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.
“Keep Calm and Carry On”
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. That’s 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. And your father, he just couldn’t handle the responsibility of a child. People gotta be strong. Do you understand me?” 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. 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 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 went to the kitchen counter and put her hand in an glass jar full of bills. She took out what must have been at least thirty single dollar bills.
“Here. Give this money to the kiddos next door.”
When we were outside, she pushed me towards their house. They were playing on their swing set in the fenced-in yard. In front of the broken-down house was a yard of weeds. A rusted bicycle with no wheels lay on the ground. The young pale girl with stringy hair looked at me suspiciously as I approached the fence. Her brother stood, arms folded, in the background. He had a mean look on his face and spit.
“This is for you,” I said, shoving the money through the chain links. The girl reached out to grab it, 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; she had the air conditioning blasting and it 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 ten minutes away. Margie was a smelly fat lady with a big white cat that hissed at me. 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 they were young girls, their classmates made fun of her. “Stinky” they called her. And she did smell. Like urine, and cats, and mothballs.
“Don’t let him get out,” Margie yelled, as the cat pounced from behind the open door. “Arnold, don’t you dare run away!” She bent over to grab his tail and groaned at the same time. “My back!”
“Don’t worry. I got him.” I had my arms wrapped around the white monster. He hissed.
“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. Laura’s getting better. She’s just got a few psychological issues. And the new meds they have her on seem to be doing her good. She’s a beautiful human being, and that’s what’s most important. Besides, who’s to say what’s normal? My Laura has always been different. 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 gotta 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 old bannister was dusty. The rug in the upstairs hall was full of Arnold’s hair. I bent down and picked one up to examine it, then rubbed my pants. Nanna said Margie’s room was the last one on the left. Her jewelry case was on top of her 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 so it looked like I dried my hands in it.
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.
“Of course there was raising Lazarus from the dead,” Margie said. “And then the healing of the deaf and dumb men. Oh, and the blind man, too,” she said raising her hand and splashing 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 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, 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 and when we were in the car, my grandmother said, “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 lookin’, is she?” I looked at the house. Margie was nowhere in sight. Probably sitting on her rocking chair with Arnold in her lap.
“Now put those in here,” she said, nodding towards her bag, and I did.
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 back pocket and my grandmother took it from me, running a red light. “This would look beautiful on Laura.” In a moment, there was a police car pulling us over.
“Don’t say anything,” my grandmother said, as we moved to the side of the road. She looked in the rearview mirror and put her window down.
“Ma’am, you just ran a red light.” The policeman was tall with a hooked nose and dark brown close-set eyes.
“I know officer. I was just saying a prayer with my grandson. He gave me this gold cross. 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 said, patting my knee and smiling 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. I’d put that cross away.”
“Of course. Of course.” She turned to me. “Here, Aiden. Put it back in your pocket.”
The police officer 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 just 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 some people believe it has incredible curing powers. It’s a replica of a chalice from long ago, over 100-years old, with lots of pretty stones on it. Experts say it’s priceless. I’m thinking if I have your mother drink from it, she’ll get better and come home to us. Won’t that be nice?” She rubbed my head gently and smiled at me.
I looked away, 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 to help your mother. I think God will understand. Don’t you worry, sweetheart.”
We entered Mission church. It smelled of shellack, 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.”
“Let’s get out of here before there’s a flood.” She laughed. The priest looked confused. The old lady who let us cut in line eyed my grandmother’s handbag and shook her head as we passed.
When we were in front of Rita’s house, our last stop before home, I asked my grandmother what “tribulation” meant. And where were “Repapah” and “Kadiddle.”
She laughed. “You pronounced those places wrong, but it doesn’t matter. Your mother used to do the same thing whenever I quoted that Bible passage.” She began to open the car door. “I don’t know where the hell those places are. Somewhere in the Middle East. . . . And a tribulation is a problem.”
After ringing the doorbell a couple times we opened the door. We found Rita 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 bejesus out of me.” She was wearing a yellow nightgown and her auburn hair was set in curlers. “Oh, Aiden. I didn’t see you there,” she said. She kissed my cheek. For the second time that day I smelled alcohol.
“So 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?”
“Oh, no. 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 that 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 said she 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 and examining them in the light. I saw bits of dust in the sunlight 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 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?”
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.