James Mulhern has published fiction, nonfiction, and poetry in literary journals and anthologies over seventy times. In 2013, he was a Finalist for the Tuscany Prize in Catholic Fiction. In 2015, Mr. Mulhern was awarded a fully paid writing fellowship to Oxford University in the United Kingdom. That same year, a story was longlisted for the Fish Short Story Prize. In 2017, he was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. His writing (novels and short story collection) earned favorable critiques from Kirkus Reviews,including a Kirkus Star. His most recent novel, Give Them Unquiet Dreams, is a Readers’ Favorite Book Award winner, a Notable Best Indie Book of 2019, anda Kirkus Reviews Best Book of 2019. He is a college professor and high school teacher in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Today I saw a father and son stepping onto the crosswalk. I braked and watched them pass. Son on father’s shoulders, headed to the park with swings. I drove on, thinking of you and wondered why you never lifted me and held my legs or brought me to the swings. But you were not that type of father. Once, we built a shed together. I heard you say at a family party years later, “Remember when Danny and I built the shed.” But it wasn’t my brother who cut wood and hammered nails with you. I was bothered just a bit. I had other memories, like when you held my hands as we knotted my tie, how we both looked in the mirror, and I saw myself in your face. You patted my shoulders. Someone crossed the room and paused to take a picture. It was on the table by your coffin. Your hands on mine. Proof that we had closeness for a moment, and that is enough.
My only memory of you— in the dark hallway of your Boston house, just off the sunny kitchen. I was two and you sixty. Tall and thin, wispy hair, light-blue eyes illuminated by a slant of kitchen sun. "You don't know me?" I couldn't speak, but I understood what you meant when you rubbed my head and walked down the shellacked hallway towards the parlor. You died in your sleep a few years later. Years of hard work behind you— a gravedigger during the day, hauling bags of mail onto the trains at South Station every night. Raising five children. Close to your age now, I visit your homestead in Ireland. Cars whizz by where once was a dirt road. No one lives in the tiny stone house. I hear birdsong and smell cut grass. The air is cool and damp. Sheep amble in the fields. The sun moves into clouds, and then lightness comes again. What were you thinking as you exited this door? How conflicted you must have felt. Twenty-one-years-old, off to America, leaving nine siblings and parents behind, knowing you would never see them again. From Athlone on the Shannon River, dead center of Ireland, you walked and somehow made it to Southampton, England, where you boarded the ship Adriatic, a word that means "dark city." You knew no one in the promised land of your imagination, but you had courage and a dream. Just a few belongings, I'm sure, and not much money. Mostly you had hope. I press my palm against the homestead, just as you touched my head so many years ago. I see you move from light into darkness and beyond.
On our way to the dance, we made a fire under the bridge. Snow fell outside the darkness of our shadowed space. We sang about the bottles of beer we raised with gloved hands. You lay your arm over my shoulders. Your face glowed in the flames. Twigs crackled and bits of paper rose in the smoke. Snow glistened under the streetlights beyond the bridge. In a while we’d step into the cold brightness but for now I loved the dark space, the circle of fire, and our song. In the blackness of my bedroom, sometimes a fire blazes and I see our pink faces before the flames. I hear our voices and the sighing of the wind. Your arm crosses my cold neck and hugs my shoulder, and I dream we never stepped outside our hallowed space. The snow was so cold and the streetlights too strong.
On that gray day you chopped the Grand piano with an ax. Surrounded by yellow and red leaves on the hard December earth, you raised your arm high to smash it all apart. I could only wonder. You were a man raised to think crying was weak. Strength and power should define you. Men of your era could not voice their secrets or despair. You smashed the piano well, cutting into its shiny veneer. Resin-impregnated paper, dovetail joints, wooden ribs, and polished mahogany scattered around you. Slowly the curved outline of the piano became a ragged mess. The soundboard heart cracked. Small planks of air-dried wood joined the miscellany of strings, keys, and padded hammers. I remember Margaret, the drunken neighbor, singing, how her fingers caressed the ebony and ivory keys of this piano: "Shades of night are falling, bringing memories of a bygone day." Lyrics from her favorite song echoed in her cool gray basement. Her voice was awful, ravaged by smoking and heavy drinking. She glanced at the stairs, imagining her deceased Jim would come down. He would join her in the final chorus: "When your old wedding ring was new and every dream that we dreamed came true. I remember with pride how we stood side by side. What a beautiful picture you made as my bride." I thought of my mother, the day she left you, how you changed the locks and emptied every closet, as if to create a fortress, destroying every vestige of what you shared, every bygone day. If I had left the window to join you in the yard, I would have seen wetness on your cheeks, glistening strings from the soundboard of your broken soul. I watched you instead, knowing you had to sing alone, and in your own way.
The word of the day is copacetic. I see my brother and me packing suitcases for our trip. In the frame of the doorway my father stands. “Everything copacetic?” he says. One time I asked him where he learned that word. “As a Marine,” and he told me about his service in the Korean War. “It was tough,” he said. In the end, I visited him at the hospital. “Have some jello.” I held a spoon with a wobble of red before his face. “Don’t want it.” “You’ve got to eat, Dad.” “I’m not hungry.” He pushed it away. I sat by him from morning until shadows crossed his face. Mostly he slept. Sometimes he asked what time it was. I left at nine. The nurse called. “Your father’s agitated. He wants to leave. Talking about a trip.” “I’ll be there soon.” I stand in the doorway of his hospital room. He’s at the window, wearing the blue bathrobe my sister gave him. “It brings out your eyes,” she told him. “Everything copacetic?” I say. He turns and looks. “It was tough,” he says. I guide him to the bed and sleep in the chair beside him. When I wake, I find that he has gone.