Mr. O’Brien’s Last Soliloquy
Robert Garner McBrearty
We came back from the war and we were just rolling along for a while, all through the fifties, like there was nothing but good times ahead. One of my happiest memories is standing in dirt. The good dirt in our back yard. Our new house. We’d had a smaller house, but now there was another kid on the way, and we got the new big house. Everything felt new. The whole neighborhood was new. Brick houses. Ranch mostly. But all of them a little different. Not like today.
We’d pitch the caliche over the back yard into the alley. All of us. Mary, me, the kids. It was something we did together. We pitched it over the fence. Cleaning it out so the grass would grow. All of us in the yard and throwing the lumps of caliche over the fence. Standing in the dirt. In our backyard. Our home. There was something I did only when I was alone, after we got the kids to bed. I’d go out in the yard, and I’d patrol it. I’d walk the fence line. Sometimes I lay down on the dirt when it was dark in the yard and nobody could see me. I lay down in the dirt and I stared up at the stars and I said to myself, this is all right, this is mine.
We went to a school play once, when Len was in kindergarten. He had a role where he had some kind of magical dust sprinkled over him. He lay down on the stage. He was supposed to roll over now and then to show he was dreaming. But every time he rolled, he got closer to the edge of the stage. There was a big drop-off, four or five feet or so. He kept getting closer to the edge. You couldn’t tell whether it was part of the play or whether he really was asleep and he was going to roll right off the edge of the stage and break his neck. I was a wreck watching him get closer and closer. I almost jumped out of my seat.
The sixties came along, and it was like the world blew up in our faces. The Bay of Pigs, the Cuban missile crisis, J.F.K. Right here in Texas. I heard things at the office. A couple of men I’d considered friends, men I’d liked, over at the water cooler, they were talking about how Kennedy got what he deserved, he couldn’t come down here telling us what to do. I fired them. I fired both of them right on the spot. I told them to get the hell out of the store.
Then I sat in my office and I cried. I’d never fired anybody before, not unless they were stealing. He was our president. And in Texas. Right here. On our watch. It made me sick.
I thought it was Oswald acting alone. I don’t know anymore. I don’t know what to think. Mary never agreed with me. The C.I.A., she thought, the Mafia, Castro, the Ku Klux Klan, she would get these ideas in her head and she wouldn’t let them go. He didn’t act alone. She must have said that a thousand times until I wanted to tear my hair out.
I don’t know why it upset me so much when she said he didn’t act alone. I guess it was like, well, if he didn’t act alone, who could you trust?
Everything was changing. The blacks and their marches. Mary said of course they’re marching. Why shouldn’t they march? I’d march too. I hired a Negro in the accounting department. He was the best man for the job, so I hired him. You’d have thought I turned a shark loose in the store. They hated him, and they were mad at me for hiring him, and I guess I was relieved when he came to me and said, I’m sorry, Mr. O’Brien, it’s not working out for me here. Mary told me I should have stood up for him more. Mary was right about a lot of things. You never know things until it’s too late.
I smoked like crazy back then. Mary did too. We all smoked. Why didn’t it kill me the way it killed Mary? I wanted it to be me, not her, if it had to kill somebody. I knew I was supposed to quit. We all knew. That’s baloney that we didn’t know.
The bad things just kept coming. It was like you couldn’t get over one thing before something else hit. Vietnam. Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King. The kids going wild. The hair, the drugs. My own sons, hair down to their asses. Why did it get on my nerves so much? I should have just let it go. And it’s nothing compared to today. You see it all now – green hair, purple hair. Rings through the nose. The lips, the eyes. Nice looking black girl comes in to help me to the toilet the other day and she opens her mouth and she’s got a silver hoop through her tongue. That’s all new.
Len was a good kid. Sure, some trouble here and there, but a good kid. Then they called him up for his own war. One war in the family was enough. Mary told him he wasn’t going. She was going to make him go to Canada. But what could we do? If I could do it again, I’d take him to Canada myself. You never know things until it’s too late.
Everything’s new. I’m not even sure if this is the same country we fought for. The other day I woke up and I thought: I don’t even know if this is America anymore. Maybe this isn’t a country at all anymore. In a real country, you’ve got a goal. You’ve got a purpose. You’re working together. You’re building for the future. You want to make the world a little better for your kids.
What’s our purpose now? I’m not sure I see a purpose anymore. People are just walking around talking on cell phones and buying things or shouting at each other on the television.
If you asked me what I believed in, I’d say kids. Sure, kids. Your own kids, then you get the grandkids, now there’s the great-grandkids. I can’t keep them straight, who is who. I don’t think they know who I am either, but my grandkids, and I’m not even sure about all their names either, push them at me and say, go give Pa-Pa a hug. I scare them, in my wheelchair, but I like the hugs. I’ll take what I can get. Pa-Pa. I get a kick out of that.
I got so little time with my own kids. I was always working. When you are ninety-four years old, I will tell you one thing you will not regret. You will not regret that you didn’t work more. It’s always too late. By the time you know anything, it’s too late. Maybe you can warn people not to make the same mistakes. Not that they’ll listen. But here it is, if you want to hear it.
Don’t work so damn hard. Spend more time with your kids. And throw your kid in a closet and tie him up before you let him go off and get killed in a war. Because in the end, you’re the only one who will care. You and your family. The country will survive without your kid. You’re the only one who will miss him every day for the rest of your life.
I didn’t expect all these years to keep running by. After Mary went, I wanted to follow. But the heart keeps beating, the lungs keep breathing. It’s a new day, a whole new ballgame. What’s with all the machines to keep you alive? What’s the point? There comes a time to call it quits, bag it in.
Time. I wouldn’t want to be young again. One time through is enough. I wouldn’t mind being eighty. I was still going strong at eighty. I walked five miles a day. But if I was eighty, I’d be missing Mary all over again. After she went, I tried to walk away the pain or it was like I wanted the pain to be somewhere else, to be in my hips or my back or my feet, anywhere but the pain eating away inside.
Funny, Mary is closer to me again. I can’t explain it, but I see her a lot now. That girl with the hoop in her tongue rolled me into the bathroom and I saw her in the mirror, standing behind my chair, and for a minute she looked just like Mary, different color and all, but she still looked like Mary, and I said, Mary, just like that, Mary, and she bent over and she hugged me and she said, that’s okay, honey, that’s okay now.
About the Author
Robert Garner McBrearty’s short stories have been widely published including in The Pushcart Prize, Missouri Review, North American Review, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, and previously in Lowestoft Chronicle. Robert is also the author of three short story collections and a novella, and he has received the Sherwood Anderson Fiction Award and fellowships to the MacDowell Colony and the Fine Arts Work Center. “Mr. O’Brien’s Last Soliloquy” will appear in his forthcoming flash fiction collection WAKE ME WHEN I CAN’T SLEEP, soon to be published by Matter Press.