Long Bright River: A Novel (6 page)

BOOK: Long Bright River: A Novel
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THEN

There are some people who ascribe to their suffering the particular cause of a difficult childhood. Kacey, for example, one of the last times we spoke, had recently come to the conclusion that her troubles began first with our parents, who abandoned her, and then with Gee, who, she said, never loved her, and may in fact have disliked her.

I looked at her, blinking, and said to her as levelly as I could that I grew up in the same household as she did. My implication, of course, was that it is the decisions that I have made in life that have placed me on my specific path—decisions, not chance. And that although our childhood may not have been idyllic, it sufficiently prepared one of us, at least, for a productive life.

But when I said this, Kacey only buried her head in her hands and said to me, It’s different, Mickey, things have always been so different for you.

To this day, I don’t know what her meaning could have been.

In fact, it is possible to argue, I believe—if we were to evaluate who had the more
difficult
childhood, whatever that may mean—one might find the balance tipped toward me.

I say this because, of the two of us, I am the only one with memories of our mother, and very fond ones at that. Therefore, the loss of our mother was difficult for me in a way that it would not have been for Kacey, who was too little, while our mother was alive, to recall her.


She was young, our mother. Eighteen years old at the time of her pregnancy with me. She was a senior in high school—a good student, Gee
always said, a good girl—and she had only been dating our father for a few months when it happened. As the story goes, it took everyone by surprise, and no one more than Gee, who to this day narrates the shock of the news with urgency and grief.
No one believed it,
she says.
When I told them. They all said, not Lisa.

Gee was just religious enough to make an abortion out of the question. But she was also religious enough to be enraged by the pregnancy, ashamed of it, to see it as something to hide. The year was 1984. Gee herself had been married at nineteen and had had Lisa at twenty, but times were different then, Gee liked to say. Gee’s husband died very young in a car accident—I wonder, today, if he had been drunk, since Gee often mentions his drinking—and she never remarried.

I used to imagine that things would have gone differently for Gee if her husband, our grandfather, hadn’t died. So much of her life has been governed by the need to simply keep her head above water: to put food on the table, to pay bills, to pay down the debt that she constantly incurs. If she had had a partner in these endeavors—someone to add a paycheck, someone to mourn alongside when her only daughter died—perhaps her life, and ours, might have been better. But this sort of idle speculation might be pure sentimentality, for to this day Gee claims she has no use for men: thinks of them only as obstacles in her path, nuisances who are only occasionally necessary for the propagation of human life. She mistrusts them implicitly. Avoids them when possible.

The only thing she really got out of her union, it seems, was the ability to say that she had been married when her daughter was conceived—
married,
she explained, often, thrusting a finger into an invisible chest. She had done things correctly.

When Lisa delivered the news of her pregnancy, therefore, Gee had insisted on a wedding. Gee had met this Daniel Fitzpatrick (
this
Daniel Fitzpatrick was how Gee permanently referred to our father) only once before, but now she sat both of them on her sofa and insisted they see the priest at her parish and formalize their vows. Our father himself was the offspring of a single mother who was notoriously irresponsible: a floozy, Gee often said, who had
not
been married when her son was conceived,
thus sealing forever in Gee’s mind the firm line between the two of them, where respectability was concerned. Worse, in Gee’s estimation: the son was a charity case at the school. Someone who raised tuition, Gee lamented, for other working people. What our father’s mother thought about all of this—the baby, the marriage, Gee herself—is lost to time. I cannot, in fact, ever recall meeting her. She did not attend our mother’s funeral: an offense that Gee will take to her own grave.

In Gee’s telling of things—the only version of events that I have ever heard—Lisa and Daniel, our parents, got married in private at Holy Redeemer, on a Wednesday afternoon, with Gee and the deacon as witnesses. Then Gee took Dan in, giving her daughter and her new son-in-law the middle bedroom in the house, taking rent whenever the young couple could give it, and telling the rest of the family the news as slowly as she possibly could. Head held high. Defiant.

Five months later, I was born. Kacey a year and a half after that.

Four years later, our mother was dead.


Of the years in between my birth and my mother’s death, there are memories, still, if I quiet my mind sufficiently. It is rarer and rarer, these days, that I can. On a shift, sometimes, inside my patrol car, I remember being in the backseat of a car that my mother was driving. No car seat, in those days. No seat belt either. In the front seat, my mother was singing.

From time to time it happens, too, when I’m at the refrigerator, any refrigerator, at home or at work: a quick vision of my young mother complaining to Gee, in Gee’s kitchen, that there’s nothing inside.
Oh really,
says Gee, in another room.
Then why don’t you put something in it.

And a pool. Someone’s pool. Rare to be at a pool. And the lobby of a movie theater, though I’m not sure where it was, and every movie theater is in Center City, now, and the others are closed or converted to concert venues.

I remember my mother’s youth, the way she seemed like a child herself, or a peer, her skin clear and smooth, her hair still the shining hair of a child. I remember, too, the way Gee softened around her, became
stiller, stopped moving, for once in her life. She laughed in spite of herself, put a hand over her mouth at her daughter’s antics, shook her head in disbelief.
You’re nuts. She’s nuts. This must be the nuthouse,
Gee said, looking at me, grinning, proud. Gee, in those days, was kinder, bewitched by her funny, irreverent daughter, unaware of the fate that would befall her, and all of us.

Harder still to recall are the memories that come to me in the still dark of my bedroom. Whenever Thomas is in close proximity to me, little-boy head right next to me, whenever I am close enough to his skin to breathe its scent—there—just there—is a flash of my own mother beside me in my childhood bed. My mother’s face, young face, my mother’s body, young body, covered in a black T-shirt with writing on it that I cannot read. The arms of my mother around me. My mother’s eyes closed. My mother’s mouth open. Her breath the sweet breath of a grass-eating animal. I am four and I put one hand on her cheek.
Hello,
says my mother, and she puts her mouth on my cheek, talks into my face, and there are the teeth and the lips of my mother.
My baby,
said my mother, over and over, the phrase she used most in the world. If I try very hard, I can still hear her saying it in her high, happy voice, which sometimes carried inside it a note of surprise: that she, Lisa O’Brien, had a baby at all.


What I do not recall is anything to do with my mother’s addiction. Perhaps I repressed it; or perhaps I simply didn’t know what it was, what it meant, didn’t recognize the signs of addiction or its trappings. My memories of my mother are warm and loving and made all the more painful by the fact of their happiness.

Similarly, I do not recall my mother’s death, nor do I recall being informed of it. I have retained only its aftermath: Gee pacing our house like a lion, tearing at her hair and shirt. Gee hitting her own head with the hard palm of her hand as she spoke on the phone, and then biting the back of her wrist, as if to muffle a cry. People speaking in whispers. People stuffing the two of us, Kacey and me, into stiff dresses and tights
and too-small shoes. A gathering in a church: tiny, subdued. Gee sinking down in the pew. Gee grabbing Kacey’s arm to stop her making noise. Our father, on the other side of us, useless. Silent. A gathering at our house. A great sense of shame. The knees and the thighs and the shoes and the suit jackets of adults. The rustle of fabric. No children. No cousins. The cousins kept away. A long winter. Absence. Absence. People forgetting us, forgetting to talk to us. People forgetting to hold us. People forgetting to bathe us. To feed us. Then: foraging for food. Feeding myself. Feeding my sister. Finding and smelling what our mother left behind (her black T-shirt, still unreadable to me; the sheets on the bed in our parents’ room, in which our father still slept; a half-empty soda in the fridge; the insides of her shoes) until Gee had a daylong fit of finding and purging her things. Then finding and smelling her hairbrushes, tucked at the back of a drawer. Wrapping the strands of my mother’s hair around my fingers until the bulbs of them turned purple.

All of these memories are fading, now. These days, I bring forth each one only sparingly, and then place it carefully back in its drawer. I ration them. Preserve them. Each year they become slighter, more translucent, fleeting shards of sweetness on the tongue. If I can keep them intact enough, I tell myself, then one day I might pass them on to Thomas.


Kacey was only a baby at the time of our mother’s death. Two years old. Still in diapers that often went unchanged for too long. Wandering around the house, lost, climbing stairs she shouldn’t have been climbing, hiding in small places for too long, in closets, under beds. Opening drawers with dangerous things inside. She seemed to like being at eye level with adults, and regularly I rounded a corner to find her sitting on a countertop in the kitchen or the bathroom: tiny, unmonitored, alone. She had a ragdoll named Muffin and two pacifiers, never washed, that she stashed carefully in hiding places where nobody else could find them. Once both of them were lost, that was that: Gee wouldn’t replace them, and Kacey cried for days afterward, missing them, suckling frantically at fingers and at air.

It was not an intentional decision on my part to begin to take care of my sister. Perhaps recognizing that nobody else would be stepping in to do so, I silently volunteered. She was still sleeping, in those days, in a crib in my room. But it didn’t take her long to learn to climb out of it, and soon she did so every night. Stealthily, with the skill and coordination of an older child, Kacey would spider her way out of the wooden crib and toddle into bed with me. I was the one who reminded the adults around us when Kacey needed to be changed. I was the one who, eventually, potty trained my sister. I took my role as her protector seriously. I bore the weight of it with pride.

As we grew, Kacey begged me to tell her stories about our mother. Each night, in our shared bed, I was Scheherazade, recounting all the episodes I could recall, inventing the others. Do you remember when she took us on a trip to the beach? I’d say, and Kacey would nod eagerly. Remember the ice cream she bought us? I’d say. Remember pancakes for breakfast? Remember her reading us stories at bedtime? (This, ironically, was a parental activity very frequently mentioned in the books that we read to ourselves.) I told her all of these stories and more. I lied. And as Kacey listened, her eyes closed slightly, like the eyes of a cat in the sun.

I do admit, with great shame, that being the bearer of family history in this way also gave me a kind of terrible power over my sister, a weapon that I wielded only once. It was at the end of a long day, and a long argument, and Kacey had been hounding me about something I can no longer recall. Finally I let out, in a fit of rage, an atrocity that I regretted at once.
She told me that she loved me more,
I said to Kacey. To this day, it remains the worst lie I ever told. I took it back right away, but it was too late. I had already seen Kacey’s small face turn red and then crumble. I had seen her mouth open, as if to respond. Instead, she let out a wail. It was pure grief. It was the cry of a much older person, someone who’d already seen too much. Even today, I can hear it if I try.

There was some talk, after the funeral, of our father taking us elsewhere to live. But he never seemed to have the money or the initiative to make this happen, and so instead we stayed there, the three of us, all together under Gee’s roof.

This was a mistake.

Our father and Gee had never gotten along, but now they fought constantly. Sometimes the fights had to do with her suspicion that he was using in her house—on this question, I assume Gee’s instincts were correct—but more than that, they were about his being late with the rent. I can still remember some of those fights, though Kacey, last I spoke to her, could not.

Soon, the tension between them grew unbearable, and our father moved out. Abruptly, we became Gee’s responsibility. And about this, Gee was not happy.
I thought I was done with all this,
she said to us often, mostly when Kacey had gotten into some nonsense or other. When I picture her face, I mainly recall that her eyes were always elsewhere: she never looked at us, but above or beside us, glancingly, the way one might look at the sun. As an adult, I have, in more generous moments, wondered whether the loss of her daughter, whom she clearly loved feverishly, caused her to hold us always at a distance. To her we must have been small reminders both of Lisa and of our own mortality, the potential we held for the infliction of further pain, further loss.

If Gee often seemed annoyed at us, most of her emotion was in fact
directed away from us, at our father, for whom she reserved a kind of incredulous, powerful rage, a disbelief at the depths to which he could sink when it came to shirking his familial responsibilities. I knew it the first time I saw him, she told us, in a monologue that she delivered once a month when the child-support payment failed to come. I told Leese that I never saw a shadier character in all my life.

The other thing that I knew about our father also came from Gee.
He
got her hooked on that shit, Gee said—never directly to us, but frequently on the phone, loudly enough so that we would be certain to hear.
He ruined her.

After our mother died,
this Daniel Fitzpatrick
became
Him
and
He.
The only
He
in our lives, aside from a few uncles and God. When we saw him, we called him
Daddy
, which seems unthinkable to me now: almost like a different person was saying it. Even at the time, it felt strange to use the word if he hadn’t been by in a while. But he called himself that too.
I’m their daddy,
we heard him say to Gee, often, arguing a point. And Gee would say,
Then act like it.

Eventually, he disappeared completely. We did not see him for a decade. Then, when I was twenty, a former friend of his told me casually that he had died, the same way everyone does in the northeast quadrant of Philadelphia. The same way I thought Kacey had died, the first time I found her. The second time. The third.

My father’s friend thought I’d known already, he said, noticing my reaction.

I hadn’t.

As for our mother: after her passing, Gee referred to her only infrequently. But sometimes, I caught her looking at our mother’s smiling and gap-toothed grade school photograph—the only whisper of her that remained in the house, one that lives, still, on the wall of the living room—for longer than she ever would have, if she’d known she was being watched. Other times, in the middle of the night, I thought that I heard Gee crying: a hollow, eerie wail, a stuttering childlike keen, the sound of endless grief. But in the daytime, Gee gave no indication that she felt anything, aside from resignation and resentment. She made bad
choices, said Gee, about our mother. Don’t you go choosing the same old shit.


In the absence of our parents, we grew.

Gee was still young when our mother died, just forty-two, but she seemed to us much older. She worked constantly, often multiple jobs: catering, retail, house cleaning. In the winter, her house was permanently cold. She kept the heat at fifty-five, just barely warm enough to keep the pipes from freezing. We wore our jackets and our hats indoors.
Are youse gonna pay the bill?
Gee asked us, when we complained. The house seemed ghostly when she was gone: it had been in her family since 1923, when her Irish grandfather bought it, and then her father inherited it, and then Gee. It was a little rowhome, two stories, three tiny bedrooms in a line off an upstairs hallway, a downstairs that ran straight through from front to back. Living room, dining room, kitchen. No doors between them. Half-hearted thresholds here and there to designate the purported boundary of every room.

Back and forth and back again, from the front of the house to the back, we moved, generally as one unit. If Kacey was upstairs, so was I; if I was downstairs, so was Kacey.
McKacey
, Gee often called us, or
KaMickey
. We were, in those days, inseparable, shadows of one another, one of us taller and thinner and dark-haired, the other small and round and blond. We wrote notes to one another that we secreted in backpacks and pockets.

In one corner of our bedroom, we discovered that the wall-to-wall carpeting could be lifted to reveal a loose floorboard, and beneath it, a hollow space. In it, we left secret messages for one another, and objects, and drawings. We constructed elaborate plans about the way our lives would go in adulthood, after we’d escaped that house: I would go to college, I thought, and get a good, practical job. Then I would get married, have children, retire someplace warm, but only after seeing as much of the world as I could. Kacey’s ambitions were less reserved. She’d join a band, she sometimes said, though she never played an instrument.
She’d be an actress. A chef. A model. Other days she, too, talked about going to college, but when I asked her what college she wanted to go to, she named schools she had no chance of getting into, ever, colleges she’d heard mentioned on television. Colleges for rich people. It wasn’t in me to disillusion her. Today, I wonder if perhaps I should have.

In those years, I watched over Kacey as a parent would, trying unsuccessfully to protect her from danger. Kacey, meanwhile, watched out for me as a friend would, drawing me out socially, coaxing me toward other children.

At night, in our shared bed, we put the crowns of our heads together and held hands, an A-shaped tangle of limbs and loose hair, and bemoaned the indignities of our schooldays, and named every crush that we had.

Our sharing of the back bedroom persisted, out of habit, into our teenage years. We could each have taken our own bedroom at some point, since there were three in the house. But the middle one—
Mom’s room
, we called it, long after she died—seemed haunted by her memory, and so neither of us claimed it. Besides, it was very often occupied by someone coming or going, an itinerant uncle or cousin who needed a place to stay and was willing to pay Gee a meager sum in monthly rent. Gee herself moved into it for a spell when one of the panes in her front bedroom window fell out after she removed the window-unit A/C. Instead of paying anyone else to fix it, she taped some plastic over the opening, and then she closed the door and taped the door up, too, but the drafts that came from that bedroom in December were enough to have all of us walking around the house wearing blankets like togas.

BOOK: Long Bright River: A Novel
12.44Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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