Keith Perkins is a high school English teacher in New Jersey. His work has appeared in The Irish Post, Amsterdam Quarterly, The Avalon Literary Review, and Adelaide Magazine. A father of twin 5 year old boys, Keith enjoys travelling, writing, reading, hiking, skiing, and naps. He and his wife Emily look for any possible excuse to hit the open road.
“I found a good home for it.”
“When?” he asks pointedly. “Where?”
They share a table in the back of a bustling Dublin cafe.
“A few days ago,” she says tearfully. “It’ll be loved. They’re really good people Charlie.” She sifts restlessly through her purse for a tissue. “They’re from Cork.”
She had no intention of telling him, but relented, as usual, under crushing pressure from her imperious parents. It had to be a public place, with sufficient noise and an easy exit.
“I have a good job Fiona. We can, you know, get married,” he says haltingly. His clenched hands rest on the table. Desperation oozes from his stricken face.
“Married?” she says incredulously. “I barely know you!”
Their first meeting was a Dublin pub a few months prior. It was a popular weekend hangout for free-spirited teens and 20-somethings. Several cheap beers later, they fumbled awkwardly to undress in the cramped back seat of Charlie’s weather-beaten Ford.
“Please don’t do this!” he urges.
“There’s really no other option,” she says.
“Well, I can think of at least one,” he says forcefully.
“Can’t we just bury this and move on?” she asks. For the first time since sitting down with Charlie, her voice betrays a slight irritability.
A few girls at a nearby table briefly look at Fiona and then return to their own spirited conversation.
“Bury? Seriously Fiona?” he says.
“Ok, not the best choice of words, but we’re in no position…” she says.
“Speak for yourself!” he interrupts.
“Charlie, we’re in high school. This just isn’t happening!”
She was initially bent on a more abrupt solution, but her devout parents rejected that idea outright. They believed this was the only divinely sanctioned remedy to reset their daughter’s future. Fiona would, at all cost, be the first in the McCarthy family to attend college. Studies first. Then marriage and children. It was their plan. Not Fiona’s. Her inclinations were more bohemian. She yearned to move abroad, teach English in Paris, write and explore the world beyond Ireland’s shores.
“We should have been, um, a bit more careful,” she says demurely. She casts a furtive glance at some nearby tables. Many are occupied by smiling, seemingly carefree teenagers no older than herself.
Fiona feels an oppressive urge to leave. The cafe has become an insufferable chamber. Her eyes dart to the exit as tears inch down her fair-skinned cheeks. Beneath the table, she fiercely pinches her legs under her floral skirt.
“I so wish we could undo all this,” she says timidly.
Charlie vowed not to repeat the mistakes of his father, who fled Dublin for Galway soon after his mother announced the pregnancy. In this smoky cafe, he nears that same forbidding precipice. All efforts were made to avoid this moment. Charlie’s mother was loving, nurturing and responsible. She worked two jobs and raised him alone in a cozy city center flat. Any future child of his would be loved unconditionally and dutifully raised by him.
“Just be responsible and do the right thing!” she routinely warned. It was her not so subtle jab at his father’s shameful legacy.
He aches to honor those words as he stares forlornly at Fiona. Her entire posture, from her drooping shoulders to her fidgeting hands, screams uneasiness.
Breathlessly, Charlie watches as Fiona rises, secures her purse over her shoulder, and briskly exits.
Documents were signed. Swiftly, irrevocably, legally binding. The adoptive parents gained immediate custody following the baby’s birth in a Dublin hospital.
After high school, Charlie left his mother and the only city he ever knew.
“Charlie, running away is not the answer!” his mother said.
“I just can’t stay!” he said. “You’re welcome to visit whenever you want.”
He knew his invitation rang hollow. His mother had never ventured beyond County Dublin. As far as she was concerned, Bantry was an unbridgeable distance. A foreign place.
“I don’t get it. Why Bantry?” she said, shaking her head in disbelief.
“Well, for starters, I have a job waiting for me there.”
“Ok, well, you have a job here,” she countered.
“Charlie! I don’t blame you.”
“I don’t need a lecture now Mom. I just need some time and distance,” he said.
“Ok, time I get. But some distance? It’s nearly 350 kilometers for God’s sake. What is that going to solve?” she said sharply.
“I don’t know, I guess it solves nothing, but people leave all the time,” he said. “Europe. The States. Even Galway!” he snapped. He instantly regretted aggravating that old wound.
“Charlie, that’s not fair,” she said. “It was a long time ago. I tried my best. Haven’t we’ve done ok?” she asks.
“Yea, I guess so, but I just need to do this.”
Now a half century removed from that youthful apocalypse, this grey-haired, slightly sloping widow sips wine alone on this starless night in the muted light of his sitting room. The only sound is the occasional pop and whistle from his adjacent fireplace. His worn copy of Turgenev’s Father and Sons rests in front of him on the coffee table.
He never spoke about his lost child. Whether it was a boy or a girl remained one of the inviolable mysteries of his life. He initially settled in Bantry at the head of the Sheepshead Peninsula--a serene swath of Irish soil that extends into the North Atlantic like an accusatory, outstretched finger. Any further from Dublin, he would have to leave Ireland entirely.
In Bantry, a youthful Charlie gained a much needed distraction. Everything was new. The streets were more subdued. People wandered with less urgency. The air was even a touch sweeter. He was teased by the tantalizing notion that he might actually begin to heal.
His colleagues at the post office warmly welcomed the “city kid”, even recommending a small flat to rent in the town center. He quickly amassed a small circle of friends and settled into his new life on this new coast.
At a pub one evening, some months after moving into his flat, he met Mary, a diminutive, cherubic, local brunette. She taught special needs children at a primary school in town and the two were quickly inseparable. Within a few years, they exchanged vows in a quaint, white-washed chapel steps from Dunmanus Bay’s rocky coastline. Charlie’s mother attended her son’s wedding. It was the only time she travelled outside County Dublin.
A brief search netted the newlyweds an enchanting home in nearby Durrus. It was a vintage Irish cottage, opening to a sweeping vista of green, sheep-dotted fields and the bewitching, blue-grey palette of fickle Dunmanus Bay. Their life passed quietly, unassumingly. And without children. Unable to conceive, their two extra bedrooms were numbly re-purposed as an art studio for Mary and a guest bedroom.
For Charlie, that vacant room could only ever shelter one occupant. In the wake of this latest sobering news, he would often retreat there when Mary left, sink to the floor, and return to Dublin.
“I found a good home for it.”
Sometimes the reveries were brief. Sometimes they lingered for hours. Once or twice, they didn’t lift until Mary returned.
“Why are you on the floor Charlie?”
“Oh, my damn back again, you know!” he said irritatingly, feigning a slight grimace.
It was a safe comeback. Mary knew all too well of her husband’s periodic--and often debilitating--lower back pain. She left it at that. Otherwise, their life flowed tranquilly, with barely a discernible ripple, into retirement.
Within months, however, that retirement was permanently marred by Mary’s cancer diagnosis. With Charlie by her side, she bravely endured weekly, hour-plus drives to the hospital in Cork for treatment. On the way home from her final visit early one evening, with a vast, sherbert-orange carpet unfurling across Dunmanus Bay, she turned to Charlie with a weak smile of resignation.
“I just want to be home now,” she said wearily.
“Me too,” Charlie said.
With her passing, Charlie once again turned to Bantry. He secured a part-time job there collecting shopping carts at a food store. In his twilight, as in his youth, it was Bantry’s turn once again to offer Charlie refuge and comfort.
“What d’ya say there Charlie?” an elderly regular gruffly inquires on a recent overcast morning. He pushes a rusted, wobbly cart. A line of hot ash dangles precariously from a slightly trembling cigarette. The wheels grind to a halt.
“Ahh, same ol’ Henry,” he says cheerily. “Looks like a cold stretch we got coming in off the bay. Did you get that ol’ oil tank topped off yet?”
“You know me, always ready!” he says playfully. “Just prayin we don’t lose any more of those shingles to that nasty wind,” he chuckles. His gentle smile anchors a face lightly carpeted with days old, white stubble.
Under Charlie’s watch, such easy banter permeates this modest patch of Bantry asphalt. It flows unimpeded between him and a bevy of Bantry shoppers. From his assigned post adjacent to the automatic doors, Charlie vigilantly surveys the lot for wayward carts or needy customers. It didn’t take long for him to earn a legion of admiring locals. So much so that on Sunday, his sole day off, something disquieting happens there. There is a poignant, weighty, and eerie absence, like a homestead suddenly stripped of its familiar, loving, and trusted patriarch.
More than cursory updates on the Irish weather and sports are gained here. Many patrons linger, with no urgency to address the sundry items on their shopping list. For most, a visit to the store is not complete without a chat with its trusting, elderly watchman. Some finish their cigarettes. Others chat amiably, steam from their hot coffee meandering languidly skyward. Some nibble on the remains of a morning muffin. All within steps of this cheery man who might just as well be reclining before a crackling fire, listening to these same souls unburden themselves of a litany of life’s worries.
“Hey ya Anna. How ya feeling my dear?” he asks an approaching middle-aged woman one morning. Light spits of rain, urged on by a gusty wind, pelt the glistening asphalt.
Anna wheels her cart with slow, calculated steps. Her face is sallow and withered. She manages a tired smile. She only recently confided in Charlie about her own cancer diagnosis.
“Ah, ya know Charlie, one day at a time,” she declares meekly. Her knit cap shelters a head now largely bereft of once flourishing, brown curls.
“Well, my last round of chemo is finished,” she says, her breath laboring after her brief walk.
“Hang in there, my dear,” he says.
“Thanks. I have some follow-up scans next week so we’ll see,” she says.
“Let me know if you need any help on the way out, ok?”
Anna skirts Charlie’s position and steers her cart towards the front entrance.
It’s only then that he notices the front edge of an abandoned cart peek out from between two cars. He leaves to deposit it in its proper queue. On his return, a man darts out abruptly from a narrow space between cars and Charlie violently broadsides his cart. The jarring clash of metal startles both men and reverberates across the entire lot. The patron grimaces slightly and grabs his lower back.
“Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry,” Charlie says.
“Quite alright,” the man says.
“Are you sure you’re ok,” Charlie says.
The man regains his balance and drops his hand from his back.
“Just a little tweak is all. Damn middle age!”
“It’s a good thing they don’t issue licenses for these things,” Charlie says, offering a tepid smile.
The man returns a mild grin, massages his back momentarily, and navigates his cart around Charlie.
Such mishaps happened almost daily. With space at a premium, and Charlie’s vision and reflexes greatly diminished, his shift rarely ended without the sounds of grinding metal resonating across the asphalt. This was his second collision of the day.
That evening, over a steaming bowl of Irish stew and a glass of wine, Charlie mulls over Anna’s diagnosis. As the fire whistles and cracks, and a veil of blackness settles over the verdant, peninsular hillside, Charlie wonders what her next scans will unearth. As he sips his wine, Dublin strikes indiscriminately.
“I’m sick Charlie,” his mother said. Her elderly voice was raspy and weak. “The doctor says it’s my heart.” He hears the words as distinctly as when they were spoken decades ago.
“Mary and I will be there tomorrow,” Charlie said. It was one of only a handful of return trips he ever made to Dublin.
A few months after that final visit, Charlie’s mother passed away. He and Mary attended her funeral at a Dublin church with a scattering of family and friends. In his eulogy’s final lines, he locked his eyes on Mary, who sat stoically in the front pew in a simple black dress.
She always urged me to be responsible and do the right thing and she lived her own life by that creed. For the rest of my life, her simple advice will be my beacon. Rest in peace Mom. I love you.
When his wife fell ill years later, those very words re-surfaced.
“You’ve made me happy Charlie,” Mary said tenderly to him as a steady, wind-driven rain pelted their bay windows.
“Even though it wound up being just the two of us.”
“I’m glad we found each other,” he said.
Charlie tenderly caressed the side of her cheek and ran his hand lovingly down her fragile arm.
For Mary, the room was stripped of pretense.
“Do you have any regrets Charlie?”
“No. I wouldn’t trade our life for anything in the world.”
He never confided in Mary about that one great sorrow--the one that routinely forced him to the floor of their guest bedroom. Should she--in her final days--share in his gnawing, grating, lifelong ache? Should he honor his mother by doing the “right thing?” What was “the right thing”? His mind whirled.
He peered out the rain-splattered windows at a darkened hillside and bay, and returned to his wife’s gaunt, yet serene expression.
“There’s just one thing I need you to hear,” he said.
He placed his hands over Mary’s.
“I wish we had more time,” he said meekly.
“I know. Me too.”
Charlie sees Anna again one overcast afternoon. She greets him warmly as her cart slows to a stop.
“Well, the tumors have shrunk,” she says, smiling.
“Oh, that’s encouraging news Anna!”
“I still have a few more weeks of treatment. Then more scans. Not through this quite yet,” she says. A few stubborn hairs emerge and dance rebelliously in the wind from beneath her knit cap.
“Hang in there, ok?”
Now under the soft glow of his nearby fire, with his wine resting on a side table, Charlie listlessly picks up his worn copy of Turgenev’s Father and Sons from the coffee table and begins perusing it. He chanced upon it years ago wandering the aisles of a Bantry second hand bookstore. The title mocked and teased him then and now. It further aggravated that festering wound. He bought it nonetheless and his initial reading confirmed one certainty. The fathomless love he still felt for his child easily matched Nikolay’s, that proud Russian patriarch who, in those opening pages, anxiously and lovingly awaits his son’s return from university.
Fatherhood, for Charlie, was a rite of passage. And on certain nights, the weight of its absence preyed on him forcefully, viciously, unrelentingly. He often wondered whether Fiona suffered as well? Was she haunted by her decision? Did it pursue her, as it did Charlie, with a singular, ferocious tenacity?
Suddenly, the room is awash in light. Out the large bay windows, he notices a car approaching the house up the steep driveway. He wasn’t expecting Connor for another 30 minutes. Once a week, these two widows, who shared adjacent hillsides, consume tea, and commiserate until late into the night. He looks at his watch and realizes he hasn’t even set the tray of cookies or boiled the water. He rises from his recliner.
The car gently grinds to a stop on the loose gravel and both front doors open. Connor always came alone.
A pair of darkened silhouettes exit. He switches on his porch light, opens the door, and sees a middle aged man and a younger woman approaching. It takes a moment, but Charlie recognizes him as the customer whose cart he recently hit.
“Hey, our apologies for the unannounced visit,” the man says solemnly.
“This is my lawyer Claire,” he says, turning gravely to the younger lady standing by his side.
Do you have a few minutes to chat?”
Charlie anxiously prepares some tea in the adjacent kitchen. As he arranges the cookies on the tray, he wonders why this man arrived with a lawyer. Was he in some sort of legal trouble? Should he have even let them into his cottage? As he lifts the steaming kettle off the stove to pour the tea, his mind is burdened with a stew of ominous scenarios.
“Please sit down,” Charlie says as he sets the tray down on a small coffee table.
“Thanks and sorry again for the late visit,” Stephen says. He casts a hurried, anxious glance at the young woman, who coughs, crosses her hands and leans towards Charlie.
“This is a bit awkward, so I’ll just get right to it,” she says nervously. “Remember that incident in the parking lot a few weeks back?”
“You mean the collision?” Charlie says bewilderingly.
“Yes. Well, you see, my client has suffered acute back pain since that unfortunate accident. He’s also incurred quite a bit of medical expenses,” she says. “We’d like to settle this case out of court--if possible. You know, just looking to cover medical expenses is all. Nothing more.”
“You want to sue me?” Charlie asks.
“Well, not exactly,” Stephen says, immediately unfurling a wide, uninhibited smile. “We just want to update you on a few relevant legal issues.” He shoots a mischievous glance at his daughter.
“I’m not following you.”
“Well, I’ve had a few gut feelings over the years,” he says. “This time, despite her doubts, my daughter Claire here confirmed dates, documents, everything,” he says.
“Confirmed what?” Charlie asks confusedly.
“Remember Dublin?” Claire chirps, handing Charlie her father’s birth certificate.
Charlie leans over, peruses the document, then slowly runs his hand through his few remaining strands of grey hair. Stephen and Claire stare at him expectantly with tear-swollen eyes. He buries his face in his hands for a few moments before looking up again at Stephen.
“This is your granddaughter, Claire. She’s not a lawyer yet!” Stephen says, smirking.
Charlie stands unsteadily and only regains his footing after an extended embrace with his son. As they separate, he places his hands on each side of Stephen’s wet cheeks.
“It was something in your eyes and smile,” Stephen says. “I returned to the store a few times. Once, I just sat in my car wearing sunglasses and a hat. I know, kinda weird, but I needed to be sure. It was easy enough to find your name and address. They absolutely love you there by the way. Your granddaughter here did the rest.”
“Never in my life,” Charlie says, slowly shaking his head.
“Oh, and you have one more grandson at university in The States,” Stephen says.
He drops his hands from the side of his son’s face.
“I’ve thought about you every day for 50 years,” Charlie says. “I’ve loved you from the instant your mother told me she was pregnant.”
“When I left Dublin as a kid, I was just a messed up,” Charlie says. “To begin a search for you was just beyond me. And then I married Mary and we couldn’t have kids, which was an added blow.”
“I don’t blame you.”
Charlie turns and embraces Claire.
“Whatever happened to grandma?” she asks.
“No idea,” says Charlie. “I returned to Dublin only a few times to visit my Mom. The last one was years ago for her funeral.”
“We were able to actually track down her parents a while back, but when I phoned and announced who I was, they very coldly said to just leave them alone. And that was it. They hung up.” Stephen says.
“Really? I vaguely remember she had plans to attend college,” Charlie says.
“Strange though. The parents seemed almost annoyed that I called.”
He phones Connor to postpone their visit. The next several hours then dissolve into robust laughter, tears and stories that only begin to dim in the pre-dawn blackness. Invitations are then issued, more hugs exchanged and further tears shed. When the front door finally closes and the lights from his son’s car fade up the peninsula road, Charlie sinks into his recliner. The night rain hypnotically taps the windows.
He retires to his bedroom for the first time in his life feeling strangely unfettered. He glances over at his nightstand, and the framed picture of his wife Mary.
“Goodnight,” he whispers gently. He manages a slight smile before quickly slipping into a heavy, dreamless sleep.
Many years ago, a petit, fair-skinned, first-year Trinity College student gently bid her own family good night and retreated to her bedroom. Later, under a late night inky blackness, she silently snuck out wearing worn jeans and a sweatshirt. She carried a backpack and duffel bag. A compact French-English dictionary peaked out of a side pocket of her jeans. At the end of her street, she hailed a cab to Dublin Airport.