Mary Margaret Phillips wondered how she would explain to her grandmother what she’d done.Blasphemy, Maery Margaret—that’s against God’s will—she’d say.
Well, Mamie would just have to understand.
She hunched over The Trib aware of her small size even as she sat at the kitchen table. Like some Celtic elf, she needed to get in front of others at art exhibits and parades. Didn’t like it, though. Didn’t like most of who she was. She had the junk Irish skin: freckled and thin, prone to burn. Still, there was something powerful about her build—a granite thickness you could feel in her forearms and calves. Good Irish stock, Mamie had always said. Fit as a fiddle and ready to take on the Orangemen. Right, dearie?She had never really believed that. Certainly couldn’t now.
She looked up from the Trib which she hadn’t been reading anyway—some human interest story on a community sponsored neighborhood assistance program. Instead she looked about the kitchen, which was a museum of sorts. The memories. One wall held three of Petey’s crayola’d portraits: he drawn them at the age of twelve. He’d been good at catching expressions. Hers had that mild surprise she’d show in her eyebrows when she was about to ask a question. Petey had called it the just-before look. Jack’s picture highlighted his chiseled features—sparkling eyes, full, movie-star lips that looked like some blonde bombshell was going to walk right up to him and plant one square on his kisser.
Then his self portrait. He got the curly red hair just right, but there was something off in the mouth. It was an old man’s mouth, one that captured all the wisdom of a Tibetan sage in its tilt. She couldn’t look at Petey’s face for long before the yearning started to fill the room. Then it solidified, became weighty. And she’d carry it around on her back as though it was a wet mattress she couldn’t toss off. Such a sweet ache.
She tried to focus on something neutral. She looked over at the pots and pans that lined the other wall in graduated sizes, shining, ready to be plucked off with the sweep of a hand. Small comfort. They reminded her how she used to love to cook—the smells, the clanging of stainless steel lids, the stirrings of pots. When she still cooked, she had loved the pirouette ease of her kitchen from refrigerator to sink to stove. She could bounce from one to the other like Tinker to Evers to Chance, the Chicago Cub legend come to life in the whip-throw of her physical kitchen steps.
Petey would like that she’d remembered that baseball litany he’d taught her.
She looked around the room desperate to catch a freeze-frame from life before. A photo on the calendar tripped one—walking along Glencoe Beach, she took in its lake-rich shore: smooth, jewel colored beach glass hidden between mottled pebbles and the nacreous remains of mussels. She saw the seagulls squealing like toothless crones over half-eaten fish, and remembered how the wind had whipped her hair. She had drunk from its wild energy as though it came from a flask. Now she couldn’t take a deep breath without needing another to catch the first. Her energy was gone.
A plastic container rested on the kitchen table. Inside was the Vicodin she had saved from a root canal last fall. Little white ovals. One on top of the other looking more like Tic-Tacs that promised fresh breath, than pills that would bring eternal sleep.
From the living room, the grandfather clock struck eight. Mary Margaret closed her eyes and thought, OK, this is it. And with that she leaned on the table with both hands and pushed herself up from the stiff-backed, maple chair.
“Last mental-health day,” she muttered. Then she chuckled softly, surprised that she could find anything funny being crouched on the ledge like this. Blessings of an Irish sense of humor she’d gotten from Mamie. Ah Mamie. And with that a memory popped up like a bubble from the bottom of a simmering pan. There she stood with auburn hair clamped in a soft twist at the back of her head, her hands a little wet from washing dishes, or stirring a pot of chicken and dumplings, or wiping away tears from raucous laughter. “Keep your chin up, girlie, there’s no other way to go through life!” Then she would grab Mary Margaret and hug her close to her roomy bosom and whisper the “Hail Mary” into her ear…now and at the hour of our death. Amen.
And Mary Margaret would chime in. Amen.
And she whispered now. “Amen.“
With that, she stood up, looked out the window, and noticed the leaden clouds that congregated above the treetops. And there was Ellen, her next-door neighbor, who stood on her brown-stained deck waging war against winter leaves with an old corn broom.
“Think that sun’s ever going to poke through these infernal clouds, Mary Em?” Ellen yelled, hand cupped to the side of her mouth ever reminding Mary Margaret of a mole with her squinty-eyes and upturned-nose.
Mary Margaret shrugged her shoulders through the window at Ellen.
“S’posed to be nice this afternoon, though!”
Ellen was always pontificating, predicting, warning of dire weather conditions and political turbulence. Never doubted herself for even one minute. Sure. That’s what she was. Sure.
Mary Margaret waved good-bye through the glass, then turned away, walked to the sink, and poured out the last of her coffee, the dregs staining the porcelain—mortal sin seeping into a soul.
There was a knock at the door. “Be right there…” Mary Margaret called, wiping her hands on the kitchen towel. Ellen probably had a bit of gossip she didn’t want to yell for all the world to hear. She’d listen. Then get rid of her. And then get on with it.
But after crossing the kitchen and turning into the back hall, she could see an old black man standing on the other side of the door where Ellen should have been. Strange that the sight of him worried her. Strange that even though she wanted to do herself in, the thought of someone else taking away from her what was hers, brought this foreboding.
Quickly, Mary Em stepped back and worried her jaw into silent prayer. Help me. Mamie. Help me.She used to pray to God. To Jesus with his flowing robes and pageboy hairdo when she was in grade school, then the Virgin Mary by the time she filled a bra. Then God Himself, the beard-flowing Almighty, when she got older. But prayer to the Almighty dissolved when her life came apart. Now all she could do in time of need was think of Mamie. Of her all-encompassing arms and lilting voice. Of what Mary Emhoped God would be like. And the cry for help would spring to her lips. Help me, Mamie. Don’t leave me alone, Mamie. Help me.
And then the Amen.
Mary Em tried to keep her voice calm as she cracked the door. “…may I help you?” She pressed her cheek tightly against its edge.
“Yes, Miss.” The old man smiled and waited, his hands hanging limply at his sides. His eyes were the color of bark, the whites a rheumy yellow. He was tall, but slightly bent and lanky like a forest sapling stretching its reach for sunlight.
“I don’t buy anything door-to-door…” she started, embarrassed at her own remark. Still, something in the intensity of his gaze made her want to shut that door. And lock it tight.
The old man laughed softly and in doing so revealed crooked teeth rimmed by mottled gums. “I don’t have anything to sell you, Miss.” He held his hands out, palms up, close to his sides. Mary Margaret was struck with the slowness of his movements, like lazy backwaters of some summertime lake, and she felt her shoulders descend a little.
“I just need a little drink, Miss. I’ve been walking for such a long time.” There was just the slightest edge of a Southern lilt in his voice. He closed his mouth and with this his eyes softened. “Water, please, Miss. I sure could use a glass of water.”
The sight of him troubled her. Brought up childhood memories. Packs of young blacks used to rove downtown, crowding the sidewalks, scaring her off to the other side, mixing a stew of guilt and fear with each step she took to cross the street.
“Sure. Just stay right there; I’ll get you some.” Mary Em closed the door, and walked quickly to the sink.
She carried the glass back through the kitchen. Cautiously, she opened the wooden door again, then the screen, and passed the water out to him. Her mouth flattened into a stiff line of resistance. The same guilt and fear from childhood crowded inside every cell in her body, closing their borders as they prepared for assault.
But as he lifted the glass to his wide lips, he guzzled the water down, and she noticed the pleasure that creased the corners of his eyes as he drank.
“Thank you, Miss.” He held the glass for her to take. “My name’s Mosley Albright. But most everybody calls me Ol’ Mosley.” He smiled a cripple-toothed grin.
“How do you do,” Mary Em hesitated, “…Ol’ Mosley. Nice to meet you.”
Ol’ Mosley remained at the backdoor looking into Mary Margaret’s eyes so steadily she had to look away.
“Well, I’m glad I could—“ She wanted to end this back door conversation but didn’t know how to finish her sentence.
“I don’t suppose you could direct me to the train station from here, Miss?” Ol’ Mosley looked down at his canvas sneakers which must have once been a navy blue. Holes had been cut on either edge where his baby toes, crooked as doglegs, pushed through the slashes.
“It’s four blocks straight down the street.” She pointed from inside the screen. “You can’t miss it…”
“Thank you, Miss. I’ll just be going now.” Ol Mosley waved his hand as though tipping a cap and walked down the sidewalk that ran back of her house.
Mary Em watched him walk away, relieved that he was leaving her property. She let her face relax along with her shoulders. Then she let out her breath. And with that, she allowed herself to look out past where Ol’ Mosley had guzzled water, past the garage where its bright blue window box awaited its spring plantings, deep into the back yard where her husband had so often stood. And there she saw him again. Jack. With rake in hand, he stared off into the woods that ran behind their lot, thinking God knows what.
Whatever had she done wrong?
Jack’s departure still left her speechless, made her feel like she was lost in the middle of a forgotten line of a favorite song. She’d been so kind, so careful to cater to his odd whims and peculiar tastes. Why hadn’t she been able to keep him interested in her comfortable self? Wasn’t that what Mamie had always said: “Maery Margaret, you’re comfortable as an old shoe”? But every time she thought of his quirks—like his taste for chicken livers wrapped in bacon on Friday nights, or clean sheets every Monday morning to start the week off right—she dismissed their peculiar bent, focusing instead on her mistakes. Her bacon had been too crispy to wrap the chicken livers properly, or her hospital corners had been too soft to stay tucked in or—and this was weirdest of all—her toes had been too industrial-looking. He’d actually said that once. “Mary Em, you know you’ve got industrial-looking toes?” And she’d accepted that, too, as fact more than criticism.
What could anyone do about something like that?
“Miss, could you tell me again which way I’m supposed to go?” It was Ol’ Mosley. “Right or left?” She’d neither heard him nor seen him return.
Mary Em tried to pretend she wasn’t startled. “Oh, I was…oh…”
“That’s all right, Miss, you just go on remembering. I could see you thinking about something important…” Ol’ Mosley tilted his head to the side then let his eyes close as though he was sharing in her memory.
Mary Em stared at Ol’ Mosley disturbed by this odd intimacy. “Uh, I think I’d better close the door now. It’s getting a little cold. Don’t want to let all that cold air inside, you know.” She attempted a laugh. “Train station isn’t too far. Keep walking for four blocks to the right as you face the street.” Again, she waved him off.
Then she shut the door, walked back to the kitchen table, glad to be rid of him. Anxious to be off for the train herself.
She looked around the kitchen one more time. Her last. It had been such a cozy place, site of so many pancake breakfasts, of roasting beef on Sundays, of chocolate cakes and cinnamon cookies at birthdays and Christmases, and of pizza dough on the rise. Her homemade pizza had been Petey’s and Jack’s favorite. And how she glowed when Jack filled his plate with second and even third helpings of her deep-dish special. She looked around the kitchen again. A knot rose in her throat. This was a leave-taking she hadn’t expected. Hadn’t he ever thought to ask her where she wanted to go on vacation, or what she wanted for dinner, or when she thought she’d like to leave for church? She glimpsed at her reflection in the small, round mirror that hung over the breakfast table. Frowned a bit at the sight of herself. A freckly face framed by that eternally frizzy hair, an exposure that often made her feel vulnerable. Her gaze slid to her eyes.
Who was it that stared back?
She patted the letter she’d placed on top of the kitchen table and looked out the window at Ellen’s broom which leaned against the railing of her deck. Mary Em grabbed her wooly beret from its hook and pulled it down close to her eyes. Carefully, she picked up the orange plastic vial, placed it inside her purse, right next to the corkscrew, and looked around the room once more.
It felt like she was leaving on a ship bound for England, watching everyone she knew and all that she loved getting smaller and smaller as the ship left port. She lifted her arm as though to wave, then dropped it at her side.
Mary Em stepped through the front door and trudged down the six, chipped concrete steps, her purse tucked carefully under her arm. She walked under Camille, the tree she and Jack had named for its owner who planted it as a grudge meant to separate her line of sight from their front porch. Oddly, Camille, the tree, bore that grudge through its very pores—cancerous-looking galls spotted the undersides of its leaves every year which it would shed all over both front yards long before autumn caused the others to drop theirs. It was as though the tree was saying through its premature denuding, “See? This is what comes of it.” Looking up, Mary Em noticed the fat buds on Camille’s wavering arms and wondered if they knew what they were destined for.
“Mary Em. Mary Em.” Suddenly Ellen was by her side, four inches shorter, out of breath, and annoyed. As usual. “Didn’t you hear me calling you?” Ellen’s dumpling body complemented her tiny, moley face. “I ran as soon as I saw you leave…”
“You going to the store?” Ellen slid into cadence with Mary Em’s steps. “Because I am heading that way. Going to the Village Hall. I’ve had just about enough of this bullshit.”
“Huh? No…the train.” Mary Margaret frowned. “What bullshit?” She didn’t want to ask, didn’t want to know, but Ellen would tell her anyway.
“I saw that old guy at your back door. What’d he want? I heard from Julianna down the block that he’s been around for a couple of days now. We’ve put the police on alert.” Ellen scrunched up her face and raised an index finger to the air. “I think he’s getting nervous. I think that’s why he’s leaving. See?” Ellen lowered her finger and pointed, and sure enough there was Ol’ Mosley walking a block ahead of them. “But I’m going to tell them he hasn’t left the neighborhood yet.” Ellen shook her head.
“I don’t think he means any harm.” Mary Em watched his scuffly gait and wondered how he could be trouble for anyone. Too old. Like Mamie at the end. Mamie, who’d been so robust all her life. All of a sudden Mamie’s skin had shriveled to crepe paper and her color had softened to fireplace ash. Her breathing came hard and her step lost its vigor. One foot able to scoot along the floor in a half-hearted limp, the other gamely trying to lift what the other one could no longer do. Mary Em had watched the energy leave Mamie’s body, dirty dishwater down a slow-moving drain. Something in the old man’s movement reminded her of that soft descent. She could see that now.
“I really don’t think he means any—“
“Well, I intend to see that he leaves town. I told JB I’d tail him to the station and if I didn’t see him get on the 8:42, I’d call him.” JB was Ellen’s diabetic husband. Never left the house. Rarely left the easy chair plunked right in front of a sixty-inch flat screen TV. Ellen nodded her head again. Sure as a toad’s tongue.
And still Ellen jabbered on about the changes in Northbrook over the past forty years.
Mary Em felt weary, phased her out. She just wanted to be alone. She wanted to place one foot in front of the other, needing to think about her plan. She was going to take the train, get off at Union Station, walk to the Art Institute, and visit her favorite paintings one last time—Winslow Homer’s Herring Nets, Alfred Dow’s Boats at Rest, and, of course, the best, Mary Cassatt’s The Child’s Bath. Something in each got to the root of the trouble that plagued her soul. She wanted to gaze into the seascape one last time, to study the blue of the dinghy next to the coral of the weeds, to look at the loving bend in the mother’s back, to recall some beauty she’d known in this world. Then she could leave it. She had picked the place, too. At the edge of the Shedd Aquarium right on its curved pier. At the back away from sight. She’d buy herself a glass of wine, maybe a bottle, sit on the concrete abutment, and swallow the pills one at a time. Get whoozy, lose her balance, and fall right in. Too cold for anyone else to be around. Too cold for it to take long. She’d done her homework.
Except Ellen kept up the patter. “I mean, I’m not against blacks or anything, but people who come to our doors looking for handouts. It’d be one thing if we knew they were legit, but these days, you got to protect yourself. I heard Nancy Chisholm from over on Chestnut say that three peddlers came to her door. In one day. And they all wanted her to buy magazines or candy. For a good cause, they all said. Yeah, right. Good drugs is more like it.” Ellen’s mouth looked like someone had punched it in.
Up ahead, Mosley Albright shuffled along.
“Well, I’m off, Mary Em.” Ellen started to walk down Angle Street, then turned back. “Keep your eye on him, will you, Mary Em. Let me know if he gets on the train. OK? You have your cell phone with you. Right?”
Mary Em nodded at Ellen. She didn’t have her cell phone with her. Left it sitting on the kitchen table. She wouldn’t need it where she was going. She watched Ellen stride away down the street, a meaningful swing to her arms.
She was gaining on Ol’ Mosely. She didn’t want to face him, not after he’d closed his eyes and joined in her thoughts. And not after what she’d said about not wanting to let all the cold inside her house. They both knew that was a lie. So she steeled herself and clutched her purse tighter to her side as she hurried past him. Didn’t want to miss the 8:42 or else she’d have to wait another hour for the next train.
Ol’ Mosley’s head turned as she whipped past. He stopped for a second watching her speed up on the sidewalk. He arched an eyebrow and cocked his head. “You think I’m just some ol’ black man,” he spoke under his breath. And then began to chuckle. “Just some ol’ nigger…”
As Mary Em crossed the train tracks, a cold wind snapped at the hem of her trench coat. Off in the distance, she could hear the train’s wail and with it, she felt a tug on her insides so profound she thought a hatch had opened up in the bottom of her stomach and dragged her soul into some algae-riddled well. She swallowed hard. Keep moving. Don’t think.
She looked down at her wrist to see how much time she had left. The face of her Bulova wristwatch with its large Roman numerals at the quarters brought Petey back to mind. Again. She’d casually mentioned that she didn’t like digital watches, that the hum of an Acutron, that the garishness of a Swatch jarred her. She commented on how the mechanical movement of older watches gave her comfort, calmed her down; so Petey, God love him, had gotten right to work, had found it for her birthday at the Hadassah House. He had presented her with it, wrapped up in blue tissue paper and tied with gold string. The smile on his face was anything but wry or sagelike then. How he’d smiled. Light from that grin lit up his whole being. Made his hair look like it was on fire.
She could hardly catch her breath. Every thought of him became a gloved fist which sucker-punched her square in the solar plexus. The train station stood In front of her with its turreted roof and cozy brick façade, but nothing looked familiar for a moment. Where am I? She stood still, unable to move.
The announcer’s voice trumpeted over the PA system: “Train approaching the station. Please. stand back behind the yellow line. Train heading for Chicago.” The crossing gates were going down. Bells clanged. She turned completely around. Mosley was closing in.
Quickly, she grabbed for the door and hurried inside bumping her purse against its steel edge, spilling its contents to the red brick floor. The Vicodin rolled crazily across the floor sounding like a child’s rattle. She scrambled to pick up the scattered contents—wallet, lipstick, Kleenex. “Train coming into the station. Please have your tickets ready for the conductor on the inside of the train…Train heading for Chicago. Stand back, please.” Where was the Vicodin? Where was it? Where?
“Did you drop this, Miss?” Ol’ Mosley’s arm was extended in front of him holding the vial between thumb and fingertips.
Mary Em tried to find words. Instead she nodded, fought back the tears that threatened her resolve.
Mosley shuffled closer. “I think you could use a little help, Miss.”
Mary Em took the Vicodin from his hand, just the slightest touch between them feeling like a dry wind.
“You don’t have to say anything, Miss. I know. I know about you. Your sorrow is big enough to fill this whole depot.” He moved his eyes from hers then walked over to the counter to get his ticket.
Mary Em put the pills back inside her purse and walked up behind him. He turned, looked at her out of the corners of his eyes. “Chicago? Union Station? You going there, too?”
She stared into those bark-colored eyes, mute before the master.
“Would you like this ol’ black man to accompany you to your destination?”
She could hardly hear his question for the rush and clang of the 8:42 pulling into the station.
But she nodded. Kept looking into those eyes.
“Well, all right, then…” Ol’ Mosley smiled softly. “I think it’s time we got on the train.”