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AFTER A certain number of books, even folly-driven mass horror becomes boring. All right, I had to read them for my wife's current case, a search for a nice young man from our neighborhood who had disappeared in the Middle East, maybe in Iraq. There was, I thought, not a chance in the world of Nuala solving this one without one or the other of us flying to Kuwait or Dubai or some such place. That we would not do. Since she would have to stay home to take care of the kids, I would have to fly to Kuwait and she wouldn't let me do that.
I pushed aside the stack of books about the world from 1914 to 1945 and began a dialogue with my six-month-old son Poraig Josefa (Patrick Joseph) Coyne aka "Patjo."
"We have a lot in common, young man," I informed him. "We are both large, good-looking, gentle blonds who are also lazy, mostly undependable sensualists. One might even use the adjective 'useless.' We make our way through life not by hard work but because we have a happy smile, an appealing laugh, and lots of barely resistible Irish charm. We both have breast fixations, indeed about the same pair of lovely breasts, if for somewhat different but related reasons."
He smiled enthusiastically.
"You must never tell your mother I told you these truths, because she becomes furious when people assert them aboutme and she'll go ballistic if she should learn that I'm saying that about you."
"Herself, mind you, is a brilliant woman altogether, to use the Irish superlative and, if you don't mind my using male talk, a wonderful lay. She has a friggin' ton of talents and she feels obligated to be perfect at all of themsinger, accountant, actress, detective, wife, mother, lover. She's the alpha person in this house and the sooner you learn it the better off we'll all be. You four young 'uns, the two wolfhounds, the nanny, and the housekeeper work for her. As does your poor father. The only reason you're here is that she had to prove she could have a normal, easy pregnancy. The red-haired woman in the house, your big sister Nelliecoyne, required a lot of effort to bring into the world, your big brother Micky plunged her into a terrible fit of PPD as they call it these days. Then the little imp who presides over you like she's your mother showed up awfully early and barely made it. Your mom thinks these events were somehow or the other her fault. Well, she knows better, but deep down in her bronze-age Irish soul, she's still convinced she did something wrong. We conceived you in a memorable night of orgy so that she'd finally get it right and we'd also have a neatly balanced family, two boys and two girls, which appeals to her accountant's love of order. I shouldn't mention it to you but I will. She knew your gender and that it would be an untroubled pregnancy at least a month before your conception. I don't know how she does that and I don't want to know."
He frowned. Hungry again. I offered him one of the bottles of milk that I had stockpiled for him. As his mother would have said, he destroyed it altogether and discarded the bottle like a fifteen-year-old male would discard a beer can. He then closed his eyes like he was thinking seriously about sleep.
I glanced out the window and considered Sheffield Avenue, which on this mild, wet, and dark April morning looked like a set for a horror film. Everythingtrees, lawns, homes, the church and schoolwas dank and barren, foghovered just above the church steeple, it seemed, and drizzle was touching the ground with its faint hint of corruption. I imagined I could even smell corruption, the corruption of an old graveyard.
"Don't misunderstand me, young man, your mother is an astonishing woman. My lust for her varies from intense most of the time, to mild and that only after she's exhausted me in bed. If your man Freud is right, you feel the same way about her. Well, she's mine, do you hear!"
In fact, he didn't hear because he was sleeping soundly.
"With any luck, your mother and Socra Marie will return soon from her weekly voice lesson with Madame down at the Fine Arts Building. The little terrorist needs an afternoon nap to replenish her energies. The two of you would thus be asleep and your mother and I would have the house to ourselves until the older kids return from St. Josephat's school across Sheffield Avenue. I could take advantage of that situation to fuck her right and proper as they say in her native land ... and as she herself has said on occasion."
These salacious words did not upset the woman's son in the slightest. So I began to sing the Connemara lullaby,
On the wings of the wind, o'er the dark, rolling deep Angels are coming to watch o'er your sleep Angels are coming to watch over you So list to the wind coming over the sea
Hear the wind blow, hear the wind blow Lean your head over, hear the wind blow.
I shouldn't have been singing it. The lullaby was my wife's. Indeed it had been the lead song on her platinum disk Hear the Wind Blow: Nuala Anne Sings Lullabies. Nevertheless, even in my whiskey tenor voice (not created by drinking whiskey, which I rarely do and only when me spouse wants the two of us to have a splasheen before we progress to other matters), it puts Patjo to sleep for a long time.
"Och, don't I have a rival in me own house!" said a voicewhich always reminds me of church bells ringing across the bogs.
'Twas herself in a tightly fitting blue summer suit, her pale face and deep blue eyes in a leprechaun mood. I tend to gasp and blink every time I see her, a mix of desire and adoration which has been with me ever since I first saw her in O'Neill's pub just off College Green in Dublin.
"Ma, doesn't Da sing real good?" our sleepy-eyed toddler asked.
"Da does lots of things real good," her mother responded. "I'll put this one down in the nursery, Dermot love," she said. "Why don't you put himself in the bedroom, where our conversation won't wake him up?"
"Conversation be damned, woman! I have other plans!"
"Do you now?" My wife, always a modest woman, blushed.
Fiona, our elder wolfhound, rose up from her own afternoon nap and padded down to the nursery while Maeve ambled into the master bedroom where Patjo still ruled. I never understood how the two dogs divided their child protection responsibilities.
In a very few minutes Nuala Anne returned to my office, several buttons on the front of her suit open and a robe draped over her arm. Very gently I claimed her in my arms. She leaned against me and sighed loudly, "Well, if you want to fuck me, I suppose, I have to let you do it."
Nuala is very careful with her language under most circumstances, having learned, much to her dismay, that "your Yanks are not relaxed about words, are they now?" She is also careful about such matters when there are little ears around. However, privately she reverts to the West of Ireland traditions when we're alone.
"Sure, Dermot Michael," she added, "isn't it yourself that owns me altogether? You look at me that way and don't I want to take off all me clothes?"
That's not the way it really works. Most of the undressing is left to me. I had learned early in our marriage that there was no upper limit to the amount of foreplay my wife could absorb.
"We'll talk about the war afterwards, won't we, Dermot love?" She sighed as my lips sank to her breasts to taste a bit of her milk.
"Woman, we will, but only after I've reestablished my reputation as a Viking ravager of Irish matrons."
"If you were really one of them dumb Vikings, I'd already have me knife in your heart ... Och, Dermot leave some for poor Patjo ..."
I will not describe what me wife looks like with all her clothes off, save to say that she is lithe rather than voluptuous and that she looks like a naked Irish goddess, not one of your buxom Greco-Roman though, mind you, I've never slept with a naked Irish goddess, nor even set eyes on one. My Nuala was not one of your hefty, slow-moving classical goddesses like Juno. Rather she was a slender, quick-flowing powerful goddess like the River Shannon. She was also determined that four pregnancies would not change her figure, a goal which both genes and rigorous exercise sustained.
Nor will I give you any of the details of our little afternoon romp, except that we were improving through the years at the signs and the signals, the constantly changing art of the rhythms and the negotiations and the strategies a husband and a wife, if they're sensitive to one another, slowly acquire.
"You're getting better at ravishing the matron." She sighed, a great West of Ireland sigh, like the advent of a major asthma attack, when I had finished with her. Or she with me.
"'Tis yourself," I said, struggling to regain my breath, "that leads me down the path to terrible sin."
"Just like I thought when I first saw you at O'Neill's, that's the kind of man I want to undress me and fuck me for the rest of me life. I'm old enough now to know better, but I haven't changed me mind."
Nostalgia as postcoital reinforcement. The subject would soon change to my readings. Och, didn't you have to pay a price for everything?
Yet she gave me five more minutes of gentle caresses beforeit was time to get down to business. Then she bounded off the couch on which I had taken her and threw on her pale green robe. She folded her suit and her lingerie in a neat little pile on my desk.
"They'll be after coming back in forty-five minutes," she said, nodding in the direction of the parish school across the street. "I'd like to continue this for the rest of the day, but ..."
"But," I said, getting off the couch but not exactly bounding, "we can continue these amusements tonight."
She blushed again.
"Ever since I brought that clone of yours into the world, I've been a pushover for you, Dermot Michael Coyne."
"'Tis the other way around, woman."
"Tell me what you learned this afternoon." She turned into her schoolmarm persona.
Me wife has a couple of dozen different personae, from one to the other of which she moves with the speed of lightthis time from the sexual playmate to the serious scholar. I couldn't move that fast, even among my far more limited repertory of masks. So I had to look away from her green robe and disarrayed hair and concentrate on me ... my notes.
"It was only one war," I began. "It started in 1914 and ended in 1945, with a twenty-year intermission. Germany against England and Franceand Russia. Germany started it and then restarted it. The Austrians used the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and his wife as an excuse to slap Serbia down. The Germans thought it provided an excellent excuse to try out their plan for mobilization of their armed forces, a plan which predicted that on M Day plus thirty they would be in Paris. Such was their contempt for the military ability of the French that they saw no reason to take them into account. Get your troops on the trains, send them to the front, push across Belgium, and that was that. They had beaten up the French forty-four years before and figured that there was no reason why they couldn't do it again. Both they and the Austrians were convinced that the war would be over in two months, regardless of what the Russians did. To put frostingon their cake, an outnumbered German army in East Prussia wiped out the Russian forces."
"It wasn't a short war, was it?"
"Not at all. They almost made it to Paris but were stopped by the French at the Marne River on M+30. The Germans pulled back, both sides dug trenches and the war settled into bloody attrition for the next three and a half years. In January of 1915, the German chief of staff, one Erich von Falkenhayn, went to the Chancellor, a certain Bethmann-Hollweg, and told him that the war had settled into a stalemate and that Germany should seek some kind of peace deal to prevent the slaughter of its young men. At that point, Nuala Anne, you see what had happened. They hadn't won their quick victory, the military knew it, and wanted to end the slaughter. The Chancellor said that such a deal would embarrass the Kaiser and the war must go on. Thus sealing a death warrant on a whole generation of French, German, and English soldiers."
"Wars being easier to start than to end?"
"That's the overriding lesson of this Thirty-One-Years war. To the point of our investigation, there were many attempts to end it, but finally the one that worked was the destruction of Germany in the spring of 1945."
"But these other attempts might have worked?"
"Most made excellent sense, but no one had the intelligence or the courage to combat the war fever and the patriotism and the desire for vengeance."
"Dermot Michael Coyne," she interrupted me, "stop leering at me like an eejit and get on with the work."
"Sure, woman, I'm doing the best I can, but it isn't that easy with someone like you in me classroom."
She blushed, covered her face with her hands and doubled over.
"Isn't that a grand compliment altogether and meself an onchuck for not being flattered."
She drew her green robe more closely together and held it at the collar, a frivolous precaution against my admiring eyes.
"By 1918," I went on with some effort, "none of the three armies were capable of going on with the war. There were notenough young men to throw into one more big battle. Then the situation changed when Woodrow Wilson found an excuse to involve the United States in a war that at that point was none of our business. That meant millions of more young men to feed into the machine guns and the poison gas and the artillery shells. The Germans tried one more massive offensive, reached the Marne again, and were turned back again. They retreated and the retreat was almost a rout The German people were rioting. The General Staff insisted on an armistice. The Kaiser abdicated, and the shooting stopped. Though the English and the French would never admit it, the United States had saved them, not for the last time."
"How many million dead?"
"And the Kaiser was embarrassed anyway!"
"The German, Austrian, and Russian Empires were destroyed and the British Empire fatally weakened. The Communists took over Russia. And nothing had been settled, at all, at all. Except the establishment of an Irish Free State and some artificial nations like Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia and the reestablishment of some old countries like Poland and Lithuania."
"And didn't the Irish set about killing one another and then half a dozen years later, didn't de Valera settle for what he could have had without the Civil War? Och, aren't we humans terribly daft?"
"The French and to some extent the English wanted revenge. At Versailles, they imposed a harsh treaty on the Germans and Mr. Wilson, not in good health by then, was unable to stop them. He hoped that the League of Nations would prevent more war, as naïve a notion as you could imagine. The United States gained absolutely nothing from the war. The Germans sulked and their anger increased as their economy collapsed. A decade later Hitler came to power and Stalin was in control of Russia. The two most powerful countries in Europe were now led by madmen, brilliant madmen perhaps, but still off-the-wall insane."
"All because the Germans had wanted to test their mobilization plan?"
"All because they wanted to demonstrate how brilliant was their military planning. Does that sound like another nation today?"
Nuala rose from her chair, leaned over me without any regard for the parting of her robe, and kissed me fervently.
"And all those poor kids who were killed had wives and maybe kids of their own. I don't want you in any eejit war like, do you hear me now, Dermot Michael Coyne?"
"Woman, I do."
Large paws scratched at both doors.
"'Tis themselves. Sure, I'd better be collecting the kids."
I looked out the window. No sign of kids piling out of St. Josephat's. But the doggies knew it was time to cross the street and collect them. Me wife dressed quickly, a ritual that I enjoyed as much as watching her undress. She opened the door to our bedroom, placed the green robe on a chair, and emerged with Maeve in tow.
"Would you see to himself, Dermot love?"
I watched the ritual as Nuala with the two huge white dogs on leashes, walking docilely at her sides, crossed Sheffield and waited for Nelliecoyne and Mickyno raincoat for the Galway woman on a soft day. Her light blue suitthe perfect color for turning heads on Michigan Avenuewas a beam of radiance in the schoolyard. A horde of kids rushed up to play with the hounds. Then, waiting for the approval of the crossing guards, dreadfully serious sixth-grade girls, my entourage crossed the streets. I collected my clone, who would have rather continued his nap but who laughed happily when he heard his siblings tramp into the house.
"One more thing, young man. I've know her for almost twelve years and slept with her for almost ten years and I haven't begun to figure her out. Maybe I should turn our conversation into a poem and send it to Poetry."
Copyright © 2007 by Andrew M. Greeley Enterprises, Ltd.