James Mulhern’s writing has appeared in literary journals over one hundred and thirty times. In 2015, Mr. Mulhern was awarded a writing fellowship to Oxford University. That same year, a story was longlisted for the Fish Short Story Prize. In 2017, he was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. His recent novel, Give Them Unquiet Dreams, is a Kirkus Reviews Best Book of 2019. He was shortlisted for the Aesthetica Creative Writing Award 2021 for his poetry.
By James Mulhern
“We won’t stay long,” my mother said. We were driving on the Jamaicaway, a curvy four-lane parkway in Boston. The pond was on our left. I knew she was nervous. She hated visiting my grandmother. Said it was so depressing. She couldn’t stand to see her the way she was now.
“Do people swim in that water?”
“They used to. Until the seventies. A mother and daughter drowned. After that, swimming was forbidden.”
When she spoke, the bruises on her face seemed to grow.
“What are you looking at?” She touched the side of her forehead and cheek. The blue and red had transformed into shades of orange and yellow. The colors reminded me of the trees along the water.
“Does it hurt?”
“Not any longer.” She reached out and patted my head. “Don’t worry, Billy. Your mother’s a survivor.” She braked at the crosswalk to let a man and woman pass. She sighed.
“Do you think you’ll ever get married, Mom?”
“I don’t know, honey.” She laughed and blushed. “I’ve never had much luck with men. . . . Except for you, that is. You’re the best thing that ever happened to me.”
“Why don’t you ever talk about my father?”
She lit a cigarette and opened the window a crack. I smelled wet leaves before the smoke overpowered the space. “It’s complicated.”
“How complicated could it be?” I folded my arms and looked out the window. A mother and father with two children passed by in a red SUV. “Mom, I’m not a baby. I’m sixteen. I can take whatever it is you’re afraid to tell me.”
We stopped at a red light. Joggers ran on the path along the pond. A few sailboats drifted southward. I wished I were on one.
“I hate this light. It’s always so long.” She scratched the tops of her fingers. She was holding the wheel tightly and debating what to say. When the light changed, she said, “The truth is, I didn’t know your father.”
“How can that be? You fucked him, didn’t you?”
She slapped my cheek, then put her hand quickly on the steering wheel.
“I was drunk, Billy. I passed out on a bed at an MIT fraternity party. Someone slipped into the room and . . . well you can imagine the rest.”
“You don’t remember anything about him?”
“As it was ending, I woke. I sat up and pulled the covers over me while I screamed at him. He said I’d agreed.”
“I don’t know. Hell, maybe I did. I was a heavy partier in those days. And I was a flirt.”
“That’s gross.” I turned on the radio. Taylor Swift sang, promising a guy he’d never find another like her.
My mother laughed. “I guess that’s how your father felt.”
“I don’t think so. He was horny and he used you.”
“That was cruel, Billy.”
“I can’t believe you don’t care about him.”
“Honey, the truth is, I don’t. I care about you. He gave me you.”
“Isn’t there anything you can tell me?”
“He had a gentle voice and light blue eyes like you. He was handsome. And for a few moments before he closed the bedroom door and left, he seemed kind.”
“Yes, sweetheart. That’s it. I never saw him again. I was embarrassed and ashamed.”
“Were your parents angry?”
“Your grandfather was dead. You know the story. He died in his sleep a few years earlier. Your grandmother wasn’t happy, but she helped me get through it.”
We were at the roundabout before we turned onto Nana’s street. “What did she say when you told her you didn’t know the guy?”
“I never did. I told her I was artificially inseminated. I said I always wanted a child and could take care of the baby myself. I was only twenty-four, but I had a good-paying job as an editor.”
“Nana’s old-fashioned. I can’t see her being comfortable with that or even believing you. It sounds crazy.”
“If she didn’t believe me, she wouldn’t have said so. That’s how she is.” We pulled into her driveway. She lived on the second floor of a three-decker. “You know what she always says. ‘Family first.’”
Before we got out of the car, my mother took a compact out of her purse and began hiding her bruises. She looked in the mirror, then turned to me. “What do you think? Does it look bad?”
“A little. You can tell you’re trying to cover it up.” I touched her face and smeared the colored powder. She winced. “I’m sorry, Mom.”
“It’s not the pain so much. It’s the memory. Pain goes away, but memories stay with you forever.”
“Did you tell Nana about it?”
“I said I fell off a stepladder when I was hanging a curtain. I told her you were helping me. Promise me you’ll stick to the story.”
The stairwell of her building always smelled like Chinese food. An Asian family lived on the first floor. They spoke Chinese, so I couldn’t understand what they were saying, but they were loud and sounded happy. I wondered what the father was like.
My grandmother never locked her doors. She said that way people could get in if they smelled her dead body. My mother pushed it open. My grandmother quickly hid her donut behind an old photograph.
“I was beginning to worry. You said you’d be here at 1 p.m.”
“Ma, it’s only 1:15.”
“You never were very prompt.”
“Don’t start with me. I’m here to help you.”
Nana wiped her lips quickly and stuffed the napkin in the pocket of her housedress, a pattern of blue and white that looked like cresting waves. There were yellow stains under her armpits. “Give your Nana a kiss, Billy.” She extended her arms.
I kissed her on the cheek. It was cold and she smelled like sweat.
“It’s a mess in here.” Mom scraped dirty plates from the table and counters into the trash, then ran hot water with soap in the sink. My grandmother rolled her eyes and gave me a mint from her black handbag.
“Why should I care about the way this place looks? No one visits.”
Mom turned quickly and wiped her sudsy hands on a dishtowel. “That’s not true. I visit you at least once every two weeks.”
“I suppose you do, Grace. But not your brother. He never calls. Has his wife ring me up. She’s so sweet it makes me sick. Darlene’s a phony through and through. Even her body is fake. I know those breasts aren’t real.”
I laughed. She laughed, too, and coughed.
“Who cares what she does with her body, Ma?”
“You would say that.”
“Let’s not go there. Okay?”
“I won’t say a word.” She ran a finger along her lips.
“Speaking of bodies, let me see that face of yours.”
My mother put a plate in the drying rack and leaned into my grandmother.
Nana put on her glasses and widened her eyes. “But you’ve covered it all up. It needs to breathe, Grace. Wash your face straightaway. There’s a clean washcloth on the shelf above the toilet.”
“Ma, that won’t be necessary.”
“I want to see. I’m your mother.”
She looked like she’d been crying when she returned from the bathroom. All of her makeup had been washed away—eye shadow and mascara, lipstick. Her freckles and wrinkles stood out. I thought she looked so tired and old.
“Come here, darling.” My grandmother patted the chair beside her. “Let me have a look.” She gently placed her palms on my mother’s face and scanned closely. “All that from falling off a stepladder.” She looked at me suspiciously.
I shrugged. “It was a bad fall. My fault. I bumped into her when I passed the rod.”
My grandmother stared into my eyes.
“This is the second fall you’ve had in three months. I don’t understand it, Gracie.”
“Ma, I’ve always been clumsy. Remember the time I dropped the turkey at Thanksgiving.”
Nana laughed. “Your father was so angry. Men get upset over the silliest of things. It took just a few moments to wipe it off and reheat it. No wonder he had a heart attack. He was always so short-tempered.”
My mother was lost in thought, looking out the window. Colored leaves blew in the wind.
I pointed at the photograph. “Is that you, Nana?”
“Yes. I was quite the looker. Not like now.” She glanced at her obese body. I noticed age spots on her chubby fingers when she touched the glass. “That was a bathing suit. Not like the ones girls have today.” She wore what looked like a dress with rolled-up stockings as she waded towards a boulder surrounded by foam and a crashing wave.
“Did he ever hit you?” my mother said.
“Why would you ask such a thing?” Nana looked at me with a worried expression.
“You said he was short-tempered?”
“I don’t want to give Billy a bad impression of his grandfather.”
“I can take it, Nana. I’m almost an adult.”
“You wouldn’t ever hit a woman, would ya?” She put her hands on mine.
“That’s not cool.”
She laughed. “No, it’s not cool.”
“Well, did he?”
“A few times. When he was drunk. Men were different back then.”
“Not so different.”
“What do you mean, Grace?” Nana’s face blanched. “Do you have something you want to tell me?”
My mother cried and shook. I helped her to the table.
“Who hit you, darling? . . . Billy, pour your mother some whiskey. It’s under the sink.”
My grandmother moved her chair close to my mother and hugged her. She rubbed her back. I brought the drink to her.
“Take a sip, Grace.”
Mom wiped her tears and shook her head. She drank for a bit.
“You remember that lawyer I was seeing?”
“Mr. O’Toole, you mean?”
“I broke it off. He smacked me twice. Said I was a bitch.”
“You’re not that horrible word, Gracie. You’re opinionated and strong. I wish I could have been more like you when I was a young woman. I followed the mold. Too afraid to do what I really wanted.”
Mom blinked and raised her eyebrows. “What did you want, Ma?”
“To be a competitive swimmer. But we were poor, and poor women had little chance of pursuing such a dream.”
“Were you practicing in this picture?” I said.
“No, dear. I was walking toward the boulder to scrape vegetation. Sea lettuce is what we called it. ‘Twasn’t the best food, but it was all we needed. We were happy to eat it. . . . The only swimming I do now is in the bathtub. That’s what you’re here for, Grace. To help me into my bath?”
“Forget about that bastard O’Toole. I didn’t like him. Always seemed to have a stick up his ass.” She kissed my mother’s forehead. “He’s out of your life, I hope?”
“Yes, I ended it.”
Nana looked at me. “So you lied about the curtains?”
“Promise me you’ll never lie to your grandmother again.”
“Gracie, you’re a beautiful, smart woman. Someday you’ll find a man who deserves you. And if you don’t, so be it. Who needs them anyway? Men are not so great.” She looked at me. “Except for Billy. He’s a fine young man.”
My mother put her glass in the sink.
“Time to help me up,” Nana said.
My mother put her arm under hers. “On the count of three.” I wrapped myself around my grandmother’s soft flesh. “One, two, three.”
She sighed as she stood. We guided her to the bathroom.
“I’ll take it from here, Billy.”
Before my mother closed the door, my grandmother said, “That was Clew Bay in County Mayo. The photograph, I mean.”
I listened through the door. There was no conversation. I heard splashing and my grandmother’s sighs as my mother rubbed her back. I suppose they were preoccupied by memory. I imagined my grandmother was thinking about an ocean three thousand miles away. She was swimming far into the sea. My mother was smiling, remembering Nana’s caring words, feeling that she was loved. I was glad my father had seemed kind and gentle, and I hoped that he was happy. For a few moments, the three of us had all we ever needed.