James Mulhern has published fiction, nonfiction, and poetry in literary journals and anthologies over seventy times. In 2013, he was a Finalist for the Tuscany Prize in Catholic Fiction. In 2015, Mr. Mulhern was awarded a fully paid writing fellowship to Oxford University in the United Kingdom. That same year, a story was longlisted for the Fish Short Story Prize. In 2017, he was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. His writing (novels and short story collection) earned favorable critiques from Kirkus Reviews, including a Kirkus Star. His most recent novel, Give Them Unquiet Dreams, is a Readers’ Favorite Book Award winner, a Notable Best Indie Book of 2019, and a Kirkus Reviews Best Book of 2019. He is a college professor and high school teacher in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
“A Nun’s Arse”
Aunt Helena and Aunt Bianca entered the front door, the brisk air of October following them. Both held bags from Filene’s Basement in downtown Boston, a favorite for those in search of bargains. They were laughing about something.
“What’s so funny?” Nonna asked.
“We just saw Mrs. Muldoon,” Aunt Helena said. “Poor thing was drunk as a skunk. She was walking the street aimlessly. Said she was looking for her husband Jim. We had to lead her home and get her settled.” She hung their coats in the closet. “Then she told us that the Happy Garden Chinese Restaurant was sending pork fried rice and egg rolls to her house every night. She swears she never ordered the food. Mary said, ‘I don’t speak Chinese. How in the hell could I order from those chinks?’ ‘Can’t understand anything they say to me, yet I get chink food delivered every day about 5 p.m.’ ”
“She must be having blackouts and forgetting that she ordered. Or she’s imagining that they are delivering the food. Mary has squash rot,” Nonna said.
“What’s ‘squash rot’ ?” I asked.
“Means your brain is rotted from too much alcohol, Molly,” Helena said. “When she drinks, Mary gets delusional and hallucinates.”
Helena and Bianca plopped into the cushy velvet green chairs, placing their bags beside them. Aunt Bianca assumed her usual disposition, staring into space, frowning and saying nothing. Her red hair was a mess and her lipstick smeared. She looked like a sad Bozo the clown.
“What happened to Mrs. Muldoon’s husband?” I asked.
Nonna said, “Long before you were born, Mr. Muldoon died from a massive heart attack. Poor Mary was fixing dinner in the kitchen. When she called him to the table, he didn’t answer. She went into the living room, where he would listen to the radio and read the paper, and found him dead in his chair, his paper scattered at his feet. She hasn’t been the same since. Just drinks away her sorrows.”
“Oh,” I answered. I couldn’t comprehend what it would be like to find someone dead, especially a husband or a family member.
“Well, let’s take a look at what you bought? Did you get that pretty dress you wanted, Bianca?” Nonna asked.
“No, some bitch must have found it in the pile where I hid it.”
I excused myself, saying I had homework. Then I went to Nonna’s bedroom where I would hang out until it was time to walk home to my parents, who were busy closing the restaurant until after 10:30 pm. Most of my evenings were spent with Nonna. She and my aunts watched Tom Brokaw on NBC News while I retreated to the bedroom and read.
Nonna thought it would be charitable of us to visit Mrs. Muldoon. I didn’t like Mrs. Muldoon. On a Saturday evening, when I was bussing tables in the restaurant, I accidentally spilled marinara sauce on an ugly blue puff-sleeve dress that she was wearing. She called me a “clumsy oaf,” and complained to my parents. I didn’t argue with Nonna about visiting her, though. Nonna was not someone to disagree with.
We walked precariously up the steps of Mrs. Muldoon’s front porch on a late afternoon in December, “Mrs. Muldoon will slip and fall on this snow.” About two inches had fallen that morning. “Grab that shovel against the house and let’s clear a path from her door down to the street.”
It didn’t take us long; the snow was light and airy. I shoveled while Nonna gave commands. As we were stomping our feet and about to ring the doorbell, the door opened. “Aren’t you going to clean the curb, too?” Mrs. Muldoon said to me. “I like to walk on the street you know. The slobs next door never clear the sidewalk.” She must have been watching us from her living room window the whole time.
“Of course she will,” Nonna said, and then to me, “Molly, just finish up that little bit while I go inside with Mrs. Muldoon. Then come in.” Mrs. Muldoon held the door as Nonna entered.
“You’ll do a good job, won’t ya?” Mrs. Muldoon said with a fake smile. “Not make a mess of it like you do sometimes at the restaurant.”
Nonna chuckled, and when Mrs. Muldoon turned, mouthed, “She’s drunk. Ignore her.” She pinched her nose and grimaced.
As the door shut, I gave Mrs. Muldoon the finger. Even though she didn’t see my gesture, it gave me pleasure. I shoveled the curb, making sure to leave just a bit of snow on the curb, hoping she might slip.
I found the two of them standing in the archway that led to the living room. Nonna was oohing and aahing over a silver aluminum Christmas tree with a color wheel.
“I love those red and green balls, and the see-through ones, too.” Nonna said. “Isn’t it pretty, Molly?”
“It’s gorgeous.” I wasn’t that impressed.
“Well the damn thing ought to be. Paid a pretty penny for it. At Sears, ya know. The girl in the store, a pudgy midget, said it was a specialty item.”
“Oh, a specialty,” Nonna said, winking at me. “Well it’s beautiful, Mary. Now why don’t we go into the kitchen and enjoy some coffee while we eat the cookies I brought you.”
“I don’t know why they call it a specialty item. They’ve been around for years,” I said.
“Well it’s special to me,” Mrs. Muldoon snapped. “Where are the cookies, Agnella? I could use something sweet to get rid of the bad taste in my mouth,” she said, looking at me. We walked into the kitchen
“I wrapped a few up and put them in here.” Nonna patted her black leather handbag.
“Well I would think you could give me more than a few. What are you? Cheap?”
Nonna laughed. “Mary, you got the diabetes to worry about.”
“Was she really a midget?” I interjected.
Mrs. Muldoon looked irritated.
“She’s asking about the salesgirl in the department store,” Nonna said.
“I know what’s she’s asking, Agnella. Yes, Molly. Or a dwarf. I don’t know what ya call them nowadays. But nice enough, she was. And quite knowledgeable. She told me the tree was made in some town in Wisconsin. Would be an heirloom in the future. I said to her, ‘I don’t care about any heirlooms, dear, and I don’t care about the future. I haven’t got a soul to leave it to.’ And don’t ya know, the midget said to me, ‘I’m sorry.’ I said, ‘About what, darling?’ And then she said, ‘That you haven’t got any children.’ I laughed and told her not to worry. Children could be a pain in the arse. Isn’t that right, Molly?”
Mrs. Muldoon almost slipped on the red-brick linoleum floor, but Nonna was able to grab her arm and steady her into a chair. The kitchen smelled like a pine tree. Nonna explained to me later that the smell was from all the gin that Mrs. Muldoon drank.
Nonna brewed coffee in the percolator, after opening cabinets and rummaging through the disorganized mess of her cupboards. Mrs. Muldoon was silent, her eyes dreamy, looking out the window above the sink.
“Mary, where’s the sugar?” Nonna opened the bread box.
“Hey, it’s not in there. Look on top of the refrigerator.”
“Crazy place to put it,” Nonna said, taking the yellow sugar bowl and placing it on the table.
“It’s starting to snow again,” I said, following Mrs. Muldoon’s eyes. “Guess you’ll have to find someone to shovel for you later on.”
“It is, and isn’t it pretty. Do they still make snowflake cutouts in school, Molly? I used to love Christmas time when I was a tot.”
“Mrs. Muldoon, I’m a senior in high school. We don’t do things like that. They make snowflakes in elementary school.”
“What a shame.” Mrs. Muldoon said. “People at every age should make snowflakes. That’s a joy of Christmas. Don’t you agree, Agnella?”
Nonna was pouring the coffee and arranging the anisette cookies on a plate. “Yes, Mary. Snowflakes should be appreciated at every age.” She opened the refrigerator and sniffed the small carton of cream. Her nose crinkled. “Mary, the cream’s gone bad.” She poured it down the sink and ran hot water. “We’ll just have to have our coffee black.”
“Let’s have a gin and tonic instead,” Mrs. Muldoon said. “Molly, too. She’s a senior in high school now,” she said, over-enunciating and smirking. “Too old for snowflakes” She laughed.
“We’re having coffee. No alcohol. Wouldn’t go with the cookies,” Nonna said.
“Snowflakes form in the Earth’s atmosphere when cold water droplets freeze onto dust particles. Depending on temperature and air humidity, the ice crystals create myriad shapes. No two are alike,” I said. “I think that’s more wondrous than anything we could create with a scissors and white paper. I prefer the realness of nature.”
Mrs. Muldoon laughed. “Aren’t you a whippersnapper. And all those big words: myriad and wondrous.” She humphed.
Nonna set the coffee and small plate of cookies in the table center. “Molly’s very smart. She got a perfect score on her SAT verbal and almost a perfect score on her math. She’s in the 99th percentile. Her IQ is 148.”
“Whatever that means,” Mrs. Muldoon said. “What else do they teach you? Do they teach you to count your blessings? Do they teach you your catechisms? Do they teach you the Ten Commandments, the Our Father, and Hail Mary? Now those are valuable lessons.” She picked up rosary beads and some laminated novenas that were on the table. “Faith is most important, Molly.” She shook the beads. “I pray every night for the Holy Father’s intention that the Catholic church reign forever.”
“Yes, of course they teach us those things, Mrs. Muldoon. I attend Immaculate Conception. The sisters have to explain all that to us. But I’m not sure I believe in any of it.”
“What do you mean?” Mrs. Muldoon said. “So sacrilegious. And at this time of year.” She tsk-tsked. “Now there’s a big word for you.” She laughed and sipped her coffee, then glared at me. “You are not smarter than God, Molly.” She placed her cup down firmly. A bit of the coffee spilled over the rim.
“I think that Molly is saying she’s a free thinker,” Nonna said.
“A free thinker? What a bunch of malarkey. I don’t even know what it means.”
“It means she makes up her own mind about what she believes and doesn’t necessarily listen to what people tell her. She’s an independent young woman.”
Mrs. Muldoon guffawed.
“Let’s change the subject,” Nonna said. “No need to be arguing. It’s not the holiday spirit.”
“I suppose you’re right, Agnella,” Mrs. Muldoon said, raising herself from the chair. “I’ve got to use the little girl’s room anyway.” Nonna helped her stand.
“I’m okay, Agnella. Stop being such a mother hen.”
Nonna laughed. When Mrs. Muldoon left the kitchen, Nonna whispered to me, “Go into the living room and get me a few of those see-through balls on the tree. Hurry up.”
I did just that, bringing her two translucent balls and one red one. “I like the red one,” I whispered. Nonna wrapped them in napkins and stuffed them in her bag, which she clasped shut just as we heard the toilet flush down the hall.
When Mrs. Muldoon returned, she said, “I was just thinking about Vivian Vance. It’s sad that she died. Oh, how she used to make me laugh.”
“Who’s Vivian Vance?” I said.
“Ethel Mertz. You know. From I Love Lucy. Now that was a funny show. And Lucille Ball. What a riot!” Nonna added.
“God bless the people who make us laugh,” Mrs. Muldoon said.
“I’ll second that,” Nonna said.
“I wonder what a dead body looks like. I’d love to see one,” I said.
“What an odd thing to desire.” Mrs. Muldoon pursed her lips.
“And although it’s sad that Vivian Vance died, I don’t see why her death is any more tragic than the death of anyone else,” I answered. “She’s no more valuable then the rest of us. Do you know there’s approximately 153,400 deaths per day, or a little more than 100 per minute? Just think of how many people died while we’ve been sitting here. We are all specks of dust floating in an enormous universe.”
“Your granddaughter is getting too big for her britches. Imagine? ‘Specks of dust.’ I don’t even know what she’s talking about half the time. Wanting to see a dead body, too? Where does she come up with these things? Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!” She took a sip of coffee, then murmured “specks of dust, specks of dust” and looked out the window. The black bark of a tree cut through a gray square of sky.
Nonna looked out the window as well. “Don’t mind her, Mary. She’s just a thinker.”
“I could tell her a few things to think about.” Her things sounded like “tings,” and her think sounded like “tink.” I was going to correct her but Nonna said, “We should get going. The snow is falling. And Molly’s got homework to do. Don’t you, Molly?”
“Yes, Nonna. And I want to add some more ornaments to our Christmas tree so it can be just as beautiful as Mrs. Muldoon’s.”
“Yes, yes,” Nonna said, rising from her seat. “It’s a beautiful tree.”
Mrs. Muldoon escorted us to the door, commenting some more about my poor attitude, and then as we walked home, Nonna said, “Such a shame. An old woman with all her money. Drinking herself to death.” She stopped suddenly and turned to me. “You’ve got to learn to hold your tongue. You’ll never get anywhere in this world if you don’t know when to keep your mouth shut. Learn not to be so fresh.”
When we hung the ornaments on our tree, Nonna said, “She won’t notice them missing. And it’s a shame not to have them appreciated. You think they’re lovely, don’t you, Molly?”
Later, as I lay on Nonna’s bed doing homework, I picked up the phone and called the local Chinese restaurant.
“This is Mrs. Muldoon,” I said, “Send me over an order of pork fried rice, egg rolls, and add some beef broccoli this time. And you’ll hurry it up, won’t you? I’m so hungry I could eat a nun’s arse through a convent gate.”