I stood in my bedroom, in the basement of the house I grew up in for potentially the last time. No, it was the last time. It had to be.
That house taught me about the pitfalls of life. I stuffed the clothes I wore in the park during the execution into a plastic bag. Execution was the best word to describe it. Viggo was going to collect our soiled and possibly incriminating threads and dispose of them in the East River from under the Whitestone Bridge. I put some fresh clothes into a camouflage book bag with the Walkmen Ozzy gave me, a few cassettes and the Creeping Death record Kenny gave me shoved in the middle of the clothes. I had to remember not to sit back on the plane or step on it. I didn’t want to break it. It wasn’t as easy as I would have expected to leave, to finally be leaving this place, I anticipated having some emotions about it, but not this many. I had my plane ticket in my hand and I was on the first flight out. This was what I always wanted. Don’t you forget that, I told myself.
I was going to Thurles, a place where my roots were planted, unsure if I’d be like my uncle and never return, either by choice or because I couldn’t. I’ve had a love hate relationship with Whitestone, but in all honesty I’ve had a love hate relationship with almost everything in my life. Whitestone, Queens would always be home but the problem was firmly entrenched within me and maybe I wasn’t grounded anywhere particularly. Would Thurles feel like a long delayed homecoming? Would the people be congenial and welcome a long lost son with open arms? I didn’t always feel welcome or accepted here in this world, in my town or even in my house. It was possible that it had nothing to do with a specific place or person and it was entirely my own fault, a mental flaw which made me feel incompatible to most conditions of being. I was brutally aware of that. Maybe I’m destined to never feel normal, and always alone.
Depressed. Distrustful. Small. Insignificant. Diminished. Beaten. We might all be dying slow deaths, Peter Cushing trailed your every step whether you knew it or not, but this was how I lived. I knew. Is it a wonder why often I dreamt of leaving? Do you understand why I wanted it to be me instead of Ozzy? Some lives are more painful to bear than others, and most times the symptoms go unnoticed to those on the outside looking in. It was beyond my control. We are who we are.
I stood in the doorway of the living room, in dirty jeans and an even dirtier denim jacket, dogged boots, wet hair protruding from my Mets fitted. I walked in the footsteps of my mother, only the difference was I had the heart to tell my father goodbye face to face. I didn’t Irish like I normally would have done when exiting a place. Despite my disappointment I still loved and respected my father enough not to leave without saying farewell. As I could not help who I was, I don’t think my father wanted to be the person he was either. I believed he didn’t like how he felt or who he had become. We are all our own men.
My father sat in his recliner, the upholstery torn and the shape beaten out of it, weathered and worn over the years. He spent the better part of a decade alternating between the recliner and the couch. Both were ready for the dumps in College Point. The Fall of the House of Usher was on the television. Our favorite of Vincent Price taped onto a vhs cassette as part of his collection. “It’s the best of all the Corman Poe adaptations,” he said. Richard Matheson’s version of this Poe classic was great. My father was at the point in the film where Vincent Price as Roderick Usher was sounding off on his family lineage, explaining that he came from a long line of damaged, deranged and psychotic people. The Ryans could easily be mistaken for the Ushers, minus the grand estate and wealth. Both of our houses crumbled in putrefaction.
“What’s up, Pop.”
“Is it that time?”
I said, indeed. I don’t know if he figured I would eventually leave, I mean he had to think it would happen eventually, I wasn’t going to live at home forever even if things went differently, but maybe he felt it was a certainty that in time everyone leaves him.
“Alright. I never know what to say to you, Colm. I apologize for that. I’m not so good with words or with people. I’m not so good with anything, really.”
“It’s alright, Pop. I know. I know. It’s fine. You don’t have to say anything. There isn’t really anything to say.”
“You know that I’m very sorry about Ozzy. Right? I know how much you loved him. He was like a brother to you.”
“You could have gone to the funeral. You could have done that. A few people asked for you. The usual. They ask ‘how you are doing’ and I lie and I say that you’re well. Mr. Craven asked about you but he didn’t seem shocked in the slightest that you were a no show.”
“I just don’t see a point to those things. I have my own beliefs. I’m very sorry if I upset you by not attending. It is not my intention to upset anyone. Ozzy was a good kid.”
I said, Aces.
“I wish I had some words of wisdom to give you. You know, some sound advice, something witty to send you off with. The only thing I can say is be careful. Watch who you give your heart to and who you trust. There is only so much a person can take in a lifetime and you have had your fair share in such a small amount of time already. I’m sorry for that. I’m sorry for everything. This life has not been easy on you and I’m partly responsible for that. You mother and I failed each other and in turn hurt you. I knew your mother would leave me. Us, leave us. I wanted your mother to love me. I wanted to believe that she was capable of love. And I think she did love me, for a little at least. Somewhere in the beginning I was able to make her happy. I was different from what your mother was used to. I was the change she thought she needed but the realization came that she thought wrong.” I thought he might cry but there were no tears left in the man.
“The distance grew between us. I could see the change. Stevie Wonder could see the change in your mother. She was resentful of me and her life. There was nothing in this world I could do to please her. I couldn’t give her the things she thought she needed. Things she thought she could get easily elsewhere. Emotional things. Materialistic things. People who think money doesn’t matter are the same people who have it and never have to worry about it. We would never get ahead. Financially we would always struggle. It changed her and the way she looked at me. It happens to the best of them, Colm. And there is no way to know until it’s too late. You’ll want things to go back to the way it was, to reclaim that happiness and fire, but once it’s gone, it’s gone forever. It doesn’t go back. It never does. You can try to place the blame but that doesn’t help anything. It’s a part of life, a sad part, but a part nonetheless. I think your mother had dreams, big dreams, you know. Only those dreams didn’t include us. She didn’t understand that everyone has dreams. Everyone has a vision of what they want their life to be. I had dreams, too. She was my dream. She was all I wanted and one day you wake up and the dream is over. I’m sorry that I was a fool who couldn’t get over losing a woman. I’m sorry I couldn’t move on.” I saw the Them Two 7-inch record spinning in the Craven’s basement. We never played that B-side. My father was a fool but that didn’t make him a bad man. What does it take to be a good one? I was trying to figure that out.
My father fumbled for his drink, the ice cubes melted, diluting the bite of the whiskey. He took a breath and a moment to reflect. It wasn’t always terrible in our house but it’s difficult to find a good memory. The bad times tended to overshadow the good times. There had to be some happiness before the disappointment, before the stress and debt disconnected our family. Life can get ugly and everyone that matters can become unrecognizable. The love of a child couldn’t pull my father out of the wreckage of his marriage. Everyone was a stranger to him. There was no one to console him but her, no friends, no family, no one. And though this may be inaccurate it doesn’t matter if that is how you see it. No one can tell you any different.
“I have nothing to offer you. Nothing to teach you. I don’t want you to ever be haunted by regrets as I constantly am. I regret having you. I don’t mean that the way it sounds. I don’t mean it like that. It was a selfish act. I regret bringing you into a world this cold and awful? How could I do that to you? I could never protect you from all the cruelties that accompany life nor could I shield you from the heartbreaking whims of intolerable people. I wouldn’t be able to fend off people who may mistreat you or push you aside once they’ve finished feeding off of you. I feel terrible every day, about a variety of things, but I feel terrible for what you’ve endured on my watch and for all those hardships and heartbreak you’ve yet to face. Just know it’s coming. No surprises.”
“I don’t know what to say to all that. Thank you.” It was as if my father was dictating a lonely suicide note to me. I was a ghost writer jotting down his final thoughts. The man barely spoke to me. More days than not he was mute, maybe monosyllabic on a good day. Through his drunken late night fog his thoughts were calculated and sounded rehearsed. Like a script he’d practised over and over in front of a broken mirror, forever cursed.
“Nothing. I don’t want you to say anything. Just know that you are my boy, my only child, and I am proud of you. You’ve grown into a good young man despite my shortcomings. Can you promise me you won’t invest yourself in anyone completely?”
“I’ll do my best,” I nodded, but how could you seriously make a promise like that. Hell is other people. The quote rang true under this roof.
“One last thing, Colm.”
“Sure thing, Pop.” I clutched the straps of my old bookbag. “What is it?”
My father searched for the right words. His trusty manilla rope in his hands, sidewinding. He made a knot, undid it, and made another. His hands danced the choreography of a bowline. He tightened the byte of the knot, trapping the right words. “Colm, don’t ever come back.”
I left the house I grew up in where I learned about the perils of life. I was not looking back. New beginnings were delinquent and passed due. It wasn’t about burning bridges as much as it was about crossing new ones. I walked to the Cravens. Maeve knew nothing about our foul deeds, but she knew I was leaving and would drive me to the airport. I would say goodbye to her as I had done hundreds, if not thousands of times, only this was possibly the last.
My father raised up out of his chair like an old clunky submarine surfacing. He kicked the coffee table over, sending whiskey and a lone candle flying. He was unconcerned with the mess or the fire. He took his rope to the basement and put his skills to the test. He once bragged about the strength of his knots. He put his money where his mouth was. I walked in the middle of the street, and behind me my childhood home would erupt into flames as my father hung from a rafter in my bedroom. He hung from his cherished rope, his feet kicking out the last bits and destroying whatever meager possessions were left. I didn’t turn around to look, not once.