I arrived at Rita’s house about noon. Her blue eyes widened when she opened the door. She patted the sides of her red hair and smoothed her pleated cotton nightdress, a pattern of honey bees. She was always donning unusual clothing or changing the color of her hair, which was ash blonde a month ago.
“Aiden, I’m a mess. I fell asleep on the couch. Come in.” She held a book entitled Audrey Rose.
She saw me looking at the cover. A girl in a red dress stood in front of a grave. The ground was on fire.
“Junk. I hope you’re reading better things in school…What grade are you in this year? Old people lose track of time. The years merge together and sometimes they seem to disappear.” She laughed.
“Before I know it, you’ll be in college.” She rubbed my head. “Let’s sit in the backyard. It’s such a lovely day.”
We walked through the hallway and kitchen to a brick patio covered by a pergola. She led me to a black wrought iron table. Sunlight flickered through the red cedar lattice above us, dappling her face. The air smelled grassy and pungent. Cat urine? Then a scent of roses reached my nose.
“Will ya have a cup of tea?” She pulled out a rusted chair.
“Sit here. I’ll be back in a jiff.”
A blue jay lapped the greenish water of a fluted cement birdbath, then shook its wings, cawed, and flew away. Along one side of the patio, potted plants moved in the breeze; a few swayed in macramé holders—lush ferns, the yellow and green spider plant, the wandering Jew with its purple and green heart-shaped leaves, and some I could not name. Children laughed on the other side of the tall hedge. Hanging on the fence was a metal plaque with a quote my grandfather recited during one of his mysterious visits: “Goodness is the only investment that never fails.”
“Come grab the door.” Rita elbowed the screen door. She held a small tray with a teapot, two cups, milk, and sugar.
As I hurried towards her, a chipmunk darted in front of me.
“Thank you, Aiden.”
When we were seated, she said, “Isn’t this peaceful?” She looked around. “Sometimes I sit here from morning until evening, watching the birds lift their wings or listening till the crickets sing.” She laughed. “That rhymed. I’m a poet.” She poured tea into a cup with milk and sugar. “Here you go.” Then she poured her own. A small pot of azaleas cast a purple glow under her chin.
“I want to apologize,” I said.
“For what?” She sipped and looked at me over her tea.
“Nanna and I lied to you.”
“And when did you do that?”
“I don’t have leukemia.”
“I know that, Aiden,” she said matter-of-factly.
I began living with my grandmother when my mother was admitted to McCall Hospital, a psychiatric facility near Boston, the year before. My mother’s claim that she heard voices of dead people and her frequent ‘visions of past and future events’ led to a diagnosis of schizophrenia. My mother believed that the passing of time was an illusion and everything was happening all at once.
Nanna was granted guardianship of her, and me as well, because Dad said he couldn’t handle children on his own. My brother Martin went to live with Aunt Clara a few streets away. The judge thought separating us would ease the financial burden for our extended family.
Nanna had taken me to see Rita, her closest friend, a few weeks earlier. She told her that I had leukemia and asked for help with the medical bills.
“If you knew my grandmother was lying, why did you write the check?”
“Your grandmother is a lifelong friend. She needed money. I recognized her anxiety and wanted to help.”
“Aren’t you mad?”
“Of course not. Catherine lies.” She looked away. “But we all do. To others and to ourselves.” A shadow passed over her face. “‘Life is a tale of human frailty and sorrow.’ Do you know who said that?”
She smiled. “Good guess. But it was Nathaniel Hawthorne in The Scarlet Letter. You’ll read the book in high school.” She scrutinized my face. “You’re not here to talk about school. To what do I owe the honor of your visit, dear Aiden?” She put her elbows on the table and rested her chin in her hands.
“What was that book about? Not The Scarlet Letter. The one you were holding when I came to the front door.”
“It’s about a man who loses his wife and daughter in a terrible car crash. He’s heartbroken, so he goes to a psychic to get solace.”
“What does the psychic tell him?”
“She tells him that his daughter has been reincarnated as Ivy Templeton, a girl living in New York City. He sets out to find her, but you’ll have to read the book to find out what happens.”
“It would ruin the surprise. If we knew endings, life would be mundane, don’t you think?”
My hand shook a little as I drank the tea. “You sound like Grandpa.”
“How do you know what Sean sounded like? He died before you were born.”
“Rita, do you believe there’s life after death?”
“I tend to think not.”
“Do you believe in ghosts?”
“I’ve never seen one, and I don’t know anyone who has.” She sipped.
I was quiet.
Furrows appeared in her forehead. “Have you seen a ghost, Aiden?” She laughed and put her cup down.
“Either you have or you haven’t. Which is it?” She reached across the table and grabbed my hand. “Tell me about your ghost. I love stories.”
“Sean?” She sighed. “Oh that it were true. I miss your grandfather so very much.”
“Ghosts are true.”
“Aiden, you have an active imagination.
I must have looked annoyed.
She smiled. “I believe you think you saw Sean’s ghost…Don’t be angry with me.” She poured more tea into my cup. “Shall I get you some cookies?” She was about to get up.
“He came to me at night. He said my mother doesn’t belong at McCall’s and we should help her escape. He told me to ask you for help because you always know what to do. You fix things.”
“Aiden, your mother’s ill. You were dreaming about your grandfather.”
“He said my mother isn’t crazy.” I looked down. “And neither am I. He told me we both have ‘second sight.'”
Her eyebrows raised, her face pale and serious. She moved her chair to my side of the table and put her arm around my shoulder. “Ya know what I think?” Her eyes shone kindly. I smelled whiskey. “I think you have a creative mind and you should write stories. The Irish are known for their literature.” She threaded my hair with her fingers. “You’ve got his hair. And you’re so much like him with your curious ways.” She patted my knee. “Help me clean up.” She rose and placed our cups on the tray with the teapot. “Run ahead and hold the door open.”
“He wanted me to thank you for helping him find my grandmother’s pearls. He said he laughed at you for praying to Saint Anthony before you went to the car. You found the necklace between the seats.”
She dropped the tray. Bits of blue and white china smashed on the bricks. A cardinal swooped down and sat on the birdbath.
Her shoulders trembled. She pointed to the birdbath. “That was your grandfather’s favorite bird.” She wiped tears from her cheeks.
I felt awkward and stooped to pick up the mess.
“You’ll cut yourself. Sit at the table with me.”
The cardinal flew to a crossbeam above us and looked down, as if it were listening to our conversation.
“How did you know about the necklace? Did you read something in one of your grandfather’s journals?”
“I didn’t know my grandfather wrote in journals.”
Her chin jutted forward and she fingered her collar. “Aiden, I’m trying to discern how you learned these things. Sean and I were the only people who knew about the pearls.” She smiled, looking upward at the cardinal, lost in a memory. “Did he tell you why he was giving your grandmother the necklace?”
“It was their first anniversary. Your grandmother was due home any minute. I had helped him prepare a nice dinner—filet mignon, green bean almandine, baked potatoes, and a fancy salad with croutons and anchovies. He went to his closet to get the pearls and came back in a panic. I prayed aloud to Saint Anthony. He laughed at me, but when I returned from the car, he was joyous.”
“Do you believe me now?”
She covered her lips with two fingers and stared. “Maybe…I suppose anything is possible.”
The cardinal swooped in front of us and flew away.
Rita touched her chest. “That bird scared the bejesus out of me.”
“Will you help then?” I said.
“Rescue my mother.”
Rita twisted her lips and pondered. “We’ve got to ask Margie to assist. We need more than the two of us.” Margie was another of my grandmother’s friends.
“I already did. She agreed. Martin did, too.”
Rita put her hand on mine. “Okay. We’ll meet here to come up with a plan.” She looked at the clock. “You better leave. Your grandmother will wonder where you are. You mustn’t tell her anything. She’s stubborn.”
“My mother is visiting from the hospital.”
“Why are you here, Aiden? You should be spending time with your Ma.”
“Nanna took her to church.”
Rita laughed. “I’m sure Laura was thrilled. And on a Saturday too!”
“My mother doesn’t agree with the church. She said they screwed it all up once Saint Paul and Saint Augustine got involved.”
“I was kidding. I know Laura was never one for organized religion. But she’s a good daughter. Trying to make your grandmother happy. You and your brother come here after school on Monday. Where is Martin now?”
“Probably swimming at the YMCA. Then back to Aunt Clara’s.”
When we were at the front door, Rita said, “I’ll call Margie. You speak with Martin. Will fried bologna sandwiches do? I know how you boys like those. Your grandfather’s favorite.” She smiled.
“Any food is good.”
She opened the storm door. “Hurry along.”
I ran down the steps and turned once to look at her. She waved, wiping more tears from her cheeks. I thought how great is the power of love and memory.
Rita was frying bologna when Martin and I arrived on Monday.
“Grab the mustard from the fridge.” She used a knife to cut a dollop of butter off the stick. It sizzled in the pan and the bologna smelled delicious. My mouth watered.
“The two of you look hungry.” Her lipstick was a brownish tint. She was wearing a blouse with a brocade design of a lake, and purple bell-bottom pants. “A new fashion” she would say, when she saw Martin and I giggling at her outfits. Her forehead perspired and she daubed it with a paper towel. Several gold bracelets jingled on her arm.
She looked past us, down the dark hallway towards the front door. “Margie is always late.”
“It’s ’cause she never goes anywhere,” Martin said. “Probably takes her a while to get out of that chair.” He laughed.
“That’s true. Suffers from a broken heart, but I wish she’d get over it. Arthur was the love of her life.”
“I told you the story, Martin,” I said. “Remember her high school sweetheart?”
“Oh yeah. The guy that dumped her when she got fat.”
“How was your time with your Ma?” Rita said.
Martin and I looked at one another. He nodded for me to tell her.
“It didn’t go so well.”
She used a fork to place a piece of sizzling bologna on a plate next to the stove, then pulled the meat off the tines. Wiping more sweat off her forehead, she turned to face us. “What happened?”
“She fell from a tree and broke her arm.”
Her eyes fluttered. “What was she doing in a tree?” She turned the burner off and brought the meat to the table. “It’s self-serve,” she said, motioning to the bread, mustard, and bologna.
Martin said, “She was helping a girl get down.”
“Who was the girl and what was she doing in your grandmother’s tree?” She laughed.
“There was no girl,” I said. “Not a real girl. A vision. She said the girl was wearing a green pinafore, whatever that is. Her scarf was caught on a branch.”
“What the Christ are you talking about?” She looked at each of our faces.
“She thought she saw a girl.” My jaw quivered, as I made sandwiches for Martin and me, then passed the plate of bologna to Rita.
She turned to Martin, who was staring at her gold barrette.
“Do I have something in my hair?” Rita touched her head.
“I like how that metal thing glimmers.”
“I think the girl was a ghost,” I said.
Rita frowned and sighed. “Where is your mother now?”
“She’s back at McCall Hospital.”
“And what about her arm?”
“It’s with her, too.” Martin laughed.
“Stop being a wiseass or I’ll poke you with this fork.” Rita raised it in the air.
“Nanna says it was a hairline fracture. Mom has a cast, but she’ll be okay.” I bit into my sandwich.
“Glory be to God. Catherine must be at her wit’s end.”
The doorbell rang. Rita stood. “Not a word about your mother’s fall to Margie. She doesn’t know when to keep her mouth shut. She might say something uncharitable to your grandmother.” Rita walked to the front door.
“She wears the craziest clothes,” Martin said.
We heard Rita say, “You shouldn’t live holed up like you do. You’re not a mole.”
“I like moles.” Margie laughed. “Got a few in my yard.”
Rita and Margie entered.
“You boys look like you’re up to something.” Margie frowned and placed her handbag on the table. Rita moved it to one of the counters.
“Sit down, Margie.” Rita pulled a chair out. “We’re having bologna sandwiches. Help yourself.”
“Fancy schmancy.” Margie plopped onto the seat. Her bum hung over the edge. She wore white spandex and a red sweater over a blue T-shirt. I thought, Why do fat people always wear sweaters?
I made her a sandwich.
Rita announced, “So what’s our plan?”
“I’m nervous that we’ll get in trouble. I gotta pee. Be right back,” Margie got up.
When she returned, she said, “Sorry about that. Good thing they came up with adult diapers. I wear them all the time. Seems I always got to pee. When I get nervous. If I sneeze or laugh. Even when I fart.”
Martin put his sandwich down. “That’s appetizing.”
“Honey, it’s a fact of life. Older people lose control of their bladders. I saw on TV that astronauts wear MAGs during liftoff and landing.”
“What are MAGs?” I said.
“Maximum Absorbency Garments. Something to do with gravity makes the astronauts have to go. I have a whole different perspective on John Glenn. Can’t seem to get the diapers out of my mind when I look at him.”
Rita tapped the end of her knife on the table. “We’re not here to talk about urination and the United States space program.”
“Urination.” Margie smirked. “Rita, you make everything sound so intellectual. The way I figure is we all shit and pee. Nothin’ to be ashamed of.” She took a bite of her sandwich. Mustard smeared on her chin. Rita scrubbed the frying pan in the sink. “And women, Aiden.” She tilted her head in Rita’s direction. “Their bladders drop after a certain age. I bet hers has plunged,” she whispered.
“What? They just fall out of their you-know-what?” Martin laughed.
“Wouldn’t that be funny?” She pointed at the white linoleum. “Lady, your bladder’s on the floor. Watch your step.” She slapped her thighs. Her bum wiggled.
“Enough!” Rita’s face was pink. “Let’s discuss our plan to get Laura home.”
“We can bring her down the back stairwell. Rita, you wait in the car so we can make a quick getaway. The three of us will go in.”
“What about the security guard who sits by the door?” I said.
“That guy loves hearing stories about buses and the MBTA. I told him Dad worked for the T last time we were there and he ate it up. I’ll distract him while you guys sneak out. Then I’ll follow.”
We finished discussing our plan. Rita brought us to the front door and waved when we reached the sidewalk.
A few days later, we drove to McCall’s. Rita said it was best not to tell my mother; she might inadvertently let on that something was up.
The day was brisk. Leaves had begun to explode into their autumnal brilliance—vivid shades of red, orange, and yellow. Through the open car windows the scent of dying leaves wafted into the small space of our car. The lyrics of Chicago’s “If You Leave Me Now” played on the radio.
As we approached my mother’s unit, my stomach grumbled from uneasiness.
The three of us—Margie, Martin, and I—checked in at the nurse’s station.
The receptionist, a college-age girl with purple nails and feather earrings, said, “Can I help you?”
“We’re here to see my mother, Laura Glencar,” I said.
Nurses, doctors and aides walked up and down the hallway. A janitor emptied a wastebasket into a large bin on rollers. The girl called on the intercom for Nancy, my mother’s nurse.
“Hello.” Nancy smiled.
“We’re here to see Ms. Glencar. These are her boys.” Margie tugged on her sweater.
Nurse Nancy said, “I was just in her room. She’ll be so happy to see you. Go right down.”
My mother sat up on her bed and extended her arms. “Come here, boys.”
Her hug was warm. She kissed our cheeks repeatedly. Her red blouse smelled like cinnamon.
She looked up. “Margie, it’s been a long time. How are you?”
Martin said, “I’m going to the restroom.” He winked at me.
“The bathroom’s right behind you.” My mother pointed.
“That’s okay. I saw one by the entrance.” His forehead raised as he glanced at Margie and me.
When he left, I said, “We’re getting you out of here.”
She stood. “Great. I’m sick of this place…When?”
She jumped up and quickly threw her things in suitcases. Before we left the room, she pulled the emergency cord from the wall. Lights flashed and a high-pitched sound blared.
Martin had succeeded in moving the security guy away from his post at the door to the stairs. Two nurses ran into my mother’s room. The security guard said something into his radio and rushed towards the commotion. Martin held the door open. “Quick.”
My mother’s laugh was infectious. Our laughing echoed in the stairwell. Margie moaned, easing her fat body as rapidly as she could down the steps. I called to her, “Hold the railing. You don’t want to fall.”
Mom raised her cast. “You’ll end up with one of these.”
“I don’t think they have one for broken asses.” Margie breathed heavily.
As we exited the building, Rita honked the horn. We hurried across the lawn. The car doors were open.
“Hurry. Get in the car,” Martin said.
A chubby security guard and Nurse Nancy bolted around the front corner of the building. “Ms. Glencar, you can’t leave.” She held up her hand. “Grab the patient,” she said to the guard. His shirt was wet under his arms and his pale belly was visible between buttons.
My mother said, “Okay. Okay. We wanted to go outside for a bit.” She looked up. “Isn’t the sky lovely? And look at that dove in the tree.”
“Dove?” The heavy security guard looked at the maple tree. My mother kicked his shin.
“Fuck. That hurt.” He hopped, holding his leg.
“Not as much as staying in this hellhole.” She escaped his grasp and was almost seated in the back of the car when a black sedan with two additional guards blocked Rita in.
“Lady, you’re not going anywhere,” one shouted from his window.
Rita got out of the car. “Why can’t the young woman go home?” she said to Nurse Nancy. “The children need their mother.” She was wearing a black pantsuit with a beret, as if she were starring in a spy thriller.
Nurse Nancy walked over to my mother and whispered in her ear, guiding her towards the entryway of the building.
“It will be alright,” Mom said to us. “Go home. Visit again soon.” She tried to sound cheery, but I felt her sadness. She waved before entering.
We heard a cooing sound. On a branch, a grey mourning dove fluttered its wings. Beyond the tree, on the lawn, I saw my grandfather.
Margie said, “What are you looking at?”
Rita stood silently, her eyes watery.
“Everything will be alright. Someday soon, we’ll all be home,” Martin said.
We were quiet as we drove to Nanna’s house. Martin looked out the window to avoid my eyes. I think he was crying. Occasionally, I saw Rita watching the both of us in the rearview mirror. I felt a pit in my stomach, anticipating my grandmother’s reaction. Nurse Nancy would certainly call her.
When we pulled in the driveway, Rita said, “Let me do the talking.”
My grandmother was sitting on the couch, pretending to read the newspaper.
“We’re sorry, Catherine.”
She didn’t look up. Her lips were tight and her eyes were red from crying.
“The boys just want their mother home.”
Martin and I sat in two wingback chairs on the other side of the room. Margie went to the bathroom. Rita stood in front of the glass-topped coffee table that separated her from my grandmother. “Won’t you say something?”
She folded the newspaper and threw it at Rita. “You think I don’t want Laura home? That I’m a mean old bitch who just loves that her daughter is in a nuthouse?” Her fists were clenched. “You always have to be the heroine, Rita. The kind one, the nicest person.” She snickered.
“That’s uncalled for, Catherine. I was trying to help.”
My grandmother threw up her hands and sat on the couch. She rolled her eyes. “Yes, Rita. You’re always trying to help.” She sighed.
Martin and I exchanged glances.
Nanna continued, inhaling on a cigarette. “I love my daughter. And I hate that she is stuck in that godawful place.”
Rita circled the coffee table and tried to hug her. My grandmother pushed her arms away. Rita stumbled, knocking the glass top onto the floor. It broke into pieces.
“Grandpa wants Mom to come home,” I blurted. They looked at me.
“I don’t understand,” my grandmother said.
“He told me.”
Martin stared and shook his head.
“That’s impossible. He’s dead.” She extended her arms along the top of the couch. Martin moved closer to me.
“What in the hell are you talking about?” my grandmother said.
“Sometimes he comes to me at night.”
“Aiden, lots of people have dreams about people they’ve lost,” she said.
“Nanna, Grandpa wanted me to tell you it wasn’t your fault that he died.”
“Of course it wasn’t my fault.” She puffed on the cigarette, eyeing me suspiciously.
“Then why do you cry at night and ask God for forgiveness? Grandpa says he’s in the bedroom with you. He told me to tell you he was ‘full as a bingo bus’ that night. He’s sorry.”
Martin laughed. “What’s that? A bunch of old people on their way to play bingo in a church basement?”
Nanna’s face whitened and she tamped her cigarette in the ashtray.
“Where did you hear that expression?”
“What does it mean?” Martin said.
“It’s an Irish saying for very drunk,” Rita said.
“You would know,” my grandmother said, looking past her.
“He told me that you should stop blaming yourself for leaving him in the chair when you went to bed. It’s not your fault that he choked on his vomit.”
“That’s gross,” Martin said.
Margie entered, wiping her hands on her pants. She sat on the loveseat.
My grandmother shook, tears on her face. “Your grandfather and I had been arguing. He was drunk. I left him in the chair. I should have made him come with me.”
Rita sat next to her.
“Rita wouldn’t have left him. She would have done the right thing. Taken him to bed with her,” she said to the rest of us.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Rita said.
“You know exactly what it means.” Her voice was low and firm.
“You kids should probably go upstairs,” Margie said.
“They’re old enough to hear what I have to say, Margaret.”
“And what is that?” Rita stared, her face rigid.
My grandmother paused and spoke calmly. “That you’re a whore. And you sleep with married men.” She inhaled and blew smoke. “I’m sure Sean thought you were a good fuck.”
Margie stood, her legs wobbly. “Oh my God! Boys, you really need to go play or somethin'”
Martin pulled me from the couch and guided me upstairs.
When we were seated on my bed, he said, “Well that was a nice end to the day.”
We both laughed, then sat quietly for a bit, staring into space.
“Do you think I’m crazy, Martin?”
“What I said about Grandpa.”
He put his arm over my shoulder. “Nothing crazy about you, brother. I believe you.”
“I don’t want to be put away like Mom.”
He looked straight into my face. “Listen to me, Aiden. No one is ever gonna mess with you as long as I’m around. I’ll kick their ass. If you say Grandpa visits you, then Grandpa fuckin’ visits you. If anyone has a problem with that, they got me to deal with…Remember what I always say?”
“‘I will always have your back,'” I answered.
“That’s right, Aiden. That’s right.”
After that day, my grandmother looked at me differently. Fear? Did she think I was schizophrenic like my mother?
One evening, she sat on the living room couch and looked through an old photo album.
“How did you know those details about your grandfather’s death, Aiden? I told everyone he had a heart attack because I wanted to protect his reputation.” Her words slurred and she held a glass of whiskey.
“I told you, Nanna.”
She closed the album. “Stop with your malarkey. Ghosts don’t exist.” She touched her throat; it had begun to redden.
I sat next to her.
“What does he look like?” she said.
“He has dark curly hair and thick black-framed glasses.”
She puffed on her cigarette. “You’ve seen photographs…What else has he told you?”
“He said Mom has second sight like your mother, who fell down a well.”
Her leg trembled against mine.
She turned away. “Go to your room. I can’t talk about this any longer.”
“Nanna, don’t be mad.”
“I’m not mad, Aiden. I just can’t understand.” She rubbed her temples. She picked up the album, preoccupied with a photo about halfway through the pages.
“I don’t understand it myself.” I walked towards the stairs.
Lost in thought, she didn’t hear me.
Nanna had left for work by the time I was dressed and ready for school. I had fifteen minutes before I needed to leave, so I went to the couch and opened the frayed black cover of the photo album. I flipped through the pages filled with old black-and-whites of Nanna’s family in Ireland. When I reached the halfway mark, I scrutinized the images. Nanna’s expression when she had looked at that photo was one of anxiety. Why would an old picture have that effect? And which photograph?
Pasted to a faded black page was a paper with writing. Someone, I suppose my grandmother, had copied a poem by William Butler Yeats—”The Lake Isle of Innisfree.”
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
Underneath it and continuing onto the next page were five photographs, yellowed with age. “Our Trip to Innisfree” was written in cursive above the pictures. Three girls and a boy, my grandmother and her siblings, sat in a small rowboat on a lake. The photographs must have been taken by their parents in a boat behind them. The boy, tall and skinny, wore suspenders and a scally cap, his shirt buttoned to the top of its round collar. He grinned as he held one of the oars above his head. The girls, who appeared to be in their early teens, one perhaps younger, were dressed in old-fashioned dresses. They were laughing at something he said. I spotted my grandmother immediately. She was at the back of the boat, looking towards the island, half of her face visible, a scarf over her head. In each photograph, the island appeared closer. The boy was rowing in the latter pictures; only the backs of the girls’ heads were visible, hair cut short, thick locks curling inwards. In one photo, my grandmother draped her hand into the water.
In the final picture, my grandmother was halfway up a pine tree, her scarf caught on a branch. Her brother, looking very serious, reached for her. She looked panicked as he grabbed her stockings and she clutched the branch entangling her scarf.
So that was a pinafore, I thought. Because the photo was black and white, I couldn’t tell if the dress was green. I slammed the album shut, grabbed my backpack, and ran to the bus stop. My mother had seen my grandmother in the pine tree on the day she fell and broke her arm. Time is an illusion.
The next weekend, my grandmother and I went to McCall’s. Martin was at swim practice. Nurse Nancy smiled. “Laura is doing great. She’s been busy drawing. Quite a talented artist.”
“She gets that from me. I studied at the Louvre in Paris,” Nanna said.
“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 didn’t mean to offend you.”
“No offense taken. Next time I’ll carry a paintbrush.”
“Here we are,” Nancy said outside Mom’s room. She smiled at me. “I bet you’re excited to see your mother.”
“We’re good now. You can go,” my grandmother said.
When she left, 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 gown 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 with 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 speak with the nurse. I’ll be back soon.”
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’m her mother and I was appointed guardian by the court. Haven’t you got a bedpan to empty?”
They entered the room.
“Let me get in touch with the psychiatrist on call.”
“That won’t be necessary. Nothing he says will change my mind…Laura, get up, dear. We’re going now. You’re free.”
“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. Do what you must.”
My mother and I were already packing her suitcases.
“I’m sorry for bringing you here,” my grandmother said to Mom. “You should be home with Aiden and Martin.”
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 the tree. He smiled and waved to us. A star shone in the twilit sky.
“Hurry up, slowpokes,” my grandmother said, then turned towards the maple. “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 Mom. “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. An image of a painting fell out. She had begun copying it, using different shades of pencil. A blindfolded woman in a green gown sat atop a light brown globe, her head bent to the left. She played a lyre with a single string. In the background, one star sparkled in the gray-blue sky. Printed underneath the reproduction was “Hope, 1886, George Frederic Watts.”
I thought of the poem about Innisfree and the photographs in my grandmother’s album. I rolled my window down and imagined I heard crickets singing.
After a while, my grandmother said, “I’ve got to make a stop before we go home.”
“Where?” my mother said.
“Why?” I asked.
My grandmother looked at me in the rearview mirror. “Aiden, what I said to Rita last week was cruel. I humiliated and embarrassed her. I need to apologize. Do you understand?”
My mother kissed my grandmother’s cheek and leaned against her shoulder.
In my mind, I saw the picture of my grandmother as a panicked young girl in the tree. A brother rescued her, Martin would always rescue me, and we had just rescued my mother. At this very instant, people throughout the world were helping one another. I reclined, listening to the low sound of wheels on the pavement. My mother was free. In a sense, my grandmother was also free. In my “deep heart’s core,” I knew everything would be alright. Soon we would all be home.
James Mulhern has published fiction in many literary journals and has received accolades. Three stories were selected for different anthologies of best short fiction. In 2013, he was chosen as a finalist for the Tuscany Prize for Catholic Fiction. In 2015, Mulhern was awarded a fully paid writing fellowship at 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. He has received several other awards. His writing (novel and short story collection) earned favorable critiques from Kirkus Reviews.