MCCAUGHAN'S CASK

by

Charles Shaw

 



Jimmy McCaughan was the owner of McCaughan’s Cask, a faux-dive Irish bar in the Lakeview neighborhood. It was a moderate sized place with a huge traditional Irish style oak bar that featured dozens of Irish and English beers on tap, a hallowed collection of Irish whiskies set as the centerpiece behind the bar, a row of tables and stools, and a few booths opposite the bar along the back wall. There was a whole other room that held two pool tables and four dart lanes. It was just dim enough for folks to relax, but bright enough to foster heavy competition in the game room. Back in the Eighties, it was the only place Evan and his Prep-school cronies could get served. Ironically, they found the place by chance after driving around for hours looking for a place where they wouldn’t get carded. They chose McCaughan’s because there was no bouncer at the door. The reason for that will become apparent.

Jimmy knew they were all underage, but figured he was doing everyone a favor by containing their hormonal teenage madness within his faux-dingy walls. Jimmy had the blessing of being Irish in Chicago, which meant he had relatives who were cops, so he never got hassled. He only served the kids draft beer, and never let them drive when they were drunk. This rule, of course, did not stop them from firing up bowls in their cars outside, and oftentimes Jimmy, fed up with the night, would sneak out and join them for a much needed respite.

His regular customers on the Force were equally vigilant in keeping the kids from killing themselves. By condoning it, or at the very least ignoring it, they became responsible for them, so they did their best to keep the kid’s in line. But ultimately it was the cops just showing off the kind of routine power they had. Off-duty, they still believed themselves Lord-Masters of the universe. But they were decent enough guys. A bit too self-righteous, but wouldn’t anyone be if they had a cop’s life?, was Jimmy’s take on the whole thing… Evan and his friends just couldn’t get over the fact that their underage-drinking hangout was a cop bar. They felt like they were the coolest guys on the planet. And in his own way, Jimmy McCaughan saved one or more of this group from their fair share of accidents and D.U.I.s, and hopefully death as well. He was, unequivocally, a good man.

Evan had bonded to Jimmy over the years, but not in the usual bartender-barfly manner that was superficially predicated on commerce. Jimmy was more like the older relative Evan never had, an amalgam of father, uncle and brother. Jimmy perceived uniqueness in Evan, the way he spoke unlike any of his friends or anyone his age, the way he would sit and stare at the rows of bottles bottom lit by halogen bulbs, while his friends bellowed and groped in the background, looking, fruitlessly, to get laid; the way Evan would methodically play a round of solo darts, sometimes taking minutes just to aim and fire a single shot. But what really touched Jimmy was the way Evan would come alone in the years since Prep school and sit at the bar and sketch stuff on the oversize cocktail napkins that littered the bar. Jimmy had a whole collection of them posted behind the bar and on the walls of his backroom office. He knew Evan had tremendous talent, and he knew he was a very, very unhappy kid.

Jimmy knew the whole story of Evan’s family, and Evan found comfort identifying with Jimmy’s tales of his own father who, ironically, when you consider the abundance of law-enforcement in his family, had spent the majority of his life behind bars for petty crimes that didn’t even warrant headlines. The family had tried to intervene until they just gave up and accepted that the man was never going to change. Evan knew what that was all about. Jimmy had the hardest time accepting his father’s decisions. In the ways that only Sons understand, he still thought his father was God.


Evan stood behind the line, staring ahead, bobbing and weaving like a prizefighter. His eyes were hazy and blurred. The dart lay precariously between his thumb and forefinger, riding a wave up and down before his eyes. Far ahead was the target, a swirling conglomeration of green and red and black overlapping in folds that bled into each other. He inhaled deeply, lowered the dart, shook his head. In his left hand was a double shotglass full of Aftershock, defined as a one hundred and eighty proof liquor that tastes like Big Red gum. He stared at the deep, neon-red glow inside. He held the shotglass up to the light and thick red beams refracted down upon him, cascading to the floor like lasers. He laughed, dropped the shotglass to his mouth, and dumped the contents deep into the back of his throat in a toxic explosion of hot cinnamon and ethyl alcohol. Half gagging, he reared back and hurled the dart at the target. It arced through the air, spinning clockwise, and stuck hard into the wood a good foot above the target. He paused an instant, befuddled, then looked down at the empty shotglass. He wondered if he had had enough.

Evan was always hyperconscious of his drinking habits, though that, more often than not, did little to curtail his consumption. With each drink he took he also acknowledged a corresponding image of his father. He didn’t want to end up like him, and he couldn’t say he wasn’t concerned about it. He acknowledged the liquid panacea for what it was: An Off-Ramp. Even if it was only for a moment, until it passed through him like so many wasted feelings and tics.

Everyone told him it wasn’t possible. There can be only one Nolan, they would say. Thank god, they would say! But he knew if he had the genes, he had the affinity. And he knew everyone else knew he had the genes. He recalled Orwell’s 1984, as he felt perpetually observed, half by others, half by his own paranoia, a constant, unseen Other lurking in the shadows, taking notes. But agonize as he would, it still did not stop him. If anything, it just kept him spinning his wheels on the precipice of disaster, with just enough inertia to keep him from plummeting. He knew, inarguably, that eventually he would burn out and fall. He had accepted that part, and seemed to placidly stand by and await its arrival. But he always held out hope that he would come to his senses before that day ever occurred. He just couldn’t imagine, after all he knew, that he would actually let it happen.

This belief, of course, was not immune to the consequences of Fate or fate-related disasters.

Ambling back to the bar, he slid up on a stool and flung the shotglass down the length of the near-empty bar with a precision only possible when one was drunk enough not to care what happens to the shotglass in the first place.

“You wanna cut that shit out, Evan?”

Jimmy McCaughan, from behind the bar, placed his hands scant inches from the slumped torso of his friend Evan, who looked up at him bleary enough for Jimmy to cork the Aftershock and slide Evan a tall glass of water.

“You’re in rare form tonight,” he said.

“Fuck you, you Mick bastard.”

“Did I ever tell you how much I miss you when you’re away at school?”

“You miss me ‘cause you ain’t got no business.”

“Give a man a drink and he suddenly loses nineteen years of education before your very eyes.”

“I don’t need education, I need re-education. Don’t believe the hype! Trust no one.”

“Right.” Jimmy took a closer look. “What’s goin’ on there, buddy? You don’t look so hot.”

“Man, you don’t even wanna know.”

“If I didn’t wanna know, I wouldn’t have asked. Come on, confess to Father Jimmy.”

“Where do you want me to begin?”

“At the beginning.”

“Okay. Let’s see…in the beginning god created the heavens and the earth…”

“That’s original.”

“Okay, try this. I was born at 10:54 pm at St. Joseph’s Hospital…”

“…you were born at St. Joseph’s?”

“What the fuck did I just say?”

“You?”

“Yes, James. Me. As in Me.”

“I didn’t know that. I was born at St. Joseph’s. I should have known. That’s something I should have known about you. St. Joe’s, huh? Shit. That’ll knock a few years of off Purgatory for ya. All those good Irish Catholics.”

“Actually, isn’t more of a German neighborhood? And I thought you were from Bridgeport.”

“If I was from Bridgeport you think I’d have a bar on the North side?”

“Perhaps, but were you raised in the manner befitting the Huguenots of the day?”

“My friend, you have just been elected drunk. Congratulations. I get the hint.”

‘No…no hint…question.”

Jimmy turned and began to walk away. “Finish that water so I can give you more.”

“Where you goin’?”

Jimmy stopped, looked back.

“You done playin’ games with me?”

“I’m sorry. You know I get all smarty-pants when I’m upset.”

“Yes you do. I can’t help you if you don’t tell me.”

“Help me…there’s a concept. Can James help me?”

“You gotta be honest with me. Did somebody crack you in the head today, cause you’re acting really strange.”

“Hey, you remember that Simpson’s episode where Homer thinks he saw an alien in the woods, so Scully and Mulder show up to investigate?”

“Right. Duchovny says, ‘Look, Scully, another unsubstantiated alien encounter in the Heartland of America.’ Yeah, I saw that one.”

‘No, wait. So they’re in Moe’s drinking, the three of them at the bar, and they ask Homer, ‘describe the events of the evening in exact detail’. And Homer says, Well, the evening began in the usual fashion, at the Gentlemen’s club, where we were discussing Wittgenstein. And Scully says, Mr. Simpson, it’s a federal offense to lie to the FBI. And Homer says…”

“…we in the back of Barney’s car eating packets of Mustard, you happy? I told you I saw it. And this is relevant…?”

“Yeah, that’s me man.”

“How you figure?”

“I think I’m talking Wittgenstein, but I’m really just eating mustard.”

“I’m not sure I get that one.”

“Say, speaking of that. When was the last time I talked to you?

“You mean in person, or one of your drunk phone calls?”

“When was the last time I saw you?”

“That would be a year ago. Hmmm…last Christmas, I think. Yeah. You were in here with your lady. You two went back to Yale the day after. I remember she was loud and she could pack away the ale, boy. You see, she was all dressed nice, had her jewelry and stuff, looked real real nice for you. But when you put a working class chick in a working class bar and give her some good old-fashioned draft ale, her true character shines through. I saw she was down to earth then, not some snooty rich broad like the one’s you grew up with.”

“Right. Down to earth. That’s her.”

“You don’t agree?”

“She dumped me two days ago because I wasn’t on the same career track.”

“Aw, no shit? Well, fuck. Color me shithead. What happened?”

“It’s more like what didn’t happen.”

“So what didn’t happen?”

“Me.”

Jimmy knew something else was up. Watching Evan slump down like a dog, Jimmy recalled the afternoon three years before, when he came in and told him he was going to Law School. Jimmy was dumbfounded; it would have been the same to him as if Evan had come in and told him he was pregnant. But that day there was a disturbing vacancy to his young friend. He would see the same expression on his father’s face just before the old man would go off to do another bit in the penitentiary. Evan got terribly drunk that night, so drunk he got sick, which Jimmy had never seen him do. Evan had a remarkable tolerance for alcohol, but that night his resistance seemed to have crumbled. By the time Jimmy got him bundled into a cab, he was bawling. It broke his heart to see him that way. Jimmy knew how much Evan’s art meant to him. This was a fate worse than death to him, so he couldn’t figure out why he would do that to himself. In the world of James Joseph McCaughan, you did what wanted to do, because it was the only thing you could get up the energy to do on a regular basis. He couldn’t see Evan wearing a suit, or being deferential to a judge. It was like casting Harvey Firestein to play an action hero.

Each time Evan would return to Chicago during his years at Yale there would be that much more that was absent in him, like he was undergoing a slow, thorough lobotomy that removed one creative impulse at a time.

An hour earlier Evan had that same distant, calculating expression that sent chills across his arms as he came in and threw back three shots of Aftershock before he uttered a word, despite the fact they hadn’t seen each other in a year. Jimmy knew that shit would kill you if you drank too much, but he knew Evan knew as well, and that was what scared him the most.

“You wanna hear the most fucked up shit, though?” Evan said.

“Always.”

“I ever tell you about my grandmother?”

“Yeah, both, I think?”

“Well, this would be Nolan’s mother.”

“Yeah, I remember. The one that bailed on ya, with the money, right?

Evan smiled. “You got a memory like a fuckin’ elephant.”

“Yeah. It’s all the good dope I smoke. Find me one guy who could forget a story like that.”

“Well, the bail has returned.”

‘What, she die?”

“No. She’s back. As in Hi, I’m back.”

“No shit?”

“Yeah. D’oh! Get this: I saw her today.”

“Where?”

“At this nursing home she lives in. Out in fucking Elgin.”

“Yeah? How’s she doin?”

“She got cancer.”

“She got your money?”

“Naw. She ain’t got it.”

“Didn’t think so.” Jimmy paused and shook his head. “Leave it to you, Montgomery, to come in here with a lunatic ass story like that. I swear to god, Job’s got nothin’ on you, man. What, you gonna pull up your shirt and show me some boils now?”

Evan pulled up his shirt. No boils. “They’re comin,” he said. “Be patient.”

“Nope, you’re clean. No unholy curses. Good man.”

“This...I certainly did not expect. James, my man, this calls for a celebration…one double water on the rocks with a coffee back.”

Jimmy was only too happy to oblige. “You learn a lot about people when you control how drunk they’re gonna get.”

“Just make with the liquid and leave the philosophizing to me, all right O’Toole?”

“Look, you Tory shitbag, I’ve had it with the Mick remarks.”

Evan bowed his head in a mock peace gesture and the two men smiled. They were friends, and they shared a coffee together and then some more. The rest came as it would, and Jimmy just enjoyed the few moments they had left.








ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Charles Shaw is a busy boy these days. He is an editor of politics and non-fiction for 3am Magazine, co-editor of 3am's sister publication, SinglesFAQ Magazine, not to mention his own Signs of the Decline of Western Civilization. He generally spends his days running from project to project. Charles lives in Chicago, where he runs an internment camp for anxious poodles called PiddleTown. This is Charles' first fiction submission to 3am, and hopefully it will not be his last.




 





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