Thursday, February 15, 2007

Leprechaun Love

Charmaine Frost headshot by Charmaine Frost

When Frank O'Reilly came to town, he wondered what to do with the rest of his life. The ads and the people he left behind told him that this was "the Land of Opportunity, with a pot of gold on every porch and a rainbow arching down to every lawn" and urged him to "Reach for your dreams". Frank hung out his shingle; the dark green sign read "Leprechaun Love" in gilded italic. He advertised his matchmaking service in local papers, posted flyers, and waited for customers in his thoroughly American green vinyl office chair that swiveled, reclined and massaged his back at the press of a magic button.

The first client, a white whiskered walrus with buck teeth and sour breath suggesting old whiskey and an abscessed tooth, waddled to the desk, carefully filled out the questionnaires, and ranted.

"After three of them, I figured I'd better see a pro." The walrus flapped his fraying jacket to aerate his round perspiring chest. "Jerko Jackie, the first, walked out with my house in her pocketbook. Bitchy Barbie didn't have a house to steal, so she scoured the bank accounts clean. Loco Linda with the flame spikes for hair and five tongue piercings smirked through all the lawyer talks, then broke into my flat and kidnapped my cats; she could set any bed on fire, was built like a brick shithouse, but as hard as one in the end."

"I'll try to help you." Frank nodded as he entered the questionaire data into his computer and wondered what a brick shithouse looked like; such a place probably stank in winter, when people couldn't open the windows.

"You don't know what it's like coming home to a catless house. No cat doing a snakedance around and between my legs. No cat butting its head against me until it gets brain damage. No cat on the table, lapping up my noodle soup when I'm not looking. Cleaned out. A cat house without cats is a lonely place."

Frank typed.

"I still have the fire down there, my manhood isn't quivering with palsy yet," the walrus barked. "But maybe it's time to stop going for the wild ones who'll just bleed me dry as a corpse. Time for a pooped-out Missus who cooks Thanksgiving turkey on autopilot and plops down in front of the soap opera, too winded to think of fleecing me"

"That's a smart move," Frank agreed. "In this business, we've found that shared interests and values hold a couple together. So, lets talk about your religious beliefs, what qualities you treasure most in a friend —"

"Yes, values," the walrus huffed. "I'll go for a wife with my values. And if I get bored, I can always scout the bars for a mistress."

Frank sighed, cringed behind the computer monitor and pushed the "instant masseuse" button on his shiny, acrobatic chair.

The next day, the women clients started coming.

Susan, a 34 year old divorced realtor with two kids, strode towards Frank's desk, flattened the creases out of her professionally navy skirt, and listed her reasons for needing a mate. Item One, companionship; item two, a male role model for the son; item three, financial security for the kids; she could have been reading from the Matchmaker's Manual. As Frank pushed forms towards her and urged her to fill out the questionnaires, she gazed at his large emerald eyes, the tiny lines rippling away from their corners, the sandy shock of hair bouncing over his forehead in an untamable wave; her voice mellowed from business staccato to bedroom cello.

"I bet you sing," she cooed.


"Aren't all you guys tenors? Sweet strains of 'Danny Boy' rising and falling over the green?" Susan heard vowels humming, stretching and dipping into consonants that tapped the beat of a lover's nostalgic longing.

"Um, I don't think of myself as a singer," Frank muttered. If he was a tenor, then he sang like a rusty saw, screeching as he pushed against the melody and chasing away the birds with the racket.

"Could I take these forms home? Bring them back and talk with you more?"

"Sure." Frank shrugged.

Melissa, a plump 28 year old bookkeeper with a china doll face, asked him to repeat everything and stared raptly. Ruth, a wiry dog groomer with bifocals, squirmed when the matchmaker spoke. Over decaf coffee and Slimfast bars, Ruth, Melissa and Susan described Frank to their friends. Friends talked to other friends, embellishing Frank with muscles, an unfading tan, and a past as a ballad singer before he'd had to flee the home country as an IRA dissident. A hundred women visited Leprechaun Lovers in two weeks. Frank wondered how a small town could breed so many desperate unmarried ladies, and why none of them signed his retainer contract or paid the fee. He called his buddy Shaun Hailey, aka Mr. Logic, who'd come to the States ten years ago and might understand the ways of the land; they met in the corner coffee house.

"It's not a problem getting customers, it's what the customers do," he explained as he sampled a bagel with lox and an herbally enhanced hazelnut cappuccino with low fat whipped cream. "The only one who's paid anything is an old geezer working on his fourth wife. The rest are women, a hundred of them. Most of them don't even glance at the forms. When I ask them questions, like whether they'd prefer a childless mate, they stare, tell me that my Irish eyes are smiling or ask me to say that word 'childless' again. I thought I knew people, but that was back home; these Americans are a strange breed."

"'Tis true," Shaun stared into the black mirror of his coffee. "I was lucky to find a sensible gal. But at work? These fifty-year old ladies, some of them with fancy degrees, act like 15 year old Dubliners, get gooey eyed and limp jawed when I ask them a scientific question about the software. Maybe the pollution's melted their brains."

Gail, the stocky graying waitress in a pink uniform, sauntered towards their table.

"I wasn't trying to eavesdrop but I couldn't help overhearing, it being so quiet in here right now," she began apologetically. "But I think you have lovesick customers."


"They're smitten by the leprechaun. You, Mr. O'Reilly."

"No," Frank shook his head and chortled. "I'm not bad looking but I'm not Joe Movie Star. Back home, I had girlfriends, but not a retinue. I wasn't any Pied Piper, with all the lassies panting after me."

"Yes, Mr. O'Reilly, they're in love," Gail asserted. "I hear things in this place; you'd have to be a dwarf or a circus fat man for them not to be smitten. It's your accent, Mr. O'Reilly; around here, any British accent's an aphrodisiac. Like —" She paused, then moved closer to the table. "Last week, some college kids were in here; one of them was from London. In the middle of pie and Coke, one of the local boys says to the Londoner 'Charlie, you don't know how lucky you are. With that accent, you'll never have to be a nerd; having an English accent is an instant Cool Factor, raises your Cool Quotient 50 points. Man, if you know what's good for you, don't ever lose that accent'. And when Charlie leaves the table, one of the other guys mutters 'Yeah, that guy could get laid whenever he wants, doesn't have to struggle like the rest of us. All the girls in class drool when he speaks, but he's too spacey to know it. Or maybe too chicken shit to act'. So, what do you think the older ladies say about you, Mr. O'Reilly of the lucky leprechaun lilt? They're not into chicken shit, but the drool drips into their coffee and the tales drool from their lips. Mr. O'Reilly, the Irish tenor. Mr O'Reilly, ex-spy for the IRA. Mr. O'Reilly, mystery man with the music man voice, and they've got their nets out for the catch. Gotta admit to peeking at you a few times myself, Mr. O'Reilly, and I'm a lady with restraint."

"So, what am I going to do?" Frank asked. "I don't know how to fake a Brooklyn accent. I'd have to take lessons, but it would be years before I could play a New Yorker; I don't have a good ear."

"I'm not a businessman but —" Gail shuffled her feet. "If I were you, I'd hire someone to talk to the customers and manage the place from the side."

"But, what about salary? None of these women has paid me a penny. I don't know if I'll have money for next month's rent"

Shaun cleared his throat. "Maybe my brother-in-law can help. He's been out of work for almost a year, has been staying with us the last six months. He's been in a funk lately, more and more hopeless about the job market. Getting out and doing something useful would lift his spirits; when customers start paying, you can put him on salary. The experience can't hurt him. Betty and I'll work on him; he listens to his sister"

"But what's he like?" Frank frowned at the lox left on his plate and imagined an employee who stank like the whorf, oozed salty sweat, and sloughed scaly skin.

"Ned's not a bad guy, just timid, needs practice gabbing with people. That's one of his problems in job hunting. He's afraid his own shadow's going to stand up and strangle him, and gets tongue-tied.....I know, I know. How's he going to deal with a hundred clients? There are ways around his shyness. You can listen from the other room, feed him his lines over the computer or into a little electronic receiver in his ear. We'll put him through practice runs before shoving him onto center stage. If he pauses before answering, the clients'll think he's carefully considering their case. He fits the thinker look. Thick glasses, bal ding, thin face, looks like an accountant. And he sounds like he's from south Jersey"

"Perfect!" Gail cackled. "Who's going to fall in love with an accountant with a Camden accent!"

"He'll be here in a few minutes, "Shaun whispered as he collapsed into a client armchair. Frank strolled towards the gauzy drapes separating the main office from the small dark room where he'd sit. He could watch Ned and the customers moving in the incandescent brightness; if they glanced towards the curtains, they wouldn't spot him crouching in the blackness. The powerful tiny receiver would pick up his softest whisper. Back there, he'd miss his swiveling chair, the well lit spaciousness where eyes could roam, the window drawing him towards the horizon and unexplored hopes. Darkness could suffocate a man, crush him under walls of blackness.

"He's been through trial runs with the family and knows the routine," Shaun continued. "He's even used the earpiece."

Both men turned towards tentative knocking at the door. Ned minced forward, stooped, a human hanger from which his suit drooped in folds.

"Ned Sampson…Frank O'Reilly"

Ned gazed at the floor, glanced at his watch, then stared at his shoes. "I'm really grateful for the opportunity, Mr. O'Reilly," he stammered. "But I'm not sure I can do this; I'm not used to talking with people."

"Ned! What did Betty and I tell you about self fulfilling prophecies?" Shaun barked. "Remember our pep talks? Just repeat them to yourself, over and over at night, and whenever you doubt yourself. Besides, Frank'll feed you the lines; you just have to repeat what you hear through the earpiece. Not so hard, is it?" Shaun turned towards Frank. "And it's not like O'Reilly's just going to disappear. Frank, the best strategy is for you to appear once during each client session — walk into the room, ask Ned how he's faring. The women'll see you and hear your voice just enough to feel excited about matchmaking; when you're gone and their heart beats have slowed, they can settle down to the business of filling out questionnaires, signing retainer contracts and checks. You're not just offering a service, Frank; you're selling them hope, and selling means performing. Think of each client session as a choreographed act."

"I don't know about this." Ned shuffled his feet.

"Do you have anything else lined up?" Shaun snapped. Ned shook his head. "Then, you'd better give this a try."

Frank studied the shiny pink scalp, the fringe of dull brown hairs dangling limply above the nape of the neck, the craggy beak, the thick tortoiseshell frames surrounding grimy lenses through which the eyes looked like black slits; add a patch of masking tape at one corner of the frames, mismatched socks, and a sharpened pencil stub balanced behind one ear, and Ned would qualify for a leading role in Defeat of the Nerds. Dark fissures arced between the bottom of his nose and the corners of his tight mouth, as thin as a paper cut. Ned's restless fingers tightened and straightened his tie, then checked each shirt button, then fumbled in his jacket pockets; something seemed to writhe under the thin navy material.

"I don't know about this guy," Frank whispered as he walked Shaun to the door.

Do you have a better plan?" Shaun growled. "Money pouring in?"

Frank shook his head.

Frank had almost fallen asleep in the dark airless back room when the first customer knocked. He jerked awake.

"Ned!" he whispered into the transmitter as the stiletto heels clacked across the floor, "Sit up straight. Look relaxed. Offer her a seat. And try to smile."

"Have a seat," Ned muttered, staring at the desk.

"Look at her," Frank sighed. "Welcome her to Leprechaun Lovers."

Ned glanced upward and stared at the woman's nostrils. "Welcome to Leprechaun Lovers," he droned.

The woman stared back at Ned when he didn't elaborate. She crossed her arms and frowned; as she cocked her head sideways, her coppery brillo-pad hair bounced. "Is something wrong, Mr. O'Reilly? You seem, uh, maybe worried. A little stiff."

"Uh, I'm not Mr. O'Reilly. Um, I'm Mr. Sampson, his new employee." The words marched forth slowly and tunelessly.

"Damn you, can't you improvise?" Frank hissed into the mouthpiece. He considered spiking the guy's coffee with Valium to loosen him up, and wished he knew more about titrating dosages. "Now, tell her that Leprechaun Lovers offers thoroughly modern matchmaking services, using 21st century technology to help pair people with maximum compatibility. Be sure to mention the company name, Leprechaun Lovers. Then ask her to fill out the questionnaires."

Ned nodded, gazing fixedly upward as he memorized the words; the client thought he looked like a TV character receiving messages from outer space.

"Leprechaun Lovers offers modern matchmaking services." Ned stumbled over each word, like a first grader reading out loud from his primer. "We use 21st century technology to pair people for maximum compatibility. Be sure to mention." He stopped abruptly, then groped for the forms with his twitching fingers.

Frank sighed, parted the gauze drapes and stepped into the office.

"Hello Ned," he sang out, "How are you doing with your first client?" He smiled apologetically at the customer who sat stiffly erect and statue-still while squinting at the hands that hovered, trembling, above a stack of papers. "I'm sorry to intrude, but Ned's new. I'm Mr. O'Reilly."

"Sandra Dorset," she smiled. She leaned against the arm rest and draped her left hand over the chair's back as she stared into Frank's ocean green eyes.

"Ned'll just have you fill out some questionnaires about your interests, likes and dislikes. Then he'll feed all that into our computer database; the computer helps us find a man whose profile matches what you're looking for. We're also linked with several other matchmaking databases; you wouldn't want to miss an opportunity, just because the guy lives thirty miles away and happens to walk into a different office. We just ask for a small retainer fee up front, to cover the cost of processing the information; then a second payment when we bring you together with the man from heaven."

"So, Ned's just a paper pusher?" Sandra asked, averting her gaze from the sweaty bald head and steamed thick lenses. "He doesn't actually do the matchmaking?"

"No," Frank drawled reassuringly, "He doesn't do the matchmaking. I run the business."

Sandra exhaled loudly, then leaned towards the desk to fill out the forms.

"Well, I shouldn't distract you from those questionnaires. I know we can bring you luck, Sandra," Frank called out, as he parted the gauze drapes and disappeared into the darkness.

"That Mr. O'Reilly, I'm glad I met him," Sandra purred.

"Tell her 'Let's concentrate on the paperwork now, Ms. Dorset, so we can find the best match for you'. Then shut up and look like you're processing data on the computer," Frank whispered into the mouthpiece.

"Let us concentrate on paperwork now, Mrs. Dorset, so we can find you the best match," Ned plodded through the words, then swiveled to face the monitor.

"It's 'Ms', " Sandra quipped. "A Mrs. would be in marital counseling"

"Uh, yes," Ned stammered, then turned back to the screen. "I apologize. Let us concentrate on the paperwork now, Ms Dorset."

Sandra pursed her lips at the man's dry raspy coughs, his throat clearing grunts, his fingers tapping against the side of the monitor as his shiny damp head rocked in time to an inaudible machine rhythm. Then she leaned over the questionnaires and began filling in circles with her #2 pencil.

Tell Mr. O'Reilly I'll be thinking of him," she chirped, as she handed Ned the sheaf of papers and a $50 retainer fee. The stiletto heels clicked towards the door. Ned dried his face with another paper towel; by the end of the day, he thought, he'd use up a roll of the super-absorbant, quicker-picker-upper and prove that Bounty was as effective against scalp sweat as against spilled champagne.

"Maybe things'll work out," Frank thought, as he tried to stretch his legs in the claustrophobic darkness. "Despite the guy's limitations. Maybe because of his limitations."

Ned's finger tapping slowed from a rat-tat-tat allegro drum roll to the hypnotic speed of water dripping from a faucet. His face remained paper-white, instead of flushing to magic marker pink, when he greeted new clients. His vocal range expanded from one to three notes and, after he'd memorized the script and learned how to interpret advice transmitted to him from the back room, he slid over three words before stammering in midsentence in uncertainty. Mr. O'Reilly appeared apologetically on scene just after Ned mentioned 21st century technology, reassured the client with his melodious brogue, then retreated with an actor's timing. By the end of the day, he'd pocketed $500 in retainer fees.

By the end of the week, he'd pocketed $2500. He, Shaun and Ned celebrated at the coffee house.

So things are going well for you, eh?" Gail teased. "Nothing like a Camden twang to put business on track? To rescue Irish rogues with Irish brogues from a wee bit too much fatal attraction?"

Frank chuckled as Ned stared, blushing, into his Coke.

"Time for a toast," Shaun announced, and lifted his cup of steaming, manly black and sugarless coffee. Frank lifted his cup of amaretto-flavored, vitamin enriched, cafe latte.

"Don't we need beer for a toast?" Ned mumbled.

"Naw, anything'll do," Frank sang out. "It's the spirit of the thing. Besides, we leprechauns can play let' s pretend. This is Irish coffee, with imaginary liquor in it; can't you taste the alcohol warming and calming your throat?"

"Sure can," Shaun added. "And that fizzer there, that's not a Coke; that's dark champagne, a specially colored vintage unique to a single acre of France. Special brew for a special toast."

Ned stared blankly.

"Here's to..."Shaun paused. "Success! To great expectations!"

"To great expectations disappointed, and revived," Frank mused. "To dim expectations proven wrong. To dim expectations saving great expectations from death".

"To leprechaun luck and lovers," Shaun bellowed over the clank of two cups and one glass.

Ned gaped at the others, wondering what chemicals had been added to their coffee. Then he sipped his Diet Coke slowly, watching the bubbles rise tentatively before lingering and popping at the surface, deaf to the prattle of the Blarney Stone boys.

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