Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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I met Fiona’s mother, Sue, a few nights ago, in the bowels of the Róisín Dubh — Galway’s premier music venue, but for all that a bit of a dump. The lighting’s bad, it smells like warm Guinness, and the floor is sticky. Plus Fiona made a point of cutting the interaction short, hurrying Sue out of the place the way you would an important diplomat. I guess after three months of dating, I still hadn’t been cleared to meet her only living parent.
So it’s now, here in the front hall of Sue’s place, that I’m really meeting her for the first time. She’s compact and beautiful and has none of her daughter’s nervous energy.
Sue is also a hugger — another thing she doesn’t share with Fiona, who is by all metrics a tough nut to crack. I still don’t know much about her. She wants to be a defense lawyer. She used to be a professional dancer. She bites her nails when she’s listening intently. Her nostrils flare when she’s excited.
More pertinent at the moment: her father, Norman, was a painter of international repute. He died a couple of years ago, and while Sue and I embrace, I can see his paintings over the top of her salt-and-pepper crown. The flat is full of them. They line the floors, leaning up against the white-plastered walls, some as small as opened books, others like queen-sized beds.
“You weren’t kidding,” I say. Meaning about the paintings.
“It’s a right mess,” says Sue. “But that’s where you come in.”
Sue asked for my help the other night at the Róisín Dubh, which is probably in part what gave Fiona the willies. You look like a strong man, Sue said generously. Maybe you can give me a hand this weekend? I said yes with a little too much enthusiasm for Fiona’s liking.
“All of them?” I ask Sue now.
“All of them,” she says. “Just take whatever you can manage on your own. Duke will help with the bigger ones when he gets back. I’ll put some tea on for you.”
I begin loading the smaller paintings one by one into a white Renault van parked in the drive, making sure to give each a once-over, to see if I can find Fiona in any of them. So far, no luck. I’m learning a great deal about her father, though. Many of his paintings are self-portraits, his face yellow and cut with auburn streaks, the backgrounds always stark. Seeing him this way is disturbing. I can tell almost exactly how his illness — an aggressive case of Alzheimer’s — progressed. His head, large and sturdy and square, is more gaunt and desperate-looking in what I assume are the later paintings. And the quality of the work is hazier in these, too: like he’s painting something on the other side of a shower curtain. Which isn’t to say these portraits are worse. In fact, there’s something decidedly more interesting about them.
But most of the paintings feature strangers or landscapes. Several are of the view I see each time I linger by the van: the Galway coast. I comment about it to Sue on one of my rounds. She practically hollers back to me from the kitchen: “Oh, sure! A painter’s got to have a good view.”
Norman’s was exceptional. Broad and misty. The cold sea, the gray sky, and the tall pastel buildings rising up in defiance of it all. I moved here from Canada in part because of this landscape, these buildings. Or because of what they say about the people who live in them. The Irish are experts at turning misfortunes into crackling things — songs and punch lines and melodious chatter. So what if I can never find a dry towel? The black mold is just another joke.
When I’m done loading the paintings I can carry into the van, I sit down with Sue at a round table in the kitchen. She offers milk and sugar, and I stir my tea and look back into the living room, at the brighter spots on the walls where the artworks used to hang.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “About the paintings.”
Sue shakes her head and seems genuinely fine with it all. The paintings are being taken from her by Duke, Norman’s brother and Fiona’s uncle. Fiona told me the story after some prodding: Norman and Sue weren’t technically married. Their relationship was tumultuous, and they never lived together long enough to qualify for common law. So, even though according to the will the paintings should be Sue’s, Duke had just enough claim on the estate to mount a fight for them. They battled for two years in court before Sue more or less gave up. A travesty, as far as justice is concerned. From what I understand, Duke just wants the paintings for the money. Norman’s work gained popularity in the last few years of his life, and they are worth much more now that he’s gone. Death makes everything more expensive.
“You don’t get to keep any of them?” I ask.
Sue looks out the window above the kitchen sink, where the sun has offered itself for a moment, and smiles. “There might be a couple in the attic,” she says, winking at me. “Unsigned. Not worth much. Just ones I like.”
We’re coconspirators, then, my girlfriend’s mom and I. Only, girlfriend isn’t the right word. In some ways I’m now on more intimate terms with Sue than I am with her daughter. I’ve never seen Fiona’s place, for one thing. She’s in law school and has a nine-year-old girl who keeps her busy. I’m hustling to make a living as a singer-songwriter. We don’t spend much time together, and when we do, it’s at my place, while the kid is with Sue. Fiona visits my life like a tourist, with almost nothing in the way of luggage.
And yet somehow here I am helping her mom move. Or, rather, I’m helping her mom be ransacked. On top of it all, Sue’s technically responsible for delivering the paintings to Duke. At least he brought a van. The white Renault is his.
Sue stands and begins tidying up, which makes me anxious.
“Fiona was in an odd mood the other night,” she says over her shoulder.
“Well, we’re trying to take things slow. I guess she didn’t like the idea of me helping you.”
Sue turns and leans against the counter, folding a tea towel.
“I never asked why you moved to Ireland,” she says.
“I’m more of a novelty here. Good for business.”
Sue laughs. “Where’s home?”
“And they don’t like good singers in Toronto, Canada?” Sue sits down across from me and curls her hands around her mug. The clouds have come back in earnest, and the room is a few shades darker. I can hear Sue’s sweater sleeves brush against her place mat, the ticking of the cooling stove.
“Not exactly,” I say. “But I play an old style of music that works better here.”
Sue nods. “I wonder at that.”
“I’d say it’s because the Irish are a little preoccupied with the past. No offense.”
“I never mind someone telling me the truth. And in Canada everyone is looking for the next big thing?”
“Maybe not. But I don’t think I would have made as much back home doing this — or, at least, that’s what I tell myself.”
Sue smiles a little devilishly. “And what don’t you tell yourself?”
There’s a hint of suspicion in the air. She’s a sweet person, but she’s also a mom and protective of her daughter. I feel goose bumps prickling at my arms.
“A lot of things, probably,” I say, laughing nervously.
“So, why did you really move here, then?”
It’s funny who we’ll tell our secrets to. Often strangers, if we’re sure they won’t be around long. Sue is no stranger, though, and if I have my way, she’ll become even less of one. Still, I feel like I should tell her the truth, something I haven’t even told her daughter yet, not that Fiona’s ever asked.
“I got dumped.”
Sue laughs. “A foolish girl.”
“No, I deserved it. I was getting lazy. Unhealthy.”
“Sounds familiar,” she says.
“I was in love with an artist once. He wasn’t always jumping out of bed in the mornings.”
“Right,” I say.
“So you were dumped?”
“Yes, and I kept living alone in our apartment afterward. All of my friends had been her friends originally. That sort of deal. Made me a little stir-crazy. And then I guess that other stuff I said before, about Ireland — that started making more sense.”
Sue nods sympathetically. I can tell she feels bad for teasing the information out of me so easily, but she’s satisfied. It occurs to me just how funny the whole situation with Fiona is. Maybe I couldn’t admit it to myself until now, but it’s true I came to Ireland to wait out the ghosts of a romantic entanglement, and the last thing I wanted was another one. Fiona and I met in a pub after one of my sets, and there was immediately a quiet magnetism between us, that thing where you both know inside of thirty seconds you’d like to be in bed with one another, so there’s no reason to fuss over what happens in between. Fiona told me she had a daughter. That she works hard. That she gets loads of headaches and just wants to be left alone most days. I can do casual, I said. Believed it, too, until breakfast. Fiona seemed so nervous and gloomy at the pub, but when we kissed, she laughed, and her laugh was like a little bird in the nighttime of her, the thing that proved all the gloominess to be a lie.
Still, there are corners of her life she refuses to illuminate. I don’t know a thing about her child. I know even less about the child’s father. So I start to form a question in my mind for Sue: About what Fiona’s like when she really lets her guard down. About why her guard is up at all.
Just then the doorbell sounds. Duke.
I follow Sue into the living room. She opens the door quickly, then turns around and heads back to her tea. There’s barely a nod between the two of them, but nothing particularly raw either. The emotions are old, the score settled. Duke is tall and thin and has the same potato-fed look as his brother, but meaner-looking. Of course he is. It can’t be a coincidence that the nasty ones so often look it.
Duke waits in the doorway, puffing furiously on a hand-rolled cigarette. He wears a white fisherman’s sweater and has long white hair. I say white but it’s almost yellow — from cigarette smoke, probably. His skin looks like the pleather upholstery of an old La-Z-Boy. He coughs into his sleeve, then flicks away the barely smoked cigarette and offers me his hand, which I grab on impulse. He thanks me brusquely.
“I’d soon as do it myself,” he says, “but the back is banjaxed.” He points to his lumbar.
I nod and try to illustrate with my body language that I’m Team Sue, but I suspect Duke is totally accustomed to being alone on one side of an issue and either doesn’t care or actually relishes the feeling. For all that, he’s got a spindly charm about him. He’s antiheroic, the guy at the local pub who talks exclusively from his ass but earns your admiration by doing it better than anyone else.
Duke gestures to a large, unframed painting beside us and then, without much ado, grabs it ungenerously at one corner. I rush to the other side to match him, afraid he’ll simply drag it out the door.
We move the largest paintings mostly in silence, except for a competitive grunt here and there, the occasional direction while rounding a corner.
The last painting is upstairs: a large portrait of a woman in a blue overcoat, the background the same color and texture as the coat. The woman has a World War II vibe about her. Maybe someone pulled from Norman’s memory, or else the painting was done years ago. She’s wearing too much blush and has a haircut that reminds me of a magazine ad from the fifties. While I’m looking at it, Duke steps to the window and takes a furtive look around, as if worried someone’s caught on to our heist. He turns to face me.
“Missed one,” he says, pointing to a tiny painting leaning against the wooden leg of a nearby chair. I pick it up. The setting could be anywhere along the River Corrib, which is everywhere in Galway flanked by the same cast-iron railings depicted in the painting. Lovely things, the railings. When it’s raining just right — half raining, the way it so often does here — the spiderwebs spun across the rails collect mist and shine, so that the Corrib looks like it’s swathed in sequined cloth. Beside the river is a child in a yellow raincoat, flying a kite. I wonder if it’s Fiona.
When I look up, Duke’s waiting patiently by the lady in blue.
“Can you carry both?” he asks.
Yes, you greedy bastard.
And Duke is a bastard. But I mostly like him, and I kick myself for it. He makes his money renting flats, and he offers to pay me a substantial sum to ride with him to one of his properties and help him unload the paintings into the garage there. My inclination is to say yes, but I look to Sue before I agree. She implies with her expression that this would not represent a betrayal to Team Sue. Take the man’s money.
So we’re riding through the city in a car, something I have done approximately twice since moving here a year ago. Duke’s van reeks of smoke. The radio is tuned to a Top 40 station. The pop charts in Ireland have just now caught up to where they were in Canada before I crossed the Atlantic.
We pull up beside a squat house by the river. It’s white stucco, tucked behind a few bushy trees, the lawn surrounded by a knee-high stone fence and filled with fat-leafed plants that look almost tropical. We unload the paintings into an adjacent garage, and once we’re done, Duke hands me some cash. Then he offers me a cigarette, which I accept. Surely I smell like one, anyway. While we smoke, Duke admires his bounty.
“Bet you think I’m a swine,” he says.
I take a puff of my cigarette, trying to think of a more nuanced reply than Yes.
“Of course you do,” Duke says. “No one gave a flat fuck for his paintings until he was sick. Your man gets Alzheimer’s, and it’s like he’s fucking Michelangelo all of a sudden.”
I don’t have an answer for him. The rain has started up again. I feel it on my cheeks like it’s seeping out of my pores. “Well, you’ve got no reason to complain,” I say finally.
He nods. Takes a drag on his cigarette. Spits. “No reason you’d understand,” he says.
“What do you mean by that?”
“You have any brothers?”
“Sure you do. And you’re the good one. The darling.”
He watches my reaction closely, then laughs, a sound like a bad muffler.
“I’m glad for you,” he says, relaxing. “I was always glad for Norman, too. Came out the womb a fucking dote. But I paid his way for a long time. Supported him through the worst of it and never got much in the way of thanks — from him or anyone else. He didn’t leave me a penny.” And then something in Duke’s face gives way. His jaw goes a little slack, maybe, and he says, “I’ll tell you what: after a while you start to play the part you’re cast in.”
And, just as quickly as it came, the softness in his manner is gone. Duke gestures fiercely to the house beside us.
“I let him live here for free,” he says. “For years, while he was in art school. And now I’m letting his daughter do the same.”
“Fiona lives here?” I say, surprised.
Duke raises his brows and laughs again, a bit cruelly this time. “Christ,” he says, “I thought you were her fella.”
“Well . . . ,” I start.
Duke’s laughter turns seamlessly into a rolling cough, and my blood starts to simmer. “She is something,” he says after the cough has subsided. “Has a child with that idiot and won’t even let a nice lad like you into her flat.”
The rain is falling harder now. A car slides by on the nearby street and sprays still more water into the laden air. Duke and I step backward into the garage to let the rain pass overhead. I should be hating Duke even more now, but he’s cracked open a door I very much want to enter. I know I shouldn’t, but I can’t help myself.
“What was he like?”
“Fiona’s . . . I don’t know — the father.”
Duke tosses his spent cigarette onto the drive, and I do the same, even though mine is still mostly intact.
“An ass. Moved to LA or someplace. Stole a bit of her money, too, on the way out. Thought he was gonna be Colin fucking Farrell. What a gas. I’m surprised he hasn’t come crawling back.”
“Were they married?”
Duke shakes his head.
The rain has let up, but Duke walks deeper into the garage, starts rummaging through the paintings, holding his hip, looking for something.
I stare into the mist and see what I think is a mirage at first: Fiona and a girl beside her. But it’s not a mirage. It’s Fiona in the flesh, and her daughter. Fiona draws a yellow hood back from her head. It feels so strange to see her here. Her broad cheeks, her button nose, her black hair shining. Fiona spots the van, then me behind it, and stops. Her face is impossible to read. She walks over slowly, holding her daughter’s hand.
“Here,” says Duke, behind me. I turn around, and he’s holding a small painting: the one of the girl in the raincoat and the kite and the Corrib. “I could tell you liked that one.”
I take the painting and look at it.
“I don’t suppose you want a lift?” Duke asks.
“No,” I say. “I’ll walk.”
“Sure you will,” Duke says, ushering me out of the garage and closing the door behind us. He’s in the Renault before I can even thank him for the painting. I shouldn’t thank him, anyway. I can’t keep it, of course. I’ll give it back to Sue, probably. I watch Fiona and Duke exchange some chilly words through the window of the van, and Fiona’s daughter looks at me the whole time — unflinchingly, the way only children can. It isn’t just rain on her cheeks, I realize. She’s crying. Weeping freely. Her eyes are bloodshot. She’s not making much noise, but the tears streaming down her face could give the Corrib a run for its money.
Duke drives off, and Fiona walks over and eyes me suspiciously, the same way her mother did this morning.
“This is Nieve,” she says, meaning the kid. “But I don’t think she’s in the mood for introductions.”
Nieve looks angrily up at her, and I can’t help but laugh. “What’s wrong?” I ask Nieve. She doesn’t answer.
“Well,” Fiona says, massaging the back of her neck. “I guess you should come in for tea, then.”
The house is eerily still. Nieve runs upstairs, and after the sound of her bounding footsteps has subsided, I hear the humming of a dehumidifier somewhere. Fiona motions to the couch. I sit down while she fetches the tea.
Just from the way she rattles things in the kitchen, I can tell she’s a little pissed. Maybe she thinks this was all an angle — that I knew exactly where I was headed when Duke asked for help. Mentally I try to get my story straight, wishing our occupations were reversed: that she were the singer and I were the lawyer-in-training. Though I came to her place purely by accident, I feel like I might crack under questioning; like she’ll catch me in a lie I haven’t even told. I sample the couch’s tweed fabric between my thumb and forefinger, keeping my eyes from wandering over the objects in the room. I’ve pried enough already.
Fiona sits down beside me and sets two steaming mugs on the coffee table. A gentle sob comes from upstairs.
“She all right?” I ask.
“I don’t know.” Fiona sighs. “Dance class. She used to love it, but I think the magic’s worn off, like. It gets intense in there. That’s just a guess, though. You know how kids are.”
I nod. I have no idea how kids are.
“Anyway,” says Fiona. She leans back and rests her head on the top of the couch, looking up at the ceiling.
“Nice place,” I say. “Cozy.”
Fiona murmurs, “Grand.”
“Now it makes even less sense that I’ve been barred from visiting. I thought maybe you lived in a shoe.”
Fiona smiles in spite of herself. She sits up and looks at me with false gravity. “You’ve met my mam,” she says, nostrils flaring.
“And your uncle.”
“So no complaints,” she says.
I can’t quite tell if she’s joking.
“Hey,” I say. “I didn’t know you lived here. I hope you don’t think I —”
But Fiona waves me off. She’s tired, and maybe she doesn’t care. Maybe she even wants me here. I take a sip of tea. Lemon, ginger, a hint of honey.
And then our legs touch somehow, the way legs do: drawn to each other’s warmth. Fiona looks up at me. I can see the strain, how badly she wants to keep me at arm’s length, on the fringes of her life. But only the rational half of her brain wants this — the half that’s good at thinking, considering, weighing, but isn’t any good at wanting. And looking into Fiona’s eyes now — her lashes still holding drops of water, shining like the spiderwebs — I know that she senses what I sense: that the longer we sit here, our bodies alive and close, the more likely it is the other half will win out.
Fiona stands, a little frantic, and asks, “You want the tour?”
She shows me every room but Nieve’s. Fiona’s bedroom is a bit of a mess. The shades are drawn, and I can’t see much. She hurries me into a room at the front of the house that’s well lit and mostly vacant. Bright hardwood floors. Closet doors made of mirrors.
“What’s this about?”
“Studio,” she says.
It takes me a second. Dancing. There’s just enough room for it. I walk to the window and turn around. Fiona follows me in and immediately seems to own the space. She smiles wryly, looking more comfortable than I have ever seen her. I wonder if it’s really me she’s looking at. If I’m here at all.
“Let’s see it, then,” I say.
“Oh, come on,” she says.
“I mean it,” I say. “Unless you’ve lost your touch.”
“I have not done!” She fights off a laugh.
“I’m not going to dance,” she says, turning serious again. She leans against the wall beside me. And then Nieve is standing in the doorway, arms crossed.
“This is my studio,” Nieve says, looking at me. “And you sound funny.”
“Nieve,” Fiona says with lead in her voice.
“That’s all right,” I tell Fiona. “I know it’s yours, Nieve. I was just admiring it. It’s a very good studio.”
“Well, I’m a very good dancer.”
“Yes. My teacher says that I have great potential.”
“Oh, yeah? What’s that mean?”
Nieve looks at her mother, who looks back, ready to tease.
I can’t help myself. “I think it means,” I begin, and both of them look at me intensely, “that you’ll be a very good dancer someday, but only if you’re not afraid of trying.”
“Right,” says Nieve.
“Nieve,” Fiona says, “why don’t you get washed up for supper?”
Nieve goes, and Fiona shakes her head at me. She can’t quite hide the smile pricking at the corners of her mouth.
“You’re very cheeky,” she says, her body just within reach. She points to the small painting in my hand. I’d forgotten I had it.
“Oh,” I say, holding it up to view. “Yeah. One of your dad’s.”
“No,” I say, “Duke gave it to me.”
“Let’s have a look,” she says, at my side now.
I show her, and her face does something hard to read: starts and then settles. She takes a deep breath and laughs, the bird in the night.
“What?” I ask.
Fiona grabs me by my shoulders and turns me around to face the window. Outside is unmistakably the section of river depicted in the painting. The same benevolent angle. Same water. Same sky. Same houses in the background. Just no kid with a kite.
“This was his studio for years.”
“Is it you in the painting?”
Fiona shakes her head. “He was always more interested in strangers.”
She steps beside me to look outside. Our arms come together, our hips.
“Do you miss him?” I ask.
“I think so,” she says, thoughtfully. “But I can only remember him the way he was at the very end. I know he was different before. I know it, but I can’t feel it. He’ll always be a confused and frustrated man in my memory.”
I look out into the mist. The gray and the green. The colors start to blur. I put my arm around Fiona and press the painting gently into her ribs. “You want it?”
“No,” she says, pushing the canvas away. “You may as well keep it.”
I think for a second that she’s angry with me, but then she eases her weight into my side, rests her head on my chest. I can feel her pulse. I feel the blood inside her. I feel the 70 percent of her that’s water. And the other 30 percent? What is all that again? Carbon and metal. Things too hard and too strange to be inside a body. Water makes much more sense. The rest will always be a mystery.