A Short Story by Donal Mahoney
One slow evening the bartender mentioned that watching Cootie arrange his glass of Guinness, sausages, eggs and kimchi on the bar was almost like watching a defrocked priest preparing to say an aberrant Latin Mass, especially since Cootie always made the Sign of the Cross and said Grace before he ate or drank.
He had been taught these and other spiritual practices by his brother, Paddy, a monk in a monastery located not too many miles away. Paddy was said to be a very holy man but maybe not a scholar.
Nevertheless, he had done well in the monastery, over the years, adding pecans to the tops of fruitcakes the monks would bake and sell by mail. He knew how many pecans a cake required and where to place them. He was the only monk trained for this job. He had no understudy. If Paddy had a sick day, some other monk would just plop the pecans on the cakes without any sense of order.
At communal prayers five times a day Paddy would pray for all the reprobates he had left behind in the old neighborhood. Cootie would give him a monthly update on their latest deeds when he’d visit him at the monastery. He would tell Paddy up front that none of the regulars had shown any improvement since his last visit. But, as Cootie would remind him, a lot of them had passed away and the future for the rest didn’t look too promising.
Each death, of course, would force Paddy to pray even harder because he felt that half the souls in Purgatory had probably come from his old neighborhood. Who knew if there’d be room in that Halfway House in the sky when it was time for Cootie and him to check in?
Cootie’s sister, on the other hand, had been quite different than her brothers. She had been a nun and was said to have been very smart. But she had died, young and unexpectedly, while teaching a third-grade English class in the parish school. She fell backwards one day, like a tree falling, and was looking up to heaven from the floor just as the bell rang. She never moved.
The parish priest arrived in minutes to give her the Last Rites but she was already dead. No one had any doubts, however, that she was already in heaven, explaining to some saint weak in punctuation the difference between the usage of a semi-colon and a colon.
No autopsy was performed. And it seemed as if the whole neighborhood took a shower and put on their best clothes to attend her funeral Mass. Even a few Southern Baptists chose to enter a Catholic Church for the first time to pay their final respects. Some of them were surprised to return home spiritually intact.
Cootie never talked about the years he had spent in Korea, the battles he had survived, the number of enemy he had killed or the event that led to the plate inserted in his head. He never explained either what he had done to earn all those medals.
And Cootie’s lack of braggadocio was appreciated because when he first came home, one of the regulars in the bar, a fellow named Stanley, a veteran of World War II, had announced to all the other customers that unlike Cootie, he had been in the “real war,” the one the United States had won.
Cootie didn’t say a word. But a half hour later, after a little small talk with Stanley, Cootie asked him to get off his stool so they could finally settle a bet made in high school as to which of them was taller. Standing face to face, Cootie indeed appeared to be taller. Then he hit Stanley with an uppercut launched from his knee. It took a bucket of water, a lot of encouragement and three sober men who had just walked in to get Stanley on his feet. Two of his teeth were never found.
After the Stanley incident, none of the regulars ever bothered Cootie again. And the bartender always told new patrons, “It’s best to leave Cootie alone.”
But occasionally a stranger, clearly out of his element, would arrive in a suit and tie or in Bermuda shorts and white bucks. Given the circumstances, it wouldn’t be long before one regular or another would engage the stranger in conversation and tell him in glowing terms about Cootie’s status as a hero of the Korean War. He had won so many medals, the stranger would be told, that he needed a suitcase to bring them home.
Often the stranger, after a sufficient amount of Guinness, would stroll down to the end of the bar and extend his hand to thank Cootie for his service. Like others before him, the stranger would learn that it was best to leave Cootie alone.
As every regular knew, Cootie had little to say about the war America hadn’t won. But if pressed to comment on the matter, he’d bounce off his stool and shout, “Damn the vernal equinox! Full speed ahead!” Everything else he said with his fists. And it was always a brief conversation.