It was nearly midnight and I was drunk and thinking of heading back to my dump at the Ecu d'Or when the Irishman Rory Gallagher came through the door of the smoky and flyblown bar on the backside of Montmartre. I thought later how different things might have been if he'd chosen another bar or I'd been sober.
I'd met Rory three months earlier in a little town on the Loire where we'd each stumbled into short-term jobs at a campground. We'd both passed the previous few months kicking around Europe pretending to find ourselves, even while I labored hard at not being found. In the way of such wanderers, we struck up a momentary friendship before parting bitterly over an Italian girl who decided to head up to Normandy with me instead of going with Gallagher to the south of France.
This checkered history flickered through my impaired mind as I saw him walk in, and I should have followed my first impulse, which was to keep my head down. Yet, under the influence of alcohol-induced bonhomie I raised my hand and gave him a welcoming kind of nod—the nod making my head swim after four beers on an empty stomach.
He cocked his head and squinted at me with one eye, trying to place me. When the eye popped open again, triggering a frown, I knew he'd made the connection. To my muddled surprise the frown morphed into a grin not unlike that of the Big Bad Wolf spying one of the Three Little Pigs in a dark alley, and he came over to my table.
“Kip Weston, you old sod. What're you doin' drinkin' alone?”
I looked around for the two Moroccans who'd been with me all evening, but found they had drifted away at some point in the evening.
“And where's the lovely Giulietta?” he asked.
I essayed a “who knows?” gesture and told him, “Heading for Brittany with some random Greek the last I saw her.”
My confession about losing her took some of the menace off his smile.
“How was the south of France?” I asked him.
“Dunno. Never got there.” He pulled out a chair and slumped into it. “I got some work in Burgundy for a couple of months to replenish my empty purse and didn't make it that far.”
“So, where you heading now?”
“Back to Dublin. I was promised a job startin' the end of September, and I've got to get back or lose it. How about yerself?”
I told him of my travels—with Giulietta and then without—and how I ended up here in one of the smarmier quarters of Paris, leaving out, as always, the important stuff.
“Where ya stayin'?”
“Been at the Ecu d'Or the last few weeks.”
“The Ecu? Migod, Weston, that's the sort of place where you wake up in the morning with stitches on your back and one of your kidneys missing.”
“So, go home.”
“Don't want to go home.”
Even I caught the aggrieved tone of a spoiled child in my refusal.
“Ask your old man for some gelt. You told me he's swimmin' in the stuff. Has how many houses? And a yacht, as I recall.”
Having momentarily lost the power of speech, I laid my head on the table.
Gallagher blew out a breath. “And you were gettin' ready to take over the whole thing, yes? Graduated from some toffee-nosed school in finance or management or something.”
“No!” I shouted into the table top, the word ricocheting back at me hard enough to make my head bounce. “I told you about that.”
Ah, that's right. Comparative lit-ra-chur!” I'd forgotten the irritating edge to his laugh. “Yeah, just to rub the old man's nose in it, right? You graduate Magma Come Loudly or some such Greek. And now you're going to write a great novel about him and his kind, just to show you've got too much soul to take over the family business and make a real living.” He snorted. “Rich kids.”
In his mockery of my intentions I recognized words I'd often spoken after a couple of drinks. When thrown back at me, I cringed at their pretense. And whatever my whining confessions, I knew how much I'd left out, the parts I didn't tell anyone.
“All right. Enough about that, okay?”
“Sure thing, Kip. Meanwhile, why don't you just give the dad a call and get some money and take me out to dinner?”
“Someone stole my phone.”
He laughed so loud my brains wobbled.
“Aren't you the pathetic case?” he said and reached into his pocket. “Here, use mine. We'll call him right—”
“I don't want to call my father!”
I yanked myself up straight. The room oscillated alarmingly.
His hand still on his phone, he leaned back in his chair and eyed me for a long moment. “I almost admire you.”
“But not quite.”
“Not quite. Because you're a stubborn bugger and you don't know how to do yourself a favor.”
While I contemplated this profundity Gallagher ordered us both a beer and narrowed his eyes.
“So, Weston, my old friend, maybe you could use a job. You told me you did a lot of sailing. How about a job on a boat?”
Even while I was wondering why he would be willing to help me, I mean after the girl and all, I said, “A boat?”
“I knew that would wake you up.” Gallagher waved his hand like he was clearing away smoke, and when he didn't follow up on the boat thing I decided he'd been kidding.
We talked a little longer about where we'd been, what we'd done. We had another round, him moving on to whiskey as if, being an Irishman, he had to keep up a certain image. I'd almost forgotten about the boat when he asked again if I wanted work. He said he'd been working on a barge down in Burgundy, a peniche d'hotel he called it. “The Celeste. Owner's a Frenchwoman named Diane. She takes on a group of guests. Six of 'em, that's all, and treats them like royalty for a week for twenty-five thousand dollars. At the end of the week she packs 'em off and takes on another group. Crew of three, plus Diane. Easy work. Decent pay.”
“What did you do?”
“Drove a car that accompanied the boat. A London taxi, would you believe? I ran errands. Took the guests for excursions now and then. That kind of thing. Easy money, Weston. Easy money,” he said, hooking his thumbs into his belt and leaning back in his chair.
“So, why'd you leave?”
He gave me an if-only-you-knew smirk. “Like I say, I've got to get back to Dublin.” He took a look into the depths of his whiskey. “Anyway, my departure leaves her a crew member short. Most of the guests are Americans, so she wants people who speak English. If you've got a driver's license, the job's yours—if you get there first.”
He shrugged his indifference. It was up to me. His wicked smile should have made me think twice but, like I said, I'd had a few and was having a hard enough time thinking once.
I needed the money and was tired of this part of Paris, the only part I could afford. Summer, when everything was fun and everything seemed possible was nearly past, fall on the horizon and I felt like a grasshopper who should be thinking about turning into an ant.
So I said, “Sure. Why not?”
He bought me another beer to seal the deal, and knocked back a third whiskey. After a bit, he mentioned that he'd just come in from Dijon on the late train and the guys he hoped to stay with in Montmartre seemed to have moved on and could he maybe flop at my place?
“You willing to risk a kidney?”
“Sure,” he said, and we both laughed, though I didn't like the sound of his.
I woke in the morning feeling like my head had been taken off during the night and reattached without proper supervision. Gallagher, who had wrapped himself in the spare blanket and lay on the floor, sat up groaning and bleary-eyed. He rubbed his face and looked around, trying to figure out where he was. He looked surprised when he saw me.
“What the hell are you doin'—?” Then it came back to him.
He rose from the floor, still in his clothes, and offered to buy me breakfast. We lurched down to a bistro at the bottom of the hill.
Neither of us had much to say. The hangover had caused my speech centers to flick on and off like a dying light bulb. For his part, Gallagher seemed preoccupied and did little but dip his croissant in his coffee and suck on it.
“Look, Kip, about that boat job. I'm thinkin' I shouldn't have mentioned it. Probably not something you'd care for. Sorry I brought it up.”
“I gotta make some money.”
“And anything's easier than calling your father,” he said with a snort. “I still don't get get why you don't want to at least ask him for—”
“Enough about my father, okay?” I said it more sharply than I meant to and I could see his face set hard against me. “Look. If I decide to follow up on this boat thing, should I tell the owner . . .”
“. . . Diane, that you sent me?”
A smile came over his face that I should have read better. “Yeah, that's what you want to do.”
Overwhelmed with brotherly love, I said, “Rory, about the girl, I just wanted to say I'm—”
He waved a hand as he finished his coffee. “Forget about the girl. It's all good now.”
Out on the sidewalk we shook hands and said goodbye, Gallagher off to catch a train for London, me back to my fifth floor flop.
I hadn't got more than a few steps when he called, “Weston!”
“I almost forgot. Someone was looking for you. An American. In a gray suit. He came by the campground there in Beaugency, maybe a week or two after you took off with whatshername. He wanted to know where you— What's wrong?”
“I'm fine. Why should anything be wrong? Nothing's wrong,” I tried to laugh but it came out as the sort of laugh they put you in a padded room for. “What about this guy?”
Gallagher smiled and squinted suspiciously at my attempt to play it cool. “He said he'd heard you were working there with me. Wanted to know where you'd gone.” He thrust his chin at me. “What's it all about?”
“No idea,” I lied.
“He gave me his card.” He started to pull out his wallet. “You want it?”
“No!” I tried to collect myself. “So, what did you tell him?”
He cocked his head to one side, knowing I wouldn't give him a straight answer if he asked what was up with me. “If this guy's a stranger, what do you care?”
“I don't. It's just . . .”
Gallagher laughed and shook his head. “I told him you were headin' up to Normandy.” He shrugged, like it wasn't his fault he was still sore about the girl when this guy came by. “Then maybe Paris. That a problem?”
“No. You told him I was heading for Paris? Why should that be a problem?”
“If you don't know, I sure as hell don't.” He could see through me like a window and rewarded me with his most irritating smirk. “All right. So long, Weston.”
“So long, Gallagher.”
Still grinning, he headed down toward the Gare du Nord.
I ran back to my apartment, threw my stuff into a backpack and made the midday train to Dijon, looking over my shoulder the whole way.