The week before my father died, the usual suspects broke into my apartment and roused me from my peace while I was still fumbling with my boxer shorts. I staged a protest, but Steven’s grip tightened on my arm like a nurse practitioner late for a blood pressure rendezvous as he picked up yesterday’s clothes from the floor and pelted them at me, closing the door behind him.
The others–Andy, Daniel, and Cajun Rob–lingered in my living room, quietly trading movie quotes. Half a lifetime ago, we were four teenage introverts with nothing to keep us company but our whirring minds and unquenchable self-doubt. One day in the cafeteria line, a ninth-grade Andy O’Grady found himself forced to choose between a sketchy cheeseburger and pizza logs that looked old enough to vote. “The only winning move is not to play!”, he announced bitterly. Three students down the line, Daniel’s head cocked to the side like the dog from Up, and our origin story began. If Andy happens to be within earshot while someone’s explaining how we met, he’ll inevitably wait until the story’s conclusion and then add “That’s how we became the O’Grady Bunch!” We groaned initially, of course, but then Cajun Ron noted that someday the Universe will reach thermal equilibrium and all life will perish, so allowing Andy to have this one thing seemed reasonable.
“I’d let you suffer in the dark if I thought it’d help,” Steven said quietly, his voice muffled. I sighed too loudly as I pulled the T-shirt down. “But then I’d constantly worry that your dad would learn I allowed you to get away with that. I’d have to leave town. I have a fantastic apartment, Brian. If I have to abandon a place with both a dishwasher AND central air for what I’m paying, I’m going to be considerably perturbed.”
“A grateful nation thanks you,” I mumbled, cracking the door open. I followed my mad philosopher and our three cackling quotesters to Daniel’s Honda. The back seat on the driver’s side was waiting patiently, as it had since our initial introduction, in the days before I could even apply for a learner’s permit. I’ve never owned any furniture comfortable enough to compete.
On weekends, patrons flocked to the Royal Tain’s neon sign like moths that were already too inebriated to make responsible decisions. Kevin Walsh had bought the vegan café while we were busy studying geometry. Post-facelift, it looked like a cross between an 1880s saloon and a moody Starbucks. Walsh had removed the overhead lighting, downgraded the furniture, and dressed the interior in velvet black to mask the chipped visage. The front display case, which once housed fresh vegan baked goods, now offered lodging to half-priced pilsners.
Business seemed unusually slow tonight. I settled into my chair at our table near the bar, my back molding to its edges. Kevin waited a few minutes–ostensibly to finish something business-related, but the repeated glaring and muttering at his phone suggested that he’d once again become deeply embroiled in a Twitter feud. As always, we pretended not to notice. A moment later, we heard a self-satisfied “Hahrmp!” from the bar and he sauntered over, his newly-born infectious grin a welcome sight. Clearly, he’d crafted and deployed the perfect zinger, so color and justice could return to the world. “Your usual, gentlemen?” We nodded.
“No offensive, Kevin, but our servers are usually a bit more attractive.” Daniel arched an eyebrow. “Everyone else just had the night off, right? I’m not gonna have to flirt with you now?”
“I’d really prefer you didn’t,” the owner replied.
“Oh, I’m not your type?”
“Setting aside for a second that fact that I’m happily married, Daniel, you’re wearing a Hawaiian shirt and golf shorts. I have some self-respect.” He scanned the table. “Anything from the kitchen? Still have those garlic-parmesan wings you like.”
“Please,” I said. Kevin retreated to the bar and began pouring. I glanced around at my friends, in the place we’d claimed long ago as our own. I felt contentment trying to rise up in my chest, but it was only half-cooked, like I’d managed to gather all the ingredients and follow the instructions precisely, but ended up with something that tasted like gourmet cardboard anyway. I stared at the wrangled nicks in the table and listened to a late-twentysomething across the room try to explain Bitcoin to his companion. The companion didn’t seem enthralled.
“Hey.” A tap on my arm; Andy’s expressive face was shaped into a question.
“I’m…I’m sorry, guys,” I said. “I love being here with you. You know I do. But part of me just wants to slink back to the apartment and not talk to anyone for a month.”
Silence for a minute, broken open by Andy’s fingers tapping against the wood. “Well, if we’re going to discuss it–look, Brian, truthfully, no one’s sure what to say. He’s essentially my part-time dad.” He jostled his keyring, the pyrite reflection slitting his seagreen eyes. Someone, probably the Bitcoin enthusiast, was arguing with Kevin about a discernable lack of onions. Andy breathed out. “Maybe we should’ve—”
“No, let’s say what we need to say,” I interrupted. “Dad knows I’m worrying about him, and he threatened to haunt me if I didn’t change course.” I smiled weakly, wiping the stray stream of Smithwick’s from my chin. The old man was determined to pull his own strings right to his last scene, and even God couldn’t swipe that card from him. I turned to Steven. “When I was expelled and had to walk back to him with nothing, I’d mentally prepared like I was expecting the apocalypse.”
“Because you were expecting the apocalypse,” Cajun Rob garbled around a chicken wing.
“Absolutely. What’s the best way to explain to your dad that you’ve spent the semester majoring in BioShock and Hot Pockets? That he worked for decades so I could skip class and try to impress women who’d inevitably dump me a week later when they discovered my maturity froze when I was 11?” I slid a napkin in between my fingers. “I couldn’t spin it, so I just told him. He blinked and said: ‘I made tomato soup. You’ve got to try this.’ Completely unfazed. I mean, I’m sitting at the table, muttering ‘Dad, what am I supposed to do now? What’s my grand plan?’ And he’s calmly sipping his soup and then says ‘Well, for me, grand plans are a morning project, so we’ll tackle it after you’ve slept. Let me grab you a bowl.’ I knew he must have been disappointed and frustrated–and he was. But those aren’t the feelings he wanted to welcome me home.”
Steven stroked his goatee. “Remember my first job interview after I graduated? How I thought it was a brilliant idea to get gussied up in my Sunday best and accompany you fine gentlemen to a party the night before…and then lost my keys?” Cajun Rob and I snickered. Steven had shown up at our doorstep the night before his professional debut, and I’d winced thinking of how he must’ve looked to my father: wild Tasmanian hair, his “Rehab is for Quitters” shirt, Batman jeggings. Attempts to reach his landlord had proven unsuccessful; he was convinced he was going to get fired before he even interviewed. “Your dad, he heard me yelling into my phone about it, as did probably everyone else on the block.”
He stopped speaking and examined his glass with rigor. Andy made squirmy fidgeting noises. He’d spilled sauce on his turtleneck and it trickled through the fabric, crossing patterns in the cotton. “And? What happened?”, he asked.
“You realize you were there, right?”
“I am, in fact, aware of that, Brian, thank you. But you can’t pause a story halfway through!”
“He threw me his keys,” Steven said. “And then he insisted that I follow him in the house so I could try on one of his suits.” He smiled and gave the signal to start another round. Kevin slipped in and whisked away the mugs, careful not to disturb the table’s composition. “What about you, French Quarter? Got any good John stories?”
Cajun Rob rolled up the cuffs on his faded shirt. “What about his brief foray into the punching profession?”
“Are you writing John fanfiction?”, Daniel asked suspiciously.
“No! You’ve never heard this one?” Rob pushed himself up an inch. “It’s a deep cut, from when he was our age. He had a friend–Connor, I think? A bartender from Kinvara. His dad owned a pub there. Loved to travel when his finances allowed it, so he breezes into town. He meets John through a friend. John’s circle basically adopts him, christens him a temporary member of their mutual admiration society. But the kid loves having people think he’s mysterious, so after a month or so, he announces that a family emergency has erupted back home and he’ll be flying out in the morning. John and the boys corral him to a tavern and buy him a round. Adieu songs, top-shelf drinks, you know. And the next night, while they’re still lamenting their loss, Connor walks in, an astoundingly-charming molly on his arm. Everyone laughs about it, but he repeats the joke for the next three nights. His friends become tired of the shenanigans.”
“John has a notably low shenanigan tolerance,” Steven offered. “So what’d he do?”
“On the fourth night, he invites Connor outside. Claims they have something of a personal nature to wade through. Grabs him by his jacket folds, and very congenially lets him know that everyone inside loves him and considers him a brother. Then he punches the kid in the face, helps him up, and buys him his last Guinness. I think he might’ve contributed a little cash to the pre-airport beer fund, too.”
“How is it you know this story and I don’t?”, I blurted out, mildly annoyed.
Cajun Rob shrugged. “I asked if he had any bar stories you didn’t know.”
“Well…I suppose that’s appropriate.”
We sat there in silence for some time. From an idling car outside, Sinead O’Connor was faintly wailing that nothing compares to some previous beau. It was well into the small hours when I crashed into my bed, and I finally allowed myself to feel the fear and pre-loss I’d been denying for months. My heart was full. And as Dad sagely observed when I unintentionally killed his ficus, you’ve got to watch the saturation point.
I drove to my childhood home and rang the bell two days later. I hugged him and instantly worried about the pressure. I flipped a chair around so I’d face his duvet. A water bottle from a baseball game we’d attended together rested at his feet, as were the bottle of Vicodin and Thermos half-full of Killian’s Red I’d expected to find. Dad was usually asleep by nine. We chatted about work, politics, television. He repositioned the blanket past his torso and I wondered how frigid he must feel to need that stifling cloth so early in the evening.
“Brian,” he said, in one of his many Classic Dad tones. “Tell me. It’s all right. I picked Transformers out of your Cheerios. You’ve got too much of your mother’s face.”
“I—Dad, I don’t know what to say, OK? How do I talk to you about this?”
He smiled. “I get it. Of course I do. Do you think I knew what to say to your mom when she was dying, so many decades before her time? I lived by her bedside, and I spent so much of it scraping for words. Even when I occasionally found them, I still wasn’t ever sure how much she heard. But this isn’t the same. You were only three when she passed away, Brian. She was robbed of her time.” He placed his hand on my knee gently. “I’ve lived a full life with no regrets. There’s a certain stage where Peace pays you a visit, and you draw up a treaty, and you co-exist for however long is left. So far, life is one-hundred percent fatal. No one cheats death.”
“Jesus did once.”
“He had special dispensation, I’ve heard. That said, no sense in dying ahead of schedule.” With some effort, he rose from the duvet and hobbled over to the entryway, searching for his shoes. “It’s a beautiful night, you know.” he murmured, his thin voice shaking warmly. “Why not? There’s nothing to lose now.”
“What are we talking about?”
“Death’s not going to forget about me, Brian, but I could have a handful of days left. Maybe even a few weeks. I don’t want to squander ‘em sitting around watching Oprah and making Lipton. I’d like a spot of dancing. Drinks. A dab of devilry. Drive your old father to the Royal Tain.”
I must’ve looked like a former Vice President had shot me in the face. Dad tapped my shoulder gingerly. “It’s OK. Who’s going to know? I’ll write you a note.”
“Dad, you’re in no condition to be leaving this house, and you want to go dancing? It’s a terrible idea. I’m not going to give your eulogy and talk about how you left this world in the middle of a…fiddle solo!”
“Now that I hear it out loud, that actually sounds marvelous. Brian, I love you beyond anything in this life, but don’t be a pain in my arthritic ass.” He stood expectantly by the car door and squeezed my hand. “It’s all right, my boy. I’ve accepted this, but let’s not bury me prematurely. One last drink, you and I.”
He worked my phone, gleefully inviting friends and close acquaintances. A dozen objections rattled in my skull as we drove, all of them were stacked against the possibility that Dad was right. Kevin Walsh spotted him while before I’d even parked the car. “John!’ He proudly held the door for my father and then embraced him. “Céad Míle Fáilte, old friend. You look good.” He understood immediately, as I had not.
“You told me you fixed those cataracts,” my dad chuckled. “There’s a band tonight, it looks like?”
“Yeah. The Wild Geese. They’re semi-regulars here. The oversized table in the back is free; I expect your entourage will be arriving soon. Colleen and I will be taking care of you this evening, so holler for one of us if you need anything. Whatever you’re drinking is on me.”
The table quickly filled with wings, stouts, and our cronies. My father’s old friends trickled in, trading beers and good-natured ribbing “Hey, John, great to see you!”, Steven beamed, shaking his hand.
“And you, Steven,” my father returned the grin. “It’s been a while. How are you and Emily? Any chance you finally proposed and Brian simply forgot to mention it?”
“Soon! I swear. I’m aligning my own stars,” Steven explained.
“I’m sure I’ve no idea what that means.”
Onstage, The Wild Geese launched into a frenzied romp. I drummed along, half-listening to Daniel and Cajun Rob argue about who was going to drink the other under the table. My father tapped his boots and laughing, toasting the members of his Old Guard. His eyes held a small spark, and I sensed he was waiting for something.
The bodhran thundered its one note, pulsating song and a woman appeared at the table, extending her hand. A few inches taller than Dad, with an oval face and straight chestnut hair. She wore an incredibly loud shirt that automatically rendered the rest of her clothing sensible by comparison. She smiled at him with eyes that were kind and tired in equal measure. She looked familiar, but I couldn’t place her.
In the morning, Dad would recount her entrance for me as I attempted to cook breakfast without burning it. “Out of nowhere! As if plucked from the air itself, Brian!”, he’d proclaim between the coughing fits that began to surface on the trip home. Peggy had, in fact, emerged from the Ladies’ Room. He’d failed to notice her because his seating arrangement presented him with a partially-obscured view of the floor. I didn’t mention any of that to him–why would I? He remembered the encounter dusted in serendipity and with a touch of magic. Plucked from the air itself makes a much better story than restrooms and architecture.
My father grasped her hand, lifting himself to meet her. “P-Peggy?”, he sputtered. “When did–“
“Ah, Johnny. You always were a step behind.” She threw a wicked glance at him and bowed her head. He did the same and spun her as the music wove on, clicking his heels. She laughed as she steadied herself, her bracelets clanging, the muted chime on metal on metal. They moved slowly, pausing when he needed rest or seemed too wobbly. Dancing at a fraction of the speed while wheezing may not look cinematic to most people, but it was the happiest I’d seen him in months.
I stepped back and gazed around the room, permitting my mind to simply soak in the scene and record the highlights. Three generations, united in celebration of the man who taught me how to navigate the world. When the band completed their first set and scattered in search of restrooms and beverages, I found myself climbing the tiny stage and tapping the mic. “Friends, we have in our presence tonight my father, an Odysseus whose very life and love was his epic poetry. I’m so proud to be his son. We’ve been honoring him throughout the evening, and I’d ask you now to join me in an official toast by raising your glass and sending him forth.”
The skirnch of two dozen glasses clinking surrounded us and we doused our throats in amber. Dad beamed at his fan club and spread his hands in front of them, as if to impart papal wisdom. “Thank you, my friends. I’m a better man for having known each of you, and I hope all you encounter love you as I have. And for those who don’t, may God turn their hearts. And if He doesn’t turn their hearts, may He turn their ankles, so we’ll know them by their limping.” He finished to claps and burbling assent, mostly from his own table.
“And may wives and girlfriends never know each other!” Steven shouted.
“Steven,” my dad sighed.
“What? That’s part of the traditional speech in my family!”
The night drifted on. Shortly after three, as we were stumbling back to our respective cars, Kevin Walsh grasped my father’s shoulder and whispered something in his ear. My dad nodded. Some celestial arrangement, I guess. He strapped himself into the passenger’s seat and was snoring before he hit the paneling. In all my years since, I’ve still never heard a noise so brimming with satisfaction.
Inspired by and loosely based on the song “One Last Drink” by Enter The Haggis.