Hanlon’s Rialto was a redbrick bar occupying a corner unit where the streets Nemsin and Elpis met. A flickering neon sign proudly captioned its entrance. Inside was all dim yellow lighting and old stonework walls, booths with threadworn red cushions that looked like a good smack to one would kill an asthmatic. As fine a bar as any to sit and stare and wallow. Absolutely nothing special about it, absolutely nothing to distract from the drink, which was a ten year old single malt scotch glowing gold in the bar’s sallow light. The bartenders served drink and no talk other than to say “€8.10 please” and that’s just how I wanted it. Just me and Ray’s favourite drink, thinking on memories of Ray, good, bad, and ugly. If someone had been watching my eyes very closely they might have noticed a whirlpool of emotions flickering through them even though they looked nowhere but within the rim of the whiskey tumbler, roving the shimmering goldenbrown planes that dwelt there. People knew not to interrupt a man hunched over his drink with dark eyes, staring, contemplating, knew that he was lost in the corridors of his mind somewhere-
‘You know, the doctors, they gave me a bunch of stuff to do.’ I glanced sidelong at the interrupter; an old man two barstools down from me with glasses slid down to the tip of his nose, head tilted slightly back scrutinizing a piece of paper. My eyes looked to the bar, hoping he was talking to someone on the other side, but the bar was empty. ‘A list of things to avoid,’ he said, continuing slowly as he read. ‘Modifiable…lifestyle factors that can, uh, reduce the risk of cognitive decline’ (duh-clahn is how he said it). ‘If you can change your life enough you can reduce your risk of dementia by 40%.’ He raised his eyebrows and furrows on his forehead cambered and deepened. ‘Ain’t that somethin,’ he said. He tipped his glass to me, whiskey like mine, and went back to scanning his crumpled paper.
‘Depression,’ he said, seemingly unperturbed by my lack of response. ‘Puts you at higher risk of dementia, so don’t get (giht) depressed. Don’t injure your brain either, ‘cuz guess what, it’s bad for your brain. A’ight,’ he said, appraisingly. He scanned some more. ‘Obesity. Alcohol consumption. Smoking. Physical in-activity. A’ight I got it,’ he said, nodding, ‘so don’t be fat, don’t be sad, but don’t smoke and drink, just be happy some other way, and don’t be lazy. And sleep good,’ he added. ‘Not for less than 7 hours but not for more than 9 and whatever you do, don’t wake up in the night, you gotta sleep the whole way through it.’ He stopped for a sip of whiskey.
‘Didn’t they say no alcohol?’
He frowned at me over his spectacles. ‘Why, I read depression on the list first and I came straight here for a drink. Shoulda read further it seems.’
I let out a single chuckle. ‘Well if you’re not gonna finish that you can top mine up.’
‘Do you think I’m gonna finish it?’
‘Probably,’ I admitted.
‘Damn right I am. I’ll need a few more before I can sleep well too.’
‘Anything else to avoid? Maybe if I know now I can start right away. Or tomorrow.’
‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘Loneliness. They said social…’ he narrowed his eyes and brought the scribbles closer, ‘engagement is important. Important for the brain somehow. I dunno how it all works.’
‘They didn’t give you any pills?’
‘They had some but they didn’t sound none too confident in them. I said no either way.’
‘What’s the, uh, diagnosis?’
‘Mild cognitive impairment. They can’t tell exactly but they say it won’t be long before I’m a demented son’bitch.’
‘That’s what they said?’
‘Well not quite like that. It’s gonna progress to full blown dementia one way or ‘nother, but there’s a chance I can…modify that length by myself, no pills.’ He’d become sombre towards the end of his sentence, his mask of good cheer slipping for a second. But when his eyes met mine they were grinning again.
‘Eesh. Well, I’m sorry to hear that,’ I said. I didn’t know what to say. ‘I wish there was something I could do.’ A ridiculous thing to say to a man who had just been sentenced with impending insanity, I thought.
‘Drink with me,’ was all he said.
I smiled and lifted my glass and we drank.
‘Meditation,’ he said after a while, and he wheezed a highpitched chuckle. ‘Learn mindfulness, they said. Guess it goes with the whole don’t be depressed thing. Just be positive about everything, eh? If you’re stressed, just let it go. Worried? They’re just thoughts, let go of ‘em! Angry at things you can’t control that are completely ruining your life? Why, just let that go too bucko!’ he laughed. ‘Call me cynical.’
‘Is that what mindfulness is, hm? Strange, how it’s called mind-full-ness, when it seems like it’s about mind-empty-ness.’
He nodded. ‘Huh. I like that. Maybe that’s why sleepin is important. Cuz your mind’s empty for a while.’
‘Except when you dream.’
‘Cept when you dream, aye.’
‘So you going to try it?’
‘Meditation? I’ve been letting go of shit for years.’
‘Is that really all it’s about?’
He sighed and shifted in his seat. ‘They seemed pretty serious about it, actually. Talked about being, uh, present. Being aware, as often as you can remember to be, of present moment experience, whatever it may be, good, bad, or ugly.’ I twitched involuntarily at his choice of words. ‘And, uh, have a nonjudgmental attitude. Be open to new things. Be curious. Somehow, doing that’s good for brain health.’
A quote Ray loved came to mind and I couldn’t stop myself saying it. ‘Be curious,’ I said, ‘not judgmental.’
‘Yeah, exactly,’ he said.
‘It’s a Walt Whitman quote,’ I told him.
‘He was some wise feller was he.’
I chuckled again. ‘He was Ray’s favourite poet.’
‘Poets,’ he said. ‘They always be offin’ themselves, don’t they, poets.’
I looked into my glass. ‘Yeah, they do.’
‘Maybe they should meditate more. Maybe I’ll try it. Hell what have I got to lose. I’m sorta afraid I won’t be able to do it, is God’s honest truth, cuz my mind wanders away more often than it should, but I was always like that. They suggested I go someplace I feel at peace, and when I’m there…try and be…there,’ he said, grasping at the air before him with rigid finger. ‘You know, like, not off somewhere else.’
I didn’t say it but that had been the exact reason I’d come here. To let my mind wander…wander away from the present, because the present was a dark place at this time, full of shame and guilt and regret. At least there were some good memories. But even they brought a certain grief, because they would never be renewed, and the bad ones, they would never be redeemed, never patched over with better times. Arguments never resolved, rifts never healed, forever gaping wounds, but only mine to bear now, because my brother was dead.
‘You off somewhere else right now, ain’tyuh?’
‘Sorry,’ I said. ‘Is that why you came to this place?’ I asked, thinking back on what he’d said. ‘To feel at peace. To make being mindful easier, maybe?’
‘Yeah,’ he said, ‘yeah. Maybe it was.’ He was quiet a while. ‘I still have more good days than bad. That’s a good thing, sure, but I wonder how long it’ll last.’
I wondered how long it would last too. This darkness. This pain. I stared into my glass at the dregs of my whiskey, swirling it one way then the other. I drained the glass and stood to leave.
‘It was good talking old timer,’ I said.
He grunted affirmingly. I walked a few strides past him and stopped. I could feel him looking over his shoulder at me before he spoke.
‘Same time tomorrow, live music here. Trust me, you don’t want to miss Wednesday nights at the Rialto. Happy hour till 9pm, and no offense buddy but you look like you could do with a dose of happiness.’
I almost retorted that alcohol was a depressant, but I managed to stop myself. He meant well. I looked over to the small raised wooden stage in the corner, on it two stools and an empty mic stand draped in shadow. ‘Maybe I’ll drop by.’
‘A’ight. Can’t promise I’ll remember you though.’ He’d turned back to his drink.
I found myself grinning as I walked out of Hanlon’s Rialto.
‘So you don’t smoke.’
‘No,’ Arthur, or Art as he told me he liked to be called, replied. ‘Had to give it up for the lungs, only for the brain disease to git me anyway. The brain rot.’ He spat the words.
‘Not having a good day today?’
‘Hmph. I only have bad days and worse days.’
'Not what you said yesterday.’
‘Can’t remember half of what I said yesterday. Was probably mostly nonsense anyway. I ain’t good for nothin anymore, and that’s the truth of it. Ain’t got no place ‘cept for maybe at this bar drinkin.’
I sipped on my beer and tucked the cigarette I’d been meaning to smoke behind my ear. The musician was readying himself in the corner, but he didn’t look up to much. Just a man and a guitar.
‘That’s Ron.’ He looked at me. ‘You know what happens?’ he asked me, arching his bristly brows at me.
I paused. ‘Ron…plays a song?’
‘Not with Ron, with my brain. When I get the dementia.’
‘If you get dementia. Can’t say I know exactly what happens, Art.’
‘Brain shrinks.’ He held his hand out fingers splayed and squeezed inwards. ‘The outer parts of it literally start to die. The front here,’ he said tapping the top of his forehead, ‘they say that’s where your personality is. That degrades worse than the rest. And then in the middle for your brain. Where your memory is.’
‘I don’t know Art. What about the soul? Is that in the brain?’
‘You think we got souls?’
Ray had thought so. ‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘I did try meditating last night though.’
‘Yeah. I got curious, y’know.’
‘Not judgmental, huh,’ he said.
‘Well if I was being judgmental I’d say I was pretty bad at it. I fell asleep.’
‘The point is to be more conscious, not more unconscious. And I was a bit drunk. I don’t think you’re supposed to meditate drunk, but hey, I’m not gonna judge myself, right?’
He laughed, a few mellow ribbits that jumped in his chest. ‘To getting drunk,’ he said,
‘To meditating,’ I said, and we clinked our glasses and drank.
Ron was twanging the guitar in the background, tuning it up, strumming chords and plucking strings, the twangs oscillating subtly as he adjusted the tuning pegs.
‘So,' Art began, 'tell me about whatever the fuck’s got you down. Someone’s bit the dust I take it, but the rest is like wringing water from a stone. You know all my ailments, my problems, hell I won’t shut up about them. If talking bullshit was music I’d be a whole band. But I ain’t got time for small talk no more. Only big talk. Real talk. And if there’s one thing I learned in life is that the best way to get whatever’s on your chest off it is actually to spit it out, not bury it down deeper.’ He hocked up phlegm and pretend-spat onto the table between us, which a woman in a booth nearby us heard and saw, and by the look of disgust on her face, didn’t realise Art had faked it. Instead of explaining himself to the horrified woman, Art looked right back at her and proclaimed, ‘I’ve got dementia, lady.’
Her horrorstruck mouth slowly closed and she turned away from us.
I, meanwhile, was trying desperately to keep my chuckling under the lid, but air was wheezing out my nose and I soon couldn’t stop it.
‘Good to get a genuine laugh outta you. I find that whatever bad happens, you gotta laugh at it. Humour is a great tonic to soothe the poison of pain and suffering. Now, I ain’t got dementia yet, but you wouldn’t be laughin like that if I’d said, lady, I’ve got mild cognitive impairment. Jus’ not very funny, is it? I tell ya, if we do got souls, they feed on humour, on laughter, on good moments. And good moments are fuelled by this,’ he said, shaking his glass at me, a drop of foam sloshing over the rim.
Art was getting drunk and his tongue was getting loose, but I was enjoying his drunken old-man wisdom. He’d shut up now and was waiting for me to talk but I didn’t know where to start. I looked down at the threads in the wood of the table, traced one with my index finger. How to put it into words. I was afraid to say anything about it in case the words choked on the way up. It. My brother dead. A hard lump formed in my throat, lodging there. If only I’d given him a call or a text, but no, I’d let pettiness and stubbornness consume me. I’d been almost triumphant in my non-communication. If only he’d known that his brother had cared about him deeply, no matter what, even if they didn’t talk for months. Maybe things would’ve been different.
‘Take your time,’ Art said, not unkindly, just matter-of-factly, like he knew these things took time. There was no pressure. No feeling of judgment. He sat back, relaxed, sipping, a look in his eye that spoke not only of understanding, but of knowing; knowing that nothing could be said to help right now. There were no healing words, no linguistic spell that could magically extinguish such pain. Nothing could be done.
Ron strummed some three chord tune in the corner, lyrics drifting amongst the chatter of the pub and the clutter of my thoughts, the pounding of my heart in my neck.
The idea just floated into my mind. Meditate right now.
A ludicrous idea. The last thing I wanted to do was pay attention to my strangled breath. I could just wait, wait until it passed and then deflect. Hell, I could even get up and go to the bathroom, or just leave altogether. Fresh air. Fresh air would be nice. Fresh air and a cigarette.
But then I thought about curiosity. Was it possible? Could I be curious about the intense heat rising in my neck, the hard knots pulsing in my jaw? That’s what was going on right now whether I liked it or not. A pressure building behind my eyes. I inspected the rock wedged in my throat, felt my breath squeezing past it, blowing out around it. I sat up and leaned back on my chair and looked around me. The overhead lights seemed to spill a wash of soft gold over the whole place when seated out at a table rather than under the eave of the bar. The bar was to my right, freshly wiped down and polished to a dark gleam, silver beertaps lining a section of it. Past them I could see assorted bottles jumbled on the shelves, some sort of haphazard order to them that probably only the workers here could decipher. Another breath came and went and I watched how it flowed in and out of me. Art took a hearty mouthful of beer. I took a deeper more purposeful breath and felt the first tendrils of tension uncoil in my throat. The music and the hum of chatter in the place, glasses clinking, bursts of laughter, it all huddled in around me pleasantly. This was better than being at home alone. Or at the bar alone, hunched over a glass. A visceral sense of appreciation spread through me, gratitude for the chance encounter with a mouthy old man that had accidentally lifted me up from a deepening hole. Or had it been purely chance? I looked over at Art, who was gazing away in the distance. He tossed back some beer, belched, and smacked his lips, satisfied. A burst of laughter hiccupped out of me and the pressure behind my eyes finally released and tears rolled down my cheeks, the tension in me melting away as their salty trails dried on my skin.
‘My brother Ray died and…we weren’t on the best of terms. I could’ve been a better brother. But it’s too late.’ I sipped lukewarm beer, no head of foam left on it. I grimaced and wiped my eyes.
‘I’m sorry for your loss. We’ll drink to Ray,’ he said and we clinked glasses and drank. Art waved at the bar for another round.
‘Tonight’s my last night drinkin,’ he said.
I waited but he didn’t crack a smile. ‘Giving it up?’
‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘I’m going all out. Meditating every day. Yoga, walks in nature, healthy diet, social engagement, sleeping like a baby, the lot. Everything on the list. The whole forty percent.’
‘Why’d you decide?’
‘Grandkids visited me this morning. One of em’s twelve, cheeky bugger, he told me I stunk of booze, said I shouldn’t be drinking. And it struck me that he was right. A god damn twelve year old. After that I had a lengthy conversation with my daughter over tea and tylenol, I said I’d think about it. But now I’m decided. I don’t want them to see me lose my sanity, if I can help it.' He looked at me. 'You got family?’
‘It’s just me.’
Two fresh pints were placed before us.
‘Well,’ he said, ‘not anymore.’