Authors: Eddie Joyce
Published by the Penguin Group
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First published by Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, 2015
Copyright © 2015 by Edward Joyce
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Small mercies : a novel / Eddie Joyce.
1. Irish Americans—New York (State)—New York—Fiction. 2. Italian Americans—New York (State)—New York—Fiction. 3. Children—Death—Fiction. 4. Bereavement—Psychological aspects—Fiction. 5. Family life—New York (State)—New York—Fiction. 6. Staten Island (New York, N.Y.) 7. Domestic fiction. 8. Psychological fiction. I. Title.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
ail wakes with a pierced heart, same as every day. Her mouth is dry. She reaches for the glass of water on her nightstand, but it has warmed in the night. Next to her, Michael gently snores away last night’s fun.
She can never sleep in on Saturdays. Friday nights? She’s useless, like someone drugged her. They order a pie, usually pepperoni but plain last night for Lent. She eats two slices, drinks two glasses of Chianti, and is asleep on the couch by eight. Before he leaves for the Leaf, Michael drapes a blanket over her inert body. He wakes her when he gets home, no later than eleven these days. He helps her up the stairs, the beer on his breath gone stale with the walk home. She barely wakes, has just enough energy to get her tired bones beneath the covers. He says something nice, kisses her forehead.
She’s always up with a start the next morning. She doesn’t need caffeine or an alarm clock; a shapeless guilt propels her into the day. Before she steps out of the shower, she’s already in full swing, making lists, mental notes. What needs to be done. Today, tomorrow, this week, this month. She’ll write it down later. She dresses in the stillness, sitting on the bed, the comforter muffling the energy required to slip on her socks. An occasional snort from Michael is the only reminder that she’s not the solitary soul in the world.
A quick look in the mirror. Not for vanity, not anymore, but for its older sister: dignity. She makes sure she’s not a total mess, that the clothes she slipped on in the dark don’t clash. Brown corduroys and a long-sleeve faded green T-shirt. Good enough.
Her energy is tested as soon as she leaves the bedroom. Bobby’s room is across the hall and as much as she’d like to, she cannot pass it without entering. It hasn’t changed since Bobby got married and moved out. He took most of his things, but the room looks the same. The bedroom of a grown child living at home. The bed is made, the window cracked open. A faded poster of Patrick Ewing, sweat drenched and intimidating, hangs above the bed. He is leaping to block a shot. She nods to him.
Patrick, how are we this morning?
Fine, Mrs. A., fine. Can’t seem to finish blocking this shot. Always inches away.
Keep at it, Patrick.
Will do, Mrs. A.
She sucks in a breath of air, closes her eyes, tries to remember what it was like to be in this room with her son. He was barely ever here. To sleep and that’s all. The older boys had to share a room, but Bobby got his own. She can’t remember how it worked out that way. One of those things. No explanation, no reason: a fact of the family conceived in temporary convenience and cemented by the simple passage of time. When one of the older boys objected—Peter, it would have been Peter—it was too late.
“I don’t mind, Mom. He can have it. I’ll switch or Franky can move in with me.”
Easy as a hammock, her Bobby boy. But they didn’t make the switch. The youngest gets the hand-me-down clothes, the half-broken toys, gets picked on and left behind, gets teased and tormented. He would at least have his own room, even if he didn’t want it.
Besides, she didn’t want Peter to get his way. He was fourteen or fifteen. Cock of the walk. Already entitled, not in a rich-kid way but expectant. He worked hard, no sense denying it. He studied too, even though it came easy. He practiced—football, baseball—even though that came easy too. But he expected the world to open wide for him, knew that one day he would storm the castle and fuck the princess and drink all the wine, because he was smart and athletic and handsome and diligent.
And he wasn’t wrong, as it turned out.
But he didn’t get the room. She remembers now: a list of reasons, a presentation at the kitchen table. A smug little smile at the end, satisfied at the brilliance of his own logic. The shock and hurt when she said no, without giving a reason. She wanted the little prick to taste some disappointment. Strange how you can hate your own kids at times.
She walks over to the short bookcase that sits below the window. A handful of basketball trophies rest on top of it. One has been knocked over by the breeze from the window. She picks it up, inspects the placard: M
1990–91. Bobby held this once, cherished it. She places it in an upright position, slides its marble base into the proper place among its compatriots.
A few years back, Michael broached the topic of maybe using the room for something else. Another guest bedroom or a home office or maybe a game room for the grandkids. She stared at him, blue eyes unblinking, until he simply ran out of words. He never raised the issue again.
Some days she thinks he was right. The room doesn’t conjure anything, doesn’t evoke any particular memories. It simply reminds her of Bobby’s absence and she hardly needs a room to do that. It has inflicted pain, this room, on a few mornings, when she’s walked in to find someone lying in his bed and, for a moment, experienced a flicker of obscene hope, quickly extinguished when she realizes it’s Franky and he’s slipped in here, drunk and melancholy, while they were sleeping, spreading one sadness over another. She closes the door on those days and lets Franky sleep. When he sneaks away in the morning, hung over and embarrassed, she washes the sheets and remakes the bed and feels Bobby slip a little further away.
Mostly, it’s a distraction. A pause—maybe five minutes, maybe an hour—keeping her from her day. Like today. So it’s time to wish Mr. Ewing good luck and get on with it. She makes the sign of the cross and leaves the room.
Then she’s down the stairs, a tornado doing all the little household things that have gone undone during the week, all the things she should have done the night before. Everywhere she goes, the house staggers back to life: the washing machine swigs, the dishwasher soaks, the coffeemaker sputters and spits. The lighting of bulbs marks her path through the house. Bathroom, hallway, stairwell, kitchen, living room, front porch. The wooden floors groan up at her as she goes; the bones in her ankles and feet respond with unsettling clicks. The trash is removed, the paper is brought in.
Voices from the radio slip back into the kitchen, oblivious to the fact that they’ve been silenced these sleeping hours. A mundane news station. Nothing political, nothing angry. Just the traffic, the weather, the happenings of the five boroughs, New Jersey, Connecticut, Long Island, Westchester. Something that makes her feel like she’s part of a community. A large, rambling, fractious community, but a community all the same.
There was a stabbing in Yonkers, a fatal drunk-driving accident in Garden City, downed power lines in Massapequa. There are feel-good stories: an anonymous donation to a food pantry in Mount Vernon, a rescued dog in Canarsie, a kidney donated by a stranger to a sick child in Flushing.
How awful. How wonderful. How frustrating. The traffic, always bad somewhere, even at this hour, even on a Saturday. The newscaster lists the times like a hostess at a restaurant assessing the wait for a table. Fifteen minutes at the Holland inbound. Twenty outbound. Thirty minutes at the Lincoln outbound. Forty-five inbound. An hour at the GW Bridge, in either direction.
Most mornings, she barely pays attention. It’s something to move things along, keep her company. The voices on the radio float to Gail wherever she is in the house. They grow lower, disappear, reappear, are drowned out by the dryer, grow stronger, disappear again. Her ears perk only if the radio mentions something local.
An accident on the West Shore Expressway. Another bias attack down in Port Richmond. A kid from Prince’s Bay wounded in Afghanistan. When this happens, which isn’t often, she stops her bustling and listens.
On this morning, there’s nothing happening. The borough is silent.
She’s in the kitchen now, inspecting the fridge. It always seems emptier than it should be, but whenever she fills it, she ends up throwing away half the food. They don’t have three ravenous teenage boys eating around the clock anymore. The fridge is like the house: emptier than it used to be. Nothing can change that.
She looks into the cupboard to make sure she has Alyssa and little Bobby’s favorite cereals. She’s holding a box of Honey Nut Cheerios when a report catches her attention: a home invasion the night before, in someplace called Moriches out on Long Island. Two men broke into the home of an elderly couple. The man was a World War II veteran, eighty-three years old. They beat him senseless. He’s in a coma, but they interview his wife, whose fear is palpable, can be felt through the airwaves. One man has been apprehended, but the other is on the loose.
Gail hopes a cop—an angry, hungover cop—finds him in a cold, low place, shoots him in the stomach, and leaves him to rot under a pile of wet leaves. She can see the cop plain as day, walking silently, his gun drawn, chilled breath spilling out before him. A spike in the back of his head from too much whiskey the night before. Anger for this and for something else. A score that was never settled. Chance to make things right. The assailant unaware, some low-life junkie starting to come down. The cop’s almost there.
Good Christ, where do these thoughts come from?
Moriches. She’s never been there, never even heard of it. But now it has a feel, now she will remember it. Moriches, where elderly World War II veterans are beaten to snot and renegade cops administer street justice.
She likes the woman, the wife of the veteran. Her voice, her manner: they belong to a different time. Gail tries to focus on her. A pity what happened. How scared she must be. Moriches. When Tina gets here, she’ll ask her to look it up on the computer, point out where it is. She wants to know where it is, to see it placed on a map.
Gail hasn’t been to most places she hears of on the radio, but each summons a feeling. She likes some names: Lynbrook, Mamaroneck, Dobbs Ferry. She doesn’t like others: Sayville, Passaic, Scarsdale. She was shocked when Michael told her that Scarsdale was a well-heeled town. The name sounded tough, like a run-down mining town. A scar in the earth, scars on the faces. She never would have guessed.
* * *
When there’s nothing left to do, when nothing else can be tidied or straightened, she sits at the table and waits for Tina and the kids. She spreads the
across the table and sifts through it. This is more intimate than the radio, deserves more focus. A community of millions siphoned down to a few hundred thousand.
Between articles, she looks out the large bay window at the front of the kitchen. The morning is gray, the sun up but stuck behind a fleet of low-lying clouds. The other houses on the block are dark. The street is still. The whole neighborhood sleeping off the week.
The block hasn’t changed much in the forty years they’ve called it home. Fewer trees. Less open space. A handful of new houses that don’t quite fit in. Otherwise, Wirra Lane has largely escaped the overdevelopment that has plagued the rest of the Island.
A blank moment in the mind. Her thoughts drift to Franky. She hopes he’s holding down his latest job, hopes he’s still on the wagon. She hasn’t seen him in a few weeks. Hasn’t heard from him in a few weeks, come to think of it. Maybe he’s met someone. God, she hopes he’s met someone. The right girl would make him tow the line. The right girl would make him straighten out his act.
Of course, the right girl would be too smart to get involved with him at all.
It wasn’t always that way. There was a time, not so long ago, when Franky was half a lady’s man. Handsome in a roguish way. A glint of trouble in his eyes, sure, but charming. She was sitting at this table one morning, dawn coming on, when a car pulled up. Franky and Bobby were both living at home, taking summer classes at CSI and wearing out their elbows at every bar on Forest Avenue. They’d been out the night before. Gail had heard them come in, after four, stumbling down the hallway into their bedrooms.
At least, she thought she’d heard them—the two of them—but it wasn’t like she’d done a bed check. She couldn’t fall back to sleep, so after an hour of trying, she wandered downstairs to get a start on the day. And here was a car, pulling to a stop quietly, and there was Franky in the passenger seat, leaning over to make out with the girl who was driving. He got out of the car and closed the door softly, was walking up the path to the front steps when the girl—black hair in a ponytail, toned, long legs in jean shorts—got out of the car and chased him down, holding a slip of paper. He turned back, gave her another long kiss, and tucked the paper into his pocket. He waved as she drove off, then walked into the house, happy and oblivious, looking like a man who’d just gotten laid, which was probably the case. He didn’t notice Gail sitting in the dark.
“Was that Kerry Cole?” she asked, hoping to startle him. Gail recognized her from the
. She’d been a soccer star on the Island a few years back, had gotten a full ride to Notre Dame, must have been home for the summer. He sat down across from Gail, a smirk on his face.
“T’was, Mother, t’was,” he said, in a fake Irish accent. “A fine girl.”
He retrieved the slip of paper from his pocket, spread it on the table. Gail saw the name Kerry, a telephone number below it. Bobby would have been embarrassed and Peter annoyed, but Franky was nonplussed. Proud, if anything. And Gail felt a strange pride too. She could see a girl like Kerry Cole falling for Peter. But Franky? Who was taking his sweet time getting through community college? Whose great ambition was tomorrow night? Whose ideal reading was two pages of box scores in the
Yet there she was, chasing Franky down to hand over her number. Making out with him in the front yard like it was her last day on earth. As a mother to three boys—three men now—Gail had gotten used to a certain amount of locker room banter over the years. Still, it was an odd thing to be happy that your son had maybe screwed above his station. But she was happy. And proud.
“Slumming for the summer?” she asked, regretting it immediately. She meant it in a teasing way, but with Franky, she had a way of being cruel without always intending to. He didn’t flinch though.