James Mulhern: Useless Things

marathonlitreview —  June 30, 2015 — Leave a comment

It seemed I was engulfed by believers in those days. The Italians and the Irish were obsessed with church, religion, and the pope. I think part of it stemmed from their pride in having witnessed the first catholic president.

Nonna called and asked if I would accompany Mrs. Muldoon and her to a Faith Healer that Mrs. Muldoon had heard about on the radio. The woman had allegedly cured a young girl whose cancerous tumors miraculously disappeared and an old arthritic man who could barely walk.

“Does Mrs. Muldoon have cancer?” I asked.

“No. She said she wants to see the woman as a precautionary measure.”

“That’s silly, Nonna.”

“Of course it is. Mrs. Muldoon is crazy, but I can’t refuse to help her. That wouldn’t be nice.”

“Why can’t she go on her own?”

“Oh Molly. She can barely find her way to Broadway to do her food shopping. How’s she gonna manage a trip to downtown Boston? That’s like asking her to travel to Africa.”

I agreed, and one Saturday in May, Nonna and I drove in her Plymouth Fury to Mrs. Muldoon’s house. The day was brilliant. Not a cloud in the sky, bright sun, just a few clumps of dirty snow left over from a freak storm the previous week. There were puddles all over, and small streams ran in the gutters along the street. The temperature was in the low 50′s; water dripped everywhere. A chunk of icicles fell from the railing as we stepped onto the porch. I saw Mrs. Muldoon seated through the sheer curtain in her living room. She reminded me of one of the fortune tellers behind some lacy fabric at Wonderland Amusement Park. She got up when she saw us and opened the door.

“Come in. Come in. But stomp your feet first. Don’t bring any of that wetness in here.”

The house stunk like mold and sour milk. The living room to the right had boxes with clothes and old shoes spilling out. The fancy aluminum Christmas tree was in parts before the fireplace, and the ornaments sat in a pile on her dark brown couch.

“Mary, it smells in here. And what is that mess?” Nonna pointed at the boxes.

“Oh, I’m going to have a garage sale if I get inspired. Or maybe just donate the things to the Salvation Army. I hear they pick up stuff, don’t they?” She led us into the kitchen.

“I don’t know. But what I do know is that the clothes from those boxes smell pretty musty. I’m not sure anyone would want them unless you put the stuff through the laundry.”

On her grey Formica table were several plates with leftover food—bits of toast, old bacon, half-eaten sandwiches. The trash basket to the right of her white porcelain sink was overflowing. Dirty take-out boxes with wire handles had fallen between the sink counter and the basket.

“We gotta get you a maid. What’s going on with you, Mary? Why you let your house become such a pigsty?”

“I’ve been busy, Agnella.”

“Doing what?!” We were standing in front of the sink with hardened Comet in the basin.

“Oh, this and that. Let me grab my coat from the back hall and we’ll get going. Molly, are you excited to be healed?” Her pretty blue eyes sparkled. I thought she must have been very attractive when she was younger. Such fair skin and perfect teeth, or were they dentures?

“I don’t think I need to be healed. I’m healthy, Mrs. Muldoon.”

“Darling, we all could use healing. Ya know it’s not only physical healing,” she said, putting her arms into her red wool coat sleeves. I liked the black fur collar. “It’s spiritual healing as well.”

I was surprised by her peppiness, and frankly, how happy she seemed. She was usually such a bitch. She seemed as excited as my girlfriends before a date.

I was about to say that I didn’t need spiritual healing, but Nonna, as if reading my mind, gave me a look that said, “Keep quiet.” She had spoken with me a few weeks back about perceptions and how important it was for me to develop good interpersonal skills. She said that my directness was admirable, but others might perceive it as rudeness. I was surprised when she quoted Emily Dickinson, a writer I had been reading: “Tell the truth but tell it slant.” She had picked up my poetry book from one of her armchairs in the living room, and opened to one of the dog-eared pages.

It took about 25 minutes to get to Tremont Street in Boston. The healer’s business was on the street floor of a six-story building with a variety of ornate architectural features. At the very top was a mansard roof with dormer windows. The granite exterior was dirty with lines of black and green that had formed when rain pools on the many outcroppings and ledges seeped down the face of the building. The parlor where “Lady Jane” cured people was underneath a printing company squeezed between a luggage store on the left and a jewelry store on the right.

We parked across from the building, along the edge of the Boston Common. I could see a line of desperadoes that extended from the front of the building and around the corner to Court Street. Nonna’s parallel parking was awful and Mary kept screaming that we were going to hit the car behind us. At last we were parked. For a few moments we sat in silence, the three of us taking in the sights around us. Two skid-row old men on a bench, wearing derby hats and unkempt, mismatched suits, shared a bottle wrapped in a paper bag. One of them pointed to something at the top of the building. I followed his finger to a flock of large black crows perched on a ledge underneath an overhang.

The people waiting in line looked pathetic. Mostly old ladies, a few men, some with canes or crutches; a young blonde girl in a wheelchair. It was a motley group, a range of ethnicities, all seemingly poor.

“You sure you want to go, Mary? These people look pitiful. I think they need curing more than any of us.” It was true. We were wearing nice dresses and overcoats. I thought we would be out of place in that crowd.

“Of course I want to go. Remember you can’t judge a book by its cover.” Mrs, Muldoon pushed her door open and pulled herself into a standing position.

“Well all I can say is that this is one hell of a book,” Nonna answered. She and I followed Mrs. Muldoon’s lead, who told us to hold hands.

When we crossed, Nonna cut in front of an Indian couple standing in line, explaining to them that I had leukemia “very bad” and the doctors gave me three months at most. “It’s urgent that we see Lady Jane. You don’t want the poor girl to die, do you? She’s my granddaughter!”

Mrs. Muldoon whispered irritably, “That wasn’t a nice thing to do.”

The Indian woman was beautiful with large very dark eyes; it was hard to discern her pupils from the brownness that surrounded them. She had a red dot between her beautifully shaped arched brows, which I later learned in an Intro to Religion class was called a Bindi or Kumkum, marking a spiritual center or chakra, placed there out of respect for an inner Guru, all of which I thought was bullshit. She wore a purple sari and a pink head scarf. Her short bespectacled husband had a flat nose with large blackheads; tufts of hair sprouted from his nostrils and ears. He wore a blue navy suit. I figured that he met his wife here after work.

They spoke for a few moments in Hindi, then stepped back and nodded for us to move in front. There were grumblings and complaints from those behind the couple.

“Hey, go to the end of a line like the rest of us. What makes you so special, ladies?” an Irish-looking guy with a broad red face and a scully cap said.

Nonna teared up. “My granddaughter is dying.”

The man’s face blanched, and he looked at me with a sad expression. “Sorry, lady. Not a problem.”

I tried to appear sick. I started shaking a little and drooled, not sure what a leukemia patient’s symptoms were. The Indian couple stepped further back. I managed to create a string of saliva that dropped like the thread of a spider’s web hanging off my chin.

We turned forward and Nonna put her arm around me as if trying to keep me from fainting. Mrs. Muldoon looked upward at the gathering of crows, which had increased since I first noticed them.

Nonna followed her gaze. “I hope they don’t shit on us,” she said.

“Oh, but Agnella, it’s good luck. Let them poop if they need to. I’ve got a handkerchief in my purse.” The idea of birds pooping on my head was vile, but I refrained from making a wiseass comment.

Finally we were inside. The healing room, or parlor, or whatever you call it, had metal fold-up chairs along the sidewalls. Some of the armrests were rusty. I thought we would need a tetanus shot if we used them.

Lady Jane sat in a large throne-like chair on a platform at the back of the room. She couldn’t have been more than 27 years old, bleach blond long hair, a pixie face with deep-set shiny green eyes. She was very petite. I was surprised that she wasn’t a much older woman. She wore a tight-fitting black and white dress with a high hemline. She was busty and had long satiny legs that ended in white ballerina slippers with a flower pattern of red gemstones near her toes. Her white string shoelaces were untied.

“Well, she’s not what I expected,” Mrs. Muldoon whispered, and sighed. “She looks like a tart that’s trying to make a few extra bucks before she goes to her other job in the Zone later tonight.”

“What’s the Zone?” I said.

“It’s where all the hookers hang out, just around the corner. Perverts, pimps, drug dealers, and dirty bookstores,” Nonna whispered.

Lady Jane made circular motions with her hands over the head of an old man with a cragged face. Her eyes were closed and she was mumbling.

It was only a moment or two before he yelled “Hallelujah” and threw his crutches towards the chairs on the left side of the room.

“Watchit!” an old blue-haired woman shouted. Her voice was low and she sounded like a man. “You almost hit me.”

When it was our turn, Lady Jane said, “I take it you three are together.” She had a fake British accent with a hint of Georgia twang.

“Yes, we are together.” Mrs. Muldoon sighed, clearly disappointed with Lady Jane.

“What can I do for you?” She looked at each one of us in turn, scrunching her face. I noticed a pimple on her nose.

“Well cure us. Do your mumbo-jumbo so we can get outta here. This place is a dump,” Nonna said, surveying the room. “I think we’re more likely to catch a disease here than be cured. Maybe the bubonic plague. So cure us quick before a rat bites one of our feet.”

“Yes, I know you want to be cured, but first you must tell me what ails you.”

“For Christ’s sake, at our age, everything ails us,” Nonna said, “Where do you want me to start. How ’bout you make my breasts perky like yours?”

Lady Jane pretended to be indignant, then said, “I can’t do anything to help your breasts, lady. I’m not a plastic surgeon.” Her Georgia twang was strong.

“Agnella, you mustn’t talk like that to this woman,” Mrs. Muldoon said. “I would like to be cured spiritually, Lady Jane. Forget about my body. That’s too far gone. I want my soul to be cleansed.”
Lady Jane put her hands in a crisscross on Mrs. Muldoon’s heart area, then closed her eyes, while she softly murmured an ostensibly sacred language. I thought I heard what sounded like ‘pussy’ in her gobbledygook. I think Nonna heard it, too, because she gave me a look at that moment and rolled her eyes.

“The masters have told be you are spiritually cured for your trip.”

“Cut the crap! Mary’s not going on any trip.”

“That’s not true, Agnella. I am,” Mrs. Muldoon said excitedly, as if there might be some authenticity to Lady Jane after all.

“Where the hell are you going?”

“I’m going home.” Mrs. Muldoon was beaming.

“To your family in Ireland?” Nonna asked.

“Yes, to my family.”

“And how can I cure you, little girl?” Lady Jane said, looking earnestly into my face.

“I don’t know.”

Again she did the crisscross thing with her hands. Again she murmured her sacred prayer. And again I heard a distinct “pussy.”

When she opened her eyes, her face was pale. “What’s your name?”


“Molly, I hate to tell people things like this.” Now she was speaking completely in her Georgia twang. “But I see gruesome deaths in your future.”

“Let’s get outta here,” Nonna said, clearly upset. She started muttering in Italian.

“You are going to witness several deaths in your lifetime.”

“Who doesn’t witness death? We all die.” Nonna said.

“No, Molly’s situation is different,” Lady Jane said, speaking to Nonna as if I weren’t there. “I take it you are the grandmother.”

“Yes. That’s easy enough to tell. I couldn’t be her mother. Too old and dried up.”

“You are very good to Molly. You mean more to her than her own mother.”

It was eerie how this woman knew that. “Okay,” I said matter-of-factly. “Tell me about these deaths.”

“You have the unlucky fortune of being someone who will either find dead people or be with them when they die, sometimes in violent situations. I guess you might say, ‘You’re an Angel of Death.’ ” And then she started giggling like a little girl. It seemed out of her control, and she curled up in her throne.

The Indian woman behind us whispered something to her husband, and then they rushed out the door. I wonder now if the woman’s inner Guru told her to get the hell out of there.

“Angel of Death! Ffangul’!” Nonna said. She pulled Mary and me out of the line and we followed the couple. Before the door shut, I looked back and saw that Lady Jane was still laughing. She waved to me. I mouthed, “Fuck you,” echoing Nonna’s sentiment.

During the ride home Mrs. Muldoon and Nonna argued over what “Angel of Death” might mean.

“Maybe she’ll be a police officer,” Mrs. Muldoon said. “That’s a nice profession. Protecting the citizens. And all police officers witness death now and again, don’t you think?”

“Are you crazy? No granddaughter of mine is going to be a police officer. I think that broad saw that Molly was gonna be a doctor.” She smiled at me in the rearview mirror. “What do you think she meant, Molly?”

“I think she was just making things up to frighten us. Maybe she spotted someone further down the line who would actually pay, and she was in a hurry to get rid of us.”

“The man on the radio said she doesn’t accept money. Believes she has a calling is what he said she said,” Mrs. Muldoon answered.

“He said, she said? Do you know what Mary’s talking about?” The car swerved as Nonna turned to look at me.

“Lady Jane I mean. . . Watch it, Agnella!”

“I noticed people slipping her bills,” I said.

Nonna zipped through a red light.

“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. You’re going to get us arrested, or killed,” Mrs. Muldoon said.

“Don’t worry. We have a cop in the back seat. She’ll use her connections and get us off the hook.”

We all laughed.

As we were passing a section where you could see planes from Logan Airport, Nonna asked Mrs. Muldoon, “When is your flight?”

“What flight?”

“The flight to Ireland. When you go home?”

“Oh . . .” She paused to think a bit. “I’m going the third week of August.” I thought it funny that her pronunciation sounded like “turd.”

“I’ll be sad to see you go, Mary. At least we have you for a few more months though.” She patted Mrs. Muldoon’s shoulder. The car swerved again. “I’m gonna miss you, Mary. But I’m sure you’ll be happier. Everybody needs family. And you got nobody here, right?”


I leaned back in the seat and thought how Mrs. Muldoon and I shared something. Sure, I had Nonna, but I still felt very alone. But aren’t we all essentially alone? A psychiatrist told me years later that each human being is limited by his consciousness. All lived realities are filtered through our individual prisms. He said that we die alone as well, no matter how many people are around us at that time. His words reminded me of something the writer Hunter S. Thompson once said: “We are all alone, born alone, die alone, and—in spite of True Romance magazines—we shall all someday look back on our lives and see that, in spite of company, we were alone the whole way.”

I didn’t understand Mrs. Muldoon’s obsession with cures. She asked Nonna and I to take her to the ocean on August 15th.

“Why August 15th?” I asked.

“Something about a cure in the water. Evidently it is the feast of the Assumption.”

“What’s that?”

“A day that celebrates the mother of Jesus going to heaven. Mary claims the salt water is supposed to have a cure in it. I guess the ocean becomes one big tub of Epsom salts. I don’t really understand it all, but Mary is adamant about going, and she wants both you and I to take her.”

“Is she sick?”

“Not that I know of.”

“Then why does she keep wanting cures?”

“Molly, I don’t know. All I know is she’s a sad, sad woman who never got over her husband dying. And she’s been drinking her own self to death ever since. Maybe she thinks it’s you that needs the cure.” She laughed.

“Why would I need a cure?”

“Because sometimes I think your head’s not screwed on right. Now stop asking so many questions. How the hell am I supposed to know what goes on in Mary’s mind? Maybe she thinks we both have sick souls.”

I laughed. “Nonna, I don’t have a sick soul, and neither do you.”

“You can never be sure. Listen, consider it insurance. If there is something to this whole cure thing, maybe good will come of it. And if there isn’t, so be it. The point is that she asked us to take her. And I refuse to deny an old friend a last request before she travels home to Ireland.”

I agreed to go, and on the appointed day, a Saturday, Nonna and I drove to Mrs. Muldoon’s house. Nonna parked her Blue Fury in front. Mrs. Muldoon was seated in a rusted orange chair on the front porch, one of her last pieces of furniture. Over the past several weeks she had donated most of her possessions to charity, except for a few pieces of furniture in her living room, kitchen, and bedroom.

Her house was on the market, but she was lackadaisical about selling it, leaving it in the hands of a realtor downtown. She said she didn’t really care when or if it got sold, which I found strange. But what did I know about such things? I was a young girl excited about the start of college in a few weeks.

Nonna stopped the engine and honked. Mrs. Muldoon was asleep. She wore what appeared to be a housedress, mostly white, with a spattering of blood-red dots, and hideous black boots.

“What the hell is she wearing?” Nonna got out of the car and walked precariously up the rotting wooden gray steps. I followed and waited at the bottom of the stairs. When she was beside Mrs. Muldoon, she shook her. For a moment, I thought she might be dead.

“Mary! Wake up.”

She woke, a confused look on her face, Her auburn hair was a sweaty mess. The sun highlighted a matted ring of locks that circled her head. She must have been wearing a hat or head scarf earlier.

When she finally awoke, Nonna said, “What’s the matter with you? Did you forget we were going to the beach?” She glanced at Mary’s feet, tsk-tsking at the pair of black rubber boots. “You look foolish in those things. How you gonna get the Blessed Mother’s cure if you don’t get wet?”

“Agnella,” Mary said, rising at last, ”there’s those awful rocks before you get to the sandy part of the beach, and my feet are sore enough. Don’t worry. I’m going to take them off once we settle in a good spot. I may even strip naked. Wouldn’t that be a sight to behold?” She laughed. Nonna did too.

“And where is your bathing suit?”

“Underneath my housedress, of course. You certainly didn’t expect me to sit here like some tool in my swimsuit. What would the neighbors think?”

Nonna helped her down the steps, which creaked and almost seemed to cave in at one point, then helped her into the passenger seat. I got into the back.

“I’m delighted you could come, Molly,” she said, turning around. “It’s a celebration for both of us, a baptism of sorts, as we begin our new lives.” I realized that the red spots on her gown were tiny roses. “You must be looking forward to your studies.”

“Yes, I am. And I’m happy to go with you, Mrs. Muldoon.” I wasn’t. I hated the beach, still do. The hot sun and sand, crowds of people, radios blaring, the smell of baby oil, the jellyfish in the water. I did admire the sharks because of their single-mindedness, the way they hunted for prey. In those days, I imagined one of the annoying boys from my high school getting bitten, but the chances of that happening were slim.

We parked on the beach side across from the Renwod Dining Room, a place Nonna had taken me a few times. Mrs. Muldoon was right about the stones. They did hurt your feet. The beach was packed with people, and it was hard to navigate through the crowd, especially because Mrs. Muldoon was a little tipsy. I realized she had been drinking on the drive over and had to roll the window down. She stunk of sweat and gin. Radios blared, children created sand castles, groups of ladies gossiped, and the sun was so damn hot.

Finally we found a spot to put our blanket and fold-up chairs. Most of the women wore full-piece swimsuits, and many had housedresses like Mary. Three girls about my age ran out of the water as their little brothers splashed them with water from behind. To our right, a man dressed in pants and a shirt, which I could never understand at the beach, fixed the chain on his overturned bicycle. I wished we had an umbrella. I had to use the palm of my hand to shade my eyes from the sun.

When we were settled, I asked Mrs. Muldoon about the cure in the water. She sat between Nonna and me in our spot close to the ocean.

“Well, darling, today is when we celebrate the Blessed Mother’s Assumption into heaven.”

“I don’t understand.”

Nonna rubbed baby oil on her arms, legs, and face, then lay down, uninterested in our conversation.

“What don’t you understand?”

“The Assumption part. What does that mean?”

“Mary was raised into heaven three days after her death.”

“What do you mean raised? She just flew up into the air?” I laughed.

“I think so, Molly. Yes.”

“How is that possible?”

“Darling, you got to have faith.”

“But it doesn’t make sense. How can somebody just fly into the sky? And what’s the connection to a cure in the water? Was she on a boat?”

“I don’t know, Molly. Don’t think too much about it. Just believe it.”

“I don’t believe it. It sounds ridiculous, and I can’t follow the logic.”

Nonna sat up and gave me the eye, warning me not to press the issue. Mrs. Muldoon pulled off her boots, then stood and took off her housedress. Underneath was a stylish black-and-white full-piece swimsuit. I never noticed what a round hard belly she had. She almost looked pregnant. For a second, I imagined she was going to demonstrate the assumption and fly upward.

“Logic has nothing to do with it, darling. I don’t question these things.” She walked into the water. I watched her plod through the waves, then dive into the ocean and swim out a bit.

“Molly, how many times do I have to tell you not to ask so many questions? It’s rude. Most people aren’t like you.” Her eyes followed Mary who was now a ways out. “Most people are lemmings and sheep. You have the good fortune, or maybe the bad fortune,” she smiled at me, “of being a lion in a world of lemmings.” She put her warm hand on my leg. “Who gives a damn if Mary flew into the sky or not? Maybe that’s what people did a few thousand years ago, though I doubt it.”

She turned and looked at the man tending to his bike, then whispered to me, “I wish God would reach down and pull him off the beach. Can’t stand the sound of that spinning peddle and chain, and his hands are a greasy mess.” We both laughed. A woman wearing a white shawl and long white robe walked by. She reminded me of a bride.

“Do you miss your husband, Nonna?”

“Here we go again.” She laughed. “You ask the strangest things.”

“Well, do you?”

“Of course not. Men are a pain in the ass.”

“What about Mr. Scarfone.”

She waved her hand dismissively. “Oh, he’s just a good fuck.”


She whacked me playfully with the bag of fruit and rolls she had brought. “Well it’s true. And you should see the size of his cazzone.” She moved her palms apart.

“His calzone?”

“No.” She laughed. “Cazzone,” emphasizing the “z” sound. “Maybe that’s why they call a calzone a calzone. It looks like a penis.”

She lay back down. “Look that up someday in one of your fancy college books.”

“Nonna, I don’t think my college textbooks will have that information.”

“Then what the hell good are they?”

We both laughed. She closed her eyes and patted the blanket to straighten it out.After a while, she fell asleep. Mrs. Muldoon had stopped swimming and stood in the water, like so many of the people. But unlike the others, who were chatting with one another in pairs and groups, Mrs. Muldoon looked towards the horizon. I wondered if she was thinking about her journey home. Seagulls cawed. Children laughed and screamed with delight.

I was sweating, so I went for a walk towards the end of the beach, where it was less crowded. There was a fishing jetty and an area of large rocks. I explored the spaces in between the boulders, looking for a lonely starfish, a shiny stone, or a clam with a secreted pearl. I unearthed small crabs that scampered across the sand. At one point I startled a mourning dove that sped from its cleft into the bright sky. It made a whistling sound as it rose and flew off, then descended over the water where Nonna stood alongside Mrs. Muldoon. The waves glimmered like sparks from an unquenchable fire. On the jetty, a father and his son cast fishing lines into the sea.

Suddenly, Nonna and Mrs. Muldoon fell, surprised by a spirited breaker that razed them in its wake. I ran to help, but laughed, too, at the spectacle—Nonna and Mrs. Muldoon 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. I helped lift them, They groaned in between guffaws, complaining that the soles of their feet were cramping from shells and stones beneath their feet. Every time I lifted one of them, another wave splashed over us, and they fell back down, laughing even harder.

Mrs. Muldoon said, “My permanent is all ruined,” while she fussed with her hair.

Nonna said, “Well, it didn’t look so good to begin with, Mary. Consider it a cure.”

Mrs. Muldoon reached for me, “Now pull me up quickly, before the next wave hits.”

I did so, mesmerized by the wet silvery scalp that shown through her auburn hair.

I resisted the urge to touch the crown of her head. At last she rose from the sea.

“You’re an angel,” she said, when she finally stood.

“What about me?” A wave splashed over Nonna. “Maron’! Pull me up, Molly. If I get hit by another wave, I’m gonna curse this water. Thought this was supposed to be a blessing. More like a tidal wave if you ask me.” With that, a wave sprayed all of us, but Mrs. Muldoon and I managed to pull her up.

Later we moved towards the quiet end of the beach. We sat in the shade of a bony cliff, eating panettone (a type of raisin bread), bananas, apples, and cherries drenched in brandy. Nonna also pulled baby-sized jars of Grappa out of her purse. I draped a necklace of dried seaweed upon Mrs. Muldoon, and told her it was my version of a Hawaiian lei, a wreath presented ceremoniously to people who were coming or going.

“In that case, you need one, too,” Mrs. Muldoon said.

“What about me? I could use a good lei,” Nonna said, smirking.

I found two more pieces of seaweed and Mrs. Muldoon hung them on us. Her fingers were icy cold, like those of a corpse. I shuddered as they touched my warm skin.

The three of us made a toast to new beginnings, and we talked about the future until the sun began to set.

We were hungry again when we left the beach later on, so we crossed the street and enjoyed a nice meal at the Renwood Diner. I had the seafood platter and Nonna and Mrs. Muldoon had sea scallops with pancetta, mushrooms, and fresh tomato.

Mrs. Muldoon made a joke about this being our last supper. “Well, it is in a way, don’t you think? I won’t be seeing either of you again after tonight.”

“Of course you will. You’re not leaving until five days from now,” Nonna said, motioning for the check. “I’ll drop by before your flight on Thursday if I don’t see you before then.” The waitress put the bill on the table.

“Let me pay for that,” Mrs. Muldoon said. “I appreciate you girls bringing me to the ocean today. I feel refreshed and healed. And you made me very happy today.”

“Well I’m glad that you feel good, Mary, but I insist on paying.” Nonna took cash out of her purse and placed it on the check. The waitress picked it up.

“I’ll see you one more time, Mrs. Muldoon. Nonna’s driving me to Boston University to speak with a counselor on Thursday. On the way over, we can both say goodbye.”

“That would be nice, Molly.” She smiled at me, then pointed at the faded beige and blue pattern of fish swimming above clamshells and starfish on the ocean floor. “I always loved the fish in this wallpaper. This one here looks like he’s coming right towards us.”

“I wish there were some shark,” I said.

Nonna laughed. “Of course you would.”

“Did you know that a fish is the symbol of Christ?” Mrs. Muldoon said, sipping her last bit of wine.

Nonna spoke while she chewed a roll. “No, I didn’t. Where’d you hear that, Mary?”

“Oh, I don’t recall, Agnella.”

After the waitress returned with Nonna’s change, she put it in her purse, snapped it shut, and stood up. “Well, I’m tired. I don’t know about the both of you. Let’s get outta here.”

We dropped Mrs. Muldoon off and she waved from the front porch before she opened the door. I noticed several trash bags along the gray clapboard wall.

“Wonder what’s in all those bags?” I said, as we drove away.

“Junk. When you get old you accumulate a lot of useless things, Molly. And eventually you become one of them. So live while you can.”

That night I fell asleep as I thought about “useless things” and living “while you can.” I dreamt of seagulls pecking someone’s eyes out, sharks in bloody water, and a singing red fish with white stripes along its sides. Dreams are so strange. I tried to remember the song of the fish, but I couldn’t recall the words. A feeling of emptiness lingered, an emotion I often felt.

Nonna tried to call Mary on Wednesday evening to find out the time of her flight, but the phone service had already been disconnected, so we drove over around 8:00 am on Thursday morning.

“She may have already left.” Nonna pulled the car into Mary’s driveway. “But we might as well see if she’s still here. I forgot to tell you, but when we were in the ladies room at the restaurant, Mary told me she had a present for you. She said that she left it on the table just inside the archway to her living room.”

We got out of the car and walked up the steps. Nonna held her nose. “Those bags smell God awful. Maybe she dumped all the food from her refrigerator into one of them.”

I rang the doorbell. We waited a few moments, then Nonna turned the door knob. When the door opened a horrible smell gushed at us–a combination of shit, vomit, body odor, and rotting fish, stronger than you can imagine, unless you’ve experienced it. I noticed a small purple box on the table as we turned into the living room. A few flies buzzed in the hot, humid air around our heads. Three standing lamps were lit. Nonna bent over and vomited.

I walked towards Mrs. Muldoon’s corpse. She was seated in the purple chair that Nonna hated so much, eyes half open and bulging, swollen tongue protruding. There was an intricate pattern of blood vessels and blisters on her face. She wore the same housedress from our day at the beach. It was smeared with blood and a yellowish fluid that dripped from her nose and mouth. Her face, arms, and legs were bloated; her abdomen was distended. Her skin was green, red, purple, and black. White lines crisscrossed areas of deep red on her calves. There were two shimmering pools of urine on the mahogany floor at each side of the chair, as well as feces on the seat cushion.

I kneeled down and pressed my finger against a dark purple spot above her right ankle; the skin was so cold. The flesh broke and blood trickled slowly down the side of her enlarged foot. I stood up, then crouched to stare into the small slivers of her eyes. The pupils were fixed and dilated. The corners of her eyes were filmy and I thought I saw wetness along the sides of her nose and cheeks. Were they tears or simply the body’s fluids seeping out? I touched her pretty red hair and some it fell to the floor in clumps. A maggot emerged from her flaking scalp.

I heard Nonna still gagging behind me. She kept saying, “We gotta call the police.” Although I found the smell overpowering and coughed a bit, I couldn’t move away. I guess you could say I was mesmerized.

“Molly! What are you doing? Call the cops! I’m too weak to get up.”

I picked up the black-and-white photograph from the t.v. table and examined it: an attractive couple, the young Mrs. Muldoon and her husband, in their wedding attire. Both of them dressed completely in white. He wore a white tuxedo with a bow tie and a wing-tipped collar. On the top of her auburn hair sat a veil with a crest of small white flowers; there was a pearl necklace around her neck. Both smiled above a large bouquet of white roses that obscured parts of their chests. In the dark background, blurred white faces hovered like disembodied heads.


I turned the photo over. In blue cursive, now faded, Mrs. Muldoon had written “August 15th, 1937. The happiest day of my life.” Next to where the photograph had lain was an empty pill bottle. I pulled it close to read the label “Diazepam, 5 mg. tab. Take one tablet twice a day as needed.”

Nonna had reached the phone. I heard her talking to the police. “Hurry,” she said and hung up.

“What the hell are you doing?” she screamed at me. “Get away from her.”

I turned, accidentally stepping on one of Mrs. Muldoon’s bare feet. The skin cracked and a clear fluid oozed from her big toe. The nail ripped off, falling like an autumn leaf onto the floor.

Then I walked over to the small purple box with my name on it. Inside was a gold necklace with an emerald and diamond cross.

Nonna stared at me. “What is it, Molly?”

“A useless thing.”


James Mulhern has published fiction in the Emerson Review, Short Story Magazine, and Typehouse Literary Magazine. One of his stories was selected for publication in The Library’s Best, a collection of best short stories. In September of 2013, he was chosen as a finalist for the Tuscany Prize in Catholic Fiction for his story, “Assumptions.” In March of 2015, Mr. Mulhern was awarded a summer fellowship through the English-Speaking Union to study at Oxford University in the United Kingdom. He will participate in writing seminars and continue his work on a novel.

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