Building Skyscrapers by Dara Thomas Higgins

The light unravels outside, spills in the windows, across the floor of the hotel bar. The carpet has become golden with day. What’s it trying to prove? We order another round. I’ve switched to whiskey. It’s more formal. You’re telling me about yourself, like an American would.

-In the eighties, you say, I built skyscrapers in Manhattan.

In the eighties I needed to know that, for the kids on the street who pointed and laughed and said you have no da, you have no da, the kids whose fathers came home and painted purple the eyes of their mothers, the bitter tang of chips and booze on the their tongues, the fucking indifference of the world in their ribcage somewhere. Twanging away, rattling around, bouncing off those bones, playing them like the keys of a xylophone. This dismemberment of maleness. But if I’d known, I could say, me Da’s in New York and he’s building skyscrapers. Fucking skyscrapers. And what’s your da building? A car park, maybe. A shopping centre near Cabra. Maybe his week revolves around the dole office, the promise of a few hours queuing in the blue air for a handful of notes and a trip to the bookies on the way home. My Da, single-handedly building skyscrapers. So high and bright, the sunlight twinkling off the glass, the sky fucked by them, these huge things. Single handed. My Da.

-Well, that’s interesting, I said. And I was interested, maybe somewhat impressed. Pictures of workers on a lunch break, perched on a crossbeam, the vista of New York below them popped into my head. I pictured you there, lunch pail beside you, among the other Irish and Polish and Italian lads. Putting down a real legacy, something that will last and be a source of wonderment for years to come. Something even as it’s being demolished will be a spectacle.

-After that, I went residential. Huge gated communities in Massachusetts.

Somehow there was more money to be made in these prosaic sprawls than in five hundred feet tall skyfuckers. Less magic, more money. Isn’t that always the way? And suddenly I’m disappointed, as if you’ve let me down somehow. As if this is your crime, your talk of millions.

The Irish would never, not even from your generation, bandy digits about with such insouciance. I never have money. I don’t know what it’s like. I know, for example, I couldn’t afford these drinks you’re paying for, the largesse of your tab. Or those chinos that hang elegantly off your slim hips. Or the Ralph Lauren shirt. The heavy gold watch. I couldn’t afford it, I wouldn’t want it.

Maybe things are different for you in America. Here old peoples’ maturity is earned in boredom and submission, and worn across the ordinance of their faces. The American male’s greatest misfortune has been an abundance of choice, the niggling doubt you may have bought the wrong thing, perhaps imparted too much of yourself in that television. Oh, you went with the Sony? Yes, I went with the Sony, what’s wrong with the Sony? There’s nothing wrong, per se. I just went with the Samsung. The fear, the fear.

-What about you, you ask. What about me. I’m ordinary, in the way everything is ordinary. It’s a struggle. It’s a succession of minor failures and harsh lessons, this life. It’s a grind. I read French philosophers and complain to walls life is meaningless. That’s me.

-I read a lot. I listen to music.

-What kind?

You see, that’s disappointing. Small. There’s no genre to me. I’ll listen to anything. I don’t mind, I’m just looking to be moved, and it’s the notes that do it. But seeing as you’re asking, I’m an Arcadia man, before the Power Station. Beatles before Stones. While we’re on it, Paul before John. Beethoven over Mozart. Mozart’s just pop music. Right?

You nod. You tell me how you used to hang on Baggot Street as a youngster, still in school. How you’d sneak in to O’Donaghues and sit there during the epic, legendary sing songs with all the greats. Luke Kelly and Anne Briggs and the like. I picture the yellow walls, the smoke an indoor nimbus and the porter on the tables and the mouths open, the decayed teeth and the singing and the singing, and I wish I’d been there, part of something. There’s nothing here nowadays. No scenes.

-Have you ever mentioned me to your other kids?

-No, I have not. I’ve meant to you know, you say, and rest your head on a folded hand for a second, with some intense middle-distance staring that tells me how difficult it is for you. –When I left here. A pause. –I really felt as if I couldn’t come back. It took years. Then my mother became ill. I came back for the funeral.

Great, another family member I didn’t even know I had bites the dust. Corpses are piling up. I’m beginning to think it’s me.

-And then I saw the country was changing. It wasn’t the same grey, hopeless place I left.

You left me to no hope?

-Have you brought them over? Your other children.

-Sure. Ellen met her husband over here, if you can believe that.

Hold on, my sister, prowling for men in my hometown. Perhaps…

-I will tell them. When we’re all together.

-I’d like to, I start. And then I pause and try the intense inward looking, as you have done. But you misread it or disregard it and plough on, telling me how it’s hard to get them all together with the various ex-wives involved, some less accommodating than others.

-Lana never had any more children? You ask. Lana, my mother. Her death left me orphaned on this continent. Precipitated our meeting. I shake my head. -I was sorry to hear…

-It’s fine. She was sick for a while, so it was a blessing.

I’ve said those words to Lana’s friends repeatedly over the last few months. Save your sorrow. Her life was a painful, the end was a release. But whose suffering ended that day? Mine or hers?

You mumble something about how she was a good woman, and you’re sure she made a good mother, but it’s numbing to me. You stretch, the bad leg, the one with veins that had to be removed, wince almost imperceptibly. You flick an eye towards your watch, and pick up your glass, the ice melted. You swirl it around and neck the remains with a calm finality. You’re telling me this meeting is over, as you must have done hundreds of times before in board rooms across the East Coast, discussing the millions and billions required to shelter humans and their belongings.

-I’m glad we did this, you say, and manage to make it sound almost like you mean it. Here in your hotel, your itinerary didn’t even need to change. To get from the plush, combed velour of the couch here in the bar to your suite is a mere matter of a few steps to the gilded elevator, even after your operation.

-I’ve never been here before, I say uselessly. –It really is as nice as they say, I add, for extra uselessness.

-I stay here every time I’m back.

All those times, and where was I?

A regal twist of your wrist and the waiter’s at your shoulder. You place your tumbler on his tray.

You stand and I stand and we’re separated now by only a couple of feet of foot-deadening pile. We admire each other for a moment. I’m taller than you, broader, but you still have your hair and mine is a chimera, wisps plastered across an all too exposed pate. Grandfather, mother’s side, was a chromedome. Not your fault. Your shoes are polished, my Adidas leak. You’re lithe, an animal quality, as if always poised, even with the stick to aid your recovery. We shake hands. I give it everything I have, but yours is rock solid.–It really was good to see you.

-And, uh. You. And I wonder, should I say anything else. What else does one say? –Maybe I’ll drop into you when I’m in America.

-Sure, you say, with a wide, over-bright smile and a twinkle that says: as if that will happen, and I wonder, briefly, if the bank would be quite so accommodating with their pre-approvals now, post-crash, and sure, isn’t it worth a go. Get out a few grand, head to America, meet the family. Try again. Try life again. Fail life again. Fail it better, American style.

-If you’re ever in New Hampshire, you start. But then you stop, and look out the window at the park across the road, the suffusion of golden evening light. Summer in Dublin, its last breaths. The autumn closing in on us, every syrupy sunset coming earlier and earlier. There’s a look that travels across the smooth, soft sheen of your face, as if something simple has occurred to you. Something so simple and so true, something that’s been there for ever and you haven’t noticed. You’re still holding my hand, and suddenly you grasp me. I grasp back, I don’t know what else to do, and when you fall, you pull me down too. I disentangle myself. You’re convulsing, mouth opening and closing, no sounds in there. A waiter reacts quickly. He drops to his knees and listens to your breathing and thumps your chest. I too am on my knees, leaning over.

-I need some space, says the waiter. –Please.

-He’s my dad, I say. The words I have never uttered previously. They sound strange, too weighty, as if unearned by me. The waiter pummels your chest.

-Please.

Someone else from the hotel runs over. A man returning from the gym who’s a veterinarian offers his help. An ambulance is on its way. I watched your face turn blue, a strange hue of polished cobalt. The bustle of hotel staff removes me from your side, and I have to stand, stumbling backwards, falling into a chair as I watch. Within ten minutes the paramedics are there, which is impressive. I imagine they had a special hotline, places like this, with their exclusive clientele of the wealthy and the privileged. There’s overdosing junkies on Thomas Street being ignored right now. And rightly so. Here is a son of Erin, a captain of industry, who did more than the gombeens he left behind here on this sod. He left, he conquered. He accumulated a few wives, as they do over there, and seven children, upon whom he dotes, and a business portfolio, of which he’s equally proud. He won. He deserves his life.

The paramedics are working furiously. Some other patrons are down the back of the bar, looking on idly. The barman hasn’t stopped pouring drinks. I go to him, and ask for another whiskey. He pours silently, freely, not using the little pewter measure. He nods at me, and I back. I upend the tumbler and suck it all down at once. –Stick it on the tab, I say.

There’s nothing for me to do here. I’m no undertaker. I leave. They don’t notice me, any of them. The paramedics are wheeling in a gurney, less enthusiastically now. Outside is dark. Hours must have passed. I take your gold Rolex from my pocket and check the time. I think of the funeral. I wonder will it be here or in America. I’d like to go to America. Start again. Start life again. Maybe get it right this time.


Dara Thomas Higgins is a writer and musician based in Dublin. He currently writes screenplays for State Broadcaster RTE and plays bass guitar for Ireland’s premier psycherock group The Jimmy Cake, among others. @Diplah

Image Credit:  Rohit Tandon