Derry, Northern Ireland

Derry, Northern Ireland
A book I'm working on is set in this town.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Middle section -- Brendan in Houston

This part is April-May 1973, at Aunt Mari's home near River Oaks. She married a sailor stationed at the US Naval Base near Derry and has lived in Houston for 20 years. She has a son and two daughters, and her husband owns a couple of bars in the city. Brendan's had a nervous collapse and been sent there to keep him out of the hands of the British Army.

I fixed a sandwich from the wealth of food available in the fridge -- cheeses and luncheon meats and lettuce so crisp it could cut you and rich red tomatoes and something called Sandwich Spread all piled high on some white bread that felt as light as a feather -- and found only a couple of Dr. Peppers chilled in the fridge’s door. I took one, opened it and returned to my room. I sat on the bed and ate, feeling very luxurious, and thoroughly enjoyed the Dr. Pepper; it wasn’t as sharp and biting as Coke. Then I dozed a little before rising, again, and deciding I was weary of having nothing on me but pyjamas.

I took a long scalding-hot shower, letting the steam boil before me, catching the light from the window and looking like clouds of gentleness come to fill my lungs and wipe away the world long past and the stickiness of the air. Then I toweled off...and had to towel off twice more, thanks to the combination of steam and humidity bringing out my sweat. No wonder they bathe every day and layer on deodorant, I said to myself; if they didn’t they’d reek.

I dug through a large set of drawers to find y-fronts and socks and undershirts and athletic shorts -- of course, I was in Scott’s room and they’d left me some of his things to wear. I was surprised they fit, seeing as how he’s taller than me and thinner, but then reminded myself I’d lost a fair bit of weight and was only just beginning to regain it. When I was back the way I used to be, I’d need a size larger -- and shorter.

I found my jeans hanging in a closet with some Levis. My boots sat on a shelf in the back, nicks in the leather and still covered with mud and dust and --

-- I slipped from the mud on my boots and the car vanished and I tumbled back as dust and filth and bits and pieces of metal and engine rained down on me and --

I stepped back. Saw a pair of sandals and took those. They were a bit on the large side, but an extra pair of socks helped them fit just right.

Of course, I was beginning to near weariness, again, but I decided not to give in, this time. I headed downstairs.

No one was about, yet, so I went back in the yard to find the Volvo gone. Uncle Sean must have left while I showered, for I’d not heard him drive off. It felt odd being alone and out of doors, especially in the heat with the damp air carrying the overpowering scent of those little white and yellow flowers. I went to the vines covering the fences and touched them, found they were thick with velvety leaves and fragrance that smelled like it should be off a jar of jam. It surrounded me and filled me and brought to mind laziness and gentle meanderings. Shafts of light dashed between the branches of the trees to happily land on bits of the foliage, flickering as if to remind me there was such a thing as the sun. I looked up. Saw it winking at me beyond the tree’s shadow. And under it, I was soon sweating, again.

I took in the back of the house. It’s odd, but while the inside felt large, outside it seemed smaller. It was two levels but also had windows cut into the roof, indicating a third level was available. It was done in a hard, gray brick of many tones and softened by vines climbing up its corners. A chimneystack jutted to the sky from one end and trees shaded the sides and front of the place.

I wandered over to the pool house’s covered area to find shades drawn behind the building’s windows and doors. Complete privacy here with a “Don’t bother” attitude about it. The pool’s water had neither wave nor ripple to it...and it bothered me so much, I crouched down to slap the water into motion. Tiny waves rippled away from me and sent the shadows criss-crossing along its basin, and the chaos of them felt right.

Then I noticed the dustbins resting under a canopy of vines. Atop one’s lid sat a steam iron with its cord frayed and nearly off. I slipped over and picked it up to look at it. Most of the cord was good; it was just one section where it had been burned by accident, looked like. It would be easy to mend, so I kept it.

I headed down the drive to the front of the house, gravel crunching under my sandals and filling the oppressive silence, steam iron still in hand. The fence ended at the middle of the house with a long gate opened by motor to let vehicles through and a smaller gate between it and the house for foot traffic. I slipped through the smaller gate.

The front yard was just as wide and spacious as the back, with a straight concrete walkway leading from a small entry to a wide street, thick green grass framing it. Bushes crouched against the house and trees, laced with more flowers I’d never seen before, and angled bricks lined their beds as well as the walk while the gravel of the drive ran right up to the grass. All so neat and proper and like a grand manor, I wondered at how Aunt Mari and Uncle Sean had the time to tend it all.

I walked all the way down to the end and looked about. The street curved around and there were a number of other homes in the same general style lining it, all of them thick with shrubbery and trees and green, green grass. And none of it seemed real. An estate car passed, huge and so obviously American and I finally understood I was in a whole new world.

And I couldn’t move.

I mean, it’s not like I didn’t know where I was. I’d seen Aunt Mari get in her massive car -- a Chevy Impala Station Wagon, she called it -- and drive off. I’d seen Scott roar up and leave in his six years old GTO. I’d seen how green everything was and known the house I was staying in was massive and watched programs like “The Partridge Family” and “The Brady Bunch” on the telly...and listened to the girls argue over whether David Cassidy or Barry Williams was the cutest...but also noticed they all lived in fine homes and also drove massive cars. Of course, I’d also laughed at “All In The Family” when Uncle Sean filled me in on what the jokes were and enjoyed “MASH” with Scott, who sagely informed me it was the coolest show, now that “Laugh-In” was going downhill. And the uncoolest was one Aunt Mari loved, “Lawrence Welk.” And all of them had this sense of richness to them, subtly filling me with the absolute certainty that America was the wealthiest of nations. But actually standing out there and seeing the reality of it with my own two eyes -- I felt as if I’d been taken from hell and been given to heaven, and I feared if I even so much as moved, now that I knew where I was, it would all vanish and I’d be back to the cutting dreariness of Derry.

Finally, Aunt Mari drove up and honked at me -- and I realized I was standing dead in the middle of the drive. I stepped aside to let her pass and followed the estate -- no, station wagon back to the garage. The gate closed itself behind me and I trotted up to her like a pet dog.

“Look who’s out and about,” she said as she opened the door.

“Aunt Mari,” I croaked, “this neighborhood -- the space of it all -- ”

“Oh, this is nothing, Brendan. If you want, after your appointment, I’ll take you for a drive around the town. Show you River Oaks. What’re you doing with that?” She motioned to the iron.

“Thought I’d mend it,” I said. “Spare you the need of a new one.”

“I already have one -- but if you’d like to fix it, that’d be nice. I could take the new one back.” She lowered the rear of the car and pulled out bags of groceries. “Take these in, will you?”

I nodded and carried two full bags into the kitchen, along with the iron. She followed with two more. “Now you sit, lad. I’ll put these away.”

“But I could help you.”

“No, it’s faster if I do it. I know where everything goes. Would you like to ride around some? See the city?”

“No,” busted out of me so fast. “No, not yet. I -- I still have to get used to being here. Wait -- appointment?”

“The doctor’s. Isn’t that why you’re dressed?”

I had no idea why I’d put on clothes. I just wanted to, but thinking about it, I remembered her mentioning there was to be a visit. So I shrugged. “Will this be all right, what I’m wearing?”

“Sure it will. He’s very informal, this man.”

“You say I’ve seen him before,” I said and --

-- The round blond lady dressed in white with a kind face caressed my cheek with the backs of her fingers and said to Aunt Mari, “Lord, his eyes -- so big and hurt, they cut right to your heart and --“

I jolted. Began inspecting the iron, carefully.

Aunt Mari was putting vegetables into the fridge so didn’t notice. “He came here, a few times, and I took you to him, a few times. He told us to be patient; seems he was right.” She looked straight at me. “Don’t you remember anything since you got here, Brendan? Any of it?”

I shook my head and focused on dismantling the iron, not yet willing to share the snippets of memory that I’d catch. It wasn’t easy to take apart, but I managed to get the body off to reveal the connections. “Have you a knife I can use?”

She handed me a strip of metal that held a razor’s blade. “This do?”

“Aye.” I got to work on cutting the wire and stripping off the casing material so I’d have bald wire to reconnect to the iron. I undid the old bit of cord and slipped the newly stripped part into its holder then tightened everything down with the edge of the blade and looked around for an outlet to test it -- and realized Aunt Mari was just looking at me. “What is it?”

“You haven’t heard a word I’ve said,” she replied, a bit confused.


“For the last five minutes. I’ve been talking along and you’ve been offering up occasional grunts to suggest you’re listening, but you’ve been so focused on that iron, you haven’t heard a thing, have you?”

Oh, shite. “Sorry. I -- get like that, at times. On occasion, Ma had to flick me with her finger to snap me from it, but it’s only ‘cause she’d go on and on and on and I’d just stop listening.”

“And you think I go on and on like your mother?”

“No!” Now I felt awful, letting myself do that to her. “I just -- I have the habit of it, when I’m working. I don’t mean anything by it.”

“Don’t worry about it,” she said and rubbed my hair. “God, your hair’s thick and long. You up for a cut, soon?”

I nodded. “I think I’d prefer it in this heat. Christ, I already feel the need of another bath.”

“Oh, this is nothing, Brendan. Wait till August.”

I jolted. “August?” I’m to be here till then?

“That’s usually the worst month for heat and humidity, with September not much better.”

I felt like I was floating, all of a sudden. I set the iron down and made myself ask, “Aunt Mari, am I not to go home, now I’m better?”

And the look on her face told me all.

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