Let the Great World Spin: A Novel
By Colum McCann
Paperback, 400 pages
Random House Trade Paperbacks
List price: $15
One of the many things my brother, Corrigan, and I loved about our mother was that she was a fine musician. She kept a small radio on top of the Steinway in the living room of our house in Dublin and on Sunday afternoons, after scanning whatever stations we could find, Radio Éireann or BBC, she raised the lacquered wing of the piano, spread her dress out at the wooden stool, and tried to copy the piece through from memory: jazz riffs and Irish ballads and, if we found the right station, old Hoagy Carmichael tunes. Our mother played with a natural touch, even though she suffered from a hand which she had broken many times. We never knew the origin of the break: it was something left in silence. When she finished playing she would lightly rub the back of her wrist. I used to think of the notes still trilling through the bones, as if they could skip from one to the other, over the breakage. I can still after all these years sit in the museum of those afternoons and recall the light spilling across the carpet. At times our mother put her arms around us both, and then guided our hands so we could clang down hard on the keys.
It is not fashionable anymore, I suppose, to have a regard for one’s mother in the way my brother and I had then, in the mid- 1950s, when the noise outside the window was mostly wind and sea chime. One looks for the chink in the armor, the leg of the piano stool shorter than the other, the sadness that would detach us from her, but the truth is we enjoyed each other, all three of us, and never so evidently as those Sundays when the rain fell gray over Dublin Bay and the squalls blew fresh against the windowpane.
Our house in Sandymount looked out to the bay. We had a short driveway full of weeds, a square of lawn, a black ironwork fence. If we crossed the road we could stand on the curved seawall and look a good distance across the bay. A bunch of palm trees grew at the end of the road. They stood, smaller and more stunted than palms elsewhere, but exotic nonetheless, as if invited to come watch the Dublin rain. Corrigan sat on the wall, banging his heels and looking over the flat strand to the water. I should have known even then that the sea was written in him, that there would be some sort of leaving. The tide crept in and the water swelled at his feet. In the evenings he walked up the road past the Martello Tower to the abandoned public baths, where he balanced on top of the seawall, arms held wide.
On weekend mornings we strolled with our mother, ankle- deep in the low tide, and looked back to see the row of houses, the tower, and the little scarves of smoke coming up from the chimneys. Two enormous red and white power station chimneys broke the horizon to the east, but the rest was a gentle curve, with gulls on the air, the mail boats out of Dun Laoghaire, the scud of clouds on the horizon. When the tide was out, the stretch of sand was corrugated and sometimes it was possible to walk a quarter- mile among isolated waterpools and bits of old refuse, long shaver shells, bedstead pipes.
Dublin Bay was a slow heaving thing, like the city it horseshoed, but it could turn without warning. Every now and then the water smashed up against the wall in a storm. The sea, having arrived, stayed. Salt crusted the windows of our house. The knocker on the door was rusted red. When the weather blew foul, we sat on the stairs, Corrigan and I. Our father, a physicist, had left us years before. A check, postmarked in London, arrived through the letter box once a week. Never a note, just a check, drawn on a bank in Oxford. It spun in the air as it fell. We ran to bring it to our mother. She slipped the envelope under a flowerpot on the kitchen windowsill and the next day it was gone. Nothing more was ever said.
The only other sign of our father was a wardrobe full of his old suits and trousers in our mother’s bedroom. Corrigan drew the door open. In the darkness we sat with our backs against the rough wooden panels and slipped our feet in our father’s shoes, let his sleeves touch our ears, felt the cold of his cuff buttons. Our mother found us one afternoon, dressed in his gray suits, the sleeves rolled up and the trousers held in place with elastic bands. We were marching around in his oversize brogues when she came and froze in the doorway, the room so quiet we could hear the radiator tick.
"Well,” she said, as she knelt to the ground in front of us. Her face spread out in a grin that seemed to pain her. "Come here.” She kissed us both on the cheek, tapped our bottoms. "Now run along.” We slipped out of our father’s old clothes, left them puddled on the floor. Later that night we heard the clang of the coat hangers as she hung and rehung the suits.
Over the years there were the usual tantrums and bloody noses and broken rocking- horse heads, and our mother had to deal with the whispers of the neighbors, sometimes even the attentions of local widowers, but for the most part things stretched comfortably in front of us: calm, open, a sweep of sandy gray.
Corrigan and I shared a bedroom that looked out to the water. Quietly it happened, I still don’t recall how: he, the younger one by two years, took control of the top bunk. He slept on his stomach with a view out the window to the dark, reciting his prayers -- he called them his slumber verses -- in quick, sharp rhythms. They were his own incantations, mostly indecipherable to me, with odd little cackles of laughter and long sighs. The closer he got to sleep the more rhythmic the prayers got, a sort of jazz, though sometimes in the middle of it all I could hear him curse, and they’d be lifted away from the sacred. I knew the Catholic hit parade -- the Our Father, the Hail Mary -- but that was all. I was a raw, quiet child, and God was already a bore to me. I kicked the bottom of Corrigan’s bed and he fell silent awhile, but then started up again. Sometimes I woke in the morning and he was alongside me, arm draped over my shoulder, his chest rising and falling as he whispered his prayers. I’d turn to him. "Ah, Jesus, Corr, shut up.”
My brother was light- skinned, dark- haired, blue- eyed. He was the type of child everyone smiled at. He could look at you and draw you out. People fell for him. On the street, women ruffled his hair. Workingmen punched him gently on the shoulder. He had no idea that his presence sustained people, made them happy, drew out their improbable yearnings -- he just plowed along, oblivious.
I woke one night, when I was eleven, to a cold blast of air moving over me. I stumbled to the window but it was closed. I reached for the light and the room burned quickly yellow. A shape was bent over in the middle of the room.
The weather still rolled off his body. His cheeks were red. A little damp mist lay on his hair. He smelled of cigarettes. He put a finger to his lips for hush and climbed back up the wooden ladder. "Go to sleep,” he whispered from above. The smell of tobacco still lingered in the air.
In the morning he jumped down from the bed, wearing his heavy anorak over his pajamas. Shivering, he opened the window and tapped the sand from his shoes off the sill, into the garden below. "Where’d you go?”
"Just along by the water,” he said.
"Were you smoking?”
He looked away, rubbed his arms warm. "No.”
"You’re not supposed to smoke, y’know.”
"I didn’t smoke,” he said.
Later that morning our mother walked us to school, our leather satchels slung over our shoulders. An icy breeze cut along the streets. Down by the school gates she went to one knee, put her arms around us, adjusted our scarves, and kissed us, one after the other. When she stood to leave, her gaze was caught by something on the other side of the road, by the railings of the church: a dark form wrapped in a large red blanket. The man raised a hand in salute. Corrigan waved back. There were plenty of old drunks around Ringsend, but my mother seemed taken by the sight, and for a moment it struck me that there might be some secret there.
"Who’s that, Mum?” I asked.
"Run along,” she said. "We’ll sort it out after school.”
My brother walked beside me, silent.
"Who is it, Corrie?” I thumped him. "Who is it?”
He disappeared towards his classroom.
All day I sat at my wooden desk, gnawing my pencil, wondering -- visions of a forgotten uncle, or our father somehow returned, broken. Nothing, in those days, was beyond the realm of the possible. The clock was at the rear of the room but there was an old freckled mirror over the classroom sink and, at the right angle, I could watch the hands go backwards. When the bell struck I was out the gate, but Corrigan took the long road back, short, mincing steps through the housing estates, past the palm trees, along the seawall.
There was a soft brown paper package waiting for Corrigan on the top bunk. I shoved it at him. He shrugged and ran his finger along the twine, pulled it tentatively. Inside was another blanket, a soft blue Foxford. He unfolded it, let it fall lengthwise, looked up at our mother, and nodded. She touched his face with the back of her fingers and said: "Never again, understand?”
Nothing else was mentioned, until two years later he gave that blanket away too, to another homeless drunk, on another freezing night, up by the canal on one of his late- night walks, when he tiptoed down the stairs and went out into the dark. It was a simple equation to him -- others needed the blankets more than he, and he was prepared to take the punishment if it came his way. It was my earliest suggestion of what my brother would become, and what I’d later see among the cast- offs of New York -- the whores, the hustlers, the hopeless -- all of those who were hanging on to him like he was some bright hallelujah in the shitbox of what the world really was.
Excerpted from Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann Copyright 2009 by Colum McCann. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc.