I met my friend Jim Kelly in a smoky bar in Montreal at two thirty in the morning. We were up there with a tour group that had given us free drink tickets. Me and the boys, dedicated to getting trashed, were spending our night circling the city to collect our free booze. It was frigid out on the streets, so our best bet was to drink quick, walk fast, and keep our heads low.
Our fourth, and probably final, stop for the evening was a tiny hole-in-the-wall with a neon sign and décor that could be described as minimalist. There was a bar, there were stools, and there was the booze. This wasn’t a hanging out bar, this was a drinking establishment. The bartender, a portly gentleman named Steven in a brown shirt that must have been a size too small, took our drink cards, and gave us the options.
The bearer of this card is entitled to one (1) draft beer, one (1) house liquor or one (1) shot.
I had drank my share of beer earlier that night, and I had already killed a conveniently pocket-sized bottle of vodka with my friend Alex, so I opted for the house liquor. After being presented with my options, I ordered a Jack and coke, and leaned back to take in the atmosphere.
The bar was a perfect square in the middle of the room, with stools all along its side and tables on the perimeter. We sat at the front of the bar, the seven of us taking up every seat. I was on the far left. Around the corner, hunched over in his seat, was my friend Jim Kelly. The first thing I noticed was his hair, or lack there of. He was almost entirely bald, except for a few gray hairs near his temples and above his ears. He wore a pair of dark slacks, a white button up shirt, a black vest, and a black leather jacket. He had shut his eyes, and was holding his head in his hands, his arms propped up on the bar. Even in this state, he gave off an impression of power. Every so often, he swayed slightly, noticed, and corrected his form.
Steve the bartender spun a bottle of Jack Daniels around in his hands, popped the top off, and poured it into a glass half full of ice. He slid the glass under a tap, and filled it up with coke. He stuck a red swizzle stick into the glass, and handed me my drink.
“What are you, a girl?” The man with white hair, slurring his words and spitting to punctuate himself, slowly and carefully turned himself to face me. He spoke with a loose Irish accent made sloppier by a night of hard drinking.
“Jack and coke. It’s for g…” He tripped over the word a little. “Gi… it’s a lady’s drink.”
I took a sip. It was sweet, and sticky, but it certainly packed a punch.
“Whatchu need is a vodka-soda.” He shut his mouth definitively, picked up his drink and took a sip. He flashed me a drunken smile and took his time swallowing, pausing to make a face that reminded me of a fish gasping for air, and then smiled again. He put his drink down and held out his hand.
“The name’s Jim Kelly.”
I shook his hand, and he grabbed my wrist with his free hand. He held my arm tightly.
“Where you from, boy?”
I tried to take my arm back, but Jim Kelly wouldn’t let me.
“I’m from Boston
“Oh, Boston! Boston’s grand! Steven! Get the Boston boy a vodka-soda.” He took my Jack and coke from me. “You shouldn’t drink this. It gets into your system, screws up your liver worse than anything. This shit’ll kill you.”
He certainly didn’t seem like the type to lecture me about drinking. His breath smelled like nail polish remover. He put the Jack and coke down on the bar, and turned back towards me.
“My name is James Edward Michael Kelly, and I own the Happy Clam pub over on Ivy.” He pointed in the general direction of the door, and his forearm knocked my Jack and coke off the bar. The glass broke with a loud crash. “Oh, for Christ’s sake. Steven, clean this shite up.”
Steven came around to the other side of the bar with a broom and a dust pan. He caught my eye, and shook his head before bending over to clean up the glass. My friend Jim Kelly continued.
“Next time you come here, screw this stupid bar, I want you to come to my pub. The Happy Clam.” For the first time, he seemed to notice my friends. “And your friends can come too. There’s no cover charge, ever, and the pitchers are never empty, and when we make you a drink, we make you a real god damn drink, none of this watering down rubbish.” He began raising the volume of his voice. “And for Christ’s sake, in my pub, we put out some peanuts or something to munch on. You could learn a thing or two from me, Steven! Buy these boys a round on me.”
We all exchanged glances, but we were broke and nearing sobriety, and nothing fixes those two problems like free drinks. I had just finished my vodka-soda and Steven the bartender handed me a second. He leaned over the bar and looked me in the eye.
“Just a word to the wise: Take everything old Jim here tells you with a grain of salt
“What do you mean?” I asked, quickly glancing over my shoulder.
“Jim likes to tell a lot of stories and throw around a lot of money.”
“Well, what’s wrong with that?”
“There is no Happy Clam pub. There isn’t even an Ivy street.”
He gave me a wink, and a nod. I took a sip of my drink, felt the sour sensation of the booze hitting my system, and turned back to my friends and Mr. Jim Kelly. He was in the middle of a story about two drunks and a jar full of quarters.
“So now there’s shards of glass all over the bathroom floor, and these two drunks, their hands are all cut up, but they’re still grabbing as many of the coins as they can. And what do they do next, these two drunks with sliced up hands? They hand me a pile of bloody quarters and ask me for another round.”
We all laughed, and Jim slapped some of us on our backs, and as the night went on, my friend Jim Kelly bought round after round, sending us further and further into drunken haze. The six of us sat there listening to an old liar telling his imaginary stories. I knew the truth, jolly old Steven knew the truth, even Jim, good old Jim, he knew that deep down inside, all he was doing was showing off for some drunk out-of-towners and footing the bill. I looked at Jim again, deep in his eyes, straight through to his soul, and saw through the lies to what he really was: a sad, tired old man, an aging wolf doing his best to blend in with the sheep.
Something about the way he looked at me reverberated deep in my mind, and I saw a glimpse of a possible future: me with a head of white hair, dressed in whatever I would think was hip, buying my friends for the evening with watered-down four dollar drinks. I shut my eyes, shook the vision out of my head, and downed the rest of my drink. When, eventually, we left the bar, I shook hands with my friend Jim Kelly, and prayed that I would never see him again.