HUMOR: Did You Kiss Your Mother?
St. Paul is a big town, but not big enough when Keenan is about. And on St. Patrick’s Day he is sure to be out and about.
“Listen,” O’Brien said to me. “There’s 50,000 people at this parade. What are the chances you run into him?”
I told him how he found me, against all odds, last year. The parade marched down Seventh, and there was Keenan holding one half of the New Hibernia banner and leading sixty girls in green vests and tights. The McCafferty Brass Band and a motorized float of cloggers followed. How he saw me I’ll never know, but he grabbed me right off the curb. Made me march the whole way, said it was my duty as an Irishman. My sacred duty.
“I thought the Irish were lucky.”
We watched from the fifth floor parking ramp of Macy’s. He might get me yet, but it would be a long climb. The whole thing made O’Brien mad. Up here he couldn’t see the College of St. Mary step dancers, his whole reason for being here. And he liked Keenan. He was a good Irishman.
“Too good,” I said.
Especially today. If you haven’t been to church he’ll make you go. Maybe the day after, when the devil has found you, as the priest likes to say, but today? And if you’re drinking with Keenan it’s Guinness beer and nothing but. Who likes Guinness? It’s motor oil. And he’s all over you all about your “clan”. What part of Ireland is your clan from, he asks? Do they speak Irish? I can’t answer. The only family I got came from Pittsburgh. And half of them is Norwegian. Then he gets mad. It’s Irishmen like me that cause all the trouble. The Brits in Belfast, the poverty in Limerick, the real estate devaluation, the Potato Famine. The Potato Famine?
The last of the green floats floated past with the Claddagh Society dancers smiling (every girl beautiful). O’Brien and I snuck down to the street and took a bus to the Butler Reunion, a hundred strong, at the old family mansion on Summit Hill.
“There’s no chance of running into him here,” O’Brien said. “He’s not invited.”
We barely got a beer in us when Malachy Butler, the old man, shouted from the kitchen. “Boys! How wonderful to see you! Like being in Dublin again. And where’s your friend young Keenan? I made him swear on his mother’s honor he’d make it. Well, I suppose it’s the parade. Cheer up, it won’t be long.”
I made for the door. O’Brien followed and we caught the same bus east. O’Brien would have stayed, but Carrie Butler left last week for spring break. No reason to hang around.
The bus rumbled downtown, crowded with green hats and green horns and green beads. A gang in back sang “Molly Malone” and “I’m Shipping Out Tonight My Dear”. We stood holding rails. “What is it with you and Keenan?” O’Brien said. “I would think today is the one day you could be friends.”
“It’s the one day I can’t!” I told him ever since we were fifteen it’s been the same. First Ireland. Then the poets. Then motherhood, and not necessarily in that order. Keenan pounds the table and his eyes tear up and he shows you his harp tattoo and moans about Maggie Anderson, his Only True Love. One year he tried to get me my own tattoo. He carried me half a block before I could climb off and escape. Thank God I can run.
“He means well.”
Keenan himself had traveled to Ireland four times. The last he went to County Fermanagh, determined to find his relatives. Checking phone books and drinking in pubs he drove from one end of the county to the other, searching the name. No one ever heard of it. He spent a week in libraries, churches, and Enniskillen Town Hall. Finally they told him about an old man who recorded coats of arms and kept an immense journal on local families. Bring him a wee drop, they advised. Keenan found him in a little house on the outskirts of Derrylin. Bless you, son, he said, and uncorked the bottle. Let’s see, let’s see. How do you spell it again? The old man drank and rubbed his chin, turning pages. Finally he spoke. There’s nothing here. Nothing? Keenan asked. Not any more, the old boy said, taking up the bottle defensively, as though it might be snatched away.
“What do you mean, not any more?”
“They’ve all left.”
The old man consulted his great book. “Boise, Idaho.”
Keenan never went back to Ireland but he did have his one great Irish love affair, mostly by long distance with his beloved Maggie. Today she weighs two-hundred and has four kids, beautiful redheaded girls. If only I had been a better man, Keenan says, blinking over his pint. I’d have made her my wife, and been reunited with Ireland, all in one stroke.
“Maybe one of her daughters will have you,” I say.
“Maybe you’d like a punch in the nose.”
City workers swept debris from the parade. It looked like a green bomb had gone off. O’Brien and I trotted down to Killarney’s on Tenth, me looking over my shoulder the whole way, like a robber, and breathing a sigh of relief as we stepped inside. Once the most fabled pub of all, Killarney’s had long lost any glory, and wasn’t even Irish anymore, being owned by Duc Pham, the local real estate speculator. It was now a sushi bar. And before that a strip joint, and before that a gay bar, which rather improved the place as far as anyone could tell, and before that a disco.
We took our seats at the old nickel-plated rail. Duc himself brought us two Budweisers. Did he have green beer? He shook his head, frowning suspiciously. The Bee Gee’s played from the sound system, a seeming tribute to the dusty past. On St. Patrick’s holy day Killarney’s didn’t boast so much as a paper shamrock. It was the last place Keenan would come.
O’Brien and I touched glasses. “To Ireland.”
The door burst open and the place filled with light. A man shouted at Duc Pham. “Did you kiss your mother today?”
It was Keenan. He pounded the bar. “Tell me. Did you kiss your mother today?”
Duc Pham grinned emphatically. “Yes. Yes I do.” He pronounced yes “yeth”.
“Then you’re a good Irishman. Boys!” he called to us. “Happy Saint Patrick’s Day. The noblest day of all.” He clapped me on the back, and it hurt. “Did you kiss your mother today?” he asked. You could see why the Irish make such good fighters. Keenan was small, but broad-shouldered, hard-muscled, and quick-handed.
He bought us pints. Guinness, of course. And pints for the only other people there, a couple getting take-out.
Did you kiss your mother today? he asked them.
We drank to Ireland, of course. I discovered in a roundabout way how he found us.
“Malachy Butler said you were headed to Killarney’s.” I looked daggers at O’Brien, who looked quickly away. “I told him, what great patriots, that they would remember the old place, the most Irish bar in all St. Paul. It shows,” he touched the corner of an eye. “It shows how faithful the Irish are. Look at us. Ordinary working men, Americans. And yet the past is always here, a dream, a hope, a promise, forever new.” He recited:
Here be Ireland of old
and never lived a nobler soul,
than who for Ireland do their part
with a loving Irish heart.
“That’s Roscoe Athey, don’t you know.” He had his hands on our shoulders. When you’re with Keenan he never lets go of you.
“Tell me, boy,” he says, his face close, his eyes moist. He really loves me. “Tell me. Did you kiss your mother today?”
“Actually,” I say. “I’ve been feuding with her. Her car has two bald tires and she won’t let me put new ones on and….”
“What?” says Keenan. “You’re fighting with your own mother?’
” Your mother is a saint! And this of all days? We will see her this instant!” And he has me up from the bar stool and out the door and off to St. Louis Park, miles away, and there goes the afternoon, my happy, graceful afternoon.
Well, Keenan means well, as O’Brien likes to say. He’s just hard to take on St. Patrick’s. Next year I think I’ll be in Acapulco. That should do it, but I don’t put anything past the Irish. Not on their day.