Martin was an Irishman which, some may say, explains a lot. He was in his mid-80's when he died and had a great shock of pure white hair. His face was the same one you'll see on any given barstool in Dublin, Munster or even parts of Boston. It was a happy face. Not the dour, dissapointed Irish, but the happy, have another Jameson's Irish. You always read about "twinkling eyes," well Martin's sparkeled with fun, but were also penetrating and fierce. He had an easy smile and a sharp, staccato laugh. He was always strong and staight, never bent and weak even as he must have felt death creeping up on him. He had a rag pickers sense of style, and often wore thoroughly discreditable boat shoes, much holed, patched, holed again and strangely stained. He immigrated to the US and Boston when he was 18, passing as a 15 year old to save money on the passage. In time, and with his growing success, he brought over his two sisters, but always regretted not being able to convince his older brother to make the trip. The brother remained in County Mayo on their parent's tiny farm, with all its sad and strange history. His parents had died, you see, when his mother upset the family donkey cart on the way to mass. She was 102, his father, 103. He was fond of saying that if it wasn't for the donkey cart they'd still be alive today. Martin visited Ireland almost every year after the season was over, then went on to ski in Norway or Switzerland. Other times it was warmer, more exotic destinations. When we college students returned to our summer jobs the first few nights at the bar would be filled with stories of Martin's travels and adventures. He would spin the stories out in his soft burring tones. "Bucko, you'd never believe it if I'd be telling you the whole truth of it." "Come here, Pretty," (and all girls were "pretty),"and we'll go lay down somewhere together and I'll teach you how to slalom like in Lillehammer." "That would never be another beer, at all? Bless you child." "Sure, that was a night to remember, don't ya know..." He had the true Irish gift of gab and never once had to lay his lips to the Blarney Stone.
When I met Martin I was just 17. He must have been in his early 60's. Yet he never talked down to me or tried to act like my equal. He was in that way a very particular kind of adult who was comfortable with the young without needing to be like them, or be unlike them. It was a rare gift that I now try to emmulate as the years separate me from youth. I was a dishwasher at a restaurant which was attached to Martin's fudge shop. That was what Martin did: make fudge and sell it at enormous profits to the tourists. He was, he would joke, a real fudge packer. He also dabbled in real estate, but more on that later. All of us dishwashers and cooks loved him because he would bring up "mistakes," and "expreiments," for us to taste. He would then inquire of the cooks "Whatta ya got for mistaakes, Bucko?" and would get a nice end cut prime rib or lobster tail that had somehow "been misordered." In the next years as I became a cook and eventually the head cook I would often make a "mistake" for Martin by cooking a nice 8 oz filet mignon and slapping it on a hamburger bun with some bernaise. It was Martin who introduced me to the serious discipline of drinking. That first summer, after a particularly difficult dinner service we kitchen staff crowded around the bar for a few beers, still in our aprons, smelling of, well, stink. There was Martin, passing back the cold Lites. "Come're, Bucko and do a shot with me," he said to me out of the blue, "you look like you've had the devil's own time of it." Now I was not a big boozer at 17 and had never done a shot, but I knew that, if I was going to be a man among these men, the brimming glass of whiskey had better be tossed off professionally. I smiled, thanked him and down it went, I am still proud to say, like old hand. To Martin, who drank, we estimated, about a bottle and a half of Jameson's a week, it was no big thing, but even now, when the memory of my first girlfriend is difficult to grasp, that shot of warm Jameson's still touches my heart. Once, when I extolled the virtues of single malt whisky, the drink of my Scottish heritage, he snorted, "Bah, nasty Protestant whisky. Jameson's, Bucko, thats a drink worth your time." Thankfully, for my liver's sake, I have not followed that gem of wisdom.
Even if not all of Martin's wisdom was gem quality, it was volumonous and wide rangeing. He hated the government, all goverment and all polititians equally. He had no respect or trust in banks, the telephone company, the electric company, public television or children as our hope for our future. He was by no means a misanthrope, but he definetly distrusted institutions. We often had great, wide ranging conversations about the state of the town, island, state, country and world that could be summed up with the simple phrase, "Those bastards!" Despite this Martin was forever volunteering at St. Francis, donating to the MDA and other philanthropies. He never made any mention of these activities. One Christmas I was postively shocked to see Martin's face on a Salvation Army Santa Claus.
As I grew older my relationship with Martin became more serious and I learned that he had a sad and somewhat troubled past. There was an early marriage and a couple of children, very rarely discussed. Did she die? Run away? What happened to the children? He only mentioned them obliquely in times of extreme drunkeness and in ways that did not encourage elabortion. This was when Martin lived in Minnasota, and so long ago it seemed like someone elses life. There was a second, later marriage that produced three kids, two boys and a girl. Here we were on firm ground because the disasterous nature of this relationship was often part of his funnier stories and his still white hot hatred for his wife was a natural part of his nature. He was on good terms with his kids, but they were not particularly close. Even so, he would speak with great pride about them, especially his daughter who took after him in many ways. They would come with their families in the fall to spend a couple weeks at his house with him. During this time he was never to be found by us nor seen in a bar. His family was never introduced. More on that later.
Sometime while I was in graduate school Martin sold, or lost the Fudge Shop to an old friend who may or may not have swindled him. The dealings were so arcane that it was rumored that, far from being a victim, Martin had in fact pulled a huge con. Martin, for all his scarecrow appearence, was an astute capitalist. He had made a good deal out of fudge had put that $$$ to work in real estate. Martin flipped houses fearlessly on our little Island, amassing a substantial fortune. This he put into a venture on the boardwalk in Ocean City, a series of fudge shops he opened with a partner named Butch. OC is a drive from our island and while I often saw Martin, the former every day jawboneing sessions were a thing of the past. Friends who visited the shops testified to the remarkable crowds and even more remarkable prices. Most estiments put Martin's real estate holdings alone in the several millions.
Recently I only saw Martin at the breakfast place a mutual friend owns. Good pancakes, coffee and some conversation, most of our community drops by at one time or another for one or the others. For Martin it was always the conversations. He and Tom, the owner, would sit and invite people to join them as they made their way to an empty table. You sit, put in your two cents, listen to Martin give you the right answer, and move on to breakfast. On the way out it was another opportunity to make a quick point. Tom and he were very dear friends. Tom, who lost his father at a very young age, looked justifiably to Martin as a father, and Martin clearly felt that his relationship with Tom was what he really wanted with his own, more diffident, children. So it was Tom who our friend Jerry the cop called when he was sent to Martin's house after his children failed to contact him for a couple of days. Martin was dead.
Martin had died in his sleep, as I said, at least two days before. Jerry, who knew Martin as well as anyone, said he was hard to recognise, and in fact he had declined to give a positive ID. That was left for the Medical Examiner. Tom was frankly devestated. Suddenly, it made perfect sense. Martin had been dying for some time. Why hadn't he wanted us to say goodbye? Why indeed.
Martin's sons called Tom today. They couldn't find a will and thought since Tom was so close to their Dad, maybe he might have some insight into Martin's filing system, or lack thereof. The boys were upset, as you can imagine. The house was something of a disaster, cluttered and haphazard. They found voluminous writings on many subjects. There were letters to political leaders, businesses, and newspapers scrawled on the backs of envelopes. Martin had several notebooks filled with what seemed like notes on philosophy. There were no prescriptions or doctors notes to indicate what he suffered from or if he even sought treatment. In a pile of papers they were about to discard Tom found Martin's directions for his own funeral, written on the back of a electric company bill. Tom also found some other interesting information about our friend. It started with Tom's expression of condolence.
"I will miss your Father's brouge," he said.
"What brouge?" they asked, startled.
"Well, his Irish accent." Tom persisted
"Marty talked with an Irish accent??" They were toubled, and Tom says they looked at him like some kind of idiot. He gently let the matter rest. But there was already a knot in the pit of his stomach. He started looking carefully thorugh Martin's papers and family history.
It would soon become obvious that much of what we knew about Martin Feeney was an elaborate lie.
First off, Martin wasn't born in Ireland. Neither were his parents. He was born and raised outside of Minneapolis, Minnasota. U.S.A. The Feeney's have been there for generations. The only possible accent he could naturally claim was one like in the movie "Fargo."
His parents only lived to 65 and 69, dying in much more mundane fashions then the donkey cart.
Martin, himself, was only a few weeks shy of his 71st birthday, much younger then we every imagined.
He did have two sisters, but no brother, in Ireland, Minnasota or elsewhere.
Martin was only married once, he had no other children.
As these revelations hit Tom like hammer blows he tried to keep his composure by commenting about things he saw around the house. On the small pile of Irish travel literature he said, "Martin always loved talking about Ireland."
"Yes, its such a shame, we always tried to talk him into going on vaction there, but could never get him on a plane."
Martin Feeney never left the continental US. No Ireland. No Norway. No dusky beauties on a Carribean strand.
Martin never owned a passport.
His children claimed no knowledge of his Ocean City candy stores, nor any familiarity with Butch.
Martin and his ex-wife were on apparently excellent and amiable terms.
I think I will need some time to even begin to understand this.