Anthony Lott

His laugh that time, like a sigh coming out of a graveyard. He’d earned it somewhere far away from anything I knew. If I hadn’t heard it, I wouldn’t be telling the story.

I saw him first on a cold February day in 1988. He wasn’t Ryan then, nor Dempsey. He had names he put on and took off like coats according to the season. He was something else at the time, maybe the name he was born with, though what that was I didn’t know. I was with him for an hour and a half and he never said a word.

I was in a farmhouse in the Monaghan hills waiting with a few others around a table to leave for the funeral of Generous McCabe, a man renowned in the district for his wildness and his wealth and who was at the time of his death as old as the century we were in. I was seventeen and still at school. The men and women at the table were taking it in turns to tell stories about Generous. My uncle was there, the pharmacist from Scotstown, and Alice Dean who had grandchildren my age. I had a story too, young though I was. I’d been running it through my mind to get it right and was just about to tell it when the door opened and a cold wind blew in. We felt it move along the floor and then over us in our chairs. It seemed a different order of cold, made away in the north and carried to us on the wind.

We heard coats being removed in the hall, some lines from a song. Then two men unknown to us came in. The first was round, red-cheeked, with a jacket and tie and Wellington boots, his hands fluttering before his chest like pennants in a gale as he half-whispered his song. He looked like a priest not long out of the seminary and that he’d a horde of jokes and songs we’d hear if only it weren’t a funeral we were going to. But it wasn’t him I paid attention to. It was the second one. He was tall and gave off colours of blue and gold that came, maybe, from his clothes, his skin, his thick thatch of unruly hair. I couldn’t quite place it. There was a clod of mud on his boot, a lightness in his step. He came in after the other with his eyes to the ground as he walked, silent as mist. It was as though he was looking in the grains of the floorboards for the answer to a mystery. I followed him every step of the way as he crossed the room. I had to, somehow. He walked as though no one else were there. He had something, I could see that, and it made me feel small.

The round one nodded to each of us and sat down at the table, but the other kept walking. He pulled a chair over to a corner by the window. When he looked up, the winter light fell on his face and I could see that his eyes were a turquoise, Pacific Ocean blue and that a small piece was missing from his front tooth. Were the piece still to exist, I thought, it would form a perfect Pythagorean triangle.

No one said anything. They all just turned towards me, as if they were connected by a system of strings, and waited for me to begin my story. I wanted to tell it, for it could surprise them maybe, but I was wary of the strangers, especially the one by the window. Would they listen to a story told by a boy? How would I feel if they didn’t? I’d heard it a few years back, late one night at home when Generous came in with my father and some other men. There’d been a cattle market and they’d been in the pub since, drinking whiskey. I was up in bed in the darkness, with Generous’s voice coming up the stairs to me from the kitchen.

The story was about how Generous killed a man in Dublin in 1919. I couldn’t get every word of it up in my room, but I got enough of it to know it was about a killing and I’d never heard anything like that before from someone known to me. He was a boy himself when it happened, not so much older than I was.

I decided to tell the story to the people in the room that day of Generous’s funeral, for it would have been worse not to. I told them about how Generous had gone out with two others to the house of an Englishman who bred dogs and had a horde of guns, about how it was his first time out as a Volunteer and how he’d never shot at anyone before. They waited in a hedge for the whole of the evening and when your man finally came up the path to his door they pushed him through with a gun at his back. They put Generous in charge of guarding him while they searched the house. He was huge, Generous said, six foot four with the power of a bull and drunk that night on top of it. At some point Generous heard a noise out in the road and stood up to have a look. The Englishman saw his chance then. He jumped out of his chair, got around behind Generous and grabbed him around the chest. He squeezed all the air out of him and roared that he’d kill them all.

When Generous came to this part of the story I heard the sound of breaking glass. I got out of bed and went out onto the landing. I saw him standing in the middle of the kitchen looking over at the wall where a trail of whiskey was running down. He’d sent a glass flying there with a swing of his arm, my father told me later, showing them how he’d fought with the Englishman. I saw the men staring up at him from their chairs. There was a terrible silence, and they all frozen where they were. Generous looked frightened, and like he didn’t know where he was. “I never saw such a look on him, neither before nor since,” I told the people at the table. They were all turned to me like children listening to a ghost story, all but the one at the window. Did I have him too? I didn’t know and it stalled me for a beat. Then I went on. “He could be wild in drink,” I said, “we all know that. But this was something different. He was breathing heavy. His hair was pointing in different directions and his tie was twisted around to the side of his neck.”

The men that night knew Generous’ stories, but they didn’t know that one. My father stepped up and asked him was he all right. This seemed to bring him back to life. It was like someone had tripped a switch. From the landing I watched him swing his arms back and forth to show how the Englishman had him. Then he showed how he hooked the man around the ankle and brought the both of them down. There was a fight on the floor and the other two came running in as the Englishman tried to get to his feet. They had their guns out, and so did Generous. I saw him show the men how all three of them put their bullets into the Englishman, his arm stretched out like a plank. His eyes went wide and his hand began to shake as he lived again through the killing. It passed up along his arm and into his body. I thought he’d fall to the floor. It was like he was having a fit. The men went to him and got him down into a chair. I stayed on the landing watching him, for I’d never seen anything like that.

But the story I wanted to tell the people in the room was not about the killing, nor even about hearing it the way that I did. It was about something else that happened later, just a year before Generous died.

I told them about how one day some people came down to Bough townland from the television in Dublin to get Generous’s memories of his time in the I.R.A. My father heard about it and went to the producer to tell him to be careful with Generous and especially not to ask him about the time he raided the Englishman’s house for guns, for he didn’t want him to go through again in front of strangers what he went through that night in our kitchen. My father was a countryman and hadn’t an idea of how television worked. He thought he only had to say that to the producer and it would be all right. We all found out about it when we sat in to watch the programme and saw Generous talking about the day he shot the Englishman. He was in his own parlour, hair combed, tie on, very concentrated and sure.

“It was solely and simply a raid for arms,” he was saying. “We offered him a receipt for the guns. He’d be paid when we got the Republic. But it was no use. He attacked us and we had no choice but to deal with him.”

“How did you do that?” asked the interviewer.

“We shot him,” said Generous.

“You killed him?”

“That’s right.”

The interviewer stopped for a while to let that sink in for all the people watching while the camera went in close on Generous’s face. Then he asked him, “Does that event haunt you, sir?”

Generous looked straight back at him.

“Not at all,” he said. He didn’t flinch.

The people at the table leaned back in their chairs when I finished the story. I could hear them letting out their breath.

“Queer, isn’t it?” said one of the women after a while.

“Aye, queer all right,” said the red-cheeked man.

Then I turned back towards the window where the man with the chipped tooth and the blue eyes was looking away towards the hills, for I heard laughter there, that laughter that caught me then and never went away — a strange, sad, chilling laughter, soft as the beating of wings. It was as though his body were a prison that contained it and even then it hadn’t been released. There was knowledge there too, but of what I couldn’t say.

I heard of him through the years. A cousin kept him in her attic. A schoolfriend drove him somewhere through the night. A neighbour’s son died next to him in a field. He moved around the country, sleeping in cars and hedgerows and the houses of strangers. No one, though, could say where he was. He worked alone, mostly. There were people who took heart from men like him. I heard his name too, maybe even his real name. But I won’t say it here.

I left Monaghan not long after the funeral of Generous McCabe. I went to Edinburgh, Barcelona, and London, each city revealing the next to me as I moved through my studies. In time I had a degree in architectural theory. In Ireland, I heard, they stopped sleeping in hedgerows and dying in fields and shooting at the strangers. Sometimes I design, sometimes I talk. The talking has brought me to Mumbai, Tel Aviv, Jakarta, and Rio, among other places, and more recently to New York, where I lecture about architecture at Columbia University. I write this now in soft light on a walnut table on the twenty-fifth floor of a building just to the north of Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan. My twelve-year-old daughter is working out algebra problems in her room with Judy Garland songs as background. My wife is doing stretches in her bare feet on the living-room carpet. I see through my window the gentle pulse of the city lights and the darkness of the rivers around them.

In April of this year I went to San Sebastian in the north of Spain to look at the Plaza de la Constitución, an ovoid in the city’s old part with tiers of numbered doors rising from a floor that had at different times been the site of bullfights, a food market, and open-air masses. I was to write about it in an issue of a scholarly journal that was to be devoted to multi-use urban spaces. On my last night I went from bar to bar with a group of the city’s architects. Beaming epicurean men with hooked noses over their thin lips and aprons tied around their girths poured glasses of sparkling txakoli from green bottles and pushed plates of smoked cod and lamb brochettes at us with the fluency of casino dealers. We finished in a basement watching a woman with feathers in her hair singing Spanish pop songs from the 1960s. After that I went around the corner to my hotel. It was nearly light. The morning paper had been put under the door. I got into bed and almost fell asleep trying to read it, but just before I did, my eye was drawn to the surprising word “MONAGHAN” in small bold letters in a little box in the city’s events column. “Pinturas Nuevas,” it said beneath it, and gave the address of a gallery.

Later that morning I went there by cab. I was to fly in a few hours to Madrid, and then on to New York. I walked up a flight of stairs to a large white room with its shutters open to a sea breeze. There were paintings already up on walls, others leaned against a doorframe. A man sat in a chair beside a sleeping dog and studied them, running his fingers through his wiry beard, his head tilted to one side.

“Are they yours?” I asked him.

“The gallery is mine,” he said. “The paintings are by an Irishman.”

I walked through the room and looked at the paintings. Curious to have called it after Monaghan. There was nothing there, at least nothing direct, of my home place. The paintings were of faces in light — alarmingly alive, I thought, at that hour, and me with so little sleep. One was of an old man looking out of the frame with such force that I felt I had to hold him back. He had on a plaid shirt and a coolie’s beard. Still, he was Monaghan to somebody. That soft word, like a sigh in sleep. I’d known Bough townland — hedge, lane, gable wall, church pew, barley field — like I knew the folds of my daughter’s skin when she was a baby. But it had faded. My father went from an aneurism when I had an internship in Barcelona. My mother by then was over in Nottingham with my older sister. There wasn’t one among us who wanted to tend cows. I never returned and only rarely thought of it. It was, if truth be told, remote, a little quaint. No fellow countyman met by chance would place me there. I didn’t even use phrases like “if truth be told” any more.

Still, it was Monaghan that brought me to this gallery on a morning when I had nothing else to do before going to the airport. I reached the last painting on the wall. The red in it had caught me from the other side of the room. It came off one of the shawls on two women in a street, caught up in the mystery of a message. I’d have thought, and even began to think when I was there looking at the two women, Why take the name of my county in vain? But the paintings were too decisive to be vain.

I stepped back. A caterer set wine glasses on a table. A young woman came out of an office speaking into a mobile phone. A fair man with his back to me fitted a bracket into a frame.

I went back to the man with the dog.

“I am from that place,” I said.

“What place?”

“Monaghan.”

“Interesting,” he said. “Interesting that you should be the first to see this work. We open tonight.”

“But why does it have this title?”

The man shrugged, smiled.

“A caprice, perhaps. I don’t know. You’d have to ask the pintor.”

“Is he here?”

“He’s the person you will see if you look over your left shoulder,” he said. “Niall?”

The painter and I each turned fully around as if in a courtly dance until we were facing one another across the gallery floor. He took a step towards me and a memory began to form. It took me out of Spain and out too of New York to a place and a feeling that was held out of reach until he raised his face and I saw his luminous turquoise eyes and the triangular gap where the piece of his front tooth had been.

“I know you,” I said.

He stopped mid-stride and waited for me to explain.

Later I cancelled my flight and called my wife. I waited in a bar while he attended to his opening and afterward he drove me over the border to a village in the mountains outside of Biarritz where he had been living for a time in the attic of an old schoolhouse. On the way I asked him why he’d put that name on his paintings and he said it was a long story and I said I hoped to hear it. In time I did and in time so will you. I spent three nights with him, sleeping on a camp bed in the corner of his studio. We cooked, we drank wine, we walked the mountains and along the streams. He drew and I watched him. I watched the rapid, bird-like movements of his eyes as he took everything in. And we talked, over the days and sometimes through the night. Mostly I asked and he answered. I questioned him as a confessor might, delicately, patiently, with a long view. Drawing was the more pleasing form of speech for him, but he accommodated me with his answers. It seemed that whatever he’d held in, in a life of holding in, he brought forth. I caught myself listening with a thirst I hadn’t felt in years. I thanked him for it on the last morning as I sat in the car that was to drive me away. He tapped the roof twice, smiled and said, “Good luck.” Then as we pulled away he called out, “You got a lot but you didn’t get it all.” I watched him through the rising dust, his hands in the pockets of his jeans.

Hands that painted, hands he’d taken into war. Hands of an unusual steadiness. Could the same hands serve such different masters? When he was eighteen he stepped out of his own life and into history. Now he was trying to get back. Could he do it? Impossible, some would say. He’d crossed a line not once but systematically, every day, over a dozen years.

What’s the distance between him and me? At the age he took that step, I was still unclaimed, a boy on a cattle farm in Bough townland thinking about exams and football and my hairstyle. I could have gone any way at all. I could have gone the way he did. At least that is theoretically the case, the way Schrödinger’s cat was an infinity of possibilities as long as he was still in his box. In Bough we lived under their observation posts, the shadows of their helicopters moved over our land, their mines blew up our lanes at the border crossings. There were at least three of my own age in the townland who did as he did, one of them long since under a headstone with a harp on it in the graveyard. And then the one who came before us, who said, “No one can ever accuse me of running away.” You grew up there you’d have that sentence ringing in your ears. There’s a monument to him over at Corlat. We all knew the story. We all attended the commemorations. And if I needed any more motivation to join them, there was my Uncle Frank, my mother’s brother, taken by peelers off a flight from Birmingham the day of the big bomb there. They hung him up in a lift shaft in York barracks and drove iron bars into him through gaps in the wall. They put their cigarettes out on his back. He was the quiet uncle who years later used to take me fishing on Hollywood lake. I remember his pale, vacant eyes, the shake in his hand. I’d read the history, I’d listened to the songs. If I wanted to take up a gun, I knew where to go, who to ask.

But instead I took my leaving cert results and enrolled at Edinburgh University. I passed through tutorials, thesis reviews, fellowships, colloquia, and peer-reviewed journals all the way to consultancies and a chair of my own at Columbia at the age of thirty-seven. Along the way, I fell in love with Erica Flax by a lake near Malmö in Sweden and married her in New Mexico. That’s her adding bay leaves to a sauce in the kitchen. I can see the shadow of our daughter spilling into the hall as she brushes her hair. I passed a quiet war in Ireland, then went away. It was almost as if it never happened.

It was strange when he began to talk, like something called up from the dead. It might have been Beirut or the Golan Heights at first, but then I was back, or halfway back, to the borderlands. I saw my own gestures and speech moving back towards the forms they had when I was living there. I can feel it happening even now as I write about it. What he said shocked me, not because it was unexpected, but because I never had to picture the details before. We read of events in newspapers. We supported, if that was our wont, but asked no questions. He let me ask. He answered patiently. It was almost as if he felt I needed it more than he did.

To plant a tree, write a book, have a son. That’s a life, they say. And to kill? It’s not as it is in the movies, I know that at least. It’s slow and obscene. What does it qualify you for? To laugh like a ghost as he did before the funeral of Generous McCabe? By the time I left I knew where the laugh came from. But to understand is not yet to feel, as he did.

Who was he? You can see a drawing he made of himself, placed there before these pages begin. “Confession,” he called it, then laughed. You can make of it, and its title, what you will. Those are his features, certainly, but his look…? I will try to tell you something of it, and of his manner, and the atmosphere around him. When I look at this picture I think, Boldness, Implacability, Disgruntlement, a lack of interest in Guile. When I think of him as I saw him in the mountains, I can find all of these things, bar disgruntlement. The picture lacks Severity, Humour, Sensuousness, but he had these. He could seem a little ahead of your thought. Equivocation could feel rank in your mouth, maybe because of what I knew he had done, but it was also in his eyes. He carried something certainly, something that set him apart, that had for decades made him feel not quite human. I felt it myself when I saw him in Monaghan. The difference was that for him it was an illness, for me something to be envied. He would try in time to paint himself back. This will be a story about that. He was tall, contained, unkempt. In his face you could see both the boy and the old man, the boy in an innocence he had when looking at things. A shape in itself could amuse him, the way notes amuse musicians. It was as if the shape were telling him a joke. He cooked well and simply. In drink he showed little effect. He was alert, as both predator and prey are, but looked as if he were listening to something I wasn’t able to hear. He took so long sometimes to answer that I thought he hadn’t heard, or had forgotten the question. He was trying to read himself. His rhythm was slow, feline. When describing something he had an eerie objectivity, a three-dimensional scene seeming to assemble itself before him, details observed and placed, small movements and angles of light noted. He measured everything in metres and their fractions. He had an awkwardness with words visual people often have. It made me embarrassed by my own fluency. Those who can, do; those who can’t, theorize. About war, about art, and about love, he had no theories at all.

Those eyes, still so luminous. Like cold flames.

I look up from the page and out at the city. I’d almost forgotten that this is where I live. To the south is the negative space where the two towers were. I was in Brooklyn when they were brought down. I watched it from the riverbank, the hideous chemical smell of the fires coming at me in waves.

We all know what happened next. The city fell sick. Men and women went into uniform. From here a War on Terror was launched. And as this war was defined, much of the world came to understand that those with guns and bombs and beliefs but without uniforms had come from the deepest pit of hell and had to be sent back there. I know this. I felt it myself.

But I didn’t think like that when I was living in Bough townland. And no one I knew did either. We felt we had known for eight hundred years what men in uniform meant to us, and it didn’t fit with the War on Terror. That was the first thing he made me remember.

Before I left he gave me his book of drawings and notes and a disc of the painting he left behind in a hotel room in the San Francisco Tenderloin. I didn’t know what I’d do with them then, but I felt they’d tell me something I couldn’t get anywhere else. I have them here on the table beside me. Later, when I went to Berkeley to give a lecture, I crossed over the bay and walked the streets where he had walked and met the people among whom he moved. They had their own name for him and knew nothing of the world out of which he had come. And later I drove to the Federal Correctional Institute at Lampoc in Santa Barbara county and spoke to an inmate there. He knew. He knew more about him than anyone did, except for me. I never did find her. She, it seemed, went into a cloud, just as he had done.

I watched him and he watched me. Once, when we talked after lunch over a wooden table in his studio, he made a drawing of me listening to him. I have that too.

I won’t say his name for I would like to bring him here and that would only get in the way. Better for you to hear that laughter I heard on the funeral day and now and then through the years that followed. Better to see and feel as he did, if you can, if I can find the way to bring it to you.

Anthony Lott
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