Fiction · 08/17/2011

Crosses

When Kehoe, the landlord, comes looking for payment he drags in clay from his fields, all over the kitchen floor, and if I did that Ma would go apeshit but she says nothing to him and makes me sweep it up. He’s a tall, lean man with dangly arms and hands twice as big as mine. Black dirt is chiseled in around his fingernails, even at mass on Sundays. It’s said he never takes a bath or drinks or smokes, lives on cans of dog food and stale bread the baker in town gives out for half-nothing. And I’m inclined to believe it for when he comes around he eats enough for two men.

He stands in the middle of the kitchen, more crab apples with him. A plastic bag of twenty or more and two dirty plates inside. It’s my job to peel the crabs for the tarts and Ma hasn’t stewed up the ones from last week yet. He leaves the bag on the table, throws off his black waistcoat to the settee. The whiff from his oxters clashes with the smell of bacon and cabbage simmering on the stove. He leans and sniffs four fresh tarts cooling on the wire rack on the table, the arse of his corduroy trousers shiny. He knows that two of the tarts are for him to take away, and every Tuesday I have to cycle down to his place with two more fresh ones and collect the empty plates.

Sweet, he says to himself, then slides over to the stove and lifts the saucepan lids, sniffing the steam.

Sit down there, John, will ya? Ma says, bumping into him when she turns from the sink.

Ya have the cabbage in with the bacon, he says. Is it in long? He talks slowly, like he has to make up each word before he says it.

The last hour, Ma sighs, and she’s too hot, her cheeks red, her hair the color of chestnut from the sweat.

You’re a right one, Evelyn, diya know that? he says, turning, smiling, making his way back to the table.

Over there, Ma says to me. Do under the table now while you’re at it.

Kehoe sits in the usual place, his back to the wall, and when he takes an apple from the bag he haws on it, starts rubbing it against his leg, the tip of his tongue slipping in and out. When I stoop to brush under the table he changes to pumping the apple against the fork of his trousers, just below the buttons.

Who’s yer daddy, young Dempsey? he says to me.

John, Ma says to him, like she does when she’s cross.

I was only askin, Evelyn, Kehoe says. But sure the lad never talks to me.

Ma lays a pile of spuds, bacon and cabbage in front of him, surely enough for Breslin’s sow, and Kehoe lathers it with butter, and tears into it before either of us sit. Afterwards, Ma sends me out with scraps for Trigger, who I can’t find and I hope he’s not in Kehoe’s field. When I come in Kehoe has moved over to the sink, where Ma is drying up. He’s rubbing against her now, whispering, his hand on her arse. When he sees me he smiles, leaves the hand where it is, says, Did ya know yer father, young Dempsey? Or sure maybe you shouldn’t be called Dempsey at all, with him gone so long, like. What diya think, Evelyn, will we change his name to young Kehoe?

John, she says, pushing him away. Stop now, will ya? I’m serious.

She turns, wiping her hands in the tea towel with the picture of Santa on it. Her face is still red though the steam is gone, her eyes lifeless because of what comes next. Folding the towel she can’t look at me, but says, Go on up to Breslin’s now and get the few eggs. We’ll need them the weekend.

It’s the same every week, and though I know that someday I’ll be man enough to grab Da’s old hurl Ma still keeps in her bedroom in case the tinkers call, and beat auld Kehoe to a pulp, back into the field he dragged himself out of, I turn and leave, call for Trigger and head for the crossroads, where Kehoe has left his High Nelly lying against the signpost for the Breslin’s to see.

+

Tuesday evening. Ma sends me off on her bike, two fresh tarts in the basket. Trigger jumps along beside me, hopping in and out of ditches, sniffing, cocking on every stone, barking at pheasants and snapping at midgets. At the bridge I stop and look over the stone wall to see if there’s anything jumping. The water from the mountain is clear, as if it isn’t there, and Trigger runs down and drinks and looks up at me, waiting for the word. Go on, Trigger, I shout, and in he goes, up to his neck in it. After a while I put two fingers in my mouth, whistle, and up he dashes to the road where he shakes like I shake my head after Ma washing my hair, the suds in my eyes.

A mile farther on Kehoe’s place has no gate, and as you go down the yard the thistles would nearly go for you. He’s sitting outside, under the window on an up-side-down galvanized bucket, sucking on a blade of grass. An oily Massey Ferguson cap pulled down over his eyes, he lifts it and hocks and spits when he hears me.

That’s a rare evenin, young Dempsey, he says. Ya could nearly walk round with n’er a stitch on on days like them. No need for clothes atall sure.

I stand the bike by the hedge, Trigger cocks on the spokes. I take the tarts from the basket, a plate on each hand, and slowly walk towards Kehoe. I only do this because I have to hand them over directly on orders from Ma. Holding them up, Kehoe leans and sniffs.

Sweet, he says. Yer Ma’s a great one for the crosses, eh? She never makes a tart without a cross on it. Tell me, is she a holy woman?

He smiles, and today his teeth seem to be the cleanest thing about him.

Still no word for me, eh? he says. He’s still smiling when he sticks two fingers into the left tart and gouges out a bit, then he sucks on the fingers, breathing in and slobbering.

Ah, he says, when it’s gone down. As sweet as yer Ma, young Dempsey, ya know what I’m sayin? You’re old enough now to know what I’m sayin, aren’t ya?

I almost tell him to shut his filthy, fucken mouth.

And is this one just as sweet? he says, making for to stick his fingers in the other tart. I step back.

Hand them over, he says.

I step back again and feel Trigger by my leg.

Kehoe stands, wearing the same waistcoat and trousers as Friday, a check-shirt hanging out on one side, his boots without laces, boots with the stitching torn he must just wear around the house. Hand them over now, he says.

I glance at the bike and then his boots again.

He cracks the knuckles of his right hand, says, Ya know yer Ma is a rare one, young Dempsey. Sure, ‘tis a wonder there’s a saddle on that bike there atall.

He stops and breathes in deeply through the nose.

Ah, he carries on, the smell of fear. And yer Da wasn’t much of a man either. A weak fucker to go and die and leave a fine woman like that on her own. His parents never forgave him, diya know, for marryin her. The kind she is and all. Did ya ever meet them even? Ah, I’d say not now by the look on yer gob. No Easter egg from the Dempsey clan, eh? None of them at yer communion, and what about yer confirmation? Who’ll be there for that now? You’ll be worse than the tinker, you will, there’ll be more with the fucken tinker than with you, me bucko. There’ll be a dozen girls round him, and the grannies and aunts will be queuin up to give him kisses and money. But nothin for young Dempsey here, nothin but a fucken …

He stops talking, looks down, and I look too. Trigger is cocked and firing, the piss running down Kehoe’s shiny trousers and into his open boot. He jumps back, What the fuck?

I drop the tarts and turn, the plates hit the ground. Crack. Crack. I charge for the bike as Kehoe makes a grab for me, then he chases, throwing kicks at Trigger who’s running rings round him, but his boot flies off and over the hedge into the sheep field. I reach the bike and yank it up and run and hop on and peddle out the gate, Trigger galloping beside me, and when I turn down the lane I shout back over my shoulder, Ya wouldn’t want to stand in the one spot for too long with our Trigger, ya auld fucker ya.

I can hardly peddle I’m laughing so hard, almost breathless, tears down my cheeks, my heart pumping, the bike wobbling, Trigger still cocking here and there. At the bridge I have to stop and get off and lean on the stone wall, panting, almost sick. On cue Trigger hurries down and takes a drink from the river, and then he looks up, his tongue hanging out, waiting for the word.

+

I don’t remember Da, his face, his smell, his voice. I sometimes hear people say that he was a great player, and then I grab his hurl and go outside and puck around in Kehoe’s field — when I know he’s not around — trying to imagine what it would be like if Da was here now. He’ll be gone ten years next January, and but for Kehoe, Ma says, we’d be camping on the side of the road like the tinkers up past Breslin’s. But I don’t think that would be so bad, at least Ma wouldn’t have to cater for Kehoe. And it’s only a matter of time before he clatters me, or worse, and I can’t believe he hasn’t come to the house since Trigger cocked on him.

Ma is cooking his dinner, four tarts cooling on the rack, and she hasn’t said much today. She never does on Fridays, but today even more so. I’m still afraid to tell her what really happened Tuesday — when I’d told her the dirty plates just fell out of the basket and broke on the way home — when Kehoe comes whistling down the yard, kicking at weeds, his hands in his pockets, the crows gone. He never knocks, and today he stops at the kitchen door and smiles and looks around.

A grand evenin, Evelyn, he says, before making his way over to the table, where he stoops and sniffs the tarts.

Sweet, he says. Then he straightens up, throws his waistcoat on the settee and carries on, I finally caught the hoor chasin the sheep too, Evelyn. A right fucker he was to catch. But I caught him. Sure, any hoor like that would be fond of a bit of meat. Ain’t that right, young Dempsey? He’s up on the road there now, so every tinker can see what happens mongrels that run riot on my land. Auld black, mangy mongrels with a white stripe on their chest.

He turns, grins, and something about his teeth almost makes me sick. I tear out the door and up the yard, retching, shouting, Trigger, Trigger, and only half an hour ago he was gnawing on a stick by the back door. I fall when I reach the crossroads, when I see Trigger hanging from the signpost by orange binder-twine, a noose round his neck, Kehoe’s bike leaning up against him. I cry, the tears blinding, and then Ma is hugging me, crying as well, saying sorry, over and over. I’m sorry, I’m sorry is all she can fucken say.

Go way, I shout. Go way and leave me alone. I wish Da was here. I wish Da was here to beat that fucker.

After a while she leaves me, lying there, breathless, sobbing, my chest sore, and eventually I make my way over to Trigger. I push Kehoe’s bike into the ditch, kicking at the tyres, stamping on the spokes until they’re all bent. I don’t want to face the signpost again, but I do, and when I lift Trigger’s head it flops down, the tongue hanging out, the eyes like the brown marbles I got from Ma last Christmas but these eyes have a much darker picture of me in them. I lift the body, the coat still soft and smelling of the river, and try to undo the twisted rope, but it’s too tight. I pull but the signpost is too strong. I step back, still looking at Trigger, forcing myself not to flinch, and it’s as if I suddenly feel older, stronger, as if I know I’m witnessing something now that will make a man out of me. I wipe away the tears and sprint back to the house for the bacon knife, and on the way I decide that, before I cut down Trigger, I’ll stick Kehoe in the gut.

Inside, the house is quiet, the kitchen empty, the hall door open. I go to the drawer and take out the bacon knife Kehoe himself last sharpened on the stone and creep down to Ma’s bedroom. Its door is open too. When I peep in Ma is at the foot of the bed, packing a black bin-liner, shoving away shoes, underwear, dresses. She blesses herself with the rosary beads, kisses the cross. Only when I go in do I see Kehoe sprawled on the bed, the trousers pulled down around his knees, a few gashes in his dinted forehead. There’s blood on the pillow, but not as much as you’d expect, and Da’s hurl is on the floor, the fat side of the bosh red.

Give me the knife, Ma says.

But I want to cut Trigger down.

She looks surprised, as if she’s forgotten. Right, she says, and come straight back here then.

Outside, I take Ma’s bike and peddle to the crossroads, where I lay the bike against the signpost, lift Trigger into the basket and cut him down. He just about fits and it’s my best to peddle back to the house. When I freewheel down the yard I lose control and fall over. Trigger rolls out, and by the time I’m standing Ma is there, lifting Trigger into the house.

Where’re you takin him?

Ma ignores the question, says, Get all the straw and kindlin from the shed, even the stuff in Trigger’s bed, and bring it inside.

Where’re you takin him? I shout.

But she scowls back, Just get it, and then she’s gone.

I’m tempted to follow, argue, and if Kehoe wasn’t sprawled out below in the bedroom I would, but instead I gather all the straw and kindling I can find, most of it given to us by Kehoe. I haul it into the house and Ma tells me to spread it under the curtains and furniture. She makes nests under beds, douses them with cooking oil, sprinkles the rest of the oil on the walls, across the floor. She throws the last of the whiskey over Kehoe and Trigger, who she’s put lying beside Kehoe, and when I shout that I want to bury Trigger in the field Ma pulls me out the door, pushes me her hardest up the hall, strikes a match, lights the oil and slams the bedroom door. I hear a woof, and in seconds grey smoke comes from under the door.

I’m in the kitchen when Ma starts a fire in my room and then the hall. She closes the kitchen door behind her, her face red, her hair damp and wiry, sticking up and out. She runs to the press, dumps jars and tins of food into an empty bin-liner, tells me to get the four tarts from the table and stack them in the basket on the bike.

Outside, the sky is orange, the day dying, and black puffs of smoke are coming from under the slates at the far end of the house to a crackling sound. I stack the tarts in the basket and Ma comes out coughing and struggling, a bin-liner over each shoulder, one of them rattling with tins and glass.

Come on, she says, without looking at me, heading up the yard like she’s late for a fight.

I follow, pushing the bike, my shins hitting off the peddles trying to keep up. When we reach the crossroads she flies past where Kehoe’s bike is sticking out of the ditch, never once looking down or at the signpost, all the time looking ahead. When we reach the foot of Breslin’s lane she stops, looks back the way we’ve come, then up Breslin’s lane, then up the road where the tinkers are camped.

Where we goin, Ma?

She drops the bin-liners, takes two tarts from the basket, says, Go and get the eggs from Breslin and give her a couple a tarts for her trouble. Then come straight back here.

I throw my leg over the bike and slowly start down Breslin’s lane.

And don’t say nothin about us leavin mind, Ma shouts after me.

But I can’t look back or answer with the shaking, my legs getting weaker, the peddles stiffer, and I’m staring at the top tart, at the cross on it, afraid I won’t make it to the house.

Hurry on, Ma shouts then. Hurry on, will ya? And don’t let them plates fall.

+++

Paul O’Reilly lives with his wife and children in Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford, Ireland. His fiction has been shortlisted for the Seán O’Faoláin Prize, the Bristol Short Story Prize, the William Trevor/Elizabeth Bowen International Prize, and also selected for The Lonely Voice series of readings at the Irish Writers’ Centre. He is currently shortlisted for the 2011 Hennessy Literary Awards for a story published in Irish Independent’s New Irish Writing.