At the Middle Country Road underpass, just beyond Smithtown, the swirling snow began to melt as soon as it hit the ground. As the temperature fell, dark patches of ice formed near the edges of the parkway. Moving cars kept the road from freezing, but, as the traffic thinned, fingers of black ice crept toward the center.
* * *
It stole over them while they were finishing their tea. As if sensing someone was following on a darkened street, the woman became aware of delicate movements outside the house. She turned her head toward the fogged-up windowpane. Large, soft snowflakes boiled outside in the light from the streetlamps.
“Seamus, it’s snowing, for heaven’s sake.”
He stood, his hand poised over the remains of the supper. His hand was broad with strong, blunt fingers.
“In April,” he said and smiled. He moved to the window and pressed his face close to the glass. The big, wet flakes etched on the pane, hung for a moment, and then disappeared.
“What possible difference could the month make?” said his wife. She hurried to the hall closet and yanked on a rough woolen coat trimmed with a mouton lamb fur that had worn thin at the edges.
“Annie, it’s delightfully irregular to snow in April.”
“Irregular delight will make us late for the wake,” she said and buttoned the coat tight up under her chin. She was not slender, a sturdy engine of a woman. The ill-fitting coat left her breathless with exertion. Because he worried about her health, he knelt to help buckle her galoshes.
“I gather we’re going,” he said, patting her ankle.
“Well, m’lassie,” he said, rising from his knees. “It may be our feckin’ funeral, too.”
She balled her fist and poked him in the ribs.
“Very funny, Mister Driscoll. Very funny.”
In the driveway, the car was already layered with heavy snow, and they wiped the windshield front and back. Annie, as was their habit, took the driver’s seat.
As she backed the car into the road, he looked at the silent house with its narrow brick stoop. The darkened windows, three across, were as remote and forbidding as they were the first time he saw them twenty-three years ago. He never really took to this house, one of a row of cramped little houses, exactly alike.
She spun the wheel, accelerating slowly until the tires found solid footing underneath the spring snow. He had to confess, she was a fine driver, far better than he. He supposed it was because she was born in America.
In minutes they reached the Grand Central Parkway. Traffic was light. She used the high beams and groped through the chaos of tumbling white. They traveled without speaking, the greenish light from the dash bathing their faces in a weird pallor. Seamus lit a cigarette, opened the window a crack, and began to sing “Bye, Bye, Blackbird.” His voice was a surprising, sweet baritone.
At Smithtown, the snow stopped and the pavement ahead appeared black and shiny. Annie leaned on the accelerator and relaxed behind the wheel.
“You love this, don’t you, Annie?”
“I love it.”
“We should get there before Father Bill does the rosary at this rate.”
“Slow down, then.”
She turned her face to him and laughed. A sliver of a horned moon poked through thinning clouds. Ahead, a fast-moving trailer truck loomed in the dark. She moved left and sped forward. The truck and the small car, in tandem, approached the underpass at Middle Country Road. On her right quarter, the mass of the truck rose as a mountainous shape, the driver inside barely visible, an outline. As the road dipped and descended under the bridge, she grabbed the wheel with both hands, feeling the speed. The angle of the roadway pulled the small car faster into the bend waiting on the other side of the bridge. Before they emerged from the underpass, the left rear wheel hit a patch of black ice.
A beat, a subtle hesitation and then, in a graceful arc, the rear of the small car began to twist and slide, to waltz, into the pathway of the semitrailer. In that millisecond before the front of the truck with its chrome-plated bulldog drove Annie and Seamus two hundred fifty feet down the Parkway, taking the car on the driver’s side, Seamus raised his broad, square hand as if to protect his eyes, and Annie said in an uncharacteristically small voice, “Oh, damn.”
That was the last of her. He lived for almost a year.
* * *
His daughter, Nora, found him in his hospital room, his long arms quiet by his sides. It had taken a week for the authorities to find her in her cloistered community on the island off the Strait of Juan de Fuca, plus almost a week negotiating with the Motherhouse in Connecticut for temporary release from her vow of silence, and one whole day waiting for a fogbound ferry to deliver her to the airport for the flight east. Before she arrived, the doctors had decided to wean her father from the tubes that had kept him alive, so he was encased in an oxygen tent. The nostrils of his Medici nose had not returned to their proper shape. She touched his wrist with its dark dusting of hair, cool like the temperature of the room. In the crook of his arm, a bluish mound, an enlarged blood vessel, pulsed like a tiny drum. Sliding her hand over his wrist, she linked her fingers in his.
* * *
She came back to the house where she had grown up, still wearing the gray-and-white habit of her order, the starched head scarf now limp after two days of travel. In her parents’ bedroom closet she found a tweed skirt and a cardigan sweater, her mother’s old clothes. She pulled those on and folded her habit into a neat bundle, which she placed on a hall chair. In the mirror over her mother’s dresser, she saw her still thick, reddish-brown hair released from its confinement. It needed a wash.
Downstairs, the place was dead still except for the drip of water in the kitchen taps and the creak of the parquet floors when she crossed into the living room.
Years ago, Nora Driscoll wondered if they would ever change the covering on the horsehair sofa and matching club chair, which sat in the small front parlor of the house. Both pieces of furniture had been there as long as she could remember, the bristly brown upholstery forever worn at the armrests.
She wondered what it would be like to sit next to her father on, perhaps, a flowery cretonne slipcover, listening to him read from a library book. But remembering her father’s tall, strong body, there was a definite feeling that, although she might like the front room to be prettier than it was, she would miss the starchy itch of the brown horsehair upholstery and its musky smell of attics and dust.
* * *
When the weekly papers from Ireland arrived, Seamus Driscoll sat in the front room alone and read each page, holding the print close to his face. He was shortsighted, but refused to wear his glasses.
When Nora was almost ten years old, her father started interspersing the evening’s library book with articles from Western People or The Cork Examiner, newspapers that arrived through the mail slot each Saturday morning. He read to her about politics, Fine Fáil and Fine Gael, the parties’ names pronounced with an emphasis bordering on rage.
“Buffoons, all of them,” he would mutter.
Occasionally, when he was in a silly mood, he highlighted agricultural calamities, tractor-pulling tragedies, and horse shows, reading them as a peasant Irish comedian and not with the usual music of his sonorous Cork City speech. He played all the characters perfectly, even the Anglo-Irish show judge.
But just as often, he would become immersed in the fine print on the obituary pages, closely reading the memorial tributes and causes of death of people he seemed to know. She noticed that when he read from his Irish newspapers, there was an increase in the foreignness of his accent.
He was not a frequenter of bars or of the Knights of Columbus Hall, but, as regular as the stirring along the maple trees arching over their street, spring drove him into the company of the men from home. The season and the ritual of Saint Patrick’s Day on Fifth Avenue, the sound of marching, as close as it got to his mental picture of organized Irishmen in the Spring of 1916.
“You, Seamus. After all you did, after all you sacrificed, you must be sick with it.”
He knocked back the ball in its blunt double-shot glass and sipped his dark beer.
“It will change one day. It will change.”
For the ritual spring-cleaning, her mother took down all the lace-figured curtains and washed them; he carried the big pot of boiled starch down from the kitchen into the basement and poured the hot, blue-tinted liquid into the set tubs. Her mother stirred the steaming mixture and the ecru lace with the handle of a broomstick. When she was finished, they wrung the curtains together over the tubs. Setting up the drying rack in the backyard was a two-person job. Nora braced the legs as her father screwed the arms together. The metals pins, a quarter inch apart, were hard to avoid, and they were often pricked, both of them.
“The scars of battle,” he would say.
“As close as you’ll get,” her mother would say.
“You’re a hard woman.”
“A realist I am.”
Usually, he would take her skepticism with unerring grace and patience. On Easter Saturday, Lent being over, he would go to O’Byrne’s or Skipper’s or The Snuggery to hoist a few with his friends, returning to the kitchen drunk and morose. She would brew him strong coffee and make a small, disapproving little noise, a clicking noise, with her tongue behind her teeth.
“You’re a hopeless romantic, Seamus O’Driscoll,” she would say. “With six more counties? Pish, the country is ungovernable as it is.”
“But at least it would be our own un-government.”
That night, he would sleep on the couch.
But on Easter Monday, regular as clockwork, year in and year out, he would attend Mass, dressed in his best blue suit. When Nora was old enough, she would go with him, her Easter outfit freshened and put on for one more day. Her mother would not go along, the effort of Easter dinner having taken its toll.
“Besides,” her mother would say, “It’s your day.”
Over his fine thick hair, he would cock the fedora that was his best felt hat, usually a shade of gray with a black grosgrain band. Her mother would brush his suit jacket with the whisk broom they kept in the hall closet and smooth the cloth of his suit over his broad, straight back. Then, from the flower arrangement that had been sent home by the Altar Society of St. Malachy’s where her mother provided the freshly starched and ironed Limerick lace altar cloth for special feast days, her mother took one fully opened white lily and pinned it to his lapel.
“In the name of God,” she would say as she did it, a little smile on her lips.
“And the dead generations,” he would finish. He would kiss her then, on the lips.
* * *
The ambulance was backed into the driveway, coming to a halt at a slight angle to the front of the house. The hydrangea in the middle of the front lawn had just come into bud, green brackets swelling along each branch. Her father had cut it to the ground, as usual, in November. The dried heads of the last pale lavender flowers of the season still stood in the painted bisque bowl on the hall stand, under the banjo clock.
The driver and the ambulance nurse opened the rear door and slid out the gurney; her father was strapped down with thick orange webs. The plastic bag with its apparatus for feeding and providing fluids rattled against the side of the gurney. Nora unlocked the front door of the still house, and the driver inspected the entrance.
“We can’t get him through here.”
“Can’t get him through?”
“Nope. Angle too steep.”
“But it has to.” Nora measured the space with her eye, the zigzag of the entrance. It was true. The gurney wouldn’t fit.
“Back door any better?”
“Worse,” she said, feeling sick.
The driver and the nurse surveyed the front of the house.
“How about the windows?”
“They haven’t been opened in years,” said Nora.
“Let’s have a look-see.”
The driver went into the house, flicked on the light next to the sofa. He released the window lock and banged sharply on the frame. Then, with a quickly indrawn breath, he leaned into the window and gave a shove. It slid up easily.
“Probably opened more than you think, Miss,” he said. She could feel the irritation but knew that the driver was probably correct. She had been away from their lives. For years.
The driver muscled the gurney across the patch of lawn and through the shrubbery, breaking branches as he went. Then the driver entered the house and leaned through the opened window. He grabbed the foot of the gurney, and the ambulance nurse straddled the shrubbery just under the sill. Nora watched from the street as her father was lifted through the dark opening, past the stiff lace curtains. For a moment he was held high, like a martyr at a military funeral. Then he disappeared inside.
It took him eleven months and seventeen days to die. Strangely, he didn’t change. His skin was translucently pale, firm and pleasant to the touch. She did everything for him, bathed him, changed him, turned him. She even shaved him every third day, even though only a few friends came to see him during the week. His skin was taut enough on the chin and cheeks so that she could do a relatively decent job of barbering. He remained comatose.
In the mirror over the bathroom sink, Nora’s face reflected back a progressive desiccation that her father had seemed to escape. Day after day, growing into weeks and then months, her unlined, fresh face was sculpted. Softness fell from her throat and around her mouth. Now that her gray-and-white habit hung in the closet and she wore her mother’s old sweaters and skirts, she emerged in full dimension and occupied her body. She was annealed in the work.
From the day he first came home again, the ritual rarely changed; marketing for her dinner, trips to the library and bank, were done quickly and with dispatch. In the evening, by the light of the marble-based lamp standing near his motorized bed, she read to him—Frank O’Connor, Yeats, and The Life of Michael Collins, his favorite. She read to an unblinking, almost stone, face.
Then, on Palm Sunday, he suddenly changed. As if on signal, his whole body began to collapse into itself and she detected the rapid development of raw brown patches on his buttocks and along his heels and shoulders. He disintegrated as a dying plant, struggling not at all.
“He’s trapped in there,” she said to his helpless young doctor.
“He’s not aware…of anything.”
“He’s been trapped in there, trying to get out.”
She imagined his effort to move, to cry out in pain, to reach her.
On Easter Monday, about six in the morning, with one long, hoarse intake of breath, he left her. When he was dead, she noticed that his eyes were slightly open, the ice-blue pupils barely visible, and she understood that, for all the months he had seemed out of reach, he must have willed his eyes firmly shut. He must have willed his death on this certain day as well.
From the vase filled with lilies, which a member of the Altar Society had brought from the Easter High Mass, she took one fully opened white blossom and pinned it to the breast pocket of his pajamas.
“From Momma and me.”
* * *
After the service, in the familiar kitchen, she finished her tea and tried to imagine what it had been like for them, those years when she was closed away, their only child, refusing to live in the world. She stepped into the small back garden and saw that the lawn where they had stretched out the lace curtain drying rack was weedy and untended. Her mother’s roses were scraggly with pinholes from thrips. For the first time since the last death, she thought of her mother in the garden and wondered, again, why she had always loved her father more. Maybe that was why she left them.
On the wash line, she hung the sweaters and pants she had laundered, her mother’s clothes that she now wore. In the back of the closet she hung her habit in a mothproof bag, along with her father’s good wool suit.