The Fiction of Philip Kaveny
Tavern of Lost Souls
by Philip Kaveny c 2015
My eyelids were stuck together and my tongue was plastered to the roof my mouth. There was terrible wailing in my ears. It seemed to roar like a great metallic river. The noise roared in my chest and took my breath away: I saw her before my eyes both terrible and beautiful, raven hair and deep set eyes that seem to open into pools of ruby light. Her lips trembled with tenderness almost to form a broken prayer. She tried to talk but her lips only loosed a wail, the wail of a woman.
I managed to pry my eyelids apart and saw only the shape of Helena, Veto’s pet vulture form before my eyes. Rivers of pain boiled inside my head and termites seemed to be boring from behind my forehead. When I was 18, three years before, this would have been funny. There was nothing funny in the taste in my mouth. She looked down at me from her perch. I swear that she winked at me.
She was patient and sensed that I was not ready. The dogs didn’t like her. They would cover their faces with their paws if she looked at them. Her beak was wicked and hooked, gnarled like a witch’s nose. I looked around for a moment more and then felt an icy cold explosion as someone emptied the slop bucket in my face. I looked up and saw Veto’s taunting countenance and heard his rasping voice cut through the fog in my brain.
“Wake up smart ass. Veto’s snack shack is no rest home for fuck ups.”
I could not believe that the greasy little Diego bastard had talked to me this way. Since before the Great War, my father had had the whole fourth ward of Pawtucket wrapped up in his vest pocket. Now that grease ball was talking to a Cavanaugh that way. As I pulled myself to my feet, Veto screamed at me.
“Big Jim this, big Jim that. He throw a barrel of whiskey across Main Street. He six‑feet‑six. He weigh 420 pounds. He pay your tab. He bail you out, you lily white asshole”
My head spun. Was this Veto Castagno talking to me this way? I pulled myself to my feet and looked down at the ugly, fat, little, dark man who railed. I went for him meaning to burst him like a blood filled mosquito. He never gave me a chance. Before I could draw my arm back, I felt a straight razor’s edge against my throat. His breath was a putrid mixture of garlic and whiskey.
“Listen, you listen, I only say once. Last night when you throwing gold double eagles all over my place.
Last night, when you make joke of my daughter.
Last night, when you try to make joke out of me by trying pissing my head
Your father, Big Jim, he shove a whole steak in his mouth
And he choke. He turn blue and his lungs burst with blood.
You got that? Big Jim, your father, is dead.”
Then he released me from his dirty grip. He seemed to be crying, as he went on
“Big Jim, he an asshole but he kept them out. He big and mean and smart and he kept them out. He keeps those Deggo Guinea bastards out, no dust, and no powder when he runs the ward. He keep it out. “
Vetio went on.
“Once while you still shitting yellow, ten of them come and tell big Jim they taking over the ward. They tell him that they going to take over St. Patrick’s Parish and they tell him he going to be working for Carom DeLarenzio. So he wipe the street up with all ten of them. I never saw a man move like that. Bodies flew, arms broke and the thunder cracked. Nine of them crawled off. One never wake up, but nothing happen, because big Jim run the ward. The rest hear, and as long as Jim alive they never come back. Now Jim dead and they back.”
My father died while I was passed‑out and now this scum gave me the message. The undertaker laid him out at home and a wall of a hundred prayer candles blazed for Big Jim’s soul at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. It took eight quarrymen serving as pallbearers to carry his bronze casket to the hearse which was pulled by the team of Clydesdales that the beer company supplied free of charge.
Then my grandmother said she’d heard the wail of a banshee which cut to the core of her soul on the night he had died. My grandmother used to scare me with tales of the banshee wailing as souls plummeted to hell, but now only the family heard it. I had not heard it, I was sure. Or if I did, it as one hears when someone talks in a dream.
I stood with what was left of my family at the Marble Town. After they had all left, he had been lowered down, I felt someone press a note in my hand.
I mouthed the words out loud:
“Go. They wait to buy you out.”
Who waited to buy me out? The ward was mine since he was dead: Who waited to buy me out? And out of what? We owned the beer distributorship? The trucks? The barbershop? The grocery? Who were they? I found out soon enough.
I went back to the barbershop where we did our business and found three of them waiting for me. Jimmy, the intellectually disabled barber, stood in the corner trembling. One of his thumbs was brutally twisted so it faced away from his palm. They were all dressed impeccably right down to the boutonniere in the double‑breasted pin‑striped lapel. The largest spoke slowly.
“Sign this. We work for Carmon DeLerenizo and we are here to buy you out. Take this bundle or sleep with the fish. One time we offer to buy. The next time we take.”
Jimmy looked at me, his simple moon face torn with pain. He held up his twisted thumb and said: “Holy Mother of God, Pray for us: take the money.
It was a brutal revelation; while I was going to Holy Cross and studying the Greek and Latin Classics, these sacks of puss were going to school our ward.
I looked at them. Their eyes showed no emotion. One smiled like a buzz saw and the others stood close.
“Don’t think, I wouldn’t try it. Martyrs make bad examples. This ward is ours. Everything that he owned is ours.”
I thought about it. The simple‑faced barber was right. They sent me to the College of the Holy Cross to get rid of my accent and now I had nothing. I was a rounder. I had not worked since the summer in the spool factory. I was worthless. My hands were soft from studying and my breath was short from too little walking and now I had lost everything that Big Jim had
As I walked away from the barbershop, I counted the roll of
Hundreds and discovered the cruel joke they had played on me. It was a single hundred wrapped around a roll of a hundred ones. I had nothing, I was worth nothing.
I had no place to go and I was worth nothing. I was dead in the street if I stayed, so I went to Veto’s.
The greasy little bastard smiled at me.
“Long way down isn’t it?”
“I broke all the rungs along the way; now I doubt I can climb my way up,
I thought of the lady with the ruby pools for eyes, then Veto said,
“Your father, he used to go talk to Tan Chin, the Chinaman who did our laundry. Big Jim would go see him about twice a month and bring him ginseng. Go see Tan Chin. He may be able to tell you something.”
So I went to to see if he could help. The last thing that Veto said to me was Tan Chin knew a secret about Big Jim.
His shop was small with steaming kettles in the back. I could smell the lye soap and wooden paddles. He seemed to know me and looked up as I walked in.
“Paul Cavanaugh. I did not come to your father’s funeral. They do not like heathens at Christian burials Father Grace says we will burn in hell because we are not baptized.”
“Veto Castagno says you can tell me something about my father .How did he do it, how did he keep the Guinea out all of those years?
Tan Chin’s eyes narrowed. He seemed to be 100 years old. He spoke perfectly.
“Big Jim made a deal with me and I taught him all I knew about the ancient way. But that was not enough. I taught him how to break a man’s neck with one hand. I taught him to move so that they could not see him. But that was not all of it. He made a deal with the lady with red eyes. I could not teach him enough. He needed what she had to teach him. The lady told him about the big wind. She told him about the trees. Never tell your mother, but he made a deal with her and saw. The lady gave him what he needed to hold the ward.” Said Tan Ching.
“Tell me what I need to know to kill that bastard Carmon.”
Tan Ching looked at me for a long time and then said.
“It would take me 10 years to a teach you 10th of what big Jim knew.”
I said “That’s is too long. What if I study day and night? I must have what he knew.” I demanded.
“Then it take 100 years. You too slow, you too soft, you too much school. You go to Boston. Get a job as a bank clerk. Leave it all and never think of Carmon Delarenzio again.”
I walked and thought of my own death. I fell into despair but I did not leave. Boston was not my destination. I was to stay in Pawtucket. My family left town when they took over, but I stayed and went to work for Tan Ching. I was the only white that ever worked for Tan Ching. ********************* .
The town changed. They passed the Volstead act and Carmon became richer and richer. He owned the ward and everything in the city that the Brahmin’s did not have wrapped up. He became richer as I worked for Tan Chin. I didn’t always think of Carmon. Sometimes I thought of Big Jim and the lady. I wondered what it had cost him and if he were paying for it now in hell. So I finally asked Tan Chin how I could find the Ruby lady.
“Tell me how I can see her. I saw her once in a dream the night he died but never again. ”
I grabbed Tan Chin by his smock. He was an old man now. I knew that he had no more to teach me than he had already with the work that cracked my hands but built my back.
“He not worth it, not worth to talk to the lady. Must forget all. Must go to Boston and forget all.”
He knew as he looked at me that I would find the lady and make my father’s deal, the deal that we had made for 50 generations since the Romans. He knew I would make any deal to get that Bastard and have what was mine. So Tan took me to a corner of his shop and opened a door that I was certain had never been there before.
“Go then, poor fool. Walk through that door that was always there.” I walked through the door and then there was no door behind me. I walked down the path and found the ghost ship. Its sails were gossamer and the hull was like the finest crystal.
I had never dreamed of such a ship and crew before. I spoke to them in Greek but there was no answer. The Captain stood mute to any language that I tried on him. Finally the Captain answered in an ancient tongue which I barely recognized.
Then I saw her just as I had in my dream, tall raven hair with red pools for eyes. She did not speak but I heard her words in my mind. Will you see Big Jim in hell?
Yes, I breathed, I will see him in hell. The boat glided along the river and finally landed on the other side. I had read The Inferno and expected lakes of fire and faces through frozen lakes. I saw none of that. Only an endless boring plain with a nickelodeon always playing “McNamara’s Band” endlessly. A bar that seemed to bend across the horizon and an endless cavalcade of spittoons on the floor. It smelled like camel piss and everyone at the bar was drinking awful green beer.
They all sat at the bar, the multitudes, drinking the warm green beer and listening to the nickelodeon playing that same awful song. She took me to my father and he looked up at me with bloodshot eyes.
“Kill that bastard Carmon and my soul is to dust and he sits at my stool. Was this it?
Eternity only meant keeping this Tavern of Lost Souls filled with customers. They did not care who was there they just wanted the place full. She took me back to Pawtucket the long way.
I heard her voice inside my head again. “We travel day and night, and if you can stay awake you will see and hear things that will never leave your mind.”
The ghost ship traveled across day and night and sometimes as it drew to the north coast of the southern continent, I thought I saw the lights of Rome’s long vanquished rival. I thought I saw the infidel swing into Hibernia and then we were north in the great ocean. They seemed to glide across time as the moon climbed into the sky.
And then, just like that, I was back on the street of Pawtucket wondering how I would kill Carmon Delarenzio, who was now the biggest man in town. How could I kill him and put him in my father’s place. He had everything we owned in this world and in no more than the five years since Big Jim had died. He had taken it all over, the beer distribution business had boomed since prohibition. There was even talk that he would run for junior senator from Rhode Island.
I thought about this as I walked to the barbershop where we used to do or business. There he was, sitting in the barber chair with five of his sharks around him. I walked in the door and one of them had a glimmer in his eye. He said as he laughed sardonically:
“Look Carmon. Look who comes to see: You remember the son of that fat Mick we poisoned with the steak.”
Jimmy took the towel off of Carmon’s face as he stretched in the chair one of them patted me down and found nothing. Then Carmon started to laugh, his boy started to laugh and the kettle shot out the scalding steam to heat the towels for Carmon’s shave. Jimmy stood with the razor in his hand. As he started to shave Carmon, I picked up the tea kettle and shot jimmy in the ass with a jet of steam. His hand slipped and the razor ripped across Carmon’s face and throat and we all watched him drown in his own blood.
You remember that Jimmy. They did not kill me. In the blood, confusion and noise, I made into the street and took the first train to Boston. The newspapers seemed to hush it and the police did not seen to Miss Carmon. There was a solemn requiem mass in both St. Patrick’s and St. Marks. And I was sure that Carmon was sitting in hell drinking green beer and listening to McNamara’s Band on the nickelodeon.
That was 90 years ago, Jimmy. At least where we are now, if this is the priests call heaven they let us listen to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.