“It’s Best to Leave Cootie Alone,” Donal Mahoney

by MP

     “Damn the vernal equinox! Full speed ahead!” is all that Cootie Murphy would ever say when he sat on the last stool at the end of the bar in The Stag & Doe Inn. He wouldn’t say it very often, only when provoked by someone or stirred by thoughts known only to him. Mostly he would simply sit at the bar in silence, staring straight ahead, tapping his fingers now and then, and sipping his Guinness.
     Cootie had held the rights to the last stool for more than 50 years, ever since he returned from Korea in 1953 after two years spent in conflict. Some people thought he suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome, although they didn’t call it that back then. Others thought he was nuts before he went to Korea and had simply come back a little nuttier. Both sides would find their opinions confirmed on nights when the moon was full and Cootie would throw his head back and howl like a wolf. Regular customers were used to it by now and they’d sometimes join in. The bartender would only say, “It’s best to leave Cootie alone.”
     The bartender also said that if Cootie ever died, his stool should be buried with him. But the neighborhood mortician, Rory McCarthy, always a customer after a funeral, had said he had never seen a casket that would accommodate both a man Cootie’s size and his stool as well. He agreed, however, that he would see what could be done if Cootie ever required his services, provided the family didn’t drive the body–as they did his mother’s–to O’Brien’s, another mortuary a few blocks down the street.
     McCarthy said that he knew of no law against burying Cootie upright—sitting on his stool, Guinness glass glued to his hand. That might be an option worth looking into. But it would require a customized casket of unorthodox configuration best ordered in advance. That would cost a little more, McCarthy said, but what’s money in a time of grief.
     There were no signs, however, that Cootie, despite his age, was a candidate for death. In fact, he took no medications. He was simply a strange and contrary fellow with many eccentricities.
     For example, it didn’t matter whether you were a regular customer who had known Cootie for decades or a first-time customer. He would respond in the same way. If someone asked him any question—did he have a match for a cigarette or did he know if the Cubs had won–his answer was always the same.
     “Damn the vernal equinox! Full speed ahead!”
     Regulars had no idea what he meant or why he said it. And strangers would walk away bewildered.
     Sometimes, however, a stranger who had drunk too much himself would take offense at Cootie invoking the vernal equinox. Over the years, several of the strangers had threatened Cootie with a thrashing. Such a threat, of course, was like a call to prayer in Damascus for regular customers who, otherwise bored, would bow their heads and turn on their stools quietly toward the commotion. They knew that as soon as Cootie would hear a threat, he’d get off his stool and put his fists up, John L. Sullivan style, and start shadow-boxing around the stranger, flicking left jabs and then a right cross, all just inches from the stranger’s chin.
     With Cootie circling him, the stranger wouldn’t know what to do. After all, Cootie might have been old but he stood 6’5,” weighed at least 300 pounds and he had fists like bear paws. He didn’t look his age and he moved and jabbed pretty well. Anyone could see that despite his years, Cootie looked capable of flattening anyone.
     Even more discouraging, when Cootie was flicking jabs, was the spinning of his eyes. His face looked like a slot machine malfunctioning. And as he danced around, his tongue would emerge quickly from the corner of his mouth, much like the penis of a younger man on the first night of his honeymoon.
     Cootie’s odd behavior had begun 50 years earlier shortly after his return to Chicago from Korea. He came back bearing medals galore and a Korean wife who made her own kimchi, a spicy Korean condiment consisting of pickled cabbage and a variety of spices. One regular customer once said that nothing in Chicago smelled like Cootie’s kimchi. Not even the stockyards, which back then was still in operation.
     Soo Loo Park, a good wife, would prepare the condiment with great care, pack it into clay pots, and bury the pots all over their small back yard. Wherever she buried a pot, she would stick a popsicle stick bearing the date the pot had been buried. How long a pot was allowed to ferment in the ground would determine the piquancy of the final product. Cootie liked his kimchi screaming hot, the cabbage leaves as gnarled as his hands, moist and glistening with red pepper.
     Oddly, Cootie liked to share his kimchi. He always brought a jar of it with him to The Stag & Doe to eat along with the hard-boiled eggs and pickled sausages that sat on the bar in big glass barrel jars. Give him a few sausages and a couple of hard-boiled eggs, followed by a fork full of kimchi, and Cootie was a happy man. He’d wash it down with glasses of Guinness from the tap, managing to get the froth all over his considerable mustache.
     Everyone was welcome to sample his kimchi. They didn’t even have to ask. Regulars, of course, wouldn’t go near the stuff but strangers occasionally did. On such occasions, the regulars would always have to suppress a laugh. Just a pinch of Cootie’s kimchi would make a Mexican weaned on jalapenos scream for a fire extinguisher.
     One slow evening the bartender mentioned that watching Cootie arrange his glass of Guinness, sausages, eggs and kimchi on the bar was almost like watching a defrocked priest preparing to say an aberrant Latin Mass, especially since Cootie always made the Sign of the Cross and said Grace before he ate or drank.
     He had been taught these and other spiritual practices by his brother, Paddy, a monk in a monastery located not too many miles away. Paddy was said to be a very holy man but maybe not a scholar.
     Nevertheless, he had done well in the monastery, over the years, adding pecans to the tops of fruitcakes the monks would bake and sell by mail. He knew how many pecans a cake required and where to place them. He was the only monk trained for this job. He had no understudy. If Paddy had a sick day, some other monk would just plop the pecans on the cakes without any sense of order.
     At communal prayers five times a day Paddy would pray for all the reprobates he had left behind in the old neighborhood. Cootie would give him a monthly update on their latest deeds when he’d visit him at the monastery. He would tell Paddy up front that none of the regulars had shown any improvement since his last visit. But, as Cootie would remind him, a lot of them had passed away and the future for the rest didn’t look too promising.
     Each death, of course, would force Paddy to pray even harder because he felt that half the souls in Purgatory had probably come from his old neighborhood. Who knew if there’d be room in that Halfway House in the sky when it was time for Cootie and him to check in?
     Cootie’s sister, on the other hand, had been quite different than her brothers. She had been a nun and was said to have been very smart. But she had died, young and unexpectedly, while teaching a third-grade English class in the parish school. She fell backwards one day, like a tree falling, and was looking up to heaven from the floor just as the bell rang. She never moved.
     The parish priest arrived in minutes to give her the Last Rites but she was already dead. No one had any doubts, however, that she was already in heaven, explaining to some saint weak in punctuation the difference between the usage of a semi-colon and a colon.
     No autopsy was performed. And it seemed as if the whole neighborhood took a shower and put on their best clothes to attend her funeral Mass. Even a few Southern Baptists chose to enter a Catholic Church for the first time to pay their final respects. Some of them were surprised to return home spiritually intact.
     Cootie never talked about the years he had spent in Korea, the battles he had survived, the number of enemy he had killed or the event that led to the plate inserted in his head. He never explained either what he had done to earn all those medals.
     And Cootie’s lack of braggadocio was appreciated because when he first came home, one of the regulars in the bar, a fellow named Stanley, a veteran of World War II, had announced to all the other customers that unlike Cootie, he had been in the “real war,” the one the United States had won.
     Cootie didn’t say a word. But a half hour later, after a little small talk with Stanley, Cootie asked him to get off his stool so they could finally settle a bet made in high school as to which of them was taller. Standing face to face, Cootie indeed appeared to be taller. Then he hit Stanley with an uppercut launched from his knee. It took a bucket of water, a lot of encouragement and three sober men who had just walked in to get Stanley on his feet. Two of his teeth were never found.
     After the Stanley incident, none of the regulars ever bothered Cootie again. And the bartender always told new patrons, “It’s best to leave Cootie alone.”
     But occasionally a stranger, clearly out of his element, would arrive in a suit and tie or in Bermuda shorts and white bucks. Given the circumstances, it wouldn’t be long before one regular or another would engage the stranger in conversation and tell him in glowing terms about Cootie’s status as a hero of the Korean War. He had won so many medals, the stranger would be told, that he needed a suitcase to bring them home.
     Often the stranger, after a sufficient amount of Guinness, would stroll down to the end of the bar and extend his hand to thank Cootie for his service. Like others before him, the stranger would learn that it was best to leave Cootie alone.
     As every regular knew, Cootie had little to say about the war America hadn’t won. But if pressed to comment on the matter, he’d bounce off his stool and shout, “Damn the vernal equinox! Full speed ahead!” Everything else he said with his fists. And it was always a brief conversation.

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