The Mugging of Mrs. Melaney

Christmas, 1997 / No. 1

Mrs. Melaney was mugged at the eight o’clock service; it was a very sad event and just about everybody said it was the saddest thing they had ever heard of. Who in the world would want to harm Mrs. Melaney, the sweetest, gentlest soul in the whole parish? How could anybody think there was to be anything gained from robbing a poor old lady living on a bare pension, just making ends meet? It was beyond Miss Curran and Mr. Perry and Ed Murphy and Mrs. Sikes, who kept the bakery.

It was a pleasant Sunday morning in May. Spring was in full promise, surprising the strolling folks with the newness of the leaves and how quickly they came. Before you knew it, there it was, all pink blossoms and fresh green grass already needing cutting. The breezes were soft and scented, wafting the scrubbed cheeks of the faithful. On such a morning as this, Mrs. Melaney walked to church.

St. Joseph’s wasn’t far from where she lived. Mrs. Melaney just had to go along Lex for six blocks and then turn left for two. Even in the winter she walked it and only took the stick if it was icy. This Sunday was no different from any other, except the weather was pretty hot. Mrs. Melaney thought the flaming New York sun would roast her good and early this year. Still, she was wearing the real wool underneath. She thought what she’d be like as a girl on a day like this, all flighty in blue and white gingham, with curling hair blond as butter in the same sun.

“Mrs. Melaney was mugged at the eight o’clock service,” announced Ed Murphy to the whole shop.

Everybody looked up, but now that Ed got their early morning attention, he just hummed over the large square tray of fresh jelly doughnuts.

Mrs. Sikes, manageress of Glaser’s, studied the reactions of the others before she exclaimed, “Now, Ed Murphy, you don’t mean it!”

But Ed did mean it, and he confirmed it again without even looking up from the unlimited assortment of doughnuts. He picked one, guessing it was cherry.

“Sure do. Sure as I’m eating this, this cherry jelly doughnut here.”

Ed played this guessing game every morning now, ever since he was laid off two months ago. He worked on construction when he worked, and he lived up over the bakery, so he was a regular.

“The poor soul,” commented Miss Curran, musing on the choice between chocolate eclairs and coconut macaroons. She called herself a retired spinster and she always wore blushing pink, no mater what. When she first heard Miss Curran call her that, Mrs. Sikes wondered, “If she’s a spinster, I’d like to know what she retired from.”

“Couldn’t happen to a nicer lady.”

They all glanced guffawing looks at Mr. Perry.

“Well, you know what I mean,” he countered. Mr. Perry was the independent type, a former tie man for the railroad. He was in often to pick up sweets to surprise his invalid wife.

Mrs. Sikes hurriedly tied up Mrs. Perry’s order of rum-and-butter bonbons. She got confused in her attempt to pump Ed for details, got tangled in the miles of twine twirling down from the bobbin on the ceiling. Ed soothed her frustration by gallantly offering his stubby finger to hold the string in place for the final bow on the white box.

Mrs. Melaney rounded the corner at Eighty-seventh, and then? Only two more blocks. Of course her hair wasn’t blond anymore. “To think of it! Me with these old grey threads, all knots and tangles like my sewing basket.” But her hair was all even and meticulously neat, and braided too, like that little girl’s, except now the braids were tied up on top. She wore a little pillbox hat, nice and black, with little pink porcelain berries on one side. Mrs. Melaney always said she wasn’t much for dressing up, so she just wore a simple housedress under her navy blue gabardine. But Mrs. Melaney looked dressed up anyhow, with her white gloves and that hat.

Mrs. Melaney has a habit of pinching her purse with the index finger and thumb of her left hand. Her marriage hand, she used to call it. She was left-handed. “I do everything with my marriage hand,” she’d say. Her husband was long gone now, a good Irish man, a token taker for the city after he came home from the war. Mrs. Melaney didn’t have any large purses. She didn’t go in for lugging around all her worldly goods with her. No, it wasn’t much bigger than a fair-sized billfold. It was black, all Morocco leather, with a real gold clasp, and it had lasted since the twenties themselves. Mrs. Melaney would hold it out from herself like it was a sign or something hot. She really held it as if it was something she didn’t want to be part of her person.

“Now, Ed, you tell us about it,” said Mrs. Sikes, anxiously tucking in her hairnet. She was a fairly hefty woman, you could tell as she crossed her enormous arms over her even more enormous bosom.

Mr. Perry also nudged Ed on, even tempted him with a twinkling eye.

“Yes, give us the low down, Ed boy.”

Ed Murphy gave the details between muffled chomps.

“Well, they held her up, gun and all. Heard they got over fifty in cash, and jewels too. Met Mrs. Long. She told me.”

“Oh, they’d be just rhinestones,” said Miss Curran.

“Wonder that’s all they got. She’s the type that’d tote her life savings around in her bag,” said Mr. Perry, adjusting his big glasses.

Mrs. Sikes tapped her fat fists on the marble ledge and proclaimed, “Well, she don’t spend too much in here, but she’s regular. In every Monday morning, about right now.”

Mrs. Melaney was nearly there. The others were walking up to St. Joe’s, some strolling and some strutting. They looked hazy to her but she’d know a lot of those faces if they were up close. Mrs. Melaney’s eyes weren’t too good, in fact they were much worse than last year: “The left one is almost caput on me,” she’d say every time she had to squint at something. Still and all, she picked up some familiar faces, like Dora Long and Aggie Dunsford, old auxiliary ladies from before the war. Oh, they had some times, some square dancing and bingos. Bean suppers were the best. They’d laugh, this generation, if you ever went and suggested it now. Mrs. Melaney was thinking all this as she passed by the great iron gates, the big black fence like prison bars capturing the church. Then she found the opening, the heavy bars parted where you could walk a dozen abreast.

It’ll be good to get seated. Oh, pooh is me. Mrs. Melaney thought she just had enough wind and will to mount the seven steps. All she could think of was her rocker, with her feet up on the oven door. The vestibule was pretty tiny for such a large church, no room to congregate around after Mass. There was a door on either side leading up to the choir loft. They were heavy and oaken and the upper half of each one had six panes of glass. That was just a little detail Mrs. Melaney picked up for no real reason. Now she settled into her usual pew very near the back, easy to get out.

The Mass started. It wasn’t her nice Monsignor Byrne, who was so gentle and understanding in confession. There was a new priest who sounded German. He gave readings and pretty soon poured the wine out. The consecration was coming up. Christ is God, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. Mrs. Melaney repeated it to herself even after the others finished, the whole story summed up in those three simple points.

Mrs. Melaney squirmed in her seat a bit. She just automatically got fidgety at St. Joe’s. She liked it better in the old days, before they put in those modern lamps—flimsy things, flimsy as venetian blinds, and that just what they looked like. And before they turned the alter around the wrong way, and that God-awful new thing of Mary, that big blue oval sky and her standing on a purple cliff. Mrs. Melaney was grateful at least they kept the stained glass windows. “At least you know you’re in a church,” she told herself. The bell rang, she received. Back in her seat she thanked God for herself and her three men.

Mrs. Melaney had two boys, Brenden and Davey. But they were dead now, killed at war. Brenden was killed in France in some funny place that she couldn’t pronounce, but it wasn’t one of the more famous battles. He was on sentry duty and got shot in the back. Some said he was sleeping on the job, but Mrs. Melaney never believed that. Not her boy. No, her Brenden was an unsung hero and now he was lost in lonely obscurity. So Mrs. Melaney prayed for her older boy. Davey went to war too—Korea. His tank ran over a mine on his first day in action. And that was harder to take, for he was the young one. Now Mrs. Melaney prayed for Davey too.

Mrs. Melaney had a husband, big Dave Melaney, red hair and all. He could drink all of Yorkville under the table. But Dave was never late for work. He used to say if he had a nickel for every token he took, and Mrs. Melaney would jump right in and say if he had a Hail Mary for every one. He was a good man for all. He never raised a hand to the boys, never. And he cried more than she did when they went. Mrs. Melaney was losing the flow of the Mass, getting carried away praying for her three men. Oh, Mother of Perpetual Help, pray for me and my three men.

She always left before the last blessing to avoid the crowds, so she blessed herself in advance. Anyway, she didn’t want to stand around in that tiny vestibule gossiping with everybody and getting sore feet. On the way, she fussed in her purse for a quarter for the poor box. remember the poor, the sign said. Mrs. Melaney almost said, “You can say that again. “But that would be getting uppity with our Lord. God bless the poor.

Somebody, some boys, were cramped in behind the glass, behind the door up to the choir loft. They rapped on the pane. They meant to call her over. The holy water font was next to the door and Mrs. Melaney blessed herself one last time. The door opened and wedged her in a bit. Such a tiny vestibule for a big church. Then he yanked her. The boy with the dark skin. Mrs. Melaney couldn’t tell if it was a tan or not. They twisted her arm and grabbed the purse from her left hand. Then more hands than she could count scrambled into her purse. Not a word was spoken; it was as quiet as in the church.

Mrs. Melaney saw the knife close to her eye, flashing like the wing of a bird or a child’s mirror in the sun. Was that her face reflected there? But quickly she couldn’t tell; an elbow bumped her glasses, the bifocals pushed up a little, part of the knife was bigger, like a pencil sticking out of a glass of water. Mrs. Melaney saw her nose neatly bisected, the left nostril twice as big as the right. Then a sharp pain in her side, as if she had been jabbed with a sharp object. It was much like the pain she got once when she banged into her kitchen counter at home. Mrs. Melaney had a charming little walk-up flat on the second floor with lots of light, so it was full of plants all the time. But all she could think of now was the wound in the side of our Lord and the blood of forgiveness flowing after that soldier’s sword. Mercy!

There were five youths in all. Five! Can you imagine? Five big hulking boys taking a little old lady like that. They only got three dollars and change for their pains. Lucky they didn’t get the big stuff. Mrs. Melaney had four twenties folded in four so they fitted exactly behind her Social Security card. All you could see was her name and number showing through the piece of plastic. Now one very impudent boy flings her purse in the corner and a few articles fly out. But Mrs. Melaney boldly asks that young man to pick up her purse. He does. And now those things too, over there. He obliges. And as the boy bends facing her with the field of his eagle-winged leatherback, Mrs. Melaney wishes she’d brought her stick. I’d knock the living daylights out of him. And only the Lord knew Dora Long came out at that moment. She was just stricken dumb seeing it.

“It’s a crying shame. You’re not even safe in church anymore,” said Mrs. Perry.

“Well, you know how she carries her purse, don’t you?” responded Mrs. Sikes, nodding her head sharp as a woodpecker.

“Huh? How’s that?” asked Ed Murphy, licking the last traces of jelly from his fingers.

“Well, she just holds it out like she was giving it away to you.”

“Like what?” asked Ed, wondering what she could mean.

Mrs. Sikes picked up a Danish and pinched it Melaney style, poked a hole in her own Danish so she couldn’t sell it anymore. But it made the point because they all nodded in agreement.

“I know, it’s awful,” sighed Miss Curran, slowly shaking her head.

“Don’t surprise me none then,” said Mr. Perry.

Mrs. Melaney scurried down the steps feeling pretty brave in spite of what just happened. She almost wanted to call back t those robbers and laugh at them for not finding her four folded bills. Ragamuffins. Not even clean. What their mothers must go through with them. She was almost past poor Mr. Hemmell, the deli man, before she noticed him. Mr. Hemmell had a secret crush on Mrs. Melaney, but nothing ever came of it, perhaps because Mrs. Melaney was very prejudiced against German sausage: “‘Worst’ is a good name for it.” She’d take a good old Irish blood pudding any day. But Mrs. Melaney waved back and called out hi to Mr. Hemmell.

Well, she had to slow down. She was running and not even realizing it. When she got home, Mrs. Melaney actually skipped up the stoop. It was not till she was safe in her own kitchen, with her coat and hat hung up, that the full shock of it all hit. “It happened to me. Heavens!” The sound of her own voice frightened her as she toppled into her rocker. “Oh, I’m poohed. I have to have my tea.”

The kettle whistled. The boiling water poured into the little porcelain teapot, some spilling on the linoleum. Mrs. Melaney paced while it steeped, passing the little mirror the Lord knows how many times, each time looking in to see if she was all right, settling that one troublesome braid in place. It was fair enough to take a nerve pill now. She shook as she poured the hot tea into a dainty teacup. Her tea set she’d never part with: best china, pure white with four-leaf clovers all around the edges. “That’d be me, the lucky one.”

The pain came back to her side again. It was stinging now like little needle pricks that don’t go too deep. And she felt she was perspiring. “And me not well.” For a moment Mrs. Melaney couldn’t remember when she last bumped into the countertop. She kept staring at the Sacred Heart calendar, wondering about it. She wanted a biscuit but she was fresh out, too poohed to reach up to the cupboard even if she had some. Then, right on the spot, Mrs. Melaney took off her things, her dress, her slip, right down to whatever. There was blood. She had a wound in her side.

After Mrs. Melaney had cleaned the cut with cold water and applied a thick piece of gauze, she got ready. She put on another dress, scooped a handful of change from Dave’s old shaving mug, grabbed her walking stick for protection, and went out and hailed a cab. “Lenox Hill Hospital, young man. Emergency. What? I’ve been mugged. I’m just dandy, thank you, now hurry up.” Mrs. Melaney secretly thought the driver looked like one of the lot, that long hair and droopy mustache, and Lord only knows when he last washed.

Mrs. Melaney thought she took a little fainting spell at the hospital, but wasn’t sure. It was the drug, made her feel all woozy, but soft and smiling. The doctors were so nice, except they told the cops and that started the whole uproar. All those officers fussing around her like she was some movie star needing an escort. And the questions. But Mrs. Melaney felt better when that nice young doctor with the blond hair gave her another one of those needles. Later, back in her rocker, Mrs. Melaney put her feet up and spent the whole Sunday evening wondering what her three men would do if they knew about these goings on. You’d have to tie them up to hold them down.

“Well, look at that, would you? At least she’s walking,” exclaimed Ed Murphy, pointing out through the shop window.

And indeed, there was Mrs. Melaney, stepping up to Glaser’s. She had the stick but she was still pretty spry. She even looked summery in a nice powder blue dress trimmed with nice white lace, and not even a hat. But she had her purse with her.

“Mercy, she’s a brave one,” cried Miss Curran.

“Don’t let on anything though,” warned Mrs. Sikes.

Mr. Perry clapped his fist in his palm and exclaimed, “You can’t keep an old horse down.”

Mrs. Sikes mused out loud, “Every Monday for years. Gets her raisin tea biscuits right here.”

Now they all prepare themselves for Mrs. Melaney’s entrance. She’s almost on the step. The bakeshop is perfectly quiet except for the slow persistent humming of the fan over one of the stoves. Mrs. Sikes brushes her floured hands on her little daffodil apron while Mr. Perry pushes his glasses back up on his nose straight. Ed Murphy simply clears his throat. Miss Curran instinctively clutches her purse more tightly. They all stand still, endearing, waiting to proffer their solicitous smiles to an enduring Mrs. Melaney.

[Correction: Lenox Hill Hospital was spelled as “Lennox” when this story originally saw print. As mentioned elsewhere, Taddle Creek’s first two issues were not fact checked and are not to be trusted. Nevertheless, Taddle Creek regrets the error.]

Keneth Doiron is the former owner of Ken’s Fine Books, in Mirvish Village. Last updated Christmas, 1998.