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Last Rites

Story 11, 1988

His father looks better than he did when Conor took him to the hospital, but barely recognizable. They’ve parted his hair, and there’s a slick Brylcreemed finish to it that a man like Pete Donnegan would never have troubled to achieve. Conor wants to reach in and straighten his collar, but his brothers and sisters are close beside him, fidgety, like bored tourists who’ve seen enough. They’re ready to close the coffin. It’s time. But Conor can’t get himself to move yet.

Five days before his father died, Conor gave him a haircut. Weak as he was, he still managed to curse him when he pricked his neck with the scissors. After they took the body, he made his father’s bed. When it was done, he stood in the middle of the boxy 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 him for it every time, insisted he was no invalid. But that’s what he was. He hadn’t walked to the bathroom since before New Year’s.

The sudden weight of Peter’s arm across his shoulders puts Conor back in his father’s apartment. That’s how he’d get him to the bathroom—the old man’s arm pulled across his shoulders, his arm around his waist, the way GIs carry injured buddies off the field in the movies. He’d gotten very thin, but he was still so heavy, as if the thing that holds a man up, the force that fights gravity, were gone, his will gone.

“It’s over, Conor,” Peter says. “He’s out of his misery.” 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 sallow color, like a pall 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. He can almost taste it still. And his eyes—absorbed in something Conor couldn’t know. He stared out at him, but Conor knew he wasn’t seen.

Peter pounds his back like a comrade. “Let’s get on with it,” he says. He knows his brother thinks he’s having a hard time with this, having to part from their father after being with him so long. But he could hardly wait for this to happen. This was the goal that got him through: knowing that it would have to end, that the man couldn’t last. A month, maybe two, he thought. The firm could spare him for that long. Things would get tricky 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 the best distraction Conor could come up with. At least he’d get him out of his system. It would be over with, out of his head for good. His sisters wanted nothing to do with their father. Liam, with his 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. He and his wife had even taken him in while he recovered, after the truck hit him. But when he healed, 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.

His father 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, an abusive husband, a waste as a father, but Conor would be a good son.

Peter wants him to go outside with the others so they can close the lid. Don’t they know it’s ridiculous, keeping him from this sight? There’s nothing about this man he hasn’t wiped or smelled or seen or carried. Nothing. When he lifted the old man’s legs to wash him, he’d break wind. It was weeks before they could joke about it. But they want him outside now, as if there could still be something private left, so he complies.

The funeral director motions him into the first car, a stretch, with his sister Maggie. Kate, Bridget, and Moira are already inside. Kate has a fist full of tissues in her lap, and Conor has no doubt they’re dry, though she manages a sniffle. Bridget and Maggie are silent, watchful. Maggie, heavier now, seems uncomfortable in her black woolen dress, keeps tugging at the hem. Each time he glances up, he finds her observing him, protective as ever, as if ready to grab him if he tries to bolt. Moira removes a paperback from her bag and begins reading.

“What’s that you’ve got there?” says Bridget, sounding as if she wants an explanation, not the title.

“Edna O’Brien,” says Moira, without raising her head from the page. Conor wonders if her red scarf is a statement or simply the only one at hand.

“For Chrissake, we’re burying our father,” says Bridget. “Maybe you could pay attention?” The collar of her beige raincoat is turned up on one side, and Conor wants to ask her if she’s working undercover to enforce some code of conduct for the children of the damned. 

Conor slides over to make room for Liam and Peter.

“Leave her be,” Maggie tells Bridget.

“What’s this?” Liam says to Conor. “They’re startin’ without me?”

Conor smiles at his brother. His sisters have been relatively kind to each other so far, considering the distressing amount of time they’ve had to be in their father’s presence. Maggie was the first to point out that his being dead made having him around only slightly less irritating.

“What’s up, Moira?” says Liam. “You disrespectin’ Dad’s memory?”

“Which memory would that be?” Moira says.

“Can we just have a peaceful ride?” says Peter. “We’re through the worst of it.”

“I’m not so sure about that,” says Liam, pointing a finger at the cars moving into position. “The hordes have arrived to watch the show. Like I haven’t choked on enough perfume already?”

“You’ll survive,” says Bridget.

“That one there—with the head like a bulldog. You see her?” Liam says, planting an elbow in Peter’s ribcage. “She had me in a choke hold. Kevin had to pull her off me.”

“You’re a chick magnet, Liam,” says Maggie.

“Yeah,” says Peter, “especially the ones over sixty.”

Conor glances out the window. Cars are lined up now behind theirs, filled with cousins and nieces and nephews who don’t know much more about the man than his name. When their uncle Tommy died, the swarm of strangers appeared then too, with their familiar tribal eyes and chins and builds. Conor was fourteen; Bridget was already out of high school. Their father and his brother Pearce staggered home afterward, once they’d sufficiently toasted his passing. They sang rebel songs well into the night, mostly about a cause nobody understood anymore. It wasn’t a bad night, considering how drunk they were. Nothing smashed up. Nobody bleeding. But Bridget wouldn’t serve them dinner, wouldn’t stay in the same room. She had her rules by then, ways to show him when she disapproved. Conor knew such boundaries were pointless.

His 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 for a late 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; the fetid smell of him displaced the memory of her perfume. 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,” as if he were 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 ever had were about the Yankees.

That’s how Conor thought the talking might start. With baseball. Something, anything, would break the silence—somebody throwing himself against an outfield wall for a fly ball or digging his cleats into an ankle for a base. And then maybe his father would get around to asking him about his life. Or maybe he’d finally get around to explaining 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 having a mediocre season—at least by his father’s standards—and the old man had nothing to say.

Beside Conor in the limousine, Kate is bubbly with the thrill of being in Peter’s company. She rarely sees him and that’s no accident. Peter, now the owner of three homes, one yacht, and probably more than a few illegal aliens, doesn’t have time for relatives. It takes too long for the headache to pass. She asks Peter again if he’ll come to her house up in the Bronx, bring the family.

“Absolutely,” Peter tells her. “We’re overdue.” Conor is quite sure that won’t happen. Peter keeps his distance, doesn’t get involved anymore. He has his wife send 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,” he 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.”

Liam and Peter are talking. Conor watches their lips moving. He wants to say something, but he has the same sensation he’s had for months, that he can’t speak, can’t make a sound. It’s the feeling he gets in dreams, when he’s trying to scream for help and can’t make the syllables come out. It’s not a new feeling for him. He had it as a kid all the time. In school, he was always surprised when people heard him when he spoke.

By Thanksgiving Conor woke in the mornings fearing and hoping his father would be dead. On Christmas Eve, he 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. Every box had two or three balls missing, casualties of his father’s holiday rages. He couldn’t believe these things were ever special to anyone, brought out for a holy night. He had memorized everything about them—every bead, every ball, the silly snow-topped hills and 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.

Conor finished trimming the tree and brought his father out to the living room to show him. He touched a branch. “Pitiful-looking thing,” he said, as if he could really see it, but Conor knew his sight was pretty much gone, had been for years. “We could say the same thing about you,” Conor said and they laughed. They couldn’t find anything to talk about for a while, except that it smelled good. The tree became their television. They sat together, breathing it in. Then the old man started his stories, the ones he’d tell when he wasn’t quite plastered yet, tired old stuff about the war, about his brothers and their barroom brawls. When he got to the one about Conor’s grandfather, he thought he’d heard it before, but this version was different, and he suspected it was true.

“Your grandmother sent me out to bring him home that night. Christmas Eve. He was drinkin’ 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 goin’ to have one more. I sat there, playin’ with my straw, listenin’ to the men complain about bad councilmen and risin’ prices. 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 his father thought he didn’t believe him.

“Ask your uncle Bill. He’ll tell ya. Grandma ripped into him good that night.” He 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, or any one of his sisters and brothers. One time he got so drunk he left Moira on the beach. They found her with the lifeguards, who told their mother the girl had begged them not to return her to her father. This was what he couldn’t make Julie understand. He didn’t know how to be a father.

Maggie, joined now by her husband, Owen, is standing in front of a stone angel with its wings spread. She’s waiting for Conor to get out of the limousine. The sun is at her back, and the glare gives her the silhouette of a dark majestic bird. He knows she won’t leave his side until it’s over. He doesn’t see Julie anywhere. Helen, Peter’s wife, embraces him briefly, the fur of her hood tickling his cheek, and he wishes they’d stop being so careful with him.

Liam appears by Owen’s side. He’s wearing a dark overcoat that no longer fits him across the shoulders. He keeps one hand in his coat pocket, the other pats down his thinning hair taken by the breeze that’s come up. He speaks to Owen in a stage whisper: “Did Maggie tell you?”

“Tell me what?”

“You’re out of the will.”

Owen’s sudden chuckle comes out hard; the others laugh too. “That’s a lie,” he says, his words punctuated by the soft click of ill-fitting teeth. “The cane is mine. So are the ashtrays he stole from Mike’s Tavern.”      

Conor doesn’t find this funny, but the others do. Liam is taken by a fit of coughing. Their father coughed so badly that night by the tree that Conor told him he’d take him back to bed if he wanted. The old man waved him away, said he didn’t want Conor fussing over him. But he wondered afterward if his father found some comfort sitting by the tree. He said he liked the scent of it.

“You want to talk?” Conor asked him.

“Why? You got somethin’ you want to say?” The man’s surliness, predictable as it was, still got to him.

“No. I mean talk. Like family. Like we mean something to each other.” He pulled the collar of his shirt away from his neck. The heat in the apartment, always stifling, was making him sweat.

“What’s eatin’ you?”

“Forget it,” Conor said. His father 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, then exhaled, 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?” He pulled the sleeves of his flannel shirt up closer to his elbows, but they wouldn’t stay. There was nothing to him.

“I’m talking about plans. Hopes. Things you want for a person. For a son, for Chrissake.”

The old man made some kind of sound, took another long, deep drag and let it out slow. “You made your own plans,” he said. Despite everything, it amazed Conor that his father couldn’t even fake it, come up with some platitude about always wanting the best for him. But the old man offered no answer at all. He wasn’t going to prop him up, pretend things had ever been any different than they seemed.

He finished the cigarette and they watched the tree without trying anymore. Later, when Conor put him to bed, he 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 me to say?” He pounded his fist on the bed, the sound muted by the protective rubber beneath the sheet. “Do you think I could have changed anything?”

“Did you ever try?”

“Try. Right.” His father shook his head. “For fuck’s sake, Conor, life ain’t some college boy’s curriculum. It ain’t about settin’ goals and stickin’ to a plan. Some lives get fucked up, and they don’t get fixed,” he said, his words nearly buried in a series of coughs. He seemed to be struggling for words, a way to explain. “Conor, I’m like . . . like a man in a cage, except there ain’t no key. And all that ‘lettin’ go’ stuff they feed you in AA is a lot of horseshit. Maybe it works for a lucky few. I don’t know.”

“But you stayed sober for almost a year. That had to mean something.” Conor felt humiliated by the way he sounded, like a school boy protesting the senseless, grown-up world.

“Sober. Yeah. You know what sober feels like? Like you’re on stage, like a bear on the end of a chain. Everybody’s paid to see you dance and they want their money’s worth.” The old man 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. You think I wanted to be around more of that?”

Conor knew he should stop listening. He turned to go, got as far as the door. He wanted to take a walk, stand on some noisy street and be no one at all.

“Why do you put us through this?” his father said.

He understood then what he was doing—expecting that being together now, with death more defined each day, could help them discover the love that might still be there, that had to be there—was unkind, callous really, because it couldn’t happen. Their connection—the capacity to recognize what was true in each other, to cherish it—was irreparable. It need to be discarded. “I’m sorry, Dad.”

“Some things . . . some things get damaged, and they stay damaged.”

“It’s all right. You don’t have to say any more.”

“It’s not all right. I didn’t say it was all right.”

Conor imagined returning to the side of the bed, touching his hand. He didn’t.

“If you want to hear me say I’m sorry, I can do that.” He lowered himself onto the pillows, sank into them. “I’m sorry,” he said, closing his eyes, but the rest came out angry. “But for the life of me, I don’t see what good it does.”

Conor left the door slightly ajar, the way he always did. In the living room, he stood beside the anemic tree. One of the balls—a red cone-shaped thing, snow-topped, 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, some 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 him 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.

Maggie tells Conor they want everyone to put the roses on the casket and go. The prayers are done. They want to lower him into the dirt. The cars are waiting. They’ve got a regular routine for this. But his legs feel like stone. It’s cold and he can’t stop shivering. He never does that. But they’ve been standing there a long while. Bridget and Peter try to move him away. “He’s gone,” Bridget says. “It’s over.” He understands 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 thought he wanted this.

Conor smells Julie’s perfume before he feels her next to him. “I didn’t see you at the funeral home,” he says.

“I didn’t go in,” she says. She takes his hand and her presence triggers some knee-jerk desire to pretend he can get himself together. He steps back, hesitates, then lets her lead him away. They walk toward the path, away from the others. Her long cashmere coat is tawny like her hair. She wears sensible shoes that add little to her height. She holds his arm tightly, pulling him close, as if she knows this is where he belongs—with her. But the Donnegans were not so sure about her at first. “An Italian?” Maggie said to Conor. “She’ll have a hard time adjusting to this tribe.” And she did. The Donnegans were like a foreign land, she told him. 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’s boisterous closeness was comment enough. She told him once that she wondered if that was why he paid such close attention to life, to figure out how it’s done.

“I admire what you did for your father,” she says. “I know it was difficult.”

“I guess I had some business to finish.”

“Or something to get underway.”

He lets out a breath, shakes his head. “There was nothing getting underway 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.”

He waits for the rest.

“You and the kind of person you are.”

“Yeah, delusional.”

“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’s making, 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. He knows he’s not like his father. He has a career, people who rely on him, trust him. But the rest is pretty muddy, because he’s not Conor anymore either, at least no Conor he recognizes. At thirty-four, he should be solid enough to feel at home in his own skin. An identity should be more than an unending search, a series of false starts. 

“When do you think you’ll go back to work?”

“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.”

“In Atlanta, right?”

“Yes.”

“Would you like some company? I’ve got the vacation time.”

He 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 ending she wants to tack 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’s more comfortable alone, when he doesn’t have to worry about feeling inadequate. But she chose him, made it her mission to know him. She believes that she does. But it’s clear to Conor that she’s maintaining some image she has of 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 she’ll see someday that it’s been misdirected, he’s grateful for it.

So he 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 damages done will have to be tallied.

But not today. Julie 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 gently around the now-familiar surface of a weightless heirloom.

 

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