By James Mulhern.
My grandmother sat on the toilet seat. I was on the floor just in front of her.
She brushed my brown, curly hair until my scalp hurt.
“You got your grandfather’s hair. Stand up. Look at yourself in the mirror.”
My hair looked flat, like someone had laid a book on it overnight.
I touched my scalp. “It hurts.”
“You gotta toughen up, Aiden. Weak people get nowhere in this world. Your grandfather was weak. Addicted to the bottle. Your mother has an impaired mind and is in a nuthouse. And your father, he just couldn’t handle the responsibility of a child. People gotta be strong.” She bent down and stared into my face. Her hazel eyes seemed enormous. I smelled coffee on her breath. She pinched my cheeks.
I reflexively pushed her hands away.
“Life is full of pain, sweetheart. And I don’t mean just the physical kind.” She took a cigarette from her case on the back of the toilet, lit it, and inhaled. “You’ll be hurt a lot, but you got to carry on. You know what the British people used to say when the Germans bombed London during World War II?”
“Keep calm and carry on.” She hit my backside. “Now run along and put some clothes on.” I was wearing just my underwear and t-shirt. “We have a busy day.”
I dressed in the blue jeans and a yellow short-sleeve shirt she had bought me. She stood in front of the mirror by the front door of the living room, holding a picture of my mother. She kissed the glass and placed it on the end table. Then she looked at herself in the mirror, arranged her pearl necklace, and put on bright red lipstick.
We drove to her friend Margie’s house. Margie was a smelly, fat lady with a big, white cat that always hissed at me.
“Don’t let him get out,” Margie yelled, as the cat pounced from behind the open door. “Arnold, don’t you dare run away!”
“I got him.” I had my arms wrapped around the white monster. He scratched my shirt.
“Why don’t you put him in the closet when you open the front door? We go through this every time,” my grandmother said, pushing past her towards the kitchen in the back of the house. “I gotta sit down. It’s hot as hell out there.”
Margie placed a tray of ham sandwiches, along with cheese and crackers, on the round grey Formica table. I liked her wallpaper—white with the red outlines of trains. Her husband had been a conductor; he died when he got squished between two train cars.
“I don’t know how I feel about all those miracles Father Tom was going on about.” Margie placed a sandwich on a plate for me with some chips. “What ya want to drink, Aiden? I got nice lemonade.” Her two front teeth were red from where her lipstick had smudged. And as usual she had white cat hairs all over her blue sweater, especially the ledge of her belly where the cat sat all the time.
“That sounds good.”
She smiled. “Always such a nice boy. Polite. You’ll never have any trouble with this one. Not like you did with Lorraine.”
“I hate when you call her that.”
“That’s her name, ain’t it?” She poured my grandmother and me lemonade and sat down with a huff.
“That was my mother’s name, her formal name. I’ve told you a thousand times to call her Laura.”
“What the hell difference does it make?” Margie bit into her sandwich and rolled her eyes at me.
“Makes a lot of difference. My mother was a crackpot. I named my daughter Lorraine to be nice.”
“Well, Laura is . . .” I knew Margie was going to say that my mother was a crackpot, too.
“Laura is what?” My grandmother put her sandwich down and leaned into Margie.
“Is a nice girl. She’s got problems, but don’t we all.” She reached out and clasped my hand. “Right, Aiden?”
My grandmother rubbed her neck and spoke softly. “Nobody’s perfect. She’s got a few psychological issues is all. She’s a beautiful human being, and that’s what’s most important. One of the kindest people I’ve ever known.” Her eyes were shiny and her face flushed. Her bottom lip trembled. She looked at me. “Don’t you gotta use the bathroom?” She raised her eyebrows. That was her signal.
“Yes, I gotta pee really bad.”
Margie laughed and farted.
I made my exit just in time, creeping up the gray stairs. The rug in the upstairs hall was full of Arnold’s hair. Margie’s room was the last one on the left. I opened her jewelry case and took the diamond earrings and opal bracelet Nanna had told me about. Then I walked to the bathroom and flushed the toilet.
When I entered the kitchen they were still talking about miracles.
My grandmother passed our plates to Margie who had filled the sink with sudsy water.
“Let’s not forget about the fish,” my grandmother said.
Margie shook her head. “I don’t know Catherine,” she looked down, “It’s hard to believe that Jesus could have done all that. Why aren’t there miracles today?” I imagined a fish jumping into her face from the water in the sink.
My grandmother smiled at me. “Of course there are miracles today. As a matter of fact, I’m taking Aiden to that priest at Mission church. A charismatic healer is what they call him. Aiden’s gonna be cured, aren’t you, honey?”
“Cured of what?” Margie said.
“Oh he’s got a little something wrong with his blood is all. Too many white cells. Leukemia. But this priest is gonna take care of all that.”
“Leukemia!” Margie said. “Catherine, that’s serious.” Margie tried to smile at me, but I could tell she was upset. “Sit down, Aiden.” She motioned for me to go to the table. “We’re almost done here.”
“You gotta take him to a good doctor,” she whispered to my grandmother, as if I couldn’t hear.
We said our goodbyes and when we were in the car, my grandmother said, “Let me see what you got.” I pulled the goods out of my pockets and she unclasped her black plastic pocketbook and placed the jewelry inside.
We parked on Tremont Street just down from the church.
“I need to get that chalice, Aiden. I read an article in The Boston Globe that said some people believe it has incredible curing powers. It’s a replica of a chalice from long ago, over a hundred years old, with lots of pretty stones on it. If I have your mother drink from it, maybe she’ll get better and come home to us. Won’t that be nice?” She smiled at me.
I looked towards the church where an old man was helping a lady in a wheelchair up a ramp. “Won’t God be mad?”
“Aiden, I’m going to return it. We’re just borrowing it for a little while.”
The church smelled of shellac, incense, perfume, and old people. It was hard to see in the musty darkness. Bright light shone through the stained-glass windows where Jesus was depicted in the twelve or so Stations of the Cross.
“Let’s move to the front.” My grandmother pulled me out of the line and cut in front of an old lady, who looked bewildered. “Shouldn’t you go to the end of the line?” she whispered kindly, smiling down at me. Her hair was sweaty, and her fat freckled bicep jiggled when she tapped my grandmother’s shoulder. The freckles reminded me of the asteroid belt.
“I’m sorry. We’re in a hurry. We have to help a sick neighbor after this. I just want my grandson to get a cure.”
“What’s wrong?” she whispered. We were four people away from the priest, who was standing at the altar. He prayed over people then lightly touched them. They fell backwards into the arms of two old men with maroon suit jackets and blue ties.
“Aiden has leukemia.”
The woman’s eyes teared up. “I’m sorry.” She patted my forearm. “You’ll be cured, sweetie.” Again her flabby bicep jiggled and the asteroids bounced.
When it was our turn, my grandmother said, “Father, please cure him. And can you say a prayer for my daughter, too?”
“Of course.” The white-haired, red-faced priest bent down. I smelled alcohol on his breath. “What ails you young man?”
I was confused.
“He’s asking you about your illness, Aiden.”
“I have leukemia,” I said proudly.
The priest said some mumbo-jumbo prayer and pushed my chest. I knew I was supposed to fall back but was afraid the old geezers wouldn’t catch me.
“Fall,” my grandmother whispered irritably. Then she said extra softly. “Remember our plan.”
I fell hard, shoving myself against the old guy. He toppled over as well. People gasped. His friend and the priest began to pick us up. I pretended to be hurt bad. “Oww. My head is killing me.” Several people gathered around us. My grandmother yelled, “Oh my God” and stepped onto the altar, kneeling in front of a giant Jesus on the cross. “Dear Jesus,” she said loudly, “I don’t know how many more tribulations I can take.” Then she crossed herself, hurried across the altar, swiping the gold chalice and putting it in her handbag while everyone was distracted by my moaning and fake crying.
“He’ll be okay,” she said, putting her arm under mine and helping the others pull me up.
When I was standing, she said to the priest. “You certainly have the power of the Holy Spirit in you. It came out of you like the water that gushed from the rock at Rephidim and Kadesh.”
The old lady who let us cut in line eyed my grandmother’s handbag and shook her head as we passed.
When we were home, listening to talk radio in the living room, I asked my grandmother if she believed in miracles, like the ones she talked about earlier in the day with Margie.
“Sure, sure,” she said, not looking up. She was taking the jewelry and chalice out of her bag and examining them in the light. I saw bits of dust in the sunlight streaming through the bay window. As she held the chalice, she murmured, “for Laura” and kissed the side.
“You’re not listening to me, Nanna.”
She put the items back in her handbag and stared at me. “Of course I am.”
“Well, do you think I’ll have a miracle and be cured of leukemia?”
“Aiden.” She laughed. “You haven’t got leukemia. You’re as healthy as a horse, silly.”
“But you told everybody I was sick.”
“Sweetheart. That was just to evoke pity.”
“What does that mean?”
“Make people feel bad so we can get things from them. I need money to take care of you, Aiden.” She spoke hesitantly and looked down, like she was ashamed. “I’m broke. Your grandfather left me with nothing, and I gotta pay for your mother’s medical expenses. If Margie notices her jewelry gone, maybe she’ll think you took it to help your Nanna. I told her I was having a problem paying your hospital bills.”
“Sorta like a tribulation, right?”
“Is my mother a tribulation?”
My grandmother’s tears gushed like water from that rock. I knelt before her and put my head in her lap. She hugged me, bent down and kissed my face several times. Then she looked out the window. It seemed the tears would never stop.
“Don’t worry, Nanna. I believe in miracles, too. Someday Mom will come home from the hospital.”
And we stayed like that until the sunbeams dimmed and the dust disappeared and her tears stopped.
In the quiet of the room, she whispered, “Keep calm and carry on” to me or to herself. Or to both of us.
JAMES MULHERN has published fiction in several literary journals, with more stories to be published this year and next. One of his stories appeared in The Library’s Best, a collection of best short stories. In September of 2013, he was chosen as a finalist for the Tuscany Prize in Catholic Fiction.
He was granted a writing fellowship to study in the United Kingdom during the summer of 2015, where he participated in seminars at Oxford University’s Exeter College. In September of 2015, two short stories received Honorable Mentions for the Short Story America Prize. His story “Smoke Rings” was Runner-Up for the InkTears Annual Short Story Contest in March of 2016.
He has received eleven acceptances from literary journals for short stories/adaptations from his novel Molly Bonamici (February 2016), a psychological thriller set in Boston and South Florida, which received a positive critique from Kirkus Reviews. Three of those short stories received awards. In 2016 and 2017, additional stories will be published in an anthology, as well as in literary magazines.
James lives and teaches in the Fort Lauderdale area.