THE PARTING GLASS

By John Steele


The first time I knowingly kissed a Roman Catholic I was 20 years old.

It was at university up on the North Antrim Coast, a bleak and wind-calloused knuckle on the north east corner of Ireland. She was from Andersonstown in West Belfast, diametrically opposed in more ways than one from my home in Orangefield, East Belfast. Now here I was in the Dublin House Bar on Upper 79th and Broadway, talking to Kerry from Washington DC about big, bad Belfast in 1995. Kerry was fourth generation Irish American Catholic, which is to say she was about as Irish as a Big Mac. But she was pretty, and she looked vaguely like a young Famke Janssen. She loved my accent. No, she’d never been to the homeland but granddaddy visited back in the Twenties. Kerry’s daddy hated the English for all the atrocities and persecution they’d inflicted on dear old Ireland and, as it turned out, he really hated Protestants too. I thought discretion was the better part of valour on this one.

‘Alright Sam? We'll move on now, yeah?’

Donal had stayed at the same backpackers’ hostel as me before I got a place in Greenwich Village.

‘Donal, this is Kerry. Kerry, this is Donal, from Dublin,’ I said.

‘Alright Kerry? Are you coming with Sam and us?’

Fourth generation Kerry’s face lit up as she heard the Dublin brogue and the name attached.

‘Thank God, you’re really Irish!’

‘Really Irish?’ asked Donal.

I flinched.

Donal scowled. ‘Ah, go and fuck yourself.’ He shot me a broad smile, ‘C’mon, big man.’

Kerry stared as all the hate and bile Daddy had been feeding her was kicked in the teeth and out the door by Donal’s size nines followed by Donal and I, arms locked around shoulders.

At that moment, I envied Donal. I envied his confidence, his natural conviction in his identity or nationality. He was what all these Yanks – shite, all the Brits – expected an Irishman to be. Lucky bastard.

 

* * *


I stepped outside, feeling the drink more now that I was up and off the barstool. We started with four that night: Donal, Dram, Hugh and me. Dram was a quiet and hard-working Glaswegian. Hugh was ex-British army: Royal Irish Rangers. Since getting out when the regiment was rebranded in 1992 he’d been working his way around the world. He was a hard bastard. He was also from East Belfast, which was enough common ground in his eyes to bond us in booze, craic and brotherhood. Dram, Hugh and myself were sharing an apartment in Greenwich Village after meeting up while working illegally at a moving company on the Upper West Side. Donal was still staying at a grimy backpackers’ hostel on the Upper West Side.

The Dublin House had been a stop-off on the way to Tailor’s Bar and Saloon in the Garment District. They had an all-you-can-drink deal on piss-weak American lager until 2am on Tuesdays down there so, three hours after slapping the first bills on the counter in the Dublin House, Hugh bellowed, ‘Let's go, for fuck’s sake!’

And we did.

 

* * *

 

A ten minute subway ride later and we were on West 42nd Street. 42nd Street was a hell of a place in 1995, and I mean that literally. During the day it was thronged with commuters, Nation of Islam preachers, fire-and-brimstone evangelists and people getting from Port Authority to anywhere-the-fuck-else as quickly as possible. There were gawking tourists, hawking drug pushers and the usual human debris of failed big city life, all on the doorstep of the Marriott and the commercial cathedral of Times Square.

But now, a little after midnight, it was a derelict urban theme park of peep shows and porn emporiums, all viewed through a miasma of neon and the farting gases of the subway system erupting through the sidewalk. It was pretty far from the darkened; sodium lit terraced streets of Belfast. Like Belfast there was a sense of danger, but this was intoxicating, full of the potential of something illicit waiting just out of sight; almost an expectation.

‘I'm away for a piss,’ said Hugh.

‘Can't you have a slash in that parking lot?’ I asked, pointing across to a shadowy slab of chain-link-ringed concrete on the corner.

‘I’d a bit of bother with a cop the other week for having a piss in Christopher Park,’ Hugh answered, ‘and I don’t want to take any chances. And there might be an attendant somewhere.’

We all understood. Donal had a Green Card; the rest of us were illegal, so altercations with New York’s Finest were a no-no.

Dram chimed in, ‘I wouldn’t mind a piss myself. There’s a toilet in that cafe at the subway entrance. If we buy a can of Snapple, yer man’ll let us use it.’

The delay in our plans was enough to slap a little sobriety back into Donal.

‘Well, I’m away,’ he said, ‘I’ve to be up early the ’morrow.’

Donal cleaned rooms in the hostel where he stayed for the money to ride the subway around town, scouting for work tending bar here and there. Hugh, Dram and I may have shared a one-bedroom dump, but the irony of the fact that the only one of us who could legally live in the country, never mind work, didn’t have an apartment or regular job wasn’t lost on us.
Donal disappeared down the subway station entrance while Hugh and Dram went off for that piss. I looked at my watch: 12:10 a.m. The street was empty aside from a figure walking just around the corner.

She was wearing skin tight white jeans wrapped around legs you usually see on Pirelli calendars. The tight sweater proved they really did do everything bigger and better in America. And, of course, she was blonde. She was the living embodiment of every Hollywood bred fever-dream of the American, corn-fed sexbomb you could imagine. And she was walking alone on West 42nd St after midnight on a Tuesday.

It was pretty obvious she wasn’t on her way to the office and it was the first time I’d ever seen a ‘working girl’ in the flesh. Belfast had revealed many of the more debased human weaknesses to me in my score of years but prostitution wasn’t one of them. The RUC regularly risked a bullet in the back or a bomb under the car, but years of sectarian violence and assassination had kept the vice squad counting paper clips for the last couple of decades.

As she got closer I could see she was attractive and strong-featured. Not beautiful in a classical sense but a face with character, her skin flawless, and she was a few years older than me. She held a cigarette in her long, manicured fingers.

‘You got a light?’ The voice had a smoky timbre.

‘Sure.’

She cocked her head, a mass of blonde curls cascading down one cheek. ‘Where are you from? Are you British? I love the London accent.’

In my defence, I was drunk, young and intoxicated by the seedy glamour of the moment.

And I was sick to the back teeth of the fucking Irish. Their prejudices and open wounds from hundreds of years ago, cultivated and filtered down to their offspring on the other side of the world. I thought of Kerry and her ignorance; and I was angry that I cared. Just for that moment I didn’t want to be Irish Northern Irish at all.

So I did my best Dick Van Dyke and answered, ‘London born and bred Darlin’.’

‘Darlin’! I love it!’

Emboldened, I went on, ‘I ’ave to tell ya, we don’t get many girls like you in London.’

‘Honey, you definitely don’t have many girls like me in London. So what’s a cute British boy doing out here at this time of night?’

‘I’m waiting for my friends. They just nipped off to go to the toilet. Sorry, I mean bathroom.’

She looked at me askance, her lips buckling into a lopsided grin with one slim eyebrow following suit. Of course, not many of your average tourists would be out here at this time of night.

I said, ‘So, what’s a beautiful girl like you doing out here alone at night?’

‘Well I’ve got a dick, so what else am I going to do?’

She followed this revelation with a dramatic sigh.

I was clouted back to sobriety I've never been good at hiding my thoughts or emotions and hated myself as her face crumpled at my reaction. Then a steely resolve glazed over her blue eyes and she set her jaw.

‘Not your kind of thing, huh?’ The intonation was flat and already bored. No business to be had here.

‘Sorry,’ I answered, feeling wretched, ‘were you a boy and you want to be a girl, or a girl and you want to be a boy?’ To my own amazement, I’d maintained the faux London accent.

‘I was a boy. I got hormone treatment,’ she glanced down at her breasts and then her crotch, ‘but I need money for the operation to complete the change. So here I am.’

I said, ‘It’s just not my cup of tea,’ and then, even more pathetically, ‘good luck though.’

She smiled one last time, a combination of pity and irony, and walked off into darkness.

 

* * *

 

Tailor’s Bar and Saloon was a cave. Hugh, Dram and I had walked the five blocks south to the club. They hadn’t seen the girl and I hadn’t seen a point in relating the story. There was a heavy student presence and a heavier stench of weed in the far corner of the bar where a selection of bean bags strewn with bodies were scattered across the floor. The boys were sinking beers with aplomb, but I was on a real mission.

Standing a few metres away with a beer in his massive hand was a huge Native American like The Chief from ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest’ staring at me. We’d locked eyes a while ago and his malevolent glare had been boring into me ever since. I didn’t know the guy from Adam but he sure seemed to have taken exception to me. I was necking the rounds as fast as possible in an effort to get my beer buzz back and take my mind off him.

When you entered Tailor’s they gave you plastic glasses never a good sign and every time you wanted a refill you took them back to the bar. We’d had a few rounds already, taking it in turns to go up with the glasses. Now it was my turn again, and Hugh lit on a bright idea.

‘Here, Sam,’ he said with a sloppy grin, ‘don't take the glasses with you. They’ll give you three more and then we can have six per round from then on. And what’s wrong with ye? Your face is trippin’ ye.’

‘It's yer man over there, the big Indian fella. He’s been staring at me for the last twenty minutes and it’s freakin’ me out.’

‘Ach, fuck him! Hes just another head bin. You should be used to it by now in this city.’

I shrugged my shoulders and made my way, glassless, to the counter.

The place was heaving now and it took a minute or two to get there. When I finally got the barman’s attention I ordered a packet of smokes to go with the beers, and who should have materialised next to me but The Chief. He stood glaring down at me on my left. I put in my order and the barman put the first of the beers on the counter in front of me. The Chief dropped one massive paw on the oak with a thud and slid the glass over to himself.

Oh shite, I thought, I do not need this. Fuck it, the beer was all-you-can-drink. It was technically free anyway, let him have it. The barman came back with the other two glasses and placed them in front of me. I leaned over and covered the beers with my body, shielding them from The Chief and pulling them in tight to myself.

And that's when he punched me.

 

* * *

 

It wasn’t much of a punch, more a glancing blow. But the next one had some real meat and potatoes behind it, snapping my head forward. And the next.

The entire attack couldn’t have lasted more than seven or eight seconds, but it felt like he was pounding a berserk rhythm out on the back of my skull. I heard a scream, shouts of, ‘Hey! Hey man!,’ ‘Security!’ and then it stopped.

I looked up to see the barman, obviously stronger than he looked, holding The Chief’s arms. Then two bull-necked bouncers, having bulldozed their way through the crowd, wrestled my attacker away, presumably to administer a good hiding outside.

My new friend behind the counter looked at me with some concern and asked, ‘Are you okay?’ Then he handed me the bills I'd placed on the counter for the cigarettes and said, ‘On the house.’

I gave him a shaky smile and slipped the bills into my pocket, reassured him I was fine, and made my way back over to the lads with the miraculously unspilled beers. It was five past one.

 

* * *

 

Five to three and I was walking back up to 42nd St. Hugh and Dram had started out for our place in the Village with the mission of getting a few hours of sleep before dragging their carcasses out of bed in the morning. I had to work too, lugging some punter’s prize possessions out to the Boroughs but, thankfully, not driving the moving truck.

I’d told the boys I needed a bit of air and would make my own way home, but they’d insisted on checking to make sure The Chief wasn’t waiting for me outside first. The fact was, I had a nagging desire to see the girl once more. I wasn't kidding myself that she was the whore with the heart of gold and I didn’t want to be her friend. But I knew I wouldn’t sleep that night without trying to see her again (as it turned out, I didn’t sleep anyway). Strange what gets into your mind when youre so young, raw and far from home. I felt guilty. Guilty for lying to her and faking that stupid accent and then wounding her when she revealed who she truly was; rather than who I wanted her to be. I’d seen her desperation, selling her current body to get the one she wanted. The one she needed. I felt like a voyeur, like I’d cheated her somehow.

So I made the five block pilgrimage to 42nd St and 8th Ave and found the section where we’d met cordoned off and a brace of cop cars scattered across the intersection. Another poor soul had been taken by the violent moods of the city. I smoked a couple of cigarettes and had a nosey around but after half an hour I took a deep breath of fetid air, then the steps down to Times Square station and the subway below.

 

* * *

 

There was a riot of noise in the kitchen in the morning. Burping, farting, hawking up tobacco phlegm from the night before. There was me, sitting at the Formica table in silence with my coffee and Cheerios; Hugh swearing and muttering as he searched for the keys to the truck; Dram moaning about work with a skinfull still coursing through his system; and Fox 5 News, with their ‘New York Minute’ and OJ trial updates.

‘Where the fuck are them keys?’

“...Judge has declared the trial could continue for another six months...”

‘You had them in your black jeans pocket yesterday. And keep the noise down, will ye?’

‘Im not going to keep my fucking job if I dont pick up the truck in the next hour!’

“...and in Metro News this morning...”

‘The clients Irish American. You could shit on his floor and shag his missus and hed slap you on the back and still tip you.’

‘Aye, Plastic Paddys!’

“...at Tailors Bar and Saloon in the Garment District, a Native American man, who had been ejected from the bar earlier in the night for brawling, returned at two oclock a.m. with a handgun and shot a bartender and two security staff dead...”

Hugh expelled air from between his teeth.

Police report several injured. The man fled the scene and is still at large...”

There was a moment of silence.

Then Hugh said, ‘Well theres hardly many Native Americans knocking around Manhattan. It must have been yer man in the bar. Lucky you left when you did Sam.’

Dram said, ‘He must have been looking for you.’

‘Are you alright Sam?’

There was nothing I could say.

What could I say? I was alright, but didn’t feel I should be. People were murdered back home but there were rules. Catholic kills Prod, Prod kills Catholic. It was tit-for-tat, and it was soul-destroyingly, grindingly predictable. But this was random. A guy, who’s a girl with a dick, sells her body so she can get a new one, and some poor fellas are shot to death by a homicidal maniac for breaking up a scuffle on a Tuesday night.

Hugh stamped on a cockroach and said, ‘C’mon, mate. Another day, another dollar.

Dram, ever the optimist, added, Another day closer to the grave.’

 

* * *

 

Ten hours and a day’s hard graft later Hugh and I were sitting out on the apartment’s third floor fire escape overlooking Bleecker Street. We were having a couple of beers and watching a couple embracing in front of the Little Red Schoolhouse directly opposite. All told, I’d had better days but Hugh had been on a big job out in Brooklyn and the punter had tipped big. Hugh had stood me a couple of bottles of lager in celebration.

He slugged his beer. ‘I heard on the radio they found your mate the Indian from last night. You can breathe easy. Turns out he topped himself.’

‘For real?’

‘Christ, you’re actually starting to sound like a Yank, do you know that?’

‘C’mon, Hugh don’t be arsing about.’

‘An overdose in his apartment. Heroin. You wouldn’t of thought it, looking at him, but he was fucking gay; lived in the fucking Village. Turns out he had a tranny boyfriend.’

My stomach lurched.

Hugh went on, ‘He topped him – her last night as well, before he went back to Tailor’s the second time. The tranny was a hooker and he didn’t know went ballistic. His drinking buddy was on the radio talking about it.’

My guts were churning and my legs felt hollow.

Hugh went on, 'The buddy said the Indian fella suspected something was up with his boy – girl friend and followed her last night. Cops think he saw her talking to a punter near where we had a piss. There was an attendant in that parking lot on 42nd and he told the cops he’d heard the big lad having a row with someone about half past twelve. Must have been close to where Donal left us.’

I took a swig of lager to steady myself and whispered ‘Jesus, he saw us.’

Hugh didn’t hear. He was too engrossed in telling the story.

He continued, ‘Then later this attendant hears screaming. That must have been when he went back to 42nd and killed her.’

I asked, ‘Did the attendant see anyone else? Maybe the punter she’d been talking to?’

‘Not that the radio said. They reckon he killed her sometime after one. The theory is he had the fight with you in Tailor’s, got chucked out, found his tranny again and topped her, and then went to get a gun before he went back to Tailor's. You are one lucky bastard to have left when you did.’

I looked at the street through the slats of the fire escape at my feet and mumbled, ‘Yeah, lucky.’

‘The cops were looking for the guy he had the fight with, but now everybody had a decent look at you is dead, you’re probably off the hook.’

Did they give out any names? I asked.

For who, the bar staff? The Indian?

‘Anybody.’

‘I dont think so. Doesn’t matter, does it?’

With 16 million souls living in New York City, I supposed it didn’t. Not in the grand scheme of things. But it had mattered last night when I’d stood on the corner of 42nd and 8th, chaining Salems and jawing with the parking attendant from the empty parking lot.

‘A hooker,’ he’d said, ‘some working girl prob’ly pissed off the wrong client.’

They weren’t exactly a rarity in the area and I had shrugged and lit a smoke. Then I felt my face flush.

‘I say girl,’ the attendant had said, ‘but she was a he, if you know what I mean. At least partways. She used to bum a smoke off me some nights.’    

It had mattered when the attendant had mentioned seeing a large, heavy-set man running south on 8th Ave after hearing a sharp scream. It had mattered when he hadn’t known the name of the victim. And it had mattered when I had fingered the ID in my pocket that had been handed to me by the barman, with my bills, earlier. The Chief must have dropped it when he was busy pummelling the back of my skull. A faded picture, but it could only be him, and an address in West Village a couple of blocks from the Hudson River. I’d walked in long, swift strides to the home of a killer without a moment of hesitation.

Was I drunk? Certainly.

Foolhardy? Unquestionably.

Furious? No fucking question.

Even murderous, perhaps. It’s amazing what New York will do to you.

I hadn’t had the faintest what I was going to do when I took the stairs in the brownstone two at a time. Not even when I hammered at the door of apartment 297. The wood had been slashed and pitted. It had skinned my knuckles when I’d knocked. There was silence. The peephole betrayed a dim light inside and little other sign of life. I punched the door. I kicked it with all the power my drunken legs and Doctor Martin’s finest could muster. And then a shadow swallowed the pin-prick of light in the peephole.

I said, ‘What was her name, eh?’

The silent darkness gave a heavy breath on the other side of the battered wood.

‘What was her name? What was her name you bastard?’

The breathing came in shorter, hurried breaths. But the door stayed fast.

‘Whatever it was,’ I said, fatigue beginning to weigh me down, ‘I hope they get the right one on her headstone. The one she wanted; not the one she had before.’

Sickened and done I turned. I said, almost to myself, ‘If she even gets a stone.’

I had one last glimpse of the black abyss of the peephole, a sightless eye staring into the emptiness of the corridor, as I descended the narrow stairs. And I’d thought my confrontation with a cracked and blistered wooden door hadn’t mattered.

I shook my head and raised the beer bottle to my lips, Hugh giving me a look, then let my hand drop again. First it was just her. Then the poor bastards at the bar. Now The Chief himself. Five people, and I sat drinking with my mate on a fire escape. I was safe as houses. And 16 million kept on going slowly crazy all around me.

I thought of Hugh’s question   Doesnt matter, does it?

I looked across the street at the front of the schoolhouse. The couple had moved on and life was hurrying to and fro in front of the brightly painted little door.

‘No, I suppose it doesn’t,’ I said.

I took another bitter pull on the bottle.



John Steele was born and raised in Belfast, Northern Ireland and has lived wherever they’d take him ever since. He writes mystery and thriller fiction and currently lives in England.


Copyright 2014 John Steele. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!


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