James Mulhern’s writing has appeared in literary journals over one hundred and thirty times and has been recognized with many awards. In 2015, Mr. Mulhern was granted a writing fellowship to Oxford University. That same year, a story was longlisted for the Fish Short StoryPrize. In 2017, he was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. His recent novel, Give Them Unquiet Dreams, isa Kirkus Reviews Best Book of 2019. He was shortlisted for the Aesthetica Creative Writing Award 2021 for his poetry.
Nonna slipped; her wig flew into a mound of snow. "My back!" "Help!" I yelled. A crowd surrounded us. "Someone, call an ambulance," Nonna screamed. "Don't no one touch me." Her coat and pants were torn. The bank manager said, "Let me assist you." Nonna said, "Keep away! Your maintenance person must be a bombast. He should be fired for leaving that ice." She moaned, mascara a dirty mess on her wet cheeks. "I've got your wig," a hunched-back elderly woman said. "Do you want me to put it back on?" "Are you crazy?! What's a wig gonna do for me? What I need is an ambulance." "Ma'am, an ambulance is on the way," the manager said. He reminded me of Robert Redford, the good-looking actor. "I was only trying to help," the lady said, handing the wig to a twenty-something woman with bright red lips and oversized tortoiseshell sunglasses. She looked disgusted and passed it to a short, gray-haired man who twisted it with his hands. He gave it to a fat prim woman in a green dress. A game of Hot Potato, I thought. Nonna wiped her mascara-stained face. "My poor granddaughter. I'm sure she's gonna have emotional damage." She whimpered. "I really coulda died! Molly's last memory of her Nonna woulda been my brain splattered on ice." She crossed herself. The lady with red lips sized me up, then glanced at Nonna, and smirked. Nonna looked down. "Jesus! My leg is bleeding." Her breathing quickened. "I'm having agita!" "Relax, ma'am." The manager kneeled and tried to hold one of her hands. Nonna pulled it away. "So now you think you're a doctor? Keep your paws off me." The ambulance arrived, and the crowd made way for two burly men who checked Nonna's vital signs and lifted her onto a stretcher. Nonna kept saying, "What nice boys." As we drove away, the siren sounded. Nonna covered her mouth to suppress laughter. I turned away because I knew I would laugh too. "This is just awful. Just awful," she said to the young man beside her. "We'll take good care of you." Through the ambulance window, I watched the crowd disperse. The woman with red lips stared as we drove away. I stuck out my tongue.
At the emergency ward, the doctor ordered x-rays, which showed no fractures. A timid nurse cleaned and wrapped the leg wound; then we took a cab to Nonna's place. In her bedroom, Nonna threw her ripped velvet pantsuit onto the floor. She stared at her naked self in the mirror and traced the bruises on her body. "We need evidence for the lawsuit. Grab the Polaroid from the left bottom drawer of my dresser. . . . These pictures are gonna be the icing on the cake." She laughed. "That's funny. 'Icing.' Don't you think, Molly? Considering how it happened." She stared into my eyes. I could smell her sweat, her oldness. "I know what you're thinking." "What?" "You're thinking your grandmother has sagging breasts and a sagging ass." She flapped the skin underneath her biceps. "You don't wanna get old. . . . Aging is a terrible thing. Get as much out of life as you can, mia bambina." She kissed my forehead. "Now pretend you're a photographer for Vogue and snap some pictures after you rub some of this shit on my back." The label on the cosmetic read "Oil of Life, Intensely Revitalizing Gel Cream." Touching her old body made me nauseous. "This bruise looks like the Vatican." She pointed to her right shoulder. "What do you think?" "I don't know what the Vatican looks like." She eased herself onto the bed and patted the area beside her. I sat down. "Like a fancy palace. It's where the pope lives." She positioned my chin, so I was forced to look at her hazel eyes. "What we did today, some people would consider wrong. Certainly, the pope." She laughed. "Grab the cigarettes from the bedside table, will you?" I reached over. "And the ashtray. . . Oh, and the lighter." She placed the ashtray beside her, lit a cigarette, inhaled deeply, and blew smoke rings. "See those puffs of smoke." I watched them float in front of her face. "Yes, Nonna." "Look at that one in the corner." She pointed. "It's disappearing already. Here one minute, gone the next." "So what?" She slapped my face. "Why'd you do that?" I teared up. "To make you tough. You don't get nothing in this world the easy way." "Don't you look away!" She grabbed my face. "And don't you dare utter a word to anyone about our plan today. You understand?" "Yes," I mumbled. "Say it louder." "Yes!" "Your Nonna and you were walking to the bank. I slipped on ice by the front door." She laughed. "And I got bruises to prove it." She stood and pointed to the Vatican. "As God is our witness." "How much money do you think we'll make?" She gazed at her body in the mirror, as if making an appraisal. "I'd say about ten grand. Those hotshots at the bank won't want bad press about an old lady falling on ice." She moved the ashtray to the top of her dresser, then tamped out her cigarette. "Go downstairs and make us some coffee while I wash up." On my way to the kitchen, I wiped the disgusting, smelly cream on the stair railing. I heard her fall down the stairs. "Oh shit!" was the last thing she said. There was a pool of blood around her head. Her arms and legs were twisted in grotesque angles. I stepped over her body. In her bedroom, I lit a cigarette. I watched the smoke rings dissipate. Nonna was right. "Here one minute, gone the next." I dialed 911. "My grandmother," I screamed. "She fell down the stairs. I think she's dead!" Before the ambulance arrived, I wiped the evidence off the railing with a Viva paper towel.