Just days after MJ celebrated his thirtieth year in America, the foreman gripped his hand, muttered that things were slack-the recession had bitten and the building boom had burst. Known as "The Hound," the foreman looked MJ in the eye and said he wished he had better news: sorry, there's no more work after Friday.
“And I've been with the Hound since '82, you know,” MJ says as he tells his story in the bars, “I put out a lot of sweat for that man.”
MJ is fifty something, a small stocky bachelor with big blue eyes and a red porter face. America hasn't made much of an impression on him, fortune-wise or other and he's the same today as the morning he left Ballysollock. Years of work trying to get somewhere and now he realizes there's nowhere to go to. Digging, digging, digging. Day and night. Seven days a week, digging through life in the hope of going back to Ireland with a bundle of money. Now there is no digging and no money. Just time; years of it fell into his lap and he wasn't ready for it.
New found time is tough to live through, he says. The days are long and he does his best to keep out of harm's way by staying in bed till noon. He relives his life in patches. A silent movie of faded dreams, might-have-beens if life went different. There's no blame, just mysteries. He's alone in a one roomed flat in San Francisco, awake in bed at noon with nothing to fill his day but dreams. Life shunted him into a railway siding, he's been retired.
MJ hadn't bargained for this twist of fate and always thought he'd be back living in Ireland long before his working life was over. He had hoped to get enough money together for a small cottage - nothing hectic, with just an acre or two, a few miles outside of some town in the West. Once he had a roof over his head, it would be easy to keep everything else in order. Odd jobs would bring in bread and butter and the dole would buy the beer. That was the plan he came back with after a holiday in Ireland in the nineties when things were good in America and he had cash. It was his only trip in thirty years. It's hard to go back without having made a fortune, and if you've made it you don't want to go back.
Every afternoon around three, MJ saunters down Geary Boulevard, regular as a train. Neatly dressed in shirt, slacks and low grade sneakers, he graciously salutes familiar faces and waves his newspaper at Irish workers in shamrock splattered pick-up trucks that hoot as they pass. Some days MJ has a cup of coffee in the Chinese diner in the Mall, it's something to do, a way to pass the time, kill those extra hours in the day that burden him down like a visiting aunt he can't get rid of. Later he sits on a low brick wall outside the Wells Fargo bank and gently taps the unread newspaper against his knee.
Most days he's joined by Red Carty, a Galway man who came to San Francisco in the sixties and never went home. Red hasn't worked in years-he's on the Social Security, sleeps late and drinks early. He's delighted to have company, MJ is new in the hanging-out world and Red subtly shows the way.
Their conversations dance around jigs and reels and ceilli bands from the past. Memories of good times make thirsty talk and soon they move to The '98, a long narrow Irish bar with a red tiled floor and green Formica counter. MJ has to stretch the dollars and returns to his flat after a couple of pints, stopping on the way for a can of beans, bread and eggs, milk and potatoes. He cooks a big feed and falls asleep watching wrestling on TV. Next day it's the same routine.
Saturday is the exception. Mid-afternoon Red and MJ meet in the '98 to watch videos of the previous Sunday's sport highlights from Ireland. They keep up with the teams and players, just like they did at home. In many ways they've never left. They're dressed for drinking as if returning from a funeral: MJ in blue suit and white open neck shirt; Red in porter-brown pants and dark brogues, tweed jacket and cap.
When Red has enough drink supped he talks Irish. A few more down and he cries on MJ's shoulder, sobbing that he left a good farm of land behind when he set sail to make his fortune. Now he has nothing. Nothing here, nothing over there. MJ stares gloomily at him and says,
“We'll go back sometime Red.”
Red makes contorted, painful faces and shakes his head slowly,
“No MJ,” he mumbles, “we'll never go back now, we're gone too long.”
By nine or ten o'clock Red has collapsed at the counter and MJ falls into company with long-time immigrants Heart Attack Jack and his brother Milo. When Johnny Foley is tending bar they are allowed sing and Milo opens the evening with “South of the Border”. Next up: Heart Attack Jack with “Silver Hairs among the Golden.” MJ listens in silence, stares at the floor. He's on the town tonight, he's put down another week of unwanted time in a foreign land.
Mrs. Lally and her husband Topper join them around ten thirty, and the smell of perfume and talc reinforces that it is indeed Saturday night. Mrs. Lally corners MJ against the counter and treats him to a monologue on menopause. Head down, eyes on two pennies on the green Formica, MJ lets it in one ear and out the other. Now she's whispering, coming closer and he feels her hot breath and hears the tobacco wheeze as she rambles on. There's nothing to do but drink. Block it out.
After a half-hour MJ excuses himself to go to the bathroom and when he returns, Mrs. Lally is singing “Nobody's Child” staring straight at a neon light above the bar that flashes-Budweiser, Budweiser. She's on center stage, thinking she's Madonna, getting passionate about being alone in the world. Red snores at the counter dreaming about milk cans and the cocks of hay he left to rot in the rain. Outside, cop cars scream up and down the street, ambulance sirens waw-waw, waw-waw in the distance. But all the noise and commotion in the world won't wrench Mrs. Lally from her song.
“It's as close as we'll get to home,” MJ mutters, counting out money for another round, just to keep the show on the road.
Red wakes before closing time, half-sober, sore and thirsty. He wants drink and demands entertainment.
“For God's sake,” he cries, “it's Saturday night in San Francisco and this place is like a shaggin' morgue.”
MJ stares at him, puzzled, as if wondering where he has been until now. Heart Attack Jack and Milo don't need much encouragement and oblige with a duet of “Galway Bay”. It's mournful, but not mournful enough for Mrs. Lally, who edges in between them, holds their hands and strangles the song.
It's nerve fraying stuff and a couple of young Paddies playing pool howl at the singers. Red shouts at them to shut up. They shout back. Red knocks over a stool and Johnny Foley the barman, who has suffered enough all night, screams at everyone,
“For the love of Jaysus will ye all fuck up! Now!”
The singing and the shouting stop. Red shrugs his shoulders and MJ whispers to hold easy. There's a hush for a few minutes, glasses clink, pool balls click-clack. The Foley pours himself a large shot of whiskey and slips a tape into the music maker. Barman's revenge, it's the Pogues. The volume is boosted until every glass and bottle in the pub rattle and rocks to “Dirty Old Town”.
Two verses on, The '98 is singing its head off, dreaming dreams by the gasworks wall. Heart Attack Jack and Mrs. Lally are dancing. MJ looks puzzled. Young Irish boys and girls are doing a funky waltz around the pool table. Red is whispering,
“We'll never go back, MJ.”
“Ah we will,” mumbles MJ, “next year, with the help of God. Next year.”
He pulls a handful of crumpled dollars from his pocket and asks the barman for two whiskeys and a pack of Camel. Things to pass the time and soothe the soul while dreamin' dreams about going home.