Freezing to Death

Con was not at home when his brother Thady called, so Thady went on a pub crawl, starting with Saints and Sinners in Woodside and on to the old haunts: Quinlans in Rochester and Rosie O’Gradys on Seventh Avenue. God, he’d forgotten how good the American bourbon was. Seeing the icicles hanging off the buildings, he’d also forgotten how cold New York became in the winter and he was so weary after the long trip and all those people teeming about, lovers enjoying themselves laughing and carousing in such a vulgar way. How many years had it been? Half a life time, half one’s life eaten away by that cancer that is no more. He had to get away from all those people bumping into him; he needed a little respite; if he could rest a while in Central Park, maybe on a seat where his mind could work over the events of his recent past, already beginning to blur now and yet he had managed to get to the airport. Got a cab to Con’s house; would try his house again; he was probably out on the town with some of his buddies from the fire department; that’s why he tried the old haunts but there was no sign, not even in Molly’s Shebeen or Paddy Maguire’s or even in The Bravest in Midtown East; nobody there he knew. Where were they all? But right now he would falter a while; he needed a little rest to mull over the events, the recent happenings and that Irish boy, what was his name? Danny something whom he texted just before boarding the plane. Thady always kept his passport up to date; was good like that (one thing he was determined to keep away from her especially after she incarcerated him in that hospital). But Laura let him down too, the first time ever about his birthday, but he knew his annoyance was more due to a pique of jealousy on his part when that Irish boy whisked her off on his birthday that day in the Insomnia café. But it was like he had a premonition keeping that passport (which he fondled now like something consoling, his escape valve, in the pocket of his jacket). Yes, you need your passport; she tried to take it from him; she thought he would fly back across the pond, but he kept it hidden from her inside the frame of the photo on the mantelpiece of himself and Con in their firefighter gear. Yes, the passport did represent a portent that some day he would come back to New York, a place he had never wanted to leave. Give me your tired, your huddled masses. He remembered that, yes, the promise. Oh, and he was so tired; that long wait—was it five nervous hours in Dublin airport?—for an available seat to JFK; his prancing around the waiting area until some passengers began to look at him suspiciously, and hiding in the toilet at the sight of a garda; having eventually to sit down and wish he had been a reader. How he envied those who could sit so calmly and just read, in the midst of all calamity, and the thought: had he left any incriminating evidence behind him? He suddenly remembered the window of the bedroom where he had left Laura upstairs. He hadn’t closed it. Christ, he had meant to close it. Oh, why did Laura have to arrive when she did, distracting him? The fear of being called back when eventually he did get going through the departure gate. The plane flying over the Atlantic as he looked down at the white horses frothing on the sea; a long time since he had flown; a long time since he was on his own travelling to Mexico and those other countries to learn the anti-terrorist methods; had forgotten more than he had learned; but he needed to be alert now to remember things to get through the airports.
New Year’s Eve: some far away auld lang syning like a hum not grating on the ear. And an entwined couple of love doves approaching full of it; the guy took a five dollar bill out of the pocket of his thick coat, an act of bravado, and showing off in the presence of the giggling girl, threw it towards Thady, and Thady watched it float down like one of the big snowflakes falling on him. Like I’m one of the hobos, he thought, one of the beggars of the street. But he hadn’t the energy to tackle the guy, to knock the smug look off his face. He was so goddamn tired. But funny, remembering the dates and not remembering how cold it could be over here; his clothes for what they were; he felt the texture, a lightweight tawny suit more suitable for summer wear than winter, and not remembering his overcoat, the long woollen navy coat left hanging in the wardrobe. Hadn’t time to think straight in all the haste to escape the nightmare of that goddamn house and Laura arriving as she did. And not remembering that Laura, his little Laura, would grow up and go away from him, who would not always be his little girl forever and ever. His little Laura—a smile creased the frosted stubble of his chin—how they confided in one another; cuddly bear she used to call him; a good bear, he was a good bear but Maureen didn’t think so that time she scalded him down there. Her finding out about… one of her holy-Joe friends with prowling eyes reporting him—what difference did it make now and what did she expect him to be? Remain a celibate in her sanctimonious house for the rest of his life. No way. And what was he doing after all? Just seeking a companion to fill a well of loneliness. What was wrong in that? Anyone who could touch him, caress him, give him a hug; that’s all he wanted really deep down, rather than kissing rosary beads or holy pictures or crucifixes.
Only for Laura going with him that time to the hospital, only for her… yeah and his tone hardened; he was sharp enough to do that, to get that number from Laura’s cell phone in case she could suffocate or starve. A temporary shudder gripped him, more for Laura than for the cold this time. No, he consoled himself, she would not suffocate; he had left the gag loose deliberately, but just tight enough so she couldn’t get away; she could breathe okay. And she wouldnʼt die of thirst either with the bottle of water he left her and the plastic L-shaped straw to sip through the corner of her mouth. Starvation would be the thing if she wasn’t found by one of the church goers, by one of Maureen’s cronies coming to call to her for the morning mass. Couldn’t rely on that though; they would just go away when they got no answer. No, couldn’t rely on that for his little girl. So he had no choice but to contact the Irish boy, and leave the message, making sure to block his own number, just one sentence saying where Laura was. Oh, and he swayed a little, it broke his heart to have to tie her up, but she understood; she nodded; she did nod; she understood his plight, his difficulty with that creature. Laura knew there was a man sick in Jericho. She would be all right, and to his brother Con how would he explain things? Con would not be as understanding if he learned of the extreme action he had to take with Laura, but his brother owed him his life; he would not turn him away. In a little while he would get a cab to his brother’s house again; avoid that subway and those cave cops; not that they would be alerted yet surely. Oh, he was so tired; there was a little bench near that bare tree with the snow resting nicely on its branches and Christmas gone and he never even felt it coming or going and a panic seized him, the first Christmas that he did not buy a doll for Laura. She said she was growing up now—no, not growing up, grown up—that she didn’t want the dolls no more; but she would understand why he did not buy one for her this Christmas, what with this and that, circumstances did not allow. And he thought, as his mind travelled through tunnels of time, of that first girl he knew, his first love, that teenage girl from Baychester with the Cajun origins. She was generous with herself and giving to him and he was forced to abandon her and worse perhaps to disown the child that issued from their union. It was a union of love, looking back on it now. She was so selfless like Laura until Laura started turning; the first time to do the act and a son, the product, somewhere god knows. If only he had stuck with them instead of being taken in by the prim and proper Maureen with all that god-fearing righteousness, a Blood shot Jesus. He should have stuck with his first love: Amie yes, with her dark beautiful eyes and her colour looked down upon. Oh god when you think of it, the son, their son given up so easily, so obediently. What was his name? And he cried out, I’ll die without knowing the name of my son. How many days now is it since..? I have lost track with those kiss-ass drinks in the gin mills like home away from home. I will make my way to Woodside soon; call on Con again. Maybe it was just as well the first time I called that he was out. It would have been a bit rash, crashing in on him so sudden like; he would have said things maybe without prior thought, without thinking things through. He sighed, watched the hot breath expire. That cold is really biting now, but something is sticking me to the bench. Is it guilt? It couldn’t be guilt; it’s the fatigue, the fatigue but I will not ring Con. How can you explain things like what happened on the phone? I want to surprise him, to tell him in my own time exactly how things were; want to get my story right before I see him again. And Laura, will she survive? Of course she will survive because I texted that Irish boy. I hope I took the number down right; I just said that he will find Laura in Sandymount, gave the number and the street; he will find her; she will be none the worse for wear but she will think kindly of me. She will understand what I had to do. Laura will know these things, and she will tell the world. And that son who was born long long ago, how did he fare without a father? Hopefully not as badly as I did without a son, and Maureen’s ultimatum to come to Ireland, preventing me from seeing though the guise, preventing me from seeing the torment that lay ahead as I abandoned all those old buddies in the fire department. The names. What were their names? Half obliterated. Half a life, a whole life now. None of them around the old haunts. How many of them are dead? Christ, I feel so tired; it’s so quiet here, not a bit like New York at all, no women of the night walking by to add a little warmth on such a cold night. There is a man sick in Jericho. Laura will be all right. In a little while I’ll get a cab again, in a little…while. My brother surely will be home by then.
Some snow slid down from the branch and percolated inside his collar but he was too tired to shake himself, allowing the cold evaporation take place down his spine like a half-remembered thrill, long ago with Amie; it was in this park on a bench like this that she gave herself to him so freely so… lovingly. Oh Thaddeus, you are my one true love, she said and she opened herself to him, oh so free and generous unlike that sterile cunt; and he thought back to Maureen fireproofing her cobwebs like she was something special, so god almighty holier than thou; she never knew what a cunt was for. Oh he exclaimed in a note of agonised regret for a wasted life before he took the turn, before he turned his back on what surely was his destiny.
And the son that was born—he had just heard it was a son at that moment that he was put away, all arranged by Maureen and some Catholic adoption agency. For Amie—how well he never forgets her, his first and only love—was too poor and too young to take charge of their son alone. Alone. And he had agreed; he swore on his marriage vow to Maureen that he would never ever make contact with them again, that wicked woman leading him astray. And he was so timid, oh so timid, so anxious at the time, fearing of the shame he would bring to his parents who were so religious like most Irish-Americans of the time, and he succumbed to her, to her better ways, and his family thought so highly of Maureen, a wholesome Irish girl with good morals. And it was better for the child too. The child would be looked after, better than he or that young girl could ever have hoped to look after him; and it was all arranged with a good Catholic family and he was whisked away to God knows where, in what state? where he would get a proper upbringing—that word proper, one of Maureen’s favourite words but never ever… the cold—his eyelids were getting so heavy. Usen’t to drink so much then. Bloodshot Jesus. The names for drinks have their own story to tell. Whiskey Sour. The son, Thady junior perhaps. Calane junior, where are you now? You must be a middleaged man by now for Christ sake. Did you ever wonder about me? What might have been? And the hope of other children quashed by Maureen. She wanted someone to manipulate, to fit into her ways; that’s what she wanted from a marriage. And the son then in the scheme of things was replaced by Laura whose destiny it was to travel across the pond to her uncle Thady to be his succour and his hope, and Laura sometimes blurred with Amie as she grew and developed: their hair with the dark curl, the brown eyes, the teenage girl, the young woman as time went by and all things unattainable.
Oh, but he started as the cold seized him like a rough handler. He had to think beyond himself and so quickly, oh so quickly for Laura’s sake—that Irish boy for whom he had the initial aversion, understandably, threatening to take his Laura away, but for her sake he must be selfless; he must release her to let her live her life now that she has grown and accept, accept; he knew that, knew just as he had released himself now from like bondage, the slaves with Moses, and he was back now in the promised land realising how over the years all Maureen’s biblical jargon washed over him and he believed in that stuff at first, that Maureen’s way was the way of righteousness and salvation. And he believed that he was the sinner, the one to be saved, believing it despite the fact that she never was satisfied with him, that it was the way. The way and the truth and the light. The way to go. But he was released now from that bond sitting on this seat far away from all of that and the seat was getting colder; he could feel it penetrating his clothes but he hadn’t the energy to rouse himself.
Was it a dream? Had he really done what he thought he did? The arguing he remembered and her final word calling him the antichrist and he knew he wasn’t the antichrist and he told her not to call him that but she kept on taunting him and he knew she was forcing him into a position, invoking god almighty to strike him down and he knew the antichrists were the terrorists of the skies who crashed planes into cities murdering thousands of people. To compare him to those and he a firefighter, the bravest of the brave, who had saved so many lives, including that of his own brother. And she scoffed at that. To compare him to terrorists was an admission, a refusal to recognise any virtue in her husband; that was the final straw. He was not a bad man; he was being made a bad man by a righteous woman and he thought: are the righteous only righteous by claiming superiority over others? By showing up other peopleʼs foibles? But this freedom he had now was maybe too late for him but not for Laura. That Irish boy will come and set her free. But what will she say then? How far can family loyalty go? Will she say her uncle was forced to kill Maureen? The way things were between them, reaching up to the boiling point, the place of no return. She would know, all during the years going back to the Rose of Tralee contest and even her father calling Maureen a termagant. Laura would know. She already knew, the way she avoided her, coming to visit him on her sodality nights. Laura would understand how he did what he did and she would say she had no idea under the wide earth where her uncle Thady was.
Oh, but now it was growing late; it was time, but no, he would tarry a little longer, just a little while longer to get his strength back before seeking out Con once more, to face what lay ahead; a little rest first; he was growing used to the cold settling into his bones like it was part of him now: physical discomfort and pain, and he took another swig from the Jim Beam, still concealed in its duty-free bag. The bourbon was intended for Con, his brotherʼs favourite drink, but he could always get another. There were plenty of liquor stores around here and time a plenty—the rest of his life. That old back pain coming at him now. Con always said he was amazed all those years in the fire department that he never complained, that he could withstand all the different circumstances of fire rescue, that he could go on, he could withstand pain and danger and, with Maureen at him in the early years, realising his marital mistake, he would actually court pain, yes, anything to keep her out of his head. After the Rose of Tralee contest when she started in her high piety to make personal remarks about Laura, Con would agree she had it coming, and now with the drowsiness coming over him he just wanted to sleep. If the cops came and handcuffed him now he wouldn’t be able to resist. He was so tired; he would rouse himself in a little while, just a little bit longer and then he would be ready to face whatever he had to face.
But would he tell his brother, would he even admit that he had killed his wife or that he was not on a social visit but on the run, to tell him that he was being confronted by the Irish boy whom Laura was confiding in, to tell Thady from the horse’s mouth that nothing untoward had happened between uncle and niece. He would beat his breast and weep; there was a man sick in Jericho. Con would understand all the years keeping silent and she was now gone missing; he felt guilty; he caused her to go missing; he would tell Con. He took it to heart all the years ever since she was a kid; she was such a cute little kid so… docile, and her hair in ringlets soft like… a doll’s before she started straightening it for those bangs. Silly bangs that she said were all the fashion, running parallel to her eyebrows concealing her fine Calane brow. He would talk to Con before the outcry would be raised about Maureen. All those security checks on the trip over; they took a lot out of him. But why bother getting anxious if you’re going to go? If someone like those goddamn terrorists go to the trouble of planning your annihilation, why stand in their way? Whooooosh! He thought of the scary words to Laura who was not so easy to scare anymore. Damn it, she didn’t even blink last time. Only for her, only for her arriving that’s what he had intended, had everything ready: cans of gasoline, the firefighter lighting the fires this time, reversing his role. And the candles lighting on the termagant’s shrine could so easily have caught fire to the curtains. And he shivered—fire and ice, that’s what it’s all about, one or the other. And it’s the other extreme now. And Con always saw something worthwhile in living with that wife of his Patti whom Thady could never figure out, who was forever wishing for something else and snooty to boot.
He shivered again as fresh feathers of snow began to fall. Christ, he would knock back one more shot. His head and face were cold marble now numbed by the effect of the alcohol. And the meal on that plane had made him bilious. And the cab driver coming from the airport had no interest in stories about 9/11. He was only interested in conducting him from A to B; it was like people had moved on. And the curt voice of that last barman ringing in his ear saying maybe he had enough, treating him like the leftover spillage of a year gone by.

From American Doll

in paperback and ebook at or or on most devices at


Author: James Lawless

Irish novelist, poet and short story writer.

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