The Irish Writers Centre Portfolio
Each week a group of writers gather virturally at the Irish Writers Centre in Dublin where they are provided a prompt for half an hour of orginial writing, after which some of the pieces are read and critiqued. The discipline of writing against a timed deadline in the presence of other well accompished writers is more than a little intimidating.
The Curse of Memory
Conor Finnegan traced a single finger around the rim of his wine glass and fought the memories. Strange it was that the act of remembering had become more complicated as he grew older. When he was a child, memories came fast and thin – the day at school, a playground game, perhaps a walk with a new friend. As a boy he could recall every holiday, every fancy dinner his mother prepared, every time he bounced a basketball or kicked a rock down the sidewalk.
But age deepens the trough, and memories become congested, falling one on the other until they are nearly indistinguishable. Who can delineate time, or date, or place when there are so many to sort through? Whose face is transposed with someone else’s actions, and whose words are confused for those of another? Life becomes a magnet drawn through the sand, collecting tiny shards of metal along the way until the magnet becomes weighted down. It becomes the image of itself, burdened by what’s extraneous.
Still, in a life made dense by the comings and goings of both strangers and loved ones, some memories ring clearly, without distortion or blur.
Behind the heart lie scars that do not heal, and that no memory will obscure.
“Excuse me,” he said. She turned. Conor extended a notebook she had left behind on a bench in one of the museum’s galleries that featured the Impressionists. “You left this behind you upstairs.”
She smiled and took it from him. Her voice came out low, with a hint of mischief. “I was wondering how long it would take you ..." . .
So it had begun, never to finish in spirit, if not in fact. Her name was Glynnis. Later that same day, the day they met, she had told Conor, “I think you’ve got heartbreak written all over you. Not past, but future. You’re bound to get hurt terribly somewhere along the way. You’re young, and you’re trusting, and you’ve got a conscience. Burdensome traits, those are. The primary ingredients for pain.”
She had, of course, been correct. Conor had not considered that Glynnis herself would be the inadvertent author of the worst part of the inevitable heartbreak. But before the heartbreak had come moments of sublimity, the vulnerabilities that derive from hearts and minds lying in naked exposure, the discovery of one’s own emotional depths.
It had been worth it, Conor knew. He had always believed that the exhilaration of Glynnis had merited the despair that followed. Their fleeting, too brief time together had shown him things he had never seen since and never really expected to find again…..
She was gone now, had been gone for many years. In the gap had been a marriage that failed, a career that soured, and friendships gone adrift. The years tumbled together, punctuated by occasional bright lights and more occasional dull thuds. What did it matter, any of it?
Among those memories was the notion of a night like this one, wine glass in hand, when Conor Finnegan recognized that he would give five years of his life for one day of having her back, the way it was in the beginning. He would take her back in a minute……
I t used to be that memories carried blessings. But, as Conor sipped down the final droplets from his wineglass, he recognized that there was no blessing in this. To remember was a curse.
At the Edge of Land
In winter the wind blows in from the sea on needles and darts. Salt spray clings to eyelashes, cakes on scarves in a frosty rime, and bites the skin. On the harsh days the wind and spray threatens to flay the skin itself, to rip it off and send it against the shopfronts and marina cafes that line the waterfront.
No call for a man to be walking seaside on days like these.
But for Liam Finnegan the wind and spray that buffeted his face was no match for the winds that blew inside him. And unlike the storms that blew in from a disquieted sea, the tempests inside Finnegan showed little signs of abating. There was no promise of sunshine, calm waves or a gentle breeze.
Finnegan had been born to the countryside, a farmer’s son, who was himself the son of a farmer in a long line of Finnegans barely scraping enough out of the land to survive. How they had all survived to the present day was a mystery to young Liam, who regarded their small parcel of land as misshapen and fallow. A few cows, a tiny crop of greens and an orchard that grew apples and rot……If nothing else, their existence today was testament to the resiliency of their lineage, a whisper that a Finnegan would somehow, in some way, manage to see the next sunrise.
Liam Finnegan had taken the train from Waterford that morning. A handful of the Dungarvan boys had made their way to Cork looking for work, and some had been successful. Cork had a steelmill, such as it was, and ships, and a port that launched people to every corner of the world. There were shops there, too, and some might be in need of strong shoulders to lift their wares. Opportunities might exist there that had no hold his own village.
He had spent the day asking about, entering his name in the pages of the jobseekers that seemed to haunt every corner, inquiring at the mill and the shipyard and the bright, bold stores. He was not alone in the effort. These days had grown hard. Good work, rare enough in the best of times, flitted away like the wind and the spray.
Tired, then, and with a spirit pressed flat, Liam Finnegan ended his day with a pint at a pub on the Cobh, then walked the frontage road. There would be time enough to catch the train back to Waterford, and then the long walk back to his farm where at least he might enjoy a warm bed. For now he embraced the cold. It only seemed fitting, he thought, that the day should blow a cold and empty path away.
In the darkening light from the other direction a young man came his way, huddled under a coat too thin to have much benefit. Arms huddled against his body and a hat pulled low, he walked as did Finnegan, glancing occasionally outward to the sea. When he saw Finnegan, the other broke a hesitant smile.
“Evening, lad. Rough day, no? Didn’t expect to meet anyone out here.”
“Rough in many ways, and no rougher than others.”
“Would you have a smoke you could lend? I’d welcome the warmth of a good smoke.”
“Sorry. Not one of my vices.”
“Ah, well then, I’ll just keep on. Safe home to you.” And the other continued his way.
Finnegan turned one last time to the sea, the gray edge of a cold land. The night drew on, with no sunset. Time it was to find a train, and then back into a land where he felt himself ever more a stranger, and ever more lost.
A Ride on the Chase
Donovan Liusetti anticipated his summertime Saturdays with a fervor that blocked out every frustration, insult and stretch of boredom that permeated his weeks. School was out, but, really, what else was there in these languid, hot, often humid days that stretched one into another?
To be sure, he tried his best to ward off the languor. He and his friends would haunt the dense streets of the Lower East Side, looking around each corner for something new, something that would spark curiosity or response, or, best of all, a bit of mischief. There might be fruitstand where the boys could nip an apple or an orange, just for the sport of it. Donovan had little taste for fruit of any kind, so what he stole he would throw away, or, if in a favorable mood, give it to his best friend, Richard Lombardi.
Their mischief sometimes expanded beyond a simple pilfered banana. If the keeper of a corner market looked preoccupied, lazy or too distracted to pay enough attention, they might snatch a pen, or a pair of nail clippers, or, once upon a dare from Terry Martino, an older boy who had already dropped out of school and was rumored to have experience in the art of petty theft, a submarine sandwich. But Donovan and Richard measured their risks, and in the main stayed away from anything overly foolish. They ate the sandwich, but they never went back for another.
While others floated into and out of their circle, it was these two, Donovan and Richard, that formed the core of the boys roaming the neighborhood looking for engagement.
There is a precipice for young boys like this, a divide which presents the chance to turn left or right. The direction of the turn will set their futures, and, with the turn, determine who it is they really are, and want to be. Donovan and Richard had one parent each – Donovan a father who provided just enough to keep them fed, clothed and housed, but offered little more of himself, and Richard a mother more in love with her bottles than with her son. Home itself for each boy was confining, neither physically nor emotionally expansive, as stark and minimalist as a monk’s cell, or so it seemed. They were not bad boys. Not yet. Perhaps never.
But during this hot and indolent summer, they looked to each other, their floating passel of friends, and the thick streets of New York to fill their time and to stimulate a young boy’s sense of being alive. They gave little thought to the future. It was enough to surmount each day as it came, and to do so with a hint of adventure if they could find it.
It was the weekend that drew them, that focused the ennui of their days to a single aspirational point. No matter that in the summer each day could bleed into the next, all the same. On the weekends people were out, they were animated, and, because there were more of them, things always seemed more alive.
Coney Island. A half hour or so on the N train, and there it was. A playground of rides, cheap food, suntans, sand, noise and an ocean breeze that was overwhelmed by a press of bodies from the human smorgasbord that walked the pathways there. Donovan and Richard rode out each Saturday. They rode the Cyclone, rode the Steeplechase, ate mealy hot dogs and drank warm sodas.
And in the process, they were boys again, on the proper side of the precipice. It was the Cyclone in particular that brought them back to where they belonged. The rush of wind combined with the press of gravity, the sweep of outward momentum around sharp corners, and the hint of fear, the whisper of uncertainty.
In a life weighed down by the press of boredom, of cynicism and of loneliness, how priceless, how timeless, are those moments of uncertainty, when fear might push out the best and deepest aspects of one’s character and open a window to vistas that are obscured during the hot and deadening week?
“Let’s do the Cyclone again.”
‘Yeah, let’s do it again. Let’s do it all again.”
Mark Murphy eyed the baseball game projected on the big screen television across the bar. He eyed his beer as he drank it down notch by notch. But mostly he eyed the single blond sitting by herself three seats to his left.
Most nights he came here in his exile. A beer or two, five or six innings, and then back home to climb into a cold bed with a cold wife and reset himself for the next day. During those nights he had seen this woman a time or two. She drank alone, smiled politely to the bartender, paid her tab promptly after a single drink, then left her seat to walk back out to the street. She was in her forties, as was Mark, or so he surmised. Nothing about her was extreme or flashy, but she carried an aura, an intrigue that piqued Mark’s curiosity. Attractive enough, with hair tied back from a softly rounded, calm face. And at this point, what was there to lose?
She had finished more than half her drink and the home team trailed badly. What, indeed, was there to lose?
Mark slid off his seat and walked two seats down to sit next to her. “Excuse me for being bold, but I just wanted to introduce myself. I’ve seen you here before, and always alone. I thought maybe you could use a friend. I’m Mark.”
The woman turned her head to face him. With no expression she said, “You’re the first person to speak to me here. Where have all the real men gone?’ She sipped her drink, a vodka tonic. “Laura.”
“Any chance I can tempt you with a second drink?”
And so it began that night, a casual dalliance that salved a festering void with anticipation, romanticism and a hint of risk. All of it proved more exciting than rational as Mark and Laura met nightly to sit no longer at the bar but at a small table near the corner where they exchanged stories, frustrations, abandonment and despair.
Laura no longer stopped at one drink, or even two. In the second week she placed her hand on Mark’s knee, leaned into him and licked his ear, and so the assignations began. From the bar they would head back to Laura’s apartment nearby, where she lived alone and had a wide bed which they put to good use, testing the limits of their own athleticism with lust that had been subliminated far too long.
Mark came home later and later. Gwen Murphy, ever loyal, ever the faithful wife, came to dread the sound of Mark’s key in the lock. An interruption, it was, and a return to a normality that wore her down. She had no issue with Mark’s absences, which cleared her time with her daughter of any complications or deflections. Mother and daughter were fine by themselves. Better by themselves.
At one point a few weeks past their first coupling, Laura rolled to her side, propped herself on an elbow and with a rare smile asked, “Why do you do this?”
“What do you mean? Why do I do what?”
“Why do you risk everything? A wife and a daughter. Maybe even a job. And don’t tell me I’m irresistible. I know I’m not. To you, sweet baby, I’m probably no more than meat. So don’t tell me that. Just tell me why you’re doing this. Why every few nights I can bring you to my bed.”
Mark rose and pulled a sheet around his nakedness, then walked to look out the bedroom window onto the small courtyard between the buildings. He thought in silence, then spoke slowly. “Did you ever look closely at a geode?” he said.
“What the hell is a geode?”
“A geode is a rock, I guess. Just a rock. But it’s hollow inside, and lined with crystals. Quite beautiful, actually, when you break it apart and look inside. It’s all sparkly and pure, like something that doesn’t quite belong in your hands. Something almost magical. You never know what colors will sparkle back at you when you crack it open.
“So,” he continued slowly, “I feel like that geode. Hollow inside, with all this empty space. Big parts of the center missing. And it took me years to get that way, with all this pressure pushing everything out of the middle.
“But there’s still some beauty there. There’s still something that sparkles when you look at it closely. Something that changes in the way the light plays with those crystals and makes new colors. Something that coats the edges of all that emptiness. All you have to do is crack it open and look.
“That’s why I do this, Laura.” He turned back to her, threw the sheet to the floor, and climbed back into the bed. It wasn’t yet time to go home.