Today is the first of three excerpts of The Astounding Misadventures of Rory Collins by Brian Kiley. Brian Kiley has been a staff writer for Conan O’Brien for 23 years. He’s been nominated for 16 Emmy Awards (He won in 2007). He’s appeared 7 times on the David Letterman show, 12 times on Late Night with Conan and 4 times on the Tonight Show. He has his own Comedy Central half-hour special. His jokes have been featured in Reader’s Digest, Prevention Magazine, GQ and the New York Times Sunday Crossword Puzzle. Follow Brian on Twitter
“For more than twenty years, Brian Kiley has delighted me with his inventive and prolific wit, so it is no surprise that he has written such a terrific novel. “The Astounding Misadventures of Rory Collins” is boldly comedic, poignant, dark, unpredictable, and just plain fun. Congratulations, Brian, I am bitterly jealous.”
Missing your mother’s funeral is not like missing a flight where you can catch the next one. It’s not like missing the Super Bowl where a year later you can see something quite similar. Your mother’s funeral is a once in a lifetime event that provides the family with a sense of comfort and closure. Without it, there’s a permanent sense of discomfort and whatever the opposite of closure is.
The truth is there was no good reason for us to miss it. We thought the funeral was at ten. It was at nine. I had arrived home from college the night before and I was up early after having fitful dreams about my newly dead mother. My father got up early like he always did. We had a leisurely breakfast of tea and toast. There were long periods of silence where I thought some things should be said but I didn’t know what “things.” “What would normal people say in this situation?” I wondered. When he got his coat, I got mine and we walked mostly single file through streets narrowed by graying snow to the church we never attended.
At the time of my mother’s death in 1982, I was a sophomore at Philbin College. It’s about thirty miles west of Philadelphia. It was named for Colonel Wesby Philbin, a textile magnate, who lost his right hand during the battle of Gettysburg while fighting for the Confederacy. Long Story.
The day she died, I had just walked out of Psych class and found my roommate Todd waiting for me with a strange expression on his face. “Sorry, dude,” he said softly. I went right to the station and hopped the first train home. She had just turned forty-four earlier that week and as far as I knew she hadn’t been sick.
I grew up in a small town in the part of Pennsylvania where people mind their own business. I was always pretty sure my mother loved me although I had little evidence to support my theory. My first memories of her were when I was little and I would run around the house or honk the horn of my toy car and she would yell, “Quiet!” The whole time I knew her she would demand silence from my father and me. She had a habit of sitting and staring straight ahead. Often in the middle of an activity, she could be cooking or cleaning or eating and she would suddenly stop what she was doing and go and sit in the faded red chair in the living room, focus on a spot on the wall and become lost in thought. This might last anywhere from just a few minutes to most of the afternoon.
During these periods, my father and I learned to tiptoe and whisper and we made sure not to cross her field of vision. When the phone rang in these instances, she would scream, “They ruined it”, head to her bedroom and slam the door while my father dealt with whoever was on the phone.
When it came time for kindergarten, my mother just kept me home. It wasn’t exactly “home schooling” since no such trend existed at that time and she didn’t teach me anything. In fact, we barely interacted at all unless she was knitting a large garment and needed me to model it for her.
The following year, my mother would have had me stay home again but my father gently mentioned during one of our many silent meals that it was time to sign the boy up for school. She did so reluctantly and drove me the three short blocks every morning. After a few weeks, he told her that this was unnecessary and that the boy could use some exercise. They often called me “the boy” instead of “Rory” and spoke in front of me as though I were a puppy or an inanimate object incapable of comprehending human conversation.
I began walking to school on my own. However, my mother, for the rest of my grammar school career, would follow slowly behind in the car. If one of my classmates approached me or an older student made a move to pass me along the sidewalk, she would beep the horn long and loud until they scurried away.
Somehow, I still managed to make a few friends, but I was never allowed to accept invitations to what kids nowadays call, “playdates.” Thanks to my father’s gentle but persistent prodding, eventually some boys, one at a time of course, were allowed to come to my house after school. My mother hated when I had a friend over even though my two closest friends Doug and Stevie learned to tiptoe outside with me if one of my Mom’s “thinking sessions” broke out. She often ignored us almost pretending we weren’t there. At other times, she would become irritable and shoo us outside regardless of the weather. She behaved this way again and again in front of each of my friends. Until the day I brought home Derek.
We were nine and Derek and his family had moved here from the south, Mississippi or Alabama, I can never remember which. When Derek came in the door, my mother instantly stopped what she was doing and introduced herself. This was unprecedented. She poured us milk and gave us cookies, handing Derek his like a priest handing out communion. Once or twice, she called him, “George.” “His name is Derek,” I said.
It rained that day so Derek and I stayed in and sat on the floor in my room playing a board game I had called “The Secret Agent.” My mother brought in a chair from her bedroom, placed it alongside Derek and gently stroked his hair while we played. He didn’t seem to mind or notice really. Girls were always fawning all over him.
Once outside the school, Derek’s Mom was there to pick him up and bring him to a dentist appointment. She and my Mom got into a loud argument when my Mom suggested that they reschedule Derek’s appointment for another day. “Derek doesn’t need to go to the dentist,” my mother insisted, “He has beautiful teeth.”
At the end of the school year, Derek’s family moved back to Mississippi or Alabama. When I told my mother this during dinner that night she abruptly stopped eating. She put the fork down with half a meatball still impaled on it, went to her bedroom and closed the door. For two days, even through the night, loud, full-throated sobs came from behind that closed door and my father had to sleep on a cot in the sewing room.
When she finally emerged from her room we were forbidden to ever mention Derek’s name again and things went on as before. My life continued and to the outside world, things seemed normal enough in my house and because I didn’t know any better they seemed normal enough for me. The one large void in my life at that time (other than love and affection which I didn’t know I was missing) was birthday parties. I had never once been to one.