Wicked Brew

Ralf Schulze (Flickr/rs-foto)
Ralf Schulze (Flickr/rs-foto)

All day, Old Man McGinty had watched the different festivities at the Highland Games: the caber toss and the sheepdog trials and the young girls in their plaid skirts dancing the Highland fling, all vying for blue ribbons and their picture in the local paper. He had eaten pasties with his family and tried to drink a draught of ale, but only managed less than half and had a slight headache from that. He had looked at booths selling coffee mugs and baseball caps depicting Scottish and Irish family crests. He had watched women in long skirts spinning wool, looking incongruous in the midsummer heat. He had moved through the festival with a happy heart in anticipation of the concert early that evening. Wicked Brew was playing that year. They were Irish musicians in the old tradition, with pipers and drummers and singers, and they knew how to weave the spell of the Celtic sound on their rapt audience. When the time came, when he’d settled into his prime seat, third row center, which he’d procured by arriving at the amphitheater a good hour in advance of the concert’s start, McGinty couldn’t have been more delighted.

McGinty watched as the band set up. He was thrilled to see that a didgeridoo had been added to the assortment of instruments. He could hardly wait to hear the sound that would come out of that big, strange pipe. It was an impressive four and a half feet long, carved out of a dark wood, with elaborate decorations. Next he saw one of the musicians bring out his bagpipes. Ah, he thought to himself, Irish pipes. McGinty’s favorite. If you asked him why, he would tell you that he preferred them to Scottish pipes because they were softer in tone; yes, Irish pipes were distinctly different, he would say, they were not as shrill or loud as the Scottish pipes. Oh, he might exclaim in an unchecked moment, oh, for the sweet, sad notes of the Irish pipes!

McGinty’s wife and grown son had come along; his daughter was away at college. His son hadn’t gone to college. Instead he’d gone right into the building trades after high school, at a time when Orange County was experiencing a construction boom. He apprenticed with a local builder by the name of Gary Wier, who taught him everything from dry walling to laying cement to plumbing and electric. He was gifted at these tasks, unlike his father. He took pride in his newly acquired skills, as well as the excellent wages they earned him. He could build an entire house from scratch (something incomprehensible to McGinty) and began thinking of Gary as his surrogate dad. On more than one occasion, McGinty heard him say that Gary was the dad he always wanted, “a real man’s man.”

McGinty’s son had already purchased his first home, a modest three-bedroom, two-bath suburban property in the same tract home development as his parents. That he had bought, practically outright, at the age of 25, a house near the house he grew up in, the house his family hadn’t moved into until his own father was 41 and which wouldn’t be paid off for another 15 years, was a source of great and constant pride to his son, something he mentioned frequently around McGinty, though this was always directed at his mother.

“You know, Mom, I’m thinking of refinancing and renting my place out, upgrading to a bigger house in that new development near Thunder Ridge. All those new houses have pools and at least 3,500 square feet. The rental on my first house would more than cover the new mortgage.”

“It’s remarkable how you’ve managed that at your age,” McGinty’s wife would say, beaming.

“Well, I apply myself, Mom. Every day. I’m disciplined and focused, and I know what I want. I know what it means to work hard.”

“You sure do, honey,” McGinty’s wife would say and beam some more.

McGinty once overheard his wife talking on the phone to a coworker. She was alternately laughing under her breath and making a clucking sound with her tongue against the back of her front teeth. “I had to have a son and raise him up in order to get a patio put in my back yard. My husband was never handy around the house. But my son—he put in a patio, a footpath, did all the landscaping—and all that while he was still in high school. Yes, I got lucky with my boy. Imagine if they’d both been useless.”

McGinty had remained a mystery to his family their entire life together. If you asked any one of them what he was like, or even, simply, what he did for a living, the answers would vary. “I’m not sure what he does,” his daughter would say. “I know that at various times he’s sold things: correspondence courses, sets of dishware, encyclopedias, vitamins. Once, my mom said, he tried to sell earthworm farms. It was when she was pregnant with me. One night he was testing out a worm farm in the kitchen and he forgot to tell my mom to leave the light on, so when she went in there barefoot in the middle of the night for a glass of water, she walked across the floor on a carpet of worms. They had all come pouring out of their boxes in the dark. She slipped and fell and almost delivered me early from the shock. I don’t remember that, of course. Then, when I was in grade school, he ran a Laundromat. Later, he sold insurance. I guess you’d call him a salesman.”

His wife would say, “Well, I had hoped my husband would be a successful entrepreneur. That was what he always told me he was trying to be. An entrepreneur. I was 10 years younger than him when we got married, and I believed him. He’d tell me that all successful entrepreneurs are risk takers. At the very least, he’d say, they’re their own bosses. Isn’t that the American dream? Ultimately, how it played out for me was I ended up always holding down a full-time job, while he took risks and was his own boss. I had thought I’d be able to stay at home and raise my kids, but that never happened. He couldn’t support this family on any of his various get-rich-quick schemes. I got tired of renting apartments and always moving around, so when my kids were still in diapers, I started working full time just so we could own our own home. I never stopped after that. I’ll keep going until I retire, now.”

And his son, well, McGinty’s son could tell you what his father was in one word: a failure.

McGinty’s son had a new girlfriend. This was only their third date, and she’d agreed to meet him at the Games, after work, where she would meet his parents for the first time. She worked in a diner where McGinty’s son stopped for breakfast every weekday morning at 6:00 a.m. She had been impressed that he already owned his own home and was self-employed and drove a brand-new red truck bearing the name of his company on it: Best Bet Builders. McGinty’s son bought them both a pint of ale and downed his, easily, while they watched border collies herd sheep around low scattered fences. His new girlfriend still clutched her full pint in both hands.

“Look how those dogs work!” the new girlfriend said. “My dog just flops around the house like a rug.”

“Any dog’ll lie like a rug if you don’t train it right,” McGinty’s son said with authority. “These dogs are supposed to work—they’re born to it. They’re the lucky ones, too, ’cause they’re just doing what they’re born to do.”

“Well, I guess some dogs are born to work, and some are born to be rugs!” the new girlfriend smiled, thinking she’d said something cute.

They were walking toward the amphitheater when McGinty’s son told her, grinning from ear to ear, that his father was a river dancer. “Remember that guy in black who was on TV? They sold videos and stuff, that river dancer guy. My dad does that. You should ask him about it. He’s a river dancer from way back, for generations. Tell him you want to see him river dance.”

The new girlfriend was anxious to make a good impression. She thought it would be the polite thing to do, to ask him about it, and that it would be a good conversation opener. She sat down between McGinty and his son in the third row of the amphitheater. She said hello to McGinty and his wife, then she asked him, sincerely, “So, are you really a river dancer? What exactly is that, anyway?”

“Yeah, tell her about the good old days, Pop,” his son said, smirking.

McGinty turned away from the girl and stared straight ahead. He scratched his neck. He crossed his arms. The new girlfriend turned to his son. “Is he deaf?” she said. “I’m talking to him but I don’t think he’s hearing me.”

“Actually, he is deaf—in his right ear—and you’re sitting on his right, so you need to speak up. Do that. Go on, ask him again. Say it louder this time,” his son said, incited, now, by his father’s stony expression.

She turned again to McGinty, put on her sweetest smile and said, loudly, “I hear you are a terrific river dancer! I’d love to see you dance!” She stared at him expectantly, hopefully.

“Isn’t that right, Mom?” his son yelled down the row. “Isn’t he a world class river dancer?”

McGinty’s upper teeth reached out and over his lower lip. He sucked in air sharply, held it, then exhaled slowly, deliberately.

“Shshshsh …” McGinty’s wife chimed in. “They’re starting.”

The musicians onstage broke into song. The notes were sharp and lively, full of power and longing, too. The sounds swirled around the audience, striking their hearts precisely, before disappearing up into the slowly darkening sky. After the second song, McGinty’s son got up to fetch more beers. He returned with two, gave one to his new girlfriend, who set it on the ground next to her other half-full cup, and slugged the other one down himself.

“Hey Mom,” he yelled down the row. “Did he dance yet?”

On the fifth song, a musician crossed to the didgeridoo. McGinty instinctively leaned forward. He’d only read about these instruments, but he’d never heard one played. His interest was keen. The musician picked up the didgeridoo. His son whispered to his new girlfriend, “And this was the special instrument my dad would solo dance to—no kidding. See how he is there?” He cried out loudly, “Hey, Pops! Do your river dance! Come on now, show us your stuff!” McGinty continued to stare straight ahead. The low conversations and rustlings in the audience were silenced when the first of a series of sounds erupted from the big pipe. The sounds were strange and deep. Primal. They fixed McGinty to his seat. He couldn’t move. He couldn’t blink. He absorbed the warbling vibration, wave after wave of it, as if in a trance. Openly. Willingly.

At intermission McGinty stood up abruptly, moved awkwardly down the aisle sideways, away from his family, and disappeared. His son went for more beers.

“Is he all right?” the new girlfriend asked McGinty’s wife.

She smiled, “Don’t worry about it, dear.”

“Is he really as great a dancer as your son says?”

“Oh, honey,” his wife laughed heartily, enjoying the joke. “That man has never danced a step in his life!”

McGinty’s son returned with three beers and tried to pass them around. His new girlfriend declined. He spilled some on her bare knees reaching across her lap to his mother, who reached for the cup and wrapped one hand casually around its circumference. She kept her nails neat and trim and unpolished. They were strong, capable hands, like her son’s.

“That stuff is so strong,” the new girlfriend remarked.

“Yes, isn’t it?” his mother replied.

“It’s ale—that’s the real deal. I can put this stuff away like water,” McGinty’s son grinned.

“Well, that doesn’t mean you should,” replied his new girlfriend, using her shirtsleeve to wipe the spilled beer from her knees.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” the son asked.

“I mean, it seems to affect you—you act different when you drink.”

Wicked Brew began to play again. McGinty’s wife looked at her son and smiled. No one asked where McGinty had gone.

“It’s in my genes,” the son said sharply to his new girlfriend, drawing the dark ale down his throat with swift abandon. “I’m Scottish and Irish, too. We can hold our liquor.”

His new girlfriend searched his face and said, “I thought you said your dad was some great dancer.”

He ignored her, instead letting fly a rousing Burp!

She tried again, “You told me to ask your dad about his dancing—but your mom says he doesn’t dance at all.”

“Don’t worry,” the son said. “You don’t get it.”

“No, I guess I don’t.” She dropped her head back and searched the big, open night sky. The pipes played softly now, a solo, before being joined by a flute and a harp. The music calmed her.

“Look, if you have a problem with me,” the son said, and not kindly, “then maybe this isn’t going to work out.”

“Well,” the soon-to-be ex-girlfriend paused, “maybe it isn’t.” She stood up. “Excuse me. Nice to meet you, Mrs. McGinty,” she said before sidestepping down the aisle. McGinty’s son did not follow.

To the right of the amphitheater there were scattered eucalyptus trees and clumps of pink and white oleander bushes. It was deeply dark. No one stood there, so dense was the darkness. No one, except for Old Man McGinty. Only after intermission, only after he left his seat, left his family, did he feel that he could finally breathe. So shallow had his breath become, as he sat between his wife and his son’s new girlfriend, enduring his son’s taunts, that he thought he might faint. Finally, there in the dark, near a lonely tree, he could watch the concert in peace. He could breathe—in, then out, in, then out—and not be disturbed. There, to the side of the stage, he could bask in the joyful din that was Wicked Brew and not be mocked for his love of the pipes or his secret heart. No one could bother him. No one could laugh at him. No one could see him. No one, except for his son’s ex-girlfriend, who, after a stop at the portable bathrooms to the rear of the amphitheater, had gone to seek him out, to apologize for the offense for which she felt guilty. Walking around the side of the stage, she caught a glimpse of movement ahead of her, near a tree, and she froze. The movement was so jerky, so violent, that at first she thought an animal might be in the process of killing some smaller creature. But no. She soon realized that what she saw was a man. And not just any man, but the one she sought out. It was McGinty. And the shock on her face—a simple face that lit up like a newborn lamb in the honest moonlight—was frozen there, as she stood transfixed for a good long minute before she backed away, slowly, into the dark woods of that music-filled night, her mind seared with the image of Old Man McGinty in the shadows whirling madly, his heart and feet colliding, his eyes shut tight, his mouth a grimace, as he danced, as he whirled, dancing like he would never stop, like he would die from the need of it. He danced like he had never felt, for anything, in his entire life, such wild love.


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A. E. Stout's stories have appeared in Zoetrope: All-Story, McSweeney’s, and Virginia Quarterly Review.


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