Aloysius the Great Excerpt III, by John Maxwell O’Brien
John Maxwell O’Brien is an emeritus professor of history (Queens College, CUNY)) who has written numerous articles on ancient history, medieval history, and the history of alcoholism. His best-selling biography, Alexander the Great: The Invisible Enemy (Routledge), has been translated into Greek and Italian and he authored the article on alcoholism in the Oxford Classical Dictionary. Professor O’Brien’s second life has been devoted to his first love, creative writing. Professor O’Brien’s poems have appeared or will appear shortly in Literary Yard, Hedgehog Poetry Press (where his poem was shortlisted in the Cupid’s Arrow contest), IthacaLit, The Southwest Poetry Review, and the Irish Poetry Corner of Irish Arts & Entertainment. A short story of his is in the current issue of Kaleidoscope and he has just finished a debut novel entitled Aloysius the Great, an extract from which appears below. Professor O’Brien is now looking for a suitable publishing home for his novel.
“So, it’s Ensign Ewart, not Hughes, huh? Who was this Ewart?”
My chubby, flush-faced taxi driver responds with a spirited soliloquy. “He was a lad from Kilmarnock who enlisted in the Scots Greys around the time of Napoleon and became a sergeant. At Waterloo, the Greys and the Gordon Highlanders faced the French Forty-Fifth, the ‘Invincibles,’ as the frogs called them. The Scottish lads were champing at the bit to get at them, and when the officers finally let them loose, they rode at the French line screaming, ‘Scotland Fore ere,’ scaring the French out of their fookin lace skivvies. Ewart went straight for the French standard bearer, cut his way through a half dozen of the bastards, snatched their eagle and carried it up on high back to the regiment. They gave him the Waterloo medal, and after that it wasn’t just the fookin officers who got medals, but men from the ranks—the ones who did all the dirty work.”
“You should teach history. You’re better than the ones who get paid to do it. Is Ewart’s grave around here? I enjoy rummaging through old cemeteries and looking at epitaphs.”
“Well, it used to be at the castle, which is only a stone’s throw from the pub. But it’s in Midlothian now until they fix it up and bring him back. His spirit’s in the pub, though, and they’ve got mementos of what I’ve been telling you about. In fact, here we are now. Hoist one in his honor while you’re there.”
“I shall. And I’ll hoist one in your honor, as well.” I tip him with a couple of pound notes for his recital, and he shouts at my back, “You’re fookin officer material, you are, laddie.”
Mountjoy said this pub is on one of the highest hills in Edinburgh. Get a load on and roll all the way home. Not this time, old boy. Controlled drinking is the order of the day.
Ensign Ewart’s pub is brimming with memorabilia. It looks like a cross between a museum and a ritzy pub. The barkeep seems affable enough. I’ll ask for advice.
“What would you recommend, to wet the whistle, my good man?”
“Well, if you’re one for ales, have a lick at our Deuchars IPA.”
I drain the schooner. “Yes sir. That does the trick all right, and it’s not as stale as some of the lagers down south.”
“Our beer is hand-pumped up from the cellar. There’s a difference, you know.”
“Now I do. It looks like you’ve got three more kinds there. Let’s have a taste of each in turn if you don’t mind.”
“Here’s some wee glasses, if you want a sampling.”
I drink them in rapid succession. “Well, they’re good except for the last one. It doesn’t have much life in it.”
He agrees. “It tastes like dishwater. That’s the one you Americans usually rave about. But I can see you’re a man who knows his way around a tap.”
“I’ve drained a jar or two in my time, but I’m trying to keep an eye on myself. I’ve been known to get carried away on occasion.”
“It’s many a good man’s fault. Who hasn’t had a night or two he’d rather forget?”
“Nobody I’m comfortable with. I’m only passing through Scotland, though, so I should get a sip of your malt whiskey. You do have it, don’t you?”
“Aye. Speyside, Lowland, forty varieties. Is that enough for ya?”
“I should think so. I only want to partake of a few, though, and I’d like to remember which ones they are.”
“I tell you what, laddie. I’ll write them down on this here coaster. You can tuck it away and keep it as a souvenir. Now, let me tell you something about whiskey. It’s like a woman: it’s all a matter of taste. I can give you something smooth with a long, round finish; something spicy with a peaty aftertaste; or something soft with a heathery, honey flavor. What suits your mood today?”
“Do you have any with red hair and one green and one brown eye?”
He laughs. “That won’t be in until next week. What would you settle for now?”
“Surprise me. Let me have a couple of fingers of something you’d drink yourself and a refill on the Deuchars to wash it down.”
The bartender places an empty larger-than-conventional shot glass on the bar alongside a schooner of ale.
“What’s this?” I ask.
He points to each in turn. “This is the Deuchars, and this is what I drink.”
“But that’s empty.”
“I know. You asked me to give you what I drink. When it comes to booze, this is it for me. Even Bucky Barabas hasn’t made it past these lips for the last seven years.”
“Nothing at all?”
“Me dear departed father once told me, he said, ‘Billy boy, every man has his own God-given quota when it comes to drink, and you’ll know when yours has been reached. That’ll be the crossroads. Either you’ll keep sucking it up like a sponge or you’ll step back and watch the other laddies blow themselves up with it.’ I reached my limit seven years and thirteen days ago.”
“How did you know your time was up?’
“When it dawned on me I was allergic to the stuff.”
“Allergic? How did you know you were allergic to alcohol?”
“Because when I overdid it, I kept breaking out in handcuffs!”
I choke on a mouthful of Deuchars, spitting some of it on the bar. He wipes up the mess cheerfully, pleased with my reaction.
“Did you just stop? It must be difficult. The good juice is everywhere, and you, with your job, are surrounded by it.”
“I got, and still get, help. Other lads who’re in the same boat meet twice a week, and we remind ourselves it’s not for us anymore.”
“Is that Alcoholics Unanimous?”
He laughs. “Anonymous. It’s Alcoholics Anonymous.”
“I know. I was pulling your leg. My brother Tommy back in New York is a member of your club, and he hasn’t had a drink in three years.”
“Well then, good for him. If the thought ever passes your own mind, have a chat with him. He’ll tell ya what it’s all about. Better yet, get to a meeting with him and see if it’s for you.”
“I’ll remember that. Well, where were we? Oh, yeah. If you were back in your prime and decided you wanted nothing but the best, what would you ask for?”
“This.” He lifts a bottle from behind the bar, pours it in a shot glass, and says, “Macallan, ten-year old.”
I down the shot. “Oh my, that’s smooth. I tell you what. I’d like one more, a large one, and I was wondering if you could point me toward a more local type of pub. This has been great, and you’re a fountain of information, but”—I lean over to him and whisper—“your joint is a little too touristy for me. It’s crawling with Americans.”
He chuckles. “I know what you mean. You’re looking for a pub with some local color, a knockabout type of a place that sells cheap beer and rotten whiskey. Edinburgh’s bursting at the seams with them. There’s one over on Little Britain Street where the university students and some locals hang out. But I have to warn you, you’re just as likely to see a brawl between those two groups as not. Is that more in line with what you’re thinking?”
“Exactly.” I slip him a five-pound note under my palm and ask him to call a cab. He looks around, pockets the fiver, and pours a shot of whiskey from a bottle previously hidden from view in a cabinet behind the bar.
It burns as it goes down. “Whoa! This stuff is volcanic. What is it?”
“Cask-strength Macallan. On the house.” He starts pouring another shot. I put up my right hand to stop him, but it’s too late. Well, can’t waste it. “What’s the name of that pub?”
“That’s an Irish name.”
“It sure is. We’ve got quite a few Irishmen around here. Nothing to brag about, mind you, but we’ve got them. Keep to yourself and curb your tongue there, though, laddie. If the students and the Irish ruffians aren’t beating the piss out of one another, they’re just as likely to pick on a stranger. I’ll have a taxi take you right to the front door. You’ll be there in two shakes of a stick. Oh, here’s something you can enjoy even if you’re not crazy about the crowd there.”
He takes a small box from underneath the counter and opens it.
“A cigar? You’re talking to the right man. I enjoy a good cigar every once in a while.”
“This isn’t a good cigar; it’s a great cigar. This, my friend, is a genuine Cuban cigar. It was given to me by one of my sailor friends. Cubans are the best.”
“I know. I know.”
He leans over so no one else can hear what he has to say. “Did you know laddie, that those chiquitas in Havana roll the tobacco slowly back and forth over their inner thighs, dangerously close to their private parts, just to give each and every authentic cigar the faint scent of Spanish pussy?”
He has a way with words.
“No, I can’t say I knew that. But I’m sure it’ll enhance my appreciation of it.”
“Here’s your taxi. It’s right there at the curb.”
“Thanks. The best of luck to you.”
“You too. Don’t forget to talk to your brother about the club.”
I raise and wave my right hand as I walk toward the taxi.
“Barney Kiernan’s please.” The cabdriver hears my accent, turns around, and gives me a strange look.
“Are you sure about that?”
“Okay. Kiernan’s it is.”
Jesus. It smells like stale beer in here, and there’s a hint of urine coming from somewhere. Who cares, as long as it’s not mine? The bartender fits right in. He’s got a scar on his left cheek and a black patch over his right eye. Sure enough, students on one side, Irishmen on the other. I’ll station myself in neutral territory in between the warring parties.
“Hello, may I have a beer please?”
“I’m not a mind reader,” the bartender snaps. “What kind do you want?”
Charming. “Half a pint of ale, please.”
“So, you’re on the wagon, huh?” He roars at his own comment, momentarily drawing attention from both factions. I’d better establish my credentials.
“You’re right. I’ve been on the wagon long enough. I’ll have a pint of bitter, and a double shot of Macallan.”
“Now you’re talking. We’re not a high tea operation around here, if you know what I mean, but we do have Macallan.”
He turns his head, so he can see me with his good eye and barks, “What’s your name?”
Throw him a curve ball. “Cashel Boyle O’Connor Fitzmaurice Tisdale Farrell, but my friends call me Nemo.”
He glowers. “All right, Mr. Nemo. My name is Mickey Cusack. I’m just an ordinary citizen, but you can call me Mr. Cusack.” He smiles mockingly and walks toward one of the students whose calling out, “Mickey.”
Everyone’s smoking here. It’s time to light up my prized possession. God, that’s smooth. No whiff of female genitalia yet, but you probably have to be well into it to get all the benefits. The Irish have the dartboard. I’m surprised they’re not competing against the students. That would guarantee a donnybrook.
He turns his head in my direction. “What do you want?”
Cusack’s barely my height but has massive shoulders and arms. He must’ve been a boxer or a shot-putter. He’s also got the hound of the Baskervilles stationed close by. This dog is enormous, and his ears and muzzle look like they belong to a wolf.
“I’ll have another double and another bitter please. Great-looking dog you’ve got there.”
He gets my drinks.
“I’m glad you like him. Owen, come over here and say hello to the gentleman.”
Owen gallops over to me, plants his front paws up on the bar, flashes his incisors, and snarls ferociously. I jump back, drawing belly laughs from both contingents.
Cusack grunts. “Down, Owen. Back over there.” The beast’s paws drop to the floor, and he mopes back to his spot and collapses.
Reclaim your post at the bar.
Cusack’s mouth curls back in a vulpine snarl. “You still like him?”
“Sure. He’s an exquisite animal. You’re a lucky man.” I get it. Owen’s the bouncer and Cusack’s in charge of public relations here.
He puts the drinks down, points to his patch, and says, “Lucky, huh?” He lifts his patch up so I can see his vacant socket. I turn to get a better look, and the tip of my cigar narrowly misses his good eye.
“What the fuh—are you looking to finish the job?”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Cusack. It’s my damn reflexes.” I need to change the subject. “What’s that the students are drinking?”
“Buckfast.” He brings the bottle over and lets me examine the label.
“My, oh my. Thirty proof and loaded with caffeine. You can get drunk and stay wide awake at the same time. Tailor made for students. I wonder what it tastes like.”
He pours me a touch.
My God is that sweet! Look at the students. They’re going to town on this stuff. I glance left at the Irish, and sure enough, most of them are drinking Guinness. Cusack awaits my verdict on Buckfast.
“Okay, I guess, but not for me. Too cough-syrupy. Another double of Macallan please.”
“Now there’s a man after me own heart. I’m with you,” he says, leaning over to speak confidentially. “These students get polluted fast and cheap on this panther piss and wind up looking for trouble.”
“That’s what they’re like,” I say agreeably.
One student in a drinking circle close to me shouts over in my direction, “So we have an American here, huh?” He announces in a loud voice, “There’s a stranger in our house causing trouble, like they do everywhere they go.”
That’s all I need—a brawl. I look over at him. “Yes. I’m visiting from New York. What are you studying at the university?”
He puts a scowl on his face and belches. “Syphilisation. But what would you know about that?” he asks, looking to bait me.
“Civilization? Western European? Asiatic? African?”
“American. You know why? It’s the easiest way to get a degree because there’s so little to study. Instead, we hang around here waiting for people like you to enlighten us about your contributions to the world, like slavery and imperialism. Since you’re here, why don’t you explain to us what the fook you’re doing in Vietnam, and when you plan to get the fook out of there?” The other students grumble in agreement.
“I’m sorry, my dear boy, but I’m not privy to information of that sort. But, from what I do know, we’re trying to help the South Vietnamese stay independent by stopping Ho Chi Minh and his thugs from steamrolling over them.”
I gesture for another drink and offer my adversary one, but he waves me off scornfully. He’s enjoying his tirade too much. The Irishmen to the left of me are becoming interested in our exchange. If it comes to it, maybe I can get some support from them. This student is smaller than I am and not particularly husky, but he’s going at it like a bulldog.
“When are you Americans going to get the fook out of Vietnam?”
I roll the cigar back and forth across my mouth several times, drawing deeply from it, and sending a string of circular smoke rings in the boy’s direction.
“I’ll tell you what, laddie. When I get back to the States, I’ll give Lyndon a call and let him know how you feel. In the meantime, don’t you think you’re being a bit too modest about your own role in slavery and imperialism?”
“I and we”—he sweeps his right hand across his group—“have nothing to do with any of that. And we certainly have nothing to do with war. We’re pacifists.”
How do you like that—truculent pacifists. “Really? What about the British Empire, or has that slipped your mind? Okay. Let’s pretend you’re the prime minister of Great Britain and I’m the president of the United States. I’ve just received your ultimatum to evacuate Vietnam, and I agree, with one proviso.”
“What’s that?” he growls.
“That you withdraw all your troops from Ireland. Just a little quid pro quo between imperialists.”
“Ireland has nothing to do with this. That’s an entirely different question. You’re making false comparisons. The Irish needed us then, and they need us now. They’re like Americans. They don’t have what it takes to govern themselves.”
Shouts come from my left. “Like fookin hell we don’t. You little shit.”
My God. Cusack’s urging the Irishmen to ratchet it up. I turn back to the students. “Aren’t any of you reading history at the university? If you were, you’d know that Henry II’s lads invaded Ireland in 1171, and the British have been exploiting the Irish ever since. Eight hundred years of oppression is long enough, wouldn’t you say?”
The Irish begin stomping their feet, clapping their hands, and shouting, “Out of Ireland. Out of Ireland.” Cusack starts chanting along with them, and now he’s waving a bat in the direction of the students. He slams it down so hard on the bar we all stop dead in our tracks and turn to him.
Cusack hollers, “Let’s hear once more from each of the parties concerned, and that’s that. If anyone disagrees, they can continue discussing it with my partner here.” He taps the top of his head. In one leaping bound Owen lands on the bar, scattering drinks in all directions and sending a bone-chilling howl across the room. I retrieve my drink in time. Cusack snaps his finger, and the hound retreats. Then he turns to the student and orders him to make his final statement.
I signal for another double.
“We want you,” the student thunders, pointing both of his index fingers at me, “to get the fook out of Vietnam, and we want it now!”
Glasses are breaking, and punches are flying in every direction. Oh Jesus, I’m right in the middle of it. I’ve been hit in the face. I’m down. My God, they’re kicking me. Christ, I’m bleeding. I feel the wind get knocked out of me and begin gasping for breath.
The hound—he’s getting the students off me. Whistles. What are those whistles? It’s the police. They’re picking me up.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m Okay,” I tell a constable. “I just have to get washed up. . . . No. I don’t need to go to the hospital. No. No doctor. I’ll be all right. I need a taxi. . . . No. I don’t want to file any charges. I’ll be fine. Don’t worry. . . . Yeah, thanks. I’m going to my hotel.”
They steer me toward a taxi, and I collapse into the back seat. “The Royal Scot Hotel on Glasgow Road. . . . Sure, I’m Okay. No problem.”
I finally get a glimpse of myself in the hotel bathroom mirror. Jesus Christ! I look like Rocky Graziano after a Tony Zale fight. I’d better get home and go into hiding. I can’t let anyone I know see me like this. There’s still a couple of a weeks to go before we’re due back at the university. Hopefully, I’ll look more human by then. What’s next? Breaking out in handcuffs?
© John Maxwell O’Brien