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Mary Ann McGuigan

Shelter

Story 2, 1958

Maureen has to wait for an answer while her daughter Kate talks to her husband in the bedroom, and she prefers to do that standing rather than risk disturbing their fancy sofa. The couch is at least twenty years old—something Lauren Bacall might have draped herself across in the ’40s—but barely worn. It’s a hand-me-down from Antonio’s parents, a humorless, demanding pair, and it does not surprise Maureen that the in-laws used it only on the rare occasions when they pretended to relax.

Bridget and Moira, Maureen’s youngest daughters, sit on the edge of the loveseat, shopping bags within reach on the floor, stuffed—like their little suitcase by the door—with whatever they could grab as they fled: a night’s pajamas, Moira’s doll, a change of clothes for tomorrow. Tomorrow is what Kate and Antonio are discussing in private—tomorrow and the day after that and whether he will allow Maureen and her three youngest children to stay with them until she finds a place to live, or at least until morning, because it is nearly one a.m., too late to seek shelter at her sister Nora’s.

Kate’s oldest child is already a toddler. Still, Maureen hasn’t gotten used to the idea that her daughter, barely twenty, is married and that in the room she just entered is a bed where every night she sleeps with a man so wooden and taciturn that Maureen was convinced for a time that he couldn’t speak English. Kate looks more tired than she should; she’s lost the vivaciousness she had growing up, the spunk. Her youngest is less than a year old and already Kate is a size seven again, but Maureen is convinced the weight loss is from stress and, like the children, nothing planned.

The bedroom is at the end of a long narrow hall, and the door is closed. Maureen tries to make out the words coming from the room, but can hear only fragments. Moira and Bridget are listening too. Conor is still exploring the living room. He seems uninterested, or maybe just more willing than his sisters to take his mind off the verdict for now. He wants to play with the hula hoop he found tucked behind a chair, but Bridget won’t let him. “Mom,” she pleads, when Conor won’t give it up. After the night they’ve had, Maureen hates to say no to him, but the meticulous order of the apartment makes her hesitate. If the toy is missing from its assigned place when playtime comes again, the violation might cost them dearly. She curses Kate under her breath, mocking her daughter’s belief that chaos can be held at bay if you just keep things tidy enough. She calls Conor to her. He comes, head down, no doubt fearing he’ll be scolded.

“Conor, that’s not yours,” she tells him. “You mustn’t be playing with that.”

“I know,” he says, sounding accustomed—even at six years old—to a world filled with things he can’t have. And Maureen wonders if he understands that that list may now include a place to sleep. She opens her arms to him, and the gesture must remind him where they are and what has happened, how close his father came to hurting him, because he steps into her, buries his head in her coat, cries in a way meant not to disturb.

“Do you think he’ll let us stay?” Moira whispers. Maureen raises a finger to her lips to keep her youngest girl from saying any more, because the answer is no. And beyond that lie few choices. Her mother’s place in Flatbush doesn’t even cross her mind. No sanctuary waits there, only reprimands, reminders of how everyone knew from the start that the man Maureen married was no good. But they didn’t know him the way she did, how he used to find things for them to do together even when they had no money. He made cards for her from glitter and construction paper. He made her feel protected in the beginning, pampered, let her sleep late after Kate was born. Her mother turned out to be right, of course. But no man could have pleased her, and neither could Maureen. She wasn’t welcome in the same room with her once her father passed on, once her mother was no longer obliged to witness the tie between father and daughter—an adoration that left no room in its glow for a wife with dry brittle nails and a permanent frown, red hair gone gray, a woman made sexless from neglect. He died with his daughter’s name on his lips, and he was never spoken of again.

Maureen looks at her watch and thinks again of going to her sister Nora’s place, an apartment crowded with noisy kids and unspoken questions, and Nora due in less than two weeks. Her husband is a quiet man, uncomplaining. But things were strained the last time Nora let Maureen and the kids stay with them. He didn’t want to be in the apartment, rarely returned from work before eight.

Bridget stands to take off her coat, and Moira makes a little gasp, as if fearing how presumptuous it is for her sister to make herself comfortable. “Mom,” Bridget whines, “it’s hot in here.” Maureen knows the older girl’s discomfort is not from the heat of the room. Bridget hates to be still, and times like these, when nothing she can do will change things, are hard on her. She needs to be putting things away, or washing dishes, or clearing out some dumping ground of a closet. In the tension that chokes the nights when they wait for their father to return home, Bridget’s whole body absorbs the chaos and she takes the knickknacks down from the highest shelves and dusts them furiously, empties the silverware drawer and inspects each knife and fork and spoon for spots that have escaped the sponge. And later, when her father finally retreats to his room and his snoring tells them they’re safe again, Bridget is the first to venture out and gather the pieces of whatever lamp or vase has smashed. The tinier the pieces, the more the mending calms her.

Maureen wants to go back to the apartment, claim what belongs to her and to her children. But her resolve won’t hold. She’s afraid. Her husband’s rage crossed a line tonight. He was like a shapeshifter, like something from the tales of Cú Chulainn. One of the panels of the heavy curtains he’d pulled down draped his shoulder, and he stood, fists raised, cursing the ceiling, daring the gods and the saints to stop him. Without her son Liam in the house, Maureen was certain that nothing could. Certainly not Moira’s tiny act of defiance. As Maureen hurried the children out the door and pulled it closed, the girl ducked back under her arm and opened it again. “You wait till Liam comes home. You just wait,” she told her father, the taunt as pointless as a whisper in a stadium.

Nearly blind from a drunken fall, he can see only shadows, but he stepped toward the door and Maureen slammed it shut again as Moira bolted down the hallway. Bridget waited by the heavy glass doors, holding one open, motioning her on, as if her sister were rounding third base instead of running for her life. Moira’s shopping bag got jammed as the door closed, and Bridget put hers down to help her get free, but a coat hanger in the bag caught the door handle and the Laurel and Hardy contortions of the struggle made the moment all the more insane for Maureen, surreal. She heard the apartment door open behind her, then his voice. “Get back here, you. I’ll break your fuckin’ legs.” She ran to the girls, freed the bag, and pushed them outside, then turned, saw him fall.

“What about Liam?” Moira said. “What’s going to happen to him?”

“Run, just run,” Maureen told her, pointing toward the mailbox yards away, where Conor waited. The girls obeyed and she glanced back into the hallway. Her husband lay motionless, at least for now.

When Maureen reached the children, Moira asked again about Liam but got no answer. Her mother didn’t want to look at her, because the girl’s anger was undisguised, like a soldier who’s discovered a turncoat. She threw her bag at her mother’s feet and ran.

“Moira, come back here,” Maureen called.

“Moira,” Conor echoed, his shrill voice tinged with the need to escape, to make his sister cooperate.

They caught up, and Maureen held the girl still. “Liam will be all right,” she said, leaning close, forcing her to listen. “Do you understand me?”

Bridget and Conor said nothing, and Maureen saw that they all knew what was going to happen, that Liam would pay the price. Once Kate moved out, there was no one who could purr away their father’s fury, no one to reason with him. Liam wasn’t inclined to reason. The taller he got, the more he seethed, no longer willing to stand by as his mother get slapped around. Thin and sharp-edged, like a sliver of steel shaved from the main, the boy began to step into the man’s rages, not hesitating to make his father’s blindness work for him, to let silence confound his opponent, until the frying pan or the broomstick or whatever weapon Liam had enlisted took his father by surprise. But the drunkenness or maybe the brute strength of the man would mute the blows and he’d reach wildly for whatever he could find. Without fail, he found his son.

“We’ll go to Kate’s,” Maureen told them. “We’ll figure something out.”

Moira wouldn’t let up. “What about Liam?”

“We can’t wait for Liam. Don’t you see? We have to go.”

But the girl cut her off, and Maureen saw that she didn’t need anything explained to her. She knew the danger they were in. “Liam will get hurt,” she insisted.

“No, Moira. Liam won’t go after Daddy tonight. He only does that to help me.”

That much was true, and Moira seemed calmed by it, more willing to go on.

                                                     •

The voices from the bedroom are louder now, aggressive, like strays in an alley, at least Antonio’s is. Kate sounds like a mewing kitten, submissive. Then there’s a thud, the sound a body makes when it’s shoved against a wall. For Maureen, there’s no mistaking it. The door opens and Kate walks the long hall with her head down. But Maureen doesn’t need to see her face. She knows the answer. She buttons her coat; the children do the same.

“Mom, he won’t—”

Maureen raises her hand to silence her, spare her any more humiliation. She doesn’t want to hear the words, doesn’t want the reality of her daughter’s life made plain. Kate is no less a victim than she is, and Maureen wants to slap her for it. She wants to knock her down onto that perfect couch. She clenches her fists, afraid she’ll lose control, give license to a rage that has been festering for years. She has to get out of the apartment or it will break loose on Kate, someone whose sin is no greater than having followed suit. She gathers the bags, signals to the girls to help her, and heads for the door.

“I told him we couldn’t just turn the kids out in the street,” Kate says, stumbling close behind them. “I told him that.” Unable to keep her hands still, she pulls at her hair, at the tie of her robe. The pitch of her voice is high and thin, her body jumpy, as if flames are circling the place where she stands.

“I’m sure you did, Kate,” says Maureen, knowing her daughter craves absolution the way a coward needs forgiveness. Kate swallows hard, quiets down. Maureen has trouble undoing the deadbolt, so Bridget helps her. Maureen watches the children’s faces as the sound of the lock slipping back and the feel of cool air from the hallway force them to understand what’s happening, how lost they really are. Conor begins to cry, and Kate grabs him by the shoulders.

“Conor can stay,” she whispers, her voice hoarse. “Let Conor stay. I’ll put him in the baby’s room. Antonio will never know the difference.” Maureen wonders what Kate would do if Antonio found him, how long it would take before she offered up her brother as a scapegoat. “He leaves so early. He’ll never know.” Her voice is thin and breathless. Conor tries to wiggle away but Kate holds him fast.

“Kate, stop it,” Maureen says. “You’re no help to us. That’s clear. Now let him go.”

She jerks Conor away, and Kate loses her balance, lands heavily against the doorframe, her robe falling open. She is breathing hard, beads of sweat clustered between her breasts despite the chill air from the hallway. Maureen sees Kate is afraid of her. She’s always known this, because her anger at Kate is never far below the surface, a hostility and contempt even her husband can’t trigger.

Looking at her now, Maureen feels a familiar disgust, the kind that came whenever Kate would try to calm her father down, distracting him with sweet talk, climbing on his lap. Even when her antics worked, even when they short-circuited his brutal temper, Maureen hated her for it. The girl’s intervention was like an accusation, as if she suspected somehow that her mother was the one at fault.

“Why can’t you go home?” Kate says, arms folded across her chest, the same suspicion evident now. “He’s probably passed out already.”

“Oh, you think so, do you? You think we’ll be just fine? How convenient for you.”

Kate straightens up, pulls her hair away from her face, closes her robe as if to show her mother she will not be made to blame, not this time. “Why do you need to get away from him tonight anyway?”

Maureen has been expecting this. “Go ahead. Say it.”

Kate’s hesitation lasts only a breath. “What has he done that he hasn’t done countless times before?”

“Look at these kids. Can’t you see they’re frightened out of their wits?”

“No more frightened than I was at their age. What’s so different now?”

For a moment, no one speaks or moves. The air has turned brittle, explosive. Maureen motions for the girls to pick up their bags, and they obey without a word. “I don’t know why I expected anything from you,” Maureen says. There will be no mercy. 

“Mom, I’m sorry,” Kate says, covering her face with her hands, her head bent forward, her body shrinking. The children carry their bags, like knowing refugees. “I’ll talk to Antonio again tomorrow. He might change his mind.”

“And where does that leave us tonight?” Maureen turns Conor around to face her, tends roughly to the buttons still open on his coat.

“Mom, I’m sorry,” says Kate.

Maureen ignores her, hurries the children toward the staircase. Moira drops her bag, bends to retrieve it, but her mother snatches it from her, cursing under her breath.

“Mom, please. I’m sorry,” Kate calls, pleading, as if she sees what’s at hand, the chasm that will open between them once her mother leaves.

Maureen stops at the top of the stairs, ready to hammer in the last nail. “Sorry, indeed. You’re pitiful,” she says, spitting the words. “You’d see your family in the street before you’d stand up to him. Well, you can rest easy now, because we’ll not be at your door again. Not now. Not ever.”

They’re down the steps and into the night before Kate can say any more. And before she can put a coat on and get down into the street, they’ve already reached the bus stop. Pulling to the curb, the bus drowns out the sound of their names, but Maureen hears Kate calling. They board before she can reach them, the children carrying their bundles high, making their clumsy way down the narrow aisle to the back seat, to huddle there. As the bus labors away, Maureen stares straight ahead, pretending she doesn’t know her daughter is running alongside. Reckless, she risks one final glance out the window and sees Kate, motionless now, her body doubled over. The urge to comfort her passes without a struggle. But she watches Kate rise and call out to them again, sees Conor press his face against the grimy glass and wave a small, secret good-bye.

PHOTO BY Brunel Johnson

 

 

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