“Last Rites” was first published
in r.kv.r.y quarterly literary journal in 2007.
Pete Donnegan looked better than he did when Conor took him to the hospital. They had parted his hair, and there was a slick Brylcreemed finish to it that his father would never have troubled to achieve. Conor wanted to straighten his collar again, but he couldn’t. They were all looking at him. They wanted to close the coffin. It was time. But Conor couldn’t move yet; he was still waiting.
The sudden weight of his brother Peter’s arm across his shoulders took Conor back to his father’s apartment. That’s how he’d gotten his father to the bathroom, the old man’s arm pulled across his shoulders, his own arm around his waist, the way GIs carry injured buddies off the field in the movies. The old man had gotten so thin, but he was so heavy, as if the thing that holds a person up, the force that fights gravity were gone, his will gone.
“You mustn’t think bad of him, Conor,” Peter said. But Conor didn’t think in those terms. He thought of the feel of his father’s loose skin when he rubbed the washcloth up his arm, the way the flesh stretched and pulled, the deathly color, like a shadow over him, over both of them. He disliked shaving him, being so close: the gray whiskers, the cleft in his chin, the mole by his lip, his breath sour, mixed with his last cigarette. Conor could almost taste it still. And his eyes—absorbed in something, something inside of him that Conor couldn’t know. The old man looked out at him from there, but Conor didn’t feel seen.
Peter pounded Conor’s back like a comrade. “Come, Conor,” he said. He thought Conor was having a hard time with this, having to part from his father. But Conor could hardly wait for this to happen. This was the goal that got him through it: knowing that it would have to end, that the man couldn’t last. A month or two, Conor thought. What’s a month or two? The firm could spare him for that long. Things would get itchy if he stayed away much beyond that, when the quarter ended, but he’d hit the ground running when he got back. He had a right to family leave just like anybody else. So what if he didn’t have a family of his own anymore. That wasn’t his doing. Julie was the one who left, not him. After yet another final discussion, her line was drawn: Either they start a family or they start another life—separately.
Revolting as it was, staying with his father was as good as any distraction Conor could come up with. At least he’d get his father out of his system. It would be over with, out of his head for good. Moira and Bridget and Maggie wanted nothing to do with their father. Liam, with his drinking, was having a hard enough time keeping his own family together. Peter felt bad for the old man, but he’d already done his part. Peter and his wife had even nursed him while he recovered from the accident, when the truck hit him. But when Donnegan recovered, he was as nasty and drunk as he’d ever been. No one would have blamed Conor if he’d backed away. But he couldn’t get himself to do that.
Donnegan had an apartment on the Concourse, the rat hole of a place he found when Peter threw him out. Conor cleaned the place up the first couple of days, felt good about doing it. He had this right-thing-to-do attitude about the whole business at first. The man was a drunk, a drifter, a waste as a father, but Conor would be a good son.
And so he was, but now they wanted Conor to go outside with the others so they could close the lid. Didn’t they know it was ridiculous, he thought, keeping him from this sight? There was nothing about this man he hadn’t wiped or smelled or seen or lifted. Nothing. But they wanted him outside now, as if there could still be something private left. When Conor lifted the old man’s legs to wash him, he’d break wind. It was weeks before they could joke about it.
They directed Conor into the first car with Kate and Bridget. Maggie and Moira got in, too. More cars followed, filled with cousins and nieces and nephews who didn’t know much more about the man than his name. When his Uncle Tommy died, Conor was fourteen. Maggie was in high school. Donnegan and his brother Pearce staggered in from the funeral. They sang songs most of the night. It wasn’t a bad night, considering how drunk they were. Nothing smashed. Nobody bleeding. But Maggie wouldn’t serve them dinner, wouldn’t even stay in the same room. She’d made some kind of decision by then. He wasn’t in her life anymore, she told Conor. She’d carved him out.
Conor’s first few weeks with his father were the worst. He would lie there at night, wondering why he’d come, remembering the gym near his house, going there late for a late swim. He called Julie a few times in the beginning. She was the only one who didn’t give him a hard time about what he was doing. After a while, he couldn’t call anymore. He belonged to death. He thought of her skin, but he could feel only his father’s, spoiling everything else. September came. October. His father wasn’t dead. He had to eat. Conor had to cook. He’d get sick. Conor had to clean him. They listened to baseball together on the radio. “You want to listen to the game, Dad?” “Go ahead,” his father would say. “Put it on if you want,” as if he were indifferent about it. But it had to be an act. Nothing meant more to him than baseball. Baseball made him talk. The only real conversations he and Conor had ever had were about the Yankees.
That’s how Conor thought the talking would start. With baseball. Something, anything—somebody throwing himself into a fence for a fly ball or digging his cleats into a thigh for a base—would break the silence. And then maybe the man would get around to asking Conor about his life. Or maybe he’d finally get around to figuring out what went wrong with his own. Conor would have welcomed anything that would get them past feeling like they were waiting for a bus. But the Yankees were in the cellar and the old man had nothing to say.
Beside him in the limousine, Kate was asking Peter if he’d come to the house up in the Bronx, bring the kids. Peter yessed her. He’d never go. Peter kept his distance, didn’t get involved anymore. He sent cards. He called when he heard Conor was taking a leave from his job though, upset about it. Conor was surprised Peter knew what firm he was with anymore. “Weren’t they talking about making you partner soon? What are you doing this for?” “I’m doing it for me,” Conor said, because he didn’t have an answer. “Forget it, Conor. It’ll never register with him. There’s nothing there. He hasn’t got a clue.”
Five days before Donnegan died, Conor had given him a haircut. Weak as he was, the old man still managed to curse him when he pricked his neck with the scissors. Two days later, after they took him out, Conor made his father’s bed. He stopped afterward, in the middle of the bedroom, lost, like he’d forgotten something. He lifted the blanket, felt underneath, heard the sound of the rubber sheet he’d just put on without thinking. His father hated the sheet, cursed Conor for putting it on, insisted he was no invalid. But that’s what he was. He hadn’t walked to the bathroom since before New Year’s.
Liam and Peter were talking. Conor watched their mouths moving. He had the same sensation he’d had for months, that he couldn’t talk, couldn’t make sounds. It was the feeling you get in a dream when you’re trying to scream for help and you can’t make the sound come out. It was not a new feeling. He’d had it as a kid all the time. In school, he was always surprised when people heard what he said.
By the holidays Conor woke in the mornings fearing and hoping his father would be dead. Conor was waiting for something and he couldn’t leave or let his father leave until it happened. On Christmas Eve, Conor went out and got them a tree. It was a skinny-looking thing, but he dragged out the box of decorations from the closet in the back room and put some on. The ornaments were just cheap shiny K-Mart crap, but they had more power than Conor bargained for. He had memorized everything about them—every bead, every ball, the silly snow-topped starry skies painted on dark blue glass, the weightless feel of them in his palm, his mother saying careful now while she held the string of lights by one end, reaching as high as she could to hand them to him on the ladder. Every box had two or three balls missing, casualties of his father’s holiday rages. Conor couldn’t believe these things were ever special to anyone, brought out for a holy night.
Conor finished trimming the tree and brought his father out to the living room to show him. He touched a branch. “Pitiful-looking thing,” Donnegan said, as if he could really see it, but Conor knew his sight was pretty much gone. “We could say the same thing about you,” Conor said and they laughed. They couldn’t find anything to say for a while. The tree became their television. They just sat, breathing it in. Then the old man started his stories, the ones he’d tell when he wasn’t plastered yet, tired old stuff about the war, about his brothers and their barroom brawls. When he got to the one about Conor’s grandfather, Conor thought he’d heard it before, but this one was different, and he suspected it was true. “Your grandmother sent me out to bring him home that night. Christmas Eve. He was drinking at the tavern. She wanted him home. Don’t ask me why. He was happy enough where he was, and the rest of us would have been just as glad to leave him there. But she sent me to get him, so I went. He told me to sit down at a table and have a soda. He was just going to have one more. I sat there, listened to Eddie Cantor, played with my straw. The place was nearly empty, stuffy from the noisy heat. I put my head down on the table, watched my spitballs shoot across. Next thing I know, the bartender, Ernie, is shakin me. ‘Wake up,’ he says. ‘I’ll take you home. Your old man forgot ya.’ ”
Conor didn’t say anything. So maybe the old man thought he didn’t believe him.
“Ask your Uncle Bill. He’ll tell ya. Grandma ripped into him good that night.” Donnegan let out a grunty laugh, but Conor didn’t think it was funny. He wondered whether his father really did. The story could just as easily have been about Conor and him. In fact, one time Donnegan got so drunk he left Moira on the beach. They found her with the lifeguards, who told Conor’s mother the girl had begged them not to return her to her father. This was what Conor couldn’t make Julie understand. Parenting was not something he’d experienced too often and certainly not something he was equipped to do.
Donnegan started coughing badly and Conor told him he’d take him back to bed if he wanted. The old man waved him away, as if he didn’t want anybody fussing over him. But Conor wondered afterward if his father found some comfort by the tree. He said he liked the scent of it.
“You want to talk?” Conor said.
“Why? You got something you want to say?” The man’s surliness, predictable as it was, still got to Conor.
“No. I mean talk. Like family. Like we mean something to each other.”
“What’s eatin you?”
“Oh, forget it,” Conor said. He kept quiet. Donnegan asked him to light a cigarette for him. Conor got his Camels. There was no point in telling him no anymore. He put one in his mouth and lit it for him. His father drew hard on it, and Conor sat down next to him, looking at the smoke, avoiding his father’s eyes. “Did you ever want anything for me?”
“What are you talkin about?”
“I’m talking about plans. Hopes. Things you want for a person. For a son, for Chrissake.”
Donnegan made some kind of sound, took another long drag, in deep, out slow. “You made your own plans,” he said. Despite everything, it amazed Conor that his father had nothing to say. He couldn’t even fake it, come up with some platitude about always wanting the best for him. Conor knew he was delusional to expect any answer at all. The old man wasn’t going to prop him up, pretend things had ever been any different than they were.
They finished the cigarette and watched the tree without trying anymore. Later, when Conor put him into bed, his father said, “I’ll tell you one thing. It was never this I wanted. To have you wipin an old man’s ass.” That familiar, nasty edge was in his voice and Conor didn’t want to take this any further, but he couldn’t help it.
“Then what was it?”
“What do you want? Bedtime stories? What do you expect to hear? Do you think I could have changed anything?”
“Did you ever try?”
“Try. Right.” Donnegan shook his head, exasperated. “For fuck’s sake, Conor, life ain’t some college boy’s curriculum. It ain’t about setting goals and stickin to a plan. Some lives get fucked up, and they can’t get fixed,” he said, his words nearly buried in a series of coughs. When his throat cleared, he seemed to be trying to find words, a way to explain. “Conor, I’m like . . . like a man in a cage, except there ain’t no key. And all that ‘lettin go’ shit they feed you in AA is a lot of horseshit. Or maybe for the lucky few. I don’t know.”
“But you stayed sober for almost a year. That had to mean something.”
“Sober. Yeah. You know what sober feels like? Like you survived a flood and you’re waitin to get plucked off a roof. But instead everybody keeps telling you you’ve got wings, use them.”
“I know it must have been hard.”
The old man tried to sit up, his arms trembling. “You really want to know what you were to me? You were another accusation, another thing I couldn’t do right. Do you think I wanted to be around more of that?”
Conor knew he had to stop listening. He turned to go, got as far as the door. He wanted to take a walk, stand outside on some noisy street and let chaos have its way.
“Why do you put us through this, Conor?”
“I’m sorry, Dad,” Conor said. He really was.
“Some things . . . some things get damaged, and they stay damaged.”
“It’s all right, Dad. You don’t have to say anymore.”
“It’s not all right. It was never all right.”
Conor imagined returning to his side, touching his hand. He didn’t.
“If you want to hear me say I’m sorry, I can do that. I’m sorry,” his father said, but the words came out angry. “But for the life of me, I don’t see what good it does.”
His father closed his eyes, sank into the pillows.
In the living room, Conor stood beside the anemic tree. One of the balls—a silver-topped cone-shaped thing, red and gold trim mostly worn away—had slipped off its skinny branch and landed askew on the one below. He took it off the tree. He thought about taking the whole thing down, packing it all away, but what would be the point of keeping any of this? His father would be gone by the time Christmas came again. Why had the old man saved these things to begin with? He kept them in an old trunk, Peter told Conor, wrapped inside a huge army coat he hadn’t worn since he got back from France. Faded, brittle tree ornaments. Unlikely heirlooms. It dawned on Conor that his father couldn’t see the sorry dull shape they were in. The last time he’d been able to see them they were probably still worth keeping. Maybe they even sparkled.
He thought of the Christmas shows Bridget made them put together. A thin, faded blanket hung across the corner of the bedroom, tucked into the tops of the windows on each side, creating a triangle of secret space backstage. Bridget was doused in their sister’s perfume, dancing in her mother’s high-heeled shoes before the curtain. A long, slim umbrella had become her cane. Moira directed the lamplight with the shade, keeping Bridget within its circle. Conor stood in the bedroom doorway, laughing, inattentive at his post as lookout. He didn’t see their father coming.
The man’s entrance was sudden, insulting. Bridget and Moira scurried to another corner of the room, but Conor was in his path. The man reached down for him, picked the frail child up by the back of his shirt and smashed his face. The boy didn’t cry out; only a pathetic whimper came, a useless defense. The room filled with the smell of his urine.
Their father’s face was grotesquely angry: blind eyes wide open, impotently searching, lips spread in a frightening resemblance of a smile. He bit his tongue; the shimmering tip protruding between his teeth. Moira didn’t wonder about his anger. She supposed that their very presence was its cause.
He let go of Conor, cursing, shouting incoherent threats. His arms sliced space before him as he moved toward the stage. His huge bulk entered the abandoned spotlight. The curtain brushed his shoulder and he tore it down with his fists, kicked aside their props and toys until the magical space was once again the dismal corner of their bedroom. Only then did Conor cry out at what he saw. It was a foolish thing to do. For the man’s anger was only half spent, and he turned toward the sound of his son’s cries.
Maggie told him they wanted everyone to put their roses on the casket and go. The prayers were done. They wanted to lower him into the dirt. The cars were waiting. They had got a regular routine for this. But Conor couldn’t move. It was cold and he couldn’t stop shivering. He never did that. But he’d been standing there a long while. They tried to move Conor away. “He’s gone,” Bridget said. “It’s over.” He understood what she was saying. But he couldn’t step away. It was what he’d been waiting for all these months, but he didn’t want to leave. This is crazy, he thought. I thought I wanted this.
Conor smelled Julie’s perfume before he felt her next to him. She took his hand. Her presence brought him to his senses, triggered some knee-jerk desire to seem like he’d gotten himself together. He stepped back, hesitated, then let her lead him away. They walked toward the path, away from the others. Her long coat was tawny cashmere like her hair. She wore sensible shoes that gave her little height. She held Conor’s arm tightly, pulling him close, as if she knew this was where he belonged—with her. But the Donnegans had not been so sure at first. “An Italian?” Maggie said to Conor. “She’ll have a hard time adjusting to this tribe.” And she did. It was a foreign land, this family. They barely got together, even at holidays. They could let months go by without seeing or even talking to their mother. There was no need for Julie to comment on these things. The contrast to her own family’s closeness was comment enough. She didn’t try to decipher the Donnegans.
She had missed Conor and she told him so—the way he soaked up every kindness like new, untasted flavors, the way he paid such close attention to life, as if to see how it was done.
“I admire what you did for your father, Conor,” Julie said. “I know it was difficult.”
“I guess I had some business to finish.”
“Or something to get under way.”
Conor let out a breath, shook his head. “There was nothing getting under way with him, Julie. It was too late.”
“That’s too bad, but it wasn’t about him anyway.”
He looked at her, puzzled. “What do you mean?”
“It was about you.”
Conor waited for the rest.
“You and the kind of person you are.”
“You’re not the first to put yourself out when there’s no chance of getting anything back.” He saw a comical look in her eye, a grin forming. “Sure,” she shrugged. “Parents do the same thing for their children all the time.”
He saw the point she wanted to make. That he’d be a good father. This was what she wanted to believe, that you can be hollowed out, your insides left for the beasts to pick at, and then fill yourself up with good intentions and middle-class dreams. Conor was not like his father. That was clear. He had a career, people who relied on him, trusted him. But the rest was pretty muddy, because Conor was not Conor either, at least no Conor he recognized. At 43, he should have been solid enough to feel at home in his own skin. He knew that much. An identity should be more than an unending search, a series of false starts.
“When do you think you’ll go back to work?” Julie said.
“Right away. They want me at the conference. That’s in two weeks. And I’m going to have to come up to speed for the presentation.”
“Is it in Atlanta?”
“Would you like some company? I’ve got the vacation time.”
Conor knew he should tell her no. He should tell her she was all wrong about him and what he was able to be. She couldn’t see him, he thought, couldn’t see past the happy endings she tacked onto their lives, like gold trim on a threadbare cloak. That would have been the fair thing, to tell her that not once for as long as he’d known her had he felt like anything but an imposter. He mimicked her, like a dancer in the back line, trying to do what’s expected. He could barely keep up. He was more comfortable alone, when he didn’t have to worry about feeling inadequate. But she chose him, decided she wanted to know him. She believed that she did. But it was clear to Conor that she was creating him, oiling parts that hadn’t been used, repairing the ones he relied on too much. The attention was heady. And no matter how much he feared that she would see some day that it had been misdirected, he was grateful for it.
So Conor didn’t tell her no. He let her take his hand. If she wanted to do this, he’d let her. But he didn’t expect either of them to be fooled for long. Someday the damages done would have to be tallied, but not that day.
She led him to her car, unlocked the passenger door for him. He got in carefully, one hand deep in the pocket of his coat, his fingers wrapped around the now-familiar surface of a weightless heirloom.