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It was the kind of cold, rainy night in summer that only occurs on the Atlantic coast, an enervating, damp kind of chill that sneaks into everything. Rain-shredded fog swirled down by the harbor, where, at 3:00 AM, some of the only people left awake in Boston were hard at work. Even over in the normally rowdy dorms and frats of Cambridge, the city slept, lulled to bed by the weather. Downtown, on the third floor of an old brownstone, HR MacCrae sat in an atmosphere as far removed from the outer damp and cold as possible, in the humid, fragrant, calm space that was his greenhouse. A converted walk-in closet, the greenhouse was small, maybe eight feet by five, but it was, perhaps due to this intimacy, a remarkable place. The outer wall, a glass-paned extension jutting out a few feet from the side of the building, now striped with the rain, was lined with guttered, irrigated beds. Here, in climate-controlled, water-rationed, fertilizer-perfect conditions, grew a dense and varied collection of plants. Ferns, palms, bromeliads, ivies, lilies, and many more sat, shivering slightly when the mist from the overhear sprayers hit them, soaking up the last of the artificial sun for the day, as healthy and thriving a group of flora as could be found. In prominent spots about the greenhouse were HR's favorites, the orchids, positioned so as to show off their thick, waxy leaves and brilliant, almost gaudy, blossoms.
Reclining on an old chaise next to the thick, humidity-blocking door, HR sat back and tried to relax. The gentle strains of a Mozart concerto sifted through the room and he whistled along a little as he looked at his five babies. In his mind he recited the Latin names as he went. His first orchid, a Grass Pink or Calopogon tuberosus, the largest, sat in a little copse of ferns, a fat bud showing where, in a few weeks time, a big pink flower, shot with emerald, would unfold. The Dove orchid, Peristeria elata, was situated under a small corn-palm, it's delicate white-and-gray blossom fading, turning ragged with age but still striking in its shape and coloration. His Arundina graminifolia, the Bamboo orchid, sat with a miniature stand of real bamboo, flowerless but still intriguing, with its wild profusion of roots dangling like dread-locks and its long yet thick leaves. The real upstart of the greenhouse was the Oncidium papilio, the Butterfly orchid, which, nestled among a group of spider plants, sported no less than four huge blossoms, multi-lobed, spotted, orange-and-yellow flowers that busily filled the greenhouse with their scent, a wonderfully tart, fresh aroma very unlike the cloy of many flowers. His last plant, his newest, was just a little thing, a few straggly roots and exactly three leaves, cradled gently in its pot of wood chips. It was a Polyrrhiza lindenii, a rare species from Southeast Asia commonly called the Ghost orchid, that he'd sent away for some months ago. He was a little worried about this plant; it hadn't responded well to being shipped from Thailand, apparently, and simply refused to grow. It was holding its own and didn't seem to be dying, but it just wouldn't get any bigger.
Frowning, HR rose and went to the plant and then noticed that he was holding something, a piece of newspaper. He looked at it and wondered why he'd cut it out. He didn't have any scrapbook to paste it in, no family album to file it away in... Did he mean to tack it to the wall, like a memento? Or have it framed? With a puzzled grunt, he put the piece of paper on the chaise and, banishing it from his thoughts, turned to little Polyrrhiza lindenii. He stroked its spindly foliage and wondered how he could get the forlorn thing to prosper.
There were many things that HR loved about plants, and especially his orchids, but the best thing was the fact that they didn't produce sound of any kind. They never yelled or laughed too loudly. They didn't demand or wheedle or cajole or even ask. They would wither and die rather than make a noise. And in HR's line of work, that meant a lot. Because the greenhouse was far more than a hobby to him and it went beyond the simple diversion of a few nice plants. The greenhouse was sanity, a refuge from his Life (he thought of it like that, with the capital L) that he sometimes wished he didn't need. It was time away, an all-too-brief flight from reality that kept him going when, inside, he desperately wanted to quit. Here the plants made no demands. They simply existed and, if he decided for some reason not to care for them, would simply die and just become more dead plant matter. No funerals or headstones, no eulogies, just bare non-existence and then natural decay, a rejoining with the earth. He had no idea why, but these concepts were immensely comforting to him.
Suddenly the overhead UV lamps cut out, regulated by a timer, and HR sat in the dark, watching the thin ganglia of the lightning through the streaming panes. Finally, with a sigh, he rose and made to leave. On an afterthought, he turned and picked up the cut-out piece of paper again, crumpled it into a ball and tossed it into a trash can. But then his shoulders slumped, he shook his head and went over and retrieved the scrap. Smoothing it out, he left it on a bench off to one side and then left the greenhouse, back into Life. Tomorrow was going to be a big day. In the darkness, their night-time activities underway, stoma opening, the plants, quite naturally, ignored the obituary.
From the Boston Tribune Obituary Section, dated June 22nd, 2002.
- Famous pub-owner and philanthropist Ian MacCrae passed away yesterday at St Paul's Home For the Aged due to complications from diabetes at the age of 102. Well known for his charity work, especially the MacCrae's Kids Foundation, a shelter and placement center for orphaned youngsters, MacCrae is also fondly remembered for owning and managing the landmark MacCrae's Pub, a Boston favorite since 1925.
"You always felt welcome at MacCrae's," said bar regular Karl Fruth, 62. "Ian was just a real good guy and his place was more like home than a bar..." Born in Boston in 1900, MacCrae was the son of Scottish inn-keepers who date their origins to the fifteenth century. His son, Peter, and grandson, Hiram, have since taken up the family business and have preserved MacCrae's Pub almost exactly as it appeared on it's opening day. Prohibition, of course, also played a role in the development of the tavern:
"They just pulled down the sign out front and went right on, business as usual." Laughed son Peter MacCrae. "They weren't about to let a little thing like federal law slow them down..."
Leo Kern, long-time business associate and friend, had this to say: "Ian was a real man among men, a kind of throwback you might say. He was tough but fair... (and) often showed a streak of generosity that knew no bounds."
In addition to his son and grandson, MacCrae is survived by numerous in-laws, many other grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. A Boston treasure, he will be sorely missed.
A private service of Catholic Burial will be held at 12:30 PM at St Mark's Church, followed by a public grave-side service at Mt. Auburn Cemetery and a further, private remembrance at MacCrae's Pub at 4:00 PM. Members of the public are invited to attend the grave-side service and donations are to be given in memory to the MacCrae's Kids Foundation.
Stepping out of the limo, he looked up at the cloudless, sunny sky over Boston and thought to himself that there was something terribly inappropriate, something offensive to propriety, about pleasant weather at a funeral. Basic symbolism demanded clouds at least, not this genial picnic stuff. Ideally, there should be a good, soaking rainstorm, like in the movies. Maybe some thunder.
Stooping, HR helped his wife, Lily, out of the car and looked around the sprawling old cemetery. They were a handsome couple in their early thirties, well-dressed, good-looking, and apparently affluent. He was dark and tallish, trim if not skinny, with very handsome features that were only partially marred by a pasty complexion and dark circles below the eyes. Lily, by contrast, was small and blonde, with a healthy glow about her that bespoke exercise and a good diet. Their children, Paul and Lucy, aged three and seven, respectively, had been left home for the afternoon in the care of a good friend.
The cortege from St Mark's had been miles long and there were cars and limos pulling up in a steady stream, all disgorging one or more mourners. There were even newspaper photographers and a couple of TV vans. Lily also looked around and then gave a low whistle.
"Wow," she said softly. "Quite a turnout."
"Yeah," HR grimaced, "Granddad was quite a guy. Come on, I see Dad over there."
They crossed between rows of stones and memorials on their way to the freshly-dug rectangle that beckoned from across the grassy lawn and HR reflected that these markers designated people who had already had their day in the sun, so to speak. They were not the honorees today and no crowds would be gathering around the cold headstones to mourn their passing. The stones and the memories that living people had of the dead, those here immortalized, were the only things left. His own mother, who'd died of leukemia almost five years ago, lay under a stone in the family plot nearby, along with a dozen or so other deceased forbears. It had been a nice, sunny affair the day of his mother's funeral, too.
The cemetery workers had erected an awning over the as-yet unfilled grave, a striped tent-thing that seemed more suited for a beach party than a funeral and that served to further aggravate HR's sense of propriety. Yes sir, Mr. MacCrae, you're the big winner today! It seemed to scream. All expenses paid trip to nowhere! He tried to silence the nagging, cynical voice and at least partially succeeded by occupying himself in looking at the assembled well-wishers. Dressed almost exclusively in dark clothing, the crowds slowly and reverently gathered about the hole and waited at a respectful distance from the immediate family for the service to begin. HR and Lily took their places next to HR's father, Peter, and waited silently as well. Up close to the yawning grave, where straps (again, oddly gay in color) waited to lower the casket into a thick cement vault, there were about forty people, all shuffling and sniffling and sweating in the summer heat. The family's longtime business partners, the Kern family, were represented by Ben Kern and his brother, Sean. HR nodded at Ben, who nodded solemnly back. The rest of the front-row crowd was MacCraes, aunts, uncles, cousins, and in-laws, all of whom HR recognized from family functions, past weddings, and funerals. Funny, he thought, how I only see these people at things like this. His eyes, shielded by dark glasses, walked over the group as his mind worked to remember who they were. Sometimes this was a bit dicey; some of the kids had grown a lot and some of the grown-ups had aged a lot, but, aside from Cousin Ralph's teeming brood, (of which there were simply too many to keep up with) he could connect a name to each face. He ought to remember them; he wrote them checks often enough. Yes, they were all familiar and they were all more or less dependent on HR and the family fortune for their financial security.
Except that guy. HR stared at the man with his trained bartender's eye and decided that he'd never seen the guy before. Medium height and build, with bright red hair, the man was about thirty, thirty-five, well-dressed and handsome, and standing very straight. His eyes, like HR's, were hidden behind sunglasses, but HR had the impression the man was staring back at him from across the grave. Think as he might, HR could not place the guy and resolved to ask around later among the group to see if someone didn't know him. Probably just some weird bastard who likes funerals, he thought. Who cares? Not Granddad, that's for sure...
Finally the hearse pulled up and Father Hal got out with the head mortician fellow. The designated pall-bearers (HR, Peter, and Uncle Fred on one side, Ben, Sean, and Steve Kern on the other) made their way to the back of the big vehicle. HR thought the hearse looked like a big station wagon with not enough windows. The mortuary man opened the back hatch and HR noticed the plush, even gaudy interior, all drapes and velvet and silk, and mentally shook his head. Spare no expense and bury your loved one in style and comfort, it seemed to say, as if the deceased might have more easily offended sensibilities than say, a brick. Go for the cheap funeral and that loved one will be sent to his eternal reward in business class and be relegated to the trailer parks of the afterlife. Don't want that, now do you?
The mortuary man slid the gleaming silver casket from the back of the hearse on a sort of gurney and the men grasped the thick silver handles on each side. With a heave, they lifted the casket and carried it very slowly over the manicured grass to the hole. The sun was very bright on the casket-lid, shining up into the faces of the bearers as they carefully placed the box on the overhanging straps and supports. As Father Hal came gliding up, prayer book in hand, the men resumed their places around the grave.
The cleric began and then droned along, and HR tuned him out and thought instead about his Granddad, Ian MacCrae. What had the obituary called him? A Boston Treasure? A Man Among Men and a well-loved local figure? Yeah, that and more. HR, however, had never really known the man. Granddad had been in the Home for as long as he could recall and the memories HR had of him were colored by the odd feelings of revulsion he'd always had at the Home. Old people, in various states of enfeeblement either mental or physical or both, all warehoused at the Home like forgotten convicts, drooling and moaning away their days until they finally expired in front of a game show on TV. The smells, the sounds, and the pathetic, helpless nature of the place all influenced HR's memories of his grandfather and somehow always pushed their way to the front.
HR remembered that Granddad had been a big man, over six feet, and that he'd had piercing green eyes, even in the later stages when he was basically out of it. Granddad had, by the end, decided that HR was, in fact, his dead son Michael. At first HR had gently corrected the old man but then later gave it up. If he wants to think I'm Michael, dead now these fifty years, so be it. Sheer longevity, at least, gave him the right; the man had lived a long, long life, even if the last fifteen or twenty years weren't that hot. He'd been two months short of his 103rd birthday and had, all other considerations aside, been witness to a lot of history and change.
What else? Of course, Granddad had been famous in family circles as having conducted a Big One, a semi-shady, profiteering-style enterprise that was one of the various family traditions. The concept, as developed over the years, was to travel to the most bombed-out, earthquake-leveled, devastated city there was and set up the first bar in town. The goal was to make a big pile of money real fast and get the hell out before anyone noticed they'd been there at all. It was something of a profiteer's dream, a virtual license to print money. Of course, these opportunities came along only rarely and, so far in MacCrae history there had been only six. In the pub there was a flag, the national flag of each respective country, hung by the rafters for each one. To outsiders, they were decorations, but, to MacCraes, they were trophies. In order, they had occurred as follows: Panama, 1672, after the legendary pirate Morgan had razed the place after a sacking, Moscow in 1812 after the Russians had burned the city to deny it to Napoleon, Atlanta in 1864 after Sherman passed through, Yokohama, 1923, after the big earthquake, Stalingrad, 1943, just after the Germans had surrendered and the Red Army had begun to push back the Nazis, and Hue during the Viet Nam War, after the US Marine Corps had smashed the ancient city to rubble in taking it. Other hell-holes had been considered, but only those six had been seen through. These were bad places, to be sure, but the potential gain outweighed the risk; in these places a man could clean up selling booze if he did it right. No one in the family was exactly sure if Ian had been all that successful in the Russian Big One, having returned from the thing somewhat prematurely, it was said, for somewhat mysterious reasons that no one really talked about. All anyone knew for sure was that more than a couple of members of that expedition had died violently. In fact, poor Michael, the one that Granddad had confused with HR himself, had died there. There was more, too, but HR had never really kept up with the family history or gossip. Maybe he'd ask his dad about it later.
To HR, the notoriety of Ian's Big One was also somewhat lessened by the fact that it had been his own dad, Peter, that had run the Hue operation, a much less deadly (if far less profitable) Big One that had come to be the modern epitome of the exercise. To HR, though, the whole idea of the Big One seemed anachronistic, like heading west in covered wagons to blaze new trails in bartending; it seemed pointless and stupid and greedy and he fervently hoped that he'd never be compelled to do such a thing. But to the older members of the clan, Ian and all of the others who'd run a Big One were tantamount to legends, family heroes who had dared to sell liquor where no one else could. HR thought that if they were a monastic order, they'd be the Brothers Tippler.
Something Father Hal was saying shook him back to the present and HR listened with a wry half-smile as the priest called Ian a "good Catholic" and then went on with his droning eulogy. Good Catholic? That's a laugh. A diehard, lifelong agnostic and given to outright scorn for organized faiths in general, Granddad had found religion with the same intentions as a man buying an insurance policy; can't be too careful. He'd been baptized and confirmed, despite his obvious loss of mental faculties, just last year, and had received the last rites on his deathbed, but even the priests who attended the old man knew that he didn't really believe in any of it. Well, thought HR, that's how it works, I guess. You could be Joseph Stalin, Jack the Ripper, and Ted Bundy all rolled into one and, if you just confessed at the end, poof! Off you go to the Pearly Gates. And why not? What was the harm done? HR wiped his forehead with a handkerchief, squeezed his wife's hand, and thought about that one.
Then again, maybe there were ramifications to such things. Maybe if you didn't really believe and had just been hedging your bets, God would stick you in the civil service of Heaven or something. Make you polish harps all day. Or what if you didn't believe and didn't accept religion and then died and found out that they were right after all and there was a sort of celestial bureaucracy that relegated the sorry, unheeding, unbelieving souls to fiery, eternal damnation? And what if you did believe and did accept religion and then you died and found out... nothing, that the human consciousness dies with the brain and the whole idea was just plain wrong? What then? Nothing, presumably, but would there be a moment of disappointment? Would the soul, exiting the body, look around and complain bitterly about the lack of pre-conceived heavenly trappings? Or does each soul find just what it expects when it leaves the body? Maybe it's very personal, unique to each soul, and each person has a different afterlife. HR, feeling a headache beginning behind his eyes, frowned. All he knew was, Granddad had been no such thing as a good Catholic. One just had to hope that God was as flexible as his earth-bound representatives on the whole issue of faith.
Finally winding up, Father Hal bowed his head and led the assembled in a prayer for the deceased. Even HR, who'd almost never seen the inside of a church, recognized the Our Father. All of the mourners near the grave bowed their heads and murmured along and then, some crossing themselves, shuffled around as the ceremony broke up. Over at a discreet distance, under a shady elm, HR noticed a man in overalls sitting on a backhoe, eating his lunch. After the crowd left, he'd come over and scoop the dirt in over Ian MacCrae and that would be it. Another day, another dollar, another dead man.
"HR?" Lily gently brought him out of his thoughts. "We should get going..."
"Yeah, I know," he nodded. "Let's get out of here."
The crowd, which had evidently continued to swell during the service, was formidable, at least a thousand people. Despite the crush, HR noticed the red-haired stranger from the graveside getting into a sedan nearby.
The final stage of Ian MacCrae's send-off was a remembrance at the old pub and HR and Lily wanted to be there ahead of time to make sure all was ready. Later, as they tooled along the sun-washed streets of the city, up Commonwealth to downtown, cool and comfortable in the imposing limo, HR was silent and simply looked out the smoked window, thinking.
"Honey?" Lily said. "Is anything wrong? Apart from the obvious, I mean..."
"Naw, I guess not." HR smiled at her and tried to banish the morbid train of thought he was on. "Did you notice that red-haired guy? By the grave?"
"What about him?"
"Did you recognize him, I mean?" HR asked. "Ever see him before?"
"Uh uh," she said, digging for something in her purse. "Why?"
"No reason," HR shrugged. "He just looked kind of familiar is all..."
They pulled up in front of the bar building some minutes later and found that, already, there were dozens of people gathered outside, waiting to get the remembrance rolling. HR reflected that people were often strangely up-beat after a funeral; they certainly drank enough. They seemed to be unconsciously expressing their relief that it wasn't them in that box in the ground, that it wasn't their day to go, and so hoist a shot in celebration. Remember the dead, certainly, but let's not forget the living, either. The living were, well, alive, and they were thirsty.
Sighing, he looked over the building with a critical, owner's eye. A three-story structure of sandstone, the bar was wedged between a twelve-story bank on one side and a twenty-story office block on the other, the result of the place having been designated an historical monument by the city. All of the other period buildings had been razed but MacCrae's stood in the shadow of the new glass structures, looking more like a museum or a library than a bar. Only the bottom floor was actually business; the rest was living and working space for HR and his family. Sometimes he felt a kinship with the old building; they were both relics, throwbacks in the modern age that were being shouldered slowly aside by the implacable future.
Inside, the two headed upstairs, changed into more comfortable clothes, looked in on the kids, and then went down to check on the preparations. Little Paul and Lucy had never really known Granddad and so were spared the whole affair, but HR knew that, with their inquisitive minds, he'd be explaining the concept of death to them soon enough. He and Lily had discussed this already but had come to no firm decisions. Soon enough, HR thought, but not today.
In the bar proper, he looked around and nodded at the decorations and table set-ups. The space itself was classic American Bar, a wide and deep area paneled in dark wood with dimly-lit tables and booths throughout. A huge brass and oak, two-sided bar island jutted into the middle with an extensive rack of glassware hanging above. On the walls were hundreds and hundreds of signed celebrity photos and vintage movie posters. It wasn't fancy, but it was no dive, either, occupying that unique niche in the bar business that attracted everyone from lawyers to college students to longshoremen. Today they were closed to the public and the place had been done up in black crepe and bunting, with many photo-spreads of Ian MacCrae placed around the walls.
All over the bar scurried employees; bar-backs were shoveling ice into the coolers, waitresses were straightening chairs and lighting candles, bartenders were checking their tills and their stock, and delivery men threaded their way through with new cases of beer and wine. Normally the bar served burgers and sandwiches, bar fare, but today they had brought in a caterer and HR saw to it that these people were also ready with the pre-selected snacks and drinks. Over by the front door, HR found Ben Kern giving some last-minute instruction to three of his men. Not wanting to interrupt, he waited till Ben was finished and then strolled over and peeked out the door. Even more people had gathered outside.
"All set, Ben?" he asked over his shoulder, knowing that things would be.
"Sure thing, Mac." nodded the other. He was a tallish, lanky man with sandy blond, crew-cut hair, thirty years old, and as handsome as they come, despite (or maybe because of) a long white scar on his right cheek, the souvenir of a knife-fight some years back. As dour as his boss could sometimes be, Ben thought the world of HR and, around the bar, he was a welcome, sunny complement to HR's often brooding nature.
HR turned from the door, nodded once at Ben, and went over to the opposite side of the bar, to where the four-piece Scottish band he'd hired was setting up. Since the family was often mistaken as having Irish origins, every opportunity was used to promote the Scottish angle, especially since this set MacCrae's apart from the myriad Irish pubs in Boston. Looking very authentic in kilts and all, the band looked up as HR approached and a fat bagpipe player stepped forward.
"All set, boys?" asked HR.
"Yes, sir," the fat piper said. "All ready."
"Good." HR considered. "No Irish tunes, now, OK?"
"Oh, no sir," agreed the piper. "Never."
"Good, good." HR smiled and handed the man an envelope, the band's pay. "I guess you can start whenever you want, then."
"Will do." The man turned and gave the pipes hung around his neck an experimental, wheezing honk. Soon the bar was echoing with tabors and pipes.
HR consulted his watch and then gave Ben the high sign. Ben unlocked and opened the doors and a humming, susurrus crowd of people began filing in to take up places at the bar, in booths, or at tables. Each was asked to present an invitation, so this process took a little time, but, in a matter of an hour or so, the place was almost full. A few gate-crashers (reporters, mainly) were turned away, and one of Ben's bouncers took up a sentry position outside. The guests mingled around, got plates of food, looked at the old photos, took seats and watched the band. And, since the event was on the house, and since they were in a bar, and since this was a remembrance, they drank. Four bartenders and six waitresses couldn't keep up, at least not at first, and HR himself pitched in, acting as waiter for the first hour or so it took to get everyone served. He didn't much like the actual job of serving booze and avoided bartending whenever possible, but this was a special occasion, after all, and these were all family and friends.
HR noticed his dad over at one big table, regaling a gaggle of old ladies with tales of Ian's life and exploits. Peter, a later-day hippy who wore his long gray hair in a pony tail and listened to old Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young albums, usually avoided these sort of functions but had bucked up when news had come of his father's death and been right there for HR, taking on the role of family patriarch just one more time. Watching the man joke with the old women, HR knew that his dad had probably smoked a big fat joint on the drive back from the funeral. Oh well, HR mused, it's sure as hell not as bad for him as what these jokers are swilling...
As the afternoon wore on and day gave way to night, the guests underwent that inevitable transformation from average folks to drunks, a process HR had seen many times but still marveled at. Not everyone, but certainly most of the party-goers got fairly good and loaded. He knew he was critical, being a religiously dedicated non-drinker, but he couldn't help it; call it them you will, drunks are drunks. They spoke too loud and laughed too raucously. They told the same stories over and over again. They spilled things and broke things. They were demanding and sometimes rude. To HR, all in all, not the greatest people to be around, even when they were family and friends.
At the root of it, though, truth be told, was the fact that HR just flat-out hated his job. The drunks were part of that, to be certain, but there was a lot more to his dissatisfaction than a loathing of sloppy booze-hounds. A born introvert, he could make himself glad-hand and chat up people with the best of them; he was actually very good at it. But he felt it diminished him somehow, made him someone he wasn't, a smiling doppelganger that could switch on the charm when money was to be made.
There were also the moral implications of selling booze. Always lawful and with a homey, genial atmosphere, MacCrae's Pub had nevertheless ruined many a liver and brain. Who knew how many lives? Of course, HR knew that someone would sell people liquor and he wasn't some sort of a prohibitionist, but he wished, more and more each day, that it wasn't him doing the selling. Lately he would look at the fine things that he and the family had--the cars and houses and furnishings--and see only the poor sorry drunk at the end of the bar trying to get up the nerve to ask for one on the cuff. Most nights he was able to see it as a job, a simple one, really, that brought in all that he and his family could need. Those were, if not good nights, at least not bad ones. But on bad nights it was hard for him to get past what he saw as the fundamental insanity of it all. Here he was, selling these people poison--no more, no less--and they paid him for it, eager to be parted from their money in exchange for a few hours escape, they thanked him for it, and, worst of all, they liked him for it. He was the greatest bartender in town. A real great guy. Yeah, right. A great guy who had started to snap at his wife and employees for no good reason.
Perhaps the worst part, though, was the feeling of being trapped. More than 300 years of MacCrae tradition stood like a mountain in front of any idea of his leaving the business, a dark and disapproving mass that would fall over on him the minute he ceased to accept his responsibilities as head of the clan. Even his father, the amiable, pot-smoking hippy grandfather, seemed bent on keeping up the tradition. At a party for little Paul's first birthday, Peter had toasted the baby as "the future owner of MacCrae's". He had considered the idea of just owning the place and letting someone else manage it, but the few experiments they'd tried towards this goal had fallen flat. HR just couldn't trust anyone enough to do it right and the feeling that he was foisting his burden on some other poor chump didn't sit too well, either.
To HR, who had voiced none of these concerns, not even to Lily, the problem seemed hopeless; he couldn't leave but he hated to stay. And every passing day the chafing, gnawing sense that his life was wasting away kept gaining ground on him. Every day it loomed up closer from behind, threatening to engulf him like a storm-cloud. Last week he'd found himself looking at an ad for cheap flights to Barbados. A single. And one-way. He'd torn up the ad but the feeling, the dissatisfaction, had remained, stronger than ever. And now this memorial for Granddad, an all-too-hardy reaffirmation of his place in the family that he didn't need or want. It was going to be a long night.
There were lots of speeches and anecdotes and tearful stories from booze-emboldened people with something to say who usually ended up crying and saying something to the effect that they'd miss Ian and that he was a real great guy. HR didn't give a speech and instead retired to behind the bar, where he sipped ginger ale and listened. From time to time his eye was drawn to the flags up in the rafters, the mementos of Big Ones. Between the impromptu eulogies the band would skirl into action and keep the mood from getting too heavy.
There was some sort of commotion over at the door and HR went over to see who'd gotten angry this time about not being let in. Another reporter, no doubt. He found Ben's man, a big slab of meat named Harry, barring the doorway. Outside on the sidewalk, protesting that he had a right to be there, stood the red-haired stranger from the funeral.
"What's the trouble, Harry?" HR said, looking at the stranger.
"Guy says his name's Kern, sir," rumbled the bouncer. "Michael Kern. Never heard of him, and he ain't on the list."
"Kern, eh?" HR frowned at the would-be intruder. "If you're a Kern, what were your parents' names?"
"My dad," said the man levelly, speaking over Harry's shoulder, "was Brian Kern. My mom was Laine MacCrae."
HR blinked. His stomach fell. Laine MacCrae? Is that what the man had said? He blinked again and motioned the man past the shrugging Harry, his mind whirling and searching for facts. Laine was HR's great-aunt, Ian's daughter. She'd been a certified, inveterate Black Sheep, a traitor to family tradition who had, for whatever reasons, turned her back on the clan during the forties. Moving west, to California, she'd eventually hooked up with another family outcast, Brian Kern. Like Laine, Brian had deserted that family business--security for the MacCraes--and was also looked upon as something of a quisling. Beyond that, there wasn't much to recall. The respective clans had so maligned the pair over the years, using them as an object lesson in infidelity, that HR was unclear as to the couple's actual status; for him and the rest of the family, they'd pretty much ceased to exist. So what was this guy, who claimed to be their son, doing here? And why now, at Granddad Ian's remembrance?
"Come with me." HR waved the man along. Catching Ben's eye, HR motioned the head bouncer over and the three filed into HR's office, a richly appointed space with lots of expensive leather and glass furniture. Still thinking, HR motioned the others to sit and did so himself, behind the massive oak desk that dominated the room. On the desk sat a small clay pot in which grew a delicate bromeliad plant with one striking pink blossom. HR caressed the plant's thick leaves, an almost involuntary motion, as he sat down.
Looking the red-head over carefully, HR noticed that was holding a leather-bound book of some sort and that, sure enough, he did bear a family resemblance. The red hair, the pointy nose, the prominent chin... From the few old grainy photos he'd seen, the man looked to HR to be the spitting image of Great-aunt Laine.
"What's up, Mac?" Asked Ben, glancing at the newcomer. "Who's this?"
"This guy," HR nodded at the man, "says he's the son of Brian Kern and Laine MacCrae."
"The hell you say!" Ben sat up sharply in his chair and narrowed his eyes at the man. To him, more happily entrenched in family ways, this fellow represented instant trouble. "Is it true?"
"It's true," the man said softly. "I even have my birth certificate, if you want to see it..."
"Wow..." Ben whistled and then looked to HR. "So... what's he want?"
"We don't know yet," HR said and looked at the man--Michael. "Is there something we can do for you? You said you were the son of Brian and Laine. Does that mean they're... no longer with us?"
"That's right," Michael said. "Mom died last year. Cancer. Dad died twelve years ago in a shoot-out during a bank robbery. And yes, there is something I want from you. Something I want from all of you MacCraes and Kerns. I want you all to read this." With that, the man thumped the thick leather book onto the desk. "It's my mom's story, and, since it... explains a lot, I want you to read it."
"What for?" Ben asked acidly. "She and your dad made their choice and that's that. What's more to be said?"
"A lot more!" Michael protested. "She and my dad had their reasons, believe me. Just read the thing and you'll see what I'm saying."
"OK, fine," HR said firmly. "Maybe I'll read it. But one question. Why now? Why at Ian MacCrae's funeral?"
"Mom's wishes," shrugged Michael. "She told me to wait till Ian had died and then to give this book to whoever was head of the MacCrae family. And I guess that's you."
"Huh," HR grunted. "You know--Michael is it? You could save us a lot of time by just telling us what's in the book..."
"Read it," Michael insisted. "Then call me. I'll be at this number until Thursday of next week. After that, I'll be back in California." He rose and handed HR a slip of paper. Turning, he made to leave.
"Hold on," HR said, rising from his desk. "You still haven't said. What the hell do you want, anyway? So we read the thing, so what? What's the point?"
"The point is," Michael paused in the doorway. "That I want to clear my parents' good name and show the world what a rat-fuck bastard Ian MacCrae really was. Good afternoon, gentlemen." And he left.
The two men left in the office sat in stunned silence for a few moments and then looked at each other.
"Well!" HR finally said mockingly . "Nice of him to drop in, wasn't it?"
"Jesus, Mac." Ben looked at the leather tome as if it might jump off the desk and bite him. "Doesn't this bother you? I mean, who does this guy think he is, anyway?"
"Ah, that's the problem, Ben," HR picked up the book and smiled grimly. "He thinks he's a Kern. And we all know how crazy you bastards are..."
The book was untitled on the cover and smelled musty. HR opened the cover and found a type-written manuscript bound into the thick leather covers. There was, again, no title on the first page. He flipped through the thing, letting the pages rifle through his fingers till he hit the end. About two hundred double-spaced pages in an old Courier type-face. It was obviously typed by hand, as evidenced by corrections here and there where old-time white-out fluid had been used. At the very end, set at the bottom, the notation "Mill Valley, Calif. September, 1956". Flipping the pages back again, he read the first paragraph. Then, with an incredulous grunt, he shut the book, tossed it back onto the desk, and rose from his chair.
"What's it say?" Ben asked, also rising.
"It says," HR led the way to the door. "that it's her version of what happened on the Russian Big One."
"Wasn't that the one where..." Ben began and then stopped.
"The one where," HR nodded, "your grandfather, my great-uncle and God knows who else got killed? Yeah. That's the one. Now come on. We have work to do."
"But, Christ, Mac!" Ben exclaimed. "This could be a real can of worms! Haven't you always wondered what happened on that Big One? What went wrong?"
"Yeah, of course," said HR. "And that's why, until I've read this thing, you're not going to say anything about it to anyone. If there's any earth-shattering stuff, I want it kept under wraps. At least for now. Got it?"
"Sure, Mac, sure," Ben agreed. "But I'll tell you right now. That book--and this Michael guy--they mean trouble."
"Could be, Ben." HR closed and locked his office on the way out. "Could be."
The rest of the night took on the air of just about any other night the bar was open as the assembled guests drank and sang and laughed and cried and then drank some more. The band finally knocked off at midnight, per prior arrangements, and the last guest was out the door by 2:30 AM. For HR, it had been a hard night, made all the more so by the fact that the drunks he was dealing with were friends and family, people he had to mix with and chat with and try to tolerate when they boozily made their condolences. By the end, he was tired, hungry, and grouchy and wanted nothing more than a sandwich and bed. Bidding the last of the employees good night, he looked out at the deserted streets, streets he almost never saw except at night, and rubbed his temples. Why was it, he wondered, that people changed so much under the influence of booze? Either they became exaggerations of themselves or they became completely different people, neither of which, in HR's book, was desirable. Or maybe they just became themselves. Either way, he was very tired of seeing it.
After locking up the place and turning off the lights, he went up the back stairs, through a steel door with a security key-pad, and into the ground floor of the upstairs apartment. Tastefully done in the light, airy styles that Lily preferred, the place was both comfortable and comforting and, in a very real way, represented stability and normality for HR and his family. Thanks to thick dampening materials, the bar might be going full swing downstairs and the kids would never know it.
Passing through a foyer and down a hallway, HR came to the kitchen. A light was on and he found Lily sitting here at the small table by the window, wearing one of his old flannel shirts as a nightgown. She'd wisely ducked out of the festivities about two hours earlier and HR had expected to find her asleep. A half-eaten chicken leg and a half-full glass of milk sat on the table, but Lily's attention was on the book that she'd propped up against the window. It was the book.
"Hey!" HR cried, crossing the room to the table. "Where'd you get that?"
"I found it," Lily said, not looking up. "On your desk..." Then she stuck a scrap of paper in the book, closed it, and looked up her husband. "Is this real, HR? Is it, you know, authentic?"
"I don't know yet..." HR picked up the book and again rifled through the pages. "But I think that maybe, yeah, it is real. If it isn't, somebody went to a lot of work to forge a nominally worthless document, right?"
"Yeah, I guess." Lily took up the chicken leg and finished it off with gusto. "I hope you're not mad, but I've read a bunch of it already..."
"I'm not mad," HR assured her. "On the contrary. I was sort of dreading reading the thing. So, dare I ask? What's it say?"
"Well, so far," she said and sipped her milk. "It's pretty straightforward. Just an account of the Big One that went to Stalingrad during World War Two. All about their preparations and stuff... But there's a lot of family stuff, too, like her relationships with her dad and brother and things. Personal kinds of things that I guess you better read for yourself..."
"Huh," HR said. "Maybe we should just skip to the end and see who did it."
"No way, HR." Lily set down her glass and wiped a white line of milk from her upper lip. "You can't do that."
"Why not?" he asked, reopening the book. "Besides, I'm too busy too read."
"No." Lily grabbed the book from HR and hugged it to her chest. "You have to read the whole story. From the beginning, with no peeking."
"What? Why?" he swiped futilely at the book. "And why the sudden affinity with my family's black sheep? Look at you, you're hugging the thing!"
"I am not." She relaxed her two-arm grasp and put the volume back on the table. "It's just... From what I've read so far, I like your great-aunt Laine, HR. I think she must have been quite a woman. She was the first woman to go on a Big One, you know..."
"Oh, lucky her..." HR sat at the table and kicked off his shoes.
"Well, anyway," Lily went on, "you have to read it for yourself. And I think Peter better read it, too... And maybe Ben..."
"OK, fine," HR said. "I'll read the damn thing."
"And no peeking."
HR got up and went to fridge and took out sandwich makings, assembling meat and cheese and things on the counter. Lily took her plate and glass to the dishwasher and then went and massaged HR's shoulders as he made his food.
"What are we going to tell the kids?" she asked softly as her thumbs found and worked on the hard knots in HR's muscles.
"About what?" he asked, slathering on mustard. "This book?"
"Not the book," she said, "about Granddad."
"What's to tell? He's dead."
"You know what I mean," she asserted. "You always said, when the time came, we'd talk about what to tell the kids. I take it you still want to just... tell them the truth? As you see it, anyway..."
"Well, yeah." He topped off the sandwich and put the makings back into the fridge. "Why? What do you want to tell them? All about heaven and the Pearly Gates and all? All that crap?"
"It's not crap, HR." Lily stopped kneading. "Just because you say it is, it doesn't mean it's all crap. Some people do have actual faith, you know... And the kids. They're so young. Why lay all of your existential gloom on them when they're so young?"
"They'll figure it out anyway..." HR grumbled.
"So let them!" Lily waved, palms up. "But not yet. They're too little for that."
"All right." HR pulled out a bag of potato chips and sat at the table. "Tell ëem whatever you want. I just think you're not doing them any favors, lying to them like that... Nobody ever fed me all that hoodoo."
"Yeah," Lily said. "And look how you turned out."
"Hmm." HR mused, devouring the sandwich. "You might have something there..."
Despite himself, he reached over, opened the book, and began to read. He almost didn't notice when, with an admonition to come to bed soon, Lily kissed him and left the room. As the moon fell outside and false dawn began to creep up over the sea, HR was carried away by what he read and was, soon enough (and despite himself), deeply immersed in the story.
For the sake of either posterity or vanity I will now set down the facts of the family's ill-fated enterprise in Russia during the war, a series of events which still fills me with dread, even after fifteen years. I do so knowing that many will not believe me and will greet this narrative with skepticism at best and hostility at worst, but I feel a need to relate these events for the benefit of those MacCrae men and women who are not yet born, they whose duty it will one day be to carry on the enduring traditions of the family. To that end, perhaps it will not be the most triumphant sort of tale. Then let it be instead a cautionary one.
My personal feelings on the whole affair mirror those that I have for my family and, more specifically, for my father. On one hand there is a strong sense of pride in all that the MacCraes have, despite all odds, accomplished over the years. The family roots run deep. There is such rich, storied, ancient, tradition and such deep filial attachment.
On the other hand is the dark knowledge that all of the family's fortunes and present well-being are derived from the sale of what many consider a harmful substance indeed; Demon Rum, John Barleycorn, hooch, booze, liquor. In a word: Alcohol. Traditionally, of course, the argument goes that people choose to drink, like to drink and that someone is going to sell it to them and why shouldn't it be us? And this is not unsound logic. But the cost in human misery is sometimes more than I care to consider and this at least partially explains the estrangement between myself and the family at large. The rest will become obvious by the end of this tale.
Having said this at the offset, I hope to imbue this tale with more of the factual than the visceral, but I must warn the reader that it is all but impossible to relate these events without also conveying something of the emotions and reasoning involved. In other words, try to forgive me if I sound at times cynical or interject too often my own opinions; however dim or imperfect, the mirror may only reflect the light that falls upon it.
Huh, thought HR, fair enough, then. There certainly was a sense of portentousness about the thing. But why not come right and say whatever it was that split her and her father? Why the big build-up? Oh, well, he sighed, just have to keep reading...
The next section was ancient history for him, so HR skimmed over the following background paragraphs of dates and expositions, saying yeah, yeah in his head.
The history of the MacCrae Clan is well-documented, God knows, so I will dispense with any discussion of genealogy and supply the relevant facts of the part of its history I intend to relate. Descendents of a 16th-century inn-keeper from Scotland, Colin of Crae, the MacCraes have always owned bars. This, of course, is nothing special; there are many families throughout the world who also specialize in the keeping of a bar. What has always made the MacCraes different is their acute sense of opportunism. Down the many long years, no matter from where the location beckoned, they have been there ahead of the competition and set up the first (or nearly first) bar in town. The list of cities reads like Satan's shopping list: Panama, 1672, Moscow, 1812, Atlanta, 1864, Yokohama, 1923. All sites of utter devastation, places where there were either no people left alive or a few hard-scrabble souls lurking in cellars and shelters. Places where man's mighty works were smashed to pieces by either Mother Nature or mankind itself, places where there was no city left.
These were also places (as the MacCraes have always seen it) where an honest man couldn't even buy a drink, where a man's God-given right to the bottle was being denied. Places, it must be also mentioned, where one could make a great deal of money, very quickly. We have never been gangsters, profiteers, or smugglers, but the lines that divide these areas of enterprise from strictly "legitimate" business are often blurry, or in the case of war-torn nations, obliterated, and so the MacCraes, with the aid of the Kern family, have trod those lines, often to great monetary advantage.
A note for the non-MacCrae, should any be reading this. One cannot discuss the MacCraes without mentioning the Kerns. These worthies have, ever since Colin of Crae's time, acted as security for our bars. Whether tossing out drunks or fighting off gangsters, they've been there to help the MacCraes in the enterprise and their loyalty and resolve have seen our more business-minded clan through more than a few scrapes. For good or ill, their fortunes now seem to be inextricably intertwined with ours.
It was at this point in the musty pages that HR began reading in earnest. Each sentence seemed to beckon to the next, owing in no small part to the eerie familiarity about it, and the physical world around him gave way to that of the past.
There were portents, omens, things that presaged one of the family's greater enterprises, that we all could apprehend if we paid attention. A certain restlessness would sometimes steal over Dad, long periods of his poring over maps, consulting almanacs and encyclopedias, meetings in the back booths with dark strangers who spoke poor or no English. These things meant trouble and, in the very rare case, according to family lore, a "Big One", an opportunity at bar-establishing and money-making that was simply too promising to ignore.
So it was that the entire household (or most of it) knew what it meant when Vasili showed up at the Boston pub that night in January of 1943. This man, an exiled Russian now in my father's employ, acted as the liaison between the family and whatever Russian-speaking people we needed to deal with, primarily the growing ranks of Russian gangsters. He was a sort of interpreter, fixer, and soldier all in one. The one thing we knew was that whenever he showed up, things had a tendency to become messy and complicated.
I recall that it was a Friday, a very busy night at MacCrae's Pub. The local defense-plant workers had gotten their fat paychecks that very day and the place fairly reeled with shouts and laughter. Tough men, for the most part, wiry New Englanders from the mills and shipyards with their pals and their dates and their wives. Smoke competed with tinny radio dance music (Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, the Andrews Sisters) for space in the air over everyone's heads.
It was an exciting time. The world was at war, the great crusade against Hitler and Tojo was on, and everybody wanted to be a part of history. All night, every night, the bar-chatter and usual boasting was centered on "licking them God-damn Japs". It was not unusual to see three or four or more buddies come in to get stinking drunk before they reported to the induction center and more than once a besotted longshoreman knocked back a shot of whiskey and, goaded by his chums, marched straight into the recruitment office. For us and the bar, it was a high time; everyone had money, everyone was drinking again, and everyone seemed to be saving their hostilities for the Axis. Every day brought news from the fighting and, so far, most of it had been bad.
My dad was in a back booth that night, smoking a smelly cigar and looking over some errant receipts. Ian MacCrae, then aged 39, was a big man, about six feet three inches tall, with a broad frame covered in thick muscle. His face, clean-shaven and red-haired, was kindly and he wore a perpetual, lop-sided grin, but this could quickly change when a bad mood struck and one would then face a glowering giant of a man with eyes of steel and a set and determined jaw. Indifferent to his attire, he nevertheless always wore a suit and tie, even at home. He said that it helped make him look professional. In general appearance he looked like any other (large) man of business. In general temperament, he gave the impression of a big man who was slow to anger but fearsome if aroused.
Mom was in the office in back, busy with some unpaid invoices and a series of phone calls to and from chatty girlfriends. Born Celia Mortenson, my mom was a real knock-out. She had honey-blond, curly hair, a peaches-and cream complexion, and a shape that would have made Betty Grable jealous. Dad always said she was a "trouble woman", the spark that set off the flame, but I never saw her so much as flirt with another man, despite the presence in the bar of all sort of latter-day Lotharios. She took great care in her appearance and always had a pressed shirt, shined shoes, always neat and clean and new. To strangers, she could be aloof. Perhaps she learned that, in the tavern business, it doesn't pay to be too forward. Subsequently, she didn't usually tend bar or wait tables; these aspects of the business simply did not suit her temperament and she stuck mainly to the books.
My brother Mike was manning the bar that night, taking the place of a bartender we'd just lost to the draft. Physically, Michael was in his prime; nineteen years old, fit as a Greek god, handsome and smiling and happy. Laughing, he poured the rough crowd their beers and shots and boilermakers, joking with the regulars, dinging the tip-bell when the odd penny or nickel hit the jar. We all assumed that Michael himself would be drafted soon and we were on the look-out for the "little man from the draft board", the messenger that would deliver the much-fabled, fateful telegram that sent men off to the armed services.
George Kern was there, of course, with three or four of his boys, keeping the rowdies in line as usual, just as his family has for generations. George was older then, about fifty, and was not himself a very imposing figure. A general impression would include a rumpled suit, a pale bland face, and sparkling blue eyes that never seemed to rest. Those eyes watched the place carefully and, with a twitch or a nod, he could direct one of his behemoth bouncers to wherever trouble brewed.
There were employees, as well, but I recall only that Carlos was there that night. Senor Carlos Diego Manuel Fernandez was a half-crazy Mexican fellow who'd wandered in one day with his own broom and swept the place spotless. Dad had looked the place over and told Carlos that he'd done a "fairly passable" job of it and then went back to business. Carlos had appeared the next day and then the next, with the same results. Finally Dad had told him to grab an apron and he'd been with us ever since.
And then there was me, Laine Devon MacCrae, waiting tables. A year older than my brother, I was, at that time, anyway, not so hard on the eyes myself. I inherited my dad's red hair (and the temper that goes with it) and my mom's looks. Dad always said I was the flower of MacCrae womanhood. All I knew for certain was that the stares and whistles from the men in the bar always said that I appealed to the opposite sex in no small way. And, at that age, I was not altogether averse to using that appeal.
I nudged Mike when I saw the Russian walk in and go over to Dad's table.
"Look." I nodded at the skinny little man now head-to-head with Dad in the booth.
"So what?" Mike asked, harried at the bar by a dozen or so thirsty customers. "So Vasili's here. Big deal."
"It is a big deal." I said. "You watch. That man always brings trouble."
"Should I get Mom?" He asked, now seemingly worried.
"No." I said. "It would only get her upset, and, besides, there's nothing she could do about it anyway..."
"Do about what?" He asked.
"Whatever it is that the Russian's here for."
"Oh." He nodded, perplexed, and went back to work. I did the same, but all night I kept an eye on Dad and Vasili and all night they huddled over the table. At one point they had a large map spread on the table, but for the most part they simply sat and talked, with Dad taking notes and occasionally calling George over for his opinion on whatever it was they were discussing.
Seeing the Russian made me think, despite the hectic pace of the bar that night. Why would Dad need a Russian? And then it hit me. After all, it had been all over the nightly radio news and in the newsreels at the movie house. The Russians had beaten the tar out of the Nazis at a place called Stalingrad and were now on the offensive after so many defeats and setbacks. There had been so much bad news out of Russia that when they finally did stop the German army there was a lot of excitement. Maybe somebody could beat the Nazis after all, we thought. Weóthe USA, that isówere already in the war, but we all knew it would be a while before we were ready to take on the Nazis. The Japs held our special enmity at that time. They were the ones who'd sucker-punched the nation with the attack on Hawaii and Americans had died horribly at their hands in the Philippines. So far, the Germans seemed sort of secondary. But, as I said, the news of the Nazi blitzkrieg meeting with a loss seemed like awfully good news anyway.
It had also been in the news reports that the city itself had been completely destroyed in the fighting.
No, I thought, not there. Don't go to Russia during the middle of a war to set up a bar. Not even the MacCraes are that crazy, are they? That can't be it... But it was not my place to ask or give opinions, so I watched and waited, hoping that they would decide it was too risky, too impossible. Hoping that they would have some sense for once.
Later that night, or rather early the next morning, after the bar had been swept and cleaned and readied for another day, as I was going around to switch off the lights, I found Mom sitting in the dark in the office, crying softly into a hankie. Her eye makeup had run down her face and she looked miserable and afraid and slightly comical. And I knew right then. They were going to do it.
"Mom?" I sat down next to her at the big oak desk. A glass of red wine and a package of Pall Malls lay before her. Mom didn't smoke or drink, not ever, so I knew it was bad. "Are you OK?"
"Oh, well..." She tried a smile and then cracked and started crying all over again. "It's just business dear. Your father and George will be going away for a little while. To set up a new bar. It's a Big One."
I didn't want to ask, but I did. "Where? Where are they going?"
"Russia." She sobbed. "Stalingrad. Sweet Jesus, I don't even know where that is!"
"Oh God." I felt my heart drop. "Why?"
"Your father says it's the chance of a lifetime. That we'll clean up..."
"But it's so... stupid!" I protested. "Why travel halfway across the world to run a bar in the middle of a war when we've got a thriving business right here? I just don't understand!"
"Ah, Laine." She said, a note of pity for my naiveté in her voice. "It's in their blood. You know that as well as I do. They can't rest when opportunity knocks. It's like a moth to the flame..."
"It's still stupid." I fumed.
"Yes, well." Mom sighed and lit a cigarette, coughing a little on the exhale. "That's as may be, child, but once your father makes up his mind, there's no shifting him. You know that, too."
I poured a glass of what I now saw was a fairly expensive bottle of French wine and drank it off, still fuming. Part of me was angry with Dad and the others for risking their lives this way, but another part of me secretly resented the fact that I was certainly to be left out of this adventure, just as every MacCrae woman had always been excluded from Big Ones. So Mom's next words came as a shock:
"There's worse news." She said, absently stubbing out the half-smoked Pall Mall. "So brace yourself... He's taking both you and Michael."
I was stunned. "Me?" I squeaked. "But I'm a girl!" A mingled feeling of fear and excitement bubbled in my chest. I didn't know what to say. Instantly, as if a switch had been flipped, I had veered from indignant and angry to excited and eager.
"Your father said that times change and that when they do, MacCraes change with them. Whatever that means..."
"Are you sure he said that?" I asked, a hand on her arm. "That I was supposed to go? To Russia?" My disdain for the endeavor had now utterly vanished, drowned in a shining sea of thrilling possibilities.
"Oh, I'm sure that you're to go," she said bitterly, patting my hand. "I begged him, Laine, I really did. But he's set on it. And not just you, but poor Mikey, too. Oh me... What will I do without all of you? All sorts of horrible things could happen to you in Russia!"
Poor Mom. How could I tell her that I suddenly wanted to go on this crazy trip? I tried to comfort her as best as I could, but I was too excited to put my heart into it and finally left her in the office and finished closing up the place. Besides, I reasoned, Mom was a lot stronger than she seemed. She could have run the bar and three others besides all by herself if she'd been so inclined.
In retrospect, I feel awful for deserting her that way. I may have been the only one she could have turned to, the only one who would have understood what it was like to be a female MacCrae, to be left behind once again. But I was young and excited and managed conveniently to see only the fact that I was going on a Big One, something no MacCrae daughter or wife had ever done.
I met Michael out front and we headed home. We always rode together to and from work since we shared a two-bedroom place not far from the family home on Eaton Street. All the way home and into that morning we talked about what was ahead. What would it be like? How would it be done? Could it be done? There were so many questions, so much uncertainty, but also a sense of faith in Dad; he knew what he was doing... I remember that we sat for some time at the kitchen table and finally located Stalingrad on the expanse of Asia in our new National Geographic atlas. It was just another dot on the map.
The next two weeks were a blur of activity as we got ready. There were a hundred and one things to do and Dad divided up the duties with his usual flair for organization. Generally, we met every day at the big room at the back of the bar for breakfast, had a report on whatever needed discussion, and then went about our appointed tasks.
First off, the very next morning after Mike and I had heard the news, came a meeting of all of us who were actually going to make the trip. This included the following individuals: Myself, of course, the lone female, then Mike, Dad, George Kern and his son, Brian, Vasili Gromev, naturally, and six more of George's lads, namely Bill O'Brian, Sam Werth, Spikes Evenson, Paul Makepeace, Kevin Macintyre, and Willy Monaghan.
These last six were a tough group of customers, the absolute best of George's men, hardened brawlers who were equally at ease with gun, knife, club, or fist. They were also all totally loyal to George and, by association, my family. I'm not ashamed to say that they frightened me, but I know now that they, to a man, would have died to protect me. They were what Dad sometimes referred to as the "ugly side of the business", the enforcers of rules and the protectors of property.
The first and the last, like bookends, O'Brian and Monaghan were of a piece; big, tall, dark, burly types with thick necks and thicker mustaches who positively bulged with muscle and, when need be, menace. Together, they represented the brute force of the group. This is not to say that the others, individually, were not just as forceful. On the contrary, each was fully capable of defending himself or another with deadly effect. It was just that O'Brian and Monaghan were the ones you called when you needed big, physically imposing, intimidating men. Since both were named William, O'Brian was always called Bill or Billy and Monaghan was Will or Willy.
Sam Werth was a bouncer most of the time but it was rumored that he was also an expert in explosives, having done some work for both sides during the reoccurring strife in Ireland. He was a small, sarcastic man with quick eyes and thin, grimy hands who smoked constantly and always, despite Dad's disapproval and the generally dapper nature of the others, wore a suit of dirty coveralls.
I never did learn Spikes Evenson's real Christian name (if he had one) but I certainly did learn how he got his nickname; the tall, lanky, quiet man was an expert with knives of all shapes and sizes. He was also something of an enigma in the group, almost always responding to requests or commands with one of three things: a nod, a shake of the head, or a shrug. Despite that, he communicated very well, his wide, expressive face serving in place of vocalization just fine. I always postulated that he was simply too busy listening to talk.
If there was an outright killer in the group, it was Makepeace. This ill-named fellow was as average a physical specimen as one would ever meet, but there was something about him, an aura of menace, perhaps, or the depth of his cold gray eyes, that made one keep one's distance. It was like being around a vicious if well-trained dog; good to have on your side but commanding a frightened respect nonetheless. The man was a loaded gun that one need only point and fire. Thankfully, I never had to interact with him very much. And it was a mark of Dad's respect for George that he never asked to have Makepeace removed from the group. If George thought that this man was needed, then he was needed, end of story.
Last of these paid men was Kevin Macintyre, the nicest man you could hope to meet, courteous, kind, affable, and handsome. Kev was the sweet-talker of the group, a silver-tongued devil who could as easily charm a lady into bed as persuade a drunk to put down the chair he was about to break over his buddy's head and talk about it. That said, he was also a ferocious fighter when pushed, given to the use of his fists and feet when a situation degenerated into physical conflict. I had always had a crush on Kev, for the few times I'd seen or talked with him, but I'm sure he never noticed.
The others I have mentioned, all except Brian Kern, who was three years older than me at twenty three, and George's only son. If I had a crush on Kev Macintyre, I positively swooned for Brian. Tall, handsome, dark, and serious, Brian filled my daydreams with school-girl maundering of our happy life together, raising children and not running a bar. As his father's right hand man since the age of eighteen, Brian had been too busy learning the family business to care much abut a skinny kid like me, but I now had hopes that our upcoming proximity might induce him to do so. I was glad to see him there, too, because he'd been mysteriously "away on business" for the last few months. As we took our seats that morning, it was all I could do to not stare constantly at him, but he seemed removed somehow, keeping his eyes down or focused on the front of the room.
Dad took the floor, introduced everybody, just to be sure, and then started talking in that beautiful low tenor that we all knew and loved. The back room, normally a rental space for parties, a big, high-ceilinged, oak-paneled space, was arranged now more like a classroom. Three tables with chairs faced a big movable blackboard, behind which was a furled movie screen and pull-down map setup.
"Welcome, one and all!" Dad began. "This is a high time for, us, gentlemen and lady. We have been presented with that rarest of opportunities, that once-in-a-lifetime chance that we MacCraes have always sought and sometimes found. We're going on a Big One!"
This was news to George's boys and they all stirred and murmured a few oaths and then quieted down when Dad resumed.
"Yes, that's right! And this time, as you may have guessed from the presence of our Soviet friend here, it's in Russia. Stalingrad, to be precise." Here he whipped down the map dramatically and pointed with a big finger to the spot Mike and I had found earlier. "Here, just north and east of the Caspian Sea, on the river Volga. This poor city has endured the tortures of the damned. Vasili here, with the able assistance of our own Brian, has just yesterday returned from this pitiable metropolis and, in view of their reports and observations, I have decided that the time is, as they say, ripe. We leave in a fortnight. If any of you want out of this enterprise, now's the time to speak up..." No one did.
"Now, as to our planned itinerary, it is as follows:" He ran a finger along the map as he spoke, tracing the route. "First, we go by private ship all the way across the Atlantic and around Africa and up to here, Iran, formerly known as Persia. We land at Jask, here, and then it's overland to Tehran, here. From there, we go by airplane over the Caspian, and up into Russia, finally arriving at Stalingrad, formerly known as Tsaristya (or some such), here. Any initial questions? And remember: No one's suggestion or question is too trivial or inane, with the possible exception of yours truly." This brought a round of chuckles and then Kev Macintyre piped up.
"Isn't it a mite risky goin' sailin' on the Atlantic right now? What with the U-boats and all?"
"Well, yes," Dad said. "Any ocean travel is risky right now, but we will not be part of a convoy, and that one fact will assuredly see us through. Single, smaller, faster ships like the one we'll be using should pass completely unnoticed by Hitler's submarines." Kev nodded reasonably and sat back.
"How about this here Eye-ran?" Rumbled Billy O'Brian. "Who owns that, then?"
"Well, the Persians do..." Dad said and then winked. "But really? It's the Brits who're in charge. They've invaded, you see. And we can deal with Brits, right boys?" Another round of chuckles.
"What's the initial stock?" Asked Sam Werth through a cloud of smoke. "How much are we bringin' in?"
"Ah, but now we're on to the nuts and bolts, eh, Sammy?" Dad smiled at the man, but I could see a hint of reserve in his regard. "Any more questions about our itinerary?"
I wracked my brain for a clever question but finally decided to keep quiet rather than look foolish. Anyway, Dad may as well have been describing a trip to the moon for all I knew of the geography.
"No?" Dad asked. "All right, on to a general overview, then."
"OK. To answer your question, Sam, we take very little in the way of initial stock, relying instead on the power of good old fashioned gold, a medium of exchange that can be used directly or exchanged for coin of the realm if need be. Through our contacts in Tehran, it will be possible to obtain all the stock we need in that very city and then fly it in to Stalingrad. Likewise for hardware, furniture, and accoutrements. This will be a By-the-Rules endeavor, gentlemen and lady, and I trust you all know what that means. No frills, no fooling around. We go in, we set up, we make a lot of money, and then we leave before anyone who would care about it notices we were there. The classic Big One."
I knew what he meant with the expression "By-the-Rules", there being the fabled "Rules of Conduct" that all MacCraes had heard of in rumor, a set of seemingly stone-engraved rules by which to conduct a Big One that had been first set down by old Colin himself but had been extensively revised and updated over the years. I later obtained a copy of the Rules and here reproduce them:
Be there first.
Befriend the local law.
Never pay for protection. Rely instead on sufficient, reliable house security.
Cash (coin of the realm) only. Never extend credit.
Charge only what the market will bear, but gradually increase prices as the local economy recovers.
Post House Rules and vigorously enforce them. These are subject to the owner's discretion but the following House Rules are suggested:
Never overstay a welcome. Leave the locale before local authorities regain full control.
At the time, each of us in the room knew at least the basics of the Rules and so Dad was able to move along in his introductory remarks.
"Now, since none of the others of us have actually been to Russia, let alone Stalingrad, I have asked Brian and Vasili to make a report on the state of affairs which we can expect. Gentlemen?"
Vasili and Brian rose and went up to the front while Dad took a seat. Brian looked embarrassed but proud that he was asked to speak before these older, more world-wise men. He cleared his throat and began, a deep frown creasing his handsome features.
"It's rough, folks," he began. "I won't try to kid you. The things we've seen... Well, I guess you'll all see it for yourselves soon enough, but the sheer destruction is hard to believe. This must have been a nice city at one time. It's right on a real wide part of the Volga river, with rolling hills and wide open prairies. Its climate, size, and population would have been comparable to say, Detroit. But now? There were maybe a dozen buildingsóout of a whole cityóthat still have a roof. There is no running water, no sanitation, no electricity, and no food. When we left, about a month ago, there were no people, either, unless you count soldiers and NKVD agents. The worst part, though, is the loss of life. Everywhere you look, there are makeshift graveyards, crematoria, and mass burial pits. They're so busy burying and burning the dead that they have to just leave all of the horse carcasses and they're lying all over, too, so it's a mess. It's just... carnage, I guess you'd call it, pure and simple. Luckily, it was winter still when we left, but I'll bet that it will be a lot worse when the weather warms up."
"I guess that's the bad news. The good news is that it's perfect for a Big One. There are loads of soldiers, all thirsty, all paid and with nowhere to spend their money. Plus, the Soviets are going to be busy chasing Germans out of their country for quite some time, from the looks of it, and that means we should be free to conduct business for a good year at least. The main obstacle there will be the commissars, the NKVD goons, but, from what Vasili tells me, they can be bought or befriended just like any other arm of the law. I guess that's all I've got for now. Vasili knows the political side of it, though, and I guess we should all know our history, right?"
Through the whole speech, Brian seemed to me different from the boy I'd known just a few months earlier. Serious and confident, he seemed to have aged years on his trip. I felt suddenly bad for him and vaguely maternal. But now the Russian stood up and slowly walked to the map of his homeland, stroking his sparse beard and seeming to gaze at something up in the corner of the room. Then he burst out in his thick accent:
"My friends! My former home, so-called Mother Russia, is finally making to fight back. After three long years of defeats at hands of Fascist Beast, she now wakes up and says "No More"! And it was here, at Stalin's city, that tide was turned. Here they have stopped Fritzes and are now getting set to mount it the greatest assault of all times. But not was it easy, friends. Many, many thousands of men, women, and even children were killed by Fascists."
"Now, while it is true that not all peoples in Motherland love Stalin and Communists, this conflict seems to be put up on shelf for now. Stalin has allowed it the churches to reopen, he has resumed the giving of medals to brave soldiers, and there is general feeling of cooperation amongst all Russian peoples, whether from Leningrad or Georgia or Siberia. All peoples want Fritzes kicked out, yes? So all work together. For now. There is still spying and the Secret Police agents and the turning-in of defeatists, but this is less now. And that will work in our favor, because under strict Soviet rules, we would not stand a chance at running a bar in Stalingrad. So this is good. NKVD men will not be big problem for us."
"But mark my words. When war ends and things go back to way they were, Stalin will go back to murdering of peoples just as before. He will defeat Fascists, but his peoples will know no peace. Is sad, really, but is life in Russia."
The thin, drab man resumed his seat and we all took a moment to let this sink in. It was beyond my imagination to think of what life in Russia must be like. My life had always been relatively easy; no want of creature comforts and plenty of familial love and attention. We'd all read the news reports of the fighting, of course, and heard stories of the horrible repression in the Soviet Union, but we were so far from all of that, so uninvolved. It wasn't like today with news rapidly traveling world-wide and everyone aware of what everyone else is doing. Back then, one just didn't hear much about places like Burma or Tobruk or Smolensk, and if one did it was merely to notice the exotic reference. Who cared what someone in Japan was doing? That was their business.
The war changed all of that. That war and the last one, the fighting in Korea. That and the Bomb. Now we all know, whether out of desire or necessity, what people all over the world think about just about anything. It's hard to tell which is worse; blissful ignorance or informed dread. The point is, I suppose, that for me, sitting in the back room that morning, it was all very exciting and despite Brian's admonitions, I was thrilled with the whole prospect.
But there was still a lot to be done before we could actually set sail. Dad now got up and enumerated these: There were travel documents to obtain for each member. Each of us was to receive a crash course in Russian, courtesy of Vasili. Dad himself would be engaged mainly in the squaring-away of MacCrae affairs here in the States (see below). We each had to receive vaccinations for all sorts of horrid things. We were urged to visit our ship, the steamer H.P. Dunn, in Boston harbor and to get a feel for the motion of the sea. Lists of necessary goods were handed out to assigned procurers.
As to Dad's arrangements: As it turned out, my aunt Dahlia would be in charge, with Mom as her second. Her sons (my cousins) Bob and Steve O'Douhl would run the bar itself and hire more help if need be. George would leave some of his best boys, of course, and things should be just fine.
We broke up that morning full of optimism. The Big One was on and we were off to see the world.
But not just yet. We still had many things to do before we could leave, not the least of which was getting MacCrae's Pub ready for our absence. This was assigned to me and Mike because we were the most acquainted with the day-to-day operation of the place and would be the best ones to train replacement help for when we were gone. The Big One was slated to last anywhere from a year to two years, depending on conditions in the area, so we had to prepare in a fairly thorough manner. Luckily, there were plenty of people looking for work, and a simple "Help Wanted" sign in the front window of the bar garnered more applicants than we would ever need. For a week there was a steady stream of people, mostly women, whom either Mike or I would interview. We always requested (and followed up on) personal references, and if a given prospective employee was loath to furnish them, the individual was cheerfully but quickly shown the door.
When we weren't talking with these people, we were either working in the bar itself or in our Russian lessons. Every day, at ten AM sharp, all twelve of us would gather in the back room and take our lumps. I'm sure Vasili was a fine teacher, and I'm sure that we all tried our best to learn the alien tongue, but I, at least, found the language to be incomprehensible. Maybe it was the Cyrillic alphabet or the odd sentence structure, but I struggled horribly and seemed to be learning next to nothing while even the relatively non-intelligent Bill O'Brian made progress. Oh, I learned to say please and thank you and the words for most kinds of alcohol, but I just couldn't get the accent or the overall verb structure at all. This was made all the more galling by the fact that, in High School, I had been an excellent student and had even received an "A" in French class.
So it was difficult. But I kept at it, staying late with Gromev whenever possible, and gradually I started to apprehend the basics, at least, and some sense of the tongue-twisting nature of the pronunciation. But, to this day, I hate the sound of spoken Russian.
Between work, hiring new waitresses and bartenders, and trying to learn a new language, our days were full, but Mike and I still found time to speculate and anticipate, chattering constantly about what it would be like. One day Dad overheard us and (quite rightly) took us down a peg:
"Now children," he'd said mildly. "Let's not forget that, when we get to Russia, neither of you will do so much as take a piss without asking me first, understood?" We'd both nodded gravely, deflated. "All right, then. Now run along, kids..."
One day about a week after preparations began, Mike and I went down to the harbor and hunted up our vessel. After getting lost once or twice and talking to several dock workers and sailors, we finally found pier number twenty four, where lay at anchor the good ship H.P. Dunn, our home for the next two months or so. In length about 125 feet, the craft didn't look like much at first glance; the hull was rusty and spotted, the ropes looked frayed and the its whole demeanor was one of neglect. Crestfallen, we looked at each other, shrugged, and mounted the gangplank.
We were welcomed aboard by Captain Simon Forrester, a short, fat man with a bald head, dressed in a big, ribbed, turtle-neck sweater who led us around the ship and described the various decks, hatchways, cabins, and holds. There were crewmen, some neat and crisp, others grease-black and sweating, extant all through the ship, moving cargo, supervising, painting, and repairing, and they all seemed capable enough at their jobs. I must confess that I know next to nothing about the actual maintenance of such a big ship, but, on the other hand, we had always had yachts and cruisers in the family and both Mike and I knew something of the sea and boats, and the workers all seemed to be doing something useful and productive.
Impressed in spite of appearances by this formic activity, we followed the captain to the foredeck and enjoyed the gentle swell of the harbor and the crisp winter air. Forrester assured us that all would be ready by next weekend and that he was pleased to be working with someone of my father's importance. Not that he said this last in so many words, but his generally subservient manner spoke volumes. He finished the tour and then saw us off of the vessel, saying that he would be taking the H.P. Dunn out for a spin around the harbor and maybe out into the bay in two days time and that if we wanted to go along we were welcome. We told him we'd be there if we could and bid him farewell.
"Well?" Mike asked me as we drove away.
"What do you think of the good captain and his vessel?"
"Hard to say." I said. "They seem OK to me, though. Besides, Dad wouldn't have picked him if it was a bad ship." Mike was always asking me for my opinions on people, having decided that I was a good judge of character, like our mother, and, for my part, I had done nothing to disabuse him of the idea. After all, big sisters have to have some kind of influence over younger brothers, now don't they?
The next day to was back to work, slinging beer and whiskey, meeting interested potential employees, and trying to learn the harsh tones and convoluted structures of the Russian language. Mike and I finally decided, after perhaps thirty or forty interviews, on three new people each whom we had judged suitable for MacCrae's. We were careful about this for two reasons: First, we, as a business, prided ourselves on the excellent, cheerful service that we had always offered our patrons and picking a surly, mean-spirited waitress or bartender would only hurt the bar's reputation. Second, we had never been given this job before. Dad or Mom had always done all of the hiring and firing, and we wanted to look competent and wise in our parent's eyes.
The last word on our select few, however, would still be Mom's, so we arranged meetings with each of the six new people so that she could talk to them and give the final yea or nay. Mom was a nearly infallible judge of character; after chatting with just about anyone for a few minutes she would form a general opinion of their overall disposition and temperament. According to Dad, she was never wrong. He always said that it was one of the reasons he'd married her. It wasn't always perfect, but Mom's shrewd observational powers always seemed to ensure that MacCrae's Pub had the best staff in town.
The day after our trip to the harbor was the big day for our new recruits and, one by one, they came and went, some smiling, some frowning. Finally Mom emerged from the office and made her pronouncements. Of the six, three were acceptable.
"That nice Irish lass, Mary Kelly," she read from a list. "The tall fellow, Matt Jenkowski. And then this other girl, Jill Cohen. The rest were all stealers and crooks."
Mom divided the world into two essential camps. There were Good People, which included just about everyone who simply lived their lives and loved those around them, and then there were Crooks, the rest of the greedy, uncaring world. This definition cut across all lines of wealth, race, politics, and religion. She cared only for the inner character of the individual and often showed an open-mindedness that bordered on the naïve, but she was, I think, gifted in this way. She would have made a splendid parole officer. I've mentioned that, to strangers, she sometimes seemed distant or cold, but this generally only pertained individuals who actually were stealers and crooks.
Not that there weren't exceptions; Mom wasn't always perfect in her perceptions. The one that sticks in my mind was poor Jake Halloran, a lovely boy that I dated in High School and who ultimately was scared off by Mom's forbidding manner. I got over Jake, (who went on to serve three distinguished terms in the state Senate) but there were a couple of months of iciness between mother and daughter that summer and, as a result, I figured out that one needed to take Mom's character-judgments with a grain or two of salt.
At any rate, Mike and I were quite pleased with ourselves that night for managing to pick out good workers for the place. Dad said that he was proud that he would someday be leaving the place in such good hands, a compliment usually reserved for special occasions. To celebrate, Dad gave us the night off. Thrilled, full of ourselves, and bursting with anticipation for what was ahead, we went out that night, attending a movie showóI think it was Hope and Crosby in Road to Moroccoóand then we had dinner at Diamanti's, an Italian place that was just down the street from our pub. I have to admit, we were boisterous, laughing and telling jokes in brash, clear young voices.
"I wanna get a Nazi flag, or maybe a helmet!" Mike enthused at one point. "Guys say they're great souvenirs and that you can sell ëem for a lot of money..."
From behind me, in the adjacent booth, came a low but firm voice:
"Why don't you just shut the hell up?" Said the voice. Mike stopped, having heard it, and now rose and circled to face the speaker, his face darkening with choler.
"Brian?" Mike said in surprise, the red draining from his face. "What are you doing here? And where do you get off telling me to shut up?" I now rose and went over to the booth. It was Brian Kern. He looked angry and mean, somehow, and I stepped back a pace.
"Are you all right?" I tried to ask, but he suddenly stood and, shoving past us as he threw on his coat, swept out the door.
"Boy..." Mike shook his head. "What a jerk!"
Concerned and a little intrigued, I mumbled something about seeing him later to Mike and, grabbing my own wrap, ran after Brian's retreating figure. I caught up to him outside the florist next door to the pub and he reluctantly slowed and then stopped on the sidewalk.
"What is it, Laine?" He asked imperiously. "What's wrong?"
"What's wrong?" I said. "Why, I could just as well ask that of you, Brian Kern. We've been friends since we were three years old. All of a sudden you're mister sour-puss. Nothing's wrong with me. So what's wrong with you?"
He sighed and shook his head. "Same old Laine. Listen, kid," he tried to smile. "Can we talk? Not here, I mean. And not in the pub."
"Sure." I said. "There's a coffee shop just down the street that no one goes to because their coffee's terrible. How about that?"
"Perfect." This time he actually did smile.
The coffee shop in question, the Day-Night, was a short-order joint, run by a Greek fellow who sweated a lot, which always seemed about to go under. But it was quiet and fairly clean and I had a quick sandwich there from time to time. Brian and I chose a booth in the back and got a cup apiece of the watery yet somehow bitter coffee. He was trying to be pleasant and struggling in the attempt.
"Brian," I said, laying a hand over his on the table. "What is it? What happened in Russia?" Gently, he eased his hand from under mind and instead lifted his cup with both hands and drank. As he set it down I could see a slight shake and the cup rattled on the saucer. He spoke in a low, intense voice, staring at somewhere in the middle distance over my head.
"Laine, you wouldn't believe it. It's so god-awful... I just don't know where to start... I guess it was the bodies that really got to me. There were so many. So many people and... parts of people. Legs, arms, heads, sometimes just red lumps. Horses, cows, dogs, all kinds of animals... But it was... odd. Some places were just rubble, just wasteland covered in snow with no bodies at all. And then, out of the blue, there'd be an alley with a heap of dozens of corpses and body parts."
"One time, at night, I went out to take a piss. I went around the corner of this bombed-out building and got to it. Of course, this melted the snow. And, staring up at me, was the face of a dead woman, a gray-haired old lady that had somehow died there and been covered in snow. And I was pissing on her... A poor old lady, Laine! God..." He choked back a sob and rubbed his eyes fiercely.
"Just lots of things like that, I guess. It's chaos there, Laine. Hell on Earth. And to hear Mikey talk about it like that, like he was going to the god-damn county fair, looking for souvenirs... Well, I just got mad. He's got no idea. Neither do you. I... I don't want to go back, Laine. It's just too much."
I didn't know what to feel. The gruesome nature of what he'd said shocked and appalled me, and I felt bad for Brian, but, at the same time, some part of me hung on to the sense that Brian must just be soft, that he simply couldn't take it. And, by inference, that I could; I wouldn't flinch at a few dead people, I wouldn't be bothered by mortal remains. I was raised to be tough, to see life's tragedies as part of life itself. After all, this was war, and it was axiomatic that people died in wars. There was also a measure of that latent ethnocentrism that plagued most of America in those days; these weren't dead Americans, after all, they were Russians (already suspect for their Bolshevism) and Germans, the Nazi enemy. Why shed tears for dead enemies? But I expressed none of this to Brian; the haunted look in his eyes forbade it, and I tried instead to offer comfort:
"I'm so sorry." I told him. "And don't worry about Mike. He's an idiot, anyway, and you're right. He's doesn't know what he's talking about, and neither do I. And if you don't want to go back, you should be telling all of this to your dad, not me."
"Yeah." He said morosely. "I guess I should..."
He let it fall and we sat in silence for a while, sipping the watery brew. A pair of sailors came in, ordered pie and coffee and then, a little while later, complaining loudly about the quality, left. I smiled at Brian.
"Told you the coffee was lousy." I said, evoking a smile and then a sigh.
"You weren't kidding." He tossed a dime on the table. "Come on, let's get out of here."
"Your place?" I flirted.
"Hardly." He tossed me my hat. "You're going home to bed."
We were halfway to my apartment when I remembered something that I needed to drop off at the old family house for Dad and asked Brian to leave me there instead, telling him that I could walk the three blocks to my place and that I'd see him in the morning. He was still deep in thought when he dropped me off and barely managed a goodbye, but I let it go; the poor guy had a lot on his mind.
It was lateóabout three AMówhen I walked up the steps to the big house on Eaton, and I let myself in quietly and removed my shoes in case Mom and Dad were already asleep. From the back of the darkened first floor I could hear voices and so went that way but stopped short within earshot. On tip-toe, I walked up to the kitchen door and, leaning against the heavy oak paneling of the hallway, eavesdropped on their conversation. At times I was hard pressed to imagine that it was my parents speaking like this:
"...she's so young, Ian." My mom was saying. "Just let her stay here and help me. Tell her... Tell her I need her, that I can't handle it on my own. Jesus, tell her anything! Please, Ian..."
"No." Came Dad's firm voice. "My mind's made up and there's nothing going to change it. Besides, she's not that young, she's twenty years old, and, moreover, it's high time that the female side of the clan was given to its due. You've said that before yourself."
"Hell yes!" Shot back Mom, louder. "It is about time. We women have done all of the work and inherited none of the profit, for all these years... But that's not why you're taking her to Russia, Ian. You're doing that because you're afraid to hand over the family business to Michael. Isn't that true? You want Laine to inherit it. She's smarter, tougher, and, by God, she's her father's daughter. And you want to take her to Russia because she's the next generation, the hope for the future. Isn't that so, Ian?"
"Nonsense." He said huffily. "Pure nonsense. And, as a matter of fact, I haven't yet decided which of them will inherit the business."
"Aha!" Mom struck. "So it's a test! You're going to set your own children against each other to find out which is worthy of your favor. In a war. In Russia. Is that it?"
This last was uttered in a nearly-hysterical manner and I suddenly wanted to run into the room and talk this out, calm things down. At the very least, I could interrupt them and make them stop. But I didn't. I was too shocked to hear myself spoken of like this and too full of a sense of uneasy furtiveness and impropriety, as if I'd walked in on the two of them making love. Dad's voice was raised, probably in protest, but I didn't hear any more. I tip-toed back down the hallway, got my shoes on, and left.
In a daze I walked to the apartment, let myself in, went to my room, and sat on my bed. Mike's bedroom door was shut, which meant he was asleep, or I would probably have told him about what I'd overheard. I got undressed and got in bed, but it was getting light outside before I fell asleep. In the end, after much thought, I decided to not tell Mike but to instead ask Dad about it when a suitable moment presented itself.
It was fully light out when HR finally closed the book and rubbed his eyes, trying to bring himself back from the world of the story. Several things went through his head. First was a certainty that this was, in fact, written by his great-aunt; of that he had no more doubt. The amount of detail and family information saw to that. The second was a sense of wonder at the people being described in the tale. It was hard to imagine Granddad Ian as young and full of beans and it was even harder to imagine Laine herself, a purportedly bitter old woman quite unlike the vivacious youngster of the story. Like Lily, HR found himself starting to like the tale's narrator. More than that, he felt as if he identified with her. Who else but a MacCrae would understand the family nuances and unique code of ethics? She also seemed to share his misgivings about turning a profit from the sale of booze. He felt as if, from across time and via an unlikely source, he'd found a kindred spirit.
From upstairs, he could hear first the little noises of the kids waking up, then a sort of screeching howl as Lucy, still in her pajamas, came flying down the stairs and into the room.
"Hi, Daddy!" she crowed and ran to grab HR around the waist.
"Morning, Sweetie." He picked her up and set her on his lap. "How's my little sunbeam today?"
"Great!" Lucy enthused. "We're goin' to the zoo!" She noticed the old book on the table and turned it to face herself. "What's this book, Daddy? Is it new?"
"Sort of," HR said.
"It looks boring..." Lucy pronounced and then forgot all about it, going instead for the cereal and milk.
"Oh, it's not boring," HR said to himself. "It's not that."
Presently, Lily appeared with Paul, leading the toddler down the steps and into his father's arms. Tired as he was, both mentally and physically, HR felt new life pump into his veins just holding his son. The chubby boy giggled and squirmed in his arms.
"Are you still up?" Lily said, taking Paul to his highchair. "It was the book, wasn't it? I almost got sucked in myself..."
"Yeah, I guess so." HR rubbed his stubbly jaw. "Look, Lily, I'm dying here. Can you handle the kids? I just have to get some sleep..."
"No problem," she said, pouring cornflakes for Paul. "Gretchen's still here and I know she'd love to go to the zoo with us. Besides, you have the night off tonight, remember?" An old college pal of Lily's, Gretchen often stayed with them and was great with both Lucy and Paul.
"Oh yeah..." HR said, greatly relieved at the idea. "Good, good."
"Get some sleep, baby." Lily kissed him and swatted him on the butt in the direction of upstairs.
"Thanks." He kissed her back. "I love you."
"I love you, too."
In an exhausted daze, HR went first to his office and locked Laine's book (as he'd come to think of it) in the small safe he kept there. Then he phoned Gil Harrigan, his assistant manager, and squared away the night's schedule. Next, dragging his way up to the bedroom, he pulled off his clothes, pulled the shades over the windows, and got into bed. The alarm clock (unused ever since Lucy had been born) on the bedside table read 6:35 AM. He'd been awake now for about twenty hours and his body cried for rest.
But sleep wouldn't come; what he'd read of Laine's story kept rattling around in his head. He pictured the time and the place. 1943 and the nation at war, a simpler time perhaps, or maybe just more naïve. The bar would have looked almost the same back then, although the clientele was evidently more blue-collar, and HR could easily picture it. He was too well-read about the period to be overly nostalgic, but there was a certain hearkening to this simpler time that he liked. Men wore suits, then, with a hat and coat when they went outside and women wore skirts and dresses, not trousers, and stayed at home and raised children. Black and white movies, mono radio that featured about six stations, huge, steel-bodied autos with no seatbelts... Xenophobia, racism, propaganda, and jingoism. A black and white world where the gray patches went ignored.
And out of that environment came this gray patch, this strong-willed, fiery woman, Laine MacCrae. What an anomaly she must have been! What suspicion and sense of outrage must she have caused, intruding as she did in a man's world. That alone endeared her to HR, but there was a deeper connection as well, a sense that here was someone who would have understood his predicament regarding his career and the imposition of family tradition.
An only child, HR could nevertheless identify with Laine's desire to impress her father. Maybe Peter hadn't set him in competition against his sibling, but the tacit implication that he had better live up to expectations was still just as strong. To be fair, HR's father had probably been raised with the same sense of duty and obligation and was just as much a slave to family tradition as Ian had been. Luckily, he also was of a much more easy-going temperament and had never leaned on HR in any serious way. But still, the demands and hopes of generations of MacCraes past could not be fully denied and HR had always felt them, pressing on him with dusty insistence like a shroud.
He pictured the "hired men" of Laine's narrative, big burly guys, no doubt, with Irish accents who operated on the brutal logic of meting out punishment to the enemies of the family MacCrae. Mess with the MacCraes, get a bat-wielding Kern thug on your doorstep. HR smiled, thinking of how Ben would just eat this up. Lily was right; others, especially Peter and Ben, would have to read this...
The exposition of the Rules for a Big One was interesting but not new to HR. As family patriarch, he'd been presented with a parchment from 1845, written by Kyle MacCrae, his great-great-grandfather, that delineated these precepts. That was back in 1994, when he'd taken over management of the pub, and he'd simply stuck the old document in the safe with the other family heirlooms and records. Was it still there? He'd have to look.
One concern still lingered in HR's mind, though, a nagging voice that he knew would not go away until he'd heard it out. It kept asking whether this account was the whole truth, whether it was objective fact or a slanted view written after the fact by a back-biting family outcast. It smacked of veracity, but how could he be sure? It could be a grave mistake to take this pariah's word at face value. Finally he decided to just read the rest of the thing and then worry about its authenticity.
As he drifted off to sleep at last, he made a silent little vow to himself. He promised that, when Paul was old enough, he would let him choose, all on his own, whether or not he wanted to engage in the family business. He swore to hold back the tidal wave of the past and give his son what he'd never had; a choice.
By 5:00 that evening, HR was at his desk, again immersed in Laine's story. When he'd awakened there had been the usual sense of malaise, the customary, another-day-slinging-beer feeling of resentment, but then he'd remembered the book and that he had the night off and he'd hopped out of bed with an eagerness he hadn't felt in years. He wanted to dive in, to immerse himself in this woman's life and so he showered and dressed quickly. Had she been a kindred spirit to HR and an unjustly demonized figure or simply an embittered outcast who was lashing out at merely perceived slights?
After he'd taken the book from the office safe, he'd rummaged around in there and found the brittle roll of parchment that held the Rules. He'd unrolled it carefully and compared it to Laine's version. They were nearly identical, with one notable exception: Someone after Sean, probably Great-Grandfather Hi, had added the part about increasing the prices as the local economy recovered. HR's namesake, Hiram MacCrae had been a money-grubber nonpareil who was said to have been the epitome of Scottish miserliness. Leave it to him to find the better way to bilk the locals... Finally HR had put the scroll back into the safe and, with a cup of coffee, had sat down to read.
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