“What a shame,” Nonna said when I arrived at her place after working at the family restaurant. “Mary Muldoon just called. Drunk as a skunk, asking if I knew where her husband Jim was and quite annoyed at the Happy Garden Chinese Restaurant. Said they were sending her pork fried rice and egg rolls at least three times a week. Claims she never ordered a thing.”
“Where’s her husband?”
“Molly, he’s dead. Has been for years. She found him in the living room around dinner time. Massive heart attack.”
“Oh, that’s terrible.”
“She must be having blackouts and forgetting things. Or she’s imagining that they are delivering the food. Mary has squash rot. Poor thing. Her mind’s all messed up.”
“What’s ‘squash rot’ ?”
“It means your brain is rotted from too much alcohol. When she drinks, Mary gets delusional and hallucinates.”
“She eats at our restaurant once a week and never says much unless it’s to complain. She’s nasty to me. She told my father that I’m a ‘clumsy oaf,” and said that I should be washing dishes instead of serving food.”
“You’ve got to have compassion, Molly. She’s been through a lot and can’t help herself. Addiction to alcohol is a terrible thing.”
“I don’t think it’s an excuse to be mean, Nonna.”
I excused myself, saying I had homework, and went to her bedroom where I would hang out until my parents closed the restaurant.
Nonna thought it would be charitable of us to visit Mrs. Muldoon around Christmas time.
We walked precariously up the steps of Mrs. Muldoon’s front porch on a late afternoon in December. “She’ll slip and fall on this snow,” Nonna said. About two inches had fallen that morning. “Grab that shovel against the house and clear a path from her door down to the street.”
It didn’t take me 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 ya know. The slobs next door never clear the sidewalk.”
“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 join us.” 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.”
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 commented. “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 winked 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.
“Molly’s asking about the salesgirl in the department store.” Nonna smiled at me.
“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 pine. Nonna explained later that the smell was from all the gin that Mrs. Muldoon drank.
Nonna brewed coffee in the percolator, after rummaging through the disorganized mess of cupboards. Mrs. Muldoon was silent, her eyes dreamy, looking out the window above the sink.
“Mary, where’s the sugar?”
“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, too.”
“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. 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 answered.
“Snowflakes form in the Earth’s atmosphere when cold water droplets freeze onto dust particles. The ice crystals create myriad shapes. No two are alike,” I said. “I think that’s more wondrous and beautiful than anything we could create with scissors and white paper.”
Mrs. Muldoon laughed. “Aren’t you a whippersnapper. And all those big words: myriad and wondrous.” She humphed.
Nonna set the coffee and plate of cookies in the table center. “Molly’s very smart. She got a perfect score on her SATs. Her IQ is 148, almost genius level.”
“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 laminated novenas that were on the table. “Faith is most important, Molly.” She shook the beads.
“Yes, of course they teach us those things, Mrs. Muldoon. The sisters have to explain all of that to us. I’m not sure I believe 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 piped in.
“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. She’s an independent young woman.”
Mrs. Muldoon guffawed.
“Let’s change the subject,” Nonna said. “No need to be arguing.”
“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 from the tree.”
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.
Mrs. Muldoon returned. “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 smiled.
“God bless the people who make us laugh,” Mrs. Muldoon 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.
“It’s sad that Vivian Vance died, but I don’t see why her death is any more tragic than the death of anyone else,” I answered. “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 and looked out the window. The black bark of a tree cut through a gray square of sky.
“Don’t mind her, Mary. Molly’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 guided 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 drinking herself to death.” She stopped suddenly and turned to me. “You’ve got to learn to hold your tongue. 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. Don’t you agree, Molly?”
Later, as I lay on Nonna’s bed doing homework, I picked up the phone and called the Chinese restaurant.
“This is Mrs. Muldoon again,” 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 ya? I’m so hungry I could eat a nun’s arse through a convent gate.”