CULLEN FARM by Chris O'Brien
ALL I HAVE TO DO is tell Mag about the plum tree and Jac’s gig is up. I watch him walk up the drive, suitcase in hand. Deep down Mag must know, but she’s grieving and I don’t want to take anything else away from her. We’d come here every summer, Jac and me. It’s so different like this, greener if that’s possible, so damp. Colder, certainly, than it ever gets back home. Cold without snow is a dark, lightless crack in the day.
I still dream about this place. In my memory, the frozen grassy hills Jac saunters through now, like he’s on a hot dry LA tarmac despite the driving ice and rain, wave in the warm summer wind like a girl’s cotton dress. I see our Julys: the flesh-colored path of this drive cutting through the light green hayseed, lavender and yellow and white wildflowers shaped like bells and stars or ladies with bonnets bent over and studying their own roots.
“Is she okay?” Jac asks as he reaches me.
“Who knows,” I say.
He pulls me close, still a head taller though we are both grown men now, claps me on the back with a flat hand. I see only the back of his head and his smooth tanned neck as he ducks into the dark of the house.
Even now I wonder what he’s come for.
Inside, it’s not the plain pine coffin in the other room that weighs heavily. I think of my spinster aunts’ four-poster upstairs, one side empty now, the indentation, the imprint of a life, where Walter lay beside her younger sister every night, since they were girls in thin white nightgowns, in this, their father’s house.
In the parlor, Jac brings Mag a cup of tea in my favorite mug, the brown one with the black cow and the chip on the handle from the morning I dropped it when the sod centipede, as long as my hand, scurried through the front door and over my toes, then ducked under the braided couch.
Last night, when it was just she and I, Mag fell asleep in the ‘tele chair.’ I covered her with the crocheted orange blanket that still smelled like motor oil; her familiar coif so thin now, pressed against the headrest, I could see her white scalp under the teased wisps of dyed black hair. I didn’t ask what I was wondering most, how she will ever sleep in that bed again. I try not to think of the stories I have heard of old people who die of a broken heart as soon as they’re alone.
Jac has taken one of Mag’s hands. He is stroking it. He doesn’t say anything.
With Mag, Jac doesn’t need to. She closes her eyes. Outside, over the two hills that lead down to Inis Mor’s rocky shore line, I can see the sea. I think of my first trip here, my first surprise that one ten hour plane flight could pull me from our neighborhood of dimly lit corner markets and cement sidewalks, graffiti and trashcans, and drop me, so unsuspecting, at Cullen Farm. My father’s Irish aunts’ moss-covered cottage and crumbling stone barn, the rolling hills with wild rabbits’ nests to raid, the half-wild ponies to catch, holding on for dear life when we got lucky and managed to pull ourselves onto their short backs, as they galloped and kicked and tried to buck us off onto their spongy pastures. Covered in grass and peat, stinking of mud and manure, after those first days turned loose, we’d stumble into the small cold kitchen, to find lunch laid out for us on the narrow butcher-block, warm tuna on rye, cabbage slaw, baked apples and cinnamon, a meal fit for kings.
“Looka tha boys eat,” Walter crooned in her heavy broque, patting the back of my head like I was more puppy than boy. Though it was twinkly-eyed Jac, named after Walter and Mag’s only brother who died before his first haircut, who was Jac’s spitting image, both with light hair and light eyes. The little boy the sisters had lost their hearts to.
“How’s your Uncle Bernie?” Mag asks. It’s their way, my mother says. Bernie is my mother’s brother in San Francisco, but in Ireland, family is family.
“Still working construction,” Jac answers.
“Still down the street?”
“He lives on my corner, Mag, in the Sunset.” I tell her. “Uncle Bernie, Uncle Connor, all the cousins, all still electricians and plumbers. All still in the Sunset. But Jac moved, remember?”
“You know I live in Southern California, right Mag?”
One summer, when Jac was fourteen, he said he was going to install inside plumbing. He was tired of trudging across the yard to the outhouse in the middle of the night; tired of listening for every rustle in the brush for some animal he couldn’t see. Mag and Walter bought him a toolbox. He said he needed copper pipes. It took him half a day to open a hole in the floor and then he put the tools out in the barn where they sat for the rest of that summer. Mag and Walter never mentioned the hole. The next summer their old wooden dresser from upstairs had been pulled over the top of it.
Jac leaves Mag, sleeping now on the couch. Across the dark hardwood floor the coffin sits open, under the lace-curtained window. I have been here two days and I haven’t gone near it. Jac walks over. I stop at the doorway.
“She looks peaceful, at least,” he says. The coffin is at his hip. He stands, looking down at Walter for a few more moments, then joins me in the doorway.
“Why did we call her Walter?”
“Walter McBurn? Comic Hour? Mag said she was just like him.”
“Oh. Yeah,” Jac says as if he remembers.
“Do you remember our summers here?”
“What do you remember most?”
“The boredom.” He laughs. “No. Kidding. We were friggin’ lucky, right?”
“You know it will be yours. When Mag dies.”
“Sure. I know.”
“What are you going to do with it?”
“Sell it. We’ll split it. I’m not that big of a jerk.”
“What if I don’t want to sell it?”
“What do you want to do with it?”
Jac looks at me. He laughs again. “That’s why you’re poor.”
“Who says I’m poor?”
“You don’t have any common sense, bro.”
“This isn’t about common sense.”
“What’s it about?”
“These are our roots.”
Jac snorts. “Roots? I love Mag and Walter, but we were born in California, Sean, and I need the cash.”
I remember the bad summer. The summer our father died. Mag and Walter came into our room to tell us. He had moved back to Ireland after the divorce and we were going to see him that day. Jac had polished his shoes the night before, as if shiny shoes would keep our father around.
“He wears undershirts with holes in public, I don’t think he’ll notice your shoes,” I said.
He had given me a poem before the divorce. Our Father the Perpetually Inebriated, who couldn’t hold down a job, who grunted when you talked to him, had handed me a poem he had written himself.
“What’s it about?” Jac asked when he saw the folded up piece of notebook paper written in No. 2 pencil.
“I don’t really know. A sunset.”
Jac didn’t get a poem. So he shined his shoes instead.
It was our great-grandmother, Mag and Walter’s mother, who planted the plum tree on Mag and Walter’s baby brother’s grave. My Little Plum, she had called the little boy, his round rosy cheeks good enough to eat. As long as the tree was thriving, as it always was, its bows hanging low every summer with a bounty so ripe, meat so sweet and red, every plum split its skin, Mag and Walter could feel that their brother was still with them.
I was the one to see Jac cut it down. Two weeks after our father died. By the light of the full moon, he stood facing the trunk and swung Walter and Mag’s new red ax over his head, swung and swung, chipping first a triangle of a hole, then splintering open the trunk until the barrel broke in two, its gnarled and toughened bark peeled back to reveal new white flesh splayed and naked-looking in the moonlight. He stood staring at it for a minute or two. Then he slowly backed away.
Mag found the ax the next morning, leaning up against the old barn.
“Boys grow up vandals on this island,” Mag said. She and Walter were holding hands on the couch.
Jac didn’t answer. I wanted to take the blame. I wanted to give them someone to be angry at because anger feels better than grief. But we all knew I wouldn’t have been strong enough to do the damage that was done to that tree.
The next summer, the summer Jac turned sixteen, he said he wasn’t going back to Ireland. He got a job bagging groceries.
“You know what kind of money electricians make?” our mother said.
Jac walked to the market and back, eight blocks, every day. On Friday nights he smoked cigarettes with his friends outside the liquor store.
For two more summers I traveled by myself to Cullen Farm. Mag and Walter made cabbage stew and folded my shorts. I kicked rocks around the pasture, sat backwards on the ponies’ backs while they grazed, chased the cat under the couch.
But without Jac the shadows waiting in the corners seemed to rise up and press down on the three of us.
The summer Jac moved to LA, I stayed in the Sunset to help Uncle Connor. My mother wrote to Mag and Walter to say that she had two working boys now. The letter back said to tell us they were proud.
We saw Jac in a Selsin Blue commercial that first year. Wrigley’s gum and Mountain Dew the next.
“How many afternoons you spend at the pub with the cousins after work?” Jac asked, home for a Thanksgiving. I was going to electrical school.
“Who wants to know?”
“Look at you. White undershirt. Gut. Already you look like Uncle Connor.”
“Uncle Bernie makes me laugh. Connor tells stories about Dad.”
Jac waves his hand. “Beers and stories. Is that what you want, Sean? Every day the same as the one before. Then you die.”
“Do people live forever where you are, Jac?”
He laughs. “As a matter of fact.”
The second time Jac came home, his hair looked thinner. He handed me a business card for some kind of hardware store he was part owner of in Hollywood.
“We’re across from the famous Chinese theater, by the Star’s Walk of Fame?”
In the corner of the card, I read ‘adult toys.’
“It’s Hollywood, man,” he said when he saw me touch the words with my thumb. “You gotta attract customers.”
The last time Jac visited, he came for the wedding. He gave Shirley a kiss on her cheek, twinkling his eyes at her. “A neighborhood girl, eh? So you were under our noses all this time.”
“He’s so sweet, your brother,” Shirley said. “Tell him not to be a stranger.”
We’ve been married three years now, and every Christmas our mother asks, “When will we see Jac, do you think?”
“He’s just busy, Ma, you know how Jac is.” I say.
On the third night of the wake, after Mag and Walter’s neighbors drop off the last round of pies and casseroles, we build a roaring fire in the hearth.
“Well, are you going to pay your respects or not?” Mag asks me. I look at her.
Jac cut down the plum tree. For sure. I saw him. It was all I would have to say to prove that I deserved Cullen Farm. Because I had always loved it, loved them, more than Jac ever could. I stand up, walk over to Walter’s coffin. I take a breath and peek over the edge.
The small mortuary at the end of town had done a good job. Jac was right, Walter did look peaceful. Her man-sized hands as she always called them were clasped across her stomach; she was wearing her favorite blue dress. Her cheeks were flushed as if she had just had a good laugh and now her lips had fallen into a relaxed, accepting smile. I think of all the lunches she and Mag had laid out for us over the years. The baths drawn, the socks mended. The summers they had welcomed us, without question or complaint, into their home.
“I’m not ready for this to end,” I say quietly.
I lied when I told Jac I didn’t know what our father’s poem was about. It was about him pissing himself, about falling asleep, on more nights than he could count, hugging the toilet, sprawled on the filthy tile. It was about loving our mother still, even now, what it felt like to see himself through her eyes.
It was about despair.
Leaving the fire, Mag and Jac walk up beside me. Mag takes my hand. We all stand like that, looking down at Walter. Tomorrow her body would be laid into the cold Ireland soil, never to return to this house. Tomorrow Mag would be alone. I try to take it in, the four of us still together like we used to be.
CHRISTINE O'BRIEN is the daughter of movie producer and creator of the iconic Wide World of Sports, Edgar J. Scherick. She grew up in the legendary Dakota Building in New York City in the 1970’s. She holds a double MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction from Saint Mary’s College in Moraga, California, where she currently teaches English Composition. Her essay “Fish” appeared in The Seneca Review, Spring 2013. She currently lives in Walnut Creek California with her husband Tim, and two children, Emily and Luke.