Solid Ground

By Maryanne O'Hara

Just outside the customs hall at Dublin Airport, Kate is startled by a man who looks so much like Paulie that her grip on her luggage loosens and the bags slide to the floor. The man even has Paulie’s straight, corn-colored hair and his elegant way of standing—relaxed, one hand in his pocket. He checks a flight monitor, then heads toward the escalators and descends while she watches, shaking, wondering what will strike him down. That the odds can turn on anyone—this is how she lives with the fact that other men are alive. Any moment, he might step off that escalator, unaware that his trouser cuff has caught in the stairs’ metal teeth. He might hail a taxi that veers to miss a pedestrian. There are all kinds of dangers between that man and home, and he doesn’t even know it.

So he’s not to be envied.

And his wife, or girlfriend—they’re not to be envied, either.

She waits until he is surely gone, then picks up her bags and heads down the escalator herself. She does not trip on metal teeth. She hails a taxi that does not hit her. “Binlow,” she tells the driver, then settles against the nubby tweed seat and watches the streets of Dublin flash by through rain-spattered windows.

She is thoroughly jet-lagged, it is only seven a.m., and it doesn’t quite feel like she’s really here, but that is most likely because this trip was so last-minute. She’s been wanting to come back to Ireland for a while now, but the deciding moment came last week when she received Josie’s letter, with its scribblings about the Mass she was arranging for “her Paulie.” Josie hadn’t invited Kate, had barely asked after Kate, had barely made any reference to the fact that the anniversary was surely going to be hardest on Paulie’s wife.

So she’s come. And maybe she’ll have it out with Josie. She’ll certainly take back those keepsakes of Paulie’s that Josie stole. And she’ll see Stephen—but that is a furtive thought, pushed away in embarrassment whenever it comes to mind.

She turns her face toward the taxi’s window, picks out one raindrop and watches it travel down the glass. Somehow, being here must bring Paulie closer. Because a year has gone by, and memories fade a lot in a year.

By eight a.m., she’s in Binlow and checked into Flynn’s Hotel. The room is too cheery, hung with bright green-and-pink floral chintz drapes that only emphasize the lack of light in the room, the raw, rainy weather outside. And the room is chilly. She always forgets how damp and chilly Ireland is. She shivers, catching sight of herself in the mirror. She looks so scrawny these days, so desperate, her eyes too big. The short, shaggy haircut Paulie had liked has grown long, making her face look thin and sharp. She unpacks a photo and sets it on the bedside table—Paulie, unaware of the camera, arms crossed, standing against a display of Ballycravin linen, his gaze directed toward the door of their Boston shop. She can pretend the gaze is directed at her—the eyes have that way of following a person about the room. They follow her as she unpacks, as she runs a hot bath, and afterward, as she pulls on Paulie’s old running shirt, draws the drapes and crawls, heavy-legged, into bed. She lies curled up, thinking of that man at the airport, thinks until she sinks into sleep and Paulie is holding her again, running his fingertips across her lips in his slow, teasing, way and finally she reaches for him, wrapping her legs around him, delirious with relief—it was all a mistake—but something isn’t right, she can’t feel him, she’s holding air.

The fright of it wakes her up.

The sheets are cold; a sliver of sky dark with rain shows through a split in the drapes and somewhere, a horn blows. She picks up a pillow and throws it off the bed as hard as she can. She is thirty-one years old and the rest of her life is endless, pointless—impossible to imagine she can’t make love to Paulie. Impossible thought, she has to push it out of her mind, try to focus on the next few hours, the walk through town to Josie’s house. She’ll enjoy the walk, she tells herself, the rain, the nice view of the coast, but every nerve in her body pulses, wanting to be touched, wanting Paulie, and finally, she lets herself face the other reason for coming here—to see Stephen, Paulie’s brother. Stephen, with his voice clipped and low like Paulie’s. With Paulie’s pale hair, his grey eyes. She turns in bed, squeezing the bedclothes between her knees. As if in a fever, she schemes—she will get Stephen alone somewhere, seduce him, close her eyes and pretend he is his brother.

An hour later, maneuvering Binlow’s narrow, wet streets, she braces herself for a confrontation with Josie. From Boston, she sent a letter, deliberately vague—a trick she learned from Paulie for dealing with his family—that said only that they could expect her at some point on Saturday and that she’d stay at Flynn’s. Otherwise, there would have been a contingent at the airport to greet her, and they would have planned her every moment in Ireland—dinners with priests, visits to shrines and churches. They have a way of pulling you in, even if they don’t particularly like you.

At the house, Maura answers the door. Long-faced Maura, still a mother’s girl at thirty-eight, the oldest and least friendly of Paulie’s siblings, her mouth hanging open at the sight of Kate. “We didn’t think you’d really come,” she says, motioning Kate out of the rain and into the tiny hallway where she puts hands to hips and looks Kate up and down. “Ah, you’ve gone too thin. I’d better let Mam know you’re here.” She starts for the stairs, pauses. “Then I’ll get you a cup of tea.” Kate almost laughs; she forgot about that odd way of inserting automatic good manners into bad. But she is glad to be here. The small house is so familiar. She can pretend Paulie is showering, or down at the chipper, back any minute.

From above comes the sound of whisperings and exclamations, then a door slams and Josie appears on the stairs, pulling a lavender sweater across her shoulders as she makes her way down. Her face has taken on a sunken quality this past year, her hair turned to grey strings. She grips Kate’s hand, the flicker of welcome in her eyes quickly squelched, as always, by petulance, and Kate thinks, well, I’m going to get the treatment, but I don’t care.

“In God’s name, why are you here, child?”

I will ignore these dramatics, Kate thinks. “Paulie’s Mass,” she says calmly. She doesn’t say she’s here to saturate herself in memories. She doesn’t say she craves the sight of Stephen. Where is Stephen? As far as she knows and hopes, he still lives in Binlow. Like Paulie, he wanted more than a fish factory job. He’s a photographer, and a few months back, Josie sent word he opened a studio.

Josie’s hands twist the hem of her sweater. “You buried him with strangers and now no one will be there to visit his grave.” She chokes on the word and turns to Maura with a sign-of-the-cross gesture. “And on the first anniversary, Maura.”

Maura strokes Josie’s arm and says there now, she’ll get her a cup of tea. She ushers her mother into the room, then turns on Kate. “You’ve upset her now.”

Always, these unjust accusations.

“Ah, will you leave her be?” A voice of rescue calling from the top of the stairs—Alice, Paulie’s youngest sister, running down to hug Kate. “Go on and tend to the ma,” she says, shooing Maura away. “They’re worse than ever.” She winks and lowers her voice. “You know Mam. She truly mourns Paulie but she does enjoy playing the martyr. Where’s your bag?”

Kate is ready for that. She’s already checked into Flynn’s, she says. It will be better all around.

“Aren’t we awful, not even offering a cup of tea, but. . .” Alice peers over her shoulder. “I wonder if you wouldn’t run to Pettit’s and get me a few onions,” she says loudly, then leans in close for a whisper. “Take your time and I’ll calm the ma down. When you get back, it’ll be time to eat and everyone else should be here.” She jerks a thumb toward the sitting room. “They didn’t believe you’d really come, but the rest of us did.” She laughs. “Sure, we’ll protect you.”

Kate rests her hand on the door handle. She tries to sound casual. “Will Stephen be here?”

“Sure he will.”

Outside, she starts down the concrete walk, then on impulse darts across the wet grass to peer into the sitting room window. Josie is making a fist, saying something to Maura.

Probably words of blame. The night Paulie was hospitalized, Kate had called Ireland, uncertain whether to soften the truth. “It’s Paulie,” she said, the words coming out in a blunt rush. “He’s in the hospital, and it’s serious.” She tried to explain about the lingering infection Paulie had ignored for weeks, but Josie cut her off—“Weren’t you looking after him?” A clamor of voices and tears on the other end drowned out Kate’s explanations and finally, she hung up. The next day, Josie arrived in Boston, with Maura and Father Martin, their family priest of all people, and it wasn’t until after Paulie’s funeral, after the arguments, when they’d all gone home, that Kate realized Josie had taken Paulie’s childhood toy rabbit and other keepsakes, as if to spite her.

Underneath her sweater, she fingers the tee-shirt—their first Farrell’s Imported Irish Goods silkscreen—remembering the rabbit’s torn ear, the way it fit into Paulie’s palm. Three years ago, before the two miscarriages, they’d celebrated the first pregnancy with sparkling cider, and Paulie produced the rabbit as his first gift for the baby. It was faded yellow rubber, its nose painted in a perpetual sniff, the only thing that belonged to him alone, unshared, as a child.

Kate would be honest about taking it back. She’d say, “Josie, that rabbit meant a lot to Paulie. It was to be for our children and he would want me to have it.”

She would have to steel herself for Josie’s ways, for how Josie would bite her lip bravely and pick it up as if to offer it. “I remember when he wouldn’t go to sleep at night,” she’d say, in her way of recounting stories everyone had heard ad nauseam, “unless I was there to kiss him. Once, Aunt Tess tried to put him to bed, but he wouldn’t be comforted without his mam. Do you remember that, Maura?” Maura would nod her head and Josie would throw fond eyes toward the ceiling. “I was in England for Uncle Joe’s retirement and he chewed the rabbit’s ear off in his sleep, that’s how upset he was.” Maura would lay a hand on Josie’s shoulder and look at Kate with eyes that said, Don’t even think of taking that rabbit. It’s all she’s got.

But it wasn’t all Josie had. Josie had six other children, she had grandchildren. Kate was the one who had been left with nothing but baby name books and Farrell’s five-year forecasts to remind her of how timeless life had once seemed.

She turns away. Next door, a curtain swings, a shadow shifts. Word will get out now, Kate thinks. All of Binlow will know that Paulie’s widow had been peering in at Josie Farrell’s window. But what did she care? What did they understand? Down Hill Street, across the bay, Dublin shimmered through the rain like a dark mirage. Somewhere there was the bus queue in front of Trinity College where she’d met Paulie, within days of her arrival in Dublin. She’d been standing in the queue in the rain. Paulie had been behind her, his blonde hair plastered to his skull, protecting his books with his thin jacket. Kate offered to share her umbrella with him, was amused by his excessive thanks. He had smoke-grey eyes that held hers as they talked. He asked what was a Yank doing in gloomy Ireland, anyway, when she could be home, lying on a beach? Rain dripped off the umbrella and splashed on their shoes. Kate said she actually liked rain and gloom, and he laughed, his eyelashes curving into rain-beaded crescents. “You must have Irish blood, then. Enjoying gloom.” The bus pulled up, packed, and Kate, the last let on, watched the door fold in his face. At the last instant, she pushed her way off and they stood looking at each other, tongue-tied and grinning, until he asked if she wanted to go to O’Halloran’s for a pint.

Kate didn’t meet Josie for months, after she and Paulie had already decided to marry. On the train to Binlow, Paulie said that Josie was the “typical Irish martyr—I mean mother,” worse since his father died five years before. “She’ll suffocate you,” he warned. But Josie was waiting on the platform, eyes eager, scanning the crowd for them. She was younger than Kate expected—fiftyish—with close-cropped grey hair and hands dug into the pockets of blue jeans, a sporty blazer over her shoulders. She hugged Paulie hard, then took hold of Kate’s hand, and said “Welcome” in a voice that seemed to mean it. The three of them left the station, heading down the coast road to Tasses-on-the-Strand, and Kate made a mental note to needle Paulie about how wrong he had been.

At Tasses-on-the-Strand, beside large windows smeared with sea spray, they ordered cups of tea and Paulie delivered the news. Kate wasn’t one for a big wedding, he said. Her parents were old now. Her sister Melanie wasn’t even coming. “We’re going to keep it private.”

Kate watched Josie’s face for signs of disappointment that her son was marrying a woman she’d only just met. She waited for questions she was prepared to answer. She’d been a literature student, she would say, but she and Paulie both had the same dream of owning this up-end mail-order business. She would write copy for the catalogue. Eventually they would have a shop, and after that, children. At least two.

But Josie asked no questions and seemed, if anything, eager about the idea of a wedding. She said they’d better start planning. She flipped open her purse and took out a pencil and paper scrap. “We’ll get a room at the Strand Hotel,” she said. “Stephen to take the pictures. And Father Martin to say Mass.”

Kate shot Paulie a look of alarm.

“You don’t understand, Mam,” Paulie said. “We’ve already arranged everything. Very simple. A family dinner in Dublin. Then we’re off to Menorca for a little holiday.”

Josie waved her hand dismissively. “But sure you’ve got to have a hotel. The town will be expecting it. If not the Strand, then Flynn’s will do—.”


Almost imperceptibly, her eyes hardened. “We’ll have a party at the house, then.”

“No, Mam.”

She pulled a tissue from her purse, sniffled into it, then wadded it into a tight ball. She fixed her teacup with a fierce stare and began tapping her finger against the rim.

Kate tried to be light. “Please understand—this is what we want.”

An ugly flush of dislike covered Josie’s face. “I’m just trying to make things nice for my son,” she said.

It was hard to believe this was the same woman who had seemed so pleasant, so modern, just minutes before. Glancing at Paulie, Kate saw a likeness to Josie in his fleshy chin, a repelling likeness. He was starting to look uncertain and Kate gave his ankle a kick.

“Look, Mam,” he said. “We’re having a quiet ceremony and a dinner for family only, at Barnton House. Do anything else and we won’t show.”

Kate had the distinct impression of a mule digging in its heels. Well, they’d have to start looking at houses, Josie said. There was a house for sale in Kennedy Park right beside Pat and Anne’s. She’d ring up the estate agent and find out about it.

Paulie looked her straight in the eye. “That’s one of the things I have to tell you. Kate and I are going to be starting this catalogue company I told you about. In Boston, as soon as we finish up at Trinity.”

Kate had never seen a person remain so still yet fill with such rage. Josie narrowed her eyes at Paulie as if she would strike him, and spoke as if he was a fool. “Set up your business here in Binlow. You’ll get plenty of the tourist trade.”

Paulie explained that they were going to aim for something else. “Farrell’s Imported Irish Goods,” he said. “Only the finest. Not to appeal to the shamrock and leprechaun tourist, but to people who appreciate quality. Very upmarket, so to say.” He grinned, but Josie was beyond cajoling. She pushed her chair away and stood, covering her heart with her hand as if it was all too much for her.

They let her rage at them; they put up with her pouts at the wedding. Maura and the oldest brother, Pat, were Josie clones, but the others were all right—Noel, teenage Alice, who openly admired Kate’s refusal to buckle under Josie. Stephen. Kieran. Peter. Once they were married, Josie turned off the cold treatment and became, briefly, the woman Kate met at the train station. But Kate could never trust that woman again, and with good reason. Soon enough that woman did change, into a nuisance, constantly taking the train into Dublin and showing up at their flat without notice, often with two or three grandchildren in tow, expecting full teas, expecting, in short, homage. Kate was relieved when she and Paulie finished their degrees and made the move to Boston.

By the time Kate heads back with the onions, the cloud cover is breaking. When she arrives at the house, Noel and Kieran and Peter spill out the door, calling her name. She is surprised—after the earlier encounter, she expected a more subdued reception. In the doorway, Josie wipes her hands on her apron and holds the door open, her eyes flat, Maura standing silent by her side. “Hello again,” she says. A martyred hello.

I’ll ignore this, Kate thinks, smiling too brightly at Alice, handing her the onions.

At the long kitchen table, Josie huddles into her sweater while the men ask about Kate’s flight over. Alice sets out a platter of sliced cheddar and tomatoes and listening to them, to Noel saying they were so surprised to hear she was coming, Kate wonders if she misunderstood, if the reason Josie didn’t invite her to the Mass was because of the expense, the overnight trip across the Atlantic which still is, to this family, overwhelming.

As they pour tea and pass sandwiches around, Kate’s attention flickers; she keeps glancing toward the door. Finally she asks where Stephen is, and Noel says, so off-handedly she hopes her disappointment doesn’t show, “He had a sitting.”

“But he says you’re to stop down,” Alice says. “His studio’s just across from Holy Rosary Convent.” She smiles. “Remember the time Paulie stole those nuns’ knickers off the drying line?”

They laugh, at first in a subdued, respectful way, but Kieran says, “Paulie would have wanted us to laugh.”

“Ah, he was a right joker,” Noel says. “Remember he used to bottle sea water in Lucozade bottles and sell it to the Yanks as Fairy Essence?”

Kate, stirring her tea, joins in. “That Fairy Essence was the beginning of Farrell’s for him,” she says, and they all look vaguely surprised, as if they had forgotten that Paulie had another life. “Tourists who didn’t know the catalogue used to come into the Boston shop and complain it wasn’t Irish at all-where were the shamrock glasses, the green tam o’shanters?”

The men laugh, and Alice slaps the table, but Josie folds her arms, eyes intent on her lap. “You never should have taken him to America,” she says. “He wouldn’t’ve gotten sick and he’d be alive now.”

Alice and the men look away with embarrassed faces. “Sure, she doesn’t mean it,” Noel mumbles.

“Don’t I, now?” Noel’s turn to receive the glare.

“But—.” How little they knew of Paulie, she realizes. How little of the years raising capital for the storefront in Faneuil Hall, of his excitement when catalogue customers discovered the shop. She tries to explain that Paulie could have gotten sick anywhere, that it was his nature to keep working and not mollycoddle himself, but stops when she realizes they are all looking at her with blank faces.

They didn’t understand and maybe she couldn’t blame then. She’d barely been able to understand herself. The hospital was a dark blur, but moments stood out: the relief she felt when she heard the word “pneumonia,” the devastation when the doctor raised a warning hand and explained that it was serious, that a massive sepsis had occurred, that it was likely an infection had been spreading for some time.

“It was Paulie,” she says now, “who wanted to live in Boston. He thought the business would do better there.”

Alice speaks up. “Sure, he told me that.” But Maura and Josie look away—they don’t believe her and Kate sees they don’t want to believe her, that they’re the kind of people who need reasons to point to, reasons for tragedy.

Noel clears his throat and tries to joke. “Ah, sure, you could never have kept Paulie in this small town.” But the story-telling atmosphere has fizzled out. Everybody starts scraping back their chairs, getting up. Alice says she and Maura need to see Father Martin and make sure all is ready for morning. The rest make plans to come back at teatime.

When the front door bangs shut, Josie and Kate are left at the table. Josie pulls her sweater around her and sighs. “Every day, after morning Mass, I wish I could visit his grave,” she says. “Is it kept up? Is the stone nice?”

“Of course I keep it nice.” But Josie is rubbing at a worn button, her gaze fixed on nothing in particular. Maybe the woman just doesn’t realize how she sounds. “Josie,” Kate says, forcing lightness into her voice. “How could you possibly think I wouldn’t take care of it?”

"I never said you didn’t, but it’s a crime, isn’t it, when a mother can’t see her own son’s grave?” And now the fury builds. “You lured him over there.”


“And buried him in a place full of strangers.”

“A wife is hardly a stranger.”

“Who’ll be with him on the first anniversary, may I ask? Nobody, that’s who.”

“My sister is bringing flowers.”

Josie sneers. “Strangers. Why, Carmen Foley lost her daughter nearly a year ago, but she has a grave to tend every Sunday. She’s planted lovely pink roses. What have I got? Nothing.”

“You’re fixated on a thing here, Josie, a gravesite.”

“What else is left of my son?” She scrapes her chair back and stands trembling, seeming to tower over Kate. Then she is gone, in a single turning, sweeping rush into the sitting room. Probably expecting, or wanting Kate to follow, to placate.

I won’t, Kate thinks.



She finds Farrell Photography easily enough. A bell jangles when she opens the door. From behind a curtain, Stephen emerges with a little yell, wrapping her in his arms, looking so much like Paulie, but no, not like Paulie, and a thought comes to her but she can’t clarify it in the commotion. “I’m with a client, but sit, sit,” he says, gesturing to a chair, his eyes looking—glad. “God, it’s good to see you,” he says, and keeps saying, as she spends the next half-hour watching him work—darting behind his tripod-mounted camera, then stepping forward to arrange the shoulders or chin of the little girl perched on a stool. “That’s right, just like that,” he says and Kate half-closes her eyes, hanging onto the sound of him, to the way he clears his throat before speaking, just like Paulie. At one point, he glances at her with a smile so familiar she has to catch her breath and look away.

That’s when she notices the walls, covered with the various photographs he’d taken over the years for Paulie’s catalogue. There is the shot of the bridge at Mount Usher Gardens that had been intended for the home page of the website. Stephen had sent it just prior to Paulie’s falling ill. She remembers Paulie being so pleased with it, remembers how he’d called Stephen first thing to thank him. “It’s brilliant, Stephen,” he’d said. She can remember him leaning against the kitchen wall, the red phone tucked between his ear and his shoulder.

It is her last normal memory. Everything after that is pain: his collapse, her shaking fingers dialing 911, sponging him with a wet cloth, the morning sun slanting in at exactly the same angle it did every morning, the seagulls wheeling and diving outside, the newspaper hitting the front steps with a soft thud. An ambulance arrived and somehow they were in the hospital, then there were hours alone, hours of uncertainty. We do know it’s not a heart attack. His lungs have pockets of infection. We’re not sure why. Finally she was let into his room in the ICU where she held his hand and talked to him—words of comfort, he was in and out of consciousness—until the hospital shift changed and the halls became quieter.

After he fell asleep, she stood in darkness by his window. Moonlight spread across the bed where he lay; she pressed her cheek to the cool glass. Outside it was Saturday night, a summer wind was blowing. A few blocks away, people were drinking and laughing in the open-air cafes along the waterfront, taking their lives for granted. She and Paulie had planned dinner out that night. Mephisto’s, corner table. But behind her, the respirator thumped, and she saw, in a mysterious instant of clarity, that it was all over for them. The knowledge was followed by a spreading cold, a lack of control, and she could only think, bear it, for him. She walked over to his bed and bent down to kiss each eyelid, thinking, if he goes you can lose your mind or kill yourself, just hang on till then. Then, like a drawstring, she pulled self-control tight around her.

Late that night, he went into respiratory arrest, into coma. Morning revealed that the infection had spread. It was everywhere, and Kate had studied enough biology to understand about damaged tissue. She knew then she had to savor the time she had left. But it reminded her of the night before their honeymoon on Menorca ended and she stood in the water, unmoving, letting the waves pull at her feet for a full twenty minutes, willing herself to remember every sensation, to absorb it so she would never forget the honeymoon, would always be able to recall it at will. It hadn’t worked. And that’s what she’d been afraid of. That she wouldn’t be able to remember every detail that was Paulie.

In the afternoon, Josie arrived, sleep-deprived, grey-faced, and shaken, leaning on Father Martin’s arm, Maura by her side. She said the right things and hugged Kate hard. “You’ll have to be strong, love.” And Kate wondered, had she changed?

In the room, Josie took Paulie’s hand. “Father Martin’s going to say a few healing prayers,” she said, and Kate felt a wild hope. But when Josie said, “Martin’s the best,” and Kate saw the pious look of acknowledgement that passed over the priest’s face, she imagined what Paulie would say if he could. “Would you get that flipping priest out of here?” he’d whisper. “Send him out to the Cheers bar or something.” Kate began to laugh then, a hysterical, maniacal laugh. “Poor thing,” Josie said. “She’s in shock.”

The next day, Josie became more like herself. She began to make comments. “It was poison, working in this city. He should never have come to America.” When one of the clinical assistants brought them some lunch, Josie, biting into her turkey sandwich, said, “The food is rotten here.” Later she stood by the window, hand on her hip, surveying the rooftops below. “It’s a dirty city.”

That night, a nurse gave Kate the nod to sit in a chair by Paulie’s bed. Inside the drawn curtains, she held onto his hand, willing the night to last forever, dreading dawn. She never shut her eyes, yet in the morning, during the only five minutes she left him, he went into cardiac arrest. Coming back from the bathroom, Kate saw the fluster and noise and one part of her mind remained detached—it watched as she walked, leaden-bodied, to his doorway, as she sat by his bed, numbly holding onto him until a nurse summoned Josie and Maura.

Kate couldn’t look at them, at their tear-streaked faces, couldn’t listen to the noises they made. At some point, Father Martin found her in the family room and approached to say he would handle the arrangements. There was a flight available the following night; he’d already checked. Kate looked up, confused. What was he talking about?

“The body can be flown back on the same plane,” he said.

The body. Kate wanted to slap the expectant look off his face. He pulled at his Roman collar, waiting for her response.

“Paulie isn’t being buried in Ireland.” She said it in her flattest voice and turned her back to him. He coughed and stammered. He left and returned with Josie, who was raw-eyed and clinging to Maura. Father Martin licked his red lips; he covered a nervous cough. He could understand, of course he could, that Kate probably hadn’t thought things through. But Ireland was Paulie’s home, and they hadn’t had any children; it would just make sense to bury him in Ireland. “And to be practical,” he said. “No one will be able to come on such short notice, with the expense and all.”

Through her stupor, Kate knew he had a point, but the thought of Paulie’s grave so far away was unbearable. “No,” she said, her voice cracking. “No. I will gladly pay for anyone who wants to come over for the funeral. But Paulie was my husband, I want him here with me.”

After the funeral, after they’d all left her alone in the house that seemed so part of a lost world that it felt strange to be in it, she pulled out all her photographs of Paulie and began studying them, trying to feel his presence, her eyes so wet the images blurred and fat drops splashed onto her wrists. She gathered the photographs up and took them to bed, pulling down the covers on his side. Only six days had passed since they had last fallen asleep in their bed, expecting to wake up to nothing more than a summer morning of coffee on the patio. Then she thought of the rabbit and ran to get him from the room that would have been the nursery. But he was gone—the bureau top bare. She pulled drawers open, frantic, looking for it, for his school medals, but she knew. Josie, angry about not getting her way, had taken everything.

Kate herself was so filled with anger that it frightened her. She sought calm, tried to keep herself numb. She arranged for management to run Farrell’s, and began working at the town library a few days a week. The library was calming—the hum of electric lights, the soft clapping sound of books being shelved and stamped. She took yoga classes and painting lessons, and her sister and friends thought she was recovering nicely. They didn’t know she managed only by looking forward to her nightly routine. At bedtime, she made a ritual of touching the photographs. Then she turned on the video to see him move—casting his fishing line into the Atlantic their last vacation on Martha’s Vineyard, dressing for dinner out (his blue brushed-cotton shirt); to hear him talk and laugh—”Ah, will you go away with that video, Katie!”

But one recent night, halfway through the routine, she realized her attention was wandering. She’d memorized the details in the photos and watched the videos so often that they’d begun to lose their power to soothe her, to surprise her with his almost-presence.

Then she remembered Stephen and wondered, briefly, before her face stained hot, how could she have overlooked that living, untouched source of so much that was Paulie?

And now here he is. The session finished, the mother of the little girl trying to catch her eye in sympathy, the bell jangling as they leave.

Stephen digs in his pocket, looking for keys, and she fills her eyes with the sight of him. What would he do if she suddenly just took him into her arms? He’s the same height as Paulie. She could nuzzle into his shoulder with her eyes closed and never know the difference.

“We’ll slip next door for a pint?” he is saying. He lightly touches her wrist, the touch of his fingertips electric. “I’ve got a half hour before my next sitting.”

The Henry Pub is small and dark and smells of the peanuts that sit under hot lights in a glass case on the bar. It’s quiet. In a corner, an old man sits with a Guinness. Stephen orders Smithwicks for them, then swivels on his stool to face her. “I’ve thought of you so much this past year,” he says, the first truly sympathetic words she’s heard since arriving. “I know it’s hard,” he says. “I know I miss him every day.”

I miss him every instant, to the point of wishing you were him, Kate thinks, so fervently she might have spoken aloud. What would he feel if he knew what she was thinking? Sitting so close, she can smell coal smoke in his hair, in his shirt. His eyes are greyer than Paulie’s, his chin more defined, but a sidelong glance can make her believe Paulie is sitting beside her. She takes a few sips of the Smithwicks, relishing the illusion, breathing deep—that coal smoke had clung to Paulie’s hair, too.

But they sit in growing silence—and Kate remembers that Stephen is quieter than Paulie. Gregarious with greetings, yes, but less inclined to keep up a conversation. She asks about his work. He shoots a lot of weddings, he says. They’re his bread-and-butter, but he’s also sold a few things to Ireland of the Welcomes and Cara. Then he asks what she’s been doing. “Working in a library, Mam said?”

“Yes, and I don’t know why I like it so much, but I do. Very much.”

“There’s comfort in quiet places. Like churches.”

“Great comfort.” Her eyes lock with his. He understands. His eyes are Paulie’s. Paulie understood her so well.

“But what about Farrell’s?” he asks.

She doesn’t want to think about the catalogue, or the store, or any of the decisions that hang out there in the future, waiting for her to make them. “I know I have to get back to it, or sell it, or something.” She speaks impatiently. “But I’ve got a great manager. She’s brilliant.” Thank God for Susan.

“Well, you must get in a lot of reading, working in a library.”

She doesn’t tell him that she hasn’t been able to muster the attention required to read. It’s hard to explain that losing herself in a book would have meant temporarily forgetting Paulie, and she has vowed not to do that.

“I’m taking painting classes,” she says. “It keeps me. . .focused. I like trying to get the light right.”

“Ah,” he says, suddenly eager, touching her wrist again. “It’s the same with film. It’s all about light, and contrast, isn’t it? With emphasizing the dark to show the light.” He goes into an explanation of darkroom technique and Kate can see he’s forgotten she’s his sister-in-law. She’s a woman interested in his passion. Does he share Paulie’s taste in women? She vaguely remembers him with a red-haired someone, the woman he brought to their wedding.

And why does she have to think of that? Their wedding, and the way Paulie pushed the ring along her finger and then lifted her hand to his cheek.

She glances at Stephen’s hand. The nails are ragged; he must chew them. Paulie’s nails were smooth and rounded. She wants to slap him then. Why isn’t he Paulie? Why can’t he be? What is it that makes the essence of a person? He’s the same blood and bone.

She reaches, unthinkingly, roughly, for his hand, feeling as if she has some right to it, wanting to feel the shape of his knuckles, the firm texture of his skin. He doesn’t flinch, but he flushes, and she raises her eyes to his.

“Take me out tonight,” she says, feeling reckless. God, she doesn’t care. She’ll ignore his hands, ignore everything that isn’t Paulie. She’ll breathe the coal smoke smell, she’ll squeeze handfuls of the corn-colored hair. She’ll take what she can get.


“For dinner, a walk on the coast.” She sees the dismay on his face, and it alarms her, but she ignores it. “Anything.”

The grey eyes flicker uncertainly. “We’re supposed to meet them all for tea. . .”

“After that, then. I need to feel normal again.”

He regards her quietly. “I’ll do that for you,” he says. “Take you out. If that’s what you need.” But he avoids her eyes. He drains his glass. He looks around the pub. A red stain creeps along his neck.

She knows she is burning crimson. What has she done? Made a pass at her dead husband’s brother. That’s what she’s done.

He clears his throat. “Kate, that light?” He searches for words. “There’s no light without dark. It’s all contrast. The dark reveals the light.” He stops and runs a hand through his hair. “Am I making any sense?”

She nods quickly, wanting only for him to go, to not see how ashamed she is, how disappointed and embarrassed. “I know, I know,” she says. “I know,” she says again, and reminds him of his sitting because there is nothing else to say, because he has used up his words, because she can’t stand the sorrowful way he’s looking at her. And when he gets up to go, it is as if she is watching Paulie walk out the door.

She spends the afternoon wandering the town. She’d thought to catch the bus to Dublin, but when it approaches, blowing exhaust in her face, she waves it on. She watches it pull away, drained of the desire to go back to Trinity, to cross the bridge to the jeweler’s shop where they bought her thin gold band, to look in the windows of O’Halloran’s Pub. Suddenly, it seems pointless. Those places have continued to exist without her, without Paulie. Her chest is hollow; she isn’t handling being here so well, after all.

Suddenly she wants to be back home, with her pictures and her videotapes, back in the library with her books.

She’ll head back to Josie’s. It’s early; Josie will probably still be the only one home. She has lost all desire for argument, but she wants Paulie’s things. She wants to be done with it and say goodbye and go home.

“So you’re back,” Josie says when she answers the door. She is not quite so frosty as before. “Come in, then.” Long ago, Kate noticed that Josie was most domineering when other people were around to support her. She thinks of that woman at the train station, her words of welcome, and wonders how a person can come to be so splintered.

Josie gestures for Kate to follow her into the sitting room and points to a plastic Jesus, two feet high, standing on the coffee table. “I want you to put this on the grave,” she says.

Kate stares at the statue. How would she manage to pack such a thing? And it isn’t her taste at all, certainly not something she can envision among the hydrangeas and vinca she’s planted. She fingers the statue’s flowing robes, its outstretched arms.

“It’s lovely, isn’t it?” Josie gazes at the statue fondly.

Kate remembers how she and Paulie used to shudder at the sight of this kind of hideous religious statuary. But she’ll take it, she’ll placate Josie. She’ll never have to placate or see her again. Then she spies the rabbit on a shelf, surrounded by old sports trophies and vials of Lourdes water. She steps forward, closing her hand around it, squeezing the soft yellow rubber.

“This,” she says wearily, “is mine.”

Josie opens her mouth in surprise. “Certainly not. That was Paulie’s. He could never sleep without that rabbit—.”

“You took this from my house, Josie. You had no right.”

“I had every right, sure.” And she does look truly baffled. The woman simply doesn’t get it, Kate realizes. But no, there’s something behind her eyes. She can protest all she wants, she can convince herself she’s right, but part of her knows what’s what.

Behind her, on the mantel, is a large pearly seashell Kate and Paulie found one evening on Grey Winds beach. Paulie had thought his mother would like the spikey shape of it; he carefully bubble-wrapped it and shipped it to her. Kate lifts it down and pushes it into Josie’s hands. “It’s the same as if I made off with that,” she says. “I wouldn’t do that. It belongs to you.”

Josie doesn’t speak for a minute. She runs her fingers along the spikes. “Nothing belongs to anyone,” she says, and there is surprise in her voice, as if she never knew she understood this.

The statement hangs, the shock and truth of it hangs, in the space between them. Then Josie pulls the screen from the fireplace and kneels to dump coal into the grate. And looking at her, at her bony elbows tucked against her fleshy, rounded stomach, Kate has a sudden curious feeling—Paulie had grown inside that body.

She steps closer to the wall to the left of the fireplace, seeing, for the first time, what’s there. A plaque of the Blessed Virgin hangs above a brass cup of holy water, a red electric vigil light flickering beneath it. Arranged in a circle around these artifacts are pictures of Paulie¾young Paulie wearing a suit too short in the arms, hands in prayer position for First Communion; Paulie as a teenager, waving from a curragh, wind in his hair; surrounded by family at his twenty-first birthday party at the Strand Hotel; Paulie and Kate on their wedding day, hands clasped, smiling at each other.

They are just pictures on a wall, but the flickering light, the holy picture, make it all so awfully shrine-like, and though she tries not to see, she does see: that Paulie is just as dead now as he will be in a hundred years, a thousand years. This past year, she has been living almost as if she was going to see him again, as if she was waiting for some temporary separation to end. But he is gone, gone, and this shrine, she realizes, is no different than her own—her photographs, her videotapes. It is a devastating thought, and it is followed by another, the one that evaded her when she first saw Stephen: as impossible as it seems, she will have another relationship some day. Not with Stephen, but with someone. Unwilled, images of the future rise in front of her—she might move from Boston, remarry, have children. Paulie will recede into the past, become her “first husband.”

Poison idea; she tries to push it from her mind. Shivers. The room smells damp, that Irish dampness that permeates everything—clothes, furniture, skin. At some level, she must have known why she needed to come to Ireland to feel Paulie, to claim him as hers: because he will always be son and brother here.

For the first time, she recognizes that she and Josie are equals on some raw level and she hears herself say, "I made a mistake.”

Josie, still dumping coal into the grate, doesn’t hear. Kate repeats herself, her voice rough. “I made a mistake.”

Josie straightens, rubbing her hands down her apron.

“I should have had Paulie buried here,” Kate says and though the words come out grudgingly, they have the cleansing quality of an offering. She waits, for anger, for argument, but Josie just crumples newspaper for the fire.

“Sure you wouldn’t listen,” she says and puts a match to the fire. She replaces the screen with a mixed expression—bleak, but satisfied, too, the look of a person accustomed to being told she is right, who has come to need it.

“I’ll get more tea,” she says, setting the shell next to the Jesus and waving Kate into a rocking chair. Kate takes the seat, her hand still round the rabbit but her eyes on the seashell. That twilight time on the beach, she and Paulie followed a maze of paths through high, grassy dunes, stopping to inspect stones and shells and small creatures while the sun sunk low and the sky became purple. By the time they turned back, night had come, a black moonless night. They walked giddily into nothingness, trusting that their feet would find solid ground. “We have to listen,” Paulie said, and they stopped, ears cocked. Then they felt their way toward the low roar of the sea, until the soft, deep sand turned to flat, hard shoreline. They followed it blindly until the distant lights of home began to blink.

Home, where Paulie would want her to be running Farrell’s.

She’ll have to start thinking about that; she can’t put the future off forever. But working means distraction, means forgetting him for chunks of time. Selling seems worse, a betrayal, a sure way to slowly forget all that they had shared.

Josie returns, carrying a tray. “Here,” she says, gruff and busy with the milk and sugar. “There’s something about a cup of tea. I don’t know. It settles things.” She talks on, about how tea must be made with fresh leaves, and water hot on the boil, and how Paulie had always liked a hot cup first thing. He’d tried to run a small tearoom when he was a child, so he had. She’d come home one day and he’d pushed all the furniture aside, set a cloth on the table and put biscuits on a plate and hung a sign on the door, Teas, 2 Shillings.

Kate had not considered stories. “Tell me,” she says, leaning closer, determined to imprint Josie’s words forever in her head. She will drink in these stories, she will write them down as soon as she gets back to Flynn’s. They will be like the rows of books in the library: solid and lasting.

"Solid Ground" © 1999 by Maryanne O'Hara