That Time of Year

That Time of Year

By Stephen O’Connor

           I feel like some old engine
         Done lost my drivin’ wheel.
                               -David Wiffin

Rob Rafferty always sat on Billy Gallagher’s right because Billy was nearly deaf now in his left ear. They occupied two high chairs at the long, polished bar of an old establishment, and Billy was reminiscing “One night,” he said, “Dave Crowley and I went out on the town in Newburyport. We started at the Stagecoach Tavern, then shot over to The Grog where Bill Morrissey was playing. We met Red McAlister and Bobby Leclair, guys I worked with on the Driscolls’ boat. We did shots of tequila, smoked a joint out in the parking lot with some babes we met from California. Fun night. Dave and I crashed at his parents’ house in Amesbury. And I remember the next morning, we rolled down for coffee at about 11:00.

“Dave’s father, Bert, was there, just coming in from the porch with his Boston Globe. Dave and I were talking about the night before and laughing, and all of a sudden Bert piped up, ‘You guys don’t even know, do you?’ We had no idea what he was talking about. ‘We don’t know what, Bert?’ And he says, ‘It’s all over. What are you now, twenty-eight, twenty-nine? The days of wine and roses are over, boys. You just don’t know it yet.’”

Billy paused in his story. Stanley, the famously grumpy old school white-aproned day bartender ambled up. His eyes, magnified through black framed glasses, put the question, and Rob nodded and pointed at the two bottles of Bud. He stalked off to the cooler. “Bird never flew on one wing,” Rob reminded his friend.

Billy smiled and continued. “So, like I said, Bert tells us it’s over. ‘It’s all over,’ he said. And you know what? Looking back on it, he was right. That was pretty much the end of it. I never forgot that. It was over, and we didn’t know it.”

“Life is a series of things that are over before you realize it,” Rob agreed. “You remember Timmy McGreavy?”

“Crazy bastard.”

“Only when he was going down hard with the booze.”

Stanley set the two bottles in front of them, mumbled something inaudible and picked up the ten dollars that Rob slid toward him. “Thanks, Robbie,” Billy said.

“Timmy didn’t have a lot of book smarts, but there are lots of kinds of intelligence, and he was smart in a lot of ways. Street smart. Could bullshit with the best of ‘em. Anyway, I remember one day he said to me, ‘Life is like a roll of toilet paper, Robbie. It goes around and around, and then it runs out.’”

Billy chuckled. “Colorful, but true. It ran out for Timmy.”

“Yeah. I miss him,” Rob said. “I feel bad because we had a falling out before he died and had stopped talking to each other. I won’t get into it. Stupid shit. Two stubborn Irishmen. And when I heard he was sick, Tucker Mulligan and I were going to go visit him, and then we found out…”

“The roll ran out.”

“Yeah. And I’ll admit I took a walk out in the woods up in Hollis and I cried. Felt like shit.”

“You two were close,” Billy said. “In the old days.”

Rob finished the first beer and picked up the fresh one. “To the old days,” he said.

They clinked their bottles and Billy said, “Like Rich Danko sang, The good old days, they’re all gone.

Ebenezer Scrooge trudged back and slapped a dollar on the bar. “Thanks, Stanley,” Rob said to his back. “Yeah, the good old days are long gone, Billy, though sitting here, at this old mahogany bar with the fans and the tin ceiling and the bottles in rows there in front of the long mirror, drinking with an old pal, I kind of feel like I’m still there.”

“Sounds like a Twilight Zone episode,” Billy said. “But time is funny like that. Sometimes I’m driving in my car, and I slip in some cd, you know, Procol Harum, or Neil Young, the Band, or Hendrix, and I’m right back there. That feeling you had cruising down 495 to Hampton Beach listening to ‘Born to be Wild.’ It’s like catching a glimpse of something that you can’t hold. Just for a few seconds you get that feeling, and you’re there.”

“Yup. The music brings you right back sometimes.”

They drank. An old timer with rheumy eyes peering out from under the visor of a USS Iowa cap came in, and they gave him a respectful nod. He sat a bit farther down and Stanley poured him a draft without asking what he wanted

“Bert is long gone,” Billy said. “And forty years have passed since then. Twenty years—forty years—it’s all nothing. I left the fishing and put in thirty years on the railroad, and you taught English at the high school all that time. Dave has health issues now. He’s not supposed to drink at all anymore, but he does. The doctor asked him, ‘How much do you drink?’ He says, ‘You don’t want to know. Next question.’”

“That’s Dave Crowley, all right,” Rob said. “I told him he should start trying to walk a couple of miles a day, and he says to me, ‘What, do you want to live forever?’”

“No fear of that. Do you ever stop and think of how many of the guys we knew in the old days are gone?”

“All the time,” Rob said. “All the ones who were into hard drugs are gone, the heavy smokers and heavy drinkers, and then the ones who were just unlucky.”

“I’m starting to feel like one of the last of the Mohicans. Maybe it’s over for all of us, and we just don’t know it.”

“It ain’t over for Keith Richards.”

“You got a point, there, Robbie. Some people are so busy living they just got no time for death.”

Rob nodded, but recalled the lines of Emily Dickinson:

Because I could not stop for death—
He kindly stopped for me.

Billy continued. “Look at Frankie D. He got the bad diagnosis, and just went on like it was nothing until the end. Hell, I thought he was better. That’s what he said, ‘I’m good—getting better.’”

“That’s what we all thought. Only Jay Keenan knew the truth, because as a lawyer, and he was helping him settle his affairs. But he said Frankie never got down. Always the same guy, joking about everything.”

“He was always a funny bastard. Guess he was brave, too. And there’s Marianne Desjardins just died. First girl I ever kissed. It’s weird when you think that women who you’ve kissed or slept with are dead,” Billy said. “I don’t like to think about it.” He shuddered and added, “This death shit really sucks.”

“It’s old age that really sucks,” Rob said. “I was in line at Market Basket the other day with Jen, and this guy was walking out with some unpaid for steaks. The manager tried to stop him and, pow, the guy cold cocks him. And Jen says to me, ‘What are you going to do?’ I said, ‘I’m not gonna do shit! I’m pushin’ seventy! Call 911!’”

“Thirty, forty years ago, yeah. You back up the manager. Tackle the son of a bitch. Probably some skinny drug addict anyway. ”

“I wouldn’t even take on a drug addict. And every year you get more helpless.”

“I’m a fat bastard,” Billy said. “You’re still in good shape.”

“Good shape! A couple of weeks ago I pulled a muscle vacuuming!”

Billy coughed into his beer as he drank and put it down, laughing the same old wheezy laugh, though he had quit smoking years ago. “Old an’ in the way.” He shook his head. “Shit, I remember you and Pat Cote wrestling in Phys Ed. Man, you were like two tigers crashing around and flipping and slamming that mat. I don’t know who won.”

“I think Mr. Buckley stopped it. You know what happened to Cote, right?”

“Crashed a jet in Viet Nam, I heard.”

“It was after Nam. His jet crashed in the Mojave Desert in training. Still a hero in my book.”

“Absolutely. We just missed Viet Nam. Thank God. The guys five to ten years older than us bore the brunt of that catastrophe. Imagine being twenty years old and getting ambushed in some damn jungle on the other side of the world.”

“So, I guess we have no right to complain,” Rob said.

“Yeah, but we’re Americans. We’ll fight for the right to complain.”

“Damn right. So, we made it; we’re retired grandads in heaven’s anteroom. I hope I’m as brave as poor Frankie when the time comes, but I doubt it. Jay says he was making the nurses laugh right up to the edge of the grave.”

Farther down the bar, Stanley was leaning forward, conversing in low tones with the old Navy vet. Rob recalled another WWII sailor he had once spoken with at this same bar decades ago. That veteran had described a scene that  still lived in his memory. “Subic Bay in the sun was so full of ships, I’m telling you, you could have walked across the bay jumping from ship to ship. What a sight! I’ll never forget it. Ships and men as far as you could see.” His old eyes shone as he looked backward into that golden pageant of McArthur’s triumphant return to the Philippines, and the vast flotilla he had seen with young eyes. How many vivid days still lived in the memories of old men and women? It was so true that each person carried a world within. The light of other days, as the poet said, and the darkness, too.

“Oh well,” Billy said. “What’s it all about, Alfie? We’ll never know.”

Late afternoon, a young woman with pink hair and a body illustrated in green and blue ink came in to relieve Stanley, and the world slid back to the current era as a younger crowd arrived. As if to confirm that they had reentered the modern world, Rob’s cell phone went off, and he explained to his wife that he had met Billy Gallagher at Lowe’s and they decided to have a conference over a beer or three. She told him to take his time and to say hi to Billy. She just wanted to make sure he was all right. “Be home soon, honey,” he said.

The young crowd got the juke box going and Billy said, “This music really sucks.”

“Maybe we’ve become like our parents who thought the Beatles and the Stones sucked when they wanted to hear Artie Shaw and Sinatra.”

“No, I think it’s just that this music sucks.”

“Could be,” Rob admitted.

They signaled Stanley and pushed some singles across the bar. He nodded, collecting them, and grumbled, “That one over there says she wants a mow-hee-tow. She starts telling me how to make it. I told her, ‘If you know how to make it so good, go home and make it. This ain’t the lounge.’”

The two men laughed as Stanley went off shaking his gray head, and the illustrated young woman took over behind the bar. They finished their beers and headed out. It was a brilliant day in May. The stone tower of City Hall stood in bold relief against a blue nearly cloudless sky. The old clapboards of the tavern were as dark and stained as they had ever been. Sights that had been immune to the passing years.

“I’ll have to take a nap so I can watch the Celtics tonight,” Billy said.

“This is the year.”

“Take care of yourself, brother.”

Like Steve Stills said, “We have no choice but to carry on.”

They slapped the old hippie handshake and embraced and walked off in different directions.

It was over, and they knew it, Rob thought.

Ah, but the sky, the abiding sun-warmed bricks of the hometown, an old friend, a cold beer, a woman he loved waiting for him, and maybe their children stopping in with a grandchild in tow. Brave old Frankie had it right, for sure. Laugh all the way. Love all the way. Carry on, to the end.

And walking along the timeless streets of home-town memory, he recalled the closing words of the sonnet he had taught to Honors students in an earlier life that was over:

In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.


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