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  • The Grinning Boy
  • Michael Larkin (bio)

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Photo courtesy of Boston Public Library

[End Page 136]

The boy always hoped his story might have an earlier beginning—one that left him forever a guiltless babe abandoned on a doorstep, basket-swaddled like Moses— but his conscience would allow him to go no further back than the day he saw his father give money to the IRA. His father gave, just as his grandfather and great-grandfather had given before him, and as his father no doubt expected his sons would give after. For a time, the boy could think of this as the beginning and lay all that came later on his father’s choice.

There was a certain bar in Charlestown that his father frequented after work at the Schrafft’s candy factory. The boy and his brothers knew to stay upwind when their father would come home three sheets to leeward, smelling more of whiskey than of sweets, a sure sign that the workday had been a bad one and he’d stopped for a topper to [End Page 137] flood the poison. “He’s back from Cloisters,” they’d whisper to each other, the signal to steer clear.

They knew the place only by reputation until one Saturday afternoon when their mother, woozy with flu, begged their father to take their sons’ cacophony from the house and the father pushed the boy and his brothers out the door and on toward the bar. The boy wondered at first why their father hadn’t just ordered them outside until dusk. Perhaps their visit to the Cloisters simply indicated a man drawn by habit down a well-rutted path. But their father’s bearing indicated he was in fine paternal fettle that day—This is what it means to be man of the house— and in keeping with the mood, he had perhaps decided to extend his sons’ moral instruction.

And so, into the crepuscular environs, made all the darker by the shining of the day outside through porthole windows that indicated no one but the sick or indentured had any business being indoors. Statues of hunchbacks with destroyed noses hunkered in confession over bemurked tumblers. Natural light had been banished, and men lumbered blind through tables that eroded into sawdust, the drink destroying their hearing, men yelling the simplest declaratives at each other except when the barkeep would tell them shut their yappahs ’cause Ted Williams’s at the plate and let’s listen at the wireless to see if he might give us a good reason for drinking in the pits, fer Christ’s sake.

Their father knew what he was about, wasn’t there for drinking or shouting or Ted Williams. In one corner, at a table by himself, sat a man twice as wide as their father, watching the Americans in their comfort, a full glass of glowing amber at his fingertips. At once meaty-faced and handsome, as if he’d been a boxer who’d had the looks beaten out of him, the man blended into the dark woodwork of the wall like a basrelief. Without introducing them, their father commanded his sons to sit a few tables away while he slipped into the booth, showily brought forth his wallet and papered a modest donation onto the table like a bank teller counting out a withdrawal.

The man quickly disappeared the bills as if offended. His voice brogue-thick: “They’re fine lads, but you’ll not bring them ’round next time, will you?”

“Their mother’s sick,” the boy’s father said as if that was explanation enough. And then, continuing the lesson he’d chosen for his sons, he asked, “And where will that go?” as he watched a few drinks’ worth of release disappear into the burly man’s pocket. [End Page 138]

The man eyed the boys at the table alongside with what seemed good cheer, then locked back onto the father with a harder expression. “That’s not a question for asking or answering. Come back another night without yer lads, and I’ll stand ye a drink. A pub’s no...


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pp. 136-153
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