James Mulhern’s writing is forthcoming or has been published in literary journals and anthologies over one hundred 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, a Kirkus Reviews Best Book of 2019, and a RED RIBBON WINNER, highly recommended by The Wishing Shelf Book Awards in the United Kingdom.
Keep Calm and Carry On
My grandmother sat on the toilet seat and brushed my curly brown hair until my scalp hurt. I was on the floor just in front of her.
“You got your grandfather’s hair. Stand up and look at yourself in the mirror. Much better, don’t you think?”
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. Now she’s in a nuthouse.” She bent down and stared into my face. Her hazel eyes seemed enormous. I smelled coffee on her breath. There were blackheads on her nose. “And your father, he couldn’t handle the responsibility of a child. People gotta be strong. Do you understand me?” 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. “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 next to the couch. Then she looked at herself in the mirror and arranged her pearl necklace, put on bright red lipstick, and fingered her gray hair, trying to hide a thinning spot at the top of her forehead. She turned and smoothed her green cotton dress, glancing at herself from behind. “Not bad for an old broad.” She looked me over. “Come here.” She tucked my shirt in, licked her hand, and smoothed my hair. “You’d think I never brushed it.”
Just as she opened the front door she said, “Hold on,” and walked to the kitchen counter, where she put her hand in a glass jar full of bills. She took out what must have been at least thirty dollars.
“Give this money to the kiddos next door.”
When we were outside, she pushed me towards their house. On the front lawn of the broken-down house, empty axles of an old bicycle poked out of the weedy grass. They were playing on the swing set. The young pale girl with stringy hair looked at me suspiciously as I approached the fence. She walked toward me. Her brother stood behind her, arms folded. He had a mean look on his face and spit.
“This is for you.” I shoved the money through the chain links. The girl reached out, but most of the bills fell onto the dirt.
“Thank you,” she said.
As I walked away, her brother yelled, “We don’t need no charity from you.”
I opened the door of my grandmother’s blue Plymouth; the air conditioning blasted and the car was already full of cigarette smoke.
She crossed herself. “Say it with me. ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’ “
I repeated the words with her and we drove to her friend Margie’s house, not more than five minutes away. Margie was a smelly fat lady with a big white cat that hissed at everyone. She always wore the same navy blue sweater, and was constantly picking white cat hairs off her clothes, while talking about the latest sermon, God, or the devil. Nanna told me when Margie was a young girl, classmates made fun of her. “Stinky” they called her. And she did smell. Like urine, cats, and mothballs.
“Don’t let him get out,” Margie yelled. The cat pounced from behind the open door. “Arnold, don’t you dare run away!” She bent to grab his tail and groaned at the same time. “My back!”
“Don’t worry. I got him.” I wrapped my arms around the white monster. He hissed.
“Why don’t you put him in the closet when you open the door? We go through this every time.” My grandmother pushed past her towards the kitchen in the back of the house. “I gotta sit down. It’s hotter than a pig’s ass 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, 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 lipstick had smudged. As usual, she had white cat hairs all over her blue sweater, especially the ledge of her belly where Arnold sat.
“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 respectful.”
“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. Laura’s got a few psychological issues, but the new meds seem to be doing her good. She’s a beautiful human being, and that’s what matters most. Besides, who’s to say what’s normal? She’s one of the happiest people I ever met.” Her eyes were shiny and her face flushed. Her bottom lip trembled. She looked at me. “Don’t you need to use the bathroom?” She raised her eyebrows. That was her signal.
“Yes, I gotta pee.”
“Well, you don’t have to get so detailed,” she said. “Just go.”
Margie laughed hard and farted.
I made my exit just in time, creeping up the gray stairs. The mahogany bannister was chipped. I bent down to pick up one up one of Arnold’s hairs from the dusty rug. I examined it, then rubbed my pants. Nanna said Margie’s room was the last one on the left. Her jewelry case was on top of the dresser. I took the diamond earrings and opal bracelet Nanna had told me about. There was also a couple of pretty rings—one a large red stone, the other a blue one. These and a gold necklace with a cross I shoved into my pockets. Then I walked to the bathroom and flushed the toilet. I messed up the towel a bit to look like I dried my hands.
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.
“He raised Lazarus from the dead,” Margie said. “And then He healed the deaf and dumb men. Oh, and the blind man, too.” She lifted her hand and accidently splashed my grandmother.
“Let’s not forget about the fish. And the water into wine,” my grandmother said.
Margie shook her head. “I don’t know, Catherine.” She looked down. “It’s hard to believe that Jesus coulda done all that. Why aren’t there miracles today?” I imagined a fish jumping 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 a priest at Mission church. A charismatic healer is what they call him. Aiden’s going to be cured, aren’t you, honey?”
“Cured of what?” Margie said.
“He’s got a little something wrong with his blood is all. Too many white cells. Leukemia. But this priest will take care of it.”
“Leukemia!” Margie said. “Catherine, that’s serious.” Margie tried to smile at me, but I could tell she was upset. “Sit down, honey.” 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.
“I know that. I’m not dumb. God will take care of everything.”
We said our goodbyes. In the car, my grandmother announced, “Let me see what you got.” I pulled the goods out of my pockets while she unclasped her black plastic pocketbook. Her eyes lit up.
“Perfect. She isn’t looking, is she?” I peered at the house. Margie was nowhere in sight. Probably sitting on her rocking chair with Arnold in her lap.
“Put those in here.” She nodded towards her bag.
When we were about to turn onto Tremont Street where the church was, I remembered the gold necklace and cross. I pulled it out of my pocket. My grandmother took it from me, running a red light. “This would look beautiful on Laura.” In a moment, a policeman pulled us over.
“Don’t say anything,” my grandmother said. We moved to the side of the road. She looked in the rearview mirror and rolled her window down.
“Ma’am, you just ran a red light.” He was tall with a hooked nose and dark brown close-set eyes.
“I know, officer. I was saying a prayer with my grandson. He gave me this gold cross and I got distracted. I’m very sorry.”
He leaned into the car. I smiled.
“Is that a birthday gift for your grandmother?”
“Yes. I wanted to surprise her.”
“And he certainly did.” She patted my knee and smiled at the police officer.
“It’s a good thing no cars were coming. You could have been hurt,” he said. “That’s a beautiful cross,” he added.
My grandmother began to cry. “Isn’t it though?” She sniffled.
The officer placed his hand firmly on the edge of the window. “Consider this a warning. You can go but I’d put that cross away.”
“Of course. Of course.” She turned to me. “Here, Aiden. Put it back in your pocket.”
The policeman waited for us to drive away. I turned and looked. He waved.
“Are you sad, Nanna?”
“Don’t be silly.” She waved her hand. “That was an act.”
I laughed and she did, too.
We parked. “I need to get that chalice, Aiden. I read an article in The Boston Globe that said people believe it has incredible curing powers. It’s a replica of a chalice from the Middle Ages, when lots of religious maniacs lived. Experts say it’s priceless. If I have your mother drink from it, she might get better and come home. Won’t that be nice?” She rubbed my head gently and smiled at me.
I looked towards the church where an old man pushed a lady in a wheelchair up a ramp. “Won’t God be mad?”
“Aiden, I’m going to return it. We’re just borrowing the chalice to help your mother. God will understand. Don’t you worry, sweetheart.”
We entered Mission church. Shellack, incense, perfume, and old-people smell filled the air. It was difficult to see in the musty darkness. Bright light shone through the stained-glass windows, where Jesus was depicted in the fourteen Stations of the Cross.
“Let’s move to the front.” My grandmother pulled me out of line and cut in front of a humpbacked lady, who looked bewildered. “Shouldn’t you go to the end?” she whispered. 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. My grandson needs 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 very quietly. “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. “Ow. 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.” She crossed herself, hurried across the altar, swiping the gold chalice and putting it in her handbag while everyone was distracted by my fake moaning and crying.
“He’ll be okay.” She placed her arm under mine and helped 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.”
“Let’s get out of here before there’s a flood.” She laughed.
The priest scowled. The old lady who let us cut in line eyed my grandmother’s handbag and shook her head when we passed.
In front of Rita’s house, I asked my grandmother what “tribulation” meant. And where were “Repapah” and “Kadiddle.”
She laughed. “You pronounced those places wrong. Your mother used to do the same thing whenever I quoted that Bible passage.” She opened the car door. “I don’t know where the hell those towns are. Somewhere in the Middle East. . . . And a tribulation is a problem.”
After ringing the doorbell a couple times, we opened the door. Rita was passed out on the couch.
My grandmother took an ice cube from the freezer and held it against her forehead. Rita sat bolt upright. “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. You scared the hell out of me.” She wore a yellow nightgown and her auburn hair was set in pink curlers. “Aiden, I didn’t see you there,” she said. She kissed my cheek. For the second time that day I smelled alcohol.
“Do you think you can help me out?” my grandmother asked. Rita looked at me.
“Of course I can.”
“Just pull me up and I’ll get my checkbook.” I suddenly realized all my grandmother’s friends were fat.
At the kitchen table, Rita said, “Should I make it out to the hospital?”
“Make it out to me. I’ve opened a bank account to pay for his medical expenses.”
“Will five thousand do for now?” Rita was rich. Her husband was a “real estate tycoon” my grandmother was always saying. He dropped dead shoveling snow a few years back.
“That’s so generous of you.” My grandmother cried again. More fake tears, I thought.
We had tea and chocolate chip cookies. Rita asked how my mother was doing. My grandmother said “fine” and looked away, wringing her hands. Then she started talking about the soap operas they watched. My grandmother loved Erica from All My Children. Said she was a woman who knew how to get what she wanted and admired that very much. Rita thought Erica was a bitch.
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, examining them in the light. I saw bits of dust in the sunrays streaming through the bay window.
“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 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.” 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 difficulty paying your hospital bills.”
“Sorta like a tribulation?”
“Is my mother a tribulation?”
This time my grandmother’s tears were real. They gushed like water from that rock in the Middle East. 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.