly Thighs? She tempted even the great warrior, Cuchulain. Surely this Galway Maeve wanted him, and had possibly followed Declan home, ready to burst into his room and strip, showing her beautiful breasts in the moonlight pouring through the window. A morning breeze would dry their exhausted bodies at dawn.

He stared at a clock he had bought in Galway. Before sleeping, Declan thought he heard distant music and a man and a woman arguing in the garden, but he didn't understand the language. The woman may have been Susan.

 

Finale

HE woke up at five in the morning. The bus for Shannon left at seven, but Declan felt restless so he dressed and left the B&B. It was still dark outside, and he knew it would be some time before he had coffee and breakfast. He walked through Eyre Square, empty except for a few transients sleeping on the lawn, and headed toward Galway Bay. The town was deserted. Declan felt a calm finality walking past the closed shops and pubs, past the double bronze statue, stopping to view the Jurys Inn and the distant bay for the last time, and then walking back though the narrow lanes of the colorful medieval district. He had the ancient silent streets to himself.

He should have felt isolated, but didn't. He had not dreamed of Kate and walking these empty streets affected him with bitter-sweet nostalgia, but nothing more. When he came to the square, he realized he wasn't alone. Through the soft morning air, three female apparitions seemed to float toward him, the tallest with painted bare breasts leading a trio dressed in hooded capes and black skirts. They chanted Irish. The first woman stopped and stared at Declan, transfixed, holding his suitcase.

"The sewage man is dying," she said. "Don't ever antagonize the three goddesses of Galway!"

A fat woman standing behind her grinned. "He's being devoured by foul bugs. Let him rot for a change."

"After polluting our water, he deserves it," the third woman said. "He'll turn black and die."

"Die," they chanted together.

The three goddesses cackled. The fat woman confronted Declan. She grinned, exposing bad teeth, and though shorter, her head seemed to hover over Declan's. From her cape, she produced a short breadstick.

"Eat this," she said. "I rolled naked in the dough before baking it. It will cure you of all pain." After looking at the others, she added, "Nothing else will work, Yank."

Declan backed away.

"Sure he's afraid," shrieked the first woman, thrusting forward her painted breasts. All three goddesses laughed and danced chanting in a circle around him. Then they held hands and skipped down the lane past the seated statues of Oscar and Edward Wilde. Declan could hear their echoing voices as they came to a fork at an intersection and disappeared into the ancient part of the city.

Declan walked through Eyre Square to the station. As the morning light grew brighter, he saw other passengers gathering. When the bus arrived, it had an electric side door for passengers to place their baggage. At the small Shannon airport, Declan had a full breakfast with coffee and bought an Irish newspaper. He saw the strange headline: Superintendent of city sewage treatment plant stricken with flesh eating bacteria.

Declan put down the paper.

"Jesus, so the wicked sisters were right."

He told no one of what happened except for an e-mail to his therapist. When Declan sat in the familiar office a week later, the whole trip seemed to be a distant dream.

"Back in my womb," he said. "My little oasis."

The therapist sat opposite him and took out a yellow pad. She smiled, her eyes warm, watching him. "I am dying to hear about these Celtic witches you described. Weird."

"They were weird, all right. Maybe I should have eaten that breadstick"

"You think it would have helped you?"

Declan wasn't sure if the question was serious. "I don't know."

His therapist regarded him. "You made it there and back, you made some connections — and you traveled alone."

"Yes — alone," he said.

"Was it good for you?"

"It proved I could do it."

The therapist watched him, waiting. Her gift was to know when to speak and when to listen.

"Yeats's grave is impressive," he said.

"You felt a connection to a great poet, then?"

"Yes. But the statue of Yeats in Sligo town? Hideous. He looks like a cross between a manta ray and a stork. Awful."

"But you liked the Irish poets and musicians?"

"Yes. Art is what I have in place of religion."

She waited for him to continue, but Declan was unusually quiet.

"It was strange going back without Kate."

"It must have been."

"Galway is a lovely city," he said. "Kate loved it."

"Meeting Kate's daughter? That was good?"

"It was."

"Good."

"I won't let her go. Or her brother."

"This could give you a connection to Kate."

"Yes."

Declan sat with elbows on his thighs, his chin resting on folded hands.

"You seem more focused, confident."

"I do? I feel a bit scattered."

"But you have come this far."

The sun was bright outside the office, the light filtered through the curtain.

"I met an attractive woman."

"That shows you're human."

"I think I liked her more than she liked me."

"Welcome to life."

"Maybe she was my black rose."

"I don't know what that means, Declan."

"I believe it's an Irish myth about dangerous romances."

"Was she dangerous?"

"I didn't have a chance to find out. Maybe she was a witch, too."

For a minute, Declan was silent.

"I don't understand anything," he finally said.

"Don't you think you've actually grown a lot?"

"Maybe… but what a time it's been. I missed Kate and sometimes I didn't miss Kate… when I had to do things… .I mean, I can always function."

"You can. That's crucial. And you have to move on and be good to yourself."

"But what a time it's been," he repeated. "I finally did dream about her."

"Tell me."

"I had written some article praising a place I didn't really like, but a teacher criticized it and she gave me a 'C' for not being honest. Then I walked out into the backyard and there was Kate, dressed in white but not like an angel, and she was lying on her stomach on this table, reading my essay. Always the editor, she looked up and said, 'Your teacher's right. This is crap.'"

"What did you do?"

"I rushed to kiss her. I remember touching her back and then kissing her neck and cheek as I did so many times… and then she was gone. I woke up."

"But it is significant that she appeared in your dreams."

"What does it mean?"

"Maybe she was making a real connection… on some practical level."

"Practical? She comes back from the dead to criticize some stupid paper I never wrote? I go to kiss her and she disappears?"

"What do you think it means?"

"You tell me."

"Perhaps it's her way of telling you that you'll find peace."

"If I hear that word one more time, I'll commit a crime," Declan said, standing suddenly. He slammed a fist into his palm. Declan realized he had startled the therapist and quickly sat down. There was a deep breath, and then a tear. Declan had never cried in her office, before, but suddenly he was crying, softly and openly. The therapist offered him a tissue but he refused it.

"I want her back," he finally said.

He put his face in his hands. The therapist remained silent. They were like two statues sitting in the quiet room. "It will get better," she told him.

Declan lifted his head and looked at her. Then he laughed.

"I never got a Goddamn 'C' in my life," he said.

The session ended. At the door, he paused.

"Tomorrow is our July wedding anniversary. I'm going to put roses from our garden into the little brook that runs beneath the Hemingway Memorial where we were married."

The therapist nodded in approval. "That's a great way to honor her — and yourself."

The next morning, Declan cut some garden roses and put them in a cooler with ice. He drove through the Arco Desert and past Craters of the Moon, stopping at the Hemingway Memorial in Sun Valley. Declan carried the cooler down the familiar path toward the bust of Hemingway and the plaque with words he had written for a hunter slain in 1939. Declan put the chest on a stone bench and remembered the wedding guests from years before. Many were gone or sick. Did hidden sprits live in the trees and the water, despite the golf course below and the many tourists who snapped photos and the cyclists who rode by? Would the spirits appear after he left? Would Kate be among them? Maybe she knows I'm here, he thought.

He opened the cooler and tossed the various colored roses into the running stream. The flowers vanished around a bend before he turned back with another rose. Then he took out the last two, a white Princess Diana and a dark red Mister Lincoln rose. They had been Kate's favorites. He placed a rubber band around the two roses and dropped them into the narrow, swiftly moving brook beneath the bust of Ernest Hemingway. Sunlight came through the cottonwoods. He watched the bound roses float away.

"For you, my love," he said softly, "and for us."

 



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