Horla presents new fiction from CONOR ROBIN MADIGAN

 

REPENTANCE IN THE EVENING  

By Conor Robin Cruxley

1265, Bored

Mary sat before him in the café, having not left her father’s home in two years.

Her brother and new sister-in-law had been traveling all over, places she couldn’t imagine would have her coffee, which she had brought in a travel mug to their lunch, and hid from the waiter, who’d been swift enough not to notice. A young man with the pants of a child, Conor had mumbled to break the icy newness of public after her hiatus. Mary laughed behind her hand, her eyes wide not to make a sound in a loud café. He could depressurize an issue.    

A large family had left a long table completely destroyed, and the café volume leveled out to eased listening. She did love the children, she continued; so to a point, he made out, she would soon ask him, or some chemical question, in the very least, if not verbal. He found a jolt of discomfort in his lower gut, by his leg, a groin tremor, and he forced himself to take the lead.    

But more people entered, and the place got loud again.    

A new sunlight reflected in his carafe, blinding him a good view into her forty curls. He slid the carafe away. No improvement. Was he dreaming? All this difficulty. A battle, to squint through and watch lips in a loud café. He’d had hearing problems before, pointed out at funerals, where the light banter of a funeral parlour came too much to hear his mother about her mother, one of the more important conversations of his life; at train stations, where communication came to pointing, but most people can’t hear in train stations; and in hallway conversation, room to room. Not a single worthwhile conversation here save Mary Donohugh’s.    

Mary’s new Romanian sister had come with two little ones, half-Greek, half-Romanian, prettier than anything German-Irish could. Control seemed her bent, marked in a mother’s willingness to scold in public. In private, the girls were a little more toying. A yellow yardstick, the bricklayer’s phone number in blue down its length, had leaned the corner for decades. The exact height of her new niece, at toddling age, of inelegant dance, and nonsense declaration, the yardstick took sword form (unimaginative) and broomstick for a witch (uninspired) and, finally, Minoo had flexed the length at her knee, testing its resolve, a desire to release its tension.

“Minoo, do not break that yardstick,” Mary said she had hissed, but, in failed attempt not to play, she squinted in a smile her anticipation. The child’s mother, finishing a travel anecdote with her father-in-law, focused on the old man, his paralyzed attention.    

Minoo pulled back. Splinters powdered sunlight between them. Two pieces fell to Minoo’s side and she looked from her belly to Mary. Tears came and ran and Minoo rushed to between her mother’s legs. “What did you expect, what did you expect? Terminata plans,” her mother had said, looking into Minoo’s eyes. Oh, her adorable child.     

“Between you and me, I bet Jim and Mada would make a handsome child,” Conor said.    

Mary smiled and pushed her curls, sat a little straighter for the image, forcing Jim and Mada’s faces into one face, an image Mary convinced herself she’d undone hiatus too early for, for the skin smashed against skin, the eyes came from sockets, a gruesome, defiant image. A painful anxiety, a tickling in her arms, some architecture of foreboding.    

“So, I’m pretty sure my nieces are terrified of me. Not that they didn’t have it coming,” she said.    

Conor and Mary had kept in touch, near six hundred messages back and forth, yearning only loves can. The café meant to be first embrace. Conor had shoved down his two-year stint as resolve, willingness to love, strength to love; but first there would need to be a meeting in public, at the café, and if that went just fine, a reunion in bed.    

A compendium on just about anything musical, any question, Conor could unscribble all to Mary’s liking. She loved musical men and musical souls, and when the two had sung together as choristers, when the choirs mixed for service, she stood at his side vibrating the while with his not unheeded alto. It hadn’t been a good trip for her, when the girl’s choir and schola went to Chichester and Windsor.

She missed her mother, Sheri, and suffered a quiet panic attack, her first, as a scooter ripped past the group when they came from tourbus, near killing a novice who’d half dropped her folder of sheet music to a knee and stood in frozen, but futile, abatement.    

“I had literally just stepped up to the man at Heathrow when I remembered I had a knife in my pocket,” Conor said. “That was ninety-eight. Feels like yesterday.”    

“Those tours could be gruesome, just gruesome. And mine was two years before yours. Felt like we got the one-up on you all, but really it was their way of ironing out the shit-show for the boys.”    

“It was well orchestrated. I remember stealing time, though, when we went around Windsor and visited the little prison and on the wall a man had written 1265, bored. I got a photo of that one, but it blurred. Just to be in a room with that much history, all those trapped men.

“I couldn’t believe the scolding I got for a pocketknife, though. Felt like unfathomable hell would come riding in on horseback right there in the airport. Some sort of fucking nuisance when it’s all just so scary. I hate travel now,” Conor said and manipulated his napkin into a new shape and looked up quick and said; “Speaking of imprisoned bores.”    

Justin Schoolmaker came through with Allen, his partner, and child in gurney.    

“Oh, gurney, that’s good,” Mary said. “But it’s a Stokke, very fancy.”    

“Why do you know these things?”    

“You assume I don’t want them.”    

“I don’t assume.”    

The gurney sat silent next the wobbled table. Justin and Allen, at length in silence, pored over the tall and thin waiter and his menu. The waiter left. An ancient razor dangled on a pewter stand in a shave bowl, taking the sun, and lengthwise under the set a wide strop, long past useful, hovered between them on bookshelves just to Allen’s side. Gold tassel of twisted lengths of the strop cascaded over the bookshelf near his face. Where Allen slumped; Justin sat stiff, and straight.

The waiter returned. Justin whispered something to the waiter without moving an inch and the waiter left and returned with a folded up piece of paper. He slid the paper under a foot of the table. Justin used his middle finger to test and nodded the affirmative.    

“Oh, stop staring,” Mary said. “They’ll say hello when they see us.”    

“I’m not too sure. Looks like he’s got a board up his back.”    

“What’s that euphemism?” she mumbled and sat straighter and said, “There’s this thing in Mada, she’s got a very serious face. She listens and laughs, but when she’s listening I always lose my place, like some big boom happens when you’re reading the paper and can’t find your way back, but so bad it’s like a dream. Because, you know, you can’t re-read in a dream. Never works.”    

“Never works,” Conor said.    

“You taught me that.”    

“Did I?”    

“Oh, you remember, I’m sure of it,” Mary said.    

“I do. It’s from the Ball days at the Institute. He was very keen on dreams.”    

“He was the one with the beard?”    

“Eastern Europe under Ceaușescu wasn’t a particularly good time for her family.”    

“Gurney’s starting up.”    

The child bleated out a few tests and went on level eight, screeching up for a moment’s terror of ten. Mary’s eyes went thin and her mouth wide. Her hand went right around her neck, as though the cold hand of needed replacing with a living hand of.

She turned a little to greet the sound with a piteous look for Allen, who had slumped farther down in his menu, but popped up to check and see, and saw Mary and brightened, his angular mouth opening wide his face to some level of hello but came a silent hi within a near-blind squinted smile, and a wave with the last two sections of collected fingers, collected neat, and then back to the menu.

“That’s it,” Mary whispered. “After five years of nothing, a little finger wave? I held back his hair.”    

“Schoolmaker didn’t even look,” Conor reassured. “Let’s you and me get back to that empty house.”    

Allen removed from his little wrist a first anniversary watch from Justin’s mother, laid then, in golden reverence, taking the light of the table, like his mother. Hyperbole from her, the gold echoed the sycophant Allen guessed his mother-in-law could become. How simple. A gift denoting the weight and quality of endearment sans proof.    

Wind thrust against cafe windows and a truck carrying twenty cars at odd angles, facing and pointing away from one another, shifted and turned slow around the corner and stopped with a lurch. Another stroller, a young mother.    

“What do you think about Robert’s alcoholism?” Allen said.    

“What?”    

“He’s too heavy a drinker to travel with, isn’t he? I mean…”    

“I don’t see him drink too much. He drinks on time, that’s all. Anodyne.”    

Allen said, “huh.” His sad eyes the more doleful.    

“I’m kidding, of course,” Justin said.    

“I got it. I got it,” Allen said.    

“I just don’t think he’s got a few more years is all. He keeps his daughter cooped up in that house like some secretary.”    

“She is. It’s a business, what he does,” Justin said.    

“Photographs and painting. How does it all work. I mean, I get licensure.”    

“You’d be meaning copyright? And the Hockney sold for ninety large.”    

“I guess,” Allen said and flashed a corrected smile for his pratfall. Justin had him last week on surveyor/purveyor. Justin could knuckle a shoulder.    

“I guess there’s a way of having a daughter that’s protective and coddling no matter her age.”    

“Perverse.”    

“I don’t think so,” Justin said.    

“She keeps him lush is all I’m saying.”    

“That’s not quite how that works, is it?” Justin said.    

“If she nears forty without a man, we’ll have to save her.”    

Allen smiled in his face.    

“She’s thirty-five. Plenty of time. Judge not. A death in the family, and the circumstances…”    

Allen nodded, a playfully serious no, and turned to look where Conor and Mary had sat.    

“Wonder if she’ll have the patience for Conor? You know she’ll have to travel soon for Robert’s award ceremony. I wonder if he knows the old lady topped herself.”    

“Not sure that kind of patience exists,” Justin mumbled.    

“No, I guess you’re right.”    

The waiter returned with water and light bread, a small plate for olive oil.    

“Or a girl. George is a good name for a girl,” Allen said.    

“Deliberate name subterfuge. Too much pressure.”    

“I think a girl with a boy’s name can make a girl completely over the top attractive,” he said and thumbed his chin, musing once more into traffic and worlds outside. The waiter brought their lunch on a long tray and displayed on a foldout to serve. “And anyway, subterfuge is deliberate.”    

“She overdosed, it’s not topping yourself when you overdose,” Justin said.    

Justin held his napkin at his chest while all went according to the order of the table. Allen sat straight, watching plates move, looking up to see what Justin thought, seeing his observant posture, and dying to hear what he would come up with once the waitstaff had scurried far enough for comment.    

“Peas in rice?” he said.    

Allen closed his eyes tight in silent laughter covering his full mouth with a fist.

Nascent Intimations

On Wednesdays, Mary made her way south in the Volvo station wagon to be with her nieces for a few hours in the backyard of the bungalow in the neighborhood just east and south of Pulaski and Belmont. She had become mobile within a month of her first outing, a time-frame to celebrate.

She arrived yawning and walked along the side of the house to the back. Through a basement window she saw quick movement, and then stillness. She peaked in and Mada stood before Jim, staring him through, as if frozen. For moments this, then the two walked each other by without comment, concern, debate, dilemma. Mary shook her head and stood from peering in. Mada met her in the back yard and hugged her and peered into her eyes.    

“I know, I’m so tired. Conor’s parents are out of town, so I’ve been at his place.”    

“I think August is the ramp up to the school year and most families choose its last few weeks to get out and about to deflate the issue,” Mada said and shifted her thin glasses before flipping chicken thighs on the grille.    

She had her phone out for travel pictures.    

“He is just so damn calm.”    

“This is a problem?”    

“He doesn’t react to anything.”    

“That you know of,” she said and laughed.    

“Well, like even his funny moments, he barely laughs, he just notes the thing. Like, we saw an old car keyed with a treble clef and two sharps, which he pointed out looked to B-minor damage. I laughed very hard. He barely flinched his smile. It’s a bad example. I can’t rattle him is more what I mean.”    

“All those solvents from the paints,” Mada said circling her hand in front of her face. She flipped through the photos of Romania and Mary kept so near the two could be one at angles. Mira came over and demanded to see the empty mountain, the empty mountain, momma. In the picture the two girls and their momma stand on a ledge of Mount Izvorul Calimanului, and at the side of the picture, the slightest woman behind a tree. Mary went to draw the picture to the point.     

Jim came down the back steps with a plate of small patties for the girls. “Whom?” he said, including himself.    

“Conor,” Mary said.    

“He works in acrylic, I’m sure. He’s no dummy. Are you already done with him?”

“What, no. Jesus Jim. I’m just saying he’s hard to argue with, or just collected.”    

“God knows Mary likes a good argument.”    

“Well, I do.”    

“I’m not sure a tank could rattle him,” he said.  

“You know,” Mada said, “I think it’s very strong when couples can argue and get their problems out. I just don’t think it’s very American.”

“You mean waspy. I’ve been learning that what my wife says is American is really very waspy.”    

“Why this stupid term to describe these people,” Mada said.    

“What was it, a few days ago, I overheard someone calling them Christians in action,” Mary said.    

“No, that’s the CIA. WASP is different.”    

“Obviously,” Mary said rolling her eyes.    

“Though, most CIA types are waspy.”    

“It’s funny that you have all these people offended about the CIA and FBI people up in arms about politics,” Mada said. “I don’t think in other countries it’s half-baked, and what is that word you used yesterday?”    

“Furtive.”    

“Yeah. That’s so good. Like they’re just on the verge of being found out to be political.” She laughed.    

“That would be nascent.”    

“We have that word, too,” she said.    

The girls had been blowing large bubbles and Minoo spilled her bottle all down her arm in a frantic lift to make a large one. She sobbed. Jim carried her by and inside for warm water.    

“She hates cold water.”    

“Who doesn’t,” Mary said.    

Mary had been hanging on to Mada’s pronouns, how ‘you have all these people offended,’ but she could see someone saying that and meaning ‘you’ as the proverbial ‘we’.    

“No, but I think it’s weak. My girls need to be strong.” She laughed. She bumped Mary with her hip. “Maybe Conor just needs space to draw him in. You know? But invite him down. He should see you with the girls.”    

“Love games. Ugh.”    Mary and Mada made table. And Jim kept returning inside and coming back out, as if he kept conversation inside.    

“Momma,” Mira said.    

“Mira.”    

“What did you call it when Jim sprained his ankle.”    

“Glezna luxata.”    

Any minute. Conor’s routine spawned texts near five-after-seven when his painting classes ended and he took the steps down to the lot. She pivoted on his contact to unravel her. Evening had gone a little purple in the east. She had glazed over, staring past her phone, and down a little in her curls.    

“Are you thinking of her,” Mada said.    

“Oh, no, but I do a lot. I miss her.”    

“I’m so sorry, Mary. It’s so hard to lose them this early. I have so many people in Romania who lost their mothers young,” Mada said and threw Jim a fast look of purposeful indignation.    

What’s for tonight came on Mary’s phone.    

She drew a deep breath, busted and relieved, she exhaled and stood and escaped to the side of the house in tears and took a pill and called him, to hear his voice. No answer.     

He texted back driving.    

She invited him to finish the night with them and he arrived twenty minutes later and helped Jim light a good stack of birch in a sheet metal fire-pit. He was a surprise. Mira and Minoo quieted a little for Conor’s presence until he picked up Mary and sat her on his lap. Minoo came over to try to sit on Mary’s lap. Once there, she reached up and grabbed Conor’s nose, to amusement in totality except for Mada who snapped, “Minoo, termina, termina, Minoo, termina this moment or in pat.”

Not wanting to go to bed, Minoo frowned and began to cry, but Mary kissed her on the cheek and Minoo went to Mada’s lap, where Mira came and leaned on the two.

Attempt to Include

Conor lay facing Mary’s back while they slept. An almost imperceptible coo came from him and startled him awake as when a floorboard shifts from winter nights and he found her enfolded in her arms and awake and crying. What had he done? He looked at the ceiling and after a few seconds gathering the last few hours of what may have done damage he shifted close and held her shoulder and asked. She nodded no, no. Too much to even talk about.    

“You’re angry with me,” he said.    

She sobbed and turned over to him and hit him in the chest.    

“I’m not angry,” she said, “I’m… sad.”    

Not knowing which was worse, he rubbed her arm and meant to listen for an interminable length of time until sun broke through edges of the blind and made grey a room stealing all around her.    

“I don’t know what,” she blurted out finally and hid in his chest.    

Far off, the train clacked some repetitive gap and sent through the room silence after wanting a floorboard, a coo, anything to happen, so she would continue. He battled a tickle in his throat, then deeper, and finally he turned his head to the side and coughed. She tapped her fist against his chest again and rolled away from him once more. Conor threw his hands to his face and rubbed and slid them under her body and drew her to him and held her tight and wrapped his legs around her and held her legs tight and sent his hand down to her lower belly where he applied light pressure.

He told her how much she meant, his loyalty and sureness, and kept his tone close to sleep. Mada’s coffee had been too strong.     

Jim texted Mary at five AM: Kids want to know if you’d go camping. Need to book a spot; kettle moraine. Quickly please.    

She hesitated, bent over the screen, her bedclothes bunched up around her, Conor near falling off the bed and naked, his sterling cross settled between his shoulder blades. Maybe if conor will. She left the phone and went to the hallway. She warmed the kettle. An overcast azalea held a few birds and her attention until a light roar bubbled. She took her drink to the bathroom, closed the door and sat. Conor came reaching through the door to her with her brother on the phone.    

“I’m trying to start my morning, Jim,” she said, calm as possible.    

Lemon water? Listen, he said. Just come along. Get out for a little. It’ll be a weekend, that’s it. We have the meals all planned out. The little ones have been begging for you. You know how they love a good Aunt Magpie.    

“Door, Conor, please,” she hissed.    

The urge to be a child with the girls had been enough to get her out and about to parades and protests, the odd museum. Mira had begged her to protest for justice so how could she not heed those eyes and snaggletooth smile? Parades were something else. She’d been groped at a protest. Movement, out of the corner of her eye, distracted her, but to taking notice as to what had moved or why.    

“Okay, okay, maybe. I’ll have to let them know at work. And…” she had begun piling up reasons not to.    

Just stop it. I can hear your brain.    

“Oh, Jim. It’s August. I hate the heat.”    

It’s not hot up there. It’s been seventy-five all week. It’ll be frigid at night. You’ll see. We’ve got a spot allowing for campfires. Just come. It’ll be great, his jagged assurance.    

“I’ve already said so,” she said in some code to him he understood as maybe.    

Conor had been leaning at the door defying her the while using the frame, between shoulders, along his back. She ended the call and clacked on the bathroom light knowing the answer Conor would give and already closed up with herself she would ask.     

“Would you come camping with me and the nieces?”    

“Nope.”    

“That fast, huh. Just nope.”    

“I’m not going to justify your mood with an answer. And I shouldn’t even be awake yet. I’m too old for camping.”    

“Fine,” she said and closed the door with the broom, pushing him out. “You’re like some antediluvian slime.”    

He smiled back to his bed.    

“You didn’t want to go anyway,” he said, just loud enough.    

She groaned, just loud enough.

Jim’s Stolidness

Robert sat with Jim and Lutz the cat the Monday after Kettle Moraine. Robert paged through a magazine and at times held down his spot before turning the next page and looked up at Jim to say something, but came off it and paged on, a long pause at present between them and building in one where the other had long detached, buried in his phone for work, and meant to be off work until Tuesday, but the office got him and wouldn’t let go. His demeanor changed on phones, a sharp response, unless caught looking up. How they will ignore without knowing it these days. Robert could wait.    

But Jim stood to go.    

Lutz more than panicked to look.    

“Oh, don’t leave yet.”    

“I have to go.”    

“You don’t. Just stay for a little while. I’m so worried about Mary.”    

“What’s there to worry about?” he snapped.    

There it was, workplace tone.    

“Oh, I just was thinking about that young man, about how he’s just some stuck soul, living at his childhood home and coasting along in that day job and not telling anyone what his plans are.”    

“Sounds like you’ve got Conor on deferral.”    

“What’s that supposed to mean?”    

“I’m just saying, you can’t judge a man for being himself because he’s in love with your daughter. He’s an artist, like you. The constant outsiders, the people who must do. Who knows what Conor will accept into his life?”    

“Oh I don’t know about all that, son.”    

“Sounds very much the case.”    

“A little presuming. Artists aren’t all that complicated, are they?”    

“Presumptive? What’s the worry? Drop him, take him. She’s dating. This is the game.”    

That tone again.    

“Well, I just don’t want her to have to go back to every week with Joan. It’s too much. She can’t afford it and if it goes that way, she might have to move back home, too.”    

“Joan. Jesus, who said Mary ever needed that trap,” he said sniping Sheri Donohugh from our living side. Though he really couldn’t be sure what his mother was now. She lived in the basement and slept, and when she woke she said only “ma pocaiesce,” which Mada had said meant, I repent. And then there was the camping trip. She must have killed three deer.     

“Therapy is not a trap,” Robert raised his voice. “Didn’t you go to Father Oldershaw before your trip out east?”

“Oh, that’s hardly same as mundanatry.”

“Call it what you will; it works for Mary.”

“And anyway, you’ve got two guest rooms, what’s the problem?”

“You know what I mean, Jim.”

“Really, I don’t. Stop making plans for people they can’t keep. She stays at the house weekends anyway, to be near you. So what if she moves home. All this frustration and worry over nothing.”

Mary had recently moved into a small flat with a kitchenette. Her way of next-stepping her mourning, but she spent as little time there as possible. Never with Conor.    

“Oh Jim.”

That tone. It flipped him on himself and he placed down the magazine and got up to perform stationary staring out the window,  disobedience proximal to conflict. Light from the window blinded him good enough, setting deep creases to dire-drawn theater curtain cheeks, and dryness around the eye asking for sleep to close away the strain.

Constraint and thoughtfulness had followed Sheri’s death, where the sublingual firecracker at the man’s lips in even light provocation dulled down to mouse patters upon the hardwood floor, where it stopped at an eye in the wood grain and disappeared. Dormant, how spelled from drink. He refilled the glass and returned to his reading chair.

Jim hunkered down into his phone. Three already? Minoo needed picking up from school.

“You know, they say there’s phone hygiene or something, where you shouldn’t around loved ones.”

“What, it’s work. That’s not what they mean.”

Jim kissed Robert Donohugh on top his head, for he was sat, and went. They hadn’t even discussed the award ceremony or his travel worry. Robert needed Jim’s confidence, his broad shoulder; not his innate ability to petrify, to preach. But since their trip to Romania, Jim had been distant, secretive, and worrying; but somehow his confidence had returned, that confidence he’d lost after Sheri… Well, after all that.

Eventide

It hadn’t been a good week that week, not for Jim anyway. The pills had been Mary’s and after a long fight, Sheri just couldn’t resist the temptation to cure herself. Only it hadn’t worked that way. Had it. He couldn’t accept it, couldn’t put her in the ground. It had been Mada’s idea, and the trip came easy enough, though a little difficult to get into Romania. The border with Moldovia was a little sketch. But, then, bringing a corpse on a trip, hiding a corpse from his family, from his sister.

The little ones played with the coffin endlessly. Minoo even managed to poke a hole through. It had been a ten-thousand dollar bribe to get her body from the funeral home (all had agreed on a closed casket after Jim’s insistance) and once they’d reached the Moldavian border, Mada had worried it had been too long. But, the ancient family had appeared from the trees and greeted Jim, Mada, and their casket.

If only she would say something more, but there with her in the late evening, as wind howled through the back entrance to the basement, and snow spattered north windows, Sheri woke to Jim at her bedside, and in the way a grandma greets an ailing child, she said, “ma pocaiesce.”

 

Conor Robin Madigan lives and writes in Evanston, Illinois. His stories can be found in Smokelong Quarterly, Storyglossia, The Charles River Journal, and elsewhere. Keith Botsford published his first novel Cut Up in 2011. 

www.conormadigan.com