Rum. Someone said there was rum.
Maybe it was Johnny the hot white-spiked hair boy, not a minute over seventeen, who was cataloguing the place for honors class or Hicks the Barrister with half a hair-lip or Sibohain the excitable historical society cunt or That Irish Guy Who Just Lurked Around Outside And Asked For Ha’ a Poun’, Girleen, though fuck me if I should know why he should know. Or maybe it was none of them. Maybe it was one of those bastard biographies mum would read before beddy-bye: the Old Cripple did that, the Old Cripple did that, the Old Cripple liked a hot bridie, he did. Maybe those interminable nightly readings had wormed their way into my skull, saucing around in there with naughty pictures of Nick Cave and random quotes from the Big Lebowski, only to come spilling out now when, defenseless and fucked up on Percocet and warm beer, it would come roaring out of me: dream, bullshit, truth, who knows? But rum there is, I am sure. The Old Cripple couldn’t live without rum.
I light the cig and go down-stairs to grab the wee ladder.
I stomp down these fucking 1756 stairs, glancing at the upstairs rooms, all perfectly arranged and encased under plastic, doors locked with giant, decorative dead-bolts. How it was in 1742, miss, that’ll be fifteen pound. They hate me smoking in here, they hate me breathing in here, they hate me living here, the bastards. But it wasn’t as if I have a choice, now do I? Dad’s in Upolu and mum’s living with that C of E reverend in Yorkshire, I can’t flop in their guest room without having major cultural and/or vomitous issues. Donal isn’t talking to me because he’s still Donal and not, unfortunately, someone else, and Isabel is in Vladivostok, and these days getting into the Russian Federation takes a kiss-me-quick from Tsar Putin. Scores of anyone elses, from graying, bisexual ex-lovers to deactivated junkie jarheads, would just have a couch and a passel of questions, foremost being, “When are you getting off my couch?” Who’d that leave? That left Jack. Fuck Jack.
So the Old Cripple’s place it is.
The step-ladder’s in the janitor’s closet, along with bucketfuls of ammonia and cleaning fluids, weird Scot brands. Doesn’t quite matter what the name is, it’s all so much formaldehyde. The Maritime Preservation Historical Society for Historically Preserving Sea Stuff, or whatever its name is, is busily engaged in the difficult task of cutting open the house’s chest, lifting out the organs, pickling them, sticking ‘em back in, sewing up the chest, and then walking away, whistling. Make like nothing happened; never mind the glass eye-balls. I fought mum tooth and nail when she signed the place over to the scavengers, with their Presbyterian-perfect suits, cold Scot smiles, and chubby under-chins. Looking to turn Leith into some goddamn boundless tourist attraction, even this far down Salamander Street. But I had no traction, and legal redress was far beyond my monetary or psychological ken. Don’t even know why I gave a damn, beyond my sheer disgust at the whole matter.
I drag the step-ladder up the steps, my cigarette spewing out ash all over the nice white walls. Cursing.
Anyway, mum needed the money to start a new life with Reverend Jerkety-Jerk Jerkson, and who was I to deny mum that, might she ask? And she did ask, she asked a lot. My only balm was that the city’s pillars of civic institution were a bit leery about exposing nice American tourists to the wonders of the Old Cripple and his Old Cripple House in the middle of the city’s notorious (if a bit over-rated) flesh-market. The days were still fresh when you could get the shit kicked out of you on Leith’s streets for a Yankee accent, and while The Shore’s docks had been wonderfully free of ships for going on two decades, it wasn’t only sailors who needed to pay for their pussy.
So the historical fuckers hadn’t gotten their license or whatnot yet, but lawsuits were pending and the right cocks were being sized up for sucking. Only a matter of fucking time. Till then, however, the consortium doesn’t want to sink the hefty price of the place into mum’s pocket unless they know their baby had skipping shoes, so mum still has the deed, and I’ve still got the front-door key. Sure, mum had signed certain papers, for a certain down-payment, the exact sum of which has not been made known to the world at large, or her family at small, most specifically me, and these papers allowing said historical fuckers to come in and clean the place up real nice, but I’m still allowed to kip here. For the time being.
What it’s all for: This Old House. Just a boring-ass Georgian home, built in 1742 by the Rankin Brothers, suitable for a small family in a not-so-great part of town back when Leith was, to be quite frank, a not-so-great town. Similar boring-ass Georgian homes littered the boring-ass streets of Leith, but in the last nineteen years, the Old Cripple’s rise from rags to mild obscurity to eventual horrible, lingering death had begun to fascinate scholars, students of maritime lore, and my mum.
I set up the step-ladder underneath the small trap-door cut into the perfect white ceiling, and climb, steady and sure, the three steps. Balance on the top. One foot out like a ballerina. My hand struggles for the trap door’s chord, only inches out of reach. Switch feet now, the other swings wildly behind me like some demented Hermes, dashing in place. Tongue lightly clenched between the teeth, brow furrowed. Up on the ball of one foot now. A little hop and the chord is mine. I land gracefully on the ball of my foot, and the trap-door opens smoothly, a thin metal ladder descending down to my relatively flat chest.
“Victory is mine!” I holler and fist-pump, balanced perfectly, and then I remember how utterly fucking drunk I am. My heel twitches. I give an animal scream, but it’s too late. I’m half-way down, kicking my feet wildly as I go.
Maggie Tu, my but you are graceful. A breathe of wind.
Luckily, my upper back, not my skull, hits the banister on the way down, and while my left leg twists rather painfully underneath my right, I come up relatively intact. The wooden banister (added 1833), just behind my neck, does not seem to be as intact. In fact, that’s the sound of pieces of it hitting the ground floor right now. Heh.
Though my knee is threaded with pain, and my breath smells like a bar-room shitter, I decide that I must ponder.
I Am: twenty-six years old. A Saoman-Scottish American, and how to parse that was beyond the census bureau, numerous blue-eye beaus with an eye for Asian skin and a fright of a filthy mouth, as well as my general sense of what makes my world, beyond, say, whisky, automatic weaponry, and orgasms.
I Was: a nine year old girl who deeply enjoyed riding her brother’s bike down that steep hill in the back of St. Theresa’s. I close my eyes and think of that now and feel very, very ashamed.
I Have No Choice But To Be: Maggie Tu. Five-three. 109 pounds. Black eyed. Sharp cheek-bones, though not Chinese wide. Eyes not so much thin as squinchy. Bad lower deck of teeth for all those years of braces (scrapes still on cheeks’ interiors.) Appendix scar. Indention on skull (beneath damn fine flowing black hair down to shoulders, I might add) where self-same brother Donal assaulted me with an industrial stapler at age three. Tiny toes.
What has happened?
Very, very, very many things have happened.
I must weep.
I do not weep.
I do, however, need to get the hell up so I can get at that fucking rum.
Sit. Shake slightly. Draw out the box of silk-cut from jeans pocket. Jack’s lighter, a piece of intense kitsch: a south-sea girl, done up in a grass-skirt and aloha-string of flowers. It looks plastic-phony but is oddly iron-hard. Flick the girl’s ass and her head spouts half a foot of flame. He cracked it out, of course. Sailor. I can’t help but smile, being Pavlov’s bitch. Sailor Jack. Who’s never been, by the way, to the South Seas or any seas for that matter that weren’t on the Jersey Shore.
I’d go down to the Cabin-Hold if it wasn’t an hour and a half past closing time, and, spoiled by New York bodega hours, I hadn’t even thought to stock up on cans of lager and bottles of whisky. I’m dry, and I can’t be dry right now, can’t be dry at all.
I’m pressing my fingers, all of them, into my eye-balls so hard that I see lovely, frightening circles of the most disturbing colors.
I take the three steps up then grab hold of the bottom rung of the ladder and climb the five feet it takes to get up there.
It’s not an attic like those in horror movies or in my ten year old fevered imaginings of Anne Frank’s Amsterdam demise. There’s no spiders scratching behind their ears, no monstrous dust bunnies, in fact there’s not a single speck of a dust. Sibohain and her cleansers of history have been here.
The three hundred year old wood shines; a strangely cool light bathes the room, snapping on after the trap door was opened, emanating from the ceiling. In fact, the whole damn attic feels like the best kind of hospital ward. Pristine and mostly empty.
Except for the chest.
I sit and cross my legs Indian-style, examining it. A shining specimen. A squat black thing with rusted silvery straps and an equally rusted lock. Ugly as a bed-bug. Dusted and shined and perfectly lighted and never opened. Mum grew up here, as had her grandmum and her mum, and so on back to the Old Cripple’s hiring of the Rankin brothers, and nobody had ever noticed the trap-door, much less opened it. The reason for this was not that the Cochrane family was incurious as a general rule, it was that another ceiling had been slapped underneath it, for reasons pretty much unknown, probably a few years before the Old Cripple passed on, screaming. Mum hasn’t been back since she left the place, thirty-odd years ago, getting it, much to everyone’s surprise, in the will, then renting it out to various low-lifes until finally the historical fuckers took an interest and punctured the ceiling.
But they didn’t open the chest.
They had it X-rayed and stuck electrodes on it and heat-visioned it and shook it like a Christmas present, but they hadn’t opened it. Don’t have the rights yet. That’ll come with the final signing of the paper. Fucking typical of course. Spent all their time on presentation and haven’t worried about what’s in the nasty thing. But somebody had said, and you can wear my Hanes for a helmet if I can remember who, that there was rumored to be rum inside of it.
I grasp the cold lock, feel the isles of rust eating into the thing. Shake hard. Nothing. Pull. Nothing. Pull and push and curse and grunt and kick at it and scrape at it with my pathetically stubby fingernails. Nothing.
I sit there heaving, take out the cigarettes, the lighter. Stare at the lighter. Ram the aloha-girl’s feet into the most rust-eaten side of the lock’s long loops. It only takes two smashes, one of which cuts the right side of my palm open a bit, the other which stubs my fuck-you finger hard, which would have broken a nail if I hadn’t chewed them all to bits. The aloha-girl is fine. “That’s right, you little monkey-fucker,” I say as I tear the lock free and toss it far into the corner. “Yer better than that old off-license anyway.”
Lift off the chest’s top, dust coming up with it, staining the room’s maid-clean atmosphere, settling on the white floor. I cackle involuntarily and reach in like I’m gonna knead ground-beef.
Not much. A small, squat book, looks like a journal or a ship’s log. And, yes, praise the Lord. Three bottles. All three squat, heavy, with fat corks in them. Deep black rum.
I hesitate, my hand next to the rum. Does this shit go bad? I mean, how good can alcohol that’s been sitting around for centuries be? My hand’s found the book; it’s sitting in my lap now. Tiny, like a girl’s diary. Bound in blue leather, cracked and dusty with age. I open the book carefully, afraid to damage the paper, but it’s thick, good stuff, still white in the midst of it, only yellowed around the corners. The first page has small script in the bottom right hand corner: Rory Cochrane.
The Old Cripple himself. Born God knows where; died downstairs. My great-great-great grandfather. Builder of what little family fortune was squandered by the time I popped into this world. It occurs to me, through my gummed-up-Guinness mind, that I’m holding onto a first edition of some kind. The Old Cripple wrote sea-tales for children. Pirates and sea-serpents and stowing away in the hold and whatnot. Mum used to recite them as beddy-bye stories until I rebelled and demanded proper girl stories about marriage and shit. They were, as I remember, fabulously boring and repetitive. Mostly boy adventure stories. Very popular at the time. If this is indeed a first edition, I’ll be in for some money. Flip through the pages. The pages are filled to the brim with writing, small and precise. Reminds me of somebody’s hand. The narrative, or whatever the hell it is, breaks off after twenty pages. Huh. I run my hand over the indentation of the writing, feeling that press of old ink. Feels good. I stare at the opening salvo of scribble for a second, read the first line.
‘The twenty-third of February, the Year of Your Bastard-Lord 1742
I have sold the narrative, and I think that on the next boat I sail, I shall be passenger. No captain would have me for but a cook anyhow. I have tried to write all this before. It came haltingly, and then not at all. The narrative came in its stead, calm and quick. The Lion’s Whelp, the drunken quartermaster, the Pyrate Queen. All things dream spill’d out easily enough whilst I sat in that dark, fish-smelling flat. I did not rest for two days, rarely ate. Only wrote.
Now, as I attempt to recount true matters, I feel the familiar palsy, the constriction of the muscles of the writing hand. But no matter. I am determin’d to write down what needs accounting, plainly and truthfully, without regard to style or financial recompense. I already have the next boy’s tale brewing, but I shall not write it until I have pass’d this parasite and gain’d a little peace. I do not love to guess if anyone will read these words. T’will all depend on my later self’s humor, I suppose. I could burn this book, bury it, or have it print’d as a true tale or not. I doubt anyone would believe it. It lacks all the correctness of one’s life story. There are no immense and righteous morals impart’d and very little love. Instead, a life which was UnChristian, UnHealthful, Immoral, and physically impossible to continue is champion’d. The floating wrecks of No-Place stank of shite and were fill’d with the most vile, vicious men I have ever met. Pyrates, fre’d slaves, whores, and Natural Philosophers pack’d themselves between rott’d, cannon-batter’d slabs of wood, with the closest land at hand the bottom of the bloody ocean. I miss it so.
The Hull’s Breach has brought me wealth, tho it be made up of a foul stitch of lies. I wonder if, after this, I will ever write another true word? They seem not to sell, which suits me, I suppose. I seem unsuit’d to writing them.’
I stare up from the book and take a breath.
What the gibbering fuck?
Pyrates? Pirates. Pirates?
I give a cigarette a minute and a half to live.
Okay: so the Old Cripple says he’s a liar and then he says a bunch of shit which he says is the only true shit he’s ever said. Such shit being: pirates and a, ahem, ‘No-Place,’ now I don’t know my dead languages as well as, say, a pimply fifteen year ensconced with the Jesuits, but, as I remember from my youthful obsession with dystopian literature, ‘No-Place’ is the direct translation, from the Latin, of ‘Utopia’. Which is where Moore got the word from in the first place. Now, this isn’t even a good lie. The Old Cripple was a cripple, hence the goddamn name. He couldn’t sail a fuckin’ ship (as the base inaccuracies in most of his books show), he could barely hobble down the Shore most of his life in Leith, and he certainly couldn’t adventure around with a bunch of pyrates and freed slaves and shit. It’s generally thought that the Old Cripple was a Young Cripple at some point, that the disease (whatever it was, nobody seems to fucking know) came upon him in his teenage years, given various hints he’s left in the autobiography and the memoirs. But, of course, as he’s just stated, he’s damn liar. How does that make a modicum of sense? Mum, mum, mum, I sigh to myself and putting the book down and picking up one of the bottles, if you were as fucked-up as your forbearers, I’d be paying a psychiatrist in blow-jobs and slave-labour right now.
Fuckit. Thank God for booze.
I rip the cork out with an easy pull.
“This,” I say, holding the bottle aloft. “Is for the Old Cripple, dead and gone these half a billion years, but he still manages to get me, one of the yellow race he surely would have despised, drunk when I need it. Cheers, you old faggot.” I raise the bottle a little higher and pause. “And for puppies and kitties, especially animated ones.”
The bottle hits my lips like a kiss from your sixth-grade teacher. The thick old sugar and the new burn constrict my throat, nearly making it spasm. I force the booze down, and once it’s down, I force my stomach to keep its clench on it, and sit there, and soon enough, the warmth emanates from the pit of my stomach through to the tips of toes. And just as I retch, I stop remembering.
I walk through the city with my IPod in my ears. Ignorance is what I’m after: I could be in Paris or Madrid or Wichita or Shangri-La or Minot. David Byrne is singing about nothing, probably, but he’s doing it well and with plenty of tremor and terror. I ruminate on the fact that the hangover wasn’t the worst one this year. Hell, it wasn’t the worst one this week. The whole city’s covered with haar, that special kind of deep, fuggy Scots fog that’s all romantic-like in the films but in reality settles into your bones and either kills you quick or sets you wandering. Lots of young men ran from Edinburgh and Leith. Tubercular. Stevenson’s probably the most famous example. I wonder if The Old Cripple was a precursor. I wonder, lighting a cigarette, if his fucked up leg and worse lungs were gifted to him at birth in this fair city, or if he picked them up on his travels. If he was even born here. In his memoirs, he stated he came back to Leith to die, although he’s not clear if he means the first or second return. Either would make sense. Fuck me rigid. Here I am, thinking about The Old Cripple. I can’t even take a dripping, disgusting walk without thinking about him.
I desperately need sex. The hot-sweaty-make-mush-of-thy-internal-organs sex. But even more I need a coffee.
I choose one of these make-believe trattorias that line the oh-so-noueavu European Shore (we’d call it Euro-trash back in Amerikay), and soon I’m sipping on cappuccino made from a packet and nibbling on a stale croissant. I watch those who sit out here with me in the haar: bulging-bellied men with laptops and cigarillos, kids with piercings and pints of lager, a couple having an early pasta dinner, nervously checking each other for enjoyment.
The caffeine’s beginning to work on me. I slip the fat bound book out of the old Spar shopping bag I had wrapped it in to protect it against the world. Roll the book around in my hands. I put it down on the table and close my eyes and lean my head back and take the ocean stink into my nostrils and try to appreciate the fact that I am actually alive and sort of free and not dead in the desert or stuck in some hellish reading room in a small liberal arts college or making some boring asshole dinner or waiting tables with a pleasant smile, waiting for the inevitable question about my ethnicity followed by the one about whether I liked white guys.
“Do you have a good imagination?”
I open my eyes.
The afternoon wind has picked up, and the haar leaks off the docks and flows across the boulevard, covering the tourists with dew and delight. A child caws like a pigeon. The new cold rises up my back like a lover’s lips just slathered with chill chapstick, and my innards rustle. But it’s bright, too damn bright, almost like film-set strobe lights where the man stands, and I’m nearly blinded just glancing at him. Before I twitch my eyes away, I get an impression which sticks on the retinas: a grin, eyes a squash of green, the sides of his face etched in economical shadows. Just the grin really. That’s all I’m really sure is there. I slip on my ridiculous Dr. Thompson-wanna-be bomber shades and give a nice fat shit-eating grin while the burn wears out of my eyes.
My height. Short hair, like a military man back home for two weeks. Slim, callused hands. Asian, though I can’t damn tell where from. Pale skin; a mutt most likely. Delicately handsome, like a court eunuch from some Disney skin-flick fantasy. He’s got on blue jeans and a white T-shirt, but he wears them like they were the most constraining, ironed and pressed monkey suit. He sits down quickly, his movements slight and fluid. Martial arts of some kinds. There is a single cigarette burning between two fingers, Marlboro from the smell of it. His voice is unaccented American; the kind of fake Eastern no-accent they teach you in first year acting-for-sitcom classes, or that you able to cover up the fact that you’re from bumfuck Maryland. He presses into his seat and gazes hard across the table at me. This guy’s as American as taking a secret piss into the Mississippi at midnight on the Fourth of July. In a white man, it might be crude or farcical. In this half-breed, it’s convincing and charming and paint-peeling frightening.
“No,” I say. “Sorry.”
“Sorry,” he says. “For what?”
“Ruining your pickup line. What comes next, hoss? Nice shoes, wanna fuck?”
The grin changes but stays. “But you don’t have nice shoes.”
“Aww, you noticed.”
“I’m not trying to pick you up.”
“Could have fooled me.”
“I’m not,” he says again. “Trying to pick you up.” And this time he says it with the manner of someone who says things twice very seldom, and only then when he cannot say what he wishes.
I smile and tell him, in Mandarin, to fuck off and find a nice Asian girl.
He puts the cigarette between he lips and draws on it. He doesn’t suck on it with greed and anguish, the way a real smoker does, nor does he seem uncomfortable with it in his mouth, like an actor with a bit of business or a teenager looking to get laid. He puts it there out of habit. A pause, a break. Preparing the delivery. “I’m American,” he says.
“And I don’t speak Canto.”
He makes a single shrug. “I’m not Chinese.”
“Neither am I.”
“I know that.”
He says it playfully, and I’m supposed to take it as an opening to lean in and show him my boobs and blush and says ‘How do you know?’ and then we can really start this thing, by God. But he’s not a player. I lived with Jack for almost a year. I know player. So I stay where I am, and I draw every bit of nicotine out of the death-stick in my mouth and then spew it out, fouling up the geography between us. “Are you going to tell me what the fuck you want, or I am going to leave you with the bill, shit-bird?”
“You’re lying to me, Maggie. You’ve got an excellent imagination.”
“You see all those crayon drawings I did when I was six? Up on the fridge for near a year.” I’m nodding with it, the energy surging in me to walk away. Who is this motherfucker? He smells like a fed, but why the hell would a fed want to talk to me? Am I being recruited or something? Had a friend who was briefly in the masons for the free lobster and steak dinners who was approached about being an off-site analyst, and that guy had done more drugs than you could fit in a grain silo. The agency’s desperate these days.
“You know what the largest recorded man-made explosion before 1945 was?” he asks. “I know, I know, it’s difficult to accurately measure these things, or at least it used to be, so there’s quite a few which we know were just… big. Really fucking big, and who knows about levels of bigness between them, but I like to take this on article of faith. Just a little leap.” He leans in, eyes in mine like hooks he’s twisting. “December 6th, 1917. Halifax harbor. A French munitions ship rams into a Norwegian freighter. The French ship lights up, lolls to the waterfront, where it promptly explodes. The sky’s a cubic mile of flame; the harbor bottom goes dry for a millisecond. Nearly two thousand people are cut down; thousands of buildings are fucked-the-hell-up. And what really messes with me about this,” he says, his cigarette bobbing, the butt of his hand resting on the table. “Was that the world was in the middle of a war which would create the idea of mass slaughter on an industrial scale, and that this was an accident. Just imagine what would have happened if the Germans could have recreated the situation deliberately. At Manchester. Or New York.” He sits there, staring at me. Cigarette bobbing. Haven’t seen that grin for a while.
“Gee,” I say. “Maybe the war would have ended earlier.”
“Are you a pacifist?”
“Funny,” he says, looking up to see the waitress walk past us without even a glance. Back to me. “I’ve noticed a distinct trait in pacifists: a cynical joy in watching their own side lose.”
I’m not playing into this. Four pints in, maybe, I’d take to this fetching errand boy, and we could argue the finer points of Western politics until I had his boxers off, but it’s early, and he knows my name. I hold out a hand. “Gimme a smoke.” He slips a hard red pack out of his pocket, lays a cig in my palm. Light it with the cracked hula girl. Jack. Jack would eat this creep-o alive. “That’s what I wanted,” I say.
“That’s what I wanted. A cigarette. So I asked you, and you nicely gave me what I wanted. Now. You tell me what you want. Ask nicely. And I’ll see what I can do.”
He sits back, a bit like an occasional gambler who watches five-card stud on ESPN2 and thinks that makes him an expert. “I want the book on the table.”
I crack a laugh like an imported beer’s bottle cap. I pat the thick leather cover. “Yeah? And why’s that?”
He leans in so slightly. “I asked nicely.”
“You’re full of shit, hombre. Tell me: who wrote this book?” I crook a finger at his steady features. “Come on, if you’re so keen on it, tell me who wrote the bloody book.”
“A gentleman by the name of Rory Cochrane did,” he says without hesitation. “In the winter of 1742.”
I freeze up like a nitrous canister just cracked. Suddenly this doesn’t seem like fun. Suddenly I’m utterly terrified. “And what…” My tongue has gone opiate-dry. “And what if I don’t give it to you?”
He leans in, his smile taking up my whole world-view. “Do you have a good imagination?”
Brendan Carney Byrne was born in the District of Columbia in 1982 and has Bachelor’s in Russian Studies from Hunter College CUNY. His short fiction has been published in Flurb.