James Mulhern has published fiction or 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, and a Kirkus Reviews Best Indie Book of 2019.

Smoke Rings

By James Mulhern

Just as we were about to step onto the ice, Nonna nudged my arm away and opened the bank door. She slipped; her wig flew into a mound of snow. “My back! My back!”

I yelled, “Help!” Tony, a kid from school, ran from the Citgo station. A crowd of about ten people surrounded us, mostly women. Tony tried to help Nonna get up, but she screeched, “My God. You’re hurting me. Someone call an ambulance. I think I broke something. Don’t anybody touch me. I want a professional.” Her coat was open. She had managed to create a rip in the leg of her pantsuit; there was even blood. Tears streamed down her cheeks.

The bank manager came outside. “Let me help you.”

Nonna hollered, “Don’t touch me! I slipped on your ice. Your maintenance person must be a bombast. He should be fired.” She moaned, mascara a dirty mess on her teary cheeks.

“I’ve got your wig,” a hunched-back elderly woman said. “Do you want me to put it back on?”

“Are you crazy?! What’s a wig gonna do for me? What I need is an ambulance.”

“Ma’am, I can assure you that an ambulance is on the way,” the manager said. He reminded me of Cary Grant in his dark suit, white shirt, and tie. He had dark wavy hair parted on the side.

“I was only trying to help,” the elderly woman said, handing the wig to a twenty-something lady with bright red lips and oversized tortoiseshell sunglasses. She looked disgusted and passed the wig to a gray-haired short man who twisted it with his hands.

“Hey, ya gonna ruin that thing, Mr. It was expensive.”

“I’m sorry.” He gave it to a fat prim woman in a green dress. A game of Hot Potato, I thought.

“It’s okay. It’s okay,” Nonna wiped away tears. Her hands were stained with mascara. “My poor granddaughter.” She pointed at me. “What a trauma to see her Nonna almost die. I’m sure she’s gonna have emotional damage from this whole experience.”

“Ma’am. She’ll be fine. It was just a fall. It’s not like you’re dead,” the manager said.

The prim lady blurted, “That was very insensitive.” She looked to the others for approval.

“Thank you, lady. Don’t forget he said that. You’re my witness.” Nonna whimpered.

“Of course not, dear.” The woman smiled and stood tall.

“Oh my God! I really coulda died. Smashed my head open. And that would have been poor Molly’s last memory of me. My brain all over this ice.” She crossed herself.

The lady with red lips and glasses sized me up, then glanced at Nonna. She smirked.

“Jesus! My leg is bleeding,” Nonna inspected her torn pants. “I must be covered in bruises.” She began to breath deeply. “Oh, oh! I’m having agita!”

The gray-haired man said, “What should we do? What should we do?!”

“Take some deep breaths, ma’am.” The manager kneeled and tried to hold one of her hands. Nonna pulled it away.

“So you think you’re a doctor now?”

“I was trying to calm you.” He wiped his mascara-stained hands on his pants.

“Keep your paws off me.”

The ambulance arrived as if on cue. The crowd opened to make way for two burly men who checked Nonna’s vital signs and lifted her onto a stretcher. They were very sympathetic, and Nonna kept saying, “What nice boys.” Once she was secured in the ambulance I entered. As we drove away, the siren sounded. Nonna covered her mouth to suppress laughter, smiling at me. I turned away because I knew I would laugh, too. “This is just awful. Just awful,” she said to the young man on the other side of her stretcher.

“You’ll be okay. We are going to take good care of you.”

“Thank you, dear.”

Through the window of the ambulance, I watched the crowd disperse. The woman with the red lips remained, staring as we drove away. She glared at me. I stuck my tongue out and smushed my face against the window.

When we arrived at the Emergency Ward of the Massachusetts General Hospital, the paramedics lifted Nonna’s stretcher from the back of the ambulance and pushed through automatic sliding doors. I followed them. We were greeted by a tall thin nurse with a white cap atop an immaculate blond bun. She asked the paramedics what happened. Nonna interrupted, saying she had a terrible fall on an area that should have been cleared of ice. “That bank is negligent!”

Soon, we were brought to an area in the back of the Emergency Ward, a large room full of stretchers partitioned by curtains. Nonna stared at the ceiling. She patted my hand on the railing of her stretcher. “You did good.”

After a while, a handsome doctor in blue scrubs came to the stretcher. He asked me to step away so he could examine Nonna behind the closed curtain. She told the story of her fall again, this time embellishing details, complaining about the “inconsiderate” and “cold” bank manager. “I have witnesses.”

He listened patiently. Then he said that she was pretty bruised up with a small laceration on her thigh. She would probably feel worse a few days from now, after the adrenaline rush had subsided. He didn’t think she had broken anything, and the laceration did not need stitches; it simply needed to be cleaned up to prevent infection. He would order X-rays just in case. Before he left, he asked if there was anyone he should call.

“There’s no reason to bother anyone else in my family. Once I have the X-rays, and you give me the okay to go, my beautiful granddaughter will ride home with me in a cab.”

“Sounds good, Mrs. Janssen.”

“Don’t call me that. Call me Agnella. Janssen is my married name. My husband died a long time ago. He was a pain in the ass.”

He laughed. “Okay, Agnella. Your granddaughter looks like a responsible young lady. I’m sure you will be taken care of.” He opened the curtain and smiled at me. He said I should stay with Nonna and pull the cord for the nurse if Nonna suddenly seemed drowsy or confused.

A timid nurse cleaned out the laceration. We waited for the X-rays, and eventually Nonna was cleared to go. Our family probably assumed we were shopping and had stopped for lunch. The cab dropped us at Nonna’s. We climbed the stairs to her apartment.

She moved slowly, stopping every now and then to rest. “That whole affair really knocked the wind out of me.”  

We sat quietly in her living room. After a few minutes, when she seemed like she was going to nod off, she sat bolt upright, very alert. “Ouch!” She placed a hand against her side. “I wish I hadn’t fallen so hard.” Then she said, “Molly, we gotta take pictures. We need evidence for the lawsuit. Let’s go into my bedroom and check out the damages.”

Nonna stripped, throwing the blue velvet pantsuit and her undergarments onto the bed. “Those clothes are going in the trash.” She stared at herself in the mirror. For a moment it seemed she forgot I was there as she traced the bruises on her saggy body and looked over her shoulder so she inspect her back in the mirror. She said, “Grab the Polaroid from the left bottom drawer of my dresser.”

I did, and then she said, “These pictures are gonna be the icing on the cake.” She laughed. “That’s funny, ‘icing.’ Don’t you think, Molly? I mean considering how it happened.” She put her hands on my shoulders and stared into my eyes. I could smell her sweat, her oldness. “I know what you’re thinking.”


“You’re thinking your grandmother has sagging breasts, a sagging ass, and flabby arms.” She flapped the skin underneath her biceps with her hand. “You don’t want to get old. But that’s life. I had beautiful firm skin and was pretty like you, but aging is a terrible thing. You lose your looks, and then sometimes your mind. Maybe you get a horrible disease. There’s nothing you can do about it. You just gotta carry on and get as much as you can out of every moment you are alive.” She smiled and kissed my forehead. “Now pretend you’re a photographer for Vogue and snap some pictures.”

It amazed me that she knew what I was thinking. Seeing her old body made me nauseous, afraid of the future.

“This bruise looks like a cow.” She pointed to her right shoulder. “And this one on my ass looks like a barn. What do you think?”

“I can see the cow, but I can’t see the barn.”

“Well maybe not a barn. Some sort of building though. I think it’s the Vatican. I got the pope’s house on my ass.”

“I don’t know what the Vatican looks like, Nonna.”

She eased herself onto the bed and patted the area beside her. I sat down.

“It’s a fancy palace where the pope lives.” She moved my chin with her hand so that I was staring into her rheumy brown eyes. “Listen to what I tell you. What we did today, some people would consider wrong. Certainly the pope.” She laughed. “Grab the cigarettes from the beside table, will you?” I reached over. “And the ashtray. . . Oh, and the lighter.” I handed them to her. She placed the ashtray beside her, lit a cigarette, inhaled deeply, and blew smoke rings. “See those puffs of smoke.” I watched them float in front of her face.

“Yes, Nonna.”

“Look at that one in the corner.” She pointed. “It’s disappearing already. Here one minute, gone the next.”

I watched the empty air. “So what?”

She slapped my face. My skin burnt and my eyes teared up. When I tried to move my hand to my cheek, she pushed it down and held it against my thigh.

“Why did you do that?”

“Because you gotta be tough. You don’t get anything in this world the easy way. What we did isn’t going to hurt anybody. That bank is gonna settle once we threaten a lawsuit.”

I turned my head, feeling a pit in my stomach.

“Don’t you look away!” She grabbed my face. As she spoke, I felt spittle on my nose. “And don’t you dare utter a word to anyone about our plan today. You understand?”

“Yes,” I mumbled.

“Say it louder.”

“Yes! I won’t say a word.”

“Your poor Nonna and you were walking to the bank. I slipped on ice and had a bad fall.” She laughed. “And I got bruises to prove it. She stood and pointed to the Vatican. “As God is our witness.”

“How much money do you think we’ll make?”

She gazed at her body in the mirror, as if making an appraisal. “I’d say about ten grand. Those hotshots at the bank won’t want bad press about an old lady falling on ice.” She moved the ashtray to the top of her dresser, then tamped out her cigarette. “Now you go downstairs and make us some coffee while I wash up and get dressed.”

When I was in the kitchen, I heard her fall down the stairs. “Oh shit!” was the last thing she said. I found her body on the mahogany landing. There was a pool of blood around her head, and her right arm and left leg were contorted, like the Gumby doll of an angry child. I stepped over her body, walked up the stairs, and into her bedroom, where I sat down and lit a cigarette. I coughed, but as I watched the smoke rings dissipate, I realized Nonna was right.

“Here one minute, gone the next,” I said, and walked to the phone on her bedside table. I dialed 911. “My grandmother,” I screamed. “She fell down the stairs and I think she’s dead.”