AN INVITATION TO THE GULLS
July 15, 2022
by Michael Thériault
First the snapping of the metal bits that hold the screw cap to the collar. Slowed down, deeper by it, amped up, it might be pealing of bells; joy down street and sidewalk. Slowed a bit more, their tolling.
Then the smell, more of fruit than of the grain. Should be an acceptable form of fruit in the diet. Next time the doctor tells me, “Sean, cut back,” that’ll be my line.
Agnes honey-hair skin so fair bought the tumblers, French things, widening bottom to top with a little wave midway; the wave because, why? Because they’re French. I called her on this; pushed my nose up with a finger; airs. I was grinning. She wasn’t.
But the Jameson’s looks good in one.
And tastes as good coming from it.
A bottle a voyage, the waves maybe no higher than the French tumbler’s, or maybe monstrous gray walls, like on the Potato Patch on a big ebb out the Gate, and the gulls screaming overhead. At bottle’s end, what shore?
Key thing is, no distractions. Television and radio off, Chronicle stuffed away in the recycling bag, phone in another room, on silent. Bottle, glass, table: Simple a simple song. And so a sip my burning lip.
Old Ben, odds are he’s like this, alone at his own table, not four blocks away. Ben lost his wife, then after the burial below in the earth in the earth below cursed the priest for saying something he didn’t like, which was probably something priests always say. Gianni says Ben cursed God Himself. A man gets like that, you worry for what he could do to himself. We did. Then Ben stopped coming to the café, and we worried more.
My idea to send young Danilo to check on him. All the rest of us in the café bunch are old, retired bastards; most older than me, but still, we’d had years working for Public Works then years of morning coffees to get on each other’s nerves, Ben’s included. Danilo in his prime, retirement far from mind, till the accident busted him up. I thought, Ben might feel something for him, young handsome wrecked, and talk.
Didn’t work. Danilo came back and all he could tell us was Ben was alive but didn’t want to see him. Danilo kicked himself for not trying harder to bring Ben out. The guys joined the kicking.
I stopped them. I got it. Ben is entitled to sit alone at his kitchen table, like this; a man joined is entitled to have the taste of his loss riven to himself.
Agnes’s head between my big hands.
The honey of her hair
Was balm to my burning lips.
And I kissed her forehead next, tasted the tang of it, between those hands, below that honey-colored hair, then reached down and pinched her big beautiful rump, just to hear her squeal.
Rough as I ever got with her or would ever get. Joined, riven.
But, sweet Jesus, the moment a man’s head snapped back from my fist! I lived for that, charge of it all down my vertebrae, the few years I had in the ring, and got so little of it. Too little patience for the real science; my feet so, no, so, no, so. We who have fought. Tasted my own blood; there’s a taste of loss. We who have fallen. And smelled it; smell of rust.
Jameson’s a wash for the taste and smell then, for memory of them now.
And saw my blood and blood of others, mixed, go to dark jelly. I could go all mystic:
The blood of the fallen soldier
Mixes with that of his foe.
They who have fought as though riven
Are joined in the earth below.
But in the ring, in the end, it’s just a mess. Mop, bucket, away it goes.
“Christ, you’re messy,” Agnes said. She was right. Piss on the toilet bowl rim. Ring of beard shavings in the sink. Bed sheets undone crumpled where I’d thrashed around in sleep. Somehow, big as I am, I managed not to touch her in my thrashing, even when dreaming of giving or taking a pounding.
Or she managed to stay away.
“But you love me anyway.” Line never worked on her, but I liked the dark look it got.
Flowers got a sweeter look. She liked irises in spring. Alstro…. Alstorem…. Peruvian lilies anytime, I guess. Roses likewise. Winter, roses come by plane from Colombia. Colombia knows blood knows scholar and brute. Eire made its mark in South America. Bernardo O’Higgins, hero of Chile, bastard son of an Irish viceroy of Peru. And my cousin Tom, he had business in Cartagena sometimes. I never asked what. Had a couple of good guesses. I’m sure Belfast had various appetites then. His mark in Cartagena, if he left one…. Hot place, cold man; at home, he’d put a bullet in a woman quick as in a man, they said, and in a man anytime.
At home, did he wash the smell of blood away with this? Did he need to?
I am not that, not cold, was never. The guys at the café think I might be. Let them. I’ve shown them the picture with Gerry Adams. I look like a godforsaken slab of beef next to him, slender as he is. His glasses, beard full of white – he could be a kindly professor; me, a knucklehead bent on havoc.
And brute and scholar joined their voices in
A single song of Irish unity.
“Would you like your picture taken with Gerry?” says the little round man come to our table. I’d talked my way into a union delegation from California for the hundredth anniversary of the Rising – nice job of talking, only Carpenter in the crew – and we were at a Dublin banquet with Sinn Féin. I fell in line to smile with Gerry; all he would ever know of me.
In line again that Easter Sunday, one of three lines, down each side of the street and the middle, in Belfast, marching to Milltown Cemetery. Helicopter over the Unionist side of the wall down the town, another over ours, drone following us. I held up a fist for the crowds and the drone. Three little girls, fresh lilies in scout uniforms, crossed before me as I read names on the cemetery’s County Antrim Memorial; read, DIED ON ACTIVE SERVICE, and DIED ON HUNGER STRIKE. ASSASSINATED – I could not have banged on a door in the night and shot the man who opened it, let alone a woman.
Not even with a bottle of this in me.
But I could want a fair fight. Dreams of that, too, had me thrashing in bed.
Although, SHOT DEAD BY CROWN FORCES, or even INJURIES RECEIVED IN LONG KESH: That would have killed my ma, already left alone except for me.
She and my da married after forty, both of them not long over here, far from sister, brother, cousin, and I was their one and only. He went right into the Carpenters when he landed, Boston first, then San Francisco. Swung a hammer until his heart blew out on the job.
I followed him into the trade, but that ending wasn’t for me. In toil no joy to hold this boy.
Agnes told me I shouldn’t retire so young. “You’ll drive yourself goofy,” she said, “and me.”
Not the first time I didn’t listen to her.
Fair-skinned the feel of that big girl in my arms, pressed against me her hips: That’s what could drive me goofy.
My joy was her skin so fair,
My dream her swaying hips.
So to keep some distance, and myself myself, I argued with her. Not that I didn’t get my jollies from arguing anyway. She could give as good as she got, too, coming from a big family, six sisters and a brother.
That poor joe, I watched how those women ran him around. That wasn’t going to be me.
Me: “Don’t wash the overalls. They fall apart faster if you wash them.”
“But they stink.”
“Then get them out of the house.”
“They help pay the mortgage and fill the fridge. They stay in the house.”
We could keep a good tiff going an hour or better.
“No Thanksgiving at your sister’s this year.”
“But we go every year.”
“Not this one.”
“Exactly, why?” And because I knew she’d always wanted to go, “Let’s do Hawaii, instead.”
“Why then, Hawaii?”
“I get a four-day weekend. I’ll take a few extra days.”
“That’s not your only one.”
And on and on, and we went to her sister’s anyway, and never made Hawaii.
She never gave me grief about this here, the drink; but then, there was less of it then.
One of the guys – Gianni – says you don’t see gulls in Hawaii. Plenty here; Dublin, too. Is the sky quieter without them? Not for me, that warm beach and blue sea stuff. An odd quiet, it would be.
Like the quiet of this place without that woman, her television shows, clanking at the stove, long phone calls with sisters. Noise completes a place; a place is lacking without it.
How can old Ben stand it? You can curse God only so long, then He answers with quiet.
But at least you can hear a glass being filled.
“You scare me,” she said.
What was the argument about? Money, sure. Three straight days packages came she’d ordered online: That. I got too into it; no real science, no technique in the argument. My voice maybe bigger, my face redder even than usual under my great pelt of gray. Slammed a paw on the table. That was when she took a step backward, and a new look came on her face.
Stopped me cold.
“I would never,” said I, “never touch a hair on your head.”
When I came into the house next day, back from the guys and the café, no sound.
I phoned all her sisters, even her brother. “Not here.” “Not here.” Finally I said to one, “I just need to know if she’s okay.”
“Better than ever,” she said.
Better than at the show, the blue glow of it on her face, her hand on my knee. Better than in the sun at Stern Grove, wine in the tumblers, the dark trees beautiful all round, their tops dancing in the breeze, and onstage the opera stars belting out Italian:
Andiam, andiam, mio bene,
A ristorar le pene
D’un innocente amor.
Better than her toes warming themselves against me under the sheets as wind shakes the windows and rain beats on the roof.
I am a thing to be feared.
Better than arms full of flowers. Deck me in flowers, can’t hide that I’m a slab of beast. Ben, lucky man, lost his wife to the cancer, and can sit in his quiet kitchen and curse God, not himself.
Damage to men’s skulls, my joy. My dream, guns in the fray. The great gray roaring wall of water: I am that thing.
Enough of this quiet. Enough. Out the door.
And let the gulls scream overhead.
Michael Thériault has been an Ironworker, union organizer, and union representative at various levels. He published fiction in his twenties, half a dozen stories in literary magazines, then abandoned it for decades to support first a family, then a movement. In his recent return to it he has published in Pacifica Review and been accepted for publication in Iconoclast. "An invitation to the Gulls" is another product of this return.