SUFFER THE CHILDREN
by Mary Ann McGuigan
Moira’s son is snuggling against his grandfather on the couch. That’s all. Just resting on the old man’s shoulder, his forehead against his frayed collar. Michael looks tired, sweaty. There’s color high in his cheeks, as if he’s just come in from play. The sliding glass door is slightly open, and she can hear her father singing to him, something low, soft, painfully familiar. His knee moves up and down in steady cadence with the song. Eyes closed, they seem lost in each other’s comfort. She tries to swallow, but it tastes like acid, so she spits into the grass.
She turns and walks back to the front of the house, nails pressed into her palms, and lets herself into Bridget’s kitchen. She keeps her voice down, her tone nearly reasonable. “I thought I told you I didn’t want him near the boys.”
Her sister turns off the faucet and dries her hands on a towel. “What’s the problem? Michael’s crazy about him.” Their father is blind, has been for years, but Moira wonders if Bridget picked the towel to please him, because it’s covered with shamrocks. She’s been inclined to come to his defense lately, reminiscing about how he used to make them laugh, tell scary stories, play make-believe. He’d be the grumpy store proprietor, claiming to be out of every item they asked him for.
Moira drops her shoulder bag onto a kitchen chair with a sudden thud. “That’s nonsense. He’s something different, that’s all. The stories, the odd expressions. Where’s Sean?”
“I’m telling you he hangs on his every word.”
“Yeah, because he’s a walking encyclopedia of baseball trivia.” She spots Michael’s schoolbooks on the counter and crosses the room to gather them up. “Where is Sean?”
“Upstairs with Cathy. Doing homework.”
When her father moved in with her a few months ago, she tried taking walks with him, telling him about her scholarships, her first teaching job. She wanted to connect. That was the plan. He answered in nods and grunts, offered nothing in return but tired stories about drinking with his brothers and getting thrown out of taverns for brawling. In the yard one afternoon, when the boys were washing the dog, she put her arm around him, an impulsive gesture that made her chest tighten. She’d just finished telling him about how hard it was to adjust when she was away at Boston College, until she found cover with a small circle of friends, fellow misfits. She thought he’d understand. He’d talked many times about how alone he felt when he arrived in New York as a boy, his mother still in Derry. His uncle rarely spoke to him. He showed him the cot he’d sleep on and went off to work. But her father only laughed at her confessions, in a way that made her feel exposed. “You were one of those hippie types, I bet.” He was almost growling. “Peace and love and all the rest of the easy answers.”
“Is it really so bad if Michael likes him?” Bridget is blocking Moira’s way, standing close to her. She tucks a strand of her sister’s hair behind her ear, the way she did when they were girls, when she was left in charge while their mother worked. “Isn’t that what you wanted to begin with?”
Moira steps away from her. The tension in her jaw spreads down her neck, tightening her muscles, because what she wanted can’t be spoken, can’t be acknowledged without admitting what a fool she was to think she’d get it. After the blow-up with Sean, she told her father to leave. As she helped him pack, she thought he’d try to explain, persuade her to let him stay. But he didn’t. He was as sullen as a teenager.
“How often is he here?” Moira says, but her throat is constricted, the words too soft, and Bridget can’t hear her. She has to say it again.
“Peter drops him off on Tuesdays and Fridays.” Her sister glances at the wall clock, a bit too nonchalantly, and returns to the vegetables on the counter. “He’ll be here any minute to collect him.”
Moira slides open the zipper on the backpack, finds the harsh sound satisfying. “You knew I wouldn’t want this.”
“He doesn’t bother with Sean,” Bridget insists, as if that’s the only problem. “He keeps his distance.”
“I don’t want him near either one of them. He went after Sean with no warning.”
Bridget gives her a look, lips pursed in a smirk. She doesn’t believe her, and Moira wonders if their father has offered some other version of what happened. “Michael has a right to a grandfather,” she says, fussing with utensils in a drawer.
Moira glances at the vegetables lined up neatly on the cutting board and wants to knock them to the floor. Order. That’s what matters to Bridget, the control she couldn’t have when they were children. “He’s managed without him all his life. We don’t need him now.”
Bridget finds the knife she wants, comes down hard on a carrot. “Maybe you’ve managed. But I see Michael every day here after school. I can see what he needs, especially now, with everything the boys are going through.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Moira’s sure Bridget doesn’t want to say the words. She takes longer than needed to select the next carrot. “The way things are since Ken left. That’s all I mean. It’s a rough time.” She turns to look at her. “You’ve said so yourself.”
“Yes, it’s a rough time. And it’ll only get rougher if Sean winds up needing stitches again.” Moira feels warm in her jacket, wants to take it off, but she has to get out of here, get her boys away from him, away from a place where they have to pretend her father can be anything but monstrous. “Michael doesn’t need him in his life.”
Bridget puts the knife down. “How do you know that?”
The question makes Moira want to laugh. “He has nothing to offer anyone.”
“Really? Or just nothing to offer you?”
She searches Bridget’s face, looking for traces of spite, of some secret satisfaction that Moira’s foolish father-daughter reconciliation had to be aborted. The resentment can surface unexpectedly. The burdens of a household with one parent fell largely on Bridget. Dishes had to be washed, floors swept, stale bread made to last another meal. She had no time to pine for a father’s attention. “Michael is my son,” Moira tells her. “I’ll decide what he needs. I’ll make some other arrangements for the boys while I’m at work.”
“Be reasonable.” Bridget wipes her hands on her apron, lowers her voice, starting over. “You don’t have to do that. He’s harmless.” She puts a hand on Moira’s forearm. “I’m sure what happened to Sean was an accident.”
Moira finds the gesture insulting, as if she has no right to distrust their father, no right to feel cheated. She jerks her arm away and pulls Michael’s backpack onto her shoulder, calls him into the kitchen. But the boy doesn’t come.
“Michael,” she calls again.
His answer reaches them after a beat or two, a stubborn whine. “Mom, can’t we just stay a little longer?”
“We’re leaving now, Michael,” she says more firmly.
He finally appears in the doorway, and Moira is reminded again of how much he looks like her brother Conor, but it’s a surface resemblance, with none of the wounds beneath. At ten, Conor was already a shadow child, accustomed to danger. “Can’t Uncle Peter drive me home later, when he comes to pick up Grandpa?”
She hates what she hears in his voice, the ignorance of the danger he’s in. “I thought you wanted to shop for your baseball glove tonight?”
“Can’t we do that tomorrow? It doesn’t matter, does it?”
“It does matter,” she says, reaching her hand out for him to come along.
But he stays put. “Why?”
She wants him to stop whining, stop wanting what isn’t his. “I’m not discussing this, Michael.” She dangles his backpack in front of him, careful not to look into his eyes, afraid of what he might suspect.
The old man’s side does not touch hers, but he holds her elbow as if he’s leading her down the street. His cane taps the sidewalk in front of them, carving an uneven pendulum, a metronome gone awry. Moira’s high-heeled steps are firm, precise; her father shuffles cautiously, as if fearing he’s near danger. The late morning traffic is steady, purposeful, reminding her that she hasn’t much time. If she doesn’t get back to the parking garage soon, she’ll never reach Bridgeport in time for her meeting.
The street is crowded, and they capture more than an occasional glance, this oddly matched pair. She imagines how they must look: a woman tall, withdrawn, unwilling to acknowledge the passersby; an old man even taller, white-haired, with a creased face, deadened eyes. The sun makes mirrors of the storefronts, and here and there, without warning, she catches a glimpse of the way they look together, too close, huddled like conspirators. She tries to separate herself from him, at least a bit, but he squeezes her elbow each time, without affection, just control.
“The doctor wants me back at the end of next week.” Her father says this as if she’s interested. She’s not. She’s here only because there was no one else to take him for his checkup. Bridget pleaded with her, so she agreed. But she made it clear he’d have to take the bus back to Peter’s house.
“Fine,” she tells him. “Bridget will figure something out.” And whatever the solution, it won’t include her, because she’s sorry she ever agreed to this. But it will be over soon, she tells herself. All of it. The bus stop isn’t far. And she’s found someone to watch the boys after school. She’s sure Bridget is still letting him visit because Michael slips and says Grandpa this, or Grandpa that, then clams up as if he’s been told to keep it secret.
A silence follows that she suspects he wants her to fill, perhaps with an offer to take him to the next doctor’s appointment or with questions about his blood pressure medicine. She gives him nothing.
“Can’t you take me?” he says finally, his tone laced with annoyance that he has to ask. She knows he’s oblivious to how she feels about him. He’s preoccupied with his ailments and his memories, nearly all of which he has invented. He’s hinted that he knows Moira is having trouble getting Ken to agree to the terms for custody, and she’s sure he gets his information from her sister Kate, whose heart is so big and so wounded she’s capable of forgiving anything.
“No. I’ll be in Atlanta.” He’s walking so slowly. She’ll have barely enough time to get to the meeting.
“Atlanta, is it?” She’s sure he wants her to hear the insult in this, because his notions of what a woman should be doing do not include work with responsibility and rank. She’s no different in his mind from all the other liberated types who don’t know how to be mothers or wives anymore. She doesn’t answer him. “Weren’t you in Houston last week?”
“Why?” she says. She doesn’t want his questions. She wants him to be quiet until she can be rid of him.
“I don’t know. The boy seems like he’s driftin’ is all.”
“Who? Michael?” She stops without warning, and her father, startled, goes slightly off balance.
“For Chrissake, watch what you’re doin’.” He makes a big deal of adjusting his cane. “Michael’s got troubles for sure,” he says. “But it’s Sean I’m talkin’ about.”
“Sean is not drifting. Sean is fine.” Her voice is even, revealing none of the worry that dogs her. “And how would you know anyway?”
“Michael. He talks to me.”
If he’d slapped her it would have been less painful. Michael has been sullen lately, not talking as much, which is so unlike him. She imagines him with her father, telling him about his day in school, about the tough batters he faced in his last game, all the things he always saves for her, rewards that don’t belong to her father. He hasn’t earned them.
“I don’t want you talking to him. Do you understand me?” She sees the hint of a grin on his face. He knows he’s getting to her.
“No, I don’t understand you,” he says. “They miss their father.” That edge is in his voice, the one that slips in when he’s determined to be right about something.
“I don’t want to hear this.” She begins walking again, takes his arm this time.
“Fine. I’ll mind my business. But if you know what’s good for ya, you’ll stay closer to home.” There’s that tone again. When Moira was a kid, her mother would challenge it, answer him as if his beliefs were plucked from old wives’ tales. Moira was always afraid to contradict him, and she’s afraid because she knows there’s truth in what he’s saying about Sean and Michael. She sees the hypocrisy of his offering advice on parenting, but she can’t help wondering what she may be doing wrong. She tries to shake it off, but she finds herself slipping back into the maze of doubt and reproach that confuses any attempt to understand why her marriage ended.
The air seems much warmer now, and she wishes she hadn’t worn a linen suit. She wants to focus on the key points in the proposal she’ll present today, but it’s no use. The smell of him disgusts her. She takes shallow breaths to escape it—his cigarette breath, his Old Spice, the stale aroma of drink—but she can’t. She feels small, trapped, the way she did that night in the tiny bedroom they’d rehearse in.
Bridget always wanted to put on shows for their mom, pull her out of her moods. So she made them learn old songs from Judy Garland movies, the kind their mother liked. A thin, faded blanket hung across the corner of the room, tucked into the tops of the windows on each side, creating a triangle of secret space backstage. Drenched in Kate’s perfume, Bridget was dancing in their mother’s high-heeled shoes before the curtain—a long, slim umbrella, her cane. Moira directed the lamplight with the shade, keeping Bridget within its circle. Conor stood in the doorway, laughing, inattentive at his post as lookout. He didn’t see their father coming.
His entrance was sudden, insulting. Bridget and Moira scurried to another corner of the room, but Conor was in his path. The anger was grotesque: blind eyes wide open, impotently searching, lips spread in a frightening semblance of a smile, the shimmering tip of his tongue protruding between his teeth. Moira didn’t wonder where the anger came from. She knew their very presence was the cause. He reached down for Conor, picked him up by the back of his shirt and smashed his face. He bled but didn’t cry out; only a pathetic whimper came, a useless defense. The room filled with the smell of his urine.
Her father let go of him, still cursing, shouting incoherent threats. His arms sliced space before him as he staggered toward the stage, his huge bulk entering the abandoned spotlight. The curtain brushed his shoulder and he tore it down, kicked aside their props and toys until the magical space was once again the dismal corner of their bedroom. Only then did Conor cry out at what he saw. It was a foolish thing to do, because his anger was only half-spent, and he turned toward the sound of his son’s cries.
Her father says her name, and Moira halts, jerks her arm from his, afraid he might guess what she’s thinking, remember she’s the enemy. He wants to know why she’s stopped walking. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I got distracted.” She takes his arm again, more firmly this time. The cars weave frantically up the avenue, stopping regularly in impatient obedience at the light. On cue, they lurch forward noisily. Moira and her father reach the corner, where they will part. She lets go of his arm.
“Can I cross now?” he asks. And perhaps she doesn’t see the truck turning when she tells him yes, because it’s over in an instant: the old man stepping off the curb, the shocking sound of the metal against his body, the rusting gray pick-up truck screeching to a stop, the people circling. He lies like some discarded scarecrow, limbs spread in unnatural directions, his cane many yards away.
Before Moira can make sense of what’s happened, a crowd has gathered and she’s another silent onlooker. The driver’s big round belly shakes as he runs toward her father from the cab of his truck. A dirty, flimsy T-shirt can’t reach to meet his pants. His pale face is splotched red, and when he comes closer, she can see that he’s trembling. “Oh, my God; oh, my God,” he says, his voice a thin, pained whine. He speaks to everyone and no one. The man can’t stand still; he steps away then hurries back to his victim’s side, unable to look very long at the old man’s body. Her father’s face is placid, shows no pain, and she thinks of how he looked when he’d fall asleep in his chair, dulled by drink.
People are taking out phones, dialing for help. Their voices mix, and their concern confuses her, seems misplaced. They look so worried, their hands loose at their sides, jackets and pocketbooks left swinging near to the ground, as if nothing else matters now, nothing more than this old man in the street. An officer has appeared. He’s wearing short sleeves, and he reminds Moira of a patrol boy because he’s so slim, too blond for a grownup. He’s on one knee, gently wiping away the blood that trickles from the side of her father’s brow. He presses his finger against his neck, just underneath the jaw. The driver hurries over to kneel beside them, looking desperate for some sign of hope in the officer’s face. The cop glances at the driver, nods. “It’s a strong pulse,” he says, then barks orders for an ambulance into his phone.
The crowd seems to exhale, exchanging glances of relief.
The driver touches the calloused fingers of her father’s hand where it lies twisted, far from his side. He strokes his palm once diffidently, the way a child makes contact with a large animal.
“Does anyone know this man’s name?” the officer asks the crowd. No one answers him, and the spectators grow restless, heads turning this way and that, as if anxious. The air feels charged with suspicion, and the policeman shakes his head, slaps his notebook against his thigh, losing patience.
A heavyset woman in a black scarf knotted at the nape of her neck shifts her grocery bag from one hip to the other. “Weren’t you standing with him on the sidewalk?” she asks Moira.
She looks at the woman, feeling barely awake, not sure what’s expected of her.
“His name,” says the officer. “Do you know his name?”
They clearly want her to speak, to explain. But how can she explain any of this? How can they possibly understand? “Donnegan. Pete Donnegan,” she blurts out, hoping that will be enough. What more can she say about him anyway?
“You know him then?” says the officer, stepping toward her.
She can’t answer, because in truth she doesn’t. She’s never understood anything about him.
“Does he have family here? Friends?”
Moira doesn’t know what to say. Words like these have meaning to people. But the meanings don’t fit here. She feels no attachment to the man lying in the street. But the officer wants information, facts. She has to give him what he wants. “Family . . . yes . . . family. I’m . . . I’m his daughter.”
“Oh, my God, I’m sorry,” says the driver, in tears now. “I’m so sorry.”
She turns to the driver, sad for him. He seems like such a good man, a man in pain from the harm he’s done. And the irony of it, the injustice, the idea that her father has managed to hurt yet another innocent person makes her feel even more ashamed that she ever belonged to him. “Don’t be. Don’t be sorry,” she says.
The people who hear her exchange glances, whisper to each other, as if trying to convince themselves that she doesn’t mean what she’s saying, even when she says it again.
“Don’t be sorry about him.” Someone gasps this time, and the driver tells her he doesn’t understand. Moira tries to imagine what he sees when he looks at this old man. She turns toward her father, lying there broken, tries to see him as a victim this time, as someone who deserved better than what life gave him, but she feels no sympathy, no sorrow, only the dread of how Michael will look at her when she tells him, how his voice will sound when he asks her how this could have happened.
Mary Ann McGuigan’s short stories have appeared in North American Review, The Sun, Prime Number, Grist, Into the Void, and other journals, and they’ve been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Sundress Publications’ Best of the Net. Her short story collection, Pieces, is now available from Bottom Dog Press. Her novels, one a finalist for the National Book Award, are ranked as best books for teens by the Junior Library Guild, the New York Public Library, and the Paterson Prize. You can find her at www.maryannmcguigan.com and on Facebook.
Image credit: simpleinsomnia on Flickr