We get the 15B bus to town on Saturday morning. Mam has her shopping bag and the list she wrote out after breakfast. The Old Man is staying home by the fire, afraid to get a chill in his gammy leg. Before we leave I put a shovel of slack on the coals and the moisture causes the fire to hiss and pop like my Rice Krispies. I linger with him for a few minutes, not wanting to head out into the frosty Dublin morning, but when Mam calls me I have to kiss him on the cheek and say goodbye.
There was a hard freeze last night and the hedges on the road are white. Underfoot the ground crunches, and as we cross the road to the bus stop Mam slips and almost falls. She grabs hold of me and steadies herself. An old woman is waiting with a black West Highland terrier, and when the dog whimpers, she says, “Hush, Rommel, hush.” Mam raises an eyebrow at the dog’s politically incorrect name.
As we wait for the bus I watch Mam from beneath the hood of my anorak. The line of her jaw is round and soft, and her hair is no longer perfectly permed. It is a tangle of moss-like gray, probably on account of taking care of the Old Man. When she talks to her friends on the phone she uses the word “invalid.” It means sickly, or unwell, but it also means not important anymore, and that’s how the Old Man feels now he cannot return to work on the oil rig. She tells Mrs. Cooney his health was “delicate.”
In Arnotts’ Department Store Mam has me try on my school uniform. The jumper is scratchy and the polyester pants are full of static. She says I look “smashing,” and we make a detour to have a cup of coffee in Bewley’s on Grafton Street. I’m allowed get an angel cake with whipped cream and little wings sticking up from it. Mam smokes three cigarettes and crushes the butts in a glass Campari ashtray. The inside of Bewley’s looks like a ship stuck in a fogbank, and wreaths of smoke collect around the light fixtures.
The brass rail beside our table is shiny like a mirror, and I use it to mess with the pimple on my chin. Mam slaps my hand away and says, “Leave your poor face alone, Anto. You’ve delicate skin and you shouldn’t aggravate it.” Chastened, I slurp my tea and eat the last of the cake. Mam calls the waitress over with her “proper” accent, the one she uses when she speaks to people she considers her social inferiors. She thinks I don’t notice, but I do.
We walk back across the Liffey, and in a corner by the Irish Times building a man is taking a piss. The stream is all the way across the footpath, and Mam wrinkles her nose in disgust. I see the top of a beer bottle sticking out of the man’s coat and ask Mam if he’s an alcoholic. She shushes me and says, “God love the poor creature, he’s addled with the drink. Sure they get terrible treatment altogether.” Back on the bus I can still see the man from the top deck, and he’s slumped against the ground, his coat stained by his own pee.
When we reach the lamppost outside our house the sitting room lights are on and I can see the Old Man in his chair where we left him. Mam shouts for him to wake up when she puts the key in the latch, and when he doesn’t reply we go into the sitting room and he’s wearing his oil rig gear, the kitbag by the chair, as if he’s ready to head back to the North Sea at any moment. He’s not snoring, and Mam shakes him by the shoulder and his head falls to one side. “Oh, Ronan, no,” she says, and starts crying. The fairy cake churns in my stomach and I want to get sick.
James Claffey hails from County Westmeath, Ireland, and lives on an avocado ranch in Carpinteria, CA, with his wife, the writer and artist, Maureen Foley, their daughter, Maisie, and Australian cattle-dog, Rua. He is the winner of the Linnet’s Wings Audio Prose Competition. He received his MFA from Louisiana State University, where he was awarded the Kent Gramm Prize for Non-Fiction. His work appears in many places including The New Orleans Review, Connotation Press, A-Minor Magazine, Molotov Cocktail, and Gone Lawn. You can read him at jamesclaffey.com.