More Bread or I'll Appear
lotto and lumps of cancer
n Miami Patrick's roommate pulled a gun on him, sticking the hard cylinder to his temple. He was an angry man in his thirties who had a Third Reich flag pinned to the wall over his bed and stacks of porno magazines piled all around him. He slept two feet from Patrick's mattress. Patrick didn't ask the man why he was trying to kill him, but the man gibbered on about the Mexicans with whom Patrick had been drinking and Patrick's personal habits.
"Cubans," Patrick stammered. "Anyway, you have a Mexican girlfriend. "
"She's Hawaiian." He put the gun down. "Not Mexican."
"Mexican," Patrick corrected him. "And I'll clean the bathroom if it bothers you so much."
"You're crazy," his roommate said. "You need help."
Patrick hadn't gotten the cruise job he'd been promised, and he left Miami in a hurry. It was noon when he crept out of the apartment, leaving his homicidal roommate sleeping, bristling with dreams of revenge, surrounded by airbrushed paper women. Since Patrick hadn't so much as touched the beach in his time in Miami, on his last day he walked over the sand, hot and grainy under his tender soles, and dipped his toes in the warm Atlantic. Then he lay down in the shade and looked up at the sky.
The next day on the plane he applied thick white greasy cream to his feet. He had fallen asleep under the palms with his shoes and socks off, and the sun had moved and burnt his feet. Somewhere over Georgia, rubbing on more cream, he wouldn't stretch out his legs under the seat in front of him, as he felt sure the whole row would collapse and slam down on his blistered feet, crushing the bones into the red skin. In fear he pulled his legs onto the seat and sat miserably huddled all the way to New York.
Patrick was still thin, and he had grown a small red goatee in an attempt to adopt a more thoughtful look. His pale eyes were unprotected under his invisible eyebrows and lashes. One leg jiggled as he sat in the armchair in Oscar's New York apartment. Oscar thought Patrick looked as if he were about to burst into tears. He felt bewildered by his fragile, obsessive nephew, his crooked, wafer-thin teeth, his brown freckled eyelids as soft as bruises on apples, his savagely burnt feet shining with thick grease.
"It's time you settled down, Patrick."
"I know, I know," Patrick hummed uselessly.
"I'll pay for your college if you apply. I've told your mother I would."
"Thanks, but I was never much of an academic."
"Well, you have to learn a trade."
"You mean like plumbing or something?"
"Anything. What about computers? All the boys your age seem to love them."
"Maybe." Patrick half smiled. "I'm thirty years old, Oscar."
"If you find out about a course, just let me know."
"Well, I was thinking of learning to play guitar."
"What took you to Miami?"
"I heard about a job on a cruise ship, but I ended up working as a bellboy in a big pink hotel."
Oscar smiled. Patrick said, "I'll try Orla again. I keep getting the machine."
"They're a terrible invention." Oscar shook his head.
The next day, Orla and Patrick sat in a bar in the Bronx. The door was open but the hazy sunlight didn't enter the grimy establishment.
"Everyone's Irish in this neighborhood," Patrick noted.
"Yeah," Orla said, nodding. "It's great. Just like home."
"So what do you think of Mammy sending Keelin off to look for Aisling?"
"It's daft, it is."
"She was just about to get a permanent teaching job. It's a disgrace."
"Aisling was Mammy's favorite."
"That was a long time ago. Keelin and Mammy have been thick as thieves for years in that house." Orla lit a cigarette with her stubby fingers. She had grown fatter and now looked more like Molly. "Mammy was afraid one of us might do well."
"Ah, now, that's unfair," Patrick said. "She's so worried about us all. I get a letter from her every week."
"Me too. Lotto and lumps of cancer."
"I have a cold; Keelin has just got over a cold. We didn't win Lotto this week. And a breast inspection leaflet." Orla rolled her eyes. "Same every time."
"That sounds about right. I don't get the cancer, but I get told to get a decent job. Oscar is hassling me the past two weeks since I arrived."
"I only see him Easter Sundays and Thanksgiving."
"He's not a bad oul' sort."
Orla shrugged. "He bullied me into giving my son away to some horrible Christians."
"Do you ever see him? What age is he now? Fifteen?"
"I used to, but they'd rather I didn't now he's older."
"Let's go out and see him," Patrick said, signaling to the barman for two more drinks. Orla lit up, smiling for the first time that afternoon, her radiant, chubby, face framed by a fuzzy bush of red hair.
"The two of us together?"
"Sure. Why not."
"It would be the first time anyone in the family saw him. I send Mammy photos, but she probably throws them away."
There were a thousand bubbles of air in the stale glass of water left on Patrick's bedside table, their number and position corresponding to the thousand discontents he felt in himself. Oscar came home in the evening and found his nephew still in bed, his head turned to the messy bedside table. His clothes, strewn about the room, seemed no more than rags, strips of torn T-shirts and jeans and sweatshirts. Oscar stood at the door of the room, but Patrick was focusing on a glass of water.
"I told you no smoking. If you can't abide by my one rule..."
The next evening Patrick slouched in front of the TV, remote control in hand, watching a talk show. There was a full ashtray on the cushion.
Oscar counted out a few twenty-dollar bills and gave them to his nephew.
"This is to tide you over. So no computer course?"
"Patrick, what are you going to do with yourself?"
"I don't know."
"What would you like to do?"
"Are you going to get any kind of job?"
"I'm just catching my breath here. I've been on the move for a good while. I'm thinking of heading out West. I'll get some kind of bar work. Maybe Vegas."
"Look, Paddy, you can stay here as long as you want, but I need to see you do something productive while you're here. Is that too much to ask?"
Patrick pocketed the money and nodded noncommittally.
Orla grew pensive as they got closer to the station in New Jersey, then businesslike as she arranged for a taxi to the house where her son lived. Orla had lived here while she was pregnant. Where once there were fields and woods, now there were rovs and rows of newly built wooden houses, all painted in the same pastel peaches, blues, and yellows. Almost every house had an American flag drooling over the porch.
"Do you think Keelin is a virgin?" Orla asked her brother in the taxi.
Patrick laughed. "Jaysus! Where did that come from? I don't know. Probably not. She's too old now. She must have met someone in college or on her teaching jobs. Just no steady boyfriend."
"She'd never bring anyone back to the house to do it. Too scared of Mammy."
"Scared? They get on like a house on fire."
"I always wondered about that expression," Orla mused glumly. "I guess I was the slut of the family. Aisling had sex before she left Ireland but I got caught."
"Sex in Ireland--what a thought!" Patrick laughed again. "Orla, you're something else."
When they arrived, the adoptive mother reluctantly invited them into the living room, offering them no refreshments after their journey. Her blond hair was cut in a neat bob, and she wore an electric-blue silk pant-suit.
"My husband will be home soon." Her tone was pleading.
Patrick sat awkwardly on a chair, looking from woman to woman. He had worn his good clothes for the occasion--black Levi jeans and a green cotton shirt. His matchstick freckled arms stuck out of the short sleeves. Orla was cold and staunch. On the wall were a cross and a framed picture of Ronald Reagan.
"Sure I just wanted to see him. I came to his first few birthday parties, after all. "
The woman pursed her lips, composed herself, smiled grimly.
"I know, Orla. It must be hard, but we agreed it would be too much as he got older... all the questions. We send you photos."
"Not for three years," Orla said quietly. "Not since he was twelve."
"When he's eighteen, and if he wants to. I don't know how to say this." She fretted, glancing at the Christ, whose head hung down, self-absorbed, then at Reagan, as if in supplication. "You have to go. My husband will be home shortly. He won't be pleased." She stood up, switching to the offensive. "I mean really. No phone call, you just arrive. You can't see him anyway. He's off at his grandparents. Please go."
Patrick stood and walked to the door.
"Come on, Orla," he said gently.
Orla stared at the woman, as if in a trance. She got up and followed her brother, who was relieved at her compliance. The woman closed the door so quickly behind them it banged Patrick's heel.
"I thought that went well," Patrick said.
"Shut up, Patrick, will you." Orla seemed upset. "Let's get back to New York. Whose idea was this, anyway? Jesus Christ, I'm not all in it. Have we lost the run of ourselves?"
The shine had not yet gone out of the day. Large houses stood bunched in a circle around a clump of green; white parking lines radiated from the grassy mound like stretch marks. Orla had breastfed the child here for the first month and had left their house shortly after. Birds sang, people came home from work in nice new cars, children too young to be her son stumbled around on rollerblades, hands reaching out, grasping for balance.
Suddenly the woman came running out of her house. They stopped and waited for her. Patrick thought he saw a face in the upstairs window of the house.
"Shawn's been acting strangely lately. Otherwise, maybe... Look, write to us and perhaps sometime... Now he seems to be going through a phase. I don't want him upset."
"Is he sick?" Orla asked sharply.
"No, no. Just puberty. Something like that. It's a bad time."
"I'll write to you so." Orla nodded curtly and walked away. As they turned the corner onto a wider road, Patrick looked back and saw that the woman was still standing in the circle, her expression frantlc.
"Sean?" he said. "I've always wondered about that. Was that your choice?"
"No. They're Irish-American," Orla said scornfully. "They spell it S-h-a-w-n."
Patrick laughed. "I suppose you're lucky it wasn't a girl. They'd have called her Colleen or Shannon."
"It's easy to laugh at the Americans, but at the moment they own the world."
Shawn plucked himself apart with deft, exacting fingers. He pulled the wool from his sweater and rolled it into a ball. So that was his real mother down there. He hovered at the stairs, his head cocked like a bird. Was she sick too? He'd read of the deer that ran fast on the western American plains. Evolved to escape. The deer were running too fast now, because the ancient predator had long died out. But the herd ran from them forever. The fright was in the genes. An atavistic mess. He had a photo somewhere of a woman at his birth, holding him and smiling ear to ear. But she left. He waited for his mother to call. He went back to the room and combed his hair in anticipation, then he took the hairs from the brush and snowballed them into the lint from his sweater and opened his closet door. In the closet was a beach ball of lint and threads and hair; he crunched the new stuff into it. When it grew too monstrous his mother would destroy it and he would have to start again. Like a squirrel gathering stones for winter as if they were nuts, knowing they weren't.
Back on the landing, his feet touched the top stair. When guests were over he couldn't come down unless called; it was a rule of his father's. His father was a producer for a big TV station in New York. Shawn's sweater was tattered, and his dethreaded buttons had fallen from his shirt. They were leaving, and he ran to the window to see them, to maybe wave. Ghosts from the past. If he slowed down, the herd would surely trample him, the ghosts devour him. His blond mother was running after them and she saw him at the window, but they didn't look up. Their backs were to the house. His mother's face warning him away from the window. He heard the door slam and her mounting the stairs.
"Shawn, look at you. Your new sweater and shirt. Your father said he'd dress you in plastic if you can't keep your clothes for more than a few days."
"Was that my mother from Ireland?"
"She left her address. You can write if you want, but I'd rather you didn't. You can see her when you're eighteen--not until then. We'll discuss it with your doctor." She opened the closet door. "This is going out right now. Please don't tell your father about this visit. He's under pressure at work, and you've given him enough heartbreak."
The speed misjudged on the plains. Fear did not stop in the blink of a millennium. He had to think back geologically to stop this, to understand what clicked then that did not matter now. A brain not listening to itself needed to be reset. They thought he was stupid because he was mostly silent, mostly occupied with control--caught in a battle between past necessities and present impulses that collided horribly. Maybe the Irish mother knew how to fix it.
He must change something before he picked himself apart. Nightmares of his hands finding a loose thread in his skin and pulling it through and his body falling open but the hands not stopping, finding loops of intestines and pulling and unraveling, and his eyes like threadless buttons, popping soundlessly from the sockets. His father hated him, would dress him in plastic. It had not always been like this. Years ago there was a time when the needle in his brain was not stuck. His other mother might get him back, or at least let him continue in peace. He held her address in his hands and read it like a prayer.
Patrick felt that his tongue was too large for his mouth. Huge and ill-fitting it spread over his teeth, and at night he didn't know where to put it. The tongue, throbbing, constricted, bunched and curled behind closed teeth. In the mornings he woke with it clamped between his crooked molars. During the day he browsed through his uncle's belongings as he experimented with tongue positions, asking himself where was the safest place to keep it when moving, when sitting. He rooted furtively through the medicine cabinet, which was host to a plethora of pills that Patrick popped at random. In a bedside drawer he found a photo of his eldest sister in Nagasaki standing between two sculptures in a park. Aisling was smiling broadly, wearing sunglasses and a suit and tie, with her hair either cut very short or greased back in a ponytail. He thought of keeping the photo to show Orla.
There was a book from the Hiroshima museum which Aisling had inscribed for Oscar's birthday. He flicked through pictures of the exhibits. Oscar's bookshelves were overflowing with literature, and there was a painting of Wagner on the wall. He had countless CDs and albums, all classical and opera, but Patrick found a small collection of sentimental Irish music hidden in a cupboard. Beneath this messy pile were some gay porno books and magazines. A complex man, Patrick thought as he flicked through one of the paperbacks. Since you've been away my butt has ached with emptiness. He laughed.
Oscar's key turned in the door. Scurrying back to the study, he hurled himself on the couch and grabbed The New Yorker, pretending to be engrossed. Oscar sniffed the air for traces of telltale smoke. He was a little drunk. Patrick smiled at him in greeting.
"How was your day, Oscar?"
Oscar laughed. "Oh Patrick, what will we do with you?" He went to the kitchen and chose a bottle of red wine. When he came back he handed a full glass to his nephew.
"I had a letter from your sister."
"Oh yeah? So the dead arose. Where is she now?"
"Uh-huh!" Oscar nodded, filling a second glass for himself.
"Do you have an address?"
"She's staying with a friend. I have that address."
"So we can write and tell her to come home, that Molly has sent Keelin and all that rubbish. Let Keelin go home and get on with her life or come over here, like she told me she might. I talked to her a few weeks ago. There's trouble with Siobhan, Keelin said. She wants to get her away from London."
"Keelin, she's a cute one, all right. No flies on her. I talked to her on the phone when you were out last night, and she's only been in London three months and already got driving lessons and a license. She's also got a part-time teaching job. Would you believe it?"
"Keelin is the ambitious one in the family."
"The most together, I would say." Oscar cleared his throat. His face was flushed and he was sweating. The crown of his head was bald, but the bit of hair he had was neatly cut and he still had an energized, youthful air about him.
"Look, we know Aisling won't come home. God knows why, but if anyone can get her Keelin can. Keelin is a capable, industrious, and intelligent girl. She has good sense. I'm sending her out to get her sister for once and for all. This is the first time we have a concrete address. Molly is beside herself with worry and her health is not holding up. She loved Aisling too much."
Patrick was incredulous. "Keelin gets to go to Japan? Just like that?"
"Well, she didn't want to go. She liked her job in England. I told her to take Siobhan and she said she'd think about it."
"Siobhan too! Oh, for God's sake." Patrick gave a low whistle. "Where do you get your money?"
Patrick carried his suitcase up the stairs to Orla's apartment in the Bronx. He was moving in. There were five other Irish people staying there, and some slept shifts in the same bed. He sat by the wooden table, smoking and blinking. Perhaps he had lost his sight, he thought. He opened his eyes very wide, then shut them; when they were shut he felt that maybe they were really open and he couldn't see, so he opened them again. When they were open he thought he might be dreaming the washed-out green of the kitchen wall, so he shut them to see if they had been open. Now that they were shut, he thought they were open and he was blind.
Excerpted from More Bread or I'll Appear by Emer Martin. Copyright © 2000 by Emer Martin. Excerpted by permission of Harper Collins. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.