‘Grendel’s Mother’ by Featured Writer, Una Mannion

Her mom said Henry was like the wayward son she never had. He’d dropped out of college, joined bands, left jobs, struggled, and even though he became an addict, through all of it he played the organ in his mother’s Lutheran Church. Nell listened, holding the phone between her shoulder and cheek as she wrestled the baby into his dragon sleepsuit on the floor. The thing is, Nell said, you have four grown sons already and one of them’s been plenty wayward. Why do you have to go looking for more? She wanted to hang up. She didn’t like talking about Henry or his problems or his devotion to his mother, or to her mother, and how he might have fucked up the small things like college or career but not the bigger things, like being a good human, like loving his mother properly, like practising the piano when he was young.

Every Sunday, her mother said. He never missed. He sounds like a great person, Nell said, but of course he had a supportive mother during all that living. And now he has another one. She stopped herself from also saying, one that barely ever cooked us a meal growing up, has never once babysat for any of us or asked me how I am coping because by leaving Tim I’ve obviously brought this all on myself because boys will be boys and I should not be so melodramatic. She cradled the phone on shoulder now, baby on jutted hip, scooping formula into a plastic bottle. The baby’s soft fist brushed her cheek and the light touch felt like reproach. Pause. Be kinder.

She poured the kettle into the bottle, holding the baby away, screwing the lid closed with one hand. She shook it, covering the nipple with her finger so it didn’t spray. Her mom waxed on about Henry, his love of the Grateful Dead, his health, the psoriasis on his legs, his decency. Nell propped the baby against a cushion on the couch, tested the formula temperature on the inside of her wrist and it spurted from the bottle. The flow was too fast, the laytex sagging at the nipple hole. She really needed to get the silicone ones. She gave the baby the bottle anyway and he gulped and spluttered away next to her.

He’s promised to play for me in the chapel at the centre this Saturday, her mom said.  

Should you really be hanging around the Rehab Centre? Milk streamed down the side of the baby’s cheek and Nell picked a towel up from the floor and wiped it, leaving it there to stem the flow. She didn’t believe what she said, was not one of those people. She needed to get off the phone, had to get the baby her mother had still never met to sleep, the other kids fed and prepare tomorrow’s classes. She needed to stop being horrible.

The promised performance never happened anyway. The next morning while Nell was driving to work trying to mentally structure a class she hadn’t prepared for and churning thoughts that her childminder actively disliked her, her mother rang. Henry was found with drugs in the Centre and asked to leave.

Her mom first met Henry because of his cat. She’d received a phone call from him one night asking could she drive them to an animal hospital. He’d seen her card on the bulletin board in the vet’s office. She’d said no. She was sorry, she couldn’t. I’m not a pet taxi, she said, just a pet-sitter. I don’t do transport. He’d pleaded with her. His cat, called Grendel, had been hit by a car and was very sick. They were with the vet but needed a specialist at an animal hospital forty miles outside Reading. Please, he said, I have no one else I can ask.  

I wasn’t comfortable driving a man, a stranger, at night, she said, recounting the story to Nell, but I could tell by his voice how much he cared about that animal, his desperation. I couldn’t say no. Nell had made a mental note to buy dog food when she got off the phone. The dog had been eating leftovers for days.

When her mother pulled up at the clinic, Henry and Grendel were standing outside on the sidewalk waiting. Henry was tall, thin and balding in an oversized lumberjack shirt. Grendel, a big grey Persian, was sedated and wrapped in a fleece blanket. Henry sat into the passenger seat hugging the animal. She would usually always request animals to be in carrier box but realised he probably didn’t have one, and it was late. I just told him to buckle his seatbelt, she said.

So he’s a literary cat, said Nell when her mom told her the story. Her mom said she’d never heard of Grendel or Beowulf. Nell summarised the fragments she remembered. Grendel is a monster that that the hero Beowulf kills by pulling off his arm. And then Grendel’s mother comes to avenge her son’s death. Nell hadn’t read it since college. That’s a strange name to pick for such a gentle cat, her mom said. Well at least he reads, said Nell.

Her mother had only recently become a pet sitter. She needed work, had no experience, no resumé and was in her seventies. Three credit cards were over the limit and after losing her first house, she had re-mortgaged her second, smaller house twice. Nell was barely making her own mortgage. Her brothers who could were helping their mother, but it wasn’t enough. Before the baby came, she’d taken a trip to visit her mom, the kids staying behind with Tim in his new bachelor condominium because her mother found children, well people, stressful if they were in her space. Her mother’s waste annoyed her. A black trash bag tied up with just a can of tuna and a coffee filter. The dishwasher on a long cycle with two plates and some forks. Stop running a full load with only socks and underwear, said Nell. It’s ridiculous. Nobody lives like that. But her mother shrugged; the few dollars she’d save cutting back on water, electricity or trash bags hardly mattered now; the help from Nell’s brothers didn’t even cover the interest on her monthly credit card bills. How in the hell can a woman in her seventies who’s never worked be extended all this credit, and I’m in my thirties and a homeowner and can’t get any?  

The pet-sitting happened by chance. Her mom was sitting at her Starbucks’ table with her key lime pie and grandé latte – bought on her credit card – reading the help wanted ads, when another regular, a lawyer who drank black americanos, sat across from her and complained that her pet-sitter had just cancelled a two week live-in. She was going to Thailand the following day.  She’s supposed to be a goddamned professional. What kind of notice is that? Nell’s mother asked, what’s a live-in? It was two daily walks, preparing special food, bringing in the mail and keeping two Shih Tzus company.  Sleeping over was necessary. They get very stressed if they’re alone and they have not done well with kennelling. Nell’s mom needed hip surgery she didn’t have the insurance for, but two Shih Tzus she thought she could manage. How much does the pet-sitter charge? she asked. Two dogs was $100 a day plus signing a contract not to bring any meat or dairy into the house. The dogs and the lawyer were all vegan.

After her Mom’s third job, Nell sent her personalised business cards that her mother distributed in veterinary offices, pet stores, animal hospitals and Starbucks. She dutifully administered vitamins, heart pills, even Prozac. At night, she sat in her dark car in the Shih Tzus’ owner’s driveway. She bought post-its shaped like paws on which she kept daily records of all pet activities: how much they ate, how much they evacuated and at what time, the distance and route walked, their mood and even the funny things they did: ‘Mr. Goodbye greeted me at the door today with my slipper in his mouth!’

She met all kinds of people. She worked for a woman called Rhonda who had a black cat called Fat Lady, a Himalayan called Moose and an iguana called Ricky. His tank took up a quarter of the dining room and Nell’s mother said she really didn’t like working with reptiles. Rhonda said she was a model and travelled for work. Sometimes Ricky went with her. It took her a year to realise that Rhonda was a stripper whose act sometimes included Ricky even though there were framed posters promoting their act on the walls of her living room. Another client printed large laminated photographs instructing her how to organise their blind dog’s food on the Wedgwood dinner plate. The offers were so regular that it was she who now conducted the interviews.

The night of the phone call from Henry she waited with him while Grendel underwent surgery.  He didn’t say much. He told her he was a musician, a piano player and singer, and that he had cared for his mother for a number of years until she died. Grendel had been her cat.  I really can’t let anything bad happen to him, he said, glum and drawn under the fluorescents. She loved him so much.

When the surgery was over the doctor came out to speak with them. Grendel had lost one of his legs and had to spend a few days in the hospital. On the drive back to Reading, Henry told her he was out of work. He said he was 48 years old, though he looked much older, her mom said, as if his body had already started caving in on itself. He lived in the family home, a row house in the Mount Penn area of the city.  She dropped him at the kerb, Henry paid her. She purchased a cheap cardboard transport box and a few days later they brough Grendel home without a leg and numerous staples which would have to be removed in two weeks’ time. She told Henry she’d bring them.

It was like a calling. Her mother had never been a nurturer, didn’t fuss over them, read stories, sit through school plays or cheer on a side-line. Now she blanched vegetables for pugs and dressed French bull dogs in matching coats. What Nell and her brothers called neurotic her customers called conscientious. No one watched their pets like she did. She warned about over-vaccination and encouraged getting blood titres; she found testicular lumps and developed expertise in vestibular syndrome and canine depression. When she wasn’t minding pets, she was in the library researching or ringing Nell asking her to google whipworm or Ehrlichiosis. One of her customers said she was more like an animal nurse than a sitter. And she understood and respected the neuroses of her pet lovers, carefully following the drawn maps with arrows indicating the direction she should walk on which side of the street, and their sartorial worries, Milo likes to wear the green bandana on Wednesdays.

Nell was in her last class of the day when she heard her phone buzzing in the handbag. She knew it was her mother when the caller tried four more times. If she were at home, her mother would have started on the landline as well. She finished talking about Keats, assigned readings and went into the hallway. You’re not going to believe the last two days, her mom started. I phoned Henry yesterday to arrange the time to bring him and Grendel to the hospital. When he didn’t pick up after repeated calls, I decided to drive to his house.  I knocked and rang the bell and a boy in batman pyjamas looked over the railing from the porch next door said Henry’s not there. The police took him. The boy looked about six. I asked him but what about his cat? Have you seen Grendel? And he said Grendel got out.

She’d looked out at the busy traffic on the street, the endless houses and side streets. The cat was still stapled shut where his leg should be. The boy’s mother came out. Grendel ran out the door when the firemen came, she said, but she could help look. In an alleyway they heard him crying, deep in an old drainage pipe. I couldn’t kneel with my hip and all, Nell’s mom said, but I told her I would wait until he came out and she said okay and she told me what happened, how they’d smelled smoke and banged on his door and tried calling him. Then they rang the fire services. They didn’t know if he was inside or not. They fire company forced open the door and found a small fire smouldering on the carpet. Henry was passed out and there was an assortment of drug stuff on the coffee table. The police were there in minutes and arrested him. Henry’s a heroin addict, the neighbour said.

I had no idea, Nell’s mom said to her on the phone. He didn’t seem like what I thought an addict should be. But I couldn’t just leave Grendel out there, so I waited by the drainage pipe even though I don’t even really like that neighbourhood. I kept thinking how Henry talked about his mother and the cat with so much love and I had to do something. I started to whisper to Grendel and eventually I could hear him coming and he gave my calf a gritty lick and just rubbed against my leg. We’ve just come back from his appointment. His staples are out. She’d also paid his bill and for the next while he would live with her. She’d talked to Henry. When he was released from prison, he was going to a Rehab centre and he needed someone to take Grendel.

Nell never met Grendel or Henry. That year she went through her divorce, a custody settlement, the rotavirus and an outbreak of headlice that she caught too. She didn’t know them, but it was what she and her mom talked about most, while she pieced through her daughters’ long hair with the nit comb and rocked the baby in his seat with her foot. She longed to be like Henry with someone like her mom mothering her and sorting out her life. Tim’s affair was living with him now and she’d caught glimpses of them together on the campus. They taught in the same department. His affair was young, was doing exciting research and getting published. Nell thought she’d try to keep avoiding them as long as her hair was slicked to her scalp with the lice remedy. Even her face itched.  

Around Halloween, her mom had found a new home for Grendel, someone that would adopt him and Henry agreed that it was best. When he signed Grendel’s release papers, his body seemed to sag. I’m so sorry, she said to him and she was because she thought that was it between them but then he said he had a doctor’s appointment at Reading Medical the following week and could she bring him.

Henry had moved into the Penn View Motel in West Reading where other addicts and convicts went when they had nowhere else to go. There were stickups and fights. On one visit Nell’s mom was introduced to the resident prostitute. Nell sent her daughter’s Kawasaki keyboard for her mom to give to Henry. Her daughter hadn’t played it in two years. Henry rang her mom when he had a parole board hearing or needed a haircut. Her mom visited him bringing dixie cups of Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia in honour of Henry’s favourite band. In December she bought a large evergreen wreath with a red bow for his motel door. Nell had the kids for Christmas Eve and morning, but they would spend that night with Tim. Even the baby for the first time. Alone in her living room she talked to her mom, alone in hers. Her mom said that Henry had played her a concerto over the phone from his motel room as her Christmas gift. Nell had sent snow boots, practical for the dog walking. She thought how strange it was to feel so connected to someone she’d never met.

On Mother’s Day, Henry asked her mom if she could bring him to get real flowers and to visit his mother’s grave. His parents were buried in Forest Hills Cemetery at the foot of Neversink Mountain. When they got to his parents’ plot, Henry knelt on the ground and asked her to hold his hand and recite the Lord’s Prayer with him. She wasn’t very religious and her hips were so bad she couldn’t kneel, but she held his hand and looked out at the trees and the mountain with its invincible name in the distance. Henry stayed on the ground after his prayer and spoke to his mother. He told her he was trying but that it was hard and that he wasn’t quite making it.

Nell wondered about Henry’s mother who had named her cat Grendel and who had loved and accepted her son despite the wreckage his addiction had brought.  She wished she could have met her or that she could be more like Henry to her own mother. In the poem Grendel’s mother comes back for the pieces of her son, tries to put him back together, arranging his broken body, making him whole again and the image catches in her throat. The day in the cemetery was her mom’s last visit with Henry. A few days later she got a phone call. Henry had died from a heroin overdose in his motel room.

He was buried in Forest Hills beside his parents. Her mom rang her that night and Nell listened, holding her own baby, the two girls asleep on the couch next to them, as her mom told her how she stood at the graveside and remembered the day they had been there, how he rearranged and ordered the flowers he brought, removed dead leaves that had fallen, and how he spread his hands out on the ground of his mother’s grave and smoothed it, patting the earth, trying to make it right.

You can read Una Mannion’s conversation with Dave Kavanagh here

About the contributor

Una Mannion
Una Mannion has won numerous prizes for her short fiction and poetry including The Hennessy New Irish Writing Poetry Award, The Cúirt International Short Fiction Award, Doolin short story prize, Ambit fiction award, Allingham short fiction prize among others. Her work has been published in numerous journals such as Crannóg, The Lonely Crowd, Bare Fiction, Ambit and her stories have been included in recent collections: Galway Stories: 2020 edited by Lisa Frank and Alan McMonagle (April 2020) and The Art of the Glimpse: 100 Irish Short Stories edited by Sinéad Gleeson, (autumn 2020). Her debut novel A Crooked Tree will be published in 2021 by Faber and Faber in the UK and Ireland, Harper Collins in the US, Steidl in Germany and Astoria in Italy.

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