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.”
“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.
“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.”
“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.
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?”