Friday, November 6, 2015

Assumptions by James Mulhern

James Mulhern's character recalls growing up in a strongly Catholic family with characterful neighbour Peggy Fleming.

"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 all 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, and take another sip of whiskey. While they played cards, 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 performed for a small crowd on Friday nights. She sang those good old songs from back in the day, songs like "Fools Rush In," not the crappy remakes, but the best version with Frank Sinatra, and other songs like "You Stepped Out of a Dream" by Sarah Vaughan (that broad could pull your heart strings). Jim often stopped by the nightclub after work, and you know, eventually they hit it off, and 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.

And Helen, my grandmother, would beam at this point, say something like, "Well, the poor thing!" Then Auntie Ag would nod her head in disgust at the whole terrible situation, and Grampie, he would become stone silent, ashamed to have said so much already.

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 in front of the piano. 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 someday.

They were both very drunk; I was relieved that neither of them had fallen down the stairs and broken 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.

During my childhood years, I would learn more about Peggy's life. While my grandmother prepared dinner, Peg minded me in the parlor, regaling me with her stories. She grew up in Jamaica Plain, an Irish catholic enclave in Boston. Her cousin, Mary O'Malley had sponsored her trip to the States back in the thirties. "Terties," Peg would say in her brogue. Mary had preceded her from County Mayo fifteen years earlier, marrying a young "whippersnapper" named Joseph Conner whom she'd met at one of the socials, weekly gatherings in the basement of Saint Thomas More Church. Joseph worked nights at South Station loading mail onto trains for the post office, while Mary worked as a maid during the day, cleaning the houses of the "filthy rich on the hill" - Mission Hill she meant. Mary and Peg's relationship had been like that of sisters.

When the Conners began having children, Peg became their trusted nanny. "I couldn't have children of my own," she told me. "Those years were some of the best in my life. Funny you don't know such things until it's past. I should have stolen Francis," she said. "He was my favorite. You remind me a bit of him sometimes. He became a priest, a missionary to a small town in Italy, where he died in a church. What luck! Don't you think?"

Peg was a talker. I was fascinated by her stories, especially her tales of the wee people who harassed her on the way to school. "By the brook was where they most appeared. They'd be hiding in the bushes, beautiful Gorse Bushes with bright yellow flowers. The little buggers were quick, and if you weren't fast, they'd catch you and pinch you to death." She shuddered dramatically at the thought of it, then whispered, "I think that's who pushed Margaret Mary Fawny off the cliff. She was this nasty girl who made fun of me. What a jinnit she was! Slapping my face when Sister Ignatius wasn't looking, and calling me a toad. Can you imagine that, Jimmy?" I shook my head, wondering, too, what a jinnit must be. "What must she have thought as she fell through that cloudy air?" Peg murmured. "I hope she had time to say a Hail Mary or two before she drowned in Achill Sound." She laughed.

"I'm just codding ya, Jimmy, just an old story is all. A fib, my love," she said, reacting to my frightened expression. "And I was ugly, ya know, but it was horrible of her to taunt me just the same."

"You're not ugly," I said.

Peg laughed. "Oh, that you were forty years older! You're a charmer, you are."

When the ice in her glass had melted, or the whiskey was getting low, she'd motion for me to take it. I learned to pour her whiskey sours at the kitchen table. My grandmother, who was usually chopping vegetables or tending to food on the stove, looked over at me. "Not too much, sweetheart," she'd say. "Tell Peg our supper is almost ready."

When I was ten, my father sent my dog to the pound because he barked too much. Of course 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 sugar cube that she kept in her pocketbook in case her insulin dropped suddenly. "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. She was slurring her words, calling Scruffy "Ruffy," or forgetting his name altogether, sometimes dropping the phone to pick up her drink with both hands. Once she referred to him as a cat. She cursed the "sons of bitches" that hung up on her, and every once in a while scratched the back of Scruffy's head, which rested on my knee.

"You'll see. Everything will be alright," 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. What we need is faith is all, and our coats," she said, smiling at me.

"Surely, they won't refuse the request of a cute little boy," she told my grandmother.

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 very 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 on both sides of the street, 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 agreed with me, so 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 pm, 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 here and the boy's going to catch a cold."

"But the dog needs a home!" Peg pleaded.

"The boy needs a home even more. 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 began singing, "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 used to get all her medications. A couple times over the following months, she took me to see him. 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 that morning, 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 at last.

"Oh." Beth said, picking up her fork. "A mystery."

Throughout that hot August day, I would catch Beth staring at the sky, looking for traces of Mary. I was on the hunt too, spotting flying Marys everywhere, flares of white light in my peripheral vision that would disappear as quickly as I turned my head.

The dogma of the Assumption, I later learned, was firmly established in 1950 when Pope Pius XII made his decree: "We pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma; that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul 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 this Feast day, according to Irish Catholic tradition, there is a cure in seawater. In Ocean City, New Jersey, for example, the priest would lead a procession to the shore after his mass, where he, accompanied by a lifeguard, got in a small boat and rowed out a short distance to lay a wreath on the waves and make a benediction. Some have suggested that the tradition is an assimilation of the Celtic festival of Lughnasadh, begun by the god Lugh - the deity associated with late summer storms and lightening - as a funeral feast commemorating his foster mother, Tailtiu, who dies of exhaustion after clearing the plains of Ireland during the harvest. Back in Ireland, I've been told, many people continue to celebrate this August holiday with bonfire and dancing. The Irish have a proclivity for morbid thoughts and martyrdom; and I am not surprised that this holiday is an amalgamation of exhaustion, death, martyring motherhood, food, and a cure.

While at Boston University, I remember flipping through the art book of a housemate when a copy of Titian's Assunta caught my attention. A startled Mary, arms spread above her upturned face, is being lifted on a cloud toward heaven, where God waits expectantly, his gray beard flowing in the turbulent air. Mary is surrounded by angels, excited as flower children in the church before a wedding. It is difficult to tell whether the crowd of apostles below is reaching to pull her down or to push her upwards. The depiction is unnerving; you can almost hear the commotion, as if someone has just cried out, "Wake up!" "Last call for alcohol," or "The baby's coming." The cloud, which you'd expect to be a soft fleecy white, is a cradle of thunderhead gray; in the background the sun blazes a fervid yellow. The painting's most vivid colors are orange and red, shades of fire, flesh and blood.

My grandmother revered the Blessed Mother; there were statuettes and pictures throughout her home on Kendall Road in Braintree, Massachusetts. She used to tell me that her favorite month was May, the Blessed Mother's month, and that she had the good fortune of being "born in May and married in May." I can still picture my grandmother as she waved goodbye to me from the corridor of the elderly housing apartments where she ended up. Next to her, on the windowsill, was a blue marble carving of Mary.

The idea of a "cure in the water" paled in comparison to the roller coaster ride that 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 gyp.

After our 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, bruised and beaten-looking. Peg had said that 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 that 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, licked her fingers to arrange the bangs on Beth's forehead, hair that my grandmother had cut earlier in the day. When my grandmother wasn't around, Beth complained to my mother, "She cuts crooked, and then she tries to fix it, but it always makes it worse. I look dumb! Make her stop!"

"Now don't you stare at poor old Peg, and no giggling," my grandmother warned Beth before knocking on Peg's door. "She's not herself, and we need to help her get better."

"And Jimmy, remember to call her 'Lovely Peggy,'" she whispered to me 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 would, "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 long silver strands, moist from sweat, garlanded the area by her temples and behind her large ears. The blinds were pulled down on the window beside the kitchen table behind her, 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 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?"

"Well, anything. Your aching bones, your mood, your bowels, whatever it is that's bothering you, Peg. 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. She had a strong faith, and would often remind me that my first prayer should always be for the Holy Father's Intention that the Catholic Church reign forever. If you were not Catholic, as far as she was concerned, you were going to hell.

My sister and I listened intently to their exchange. I knew from past experience that their bickering had become a ritual, and I was hoping for a good fight, anything to make Peg seem more awake, more like her old self.

"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. Her eyes seemed teary, but she smiled and winked directly at me as she looked past my grandmother towards where Beth and I sat in the living room. The chair creaked. She groaned and tried to lift herself up; we rushed to the doorway so we could have a better view.

"I need to straighten out," Peg said, arching her back.

"You're fine, Peg. You're fine." 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.

There was no arguing that day that I can remember. We drove to Nantasket Beach, Beth and I singing along to Carole King's "You've Got a Friend" on the radio, getting bored when my grandmother switched channels to listen to the talk shows that she liked so much. There was discussion of McGovern, Nixon, Peking, Vietnam, and all that money wasted in sending a man to the moon. The sun flashed on the blacktop of the Southeast Expressway. I moved my head to the open window, smiling as the wind washed over my face. Beth held up one of the glass jars to admire its sparkle.

It was breezy at the shore. My grandmother managed to coax Peg out of the boots, pouring salt water playfully over Peg's toes before leading her into the ocean; but that was after a gust had lifted Peg's wig into the air, and the four of us, laughing uproariously, chased it along the sand. At last, Beth caught the wig, then raised it in the air like the head of John the Baptist, giggling and tiptoeing a slow dance across the sand. I took it from her and smoothed the sad hair before burying it in the paper bag with a stone I had found near the water.

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 dice. The salty north winds felt good against our skin, and Peg kept wrapping 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, the deity Lugh tried to wake us all up, turning heat lightening on and off behind a lacey curtain of gray. And still his mother slept beneath the dusty harvest loam.

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 came to my room and woke 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.

4 comments:

  1. A fond and irreverent exploration of the riot and grief of old age, seen through the eyes of a sympathetic child. This has an honesty and freshness that captivates and steers the reader through the multiple twists and turns of the narrative,
    thank you,
    Ceinwen

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  2. I came across this short story by James Mulhern by chance.I am fascinated by the way he drew his characters, their physical appearances and personalities, through the nonjudgmental eyes of a young child. This allows the mature readers to form their own opinions as if they had first hand experience. I will look forward to reading his other short stories.

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  3. You don't have to be a Christian to enjoy this wonderful story with religious allegory. Both happy and sad, it made me very reflective about all the Peggy's I have known. I also enjoyed the religious allusions and symbolism throughout.

    Christine

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