I wrote this short story last year, and it is one of my all-time favorites. I like it so much, I’ve thought about expanding it into a novel someday. I got one of my favorite complements about my writing in regard to this story. A lady whose opinion I greatly respect told me this story reminded her of Fannie Flagg’s writing. (If you are unfamiliar with Fannie Flagg, she is the author of “Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe.”) So, this story has a lot of warm fuzzies attached for me. I hope you enjoy it! If you do, please leave a comment!
Meeting Mary Malone
Three terrible things happened to me the day I met Mary Malone. The first thing that happened was I locked myself out of my house on the day my husband had to drive three hours for a meeting. There was no way he could come home to let me in. I didn’t even call him to say what happened. There was no point. I had at least four and a half hours until he would get home. So, I sat down on the swing hanging from the oak tree in the backyard. It was just a worn board seat, left behind by the previous owners. My husband, Kenny, and I had just bought our first house, and moved in the week before. I hadn’t had a chance to hide a spare key under Woody, our garden gnome. He was still packed in a box.
Feeling very sorry for myself, I started to cry. I pushed myself back and forth with the toe of my tennis shoe, watching the patch of bare dirt under the swing scuff with each push. The crying is probably why I didn’t notice the pft, pft of her oxygen tank. I didn’t know she was there until she asked, “What are you crying about?”
I looked up with a start. She was short and squat. Her overlarge glasses made her eyes look like big, wet chocolates. She had chin length gray hair, the color of a tin can. It was straight, but curled under at the ends, a sort of half-hearted bob. She wore purple, elastic waist capris, the kind my grandma wears, and a white t-shirt that said “Arizona” in purple script below a screen printed picture of the Grand Canyon. The shirt was too tight, and there was a food stain on her pouchy belly. She wore fuzzy, blue slippers, worn down flat in the back. With her right hand, she clutched the handle of a portable oxygen tank. With her left hand, she clutched the chain link fence that separated our backyards.
“Are you okay?” she asked when I didn’t respond to her original question. Her accent was definitely New York.
“Yes.” I sniffed, and nodded.
“Why are you crying then?” Her breathing was labored, and I wondered if the oxygen tube snaking up behind her ears and down to her flaring nostrils was doing any good.
“I locked myself out of the house.” I stood from the swing, but didn’t know what to do with myself.
“Don’t you have a spare key?”
“It’s in the house, too. I hadn’t thought to hide one outside yet, and my husband is at work. I’m just going to have to wait for him to come home.”
“That’s too bad, but it’s nothing to cry about.” She was leaning forward now, clutching the fence hard as sweat beaded on her wrinkled forehead.
“I know.” I was embarrassed to be caught crying over something silly, and I felt defensive. “I’ve just been having a really bad week. Month, really.”
She arched one gray eyebrow at me. “Why don’t you come over and wait in the air conditioning? It’s hotter than Hell out here.”
Not knowing what else to do, I said, “Ok.”
I unlatched the gate and crossed from my own neat yard into hers. Hers was much less neat. A variety of flowers bloomed in her flower beds, but they were choked with weeds. The ceramic turtles and frogs under the window of the house were barely visible, hidden by a mess of creepers. I followed behind her as she shuffled up the concrete sidewalk toward her back door. A large concrete birdbath stood next to the stoop. A headless St. Francis statue attached to the bath, and two little concrete sparrows sat on the edge.
Her labored breathing kept her from talking as we made our trek, slowly, from my place to hers. It wasn’t until she reached the sofa in her living room, collapsing with a heavy umph onto the worn, leather cushion, that she said, “I’m Mary Malone.”
“I’m Mary, too,” I said. “Mary Beth, actually.”
“Nice to meet you, Mary Beth.” The steady pht pht of the oxygen kept time as she struggled to breathe.
“Nice to meet you, too.” I looked around the room. It looked exactly like I would have imagined it to look. Dark paneled walls, covered in posed, family portraits from several different decades. A crocheted afghan folded over the back of the sofa. “Thank you for letting me come over. It really is hot outside.”
“No big deal.” Mary waved her hand as if she were shooing a fly. “I’ve been spying on you for a week, waiting to see if you would come introduce yourself.”
“I’m sorry.” I blushed, searching for an excuse. “We’ve been very busy.”
Mary laughed. “I know. I’ve been spying, remember?”
I smiled, unsure of what to say. Mary’s breathing had finally settled down.
“An old lady like me doesn’t have a lot to keep her entertained. It’s so damn sleepy here. I should have stayed in California. At least I can breathe there.”
“California?” I was surprised. “I assumed you were from New York.”
“Originally,” Mary nodded. “Moved to California back in ’77. Packed up my kids in the station wagon and drove across the country in a week. Left their sorry, son of a bitch dad in Brooklyn and never looked back.”
“Wow!” I was unaccustomed to hearing old ladies curse.
“It wasn’t the smartest thing I ever did.” Mary laughed, her oxygen tube jiggling against her chest. “I didn’t have enough money for motels, so we slept in the car. I let Tommy, my oldest, drive some during the day so I could sleep. He was thirteen.” Mary’s brown eyes sparkled as she saw my surprise. “Dumb kid put us in a ditch while I was sleeping! We were stuck out in the middle of nowhere. I had to walk out to this house, down this long gravel road. It was the only one around. Told the kids to lock the doors and not open them for anyone till I got back. Found an old man sitting on the back porch, whittling a stick, and chewing tobacco. I asked him to come help us, and you know what he did?”
“What?” I was thoroughly engrossed in Mary’s story.
“He called his damn wife out of the house to go help me!”
“No way!” Mary was obviously enjoying her story. She had leaned forward, watching my face intently.
“I swear it’s the truth!” Mary giggled, a sound much too girlish to come from her worn out body. “This old lady in a housedress, gray hair up in a bun, came out and got in this old pickup truck. She didn’t even let me ride with her! She just got in the truck and drove out to my car. By the time I walked back up the gravel road and got to where my car was, she had already hooked a chain up to the car. The kids were all sitting inside, looking half scared to death.” Mary giggled again, and wiped at her mouth with a wadded tissue. “I told them not to open the doors for anyone but me and they didn’t! I just stood there and watched as she got back in the truck, pulled the car out of the ditch, and then unhooked the chain. I tried to thank her, but she just got back in the truck and drove back to the house.”
I shook my head. “That’s crazy!”
“You’re telling me!” Mary laughed again, and scooted to the edge of her seat. She leaned forward and heaved herself to a standing position. “I’ll get us some iced tea.”
It was when Mary was in the kitchen that the second terrible thing happened. I felt it begin, and my heart immediately clenched with a violent pain. As my eyes filled with tears, I called out, “Mary, where’s your bathroom?”
“First door on your left down the hallway, Doll,” Mary called back.
I hurriedly followed her directions to a small bathroom, decorated in bright yellow. The shower curtain was yellow. The rugs were yellow. The towels hanging next to the sink were yellow. The cloth toilet lid cover was yellow. Even the soap was yellow.
I pushed my jean shorts down, and sat shakily on the toilet. The bright red blotch on the cotton crotch of my panties made me feel as if I was going to vomit. I choked back tears as I wiped myself. I folded a wad of toilet paper and stuck it in my underwear. I flushed the toilet, and gave in to the tears. I let the water in the sink run over my hands, hoping the sound of the water would muffle my crying.
After a much longer than respectable amount of time had passed, I wiped at my face with my shirt tail, and returned to the living room. Mary was back in place on the sofa, holding a glass of tea, and looking concerned. Once again she asked, “Why were you crying?”
Embarrassed, I simply said, “I got my period.”
“Well,” Mary offered a half smile. “I can’t say I’ve never felt that way before when Aunt Flo showed up.”
I didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t say anything.
“There are pads and tampons under the sink if you need them. My granddaughter’s.”
Without saying anything, I gratefully returned to the bathroom. I could hear the faint pht pht and the clinking of her ice cubes through the bathroom wall.
Thoroughly humiliated, I rejoined Mary in the living room and sat in the chair across from her. “I’m sorry,” I offered feebly.
“You’re not having a very good day, are you?” Mary asked sympathetically.
“No.” I sighed. “I was hoping…” I lost the motivation to explain myself, and simply let the words die.
“You were hoping you were pregnant,” Mary said.
I nodded miserably.
“I was a nurse for forty-seven years.” Mary said. “If I had a dollar for every time I saw a woman cry about getting her period, I’d be a rich woman.”
“We’ve been trying for two years,” I explained. “We started some new fertility drugs. I really thought this would be the month.”
“I had the opposite problem,” Mary said drolly. “I got pregnant every time Tom looked at me.”
I smiled half-heartedly.
“Tommy, then Theresa, then Frannie. All three just a year apart. Tom left when Frannie was a baby. Just walked out one day, and didn’t come back for four years. Came home out of the blue when Frannie was five and a half. Said he was sorry. Said he missed his family. A year later, Joe was born, and Tom left a few months later. I guess he missed his other family.” Mary held her fingers as if she had a cigarette between them. I wondered if that was the reason for the oxygen.
“How did you manage?” I asked.
“I worked my ass off!” Mary was matter-of-fact. “My little cousin, Jeanie, stayed with the kids at night while I worked the night shift at the hospital. It was okay once they were in school, but they got into all kinds of trouble when I was sleeping during the day. It’s a wonder they didn’t burn the apartment down.” Mary was leaning forward again, enjoying her audience. “That sorry son of a bitch tried to come back again when Joe was six. I told him to leave and never come back, but he said he couldn’t leave again. He needed his family back. I took all the money I had…which wasn’t much at all…packed up all our clothes and dishes, sold what little furniture we had to the neighbors, and headed to Los Angeles. I had a friend who got me a job at UCLA. Between Tommy and me driving, we got there in a week. We didn’t eat enough on the trip, but we survived.”
“Yeah,” Mary nodded, obviously proud of her younger self. “I had spunk, that’s for sure.”
“Where are your kids now?” I asked.
“Tommy and Teresa are both in California. Frannie went back to New York. She’s my wild one. I never know what she’s going to do. She does crazy stuff sometimes.” Mary winked at me. “Must have got that from her old mom!”
“I guess so,” I smiled. “What about Joe?”
Mary’s eyes darkened. “My baby Joe died years and years ago.” She pushed herself off the sofa, and retrieved a picture frame that was sitting on top of a bookshelf. She handed it to me, and sat back down. The photo was of a young man, probably still a teenager. He had shaggy blond hair and blue eyes. His expression was a sort of half smile. “He was in a car accident. Died a week later. It killed me.”
“How old was he?” I asked.
“Nineteen,” Mary said sadly. “Just a baby. He was my heart.”
“I’m so sorry.” I meant it. There was something particularly heartbreaking about an old lady calling a long dead son her baby, and seeing the pain still felt fresh.
“They say time heals, but it’s not always true.” Mary shook her head slowly, rolling an invisible cigarette between her fingers. “I’ve never got over losing my baby boy. I never will.”
Desperately needing a break from Mary’s sadness, I changed the subject. “How did you end up in Ohio?”
“My Frannie moved out here when she married her second husband. After she was out here for several months, I got cancer. She talked me into moving out here so she could take care of me. I came because I didn’t really think I would make it. I’ve watched a lot of patients die with cancer. I thought it would take me, too.” Mary shrugged. “But it didn’t. I got better. I bought this house and went back to work. Then Frannie up and left me here. Divorced that bastard husband of hers, and moved to New York. And here I am.”
“Just you?” I asked. “No family here?”
“My granddaughter, Ashley, is close by. She’s going to school in Cincinnati.” Mary sighed. “But she stays busy.”
“That’s life,” Mary said. “I’m thinking about going back to California. So I can breathe again.”
“Are you from here?” Mary asked.
I nodded. “Cincinnati.”
“How long you been married?” Mary seemed a lot less animated when she wasn’t talking about herself.
“Five years,” I answered. “I got married right out of college.”
“You don’t work.” Mary wasn’t asking. She had spied enough to know I didn’t leave the house.
“I’m a writer.” I said, but then, guilty, I added, “Aspiring writer.”
“My Joe was a writer.” Mary’s eyes lit up. “He was getting published about once a month before the accident. I was so proud of him!”
“That’s awesome.” I was jealous of a dead man.
“He always said he was going to write about traveling to California with me in that old station wagon.” Mary grinned. “He was only six. I don’t think he really remembers much about it, but he could tell the stories well enough from hearing the rest of us talk about it.”
“That would have definitely made a great story,” I agreed.
“Maybe you could write it,” Mary suggested. “I could tell you some stories, that’s for sure. You know, I had a lot of adventures in my day.”
“I believe you.”
“I should tell you about the time I attacked the nun at the kids’ school!” Mary’s eyes glinted with mischief behind her thick lenses.
Mary giggled again. “Sister Frances had it coming to her! Smacked my Frannie across the face. I showed up next day and backed that bitch into a corner. Poked my finger in her bony chest and told her she better not ever lay a hand on my daughter again.” Mary grinned at me. “She didn’t either.”
“I bet she didn’t.”
“That reminds me.” Mary looked hopefully at me. “My St. Francis statue. I knocked into him with my tank the other day, and broke his head off. I can’t get to it. It’s in the weeds. Can you help me with it?”
“Sure,” I nodded.
Mary heaved herself up again, just as laboriously as every other time she rose. The pft pft of her oxygen blended with the shh shh of her slippers on the hardwood as she shuffled toward the kitchen and the back door. I followed her, but she stopped short of the door. “I’m going to sit right here.” She indicated a straight backed kitchen chair. I watched her nostrils flare as she sat down. Pft pft. “I just can’t breathe worth a damn anymore.”
I looked through the glass of the storm door at St. Francis. “Where is his head?”
“It’s there in the corner,” Mary answered.
I stepped through the door, and that’s when the third terrible thing happened to me. I reached into the overgrown flower bed between the back stoop and the corner of the house, grabbed the decapitated head and stood up. I didn’t see it coming before I felt the sharp sting on my wrist. I screamed, and jumped back in a panic. There were yellow jackets flying up from the ground. Another one stung my bare leg as I dropped St. Francis’ head, and jerked the door open. I managed to get inside without another sting, but I was already beginning to panic.
I looked at Mary and said, “I’m allergic.”
Mary looked alarmed. She grabbed the edge of the table, and pulled herself up. She shuffled to the kitchen counter, and jerked open a drawer. I was shocked to see her pull out an EpiPen. She turned around, and returned to where I had sunk into her chair. She very calmly bent over and injected my thigh. “You’re ok,” she said calmly.
The stings on my wrist and leg hurt a lot, and they were red and swollen. Mary looked them over closely, and patted my hand. She got some ice from the freezer, wrapped the cubes in a cloth, and handed it to me. As I held it intermittently on my wrist and leg, Mary went to the bathroom and came back with two pills in a blister packet. “Take these,” she said as she handed them to me. “Benadryl.”
I opened the pills and swallowed them with the cold water she offered me. My pulse was beginning to slow.
Mary sat in the chair beside me, watching me. Pft pft.
“Thank you,” I said. “It’s a good thing you’re a nurse.”
“It’s a good thing we have more in common than our name!”
“The allergy to bee stings,” Mary grinned. “You’d have died before this old lady got you to the emergency room.”
I smiled at her. “Surely this old lady would have called an ambulance.”
“You would think!” Mary laughed. “But let me tell you about the time my Tommy fell off the roof! I forgot there was even such a thing as an ambulance.”
“Uh oh.” I took a big gulp of water, feeling the tightness in my throat begin to ease.
“Mary Beth, you’re for sure going to want to write about this one!”
©2015 Rachel Holbrook
**You can read previous Flashback Friday stories HERE.**