News from Home 25 - Part I
12/18/2007 (updated 12/18/2007)

It was like the first page of a Ross Macdonald novel; a morning of thick sea fog and drizzle covering Los Angeles, with promise of confusion, betrayals, and a conclusion to make you wish you’d never taken that case to begin with. At least it afforded some relief from the California heat, and lent an air of muted charm to our suburban retreat, The Trellises.

I came across McSweeney in the garden. He was doing some rather intricate sloping bits on the miniature golf course. He stood erect to survey his work, and gave up a grunt of satisfaction.

“Now I’m a fair hand at most jobs”, he said, leaning on a shovel, “I can do plastering smooth as a baby’s bottom, my electric work is first rate, I can plumb with the best of them – but concrete – ah, concrete is truly in the blood, and has been the trump card of the McSweeney tribe down through the ages.” At this juncture, he undid the string that was holding up his ancient brown corduroy breeks, and used it to tie back a wayward vine. This left his movement somewhat restricted, as he had to use one hand to prevent the trousers from creeping down below the ‘builders’ cleavage. “Blast and confusion”, he said, “but would you happen to have any more string about the place? I won’t stoop so low as to use one of your English belts, but unless I see – ah – there it is”, and he plunged into the undergrowth with pruning knife at the ready, and came back several minutes later with a long strip of bark. “Even your American willows will do the trick”, he said. “Your farmer, ploughboy, journeyman, ditch-digger, knife-sharpener, all use the willow bark for just about everything, especially for holding up the trousers. My Great Uncle Aiden was a one for the willow – did I tell you ever that he was probably the first man to fly?” I nodded furiously, but to no effect. “ Back in the late 1800s, he built himself a glider out of woven willow and canvas, and tied it all together with strips of bark. He then glued feathers onto the beast, hauled it up to the top of the cliffs of Croaghaun, all of 2,000 feet, and launched himself off”.

Here he paused at some length, and searched his various pockets for his pipe. He filled it carefully, and lit it. He puffed with head cocked to one side, as if half-expecting a prompt. I provided one.

“And how went the flight?” I ventured. “Did he truly glide?”

“That is a matter of speculation”, said the other. “Some say yes, some say no. It all comes down to how we interpret the word ‘glide’”. He took a long draw on the foul pipe. “Down, he certainly went. Along, he did go somewhat. It all seems to hang on this – did he go more along than down? In other words, did his flight path achieve better than a 45 degree angle out towards the sea? Witnesses were divided over this question. Indeed, quite a fight broke out among the spectators that afternoon”.

Another pause for riddling and tamping. “So what became of your uncle? Was there a safe landing?” I asked.

“Alas, he crashed, like Icarus, with no small force into the ocean. He had allowed for this eventuality, and had figured that the craft would float like a coracle, being constructed in basically the same way, and I’m sure it would have done…but he underestimated the weight of his mascot, his poor hound Bruiser, advanced in years, and overfed for most of them, whom he insisted accompany him on the flight – he was of course the first dog to fly! He also underestimated the size of the surf that day, and a couple of mighty waves washed over him, and sucked him under. His body, and Bruiser’s, were recovered soon after. The whole county turned out for the funeral. A true Irish hero. Some said he was mad, but I prefer to say ‘touched’.”

He patted the willow bark around his middle. “So. Fine stuff it is. And 100 per cent reliable. The last thing I need is the strides tumbling down around my ankles – especially as I eschew your British underwear of any description.” I must have looked shocked. “Yes, yes, nothing underneath. Surely you are aware of the health benefits? The free circulation of air around the marital parts works wonders, and helps me to satisfy the substantial appetites of Mrs. McSweeney. Indeed, she hungers in all directions, and the veritable earthquake of her footstep is feared in every all-you-can-eat buffet in town. When she and her mother are looking for a light lunch, bankruptcy may be in the horoscope of any establishment that fails to get the ‘closed’ sign up in time.”

I tried to steer the conversation back in a direction that might lead to a resumption of work. “And the concrete is going to plan?”

“It is, it is. On a fine soft morning like this” – he tilted his head up and opened his mouth to taste the rain – “the drying process will naturally be slower, preventing cracks. I am never happier than when working with the concrete. My forbears all did a bit, and some worked on enduring monuments – the Brooklyn Bridge, the M1 Motorway in England, your own Pasadena Freeway just down the road – to name a few….in fact’ – here he lowered his voice and leaned into me – “I’ll tell you a secret. When it’s time for a McSweeney to pass on – I mean, his time on this earth is done – we don’t bother with all those funeral costs.” He winked conspiratorially. “We prefer the old Cement Overcoat, if you know what I mean. Late at night. A simple ceremony. And preserved forever in the very fabric of the city.”

He washed the concrete off his tools reflectively. “You know, I’ve been meaning to ask you.” He gaze fixed on mine. “When my time comes, and should I outlive Mrs. McSweeney, which seems unlikely – she is a supremely tenacious woman – then I might look to you to make the necessary arrangements.” I tried to suppress my look of alarm, but he read it, “Dear love, there is nothing to it at all. Why, you could bury me here – I would be proud to be a part of this recreational idyll. My spirit, my very shape, could be incorporated into a hole, lending a theme – it could be called ‘McSweeney’s Last Stand’ or McSweeney’s Lament’ or some such poetical fancy. Jaysus, I could even arrange to die with mouth agape, which, when concreted over, would make an ideal hole!”

I said I found the idea a little shocking, but that if he so wished, I would do my best to accommodate his remains.