Thanks to Conor’s affinity for infidelity, I have our final night in Dublin to myself.
I navigate the wonderful turbulence that is Temple Bar — chatting with locals, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with tourists, chanting the lyrics to “Ring of Fire” all together as though it were Ireland’s national anthem. I’m handed a flyer for a strip club with no address. I’ve never been one for strip clubs, can’t suspend disbelief long enough to treasure the proximity of a woman’s naked body as though I’ve done something to deserve it. Strip clubs rely on the premise that sex is sex and we’re all hungry for the same thing — strippers included. Unless patrons can manage to simultaneously pay for that proximity and fool themselves into thinking that money has no bearing on the attention they receive, the illusion falls apart.
That said, the entirety of my upscale dinner is spent romanticizing the notion of eschewing my comfort zone. “The streets are damp and cold,” my mind argues. “Go on. Spend a warm night.”
The restaurant lives up to the hype in all ways but one — it’s full of fellow tourists. I can’t help feeling duped, somehow, even as I enjoy a selection of small plates exploding in flavor and intricate floral cocktails that make one long for another round well before finishing the first. I sought authenticity, to eat as the locals do. What I got instead was artfully crafted illusion.
Screw it. Bring on the strip club.
I’m struck with an odd paranoia, walking back toward the flyer-men, that everyone I pass knows exactly where I’m headed.
Reliably, I go the wrong direction. Throughout my marriage, I took us on wrong turns, unnecessary detours. Kitty was always a good sport, got us back on track. I can acknowledge this dynamic now. At the time, I insisted on having an impeccable sense of direction.
Music erupts from a small pub, grabbing me from across the avenue. I challenge oncoming traffic and manage to survive.
The four-piece is just settling onstage. To say they’re warming up is a tough sell. They’re chatting with the closest members of a packed crowd, downing half-pints, tuning instruments I struggle to make sense of. With effort, I make it to the bar, order a Guinness, and hope beyond hope that I can hold onto this square foot of space until the show starts.
In a flash, the weathered front man shouts and the band flies into action. He beats a meager stretch of canvas over a circular frame — the only percussion. Nonetheless, through sheer will and the stomping of feet, this quartet could fill stadiums.
This is not the morning radio station back home. This is not contrived, contained, redundant melody. This is a brook flowing across rocks, hills that outdate modern religion, a people rising in revolt.
I acknowledge my biases regarding the Irish. Next, I might summon a Leprechaun doing a jig. Still, there is a raw, guttural life force not to be suppressed in this music. There is momentum, there is legacy, and, yes, goddamn shamrock magic. Pour me another Guinness and I will stay here all night listening.
I flag down the bartender. “You don’t happen to have a pen and paper, do you?” He hands me a marker from atop the register and tells me to help myself to the napkins.
The music escalates.
Fractions of lyrics. Crumpled napkins. It’s been so long since I’ve tried. The heart of an idea takes diligence to uncover. It’s all too easy to get swept away from the core.
The man next to me strikes a conversation. He’s got bracelets of dyed yarn lashed around his wrists and eyes of emerald below thick grey eyebrows. When he inquires if I’m a musician, I hear myself answer yes without hesitation.
The venue’s long and skinny, dark like every other pub in the city. The wood panel walls are lined with framed posters. People crush forward toward the band, no more than seven standing side-by-side. Onlookers pause outside the front windows.
The song quits like a boulder crashing into a cliff-face. The audience erupts in applause and whistles. The band leader — sixty going on sixteen — spouts gibberish into the mic.
“Mind I give a shot?” asks the man beside me.
“Sure,” I say, open to whatever this island might offer.
The man takes my chickenscratch napkin and brings it with him onstage, where I only now realize he’s been summoned. The audience applauds once again — are these musicians famous or does everyone here just know each other? The man grabs a fiddle while the others pass around my unfinished lyrics. Certain that I must be dreaming all of this, I opt to make the most of it and order a whiskey to keep my Guinness company.
The band leader thumps a beat, the strings join in, then the flute. It’s an off-kilter heartbeat, something primal. One can predict the measures ahead and yet still be overwhelmed by their depth and urgency. The band leader advances on the mic, napkin in hand.
Angel of reason, fly on home
And leave me to my brothers
Angel of reason, fly on home
And love on all the others
The feathers you thought you got so pretty
Are burning in the sun
The prayers you got you thought so petty
Are earning on the sum
With a cry the band erupts in fury — fiddle and drums dueling, scratching and knocking against the sky. The rest of the band embellishes and escalates the rhythm. The crowd half-dances in place. The band leader starts a call and response, turning my words into an incantation.
Singing in unison with a bar full of people, my chest threatens to crack open. Kitty deserves happiness. As do I. As does every person under the sun. The universe is on our side, wishing us well, offering grand adventures. All we need to do is listen.
This piece appears as part of a serialized fiction experiment by Nathaniel Kressen for At Large magazine. New installments are published weekly, each based around a different liquor.
Nathaniel Kressen is the author of two novels — Dahlia Cassandra (named Best of 2016 Fiction by Entropy & Luna Luna Magazine) and Concrete Fever (Bestseller, Strand Book Store) — as well as the co-founder of Second Skin Books and the leader of the Greenpoint Writers Group.