“Shillel-Lee”

HAPPY SAINT PATRICK’S DAY, read the tattered banner that drifted down in front of the table I was hunched under. The sentiment and the banner didn’t last long as it was trampled and pulverized into a muddy heap by a stampede of feet running every which way. Fists were flying. Glass was shattering. Insults were hurled, as were bottles and cans. The jukebox was cranking out a rather spirited rendition of the Dubliners’ “Whiskey in the Jar.” There was a small pool of blood with an atoll of teeth in it next to an old, greasy shillelagh on the floor. The random pints of beer that were on the table above me had all spilled over, dripping porters and stouts and ales in a kind of black rain seeping through the cracks in the old wood. The Bloom’s Day Irish Pub in Avondale Estates had turned into a display of carnage and bloodshed not seen since the rampage of Lenny Murphy and the Shankhill Butchers in Belfast back in the seventies.  And it was all my fault. Not my fault so much as my dead neighbor’s fault. Actually it was a lazy ambulance’s fault. It was a rocking chair’s fault.  I’ll explain.

I came out of the house a few days ago to find a huddle of neighbors in the street. They do that from time to time. The last time was for our mysterious new bearded neighbor (see “The Hairy Panic” blog, March 3rd) who turned out to be a really cool glass and metal sculptor from Red Hook, Brooklyn. This time around they were discussing the fellow right next door to me, Lee, a ninety-three-year-old World War II veteran. Lee had passed away. “So it goes,” I said, mimicking what the Tralfamadorians in Kurt Vonnegut’s book “Slaughterhouse Five” say when somebody dies. Lee had lived in the neighborhood for sixty years, and as a younger man was meaner than a junkyard dog, according to some of the older residents. I got along fine with him. He would teeter over to my side of the fence every once in a while to demand bourbon and accuse me of crashing my helicopter in his backyard. Since I don’t own a helicopter and couldn’t pilot one if I did, I would just invite him in, pour a couple of whiskey drams and chat with him about wartime. He would calm down a bit after a few belts, but would always erupt at me with, “You’re not fit to serve in this soldier’s infantry!” I would just shrug and tell him he was probably right.

But no more. Lee was gone. A fellow can’t ask for much more than ninety-three years. That is a good long run. “When did it happen?” I asked. Nobody knew for sure. In fact, the only hard evidence they had for Lee’s passing was an ambulance that was parked in his driveway that morning and that was, in one neighbor’s assessment, “Taking its time.”

“It would be a good children’s book,” I suggested. “The Ambulance That Took Its Time. One of those easy reads that explains why grandpa went on that forever fishing trip.”

My neighbor argued that there was no better evidence of death than an ambulance taking its time. An actual corpse was less reliable evidence of death than an ambulance that took its time. To hear my neighbor tell the story it was like the ambulance itself was taking a nap in Lee’s driveway while the man expired. The whole emergency vehicle was displaying the dull hebetude of a teenager staring into an Iphone. The defibrillators were yawning. The saline bags hit the snooze button. The oxygen sensors had pulled the covers over their head. The “warfarin” blood thinner had narcolepsy. One paramedic was sitting in Lee’s garden with his shirt, shoes and socks off, in the lotus position, contemplating his navel. The other just worked furiously at something or other under his thumbnail.

“It is an emergency vehicle only if the lights are on. The lights weren’t on. Which means it had ceased being an emergency. Ergo, Lee is dead.”

We looked at Lee’s silent house. Then Ned Shaughnessy, the shifty owner of Bloom’s Day Irish Pub, noticed Lee’s rocking chair on his porch. He commented on how nice a piece of furniture it was, finely crafted, solid, sturdy, with two cup holders built into the wide armrests. No spring chicken himself, old Ned walked up on the porch, hefted the chair over his head and marched it down the block to his house, talking something about finders are keepers.  A few neighbors started going through Lee’s garden. Someone copped his bird feeder. Another yanked up an ornate weather vane. We are a bunch of king vultures, I thought, returning to my house.

So it was strange when, three days later, I answered my telephone to hear the guy who lives across from me remark quizzically, “I guess Easter came early this year. Lee is back from the dead, and he is on your front lawn.”  Sure enough, there he was. I went out to try and corral him. He was disoriented. He wanted to know what day it was? I told him it was Saint Patrick’s Day. Then, and more importantly, he demanded to know where his rocking chair was? I told him Ned Shaughnessy had taken it, which sent Lee into such a fit that I thought he would drop dead again, round two. I tried to explain about the lazy ambulance, but Lee insisted I drive him over to the Bloom’s Day Pub. He wanted a word with old Ned.

“Ned’s upstairs,” someone said as we walked in to the crowded bar. Lee began his long, old man’s journey up the fourteen or so steps. I figured I had time to grab a beer. It was Saint Patrick’s Day, after all. It didn’t take long for the commotion to start. A fellow came running down the stairs. “There’s some guy that’s a hundred and fifty years old up there throwing all the chairs out the windows.” We looked out to the front lawn and sure enough, it was raining chairs. “You’re not fit to serve in this soldier’s infantry!” I heard scream from above. Like Saint Patrick ridding Ireland of all the snakes, Lee was clearing the pub of every chair in the place. Then someone’s girlfriend got knocked in the face with a chair leg, which is all that needs to happen in a packed bar on Saint Patrick’s day. The brawl eventually made its way downstairs. I took shelter under the table. There’s a term firefighters use called a ‘flashpoint.’ It happens when a home or building goes from a fire in the building, to a building on fire. We passed the flashpoint in the pub. It had gone from a fight in a bar to a bar fight. And all the while defenestrated chairs came sailing down from above, crashing into pieces on the lawn out front. One for Sean O’Casey. One for John Synge. One for Johnny Swift. One for Billy Yeats. One for Flann O’Brien. One for Brendan Behan. “And the auld triangle, went jingle-jangle, all along the banks, of the Royal Canal!”   

“Someone call an ambulance!”

“And tell it to hurry up.”

Because we all know what happens when it doesn’t.

More Alembics to come.

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