Sunday, February 20, 2011

From "The Tourists"

By five o’clock Howard was blasted and Bill wasn’t far behind. Not so blasted they couldn’t talk, couldn’t make sense, but blasted enough. The two Canadian girls were whispering to each other and one of them, the darker one, laughed. They were young. Kids really, younger than Bill’s own daughters. They would have laughed, too.
“Another pint?” Howard leaned into the girls. “Can I buy you ladies another pint?”
“No, thanks,” said the darker one. “Thanks, we’re good.”
“Thanks though,” said the other one.
This was their only night in Dublin, their last night in Ireland, and Bill was glad. Howard was enjoying it, it was more Howard’s speed, but something about the place made Bill uneasy. He felt a little deaf here, like he was always just missing something.
The sun poured in through the windows, and the light made the pub look tatty and old. The walls were an ugly red, like fingernail polish. It was in all the tour books, they recommended the place for its preserved Georgian atmosphere, but it just depressed Bill.
“So what’re you ladies doing here?” Howard was asking them. “What’re you studying?”
“Anglo-Irish Literature,” the lighter one said. “Irish writers.”
“Joyce,” the darker one said. “Mostly Joyce.”
“Hey, that’s great,” Howard said. “That’s great. Can’t understand a word the guy says myself, but still…Cheers!”
Howard drank down his mostly empty pint and set the glass on the bar. He looked for the bartender.
“Are you planning on going back home?” Bill asked them.
“I am,” said the lighter one. “In the fall. But not Beth, she’s staying.”
The darker girl, Beth, nodded earnestly.
“I am home,” she said. “This is home.”
“Well…good luck,” said Bill.
The city looked damaged to him, and he couldn’t imagine anyone staying who could leave. He’d seen a lot of really fucked up kids, ugly beyond their years. He saw kids begging on the street. Everybody was wearing nylon track-suits and cheap gold plated jewelry. He saw lots of Chicago Bulls jerseys, number 23. These kids dressed like the inner city black kids back home, like rappers he saw on MTV. There were other jerseys for teams he didn’t know, Celtic, Newcastle, a lot of Manchester United. His younger daughter, Sarah, had asked him for a Manchester United shirt and a claddagh ring. He’d bought the ring.
Howard was telling the darker girl about Sligo, how they had just come from the “Wild West.” The darker girl smiled politely and nodded.
“That’s Yeats Country,” she said. “That’s where Yeats is buried.”
“That’s right. I believe I read that.”
“It’s beautiful up there.”
“It sure is. It sure is that.”
Howard signaled to the bartender for another round, and the two girls let him. He was hovering between the two girls and they had parted their barstools to make room for him. Bill was happy to stand off to one side.
They were from Toronto, they told Howard. Beth said she hated it there but Jenny said that she missed her folks. Beth rolled her eyes when Jenny said that, and the gesture just drove home how young these girls were.
“Here you are, Sir.” The bartender set down four new pints of Guinness on the counter and Howard paid him.
“We’re a couple of cowboys ourselves,” Howard said. “From out on the open range. Billy here’s from California and I’m from Texas.”
“Where in California?” Jenny asked Bill.
“Hollywood,” Howard jumped in.
“The San Fernando Valley,” Bill amended.
“Oh, I’d love to go there,” Jenny said. “I know it’s tacky, but I love all that stuff. The Chinese Theatre, the Walk of Fame. Star Maps. What do you do out there?”
“I’m an assistant school superintendent.” Bill said.
“Oh,” Jenny said. “Like High Schools?”
“Well, High Schools and other schools.”
“What do you do?” Beth asked Howard.
“Me? I’m a lawyer, oil and gas,” he answered. “I’m yuppie scum. I’m a capitalist pig. SOO-EEE!”
Howard laughed and the girls laughed with him. Beth rolled her eyes again.
After another two rounds the Canadian girls left and Bill was feeling a little sick. It had been a while since he’d eaten anything and this Guinness was giving him a headache. The pub had filled up considerably and the air was blue with cigarette smoke. It was starting to get dark outside.

Three months earlier, Bill had been watching a video with his wife when the phone rang. When he picked it up it was Howard, and Bill couldn’t have been more surprised.
His mom died, Howard said. He was drunk, Bill could hear it over the phone, and his mom had just died.
“Jesus, I’m sorry to hear that,” Bill said. His wife looked up at him, wondering what happened, and turned down the TV.
The point was, Howard went on, there was an inheritance. Nothing big, nothing lavish, but some. Let’s blow it, he said. Let’s go to Ireland. It’s time we took a trip to the old country. I’ll look up some relatives. C’mon.
Bill took the phone out to his deck and closed the glass door behind him.
“Howard…” he started in his reasonable voice, in the voice he used with his kids.
“Billy, come on, no shit it’ll be good. My treat.”
Bill could see the orange glow in the sky above Los Angeles. He tried to imagine where Howard was calling from. His living room, probably. In front of the tube, probably playing a western with the sound off. Bill leaned against the railing and watched the last traces of sunlight disappear in the West.
“I don’t know if I can just drop things, Howard.”
“A week, ten days, something like that. In and out. But come on, at least consider it.”
“I don’t know if I can consider it, Howard. This might be a bad time, we have budget meetings. I’ll have to think about it.”
“Exactly! That’s all I ask, think about it. When’s the last time you took a trip? I mean a real trip? What the hell, Billy, you’ve got summers off. Jesus, listen to yourself. Budget meetings. This is the time to act. LA’ll still be there when you get back. We’ll go drive around the countryside, drink whiskey, do all that shit. We’ll have a blast.”
He kept meaning to mention it to Catherine, to introduce it as one of crazy Howard’s crazy ideas, but he kept putting it off. Finally, a week after the phone call and late one night, Bill just said “Howard’s invited me to Ireland for a week. Whaddya think?”
“Soon,” he said. “I told him I’d think about it.”
“Well,” she said. “Why don’t you go?”
He had to admit he wanted to. He had been counting on Catherine to talk him out of it, and when she didn’t he had to admit he was tempted.

Howard grew up in East Texas while Bill grew up in Kentucky and only moved West later, in the late Seventies. They kept in touch in a casual way, a phone call every few months, an ironic postcard. Their intense friendship during and right after the war had simmered down over the years into something more manageable.
Back in Vietnam they both drank, they both drank a lot. It was something that bonded them together, even when everybody around them drank themselves into an uneasy and jittery sleep. Inevitably they’d end up the last two at the bottle or the warm case of beer. They’d sit and smoke and drink. They’d listen for explosions and hear only motor scooters zipping down the streets.
After they got home, Howard had a habit of going off. He’d smash up his house, he’d move without warning. He couldn’t blame the war. Howard and Bill spent Vietnam in offices, staying out of trouble. It was all paperwork and headaches. He didn’t know what it was. Bill worried about Howard. He hoped he would settle down, get married and have some kids. Come to ground in the same way Bill had.
But that didn’t happen. Instead Howard became very rich. His father had left him his firm, and to everybody’s surprise Howard was an excellent, cunning, lawyer. He never had the wife, or kids, but he did have a string of girlfriends that Bill and Catherine would sometimes meet. It was quite a life.

When they were in Sligo they found the family Howard was looking for, buried in a run-down plot in the ruins of an abbey. The plots were all around the ruins. The two men were surrounded by walls and walking on graves. Howard ran ahead like an excited school kid, checking the names on the tombstones and moving on to the next plot. Bill would lag behind and look at each one. He’d read off whole families buried beneath him, stretching back over long periods of time. Children, parents, grandparents. There were mementos on some of the plots, weathered beyond immediate recognition. Rosaries, coins, a walking cane. He’d look across the stones and see Howard leaping around like crazy, calling out names.
“O’Brien,” he’d yell. “McGoldrick. McTeirnan. Here it is, man! Holy Shit!”
They were staying in the Abbey Hotel that night, in separate but adjoining rooms. They’d been pretty lucky about that. In Dublin, though, they were sharing a room. They ate dinner there in the hotel bar that night. It was a nice surprise, they both had the lamb and it was delicious. Between the two of them they had managed to finish off two pints before the food had arrived, and finished off their third along with the dinner. They ordered coffee and sat at the table for a long time.
All through the meal Howard had been telling stories of his girlfriends and of their particular ways and habits. Bill had met a few of them in LA, when Howard was in on business. They were all young and stunning to look at, almost embarrassing to look at, actually, and they all disappeared after a year or so. Howard didn’t seem to mind this much.
“Suzi, she was a firecracker. She was a real handful.”
“I don’t think we met Suzi.”
“No, come to think of it, you probably didn’t. But I’ll tell you, Billy, she was a real handful all right. She was a marine biologist.”
“In Texas?”
“Shit yeah, in Texas. She was studying microbiotic shrimp in the Gulf. Something like 40,000 different kinds of microbiotic shrimp floating around out there. She was with some group out of LSU, typifying all these shrimp. Sounds boring, maybe, but I’ll tell you…” he leaned in across the table. “She was a wicked little thing.”
“Twenty-six years old, and full of imagination.”
Bill turned away from Howard’s leering face and looked around the bar. It was just about all old men, white haired and red faced old guys drinking and watching sports highlights on the TV.
“So what happened to Suzi?”
“Oh, shit, you know. Went back to New Orleans with her shrimp, I guess. Went back somewhere, anyway.”
“And now?”
“Just looking, Billy. Just lying in wait.”

That night Bill dreamed he was home in California and on his way to work. He was sitting behind the wheel of his Toyota, the radio was on, and he had just passed the Calabasas turn-off on 101. His briefcase sat on the passenger seat next to him. A big red and white Safeway truck was steaming along in the passing lane ahead of him, and a sporty little Volkswagen was cruising along beside. The sun was out and the sky was blue. It was springtime.
When the sporty little Volkswagen pulled up ahead of Bill’s little Toyota, he could see this was trouble. The road wasn’t too crowded, but crowded enough, and there was no room for rash little Grand Prix maneuvers. The truck wasn’t going to let the sporty little Volkswagen in, he couldn’t even see it. Bill thought to slow down his own car, to put as much room between himself and this jerk as possible.
The Volkswagen disappeared in front of the truck, and for the briefest of seconds Bill thought he’d made it. The first blush of relief came over him even as he heard the crushing sound of metal and cement. The truck just ate the little sporty Volkswagen up. He saw the sparks and the fire as the truck jackknifed in front of him. He saw other cars smash into the side of the truck and create a bigger wreck. Cars were smashing into each other at 70 miles an hour. Bill hit the brakes of his Toyota but he was still going fast, too fast to miss this, and so he did his best to brace himself against the oncoming impact. The last thing he saw before he woke up was a big black tire, soaring through the air towards him, spinning slowly against the clear blue sky.

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