Recent Work By James Claffey


I am filled with a rage fueled by sadness. Rage like a sourdough mother, a lump of material from which my outbursts grow. I cannot adequately express my emotions. My spectrum is happy to angry. The points between, obscured. This sourdough mother journeyed with me from my Irish childhood and has accompanied me across two continents and through several long-term relationships and two marriages. Its raw materials are to be unearthed in the fights and arguments of my childhood, long forgotten, but somehow embedded in my subconscious, dormant but alive.

Spring Break, 2007, I journey to the wilds of New Mexico to write, drink red wine, and to eat green chili stew and sopapillas. This is back in the days when all I write is raw and repetitive and full of bad metaphors (today, I eschew metaphor). Through Craigslist I find a round adobe house in Abiquiu, near Georgia O’Keefe’s home, close to the icy waters of the Chama River.

The car is packed—a dozen bottles of red wine, a ream of heavy-duty paper, my vintage typewriter—ready for the long drive from Carpinteria to Abiquiu, by way of the Grand Canyon. I teach junior high in Santa Barbara, thoroughly unsuited to the task, my irony useless against the hormonally-driven wiles of my students. I need an escape.


I write across distances, from the gray waves of the Irish Sea to the blue-green waters of California’s Pacific coastline. More than this, I write across the elapsed seconds, minutes, hours, and years of my life. Only the other day I looked at the sweeping second hand of my watch and thought, how many times in my life has this perfect circle turned its course and marked time’s passage? In that time I’ve lived on two different continents, been married twice, have two children, three college degrees, and fallen in and out of love more times than I can admit. early evening, and across the tops of avocado trees, the spiraling of a red tailed hawk, the scent of the plumeria, grafted from an ancestor’s garden. A new world unfolds.

We live on a small avenue, thirty-two houses in a U-shape; all with perfectly square front gardens and identical red-bricked facades. We know everyone who lives on our cul-de-sac, and they know us. Living next-door to us at number ten are Tom Cahill and his wife, Dotty.

There’s a narrow band of road that snakes from Donegal town to Malin Head, Ireland’s northernmost point.

Sheep, goats, and the occasional, and increasingly rare corncrake, were some of the only witnesses to my days working in the late-1990s for Ireland’s LA Gear distributor. You know, the shoes with lights in the heels?

In those days the village of Malin had an urban population of in and around 120 souls, and it was my duty to drive the winding road to the 1991 Tidy Town’s winning location once a month as part of my territory. I loved the drive, through sheer landscape, rock and heather, a barren place where even the seabirds suffered personality disorders.

One shoe shop, opposite the Allied Irish bank, close to the large Celtic cross in the center of town. It was my privilege to service this customer, pointing out the merits of flashy American trainers with lights in the heels, and some with sparkles and rhinestones studding the uppers. One of the bestsellers was the MVP, endorsed by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and that bore a remarkable resemblance to Nike’s original Air Jordans.

“Howreyedoingtoday?” the bent-double old lady said. “Sure, dyehaveanyofyonsparklyshoeswithyetoday?”

“Sorry?” I said, unable to decipher her Joycean stream-of-consciousness dialogue. The coconut crumbs from her morning snack of Kimberly Mikado biscuits were embedded in the wiry mustache she sported. She had the look of Fu Manchu on an off day, but I needed the sales because my figures for the month were dire.

“Thelightssonnythelights.” And then she wheezed, as if it was her dying breath.

I unzipped the bag and pulled out a selection of perfectly laced left-only shoes.

“Here’s the new Stardust range,” I said, offering the five sample shoes for her inspection. “They’re selling well, strong leather uppers, EVA midsole, great design.”


I handed her a sample and she treated it as if it were a potato dug from her garden, rolling it around in her arthritic fingers, the long pointy fingernails crusted with dirt. She peered at the floral design on the outsole.

“Nogoodtoushereatallatall,” she decreed. “Itslightstheyoungwanswantlights.”

“We’ve got plenty of lights, still. You can put in an order for them if you like,” I said, plucking the order book from my briefcase.

Ten minutes later she’d ordered twelve pairs of shoes, between an 8, 9, 10, 11 and 12 in the Catapult, and a 5, 6, 7, 8, including half-sizes, in a women’s lights model. Barely enough commission on the sale to buy me a fucking Mars bar at the nearby petrol station shop. I was zipping the samples back into the bag, when she appeared at the door to the back of the shop and waved feebly at me.

“Comehereandlookatthese,” she said.

On a table in the back room was a heap of Catapults and light-up shoes, tied with lace, in various states of decay and soakage. The smell was mildewy, and the woman shook her head from side to side. “Theyreallruinedfromthepuddlestheyoungwansdoberunningthrough,” she said.

“Ma’am, they’re not supposed to be worn in the rain, or to go through puddles,” I said.


“Honestly. They’re not built for that abuse.”


She had a point. It must rain over two hundred days a year in the North-West of Ireland. There’s no chance shitty, mass-produced sneakers will hold up to the ravages of such a climate. Resignedly, I dropped my sample bag in the car and came back in for the returns. I loaded thirty pairs of shoes in the trunk of the car and drove the desolate road back to Donegal town for the night.

Next morning, car stuffed with returned shoes, I sat outside a drapery in Donegal town, paralyzed with a hatred of my job. Instead of calling on the account, I filled in the Irish Times crossword, both Simplex and Crosaire, and had a sausage roll and cup of tea in a gaily decorated café. Finally, I sucked every ounce of self-esteem from my nether regions, and walking into the account for the last time.

That Friday I unloaded a cache of over one hundred pairs of crap sneakers from the company car, walked into the director’s office, and handed in my resignation. Worst part of it was I had to work out my notice and endure two more weeks of sneaker abuse at the hands of little old ladies speaking in tongues, and ruddy-faced farmers trying to diversify their interests, accepting their returns, and taking orders for more of the happy, shiny shoes I hated so.

And now, twenty-odd years later,with my summer school teaching job coming to an end this week, and no real prospect of work beyond that, I remember the old days, driving out to Malin Head, Achill Island, and Oughterard, trying to sell shoes that had the habit of falling apart at first wear, and consider that things could always be worse. Recession be damned.

A doorstep view of the Dublin mountains, the grazed sky lead and liquid, a radio mast scratching the clouds. Mam buttons your wool anorak up to the neck, kisses your face with her cherry-sticked lips, and you feel the tickle of her mustache, annoying and raspy. Before stepping across the threshold you dip two fingers in the holy water font and make the sign of the cross. This is what it’s like to be seven and about to walk to school for the first time in nine months.

The nephritis came with bloodied urine, straight to the hospital, where they put you in leather straps you called, “strainers,” so you wouldn’t make yourself sicker. At night you listened to Sister’s castaneted shoes on the polished ward floor, the swish of her starched skirts, the glint of steel from her spectacles as she made the night rounds. Always the smell, too. Dettol antiseptic and mashed potatoes and gravy. Even in the night you couldn’t move in the bed, the straps pulled tight against your chest. When you pissed the bed the first time it wasn’t a big rigmarole, but after the third and fourth time the nurse put rubber sheets under the starchy linen. Rubber and piss blended into the scent of a six-year-old’s sadness, the uncomfortable dampness as you lay shamed and silent in the dark.

No school for you, instead the stretched out days of hospital food and leather straps, of bed baths and blood tests. Every day, mam bused to town and walked to Temple Street Hospital to visit you, her little soldier. In the daytime an old man came to your bedside with the Irish Independent and read you the comics—Dennis the Menace, Count Curly Wee and Gussie Goose. Two flaps of hair were plastered to the sides of the man’s head, like a cruel Viking helmet. “Say the words after me,” he’d say, and fear pushed them out of your mouth, reluctant crumbs. This was how you learned to read. One day he stopped coming, Sister shaking her head when you asked where your friend had gotten to.

In time the nurse loosened the straps, the wetting of the bed lessened, and you began to walk the corridors, looking for your friend with the newspaper. In the old men’s ward you peeked between curtains, bruised skeletons sponged, nurses hoisting cracked limbs into clean pajamas. One old shitehawk wrinkled a finger at you and asked whether you’d like to know a secret. When you got closer he thrust his mousie at you and a trickle of piss ran down your leg. As you backed away from his bed he winked a moled lid at you, his tongue poking from the side of his mouth.

Paper chains and bright lanterns suspended from the ceilings, a string across the end of each bed for Christmas cards from home and friends. Mam and Da came with the boys to see you. She had a miniature tree in a pot, just like the one at home, except this one was covered with gold-flake and ornaments attached by bits of pipe cleaner—snowmen, silver balls, an angel in a white robe, gold-haloed, her face a smiling wooden ball. Packages in wrapping paper littered the bed, stuffed animals, baby bear, Lego bricks and a jigsaw puzzle with the Matterhorn in one corner of the sky.

When they let you out it was a Thursday, after breakfast. Mam came with your clothes in a bag and helped you dress. As you said goodbye to the nurses and Sister your eyes leaked. Mam held your hand as you walked down Temple Street towards the bus stop. On jellied legs you followed her as fast as you could trot. At home everything smelled the same, the cigarette smoke and the shepherd’s pie for dinner, an apple pie, crusted with sugar steamed on the counter.

Da was working and Ma hadn’t told him you’d be home, because she couldn’t phone him at work. At six, as the Angelus bells from Radio Eireann bonged, Mam hid you in the sitting room behind the curtains, and told you to wait until you heard your Da’s voice. When you jumped out from your hiding place his face lit up like you’d never seen before and he began to cry. “Don’t cry Da, don’t cry. It’s only me, it’s only me.” He hoisted you so high you were able to touch the brass lampshade with your tongue. That night, the bed did not smell of rubber, though the sheets once again were damp.