Pete Donnegan looks better than he did when Conor took him to the hospital. They’ve parted his hair, and there’s a slick Brylcreemed finish to it that his father would never have troubled to achieve. Conor wants to straighten his collar again, but he can’t. They’re all looking at him. They want to close the coffin now. It’s time. But Conor can’t move yet; he’s still waiting.
The sudden weight of his brother Peter’s arm across his shoulders takes Conor back to his father’s apartment. That’s how he’d get his father to the bathroom, the old man’s arm pulled across his shoulders, his own arm around his waist, the way GIs carry injured buddies off the field in the movies. The old man had gotten so thin, but he was so heavy, as if the thing that holds a person up, the force that fights gravity were gone, his will gone.
“You mustn’t think bad of him, Conor,” Peter says. But Conor doesn’t think in those terms. He thinks of the feel of his father’s loose skin when he rubbed the washcloth up his arm, the way the flesh stretched and pulled, the deathly color, like a shadow over him, over both of them. He disliked shaving him, being so close: the gray whiskers, the cleft in his chin, the mole by his lip, his breath sour, mixed with his last cigarette. Conor can almost taste it still. And his eyes—absorbed in something, something inside of him that Conor couldn’t know. The old man looked out at him from there, but Conor didn’t feel seen.
Peter pounds Conor’s back like a comrade. “Come, Conor,” he says. He thinks Conor’s having a hard time with this, having to part from his father. But Conor could hardly wait for this to happen. This is the goal that got him through it: knowing that it would have to end, that the man couldn’t last. A month or two, Conor thought. What’s a month or two? The firm could spare him for that long. Things would get itchy if he stayed away much beyond that, when the quarter ended, but he’d hit the ground running when he got back. He had a right to family leave just like anybody else. So what if he didn’t have a family of his own anymore. That wasn’t his doing. Julie was the one who left, not him. After yet another final discussion, her line was drawn: Either they start a family or they start another life—separately.
Revolting as it was, staying with his father was as good as any distraction Conor could come up with. At least he’d get his father out of his system. It would be over with, out of his head for good. Moira and Bridget and Maggie wanted nothing to do with him. Liam, with the drinking, was having a hard enough time keeping his own family together. Peter felt bad for the old man, but he’d already done his part. Peter and his wife even nursed him while he recovered from the accident, when the truck hit him. But when Donnegan recovered, he was as nasty and drunk as he’d ever been. No one would have blamed Conor if he’d backed away. But he couldn’t get himself to do that.
Donnegan had an apartment on the Concourse, the rat hole of a place he found when Peter threw him out. Conor cleaned the place up the first couple of days, felt good about doing it. He had this right-thing-to-do attitude about the whole business at first. The man was a drunk, a drifter, a waste as a father, but Conor would be a good son.
And so he was, but now they want Conor to go outside with the others so they can close the lid. Don’t they know it’s ridiculous, he thinks, keeping him from this sight? There’s nothing about this man he hasn’t wiped or smelled or seen or lifted. Nothing. But they want him outside now, as if there could still be something private left. When Conor lifted the old man’s legs to wash him, he’d break wind. It was weeks before they could joke about it.
They direct Conor into the first car with Kate and Bridget. Maggie gets in, too. Moira wouldn’t come to the funeral. More cars follow, filled with cousins and nieces and nephews who don’t know much more about the man than his name. When his Uncle Tommy died, Conor was fourteen. Maggie was in high school. Donnegan and his brother Pearce staggered in from the funeral. They sang songs most of the night. It wasn’t a bad night, considering how drunk they were. Nothing smashed. Nobody bleeding. But Maggie wouldn’t serve them dinner, wouldn’t even stay in the same room. She’d made some kind of decision by then. He wasn’t in her life anymore, she told Conor. She’d carved him out.
Conor’s first few weeks with his father were the worst. He would lie there at night, wondering why he’d come, remembering the gym near his house, going there late for a swim. He called Julie a few times in the beginning. She was the only one who didn’t give him a hard time about what he was doing. After a while, he couldn’t call anymore. He belonged to death. He thought of her skin, but he could feel only his father’s, spoiling everything else. September came. October. His father wasn’t dead. He had to eat. Conor had to cook. He’d get sick.
Conor had to clean him. They listened to baseball together on the radio. “You want to listen to the game, Dad?” “Go ahead,” his father would say. “Put it on if you want,” like he was indifferent about it. But it had to be an act. Nothing meant more to him than baseball. Baseball made him talk. The only real conversations he and Conor had ever had were about the Yankees.
That’s how Conor thought the talking would start. With baseball. Something, anything—somebody throwing himself into a fence for a fly ball or digging his cleats into a thigh for a base—would break the silence. And then maybe the man would get around to asking Conor about his life. Or maybe he’d finally get around to figuring out what went wrong with his own. Conor would have welcomed anything that would get them past feeling like they were waiting for a bus. But the Yankees were in the cellar and the old man had nothing to say.
Kate’s asking Peter if he’ll come to the house up in the Bronx, bring the kids. Peter yeses her. He’ll never go. Peter keeps his distance, doesn’t get involved anymore. He sends cards. He called when he heard Conor was taking a leave from his job though, upset about it. Conor was surprised Peter knew what firm he was with. “Weren’t they talking about making you partner soon? What are you doing this for?” “I’m doing it for me,” Conor said, because he didn’t have an answer. “Forget it, Conor. It’ll never register with him. There’s nothing there.He hasn’t got a clue.”
Five days ago Conor gave his father a haircut. Weak as he was, the old man still managed to curse him when he pricked his neck with the scissors. Two days later, after they took him out, Conor made his father’s bed. He stopped afterward, in the middle of the bedroom, lost, like he’d forgotten something. He lifted the blanket, felt underneath, heard the sound of the rubber sheet he’d just put on without thinking. His father hated the sheet, cursed Conor for putting it on, insisted he was no invalid. But that’s what he was. He hadn’t walked to the bathroom since before New Year’s.
Liam and Peter are talking. Conor watches their mouths moving. He has the same sensation he’s had for months, that he can’t talk, can’t make sounds. It’s the feeling you get in a dream when you’re trying to scream for help and you can’t make the sound come out. It’s not a new feeling. He had it as a kid all the time. In school, he was always surprised when people heard what he said.
By the holidays Conor woke in the mornings fearing and hoping his father would be dead. Conor was waiting for something and he couldn’t leave or let his father leave until it happened. On Christmas Eve, Conor went out and got them a tree. It was a skinny-looking thing, but he dragged out the box of decorations from the closet in the back room and put some on. The ornaments were just cheap shiny K-Mart crap, but they had more power than Conor bargained for. He had memorized everything about them—every bead, every ball, the silly snow-topped starry skies painted on dark blue glass, the weightless feel of them in his palm, his mother saying careful now while she held the string of lights by one end, reaching as high as she could to hand them to him on the ladder. Every box had two or three balls missing, casualties of his father’s holiday rages. Conor couldn’t believe these things were ever special to anyone, brought out for a holy night.
Conor finished trimming the tree and brought his father out to the living room to show him. He touched a branch. “Pitiful-looking thing,” Donnegan said, as if he could really see it, but Conor knew his sight was pretty much gone. “We could say the same thing about you,” Conor said and they laughed. They couldn’t find anything to say for a while. The tree became their television. They just stared at it. Then the old man started his stories, the ones he’d tell when he wasn’t plastered yet, tired old stuff about the war, about his brothers and their barroom brawls. When he got to the one about his father, Conor thought he’d heard it before, but this one was different. Conor suspected it was true. “Your grandmother sent me out to bring him home that night. Christmas Eve. He was drinking at the tavern. She wanted him home. Don’t ask me why. He was happy enough where he was, and the rest of us would have been just as glad to leave him there. But she sent me to get him, so I went. He told me to sit down at a table and have a soda. He was just going to have one more. I sat there, listened to Eddie Cantor, played with my straw. The place was nearly empty, stuffy from the noisy heat. I put my head down on the table, watched my spitballs shoot across. Next thing I know, the bartender, Ernie, is shakin me. ‘Wake up,’ he says. ‘I’ll take you home. Your old man forgot ya.’ ”
Conor didn’t say anything. So maybe the old man thought he didn’t believe him.
“Ask your Uncle Bill. He’ll tell ya. Grandma ripped into him good that night.” Donnegan let out a grunty laugh, but Conor didn’t think it was funny. He wondered whether his father really did. The story could just as easily have been about Conor and him. In fact, one time Donnegan got so drunk he left Moira on the beach. They found her with the lifeguards, who told Conor’s mother the girl had begged them not to return her to her father. This was what Conor couldn’t make Julie understand. Good parenting was not something he’d experienced too often and certainly not something he was equipped to do.
Donnegan started coughing badly and Conor told him he’d take him back to bed if he wanted. The old man waved him away, as if he didn’t want anybody fussing over him. But Conor wondered afterward if his father found some comfort by the tree.
“You want to talk?” Conor said.
“Why? You got something you want to say?” The man’s surliness, predictable as it was, still got to Conor.
“No. I mean talk. Like family. Like we mean something to each other.”
“What’s eatin’ you?”
“Oh, forget it,” Conor said. He kept quiet. Donnegan asked him to light a cigarette for him. Conor got his Camels. There was no point in telling him no anymore. He put one in his mouth and lit it for him. His father drew hard on it, and Conor sat down next to him, looking at the smoke, avoiding his father’s eyes. “Did you ever want anything for me?”
“What are you talkin’ about?”
“I’m talking about plans. Hopes. Things you want for a person. For a son, for Christ’s sake.”
Donnegan made some kind of sound, took another long drag, in deep, out slow. “You made your own plans,” he said. Despite everything, it amazed Conor that his father had nothing to say. He couldn’t even fake it, come up with some platitude about always wanting the best for him. Conor knew he was delusional to expect any answer at all. The old man wasn’t going to prop him up, pretend things had ever been any different than they were.
They finished the cigarette and watched the tree without trying anymore. Later, when Conor put him into bed, his father said, “I’ll tell you one thing. It was never this I wanted. To have you wipin’ an old man’s ass.” That familiar nasty edge was in his voice and Conor didn’t want to take this any further, but he couldn’t help it.
“Then what was it?”
“What do you want? Bedtime stories? What can you possibly expect to hear? Do you think I could have changed anything?”
“Did you ever try?”
“Try. Right.” Donnegan shook his head, exasperated. “For fuck’s sake, Conor, life ain’t some college boy’s curriculum. It ain’t about setting goals and sticking to a plan. Some lives get fucked up, and they can’t get fixed,” he says, his words nearly buried in a series of coughs.
When his throat cleared, he seemed to be trying to find words, a way to explain. “Conor, I’m like . . . like a man in a cage, except there is no key. And all that ‘lettin go’ shit they feed you in AA is for the lucky few.”
“But you stayed sober for almost a year. That had to mean something.”
“Sober. Yeah. You know what sober feels like? Like a flood survivor waiting to get plucked off a roof. But instead everybody keeps telling you you’ve got wings, use them.” He tried to sit up, his arms trembling. “You really want to know what you were to me? You were another accusation, another thing I couldn’t do right. Do you think I wanted to be around more of that?”
His father quieted and Conor turned to go, got as far as the door. He wanted to take a walk, stand outside on some noisy street and let chaos have its way.
“Why do you put us through this, Conor?”
“I’m sorry, Dad,” Conor said, and he really was.
“Some things . . . some things get damaged, and they stay damaged.”
“It’s all right, Dad. You don’t have to say anymore.”
“It’s not all right. It was never all right.”
Conor imagined returning to his side, touching his hand. He didn’t.
“If you want to hear me say I’m sorry, I can do that. I’m sorry,” his father said, but the words came out angry. “But for the life of me, I don’t see what good it does.”
“Ok, Dad.” His father closed his eyes, sank into the pillows.
In the living room, Conor stood beside the anemic tree. One of the balls—a silver-topped pine cone shaped thing, red and gold trim mostly worn away—had slipped off its skinny branch and landed askew on the one below. He took it off the tree. He thought about taking the whole thing down, packing it all away, but what would be the point of keeping any of this? His father would be gone by the time Christmas came again. Why had the old man saved these things to begin with? He kept them in an old trunk, Peter told Conor, wrapped inside a huge army coat he hadn’t worn since he got back from France. Faded, brittle tree ornaments. Unlikely heirlooms. It dawned on Conor that his father couldn’t see the sorry dull shape they were in. The last time he’d been able to see them they were probably still worth keeping. Maybe they even sparkled.
They want everyone to put their roses on the casket and go. The prayers are done. The cars are waiting. They’ve got a regular routine for this. But Conor can’t move. It’s cold and he can’t stop shivering. He never does that. But he’s been standing there a long while. They try to move Conor away. “He’s gone,” Bridget says. “It’s over.” He can hear her. He knows what she’s saying. But he can’t step away. It’s what he’s been waiting for all these months, but he doesn’t want to leave. This is crazy, he thinks. I thought I wanted this.
Conor smells Julie’s perfume before he feels her next to him. She takes his hand. Her presence brings him to his senses, triggers some knee-jerk desire to seem like he’s got himself together. He steps back, hesitates, then lets her lead him away. They walk toward the path, away from the others. Her long coat is tawny cashmere like her hair. She wears sensible shoes that give her little height. She holds Conor’s arm tightly, pulling him close, as if she knows this is where he belongs—with her. But the Donnegans were not so sure at first.
“An Italian?” Maggie said to Conor. “She’ll have a hard time adjusting to this tribe.” And she did. It was a foreign land, this family. They barely got together, even at holidays. They could let months go by without seeing or even talking to their mother. There was no need for Julie to comment on these things. The contrast to her own family interaction was comment enough. She didn’t try to decipher the Donnegans.
She had missed Conor and she told him so—the way he soaks up every kindness like new, untasted flavors, the way he pays such close attention to life, as if to see how it’s done.
“I admire what you did for your father, Conor,” Julie says. “I know it was difficult.”
“I guess I had some business to finish.”
“Or something to get under way.”
Conor lets out a breath, shakes his head. “There was nothing getting under way with him, Julie. It was too late.”
“That’s too bad, but it wasn’t about him anyway.”
He looks at her, puzzled. “What do you mean?”
“It was about you.”
Conor waits for the rest.
“Yes, you and the kind of person you are.”
“You’re not the first to put yourself out when there’s no chance of getting anything back.” He sees a comical look in her eye, a grin forming. “Sure,” she shrugs. “Parents do the same thing for their children all the time.”
He sees the point she wants to make. That he’d be a good father. This is what she wants to believe, that you can be hollowed out, your insides left for the beasts to pick at, and then fill yourself up with good intentions and middle-class dreams. Conor is not a man like his father. That’s clear. He has a career, people who rely on him, trust him. But the rest is pretty muddy, because Conor is not Conor either, at least no Conor he recognizes. At 43, he should be solid enough to feel at home in his own skin. He knows that much. An identity should be more than an unending search, a series of false starts.
“When do you think you’ll go back to work?” Julie says.
“Right away. They want me at the conference. That’s in two weeks. And I’m going to have to come up to speed for the presentation.”
“Is it in Atlanta?”
“Would you like some company? I’ve got the vacation time.”
Conor knows he should tell her no. He should tell her she’s all wrong about him and what he’s able to be. She can’t see him, he thinks, can’t see past the happy endings she tacks onto their lives, like gold trim on a threadbare cloak. That would be the fair thing, to tell her that not once for as long as he’s known her has he felt like anything but an imposter. He mimics her, like a dancer in the back line, trying to do what’s expected. He can barely keep up. He is more comfortable alone, when he doesn’t have to worry about feeling inadequate. But she chose him, decided she wanted to know him. She believes that she does. But it’s clear to Conor that she’s creating him, oiling parts that haven’t been used, repairing the ones he relies on too much. The attention is heady. And no matter how much he fears that she will see some day that it has been misdirected, he’s grateful for it.
So Conor doesn’t tell her no. He lets her take his hand. If she wants to do this, he’ll let her. But he doesn’t expect either of them to be fooled for long. Someday the damage he does will have to be tallied, but not today.
She leads him to her car, unlocks the passenger door for him. He gets in carefully, one hand deep in the pocket of his coat, his fingers wrapped around the now-familiar surface of a weightless heirloom.
Mary Ann McGuigan writes mainly young-adult fiction. Her second novel, Where You Belong (Atheneum), was a finalist for the National Book Award. Her third novel, also for young adults, will be published in spring ’08. Her short fiction for adults has appeared in various literary magazines, including The Sun and US 1; essays have appeared in the New York Times, New York Sunday Newsday, and other publications.