James Mulhern – Useless Things

James Mulhern’s writing has appeared in literary journals over one hundred and fifty times and has been recognized with many awards. In 2015, Mr. Mulhern was granted a writing fellowship at Oxford University. That same year, a story was longlisted for the Fish Short Story Prize. In 2017, he was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. His novel, Give Them Unquiet Dreams, is a Kirkus Reviews Best Book of 2019. He was shortlisted for the Aesthetica Creative Writing Award 2021 for his poetry. Two of his novels were Finalists for the United Kingdom’s Wishing Shelf Book Awards.


Useless Things

By James Mulhern


Nonna called and asked if I would accompany Mrs. Muldoon and her to a faith healer. The woman had allegedly cured a young girl whose cancerous tumors disappeared and an old arthritic man who later ran in the Boston Marathon.

“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?”

“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 leftover 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 through the sheer curtain in her living room. She opened the door.

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

The house stunk like mold and sour milk. The living room had boxes with clothes and old shoes spilling out.

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

“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.

“The things in those boxes smell pretty musty. I’m not sure anyone would want them.”

On her grey Formica table were several plates with leftover food—bits of toast, old bacon, half-eaten sandwiches. Dirty take-out boxes from a Chinese restaurant had fallen between the sink counter and the basket. 

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

“I’ve been busy, Agnella.”

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

“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 beautiful 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 just physical healing,” she said, putting her arms into the sleeves of her red coat. I liked the black fur collar. “It’s spiritual healing as well.” 

The healer’s business was on the street floor of a six-story building with various ornate architectural features. At the top was a mansard roof with dormer windows. The granite exterior was dirty with lines of black and green, 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 screamed 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. Two skid-row 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.

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’m sure.” Mrs. Muldoon pushed her door open and pulled herself into a standing position.

We followed Mrs. Muldoon’s lead, who told us to hold hands as we crossed the street.

Nonna cut in front of an Indian couple, explaining 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 dark eyes. She had a red dot between her beautifully shaped arched brows. In an Intro to Religion class, I Iearned the spot 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 headscarf. 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. 

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

“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 scally 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 shook a little and drooled, not sure what a leukemia patient’s symptoms were. The Indian couple stepped back.

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.

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

“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—petite, with long bleach blond hair, a pixie face, and deep-set shiny green eyes. I was surprised that she wasn’t an older woman. She wore a tight-fitting black and white dress with a high hemline. She was busty with long satiny legs that ended in white ballerina slippers, a flower pattern of red gemstones near her toes. Her white string shoelaces were untied.

“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 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 mumbled.

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.

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’re together.” Mrs. Muldoon sighed, clearly disappointed with Lady Jane.

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

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

“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 to this woman like that,” 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 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.

“To my family.”

“And how can I cure you, dear?” Lady Jane looked 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.”

“Molly, I hate to tell people things like this.” Now she spoke entirely in her Georgia twang. “I see a gruesome death in your future. Not yours, but someone close to you.”

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

Lady Jane said to Nonna, “I take it you’re the grandmother.”

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

“Tell me about this death,” I said.

“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.’ ” 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 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 citizens. 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 made things up to frighten us. Maybe she spotted someone further down the line who would pay, and she was in a hurry to get rid of us.”

“A man told me 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 passed Logan Airport, Nonna asked Mrs. Muldoon, “When is your flight?”

“What flight?” 

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

“Oh . . .” She paused to think a bit. “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, but I’m sure you’ll be happier. Everybody needs family. And you got nobody here, right?”

“Nobody.”

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? I thought of a quote by Hunter Thompson: “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.”

We wanted to see Mrs. Muldoon before she left, so we took her to 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. “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.” The waitress put the bill on the table.

“Let me pay for that,” Mrs. Muldoon said. “I appreciate you girls bringing me out to dinner. It’s not often I get out. Ya both have made me so happy.”

“I’m glad 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 on Thursday to speak with a counselor. On the way over, we can both say goodbye.”

“That would be nice, Molly.” She smiled at me.

After the waitress returned with the change, Nonna put it in her purse and snapped it shut. “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.

“Useless things. When you get old, you accumulate a lot of junk, Molly. And eventually you become useless too. So live while you can.”

That night as I fell asleep, 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 dead fish with white stripes along its sides.

Nonna called Mary on Wednesday evening to ask for her flight time, but the phone service had already been disconnected, so we drove over around 8:00 a.m. on Thursday.

“She may have already left.” Nonna pulled the car into Mary’s driveway. “We might as well see if she’s still here. I forgot to tell you. When we were in the ladies’ room at the restaurant, Mary told me she had a present for you. She said 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 the food from her refrigerator into one of them.”

I rang the doorbell. We waited a few moments. Then Nonna turned the doorknob. When the door opened, a horrible smell gushed at us—a combination of shit, vomit, body odor, and rotting fish. I noticed a small purple box on the table as we turned into the living room. 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 body. 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. Her white robe 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 her varicose calves. There were two shimmering pools of urine on the mahogany floor, as well as feces on the seat cushion. 

I kneeled 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, then bent to stare into the thin slivers of her eyes. The pupils were fixed and dilated. The corners were filmy. 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 fell to the floor in clumps. A bloody maggot writhed as it emerged from her flaking scalp and crawled towards my hand.

Nonna still gagged 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 TV 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 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; she wore 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.

“Molly!”

I turned the photo over. In blue cursive, now faded, Mrs. Muldoon had written “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 into a puddle.

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.”

 

 

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