“Larry” by Seán Ferrick

She shouted again from upstairs. Larry, standing on the bottom step, looked up into the dark, fighting the urge to turn and walk away.

‘Larry!’ her voice was shrill. ‘Larry where are you?’

In one hand, he held a little brown paper bag, scrunched now almost into a ball. In the other hand, he held the wall-railing so hard that his knuckles turned white.

‘Larry?’

He swallowed.

‘I’m comin’ Ma.’

Night had fallen before she was quiet again. Her bedspread was smoother now that he had straightened it, reflecting the moonlight pouring in from the only window. With one foot on the iron bed frame, Larry looked at the face of his mother, inhaling deeply on a cigarette as he did. She looked wrong – her throat was swollen, her eyes were sunken and her teeth were bared. This wasn’t the face of the woman who raised him. This was death and Larry knew it.

His breath came in rapid spurts. He could barely control the anger he felt toward her. Twenty years without speaking and she had the audacity to die on him. She was selfish. Glowing in his hand, the little orange tip of the slowly smoking ash inched closer to him. He looked at it and then at her.  He cursed, then stood up and left.

Down the stairs again, he stumbled in the dark until his hand found the ornate, cracked light switch on the wall and flicked it on. The glare was sudden and he shut his eyes, already burned from exposure to more light than he had seen in weeks. Larry didn’t like the light; just the limelight baby. He snorted, pushing into the kitchen, searching for a jar of coffee.

More lights came and went as the pot heated to the boil but these belonged to the cars drudging by outside the apartment block on their way out of the district. Larry envied them, looking up at the ceiling, wishing he were anywhere else.

The phone call had come in early in the morning, ripping him from his dreams and ripping him from the girl lying beside him.

‘What?’ he had barked, voice filled with sleep, into the receiver. There had been a pause, then a little noise.

‘Larry?’ the woman’s voice crackled. He couldn’t hear her.

‘What? Who is this?’ he was looking at the curves on Sarah, or Victoria, lying asleep beside him on the huge bed.

‘Larry? It’s your mother.’ There had been another pause, this time on both ends of the phone. ‘Larry?’

‘Yeah, I’m…who? Ma?’

‘You’ve gotta come home Larry.’

The girl was waking beside him, annoyed grunts coming from her. Larry recovered quickly.

‘Ma, what are you doing, ringing me like this?’ he ran a hand through his tousled hair, using that same voice the fans knew so well. ‘How’d you get this number?’

Now there was a laugh on the other end of the phone.

‘I’m your mother Larry. I have all the numbers.’ A hacking cough made him pull the receiver away, looking at it like it was a poisonous snake. Tanya or Michelle or whoever the hell it was ran her fingers along his spine, trying to hook them around his waist. He pulled away from her. She snorted, stood up and walked over to the door, grabbing his robe along the way. She threw him a filthy look and left the room, slamming the door behind her.

‘You gotta come back home Larry.’ His mother was talking again.

‘Ma, no. I aint been…you can’t just call me like this, outta the blue, what’re you thinkin’ Ma?’

More laughter, this time much quieter, floated through the receiver.

‘You gotta come back Larry. I’m dyin’. You gotta come say goodbye.’

Then a bang – the receiver on the other end hitting the floor.

Larry had been on a plane in less than three hours and had landed in La Guardia before noon. He was hurried through security and walked quickly outside, already lighting the ever-present cigarette before he had left the building.

‘She’d better be really dyin’,’ he grunted at the cab driver, fifteen minutes or so later, watching the New York skyline get closer and closer as they crossed the bridge. ‘Old bag hasn’t spoken to me in years and I gotta fly all the way here for this? Fuck man.’

‘Maybe she really is sick?’ the driver, an unfortunate young African-American man, said over his shoulder.

‘Fuck you man, I didn’t fuckin’ ask.’

They spent the rest of the drive in silence. Larry threw a bundle of notes at the driver as he got out at the steps to the building. Standing more or less the same as when he had left it, he spat on the grey concrete. One two three four, he counted with each step, ignoring the couple of kids playing at the top of the stoop. Years had passed since he’d lost his key so he buzzed number seven, reading ‘Alice Underwood’ in faded letters on the plaque and waited. No answer. He buzzed again, then he buzzed number six.

‘Hello?’ an elderly man’s voice answered cautiously.

‘Hey Mr. Frank! It’s Larry!’ Larry kept his voice light.

‘Larry? Larry who?’

Annoyance flared in Larry. He looked at the kids, still playing, ignoring him completely.

‘Alice’s Larry,’ he said through gritted teeth, forcing a smile, holding the button in harder than he needed to.

The line went dead, but the door opened.

‘Prick,’ Larry grinned, letting the door shut itself behind him. Inside the building was much cooler, full of shadows and more than a few memories. Larry passed the letter stand where he had first tasted another person, kissing his neighbour’s daughter. On the first floor, he looked at door’s three and four, both old, both covered with crumbling brown paint and both locked. He passed them, continuing up the stairs. At the door of number six, Mr. Frank waited for him.

‘So you’ve come back?’ Mr. Frank was wearing a bathrobe; old wrinkled knees exposed to the world, and looked sick. He held a napkin to his face and held Larry’s eyes with his.

‘Yeah Mr., I gotta come back to see my Ma right?’

‘It’s been a while.’ Mr. Frank handed Larry the spare key to the apartment. ‘Larry, your mother’s a good woman. Don’t hurt her again.’

Mr. Frank kept standing there, eyeing Larry up and down, taking in the designer shirt and the expensive shoes. Larry tried to grin at him, then dropped the act and walked upstairs, trying to ignore what he had just heard.

The door to the apartment was the same, weathered a little more by age. He took a breath.

‘Ma?’ he called, putting his bag down on the floor. There was no answer. He walked, slowly, down the hall, skirting the little staircase and heading into the kitchen. It was exactly the same as he remembered it, right down to the place settings on the table. There was a place for Ma on the left, one for Larry on the right and one for Pops in the middle. Pops’s funeral, Larry had been told, was on a lovely Tuesday morning, ten years before. Larry was spooked.

‘Larry!’ she cried from upstairs. He ran back into the hall and up the staircase, opening the door into the only bedroom up there. The smell hit him hard. Putrid air hung in the dark and he almost retched. Squinting, he saw her. She lay in a twisted heap on the old bed, sweating and swearing at the ceiling. Stains dotted across the bedspread and the flies that were buzzing in the room made him worry about how long it had been since she had gone outside. The phone receiver, he saw, was still on the ground beside her and she was still wearily reaching for it. Larry took all of this in and fought a war with his legs not to turn and run away.

‘Larry? That you?’ the dull hope in her voice hooked him and he moved forward.

‘Yeah Ma, I’m here.’

‘You took your fuckin’ time, didn’t you?’ she hacked another cough at him, spraying him with mucous. ‘I called you days ago!’

‘No Ma you called me this mornin’. I got straight on a plane and came here for you.’

‘I called you days ago…’ her voice trailed off and she fell into a fitful of sleep.

Looking down at her, filled with revulsion, Larry wondered why he stayed. She was twisting in his arms so he dropped her down again onto the bed. She started to blur in his vision so, forcefully, he got up from the bed and just to give his hands something to do he started to clean. First, he took off all of the bedclothes.

‘Let her freeze,’ he told himself, even as he draped his long, expensive jacket over her.

He went to the window, streaky and dusty, and opened it a crack, trying to get rid of the stench of decay in the room. By her dressing table, her make-up was knocked around and lying all over the place. Not taking much care, he put it back together, catching his own reflection, seeing Pops’s eyes looking back at him.

‘You’re lookin’ old, Larry. You’re lookin’ real old right now.’

He shrugged at his reflection and turned away. The floor was a wreck. Bits of food that were covered in mould, tossed away clothes, books and other things were littering it. After grabbing the bags from the kitchen, he just picked all of it up and threw it in the trash. He’d buy her new things, so what? His gaze fell upon the bedclothes stacked beside the door. He paused before bending to pick them up, just long enough to remove the shirt he wore. She slept soundly, from what he could see, so he picked the bags and the sheets up, shuddering, and left the room.

Larry looked at the bags of trash, piled beside the front door. He’d made a little pyramid out of them, grinning the whole time.

‘The great monument of crap,’ he announced to no one, proudly unveiling his construct, filled with most of the contents of the kitchen. Almost everything had been out of date. A tin of beans, a jar of coffee and, blessedly, a bottle of vodka, half-full, were the only salvageable items.

‘Fuck sake Ma,’ he said, not for the first time, as he went around, trying to make the apartment habitable again. There was still no noise from upstairs. He went up to check a couple of times, finding her once with his jacket hugged in tight and another time with his jacket lying on the ground beside her. The smell at least had started to shift by the early evening.  After hours of washing and getting more and more angry, he picked up the key, threw back on his shirt and went out, dragging the huge bags of trash with him. Mr. Frank met him on the stairs.

‘You stealing from her?’ Mr. Frank stared at the bags, trying to see inside.

‘What I wanna know,’ Larry spat, ‘is how the fuck you guys all let her get so bad?’

Mr. Frank shook his head.

‘You got no idea son.’ He trundled on down the stairs, leaving Larry with his bags and his anger.

Larry visited the corner shop a few times, smiling as people recognised him and asked for pictures. That smile would turn sour when people asked about his mother. He left quickly, getting back up to the apartment, already becoming a home for him again. With the sheets clean, he remade her bed. Just after nine, she was awake and shouting again. As she called down for tea, Larry rubbed his eyes and looked at his watch. He’d been up for nearly twenty hours and hadn’t had much sleep the night before. Or the night before that. He brought up her drink, only to watch her spit it out again straight away.

‘Jesus Ma, what do you want from me?’

‘Where’s my son? Where’s my Larry?’ she cried again and again, ignoring him completely, eventually refusing even to let him into the room. Larry smoked two packs in the kitchen, washing dishes, cooking dinner, wondering what the fuck he was doing there.

‘Larry?’ she shouted again. He turned on the radio, tuning it to the right station and tuning her out.

Larry never cried. He only got angry. He scrubbed old pots and pans and put them away, something he never did back west. But here, he couldn’t leave them lying around in his mother’s home. It looked wrong. Just like her. He coughed along with the radio, trying to sing along with some song that was floating out of the box. He didn’t even realise it was one of his own songs he was humming along to until the presenter was talking about him.

‘And that was ‘Baby, can you dig your man?’ Well baby, can you?’

Larry froze, looking at the little black box on the shelf over the sink. He still wasn’t used to hearing himself on the radio. It filled him with a little excitement every time. He put the plate down into the soapy water and turned to run up the stairs. Then the music changed and Larry didn’t. The excitement crumbled. Upstairs, she shouted. Mechanically, he took off the rubber gloves covering the soft hands and rolled them up.

‘Larry!’ she yelled, her voice growing softer.

‘I’m coming Ma,’ he yelled back, filling a glass with water.

He dragged his feet up the stairs, letting each step bang as the foot fell. Back inside the room, he looked at her, perched on pillows like any other woman about to read or take tea. But the eyes in her said nothing. He was a stranger in this house.

‘Where’s my Larry?’ she said sluggishly.

‘He had to go out.’ He was tired. He put the glass down beside the bed.

‘My Larry wouldn’t just leave me.’ Her eyes were rolling in her head. ‘You sent him away.’

‘Yeah, fine, I sent him to the store for milk and eggs. We’re gonna have breakfast.’

She smiled a little then.

‘My Larry is a wonderful cook. He’ll make me something special.’ Her face softened a little and she managed a small smile. ‘Don’t think I haven’t seen you today mister. My Larry will see to it that you get a little something for your trouble when he gets back. What is your name?’

‘Ma, it’s me, it’s Larry!’ His frustration was boiling over, threatening to engulf him.

‘You’re name is Larry as well?’ she looked confused, constantly closing and opening her weak fists, trying to focus her eyes. ‘Isn’t that a co-incidence?’

He looked at the puzzlement in her face.

‘Yeah. Co-incidence. Sure, lady.’ He stood up. ‘You want anything else Ma…Mrs. Underwood?’

‘Just my Larry,’ she smiled at him, showing yellowed teeth and a nearly black tongue. ‘You just send him up to me when he gets here.’

‘I’ll do that,’ Larry turned and left the room, closing the door gently behind him, struggling to control the shaking in his body. He walked quickly down the stairs, turning on lights as he went, rubbing one hand hurriedly across his eyes as he did. He had to get out. He had to go and get a drink in a bar. He quickly thought of that girl who might be waiting in his bed, even now. He hadn’t told her where he was going. Why would he?

He left his hand on the door handle, trembling as he waited for the strength to open it. With a sigh, the strength never came and he turned, walking back to the kitchen, sliding along the wall. It was cool and damp. The old wallpaper would be stained by now, he thought, by years of cigarette smoke and bad wishes. Why the hell did she have to call him? Looking back up the stairs, the walls began to tremble, shaking him. He pulled away and it didn’t stop.

There must be something, he prayed, pushing aside the few things he had put in there only hours ago. There, right at the back, was the half-empty bottle of vodka, covered in dust. Silently he thanked God and pulled it straight out, twisting off the cap and taking a deep drink. It tasted like nothing and it slid down easy. As it poured into him, he felt the spill on his cheeks. He coughed, putting the bottle down and, shaking his head, began to laugh. Twenty years without a word and all she had to offer was a half-empty bottle of cheap booze.

‘Fucking typical.’ He muttered.

‘Larry?’ the voice floated down, quietly pleading. ‘Larry, you there?’

He drank the rest of the bottle. Eyes blurring, he walked back to the stairs, tracing the floral patterns with his fingers before turning out all of the lights. He walked up, pushed her door open and turned out the light in her room.

The moonlight flowed in from the only window, splashing across the bedspread, smoother now than it had been, smoother again as he ran his hand over it. He walked to the window, shutting it and closing the curtains. In the darkness, he found the chair and sat in it, resting one foot on the iron bed frame. She was lying back, eyes closed in the near-pitch black room.

‘Larry?’ she whispered.

‘Yeah Ma, I’m here.’

‘I knew you’d come,’ her breath came in a rasp. ‘I knew you’d come.’

‘Of course I was gonna come Ma. I love ya, don’t I?’

‘I knew you loved me. I love you too Larry. My Larry.’

He stayed there all night, long after she died, just sitting with her in the dark, his heart thumping slow and dull, ignoring the long hours, ignoring the boring need to breathe, waiting for that moment when he could find the courage to lie down beside her and sleep.

 

Biographical Note:

I’m currently finishing my first novel. Over the past twenty-four months, I have achieved a Masters Degree in Creative Writing, finished a collection of short stories and been published in an anthology of work by the UCD MA Class. I am 23, currently living in Dublin and working all the time. This Christmas I managed to balance working upwards of 50 hours per week with writing several stories, all of which are available on my blog – www.seanferrickstories.blogspot.com. I love reading and theatre as well, an area that I have had some success in in the past.

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