James Mulhern’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in over one hundred literary journals and anthologies. 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 has earned 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.
The Wrong Way
By James Mulhern
Every couple weeks, on a Sunday after church, my father picked Martin and me up for a visit. That day, though, Martin was at swim practice, so I would be with him alone. Any hope of my parents getting back together had diminished a few weeks after Mom’s release, when they had seemed so affectionate.
“Stop hovering,” my grandmother said. I was peeking through the sheer curtain of one of the bay windows in the living room.
“He makes me nervous.”
“Why would your father make you nervous, Aiden?”
“I never know what to say.”
“Sit down on the couch next to me.” She wore a hairnet and sipped a mug of coffee. Her face looked drawn. My mother, who was still asleep, had been acting strange, she said. “She saw that ghost man again,” she told me the day before.
She put her warm hands over one of mine. “Tell your father about school, your friends. Ask him about work. He loves to talk about that job.” She lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply, then exhaled. “Dry shite to me.”
“What?” I scratched my cheek.
“Boring. I find your father boring.” She pushed my hand away from my face. “Stop scratching yourself. It’s a nervous habit.”
“You don’t like Dad?”
“Of course I like him. He’s a good man, just dull. Or maybe I’m dull.” She laughed. “We have nothing in common is all. He’s the total opposite of your grandfather, God rest his soul. He was curious about everything and had the gift of gab. Sometimes I would pretend to fall asleep.” She smiled, closed her eyes, and leaned back.
A car honked.
I smoothed my sweatshirt and straightened my jeans.
“Do you think they’ll ever get back together?”
She tamped her cigarette, stood, and kissed me on the forehead. “I don’t think so, darling. Some things are not meant to be. It’s nobody’s fault.”
He honked again.
“Go on. You look fine. Relax. Talk about the weather. They say we’ll have snow today. You’re a smart boy. You’ll think of something to talk about. Don’t forget your coat.”
The sky was gray and the air brisk. I was glad my father had the heat on.
“Where’s Martin?” he said.
The hot air blasted from the dashboard vent. It felt good.
“He’s at swim practice.”
“The miracle of heated swimming pools. At the YMCA?” He smiled.
“It’s just you and me then.”
I thought he sounded disappointed.
“If you don’t want me to come, that’s okay.”
He put his hand on my head. “Of course I want you to come. We’ll have a great time.”
“What will we do?”
He checked his mirrors and turned into the street.
“You wanna watch the game?” He rubbed beard stubble and smoothed his dark hair. The skin under his eye looked bluish.
He laughed. “Football. The Bears and the Packers. We can order pizza.”
“Sure.” I knew nothing about football and hadn’t any interest, but watching TV would suck up time. The games lasted at least three hours. We wouldn’t have to say much.
When we passed the roundabout by the police station, he said, “So how’s school?”
“What’s your favorite subject?” He glanced at me, then turned on the wipers. The snow had begun to fall.
“I was never any good at English. What are you learning?” A red truck whizzed past us. “Did you see that asshole? I almost hit him. Too many irresponsible drivers. They don’t give a shit about other people. Always in a hurry to get places.”
“Maybe he’s late for work.”
He laughed. “On a Sunday? I doubt it. . . Hey, I interrupted you. Tell me about your English class.”
“We’re reading Great Expectations by Charles Dickens.”
“He wrote A Christmas Carol, right? Never read the book, but I liked the movie. The ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future.”
“The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.”
“Huh?” He wrinkled his nose and rubbed it with the edge of his leather coat sleeve.
“Dickens calls the Future Ghost Yet to Come.”
“I get it. So what’s this book about?”
“A boy named Pip. His parents are dead and he lives with his bitchy older sister on a marshland in the outskirts of England. His uncle is nice, though.”
“That’s a weird name for a kid. What happens?”
“I just started it. I’m at the part where Pip meets an escaped convict in the graveyard. This scary man in rags jumps up from behind a tombstone in the marshes and grabs him. The guy orders him to bring food and a file so he can saw the chains off his legs. He threatens Pip if he doesn’t follow through.”
My father nodded. “I like crime and suspense.” He turned the heat down. “You comfortable? I hate the sound of that fan.”
We passed the Arnold Arboretum, where Nanna took Martin and me. The snow was falling softly on the spruce trees. My father put the wipers on high. I liked the swooshing sound. Snow collected on branches and the grass below.
“How’s your mother?”
“She had a vision of that old man again.”
He shook his head. “I thought she was getting better.” The car slid to the right and he slowed down. “I know you think she’s psychic, but I still find that hard to believe, Aiden.” We were on the Jamaicaway, a four-lane parkway, one of the curviest roads in Boston.
“I think she is better.”
“For Christ’s sake, Aiden, your mother thinks she sees ghosts.”
“Scrooge sees ghosts.”
“That’s a made-up story.” He turned into the parking lot next to Jamaica Pond. We pulled into a space in front of waves rippling in on the wind. The snow swirled outside the car.
“Made-up stories can be based on real life.”
“There are no ghosts, Aiden.” He took a cigarette from a pack in his shirt pocket and lit it. “We shouldn’t have released her from McCall’s. Schizophrenia is a serious mental illness. The nurses and psychiatrists said she wasn’t ready.” He drummed his fingers on the steering wheel.
“Are you and Mom ever gonna be together again?” I felt my eyes tearing up.
He slid closer on the seat and put his arm over my shoulder. A few ashes dropped on my jeans. I brushed them off. “No, Aiden. Your Mom and me, we aren’t meant to be together.”
He tightened his lips and paused, as if thinking what to say.
“I’m moving to Arizona.”
“I met another lady and there’s a good job for me out there.”
“What about Martin and me? And Mom?” I pushed his arm from my shoulder. “You’re dropping ashes on me.”
He cocked his head back and raised his brows. “Sorry, buddy.”
“I’m not your buddy.”
“Fuck it.” He looked in the rearview mirror and put the car in reverse. “Someday you’ll understand.”
“I understand now.”
He laughed. “Aiden, you’re just a kid. When you get older, you’ll realize that what I’m doing is the best thing for all of us.” A shiny blue car sped by the exit of the parking lot. “People are crazy. Don’t they realize they could lose control in this weather?” My father looked both ways before starting to turn.
“You’re going the wrong way.”
“No, I’m not. My place is in that direction.” He pointed.
“Take me home.”
“You don’t want to watch the game?”
“I hate football and I hate you.”
“You don’t hate me, Aiden. You’re angry.”
He turned right. We passed the arboretum again. The pine branches seemed to droop with the snow. A father and his son shoveled their walkway.
When we were in front of my grandmother’s house, Dad said, “Are you okay?”
I opened the door and stepped onto the curb. “You’re irresponsible. You don’t give a shit about us and you just want to hurry away.”
“You’re pissed, Aiden. I still love you. We’ll talk about this again when you’re not so upset. I planned to tell you and Martin over dinner. I was gonna take you out to a nice restaurant. Sorry it happened like this.”
My grandmother and mother were shoveling the front steps. They stopped and looked up.
Mom shouted, “You’re home so soon. What happened?”
“Nothing,” I said.
My father waved to her, then whispered, “Please don’t tell them, Aiden. Your mom’s not ready to hear the news.”
“Dad, I’m sure she already knows. That’s the difference between you and her. You think she’s crazy, but she’s not. Mom has the ability to see things you can’t. You’ll never understand. I think you’re a sad guy, like that Ghost of Christmas Past.” I kicked some snow. “Maybe I just expect too much, or maybe I’ll understand someday like you said.”
“You won’t say anything, right?” He looked like a child and an old man at the same time.
“I won’t say anything, Dad.” I shut the door and walked towards the steps.
“What the hell happened?” My grandmother wrapped her arm around me. Mom kissed my cheek. I heard my father drive away.
“The streets were getting icy. The snow was falling harder. Dad wanted me home before the roads got bad.”
My mother stared at me. “They already are.”
Nanna said, “My ma used to say, ‘Never dread the winter ’til the snow is on the blanket.’ Let’s get inside.”
We leaned the shovels against the side of the house and walked up the steps. I felt the beating of my heart and the passing of air into my lungs. The smoke of my breath rose, and dissolved like eddies in a careless sky.
My father drove onward, streets glistening, snow like piled linen, and Arizona far, far away.