Bobby Costello sat on a lone barstool in The Shillelagh.
A small knot of men had formed on a cluster of stools only a few feet away, but even somebody momentarily glancing in through the front window could easily determine that Bobby was a distinct and separate entity.
“Hey Joey, set me up with another,” Bobby cried out in a voice rusted from exposure to alcohol and smoke. Joe Gallagher, bartender, bouncer, manager, and soon-to-be owner of The Shillelagh, slowly began responding to Bobby’s request. He had been busy making small talk with two heavily made-up women in their mid-30s drinking martinis and smoking cigarettes at the far end of the bar. They were the only women present.
Joe snatched Bobby’s empty pint glass with an unprovoked burst of speed and disdainfully tossed it in a tray full of dirty mugs. He glared at Bobby through cold, flat eyes. “This is your last one tonight,” he said, beginning the meticulous process of pouring a pint of Guinness.
Bobby squinted at Joe incredulously. “Are you pulling my leg?” he rasped. “That was only my second one! Ask anyone in here, I don’t even get started till my fifth.” Unconsciously, Bobby rolled his tongue across his cracked, dry lips.
“Then have another two somewhere else,” Joe grunted as he deftly ensured that the pint would have a thick, frothy head. He did this more out of respect for the Guinness than concern for Bobby’s drinking pleasure. “Give me any more crap and I’ll drink this one myself and put it on your tab.”
“All right, all right,” exclaimed Bobby, waving his thin, wiry arms for emphasis. His words trailed off into a deep, throaty chortle, which then evolved into a harsh smoker’s cough. Two long-haired, goateed young men in flannel shirts momentarily stopped their dart game to stare. They were the only customers not seated at the bar.
Satisfied he had poured a quality pint; Joe slid Bobby his final beer. “That’ll be a total of nine bucks,” he stated.
Bobby had already hunched over to embrace his dark nectar, but his head snapped up like a marionette’s at this announcement. “What do you mean?” he asked, fear intensifying the slight waver in his speech.
“Three pints at three bucks a pop for nine bucks total,” explained Joe. “You learned your times tables before you dropped out, right?”
Hooting laughter erupted from several patrons. One of the women smiled. In response, the permanent pink sheen of Bobby’s cheeks deepened to a rich red glow of angry embarrassment. “I got my fucking GED!” he shouted, striking the bar counter with his left palm for emphasis. Several more snickers emanated from the background.
Bobby pulled a wad of filthy currency from the back pocket of his paint-spattered jeans. He counted out a five-dollar bill and five singles and thrust them at Joe. “Keep the change,” he muttered. “I can afford it. O’Leary has had me painting for the last couple of weeks.”
“Thanks,” said Joe. He left the pile of crumpled money sitting on the bar and returned to the two women, offering one a light for her cigarette.
Bobby sat still for a moment, sickened by hot waves of indignity rising like dry heaves from the pit of his stomach. He decided Joe needed to be knocked down a peg or two, and he would use his status as a 25-year regular to do it.
“Hey Rory, can you believe this shit?” Bobby yelled to a stout, red-haired man with a wrinkled yet boyish face who was sitting with the other men at the bar. Rory made no response other than to huddle more intently with the rest of his group.
“You gone deaf?” Bobby brayed, louder this time, his voice slightly breaking from alcohol so that he sounded like a teenage boy overloaded with hormones. The dart players looked over again, and one of the women tittered. Rory slowly turned around.
“I can hear you, Bob,” said Rory in the resigned tones of a forced conversation. One of his companions made a muffled remark that produced more laughter. Most of their voices also betrayed years of heavy liquor and tobacco consumption.
“You should answer a little quicker, then,” said Bobby. “I know your mother taught you manners, because…”
“We lived on the same block until we were 13 years old,” said Rory, finishing Bobby’s sentence. “You’ve reminded me of that every time I’ve seen you since my family moved to West Roxbury in 1972.”
“And that’s been a rare event in the last 10 years,” replied Bobby. “You could come around our side of Brighton more often. I’m still in the same house I grew up in.” Bobby beamed as he stated this last fact.
“I’m not surprised,” said Rory. This remark produced yet more laughter from his cohorts.
Bobby took no small amount of pride in being a lifelong neighborhood guy, but he still felt shamed by Rory’s wisecrack. Intensifying Bobby’s hurt was that he and Rory had been inseparable growing up. It had been Bobby who stayed with Rory and calmed him down when he almost stopped breathing after sniffing glue, while all the other kids who were getting high with them in the woods had run away in fear of getting busted.
Bobby had always considered himself a caretaker. He felt accomplished but not smug about staying behind to keep an eye on his aging parents while the rest of the neighborhood kids, including his younger brother and sister, had left for jobs or the military or even college and only returned on holidays while they pursued self-focused lives that the media told them signified adulthood.
And Rory Mayo, who Bobby had cradled in his arms on that fateful day in the woods, had not long afterward moved to live behind the lace curtains of a single-family home in West Roxbury when his father got promoted from mailman to postal supervisor. When the Boston public schools were integrated a few years later, Rory followed a hockey scholarship to the lily-white, sanctified confines of Catholic Memorial High School.
Meanwhile, Bobby carried a set of brass knuckles to Brighton High School, ready to bust the head of any black kid being bused in from Roxbury or Dorchester who looked ready to cause trouble. Again, he had taken on what he saw as a protective role.
For all his years of valiant sacrifice, what had Bobby asked in return? Nothing except the right to occasionally enjoy a few drinks at his favorite local tavern without being harassed by ungrateful bartenders or former friends whose lives he had saved. Now even that simple goal seemed out of reach.
Bobby returned to his pint and silently sipped it, focusing all his attention on the gradually shrinking volume of black liquid that his father had half-jokingly described as the “blood of all true Irishmen.” One secret Bobby knew about Joe Gallagher, who wore a green sweater every St. Patrick’s Day and hosted Sinn Fein fundraisers in The Shillelagh’s back room, was that he had a grandfather who was a Protestant from the North. Even more shameful, that grandfather’s parents had emigrated to Ireland from Scotland. Bobby grunted with pleasure at this thought, not noticing the derisive glance he drew from the women.
“Rory!” Bobby called. “Your grandparents were all from the southern counties, right?”
“Rory is in the can,” said a silver-haired man with bulging forearms and a belly to match. “But he can probably still hear you if you keep yelling like that.”
Bobby peered at his new tormentor. He looked familiar. Picturing him slimmer with dark hair, Bobby realized he was Don McMichael, a local loudmouth who had been known in his youth as a ferocious street fighter. Don’s eyes still held a fierce gleam that crow’s feet could not obscure and Bobby had already lost a few teeth to poor gum care, so he chose his words carefully.
“Listen, Don, all I’m saying is that the regular customers here are all good Irish Catholics, 100 percent pure,” said Bobby. “So if Joe here is one of us, he should understand that an Irishman needs more than three pints to go down.”
“Sure thing, Bobby,” said Don. “Take a stand for all us Micks.” One of Don’s compatriots laughed so hard ale squirted out his nose, which made everyone else present, including Joe, laugh even harder.
“Christ, you guys are ballbusters,” said Bobby, chuckling hollowly. “Hey Joe!” he shouted. “Get your Loyalist arse over here.” Joe, who was in the process of giving one of the women a pen to write her phone number on a cocktail napkin, grimaced and haltingly approached Bobby.
Joe’s father was Edward “Smilin’ Ed” Gallagher, a Galway native who had once tended bar at a favorite after-hours hangout of then-Senator John F. Kennedy. He opened The Shillelagh in November 1960. “When my best customer moved to Washington full-time, I had to start over,” Ed was fond of saying. An autographed JFK presidential campaign poster was displayed behind the bar under glass like a saintly relic.
The Shillelagh had started as a respectable establishment frequented by city workers and day laborers, but as Brighton got tougher in the late 1960s and early 1970s, so did the bar’s clientele. As Smilin’ Ed aged, he made less of an effort to keep out the riffraff. Eventually, The Shillelagh became a favorite destination for an assortment of drunken bullies, petty hoodlums, and general layabouts, with Bobby Costello falling squarely in the last category.
When Joe assumed management responsibilities due to his father’s advancing case of cancer, he immediately began clearing out the lowlifes, and a slightly higher class crowd started trickling in. After a year, the undesirables had largely left for more welcoming dives. Except for Bobby Costello.
Joe made things as unpleasant as possible for Bobby but did not actually ban him outright for two reasons. First, beyond making annoying conversation and being generally vulgar in appearance, Bobby really did not cause any trouble. Second, and more importantly, Ed had asked Joe to spare Bobby from his housecleaning efforts. “He’s really not a bad sort of lad,” Ed had explained, “and he has nowhere else to go.”
So Joe had reluctantly promised that as long as Bobby behaved himself, he could continue to drink at The Shillelagh. But now that Ed’s lifespan was being measured in weeks, so was the duration of Joe’s pledge.
Joe stood in front of Bobby with his arms tightly folded across his chest and studied him like a birdshit stain on a freshly washed car. Bobby pulled his greasy wad of bills from his pocket again and waved it defiantly in Joe’s face. “Two more, Joey my boy,” he declared.
“My name is Joe and I’m not your boy,” said Joe, ignoring the flapping dollar bills as best he could. Although Bobby was only about five years older than Joe, he looked wrinkled and gnarled enough to be his father. “And I already told you, the beer you have now is your last one tonight.”
“But they’re not for me,” said Bobby with a grin that attempted to be clever. “They’re for the two lovely ladies at the end of the bar.”
“No dice,” Joe said without as much as a momentary pause to consider Bobby’s offer.
Bobby slammed his fist on the bar hard enough to make Guinness jump out of his glass. “What the fuck is wrong with this place?” he shouted. “A guy can’t send some ladies a round of drinks?” The two women smiled nervously at Bobby’s spontaneous act of chivalry.
Joe’s demeanor remained cool, but his neck muscles noticeably contracted. “Sure he can,” he responded, “unless the guy in question is you.” Everyone except Bobby and Joe roared with laughter.
Bobby, fearing that his standing as neighborhood protector and all-around good guy was being put in jeopardy by this shabby treatment, decided the crowd at The Shillelagh needed enlightenment. Unsteadily he rose to his feet and drew his five foot seven-inch frame to its full height. His whole body twitched with rage, making the faded tattoos of shamrocks, leprechauns and fair lasses covering his arms dance a crazed jig.
“Who do you people think you are to give me so much shit?” he barked. “I try to do something gentlemanly, you spit in my face! I save Rory Mayo’s goddamned life, and in the 30 years since he barely has time to say hello to me!” Rory, who had just returned from the men’s room, rolled his eyes in regret at his poor timing. “Smilin’ Ed Gallagher knew how to treat a neighborhood guy,” Bobby continued. “His son doesn’t know jack shit.” The room was now silent. Both women clutched their purses close to their bodies.
At the mention of his father, Joe’s face, which had already turned a shade of magenta, darkened to a violent purple. He shattered the silence with a bellowing response. “I know a drunk lowlife piece of shit when I see one!” he shouted. “I’ve spent the past year clearing the losers out of my old man’s place, and you’re the last one left. The only reason for that is because my father begged me to let you stay. He knows that even the most pathetic of the other scumbags who used to come here had something else in their lives, but you don’t have a goddamned thing other than sitting in this bar. And now you don’t have that because you’re officially a part of Shillelagh history.”
Joe’s voice had reached a thundering crescendo by the time he finished his soliloquy on Bobby’s deficiencies. In response, Bobby stepped back several feet and seemed to shrink at least six inches in height. Moisture began glistening in the deep creases that ringed his eyes, and his hard-set mouth hung open in disbelief.
After a few moments, Bobby started to straighten his back. For the first time since dropping out of high school, he felt like he had nothing left to lose. He threw his pint glass on the floor, watching in satisfaction as Don McMichael jumped backward at the sound of shattering glass.
“If I’m part of history, then I guess I should give a speech!” yelled Bobby. “Maybe I am a loser, but you’re all worse than me because at least I know what I am. Joe, all you have in this world is what your father handed you, and you’ll never have anything more. Rory, you would probably be dead if I hadn’t been there when you almost overdosed on glue, and the world would have never missed you. Don, you and the rest of your little buddies are the same worthless rat punks now that you were as 12-year-olds. The two whores in the corner would fuck even me if I bought them enough drinks, and the two college pricks playing darts must have no other friends if they have to hang out here with the old drunks.”
His oration complete, Bobby took a deep, sobbing breath. He then started bawling, his body spasming in conjunction with each cry. Don clenched his meaty hands into fists, but Rory lightly restrained him from taking any action. Joe pulled a cellular phone off a holder attached to his belt.
“You have 30 seconds to haul your ass out of here or I’m calling the cops,” said Joe. He spoke sternly and seriously, but the fury of moments earlier had subsided. “If you ever come back, you’ll need the cops to save you.”
Defeated but not destroyed, Bobby wiped his nose with his hand, choked back his tears with a pitiful sucking sound, and marched out the door. He knew that a lot of the other former regulars who had been kicked out of The Shillelagh had started drinking at Buckeye’s Billiards, a small pool room located above a gas station about a mile away. Since it was only 10:30, Bobby decided to walk the distance and save the cab fare to buy an extra beer.
Back in The Shillelagh, the small crowd remained quiet. Taking a broom and dustpan from a narrow closet, Joe walked around the bar and began sweeping Bobby’s broken glass off the floor. “After I clean this up everybody gets a round on the house,” he announced. “It’s time to celebrate. The last of the losers is gone for good!” Everyone cheered, with Rory nervously applauding the loudest of all.