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James Mulhern short story


by James Mulhern

“You are altogether beautiful, my love; there is no flaw in you.”
(Song of Solomon 4:7)

Peggy Fleming, according to my grandfather was the “homeliest damn woman” he’d ever seen. Her face was swollen and pasty, with broken capillaries that sloped down the sides of her nostrils, flooding the arid plain of her skin, like some dreary river and its tributaries eking over a delta of nasolabial folds to terminate in the red seas of two droopy cheeks. Spindly, awkward limbs stuck out of a round body, like you might see in a kindergartner’s rendering of a person. She was, unfortunately, toothless and hairless as well, suffering from a mysterious childhood disease that had left her with chronic alopecia. Peggy used to tell us kids that she lost her hair because she refused to eat green beans when she was a child. I always thought it a cruel irony that she had the same name as the graceful and beautiful skater who had won the Olympic Gold Medal in 1968.

I remember hearing my grandparents and Auntie Ag, my grandmother’s older and “much smarter” sister (the one who graduated high school), likening Peggy’s features to those of a bulldog as they puffed away on Lucky Strikes and Parliaments, stopping every now and then to slap down a poker chip or a playing card, or take another sip of whiskey. While they played, I circled the kitchen table and listened, picking up snippets about Peggy’s tragic life.

Her story goes something like this–She was married once to a very handsome man named Jim, who was quite successful in business, something to do with cutting pants–“slacks” my grandmother called them–for a good company. Everyone was surprised that Peg could get such a catch, but like many ugly people, she had a heart of gold, and oh could she sing! The two of them, they met in a nightclub in Boston’s Back Bay, one of those divey joints, nothin’ too swanky, where Peg sang jazz classics for a small crowd on Friday nights. Jim often stopped by the nightclub after work, and you know, eventually they hit it off. One thing led to another, and of course they got married. But by Christ! How in God’s name could Jim stand to look at that puss day in and day out?

And wasn’t it a tragedy, how one evening, after a game at Fenway Park, Jim drove the green Buick that he loved so much into a fruit stand on the side of the road, killing the old Italian guy selling the stuff, and himself, of course. Afterward, Peg was never the same. She wouldn’t go out, still hardly does, and that was years ago. It’s a shame how she’s tried to drown her sorrows by cozying up to that bottle. It’s a good thing she has a neighbor like Helen to check on her, and take her out once in a while.

My grandmother would beam smugly. Aunty Ag would say, “Oh what troubles some people have,” and my grandfather would look down, embarrassed he had said too much.

In the knotty pine basement of Peggy’s home was a beautiful Steinway piano. My most vivid memory of Peg’s singing was when, after my grandmother and she had a few highballs, they led me down the cellar stairs so that she could sing for me. My grandmother had bragged, as most grandparents do, that I was a most talented pianist, and Peg wanted to share her own talent with me, encouraging me that I could “make it” like she had.

They were both very drunk; I was relieved that neither of them fell down the stairs and broke their necks. My grandmother goaded Peg to sing “When Your Old Wedding Ring Was New,” Peg’s favorite.

With one thin arm braced against the polished black surface of the Steinway, she sang with no accompaniment, and even now, years later, I hear the swelling sadness in her voice, remembering too, the indignity and shame that I experienced when my grandmother slyly smirked at me and rolled her eyes. Peg was horrible of course–years of smoking, drinking, and heartache had ravaged her vocal chords–but her pain was so real. I knew that she was dreaming–longing for her husband Jim–and I think it was then that the first throb of death’s glower entered my consciousness.

When I was ten, my father sent my dog to the pound because he barked too much. I cried and phoned my grandmother, who had just come from lunch with Peg. The two of them arrived within the hour, scolded my mother, and cursed my father, who was still at work. A few hours later, we had retrieved Scruffy from the Animal Rescue League of Boston. During the ride back, my grandmother and Peg convinced me that the best thing was to find a new home for the dog.

“To hell with your father,” Peg said, passing me a mint she kept in her pocketbook in case her blood sugar dropped. “We saved Scruffy’s life, sweetheart. And what matters most, Jimmy, is knowing that he’s happy.  Sometimes that’s the way it has to be, my love.”

At my grandmother’s house, Peg took charge, calling the local radio stations and asking would they broadcast that “the sweetest dog Scruffy” needed a home. She and my grandmother drank several whiskey sours during their home-for-the-dog campaign, and I’m certain that the disc jockeys did not take Peg seriously, let alone understand her slurred words.

“You’ll see. Everything will be all right,” she kept telling me.

We had Chinese food delivered, and at the end of our meal, Peg opened a fortune cookie and read, “Do you believe? Endurance and persistence will be rewarded.” For Peggy, this was a mystical sign that we should “get off our arses” and knock on doors all over the neighborhood. “Where there’s a way, there’s a will,” she stammered. “What we need is faith is all, and our coats.” She smiled at me and rubbed my head.

My grandmother said she was too damn tired to go traipsing around the neighborhood, and passed out on the couch. Peggy said, “To hell with you, too, then!” and laughed.

The three of us–Peg, Scruffy, and myself–began canvassing the neighborhood. It was December and cold; the sky was crystal clear. I could see my breath, and just above us, one bright star seemed to be chasing a crescent of moon. What a sight we must have been! Peg zigzagging beside me, me nudging Peg–trying to keep her from falling off the curb, Scruffy following behind, wagging his tail and sniffing spots along the way.

We walked several blocks that night, ringing bells and knocking on doors, stopping a few times to plan what we should say. Peg said that what we needed was a “hook.” She suggested that she could take off her wig and tell the people “just a little white lie” about her dying of cancer. I said that I thought that was probably a mortal sin, and my grandmother wouldn’t like it. She reluctantly agreed, and we decided to state the simple facts. “No blarney. Just the bit about your father sending poor Scruffy to the pound.”

Some people didn’t answer their doors. It must have been after 10 p.m., and I imagined tired strangers peeking out at us, annoyed to be disturbed at this time of the night. Of the people who listened to our tale of woe, most were gracious and polite. Some of the neighbors clearly recognized Peg though, and there were looks of exasperation and disgust on their faces.

“Take the boy and his dog home,” one young mother said. “It’s too late to be out, especially with you in the state you’re in. You should be ashamed of yourself. It’s freezing out there and the boy’s gonna catch a cold.”

“But the dog needs a home!” Peg pleaded.

“The boy needs a home. Now take him home before I call the police and have you arrested for public drunkenness.” She gave me a pitiful look before shutting the door in our faces.

“Show me the way to go home. I’m tired and I wanna go to bed,” Peg sang. “I had a little drink about an hour ago and it went right to my head—

“Have faith,” she told me, “We’ll find a home for him. You know I’d keep him if I could, Jimmy, but I’m all allergies. Makes my face puff up and screws up my breathing.” In addition to alopecia and diabetes, Peg suffered from episodes of acute asthma.

My grandmother was snoring on the couch when we returned. Scruffy jumped onto the wing-tipped chair, and curled himself into a ball. Peg and I serenaded my grandmother with “You’re Nobody Till Somebody Loves You” until she awoke with a start and asked for her “damn” drink.

The rest of the night is a blur. Perhaps I fell asleep on the rug watching TV? Maybe my grandfather carried me to bed when he returned from his night job? What I remember most about the events of that evening is that Peg kept her promise. Later that week, she found a home for Scruffy–with a “rich doctor” at the clinic where she got all her medications. A couple times over the following months, she took me to see Scruffy. I was content–he had a large fenced-in yard, and there were other dogs as well. I was happy to know that he was happy. Peg had been my savior.

A few years later, my grandmother brought my sister, Peg, and me to be “cured” in the waters of Nantasket Beach. Snapping open her compact, she peered into the mirror while she smothered her lips with red, all the while explaining the importance of August 15th to Beth and me. We were seated in her kitchen, sunlight flickering on the orange-and-gold checkered pattern of the wallpaper behind her.

“On August 15th,” my grandmother elaborated, “we celebrate the Feast of the Blessed Mother’s Assumption, when Jesus’s mother, was taken to her heavenly home.”

“Who took her?” Beth asked.

“God, dear.”

“In an airplane?”

“No, sweetheart. Finish up your eggs.”

“Then how’d she get there?”

My grandmother rose and began washing dishes at the sink. Beth and I looked past her head through the window to examine the sky.

“It’s a mystery, Bethie. Just one of those things,” she said.

“Oh.” Beth picked up her fork. “A mystery.”

The dogma of the Assumption, I later learned, was firmly established in 1950 when Pope Pius XII made his decree that the Immaculate Mother of God was “assumed into heavenly glory.” I’ve always wondered why it took so long to decide on the fate of poor Mary, who like a participant in a tableau vivant, remained motionless, one foot on the earth and one foot in the air, for centuries.

On that August day, the idea of a “cure” paled in comparison to the roller coaster ride my sister and I, if well behaved, might enjoy at Paragon Amusement Park across from the beach. Since we weren’t sick and didn’t need a cure, “Mary’s blessing” seemed like a gip.

After breakfast, the three of us–Beth and I wearing bathing suits under our T-shirts, and my grandmother arrayed in a white and gold sundress, a wide-brimmed hat with a spray of lilies, and black Farrah sunglasses–crossed the street to get Peggy, who had been “very ill” lately. I had overhead my grandparents whispering about Peg’s “delirium tremens,” how she was imagining things, and telling crazy stories about monkeys calling her up on the phone. One night a police officer brought her to my grandmother’s house after he found Peg wandering the streets of a nearby square; she was bruised and teary. Peg said she was looking for her husband Jim, trying to bring him home. I remembered our cold walk in December and wondered if Jim had been on her mind even then.

In the bag I carried were six baby-food jars to collect salt water for our family, some clusters of red grapes, as well as apples, raisins, and a few banana loaves that my grandmother had stolen from Solomon’s Bakery, where she worked part time. My grandmother believed it was a mortal sin to waste the day-old baked goods, even though the management had insisted that they be tossed in the rubbish.

Just outside Peg’s door, my grandmother stopped us. “Now you both behave. And Jimmy, remember to call her ‘Lovely Peggy,’ ” she whispered quickly. ‘Lovely Peggy’ was the sobriquet my grandmother had invented one Sunday after a sermon the priest had given on the power of names and the mystery of the Word. If we thought lovely things about Peggy, she explained, Peggy’s life would be happier, and she would feel better. “You kiddos don’t know how much this visit means to a lonely old lady.”

Peg opened the door. I mechanically announced, “Good morning, Lovely Peggy.”

Peggy responded, as she always did, “Isn’t he adorable,” while Beth skirted past her into the kitchen, desperate to get away, and my grandmother, appalled at Peg’s appearance, said, “What’s the matter with you? Did you forget we were going to the beach?” She looked down at Peg’s feet, tsk tsking at what Peg was wearing. “You look foolish in those things.”

Peggy had a confused look on her face, like she was half-asleep. There was pure grief in her expression, as if she felt cheated from a surprise. Her housedress, which had a pattern of tiny roses, shrouded a pair of small black boots; there were red stains at the end of her sleeves from where she had spilled some juice. She had forgotten her wig and the sunlight highlighted a laurel of peach-fuzz hair; a few silver strands, moist from sweat, garlanded the area by her temples and behind her large ears. The blinds were pulled down on the window behind the kitchen table, and the sweet smell of cedar cabinets and wine surrounded us in a cloud.

My grandmother crossed the threshold, flicked on the lamp, and guided Peg to the table. I hadn’t seen Peg in several months. Her usual cheeriness had vanished, and she was distracted and distant. It unnerved me to see how much she had changed. I joined my sister who was seated on the verdant green divan in the living room, strategically positioned in front of the dish of hard candies that we had grown accustomed to raiding on our visits.

We were quiet, enjoying the deliciousness of peppermint candy, swinging our legs together and humming just a little, eavesdropping on the conversation from the kitchen table, which was not far from where we sat.

“Let’s have one for the road, Helen.”

“You’ve had quite enough already, Peg. Aren’t your feet hot in those God-awful boots?”

“Not really.”

“But your feet must stink. You’ve got to take those damn things off! The salt water will be good for your gout and all that puffiness around your ankles. And the water will help the calluses on our soles!”

Peg laughed. “I figured the boots were perfect for the beach.”

“For Christ’s sake, Peg! The point is to get wet. How else are you going to get the cure?”

“Cure for what?”

“Anything! Your aching bones, your mood, your bowels, whatever it is that’s bothering you. God will know what you need. Miracles do happen, ya know.” I pictured my grandmother making the sign of the cross, Peg watching dreamily. I don’t know that Peg was very religious. I’m not even sure if she was a practicing Catholic, but that wouldn’t have stopped my grandmother in her missionary zeal.

“I believe miracles sometimes do happen, Helen,” Peg said at last. “It will only take me a moment to get ready. I have to use the little girls room and put on my fancy wig and makeup so I can look divine for my Jim over there,” she said, looking at me.

“I need to straighten out, get my life together,” Peg said, arching her back.

“You’re fine, Peg.” My grandmother helped her through the narrow doorway and down the hall. Peg hesitated every now and then, pressing her trembling palm against the wall, as if to discern whether it, or she, was still really here.

It was breezy at the shore. Soon we found a comfortable place on the beach. My grandmother rubbed tanning oil into Peg’s bald scalp, forehead, and the nape of her neck; she shone like a miniature Sun. Peg let Beth and I drape a necklace of dried seaweed upon her; we pretended it was a string of jewels. Then the two of us scribbled words into the sand with our fingers and played Yahtzee until we lost one of the die. The salty north winds felt good against our skin, and Peg wrapped our shoulders with her purple towel so we wouldn’t get burned.

Later, as Beth and I waded through the shallow waters at the ocean’s edge, we stopped occasionally to work and wedge our feet into the cool sand, then sloshed our legs through the foam a bit, deliberately making heavy giant steps and dancing to keep pace with the sun. We splashed ourselves as we jumped to avoid dark clumps of seaweed or a jellyfish, and we scanned the hard bottom for a lonely starfish or stone, or the clam with a secreted pearl. For a while, we explored large rocks that edged the beach, unearthing small crabs in the sand between, and startling a mourning dove that sped from its cleft into the bright sky. It made a whistling sound as it rose; then it began to descend over the water where my grandmother and Peg were walking towards the ocean. The waves beyond glimmered like sparks from an unquenchable fire. On a jetty in the distance, a father and his son cast fishing lines into the sea.

Suddenly, we heard my grandmother shout, “Watch yourself!” but it was too late; both she and Peg were surprised by a spirited breaker that razed them in its wake. Of course we ran to help, but delighted, too, in the spectacle–my grandmother and Peggy, seated on their asses, just a few feet from where the waves trickled to their end. In an instant they were kneeling forward, laughing so hard that they cried. As we began to help lift them, my grandmother and Peg, in between guffaws, groaned that the soles of their feet were cramping from shells and stones beneath their feet. My grandmother said that her “permanent is all ruined” while she fussed with her hair. Peggy answered, “At least I don’t have to worry about that,” and they laughed even harder. Then Lovely Peggy reached for me. I was mesmerized by her wet silvery scalp, and resisted the urge to touch the crown of her head before I gave her my hand and she rose from the sea. “Jimmy, you’re my angel,” she said, and kissed me on the forehead.

We filled six jars with water that day, and starving, we made a feast of the bread and fresh fruit by a small tide pool in the shade of a bony cliff. In the late afternoon, Beth and I had our roller coaster ride. With hands shielding their eyes from the sun, my grandmother and Peggy waved to us, transfigured figurines on the earth below, their clothing white as snow. The coaster lifted our chariot further into the crystal sky, while on the horizon, heat lightening flashed behind a lacey curtain of gray.

It has been a long time since that ride, but when I recall that afternoon, I feel the heady anticipation of the rising, and the delightful fright of the quick fall. Only a few days later, early on a Sunday morning, my mother would come to my room and wake me. She sat on the side of my bed where I had propped myself against a pillow. When she told me that Lovely Peggy had died in her sleep, I felt the pang of grief, but a sweet happiness, too, as I remembered our December journey, Peg’s persistence and her songs.

I imagined Peggy “over there,” eyes no longer teary, her countenance reflecting the brightness of a blazing fire. Finally she would be at home with her Jim. Completely awake–laughing, altogether beautiful, and divine–she rises once again to sing her favorite song. And the Sun’s great light shines upon and caresses her warm skin, like the flesh of a Father’s hands as He cradles His child’s head before lifting His crossed arms to kiss her soft cheek. A Father, joyful and tearful at the same time, hallowed by a loveliness that would forever be a part of Him.


James Mulhern has published fiction, nonfiction, and poetry in literary journals or anthologies over eighty 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 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, and a Kirkus Reviews Best Book of 2019.


by James Mulhern



“I need to get that chalice, Aiden. The Boston Globe article said some people think it has curing powers. I don’t know if I believe it, but I hope so. The chalice is a replica of a sacred relic from the Middle Ages. If I have your mother drink from it, maybe she’ll get better and come home to us. Won’t that be nice?” She rubbed my head gently and smiled. We were sitting in her Blue Plymouth across the street from Mission Church in Boston. An old man pushed a lady in a wheelchair up the ramp to the front door.

“Won’t God be mad?”

“I’m going to return it, sweetheart. We’re just borrowing the chalice to make your mother well again. I think God will understand. Don’t worry.” She rubbed my cheek.

We crossed the street and entered the musty darkness of the church. The smell of shellac, incense, and old-lady perfume permeated the air. 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 the line and cut in front of a humpbacked lady, who looked bewildered.

“Shouldn’t you go to the end of the line?” 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. I want my grandson to get a cure.”

“What’s wrong?” she whispered. We were four people away from the priest, who stood in front of the altar. He prayed over people, then lightly touched them. They fell into the arms of two old men with maroon suit jackets and navy blue ties.

“My dear grandson has leukemia.”

The woman’s eyes teared up. “I’m sorry.” She patted my forearm. “You’ll be cured, honey.” 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,” my grandmother whispered.

“I have leukemia,” I said proudly.

The baggy-faced priest recited 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. “Remember our plan.”

I fell hard, shoving myself against the old guys. One toppled over. People gasped. His friend and the priest began to pick us up. I pretended to be hurt badly. “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 nailed to 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 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 frowned. The lady who let us cut in line eyed my grandmother’s handbag and shook her head as we passed.


That night I slept in what was my mother’s room. As often happened, I awoke to the sound of my grandfather’s voice.

Whenever he visited, the bedroom glowed with tiny white lights, illuminated bubbles floating in the air. My face and ears became hot and red, and I heard a buzzing noise that eventually stopped. I had confided to my mother about his visits, but no one else. Her claim of hearing the voices of dead people and her ‘visions’ led to a diagnosis of schizophrenia. My grandmother and father had her declared mentally incompetent and she was committed to a psychiatric facility. Nanna was granted guardianship of her, and me as well, because Dad said he couldn’t handle a child on his own.

“I’m not happy with you, Aiden,” my grandfather said. “Why did you allow your grandmother to steal the chalice from the church? Tis an awful thing to do.”

He sat at the bottom of my bed, wearing black bottle-thick glasses, his dark hair a curly mess.

” ‘Goodness is the only investment that never fails.’ A smart man by the name of Toreau said that. You must return the chalice to the church.”

“Who’s Toorow?”

“You’ll learn about him in school. Mr. Toreau is a famous writer who lived about a half hour away from you, in Concord.” My grandfather was an autodidact. He never went to college. He couldn’t afford it and wasn’t allowed admission because he was an Irish immigrant. My grandmother and he, though they did not know each other, emigrated from different parts of Ireland in the late 1930’s. With hope in their hearts, just a few belongings, I’m sure, and not much money, they journeyed to the promised land of their imaginations.

When they first arrived, it was difficult to get good jobs. People hated the Irish. He dug graves during the day and hauled large bags of mail onto the trains at South Station during the night. She was a maid for the rich protestant Brahmans on Beacon Hill. Eventually, attitudes changed, my grandmother was able to become a licensed practical nurse, and my grandfather, well, he died.

“Aiden, your mind is wandering. You need to listen to me.”

“Yes, Grandpa,” I said.

“You must get your mother out of McCall’s.” McCall Hospital is the largest psychiatric hospital in the Boston area. “She needs to live a normal life. And you must be with her. Every child should be with his ma. The shower of savages at that hospital are pumping her up with all sorts of terrible medicines.” His voice cracked. “Like you, Aiden, she has the gift, and it is horrible that she is being punished for it.”

To me “the gift” seemed like a curse, a burden.

“It’s not a curse,” my grandfather said, reading my mind. “Second sight is something that has been in your family for years. Your grandmother’s mother possessed it, and she, too, was demonized. Of course, it was different in Ireland. Many believed her, but still there were those who acted cruelly. There are always people who are blind to the gifts in others.”

“What do you mean, demonized?”

“Treated badly. Laughed at. . . . Terrible thing to do to another human being. People said she was tick.”


“Stupid. Even your grandmother thought her ma was out of her head. The story goes that your great-grandmother retreated into herself. Once, she was joyful, envisioning life’s possibilities, but slowly she withdrew, hurt by the malice of others.”

“What happened to her?”

“She dropped dead while lifting a bucket from a well. Tumbled right over the stonewall she did. And the night before she had heard the banshees.”

“What’s a banshee?”

“You ask a lot of questions.” He laughed. “A type of fairy or spirit. Her entire family listened to the wailing. Then, in the pitch-black of that windy night, they heard three knocks on the door, which means someone is going to die. The next day your great-grandmother was bloody dead, her body covered in green muck. All for a bucket of water.”

“Did they believe her then?”

He laughed, somewhat bitterly. “Yes, Aiden. But what good did it do the poor woman. Dead she was. . . . Aiden, most people are afraid to believe in things they cannot see. It frightens them and they become nasty. This is why you must keep your secret for now. Think of a way to free your ma. I don’t want Laura to suffer like your great-grandmother, driven to despair.”

“What I am I supposed to do?”

He told me a secret that might convince my grandmother.

“You’ll figure it out, son. I’m counting on you.”

“Grandpa?” I called a few more times, but the bubbles of light faded and he was gone. I went to the bathroom and positioned my face under the faucet to drink some water. In the mirror, my cheeks appeared sunburnt. The color would fade by the morning, as it always did.


Nanna’s back was to me when I entered the kitchen. The table was set—one white plate, a green paper napkin, and silverware.

“It’s about time you woke up, sleepyhead.” She smiled and brought a red mug of coffee to the table, then opened the refrigerator and passed me the cream before moving back to the stove.

“Over hard, as you like them.” She flipped an egg and wiped some grease off her pink nightgown. Rollers dangled precariously atop her forehead.

“Thanks, Nanna. . . . I was thinking.”

“Here we go.” She laughed. The bacon sizzled.

“Maybe we should return the chalice?”

“Hand me your plate.”

She put two eggs and three strips of bacon on it. The toaster popped.

“Grab the bread, and butter it while it’s hot.”

She poured herself a cup of coffee, black, sat down and faced me. Nanna rarely ate breakfast. She preferred to smoke and drink coffee, sometimes with whiskey in it. She lit a cigarette and exhaled smoke from her nose.

“Now why would we do that?”

I put three sugars and cream in my coffee, looking down while I stirred. “Because it’s wrong to steal.”

She laughed. “Phooey.” She waved her hand at me. “I told you we are just borrowing the chalice.” She put her hands on her hip. “I think God is happy we are helping a sick person. We are doing Christian work. Like those missionaries in Africa and China.”

” ‘Goodness is the only investment that never fails.’ ”

Her face blanched and her large hazel eyes widened. “Where did you learn that?” She looked behind her for a second, as if someone might be there.

“I read it in one of Grandpa’s books. It was underlined.”

Her face relaxed and she spoke softly: “I can’t tell you the number of times I heard your grandfather say that. And a bunch of other malarkey.” She laughed. “He had another favorite expression.” She tilted her head and laughed. ” ‘If it was raining soup, the Irish would go out with forks.’ ”

“That’s funny.”

“It is and it isn’t, which gets to the heart of this conversation, Aiden. People need help. That chalice may cure your ma. Stealing it was only a venial sin, not a mortal one.”

“What’s a venial sin?”

“A minor sin. Like a white lie.”

“Is lying about leukemia to make people feel bad and distract them a venial sin?”

She sighed. “Yes, Aiden.”

She turned on the faucet and looked out the window. “Everybody lies. You need to get used to it. The sooner, the better.” She rinsed my plate. “It’s going to be a beautiful day.”

Through the glass, beyond the oak trees, the blue sky was filled with cumulus clouds, a foamy ocean above us. “What’s a mortal sin?”

“It’s more serious, a grave violation of God’s law.”

“Was stealing the chalice a venial or a mortal sin? And how do you know the difference?”

She turned towards me. “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Don’t think about things so much.” Like my grandfather, her “th” often sounded like “t” or “d.” “Now go get ready.” She brushed me away with her hands. “Scoot.”


The drive to McCall Hospital took a half hour. Located in Somerville, just outside of Boston proper, you reach the entrance after winding up a slope of lawn to a sandstone Admissions building. Beyond that structure and throughout the large campus are several brick edifices with classical flourishes, such as gabled roofs, Roman columns, and ivy-covered walls. Large oak and birch trees, like sentinels, line the knolls, where dormitories from a bygone era stand, rooted in stability, a quality the clinicians nurture in their patients. We knew the place well. Nanna drove the circuitous road to my mother’s building, a ward of approximately twenty-five patients, all with a variety of illnesses: schizophrenia, mania, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and borderline personality. Above the entryway the limestone sculpture of a woman wearing a tunic stood with one arm resting on an anchor.

Just inside the doorway, on the left, was the nurses’ station, and across from there, the patient lounge with an old television, a scratched pool table, and shelves of tattered books and games. My mother’s room was at the end of the hall on the right, a coveted spot.

“Can I help you?” a short, small-framed nurse with over-bleached hair and gray eye shadow greeted us.

“We’re here to visit my daughter, Laura Glencar.” My grandmother motioned to me. “This is her son, Aiden.” She puckered her lips. “I don’t think I’ve met you. Are you new?”

“I started last week. My name is Nancy. You can call me Nurse Nancy. Let me find out who’s taking care of your daughter. ‘Maura Fender’ you said.” She turned to look at the white dry-erase board with patient names, room numbers, and nursing assignments.

“Laura Glencar!” Nanna rolled her eyes at me. “This one’s a tool,” she mumbled.

“She’s new, Nanna. Give her a chance,” I whispered.

“She’s not new to hearing,” she whispered back, then smiled at the nurse.

“Oh, it’s me!” Nurse Nancy said.

“What did I tell you?” she said, a little too loudly.

“Right this way.” Her hips swiveled in front of us.

“We know how to get there, Nancy Nurse. You don’t have to bring us. I think your time would be better spent, memorizing that board, don’t you?” Nanna smiled at her.

“Oh, but it’s policy.”

“Must be a new policy. Never happened before.”

Nurse Nancy fingered her gold necklace. “I want to do things right.”

“I can understand, dear,” my grandmother said.

“You have some lovely visitors,” she announced to my mother, who was seated by the window looking at patients walking across the lawn. She turned and smiled gloriously, as she always did. My mother was a very attractive woman: thirty-four years old, wavy auburn hair, light green eyes with specks of gold, and fair skin sprinkled with tiny freckles across the bridge of her nose.

“Give me a hug.” She extended her arms. Nanna sat on the bed next to her and plopped her handbag near the pillow. I embraced her, loving the familiar smell of her Avon perfume.

“Thank you, Nancy. You just made my day.”

Nancy beamed and left.

“She’s a dumb girl,” Nanna said. “Didn’t even know you were her patient. Can you imagine that?”

“Ma, don’t be so hard on her. She just started working here.”

“That’s a poor excuse, but never mind. Aiden and I have something for you.”

My mother clapped her hands and smiled. Outside the window, patients walked in circles, hands behind them, not talking with one another, lost in thought, some muttering to themselves or moving their arms in strange ways.

Nanna reached into her handbag and carefully placed three items on the tan bedspread: the gold necklace and cross, a small jar of red wine, and finally, the golden chalice, which sparkled in the well-lit room.

“Mom, where did you get that cup?” Her eyes widened. “It looks like part of the Queen’s crown jewels.” She laughed.

“A friend of mine loaned it to me.” She warned me with her eyes.

“Who?” She giggled and raised the chalice. “Such beautiful stones. This must be worth a fortune. Do you know a museum curator?”

“You could call Joshua that. He works for a very reputable institution. Started it from the ground up. The building is as grand as a temple.”

“Where is it?” Her eyebrows squished together.

“Jerusalem, New York. He’s visiting some relatives in Boston.”

“Jerusalem?” She laughed and folded her palms over the chalice in her lap. “I think you’re telling me a fib.” She raised the cup in a beam of sunlight. “It’s beautiful, but what am I supposed to do with it?”

“Drink this wine. Joshua says the cup has healing powers. I hope he’s right.”

“It’s gorgeous. Thank you.”

“I have to return it, Laura.”

“I figured that.”

“Will you drink from it?” My grandmother’s eyes pleaded.

“There’s nothing wrong with me.” She folded her arms. “But if it will make you happy, I will. Pour some, but be careful not to stain the bed.” Her shoulders drooped.

As my mother sipped, Nurse Nancy came in.

“Hey. What are you drinking?” She looked at the small jar, which my grandmother quickly shoved into her handbag.

“Cranberry juice. It prevents urinary tract infections,” Nanna said.

Nurse Nancy’s eyes squinted. “I hope that’s all it is. Laura is on medication and alcohol could interact in a negative way.”

“Of course it’s not alcohol,” Nanna said. “I’m a Christian woman. Today is Sunday. In our family, we abstain from alcohol in reverence to Our Lord Jesus Christ. I’m insulted that you would suggest such a thing, Nancy Nurse.” She wrapped the chalice in a cloth and placed it in her handbag, then clasped the gold cross around my mother’s neck.


The next Saturday, my grandmother announced at breakfast that we were returning the chalice.

“Do you think Mom’s cured?”

“God works in mysterious ways. I’m not sure that a sip of wine from that beautiful cup performed such a miracle, but I pray that it did.” She wiped her hands on her apron and hung it on the wall. “I often doubt the possibility of miracles, but then I find myself thinking that every moment is miraculous. Do you know what I mean?”

“Like just being alive?”

“Exactly.” She threw my crumpled napkins into the wastebasket. “We make our own miracles. There’s a saying from the old country, ‘It’s the good horse that draws its own cart.’ We must make things happen on our own instead of sitting on our arses waiting for Jesus to put the world right.” She smiled and motioned for me to get up from my chair. “That’s why we will do what needs to be done. Now go get dressed.”


In less than an hour we were in front of Mission Church. My grandmother always had the hardest time parallel parking.

“Get out,” she said.

I stood on the sidewalk and shouted, “Stop. You’re gonna hit that car.”

She bent over the seat and looked at me through the passenger window. “How much room do I have?”

“About two inches.”


She extended her arm across the top of the seat and turned to look behind her before reversing and smashing into the white Ford Mustang.

“Shite.” She glanced around to see if anyone was watching. Everyone was inside, listening to the Mass.

After rolling up the windows and locking the car, she stood on the street, opposite of where I stood on the sidewalk.

“You smashed the bumper.”

“How do you know it was me? Look at the scratches on the door. Obviously, this individual doesn’t know how to drive.”

I joined her and traced my fingers along the scratches.

“Don’t do that.”


“You’ll leave fingerprints.”

I laughed. “You think they’re gonna dust the car for prints?”

We watched two cars pass. My grandmother waved at the drivers. “Let’s get this over with.” She straightened her blue dress and grabbed my hand. “Hurry and cross.”

“Do you have the chalice?”

She patted her handbag. “It’s inside my bag. I had to remove my makeup and a brush to make room. The sacrifices we make.”

We both laughed. I opened the large carved wooden door for her. She looked at the white Mustang before entering and whispered, “We’ve got to make this fast. Before the Mass ends. I don’t want a scene with the owner of that car.”

The air was musty, warm, and dark. It took my eyes a few moments to adjust.

The priest said, “A reading from the first Letter of Saint John. . . .’Beloved: See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God. Yet so we are.’ ” People turned in the pews to look at us walking down the aisle. My grandmother bowed to them. ” ‘The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now.’ ” He paused and looked at us as we climbed the altar, then continued reading, half-watching us. ” ‘What we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.’ ”

My grandmother pulled me to a bench at the side. We sat down. The cool stone felt good against my back. The priest stared at us. People in the congregation were moving in their seats, whispering and watching us.

My grandmother put her hand in front of her mouth and whispered, “I have no idea what the hell he’s talking about. Sounds like a bunch of palaver.”

“Everyone who has this hope based on him makes himself pure, as he is pure.” The priest held up his index finger and smiled, then walked over to us and whispered, “Can I help you?”

“Yes, Father, like you were saying, that bit about ‘bestowed’ and ‘God’s children now.’ ”

“I don’t understand, my friend.” The people in the pews were talking louder.

A man shouted, “Is everything okay, Father?”

“Yes. Yes,” he called back. “I’ll be right with you.” Again he held up his index finger.

I pulled the chalice out of my grandmother’s handbag. “It is revealed!”

“Where did you get that?”

“A homeless man on the Boston Common was drinking beer from it. I recognized it as the stolen chalice, Father. I read that article in the Boston Globe,” my grandmother said.

“He was all dirty and sad-looking. I think he needed some healing,” I interjected.

“We prayed with the man and asked him to let us return it,” my grandmother said. “I told him, ‘God will forgive you because we are all God’s children’ and some of that other stuff you were just saying.”

The priest’s face lit up. “It’s a miracle,” he hollered to the congregation, holding the chalice above his head and walking to the center of the altar. “Thanks be to God.”

The people repeated, “Thanks be to God.”

My grandmother pulled me from the bench. “Let’s get the hell out of here,” she whispered.

People clapped as we hurried down the aisle.

“Wait,” the priest said. “We don’t know your names.”

“I’m Elaine, and this is my grandson Galahad.”

We ran out the door and across the street.

Her hands shook as she tried to unlock the door. “Aiden, you’ll have to do it for me. I’m a nervous wreck.” She handed me the keys.

An elderly gentleman with a cane yelled, “Yoo-hoo. Come back. We want to speak with you.” He teetered on the steps, clasping the railing.

“Yoo-hoo,” my grandmother answered and waved. “We’ll be right over.” Then to me after I unlocked the door: “Hurry up. Get in the car.”

I ran to my side. We slammed our doors at the same time. My grandmother rolled her window down. “I’m terribly sorry. My grandson is hyperventilating. He gets nervous around crowds.”

I breathed hard, as if on cue, and waved to the man, then held my chest, pretending I was going to die.

The man started down the steps with his cane, holding precariously onto the railing.

“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,” my grandmother said, “Let’s get out of here before that buttinsky falls!” We swerved into the street and sped off. “Who says ‘yoo-hoo’ anymore? He must be demented.”

“Where’d you come up with those crazy names?” I had my hands pressed against the dashboard because she was driving so fast.

“Something I read. Probably one of your grandfather’s old books.”


When we pulled in the driveway, I said, “Grandpa will be happy.”

“What are you talking about?” She scratched her head.

“Grandpa likes when we do the right thing. He wants Mom to come home.”

“Of course, your grandfather would want Laura to leave that sad place.” She opened the car door. “Let’s go inside.”

I followed her across the front lawn and called out, “He’s very upset she has to stay there.”

She turned and stared at me. “Your grandfather is dead, Aiden. Stop your foolishness.” She shivered. “Let’s get in the house.”

In the living room, she sat on the couch and patted the spot next to her. “Come sit with me.”

“Aiden, lots of people have dreams about people they’ve lost. I’m glad you dream about your grandfather. He was a good man. You remind me of him.” She wrapped her arm around me and kissed me forehead. “Would you like some tea?”

“Sometimes Grandpa visits me at night.”

“I sometimes dream of him, too. What good times we shared.” She stared into the shadowed room, then turned on the lamp.

“He told me to tell you that it was not your fault that he died.”

“Of course it wasn’t my fault.” She puffed on a cigarette, eyeing me suspiciously. “I’m tired.” She rubbed her temples and closed her eyes.

“Then why do you cry at night and ask God for forgiveness? Grandpa says he’s in the bedroom with you. He wanted me to tell you he’s sorry. He said he was always ‘full as a bingo bus,’ whatever that means.”

Nanna’s face quivered and she put her cigarette in the ashtray.

“Where in God’s name did you hear that expression?”

“What does it mean?”

“It’s an Irish saying for very drunk.”

“He said you should stop blaming yourself for leaving him in the chair that night when you went to bed. It’s not your fault that he choked on his vomit.”

My grandmother shook and tears streamed down her face. I wrapped my arms around her. “Grandpa loves you, Nanna, and I do, too.”


The next week, we went to McCall’s again. Nurse Nancy smiled. “Laura is doing great today. She’s been busy drawing. Quite a talented artist.”

“She gets that from me. I studied at the Louvre in Paris.”

“Really?” Nancy cocked her head. She led us down the hallway.

My grandmother asked, “You think I’m too dumb?”

Nancy laughed. “Not at all. It was a stupid thing to say.” She turned. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you.”

“No offense taken. Next time I’ll wear a beret and carry a paintbrush.”

“Here we are,” Nancy said outside Mom’s room. She smiled, picked lint off her white skirt and blew it off her finger, then leaned into my face. “I bet you’re excited to see your mother.”

“We’re good now. You can go,” my grandmother said.

When she had gone, I said, “I didn’t know you were an artist, Nanna.”

“Don’t be silly, Aiden. That was blarney. Nancy Nurse is a bit too uppity for my taste.” She pushed me forward. “Go in. Your mother will be so happy to see you.”

“Hi Mom,” I hurried to her bed, where she sat drawing in her sketchpad. She wore a green dress that accentuated her eyes.

“I want to eat you up.” She kissed my face and hugged me tight. “I’ve missed you so much. There’s no one to talk to at this place.” She looked past me.

“Aren’t you going to give me a kiss, Ma?”

“You need to visit with Aiden. I have to use the ladies room. That will give you alone time.”

“Ma, that’s not necessary.”

“My taking a pee is necessary.”

We all laughed.

“Enjoy your visit. I’ll be back.”

My mother asked about my favorite subjects in school, my grades, my teachers, and did I have a girlfriend.

In a few minutes we heard loud voices in the hall. “I’m taking her home, Nancy Nurse. I have every right to. I’m her mother and I was appointed guardian by the court. So mind your business. Haven’t you got a bedpan to empty?”

They entered the room.

“Let me at least get in touch with the psychiatrist on call?”

“That won’t be necessary. Nothing he says will change my mind. . . . Laura, pack up your things. You’re coming home.”

“Please give me a few moments to collect the paperwork, Mrs. Mulroy. You need to sign her out A.M.A. That means against medical advice.”

“I know what it means. I’m a nurse, too. And I’m familiar with the procedure. Do what you must. That will give us time to get organized.”

My mother and I were already packing her suitcase.

“I’m sorry for bringing you here,” my grandmother said to Mom. “You should be home with Aiden and me.”


Nanna signed the necessary forms and we left. Before getting into the car, both my mother and I saw him. My grandfather was sitting on the grass beneath a tree. He smiled and waved to us. One star shone in the twilit sky.

“Hurry up you slowpokes,” my grandmother said, then turned towards the tree. “What are you looking at?” She followed our gaze.

“Hope,” my mother said, laying her arm over my shoulder and guiding me into the backseat before closing my door.

When they were inside, I said, “How can you see hope?”

My grandmother started the car and looked at my mother. “Hope is sitting right beside me.”

Mom touched the back of my grandmother’s neck. The car moved forward.

I opened my mother’s sketchbook, which she had placed in the back seat. A paper image of a painting fell out. She had begun copying it, using different shades of pencil. A blindfolded woman wearing a green gown sat atop a light brown globe, her head bent to the left as she played a lyre with a single string. In the background, one star shone in the gray-blue sky. Printed underneath the reproduction was “Hope, 1886, George Frederic Watts.”

I thought of the chalice, the wine, and the revelation of God’s pure love. But mostly, I cherished hope.




James Mulhern has published fiction in many literary journals and received several accolades. Three stories were selected for different anthologies of best short fiction. In 2015, Mr. Mulhern was awarded a full-paid writing fellowship to study at Oxford University in the United Kingdom. That same year, a story was longlisted for the Fish Short Story Prize. He has also received other awards. His novel, Molly Bonamici, and his collection of short stories, Assumptions and Other Stories, received favorable critiques from Kirkus Reviews and are Readers’ Favorites. The short story, “Blindfolded,” is an excerpt from Aiden’s Secret, a paranormal mystery in progress, soon to be completed.