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Tuesday, April 06, 2010

In From The Cold

Category: Issue 18

Mickey flipped up the corduroy collar of his tan barn coat to shield the back of his neck from the bitter, whistling gusts of wind that met him as he stepped off the bus into the dark January night.  He tucked his chin into his chest and headed down Bratten Street.  A city park sat on his right, with playgrounds, courts, and fields stretching a full two blocks. Pale light swept out in broad, fading circles from the tall poles towering over the park. Across the street was a line of modest, middle-class homes with small yards and short concrete driveways leading to single-car garages.  The homes were small and blocky enough to be in the city, but nice enough that most of their owners still lived in them.

After a couple blocks, the park ended and the line of homes stopped.  This was Bratten Street’s main drag.  Many of the other city neighborhoods had seen their thoroughfares shrivel to boarded, desolate pocks.  But tightly confined within one urban block, Bratten Street’s commercial heart pumped on.  Through the vast corner window-front of Dunham’s Restaurant, Mickey watched as a few large families enjoyed the Saturday night pasta special, while a younger crowd gathered around the bar, this their first stop on a long night of revelry.

Keeping his chin tucked tight, Mickey twisted his neck to take in some of the sights as he walked.  Scattered about the block was a convenience store, a place called “The Hot Dogz Shoppe” with take-out six packs of beer, two small cafes, and a family-owned bakery.  His gaze was drawn to a few bulbs flickering atop the refurbished cinema across the street, which seemed to do justice to the the offbeat titles advertised by the marquee lights.  Down past the end of the block, just before the crazy cluster of off-ramps, on-ramps, overpasses, and underpasses leading to the highway, Mickey saw a few cars veer off into the lot at McBroom’s Beer Distributor—the gateway to the Bratten Street corridor.

He slid through the throng of people smoking and waiting outside Murphy’s, right around the middle of the block.  He nodded at a few familiar faces in the crowd, but continued walking.  Just a few storefronts past Murphy’s was another bar—a much smaller bar with a much different clientele.  It was The Map Room, and tonight they advertised a chance to come “In From The Cold” with a live performance by Guaranteed Irish, along with a deadly concoction called “The Painkiller”—deadlier for the discounted price, and still more lethal for the promising name.  Mickey stepped quickly through the door and blew into his fists as his color returned to him.  He was a young man—early twenties—with a rather gaunt and haggard-looking face that hadn’t felt the touch of a razor in quite a few weeks.

He scanned the room quickly as he unzipped the heavy barn coat.  It was a small, cozy little place with the feel of an English pub.  Black lines, cryptic legends, and elegant calligraphy decorated the walls in an elaborate web of maps.  They were of various time periods and different places—the English countryside, mostly—but all contributed to the general aura of rural charm and quaint tradition.

Most of the patrons were older folks—men and women who had moved past middle age and now found this easy atmosphere preferable to the wildness of Murphy’s.  Many of the men wore those plaid, knit caps with the button-down brims that you see on the heads of Irishmen or “Newsies”—tams, they’re called.  Mickey spotted a few familiar faces across the room, near the tight corner in which the band would wedge themselves when it was time to play. He walked over and slid into the empty side of a booth, across from two other men, each in their late twenties.

“Look who it is,” said Paul, a tall, well-built man with a shock of white-blond hair and pale skin reddened more by the alcohol than the cold.

Mickey shrugged in mock apology.

“Sorry, Trash.  Were you able to get a few good hours of drinking in before all these people came and started bothering you?”

Paul shrugged.  “Guess so.  I been here since about seven.”

He tilted his head to Dan, sitting at his right.

“Mr. Social Coordinator over here had to travel all over the goddamn county before he could pick me up, or I would have been here earlier.”

Dan smiled and rolled his eyes across the table to Mickey.  His perpetually bright red cheeks were glowing, and his eyes were as lively as ever.

“Yeah, it’s my fault this piece of filth is too lit by noon to drive himself anywhere.”

“No,” Paul said indignantly, “It’s your fault you have so many stupid friends who have stupid parties.  Don’t get me wrong—day-drinking is, like, my favorite hobby.  But you haven’t really day-drank since we left college.”

Dan chuckled.

Paul leaned back in his seat and gestured to the passing waitress for another round.  He raised a nearly full glass of beer to his lips, adding,
“I’m just saying, it’s nothing special to be the life of the party when the party sucks.”

He tilted the glass back, and Mickey and Dan watched with bemused awe as the liquid vanished in an instant.

“Jesus,” Mickey chuckled and shook his head.

A group of young women—a rarity in The Map Room—were crowded over a table near the bar, shrieking with delightful announcement that they were determined to have a memorable night.

“Danny!” a couple of them yelled shrilly across the room.  Dan flashed an award-worthy smile in their general direction.

“Jesus Christ,” muttered Paul.  “I’m glad we’re so close to the speakers, because I can’t stand to listen to that nonsense all night.  Why do girls have to, like, broadcast to everyone in the bar that they’re here to have a good time?  It’s like they think everyone is supposed to facilitate that for them.  So go ahead, Danny boy, go rush over and buy them some shots.”

Dan rolled his eyes and started to get up.

“Shots?” he asked Mickey.

Mickey shook his head and Dan shrugged and headed towards the bar.  Paul and Mickey heard a shriek of laughter as their friend approached the girls with some witty comment.

The waitress arrived at the booth with three glasses of beer.

“So what’ve you been up to, bro?” asked Paul, sliding one of the glasses across the table to Mickey.

 

Mickey took a long sip and relaxed in his seat.

“Nothing, man.  Just work, pretty much.”

“Aw, what a tragic life.”

Mickey rolled his eyes.

“Oh yeah, Trash?  You do a lot of that kind of work when you were in college?  That decade you were in college?”

“Ahh, the Aughts,” Paul said, reminiscing with only a vague hint of mockery.  “Well, don’t forget, Michael m’ boy, you ain’t in college anymore.”

“Thank God.”

“Amen to that,” Paul said, raising his glass for a toast.

 

They clinked glasses together with a gruff and mumbled “Cheers,” and Paul took an enormous gulp.  Mickey returned his glass to the table after another long sip.

Feeling a rather hard slap on his back, Mickey swiveled around. The slapping hand belonged to a very tall man who had approached Mickey from behind.  He was in his late forties, with salt and pepper hair.  He wore a cheap, novelty Hawaiian shirt, with stray black chest-hairs peeking through the undone top buttons.

“Jesus Christ, Timbo, you scared me.”

“What the hell are you sacred of?  You paranoid?” Timbo demanded, feigning accusation, but failing once laughter overtook him.

“You see who I’m with here, Tim?” Mickey insisted, throwing his head towards a smirking Paul.  “You know how many people there are around this city who want to get back at this guy for something?”

“That’s a good point, Mick.  What’s up there, Pauly?”

“Hey, Tim.  Good to see ya,” said Paul, with the first demonstration of his ability to smile.

Dan sauntered back from the bar and appeared behind Tim, his cheeks now even redder.  He slapped a hand on Tim’s back and slid into the booth beside Paul.

“Jesus!” Tim said closing his eyes and shaking his head in mock horror.  “Both of you?”

He leaned over Mickey and added, “I think it might be my duty as an uncle to take you outta here right now before these two corrupt you.”

Dan roared with laughter, while Paul finished another glass of beer and grinned.

“His brother sure got the hell out of here,” Paul said with disgust, though the others met the comment with laughter.

“Well,” Tim chided, “I know it might come as a shock to the three people at this table, but some people do finish college in four years, and then don’t just come back to hang out on Bratten Street.

“Of course, I wasn’t one of them,” he conceded with a shrug.

This provoked hearty laughter from all three, Dan especially.

“So, Uncle Tim, I gotta ask ya,” Mickey looked up with a wry smile.  “What’s with the shirts?”

Mickey gestured towards two other men bent over various sound equipment in the corner, each of a similar middle age to Tim, with graying hair and Celtic features, and each wearing an exact replica of the cheap Hawaiian shirt.

Tim rolled his eyes.  “You better believe it wasn’t my idea.  You remember a couple years ago when we played on that cruise?”

Mickey nodded.

“We’re doing that again in a few weeks.”

“Uh-oh,” Dan began, leaning forward enthusiastically, “The Bratten Street boys going down to the Caribbean.  Jimmy Buffet better look out.”

“Hey, Tim,” Paul said, “not that I don’t enjoy your company, but when’s the show getting started?  I’m not exactly paying you to get life counsel here.”

“Okay, smartass,” Tim replied as Mickey and Dan chuckled.  “Enjoy the show.”

With a wave, a slap on Mickey’s back, and a very, very faint look of caution from uncle to nephew, Tim walked the short distance to the corner, where his band mates were getting ready to perform.  The two other men in Hawaiian shirts craned their necks towards the table and waved to Mickey.

After a few minutes, one of the men, Bruce, stepped up to the microphone, a guitar slung around one shoulder.  To his left, Tim at his left plucked a bass, while the third man caressed an accordion at Bruce’s right.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Bruce said in a powerfully soft, lilting voice, betraying just a trace of a Brogue, “Thank you for coming to The Map Room tonight.  We’re Guaranteed Irish, and we originally planned this evening as a way to advertise our upcoming tour on board a Caribbean cruise liner. But, in light of recent events, we’ve decided to take up a collection for the survivors of the terrible earthquake in Haiti. Tuddy—where’s Tuddy?”

A woman in her late thirties, just a bit overweight but with a round, pretty face and an abundant energy, stuck her hand up and waved to the crowd.

“Tuddy—that beautiful and single woman you see—,” Bruce continued, “will be taking a collection for the Bresbon Orphanage in Haiti.  Am I saying that right?  Bresbon?  Please see her for details and contributions, see Johnny at the bar for one of those deadly ‘Painkillers,’ and then hopefully once you’re not seeing straight, you’ll see Tuddy again and toss in another few bucks.”

The crowd laughed and cheered.

“Alright, everybody.  We’re going to start you off with a favorite of ours, and a personal favorite of one of the many dignitaries that have graced us with their presence here this evening.”

Bruce winked at Mickey.

“It’s called ‘The Lakes of Pontchartrain.’”

After a slow, strumming introduction, Bruce began to sing.

“‘Twas on a bright March morning / I bid New Orleans adieu…’”

The waitress appeared at the table with another round of beers, and Mickey quickly swallowed the last of his current glass.  Dan received a glass and offered a wink and a smile to the formerly young waitress, who flushed and giggled before scurrying away.

“‘...I cursed all foreign money / No credit could I gain / Which filled my heart with longing for / The Lakes of Pontchartrain…’”

Over the course of a few songs, conversation at the table gradually lost the bitter edge of discomfort induced by the cold outside.  With a few drinks in them, and having each contributed a few spare dollars to the Haitian orphanage, the three young men were having quite a delightful time, and feeling quite good about themselves.

“As much grief as I give you, Danny boy, you do manage to get a waitress on the hook pretty quickly,” Paul conceded after the waitress returned with yet another round, despite the many thirsty mouths calling to her around the room.

Dan sprang forward and gripped the table, emoting his astonishment at the compliment.

Just then a gorgeous young woman glided past the table.  A few strands of her flowing strawberry-blond hair fluttered at the swiftness of her gait; while the rest was tossed half-carelessly about her face in a rather calculated measure of caution being thrown to the cold, blistering wind.  She glanced for a moment at Dan, while her fingers played with the edge of a knit scarf around her neck.

The band finished a song, which was met with scattered applause.  Still gripping the table, Dan swiveled his head to follow the girl’s movement; and after a moment he finally yelled:

“Scarf!  Hey, Scarf!”

She turned back a bit and gave a coy, indifferent smile.  Dan leapt from the booth and took off after her.

 

Suddenly, spying Dan in the aisle, Tim leaned into the microphone and screamed, “Hey!  Danny Mullen!”

Dan turned back to face the corner, his face flushed with a deep crimson and showing a wild mix of delight, shock, embarrassment, and maybe just the slightest indication that he sensed an opportunity.  For a second there was complete silence in The Map Room.  All eyes were on him, including Scarf’s, her interest piqued now that the spotlight had landed on her would-be suitor.

“WHAT’LL YOU HAVE?” Tim roared from the corner, with Bruce chiming in at the very end.

After a tense pause, Dan finally relaxed and shrugged, letting that signature smile creep onto his face.

“I’ll have a pint!” he called back.

The instant he said it, the band took up a rousing chorus of “Waxie’s Dargle,” music and lyrics beginning simultaneously.

“’I’ll have a pint with you, sir / And if one of you doesn’t order soon / We’ll be thrown out of the boozer…’”

They continued to play, and Dan seized the opportunity to strike up conversation with the young woman.  He strolled over to her, and within moments Mickey and Paul saw him lead her to the bar.  Paul shook his head and swallowed a nearly full glass of beer.  Mickey chuckled and clapped quietly along with the music.

After another few songs, the band announced that they would take a short break.  A moment or two later, an enormous man appeared in the corner, talking to Bruce.  He was about six feet eight inches tall, and close to two hundred and fifty pounds of what looked to be sheer muscle. He wore a dirty, grease-stained white apron with no shirt beneath, and his massive, dark black arms flexed and shone with slick sweatiness under the corner light.

Tightening the knot of the black nylon do-rag covering his braided rows, the man sat down on a stool in the corner and plucked away mindlessly at Bruce’s guitar.  The man smiled as Bruce spoke to him, but Mickey noticed a definite trace of apprehension.  Bruce dismissed something the giant man said with a wave and turned to face the crowd.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we have a special treat for you tonight.  This is Elijah.  We met him a few weeks ago.  He works back in the kitchen, cleaning up after all you mongrels, and he is an incredibly talented musician, singer, and songwriter.  He’s from Haiti, and he has not yet heard from his mother, who still lives there.  So I’ve asked him to sing a few songs for us, and let’s all keep him and his family in our prayers.”

There was mildly loud applause, suggestive more of curiosity than of excitement.

“I wish I would have known about this,” Elijah said into the microphone with a thick French-Caribbean accent.  “I’ve been working on some songs since the urtquake happened, but I do not yet have them prepared.  I’ll play something else.”

Bruce, smiling wider than a drunken fool and bursting with excitement, nodded and held up his hands to lead the crowd in another round of applause.  Elijah stretched his thick, muscular legs forward and placed the guitar across his lap.  He strummed—softly and slowly at first, but gradually he increased the pace.

“This is a song I wrote for my mother,” Elijah said as he strummed. 

Paul rolled his eyes and downed another beer, while Dan crept up to the booth and slid in, eyes glued ahead.

Mamaaa——,” Elijah sang out. 

The voice was unlike anything the audience had expected to come from such a massive and intimidating figure.  His voice was soft and incredibly smooth, like Smokey Robinson’s.  But, at the same time, it was powerful and deep and hinted at an almost-folksy grit—like that of Gordon Lightfoot, or Dylan or Springsteen after a decade of voice lessons.  Everything seemed effortless, yet there was such driving force behind all that he did.

Elijah strummed hard, balancing the tone and tempo on the fine line between rousing soul and somber, melancholy blues.

Ya boy had to fly / Fly, fly away /It’s like time, here today / But then it’s gone tomorrowww——…”

His eyes squinted and beads of sweat dripped off his deeply crinkled forehead, struggling to cool his viciously pained expression.

But OOH…”

The “OOH” came out a surprisingly harmonious, high-pitched shriek—like something only James Brown could produce.

“…I DOO…” (same tone), “…Feel your sorrow / But Mamaaa—-….”

From the moment he began to sing, the only sound emanating from the crowd was the crack of a few jawbones smacking off the floor, and maybe the light splash of the stray drops of saliva that followed  There wasn’t a word spoken, or perhaps even a thought thought.  The audience stared and listened in complete, utter rapture.

There were tears in his eyes as he strummed the final bars, contrasted by an array of intense, conflicting emotions as he stood and slammed away at the guitar for the final lines.  Then came a half a moment of absolute silence; and then, finally, a standing ovation that produced more noise and energy than had ever been within the walls of The Map Room.  People cheered and whistled and banged on tables and screamed for more.

Elijah tried to hand the guitar back to Bruce, but Bruce refused.

“I have to get back to the kitchen,” the crowd heard him say as he spoke to Bruce.

 

Bruce merely shook his head and pushed him back down atop the stool.  Finally, Elijah smiled and conceded.  He started strumming again, this time with a brighter and more familiar rhythm.

“You’ll recognize this song, I think…but I’ve changed it up a little.”

He closed his eyes and plucked away at an incredibly complex introduction of varying speed and sounds and styles.  Finally, after reaching a crescendo of tempo and volume, he stopped completely, eyes still closed, and leaned into the microphone for a tense instant.

“’Does that make me crazy?‘” he almost whispered, in a very high-pitched melody.

The younger patrons recognized it as a popular hip-hop song by the group Gnarles Barkley. But they’d never heard it like this.  Again, Elijah managed to perform on the verge of several different genres and musical traditions.  It had the acoustic sound of rock and pop, the voice of Motown, the energy of soul, the integrity of hip-hop, and the sensibility of jazz.

The crowd merely stared on in awe. Dan leaned over the table to address Mickey, neither of them ever once allowing their eyes to leave the corner.

“This is one of those times when I wish I was, like, a record executive, or some young agent looking for my big break.  I’d be outside right now on my cell phone, with a cigar hanging out of my mouth, like…”

Dan held up an imaginary phone and removed an invisible cigar from his mouth.

 

“…‘Hello, Caruthers?’” he squawked.  “‘Yeah.  Mullen here.  I found me a star.  We’re going to the top.  Ya hear? The top!’ Then I’d be able to walk in and go up to him and say, ‘Hey, brother, want to be famous?’ And it would be the best day of his life and the best day of my life.”

When Elijah finished, Dan and Mickey looked around the room, hoping they might see someone important-looking step outside to make an urgent phone call.  There was no one, but it didn’t seem to matter.  The possibility of it all existed.

Elijah was met by an even more boisterous standing ovation, with cheers so loud they could be heard all about Bratten Street—even inside the ever-rowdy Murphy’s.  He waved his thanks and headed towards the kitchen while Bruce’s showered of praise over the microphone.

“Jeez, folks.  Did you ever see a guy hit a mute button on a crowd like that man just did?” Bruce asked the audience.  “You take my word, Elijah will be a star some day, and you heard him here first.”

Elijah merely laughed and gave Bruce a hug, then disappeared into the kitchen.

“Well, folks, that was Elijah, I’m Bruce, and you’re ‘In From the Cold’ with Guaranteed Irish.  We’ll be back with more in just a few minutes.”

A few hours later, the band finished playing, the bar closed, and Mickey said goodbye to his uncle and his friends.  He strolled around Bratten Street in the cold, dark night, with a slightly stumbling step and considerably less sensitivity to the bitter wind.  Eventually, he found a bus headed in the right general direction, and he stepped on board. The bus driver smiled at him, and Mickey smiled back, offering a “Good evening, sir” formality so out-of-place that it made both he and the driver chuckle softly.

But the booze was not the only thing warming his body and delighting his spirits—though it was certainly a factor.

Even though no high-ranking executive or ambitious young agent had been seen arranging Elijah’s “discovery” out on Bratten Street, Mickey felt a curious certainty that in the years to come, Elijah would tell a grand story during interviews.  He’d reminisce about when he worked in the kitchen of a tiny bar on Bratten Street, and a bunch of old Irish uncles in cheesy Hawaiian shirts had asked him to play. 

The idea quite excited Mickey, and as the bus rumbled along through the dirty snow-covered streets, winding its way up and down the hills towards his chilly, rather dark and dreary house, Mickey began to piece together some great stories for his own autobiography.

In the wake of it all, as his slightly addled mind recalled the night’s events, Mickey felt an inexplicably renewed sense of optimism about his own future.

 

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