Today’s not only St. Patrick’s Day, but it is also time for the Drunk At First Sight Blogfest. Below is my entry, but here are the rules: before you even take a gander at my piece, I want you to go to the link and read all the other Blogfest fiction pieces being posted by a bunch of other great writers.
Also, I’d like to thank the following folks who helped getting the word out for this Blogfest:
You guys totally rock!!!
And now here’s mine, but remember only after having read everyone else. That’s alright. I’ll wait.
OK. Here it is.
(c) 2010 Jon Paul
My father wanted to record the World Series, and the doctor had promised they’d see what they could do. I offered the pretty nurse a sheepish smile as she fiddled with the VCR, but she didn’t seem to notice me. After a moment, I turned and watched Dad in the hospital bed. He looked tired after the surgery. A telling fatigue obscured the clarity in his eyes. His silver hair matted in knots against his forehead.
He was studying the white-clad nurse with a half-smile and it made me remember a summer trip ten years ago. Back then, Dad had always wanted to visit Ireland, but Mom had nixed the idea. “Who wants to sit in a smoky pub?” she always said. “And I can’t understand a word they say anyway.”
But after the divorce, there was no reason not to go. My father said then that he stilled loved my mother, that some people couldn’t find a way to live together, and that the parting had been amicable–a word whose meaning I didn’t understand until years later. My mother told a different story: Dad talked too much. She often complained that he always had something to say, and what he said never really added up to anything worth hearing. I once heard her tell my aunt on the telephone: the man simply likes to hear the sound of his own voice. It’s as simple as that.
Dad moved a few pieces of furniture and his clothes out into a small apartment a few miles away from our house. When my younger brother Michael and I went to visit him on the weekends, he never cooked; he took us to our favorite fast food restaurants instead. In fact, I don’t even think he owned any pots or pans, and sometimes he served us donuts for breakfast on paper plates. Still, by all accounts, my father handled the breakup well. He laughed with us, and we played games and watched our favorite television shows together, though a strange faraway look sometimes flickered across his face in restaurants or while we were driving in the car. After a couple years, I’d been in and out of a few relationships myself, and I realized what he had been thinking in those moments: he wondered, since things had gone south with my mom, if he even stood a chance of ever finding someone else again.
A trip to Ireland was still something he wanted to do–more now than ever–so it happened that later that year, the week after school let out, Dad picked Michael and I up and drove us to the airport. The trans-Atlantic flight lasted forever–Michael and I dozed most of the way while my father reviewed documents for work and chatted at length with one of the stewardesses–and we woke with the light of a new day streaming in through the airplane windows, the green fields of western Ireland scooting below us like a brilliantly-woven medieval tapestry.
Driving a rented car, suitcases fitted into the undersized trunk and film loaded in our instamatic cameras, we set out from Dublin around lunchtime. The plan, sketched by my father on the back of a napkin during the first hours of the flight, called for a circuit from Dublin around to Galway Bay and back over the span of ten days. Each evening, we’d stay in a Bed and Breakfast or Inn and rise early the next morning, the better to get a start on the day’s driving. The first night, we were to stay at a cozy place halfway between Archerstown and Ashbourne called the Shillelagh House. Dad said he’d made all the arrangements.
We stopped along the roadside now and again to take pictures. An occasional drizzle glossed the roads but that didn’t deter us; we pressed on. We took a break and a snack at a village pub where my father engaged in lively banter with one of the waitresses–in fact we had to pull him away after it became clear the woman had other customers to help. We pointed out thatch-roofed houses and castle ruins and anything that caught our eye as we drove along the country roads. We were happy the trip was off to a pleasant start, and we enjoyed the lazy pace of the day.
The late afternoon sky was growing cloudy when my father finally pulled the car into a graveled driveway and the Shillelagh House came into view. It knelt at the top of a squat hill, down a ways from the main crossroads, and was simply but sturdily constructed in brick and finished timber. We knocked at the door and a stunning red-headed woman answered. She introduced herself as Charlotte. She smiled at my father–she had been expecting us and we were just in time for tea–and welcomed us in, the singsong lilt of her accent adrift in the air like a siren’s voice.
We were her only boarders that night, she said, and had the run of the house. Michael and I would sleep in the loft–my father told us to take our suitcases up and we did as we were told–and he would lodge in the master suite. Breakfast would be served promptly at eight-thirty.
The small, cozy rooms looked like something out of a Forties movie; heavy darkwood furniture; beds covered in thick down comforters and quilts; paintings of the Irish countryside on the walls. The dimensions and accoutrements of every room conveyed a refined comfort, useful in keeping the chill of an early spring rain or late winter wind at bay.
Downstairs, Charlotte served tea and sweet cookies–the fact that she called them biscuits drew a chuckle from us–and Michael and I devoured them, sipping the hot tea with care; we had barely realized our hunger until that moment. Charlotte’s green eyes flashed upon us as she spoke–again her accent amazed me–and she asked about America and our lives there.
My father explained that we were from Texas. He worked in banking.
“Oh, so you’re a banker?”
No, he was an accountant who worked in a bank, he explained, as odd as that sounded. My father went on to describe where we lived and told her about our schools and the kind of television shows we liked to watch.
Charlotte smiled at the two of us. “So what about you boys? What do you want to be when you grow up?”
Michael gave her a noncommittal shrug. He hadn’t decided yet.
My father put his hand on my shoulder. “Pete here wants to be a writer. In fact, James Joyce is one of his favorites.”
A sudden light danced in her eyes. “Is that right?”
“Yes,” I said, avoiding the urge to look at my feet. “My favorite short story of his is ‘Araby’.” When I spoke, she nodded her head and listened in a thoughtful way, and I knew then that I liked her.
She spoke to me like a fellow conspirator, as if it were only the two of us in the room. “Did you know that when I was a college student in Dublin, I lived in a house around the corner from where the Bazaar was supposed to have been?”
“Yep. Joyce is one of my favorites too.”
I laughed, charmed and intrigued.
After a few minutes’ further discussion, Charlotte told us about the local area. Many years ago, most of the surrounding countryside was part of a larger estate, land parceled off over the years until the only piece remaining was the corner lot where the Shillelagh House stood. Charlotte had inherited the property and had decided to convert it to a Bed and Breakfast several years back.
As she described other local attractions–there was an old castle ruin up the road worth seeing, for example–she must have caught Michael dozing in his chair because she said to Dad: “It looks like your little one is fading fast.” I was having trouble keeping my eyes open too.
After a quick discussion, we decided to turn in early so that we could get an early start in the morning. Climbing into bed under the heavy covers, my head on a goose feather pillow, I realized I was so tired from the flight over that I didn’t even mind missing dinner. I was soon fast asleep and I woke only once, several hours later, to hear the voices of Charlotte and my father chatting pleasantly in the parlor below.
When Michael and I came down for breakfast the next morning, Charlotte had laid out a feast. Rashers, black and white pudding, baked beans, brown bread, butter, raspberry jam, marmalade–a true Irish breakfast.
She stuck her head out from the corner kitchen. “Morning, boys.”
“Morning,” we replied in unison.
We ponied up to the table and poured ourselves glasses of orange juice. My father appeared after a few moments, freshly shaven and looking bright. He sat down and we shared a smile at the bounty of food in front of us.
“Wow! This looks great,” he said.
Charlotte came in and placed a plate with a fried egg in front of each of us. “Don’t be bashful,” she said. “Eat up.” She addressed my father: “Merrill, can I get you coffee or tea?”
“Coffee would be nice, if it’s not too much trouble.”
“No. No trouble at all.” She disappeared into the kitchen and we served ourselves food from the platters. After a moment, she returned and sat with us, sipping only tea and smiling as we chatted and ate our breakfast. The meal went quickly and the food was delicious. I gave Michael a happy look and he grinned back at me while chewing a butter-topped piece of brown bread. We finished our meals, wiped our mouths with napkins, excused ourselves from the table and stood up.
“Thank you so much, Charlotte. This meal was delicious,” my father said.
“My pleasure. So where are you off to next?”
“The Golden Arms Inn. I believe it’s near a town called Monaghan.”
“Oh, that is a very nice place. I know the owners, the Mullaneys, rather well.”
“You should really make an effort to go over and see Castle Leslie, nearby,” Charlotte continued. “It’s worth a visit. Just follow the road out of Monaghan toward Glaslough. It’s very popular. They even advertise on the television.”
Michael and I were halfway up the stairs when my father said: “Do you know, in America, we have a way to record television at home?”
“Really?” The interest in Charlotte’s voice was genuine.
My brother and I looked at each other and rolled our eyes as my father began to tell Charlotte about Video Cassette Recorders–by then, everyone in the U. S. called them VCRs. He explained how it was possible to record a television program at any time with the press of a button. Simply connect the cables up to the back of the television, press record, and the broadcast can be replayed later at a time of the viewer’s choosing.
“We don’t have those in Ireland,” Charlotte said when my father stopped to take a breath.
Michael and I edged down the stairs to get a better view. My father stood talking with a smile while Charlotte faced him, a pile of dirty dishes in hand.
“Give it time,” he said.
She turned to go to the kitchen. “Well, that sounds like a fantastic piece of technology. One of these days–”
“But that’s not all!” My father gently shifted his weight to keep her attention and block her exit.
I laughed silently with Michael as my father explained that for a VCR to work, you didn’t even need to be present to record the broadcast. To my ear, he sounded exactly like a VCR salesman trying to close a difficult customer. My father continued: Each VCR had an onboard clock. Set the clock to the current time, then a time could be programmed in when the VCR would begin recording automatically.
“So, you can be out to dinner and the VCR records your favorite show while you are away. It’s the easiest thing in the world,” he said.
Charlotte nodded politely, an uneasy smile on her face. “Thanks, Merrill. That sounds, uh, sounds grand, and I’ll–”
When my father interrupted her again, Michael gave me a worried look. I glanced at my watch. It was starting to get late and we needed to get moving. Michael indicated that as the oldest, it was my responsibility to go down and break things up. I nodded that I would try, inched down the stairs and crossed to where Charlotte and my father stood, his voice filling the small space with technical VCR details.
“Dad?” I said, giving my voice as much intensity as I could muster.
My father glanced at me and Charlotte gave me a thankful look.
I spoke again, trying not to sound too pointed. “I think we need to get going…”
He looked back at Charlotte and gestured upstairs. “I’ll be there in a minute.”
I paused, unsure whether to trust him.
He looked at me directly. “In a minute.”
I shrugged and turned away. “OK.”
My brother and I retreated upstairs, standing together on the landing. We could hear my father continue the History and Times of The Video Cassette Recorder and I imagined Charlotte standing there, trapped, shifting the dirty dishes from one hand to the other, giving my father every non-verbal signal in the book that breakfast needed to be cleaned up and that it was time to get on with the day. In between my father’s long lines of explanation, she gave a polite grunt here and there, and agreed when necessary, but under the politeness a definite undertone of impatience had set in. Nonetheless, my father pressed on, unaware and undeterred.
I sighed, exasperated. I suppose I was embarrassed; I didn’t understand what my father thought he was accomplishing. Michael and I grabbed our luggage, making plenty of noise as we dragged the bags down the stairs, bustling pointedly past my father and his victim as she stood pinned against the dining room wall, a solemn white pallor having overtaken her features.
I had hoped the obvious move toward the car would change the equation, would knock something loose in Dad’s brain, would make him realize that we were overstaying our welcome, but he didn’t move an inch. Now he was explaining that a VCR allowed you to watch a program on one channel and record a different program on a different channel.
Outside, the sun was up, the day bright. I went back in for my father’s bags and returned with them as well, making as much noise as possible but still having no effect. We piled the bags next to the rear wheels of the car and stood around. Eventually, Michael climbed up on the trunk and put his chin in the palms of his hands. One look at him told me he had given up and would wait as long as it took for my father’s tirade to come to an end.
Of course, just as mom had said, Dad had done this before, but for some reason this time it really bothered me. Charlotte seemed like the nicest lady. We’d had a splendid evening the night before and a very nice breakfast this morning. I simply didn’t see why Dad had to go and ruin it with all this talk about VCRs.
I hadn’t understood until that moment that my father’s actions reflected on us. It bothered me that Charlotte’s memory of us, if she retained any memory at all, would not be of a pleasant conversation about James Joyce, but would instead be a silly tale about a loud American who couldn’t keep his mouth shut, who loved the sound of his own voice.
I marched back inside, a new kind of resentment warming the back of my neck, resolved to drag my father away. Charlotte had set the dishes she had been holding back on the table in resignation and, with arms folded, glared at my father in open dismay. The sonorous rattle of my father’s voice was now outlining the detailed steps required to set the clock from 12:00 a.m. to the local time. I couldn’t believe my ears.
“Dad, we have to go!”
He smiled down at me, as if I hadn’t really said anything. “In a minute.”
Charlotte sort of laughed slyly at this. At least she saw some humor in the situation, but by this time, I did not.
“You said ‘in a minute’ fifteen minutes ago,” I said.
My dad offered a good-natured smile, more for Charlotte’s benefit than mine. He pulled the car keys from his pocket. “I know. Here, put your luggage in the trunk. I’ll be out in a minute.”
I thought about objecting, of pointing out the late hour, of pointing out that Charlotte probably didn’t care one bit about VCRs, but I realized it would be no use. To make a bigger deal now would make the situation more embarrassing than it already was.
I retreated to the car, deflated. We loaded the bags, climbed inside. I stuck the keys in the ignition and started the car, and there we sat for another thirty-five minutes.
Finally Charlotte and my father emerged from the house. He wore a bright smile; she looked slightly withered, but still as pretty as when we’d first met her. My father climbed into the driver’s seat, put the car in gear. We waved as we pulled out of the driveway, and Charlotte waved back until she was out of view.
“Wasn’t that fun?” my father said, the strange look on his face competing with a smile.
I rolled my eyes. “Sure, Dad. It was a blast.”
My father’s cough brought me back to the hospital room. His head dipped forward slightly with each exhalation, then fell back on the pillow when the fit was done.
“You doing OK, Dad?” I asked.
He managed a weak smile, the gleam still strong in his eyes. “Yeah. I’m fine.”
The nurse was still working in front of the TV. Her red hair fell prettily along the line of her neck. My father caught me looking. He knew I’d been having girl troubles lately and he nudged me, nodding in the universal sign: she’s attractive. What about her? I shrugged. I wasn’t sure I was ready for something new.
The nurse turned around with an exasperated sigh, holding the VCR remote in her shapely hands. “I can’t get this thing to work. Can one of you help me?”
My father nudged me in the ribs again and grinned like he was sharing the secret of the world. “Why don’t you tell her?”
Thanks for reading, and Happy St. Patrick’s Day everyone!