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Genre – Literary Fiction
Rating – R (Strong language, adult themes)
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February, 1970—South Orange, New Jersey
From her narrow bed, Flynn watched the falling snow steadily creeping up the window pane and imagined for a moment, to amuse herself and to pass the time while she waited, that they were not snowflakes at all, but instead grains of salt poured from a great, huge shaker in the sky.
Bathed and pajamaed and fighting sleep, Flynn listened; past Mrs. Gatley’s dog, Princess, whose sharp, quick yip pealed out from the apartment building next door, past the sound of empty trash cans rattling in the distance, past horns honking on the street below and the rumbling of the late train leaving the station, past the jaunty Irish music wafting up from the juke box that played all night just under her bedroom floor, past any and all sound that was not her father’s large booted feet on first one step and then another and another until all eleven steps had been mounted and the door into their apartment swished shut behind him.
Their modest apartment sat atop the bar her parents owned. And while none of the sparsely furnished, high ceilinged boxes that passed for rooms was ugly (dark perhaps, but not ugly) Flynn knew her mother wanted to some day live in “a real home” on one of the tree-lined streets several neighborhoods from the bar where a person could pull a car into a driveway and have a lawn that separated the house from the street, “like civilized people.” Flynn couldn’t see why it mattered where they lived or even how it could make them more or less civilized. For one thing, they didn’t have a car to park in a driveway. For another, she always imagined that the very thing her mother hungered for—the silent nights and the dead quiet streets of distant neighborhoods—would be frightening. Only the bustling noise of the wide street beneath her window made her feel she was safe. Most importantly, if they moved it would not be so easy for her father to step out from behind the long bar he tended each night, a great, tall massive block of wood and brass that seemed to go on forever like a muddy, brown river rolling from one end of the room to the other. Unless they were upstairs, no more than eleven short steps away, he could not climb those stairs each and every night at 8:30 to complete what he always said was far and away his most important task of the day—to tuck them in, hear their prayers and kiss each of them goodnight.
He had the same routine every night. He stopped first in Maeve’s tiny room just behind the kitchen; she was the oldest and that was her father’s argument for starting at the top of the pecking order rather than the bottom. So often it seemed to Flynn that Queen Maeve, as her father called her, enjoyed preferential treatment for a birth order she could not have helped. After closing Maeve’s door, he was off to Osheen’s makeshift room, which was really a large broom closet that had a window so high up it had to be opened and closed using a long wooden shaft with a steel hook on the end. That stop wasn’t entirely fair either as Osheen often went down to the bar on summer nights to spend time with his father and she and Maeve were expressly forbidden by her mother to go near the bar except on St. Patrick’s Day, and then only to put on their costumes and dance for the crowd that faithfully arrived up after the parade in Newark. And although she thought her mother awfully unfair for not letting them into the bar, she agreed with her on one thing; the St. Paddy’s Day crowd of drunks didn’t deserve to see them dance, as half them laughed uproariously even though there was nothing funny about it, and the other half cried as though their own mothers had just died at their feet. Still, she didn’t mind the day so much. After the cold of the parade, the warmth of the bar was delicious and their father snuck them endless bags of chips and Cokes and told anyone who would listen that the O’Shea children could dance the color off a rose. And to see her father’s face when the music stopped and they held up their three hands, clasped tightly together and bowed deep from the waist just as Miss McLeavy at the Irish School on East 41st Street had taught them—she in the middle and Osheen and Maeve on either side—to see that face she loved like no other, lit with a glow like he’d swallowed Michael the archangel, was worth any inconvenience, any outrage, any insult. The only thing better was to return a smile to that face. For that privilege she would have danced for the devil.
She imagined it must have been heavy for him to lift his legs up so many stairs because he was a large man, with arms as thick as tree limbs and hands that made up six of hers and could lift a keg of beer like it was a toy. He was a giant to her, although he regularly told her brother Osheen that he’d be a taller, better man all around. Flynn loved Osheen but couldn’t believe he would ever be a better man than her father no matter what his size or stature. Her father was her best friend, her confidant, the person she told every secret, every joy. Tonight she planned to tell him that Cathy Gold from across the fence had, after a long hiatus, invited herself over and then tried to steal Flynn’s dolls again. Unable to control her rage at Cathy’s cheek and momentarily blinded to reason, she had picked up the shovel her mother had been using to dig a small garden in the yard and hit Cathy square on the back of the head as she was leaving through the gate, pushing Flynn’s carriage in front of her. That part was more confession than conversation but she didn’t think he’d be too angry. In fact, as far as she could tell, he never got angry exactly, only awfully quiet. He’d already been over to the Gold’s apartment once to retrieve a doll that Santa had delivered the Christmas before and he’d told her in no uncertain terms when he’d handed it back that it would be the last time. “It’s up to you to stand up for yourself, Flynn,” he’d said. And so she had.
Then would come the brief discussion about how Maeve was still mean as ever even though she’d taken his advice and tried to be kind to her. Still, she felt compelled to bring such a consistent character flaw to his attention as God might never let Maeve into heaven if she were to die suddenly, which would be long before she got nice, even though her father always said Maeve was nice already, just a bit stern like their mother. Still she would ask him to speak to Maeve directly, not for her sake, of course (she had already proven she could take care of herself), but in the interests of saving his oldest daughter’s immortal soul. Finally she would tell him about her day at school and specifically that the class had been asked by their teacher to think about what they wanted to be when they grew up. When he asked her what she had decided, she’d tell him that no matter what her mother said about it, she would tell her teacher she wanted to own a bar just like her father did and stand behind it and tell stories and pour beer from the tap using just the very tip of her index finger and have endless bags of chips on a rack as high as the ceiling that she could pull off and slide down the length of the bar after the pint she’d just slid, exactly like he did.
All those things would be told, but they’d have to be told quickly because she knew her father’s time was short. Her mother didn’t care for taking over for him in the evenings and especially not on nights like this one when an important boxing match on the radio had packed the place; nights when the men were drunker than usual and the women were, as her mother put it, “conducting themselves in less than ladylike fashion.” That the time was so short was made worse by the fact that she was at the end of the line for goodnights and there was never any persuading him to see her first before Osheen and Maeve no matter how hard she tried.
Finally she heard Osheen’s door close and hers opened and there he was. She loved his face, especially the lines around his eyes that cast out from the corners like the rays of the sun. And when he came in and sat on her bed he wasted very little time tickling the bottoms of her feet and off they went.
“How was your day then, my little beauty?” he asked.
He always called her his little beauty even though everyone knew that Maeve was dozens of times prettier. She began telling about the attempted theft of the doll, to which he struck the flat of his palm on his forehead with a thwack that startled her and said, “Good Lord above, you’ll be in jail for assault,” but the way he said it she knew he wasn’t at all serious, and she just kept talking, past the part about Maeve and straight on to the business about owning the bar. That last bit caught his attention even over the shovel on Cathy Gold’s head.
“You’re mother will never approve.”
“My mother might never approve of anything I do,” she answered, rather defiantly she thought when it had spilled out and for a moment, when his eyes lost a bit of their shine, she was suddenly afraid that she had upset him. The problem was that it seemed like the truth to her, like she’d never be able to please her mother, no matter what she did—even when she got an A in penmanship her mother didn’t seem at all pleased, saying only, “Don’t be too impressed with yourself Flynn. The important thing is to keep it up.” Unable to win when it came to pleasing her mother, Flynn O’Shea had decided she might as well just please herself.
“Your mother has her ideas, I’ll admit, but she wants the best for you. She thinks you have a great brain in that head of yours and she wants you to use it for something besides pourin’ pints. I can’t say I blame her.”
“I know she does, but someday I’ll be grown up, and I won’t have to listen to her opinion on what’s best for me—or anyone else’s—except of course, yours. And you’ll never tell me I can’t run O’Shea’s. I know you won’t.”
His face clouded over and for a moment she actually thought he might consider saying no. “You know how much I love the place, Flynn. I’m proud to hear that someday you’d want to take over the bar.”
“Of course I do, and I’ll wait on you and it will be me who’ll carry the kegs and all you’ll have to do is tell your stories.” And then she threw her arms around his neck and held him as tight as she was able, hoping that just this once, she could be strong enough to keep him there forever because he knew her, he understood her, he was everything to her.
Far too soon he had to go and reluctantly she let her arms go slack around his neck so that the palms of her hands ran along his white shirt, but not before she kissed him on the cheek and whispered in his ear, “I love you most,” and he whispered back, “you are my sweetest angel, I love you,” and disappeared into the darkness.
Flynn O’Shea was asleep before her father had even opened the door that led down to the bar or touched the first step of the eleven.
And already dreaming long before he had closed O’Shea’s at 2:15 a.m., having waited a bit longer than usual for the wife of his dearest friend to collect her husband; long before Paddy O’Shea had stepped out into a night in which he imagined that if he could reach it, he might hang his hat on the moon, and plowed the tips of his boots through a patch of sidewalk so deep in snow that he laughed the way a child laughs because the white seemed at first miraculous; before that one tiny, defective vessel in his brain burst open like a summer hydrant, spilling blood into every chamber and delivering in its wake a bitter, wrenching, exquisite pain that held within its flood everything he’d ever known or ever would know and just before a soft, warm light enveloped him like a blanket and brought with it an extraordinary peace and joy that he was pleased to acknowledge defied explanation.
And above all Flynn and her brother Osheen and sister Maeve had been overtaken by the sweet sleep that only children can find long before any of the things that were to come could be imagined, and oh so long before any of those things could ever be forgotten.
It wasn’t even noon and already Flynn O’Shea had embarrassed her daughter.
But then, they’d been awake and together since five a.m. and two hours, twenty-three minutes was plenty of time for her only child to roll her eyes and whisper, “why” under her breath. Flynn imagined the why was a prayer formed in desperation to explain her mother and that next, Didi might be forgiven for wondering why the challenge of loving a mother locked in a pitched battle against the world could not have been parsed out between one more—or ideally two more—children. Spread the wealth. Give Didi a chance to lie low while some knock-kneed, boy-crazed sister or macho, perpetually horny brother took the brunt of a single parent, forever in a state of agitation. Flynn admitted these were fair questions. She certainly wasn’t the perfect parent she’d envisioned being when her beloved only child was born. Just the week before she had come home to find Didi sobbing in the shower and hadn’t even had the courage to ask her why. An embarrassing, ineffectual, middle-aged coward.
When had Flynn become that mother?
Keep moving, keep moving, Flynn told herself and dragging her tattered black suitcase behind her, hurried after Didi who was headed for the United check-in line, having abandoned her mother to lecture the shuttle driver who was fifteen minutes late picking them up.
“All I’m saying is, it’s no way to run a business,” Flynn complained.
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