Joseph O’Neill short story: The Sinking of the Houston

Longlisted for Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award: a father plots revenge after a mugging

Joseph O’Neill: awardwinning author of 'Netherland' has a new collection of short astories out in June. Photograph:  Ulf Andersen/Getty Images

Joseph O’Neill: awardwinning author of 'Netherland' has a new collection of short astories out in June. Photograph: Ulf Andersen/Getty Images


When I became a parent of young children I also became a purposeful and relentless opportunist of sleep. In fact sleep functioned as that period’s subtle denominator. I found myself capable of taking a nap just about anywhere, even when standing in a subway train or riding an escalator. I wasn’t the only one. Out and about, I spotted sleeping or drowsy or dozing people everywhere; and I realized that a kind of mechanized mass somnambulism is an essential component of modern life; and I gained a better understanding of the siesta and the snooze and the death wish.

Then the three boys grew big – grew from toddling alarmists into wayward urban doofuses neurologically unequipped to perceive the risks incidental to their teenagers’ lives. Several nights a week I lie awake in bed until the front door has sighed shut behind every last one of them. Even then, even once they’re all safely home, there are disquieting goings-on. Objects are put in motion in the apartment, to frightening sonic effect. A creaking cupboard hinge is an SOS. A spoon in a cereal bowl is a tocsin.

The key point is that I’ve lost the ability to nap at will – to recover, in nickels of unconsciousness, a lost hypnotic legacy. A round-the-clock jitteriness prevails.

As a consequence, the concept of peace and quiet has assumed an italicized personal importance. Who can say, of course, what “peace and quiet” means. It certainly doesn’t denote the experience produced by being by oneself. I can offer only a subjective definition: the state of affairs in which (1) one finds oneself at home; (2) there are people around who one wants to have around, not least because it means that one doesn’t have to worry about where else they might be; (3) one sits in one’s armchair; and (4) the people around leave one alone.

The phenomenon of the Dad Chair needs no investigation here. I’ll just state that there came a moment when the whole business of taking care of the guys – of their need to be woken up, clothed, fed, transported, coached, cleaned, bedded down, constantly kept safe and constantly captained – altered me. The alteration made me identify with the shipman, working in high and howling winds, in the Bay of Biscay, let’s say, who dreams of the bathtubs of La Rochelle. This led me to buy a black leatherette armchair and to designate it as my haven. I’ve got to say, it has worked out pretty well.

But of late, the fifteen-year-old has taken to disturbing me. I’ll be sitting there, doing stuff on my laptop, when he’ll approach and pull off my noise-canceling headphones.

“What is it?” I ask him.

“Have you heard of the Duvaliers?”


“The Duvaliers. The dictators of Haiti.”

“What about them?”

“There’s two Duvaliers,” he says. “There’s the father and there’s the son. Do you know that they used rape to punish their political opponents?”


He says, “They –”

“I don’t want to hear about it. I know all about the Duvaliers. They were horrible. I know all about it.”

“But Dad, I’ll bet you don’t know. There was one time –”

“Stop harassing me!” I shout. “Stop bothering me with this stuff! Leave me alone! I lived through it! I don’t want to discuss it!”

He answers, in his mild way, “You didn’t exactly live through it. You just heard about it.”

I understand that my son is trying to get a precise sense of the world he is about to enter – the wide world. I understand that this can be a difficult process. I understand that it’s a good thing that he comes to me with these questions, which do him nothing but credit, and that these are golden moments that must be savored. I understand all of that.

Note that my fifteen-year-old is a distinct case but not a special one. His two brothers are the same. Each, in his own way, threatens the peace and the quiet.

“Where is East Timor?” this particular son will ask me.

“Look it up,” I say.

His voice has arrived from his bedroom, where he’s lying in his bunk bed, in a T-shirt and tracksuit bottoms and skateboarding socks, reading his phone. Sometimes he’ll come out of the bedroom and sit on the arm of my armchair and cast an eye over my screen while he talks. Which is exasperating. What I do online is my business.

He calls out, “Do you know who Charles Taylor is?”

I’m not answering that.

He comes out of the brothers’ room, which is what we call the space in which the three boys are cooped up. “He was a guerilla leader. In Liberia. He had an army made up of children.”

“Stop right there,” I say.

My middle son stops where he is, because he thinks I’m telling him that he should stop advancing towards me. From about a distance of about three yards he says, “He made the children do some really bad things. Really, really bad things. He made them shoot their own parents. I think Taylor may have been the worst of them all,” my son says.

I remove my reading glasses and look him in the eye. “C’est la vie,” I tell him.

In my book, this is an undervalued maxim. It is related to stoicism – a too-neglected philosophy nowadays – and it’s related, emotionally more than logically, to the symbolic idea of the water under the bridge, which reminds us that the past cannot be rectified. This impossibility applies to the present, too. The present is also beyond rectification. If you think about it, the very notion of rectification makes almost no sense. You could even contend that one’s life is water under the bridge.

Anyhow, on a Sunday evening the fifteen-year-old, my second-born, my Secondo, comes home and announces that he’s been mugged. I’m in my chair when this occurs. I inspect him, this kid who is nearly six feet tall and forces me onto my toes when I kiss him, which is something I often do, even though it can embarrass him a little.

He seems composed. But he also looks as if he’s just been mugged.

”Are you hurt?” I say.

He shakes his head.

”Tell me what happened,” I say.

He was skating with friends at L.E.S., the skatepark under the Manhattan Bridge. Then three of them took a train into Brooklyn. They wanted to skate a spot where guys like Tyshawn Jones and Brandon Westgate and Alex Olson had recently filmed some tricks. The friends overshot their stop. That was when they ran into trouble.

”Which train is this?” I say.

”I don’t know. Some train.”

In the old days this would have thrown me, would have led me to wonder about what kind of knucklehead doesn’t know which train he’s on. But I’ve been a father of boys for quite a while.

He likes tea, this son. I’ve been making him some while he’s been talking. He takes the tea.

To repeat: there were three of them – my son plus his two friends. Three young males. They were sitting in the back corner of the subway car. The car was almost empty, this being a Sunday afternoon. There was this dude close by, sitting between the boys and the doors. The dude had a bag. The dude said to them, You want to buy a gun? He opened his bag and showed them the gun. The kids indicated that they didn’t want to buy a gun. The dude told the kids to get their wallets out and put the wallets in his bag. He spoke in a low, calm voice. The other passengers, the potential witnesses or interveners or heroes, were quite a ways down the car. They weren’t aware of what was happening. The kids did as they were told. Then the dude told them to show him their phones. They obeyed.

I ask my son for a description of the dude.

My son tells me that he was a black guy, older, maybe about thirty, hard to say how old exactly. He wasn’t fat or big or small. He wore a Yankees cap. He had tattoos on his forearms. These were gang markings or prison markings, my son tells me, as if he or his friends would have a clue.

The criminal eyed the three phones. My son’s phone was brand-new; his was the one the criminal reached for. The criminal asked my son for his passcode. My son told him. The criminal entered the passcode and changed it. He didn’t ask the other boys for their phones. The criminal told my son that he had all of his personal information and knew where to find him. He said to the three boys, I never want to see you again, understand?

The train came to a stop. The criminal got out.

”He really knew what he was doing,” I say.

”Yeah,” my son says.

I say, “It would have been crazy to take any chances. You did the right thing.”

”Yeah,” my son says.

”Don’t worry about your phone. We’ll get you another one. We may even have insurance to cover that. But we’d need to report it.”

”No cops,” my son says; and this is when I see that the criminal has frightened him very much, and figures in his mind as a person of great powers.

”OK,” I say. I give him a hug and a kiss. “You did well. You handled yourself well, son.”

I don’t call him “son” very often. It’s a big word to say out loud. It’s a word I hold back for special occasions.

I don’t mention that I have already resolved to find this man and break his fucking legs.

This isn’t a fantasy. My phone has an app that tracks my children’s phones. Because they are entitled to privacy, I’ve never used the app before. But this is an exceptional situation.

When I activate the phone-tracker, a map of New York City appears. Three circles – one blue, one green, one orange-correspond exactly to the phones’ respective whereabouts. It’s a thrilling scene, for some reason.

The stolen phone is the orange one. It’s in Brooklyn, at the corner of Saratoga and Pitkin.

There’s no question of going out there. That wouldn’t be smart. I’m going to bide my time. I’m going to wait for the orange circle to come to my turf. My turf is the triangle made by Times Square and Penn Station and the Port Authority Bus Terminal. Everyone passes through here sooner or later, especially if they’re up to no good.

What this means, in practice, is that I spend a lot of time in my chair grimly chortling at my phone. Orange Circle Guy, or O.C.G., thinks he’s home free. He has no idea I’m watching his every move. A lot of the daytime he’s motionless in his Brownsville residence – I know exactly which Amboy Street apartment building he lives in – and typically it’s not until the midafternoon that he stirs. He doesn’t go very far. He just wanders here and there in his neighborhood like a little doggie being taken out to make a number one and number two. Maybe he owns a doggie.

When he catches a subway train, his kinesis assumes a more suspenseful character. The orange circle disappears for a period of minutes and then reappears, usually in downtown Brooklyn or at Fulton Street station in lower Manhattan. This loser is so predictable. Occasionally the circle vanishes at Saratoga Avenue station and remains undetectable for an hour or two, whereupon it rematerializes at Saratoga Avenue station. In other words, O.C.G. has never surfaced. He has been underground the whole time. From this fact I deduce that these outings have a criminal character: he takes an outbound train in order to rob people on the return journey to Brownsville. It’s what he does.

Once, O.C.G. popped up at Penn Station. In a flash, I was out of the apartment. I was a mere block from my destination when I saw that he’d already boarded a train (to Albany, it transpired). That was a near miss. But my day will come.

I can get so caught up in my stakeout that I let my guard down. The son in question says to me, “Do you know what vivisection is?”


“Operating on live animals. As a scientific experiment.”

I say, “I don’t like where this is going.”

“Have you heard of Unit 731?”

“Unit of what?” I say.

He tells me – and this is news to me – that during the Second World War, the Japanese conducted lethal vivisectional experiments on hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children, most of them Chinese. This took place in a facility known as Unit 731. At the end of the war, the scientist-murderers were secretly granted immunity from prosecution, and even from exposure, by the United States. In exchange, the United States received sole possession of the results of the vivisections. Evidently the data was valuable in the field of biological warfare.

“Yeah,” I say. “Not good.”

“That actually happened,” the boy says.

I say, “I don’t know what to tell you.”

Which isn’t quite true. I know not to tell him, or remind him, that some of the children abducted and militarized by Charles Taylor not only learned to murder their parents but reportedly also learned to perform vivisections. On encountering a pregnant woman, they were known to bet on the gender of the unborn child and, using a machete, to cut open the mother’s womb in order to determine the winner of the bet.

There’s a chance, of course, that O.C.G. might not be my guy. It could be a purchaser of the phone. Given everything I’ve seen and studied, that strikes me as unlikely. No, the bitch has got himself a mint phone for his personal use – or so he thinks. Like every criminal, he has overlooked a detail. That kid he threatened and robbed? That kid is my son.

Once, when the boys were little, we all found ourselves in an airport lounge. We were delayed for a few hours. It was nighttime. Volatile colored lights moved in the dark of the windows, and the boys and I spent quite some time looking at them. After a while, they began horsing around. They were being boys-being juvenile male humans aged between three and six, to be zoological about it. A certain boisterousness and brouhaha characterized their activities. From my seat, I somnolently kept watch on them, breaking things up as needed and rounding up whichever one went astray.

A couple was seated nearby. The man turned to me and said, “Control your children.”

Instantly I was one hundred percent awake. I rose to my feet and went over to this man. I pointed my finger an inch or two from his nose. “I’m going to control you,” I said.

We didn’t hear from him after that.

Now, it’s true that the other guy must have been close to sixty. He posed no obvious physical threat. It was no big deal to put him in his place. But something deeper was going on, something beyond calculations of relative power. You don’t mess with my children. Not when I’m around. I don’t care who you are. You don’t take one fucking step in their direction.

What I’m getting at is, I have latent paternal powers. It may be said-and in truth it is said, by a whispering imaginary skeptic-that there’s no way a fifty-one-year-old man can take down a tattooed career criminal, a hoodlum Moriarty, twenty years his junior. To which I respond: Let’s wait and see.

My next-door neighbor is a gentleman by the name of Eduardo. Over the years, he has kept himself to himself. It’s said he’s of Cuban origin. He communicates mainly by signifiers of goodwill. For example, sometimes he’ll take delivery of a parcel for me and leave it outside my door, which I appreciate. Eduardo’s apartment shares plumbing with mine, and if there’s a pipe blockage we liaise about turning taps on and off.

Once, I saw a limousine run him down. He was on the crosswalk-he’s pushing seventy and has a slow, hobbling gait – when the limo turned straight into him. I ran over and helped Eduardo get up. There was no sign of an injury. My neighbor, I understood, is hard as nails.

On a Friday morning in April, O.C.G. pops up at the Port Authority Bus Terminal. That’s only five blocks away. That is squarely in my turf.

I jump to my feet, put on a baseball cap and sunglasses, and dash out. I encounter Eduardo at the elevator.

We smile at each other. When we exit the building, I hold open the door and wait for him to pass through. Then he speaks. “You play baseball?”

He’s referring to the bat I’m holding.

I’m going to a meeting, I tell him.

“I’ll walk with you,” he says. “That O.K.?”

“Sure,” I say. I’m checking my phone. O.C.G hasn’t gone anywhere.

To repeat, Eduardo is a steady walker but a deliberate one. As his escort, I have no choice but to go at his speed. This is a first, I should say. We’ve never walked together before.

In a second first, Eduardo makes an important-sounding announcement. “Today is the anniversary of the Bay of Pigs.”

“The Bay of Pigs? Huh.”

The Bay of Pigs, Bunker Hill, Bull Run, the bridge over the River Kwai: who cares, at this point? Who knows how to care?

“I was sixteen,” Eduardo tells me. He tells me he was among the troops on the Houston. His best friend there was named Garcilaso. Garcilaso was fifteen years old.

With that he has my ear, even as I keep an eye on my phone.

Eduardo relates that, after his family had fled Cuba, he enrolled at Georgia Tech. It was in Atlanta, at the Y.M.C.A., that he was recruited by the counterrevolutionaries. “Everybody else was going. So I thought, Why not? Let’s go.” He flew down to Miami to sign up with the C.I.A. After two weeks of training in the mountain jungles of Guatemala, Eduardo and Garcilaso boarded the Houston. They were given ancient Garand rifles. In the absence of helmets, they wore cowboy hats.

One morning, at dawn, Garcilaso and Eduardo sneaked into the captain’s quarters. “Garcilaso had heard there were M&M’s in there,” Eduardo told me. “We look around, and we find the M&M’s. At that exact moment, we see the Cuban jets. Flying low, coming straight at us.”

He laughs. He’s been laughing softly the whole time.

I ask Eduardo if he and Garcilaso got to eat the M&M’s. He tells me they did not.

It seems that this is the full extent of his anecdote. Only in response to my questioning does he disclose that the bombing sank the ship. Eduardo had to jump overboard, into the Bay of Pigs, and swim to the shore.

“Anybody die?” I ask.

“Sure,” Eduardo says.

We’ve reached the corner of the block. “I’m headed uptown,” I say.

Eduardo indicates that he’s also headed that way. We set off.

In the morning rush, this bit of Eighth Avenue is barely manageable on foot. The problem is that an almost impenetrable pedestrian mass, discharged by buses from New Jersey and the Times Square subway exits, hurries south in a kind of stampede. The sense of a great flight – of crops put to the torch, of a ruined and shaken hinterland – is only heightened by trains booming underfoot, by the bleeping klaxons of reversing box trucks, by the disorderly shoving of food carts between the stopped cars, and above all by the strangely focusless expressions worn by the oncoming commuters, who seemingly are devoid of ordinary consciousness. It all bodes ill. Either the barbarians are at the gates or we ourselves are the barbarians.

What I’d give for a green and silent lane. What I’d give for a woodland’s leopardskin light.

In short, Eduardo and I can only go forward in starts: we advance a few yards, wait for a gap in the crowd, and advance again. I notice he’s trying to tell me something.

“Say again?” I shout.

An ambulance siren is shrieking. Eduardo waits for the shriek to pass. “I’m going in there, to get a coffee,” he says.

It feels natural to follow Eduardo – even though I’m averse to this particular deli, which I know to be a busy, cavernous, impersonal establishment with an offhand staff. When Eduardo sits at the little countertop by the window, I join him but I don’t get myself anything to drink. I listen when he tells me that a small group of them, a handful of the survivors of the sinking of the Houston, walked for a day and a night through the swamps. On the second day they surrendered to Castro’s forces and, en route to Havana, they ran into Che.

“Che Guevara?”

The prisoner transport vehicle came to an unexpected halt. Che Guevara and a woman comrade appeared. They examined the prisoners and conferred in French, so as not to be understood. Finally Che said to Eduardo, Who are you, young man? Eduardo answered, Eduardo Sanchez de Cadenas. Che said, Are you a relation of Captain Cadenas? I have no idea, Eduardo said.

I was relaxed, he tells me. My attitude was, they were going to shoot us or they weren’t.

The older prisoners were not so relaxed. Unlike Eduardo, they’d recognized Che. Shut up, kid, they said.

Nobody got shot. The truck drove on. Eduardo never saw Che again.

“What about your friend?” I ask. “What about Garcilaso?”

Eduardo shakes his head – or rather, he moves his head in such a way that I can’t know what he’s signaling. I’m afraid to know.

Then Eduardo says, “Garcilaso was O.K.,” and by God that’s a very beautiful thing to hear.

For a minute or two, we watch the world go by.

“You want another coffee?” I say. “I’m getting myself one.”

“I’m OK,” Eduardo says. “You don’t need to be anywhere?”

Do I need to be anywhere? What kind of question is that? Of course I need to be somewhere. There is no end to the places I need to be.

I buy myself a coffee. Then I regain my stool next to Eduardo.

Tell me more, I want to say to Eduardo, but don’t say, because he seems ready to leave. Tell me more about Garcilaso and about how things went well for him.

Joseph O’Neill is an Irish barrister living in New York. He is the author of four novels, Netherland (longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2008), The Dog, This Is the Life and The Breezes, as well as a memoir, Blood-Dark Track. His short stories have been published in the New Yorker and Harper’s Bazaar, and his literary criticism has appeared in The Guardian, The New York Times, The Irish Times, The Atlantic, Granta and other publications. He won the 2009 PEN/Faulkner Prize for Fiction and 2009 Kerry Fiction Award for Netherland. He has a new collection of short stories, Good Trouble, due to be published in June.

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