by Stuart Reb Donald

One point. One stinking point. Sure everyone else was happy, but I am not a big fan of basketball. To everyone else winning the conference championship meant our first trip ever to the national tournament. To me, it meant another week or so of playing contemptuous and insignificant pop tunes.

I am a serious musician. I have been the principal clarinetist since my freshman year. Many of my instructors have told me that I am the finest musician to ever attend the University of the Commonwealth.  I am not sure how to take that. It is a great compliment to be considered the best ever, but how much meaning can I put into that seeing how I’m going to a little podunk school in rural Kentucky. How many great entertainers have even heard of Mutter’s Station, much less ever been here.

My family, like most in Kentucky, does not have much money. That is why I had to join the basketball pep band, for the scholarship. Go Rams. I don’t even get to play my major instrument. Instead I am relegated to playing the saxophone. I do not recall Richard Wagner ever writing a compelling saxophone motif in Lohengrin.  If Mozart ever wrote a sonata for harpsichord and tenor sax, I have never heard of it.

So, dejected, I gather with the rest of the pep band, basketball team, and cheerleaders in the student union to see where we are to go. I try to keep my thoughts positive. Maybe we will go to Boston and I can schedule a tryout with Berkeley. Perhaps New York or Chicago will beckon. There is always the chance we will be seeded in the West bracket in Portland and the university will decide they cannot offered to send us there. Come on Portland!

The brain-dead sportscasters babble on about the possibility of a Sienna versus Auburn meeting in the Sweet 16. Is this basketball or paint by numbers? It all sounds like a foreign language to me. Just tell us where we are to be banished to so I can get back to my Haydn. At half past eternity they announce that we are to play in New Orleans. Hooray, crawfish and zydeco. What have I done to deserve this?

Five days later we arrive in Purgatory. I am assured that our hotel is one of the nicest in the French Quarter. Nicest? It must be a hundred years old.

My roommate is Brian Pucket.  He is from some little town in Tennessee, Plunk I think it is. Brian is beside himself at the prospect of getting “liquored up” and “findin’ a prostitute.” Brian thinks that cultured means really good sour cream.

By midnight I wish I were dead. There are hundreds of people drunkenly swerving up and down the street completely unaware that someone might actually be trying to sleep.

Brian bursts through the door with a large black woman in his arms, “Hey, Danny, why don’t you disappear for a couple of hours?”

“It’s Daniel, and why do I have to leave?”

Brian pours a bottle of beer all over the woman’s blouse and she informs me that I can watch, but it will cost me ten dollars. I gladly leave the room.

I had been walking around the damp, foggy streets for nearly an hour when a sudden rainstorm exploded drenching me instantly. Soggily I ducked into an ally, from there into a bar. Upon further inspection I found it to be an Irish Pub. A Celtic band was on stage playing Celtic folk tunes — the traditional songs of Ireland and Scotland. The members of the crowd seemed to know every word and happily sang along. I thought it odd that the performers on stage enjoyed, even encouraged this participation.

At the completion of the jig (which I assumed to be called The Wild Colonial Boy because of the recurrence of that one phrase) the leader of the band took a large glass and drained it of its dark brown contents. Finished, he uttered a word that sounded like slan-sha. The audience replied, “Slan-sha!” The singer then asked the group to, “… give a big Irish welcome for the sweetest voice in all of Jefferson Parish. But mind your ways, gents, she’s me sister. Friends, I give you Shannon Molloy.”

The most precious girl I had ever seen gracefully parted the crowd to take her place on stage. Her hair was red like the sun at dawn, a burning orange flow that shimmered like the river she was so fittingly named for. She removed the apron that had protected her simple wool skirt from the toils of her trade. Her brother, Sean, drew out of his pocket a small metal object that I identified as a Tin Whistle. With the delicacy that such an instrument demands, he began to play.

The melody was simple and sweet. It filled the room with the joy and innocence of a land far away. The simple strain cried out to something lurking deep within my soul. A voice hidden generations beneath the surface of my core began to hum along. This song was strangely familiar to me, yet I was sure I had never heard it before.

The lovely Shannon began to sing. A voice as soft and gentle as a shadow’s whisper spoke directly to me, “Come over the hill my handsome Irish lad. Come over the hill to your darling. You choose the road, love, and I’ll make the vow. And I’ll be your true love forever.”

After her song I was awash in a part of myself I had never known. She returned to her duties at the bar. In spite of myself I spoke to her; I had to.

“That was simply beautiful.” I said, “Your bother is right, you do have a sweet voice.”

“Thank you. And what is the name of the brash lad who is attempting to sweep me off me feet.” She was sly and smiling as she issued the charge.

“Oh, no ma’am. I assure you that I only wanted to tell of my appreciation for your talent.” I began to sweat, “I apologize if I seem forward, but I am a musician too. I simply am … I’m just a dumb kid from Kentucky.”

She laughed understandably, “And what name does the dumb kid from Kentucky answer to?”

“Daniel. Daniel O’Shea.”

“So you’re tracing your Irish roots are you, Danny O’Shea? Shall I pour you a Guinness?” Her smile was intoxicating, just seeing it made one want to laugh.

Always before I had detested the casual use of my name, but it sounded poetic in the frolicsome accent of her native land, “I’m not old enough to drink.”

Once again Shannon laughed, “An Irishman doesn’t need a politician to tell him when it’s time for a drink. You ponder this menu, young Danny O’Shea, and I’ll draw you a pint.”

Behind me the music played, the people sang, and it struck me that I had not eaten in almost ten hours.  How did she know? Minutes later she returned with a large glass of dark brown like the one her brother had taken pleasure from a short time ago. I told her that I was very hungry, but unsure of what I wanted.

“Shepherd’s Pie is what you need, luv. I’ll be back in a moment.”

I took my first sip of the stout Irish beer and thought my taste buds were going to revolt. It was smooth yet harsh, sweet yet bitter. I wasn’t sure if I liked it or not, but I was sure I liked the way it made me feel. A warmth began in my stomach and extended itself to the farthest points of my rain-chilled body. I became very relaxed.

Shannon returned still grinning, “I see Guinness agrees with you. Here’s your Shepherd’s Pie, luv. I hope you don’t mind some company.” She set a similar bowl in front of herself and pulled up her own pint. She clinked her glass against mine and declared, “Slansha.”

“Slansha.” I repeated as I had heard the others do, and then asked, “What does that mean?”

“It is a salute to your health, much like saying cheers, I suppose. It is a very old Gaelic word. It is spelled s-l-a-i-n-t-e. It seems you have a lot to learn about your heritage, Danny O’Shea.”

The night sped away in a swirl of jigs and reels. Before closing time I had been given a crash course in Finn McCool, Michael Collins, and Cu` Chulainn. I learned the origins of the banshee, the leprechaun, and the druids. I was schooled in the horrors of British treachery and the nobility of Celtic pride. I was proud of my ancestors, and my history. I was also in love or at least greatly infatuated.

It was nearly four in the morning when I returned to the room. My head was buzzing with music, grog, and romance. Brian and his “companion” were slumbering in his bed. I opened the window to allow the heat of their passion to dissipate and the sounds of this vibrant city to cull me to sleep. As I closed my eyes Shannon’s voice echoed through my mind, “Red is the rose that in yonder garden grows, and fair is the lily of the valley. Clear is the water that flows from the Boyne, and my love is fairer than any.”

At 8:30 I was wide-awake. Rehearsal was scheduled for 11:00 and our game wasn’t until six in the evening. I got dressed and wandered down to the French Market. I had a cheap, tasty breakfast of beignets and cafe` au lait. As I handed the cashier my three dollars it occurred to me that I had not paid a dime for the hospitality of the evening before. Shannon had never asked me to pay her. What could that mean?

I began to notice my surroundings. It was the first week of March and the temperature was nearly 80 degrees. When we left Kentucky there was a fine dusting of snow on the ground. Not here, the birds were chirping and the flowers were beginning to bloom. The full spectrum of nature and life itself had been laid out before me.

Dogwoods burst with pink and white splendor as an old man from Wisconsin haggled with a Creole shop owner over the price of a fedora. The proprietor of another booth boasted of her ability to see the future. She claimed her skill with white voodoo gave her the power. In the distance a Dixieland band was playing to the rhythm of the nearby Mississippi River. I sat watching a world I never knew existed.

The game before ours involved two well-known schools; one of them was Notre Dame. I actually found myself cheering, of course for the Fighting Irish. I was actually cheering at a basketball game. My fervor intensified when the Rams took the court. I had realized that if we won that it meant another night in this glorious city. Another night with Shannon.

Unfortunately we were playing the third ranked team in the nation. At half time we trailed by 23 points.  Gasp! Was I to relinquish what I had so recently gained? As if in response to my silent plea, our team began the second half with a flurry.

Call it fate, call it chance, or call it the luck of the Irish, but we won. We beat the third ranked team in the nation. We then got the word, two more fabulous days in the “city that care forgot.” Win or lose we would be leaving in two days, but I still had two more days to spend at Molloy’s Pub.

Tonight I came prepared. I had dropped by Werlien’s and purchased a book of Irish folk music. I had found just enough time between rehearsal and the game to enlighten myself with its contents.

Shannon was at the bar pouring a round of ale for a large table in the corner. I walked up and ordered a Guinness. She smiled that smile of hers and obliged me. Sean was between sets so I asked him if I could join the band for the next one.

He was skeptical but willing, “What instrument do you play, Danny?”

“I can play several, but I prefer the clarinet,” I said opening my gig bag and piecing together my licorice stick.

A robust laugh sprang from his mouth, “Do you know The Spinning Wheel?”

“Just name the key, Sean, I won’t let you down.”

I did not lie. I fit in with Sean’s group like we had played together for years. Never had I played in such an intimate setting, but I found it cathartic. After the first three songs a member of the audience bought us a round of Guinness. I gladly joined the rest of the band in downing mine in one quick guzzle. In fact I was the first to finish and proclaim, “Slainte!”

It was nearly five when I stumbled into the hotel room this time. Brian was still awake, and so was tonight’s conquest. A Jamaican lass named Juliana. She was quite beautiful, and did not seem like the “lady of the night” type. I discovered that they had in fact met at the basketball game.

Her skills of perception were almost eerie. We had known each other for all of ten seconds when she said, “Brian, I believe your roommate is in love.”

Brian looked at me and said, “All right, O’Shea, explain yourself.”

“Come on, Brian, she just met me how does she know whether I’m in love or not?”

She stood up and began walking a circle around me, “Your aura is pale red,” she purred in her seductive Island accent.

“My aura is pale red? What does that even mean?”

She continued to circle me in a trance-like dance, “Red is the color of passion. It is pale because these are new feelings, or,” she spun me to look into the mirror so I could see my cheek, “she wore pink lipstick.”

The next day, the final day, I met Shannon for lunch at Jackson Square. We spent the day walking from place to place as she showed me the unique sights of the city that just two days ago I had abhorred.

Her voice was like wine, “New Orleans is often compared to Paris, but I think it has much more character.  Paris is stuffy, and ostentatious. New Orleans is full-flavored and haphazard. I prefer living here to anywhere in the world except for me hometown, Derry. New Orleans is often called America’s international city. You can see why, but I think it is because of this cultural diversity that it is really the most American of cities.”

As the afternoon sun began to fade so did our time together. The approaching darkness put a cold shadow on what was an otherwise inflamed day of young romance. We exchanged good-byes in front of St. Louis Cathedral. Tears flowed from her brilliant emerald eyes as I held her in my arms for the last time.

That night at the game Brian introduced me to a girl he had met from our opponent’s pep band, “Daniel, this is Veronica. Veronica, Daniel.”

“Please, call me Danny.”

An Alabama native, Stuart Reb Donald has published three cookbooks, two anthologies of celebrity chef interviews and two novels, as well as hundreds of articles for both print and new media. In addition to writing, he is also the executive chef at Lucky Irish Pub & Grill in Mobile, Alabama, where he hosts a weekly food and wine radio program.

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