We're delighted to present Goose, a new short story by Joseph O'Neill, taken from his acclaimed new collection, Good Trouble.
From bourgeois facial-hair trends to parental sleep deprivation, in Good Trouble O’Neill closely observes the mores of his characters, whose vacillations and second thoughts expose the mysterious pettiness, underlying violence, and, sometimes, surprising beauty of ordinary life in the early twenty-first century.
In late September, Robert Daly flies New York–Milan. He travels alone: his wife, Martha, six months pregnant with their first child, is holed up at her mother’s place upstate, in Columbia County. Robert is going to the wedding of Mark Walters, a Dartmouth roommate who for years has lived in London and is marrying an English girl with a thrilling name—Electra. Electra’s mother is Italian, hence the Italian wedding. Although he has been to Europe a number of times, Robert has never visited Italy. Italy, New York friends tell him, is the most beautiful country in the world.
Robert is happy to find himself in the most beautiful country in the world. He needed a pick-me-up. Life at the bank has been downright difficult. His solitude is also a cause of happiness because being alone, these days, is a harmless form of freedom. But driving out of Malpensa Airport in his tiny, chariot-like rental car, gripping a stick shift for the first time in years, Robert is frustrated. Every time he turns onto a road he believes will lead him south, he winds up heading in the direction of the Alps, snow-capped even at this time of year and altogether astounding in their abrupt and fearsome immensity. Eventually he makes his way onto the autostrada. There, cruising at what he believes to be a fast speed of 120 kilometers per hour, he is constantly menaced by light-flashing cars—with a mysterious invariability, silver cars—and, finally, by a racing pack of motorcyclists costumed in checkered leather outfits. Robert makes way for the zooming harlequins. His place is in the slow lane, between gigantic trucks that frighten him.
He is bound for Siena. He plans a stopover in Florence—according to his New York informants, quite possibly the world’s most beautiful city. The road takes him through a mountain range he cannot name. On the far side of the range, at dusk, in a spectacle of almost ridiculous gloriousness, Florence presents itself. Robert takes in the crepuscular rays, the golden mist, the shining agglomeration of domes and rooftops. He thinks, OK, I get it. The temptation briefly pushes at him to skip Florence, to keep going. But down he drives, into the legendary city.
Once there, he is foiled. He passes a full two hours trapped in powerful but sluggish flows of traffic: twice the Duomo comes into view, and twice he is helplessly borne away in slow motion to a district of muddy apartment buildings. When at long last he penetrates the city’s historic section, he stops at the first hotel he sees because it comes with a courtyard in which he can park, and to find parking is to find peace of mind. The receptionist shows him a mini room with a mini TV and a mini bathtub. No minibar, however. Robert takes the room anyway, just as he takes the receptionist’s plainly careless recommendation of a nearby restaurant. The wine he orders warily and gloomily: this past year, he has barely tasted anything. A sinus affliction got him at the age of thirty-eight and, inhalants and nasal sprays not- withstanding, has left him in an all but odorless world. The affliction does not touch him most keenly in the matter of food. He can no longer smell his wife. He can no longer detect those scents that, as a husband, are his alone to detect.
Dinner over, he wanders in a warm night. It is past ten o’clock. He sees only tourists. To his amazement he cannot find a bar. He winds up, instead, following a sign to the Ponte Vecchio—the name definitely rings a bell—where an Italian guitar player is singing Simon and Garfunkel. Robert thinks, You come all this way, to the world’s most beautiful city, and you end up with Simon and Garfunkel. Actually, Robert acknowledges that he would rather listen to a terrible version of "Bridge over Troubled Water" than visit a museum or church. He knows what the latter would entail: an hour or more of waiting in line with chattering art-aficionado-mimickers in order to be confronted with a vaguely familiar Michelangelo or Botticelli or what-have-you that’s no better than its postcard reproduction. He leans on the edge of the bridge. Surrounding him are American retirees and self-contained German girls with small bears hanging from their backpacks. Robert gazes at the river, the Arno: it is moonlit and atmospheric and so forth. He gets the Arno.
He walks back to the hotel.
There are two roads to Siena, one scenic and one speedy. Robert takes the scenic one. He clocks the scenery: hills, hill towns, and hillsides that obviously have been cultivated for millennia. So this is Tuscany. It is, Robert thinks, not unlike one of those counties in northern California. At noon he arrives in Siena.
The hotel is in the old city, and the old city, as the wedding instructions warned, is an intricate medieval arrangement of alleys and squares built on a steep gradient. Robert finds parking outside the old city and walks to his hotel. Now what? He tries to eat lunch but can- not: all the restaurants are closed for the afternoon. So for half an hour, he strolls. He has nothing to do until the early evening, when an eve-of-wedding reception will be held. Back in his hotel room, he phones home. Everything is fine, just fine, reports Martha, hanging up before Robert is quite ready for it. He peruses a hotel leaflet about Siena’s history. Once upon a time, he reads, Siena was a great banking center. Robert considers how investment banking might have been structured in what was, he presumes, a pre-corporate age, and who the bondholders might have been, and whether their crises were like the one that’s happening now. Robert assumes so. Then the leaflet reveals that a plague struck Siena and the city lost its power. He flips to the next page but there’s nothing more.
Plague, loss of power, period. Robert is taken aback by this.
On his way to the reception, Robert steps into an Internet café. His intention is to kill time. While checking his e-mail, he is distracted by a headline on his home page:
5,000-Year-Old Skeletons Locked in Eternal Embrace
By coincidence, the story comes out of Italy. In the north, archaeologists have discovered the remains of a man and woman buried for five thousand to six thousand years. The intactness of the teeth indicates that these were young persons. It is apparently a remarkable find, even for professionals who spend their lives finding things of this kind. A Neolithic double burial is very rare, and what’s more, the man and woman are hugging: it’s unmistakable, states the archaeologist, who says she is very moved. There is a photograph. The youngsters’ skeletons lie face-to-face. Each has its arms wrapped around the other skeleton. Undoubtedly the skeletons appear to be a pair.
The question in Robert’s mind is whether the couple arranged themselves in this way, or whether their bodies were arranged in this way by others.
There’s a second question, asked by the article:
Is there someone you’d like to spend 5,000 years buried with?
There’s a Yes tab and a No tab.
Robert floats the cursor across the screen and checks the Yes tab. It hasn’t been discussed, but it is logical that Martha and he will lie together, or at least near each other, for the next five thousand years, give or take the few decades of their joint lives.
The welcome party is being held at a splendid old building down the hill. Robert walks there. He is happy to be wearing no socks and brand-new loafers. The last thing Martha did before driving upstate was drag Robert into a shoe store on Madison Avenue. Now you’re respectable, she said, handing him the shoe box. The purchase was a weight off her mind, Robert saw, a loose end tied. With the baby just three months away, Martha has been spotting loose ends everywhere: the need for a paint job in the baby’s room, the dangerousness of the electricity sockets, the inadequacy of the freezer compartment. Martha is on a tear. In recent weeks she has carried around a checklist and a marker pen that makes a fat, satisfactory stripe when a to-do is done. Robert recently picked up the list and read it with awe. A one-word item earned his closest, most amused, most mystified attention. The word, which had a line drawn through it, was his name.
At the reception, Robert wonders who from the old Dartmouth days will have made the trip. The answer, he discovers, is himself. Either Mark has lost interest in the Dartmouth crowd or vice versa or both. The last possibility is the most likely: mutual loss of interest. After all, Mark has been abroad a long time. Moreover, a year after his first marriage came to an end, Mark gave up his London job as a boutique picker of Russian investments—an undertaking whose huge success registered with Robert only when he heard that Mark was in the habit of rollerblading from his Mayfair flat to his St. James office—and worked mainly in Africa for three years, in some obscure help-the-needy capacity. Conse- quently, Mark himself became a little obscure, at least to his American circle. Robert guesses that his status as the only present Dartmouthian may be referable to the two- thousand-dollar check he once secretly wrote in support of Mark’s African cause. Martha would have thought the donation excessive, particularly given the recipient’s reputation as a Mayfair rollerblader.
Whatever: the Dartmouth crowd has not made it over. Pretty much everyone is from London. Robert recognizes that he will need to drink heavily. He has some experience of being the lone American at a gathering of English people.
A couple of vodkas later, his friend appears with his fiancée—his wife, in the eyes of the law, because they submitted to an Italian civil marriage that afternoon. Mark is very happy to see Robert and hugs him, which has never happened before, and introduces him to Electra. Electra falls into the beauty category, with long red hair and long legs that move in almost supernaturally small steps and bring to Robert’s mind, for the first and possibly the last time in his life, he thinks, the word "elfin." He remembers how, in one of their few transat- lantic communications, Mark had said he’d met a redhead. I need to move fast, lock this down, Mark had said. Well, he’s done it, Robert thinks. He is glad for his friend and glad to accept another vodka.
You’ve got to give the English this much, Robert concedes: they know how to throw a wedding. The Saturday afternoon is brightly sunny, and as he sits in the chartered bus he knows already that the proceedings will be a marvel of invention and poetry and organization.
The venue for the marriage blessing is a manor house on a hilltop ten miles outside Siena. The garden has views of five valleys and a ceremonial arbor. Robert is the first to take a seat among the chairs artfully scattered on the lawn. He puts on his sunglasses and stretches out his legs. He is no longer hung over. He feels, for the first time on this trip, relaxed; and his thoughts run with a little more freedom.
What he thinks is that he may very possibly be the only person here, Walters family excepted, who attended Mark’s first wedding, to Jane.
It was held on a dark afternoon, nine years ago, at a church on the Upper East Side veiled in black con- struction netting. Inside the church, statues of saints and benefactors hovered in little nooks, to grotesque effect. The father of the bride, unwell with cancer, was held up by Jane as they walked up the aisle. He died the following week. Jane died two years later, also of cancer. She was small and dark-haired, altogether different from Electra. Robert remembers the homily at Jane and Mark’s wedding, a homily memorable because Mark was one of the first of their crowd to get married (Shit, how old was everybody—twenty-eight? Twenty-nine?) and because the homily itself was so weirdly sermonizing. It concerned what the minister termed "the will to love." The will to love: Robert remembers how he’d felt under assault from this dismal, slippery theme. He’d even taken offense on behalf of the happy couple. Even today, when of course he is able to take a pretty good guess at where that minister was coming from, he’s hop- ing he won’t hear any admonitions or life lessons, which nobody believes make any difference to anything and certainly are way too cloudy for a wedding. Give people a break for one fucking day of their lives.
The seats begin to fill up—how middle-aged everybody looks, Robert thinks, even Electra’s crowd, in their early thirties—and a young Scottish clergyman wears an expectant, official expression. Mark, a handsome straw hat covering his bald head, nervously makes conversation. Robert limits his greetings to a double thumbs-up. Then Electra makes her entrance, in white, escorted by her father. The blessing ceremony begins. Robert is not really listening. He is dwelling again on Mark’s first wedding.
After church, everybody strolled over to a nearby restaurant. When desserts were being served, Robert discreetly checked his phone and saw that he’d received three missed calls, all from the same unknown number. Sneaking out, Robert returned the calls. It turned out they were from the animal hospital where his cat— Buster, formerly the cat of his sister, whose travels made it impossible for her to keep a pet—was undergoing surgery on a blocked intestine. Buster had a history of such blockages. There’d been a hair ball, then a piece of leather, then another hair ball. He’d needed three operations. There was hair-ball medication, of course, but Robert had neglected to give it to Buster. Now there was this new hair ball and this fourth operation.
Robert, a finger plugged into his free ear, spoke to the veterinarian surgeon. He knew this woman from the day before and didn’t like her. When examining Buster, she’d remarked that he had fleas and had been sniffy about it. Buster himself had jumped off the examining table and taken an interest in the room. Then he was removed.
Through the roar of the traffic, Robert heard this vet quite animatedly tell him that the operation had gone well, only stating as a kind of afterthought that Buster had reacted badly to the anesthetic and was—Robert had to extract the words from her—in a coma. It was a case of a brief but serious deprivation of oxygen to the brain. Robert found himself unable to speak. He went inside to
Martha, a new girlfriend back then. They left the restaurant immediately and took a short taxi ride to the animal hospital on York Avenue. They were shown into a room. Robert saw a cat stretched out on a table with its eye- balls turned into its head and its mouth stretched open by a tube. Its four legs, strapped to the tabletop, were splayed out in a way that made no sense. The cat looked nothing like Buster. It didn’t even look like a cat. The vet offered some clearly dishonest and meaningless statistics about the thing’s chances of recovery. She also referred to the expense of keeping it alive. Martha held Robert’s hand as he listened to all of this. When she understood that Robert could not speak, she took it upon herself to ask the vet the necessary questions. When the vet again said, The operation was a complete success, Martha said, You know what? We’d appreciate it if you stopped saying that.
The next morning, nothing had changed. The plug was pulled on Buster. There were various options with regard to the remains. Robert decided on the gratis option, namely the garbage. Buster was garbage at this point. Over the next few days, handwritten condolence cards arrived from vets. Bills, too.
On the other hand, this was when Martha had revealed herself to be a rock, and that turned out to be a big deal.
Suddenly everybody stands for a hymn, and Robert can barely get to his feet.
Under God, Mark and Electra make their vows. When the service comes to a close, Robert locates the small packet of rice he noticed earlier, under his seat. He empties the packet into his hand and tosses the grains on Mark and Electra.
Dinner is in the manor house. The names on the place cards are anagrams, and Robert Daly takes the seat set aside for lady t. borer. He finds himself between a Colombian and an Indian: evidently, this is the foreign- ers’ table. Robert spends the first course pretending to take an interest in the Indian man’s bizarrely forceful opinions about the future of the dollar, the euro, and the yen. (The Indian man calls Robert Roger. Robert begins to correct him, meaning to point out that his anagram name has no "g" in it, but abandons the correc- tion. He thinks, Roger, Robert, whatever.) During the main course he talks to the Colombian woman. They talk about kidnapping insurance, which is, it seems, a necessity in Colombia. These topics are disturbed from time to time with talk of the goose. Apparently there is a goose present at the wedding. The goose lives at the manor house and is socially very sophisticated. The goose is a character. Everybody at Robert’s table seems to have a story about the goose.
The speeches start. They are all funny and confident and moving, and Robert, who has witnessed this national facility time and again, wonders if making after-dinner remarks is somehow part of the British educational curriculum. Mark’s speech mentions him for having come all the way from New York. None of the speakers men- tions Mark’s first wife. It is Electra’s day.
Night falls. A dance floor has been designated on the flagstones of the terrace, and dancing begins. Here the wedding’s one weakness shows itself: the disc jockey is an Italian, and Italians—Robert knows this because of his failed attempts, when driving down from Milan, to find a not-shit radio station—have a tin ear for pop music. The dancers must contend with a mix of Euro hits and hyperbolic Italian ballads. But everybody has a good time, notably the clergyman, who twirls around in a kilt. Robert isn’t much of a dancer, but he is happy to hold a constantly replenished drink and look on. Mark joins him for a few minutes and puts an arm on his shoulder. Robert tells Mark how good he’s looking. Bob, I feel good, Mark replies. Man, I feel good. Then he bounds onto the dance floor and shimmies up to his wife. The new Mrs. Mark Walters, Robert sees, is a quite remarkable mover. That bodes well, he theorizes, for the bedroom. How did Jane dance? He cannot remember. He didn’t really get to know Jane. She parachuted into Mark’s life out of nowhere and then disappeared with him to England and then never came back, because she was buried there, in England, even though her family was in Maine.
On his way to the bar, Robert trips and almost falls. The Indian currency expert approaches him like the old- est of friends and refines a point he made earlier about the euro versus the dollar. Robert/Roger nods and nods. Then, interrupting, he says, Cambio. This draws a silence from his interlocutor. Italian for "change," Robert says. Maybe it’s Spanish, too. Anyhow—cambio. Remember that word. And bureau de change. Very useful. Fully obnoxious, he gives the expert a farewell pat on the back. Now he will dance.
When he is done, he picks up a chair and drags it one-handed beyond some bushes until he comes to the edge of the hilltop. He accomplishes this barefoot. He has kicked off his painful new loafers, which lie some-where on the lawn behind him. He crashes into the chair and drinks from a beer bottle. An incline is detectable a few feet away; beyond that is some kind of drop. Farther out, a single road curves between hills. Every other place is free of human activity and free of human light- ing. The hills are very black. There’s the matter of the moon, however. The moon is big, circular, ablaze. Robert thinks, This wedding is a masterpiece. They’ve roped in the f**king moon.
He turns to see if he can glimpse the newlyweds through the bushes. There is no sign of them, indeed almost no sign of the wedding: it seems to have drifted away. He is conscious of the grass under his feet, and he shuffles his feet to feel the grass more intensely. His tactile faculty, at least, is fully operational, so much so that he becomes aware of the bones in his right foot and, phantasmally, of the foot-thumb his most distant ancestors possessed but which vast ages have gradually amputated. He stamps his foot to get rid of the sensation, which is not a new one to him. He thinks that Jane was buried in England, far from home, because she expected that Mark would be buried with her.
He has company. It is the goose. The goose is white, with an orange beak. Robert catches the goose’s eye and the goose looks right back. He is all set to dislike the goose but finds he cannot. Actually, he takes a shine to the goose. Hey there, buddy, he says. The goose is still looking at him. The name’s Roger.
Robert looks out in the direction of the hills, the valleys, whatever out there has blackened. Well, old buddy, Robert says to the goose.
He looks at the goose. The goose is purely there. Back at dinner, somebody said that the goose thinks it’s a dog. No, it doesn’t. It doesn’t think it’s a dog. The goose doesn’t think. The goose just is. And what the goose is is goose. But goose is not goose, Robert thinks. Even the goose isn’t goose.
Robert cannot look at the goose anymore. The goose is nauseating. He looks away from the goose but he finds he cannot look at anything without thinking that it’s all goose, that he is already buried, everything is a burying ground out of which nothing can ever be unburied, he was born buried, the air is just a material of burial, the universe itself is buried, his child is buried in Martha and will come out buried.
Presently the goose is gone.
The wedding has been coming to an end. A while ago the bus started ferrying people back to Siena; now some- body is laughing and shouting, Last bus, everybody, last bus. Robert stands up. For a few seconds, he goes nowhere. Then he walks toward the laughter and the shouts. Somewhere up there are his shoes.
Good Trouble (published by 4th Estate) is out now. Read Paddy Kehoe's review of Good Trouble.
About The Author: Joseph O'Neill is the author of the novels The Dog, Netherland (which won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and the Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award), The Breezes, and This Is the Life. He has also written a family history, Blood-Dark Track. He lives in New York City and teaches at Bard College.