Brothers

Qualified Entry: Fiction Category

By: Michael Lundy

“How much longer, Daddy?”

“When we passed the half-way spot you were snoring. I had to turn up the radio. Loud.”

James MacDonagh looks at his son in the rear view mirror.

“And I thought you weren’t going to ask again.”

“Oh, yeah. I forgot. I’m sorry.”

“It’s alright. You just woke up. You were out for a hundred miles. No more Big Macs.”

The boy smiles, and then laughs. “You know I can’t go very long without one.”

“Do I. But…the next time we stop, it’s for something good. No more junk.”

Adam MacDonagh shakes his head as he looks at his dad in the rear view mirror. “Yeah, good idea. We’re going to be hunting hard.”

“Right. Mountain-man hard.”

The boy smiles broadly. Laying his head down again, he pulls a blanket to his chin. “Like dirty mountain men, the ones that don’t have to take a bath for months at a time.”

James MacDonagh’s smile seems to fill the length of the mirror.

 ***

One night years ago, long before this father and son cross-country road trip, James MacDonagh’s mother was talking to the other women gathered for poker at the local V.F.W. Hall. Women had the building to themselves, no men allowed, once a month. Mrs. MacDonagh said in a modified Irish brogue, “That man there, my boy James, he got ta hell outta Dodge. Sure Jay-sus so he did,” and pronouncing the t with a continual breath instead of a glottal stop. James MacDonagh lit-out of town as soon as he graduated from Wheeling, Iowa Senior High. The Panthers. Might have been the very day of graduation. The night that James’s mother talked and played cards could even have been the very day that he left town.

Tis the daring fellow that does be the jewel of the world….

Mrs. MacDonagh hailed from Arana Naomh. The Aran Isles in Galway Bay, County Galway; Inishmaan, to be exact. She told James stories of the place throughout his life. Was where the Irish began, she said. Was an enchanted land, she said. Her family had close ties to an artistic movement that also began out amongst the cragged landscapes and rugged people. The Irish Literary Revival—The Irish Renaissance. A lot of those same people had a hand as well in other—less artistic—causes for Irish independence.

Mrs. MacDonagh spoke often to James about her Auntie who received a degree from Trinity College; one of the first women to do so. She was the pride of the lineage—which reached clear back to the Plantations of Ireland and the roots of the Irish Question. This woman was an assistant to the writer Synge and produced his play the night the riot broke out at Abbey Theatre, Dublin, 1907. Soon the Auntie left Dublin, left Ireland—and the Isles—for the Continent. Found employment transcribing manuscripts for the expatriate James Joyce through his blindness. She was in the Paris bar that night of renown when the American Hemingway knocked down an Irishman for beleaguering James Joyce. Seemed the man didn’t like the portrayal of his country in those stories.

There were stories circulating Wheeling, Iowa that MacDonagh Family ancestors played important roles way back in the Ulster Cycle alongside Cuchulainn—long before Arthur and the Roundtable Knights made their way through the mind of Britanni. How those mythological names took hold in the thoughts of people raised in the rural soil of Iowa…. James’s father, the Old Man MacDonagh, was a US WWII vet from here. Met the Mrs. in a pub on the shores of Lough Corrib, County Galway. He was on furlough and she a maiden. Brought her straight-away to the US and Iowa. No Irish writer could have created a better story.

“Daddy.”

“Adam, I told you.”

“Yeah. Forgot, again. Sorry.”

“Say it, Son.”

“Dad…who’s all going hunting with us?”

James looks in the mirror. “You worried about who we’re going into the jungle with?”

“No. Just wondering.”

“Uncle Jess, Charlie and Billy, maybe Erin—if she’s taken her hunting test—and some of Jess’s old high school friends.”

“That’s a good group.”

“Sure is. I wouldn’t take you out into the wilderness with any Jackeen.”

“What’s that?”

“A no-good.”

 ***

Unluckily, the MacDonagh Irish story unfurled right in our part of The United States of America. James’s parents divorced not long after that day he long ago left Wheeling; from that moment forward he vowed to never step foot again in the place of his birth. James did well for himself. A successful marriage. Wife a socialite in the Wyoming ski-slope scene; two sons. His construction company specializes in earth excavation, and now he’s a major player in that industry out in the rugged terrain of that country. MacDonagh Domain, LLC.

James and his crew enter an area, usually as pristine as the new world itself, and completely remove the natural habitat. Trees, shrubbery, wildlife—the actual top of a ten-thousand foot mountain, if the contract by Bureau of Land Management or private specifications call for it. Recently a segment ran on satellite TV chronicling an in-depth account of MacDonagh Domain’s work: “Money, Power, Religion: A Necessary Order.” It aired on The Ovation Channel’s Planet Green Network.

James himself was on TV, a couple of years ago, back in 2008. A reporter, a

young gal and recent Ivy-League grad, working for a liberal Eastern think-tank investigating the environmental effects of alluvial placer strip-mining in the region, traveled to Wyoming and, in her research, found James’s name, made the necessary connections, and interviewed him for a  documentary.

“Mr. MacDonagh,” the Ivy-Leaguer said, jumping James early in the piece as sure as if she’d hidden out in the woods behind an evergreen brandishing a hatchet, “are you aware, or at all concerned, that the Great Basin bristlecone—the very Lodgepole Pine you destroy—survives more than 5000 years, making it the oldest living organism known on the planet?”

The interview took place in front of a camera but James wasn’t the least intimidated. He thought the question over a moment. Allowed a long, impressive pause to pass in the clean mountain air. He had his head down looking steadily towards the ground as if he had lost a brand new plug and feather hand splitting tool.

James finally looked up and said, “I simply perform a necessary function ma’am —that’s all there’s to it.” He then spit tobacco toward the camera. Tried to appear subtle; without success. “The land needs to be cleared, and we do it. Damned well…So I’ve been told.”

The reporter’s retort was immediate and in her voice flared the sanctimonious indignity of American journalism, “Scientific analysis of bristlecone rings can determine the Earth’s climate 10,000 years ago.”

James laughed. He has his share galore of the MacDonagh Irish temperament. “We’re solving climate change today are we young lady?”

“The species you exterminate has a range extending north to the fjords of the Alaskan Panhandle and south to the Baja California Sur. Surely that fact has resonance with you?”

“Yes,” said James, quickly. “Yes it does resonate with me. Pulsates, vibrates, and agitates, all in the same moment. It means that I can secure the employment necessary anywhere in this part of the world to feed my family.”

The young intellectual, tiring of the game, abruptly turned from James without so much as a word. Definitely a snub—in any country. As she began to speak to the camera, James stepped in front of her and spit again. He hesitated just long enough to throw an Irish-eyes smile towards the lens as he walked away.

James MacDonagh broke that vow taken when he left Wheeling as a young man of never sitting foot again in the land of his birth. He has returned every year now for the past several for the Ring-Necked Pheasant season opener; accepted an invitation from a brother to come home and hunt the wily bird—which, incidentally, aren’t native to the US, either. The birds hail from China, and have done extremely well, being immigrants in a harsh environment and all. The climate in Iowa can range from a 130-degree summer heat index to a middle-of-winter negative 60 wind chill. Nearly a 200-degree flux on the very same spot of Earth. No place like it on this great, wide, green world. Birds, and people, have to be tough.

It’s a sixteen hour drive from the heart-stopping vastness of the Central Rocky Mountain region to the American Middle-West and the edges of the Great Plains. It’s where the fertile tall grass prairies flow. Except, of course, the prairies no longer exist— today it’s all one amalgamated field of grain diversity. Might as well be an infinite slab of concrete and / or asphalt, or skyscrapers, as far as nature is concerned. The patches of prairie that have been tucked away in reserves far out of sight and mind no longer wave anymore, either—like the old patriotic song goes—it’s closer to something like a shrug.

Adam is asleep in the backseat. James reaches back and pulls the Denver-based minor league hockey team souvenir blanket up to his son’s chin. The Golden Colliers. The team insignia is an image of a baseball player in team uniform brandishing a ball bat and standing in front of the depiction of a mountaintop removal mine, replete with the flat, treeless landscape, explosions, and subsequent falling rock.

Adam wakes and looks at his father. He is a handsome boy, with a black Irish complexion and the bright, blue eyes filled with the promises of America.

 ***

The MacDonagh brothers, seven in all, were a tough lot. Theirs was a lifetime of fisticuffs. Actually, the entire clan fought constantly— a great deal against one another. Fists, sticks, whatever was close at hand were put to good use when hostilities broke out.  Interaction among the brothers was like the a falling line of dominoes: the oldest—James—would go after the next in age over a real or imagined infraction and that brother would in turn take aggressions out against the following brother, and so on down the family tree of Roman Catholicism via Ireland since removed to The United States of America. The configuration of that tree was a straight branch leading directly to Joey, the last MacDonagh. One after another a brother—like tradition—would in turn take and then administer a beating. Except for James, of course, being at the top—he administered—and Joey, at the bottom—he took. A slew. Went on like that all the years that the boys grew into manhood in America.

Heading down the open highway like this has James thinking about a trip he and Joey took one spring. James thinks of Joey often; more than he would admit. The two once drove together from Iowa to Texas. That was where James moved on graduation day, before he eventually made it out West. Worked construction, a sandblasting outfit headquartered in Dallas. James was tough enough to be undaunted by the serious dangers of an operator’s job: particle burns leaving skin and eye lesions, dust ingestion, heat exhaustion, noise. He could strip surface irregularities—corrosion rust pits and all—from of a twenty-foot by one-inch piece of steel weighing in at over seven ton in smooth, controlled strokes using a 7/64” diameter Type 2 carbide quick-connect nozzle attached to a quarter-inch six-spiral wire enforced hose throwing abrasive ground silica quartz particles. The static-conducting properties manufactured into the hose were designed to prevent a build-up of electrical charge. That was the intention. James could be done in under two minutes as long as he had easy access to every square inch of the piece. The abrasive was propelled on a jet of air powered by an Ingersoll Rand XP825WCU compressor with a Cummins diesel engine. By the time James moved on to Wyoming—a couple years—the company had upgraded and replaced the unit three times over.

James MacDonagh moved on down the road from Texas by his own decision as an aftermath to a fist fight with a co-owner—he had bought a piece of the company—following proof of the man’s embezzlement. James was packed and gone to the Rocky Mountains the next morning.

“Dad?’

“What, Adam.”

“Are you positive about the Big Macs?”

 ***

Joey MacDonagh decided to take the trip to Texas because he had just dropped out of the University of Iowa. The Hawkeyes. Played football a couple years for the man who put Iowa football on the map after several generations—what seemed like forever—of mediocrity. The coach was a tough SOB. He once reinstated a player involved in a stabbing incident with another university student downtown in a college bar. The boy pleaded out by claiming drug-inducement—LSD; wouldn’t have worked so well if the other kid hadn’t lived. The old coach liked Joey’s mentality. Joey got in on the last years of the coach’s tenure, but when he retired to great accolade, Joey found himself out in the cold. It was a coaching change that sent Joey MacDonagh packing from the world of American intercollegiate football. Seems he didn’t get along with the assistant coach who moved up into the head position. The new coach, who actually was Joey’s linebacker coach, didn’t appreciate the way Joey gallivanted around the college town of Iowa City, Iowa—and the way the Mrs. and Joey got on. Joey was a rabble-rouser; barhopping, pugilisms that never amounted to any real trouble, at least from a legal standpoint. These were the days when guys like Joey were loved by all and all looked the other way; today, there is no tolerance. Except, the new coach decided to make an example of Joey MacDonagh. Dismissed him from a full-scholarship immediately—Joey had been all-state two years for the Wheeling Senior High Panthers with national honors—maybe even the first day on the job. So, Joey was done with American athletics—and, unfortunately, also with American higher education.

Joey didn’t say a word to anyone when the new coach, in the second season of a lucrative multi-year contract—the highest paid state employee—was dismissed from the university over the delayed reaction and subsequent handling—there was alot—of an on-campus rape charge against one of his players during that inaugural season.

“Dad?”

“What?”

“I know what to eat instead.”

“And what would that be?”

“Subway.”

 ***

As a send off for James’s and Joey’s trip to Texas, Mrs. MacDonagh, being an Irishwoman through-and-through to her very bones, prepared a large pot of Irish Champ potatoes—poundies with green onions fresh from her garden. A traditional Irish meal. She seasoned with what she called Motherland spices—sea salt and black peppercorn. Old Man MacDonagh bartered a batch of his poteen whiskey with a local farmer for a spring lamb. All the brothers drank that night and joined the overflowing downtown crowd—people come in from all across the region—in the annual Wheeling St. Paddy’s Day Celebration and Pub-Crawl. No MacDonagh came to blows, with one another at least, and everyone made it home safely. The night ended with the MacDonagh family singing traditional folksongs around the dinner table. Old Man and Mrs. MacDonagh even got out of bed in the early hour to join in, night clothes and all. Was the first time since the brothers were wee-lads, Mrs. MacDonagh said, that a gathering like that had taken place.

James and Joey were up early that next morning, having planned to leave at six AM straight up, regardless. The whole family woke to say farewells. Two brothers were at the kitchen table with several neighbor boys of various national extracts having yet gone to bed and gotten into the old man’s special reserve, what he called The Water of Life. One of the two late-goers, when the family had gathered together and sent the others homeward, said, “I’m so mouldy I can’t spell my own face.” That statement remains a staple in the family’s American nomenclature archive.

Mrs. MacDonagh cried as James Danaan and Joseph Gael made their preparations. It was the first time any of the boys had seen her in such an awkward position. She was the toughest of the clan. Her tears put ones into all the MacDonagh men’s eyes.

These days, James drives a 2009 Range Rover. Bought it out in Cheyenne, at the dealership of a buddy.

“Dad?”

“What?”

“What, what?”

It was in reading that James understood the fascination that the grueling, otherwise monotonous work of sandblasting held for him; what had kept him sane through the tedious hours, the mundane co-workers. The greed-filled co-owners. Air moves, strangely, in a state of graceful low pressure; it’s the surrounding air that’s pressurized. And unstable. Bernoulli’s Principle—pressure differential physics. Incoherent particles of abrasive in a medium of air under great pressure move through a hose by irrotation: what causes hurricane-force winds to explode, not implode, a window; when the pressure difference above and below an airplane wing causes lift; when a shower curtain billows into the stream of water. Why some men can’t hold their emotions.

James bought a Jeep for the Texas trip with Joey. He had worked in Dallas for a couple years and had flown back to Wheeling to buy it at a used car lot in town. James saved cash from sandblasting to use for a large down payment, and, after negotiating with the dealer by phone from Texas, came home, made the purchase, and drove off with Joey that same day. It was a 1986 CJ7 Laredo with a removable soft top, roll bar, oversized whitewall tires, painted metallic copper with white racing stripes. A beauty. It was the first major purchase James ever made. He had driven a beat-down 1969 Chevy pick-up to Texas on graduation day, which Mr. MacDonagh gave him no strings attached. The Old Man was finished with selling firewood out of the back end around Jefferson County.

“Dad.”

“Yeah?”

“Do you and Uncle Jess talk a lot?”

“Yeah, we do. Often enough.”

“You’re older than him, right?”

“Yes.”

“Can you beat him in a fight?”

Both of the MacDonagh boys woke up hung-over that morning after the St. Paddy’s celebration. But Mrs. MacDonagh fixed a hearty breakfast, including warmed poundies, and they headed out into the darkness. Made the 6 AM time slot. Joey was too large to sleep in the front seat, so he crawled into the back of the Jeep, curling up under a sleeping bag.

The brothers drove like that, one snoring in the back end under a sleeping bag, and the other driving with one foot on the dash listening to Johnny Cash. When James stopped for coffee south of Kansas City, Joey never woke. He slept, snored, and, from multiple helpings of poundies, he…was flatulent. Luckily, James could put down the rear window a crack from the front of the vehicle, and the fresh airflow kept the ride from becoming unbearable.

Adam is asleep with his head under the blanket. It’s a funny thing that the boy makes a long vehicle trip exactly like his Uncle Joseph. James lowers the back seat window as he pulls into a truck stop on Nebraska I-80 west of Ogallala. It’s mid-afternoon on Friday, and he and Adam haven’t eaten since leaving the mountains. Adam’s mother prepared a send-off breakfast of elk bacon from a cow James killed over the winter with a new .54 caliber muzzleloader, and free-range chicken eggs from a nearby organic farm. Adam eats quite a bit for his age, and James likes the fact that his son has a healthy appetite. Adam is a solidly built boy, more like his Uncle Joseph and a couple other MacDonagh brothers than James. James is convinced that his son will be a good athlete. The boy already participates in several sports, and shows signs of the instinct that James believes makes for a champion athlete. James was decent in several sports in his day. He’s bothered that he hadn’t done better in athletics. Eats at him, bad. He is hard on himself in the physical labor of MacDonagh Domain, LLC. No other business owner in the mountains would be caught dead picking up a shovel. James out-works even the Hispanic day hires, men who are bodily tough as a matter of survival; they think the American jobs are relatively easy, compared to the harsh conditions back home. With James, physical labor is a matter of pride, and his reputation as a hard worker is known up and down the Rocky Mountains.

As father and son step out of the Range Rover, a semi-truck blasts its horn. The noise catches James off guard. Startles him. He looks up quickly, and uncomfortably, to see two trucks positioned one in front of the other in a face-off for a lane at the diesel pumps. Both continue with the horns, and the echo across the parking lot is deafening. Out of the corner of his eye, James sees Adam’s face; he’s smiling. As James turns to look, Adam is laughing, as if the truck noise is the greatest sound he has heard in his young life. Later, for lunch, the boy eats two cheeseburgers, an order of onion rings, and washes it down with a large milkshake, strawberry.

Joey MacDonagh woke in the back of the Jeep when his brother pulled off from the interstate outside Wichita. James put the rear window up. He had gone through both sides of the Johnny Cash cassette tape and was sick of the repeating twang; despite his fondness for the music, it had begun to get on his nerves. Maybe it was the oddity of the left-hand piano used in the band. Maybe it was the words. The brothers ate at McDonald’s and during the meal James couldn’t get Johnny Cash’s deep, black voice out of his head. It drummed through his mind.

James and Joey got along okay, for brothers, anyway, even MacDonagh brothers, or any brothers in America, for that matter. There was the family history of the domino effect to consider. Old Man and Mrs. MacDonagh laid claim to its beginnings. In his later years, the Old Man would say often, “They’d lock us up today and throw away the key for the way we kept those boys on a tight rein. But none of ‘em would’a listened otherwise. Had to be done. They all turned out pretty damned good, if you’re askin’ me.”

Once—James was twelve—the Old Man made dinner when Mrs. was down with the flu. Probably the only time for either. James complained about his father’s choice of fare. Old Man MacDonagh took that pan of boxed mac-n-cheese and put his oldest son’s face into it, squashed it in, pretty good. James never took a meal for granted again in his life. Don’t know for certain whether, in turn, James put the face of the next brother along the lineage in the bowl, or not.

James and Joey had never come to blows; it would be outside family protocol. James witnessed the youngest MacDonagh taking many a good lick. Always figured that was why Joey did so well in football; and in other entanglements. He could take a punch. Most fellas gave in once they were hit. A blow just made Joey angry.

Joey tried initiating a conversation during the meal at McDonald’s. He did like to talk; which was the exact opposite of James. More than once in their family life Joey had gotten into hot water for talking. He’d spout off at one or another of his older brothers, knowing full well the end result, but he’d go ahead anyway, like he wanted to see if he could pass mustard.

“I talked to Susan,” said Joey, “before I left campus. I stopped by the house.”

James continued eating without a word.

“She asked about you. How you were doing. Said to say hello.”

James didn’t even bother to look up.

James MacDonagh and Susan Carey had plans for marriage after high school. The plan went down the drain when she enrolled at UI. Coulda been the real reason James headed south. She married a member of the football team who ended up Joey’s coach by the time he got to Iowa City. Joey saw her often. He told the story many times to many people, and James knew it intimately; but the two brothers had never discussed it.

Why Joey picked this particular time to bring the subject to James’s attention is a good question. Maybe Joey wondered if he could still pass the MacDonagh test; maybe he was tired of the family domino effect and wanted to reverse the trend, now that he was getting away from home, away from Iowa, to a new life in Texas. Like he wanted to approach life differently, now.

Whatever Joey’s reasons, he went at it hard, “She said she’s happy. That guy was drafted by Tampa Bay in the second round. I think 29th overall. Hell’va contract. Several million guaranteed.”

James finally couldn’t take anymore and walked out of the restaurant, without a word, before he finished the meal. Was strung as tight as an Irish bow harp.

Joey finished his meal, by himself, then went out to the vehicle and crammed into the front seat. But, as the Jeep approached the interstate on-ramp, Joey had to get in one more statement. Couldn’t just put his head down and take a nap. Put it into the form of a question.

“Think you could’ve given her a better life than a professional football player?”     The question hung in the air of the Jeep for a couple of seconds, but dissipated immediately when James slammed on the brakes.

Joey hadn’t yet had the chance to strap himself in the seat, and the sudden jolt sent him into the dash with a violently. The Jeep skidded to a stop. James didn’t bother to put it into park. Just kept a foot on the brake. He took advantage of the situation as Joey fell backwards from the dash by pummeling his brother with both fists. It was an impressive athletic feat in and of itself that he was able to keep a steel-toed work boot on the brake pedal and deal out hurt to his younger, larger brother. Joey managed to open the door and fell backward onto the pavement. James punched the gas pedal and took off. Left his brother standing bloody.

James made it to Dallas; Joey didn’t. Joey walked to a nearby convenience store to wash up. The high school girl working the counter gave him the men’s room key after he convinced her that he had smashed his bicycle after hitting a pothole. She smiled when he told her he had worse incidents playing college football. He then hitched several rides back to Wheeling—the last with a family in a rented recreational vehicle traveling from southern Arkansas to Canada for a fishing vacation. Walleye. The fishing family dropped Joey off at the front door of the MacDonagh home, drove several hours out of their way to do so with Joey repeatedly turning down an invitation to take the trip with them.

Adam is awake when James stops in Lincoln. Adam ate big again at McDonald’s.

When they’re back in the road, Adam is soon asleep. James scans through the FM frequency and stops on a classic rock station, but soon grows tired of the songs, and the memories each brings of younger days. James has not talked to Joey since the Texas debacle. Joey ended up moving out East, on the Maine coast. Went there with a girl from college—met in Psych 101—and they own and operate a nice little seafood restaurant. Joey named his children, a boy and girl, after the Old Man and Mrs. MacDonagh. Has yet to step a foot in Iowa.

James stops the scanner when it hits on a country station. He doesn’t get to listen

to the genre any more at home; his wife has him listening to Bach, which he does like, especially in the evenings with a glass of wine—he wouldn’t tell anyone that. The station plays old country, the classic stories. Soon, a Johnny Cash song plays. James hums quietly, so not to bother Adam. “And the whirlwind is in the thorn tree. It’s hard for thee to kick against the pricks.” 

Adam wakes as he and his father near Omaha.

“How much further, Daddy”

“We’re almost to Wheeling, another half an hour or so.”

The boy smiles. “I’m looking forward to hunting with Uncle Jess and my cousins.”

The boy continues talking. Quite a bit. He wants to know when they are going to get the out-of-state hunting licenses; does Dad think that they brought enough shotgun shells for the hunt; are his cousins good shots. James thought about the boy’s questions, and then says, nearly in revelation, that they won’t worry about any details, that they are going to enjoy the father and son vacation, that they are going to spend time, quality time, with their Iowa family.

Adam’s father turns around in the seat to him, and says that it all is going to be gravy.

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