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.
“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?”
“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.