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Best of Irish Poetry 2010
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Gaynell Gavin is the author of Attorney-at-Large: A Novella and Intersections, a poetry chapbook, both from Main Street Rag Publishing. Her work appears in many journals and anthologies, including North Dakota Quarterly, Prairie Schooner, Solstice, and The Best of the Bellevue Literary Review. She was a 2012 Solstice Nonfiction Contest finalist and a 2011 Zone 3 Press Creative Nonfiction Book Award finalist. She lives in Columbia, South Carolina, with her husband and their menagerie of rescued animals.
My brother, Steve, was treated at Fitzsimmons and flown from Denver to St. Louis. While Apollo 8 orbited the moon, we picked him up at the airport. It was Christmas Eve. His plane had arrived early. I know our dad, oldest brother, and the twins were there. Mom's decision to stay home seems strange to me now. My brother sat alone on one of the orange, plastic airport chairs, his left hand in bandages, right in a cast stretching almost to his elbow. The injuries to his legs were covered by his pants. "Silent Night" was the airport background music selection, but in these snapshots of memory, everything except Steve blurs into background for me.
I am excited to see my brother. There are tears on my face. If Steve is excited to see us, he doesn't show it. He does not stand as we walk toward him, just glances our way and stares back into space. I rush to him, the first to reach him, but I don't know how to hug him without hurting him, so I kiss his cheek instead and whisper, "Stevie, I'm glad you're home." I do not know that I will never call him "Stevie" again. I feel my younger brother and sister, the twins, stop short behind me, scared. Then I see even the men don't know what to do—they too do not know how to touch my brother without hurting him. He cannot shake hands.
He glances up at Dad, "Where's Mom?"
"She's home cooking for you."
Steve stands abruptly, touches the twins' heads quickly, almost a caress, with the gauze of his left hand as we head for the baggage claim. In the parking garage, I wonder if Steve will like our new 1969 Ford Fairlane station wagon. I like it because it is a pretty metallic blue. I do not admit that occasionally I enjoy being crammed into the far back with the twins or some of my cousins. I should be too sophisticated for this pleasure, so tonight I sit in the back seat. After all, I am a sophomore. Nobody—at least nobody from St. Ann—is in the habit of wearing seat belts or thinks twice about packing kids in the back of a station wagon.
When Dad asks Steve what he thinks of the car, he just grunts, "Nice." Dad and our oldest brother, Dan, exchange glances while Dan insists that Steve sit in front and slides into the back seat next to me. Steve has our mom’s dark hair, like me. The twins, ash blond like Dad and Dan, climb into the back of the station wagon.
It must feel cold to Steve here in December's Midwest after that hot land. It is a beautiful winter evening, not snowy, but with some frost on the ground and on the black winter trees as we head north on 367, cross the Missouri, and approach the Mississippi—the old bridge silhouetted black against the purple-gray sky, with the day's last smattering of gold to our west, where we'll head after crossing that long and narrow bridge. The water beneath us is wide and black, reflecting purple-gray-gold and the even blacker tree branches—cold, dangerous, beautiful. The twins are giggling, shrieking the bridge will collapse, the fast current will take us under, freeze us, and it will be like the Titanic, but I always knew that bridge would hold. Always.
The twins begin to sing, Oh they built the ship Titanic to sail the ocean blue, and they built her so the water'd never get through, but the good lord raised his hand and said that ship would never stand, it was sad when the great ship went down.
Dan is quiet beside me, the kids are shrieking and singing behind me, and Dad is trying to get Steve to talk with questions like "Glad to be home?" He gets answers like "Yeah."
Monosyllabic, I think. I like words, and monosyllabic is the kind of word I like. English is about the only class in which I do really well. Most of my other classes bore me. I learned about the Greek chorus in English, and that chorus is behind me in the station wagon right now. It was sad, so sad, it was sad, so sad, it was sad when the great ship went down.
Dad says, "Tell Steve how you're doing in school, Devon."
"All As in English," I say. "We're reading For Whom the Bell Tolls."
For the first time since he left us nine months ago, my brother looks at me and smiles, "That's good."
Two words, polysyllabic—progress, I think, adding, "Yeah, you don't really want to know about my other classes. Trust me." I do not add that I think Hemingway was a misogynist whose ideal woman was monosyllabic, and even then she wasn't mute enough for him because he still killed her off in childbirth. My brother does not seem up for a discussion of misogyny right now, but when I shared this theory with my teacher, Mr. Goldstein, he told me I'm on to something important. I consider Mr. Goldstein an intellectual. I think he kind of gets a kick out of me, and to tell the truth, I have a crush on him. I’m glad he doesn’t seem to think I’m sophomoric.
Husbands and wives, little children lost their lives, it was sad when the great ship went down.
The bridge takes us into Bluffton, and we head west, skirting the small city's east end, past the brick walls of Holy Ghost, where my mother went to high school after she left St. Ann to board in Bluffton; then we pass the two-story law office, also brick, where Katie Connor, Steve's grade-school crush from St. Theresa's, works now. We continue past Bluffton's downtown to the granary where River Street meets River Highway. On the highway, we stay west with the coming night, into its twilight blue, and the Mississippi bends to our south, limestone bluffs to our north.
They were coming close to England and coming close to shore when the rich refused to associate with the poor, so they put them down below where they'd be the first to go, it was sad when the great ship went down.
"Knock it off, you twins," Dad yells, silencing the chorus, as we cut north, up Bluff Terrace Road, and then west again on County Line Highway, leaving Trumbull County, passing fields of Hereford County, farmhouse Christmas lights sprinkling the night. Our house is outside St. Ann, off of County Line on Kavanaugh Road. My parents built it in the fifties, when I was a baby. Dad still farms with my grandparents half a mile down that road, only they’re too old to farm now, so it’s my dad and older brothers who do almost all the farm work. Dad didn't put up many outdoor decorations this year, but colored lights glow around our front door. Our house is a brick ranch, in an era of brick, on an acre, and I love how safe it makes me feel, although I don't admit it. There are millions of houses like ours across the country.
Dad pulls into our drive with one word that comes out almost as a sigh, "Home," which gets "Yeah" from Steve as he opens the door and steps slowly from the car, while Dan is sliding out from beside me saying he'll get Steve's duffel bag. The twins don't wait for Dan to open the back of the car but tumble over his seat and out the door behind him. I sit in the car for a second trying to name my feelings, as I look at the lights over our door, sense the light behind draped front windows. My brother has come back to us, but there is something sad in my gladness. Bittersweet, I think and picture the plant's burnt-orange berries.
I follow my family inside where Steve crosses the living room into our kitchen and, for the first time all evening, speaks three words. "Mom, I'm home."
Our mother turns from the kitchen sink, a dish towel in her hands, some silver glinting in her dark hair beneath the ceiling light, and right away I see our mom doesn't really know what to do either. She takes a deep breath and kisses his cheek, twisting the dish towel in the grip of her hands. "We'll have turkey tomorrow. I fixed chicken and dumplings – your favorite – for tonight."
Steve nods. "It smells good."
Our kitchen does smell and feel good, warm and steamy after the cold night air. Tomorrow we will eat in the dining room, and our grandparents will be here, but tonight we sit at the long Formica kitchen table. Dan leaves before we eat, promising to return with his wife for Christmas dinner tomorrow. The rest of this evening is promised to her parents. He kind of claps his hand on Steve's shoulder gently. "Glad you're home man. See you tomorrow."
Steve remains seated at the table and gives his standard reply. "Yeah." Our dinner is good though, and he says so, even thanks Mom.
For a little while, we seem almost happy, almost normal, whatever that means, and then, after we eat, I wreck it. Dad goes into the living room to turn on the Christmas tree lights and read the paper. Mom goes to the basement where we have a TV room and a laundry room. The twins watch TV while Mom starts laundry. My brother stays at the table, staring out a window as if he can see into the dark. I clear dishes, then sit down across from him and tell him I hate the war for hurting him—from now on, I will be an anti-war protester, even if I am the only one in St. Ann.
My brother screams at me to shut up. Pounding his cast against our kitchen table, he screams, "My country, right or wrong. Love it, or leave it," almost a screaming chant, as he pounds the cast, "My country, right or wrong."
I am crying. Mom and Dad run into the kitchen with the twins behind them. Dad is telling everyone to calm down while Mom is yelling at us to be quiet, only she's not quiet. She's screaming too, at my brother, "I told you, I told you not to go."
It's not that I've never seen my mom cry before, but I've never seen her cry this way, turning from us, leaning over the sink, sobbing while Dad puts his arm across her shoulders, saying, “Jo, Josephine,” as if saying her name could help.
Later, in bed, I think how my dad never talks about World War II, the war he and some of my uncles fought in. Maybe I will ask about it someday, but probably not. I think words like proportionate and cliché. I only want my brother to know my hatred for the war is proportionate to my love for him, but he has become someone I don't know, who screams clichés at me, only the way he pounded his cast on our table was not a cliché, and—epiphany, right then, in the quiet night, just as these thoughts surge over me, I know nothing will ever be the same again.
From my southeast bedroom-office window, I see down Royal Street to the Mississippi River and the Marquette Bridge. From the northeast window, I look across the street to St. Pat's Cathedral. In coming years, I will miss the church's winter Christmas decorations, the warmth of its electric holiday candles in the windows as late afternoon bleeds before fading, then darkening into early evening, parents pulling into the drive between the church and elementary school to pick up children as the first semester draws to a close—a gray pickup, followed by a new black Honda Accord, a white mini-van, then an old blue station wagon, reminding me of my family's station wagon forty years ago when I was a kid. I think of the holiday lights my dad used to put over the front door of our house on Kavanaugh Road outside St. Ann. I miss those lights, and I miss my parents.
I'm unsure why the quotidian calms and comforts me, why I love Bluffton's ordinary details. They give me such quiet joy, offsetting some of the weight of that community's grim poverty for me. It is not that I am naïve. I taught for over thirty years. I know that all around me, sometimes people do terrible things.
At times I find myself staring at nothing really, then refocusing on the ordinary in an extraordinary way, my window blinds tilted at such an angle that someone emerging from a car, blurred, appears to walk on three legs or, more ethereally, floats on no legs at all, some maverick ray of light hitting the window just so, distorting my view, and a bird flies backwards, a dog leads a person on a leash, some small girl, a toddler really, leads her grandmother to the chapel's side door, the hand-laid limestone wall in front of St. Pat's glows green for no apparent reason, while headlight fingers illuminate Midwestern trees in their dark winter nudity. Teachers shut the doors, church chimes at five, a little later, shape-shifting light bronzes the school windows as a custodian enters. The evening temperature drops. Parishioners, joggers, dog walkers hunker over a little, nestle into their jackets. Who, what is real, and what does it all mean?
Wondering, I make myself leave this winter window for dinner with a friend at the Starlight Restaurant, outside of town on County Line Highway. There I sacrifice my habitual vegetarianism once a week, ordering the fried chicken that I remember from rare childhood occasions when my family ate out. My parents knew the Starlight owners, gone now, but their sons have taken over, and the secret fried-chicken recipe, which made the restaurant famous around here, remains.
Today, another season, I stand here packing—divorced more years now than I spent married, retired from North Bluffton Elementary, decades since I moved here, one county over from St. Ann to teach in this ghettoized place of wantonly neglected beauty and talent. Houses practically fall down within a mile of me. My building is old, but maintained, native Southern Illinois limestone, with a lush yard. First it was a convent, next a home for spinsters and widows, condos by the time I moved in. Outside my bedroom-office window, the lawn, day lilies the color of bittersweet summer, bricks of Clifton Street stretch downhill to Royal Avenue and St. Pat's.
I left the church when I left St. Ann, or maybe in my heart, I left earlier, when my brother was hurt in Vietnam, but I watch St. Pat's the way some people watch TV. My parents stayed with the church, although I remember moments of smoldering rebellion from my mom. The best was when we were still small and lined up in a pew at the front of another church, St. Theresa's. It was just before mass, one of the few instances we were actually on time. My mother was standing, facing her two girls and three boys with a stern look that meant we'd better maintain our angelic appearance, when ruddy, guttural Father Henry turned from the altar, stepped down toward my mother, saying, “You better make sure those kids behave if you’re going to sit up front.”
My mother spun on her heel toward him, hissing, “Father, I will take care of my family, and you take care of your hangover.” Later, from the yard, outside our open kitchen window, I overheard Mom tell Dad that priest was “a pompous ass”. At the time, I did not know what it all meant, but I knew enough to love and remember my mom's performance with the priest. It was sort of like a good TV show. After that I knew we could get away with mocking him as “Father Heinie” right in front of her.
This evening, I will go back to St. Ann alone, to St. Theresa’s cemetery to the graves of my parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and Steve. Cicadas will shriek into the setting sun, as I look to the surrounding hills, remembering their funerals. Today, packing, think of my coming life in Colorado Springs, with my brother's widow. When Steve came back from Vietnam, he seemed crazy, but he became less agitated after marrying Nora. They had thirty-six pretty decent years before he died of a heart attack on the golf course, doing what he loved.
Tomorrow the twins will come to help me with the last packing. Then we will have dinner at the Starlight with Dan and his wife, but first, very early, before the heat, I will walk a half mile along uphill bricks angled to help horses keep their footing in another time. At the top of my brick street, I will stand in Blufftop Park, trees dark, lush along the bluffs. I will look out over the Mississippi, where it is a mile wide, barges moving slowly, Missouri on the other side.
The following morning, I will cross over the Mississippi on the Marquette Bridge, completed fifteen years ago, cable-stays gleaming gold in sunlight, graphite as the sun sets, silvery when weather grays and in twilight-blue before the sun rises or after it sets. This bridge is much larger, and more beautiful I suppose, than the narrow one of my childhood, but I loved that old bridge. I have crossed both – old and new bridges – countless times in all seasons at varied hours of day and night. This time, I will cross in that near-indigo before sunrise, that twilight, the blue hour.
©2013 Gaynell Gavin
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