Safe Harbor

Safe Harbor is part of a collection of short stories coming in October 2014.  © Loretto Horrigan Leary 2014

Safe Harbor is part of a collection of short stories coming in October 2014.
© Loretto Horrigan Leary 2014

I didn’t love her in the same way I loved my mother, my sisters, or my girlfriend for that matter. This was a different type of love. I suppose you’d call it a mature love. It had been thirteen years since we hugged and kissed and said our goodbyes. We had spoken about three times a year and exchanged cards at Christmas, that’s about it.  Nothing claustrophobic, just the occasional phone call. When the call came I knew I had to see her.

Back then I was just a kid of twenty-one, selfish, self-centered. The world was my oyster. Me, with a degree from Yale University, I could do anything I wanted.

The world of my twenty first year revolved around me, my needs and my wants. That is until the captain of my return flight from Ireland to New York announced we had a small problem with a light on the left wing and we had to make a brief stop at Gander Airport in Newfoundland. He lied about the light on the wing. He lied about the brief stop.

We sat for nineteen hours on the plane, parked tip to tip with others lining the vast runway, casually, like a packed parking lot at a mall. Nineteen hours of waiting, wishing the passenger next to me would stop crying. I thought I was hallucinating the whole thing, a bad trip, in more ways than one. After we deplaned, we were processed by customs and immigration, and I stood in the international lounge of Gander Airport, the décor was a throwback to the 60’s and 70’s. But this was Wednesday, September 12th, 2001.

Before cell phones, before Skype, before Twitter and Facebook, I spent my last few dollars, now Canadian quarters, calling my parents. The towers were down, the Pentagon had been hit, and a fourth plane had crashed in a field in Pennsylvania.

Through tears and bursts of screams my mother thanked God that I was safe, far from home, but safe. I knew things were bad when my father told me to stay put. I had no choice anyway. All I could muster in that telephone conversation was one word questions and answers.

–“Are you alright, son?”

–“Yeah.”

–“Where are you?”

–“Gander.”

–“Have you been told what’s happened?”

–“Yeah.”

–“Don’t be afraid now. You’re safe where you are.”

–“Right.”

–“Your mother is in a panic, but now that we know you are safe,” and here he gulped and swallowed a feeling, the sensation of tears coming. And then he started again, “Now that we know you are safe, we can breathe easy. Do you have money left?”

–“No.”

–“We’ll wire you some.”

Then it hit me. I might be here for a long time.

–‘What if war broke out? Is this going to be world war three? Would I ever see my family again?’

–“Dad, how long do you think I’ll be here?”

–“I don’t know son. But that’s the safest place for you now. Stay put.”

My money ran out, the phone call ended.

It was at the legion hall in Gander that she took me by the elbow and turned me to face her. That was when I realized I was crying. I just wanted to be home with my parents and my sisters. Life was not supposed to stop like this, a full stop, with people wondering what was going to happen next. I wasn’t supposed to be here, broke and stranded in a strange place.

I looked at her, but I looked through her. I didn’t see her, but I saw her. Her eyes followed me, I could feel her watching me.

“You’ll be fine, darling,” she said, and she stood still as a tree, holding my elbow. This tiny woman, trying to draw me back to reality with reassurances.

“I want to go home,” I said, still not looking at her, but seeing her.

I looked around. Flickers of panic made my thoughts skittish and jumpy. Did I know anyone? Surely there was someone? That man who sat beside me on the plane!

“You can’t go home, not yet. But you will, and until then you’ll come stay with me,” she said, and I looked down into her face. She nodded at me. “You’ll be alright,” she said.

She brought me to a table covered in trays of sandwiches and pots of hot tea and coffee.

“Eat something. You’ll feel better. Then we’ll head back to my house and you can call your family and let them know you are alright.”

My skin felt cold and itched like hell. My baggage was still on the plane. We were only permitted to take our carry-on luggage. I had none. I had been wearing these same clothes now for over twenty four hours. Feeling scruffy, cold and dirty, I wanted to rip at the flesh on my face. The stubble was driving me mad.

“You’re over-tired,” she said, and filled a Styrofoam cup with coffee.

The hall was crammed with people. Mother’s hugging their children close. Men wearing confused looks suggesting they shouldn’t be here, they should be at work. I searched the crowd. Hundreds of people, like me, stunned that we couldn’t go home because home wasn’t safe anymore, and with that was the realization that our family and friends were not safe anymore. Again I scanned the crowd.

She stood before me, about two feet shorter, and held the sandwich wrapped in a napkin and the cup of coffee aloft. I looked at her again, and looked at the crowd around us, not heaving, not pushing, not struggling, but a zombie-like herd, quietly shifting in one direction or another, needing to be told what to do next.

On the outside I appeared passive, indifferent almost. Beneath the surface I capped my emotions and wondered which one I should set free first: Anger at the loss of humanity? Or sadness at the loss of lives? Fear at the loss of security? Or depression at the loss of hope. I was cataloguing my emotions, sorting through each one methodically and triaging them. Which should I liberate first?

It happened involuntarily; I felt my body hunch over and my face dropped into my hands, muting the scream. Hunkered down, amidst a crowd of stranded strangers, I screamed into my palms and then cried. I bawled, uncontrollably. She pulled me up by the shoulders and guided me through the hall, into the parking lot and into her car. I cried all the way to her house, and when the anger gathered in my throat like acid, I yelled at the blue sky beyond the car window and at the green and grey rocky fields.

“I’ll kill the fucking bastards! I’ll fucking kill them!”

Thirteen years and three tours of Afghanistan later I had kept my promise. But on Wednesday, September the 12th 2001, the day that I almost lost all hope in humanity, this small grey haired old woman showed me that humanity still existed in quiet secluded places like Gander, Newfoundland.

When I woke up, I was in a room, on a double bed, covered by a patchwork quilt. The radio was playing what sounded like Irish music, and it drifted in from the kitchen into my bedroom, creating the illusion that I was still on the farm in Portumna, County Galway with my Uncle and Aunt.

I pulled my hands down my face and dragged the sleep out of my eyes. For a second I wondered if I had dreamt the whole thing. Just for a second I was at ease. As I absorbed the strangeness of the room, the smells, and the hill outside my window, the rocky terrain– I knew that it wasn’t a dream.

I headed into the music lilting from the kitchen. She sat at the table reading the newspaper.

“There are fresh towels in the bathroom,” she said, pushing herself up to standing with the help of the table. “And the phone is in the hallway. You’ll have to dial 001 and then the area code in the US. I’ve written it down beside the phone for you anyway.”

The accent was a blend of Irish and Canadian, it was nice to hear.

“My son’s clothes are in that wardrobe there, in your room. He’s away at university right now, but ye’d be the same size I’d say, or close enough anyway. Did ya sleep alright? Ya must be starving?”

She rounded the table and then stood before me. As if reading my mind she said, “Yes, it really happened, and no you didn’t dream it all up. I am so sorry.”

Then she hugged me.

“You probably feel raw inside,” she said, and stood back to look at me. “Sure yer only a lad. God help us! Call your parents first, like a good man. Stay on with them as long as you want. Let them know that you have a place to stay, food to eat. Your mother must be worried out of her mind about ya! The poor soul. Then you can shower, change into fresh clothes, and eat a bit. I’ll start a fry up now.”

The world stopped that Tuesday, September the eleventh. It stopped, for me, for her, and for millions of other people. The one thing that failed to stop was kindness. That day ended my self-absorption. The days that followed restored my faith in humanity.

In bunkers, surrounded by soldiers in fatigue, in dark nights with skies alight with bursts of gunfire, in deserts of sand and stone with death hovering around me, I recalled her kitchen, quiet and still and calm– a safe harbor.

So I had to see her one last time. I had not been back to Gander since September 2001. The airport was still the same. It was strange to think that this place would evoke fond memories despite the reason for being here in 2001.

When I met her son I realized that we were close in age. He was her only child. She’d lost her husband to cancer when her son was young. She’s raised the boy on her own. I’d wondered why she and so many other Newfoundlanders acted so compassionately towards stranded strangers on that dark day.

“As far as she was concerned you were another mother’s son,” he said.

“If we all thought like that,” I replied, “This world would be a safe harbor for everyone.”

© Loretto Horrigan Leary 2014

Celtic Pin

 

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Coming soon: Barmbrack

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                     Final Cover

Barmbrack

 a play

by

Loretto Horrigan Leary

Mary is a young Irish woman living in New York city. She shares an apartment with three other Irish women. Rosie, the pretty new immigrant, just moved in.

It is a time of change in America. President John F Kennedy visits Ireland on June 28, 1963, and promises peace and freedom in his speech to the Irish parliament. For many Irish-Americans it is a time to celebrate Irish culture and heritage in the melting pot they call New York city.

Bridget is Mary’s neighbor and good friend. Mister Nowak is a survivor of the holocaust. They have learned through their own experiences that life is too short, live it as you wish to.

Is life like Barmbrack? Filled with strange surprises, forcing us to accept our lot and make do with what we find?  Or can we shape our destiny? Is it the luck of the draw, or do we have control over our happiness?

Mary decides, upon listening to Bridget and Mister Novak’s shared experiences of loss, that if she wants true happiness she must go after it.

For Mary, and those around her, actions do speak louder than words. Everyone is ready for peace and change. But peace and change mean different things to Mary.

Taxed to Death

Tea CaddyA tea caddy, that’s what the first generation Irish called it, about nine inches tall and six wide; a dull black finish with a gold trim on the lid and base of the tin. It sat in our kitchen for decades, on the gas stove next to the stainless steel kettle. My father bought it in Sharon, Connecticut one autumn when we all went leaf peeping. That was back in 1970. My mother was still alive then. They were two very different people, my mother and father.

My mother was concerned with respectability, and my father was concerned with penny pinching. She pursued her notion of what was proper with passion, how we dressed, behaved in church, our manners, our behavior and efforts in school. My father threw nothing away. Everything might be useful at one point in the future. Even a rusty washer and screw might be useful. When the items had found their second life, my father exclaimed, “I always knew that washer and screw would come in useful!”

The garage, although intended for two cars, could accommodate none. Instead, it became useful as a graveyard of sorts, a resting place really, for all the things that he would find uses for in their second, Frankenstein-like life. Muscular Ken’s arms replaced Barbie’s arms when our dog, a stray whom we adopted, chewed Ken’s head and then repeated the offence on Barbie’s arms, earning her the nickname, “Bench press Barbie.” The word “frugal” is too expensive of a word to use to describe my Dad. Frugality pays off. We all got good educations and ended up in decent careers.

The real difference emerged on that drive back from Sharon. The changing leaves always made my mother melancholy. Autumn, beautiful hues aside, was the season before everything died.

“When my time on this earth ends,” she said, “I want you all to promise me not to give me a Potter’s Field burial.”

“Oh for Christ’s sake Sally!” my father roared, “We’ll talk about it when you’re dead. Alright?”

“No! It’s not alright!” Turning to face him directly, she wagged a cautionary finger at him, and then leaned on her seat to face the three of us sitting in the back. My comic book pulled away; I could not pretend to ignore her, indifference was no longer an option.

“I want a decent funeral when it is my time. Don’t let him nickel and dime my funeral.”

Her time came twenty-five years later. By then the black tea caddy no longer stored tealeaves. Instead, it stood on the workbench in the garage; along with the rusty nails, screws, and whatever else my father was saving, “Just in case,” he might need it later.

The tea caddy now stored tulip bulbs. He would plant them in the fall, after the frost. Then in the late spring, after the blooms had withered away to leather-like scraps, he dug the bulbs up and stored them in the tea caddy.

My mother’s fall melancholy, was it premonition? I do not know. She died on November 25 in 1995. We had a hard frost two weeks before she passed away. In a fit of energy, and a need for distraction, my father planted the tulip bulbs the week before she died. The tea caddy was empty.

He took the news of her death hard, but being of a generation of men who refused to cry in public, he busied himself with her funeral arrangements. “An idle mind is the Devil’s workshop,” he said, and went to work calling the funeral parlor and the parish priest.

The four of us, my two sisters, my father and I, went straight from the hospital to the funeral parlor. The showroom, filled with the smell of lilies, displayed caskets stacked three units high on the walls. Oak, veneer, solid bronze or copper, 18 by 20 gauge steel  caskets. It was just like buying a car. Made to look pretty, hanging from the walls to display their well-crafted angles, the caskets are already luring my sister Mary.

“She would have wanted the copper casket,” my sister said, stroking it, as if it were a racecar that had just won the Grand Prix.

“A fine choice,” the funeral parlor director assured her. “Many families prefer the copper because of its beauty, durability, and its capability to keep water and air out, in addition to its non-rusting qualities.”

“Who cares?” my father said, throwing his hands out to his sides. He is wearing his blue tweed jacket, with navy blue suede elbow patches that need patching.

“I beg your pardon, sir?” The funeral director did a few quick blinks of disgust and turned to face him.

“The coffin, I mean, really? The fact that air, water and rust can’t damage it? Who cares? Won’t she be buried six feet under?”

“Dad, please, don’t do this.” Mary, is the most like my mother. She looks like her and values appearances like her also.

“Why?” my father asks.

“It is what she wanted, you know that. Come on now,” she pleads.

“How much for that coffin?” my father says, pointing at the Rosetan Satin Premium Velvet Dark Copper casket, the one that Mary claims my mother would want.

“This beautiful casket,” the funeral parlor director opens the lid, revealing the quilted, pinkish-white satin lined interior, “is eight thousand and five hundred dollars before tax, sir.”

My father does an empathic nod in Mary’s direction.

“Just chump change, right?”

She shakes her head, and walks away from him and the tears start flowing.

“What else do you have?” my sister Katherine asks, and shrugs her shoulders at me. We are more like my dad. We are not tight with money, but Katie and I seem to have inherited the “is it really worth it?” gene from him.

“There are the coffins used for cremation,” the man says, closing the lid and the deal on the Rosetan Satin Premium Velvet Dark Copper casket.

“Are they cheaper?” my father asks, and Katie and I shoot each other a quick smile.

“The Jackson Oak/Veneer Rosetan Satin is significantly less expensive, sir,” and the once polished, polite voice is now brassy and tinged with disgust.

“Now you’re talking my language,” my father says, and rubs his hands together. “Let’s have a look at it,” he says.

“It is cheap looking!” Mary is clearly not impressed with the next item on the menu.

My father ignores her comment and continues: “How much for this one?”

The gloves are off, no more “sirs” from the funeral director.

— “Three thousand and seven hundred.”

— “For something that goes up in flames?”

“Come on now, Dad,” I say, “We’ve got to bury mom in something.”

I can tell by the pinched up face of the funeral parlor director that he is losing patience with my dad.

—“That’s just the beginning.” He stands defiantly in front of my father, clasps his hands together, and delivers the news of what else is coming down the pipe with a smear of a smile across his face.

“The embalming, make-up, wake, church, plot, which I do hope you have secured already, hearse, digging of the grave, headstone, the engraving, and of course you’ll want to feed those who travel from out of town to the service, will all cost you, and are taxed,” he says with flourish.

Dad nods a couple of times.

— “How much to cremate her?” The old man never blinks an eye. Neither does the funeral parlor director.

—“Eight hundred.”

—“With tax”

— “No, there’s sixteen percent tax on that.”

He does a quick count on his fingers, “Nine hundred and twenty eight?”

— “I usually get tipped for my services.”

— “Nine hundred and twenty eight it is. That’ll suit me fine.”

— “Then you’ll need to see urns.”

— “I’m all set, thanks.”

My sisters and I watch the staccato like delivery as if we are at a tennis match; our heads swinging back and forth, left to right, right to left.

— “There are state codes and laws.”

— “Glad to hear it,” my father says, “So we bring her here for the cremation?”

— “No, the people at the hospital morgue will.”

— “Is that extra?”

Mary grabs her head in her hands, “Dad! Stop it!”

He raises his hand to silence her. “Hey, wait a minute. This is my wife, my money we’re talking about here.”

“And my mother!”

“Alright then Mary, you pay for the whole kit and caboodle. Soup to nuts, Mary. She’s all yours.”

“What’s the breakdown with the Rosetan Satin Premium Velvet Dark Copper casket and everything else?” Mary asks politely.

“Let’s take a seat in my office mam.” The funeral parlor director leads her down the hallway. Mary disappears behind Venetian wood doors for about ten minutes, then emerges, pale faced and solemn.

“The tea caddy’s beginning to not look so bad after all, huh?” Dad says, and pats her on the shoulder.

“Do you have a burial plot in a graveyard?” The funeral director is seemingly delighted in delivering more bad news.

“Nope. The front yard will do just fine.”

“Make sure you are not breaking any state laws,” he says, and hands my father a pamphlet, Final Rights: Reclaiming the American Way of Death. “And you might want to do this discreetly. Even if your wife is cremated, your neighbors might not like the idea of her ashes being buried in their neighborhood.”

“Well, I don’t like the idea of being taxed to death either,” my father says, and takes the pamphlet from him.

“Sorry for your loss,” the man says, and shakes our hands before retreating behind the Venetian wooden doors.

“I always knew that tea caddy would come in useful one day,” my father says, slapping the pamphlet across the palm of his left hand.

 

Add an Egg

Add and Egg

Add an Egg (Picture source: A Taste of Southern)

He simply would not take no for an answer. I felt guilt; at least I think it was guilt. A gnawing sense of remorse ate at my stomach, was that guilt? Maybe. But I’d been trying this new diet too, and that could have been it. My stomach growled.

“It’s over, honey, listen to me. It is over.”

I hung up the phone and clung to the wall, my fingers played with the coiled line. Joe would be home soon, and I’d promised to bake a coconut-layered cake for June’s dinner party tonight. I smoothed down my apron, and emptied the Betty Crocker White Cake mix into a bowl and got started.

The kitchen was clean again when Joe’s keys jingled in the lock. I untied my apron, folded it neatly into the drawer, “Kiss the Cook” face-up. I touched my hair back into shape, and slicked on my red-rose lipstick, checking in my pocket-book mirror to see that it was even. Joe twirled his hat deftly onto the coat rack hook and left his briefcase on the floor. Struggling to remove his raincoat, he huffed and puffed, “I’m home!” Shaking all thoughts of the telephone conversation out of my head, I met him in the hallway.

“Hi honey, how was your day?”

“New dress?” he asked, flattening his hair back over the bald spot. He began to lose his hair two years ago. I didn’t like how it made him look—old.

“You like it?” I twirled twice before him, the skirt blossoming into a bell-shape and then I stopped and kissed him on the cheek.

“Sweetheart, you look beautiful.”

“We’re going to June and David’s for dinner tonight, remember?” I said, as I walked back into the kitchen to show off my coconut-layered cake. I held it beneath his nose, and waited for him to sniff and give praise.

“I just want to stay in Christine; I mean I was on the road last weekend, and again next weekend! I’m tired baby cakes!”

“I know honey, I know.”

“Tonight’s a couch night for me.”

“We’ve got to go,” I said. “June’s expecting me to bring this for desert.” I pouted, and clasped my hands in front of my waist, making sure my forearms squashed my breasts together, increasing my cleavage. Behind his horn-rimmed frames, his bluish eyes moved down and up to my face again.

“You win,” he said, and cupped my left breast into the palm of his hand. “Right here, right now,” and before I could protest he was done and the phone was ringing off the wall.

“Hello,” I said, pinning my pantyhose back to the garter.

“I can’t,” he said, “I can’t just sit there and watch you from across the table and pretend we had…nothing together. That’s what you’re asking me to do, and I can’t do it.”

“Oh hi June! Yes, the coconut-layered cake is all set and ready to go.”

I found balance by focusing on the flowered wallpaper and twirling the harvest gold coiled cord of the phone between my fingers. I noticed that I’d chipped my nail polish, Gardenia. I love that color—so summery.

“You are not listening to me!” he yelled from the other end of the phone.

“Yes, sweetie, I am.”

“I need you! I want you!”

I nodded at Joe, zipping up his fly and buttoning his trousers by the kitchen table, flattening the few sparse hairs back over his bald spot, and mouthed: “It’s June.” He nodded back, looking a tad pitiful. He’d traded sex in the kitchen to go to June and David’s instead of watching Johnny Carson sitting on the couch.

“Ok June, we’ll see you at six thirty,” I said into the receiver.

I turned my back, cupped my hand over the mouthpiece and whispered, “Ok, ok. Just take it easy. We’ll talk later.” Then finished with a cheery, “Bye, bye June!”

June answered the door looking dowdy. She never put any effort into how she looked. The grey was showing in her hair, like Joe she was aging prematurely. God-awful what these worker bees let happen!

“Oh, this looks delicious!” June said, eyeing my spectacular cake and then leading me into the kitchen.

The Högers, Wrights, Hawls, and Dirritos were already relaxing with their highballs and Shirley Temples. After introductions, the women, still wearing their work clothes, remained in the kitchen, and the men retired to the den with cigars and cigarettes ready for lighting.

“David isn’t home yet?” I asked, and June shrugged her shoulders.

“He called and said he’d be thirty minutes late. The train in Grand Central got delayed for some reason.”

“The 4:58 left right on time,” Darla Wright said. “Pity he didn’t make that one.”

“Do you work in the city Darla?” Polly Hawls inquired, and then sipped her Shirley Temple.

“I do,” Darla replied, smiling.

“Oh,” Sally Höger piped up. ”How very brave of you.”

”June and I take the same train in with our husbands, and then meet up on the train coming out,” Darla said, like it was no big deal.

”What do you do?” Polly asked.

”I am a psychologist,” Darla said. ”I work for Betty Crocker in the advertising department.”

”Really?” Polly said, and her eyebrows, in bad need of a good tweezing, knitted closer together. ”Why on earth would they need a psychologist.”

”Oh, for surveys about how to market products more effectively, focus groups, you know, things like that.”

”They’ve been doing it since the 50’s,” Andrea Dirrito chimed in.

”Andrea was one of the women surveyed for the 50’s boxed cakes advertising study,” June said, and clinked her highball glass with Andrea. ”Weren’t you?”

”The University was closed for break, so I thought, why not? Might learn something new!” Andrea shrugged her shoulders, and drank her vodka. Her finger nails were un-manicured, cut to the nub, bitten as well.

”What do you do Andrea,” I asked, and wondered why she was wearing a suit from the Spring of 1953. Seriously, this is the 60’s, Jackie Onassis has set the bar for us!

”I am an English literature professor at Columbia.” That explains the  nubby nails, I thought, and the threadbare old suit.

”That’s nice!” I said. ”Good for you,” and I lifted my glass in a toast to her.

”Polly is taking classes there this summer to get her masters in Administration,” Andrea said.

”I’ll be nervous taking the train in.” Polly, peering over the rim of her tortoise shell frames, looked pathetically at Andrea.

”No you won’t! You’ll be fine!” Andrea assured her.

I wasn’t so sure she would be fine, this child-woman. How could high-school students even take her seriously. I mean! That hair, those glasses. Pre-pubescant.

”Maybe I’ll have you as one of my professors,” Polly replied.

”Wouldn’t that be nice?” I said, desperately wanting to pop the blackhead on Polly’s pimply, scarred face. Some women just don’t look in the mirror, and if I looked like Polly, I would avoid mirrors too, I suppose.

”You’ll do well with a masters in Administration,” June said. ”Sally you’d do well as a Math teacher to do the same when you get the opportunity.”

I watched her as she doled out the over cooked carrots, peas, mashed potatoes, gravy and chicken, making the food look as nice as possible in ornate bowls and platters. Probably wedding gifts, from someone with real taste, because God knows June has none. Making June’s food look desireable was a difficult task, even on Lennox’s Portmerrion patterned china.

”You’ll get promoted faster, Sally and Polly, keep that in mind,” she added, ”Especially with credentials from Columbia! Christine, by the way, this cake looks delicious,” she said, twirling the coconut-layered cake to see it from all angles. ”It looks like snow. Doesn’t it, ladies?”

”Is this your line of business?” Darla asked.

”Oh, wow! Are you a confectioner? Do you bake wedding cakes too?” Polly squealed.

”No,” June said. ”Christine doesn’t work.”

Ten seconds of silence followed, interrupted only by Darla’s uncomfortable coughing and clearing of her throat. Then Darla polity inquired as to how I made the exquisite coconut-layered cake.

At last—my area of expertise. Cooking, looking nice for men, staying in-style, in-season. Being feminie in a world that forced women to lose their feminity in order to become career women. God-awful what they have to do, these worker bees. Just God-awful.

”Well,” I began, and fanned my hand towards the cake, sitting atop the footed cake plate. ”I like to use the Betty Crocker white cake mix.”

I smiled at Darla, in thanks for asking the question, bringing the conversation around to me, and my talents. I knew she would appreciate the fact that I used her company’s product.

”Oh God, tell her, Dee,” June clapped her hands, and laughed. ”Tell Christine about the results of the focus group study that Andrea took part in.”

Darla smiled and nodded. ”That was funny, June. But it did work though,” Darla said.

”The sales were flat, even going down I believe until that study, so I was told,” Andrea said.

”What study?” I asked, trying hard to hide the mounting bitterness that the conversation was once again all about them. My lips tightening into a small pursed ”O” were forced back into a cute up-turned pout with great effort.

”Well, the study in the 1950’s revealed that women felt guilty about just adding water to the Betty Crocker cake mixes,” she said, and then shook her head in disbelief. ”Something about feeling guilty, and needing to feel like they did something for their hard-working husbands.”

”Sales were pretty bad,” June said, and Darla nodded.

”So what did they do to fix it?” Polly asked.

”They redid the ingredients and directions on the box, and it worked,” Darla said.

”What worked?” I asked.

”The psychologist doing the survey said that women would feel less guilty if they added an egg to the mix.”

”NO WAY!” Polly laughed, bent over at the waist, holding tight to her Shirley Temple.

Andrea nodded. ”I was there, that was the consensus among the housewives back then! No guilt required, if you add an egg.” She nodded emphatically.

”Christine, do you feel less guilty because you added an egg?” June asked, lifting up my coconut-layered cake and displaying it for all to see. The women laughed, then turned to see a man standing, listening to our conversation.

”David! You made it!” June said, and left the cake back down quickly. He raked his fingers through his straight blonde hair as June helped him off with his coat, and he scratched at the scar above his lip.

*********

Joe was on the road again, and I decided that it was my diet that caused the stomach pain a week ago. I looked good though, lost some weight. I stuck to my diet, went to my aerobics classes, got my hair and nails done. I bought sexy-silk underwear. The hotel room in New York city was ornate.

”Christine,” he said, running his long fingers through his blonde hair, and tapping the bed for me to come and sit beside him. He handed me a small blue Tiffany box, wrapped with white ribbon. Inside were diamond earrings. I put them on, and  kissed him passionately until we drew away for a breath.

”What made you change your mind,” he asked, as I unbuttoned his shirt and watched my long red finger nails disappear into his chest hair. He liked that. Cosmo says that most men do. I traced my finger along that sexy scar above his lips.

”What changed my mind?” I repeated. ”Well, David darling, I decided to add an egg.”

© Loretto Horrigan Leary

© Loretto Horrigan Leary

A Distant Dwelling

(Image source: Homesweethomecareinc.com)

(Image source: Homesweethomecareinc.com)

At the start, from time to time, there were instances when I would forget that mother was dead, father was dead, or Harold was dead, or that I was an old and sick woman. For the longest time, when being corrected, I believed others were spiteful, trying to prove me wrong constantly.

The view from my window is of a steel grey skyline pulling the azure sky down. An airplane deposits a vapor trail of white across the blueness. Should the view be familiar to me? Should I know it? Like my table lamp, framed photographs, and bed linens, there are days when the view from my window and the things inside my room upset me, because I remember that I am not at home. My home, filled with my toys, my clothes, my piano, my schoolbooks, my lace curtains billowing into the bedroom that I shared with my sister, Marguerite.

“Marguerite?” I call to her. “Why hasn’t she come to visit me here?”

“She’s been dead for the last ten years,” the woman tells me. “Don’t you even know who I am, Mom?” she asks, and that makes me mad.

“Marguerite is dead?” Then I remember, briefly, that she is. I remember that my days, nights, and the seconds that fill them lack the prospect of good things to come. The definition of a youthful outlook, hope, deserts me. My future is now in my past. The tears come, involuntarily. I must remind myself to take a deep breath between sobs. The stranger reaches her arm around my shoulder, and I realize that I am wearing a nightgown. It has tiny blue flowers on it. My mother’s china, tiny blue flowers, with little green leaves. My mother’s china, stacked in our hutch in our dining room, dinner plates standing upright, cups and saucers stacked in between. On display, in our hutch, in our dining room, with the flowered wallpaper, and the white wainscot.

“Let’s get you back to bed,” she says. I am no longer in the dining room. I am in a room with a stranger, and a bed, a bedside locker, a lamp.

Forgetfulness brings happiness until strangers tell me they are my daughters, sons or friends from long ago. Because of this, my story, begins where I remember the beginning, though, in truth, it could be the middle or end, and I can’t be sure if it is.

The past to me is a distant dwelling, filled with things I might have done, people I might have known, places I might have been. My past could be the past of someone who shared it with me in conversation. I think I can play the piano, I think I can play it proficiently, but there is no piano here. Nothing makes sense today; it is unsettling to live in ambivalence.

“Harold, my husband. Where is he? Do you know him?”

“Harold was your son,” the woman says, leading me from the window to the bed. She looks familiar, but I can’t place her. Her eyes stare into mine; there is a searching in the green of her iris; a wanting to connect with me, a longing that scares me and makes me look away. Disturbing me, that’s what she’s doing.

“God dammit! Take your hands off me!”

“You’ll only agitate her if you keep correcting her,” a young man standing at the end of the bed says. It’s John, my grandson. If I remember one thing, if I remember just one thing it is that I love my grandson John. And John is here.

“John! Come give me a hug!”

“Nana!” He hugs me, and then props the pillow behind my head. “There,” he says. “Comfy?”

“She remembers who you are,” the woman says, and sits beside me on the bed. Should I know her too?

Maybe she is from my childhood, and we are both so greatly altered with age we remain unrecognizable to each other. However, that can’t be the case. I am home, with my parents, in our house. No, that can’t be either. John is…, John is my grandson.

The past remains muddled and murky; a thick soupy vision with fleeting images that I know must be part of my memories, a collection of moving photographs of faces that I stare into, and fight to recall who is who. Most days I wish I were home again. But then, I am. I am home. In the back country of White Plains, with trees in full plumage and our new shiny red Delahaye 135 convertible with the tan roof up, sitting regally in our driveway.

A bird lands on the windowsill, and shivers. It is a bitter cold morning in October. The frost arranges white lustrous triangles into the window crooks, and for once the city beyond looks crisp and clean. Wouldn’t it be lovely if it stayed like this, unruffled, composed, and still? It is a beautiful scene to consider.

“Sarah, darling, my shoulders are cold. Will you please give me that shawl over there?”

She places the shawl around my shoulders and I hear her crying. She hugs me close as she bundles me into the warmth of the wool and whispers I love you. Sometimes strangers can be very kind.

 

Distracted

Image source: Technapex.com

Image source: Technapex.com

His head popped up from the cradle of his right hand, and the desk scratched the linoleum beneath. Scraaaape! He nodded off, for how long he wasn’t sure, but his quick nap went unnoticed by the teacher, a substitute busy reading her lesson plan. He rifled through the pages of his English lit book and eyed the girl next to him.

“Psst. What page?” he asked the cute brunette beside him.

“124,” she whispered back, and refused to look at him, or stop blowing bubbles with her gum.

He felt good being back in class. High school, the last year, and already he’d missed four months of it. Stamina, that’s what he needed, enough stamina to get through his first day back.

His leg ached. Them he remembered, this was a symptom, a side effect. He’d have to endure it for a while until reality set in. Acceptance. The pain, gnawing at him from the site of the invisible wound, was a specter emanating from a non-existent place; amputated, removed, severed, and separated from him now. From a place that used to be. He’d forgotten that the place where the pain throbbed was no longer there.

“The boy with the yellow t-shirt, back there, yes you. Start reading please.”

He began reading aloud.

“The buzz saw snarled and rattled in the yard…”

His voice, at poem’s start, was loud and strong, but when it reached the part, “Don’t let him cut my hand off–The doctor, when he comes. Don’t let him, sister!” the voice, once loud and strong, now timid, drifted along with each word, each sentence, falling into oblivion, like he did that day, stopping only when it all ended.

‘Was this on purpose? Deliberate?’ he wondered. ‘The choice of poem, the meaning of it, the relevancy? Was this her way of making him feel assimilated after an absence of fifteen weeks?’

“Speak up!” the teacher called from the front of the room.

“And they, since they were not the ones dead, turned to their affairs.” But he was not dead. He read the line, and looked up. ‘Had no one noticed life imitating art here?’

“Any comments?” the substitute teacher asked, looking from one blank face to another, allotting them the required number of seconds to process the question and formulate their answers. The faces remained blank, zombie-like, save for the occasional blink. Phones sent texts from beneath desks; comic books remained hidden in the literature books, doodlers, day dreamers, distracted by anything that seemed better than the poem they had just heard.

One hand, near the back row, reached into the air. The boy in the yellow t-shirt.

“Yes?” she said, standing up and walking back to his desk.

“It was really good.”

“What did you like about it?” she said.

“Well, it’s about how a small distraction can cause a big problem.” He reached to scratch the itch below the left knee and remembered it was just a phantom, itching would do no good.

“Okay,” she said, and arrived in front of him. “Can you elaborate on that?”

“Well, mam” he said, “I fell into a silo four months ago, and because of a blood clot in my left leg, I had to have it amputated from the knee down.”

Her face lost all color, except white, momentarily, and then her hands hid the flushing red, hot cheeks, growing redder with embarrassment.

“How insensitive of me!” she said, and shook her head, wishing she had chosen to read anything but Robert Frost’s Out, Out for her one and only day of substitute teaching.

“I am so sorry, I didn’t know,” she said, and the students, for the first time in a long time, gave the teacher their full attention.

“No, it is fine,” he said, and felt the others stare at his prosthetic limb. “This poem meant something to me. I thought you chose it deliberately, because this is my first day back.”

“I didn’t even know about your accident,” the teacher said, “I chose this poem because it is one of my favorites, that’s all. Tell me why you felt a connection with it.”

“This poem is about distraction. That is what it means to me, anyway,” he said. “I was distracted by my cell phone ringing, and I fell into the silo, a drop of, maybe sixty feet, or more. At least I lived to tell the tale,” he said. “And if you haven’t experienced something like that, then you’re dead to the emotion associated with it.”

“You’re lucky to be alive,” the teacher said, and watched him hike up his left pant leg to show her his new leg.

“I am thankful to be alive, in more ways than one,” he said, observing the pinched faces of disgust on the other students around him, eyes staring but not staring.

He rolled his pant leg down, covering up the shiny pink hairless limb.

“Life goes on,” he said. “It’s like it never really happened, to anyone, except me.”

The girl beside him texted furiously beneath her desk. “Jerk next to me just showed the class his fake leg. GAG!”

 

 

The Devil Drinks Diet Soda

Devil“Look hard,” she said, leaning across the table in the older woman’s direction. “I’m not the anti-Christ. I didn’t suddenly grow horns, or a forked tail for that matter.”

“I never said you were.” The lips moved but the eyes searched the room, the table, and the ceiling tiles, for a focal point that wasn’t anywhere near the younger woman’s face. She laid the napkin, crisp and white, across her lap and smoothed it down, just so, spending more time than was necessary to achieve the exact flatness and evenness required.

“I just believe that attending mass is vital in the development of a decent human being’s moral character,” the older woman said. She looked up and now stared the younger woman in the face. “My granddaughter is a Catholic, even if you claim that you are not. God see’s her as an innocent soul.”

“Don’t worry Mom.” The young man to her right patted her hand and glanced at his wife across the table. A sly wink shared seemed to diffuse the ticking time bomb, momentarily.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “She’ll make her First Communion just like all the other kids.”

“Well, not if her mother has a say in it!” The older woman snapped.

“I think my daughter should do whatever she wants. If she wants to be a Catholic, fair enough. She can be a Catholic. Or a Hindu, or a Muslim, or even Episcopal for that matter. It just needs to be a thoughtful choice, not a mindless act.”

“Thank goodness we are in a restaurant,” the older woman hissed, “because you’d hear a lot more from me, you soulless cow, if we were not in public. Episcopal! Over my dead body!”

She  pulled at the waiter’s beige jacket as he passed.

“Another double brandy! Please.”

“OK. Over your dead body. Whatever it takes, Barbara. Whatever it takes,” the young woman responded, and shook her head as she watched the ice cubes in her diet Sprite quiver in the fizzy bubbles.

“Don’t you dare shake your head at me. Don’t you dismiss me!” The voice, tinged with shards of glass, shrilled across the table.

“Lorna! I said don’t you dare dismiss me! Tom, tell her to be sensible!”

“Mom, if I could control what Lorna, or anyone else for that matter, says, does or thinks, I’d rule the world,” he chuckled, and smiled broadly at his six year old daughter who was buried deep into her iPad game.

pig“Shooo piggy,” the little girl said, “Shoooooo.” She tapped the screen and the light flickered below her face. “I said shooo piggy!”

“Let’s get this straight here, Tom. I’m not your ‘Mom.’ To you I am Barbara. Don’t call me mom again.”

“Isn’t she just charming?” Lorna said, and lifted her glass as the double brandy arrived at the table. “Cheers, Mom!”

“Your father is rolling in his grave!” Barbara gulped half of her brandy. “We didn’t raise you this way! What happened to you?”

“Nothing,” Lorna said, shrugging her shoulders. “I just believe that organized religion is a farce. It’s just a fairy tale story, to instill fear, and sell salvation to sheep!”

Barbara threw her hands in the air.

“I give up! What are you saying?” She turned to face her son-in-law, “What on earth is she saying Tom?”

Tom waved his white napkin in the air. “I surrender,” he quipped. “I give up. Does anyone else hear a ticking noise?” He looked directly at Barbara and savored every word that came from his lips.

“She’s an atheist,” he said, and waited for the bomb to explode.

Barbara’s hand patted her heart fervently. Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap.

“Oh my God! Oh dear God, help me.” She finished her brandy and blessed herself swiftly.  “In the name of the father,” on the forehead, “and of the son,” on the breast, “and of the holy,” on the right shoulder, “spirit,” on the left shoulder, “Amen,” hands together, eyes closed, and head bowed reverently.

“You did it wrong,” Lorna said.

“What?”

“I said the devout Catholic blessed herself the wrong way.”

“No I did not!”

The iPad required plates to be moved, noise to be made. The clinking of china and cutlery drew their attention to Maddie.

“Yes you did Grandma!” she said. “It’s supposed to be like this. In the name of the father, to the forehead, and the son, to your chest, and the holy, to the left shoulder, spirit, to your right shoulder, Amen.” Her hands joined neatly and piously, fingers pointing to her chin.

“I think the Protestants bless themselves like you just did. Momma, is Grandma a Protestant?”

“Close your mouth mother. Your denture glue might give way, and think how embarrassed you’ll be then!” Lorna said, and stroked her little geniuses’ blonde curls. “No honey, Grandma is a devout Catholic,” she answered.

“Maddie,” Barbara eyed her granddaughter lovingly. “Honey, I need your attention for a couple of seconds. Look at me.”

“Hang on Grandma,” Maddie said, touching the screen with lighting strike impulses. Her finger tips danced. “Just need to round these pigs up and torture them in the pig pen.”

“What on earth are you playing?” Barbara asked.

Child's eyes“Mine craft,” the child said, eyeballs wide, and eerily illuminated  by the screen’s ethereal light.

“Honey,” Barbara began, “Do you want to make your First Holy Communion?”

“Oh yeah, yeah,” Maddie said, looking up momentarily, her eyes bloodshot and glowing yellow, lit from below, as pigs wandered mindlessly into the pit she’d constructed from bare bricks.

“Why honey? Tell me why,” Barbara pressed on.

The waiter passed dangerously close for another jacket tug.

“Another double brandy,” Barbara said. “Now Maddie, tell me why?”

“Why?” Maddie repeated, and motioned for the waiter to just hold on a second. “Because of the cash, Grandma!” She looked up at the waiter, chin, cheekbones and eyes lit from below, still yellow. “A diet soda please, I’ve got a white dress I need to squeeze into.”

 

The Isolationist

Isolationist WW2 Cartoon (image source: Reason.com)

Isolationist WW2 Cartoon (image source: Reason.com)

He adjusted his collar, and pulled the triangular white handkerchief in his breast pocket to a sharper point. His hands moved methodically to his hair, slick with Brylcreem, smoothing it back from his forehead and temples. During his speeches, his head, animated and impassioned, would dishevel the hair, giving him the appearance of a mad man, as it waved, puppet-like, from side to side, and front to back. The clenching of his fist, gesturing of the hand over the crowd, and the fervent call for social justice added to his impassioned image.

He settled his wire frame glasses higher on the bridge of his nose, and wished he was a slimmer man. The face rounded and full, exuded a life of excesses. Too much good food and wine showed in his rotund visage. In a time of recession and impending war, this was not the image he wanted his followers to see. He would have to cut back. These were his people after all; good Christians, who wanted what he wanted: To stop the bankers and Jewish-Communists from infiltrating American commerce. ‘They’re not even real Americans, these Jews and bankers. Real Americans don’t want another war.’ He liked that. He repeated it aloud for his secretary and requested her to make a note of it in today’s speech. He’d tell his followers that today, on the radio broadcast.

“Real American’s need to fight against the heinous rottenness of modern capitalism, because it robs the laborer of this world’s goods,” he said aloud, “Write that down too,” he told the secretary.

“To hell with Roosevelt,” he said with gusto. “My opinion matters, and by God’s good grace, and the support of Bishop Gallaher, I will continue to be heard!”

Standing back from the full length mirror, he took in his reflection from head to toe. Impeccable black suit, black shirt and white collar, this was the image he wanted people to see. Not what the others were purporting him to be. This man smiling back at him from the mirror was an intellectual, a thinker, a man who wanted national prosperity. The left side of his mouth pulled upwards into a smug smile.

“Benedic mihipater, ad meseparandi insularum,” he said, and nodded approvingly at the man in the mirror. Latin always sounded educated and intellectual.

“What does that mean, Father?”

“It means bless me Father, for I am the isolationist,” he said, turning towards his secretary, a young woman from his province in Canada, Bytown as his father used to call Ottawa. Her grandparents were Irish immigrants, just like his parents.

“Isolationist?” she repeated. “Why is that?”

“They say I am anti-Semitic, a Jew-hater. That I want to isolate America from foreign causes.” He stepped closer to her and motioned for her to hand him today’s speech.

She tapped the pages twice on the desk, and handed the neat pile to him. “Are you?”

Lost in reading his own words, now typed neatly onto crisp white pages, he gave her no answer. She waited a few seconds in silence. He admired the eloquence of his words on paper.

“You’re not though. Are you?” she asked again.

“Nativist, Isolationist, yes, definitely. But not a Nazi, Fascist, Communist, or anti-Semitic. I want what is right and just for real Americans. ”

A thought hit her as she gathered her belongings from his desk; neither of them were born here. Yet, here was this priest telling Americans that the bankers and Jews were not real Americans.

“Did you know that my grandparents settled in Ottawa in 1845?” she asked.

“And what matter of it?” he said.

“Well, don’t you think that the current situation in Germany with the Nazi’s and Jews is similar to what my Grandparents were escaping from in Ireland in 1845?”

“In what way is it similar?”

“The Irish were driven out due to hunger imposed on them by the English.”

“And?” he said, waiting for her to connect the dots.

“Both groups were driven out of their homeland by force.”

“Ah yes,” he said, giving a few nods and massaging his chin with his right hand. “Indeed, indeed. There are similarities, as you say, but not quite in the way that you see it.” What would the lower class Corktown, Irish settlers know about political thought, or the finer nuances of intellectual processes of political leaders?

“I am not quite sure what you mean, Father. I mean being forced out of your homeland is being forced out of your homeland.”

“Take a seat,” he said, and pulled the chair back and waited for her full attention. He sat on the edge of his ornate mahogany desk, and leaned over her.

“Margaret, isn’t it?” he asked.

“Yes, Father.”

“And you are here, how long now?”

“Two weeks this past Sunday.”

“Good, good. And you like it here, Margaret?” he asked.

“It is very nice Father. I like Chicago a lot.” She nodded, and sensed that her secretarial position with him was no longer secure. There were no relatives here. She earned just enough to pay her rent for the one room apartment eight blocks away. There was a bit left over to pay for food, and send a few American dollars back to the family in Ottawa.

“Now tell me, Margaret, tell me again who was responsible for your Grandparents being forced out of Ireland?” He paused here, and added, “Who is responsible for the famine, the hunger, the starvation, the coffin ships, all of it? Tell me who is responsible for all of that.”

“The English government of that time,” she said.

“Of that time,” he repeated her words exactly. She shook her head, waiting for him to explain why she was wrong in comparing the treatment of Jews by the Nazis to the treatment of the Irish by the English in 1845.

“You’re on the right track,” he said, “but it’s the wrong side of the tracks, Margaret.” He looked at his watch, he still had time to sway her opinion.

“You see Margaret, you shouldn’t support the Jews in this case. This isn’t about being immigrants, or being forced out of your homeland. You shouldn’t side with the Jews at all on this one. They did, after all is said and done, kill our Lord and Savior. So don’t side with the Jews, don’t do it. And definitely do not side with the Brits.”

“Why not, Father?” she asked.

“Because when you side with the British, you are siding with the enemy.”

She sat, in silence, staring at him. “The enemy?”

“The enemy,” he said, and nodded emphatically. “Let me clear all this up for you. The Germans hate the English, that’s why they are bombing them. And good on them for taking care of business. If you are Irish, then you’ll hate the English and side with the Germans. Because they are doing what the Irish couldn’t. They are persecuting the Brits. Most of the English are Protestants anyway, breakaways from the one true faith, Catholicism, your own faith. Right?” He leaned forward and propped his hands on his knees, “Breakaways and Christ killers. That’s who the Germans are getting rid of. Mark my words now, Margaret, if the German’s hate the English and the Jews, you should too. The Germans are after all, Ireland’s ally, you know. Let them take care of the English and the Jews. At the end of the day, it is none of our business, really.”

She sat, staring at the eyes behind the steel rimmed glasses. He never blinked; the blue eyes glowered down into her face. He waited for her to agree.

“But, it is genocide,” she said, “Isn’t it murder, that’s what it is. And that’s a sin.”

“Do you like working here?” he said, standing up and looking at his watch.

“Yes,” she said in a small voice.

“Good, good. Well, be sure you tune into my radio broadcast at one. Don’t worry your pretty little head about these things, Margaret. Leave the political thinking to political thinkers and intellectuals. Off with you now, and I’ll see you later on at mass.”

He looked for her face in the crowd as he gave his sermon from the altar. The more he scrutinized the crowd the angrier his voice became, his gestures flamboyant, the tightly clenched fist pounding the pulpit echoed throughout the church.

“These stupid women,” he said to the altar boys disrobing in the vestibule. He tore off his cassock and threw it on the floor. It was retrieved immediately and hung neatly by the oldest altar boy. He turned to face them, and wagged a finger of warning in their direction. “Remember boys,” he said, “Women are too fragile in the mind to comprehend the complexities of important decisions. That’s a man’s job. It is best that women be told what to do.”

He looked at the stained glass Christ on the window before him, exposing his sacred heart for all to see and pity. “I hope she enjoys her impoverished life back in Ottawa,” he said, and muttered behind clenched teeth, “The ungrateful little bitch.”

Grave Matters

This story takes place on October 22, today is October 22nd…..so REBLOG!

© Loretto Horrigan Leary 2010

© Loretto Horrigan Leary

Breise! Breise! Extra! Extra!

It was just as the ad in The New York Times had described; “Charming detached cottage-style house, fully restored and extended, combines the traditional design of the Irish cottage with the space and facilities of a modern home. Idyllic location in a rural setting, where the new owner can enjoy the peace and tranquility of the surrounding Irish countryside.”

Before the ad went to print, she called and made a bid. A fresh start in the homeland of her ancestors, just what she needed. Single, again, and now independently rich, thanks to a good divorce lawyer, Erin Flynn gave The New York Times two weeks’ notice and started packing.  This was her chance to write her bestseller in the land of the great writers, Beckett, Yeats, Wilde, and Shaw. They would be her muses as she sat in her new home, a cottage by the Atlantic, far from Manhattan…

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Grave Matters

DSC_1761

Graveyard in Terryglass, County Tipperary
This story, Grave Matters, may not be reproduced in any form.
© 2013 Loretto Leary

It was just as the ad in The New York Times had described; “Charming detached cottage-style house, fully restored and extended, combines the traditional design of the Irish cottage with the space and facilities of a modern home. Idyllic location in a rural setting, where the new owner can enjoy the peace and tranquility of the surrounding Irish countryside.”

Before the ad went to print, she called and made a bid. A fresh start in the homeland of her ancestors, just what she needed. Single, again, and now independently rich, thanks to a good divorce lawyer, Erin Flynn gave The New York Times two weeks’ notice and started packing.  This was her chance to write her bestseller in the land of the great writers, Beckett, Yeats, Wilde, and Shaw. They would be her muses as she sat in her new home, a cottage by the Atlantic, far from Manhattan and far from her ex-husband and his girlfriend.

 The taxi stopped at the wrought iron gate. Erin emerged from the back seat, eyes wide; absorbing the sight: a white washed cottage, with red door and window frames, behind it the extension.

The original cottage was the main building; it dated back two hundred years. Property developers modernized the small house and extended onto it in 2006, completely refurbishing it with top quality fittings and finishes. The cozy sitting room with multicolored cut granite fireplace and stove inset, handcrafted fitted kitchen with the same granite as counter-tops. One-of-a-kind details; mahogany kitchen cabinets with brass studs, the door handles—fleur- de- lis designs, a bench beneath the bowed window in the living room, all dark oak with ornate handles made of purple velvet. The marble pillars either side of the arched entrance from the kitchen to the living room added opulence to this small cozy home. The taxi driver pulled away as Erin swung her arms wide and twirled in her new kitchen.

 “Home, at last!”

Her belongings now stowed away in their new homes and resting places, Erin sat and stretched her full length on the couch. It was getting dark outside already, though it was only six o’clock in the evening.

“The days get short faster in Ireland,” she thought. “It’s only October twenty second.” The fireplace looked empty and cold. “I’ll light it in a minute,” she said aloud, and lay deeper into the cushions behind her head, every muscle in her body relaxed and light. Jet lag was hitting her hard. She felt as if her body was hovering, extreme tiredness, and seventeen hours on the move. She sniffed, and ran an index finger beneath her nose. She did it again, realizing her nose was not itchy, but a foreign, yet strangely familiar smell was irritating it. Slumber could not be fought away.

The room was pitch black when she emerged from semi-comatose sleep. Disoriented at first, Erin then remembered where she was. She fumbled with the lamp on the table to her right.  The hairs on the back of her neck stood erect as a breath of cold air wafted across her outstretched arm. The fumbling fingers found the switch, and a soft light illuminated the room. She swung her legs from the couch and landed her feet directly in front of her. Leaning over her knees, her hands kneaded the sleep from her eyes. The strangely familiar smell hit her once more.

“Is it the chimney,” she said, and walked over to it. Her left hand resting on the mantel, she sniffed at the open fireplace. “No. This isn’t it.”

 The hand caressed the smooth granite tiles down the front of the fireplace. Grey, black, white, pearly pinks, blues, green, and speckled brown squares, all evenly cut and placed. She loved how the property developer had described the colors in his sexy Dublin accent.

“India mahogany, blue pearl, tropical green, and aurora granite tiles.”

The names reminded her of something, but she couldn’t remember what; a common occurrence since she took a job as an ad setter. Whenever she tried to remember where she saw something before, the answer was always an ad in The New York Times.

The smoky smell grew stronger. Erin checked her watch, it was ten after twelve.

 “It’s after midnight?” she stood, looking around. “What is that smell?” She frowned, hands on her hips, surveying her surroundings, trying to recall what the odor was.

“Cigarette smoke? No. What was it?”

An image of her grandfather flashed before her. Tweed cap askew, wrinkled face laughing, and a pipe clenched between his teeth.

“A pipe?”

Inhaling solid and deep, she drew in the slightly sweet and potent aroma of Peterson’s Irish Oak pipe tobacco, her grandfather’s brand. She remembered seeing the golden round tins, a picture of an old man wearing glasses to the left of the ornate, curling, yellow P, everywhere in his house.

“If those builders have been smoking in here I will kill them,” she said, and headed up to her bedroom. Still, in the darkness, the smell permeated the small house. Erin wrapped herself into the duvet and sighed. The smell developed into an unquestionable aroma of pipe smoke.

A voice from the corner of the bedroom whispered.

 “She isn’t afraid. Talk to her.”

She bolted upright and screamed. Her arm reached for the bedside lamp. Her knees involuntarily pulled up into her chest, her arms encircling her shins. She tried to scream. The vocal chords were frozen.

He stood in the corner of the room. Top hat, walking cane, and gloves, all held in his left hand, and the smoldering pipe in his right. His cravat neatly tucked into the light grey striped waistcoat, and the chain of his pocket watch dangling in an arc just below. Dapper.

“Now, look here my good woman! I know you are scared, but that simply cannot be helped at this point and juncture in time,” he said in his upper crust English accent. The hairs of his handle bar mustache wafted upward on the sides when he spoke. He nodded politely, put the pipe back to his lips, and shrugged his shoulders. “This is how it is.” His hands retreated to his trouser pockets, the elbows splayed wide as his head did a firm once off nod and his chin lifted, peacock-like, plumed and proud.

She fell back into a deep faint.

“Brilliant! Great job breaking the news to her gently,” the voice from the cupboard called.

“Leave it to the smartest man in the cemetery to do the stupidest thing,” a woman’s voice reverberated from the bedside locker.

The handle bar mustache took on a life of its own. It wafted furiously as he waved his hands at the empty room and the voices surrounding him.

“You lot never appreciated anything I did!” he huffed. “That’s it! I refuse to have anything more to do with this. You can all rot in…, rot in….” The mustache fell silent as he struggled to think of the places they all could rot in.

“Oh yes? Oh, do go on. Go on. Do tell! Where can we rot in?” a man’s voice called from downstairs.

“The kitchen cupboards?” requested the voice from the bedside locker. Laughter echoed throughout the cottage.

“No,” bellowed a boy’s voice from a place behind some heavy wood. “The bench beneath the window!” and the laughter came once more.

As dawn broke, a slit of grey light pierced her eyeballs. The lids, although still heavy with sleep, seemed to know that it was time to lift open and face the day. Blink after blink would not remove the grey shadowy form beside the bed.

“Now don’t go all crazy and start screaming like a mad woman,” the form said, in a woman’s soothing voice.

Erin pulled the white duvet above her head. “You’re not real!” She muffled from beneath the layers of feathery down. “Go away, you’re not real!”

The woman laughed. “Define real,” she said, and patted the lump huddled into a fetal position beneath the covers. “Good woman, now get dressed. We have something important that we need to talk to you about. We will wait for you in the kitchen.”

There were no footsteps, no boards creaking as the woman went down the stairs. She was gone, and the room was empty, except for Erin, shivering uncontrollably beneath the covers.

Ten minutes passed, then fifteen. Slowly she emerged from the white mountain of duvet, and peered around the room.

“This is called exhaustion. I’ve gone insane, finally. The stress has hit me.”

She pulled her flowery nightgown around her shoulders and dragged her arms through the sleeves, all the while tip toeing toward the top of the stairs. She stood; right ear cocked high, and listened. There was a murmur, more than a murmur, an audible mumble of people talking in low voices coming from the kitchen. One-step, and then another, brought her closer and the talk became louder.

“Let me do the talking,” a woman said.

“I beg your pardon but I am the most qualified to address the young woman about this grave matter,” the man with the handlebar mustache answered. He fluffed the sides of his whiskers up into fine points.

“You did a fine job of it last night,” a man said. Then another voice called “Hush.” Followed by the abrupt announcement, “She’s in the hallway.”

Erin pushed the kitchen door open, and the crowd bowed their heads in polite respect.  A woman dressed in an old-fashioned long dress with a bustle, her hair pinned up neatly in a bun, stepped forward and spoke.

“Now don’t be afraid. We are here in our earthly forms and mean ya no harm.”

A chair slid back from the table, all by itself.

“Show yourself when you move objects,” the woman said to the moving chair.

A mist manifested, swirled around the chair, and from the twirling haze came the form of a boy, about ten years old. He wore ragged coarse pants, a flouncy white cotton shirt and a woolen green waistcoat, his hair was long and unkempt.

“Sorry ‘mam. Didn’t mean to frighten you.”

Erin nodded, her bottom lip dangling and trembling. The boy motioned for her to come and sit as he took a step back. In slow motion, she felt for the chair blindly, her eyes refusing to leave the crowd of people standing around the kitchen.

“Who are you…people?”

“As I was saying last night…” A voice interrupted the clipped British accent.

“Yearra! Will ya shut yer gob, ya gobshite!” A heavily set, red-haired man called from the back door. “The reason she’s as white as a ….” He gulped, and then continued, “…a ghost, is because you frightened the life outta her last night, ya woeful ejit ya.”

“I said who are you people?” Erin’s hands gripped the side of the pine chair, the nails of her fingers digging into the wood, and her knuckles now white.

“Begorra that’s a New York accent, isn’t it?” the red-haired man said.

“Would someone please tell her why we are here?” said a woman wearing a flapper dress and neat little 1920’s hat on top of straight blonde-bobbed hair.

“Who got the vote?” the boy asked, looking at the faces in the crowd.

“They voted for me,” said a bearded man with piercing green eyes, and dressed in shabby clothes.

“Let everyone else whist now,” said the woman in the bustled dress. “Go ahead Seamus.”

Seamus stepped a little closer toward Erin, and she leaned back into her seat.

“I know this is, strange,” he said, “but here’s the reason why your new home is filled with two hundred years of ghosts. The property developer who renovated this cottage extended onto it by digging up our graveyard.”

“Wait a minute! No, no, no!” Erin stood abruptly, her palms facing the crowd gathered in a stop motion. “This is my home. I bought it, I paid for it.”

“That’s right ‘mam,” Seamus added, “But everything in this renovated cottage has been dug up from the graveyard that was originally on the hill behind the house.”

“What? I don’t understand what you mean?” Erin said, taking a step back when she remembered that Seamus was a ghost, handsome enough, but still a ghost.

Ireland August 2009 285“Take a look at your kitchen cupboards there,” Seamus said, pointing at the mahogany cabinets with the brass studs. “Do they remind you of anything?”

“Not really,” Erin shook her head. She thought about it more. “No, they don’t.”

“Well, take a closer look at these ornate door handles.” Seamus now was standing at a cabinet and stroking the fleur-de-lis design on the handles. “Does this remind you of anything?”

Erin shook her head again. Then, as if in flashback, the image of a coffin handle flickered across her mind. Her hand drew upward to her mouth, now a solid circle in a silent scream.

“A coffin handle? It’s a coffin handle!”

Image Source: e-catalog.rusbiz.com

Image Source: e-catalog.rusbiz.com

Seamus nodded. “The cabinets are all recycled mahogany coffins.”

The taste of vomit erupted into her throat. She swallowed, reluctantly.

“I need to sit down,” she said, and flopped down weightily into the chair, her shoulders hunched over her knees. The crowd moved closer. The woman in the flapper dress arrived before her, at face level, on a bended knee; her face, ethereal and elf-like, peering up into Erin’s eyes.

“We are not here to hurt you, or scare you. It’s nothing like that. But our resting places have been disturbed.” The crowed either nodded or murmured their agreement. Erin looked from face to face. Two hundred years of history displaced, now standing in her kitchen looking for her help. “Go on Seamus,” the elf-like flapper girl said.

“The granite on these surfaces here,” Seamus continued, “And the granite around your fireplace in there,” he pointed toward the sitting room, “All headstones cut and sized down, edges smoothed; our headstones. These pillars here were the entrance way to Lord Clanricarde’s mausoleum.”

The man with the mustache took off his hat and bowed extravagantly. “At your service, ‘mam.”

“Nothing was spared. The bench beneath the window was poor little Tadhg’s resting place. “Right Tadhg?”

Tadhg nodded. “I died of scarlet fever in 1837,” he said, and wiped the snot from his nose as he ran the forearm of his shirt across his pale face.

“I don’t understand what I can do about it though?” Erin said, looking at Tadhg, realizing that her fear was gone. She reached for the young boy’s hand but the fingers slipped through his form.

“Why would the property developer do such a thing?” she asked.

“That’s an easy question to answer,” said the woman with the bustle. “Money.”

“Greed,” said another ghost from the back of the crowd.

“Gluttony,” chimed a different voice from the middle of the throng.

“Insatiability for filthy lucre,” said Seamus. “I knew his grandfather, and he was just like him. Two peas in a pod, they were.”

“Old man O’Toole?” asked a man with a Victorian cape and monocle eye.

“That’s the lad. The grandson is ten times worse though, tight with money and mean as hell. He would have sold his grandmother, even if she was twenty years dead.”

“And he did,” said a voice from above the gathering.

The crowd looked up. An orb of light hovered and darted from one person to another a few inches above their heads.

“Good morrow to all ye tethered spirits! And who is this?” the orb asked, hovering before Erin’s face.

“Erin,” she gulped. “My name is Erin, and I bought all of this.”

“Good morrow Erin. My name is Charlotte O’Toole and I am an untethered spirit.”

“I don’t understand,” Erin responded. “I was just getting accustomed to these spirits here. Why are you a light and not a ghost like these ones?”

“My husband and I had Viking burials on the River Shannon, all on the hush-hush, mind you, in 1902. Cremated, you know. He was a huge Viking scholar. Weren’t you dear?”

“Indeed my love, indeed!” a man’s voice called from the distance. A second ball of light drifted out from the fireplace and across the sitting room.

“Hence we are untethered spirits,” the light said, and came to a hover beside his glowing wife.

“Ye are woeful looking egits though,” laughed Seamus, and the crowd of recognizable ghostly figures chuckled. “Cremation is cheaper than coffins I suppose,” he added, and the ghostly horde cackled uncontrollably.

“Tight arse,” an old man with a blackthorn shillelagh said when the crowd’s laughter filtered away.

“Laugh all you want,” the male orb said, as it flittered from face to face. “Fact is, I am untethered, whereas you lot are tied down.” The orb rested on the shoulder of the old man.

“’Tis true, ‘tis true, I suppose” the old man said, leaning heavily onto his shillelagh and nodding.

Erin shook her head and stood to face the crowd and the two airborne orbs.

“What can I do about this?” she asked. “I mean, honestly! What can I do about it?”

“Nothing much,” Seamus answered. “But we can’t leave. We can’t. You understand that now, don’t you?”

“Then we will have to set a few ground rules,” Erin said, and walked among the spirits, eyeing each face intently. The faces, solemn, followed her every move around the kitchen.

Grave Matters by Loretto Horrigan Leary

Grave Matters by Loretto Horrigan Leary

“I paid a lot of money to buy this place, live out my dream of writing a book!” she said, and ran her hands through her hair.

“Hey! She’s a writer!” Seamus called out. The crowd cheered as the whispers of “She writes!” and “She’s a writer!” swarmed around the room.

“Well!” he said, “That’s just, just great news. Great news altogether.”

“Why?” Erin asked.

“Because we have some stories to tell you,” he said.

“By God we do!” said the old man with the shillelagh.

“True stories,” the woman with the bustle piped in. “Tales that’ll make your toes curl,” chimed Tadhg.

Erin, walking through the crowd, eyed each face of each spirit closely. They smiled and nodded at her. She sensed Yeats, Wilde, Beckett, and Shaw disappear. In their place was two hundred years of untold stories.

“What was the name of the graveyard you were all buried in?” Erin asked.

“It had no name really,” Seamus replied. “We just called it An Reilig.”

“It is the Irish for graveyard,” little Tadhg announced.

“Stories from the Reilig,” Erin said, nodding and taking in the history surrounding her. “I like it.”

© 2013 LHL