Fresh Bait

By Eliot Garson

orked out easier than I thought, least ways now I’m sitting on this huge-ass Boeing 423l342qk4w224 or whatever the crap number it is. Usually I read the data in the flight mag and safety folder, since flying makes me excited but nervous at the same time. Like, what if the plane goes down? Not this trip, though. Don’t give a crap where the exits are.

Luckily, though I’m fifteen, no one stopped me boarding the plane, hobbling with this bracy thing on my knee and a bandage still on my left hand. Doesn’t hurt to have an Irish passport, either. Passengers with young children or medical kneed—no, “need”—board first. I go, “my ma and da are coming along with the rest of the passengers” and I limp onto the plane.

After a few, this chatty stewardess comes over to me, but she’s not asking where my parents are. When we’re up in the air, she goes: “How d’you get hurt?” and, “Come with me, I’ll move you to first class.” Sweet. If I wasn’t so totally down and with no future, maybe I could flirt. Fantasy huh? My friend Gary’s dream – go with an older girl or even a milf. Yeah, like he wouldn’t feel molested later, he’s so full of bull. But still, kinda nice to get noticed by someone older.

I tell Sonya-the-stewardess “Soccer injury,” and that holds OK. Best probably to stick to that. She sets me up with a Coke and says there’ll be steak later, here in first class. That’s when I realize, like a train just hit me, how hungry I am. Forgot about eating all day. Lately I feel like I’ve become a machine and food has no place in my life. Seems right. But still, got to eat something or keel over. Luckily, Sonya-the-stewardess gives me snacky food with the Coke. Yeah. Fancy cut veggies and a humus kinda dip and crackers too. Another of my boys, Varun, would be set.

But I won’t be seeing them again most likely. Not in this life. Not Varun, Gary or my other close boys, Tommy and Max. Not anyone I’ve ever known since I moved to the States. I could cry somewhere inside me but I feel so numb. When I think on my adopted American mom and dad and little brother, Sam, part of me is screaming also. But, it’s too late for that.

Once my soccer teammate Ethan snuck me into his parents’ travel shop and printed my ticket on the sly, there was no backing down for me. Well, I did pay a crap load of money, but still. It’s not like Ethan tried to talk me out of it. Guess the chance of fame in the soccer finals is all that matters to him, since now he can take my slot. Least I still have about a thou left, though, of the money I’d saved up.

OK, since it was a rush to catch the plane, I should give Ethan that, since he drove me to the airport for an extra thirty. But no, I won’t be missing Ethan.

My mind spins round like a soccer ball and I watch it get kicked by all these thoughts. Here’s another one: it’s a good thing I talk to myself sometimes when no one’s around, so I can still use my real voice. So far, none of the airline people look at me twice with me speaking my true accent. Must be I’m still Irish to them.

But what about to me? Feel American thru and thru, and proud of it too. Guess none of that’s true anymore, though. I’ve always been Irish underneath, so that’ll be my life, I suppose. Live and die Irish, like my real parents. Now I know that it’s been a mistake, trying to start my life over. I’ve got fate to attend to.

* * *

Need my ticket and passport numbers to trade my George Washingtons for Euros at the exchange. Well, that’s that. So now I’m officially in Ireland on the government computers, so if dad’s right, I’m screwed. He’s always said it wouldn’t be safe for me to be in Ireland, ’cause whoever killed my Irish parents and aunt could find me. We’ll see. Anyway, this time, that’s the point. But I just want to get used to being in Ireland a couple of days before everything crashes. Don’t have much chance of surviving after putting myself out there as bait. But who knows? Maybe this plan of mine will work and I’ll outsmart them.

Dublin’s way cooler than I could imagine. And colder, Jesus. Good thing I have my ski jacket to wear over my hoodie. On the free shuttle I hopped from the airport to the Hilton in town, the air conditioning was on for some Eskimo reason, or maybe the heat was broken. So I hang out in the Hilton a couple to warm up, change clothes in the downstairs’ lobby bathroom, sleep an hour on a couch in the lounge before the security guard gives me a “What’s up?”

Haven’t been in Ireland since I was Sam’s age, or maybe a year older, so I want to soak in just a bit of this land I’ve always dreamt about, before I face death. But, I don’t think this is going to work out too well. I mean, truth is, it’s pretty damn lonely by myself. Walk around Trinity College campus, look for a friendly face, but nobody even meets my eye. Probably I look like a kid to the college students.

I meander down a side street by the campus as the sun’s setting. Maybe find a youth hostel. But the stained-glass window in a chapel at the end of the block is lit up from the inside, beckoning me with its beauty. Climb the steps to the big oak door, give it a pull, enter into a small sanctuary. Empty. Walk down the center aisle, drawn towards the pulpit where Gold Jesus hangs from a large wooden cross. Even lonelier in here . . . wonder how it is for Him? Anybody visit anymore? But, I remember about the crisis in the Church: charges of sexual abuse in Europe and now in Ireland too. Just like Philly…maybe I should book?

Glance around the sanctuary and at the vaulted ceiling, pull my jacket tighter. Drafty in here, but not as cold as it is outside. The flirty stewardess on the plane told me that an unusual cold snap hit Ireland – she wasn’t kidding.

Can hear the old pin drop: the squeak of my Vans as I walk across the marble floor sounds sacrilegious, so I slump down onto a pew to figure things out. After a bit, lay my head against Maddie’s messenger bag. Sleepy…can’t let myself fall asleep here . . . too on edge. But, jet lag’s a killer.

* * *

So warm, no, hot – burning up! Wake with a gasp . . . Church sanctuary . . . wooden pew. Slowly sit up, fling back an itchy wool blanket. How’d that get here? I’m covered in sweat; hair plastered to my face, clothes feel like dish rags. If this place was a refrigerator last night, now it’s a sauna.

Footsteps coming. Swing my feet off the bench, see I’ve got only one sneaker on, the other fallen to the floor. Reach for it, start to pull it on, when a shadow crosses me. I look up, right into the face of a man. He holds out a cup of something steaming, but pulls it back as he takes me in.

“Perhaps not a hot drink, eh? When I found you here las’ night, y’were sleepin’ on that pew, shaking so badly with the cold, I laid that blanket over ya. Turned the furnace up likewise, but I’m guessin’ too high.”

I say “Thanks.” His voice sounds Scottish, maybe something else, but not Irish. “Well, no worries,” he goes, “we’ll see ta a shower fer ya after we put a bit of brekky in ya.”

Try to shove my foot into my sneaker, but it’s not giving. Have to unlace it. Look up at him again, notice his white collar and robe. Young guy, maybe thirty? “Sorry, don’t know what happened. I was so tired, I just fell asleep. Didn’t mean to.” I watch his face, he smiles at me friendly-like, not pervy or anything. “I’ll be out of here in a minute.” “No, no,” he goes. “Brekky comes with the tab, so y’shood eat. Father Michael can’t send ya home to yer ma lightheaded due to not havin’ any scrummy. Come on, got some lovely batch bread in the kitchen.”

Feel so awkward. I keep a distance from him as I follow thru the sanctuary and pass thru a door to his private quarters. I make sure the door doesn’t lock behind me as I step right into a small kitchen. He’s already at the counter, cutting up a loaf of bread. “A handsome cheddar turned up here.” “Thanks,” I go. “Sorry about putting you, uh, and Father Michael to trouble.” He turns around to me, grinning: “Well, as I’m Father Michael, I say there’s nothin’ to it. Now ya want to wash up, take a shower before ya eat? Right over there.” He points at an open door. “I’ve got a private loo. By the time yer out, I’ll have this banquet set up.” He watches me hesitate. I look towards the door he’s pointing to, notice with relief it has a lock on it, so he can’t bust in on me. “Thanks, great.”

I’m back in the kitchen in under five – don’t want to press my luck with this priest by taking a shower. But, once I’ve washed up at the sink, wet down my brown hair from sticking out all over, and put on clean clothes, I feel good to go.

Father Michael does have quite a feast on when I come back into the kitchen. Cheese slices on a serving plate, some kind of flour-dusted bread, fancy-looking jams and a tall glass of milk set out for me. At first I feel self-conscious digging in, but I see him lay up a plateful too. I’m about to take a bite of the cheese sandwich I put together, when the priest lifts a finger, says we have to ask the Lord’s blessing. Just like I’ve seen Gary’s dad do, the priest places his hands together, recites a blessing over the food. Same kinda thing as at Max’s house too, but without the hand bit. I catch on that thought, about Max and all. Gary. Appetite flees.

“Dig in, lad,” the priest says. His face turns serious, questions me with his eyes. “It’s all right, I was jus’ teasing ya about the bill for staying over on that downy bed.” He winks, breaks into a grin again. “Of course I’m not expectin’ any money, so go ahead and share my lot.” I thank him, glance at a wooden clock sitting on the kitchen table, see it’s just about six in the morning. Whoa, why up so early?

But I don’t get to ask that because Father Michael takes over. Damn, he’s observant. First thing, he says he wanted me to wake up early so I wouldn’t be embarrassed if parishioners show up for morning mass. Then he quick tosses me questions about everything. Like, why was I not home last night? Who’s my ma and da? Shouldn’t I be ringing them up? How old am I? He doesn’t push when I won’t answer most of the questions, but just stare at him with a blank look, trying to not give anything away.

I don’t know. Can’t bring myself to lie to a priest. But like I said, he’s smart and reads the situ well. He tells me that being a kid on my own in this city can be a hard thing. That if I don’t have a family to go back home to, I just have to tell him and he’ll help me find a safe place to stay. And anyway, I should come with him to mass. So I do.

After mass, which is kinda interesting and not that different from ones I’ve been to back in the States, I join the line of parishioners to shake Father Michael’s hand. All seven parishioners. Most of them are walk-with-a-cane types, but to be fair, it isn’t Sunday. Anyway, they greet me like maybe I’m their long-lost grandson or great-grandson, but the way they’re milling about the priest gives me a chance to say a quick good-bye to him. I figure this way he won’t be able to grill me as I leave, but when he shakes my hand, his eyes drill right thru mine anyway. Finally, make my way out while a chirpy old lady distracts Father Michael.

I start off on a long day of wandering without any real direction. OK, I do pass the waterfront, the train station and tons of office buildings before I take in enough of this spread-out city to realize how lame I am for not having a better plan. Or, at least a map. Of course what I really want to visit is Temple Bar, but I must have made a wrong turn after leaving the church and got all turned about. It’s late afternoon when I finally figure out the direction to walk. Hope I’ll meet some cool kids at Temple Bar, find out where to hang out. Maybe someone will even have an idea where I can crash for the night, since I’m not going to sleep on that pew again.

Anyway, I’ve been dreaming of Temple Bar for years, ever since I got the poster showing a row of colorful pubs lined up, one after the other. Mom took me to a bookstore that was shutting down, back in Wynnewood, outside Philly, where I bought the poster. I asked mom to buy it for me, to hang on the wall over my bed. She goes, “You know what a pub is, Tyler?” Must have been kinda lame back then ’cause I didn’t, but I told her I wanted the poster anyway, since it said “Ireland” on it. She said “No.”

I moped until we got to the checkout line with the books she was buying for me, to try to get me to become a better reader. But that’s mom. She gives way because she can’t say no very well to the people she loves. So the sales guy bags the boring books, and mom says, “We’ll take the Temple Bar poster too.”

I did become a better reader though.

* * *

I follow the brightly colored signs to a nice park, St. Stephen’s Green, before I go on to Temple Bar. Along the way, I get a good laugh, watching a couple of cops try to catch a group of kids skateboarding thru the park. One guy, wearing a funny green cap, ollies. Shows no fear, just kickflips his board in front of a cop inches away. Greencap lands it, kicks off, and races out of reach of the copper. The kids laugh as they skate away down a slopey street called Grafton, lined with fancy shops on it.

Streetlights click on, darkness drops fast. At least the shops are still open with lights on too. I’m wishing I had my board as I head down the same street as the skaters, towards Temple Bar. Finally, I find the scene. It’s maybe 40 degrees Fahrenheit, but that doesn’t stop a mob of young people from hanging outside the pubs at Temple Bar, perching on curbs, sidewalks, calling out, noisy as hell. It’s great.

Passing by a mob of drunken people on the street, I hear the familiar clunk of skateboard on pavement. To my left, up at the top of the steps of a closed bank, the skaters I saw before are goofing around. Greencap stands out. Sounds like he’s having a blast, reliving the story of running from the cops, even though he’s bragging to the same bunch of guys that were at the great escape minutes before with him. He pulls his cap off while he’s talking, runs his hand thru long, blond-red hair that drops to his shoulders, slams the cap back on his head. The ends of his hair look like he dyed it black once, and now it’s growing out to match the blond scraggly scruff on his face.

How come I feel shy walking over? It’s just a bunch of skaters, for Christ’s sake. Not like it’s any big deal for me, I got cred with my abilities. OK, so I feel out a place, but still, I’m not going to back down.

“Hey,” I go, and sit on the stairs near some of the guys. Greencap stands up, leans against the big metal bank door, one foot playing with his board. Reminds me of Max. I go blank with pain, but check it into the back of my mind. Have to read things right here.

Gets quiet a moment. No one says anything, stare me up and down. Greencap speaks up finally, must be the alpha dude. “Where’s your board, lad?” I think in a rush, “Is he testing me or is it a welcome he’s offering, calling me lad?” But he smiles, and doesn’t sound snarky-fake like Ethan can. I tell him I don’t have it with me, wish I did. Next, it’s a back and forth with the other boys about what I can do, checkin’ out if I know what I’m talking about. Hear Irish slang words I don’t know, living all these years in the States. Guess I’m pulling it off, but Greencap, his face saying “I don’t trust you,” hands over his board. I can tell from the silence that I’m supposed to show them what I’ve got, prove I’m not just some fruit-booter . . . Wonder if my knee will hold.

It’s not pretty, I can see in the half-light from the streetlamps, this board, but knocked about as it should be. Got proper pop to it and good trucks. OK, go for broke. I’ll grind the banister for a railslide and then hit a shifty ollie on the next level like Greencap did, but round it off one better with a quick Japan Air. My knee screams at me as I undo with one brainless, show-off move any improvement I’ve gained since I got cleat-kicked at the soccer game against Greyloche. Anyway, my stupidity brings some praise from these skating vets and I feel proud when they want me to teach my moves to them. Instead, thank God, Greencap wants to one-up me, takes his board back and lands a nailslide. I sit down, squeeze my knee with my hands, try to line the kneecap up the way it should be. Shit.

I tell him his move’s great, and soon they’re all in it, showing off one after the other, but I notice everyone is way def to Greencap. Finally, one big dude crashes on a simple 50/50 grind and Greencap calls a halt. He bends over the crasher like a doctor, checks out the hand the kid landed on, tells him it’s nothing.

Greencap sits down and everyone cools it. Pulls out a doobie, already rolled. “Hey, fancy some spliff with us yokes?” He lights the doobie, kinda thinner than a Philly blunt, but thicker than a joint. Wonder what it is . . . Greencap takes a deep pull, passes it to me next. I can smell the tobacco in it, mixed in with weed. The rest of the guys size me up again, I bet wondering how high up their pecker order I’ll land. Hear the heavy kid mutter, “Culchie,” under his breath to the boy with stringy, dirty hair next to him.

I don’t smoke pot really, and never tobacco. Well, that was yesterday. Take a drag, try to hold it before I hack my brains out. Between coughs, I try to cover with a question to Greencap: “Why’d that lad call me culchie?” Pass the spliff on to other willing hands.

Greencap stares the heavy kid down until he pops under pressure. Greencap goes: “Better a muching culchie than an eejit.” Greencap frowns at him, turns to me. “Anyone can see yer not a Dubliner. Piddle don’ mean any harm.”

I’m still figuring my next words when he says: “I’m Robin. What do we call ya?”

Floors me. Just a simple question and I’m taken back to why I’m here. What is my real name, anyway? “Kevin,” I go for now. The guys mumble their names, say they’re all at college here in Dublin, and what about me? Look over their faces in the dim light, think they don’t look much older than me. “College” could mean high school in Ireland, I think. Still, I push off their questions. The whole time, Robin Greencap eyes me, trying to figure me out.

“You a gippo?” he says. “Huh?” “Scarper. Run away from home?”

Feel the pot and tobacco twirling my brain, even though I had just two hits, unlike the lot of them. Want to protect myself, but I don’t know what from. It’s not like these guys will turn me in. Finally, I nod my head about being a runaway, and some of the guys whistle, both at that and at Robin figuring it out. “How long?” he goes. “A few days.” “True,” he answers. And he tells me my clothes, being fresh enough, give me away. Luckily, I don’t look like a street person, or smell like one. At least not yet.

After a bit, Robin stops trying to feel me out and announces we’re all going into a pub to have a jar. – A what? Must mean beer. I’m in trouble if I don’t get these words straight. We head out, pass several fine-looking pubs and I ask Robin why we don’t go into them. He stops dead, pulls my shoulder back and basically rips me down. “No way y’can get served? Like, yer not eighteen, right? Thought so,” he goes, when I shake my head. Then he asks me why I limp, and I tell him I got hurt playing soccer. He can see the bandage on my hand too. Frowns.

We enter a smaller pub. One of the guys, Andy, says he’s not eighteen either, so no worries, the bartender won’t care here, long as we’ve got cash. And he’s right. Pretty soon, we’re served a couple of pitchers of dark Guinness and plates of burgers and French fries, which they call “chips.” Finally, I’m hungry again; haven’t been since the church. Must be the pot. The guys joke a lot, just like in the States, about girls, school. Other kids. What strikes me curious is that whenever one of the boys asks me a question that I won’t answer, Robin starts off in another direction, letting me off the hook. He goofs around with his cap, twirls it on a finger. “Cool cap,” I go. He answers, “Me good luck cap.”

After a bit, the lads start to go home and there’s only Robin, me, and a kid named Frankie. I go off to the bathroom and Robin follows. When we come back to the table, I catch Frankie digging in my messenger bag. “Hey,” I go. “What are you doing?” Grab the bag from him, the kid just laughs. He holds my crinkled ticket from Philadelphia in his hand and I grab it from him. “Heh, that ticket,” he goes. “That’s from the States, right?”

“What if it is? Why you in my bag, knacker?” Don’t know where that word comes from, guess some of my Irish is coming back from when I was six. I glance from Frankie to Robin. Frankie mumbles, “Where’s the friggin’ bog?” and heads off. I re-stuff my bag with my extra clothes. Robin goes, “Hey mate, Frankie’s had a lot of gargle. He’s just langered.”

“Right.” I pat my pockets, thankful my cash and passport are in my pants. “I’m off. Thanks.” Zip up my hoodie, pull on my ski jacket. Robin goes on about how you’ve got to forgive a drunk lad and where am I goin’ anyway and where am I going to crash? I just say thanks and I’m out the door.

* * *

Face feels frozen to whatever it’s attached to. Someone says some name . . . my Irish name, Kevin. I hear another voice go, “Yo, fella, what are sleeping here, this look like a bed t’you?” Pull myself up. Jeez, a park bench . . . St. Stephen’s Green. Copper stands over me, his arms crossed. “Y’not been drinkin’, have you? I sh’run ya in.”

Rub my eyes awake. Feel like an icicle, my body shaking like a car with bad timing. Lips must be blue. Robin Greencap stands behind the cop, comes over and says, “He’s a’right, sir, he’s m’little brother. I’m late catching him from studying.” Robin grabs my frozen arm and pulls me up, his skateboard under his other arm. Oh-oh. Hope the cop doesn’t start asking about Robin being a skateboarder, but that was hours ago, I think. Must have jet lag. Got no idea what time it is.

The cop walks away and Robin goes, “Mary, mother of God,” and rubs my hands. “Y’wantta die yer first night in Dublin?” He drags me along till he sees I’m limping again. “Oh yeah. Come on, there’s a cafe open.”

Back on Grafton, we find a booth in the back of the cafe. The sudden heat makes me feel like my skin’s on fire, so I peel down to my T-shirt. A waitress comes along and Robin orders us coffees. Keeps his eyes on her butt when she walks off. She is pretty.

I go, “How did you find me?” He smirks. “What, didn’t ya want me to? Was mindin’ me business walkin’ home from Temple, when I just seen ya layin’ there. Lucky I chanced on ya, garda would have had ya in the clink. Or some perv would have found ya too juicy to leave y’be.”

“Thanks,” I say. Coffee arrives and Robin watches the woman’s ass again when she walks away down the aisle. “Anyway, y’d be frozen dead by morning” “Might be,” I answer. “How come it’s so cold out?” Robin says, “Not usual, is’t?”

We sit not talking a bit. Warm my hands on the coffee mug, though the pins and needles burn as I come alive again. “What are y’going to do, lad?” he pops in all of sudden. “Don’t know,” I answer. “Are they going to come lookin’ for ya?”

I finish the coffee. What’s he figuring? “Yeah, probably. Don’t know how soon.” “Y’were in the States?” “Uh-huh.” He slides back against the bench he’s sitting on till his long legs bump mine. He doesn’t bother to move them. “You leave ’cause of trouble?” I nod. “Is’t over?” I shake my head “No.” “So what are ya goin ta do?”

We order more coffee. Must drink it like water here. Feel all revved up – don’t have to worry about sleeping the rest of the night. “I have to go to Kilkenny.” Look him in the eye. “I’m going tomorrow, or today if it’s almost morning.”

“Tis.” He takes a deep breath, pulls off his cap, twirls it on his finger. His blond-red hair is pressed tight to his head and ears. “Yer going to need this,” he goes, and hands me his green cap.

 

___

Eliot Garson is a clinical psychologist with a practice in Princeton Junction, New Jersey. He has written several articles for journals in his field and spent a number of years as a Community Fellow at Princeton University. His work has appeared in Clarion.


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