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Mrs. Carbonate, Mrs. Cuttlefish, Mrs. Conundrum

by Anthony Caleshu


Padraic is singing, as he is always singing, and his voice is trying to do that Christy Moore sort of justice he can do to anything he sings. That such a deep voice can come from Padraic amazes most people because he is chinless and thin as a tin whistle, a long-necked man who looks like he should be pipping. Today, he sounds like he is pipping:

Where is the ring I gave to Mrs. C.?
No matter where I roam
It’s with her I want to be.

Padraic stops singing when he enters Rory’s shop and says, “Morn-ing Rory,” drawing out his first syllable as if to start another song.

“See Carly’s walking,” Rory says.

On the broad pine slats, Carly takes a wide stance and begins running the length of the short aisle. At the end, she turns back to see if Padraic is watching her.

“Can’t go on carrying her forever now, can I Rory? Sink or swim I told the Mrs. there, and gave her a little push off.”

Padraic turns his laugh to Rory, and Carly hides her own smiling face behind one of the bookshelves.

“Go on Mrs. Calliope, Mrs. Cowtail, Mrs. Cupola,” Padraic says.

It’s been a month since Padraic has stopped into Rory’s for a browse before he heads to the market for a potato-and-carrot curry with Carly. The smile that usually runs across his face is stretched and lopsided, as if he’s been snagged by a fishhook.

“Haven’t seen you in a while,” Rory says. “Any news?”

“Besides Mrs. C’s newfound land legs, nothing strange at all,” Padraic says, stooped as if carrying a heavy load. When he sees Rory looking at him, he straightens his back until, in his old brogues, he stands a full six foot one.

“Have you seen my friend John lately?” Padraic asks. “With the black hat and the leather jacket?”

Rory has known John since well before Padraic, since he began buying books from John over ten years ago.

“He left me in these books last night,” Rory says. “I told him to stop in today and I’d have a price for him.”

John buys his books in charity shops then sells them on to second-hand dealers for a few euro profit. Every once in a while he’ll find a first edition and make a bit of money.

“Always on the look out!” Padraic says. “Just like John!”

Rory points to the cardboard box in front of the Fiction section by the doorway.

“I’ll tell you that John is something else!” Padraic says as he props Carly up on the brown-and-green couch. She holds a picture book in her lap, and Padraic falls to his knees in front of the box, singing:

Where is the milk I gave to Mrs. Cuckoo?
No matter where I roam
I’m still haunted by her bottle.

For the past two years, he’s carried Carly in his arms, on his back, high up on his shoulders. She was talking long before she could walk and made her demands into the back of his head. Without her, he looks gangly, as if he’s lost too much weight. She runs to him now with arms outstretched. “I want curry.”

“Mrs. Cupcake, Mrs. Carpool, Mrs. Consonant! I can’t hold you forever, go back and sit on the couch.”

When she doesn’t move, Padraic smiles, shakes his head and leads her by the hand back to the couch. He returns himself heavily to his knees and begins again inspecting John’s books.

“Do you know John’s been thinking of going back to University?” he says to Rory who is behind the till, wiping down dust jackets on the counter top. ’He only needs one more year’s credits, but they want him to start all over again. Say he’s been out too long. A scholar and a gentleman, the most well-read man I know, and they say he’s been out too long.”

Several regulars enter, and Rory nods to them.

Padraic continues, “John’s sure turning his life around. Back and ready to settle into some good hard study, or work, or whatever he sets his mind to. Because he can have anything he sets his mind to, anything he wants!”

Padraic pauses just long enough for the smile on his face to sag. His skin looks mealy and yellow, his eyes bloodshot.

“You Okay?” Rory says.

“I took John out to dinner a couple of weeks ago. Just to talk over some things. Told him it was all my treat before the meal. But when I was in the loo, you know what John did while I was in the loo? You know what he went and did?”

Rory shrugs, “What?”

“He paid for the whole meal! With hardly ten euro to his name and he pays for my meal. And it wasn’t a cheap meal! That’s exactly the sort of man John Lysaght is. I invite him to dinner and he pays for my meal. . . . Would you look at some of these! I imagine you’ll be giving him a fair price for a hefty box of books like these!”

Padraic holds up a late collection of Heaney’s: a first edition, but with a library stamp on the inside cover.

“Nice all right.” Rory says.

“What’ll John get for a book of this quality?”

“I haven’t priced them yet,” Rory says.

“Well approximately,” Padraic says. “Twenty? Thirty?”

I’ll probably only sell it for twenty,” Rory says, then lowers his voice. “Maybe ten.”

“Ten!” Padraic roars. “If I have to buy it from him myself, I’d pay fifty euro for a book like that!”

Rory looks around, blushing. “You would not,” he says quietly.

“I would too! And it seems to me, that you’d want to help a man like John. Trying to get back on his feet again, instead of taking advantage of him!”

Padraic is beet-red in the face and gesturing with his long arms at the bookshelves that line the small shop when Carly slides off the couch and runs to him.

“I want some curry,” she says.

“In a minute Mrs. Curry, Mrs. Curmudgeon, Mrs. Curlicue.”

Padraic turns around, and Rory takes a step back in the small space behind the till.

“Would you marry me, Mrs. Constantinopole? Mrs. Curtain Call, Mrs. Crank Case?” Padraic says, bending down to look her in the eye.

“Marry,” Carly says.

“I can’t hold you forever,” he says, “Back you go.”

Carly bounces bowlegged across the floor.

Rory looks at the few customers looking at him. He considers himself more than fair when buying books.

“Look Padraic,” he says softly, “I’m only doing John a favor by taking these books in. I don’t even like the idea of him coming to me with books from charity shops. I’d rather people who don’t have the money be able to buy them there. That’s the whole point of a shop like that, no profit, you know?”

Padraic is still kneeling, humpbacked and crooked. He looks from Carly on the couch to Rory behind the counter. He looks as if he’s trying to stand but then just as quickly decides against it.

Then he decides for it. He braces his hands against his knees and pushes until he’s upright.

“I’ll give you 100 euro for this box of books,” he says, reaching into his coat pocket and pulling out a thick roll of notes.

“Padraic,” Rory says. “Jesus.”

“Not enough? Two hundred then,” he says, peeling off the twenty euro notes and thumbing them down on the counter-top in front of the till.

“Padraic,” Rory says again, “What are you doing, where’d you get this money?” It’s more money than Padraic has ever had, more money than all the money he’s spent in the ten years he’s been coming to Rory’s shop.

He slaps another set of twenties down on the countertop. “Three hundred, how’s that? Four hundred—420, 440, 460, 480—500. . . . I’d pay more but the bank account’s empty, and a man and his daughter have to eat. Now make sure John gets his share. Half of that is John’s.” He walks back to the box of books, stands over it and doubles down with his legs locked straight. With a grunt, he takes the box in his hands and straightens himself again.

“John Lysaght, the man who paid for my dinner when I invited him to dinner!” he says.

“Give it to John yourself if you want him to have it that badly,” Rory says, gathering the notes and trying to hand them to Padraic over the counter.

“Mrs. C!” Padraic calls loudly. “Time to go Mrs. Cat’s Claw! Mrs. Cous Cous! Mrs. Crock Pot!” he says lifting the box into his exaggerated chest.

From the couch, Carly comes running with a picture book. “Daddy, I want some curry.”

“How much for Mrs. C’s book, Rory?” Padraic says without looking at him.

“Take your money back, Padraic. What’re you like? What’re you doing?”

With a quick slip of his feet, Padraic shifts the box of books to his shoulder. With his left hand he balances the box and with his right hand he reaches into his pocket for what remains of his roll of notes. His face loses all its color. He’s dripping sweat. He’s got twenty euros in a shaking hand when Anne comes running through the door. She has slammed on her brakes and parked her car in the middle of the street, just beside Padraic’s car, just in front of the shop.

“Padraic!” Anne is screaming, “Padraic! Where’s Carly?”

Her hair is wet from the shower. Her clothes are loose and she has no shoes.

Padraic moves quickly. He grabs Carly’s hand. But when he turns toward the exit he loses the balance he’d assumed with the box of books—which, in turn, causes the box of books to come tumbling down on top of Carly.

“Oh Carly, come here to me Carly!” Anne says to her daughter who is crying on the floor.

“Mrs. Calypso, Mrs. Caterpillar!” Padraic says as he bends to pick her up. “Mrs Calligraphy, you’re okay.”

“She”s not okay, Padraic!” Anne says, slapping at him. “You don’t just take her, Padraic. You don’t just take her!” she says. “I was in the shower, for God’s sake!”

Carly’s cry gets louder and louder as Anne pulls her away from Padraic and tries to move her toward the door.

Standing at the threshold is John. He’s been sitting in Anne’s car and steps into the shop under his black hat.

“John!” Padraic cries, as he pushes past Anne and swoops Carly into an arm. “Tremendous haul of books!”

He is reaching out a free hand to John when his back spasms, crashing him down onto all fours on the floor. Carly is sprawled a second time and wailing louder.

“Mrs. Cuckaracha, Mrs. Chorus Line. Mrs. Corn Poppy,” Padraic says, rolling himself flat onto his back.

With a straight arm, he pulls a crumpled note from his pocket and holds it high in the air.

“Mrs. Cruise Control. Mrs. Cracker Jack. Mrs. Cuckold,” he whispers with eyes closed, “buy yourself a book,” as if nobody is standing over him, looking down.

 

Anthony Caleshu is the author of a novella, a critical study of the poetry of James Tate, and two books of poetry, most recently: Of Whales: in Print, in Paint, in Sea, in Stars, in Coin, in House, in Margins. Current projects include a collection of stories and a new book of poems. Recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Boston Review, Narrative Magazine, Poetry Review, and The Best British Poetry 2014. He is Professor of Poetry at Plymouth University in Southwest England. (9/2014)


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