Twelve Devotions up on the Atlantic
It’s a Galway day in Milwaukee, and not just because I may be just as ill as I was then, and smoking. Now I live in a neighborhood that makes church bell rackets every quarter-hour and hour, and I’m reminded of the most anxious bells I ever heard.
The morning in Galway was rudely bright, and every sound hit off of cobblestone heads, which was an echo I wasn’t used to. At ten the bells came through the town, not syncopated, but rather a staggered series of one repeated. The tolls smothered one another from competing belfries, and trembled the world. The hour of worship pealed and entered my head.
Winter alongside the Atlantic was like the fall is here, against Lake Michigan. I felt autumnal and wrecked there, surrounded by time, then the reassertion of time, and time again a quarter-hour later in a darker brick backstreet. The single bell announced my position: in Galway and mortal. Something had found me, and was beating the shit out of me.
Some Milwaukee Presbyterians across the street from me right now are being called, and have come in their Sunday appropriate.
In Galway the church I walked by was Catholic, and the sun was hidden by an angle. Before thinking of “heart-attack” I thought of “myocardial infarction”, and tried to catch my breath with my back resting against a grey wall of church slabs, with ancient grooves mercilessly realigning the weight of my spine. No one came into the church. There was no one around the old part of town, because it was a winter morning in a tourist trap. The only part of my body and mind that felt fresh were my eyelids, whipped red by the Atlantic winds. Two blocks east the bay was in sunshine. It was the source of all the coursing air I was sucking down and spitting back up, mixed with bits of my own anxiety and some carcinogenic things.
At the ocean, the action concerned me. It would’ve been so easy to be fucked by all that water, drowned or snapped against the breakers.
Meanwhile, in Milwaukee Then, but not Now with the bells across the street, you were driving your car into the freeway median.
A little ways down the quay, there was a seal pup looking up at the only pedestrian out for a walk that morning…but then the bells came on…so I was the only person out that afternoon. The pup dipped back into the water, away from this little piece of continent, and the clutter of noonday tolls came up from behind me while the water shouted in my face. Between the two, I would’ve chosen the backbreaking water.
III and Fifteen Minutes
The sound of the median against your car was unnatural, but something like the sea. It couldn’t be a gun, and the sensation of the airbags registered long after their noise confused you, but you’d hit your head, got your bell rung, pretty badly too, and thoughts weren’t solid, they didn’t settle, and wouldn’t for a really long time.
It was most likely soon, although it could’ve been awhile later because the sleet had covered your windshield. There was an old-person smelling powder floating around the interior of your car, and at first you thought that this was like when you see stars, but the powder was actually being illuminated by creeping headlights, then the forceful yellow lights of a tow truck. Fuck, you were damn small, and being realigned by an air bag. You drifted back into unconsciousness only briefly before someone rapped at your window, and a voice like that from a fishbowl asked if you were O.K.
After thanking the random man whose cab had smelled spicy and not unlike the house you grew up in, he explained that no man was an island and all that other bullshit, but he could really use a couple bucks. After you gave him five bucks you watched a clod of dirty snow tumble off the under body of his truck and get washed away by the sleet stream. You got into your car and somehow made it back to your apartment, where there was powder everywhere, except this time the powder didn’t actually exist, and you decided to call an ambulance.
I got on a bus back to Dublin, which cost me my last current money, the Euro, and I wondered how much my sixty dollars would get in one of the scandalous exchangers on O’ Connell street.
Five hours later I was in Dublin, arriving in the cocoon of a cross-country Irish bus. It was more wintry in Dublin, and the masses were let out downtown. The Liffey, unassuming but potent, cut down the capital, while its riverwalks were crowded with the young and drunk on a young cold night. They were all silent from the bus, a pantomime of a European capital and its river. O’ Connell street was called by the driver, and everyone got off except two people.
The air bit more deeply on this side of the country. There was a welcome vibrancy in the city, especially compared to Galway’s mood that morning. The needle of O’ Connell street was lit, sharp, and the same tremulous white as the closest star to Earth. Even the exchanger was cheery as he ripped me off, and I accepted the thirty-nine Euros courteously before stepping back out into the jacketed mass of commuters. I walked around the commercial district, past malls and shops, and put Galway out of my mind. Outside of a music store I turned to my left and told someone to check this out, but there was no one there, and I couldn’t remember who I’d expected to see.
I made a list of people I wanted for the moment as I walked south and out of downtown, but couldn’t think of anyone but my brother, and an Italian I met in Barcelona.
Without thinking I’d approached the neighborhood around St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and on St. George’s Street I heard the six knells of the hour. Goddamnit. It was too public a street to be shattered like this, so in the humming moment between the second and third mark, I cut across a street where traffic ran against my intuition, and headed towards St. Stephen’s Green. Three Four Five Six all came before I was even half a block off of St. George’s thoroughfare.
You couldn’t remember who you’d been talking to, and were surprised that you’d been awake, because you also knew that you’d been sleeping, but you’d become cognizant mid-sentence. You’d been telling someone to check you out of this hospital and get you…and that’s the part where you’d stopped talking. There was no one in the room even. You looked at the clock and wondered if it were seven o ‘clock today or tomorrow, and tried to picture the dashboard clock in the instant before you’d crashed.
There was a Dutch girl in the bunk above me, reading a James Joyce book in order to get an understanding for the city. She asked me when I was leaving Europe, and I said I was getting on a plane the next morning. She said she would let me nap, because I looked tired apparently. I didn’t put the hostel sheets on the hostel bed, but just curled up with my face towards the wall. She told me to have a good sleep, and I said thanks. I stared at the wall for an hour, thinking about how fitting it was that it should end like this.
My eyes are still open, long done with the cigarette break now, but looking down the avenue. Work is behind me, with the doors I have to enter in order to get back to work, and you’re texting me. I know it’s you. The fact that your head is healing makes me happy, but that’s not what you texted me about, you want to know if I’m sick of you yet, and for some reason the only thing I can think of is how much I want to explain Galway to you. The city workers come by to pick up the fallen leaves, but some scatter out again.
From the windows, I can see church has let out. I haven’t responded to you yet, because I don’t know what to say, and my boss keeps coming down and giving me looks, even though I’m only one of many translators he employs.
It’s eleven and I still haven’t responded to you, and you’re working the late show. You’re hustling so much that sometimes you think your phone is going off in your jeans, but that hasn’t been the case the four times you’ve checked, so I must be too sick of you to respond. There are too many people to serve for you to think of this. You hear a few phones go off in the theater, but not once do you think it’s yours.
I called you, but you’re not picking up, so I’m headed down to where you work with a head populated with unsettled thoughts and maps of foreign cities. You’re not at work, your boss said you got sent home early because you looked so tired, but I know you’re still awake. On the last bus of the night, which comes twenty minutes later, I’m looking out at all the quiet streets of Milwaukee, colder than I ever could be if I were anywhere else. On Kinnickinic we pass the Catholic, then the Methodist church, who will be shut the fuck upped for at least another seven hours. I get off on Oklahoma, and my ears start to ring from the cold. It’s been a year since I talked to no one, I realize, and then I find your street. There’s no one out, and there’s no lights on. I know I might have to wake you up, so I end up ringing your bell at least twelve times.
About the Author
Jack Austin is a writer from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He is the founder and editor of Brawlerlit, an online literary magazine focused on promoting the American Midwestern voice.