Authors: Deena Goldstone
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places, events, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2014 by Deena Goldstone
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, a division of Random House LLC, New York, and in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto, Penguin Random House companies.
is a registered trademark of Random House LLC. Nan A. Talese and the colophon are trademarks of Random House LLC.
Jacket design by Emily Mahon
Jacket photograph © Jan Stromme / The Image Bank / Getty Images
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA
[Short stories. Selections]
Tell Me One Thing : Stories / Deena Goldstone. —
ISBN 978-0-385-53875-6 (hardcover)
ISBN 978-0-385-53876-3 (eBook)
To Marty, for his steadfast belief
To Eva, for the gift of her spirit
SITTING IN ST. TIMOTHY’S CATHEDRAL DURING
his father’s funeral Mass, Jamie has no idea how the rest of his brothers and sisters feel about their father’s death, but he knows what he is feeling—nothing. Of that he is sure. Over the forty-two years of his life he has cultivated nothingness when it comes to his father, assiduously. Number seven in the line of eight children, Jamie had ample opportunity to observe the wrong way to deal with Hugh Casey O’Connor Sr.
His oldest brother, Hugh Jr., had taken his father on—matched his screaming rants with his own screaming assaults. Their fighting filled up the house with accusations and hateful words and sometimes whacks and punches. Years later, all that rancor seemed to drain away as soon as the two sat down over an open bottle.
The next brother in the line, Kevin, sidestepped the arguments but not the need for his father’s attention. He played football in the autumn, basketball in the winter, and ran track in the spring, a star in all three, never happier than when his father showed up
to watch. And unfailingly sullen and disappointed on the far more frequent occasions when Hugh didn’t. Jamie could see that it mattered far too much to Kevin what the old man thought.
Drew was born next, and he carved out a niche as his father’s toady. He narrowed his sight to the public persona—the Hugh who went out of his way to help a neighbor build a back porch or the Hugh who drove old Mrs. Brennan to the doctor when her daughter couldn’t get away from work. Drew refused to be disillusioned by the private Hugh who never lifted a finger at home and spent most of the weekends hurling criticisms at his various sons. The heart sees what the heart needs to see, so wherever their father was, Drew was by his side, frequently yelled at for some transgression never spelled out. Whatever the behavior of the old man, it only bonded Drew more closely to him.
Three girls came next—Moira, Kate, and Ellen—and they didn’t count, Jamie thinks, because his father treated them so differently. Hugh left the girls to their mother to discipline and raise. What did he know about girls, Hugh always said. He allowed them leeway he’d never have allowed his sons, who were, after all, reflections on his own self.
By the time Jamie came along eleven months after Ellen, there was a whole diorama of behaviors in front of him, all instructive of how not to deal with Hugh Sr.’s temper and drinking and wily charm and basic, underlying need to humiliate his sons lest they get too big for their britches or, more likely, upstage the old man.
When Marianne was born ten years after Jamie, all bets were off. She was the baby, long after anyone thought there would be more children, and she got the best of everything.
HIS MOTHER, SITTING BESIDE HIM
in St. Timothy’s now, latches onto his hand. She doesn’t turn in her seat or look at him, just grabs his hand for comfort. Somehow he has always known that
he is his mother’s favorite. Maybe it is because he was the only one who would sit glued to her side, eyes wide, on those rare occasions when she read to them. Even as a toddler, he would bring her well-worn picture books with loops of Crayola marks over most of the pages and ask to be read to. Sometimes, when she could, his mother would stop whatever she was doing, find an armchair, let him climb into her lap, and spend five minutes reading the book to him. It was only when Jamie was much older that he understood that she cherished these small respites in her day as much as he.
Jamie can see that she is destroyed by the old man’s death, but it makes no sense to him. Hugh had had little use for women, unless they were young and pretty, and Carrie O’Connor had never been either as far as he could tell. His parents’ wedding picture, sitting in a tarnished frame on top of the bookcase, provides ample evidence. What Jamie sees when he looks at that picture—and he finds himself staring at it more often than he thinks reasonable—is a thin woman wearing a navy blue suit, her sharp features scowling into the camera, her dark hair pulled away from her narrow face, and looking well older than her twenty-two years. Whatever was she thinking? he often wondered but never asked.
Today his mother is weeping, a creased handkerchief pressed to her lips. He glances over at his eldest sister, Moira, sitting on the other side of Carrie, holding her other hand. She is the sensible one of the bunch. Never a beauty, taking after their father with her sturdy frame and unruly auburn hair, she married a neighborhood boy who’s in the trades, an electrician, and had her five kids quickly. It has always been Moira who checks in daily with their mother. She’ll be the one to make sure Carrie gets on with things once their father is in the ground. Jamie is grateful to her but never says so. In their family there’s little talk of anything that has to do with gratitude or vulnerability.
Moira seems fine. She long ago figured out the old man was a
bullshit artist. But Ellen, sitting farther down the pew, looks like she’s going to faint. Something has happened to her in the years she’s been away. All the flesh seems to have melted off her, and the skin that is left is stretched too tightly across her face and large bones. Her collarbone looks naked. Her wrists are too large. The bones of her pelvis push through her black skirt in a painful thrust.
Jamie knows Ellen left the United States to be away from their father. Hugh Sr. had cast too large a shadow over every decision Ellen tried to make. In an act of desperation, she fled to Europe, settling in Malaga, a small town in Spain. Jamie doesn’t know much of what she does there. “She’s made a life for herself,” his mother always says. Jamie has no idea what that means. But he figures she must speak Spanish by now, and that is more than the other seven of them have managed to do.
The woman sitting on the other side of Ellen, who came with her from Spain, looks straight ahead, her fingers busy on a rosary. She is small and older than Ellen and has a faint mustache above her lipsticked mouth. She seems to speak no English, so no one in the family has managed to figure out who she is to Ellen. There is speculation, but no one has asked directly. Contrary to what he guesses his brothers and sisters think, Jamie has the weird idea she is some kind of nurse or caretaker. It’s the way she keeps Ellen in her proprietary sights and whispers to her from time to time. If he can get Ellen alone later, Jamie thinks, he may be able to ask her, but the chance of some quiet in his mother’s house isn’t likely.
AT THE CEMETERY, THE BROTHERS AND SISTERS
stand in a line at the north side of the grave. No one suggested it, they just fell into the old order—Hugh, Kevin, Drew, Moira, Kate, Ellen, Jamie, and Marianne, the boys dark and sharp featured like their mother,
the girls ruddy and large boned like their father. Only Marianne is truly lovely.
Hugh Sr. would line all eight of his children up in that very same order every Sunday to make sure the boys’ ties were straight, that there were no smart-alecky attitudes evident, and that the girls had combed each other’s hair. Then they’d pile into the family car, a sensible station wagon that came off the assembly line in Detroit, and drive the five minutes to St. Timothy’s for Sunday Mass. Even today Jamie remembers that stuffy, crowded car where his brothers surreptitiously elbowed and punched each other in a vain attempt to get more space, an inch more breathing room, and his father screamed at them to shut up. As an adult he understands that car ride to be the perfect metaphor for his whole childhood.
Carrie wouldn’t come to the cemetery. She said there was no way she could watch her husband of fifty-four years lowered into the ground. Her children would have to bear witness at their father’s burial. It was her sister, Norah, who took her back to the house—the same narrow house they all grew up in—to help her lay out the food and wait for the children’s return.
As the oldest son, it falls to Hugh Jr. to pick up the shovel. Jamie can tell he’s barely sober enough to do it. Stumbling a bit, Hugh hefts a mound of damp earth and dumps it into the open grave. The sound of the clods hitting the wooden casket is startlingly loud. Jamie looks around—it’s the stillness of the air in the cemetery that accentuates the sound. They are the only family there. No one else is being buried on this April day, so he can hear the rustle of Kate’s silk dress as she shifts her weight onto her other leg, impatient. She wants this all to be over, bored and restless as she always is.