the short story project


A Matter Unsettled

Story 10, 1986  Eyes narrowed, skin tanned, Peter scans the rows of hard plastic chairs screwed to the floor and steps into the dreary ER waiting area like a man who knows his place in the world. His sister Maggie knows better. Like a mom on the lookout at dismissal time, she raises her hand so he’ll see her. He slows his pace, perhaps not wanting to call attention to himself. But his tailored suit makes that difficult. Heads turn.

“Sit down,” she says when he reaches her. He doesn’t. He seems shaken. He slips his hands into his trouser pockets, then out again, runs his fingers through his hair.

“Can we go in?” he says.

“Not yet. There’s a cop talking to him, the one called to the scene. He’s been in there almost ten minutes.”

He mutters something under his breath, then leans forward, his face close to her ear. “Did she . . . Do you think she really . . . ” He’s sweating, his collar moist, and the sight of him in a situation he can’t handle amuses Maggie. She shrugs, eager to have him believe there’s nothing to worry about, that she has things under control. “Do you think she meant to do this?” he whispers, glancing over his shoulder, as if someone might recognize him.

 “Sit,” she says, patting the seat of the adjacent chair. Assorted walking wounded surround them on every side, most looking as if they’ve graduated from downtrodden to loser still without a clue why the universe is out to get them. Maggie is certain that Peter doesn’t want even these sorry outcasts to know what brought him here. His knee-jerk effort at propriety—even after what’s happened—makes her want to laugh.

“Answer me, for Chrissake. Was Moira trying to kill him?” He keeps his voice down, but he sounds demanding, the way he did when they were teenagers, his take-charge ego already hardening, looking for answers even when the swollen lips and broken lamps all around them were beyond justification, a chaos their poverty didn’t explain.

“Just sit.”

He yields, tucks himself neatly into the chair close beside her. His expensive cologne is inescapable now, but it’s not unpleasant, just a reminder of his good fortune, like his good skin, with barely a wrinkle, and his full head of hair, with just enough gray to keep things interesting. She’s reminded that her roots are long overdue for a touch-up. They circle her crown like a yarmulke, her sons tease, but she can’t be bothered.

He asks again about Moira, but Maggie has no intention of answering his questions. She shakes her head, pretending to be as baffled as he is about how their father wound up stepping in front of a truck. She doesn’t want to believe her sister did anything intentionally, but she can’t rule it out. In this family, anger lasts. “Let’s just focus on what we know,” she says. “A broken hip. He’s lucky to be alive.”

“He’s always been lucky when it comes to things like this,” Peter says. “It’s amazing.”

She nods, keeps an eye on the double doors that separate them from their father.

“Remember that fight outside Gerrity’s Tavern,” he says, “when the Molinari brothers landed him on his face in the street?”

“Yup. Four stitches later he was back on his stool. You can’t keep Pete Donnegan down.” 

Peter adjusts his jacket, no doubt to keep it from wrinkling, and she wonders if he’s between appointments. “But this is a broken hip,” he says. “It’s going to take months of recovery.”

“Not if you tell him he can’t have a drink till he gets it himself.” She reaches down for her handbag, an oversized junk catcher whose contents defy inventory. She wants to make sure she has her address book. If things take a bad turn here, the others will want to know. Pete Donnegan has seven children—four girls, three boys—all but one younger than Maggie. Moira is the youngest girl.

“I’m sure I can find him an apartment soon,” Peter says. “It will just take a few more weeks, but Helen doesn’t want to put up with him one more day.” He sounds desperate.

“Well, think positive. Maybe they’ll find some cancer too. The right kind could take him pretty fast.” She rummages in her bag without success, removes a neon orange cosmetic case, and a can of Coke, places them on the table beside her.

“Nice talk,” he scolds, nervously loosening his tie, then crossing his legs.

He’s embarrassed, Maggie thinks, and can’t help chuckling. “Oh, please,” she says. The real problem, the one he should be concerned about, is not how long their father will take to recover but what the old man is telling the cop who’s in there questioning him. How is he going to explain why he stepped off the curb just when a truck was turning the corner—and just when his daughter was supposed to be telling him whether it was safe to cross?

“You sound as bitter as Moira,” Peter says. “That’s not like you.”

“Not like me? Tell me what I’m like, Peter. Tell me all about it.” She comes up with the address book from the bowels of her bag, holds it in both hands, like a prayer book she’s already memorized. “Anyway, Moira’s got her reasons for being the way she is.”

“What reason could there be for letting a blind man walk in front of a truck? So he roughed up Sean a bit. Probably did him good.”

“It wasn’t just any blind man,” she says. “It was Pete Donnegan. And I can think of half a dozen without even getting around to the awful stuff. He had no business putting his hands on her son.”

“Will you stop already? Old guys like him don’t know any other way to deal with kids.” He lets out a sharp breath, all fussy and perturbed at her. “Moira dramatizes everything.”

“Give her a break.” She wishes he’d stop this lobbying and just sit quietly and wait. “Her marriage is in the toilet. She’s got a lot to deal with.”

“Ken didn’t want them to separate.” Peter sounds like someone accustomed to inside information. “He told me he didn’t.”

He crosses his legs again and Maggie sneaks a look at his socks, designer hosiery Helen orders for him special from London. They don’t look that much different to her than the kind she’s been getting for Owen from Sears for thirty years. “If you want the truth,” she tells him, “Ken’s not your man.”

“Where is she anyway? Why isn’t she here yet?”

Maggie checks her watch. “I’m sure she’s half way to Bridgeport by now.”

“Connecticut? Are you serious? She went to that meeting? She didn’t go in the ambulance with him?”

“Calm down. She was with him. But she couldn’t stay. She couldn’t skip the meeting.”

Peter jumps to his feet. The woman sitting on the other side of him has spilled her Coke, and he seems desperate to protect his Armani. His clumsy neighbor is emptying her bag in search of something to wipe the soda off her skirt, and Maggie can tell that the intimate little collection of gum wrappers and balled-up tissues and Tampax repulses him, because he lets out another sharp breath. “For fuck’s sake,” he mutters. “Let’s go stand over there.” He heads toward the vending machines.

“I’ll get you something,” Maggie tells the woman, and detours to the ladies’ room. In a beat or two, she’s out again, handing her a stack of paper towels. Up close, she sees that the darker spots on the woman’s skirt are not soda. They’re blood. Maggie takes some of the towels and wipes the chair dry.

The woman thanks her repeatedly. “I don’t know what’s the matter with me,” she says. “I’m all thumbs.” Her voice is small, humble, and Maggie wonders how someone so meek could wind up with a cut over her eye deep enough to bleed through the thick makeshift bandage. But that’s not true. She knows how.  

She joins Peter by the soda machine. The tired posters bearing messages about flu shots the dangers of drinking during pregnancy and signs of drug abuse are even more faded than the dull green walls. She watches Peter survey the room, no doubt searching to see if it holds anyone at least nominally above the poverty line. He’s fidgety, ill at ease among the poor, like an escapee forced to walk past the prison.

 “Anyway, who’s talking about the truth?” he says, as if the interruption isn’t worth acknowledging. “Sometimes you have to leave well enough alone in a marriage. Not Moira. She’s not happy unless she’s righteously angry about something.” He looks down at the front of his jacket, flicks off dreaded beads of Coke. “If it wasn’t Dad drinking his paycheck, it was the car they couldn’t afford to get her. And if it wasn’t the car, it was Mom moving to that apartment to live by herself. She can’t let things go.” He extends his arm, checking his sleeve for soda stains.

“She was very unhappy with Ken,” Maggie says, resisting the temptation to point to an imaginary spot on his elbow, just to get a rise out of him.

“What does happy have to do with anything? You want to be happy, you go to the movies, go get your hair done. She’s thirty-seven years old, for Chrissake. When is she going to stop grieving that her father was a drunk?”

“Is a drunk.”

“He’s not drinking nearly as much as he was back then,” says Peter.

“Nobody’s Superman. Anyway, what happened to her marriage has nothing to do with him. Ken got his apartment before Dad moved in with her. She couldn’t take his secrets anymore.”

“That’s just it. She can take it. She just doesn’t want to. You take it for your kids, for Sean and Michael.”

“Is that what you’re doing?”

He looks away. “I’m doing what I have to do,” he says. “And I’m sure as hell not blaming my family for my own mess or landing them in front of trucks.”

“Will you stop with that?” Maggie is afraid for her sister. She knows her father is capable of anything, even blabbing to that cop.

Moira has a way of leading with her chin. Maggie has worried about her from the start, from the day their mother first plopped her down in a crib barely vacated by the child who’d come before. She would bellow if her bottle took too long to heat and Maggie, already ten years old, would try to soothe and distract her, keep her from wanting things that badly. As Moira got older, Maggie steered her away from goals pointless to try for. But Moira sometimes pulled things off—making it to the top of a firm where women were mostly coffee fetchers, getting pregnant a second time after the doctor warned against it. That’s when Maggie would be drawn even closer to her sister—to breathe in the reckless hope.

Still, Maggie was certain that Moira was wrong to let their father move in with her. She knew it would end badly, and it did. When he got physical with Sean and Moira made him leave, Peter had to take him in. But Helen has been calling Maggie to complain. She doesn’t want the tension in the house, the stench of cigarette smoke in the guest room, and the dark, foul memories that seep from the man’s skin, wrapping her husband like a shroud. Peter is home less and less, and Helen insists she’s not going to be the old man’s caretaker, not going to take over the job his children don’t want.

Maggie opens her can of Coke, takes a long swallow. She wishes Peter would stop talking, stop making everything worse. “We don’t know that Moira had any intention of hurting him,” she says.

“The cop is still in there talking to him, isn’t he? Seems like there’s a lot to discuss. And someone saw her on the corner arguing with him right before it happened. Moira told you that.”

“Keep your voice down. Of course, they were arguing. They’re always arguing.”

“Did anyone else see them fighting?”

“Wouldn’t surprise me. People were waiting for the bus.”

“Jesus,” he snorts, disgusted. “She couldn’t drive him back?” A patient sitting nearby is called inside, opening up adjacent chairs, so they sit down.

“Please, let’s not start on that again.” She sighs deeply, tries to get comfortable in the narrow chair. “Moira couldn’t take him home. She made that clear from the start. She was supposed to be in Connecticut by one o’clock.”

“Well, whatever happened, we’re in a real mess now. I don’t know what I’m going to do with him. Helen refuses to have him in the house much longer.”

Maggie turns to look at him. “What were you thinking, Peter? Why did you encourage him to come down here in the first place? If we’d left him in Boston, none of this would have happened.”

He leans forward, elbows on his knees, stares down at the floor. “I don’t know. I thought he’d be different.”

“Most people would be.”

“You get older. You look back. I just figured he’d have some feelings about things, want to connect.”

“Surprise, surprise.” She resumes her surveillance of the double doors, desperate to know why the officer hasn’t appeared.

“You were lucky,” Peter says. “You always knew there was no way he’d change.”

“Lucky. Right.” She thinks of the early years of her marriage, the troubles she had when their mom came to live with her. But her brother doesn’t probe.

“You know what I mean, Maggie. You’re strong. You got through all of it. He doesn’t get to you the way he gets to the rest of us. You’d be able to handle him.”

She wonders if this is the tone he uses with clients when he’s about to charge them more than they can afford. “I have no intention of handling him.”

“Just until he gets on his feet. Then we’ll find him an apartment. Near me. I’ll do the rest.”

“I am not taking him in,” she says, pronouncing each syllable with exaggerated force. “I don’t know what fantasies Moira had in her head when she let him move in with her—having a father finally? who the hell knows—whatever it was, they’re her delusions, not mine.”

“It was pointless. I know that, but he’s in real trouble.”

“Yes, but he’ll be no trouble to me because I’ll have nothing to do with him.”

“You don’t care what happens to him?”

“Are you not hearing me?”

“Then what are you doing here now?”

Maggie reaches down for her bag, plops it back onto her lap as if she’s about to leave. She wants this whole business over with. “I’m here for Moira, not for him. She called me, asked me to be here.”

“And what happens when they put him in one of those pitiful old-age homes?” he says. “They’re all dismal and crowded.”

“Might do him good. Builds character.” Peter winces, and she’s glad she’s made her point. She thinks of the months when their mother and the three youngest moved in with her, after the eviction. Maggie had two kids by then, and the apartment couldn’t hold all those people, not without the kind of tension that can make running out of coffee or using the last clean towel turn volatile. Someone had to leave. Owen volunteered, all too willingly.

Peter leans back against the hard chair, his body sinking into itself, as if he’s lost for a way to convince her.

“I’ll help you find a decent place for him to recover if that’s what he needs,” she says. “Your friend Richard, the doctor, maybe he can help.”

But she knows Peter won’t want to call Richard. He’s too proud to explain why none of his sisters and brothers wants anything to do with their father. And he won’t want to admit why he doesn’t either. Maggie had told him to leave well enough alone. Their father was living with his brother Pearce in Boston and contact was minimal. Each of them had found a way to come to terms with the damage he’d done. When Pearce died and he had to find another place to live, Peter said he knew what he had to do. He’d go up to Boston, bring him home and start all over. The whole family could start all over.

Maggie told him he was crazy. What was he trying to prove? He had a family, a successful business. He’d overcome a childhood headed nowhere to achieve things most men never get near. Even when Helen put her foot down, he refused to give up. He got Moira to take him instead. Their father wasn’t drinking as much, he insisted. He’d be happy with her.

Maybe he was. There was no way to tell. Moira said he was mostly quiet, often surly, and usually drunk. He was like a gnarled old tree, half-dead, with just enough life left to keep from being immune to the seasons. He would share a meal with them or occasionally go to Mass, but getting close meant tripping on roots so strong and starved they cracked open the pavement around him.

Maggie sees the nurse before Peter does. She enters first, holding the door for the officer, who nods to them as he strides through the waiting area. His shoulders are narrow, and he seems to strain toward stature. He extends his hand to Maggie first. “Thank you for your patience,” he says, sounding stern.

“No problem,” she says.

“I have everything I need now,” he says, looking down at his little notebook. He’s very blond, rather small, and he reminds Maggie of her oldest son when he played cops and robbers. “I think you can go in.”

“Is everything all right?” she says.

“Well, I think the nurse can tell you more than—”

“No, I mean—”

“Maggie, it’s okay,” says Peter. 

“You don’t need to talk with us?” she says.

“I’ll be in touch if I do. I’ll talk to your sister again this afternoon, but I think I have what I need.” He puts his cap on, which seems too big for him, and makes his way toward the exit. Maggie heads for the double doors.

The nurse waves her in, and Peter catches up, asks the nurse how his father is doing. “He’s doing well. But I can only give you a few minutes with him. He has to be prepped for surgery.”

“The hip?” says Peter.

“Yes, it’s broken. He told us he had to fast this morning for some blood work. That’s good. So we don’t need to wait.”

“Can he talk?” Maggie says.

“Talk?” She looks down at her clipboard, as if she might have overlooked something. “I don’t understand. His head injuries aren’t serious. Just some lacerations. He—”

“It’s okay,” Peter interrupts.

They reach the room in a few steps, and the nurse slides a curtain away from the bed, where their father lies on a small mountain of pillows, clad only in a thin cotton gown that shows how bony his wide shoulders have become. He looks oddly docile now that he’s at the mercy of IVs and assorted monitors.

“Dad,” says Peter. “How are they treating you?”

“She won’t let me have a cigarette,” he tells him.

Peter and Maggie respond with weak laughs.

“Maggie, is that you?”

“Yes. They’re getting ready to fix you up. Sounds like you’re going to be fine.”   

“Fine and dandy,” he says darkly. He feels for the railing along the side of the bed but winces in pain from the movement.

“So we saw the policeman leaving,” says Maggie.

Peter glares at her, but her father makes no sign that he’s heard. “Are they giving you something for the pain?” says Peter.

“God knows what they’re givin’ me. Can’t be stronger than children’s aspirin, whatever it is. They keep tellin’ me they have to get me ready for the surgery, but so far it’s all farts and no dumps. All they do is come in every five minutes and tell me they’re gettin’ started right away.”

“Hospitals are all alike,” says Peter.

Maggie’s neck is stiff from tension. She wants to ask him what he told the officer, but she holds back, lets him gripe some more.

Peter chimes in again. “When Helen had her gall bladder removed—”

But Maggie cuts him off. “What did the policeman want to know?”

Her father snorts, mutters something, then says, “He wanted to know what happened. I guess nobody told him I got hit by a truck.”

“What did you tell him?”

“It’s pretty obvious what happened, ain’t it?” He raises his hand from the bed. He sounds harsh, as if she’s meddling in his business. “So that’s what I told him.”

Her chest tightens. She shoots a look at Peter, steps closer to the bed. “What do you mean?” she says, dreading what he’ll say.

“I mean the cop keeps askin’ me what happened. It’s plain as day what happened. I’m sittin’ here big as life in a hospital bed, ain’t I? They’re pickin’ and probin’ and tellin’ me my hip’s busted up and god knows what else got scrambled. What kind of shit does he have for brains if he can’t figure out what happened?”

Maggie wants to shake him, make him stop the nonsense. “What did you say to him?” A thought she can’t suppress takes hold. If he told the cop Moira did this, she’ll finish the job right here, right now.

“For fuck’s sake, I ain’t got enough sight left to spot a tree trunk at arm’s length, now do I? So I walked my ass in front of a truck while it was still movin’.”

“You told him that?”

“I told him to go fight some crime.”

Maggie feels her breath return. Maybe it didn’t happen the way she suspects. Or maybe her father doesn’t realize it. “Did he ask about Moira?” she says.

Their father takes a breath, grimaces. “He did.”

“So what did you tell him?”

“Moira is none of his business—or yours.”

Maggie is relieved but her hands are trembling and she’s not sure why. She’s struggling with something foreign, something she hasn’t felt in so long she doesn’t understand what it is. The sheet is clenched in his fist. He’s probably in pain. His breathing is raspy, echoing decades of smoking. She wants to say thank you, touch him. The room is quiet, and she can hear the nurses’ voices outside, surprisingly light and matter-of-fact, given what’s at stake in this place. Stray sounds from the parking lot find their way in as well: a car starting, someone giving directions, a man saying It’s not going to work, is it? in a voice that’s about to break. Maggie strains to hear the answer, because she can’t focus on the room, can’t get herself to touch her father’s hand.

The nurse peeks in again, tells them they need to go. “Okay,” Peter says, and tells his father they’ll be waiting for him when the surgery is over.

The old man makes a sound, as if clearing his throat, but Maggie isn’t sure that’s what he’s doing. He looks upset, his eyes are watery, and she wonders how much pain he’s in. Peter leans over him and touches his shoulder. The old man nods, and his son steps away, goes into the hall. She’s struck again by how small he seems, how faded. His skin is less ruddy, his white hair, normally so distinctive, barely visible on the starched sheets.

She wants to say something helpful to him, but there’s too much in her way. He rubs his eyes as if they’re itching, but she’s convinced now that’s not the problem. “Looks like I’m out of the finals for the reel,” he says.

She laughs. That’s what he wants and it’s easy to give. The nurse peeks in again. It’s time.

“Dad,” she says, her voice brittle. She has no way anymore to soften it. “I’m sorry about this. I’m sorry you got hurt.”

He sighs, a dark, resigned sound. “Me too,” he tells her. “You can never count on Moira to get a job done proper.”   



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