Book excerpt

Irish Lace

A Nuala Anne McGrail Novel

Nuala Anne McGrail Novels

Andrew M. Greeley


"DERMOT MICHAEL," Nuala screamed on Sunday afternoon as she dug her fingers into my arm, "Turn off here! There's terrible things happening! Men dying everywhere!"
I had been listening to the five o'clock radio news. Another art-gallery robbery in the River North area--this time at the Thalberg Gallery at Erie and Orleans. Third robbery this month. Police were speculating that the robbery might be linked to the opening of the Monet exhibit at the Art Institute. What nonsense!
I turned off the radio and left Lake Shore Drive at 31st Street as I had been instructed.
Nuala Anne McGrail (aka Marie Phinoulah Annagh McGriel) is fey. Or psychic. Depending on your perspective. She would rather say simply that she "sees things." She is a holdover, albeit a gorgeous one, from the mists and myths of Celtic antiquity, a woman who in olden times would have been honored as a seer, a prophetess, even a minor goddess. Or perhaps burned as a witch.
Now she's an accountant.
Incidentally, her name should be pronounced as though it were spelled "Noola." The double O must be drawn out and said with a certain touch of the bog and the mists and the rain and the sea about it, which is very hard to do, though my brother George the Priest got it right the first time.
She is not fey often, as least as far as I know. When she is in one of those--what should I call them, "conditions"--I take her seriously. Usually it means that we are going to be involved in solving a mystery from the past and maybe one in the present, too. I use the term "we" loosely. Nuala is not only fey, she is also a detective.
She buried her head against my chest.
"Make them stop it, Dermot Michael. Make them stop it."
I put an arm around her, always a pleasant experience.
"It will be all right, Nuala. Just hang on to me."
We turned into the Lake Meadows housing development, one of the first integrated middle- and upper-middle-class rental developments along the South Shore of Lake Michigan--high-rise glass and steel buildings à la Mies van der Rohe, elegantly landscaped and protected by high fences to keep the natives out. The people--men, women, and children--who were outside on the lawns enjoying the mild Memorial Day weather seemed a subtle mixture of white, black, and brown. Racial integration, as someone once said, against the poor.
"What is this place?" she demanded.
Nuala was wearing white tennis shorts and a dark red T-shirt which proclaimed "Galway Hooker."
"It's the Lake Meadows development," I said, "a well-maintained proof that you can have racial integration so long as you limit it to one social class and build big fences."
"Oh," she said meekly.
"Nothing more," I continued.
"You'll be thinking that I'm nothing but a frigging eejit, Dermot Michael."
She actually said "frigging," the word represented her effort to clean her vocabulary from the Dublin street language which was the lingua franca of Trinity College of the University of Dublin.
"I'd never think that, Nuala." I cuddled her close and stroked her long black hair.
"You would, too." She began to sniffle. "Won't you be wanting to send me back to the bogs?"
"Woman, I will not!"
She continued to sniff.
I should also say a word about how she pronounces the English language, lest I drive you out of your frigging minds with attempts to reproduce the actual sounds. The Irish language generally lacks a "th" sound, no equivalent of the Greek "theta" of the Anglo-Saxon "thorn" (often spelled as "Y" as in "ye" olde taverne, but still pronounced "th"). So in all words involving a "th" you are likely to hear from someone Irish the sound "t" or a "d" or more likely a subtle mix of the two. Nuala might say, for example, "I'm not going to take off dis binkini ding just because you want a midnight swim. What would your moder dink if she found out?"
Actually, she never said anything like that to me, worse luck for me, perhaps. But if she had and I were reporting it, I would have substituted the "th" sound. Nuala resolutely refuses to try to put the "h" sound in the "th" words.
"I know that English has a frigging 'th' sound," she says, "but it ought not to have."
Paradoxically--and perhaps perversely--she pronounces the letter "h" as "haitch"--as do all the other Irish.
How can I describe this astonishing young woman to you?
Should I say that she is the most beautiful woman I have ever met and surely the most beautiful that I have ever held in my arms?
"What was this place," she said as she snuggled closer to me, "before it was your frigging Lake Meadows?"
"Slums, I guess."
"Did anything terrible happen here?"
"Maybe the Fort Dearborn massacre, though I think that was a little farther north."
"What was that?"
"The first settlement in this city was at the mouth of the river--downtown, as we call it now. The army built a fort there to protect the settlers from the natives and from the Brits. They called it 'Fort Dearborn' after a town near Detroit. During the War of 1812, after the Brits had captured Detroit, the commander of the garrison most unwisely decided to abandon the fort and retreat to Vincennes, down on the Wabash River in Indiana; not the last tragic mistake the American military made. The Indians killed them all shortly after they left the fort. It's represented by one of the four stars in the Chicago city flag."
"How many people died?"
"About forty, I think."
"A lot more than that here."
Yesterday evening at Grand Beach, she whispered into my ear, "Isn't it nice that your sister-in-law Tessa is expecting another child and himself a boy, with them already having three girls!"
"Who told you that?"
"No one." She put a finger to her lips. "'Tis a secret."
I once described her as looking like a pre-Christian Irish goddess--Bride or Bionna or Sionna or Erihu or Maeve or one of those gorgeous and terrifying women. I'd never met one of them, however, so that was my hyperactive fantasy. It's always hyperactive when Nuala Anne is present. The child--she isn't quite twenty-one yet--is strikingly beautiful. Her cream white face and breast-length black hair stop you first and make you want to see a lot more of this young woman. Her face, slender and fine-boned, is the sort that stares at you from the covers of women's magazines--except that the cover women don't usually have a haunting hint in their deep blue eyes of bogs and druids and old Irish poetry. The bottom half of her face is a sweeping, elegant curve which almost demands that male fingers caress it with reassurance and affection. However, the center of the curve is a solid chin which warns trespassing--or potentially trespassing--male fingers that they had better not offend this young woman, or they will be in deep trouble.
Her body is that of a beauty-contest entry. In a fairly modest bikini of the sort she had worn most of this weekend at Grand Beach, Nuala stopped traffic. Women as well as men gaped. But the bodies of bathing beauties usually lack Nuala's grace and intense athletic energy. Her body and her face are almost always in movement, so it is hard to say what she's like in those rare moments when she is at rest.
Except some adjective that she would probably furiously reject--like delicious.
As I was calming her down after her fey attack, I thought about reaching under the T-shirt and caressing the smooth, soft skin of her belly, a liberty I was permitted on occasion. On almost any occasion I wanted, as a matter of fact.
Lake Michigan is quite cold at the end of May. Although she'd been warned yesterday that the water temperature was in the high fifties, she had charged down the stairs, tossed off her robe, and dove into the water. We locals would have screamed and run out. She, however, had swum out maybe a hundred yards with a powerful crawl, turned around and swum back in. She emerged from the water triumphant, a tall, willowy hoyden.
"Dermot! Me robe!" she had ordered. "Sure, isn't it refreshing now! A lot warmer than the Atlantic Ocean or the Irish Sea!"
She didn't add, since my family was standing around awestruck, that when she and her mother went swimming in the Atlantic, they often wore nothing at all, at all. "If the men can do it, why can't we?"
Nuala was the youngest of six children born in an Irish-speaking family in Cararoe, way out on the end of the Connemara peninsula. Her mother was in her very early sixties and still a quite attractive woman, promising that Nuala's beauty would change but not fade.
"Sure," I had said once, in a mood to make trouble, "if I came upon the two of you in that condition, wouldn't I want to look at your mother first. Anyone can be beautiful at nineteen."
"And wouldn't that show you had good taste?" she had said dismissing my dirty fantasy with a brisk sweep of her hand.
"Feeling better?" I asked her as we waited at 31st and Cottage Grove.
"It's fading now.…Don't I feel like such an amadon, and me with these crazy spells?"
"I don't think you're an amadon, Nuala Anne," I said, stroking her right arm tenderly.
"I don't care what you think," she said. "I think I'm a nine-fingered gobshite."
"Last time I counted, you had ten fingers."
She laughed and then I laughed with her.
She kissed me and pressed her body against mine, her marvelous breasts taunting my chest.
"Dermot Michael Coyne, aren't you the dearest, sweetest, most wonderful man in all the world!"
"I'll buy that," I agreed.
What is the nature of my relationship with Nuala Anne? Well, that's a fair question, isn't it now? Obviously I'm hopelessly in love with her and have been since I had first encountered her on a rainy night in O'Neill's pub down the street from Trinity College.
I had heard her discussing me with a young woman on the beach earlier in the day.
"Live with Dermot Michael? Ah, don't be daft. I don't live with him, I don't sleep with him, we're not engaged, we're not about to be engaged, we're not courting, and we're not walking out. I'd say that we're half-keeping company."
I had thought that was a fair enough description of our relationship.
The other child had said something I didn't hear.
"Isn't he respecting me freedom, and meself a greenhorn here and almost a child?" she had replied.
The other young woman had laughed. But I couldn't tell whether Nuala was being ironic.
In fact, we love each other. I plan to marry her some day. Even though in Dublin she said she'd never marry anyone because as she had argued, marriage and family only meant more suffering and loss in your life. Still, as far as I can tell, she plans to marry me, too, though I never hear a word about that from her. She'd probably marry me next weekend if I asked her. But she's new in America and she has to get her feet on the ground and find out whether she wants to be an accountant or a singer or an actress. The young women I know in Chicago usually don't marry these days until they are in their late twenties, the men often in their early thirties. We have lots of time, I tell my family, all of whom fell in love with her at first sight. Maybe when she's twenty-five and I'm thirty or so, she'll be ready to make the kind of commitment that marriage requires.
They tell me that I'm an incorrigible Irish bachelor. How can you be an incorrigible bachelor at twenty-five? I ask them.
"She'll get you long before that, Derm," says my brother George the Priest, with whom Nuala often compares me, unfavorably.
"That will be as may be," I said, using one of Nuala's favorite lines.
I turned on the ignition, backed up the car, pulled out on 31st Street, and drove down Vernon, which is what Cottage Grove becomes in Lake Meadows. Then I turned around and went back to 31st and on to the Drive. I was driving her home on Sunday afternoon, instead of Monday, because Nuala was singing on Sunday and Wednesday nights at the Tricolor (pronounced Trickcolor), an Irish pub on Webster Avenue between Clybourn and the Chicago River and not far from Southport Avenue and Belden Place, near where Nuala lives. I didn't altogether approve of that because the crowd at the Tricolor was a little thuggish for me, and their republican sympathies a little too noisy.
Moreover, chances were that most of them were illegals. Immigration usually left the Irish alone because they were too busy ferreting out Hispanics and Asians and sometimes Poles. Still, sometimes they do try sweeps of the Irish. While Nuala was here quite legally on a Morrison visa she'd won in the lottery and had her own precious green card, I was afraid that the INS might deport her before we could stop them, especially since these days Americans are back into xenophobia.
By "republican," I don't mean as in Bob Dole or Newt Gingrich or Phil Gramm, or other such unspeakables. I mean as in the Irish Republican Army. There's a cease-fire now in Ireland, though the Brits look like they're going to mess it up again. Still, the loudmouths at the Tricolor, safely far away from Belfast or Derry, boast about blowing up Brits.
"Sure, aren't all those gobshites a bunch of eejits?" Nuala says, dismissing them. "Besides, Dermot Michael, you've seen me in a street brawl; you know I can take care of myself. And anyway, is it any of your frigging business where I sing?"
That was a gotcha.
I had no claim on her, she was telling me, none at all. Not yet anyway.
I didn't like the way some of the rough young men looked at her either. Still they all shut up when she sang.
I don't look like a thug. I'm blond, clean-shaven, and kind of bland looking, though Nuala says I'm a giant and dangerous hunk. The dark, hirsute punks at the pub would think I was a pushover, not realizing that I had been a linebacker and a wrestling champ at Fenwick High School. I once threw three such thugs into a plate-glass window on Pembroke Road in Dublin; and, to be candid, I was itching to do it again.
"None of your macho violence in me pub when I'm doing me singing," Nuala warns me in an authoritative tone that Pope John Paul II himself might envy. "Not unless I ask you to."
"Yes, ma'am," I say docilely. Still, when I go into that pub, I'm aching to punch someone. Testosterone, I suppose.
On the Drive we headed north towards the wondrous Chicago skyline, a pastel pink watercolor in the weakening glow of the spring sunlight.
"Will I ever get used to seeing that?" Nuala said. "Or will I be a greenhorn forever?"
In the canyons of the Loop, Nuala always looks up at the tall buildings, awestruck. I keep her out of trouble with the traffic, pedestrian and vehicular.
"I like you as a greenhorn, and I hope you never take the skyline for granted," I said.
"I don't know why those things happen to me," she said slowly. "I don't want them to happen, and they usually don't do any good."
"A touch of Neanderthal gene, maybe."
"Weren't they cavemen?" I didn't have to look at her to know that she was ready for an argument.
"And women," I added. "They seemed to have coexisted with our kind for maybe a hundred thousand years. Some people say we interbred with them, and some say we didn't. They weren't quite as much into talking as we are.…"
"Then I can't be one of them."
"So some people think that they communicated by some sort of telepathy, which was very useful for them, but not so useful for us." "Whatever happened to them?"
"You get a lot of theories. Some say we killed them off, though there's no trace of that. Others say that they died because they were not able to compete with us for resources, though we seem to have coexisted for at least tens of thousands of years. Others say we absorbed them through mating and that each of us has a touch of the Neanderthal in him. Or her. Neander, by the way, is the name of the river in Germany where they found the first remains of their kind."
"Wouldn't you hope it was love, not hate?"
"You would indeed."
"You know so much, Dermot Michael and yourself without an honest job."
I don't work, at all, at all, you see. Nuala is secretly proud of this, but she passes up no opportunity to needle me about the fact.
"Or maybe in our own earlier days we also had the telepathic trait, but since we haven't used it much in maybe ten thousand years, it's grown kind of rusty. You may simply have it in a highly developed form."
"So I'm not a witch?"
"If you are, you're the prettiest witch in the world."
"Go 'long with you," she said, hitting my arm with her fist, very gently.
I don't work because I'm not very good at anything and because I made a lot of money one day on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange because of a mistake (mine). I did the sensible thing and retired. I asked investors more skilled than I am or ever would be to take care of my money. So I really don't do anything at all except work out and swim at the East Bank Club, a place which, like everything else in Chicago, fascinates my Nuala.
I write, too. That's what I like to do and have always wanted to do. I've had some things published. Nuala is very proud of that fact and will brag about it when she thinks I'm not around to hear her.
As she had said to her newfound friend at Grand Beach, "Sure, isn't he a great writer?"
The other person must have asked if I would ever become famous because Nuala replied, "Isn't he famous already?"
Well, only in a very limited circle.
I had written what I thought was a lascivious, albeit comic, story in Dublin about the fantasies of a young man when he first met a young woman not unlike Nuala. The editor who published it told me that it was a fine example of lyrical and romantic eroticism. Nuala had found it on my hard disk while she was working for me and had been pleased by it ("Dead frigging bril"), though I had thought she would be deeply offended.
"Ah, if young men didn't think like that about young women, wouldn't our kind have died out long ago? Sure, wouldn't I be terrible flattered if some young man had those nice thoughts about me?"
"Would you now?"
"Can I show it to me ma?"
"She'll think I'm a dirty-minded man."
"No, she won't."
I should have realized that, given charge of my computer and my hard disk, Nuala Anne would explore every file on it.
"When did it happen?" I asked her as we approached the remodeled Navy Pier.
"You mean my vision, though I really didn't see anything? I don't know. It was like all in the present. That's the way I felt it anyway. But nothing was happening there. So it was sometime in the past.… And when, Dermot Michael Coyne, are you going to take me for the ride you promised on that frigging Ferris-wheel thing that your man put up on the pier?"
I had made many excuses. The truth was that I was frightened of heights
"And the carousel, too?"
I become dizzy on merry-go-rounds.
"Wednesday night."
"I sing on Wednesday night, as you well know."
"So you do. Thursday?"
I'd have to do it eventually. Maybe I would earn myself some tender loving sympathy if I got sick on one or both.
See what I mean? She was still a youthful hoyden and she had no business at all, at all, in permitting herself to be tied down by a lecherous old man of twenty-five.
I turned off at North Avenue so I could work my way through Lincoln Park on Stockton Drive (by the zoo) up to Webster.
Beside me, Nuala stiffened again.
"Dermot Michael, there's bodies all over the place," she murmured. "Look at them!"
I glanced around as we went into the underpass beneath the Drive.
"Nuala, that's North Avenue beach."
"I mean dead bodies. Look at them all floating on the water!"
The lake was still much too cold for anyone but greenhorns from County Galway. She was having another one of her experiences.
I turned into Lincoln Park and stopped short of Stockton, a drive that winds ingeniously through the park and by the zoo.
"Are you all right, Nuala?"
She was trembling, as though caught in a blast of cold winter air.
"Bodies coming out of their graves, washed out by the lake, on the beach and into the lake. A terrible storm claiming the dead."
It sounded scary-so scary that I almost imagined I saw what she was seeing.
A cop came by and pounded on the side of the car. "What the hell is a matter with you, buster?"
Cops have a habit of permitting themselves to be annoyed by a young punk like me (as they see it) driving a Mercedes. Who knows, maybe I'm pushing drugs. The Notre Dame and Marquette emblems which deface the back window help sometimes but not always. When they ask what I do for a living, I'm in a quandary. If I say "nothing," they'll be certain that I'm a pusher. If I tell them a "writer," they'll think maybe I'm gay and, alas, cops still bash gays. If I fudge a little and say.I work at the Merc, these days, they still suspect I'm a pusher.
"The young woman has a chill, officer."
"Does she now?" he asked, glancing at Nuala and becoming instantly solicitous.
I had learned another thing about cops--a quite important one: You don't get tickets when you have Nuala in the car with you.
"Are you all right, young lady? Should we take you to the hospital? Northwestern is just down the street."
Nuala looked like hospital material, pale, drawn, and trembling.
"I'll be fine in a moment, officer. I get these spells every once in a while. They're not serious."
"From Galway, is it?" he asked.
Especially you don't get tickets when a cop hears her West of Ireland accent, may she never lose it.
He then said some words in Irish to her and she responded promptly in kind. They both laughed.
The frigging Yank (D. M. Coyne) was out of the loop.
"I'm much better now, officer," she said, forcing a smile. "Tell me, was there ever a cemetery here?"
The cop raised his eyebrows. "So that's the way of it? You're one of them dark ones, are you?"
"Not my choice."
"Ah it never is, is it?…Well you're right about one thing. There was a cemetery here. Chicago City Cemetery, they called it. When they built the park, they moved the bodies somewhere else. All of them, the city brass said. Only some of them, others say. So if that's what you're feeling, there's some reason for it."
"There always is, officer," I said.
"That's the way of it.…Well, now, sir, take good care of this young woman. She's a special one."
"I know that, officer."
Nuala seemed to have calmed down. She was still ashen, however. I started the car and eased our way up Stockton.
"How are you doing, Nuala Anne?"
"Better, Dermot Michael, better. But you see I'm not daft altogether. There once were graves here."
"If you said so, Nuala, I never doubted it."
She sighed.
"Why do people have to die, Dermot dear?"
"There are two answers, Nuala dear. The first is that we die because we're creatures, and all creatures die. The second is that death does not end our lives."
"Do you really believe that?"
Nuala has an odd relationship with the Deity and the Church. She goes to Mass every morning at St. Josephat's which is right across Southport from where she lives, its twin green towers dominating the neighborhood like benign hawks. (On Sundays she attends Mass with me at Old St. Patrick's over on Adams and Des Plaines.) Yet she's not absolutely sure that there is a God or more specifically whether "God gives a good frig about the likes of us, and ourselves being such little gobshites."
She goes to church, she says, just in case God actually does care for us, which may not after all be such a bad argument.
"I suppose you're right," she said that Sunday afternoon. "'tis the only answer that makes sense."
"Were they the same people who were dying down at Lake Meadows?"
"The bodies coming out of the graves."
I glanced at her. She was frowning, as if she were trying to puzzle something out.
"I think so," she said. "I'm not sure."
To tell you the truth, I was not happy about her apartment, either. She was living with four other greenhorns (all women, thank God) in a two-bedroom place that was at least as crowded as her apartment in Dublin when she was going to Trinity College (T.C.D., to the initiate). I knew they were paying her enough at Arthur Andersen to entitle her to something better. I suspected that she was paying most of the rent and had taken the others in, as she might once have taken in stray kittens.
Nor did I especially like her roommates, who were part of the crowd at the Tricolor. They were rough, noisy young women from Dublin, not at all like my shy child from the Galway Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking region). They were nannies or maids and were almost certainly in one degree of illegality or another. She put up with them, but I didn't think she enjoyed them all that much.
Again, it was none of my business. And maybe I was just being a snob. Either way, I kept my mouth shut.
We arrived at the wooden house on Southport which had yet to be blessed with the gentrification that was seeping through the neighborhood.
Nuala hugged me and then clung to me.
"I don't know why you put up with me, Dermot Michael, and meself dragging you away from your long weekend with your family at that wonderful place and then acting like a real gobshite on the drive in."
As I kissed her, I found the smooth flesh of her belly and the hard muscles that kept it in place. She sighed happily.
"I like being with you, Nuala," I said in lieu of more passionate words, at once more appropriate and more dangerous.
"Hmm," she said. "Well, you don't have to come and hear my singing tonight. Haven't you got better things to do than hang out in that shabby pub?"
"Nothing better to do if you're singing in it."
She eased out of my arms--reluctantly, I liked to think.
"I'm glad when you come, but you don't have to come."
"I know that."
"So maybe I'll see you then?"
"I'll call Prester George and see if he knows what happened where Lake Meadows is now."
"That would be grand," she said as she bounced out of the car and up the steps to her apartment, the second floor of a white frame house (with peeling paint) that had somehow escaped the Chicago fire of 1871. Like many buildings of that time, the entrance was on the second floor, up an outside wooden stairway, because the ground floor had once been awash in a sea of mud. The two floors had been split into two tiny apartments. The entrance of the ground floor, now six feet above the old ground level behind the house, was no longer threatened by the Chicago swamp. The stairway to her apartment might have been rebuilt once in the last century or so, but I would not have bet on it.
I drove back towards the Loop and to my apartment at the John Hancock Center with a feeling of unease.
I felt again that somehow I was missing a grand opportunity. Moreover I was worried about the two phenomena on the Drive. And about Nuala's singing and her pub and her roommates.
It might, I reasoned, be a very difficult summer.
That would turn out to be an understatement.
Copyright © 1996 by Andrew M. Greeley Enterprises, Ltd.

Priest, sociologist, author and journalist, Father Andrew M. Greeley built an international assemblage of devout fans over a career spanning five decades. His books include the Bishop Blackie Ryan novels, including The Archbishop in Andalusia, the Nuala Anne McGrail novels, including Irish Tweed, and The Cardinal Virtues. He was the author of over 50 best-selling novels and more than 100 works of non-fiction, and his writing has been translated into 12 languages.

Father Greeley was a Professor of Sociology at the University of Arizona and a Research Associate with the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago. In addition to scholarly studies and popular fiction, for many years he penned a weekly column appearing in the Chicago Sun-Times and other newspapers. He was also a frequent contributor to The New York Times, the National Catholic Reporter, America and Commonweal, and was interviewed regularly on national radio and television. He authored hundreds of articles on sociological topics, ranging from school desegregation to elder sex to politics and the environment.

Throughout his priesthood, Father Greeley unflinchingly urged his beloved Church to become more responsive to evolving concerns of Catholics everywhere. His clear writing style, consistent themes and celebrity stature made him a leading spokesperson for generations of Catholics. He chronicled his service to the Church in two autobiographies, Confessions of a Parish Priest and Furthermore!

In 1986, Father Greeley established a $1 million Catholic Inner-City School Fund, providing scholarships and financial support to schools in the Chicago Archdiocese with a minority student body of more than 50 percent. In 1984, he contributed a $1 million endowment to establish a chair in Roman Catholic Studies at the University of Chicago. He also funded an annual lecture series, “The Church in Society,” at St. Mary of the Lake Seminary, Mundelein, Illinois, from which he received his S.T.L. in 1954.

Father Greeley received many honors and awards, including honorary degrees from the National University of Ireland at Galway, the University of Arizona and Bard College. A Chicago native, he earned his M.A. in 1961 and his Ph.D. in 1962 from the University of Chicago.

Father Greeley was a penetrating student of popular culture, deeply engaged with the world around him, and a lifelong Chicago sports fan, cheering for the Bulls, Bears and the Cubs. Born in 1928, he died in May 2013 at the age of 85.