“A Leg Up”

7:52 pm Essays

The next-best Paul McDermott story anybody ever told was about the day Paul hung his leg from the ceiling of the Hilltop Inn. The best story anybody ever told was about the day he took it down.         Paul lost his left leg at the age of 23 in a car accident that kept him in the hospital for two years. Along with his mobility, he lost his fiancee, his job, and most of his fine sense of Irish humor. He moved back to his mother’s, and over the next six years learned, among few other things, how to live life as a one-legged man.

He learned how to take his pants off over an artificial leg and which hookers to call on to help. He learned which bartenders in South Wilkes-Barre would help him out the door after his daily drunk and which ones would let him fall on his face. He started calling everyone he liked “Buster” and everyone he disliked “Asshole.” He didn’t use “Buster” very often.

Paul was bitter and angry and felt life had dealt him a low card after teasing him with a couple of aces. Nobody blamed him and most people understood. They remembered the old Paul and struggled with the new. He was an Irishman in Wilkes-Barre, PA, still good for a laugh and a bet on the ballgame. Few expected more.

I met Paul while bartending summer nights in my parent’s gin mill at Harveys Lake. My mother, Stella, ran the bar and dished up roast beef, pickled eggs and two-decker ham sandwiches from the kitchen. She counted Paul among her best customers. He was also a friend. I, in all my 19-year wisdom, called him a pain in the butt.

My mother was the perfect bartender. She knew how to laugh, and how to listen. I inherited none of her good graces. I always brought a book to the bar. It was my way of avoiding making small talk with the few customers who staggered in. My mother called it rude. I called it survival. Back then, I thought myself somehow better than those poor souls, having “made something of myself.” I was so far above them I couldn’t hear a thing they were saying. It was my loss.

I was reading Kerouac the first time Paul spoke to me other than to ask for a shot of Jack Daniels and a Rolling Rock. “Kerouac!” he said, slamming his hand down hard on the bar. “He was a great drunk. Helluva writer, too.” We were still talking when I put up the barstools at closing time. I had thought two years of college had made me a master of the argument, but all my academic bullshit paled beside Paul’s bellowed opinions.

Through that summer, we talked, argued, and laughed. We gave each other books, and spent a lot of time drinking beer at the drive-in. The first movie we saw together was “The Deerhunter.” Paul insisted we sit outside the car on a blanket. As usual, I gave him an argument before agreeing. We both cried when the movie ended, and sat there on the blanket long after the last car had pulled out of the lot. Neither of us had been to Vietnam, but the movie managed to make us feel as if we’d spent half a lifetime there.
Paul and I never hugged or kissed or anything like that. But sometimes, after sharing something like “The Deerhunter,” we shook hands. It was our way of saying, without too much icky sentiment, “I felt it, too.” And then I stopped coming home. There were too many others places to see, people to talk to and arguments to enter. Paul remained in my thoughts, but he was no longer a part of my world.

He wasn’t one to write and I wasn’t one to call so we kept in touch through my mother. She told me he’d gone back to school part-time, to study nutrition of all things. He was still getting drunk and insulting people, but he was doing others things, too. I felt good about that.

The last time I saw Paul was in 1983 at Foley’s Bar on Carey Street, Wilkes-Barre. I was living in California, having graduated two years before. I was struggling to become what I always insisted I would be and Paul always taunted me I wouldn’t. A writer. I knew he had faith in me, it just wasn’t his style to tell me that. My dad and I met Paul at Foley’s to shoot a game of pool and to have a few beers. My folks had sold their bar a few years back and didn’t see much of their old customers anymore.

It was an awkward meeting. We tried to break the ice two years had formed but didn’t have much luck. That is, until my dad said “Remember the night …” That was the first time I heard The Story. Every couple of years, see, Paul bought himself a new leg. He wasn’t much for stylish clothes, but new legs were a different matter. He took his old leg, complete with a sock and a shoe, and hung it from the ceiling of the bar. Some taverns hung stuffed deer heads. Ours hung a plastic leg. The regulars hardly noticed the leg and if they did, well, that was Paul for you.

To help out my mom, Paul bartended a night or two during the winter. It was a bitter night in January when a couple no one had seen before came into the bar. It was a bad sign. They both ordered whiskey and water and took their places at the bar. It didn’t take them long to notice the leg. “Hey,” demanded the fellow of Paul. “What’s THAT doing up there?”

Paul, mindful of the man’s tone and the look in his eye, mumbled a non-reply. The man persisted. “Hey, how much you want for it?” Paul, in his usual way, refused to say. Or, as he put it: “Piss off.” Without a word, the stranger walked out the door. A few minutes later, he returned, this time armed with a deer rifle. He got right to the point. “I said, ‘how much do you want for it?’ ” and stuck the rifle in Paul’s face.

There was a moment of silence. Paul, who was no fool when it came to drunks and loaded guns, got a chair, took down the leg and handed it over. “Thanks,” the man said. “You’re welcome,” Paul answered. After downing his shot, the guy took his girl by the arm, slung the leg over his shoulder and left. He, nor the leg, were ever seen again.

I haven’t seen Paul in years. We never got together again after the pool game at Foley’s. But every time I get a little down and need a laugh, I think about that story and imagine that leg, hanging in some guy’s den next to the deer head and the stuffed trout, a souvenir of the bar wars fought every day across America in gin mills like the Hilltop Inn. And I think of Paul. That asshole.

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