Esquire

From my forthcoming novel:

James McNaughton, Esquire, is how he introduces himself while he holds court on a grimy stool at the bend of the bar; his primary audience a speckled mirror, glazed in the omnipresent smoke of penny cigarettes and cheap tobacco wafting from cracked pipes. He taps his own— "‘twas my granddad’s this was—he’d puff great circles round his head as we bairns sat by the peat fire. He sang of Cathleen ni Houlihan and her four green fields and the lads and men who would rise to her defense when the bloody British violated her shores. He taught us our real history from the days of our great kings and the seanachies singing of the victories and tragedies as the men gathered ‘round turf fires after a hard day’s work. This here"—he lifts his dirty pipe like a priest lifts the sacred chalice—"is a legacy of your people and don’t forget your people, lad, or you will sore grieve it."

Esquire’s dark round glasses keep his ragged brows from his eyes and his black and gray beard, not silver as he claims, but iron gray, smoke gray, dirty gray at that, catches bits of spittle and brown bread. He thinks himself quite the figure in his sagging tweed patched and re-patched by his wife’s—God rest her soul—darning skills and little is left of the original woven in the Donegal mills of his grandfather’s day.

Esquire invented his grandfather since his own two were dead long before his birth. His first hearing of Cathleen ni Houlihan, the old woman and the young queen who is Ireland and her four green fields, was from a fellow passenger who believed his singing such a gift to the world that he bestowed it on every soul shivering across the Atlantic. The peat fire in a hearth in his lovely thatch burned only in Esquire’s florid imagination as he retched into a full bucket on his escape from the home he had to leave, wearing the tweed he took from his father’s back before he was lowered into the mud of one of Cathleen's fields. 

James McNaughton, before he was Esquire, sauntered down the gangplank in New York Harbor in 1864 to be snatched with the other scrawny lads by men in squashed felt caps with a great X of crossed rifles on their forehead. So, he was to be a soldier. Perhaps the High King Brian Boru would be re-born in New York Harbor that day.

The life of a Union soldier wasn’t too bad for the future Esquire. He got his first new set of clothes and food and rough bed. He managed to stay out of the way of any Rebel bullets in the only battle he was part of. Within six months of landing in America the Civil War was over and James had a handful of stories to tell around whatever hearth or bit of smoldering coal he could find.

Esquire thought himself an intellectual, therefore, unsuited to the work available to immigrants shuffling off boats in their tattered rags with tattered children in tow. They banded together in tenements in the Lower East Side of New York and in Brooklyn, and those not able to afford this much American luxury made homes of bits of wood and tin and ragged blankets left as trash that found new purpose as shantytowns. These groups of human refuse forced their lean-to’s on patches of ground that pigs and dogs and smaller creatures condescended to, but would not cede, as their natural turf.  

When he was released from the Union Army with a mouthful of stories ready to spill, young James had to find work. He managed to get a job as a street sweeper by chatting up the ward boss in his squat. He was a jolly fella with a mouth that never shut, which was acceptable as long as he kept the broom moving, but after too many corner stone conversations on what’s wrong with the world, the future esquire found himself at liberty with empty pockets.

More to come…