Smoke Rings

by James Mulhern


     Just as we were about to step onto the ice, Nonna nudged my arm away and opened the bank door. She slipped and her wig flew into a snowbank. “My back! My back!”

     I yelled, “Help!” Tony, a kid from school, came running from the gas station. A crowd of about ten people surrounded us, mostly women. Tony tried to help Nonna get up, but she screeched, “My God. You’re hurting me. Someone call an ambulance. I think I broke something. Don’t anybody move me. I want a professional.” Her coat was splayed open, and I was amazed that she had managed to create a rip in the leg of her pantsuit; there was even blood. Tears streamed down her cheeks.

     The manager from the bank came outside. “Let me help you get up.”

     Nonna hollered at him, “Don’t touch me! I slipped on ice. Who is your maintenance person? Must be a bombast. He should be fired.” She moaned, the tears continuing, mascara a dirty mess on her cheeks.

     “I’ve got your wig,” a hunched-back elderly woman with an empathetic expression said. “Do you want to put it back on? I’ll help you.”

     “Are you crazy?! What’s a wig gonna do for me. What I need is an ambulance.”

     “Ma’am, I can assure you that an ambulance is on the way,” the manager said. He reminded me of Cary Grant in his dark suit, white shirt, and tie. His wavy dark hair was parted on the side.

     “I was only trying to help,” the elderly woman said, handing the wig to a twenty-something lady with bright red lips and oversized tortoiseshell sunglasses. She looked disgusted, and passed the wig to a gray-haired short man to her left who twisted it with his hands.

     “Hey, ya gonna ruin that thing. It was expensive. I bought it at Filene’s. Stop tugging it, Mr.”

     “Oh, I’m sorry. Didn’t even realize I was.” He gave it to a fat prim and proper woman in a green dress. It was like a game of Hot Potato, I thought.

     “It’s okay. It’s okay,” Nonna said wiping tears away with her hands. They were stained with mascara. “My poor granddaughter.” She pointed at me. “What a trauma to see her Nonna almost die. I’m sure she’s gonna have emotional damage from this whole experience.”

     “Ma’am. She’ll be fine. It was just a fall. It’s not like you’re dead,” the manager said.

    The prim lady blurted, “That was uncalled for. How insensitive.” She looked to the others for approval.

     “Thank you, lady. Don’t forget he said that. You’re my witness.” Nonna whimpered.

     “Of course not, dear.” The woman smiled, happy to be important.

     “Oh my God! I really coulda died. Smashed my head open or something. And that would have been poor Molly’s last memory of me. My brain all over the ice.” She crossed herself.

     The lady with red lips and glasses sized me up, then glanced at Nonna. She smiled, looking smug.

     “Jesus! My leg is bleeding,” Nonna exclaimed, inspecting her torn pants. “I bet I’m just covered in bruises.” She began to breath deeply. “Oh, oh, oh! I think I’m having agita!”

     The gray-haired man said, “What should we do? What should we do?!”

     “Take some deep slow breaths, ma’am.” The manager kneeled beside her and tried to hold one of her hands. Nonna pulled it away.

     “Who are you? So you think you’re a doctor now?”

     “I was trying to calm you.” He noticed the mascara on his hands and wiped them on his pants.

     “Keep your paws off me.”

     The ambulance arrived as if on cue, and the crowd opened to make way for two burly men who checked Nonna’s vital signs and lifted her onto a stretcher. They were very sympathetic, and Nonna kept saying, “What nice boys.” Once she was secured in the ambulance I entered and sat beside her. As we drove away, the siren sounded. Nonna placed her hand over her mouth to suppress laughter, smiling at me. I had to turn away because I knew I would laugh, too. “This is just awful. Just awful,” she said to the young man on the other side of her stretcher.

    “You’ll be okay. We are going to take good care of you.”

     “Thank you, dear.”

     Through the back window of the ambulance, I watched the crowd disperse. The woman with the red lips remained for a few moments, staring as we drove away. She was smirking at me. I stuck my tongue out and smushed my face against the window, then I put on Nonna’s wig.

     When we arrived at the Emergency Ward of the Massachusetts General Hospital, the paramedics lifted her stretcher from the back of the ambulance and pushed through sliding doors that opened automatically. I followed them. We were greeted by a tall thin nurse with a white cap atop an immaculate blond bouffant. She put her hand on the stretcher and began asking the paramedics what happened. Nonna interrupted, saying she had a terrible fall on an area that should have been cleared of ice. A clerk at the receiving desk motioned for me to approach. He asked for Nonna’s information—name, address, allergies, past medical history, doctor, etc. I gave him as much information as I knew, then was brought to an area in the back of the Emergency Ward, a large room full of stretchers partitioned with curtains. A lady with a bruised face and no teeth grinned at me from across the room. Nonna was staring at the ceiling from her stretcher when I reached her. She patted my hand on the railing of her stretcher when she saw me. “You did good.”

    After a while, the curtain was pulled back and we were greeted by a handsome muscular doctor in blue scrubs. He requested that I step away so he could examine her. He closed the curtain and I heard him ask a lot of questions. Nonna told the story of her fall again, this time embellishing details, saying how inconsiderate and cold the bank manager was to her. “I have witnesses.”

    The doctor listened patiently. He said that she was pretty bruised up with a small laceration on her thigh. She would probably feel worse a few days from now after the adrenaline rush had subsided, but he didn’t think she had broken anything, and the laceration did not need stitches; it just needed to be cleaned up to prevent infection. He was going to order some X-rays just in case. Before he left, he asked if there was anyone he should call.

     “There’s no reason to bother my daughter or son-in-law. And I live with two nutso sisters who will just panic and give me a headache. Once I have the X-rays, and you give me the okay to go, my beautiful granddaughter will ride home with me in a cab.”

     “Okay, Mrs. Janssen."

     "Don't call me that. Call me Agnella. Janseen is my married name. My husband died a long time ago. Julien was from Belgium. I'm an Italian. He was a crossdresser, you know. I should have stuck to an Italian. Never met an Italian crossdresser. Maybe it runs in Belgian families. What do you think?"

     The doctor laughed. "I really don't know. I'm not sure what to say."

    "Ah. What can you say? People have their ways. Caught him wearing my black panties and expensive red lipstick. He saw me in the bedroom doorway, then ran outta the house and drove away. Bam!” She clapped her hands. “The next thing ya know, he was hit by a train. Dead in an instant. Where he was going, I don’t know. Was a real shame."

     "Well, Agnella." He tried to change the subject. "Your granddaughter looks like a responsible young lady. I’m sure you will be taken care of.” He pulled open the curtain and smiled at me. I loved his white teeth. He said I should stay with Nonna and pull the cord for the nurse if Nonna suddenly seemed drowsy or confused. Then he left, clipboard in hand, with a good story to tell his co-workers.

     A young timid nurse cleaned out the laceration. We waited for the X-rays, which seemed interminable, but eventually Nonna was cleared to go. The whole affair had lasted about four hours. Our family probably assumed we were shopping and that we had stopped to eat lunch. The cab dropped us at Nonna’s and we began to climb the stairs to her apartment. “Be quiet like a mouse,” she said, pointing to the door of my aunts’ apartment. “I don’t want Aunt Helena and Aunt Bianca to bother me. They’d just blow things out of proportion and get hysterical.”

     She moved slowly up the stairs, stopping every now and then to rest. “That whole affair really knocked the wind out of me.”  

     When we were seated in her living room, she took off the wig and laid it neatly on the coffee table. “Ya know, when I saw you put that thing on in the ambulance, I thought, God, how she looks like me when I was young. I’m an old lady now, no longer beautiful, but such is life.”

     “I think you’re beautiful.”

     “Of course you should say that. I’m your grandmother.”

     After a few minutes of silence, when she seemed like she was going to nod off, she sat bolt upright, very alert. “Ouch!” She placed her right hand against her side. “I wish I hadn’t fallen so hard.” Then she said, “Molly, we gotta take pictures. We need evidence for a lawsuit. Let’s go into my bedroom and check out the damages.”

     Nonna stripped completed naked, throwing the blue velvet pantsuit and her undergarments onto the bed. “Those clothes are going in the trash. Well, maybe not the bra and panties.” She stared at herself in the mirror. For a moment it seemed she forgot I was there as she traced the bruises on her saggy body, turned and looked over her shoulder so she inspect her back.” Without looking at me, she said, “Grab the Polaroid from the left bottom drawer of my dresser.”

     I did so, and then she said, “These pictures are gonna be the icing on the cake.” She laughed. “That’s funny, ‘icing.’ Don’t you think, Molly? I mean considering how it happened.” She put her hands on my shoulders and stared into my eyes. I could smell her sweat, her oldness. “I know what you’re thinking.”


     “You’re thinking your grandmother has sagging breasts, a sagging ass, and a flabby arms." She pulled the skin underneath her biceps and flapped it with her hand. "You don’t want to get old, I know. But that’s life. I had beautiful firm skin and was quite pretty like you, but aging is a terrible thing. You lose your looks, and then sometimes your mind. Or maybe you get a horrible disease. And there’s nothing you can do about it. You just gotta carry on and get as much as you can out of every moment you are alive.” She smiled, kissed my forehead, and pinched my cheek. “Now pretend you’re a photographer for Vogue and snap some pictures.”

     It amazed me that she knew what I was thinking. Seeing her old body made me nauseous, afraid of the future.

     “Look, this bruise looks like a cow.” She pointed to the back of her right shoulder. "And this one over here on my ass cheek looks like a barn. What do you think?"

     "I can see the cow, but I can't see the barn."

     "Well maybe not a barn. Some sort of building though. I think it's the Vatican. I got the pope's house on my ass.”

     “I don’t know what the Vatican looks like, Nonna.”

     She eased herself onto the bed and patted the area beside her. I sat down.

     “It’s a fancy schmancy palace where the pope lives.” She moved my chin with her hand so that I was staring into her rheumy brown eyes. “Listen to what I tell you. What we did today, some people would consider wrong. Certainly the pope.” She laughed. “Grab the cigarettes from the beside table, will you?” I reached over. “And the ashtray. . . Oh, and the lighter.” I handed them to her. 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 over there in the corner,” she pointed, “It’s disappearing already. Here one minute, gone the next.”

     I watched the empty air. “So what?”

     She slapped my face. My skin burnt and my eyes started to tear up. When I tried to move my hand to my cheek, she pushed it down and held it against my thigh.

     I was crying. “Why did you do that?”

     “Because you gotta be tough. You don’t get anything in this world the easy way. What we did isn’t going to hurt anybody. That big bank is gonna settle once we threaten a lawsuit.”

     I turned my head. I felt a pit in my stomach.

     “Don’t you look away!” She grabbed my face. As she spoke, I could feel her spittle on my nose. “And don’t you dare utter a word to anyone about our plan today. You understand?”

     “Yes,” I mumbled.

     “Say it louder.”

     “Yes! I won’t say a word.”

     “Your poor Nonna and you were walking to the bank. I slipped on ice and had a bad fall.” She laughed. “And I got bruises to prove it. She stood up and pointed to the Vatican. “As God is our witness.”

     I laughed and wiped tears off my cheeks.

     “How much money do you think we’ll make?”

     She gazed at her body in the mirror above her dresser, as if making an appraisal. “I’d say about ten grand. Those hotshots at the bank won’t want any bad press, especially about a poor old lady falling on ice.” She stood up and moved the ashtray to the top of her dresser, then tamped out her cigarette. “Now you go downstairs and make us some coffee while I wash up and get dressed.”

     When I was in the kitchen, I heard her fall down the stairs. “Oh shit!” was the last thing she said. I found her body on the mahogany landing. There was a pool of blood around her head, and her right arm and left leg were contorted, like the Gumby doll of an angry child. I stepped over her body, walked up the stairs, and into her bedroom, where I sat down and lit a cigarette. I coughed a bit, but as I watched the smoke rings dissipate, I realized Nonna was right.

     “Here one minute, gone the next,” I said to myself. Then I walked to the phone on her bedside table and dialed 911. “My grandmother,” I screamed. “She fell down the stairs and I think she’s dead.”


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