"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 wouldnt 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 didnt 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 theyd sometimes join in. The bartender would only say,
Its 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 Cooties 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
mothers--to O'Brien's, another mortuary a few blocks down the street.
McCarthy said that he knew of no law against burying Cootie
uprightsitting 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 questiondid he have a
match for a cigarette or did he know if the Cubs had won--his answer was always
"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
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 Cooties 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 Cooties 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
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 didnt look too
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
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 Cooties 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
Cootie didnt 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, Its 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 wouldnt 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.