It's not about the house.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Little Souvenir From the Old Home Town

We had been in the AssVac for one year, almost exactly, when Johnny went home to Dublin for a visit and came back with the news that his nephew would be coming over in a month.

“To visit?”

“No. To live.”


“With us?”


Naturally. Huh. I bet, in some houses, both people get to decide these kinds of things.

But no matter. I’d met Damien when I’d gone to Dublin in 1997. I liked Damien. He was a bouncer at a nightclub then – which is saying something, because he’s no bigger than Johnny – and he’d shown me a pair of scars he received when he stopped a guy from stabbing him the face by blocking the knife and letting it go clear through his forearm. Damien was tough, but he was also artistic and sensitive. We have a Celtic Monk on our mantlepiece that he carved and gave to Johnny, and that we’ve displayed in every house we’ve ever lived in. See?

Pretty neat. Huh?

So I liked Damien, and I liked the idea that he’d be coming here and getting away from the rough-and-tumble world that had a tendency to put big scary knives through arms and things. But then again, there are seven surviving siblings in Johnny’s family, plus another one or two who survived long enough to reproduce. It's possible there was another nephew kicking around whom I had not yet met.

“We are talking about Damien, right?” I asked, to clarify.

“Nope,” said Johnny. “We’re talking about John Conroy.”

Huh? Johnny is John Conroy. And he, I might add, already lives here. What is he saying? And since when did we start talking about ourselves in third person?

He must have seen the confusion on my face, because at that point he added: “Martin’s son.”

Oh. Martin’s son.

I’d never heard of this John Conroy before, but I knew Martin. Marty. Also (affectionately) known as “the feckin eejit.” Marty is Johnny next-oldest brother, but for all intents and purposes he’s really the youngest. Johnny’s da died when Johnny was three months old, after which baby Johnny was sent away to be cared for by an aunt and uncle (I used to think he went to the nuns, but recently discovered that I made that detail up). By the time Johnny came home, at 4 years old, Marty, by then nearly 6, was firmly ensconced in his place as the baby and to this day he’s not given it up. As long as Josie (their mother) lived, he was his Mama’s boy, and therefore when they were little he was the one the rest of them beat up (once, memorably, hog-tied and ball-gagged and hung from a hook on the back of the bedroom door). He knocked up a girl when he was nineteen and married her, but after twelve years they got divorced, at which point he moved back into Josie’s house and never left. He lives there still, in fact, though Josie’s gone now and Johnny and I technically own the house, but at the time we’re talking about she was alive and not entirely well, he was providing for her comfort and care.

This nephew John Conroy is not that knocked-up baby. He was the second child of that fated union, and he was – I only recently found out – named for my John.



Sorry. Named after my Johnny.

So anyway, apparently this other John Conroy was coming over to live with us. Apparently he was in some unspecified trouble of his own, and Johnny had determined that the best thing for him was to put an ocean between himself and whatever it was. He would come here, live with us and work illegally for a friend of ours, until he could get his proper paperwork and go legit.


I mean, it’s not like I'd have said no. He is family, after all, and you do these things for family. But it surely would have been nice to have been asked.

I didn’t go to collect him at the airport. I don’t remember why, but I think I was in bed when the two of them came home. I was sleeping then in what is now the guest room, and we’d set him up in this room where I’m typing now. Until a couple weeks before, it had been floor-to-ceiling with un-unpacked moving boxes, but I’d carefully moved them all up to the attic one by one. We gave him a dresser and a desk, but all we had to offer by way of bedding was a blow-up mattress, which had a tendency to blow gently down in an hour or two – faster, if you had the audacity to ask it to support your body weight. So John and Johnny’s first order of business on arrival was to blow up and try to patch The Nephew’s bed.

(That’s what I called him, the whole time he was here: The Nephew. Or just Nephew, for short. I tried the first few days to say “John” and “Johnny,” but they both answered to both, and I found “Nephew” to be easier – and much less formal – than using middle names. He, in turn, called me “Auntie,” which made for big fun when we went out drinking, considering that, at 26, he was only ten years younger than I.)

I got out of bed and put some pants on, rubbed my eyes and splashed my face and stumbled into the newly-appointed guest quarters to meet my new roommate and extant kin.

He was not too much taller than Johnny – none of the Conroys are – but had significantly more meat on his bones. Most of which was covered in tattoos. He also had very short hair, bleached blonde at the tips and dark beneath, and small but sturdy hoops in both his ears.

Holy crap, I thought. We’ve adopted ourselves a freaking Dublin club kid.

The biggest tattoo he had – on his left upper shoulder – was in the shape of Superman's crest. He had, he explained, a fascination with Clark Kent’s alter ego in every incarnation. (Except, I figured out, any incarnation that required him to read.) He bought the DVDs of the trilogy and watched them time and again, insisted on commandeering the television when “Smallville” was on, and doodled the logo on any spare scrap (or book) he found. I’m not quite sure what the attraction was for him -- all he'd ever say was "Ah, it's rapper!" (which was, I gathered, jackeen slang for "good") -- but if there are two things I learned from the Nephew’s sojourn at the AssVac, it’s that Richard Pryor must have needed the money pretty badly, and that “Smallville” is not rapper at all.

He did not move here permanently, in the event. He lasted just a half a year, growing gradually more and more homesick all the while. He worked some – he was a mason; he put the tile down for us on the en suite bathroom floor -- but, being a 26-year-old club kid at heart, he didn’t like living so far out from the heart of the city as we are. He didn’t like the bar culture in America, as opposed to the pub culture he was used to from back home. And he didn’t like not getting to see his own niece and nephew on a regular basis as they were learning to walk and talk and crawl.

As he got more homesick, he got more irresponsible. His bedroom stank with dirty laundry and positively fetid shoes. He would fall drunk into the ocean, stumble home wet, and leave his briny outfit in the clothes hamper for weeks on end. I bought him that clothes hamper, because the dirty pile was threatening to take over his room, and I thought a full hamper might give him the impetus to do some laundry. I was wrong. I bought him his own towels, because I couldn’t stand the thought of my ones sharing space with that crawling pile.

He started picking fights with strangers. First in a good-samaritan kind of way – defending the weak and standing up for those he imagined to be oppressed – but eventually he ran out of genuine victims and just started mouthing off in bars. Finally, one night, a couple guys he’d mouthed off to decided to drive home and get themselves a 2x4. They drove back while he was walking home and played a game of mailbox-baseball with his head.

He woke me up when he got home that night – bloody, scraped and swollen – and told me in a slurred voice he was scared. I was not a little bit frightened by the sight of him myself, and I’m not sure if it makes me a bad person to admit I raised my voice. I told him to get the hell out of my bedroom, and waited till he was well out of the doorway before I had the nerve to pass through it myself to go for Johnny.

Johnny scolded me later. He said I could have been a bit more sympathetic to a boy who really, at that moment, just wanted his mum. I know on some level he’s right, but the fact is I am not a mother – let alone his mother – and I simply don’t have those switched-on instincts in me. And when I explained to Johnny what it was like to wake from a sound sleep to the light switched on overhead and a moaning, bleeding, tattooed Nephew standing over me while I lay – naked, half-awake, confused – in my own bed, he understood.

That was the straw – or 2x4, if you will – that broke the camel’s back, along with the Nephew’s head and spirit. Two days later, I got home from work to the sullen announcement that he was going home. He had a reservation, in fact, in a couple hours. I expressed all the proper sorry sentiment and dutifully tried to change his mind, but I can’t honestly say I was unhappy when I failed. I drove him to the airport and I bought him a beer and I gave him a big hug and I said good-bye.

It took me a couple days to get up the nerve to clean his bedroom. I put on rubber gloves and threw away everything of his that I found – not out of spite, but just because there was no cleansing out the stench. There wasn’t much: shoes, DVDs, a random t-shirt or two. I opened the window and sprayed Lysol around, and when I took the TV off the desk, look what I found:

It's lighter now than it was when I found it, because I tried to take it off with rubbing alcohol. I was really mad at first, but it’s not like it defaces a good desk -- it’s just an old, unfinished, barely dorm-room quality hand-me-down. More, I guess, I was appalled at the idea that a presumably grown man would have to be told not to draw pictures on the furniture. I was embarrassed for him that what he chose to draw was a comic book superhero. And I was saddened to see he wrote his home address in the space where Superman's rock-like head’s supposed to be.

The trouble Nephew was running from back home, I later found, was a burgeoning cocaine addiction. I would never have allowed him to come here if I'd known -- which I presume is why nobody told me -- but it appears the AssVac rehab worked. He did not do drugs the whole time he was here, and hasn’t touched them in the three years he’s been home. He did knock up a colleen of his own, though, almost as soon as he touched Irish soil, so Johnny and I are Great-Auntie and -Uncle now (though I supposed we were, already, to Marty's other grandkids and probably to a couple more). He didn’t marry the girl. Times have changed since his da was in the same situation, and there wasn't anyone (including us) who'd hold the shotgun now. But the next year, at least, he was nice enough to knock her up again.

So the Superman logo on my hand-me-down desk does not upset me anymore. Someday I might paint it over, but in the meantime, when I look at it, all I think about is how lucky – and how smart, and strong-willed, and stubborn – my own John Conroy was, to have gotten himself out of the Dublin scene he was born into while he still had the chance.

And to have had the good and common sense to wear a jimmy hat every single time he got his leg over.

Even when, by doing so, he broke the law.


pork luck said...

Yes, you can call me PorkPie. Michelle has decided to call me PorkPie as well. Thanks for that.

I loved this story! I love all stories having to do with Johnny and his roots. And now i know why you have a superman logo on your desk. Although, i wont give up the theory that you are actually clark kent.

beardonaut said...

I'm instantly adopting "That was the 2x4 that broke the camel's back" as my new favorite proverb. Is that the right word? Proverb?

EGE said...

PorkPie! Yay, PorkPie! Glad you liked it. I've got a million of 'em. (But ixnay on the Arkclay Entkay. Shhhh...)

Beardo -- Close, but not quite. Proverbs tend to contain nuggets of folk wisdom ("he who laughs last, laughs best," "no sense crying over spilt milk," "you can't make a silk purse from a sow's ear") and they often rhyme ("a stitch in time saves nine," "an apple a day keeps the doctor away," "well begun is half done"). The truth they contain isn't always actually, technically, true ("a rolling stone gathers no moss" -- seriously, have you seen those moldy old fuckers lately?), and sometimes they contradict each other ("absence makes the heart grow fonder," "out of sight, out of mind").

"The straw (or 2x4) that broke the camel's back" is actually an idiom -- which is an expression (almost always unique to the language) that has an understood meaning different than the literal one. I think it's safe to say all proverbs are idioms but not all idioms are proverbs. "Buy a pig in a poke," for example. "Can't see the forest for the trees," "weep crocodile tears," "raining cats and dogs," "wet behind the ears," etc. There's no wisdom in them, they're just fun shorthand.

Sorry, but you happen to have stepped in a big steaming pile of one of my favorite quirks of language, and I could really go on and on about this for hours. I promise I won't, though, if you'll share some Swedish proverbs and idioms with me (In addition to being geekily fascinated with English ones, I also , I guess you could say, like to "collect" them from other languages).

Got any?

beardonaut said...

Wow. Thanks. Well explained.

Some typical Swedish ones then, both in Swedish and translated. Some of the translations suck, though, and I'm not sure if they exist in English already.

"Små grytor har också öron."
"Small kettles also have ears."
As in, don't speak about secrets in front of children, they can also listen and remember.

"Man ska inte ropa hej innan man är över bäcken."
"You shouldn't call out hey before you're over the creek."
As in don't celebrate before you've actually reached your goal.

"Man ska inte köpa grisen i säcken."
"You shouldn't buy the pig in the sack."
As in don't buy something unless you've seen what it is you're actually buying.

The Swedish version of "Speak of the Devil and he appears" goes:
"Speak of the trolls, and they appear in the hallway."
"Tala om trollen och så står de i farstun."

Chris said...

I am currently living this one!!

"Små grytor har också öron."
"Small kettles also have ears."
As in, don't speak about secrets in front of children, they can also listen and remember.

Football buddy has an amazing ability to parrot anything and everything that I say. Needless to say I get LOTS of dirty looks from Football buddies mom...

EGE said...

Thanks, Beardo!

You may know this already, but we say "Little pitchers have big ears" -- means the same thing.

And our "pig in a poke" means the same thing as your "pig in a sack" -- "poke" is an old (and in some places, still regionally used) word for sack.

And we say "don't count your chickens before they hatch" -- but I think I'm going to start saying "don't say hey till you're over the creek." Mostly because nobody will know what the hell I'm talking about, and it will make me sound clever and original.

I need all the help that I can get.