Hennessy short story of the month: Grace
One time I had myself a friend but she was not so nice to me in the end, so I’d as soon not bother. She stole from me; she took my book, some money too, but to this day I can’t forgive her for taking that book from my bedside locker
She only communicates with me; I’ve worked here for two weeks and three days and she only communicates with me. My name is Monica. I am 45 years-old and I earn $9 an hour working at a desk with a computer and a ghost.
She died eight weeks ago. People can’t look at me because of it. It’s like I am cursed with her death even though it was nothing to do with me. But I’d have still applied anyhow had I known then that it was a dead woman’s job. It pays 50 cent more an hour here than at Murdoch’s. Couldn’t believe my luck when they said they wanted to hire me. The day I heard, we ordered pizza for dinner.
The people I work with just circle around me and her desk like it is 10-times its size. I ignore them. They are not worth my time or energy. Instead I keep my head down, working away until I can get gone. Their friendship doesn’t interest me, I just need the money. One time I had myself a friend but she was not so nice to me in the end, so I’d as soon not bother. She stole from me; she took my book, some money too, but to this day I can’t forgive her for taking that book from my bedside locker. It was my favourite. I would just have to run my hand over the cover to feel good. Ten years I had it, why she wanted to hurt me so much I never knew. People are cruel. All that matters to me now is being able to feed my boy and put clothes on his back, not to mention trying to keep him in school for as long as I can.
They don’t matter. Their ignorance does not bother me.
I sit here every day and key in stuff into that big old computer: tap, tap, tappity, tap; I like the sound. Lucky I guess, it’s the only nice thing I hear. Well that is except for my baby’s ring tone: I love that sound. He always calls at four o’clock:
“Momma, it’s me, I’m home.”
My man, my boy, my son and heir to the riches I own. When I die Lenny will be the proud owner of one bed, one couch, one bedside locker, one TV and one microwave; my Momma left me nothing but her bills. I won’t leave Lenny mine. I pay a little each week, not over stretching myself. I don’t need no mathematician to tell me what we can’t afford. I’m not a greedy woman.
Lenny is a good boy. I get to walk him to school every morning and he walks himself straight home when he is finished. He knows not to dawdle. He knows I worry, and that if I don’t hear from him at four, I’ll just come looking and then I won’t get paid and well, it isn’t even worth saying how bad that would be. He knows how bad that would be. Neither of us likes living on crackers or out of motel rooms. Right now things are just fine. We got us a nice one bedroom apartment over on Mason. I know you know that place, but it’s not so bad: we don’t bother no one and no one bothers us. Lenny says he’s happy. Do you know how nice it is to hear my boy say that?
I haven’t told him about her. I have told no one. You are the first.
She is Grace Mulligan.
She is trying to tell me something, I just know it. Lordy, I wish I knew what it was so she might go away and leave me be. I thought about asking could I be moved but that would mean I would have to explain why: Cause I got a ghost bugging me – you see my problem? She started at me on my second day. Of course I didn’t know it was her: I came in and the window right beside my desk was open, blowing in a gale. I closed it.
“It’s winter,” I explained to the others, “I hope you don’t mind, it’s very cold.” But they all said nothing.
Things get left on my desk too, well one thing. Every day the same leaflet: Parish of St Peter’s with Joe written in the corner. It’s a place I know, I pass it every day but I don’t know no Joe. I see the old people go to their worship as I walk by. I admire their devotion; I am ashamed of mine.
Well I got so annoyed with the window always being open that I came in early one morning to find the cleaner to ask her not to open it, I was sure it had to be her. But she said it wasn’t. Lenny was not happy with me that morning, making him get up early. I felt bad he had to wait longer until the school doors opened. But I had made him a hot drink and told him to wait under the bike shelter. Poor kid, he looked so sad and cold when I left him.
“What does it matter Momma if the window is open, can’t you just close it?”
That’s what I was doing, but it was still bugging me, someone had to be opening it. When I say I asked everyone in the building, I asked every last one and they all said no. Now this meant either they were lying or there was something very strange going on. I couldn’t work it out until that morning with the cleaner. At 8.55am I was headed to my desk with a good clear view across the room (I knew the time ’cause I had just looked at the clock that breathes down on me every day) and I saw my window open. Clear as day, I watched the latch turn and out it went, all by itself. No word of a lie. I looked around to see if anyone else was in the office, seeing what I saw. But there was no one, unless you count that guy with the brown tie, always a brown tie, but he can’t see my desk from where he hides behind his cubicle. I asked him any way.
“No,” he said, not even bothering to lift his head.
I looked at the window. I looked under my desk. I looked back at the room. What I thought I’d find, I don’t know ’cause I’d already seen the damn thing open and no one there. It struck me that maybe the latch had slipped, so I pulled it over to inspect it but no, it was a stiff one. Landing in my seat all confused, I sighed, placing my elbows on the table to hold my poor, tired head. It was then I realised the leaflet was there again, looking up at me, exactly where it had been yesterday, right before I had thrown it in the trash.
Frank, my boss, walked by; he normally never said nothing to me but this morning he stopped and asked had I seen a ghost. I must have looked shook. I couldn’t find it in me to reply.
“You were asking about that window. I remember now that Grace used to open it, she’d stand there always looking down. I never knew what she was doing. Maybe she’s opening your window.” He laughed loudly.
He had a big, ugly laugh. It was not pleasant. But what he said made some sense. It made me wonder so much that I got up again, to look down. Why that lady might be drawn to that alley way at all, puzzled me. It was like every other one I’d ever seen, dirty, grimy, bins and back doors. Nothing pretty, nothing interesting. Well, I can tell you now I was shaken badly. It took three coffees that morning with sugar, to calm me down. I don’t drink coffee, but I couldn’t think of what else to do.
Lenny asked when I got home later had I figured it out; I told him it had been the cleaner.
“Good, ’cause there ain’t no way I am waiting in that bike shelter again.”
“Don’t say ‘ain’t’ Lenny, what am I sending you to school for?”
Every day since, I come in and before I close the window I look down there at the same dirt, the view never really changes. Sometimes I see people: janitors filling the bins or homeless people searching them. When I am done, I turn around and I give a little smile. I smile for her. And then I work.
But today has been different. I was reaching to close the window when I heard it. It came up from below as clear as my baby’s ringtone.
“Cal, you son of a bitch it was mine!”
It was cruel talk, angry. I couldn’t see who had shouted, the voice came from far down the alley. But I seen the homeless boy who stood accused. He was small and skinny, walking quickly away. But he hadn’t moved fast enough ’cause he was jumped from behind and beat so bad. Quick, sharp punches. I ran past Frank. He didn’t follow.
When I stood by the child I could see he was older but still no more than 18.
“You ok?” I had to ask four times before he looked at me.
“You the lady from the window! Where’s Grace? Where is she? I look every day, but she’s gone. I come every day like she say but she’s gone and then you come. Where is she? She promised, she promised!”
He was crying at me, holding his head where he had been hit.
“She gone honey, eight weeks now, she died.”
It was like I had killed her myself the way he looked at me.
“But she said she would find me some place, get me out of here. Joe, she said Joe would help.”
And that is why I am standing here now trying to fix Fr Joe’s computer when I should be home making Lenny’s dinner. I like Fr Joe, not many I do but I see goodness in his eyes. He was one big red ball of rage when I knocked on his door.
“Can you work computers?” was all he said, nothing else, not who are you? or what do you want?
I told him I’d fix his computer if he’d give the boy a bed. When I finished he said I had worked the first miracle in St Peter’s. He said he was in need of a new secretary since his last one, Grace, had died. I told him I didn’t do no voluntary work, that I had my boy to feed. He told me he could stretch to $9 an hour.
“$10,” I said. We settled on $9.75.
Tonight someone else will do the cooking. I will wear my blue dress and we will order what we want. I will give thanks for cold winter mornings and dank, nasty alley ways. I will sit back then and listen to my boy’s sweet laugh and I will smile.
Anne Griffin was longlisted for the Penguin/RTÉ Guide Short Story competition in 2014. She works for the Dyslexia Association of Ireland. Grace is her first published story