Lorna Brown recently completed an MFA in creative writing with Emerson College. She grew up in Ireland but now lives in Massachusetts with her wonderfully patient husband and her three busy daughters. Several of Lorna’s short stories have appeared in literary magazines, such as Congruent Spaces, The Manila Envelope, The Missing Slate, EWR and others. One story was nominated for The Pushcart Prize.
A Short Story
By Lorna Brown
At twenty-three, Lou could have been taken for a fifteen-year-old if not for his eyes. He was prone to stare, and had an air of malice that made people forget how slight he was. He had an idea that he made others uncomfortable. But he didn’t think too much of it. He was as reluctant to wonder why people behaved the way they do, as he was to think about himself. If he did, he would understand that Hagan had shaped him into the quiet insular man he was. To most things he did, there was an element of shame, though he would not have understood it as such. He believed he was shy and incapable of understanding his surroundings to the full extent. He supposed his inability to re-visualize the world (a phrase Richmond had used that he had always remembered) had left him with an erring point of view. There were things he would never comprehend, not only other people’s behavior but his own. Why for example did he find an adrenalin rush from taking what was not his? He stole small things at first, knives and glasses from the café he worked in, a little cash here and there, a phone left on the counter.
It was the invisibility of thievery that he loved, the fact that he could get away with doing something that no-one else saw, and no-one bar Joe would be privy too. As a child, Lou had learned to hate attention. Attention was Hagan shouting at him and pulling him from his seat. Attention was her hands pinching his cheeks and her harsh voice flowing over him. Once he’d tried to loosen her grasp on his cheeks by moving his head this way and that, like a dog trying to break free from its leach and his teeth ended up on the skin between her thumb and pointer finger. He tasted the salt of her, and knew what he had done when it was too late. He could never understand how he had bitten her, a blank moment and her flesh was between his teeth. It was not anger that made him do it. He’d never felt angry until he saw Joe laid out cold, and Lou had the urge to tug at Joe’s suit and shout at him to wake up.
If Lou had never met Hagan, if life had led him on a different path, he would have cried, and Joe’s mother might have stood beside him, instead of watching him from the couch. Between them was the coffin that held her son. She could not stay in the room long. Throughout the day she would sit on the couch until she felt as if the very air was being squeezed from her. Her head would get light and she would start to imagine what it would be like to scream and tear at the dead boy in front of her. She wanted to pull him from the coffin, lay him over her, like she did when he was a baby. All those scraped knees, the tearful embraces, how could they have led to this? Her scramble from the room would be urgent and distressing.
Joe’s father, balding, the buttons of his white shirt straining under his belly, was sitting in the kitchen getting steadily drunk. His hands were on the table and his gaze kept on his can of beer. He had not uttered a word all day and refused to go to the sitting room. He could not look at his son like that. He wasn’t strong enough, or drunk enough. Neighbors patted him on the shoulder, and moved towards the open back door to chat or smoke, ignoring the ashtray full of cigarettes with the blue trails issuing from it.
At the living room door, mourners paused with the sight of Lou. He was known as a trouble maker and was too pale and drawn in the face for comfort. His knuckles shone white against the black lacquer of the coffin. There was an air of tension. “It was like stepping around broken glass,” an elderly neighbor would say, “Stan in the kitchen and Lou Denison in the living room. We were all afraid of what might happen…”
Lou didn’t think of it. He thought of nothing, but his too-still friend. There was a time when Lou hadn’t known Joe but he couldn’t remember. They’d been best friends since they were six. Lou felt as if his insides had been scooped out. He was a husk staring at Joe in his only suit that was too short in the legs now. On the couch in front of him sat Molly, a tiny woman with white hair. Her black dress was baggy around the belly and waist. She held her handbag on her knees. She was a nonagenarian and lived in one of the smaller houses around the corner. She had been sitting for hours with her elderly neighbor, Eugene. Eugene Morris wore a grey suit and had gnarled hands. Sister Margaret, an elegant nun from the secondary school had stood beside Lou at one stage and said that he could take a break if he wanted. Molly was not going anywhere. She insisted that she would stay for the night. She’d been seventy when Joe was born and had never thought she would out-live him. There were no relations to take a permanent place in the living room. Neighbors drifted in and out. The stools around the edge of the room were empty. In this house, there had just been the parents, Stan and Nora, and their son Joe. Growing up, Lou and Joe had shared a feeling of isolation. But Joe had had graveyards to visit. His maternal grandparents were buried three miles up the road and his father’s parents were in Co. Meath. There were names and stories to root him. While Lou’s mother refused to talk about her family
She did not come to the wake either. He would discover this when he’d get home red –eyed, and feeling the ripening of an anger that would never leave. She’d tell him she hadn’t been able to bring herself to walk the few hundred yards to Joe’s house. It scared her too much. “What about me? Didn’t you think I was fucking scared?” he’d say and her surprise would infuriate him. He had always been quiet. He had wandered in and out of her house without demands. His earliest memory was standing at the kitchen, a room of dark colors and dust. His hand was reaching towards the glass door and the figure on the other side moving away. He knew it had to have been his mother. After school, he’d come home to find soggy tomato sandwiches on the table for him. He would pass them by, and take the soiled pants from his bag and put them in the washing machine before his mother saw them. She must have seen them later, but she never said anything.
Ester Raines was beside Lou now. He hadn’t noticed her arrival. She sighed. After a moment she said, “I’m so sorry Lou.” She was in her sixties, small and firmly built. Her hair was cut tight, curled and dyed red. Lou nodded. The urge to cry would come and go. Ester was watching him with soft eyes that made him feel young and vulnerable. If things had been different, he might have gone for the hug that her gaze offered. Ester was a kind woman. She’d worked in the primary school as a cleaner when Lou was there. She’d found him in the playground once and asked, ‘what’s wrong, what’s happening?’ He hadn’t known how to answer. His second teacher Richmond had asked something similar. He’d tried to help Lou, but Lou hated the fuzzy letters, the smell and quietness of the classroom, and the sight of Richmond’s finger on the page.
Ester was gone. Joe’s mother trembled as she left the room. An empty fire place stood behind Lou. Against the wall were the small stools that had been borrowed from the local pub. A small television stood in the left corner, mute and cheerless. Over the fireplace was a photo of Joe as a baby with his dark tuft of hair and wide grin. On the wall to the right of the mantle, there was an image of Joe in his communion suit standing outside the church. He looked pious with hands joined and a shy smile. In Lou’s house, there was a picture of Lou and Joe standing together. Lou’s piousness was not so convincing with his runny nose and sideways glance towards what might have been his mother. His father had stopped coming home months before. His absence was not discussed on that day or later when the photo had been framed and hung on the wall. To Lou’s right and facing the living room door was a photo of Joe in his graduation suit. He was standing by the front door and smiling. His fringe was long and hanging over one eye. Lou had not been there that night. He’d dropped out of school at fourteen. Joe had asked him to come. “At least have one drink with me.”
Lou said he’d rather die than hang out with those wankers. Besides he didn’t drink, he was a smoker. At sixteen the thumb and pointer finger on both hands were nicotine stained from rolling cigarettes and joints. They seemed like an unlikely pair, dark haired handsome Joe, the life of the party, the budding musician and impersonator of teachers. He’d liked attention and notice, while Lou was quiet. To some people, he seemed dull and maybe a little dimwitted. But the boys were inseparable. They moved to Dublin the first chance they got. By the time they’d left the village, the primary school had been extended. There were two more teachers to handle the growing population of children from the housing estates. Hagan no longer had the first four years to teach. In Lou and Joe’s day, this comprised of only fifteen children. Of all of them, Lou was the one she liked to send to the corner for being stupid, an eejit, not being able to read at seven. No, you cannot go to the bathroom.
Joe had made Lou laugh then. He had been funny and reckless. The manic moods and anxiety came later. In Dublin, Joe might be high on his chances of success. He’d spend the day talking about being discovered busking on Grafton Street. He would be another Glen Hansard, a singer songwriter made big by the city. But the next week he might not get out of bed with the fear of it all.
The last time Lou talked to him was from a Dublin garda station. “I have to pay a fine,” Lou said. “They won’t press charges.”
“This time,” Joe said.
“Alright, can you come or not?”
What had Joe said then, nothing? Had he just hung up? Had he known what he was doing when he cycled through the red light on a busy street?
Lou shivered. The evening had gotten cold. There was a slight wind that blew into the hall whenever the door opened. Lou was aware of the flutter of clothes and the youthful murmurs the moment they arrived. Molly gazed at them standing at the living room door. Their presence saddened her further. She was reminded of everything stolen from the boy lying in front of her. Sinead Geraghty had long red hair and rings on every finger. Her supple body was hidden under a black coat that looked big enough to be her father’s. With her were Miles Flood, bulky bodied with a shaved head and bomber jacket, Richard Foley with his mop of thick brown hair and an old suit, Joanne Walsh, blonde with bad skin, and her boyfriend Gerald Daley with long hair and tight jeans. Sinead was the first to approach the coffin. Her movements were graceful compared to the shuffling of the others. Lou didn’t look up. He felt as if he was underwater, waiting for a break in air. They didn’t know him, but it was easy to forget this, to accept their wariness as reasonable. There was a temptation to step back from the coffin, to surrender to them, but he couldn’t move back from Joe. His hand felt glued to the hardwood. Maybe this was the only thing keeping him steady. Joanne thought his lack of acknowledgment was the reason for her discomfort, the way he had of ignoring you, or looking at you as if he saw right through you. She wanted to shove him and say, “Hey.” The boys were pissed that he was taking so much room, that he thought himself so fucking important as to stand with is legs sprawled and his hands on the coffin. They stood beside Lou and the girls cried.
Lou gaze drifted to the window covered with a net curtain. Outside, he could see the outline of the houses across the street. Six steps and you’d be from one pavement to the other. He and Joe had counted it as boys. The houses across the street were identical two-story houses with small square gardens and a sloping driveway. Lou noticed the net curtain was slightly yellow in places. The place smelled of stale cigarettes. Lou would have liked to smoke, but he couldn’t leave Joe. And in any case, the thought of leaving the room and walking through the bodies was too much. Sinead and the gang might be in the narrow hall, or the kitchen. Lou couldn’t tell if they’d stood beside him hours or minutes ago. His legs hurt. He’d been standing all day. He was suddenly conscious of his dry mouth and empty stomach, though he would not leave the room while Joe lay there.
The mirror in the hall reflected the back of Nora Hession’s lank brown hair when she paused to look at him. She wore a long shapeless black dress and a black cardigan. She walked into the room and stood beside Lou instead of taking her place on the couch. The smell of cigarettes was intoxicating. Her breathing seemed labored. “Don’t you want to sit down,” she said. In a glance, he saw pale skin and tired blue eyes. She had a long face and engraved lines on her forehead and at the sides of her mouth. He didn’t know how to read her. The words reached him seconds after they were spoken. He’d been unable to grasp the intonation, concern or impatience? He would probably have guessed the latter, but he was too tired to think. It was dark outside and he stepped back and sat on the low stool. He was surprised when she took the seat beside him, but not altogether unhappy. It was nice to have her there, to smell the familiar scent and to share the silence. Usually, she made him nervous, but he was at ease now. She wasn’t looking at him. They had Joe in common.
When she said, “You were always trouble,” Lou imagined he heard Joe laugh. “She doesn’t know the half of it,” he would have said if he was alive. He would have nudged Lou too, loosened him up, made him smile, but Joe wasn’t there and Lou was stiff and unable to move a single muscle.
“I know he was on his way to see you.” When she looked at him, he felt the chill in her gaze. He wished that she would hit him. He imagined the sound of the slap, the reddening of his cheek. He imagined her hitting him again and again and he wouldn’t resist. Silently he begged for her to call Stan with his beer breathe and hairy knuckles. Stan could pull Lou from the stool and hit him hard enough to break something inside. The mourners would watch from the door. They’d be drawn from the kitchen or the small square patch at front and back where they congregated to smoke. No-one would say anything because no-one ever did. But she didn’t hit him or call Stan. She sighed and rose from the stool.