Mattie’s letter arrived on Tuesday morning and I saved it, like always, for the evening. For after my walk on Avenue of the Americas, which I take to feel like I am alive. For after a coffee with Vito in the Washington Square Diner, where we indulged in our small ritual of winks, smiles and chat. For after a meal of tortellini and a glass of milk, alone in my apartment; I had no vegetables – the asparagus and broccoli looked groggy in the heat, so I left them at the store. These days I say store instead of shop; messages are now groceries; I say sidewalk not footpath. I will never blend in but, with words, I make some effort.
Mattie was always my favourite, though they say a mother doesn’t have such a thing. He was my best boy before we left the old country, right up until we came to New York. His brothers were tougher, gone from me sooner; Mattie had stuck around my ankles since he was a baby. I named him for his father and, though I don’t like to think of that old fool, I always enjoy remembering Mattie as a boy, before he made us come away, leaving all behind.
Steam swelled from Mattie’s woollen socks.
‘Would you ever keep your feet back from the fire, son?’ I said.
Mattie grunted, resenting the interruption. He was reading to me from the Evening Press, an after school habit he took on when his father died. I sometimes listened, sometimes didn’t; all the stories were sad.
‘What?’ he said.
‘Will you go to the pit? I want to start the dinner,’ I said.
He sighed, hunched his body further into the chair, and rattled the newspaper. ‘Do you not want to hear the last bit of this?’
‘Go on and get me the spuds,’ I said, knowing he wouldn’t.
I heaved myself up, got the bucket from the pantry, and lifted the back-door latch. The potato pit was covered with flour sacks; I flicked one off and leaned forward, ready to fill the bucket. I stopped. There was a frog on the pile, squatting fat and perfect like a little king; I let a roar and jumped away from the pit. Mattie came running.
‘Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Get it!’ I shouted.
‘What? What is it?’
‘There’s a frog. Bring something to trap it in.’
He ran back into the kitchen and fumbled in the dresser. I could hear him banging the drawers and cursing while I stood, trying to keep the frog fixed to its spot by staring at it. The frog’s body pulsed and made me feel sick; I willed it not to move. Mattie came out and walked slowly to the pit, his face worried.
‘It looks wicked,’ he said. The frog lunged forward, a jump that didn’t move it far, and I imagined I heard the squelch of its insides; Mattie leapt. ‘Jesus, it looks wicked. Wicked!’
‘How are you going to catch it?’ I said. He held up a sugar bag and a spoon. ‘God almighty,’ I said, thinking I’d have to throw away the spoon after. A waste.
Mattie knelt by the pit, holding the bag and the spoon. He worried his bottom lip with his teeth. I looked again at the frog; its skin was like an autumn leaf, mottled and dry.
‘He’s not slimy at all,’ I said.
‘It’s awful big. For a frog.’
‘Go on, son, get him.’
The frog looked ahead lazily, its cheeks twitching. Then it belched and jumped again; its skin changed from brown to green in the evening light.
‘The fecker,’ Mattie shrieked, and fell onto his behind.
‘Catch it, Mattie. Spoon it in, come on. Oh God.’ I felt giddy and wanted to laugh, though I was afraid; I pulled my skirt closer to my legs, thinking of the frog’s skin touching my own.
‘I’m telling you, it looks wicked,’ Mattie said.
His brothers came back in the middle of it all; Stephen stood in the doorway.
‘What’s going on, Ma?’
‘Look, there’s a huge frog on the potato pit. He’s lepping about.’
Stephen laughed. He lunged forward, grabbed the frog into his big hands, and hooshed it over the back wall. Johnny crowded behind Stephen, laughing at Mattie, who was still holding the sugar bag and spoon. I clipped Johnny on the ear to shut him up, but he laughed more.
Stephen and Johnny called Mattie ‘Wicked’ for a while after that; I said not to mind them.
Now there’s no back yard, no fireplace, no potato pit. There are seven storeys below me and three above; I never imagined people lived in any way but our own, until Mattie brought me here. He brought me here and left me here, to go as far away again to the other coast, to a place full of Mexicans.
My view is of glass-fronted blocks and an old brownstone that huddles between two taller buildings; I have to lean out to see the street below, but its noises come clearly to me: sirens, banging trash-cans, shouting, and endless cars with tooting horns. This city is always on the go.
I walk on Tuesday along Avenue of the Americas. Mattie’s letter is a comforting, papery wad in my pocket. I haven’t carried a handbag since a dirty-faced girl dragged me to the ground trying to pull it from my hands. My legs got scraped but the little bitch didn’t get my bag; she hadn’t reckoned on the strength of an Irish mother. These days I carry all my bits and bobs – money, hankie, keys – in my pockets, like a man.
The Avenue is throbbing as it always is with hucksters and mad-men and ordinary people doing ordinary things: shopping, arguing, hurrying. I’ve never known such a place for haste. I’m glad to leave the busy Avenue for The Washington Square Diner. My back is clammy with sweat when I push open the door; it’s cool inside. Vito is sitting at the window, his behind lapping over the sides of a high stool like rising dough.
‘Bridie,’ he says, getting down off the stool, ‘when will you be my bride?’ He kisses my hand and leads me into my booth.
‘Vito, like I tell you every week, I’ve been up the aisle once already and that was enough for me.’ I smile.
‘You break my heart,’ he says, and claps his meaty hands across his chest. He brings us two coffees and winks. I wink back. Vito is fat – fatter than me – and he already has a wife. ‘And how is your son, Bridie?’ he says.
‘I have his letter right here.’ I pull it from my pocket. Vito takes the letter and fingers it; he stares at the sealed envelope, the stamp, my address and Mattie’s, as if it all might tell him something.
‘So many words, so many letters,’ he says, and hands it back to me.
‘Yes, Vito, there are so many words. So many letters.’
We sip our coffee and Vito squeezes my fingers in his plump ones. ‘I love you, Bridie. Really,’ he says.
‘You’re a silly old man, Vito.’
The heat swaddles me when I leave the diner, wrapping itself around my face and body; it pulls the breath from my lungs and makes me gasp. The whole city is muffled under this blanket of still air. The coffee has made me hotter than before and the grocery store is two blocks away. Still, I’m in the mood for crisp vegetables; the taste of something clean. On the way, I think about the letter, wondering what news it might hold; I put my hand over my pocket to protect it. At the store, the vegetables in the boxes outside are browned and sagging, so I don’t buy any. The greengrocer shrugs apologetically at me from inside and I send him a little wave.
My apartment is warm but not as heavy as the street. I switch on the air-conditioning; it bangs and thrums, so I switch it off again – one less noise in the city’s din. I warm up some tortellini that Vito has given me, but they are dry and salty in my mouth. I drink a cup of milk to loosen up my tongue; it tastes good – cold and creamy like the milk back home. When I’ve finished eating, I push the window wide and pull my chair up to it. I sit with my back to the window and let the warm air dry the sweat on my blouse. Taking the envelope from my pocket, I slit it open with the blade of a scissors. There is money, of course, and, this time, a photograph. I put the dollar bills into my pocket and study the picture.
There is Mattie, moon-faced and smiling, stouter now than when he left; his arm is draped across the black wife and she is grim and thin, holding a baby across her breasts. Is this a son? My grandson? They are standing at a railing by the sea. There is writing on the back of the picture. I study the curls and squiggles; I see ‘M’ for Mattie and another ‘M’. This is one of the letters I know; I know B makes the start of Bridie too. Maybe, I think, he has named his boy Matthew, for himself.
I unfold the letter: it’s a long one, three pages. Poring over each sheet in turn, I run my finger under the lines, trying for letters and words, pushing into my mind for something. When I reach the end of each page, I toss it over my shoulder, out the window, to the street below. I throw the envelope out after the pages and hold the photograph between my fingers; I stare at the three faces and go to send it over my shoulder, along with the rest. My hand stops in mid-air and I look at the photo again; my darling son is smiling for me. I take up the scissors and cut Mattie from the picture. Throwing the other bit of the photograph out of the window, I bend and kiss Mattie’s happy face. Next Tuesday I will show Vito a picture of my son.
To read more about Nuala's collection - and all her writings - and to find out how to buy the book, visit NualaNiChonchuir.com. Happy Mother's Day to all.