Funereal Ditty – Tom Gaffney
It is not fair to a trip really. They never get over what is at their root and it is not their fault. The responsibility for a misshapen nature belongs to the idea in the mind of the traveler who sets all this in motion. It would be easy to extend this view further, to all the people and forces that make, shall we say, such a trip possible. And it is not fair to the place to hold it responsible for the events of a wretched evening. Perhaps it is in a certain group ethos we possess, us, children of Long Island and the 70s and 80s. More particularly, the South Shore, and Islip town in particular.
In search of a certain economy, a necessity really, I had booked the red eye from Seattle to JFK. And keeping with the mood of my return to Suffolk County I had prepared for departure with a couple of shots of Tequila while making my way to the train and the plane.
The night had been uneventful enough, aside from a nightmare – I think it was a nightmare – which I woke from, forgetting I had the red-eye eye mask on, terrified of what I was buried in. Peeling the mask away and feeling incredibly parched and dismally aware that I had only succeeded in sleeping for forty five minutes. I spent the next few hours staring, hopelessly awake, at the screen in front of me. The only thing truly unbearable was the commercials, which I refused to watch, flicking endlessly away from them made sure I ended up watching nothing at all.
Next thing I knew I was shaving in the bathroom at the Jet Blue terminal in JFK, standing next to the man with the huge head who I had roused from sleep at the gate. Without me he might not have made it. I waited for a stall so I could change my clothes in a membrane of privacy. From there a couple of trains left me standing on a corner outside the train station in Islip.
There I was, in all my glory, ready to celebrate the life of our old friend Billy Sheehan, a neighborhood icon who had helped inaugurate us into adult life, via jobs on the Irish pub circuit, and making sure that none of us ever got carded at his bar. All of that was long ago. Half of the old crew had been through rehab, several of them twice, and those of us who hadn’t had wised up a bit, at least enough to have us somewhat functional and healthy at this point in our lives.
Billy had lived a full life and we were all gathering for the funeral before he was shipped home to be buried at the cemetery in Milltown.
Niall and Liam pulled up to give me a ride home to their mom’s, and would in all likelihood be driving me around from event to bar to event until my flight left on Sunday morning. They felt it a shame that I had missed the wake of the previous evening. I let them know that the flight had left me feeling like I had been at a wake. They seemed to be getting along just fine.
The two of them were born fighters. But one of them had grown up and settled down while the other was leading a poisonous life marching from hangover to hangover, leaving behind his boyhood good looks. Niall looked forty five, maybe even fifty, but he was still in his mid-thirties. His formerly handsome face did not tell a goodnight story. Liam was the opposite: a settled businessman who knew how to have fun, work hard, and be a good spouse and dad. And that drove Niall crazy. The thing that Niall hated most about Liam wasn’t just Liam’s success but his generosity. Or you could say just his plain old happiness.
Another way to put it was the things that make most people happy, especially when their youth is behind them, did not make Niall happy. He had been a ladies man. Had had more than one good job. No shortage of chances. His family had picked him up after so many problems. The most recent his oxy habit, which everyone spoke openly about. And according to all of them, was behind him now. Most of all, Liam didn’t judge Niall. He was there for him: no nonsense, but not giving up either. Liam was steady, that’s what he did.
The funeral went off, no big deal. It was a day like the old days, where you felt like you did not come to life until mass was over, night had fallen, and you were sipping on a pint. We had a roaring time, singing old tunes and new – from a Soldier’s Song to Galway Girl. It was lovely to see them all. I was chastised for not having the whole family with me and teased for my increased girth. Half of the group couldn’t believe I was not planning to move back.
The real trouble began to express itself with whiskeys that started being ordered around midnight. Everything had gone famously until then. For me personally I was now fully aware that I was a mess. Still smart enough to be relieved to know that I could walk back to the couch at Mrs. Flaherty’s. I caught sight of Niall standing, red faced, yelling something about “not taking shit like that from his baby brother.” Liam looked like he was ready for him, and they made towards the door, painfully, to take it outside.
Now, I’d seen the two of them fight before, but not in twenty years. In their youth Niall had been the better fighter: he certainly had more experience. But Liam was nobody’s baby now, and had a couple of inches and twenty pounds on his big brother.
Perhaps it would have all been postponed if the whiskey had not started to flow. Perhaps it would have been worse if it was postponed any further. It seemed then like they had always been destined to have it out. But the bouncer at Lily’s did not see it that way. And unfortunately Niall had a bottle in has hand when he went outside. Liam never had to hit anyone. But he did get to see his windshield smashed. And saw the remains of the bottle hurled at him, missing, and cracking the beautiful painted window at Lily’s.
Fortunately the bouncer had a sense of restraint, and Niall only had to take one to the gut, and one to the face before he was under control. As we all know, or should guess, getting arrested is, at the least, an administrative nightmare. And a party killer.
We walked home to Mrs. Flaherty’s, quietly. There were some somber drinks in the dining room, and then I took my rest on the couch. I was several minutes awake before it all came back to me. Hungover and sad at the relief I felt to be going home. A carb heavy breakfast and I was back on the train. Before I knew it I was standing in personal haze outside the Jamaica station hailing a gypsy cab for JFK.
I put my faith in the driver. I did not know the way to the airport.