A story from Little Bridget and The Flames of Hell

THE BALLYDUFF FLASH

Tim Dougherty leaned forward to tie his father’s shoe. Daniel Dougherty was eighty-one, and had not taken well to his new room at Our Lord The Redeemer’s Home in San Francisco. Leaning on his elbows and drooping his head forward from the armchair on which he sat, the old man wore a T-shirt with a “V” collar, and his white hair sprung from his head as though it were lined - each individual hair - with electricity. He was disgruntled with Tim. He frowned at him.

But then he looked away, distracted, wandering. Tim knew he shouldn’t feel insulted. His father would forget what had happened…probably already had. He would scratch his head. Sigh.The fact was that Daniel Dougherty could not remember a thing. The wide-eyed look he now gave the world, as though the world and its mysteries…his single bed, the little bathroom, the towels, his food served three times a day on a tray…were just simply too much for him, that look was accompanied by a frequent scratching of his head in the manner of Stan Laurel who, Tim remembered, his father had once revered. Almost the only comic memory Tim had of his father was that of watching a Laurel and Hardy movie on the television they had had in 1972, the last year his father had been at home. That year Tim was eight. They had both laughed at the comedians, imitating how they had struggled to push a piano up a long stairway.

It was the single intimacy Tim and his father had ever really enjoyed. They had laughed, but they had not been happy. Even at that age, Tim had feared his father as a cruel-hearted tyrant. That same year Daniel Dougherty had left his family and moved to North Beach, the Italian neighborhood in San Francisco, into a room at the Columbus Hotel. He was a union official, and the North Beach longshoreman’s hall was just a ten minute walk from the hotel. Tim and his three sisters had been left with their mother, acrimoniously, to fend for themselves in their second story flat far away on Tennessee Street in the Dogpatch district.

“Dad, I’m doing the best I can,” Tim said now. He fumbled with the shoe. Looking up at his father, he expected some sort of reprimanding anger. But Daniel was looking out the window.“You know, you can’t expect much from a guy who couldn’t tie his own shoe until he was seven,” Tim grinned.

His father appeared confused. “Who was that?” he asked.

“Me.”

Daniel gazed at his son a long moment, the stubbly growth of white beard on his chin like a dusting of sugar.

“Who are you?” he asked.

                                     ***

His mother had died when Tim was in seminary. His sisters really didn’t want to deal with their father, whose descent into senility and loss of mind had not impressed them as anything to care about. Daniel Dougherty had been an extremely upsetting man all his life. Critical of his wife and children, a punishing fool, a dictatorial, arbitrary hothead and drinker, he had ruined them. Mary lived on a farm  in Oregon with another woman and sent money, angrily, to separatist women’s organizations. Rose Ellen was a magazine publisher in New York, and Tim occasionally saw her on day-time women’s talk shows, a true fashion celebrity and also a tycoon. They had not spoken in many years. Sharon was a professor of Irish literature at the University of California in Berkeley, and had been living in Ireland for a year with her two sons, writing a new book. Her husband had left her, but recently had moved to Ireland to be with her again, about which Tim was very pleased because Sharon had been ill with self-castigation all her life. Tim himself had briefly been a priest and now worked with Irish immigrants, trying to get them visas, jobs, and green cards.

It was sometimes extraordinary work, once even taking him, some years before, to the county jail to help an I.R.A. man named Jamey Hutchins, a supposed murderer who had been in danger of being deported back to Britain for trial. More often Tim dealt with smaller problems, those of  some undocumented Galway man caught working construction out in the avenues, a Paddy with a law degree from Dublin University forced to hang sheetrock because he didn’t have the right papers. Tim’s local was Ireland’s 32 on Geary Street, and was so because that was where his clients went.

Tim’s time in  the priesthood had been a sad thing, and had not achieved much. It had lasted for four years before he gave up, disgruntled with Pope John Paul II - so obtuse a man, so powerful - and the church bureaucracy that rested like a sunken hulk between the Catholics and the true shining of their faith. But those frustrations had enhanced Tim’s natural charitableness and made him into a rather kind-hearted man. So he had acquiesced to his sisters’ indifference, not to say hostility, to their father’s troubles, and now was his legal guardian.

Under protest, really, because he agreed with his sisters on almost every score with regard to Daniel Dougherty. His father was the most villainous and cantankerous man in Tim’s entire existence, and he really did not want to take care of him. The old man represented abandon and riot, and had proven himself a singular expert at emotional manipulation when it came to his wife and his four children. 

But Tim had a single photo of his father that he had always cherished, that he had found in his mother’s things after she had died. It was quite yellowed, from a newspaper, and provided for him in the way that he would have preferred his father himself to provide, because it carried a sense of authority, of even-handed responsibility and good humor, that his father in fact had never demonstrated. It showed Daniel Dougherty at the age of twenty-five in Dublin, wearing a pair of black boxing shorts almost to his knees and a pair of laced-up boxing shoes, his gloved hands at the ready, his eyes tightened and intense. He appeared on the verge of laying out the photographer with a right cross. 

There was one thing that kept Daniel from looking like a pug. It was true that his skin was very white, almost pearlescent, and that he had none of the musculature that contemporary boxers now have, little evidence that he had ever lifted a weight. He was skinny. His hair stuck up from his head as though trying to pull itself from his skull. But his face had a kind of loveliness to it. Indeed its round cheeks and rounded jaw and the smile - innocent-seeming, caught in the act of being admired, as though Daniel were pleased and flattered to be photographed - the smile had always put Tim at ease. He had felt that this demonstration of his father’s prowess had legitimized him as a loving man. This was a fellow who would care for you. A man who would treat his son and all his children as though he were the guardian of their wishes and the defender of their own desires.

“I don’t know much about your father, Tim,” Sister Marlene whispered fifteen minutes later. 

Daniel was lying on his bed watching a bird that had perched on his windowsill. Sister Marlene’s discretion amused Tim because he knew, and surely she knew, that his father wasn’t paying any attention to them.  He couldn’t. And even if he were, he would not remember at all what it was they had said. 

Tim tried to imagine how it must be, living so constantly in the present. Memory gave pattern to everything. It contained directions from the past,  and so passed into the present and ordered it. And it ordered the future as well, at least that future that was not to be the victim of some disaster. Without a memory, everything was momentary comic confusion, because how could anything make any sense? A fly landed on the wall, and it was the first fly you had ever seen, ever…making that strange intensifying buzz just before the immediate turn to silence that so characterizes a fly coming to rest. You heard those noises for the first time with no explanation, for no reason, and they drove you nuts because you could not figure out what it was, or what that little flying thing was. The fly represented chaos, all the time, except that it wasn’t chaos because you didn’t remember it once it had happened, and so where was the upset in it? The fly landed and that’s all you knew, and you didn’t know it for long.

“Can you tell me a little bit about him?” 

Sister Marlene sat at a laptop on the table before her, with a link to Daniel’s medical record and his admission information. Tim leaned on the end of the bed and contemplated his father’s hand where it rested on the sheet. It was an oversized workingman’s hand with a crooked index finger. It had been broken sometime, Tim guessed, though it may well have been arthritic as well. They were large fingers that appeared massive in relation to the old man’s skinny arms. This hand could still lift heavy things, Tim imagined, grip them and make them move. 

“I’m afraid I can’t help much, Sister,” Tim said. “My father’s the black sheep of the family.”

Sister Marlene smiled, glancing quickly at Daniel.

“He left us when I was little,” Tim continued, “and I really don’t know the first thing about him. I mean, I’ve barely seen him in the last thirty-five years. The longshoreman’s union called me and said he had been sick and that he was wandering around, and that I was the only one of his relatives they had any information about.  So, I got the honor.”

“That’s so good of you,” the nun whispered, sitting back and gazing at the old man’s eyes, which now contemplated hers with a kind of appreciative elderly admiration. “But he seems like a very, very nice gentleman.”

“Sure,” Tim nodded, clearing his throat. “Yes.”

                                         ***

So there weren’t many facts, and there were none when it came to Daniel Dougherty’s past before he had come to the United States. What was known was that he had been born in Ireland. But so had a lot of others, and that didn’t seem to Tim to be, just on its own, a very distinguishing item. 

But there was the photo. A single boxer posed for the camera. Whether he was a goodboxer was anyone’s guess. There was no accompanying text of any kind. No background information. No nothing. 

So it must have been, Tim decided as Sister Marlene patted his father’s  hand, that Daniel Dougherty had been the flyweight champion of County Waterford in 1958, and had been headed for a championship fight with Bucky Finn, the Irish champ, when he got money in the mail from his uncle Bert Sullivan in San Francisco to come to America.

The Ballyduff Flash, he had been called. 

This identity, which came as a revelation to Tim while he watched the nun’s nurturing of his father, caused him to burst into a chuckle. It was a fiction. He had just gone and made it up. But lacking any memory, how could his father deny that this was the case?  Why would he wantto deny it, even if he were in possession of his faculties? (Tim surmised that his father had once had such faculties, although his mother had always said of Daniel Dougherty that the man had never had a coherent thought in all his life. Tim’s opinion of his father had been formed by his mother’s stories about him. The memory of her, Alma Dougherty, resided in Tim’s consciousness like that of the Virgin Mary Herself, all kindness and indulgence when it came to her children. But she had always broken out into angry sputtering when she talked about her husband. The problem was that she almost never talked about him.) 

In regards to his father, all Tim had gotten from his mother was bile. Otherwise his father’s past was the purest of mysteries. So Tim just went ahead and continued making one up.

Daniel had come into Dublin, and there had been a journalist there, a Cork man by the name of Fergus Stack who had tried one evening to talk him out of leaving on the London plane the next day. Fergus was a portly man recovering from drink. He hadn’t had a drop in the last three years, and he had grumbled with bitterness through each day’s deprivation because, really, he loved the alcohol and had found in it a source of fun that simply didn’t exist when he was sober. Being sober was the moral equivalent of paralysis.  But Fergus Stack became a bad man when he had had too much to drink, so that even though he was having fun, no one else was, and he had often been embarrassed by the stories he heard of what he had done. He had told Daniel Dougherty, about whom he had written an article for the Irish Times, that his drinking had finally had to be stopped because it was awful to hear such bad things about himself when he was unable to enjoy the memory of them on his own. If he was a difficult personality, he wanted to see it. But the Guinness always got in the way. 

“Anyway, Daniel, don’t you see that going off to America is nothing more than an escape.”

“That’s why I’m going.”

“No, I can’t see it. Especially when you have talents like yours.”

The Ballyduff Flash was a talented man.  He had beaten the two best contenders at his weight in Dublin, and was looking for a bout with Bucky Finn, who had been quoted in the papers as saying that there was no one in Ireland who could hold a candle to him, no one at all. Daniel Dougherty was convinced that Finn was trying to embarrass him, because whenever Finn was mentioned in the papers these days, the one other fighter who was said to be capable of  giving him a run for his money was the Ballyduff Flash himself. So it was an insult that Finn had not agreed to fight Dougherty. What was he afraid of? How could a man say he was the best when he hadn’t given the best challenger in all of Ireland a chance to go a couple of rounds? 

“No, I’m going to the airport tomorrow and I’m going to get on that plane,” Daniel said. “In County Waterford I can be a fine fighter, maybe one of the best.  But in San Francisco…”

He  smiled, taking up the pint of Guinness that rested on the table before him. “You know, that’s where the Gold Rush was. The Forty-Niners.” He sipped from the glass, the Guinness leaving a scattering of brown foam below the rim. “There’s money there.”

Fergus shook his head. He was a slow-moving man with a large moustache wearing an old suit. Not at all the sort of playful ruffian that Daniel Dougherty was. A sad, ugly man with a sweet-seeming temperament that probably had endeared him to the nuns when he was a child. Not like Dougherty at all.

“There is not,” Fergus said. “It’s a myth.”

“How do you know?”

“Doesn’t my own Uncle Devlin Stack live there in New York. And he’s had the worst of it since the day he arrived.”

“What do you mean?”

“No work. He can’t save any money at all. And he complains about the food. Nothing there but Germans and sausages and Italians.” Fergus grimaced. “Can you imagine it, Daniel? Italians!”

“They seem all right, don’t they?”

“I don’t know. I never met one.” Fergus shrugged his shoulders. “All I know about the Italians is that they used to be the Romans.  Now, there…the Romans, they were all right. But I don’t think they’re the same nowadays.”

Daniel shrugged and stared a moment at the glass of stout. “Instead of trying to talk me out of it, I think you should come with me.”

“Me? America?” Fergus leaned over, gathering the lapels of his overcoat before him. “I’m no good for that. I prefer the dull life here.”

“Sure it’s dull.”

“But you know there’s a kind of purity to life in the land where you were born.”

Daniel grimaced. He could not imagine purity of any kind at all anywhere. His life had stuttered about for as long as he could remember. The boxing had given him a kind of direction, a picture of himself that he felt showed what he could do, what he felt inside. But even the boxing seemed ephemeral to him. It wouldn’t last. How could it? He had become a champion in a little Irish town. And one day he would tire and someone would take the championship away. Then what would he do?

No, America was the land of Daniel Dougherty’s future.

“But New York’s a long way from San Francisco,” Daniel said. “I looked it up, you know.”

“What’s the difference?”

“One’s in the east, the other’s in the west.”

“That’s not much of a difference.”

“It is! Look at the difference here between the east and the west?”

Fergus shrugged. “Well, you’ve got me there,” he said.

“Would you want to live in a hut out in the Aran Islands, with the sea blowing across you like God’s own tears?”

Fergus gathered his hands before him on the table. He looked at them for several moments, a smile beginning to appear on his face.

“Is San Francisco like the Aran Islands?” he asked.

“I hope to God not!” Daniel said.

Fergus sighed. There was such sadness in him that he actually appeared comic, like Stan Laurel. The perfect lost Irishman. A man like him would do well in the States, Daniel thought. A man with a wandering spirit. A man of words. A journalist.

“Why don’t you come with me?” he smiled. “You might enjoy an outpost like California.”

Fergus moved his shoulders from left to right. There was a weighted slovenliness to his coat. It had the color of an afternoon cloud on a snowy day in mid-winter. He turned to the side, wrapping his hands about the cup of tea on the table before him.

“California. You mean where they make the movies.”

“Yeh.”

Fergus shrugged. “Well, in principle, Daniel, it sounds like a bad idea to me.” He grinned, though his smile remained imbued with a sort of resigned disappointment. “But if I could share a Guinness with a beautiful movie star…you know, someone like Elizabeth Taylor, I just might consider it.

                                                   ***

The States. Now there was an idea!

Daniel sat in his room at the Evans Hotel, his last night in Dublin. Fergus had agreed to it, and was leaving Dublin on the same plane. He had a passport. He had a visa. Of course, it wasn’t easy getting into The States these days, the Vietnam war and such having caused the Immigration to tighten the noose. But they’d let a couple of innocent Micks in, wouldn’t they? so that was no problem. It was a lark, especially now that they would do it together. Daniel no longer worried, as he had before, that America lay out there in the ocean like a mystery that would destroy him. With Fergus Stack, he would make a success of it. Both of them would.

He contemplated his suitcase, open in the corner of the room. It was sparsely occupied by the few possessions he would take with him to the new world: some shirts, a suit, a few  ties and a pair of extra shoes. A gift of a panel of linen from his mother to her brother Bert, a farmer from Limerick who now was with the police in San Francisco. 

Daniel had no plans to take his boxing gloves.

He tried imagining what San Francisco was like. He had read about the terrible earthquake in 1906, the single reason his mother did not want him to go to that place. And the great fire afterwards, stopped in its tracks when they had dynamited Van Ness Avenue. How do you dynamite an avenue? he asked himself. When they did it, did the fine ladies and gentlemen out for a stroll beneath the trees go flying into the blue along with the cement and the sewer pipes? Were there shredded silk umbrellas lying about in flames? 

Perhaps San Francisco was like Hell itself. 

He wondered about all those Chinese living there like God’s disgraced in the middle of a fine city otherwise filled with Catholics. Were there Chinese Catholics? Sure there had to be, since there had been Jesuits in China, wasn’t that right?, taking the faith to those people out there. But of course there was a certain doubt about what kind of faith the Jesuits could possibly bring to you, although really Daniel didn’t know anything about that. What he knew about the Jesuits he had gotten from his sparring partner Ned Foy in Ballyduff, who fulminated against them every chance he got, even though Ned’s own brother was a Jesuit priest himself. 

Well, it was because his brother was a Jesuit - a stuffy hypocrite with his  nose in the clouds - that Ned fulminated against them.

No, America was the land of opportunity. That’s it. That’s what Daniel had heard. And a man like Fergus Stack would do well out there. Just like the Chinese.    

But will I do well out there? Daniel wondered.

What could he do? His uncle Bert had written him that there was a good chance he could get him onto the police force, but Daniel Dougherty couldn’t imagine himself as a Guard walking up a dark alley late at night. Though maybe that wouldn’t be so bad, because at least up a dark alley he could defend himself. It would be worse if he had to take a lot of guff from some other Irishman that he didn’t know, some higher-up in the department. That would be worse. But there was building in San Francisco, the trades, carpentry and glaziers and roof men and all that. He could do that. 

And he could box! But then Daniel conjured up in his mind the image of Muhammad Ali and others, like Sonny Liston and Smokin’ Joe Frazier. What could The Ballyduff Flash do in the ring, up against a man like Muhammad Ali? He would end up an exhaled breath hanging in the air, the rest of him having disappeared.

The plain fact was, he didn’t know what he would do out in the States. But he had to go, because what was there to do in Ireland? Daniel thought of himself as a man with few talents. He could flick the sweat from the end of his nose as he took a bead on some opponent, but he doubted there was a lot of money in that sort of thing. No, but in San Francisco there was shipping, and surely they needed men to work the ships. He could do that.

Daniel’s knees suddenly began to shake. Sitting in his room, he smelled the dead remains of his sweat as he was quietly overcome by terror. This American adventure of his was about to begin, and he might die in the middle of it. This rude, bumptious decision he had made might get him killed. It had happened often. So many Englishmen eaten by animals and bleached in some Sahara somewhere. Rotted with the dead bugs and fallen trees in a mired, hot forest on an island who knew where? Those Spanish fellows that had gone off with Cortez or Pizarro. Or with the others…Magellan, Amelia Earhart. That co-pilot, what was his name? What about that poor fool? Destroyed, so many of them. 

Daniel suddenly realized that he could disappear in ignominious silence at the very farthest edge of the American continent, without a memory. What did he know about that place? Maybe, like those Spaniards, he would end up sacrificed to some truculent god, his heart torn from his chest with nothing to show for it. The Red Indians laughing at him. Out in San Francisco.

                                                            ***

"I can’t do it, Daniel," Fergus said.

His face had turned sallow, his jowls hanging down over his shirtcollar like small sacks of cement. He stared at the airplane awaiting them out the window, so sleek and fast-moving, upon which they would fly away from Ireland.

“You have to,” Daniel replied.

Fergus turned away. His mouth was set, angered. He could not look into Daniel’s eyes. He was once again lost in a paralysis of dismay. Daniel, so excited himself that he could not take his eyes from the airplane, groaned with impatience at Fergus’s reluctance.  

“But I’d be a coward if I went to the States,” Fergus muttered.

“Why, Fergus?”

“Because I’d be leaving behind everything that’s ever ruined me.”

Daniel dropped his shoulder bag to the floor and looked out the window toward the sky. He suddenly realized how important it was to him that Fergus accompany him to the new world. He turned to face the journalist, placing his hands in the pockets of his coat. What was this drivel - “Everything that’s ever ruined me” - this, what was it, movie dialogue? Fergus Stack stood slumped before him, his shoulders at a steep angle from his neck. His moustache resembled a smear of mud on his face. 

“Which is to say,” Fergus continued, “my life itself.” He lowered his head. “And God help me, Daniel, I enjoy my ruin,” he muttered.

Quickly his eyes searched Daniel’s out, but could not sustain Daniel’s annoyed stare. Fergus’s eyes moistened, the beginnings of tears that the journalist was trying to hold back.

“It’s too far away. It’s too new there,” he said.

“Fergus.”

“I would die in a place like that, Daniel. I know I would. And you may, too.”

“The hell I will.”

“It’s true. America’s no place for the Irish.”

Daniel’s fingers ground against one another. “Don’t you know that it’s been just such a place for a hundred fifty years?”

“But can’t you see that the Irish never did a thing in their lives, and what’s a place like The States going to do to change them? They’re louts, the Irish.”

“You’re a lout, Fergus.”

“Maybe so,” Fergus said, buttoning his coat and leaning over to take up Daniel’s shoulder bag. He handed it over. “But I’m among friends here, at least. Louts like these I understand. I won’t understand the ones in San Francisco.”  

He slumped before Daniel like a lumpish coward, and suddenly Daniel hated him. You weren’t supposed to start off on the greatest adventure of your life worrying that it was a crazed idiocy doomed to failure. Daniel wanted hope. A bright look at a new future. Salvation. And here this man, on whose approval Daniel had suddenly come to depend, this kind-hearted man who Daniel had talked into coming with him, was turning his back on it. No, this wasn’t just foolishness.  It was cowardice  notto go. Pure cowardice. 

”I won’t forgive you for this, Fergus,” Daniel said “And if I ever write to you, it’ll only be to tell you how much money I’ve made, and what a poor tosser you are and how you ought to be ahamed of yourself.”

Fergus’s hands fumbled with the buttons of his coat as he continued staring at the airplane.

“Sure I’ll be glad to hear it, Daniel,” he said.

                                          ***

There was no such correspondence until a letter came to Daniel in 1972.

Dear Daniel,

By now I expect you’re well on your way to riches and glory, if not there already, so I hope you won’t mind a note from your poor neighbor in the next parish back. I’m still waiting for that letter from you, and I hope the only reason I haven’t received it is that there’s no rest for the rich.

Daniel’s marriage had not gone well. He had had all these kids for one thing. Four of them, God help us. And his wife still the worst sort of complainer all day long.  Not enough money. Always the bill collector at the door, Daniel, and you haven’t done a thing about it. You left me here, Daniel, to do your work, to tell them that money’s on the way and would they please leave us alone, when Daniel the money’s not on the way and wouldn’t be even if you made a decent wage because you’re over there at McCarthy’s on Mission Street day and night, drinking your wages, abandoning your kids. With those worthless men, all of them telling you how you’ll never make a dime collecting dues from the rank and file. And the truth is, they’re right!

In the letter, Fergus informed him that he had written a novel about a provincial Irish boxer which, to his and God’s own surprise, had been bought by Hollywood. The movie, starring Warren Beatty as an American of Irish descent - You know how they change the facts out there in Hollywood. I would have had them film it in Ballyduff, myself. But I have to tell you, I never laid eyes on such a place as Hollywood before in my life. Palmtrees everywhere, and beautiful women, diamonds, furs. -  had made him a rich man. Daniel had seen the movie and hadn’t even realized that Fergus Stack was the author of such a success. The screenplay had gotten him an Oscar. I don’t know what to do with it. Do I wipe me arse with it? He was now married to an Italian actress and lived in Cannes. She had just had a screen test in the States, and it looked good for her at MGM. There was something about Fergus writing a script for, and directing, a movie starring Clint Eastwood.

In any case, would there be a chance we could meet somewhere? In Paris maybe. There’s a little Irish pub near the Hotel George V. The John L. Sullivan, it’s called, and I expect you’ve probably been there. They serve a good shepherd’s pie, and they give you a bloody decent glass of porter as well.

                                           ***        

Perhaps Daniel Dougherty had been a terrible man who had visited unhappiness on everyone he knew. But maybe there had been a reason for that, some disappointment of a remarkable kind. Sitting dazed in an overstuffed chair at Our Lord The Redeemer’s home, his hands folded before him and his shoe now successfully tied, the Ballyduff Flash himself wouldn’t have been able to tell you. But at least he had a son - a priest, you know - who remembered how it had been and what the true story really was.

(To purchase Little Bridget and The Flames of Hell, in print or digital form, go to Amazon.com.)