“That which is crooked cannot be made straight: and that which is wanting cannot be numbered.”
Mary finished retching into the toilet and swayed back into her bedroom. She looked at the clock on her nightstand and saw that it was four fifteen. Could be worse, she thought miserably. Could be three fifteen. Or two fifteen. Could be further from daylight. She climbed into bed and lowered her head onto her pillow, sighing heavily. She closed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose. It had been the same dream again, only more vivid, more savage than ever before. The imagery lingered in her mind’s eye …
Her wedding day. The crypt of a cathedral. A stained glass ceiling. A foul and pungent odor. A choir of skulls smiling sardonically on a windowless sill. Eight open caskets, two on each wall. An assembly of eight women with markings on their necks. Paul. Mary’s hands in Paul’s. Paul grinning handsomely. A pulpit. A priest. All rise. The assembly stands. Dearly beloved. We are gathered here today to witness the unholy union. A homily. A psalm. The skulls sing a psalm. The earth is full of the goodness of the Lord. Paul with black holes for eyes. Paul with dirty hands. Cleanse them. Rinse them in holy water. Deliver one from evil. Abruptly a change of setting. A shrinking courtroom. A hanging judge. A faceless jury. Mary in the dock. Statement of intentions. Will you please state your intentions, madam. I will plead the fifth, your honor. Proceed. Objection, objection, your honor. On what grounds. Permission to speak. Speak now or forever hold your peace. We the assembly object on the grounds that the bride is willfully blind. Overruled. Gavel crashes down. Proceed. The cathedral. The pulpit. The priest. The skulls. The Lord’s Prayer. Paul. Do you Mary take he Paul in the name of our father who may or may not be in heaven, to enable and to abet, in vice and in sin, till justice do you part? I do. I do. I do. I now pronounce you. You may kiss. Mary kisses. The women of the assembly enter their respective caskets. The hour of our death. Amen. Distantly a thunderclap. The cathedral quakes. The ceiling shatters. Stained glass shards. The skulls break into song.
Jesus, Lamb of God
You take away the sins of the world
Have mercy on us
Mary typically made it all the way through the ceremony before rushing awake with violence as she had on this occasion, the words of the hymn ringing in her head and threatening to drive her mad. Sometimes she would emerge only halfway from her dream and remain in a delirious state, during which she was liable to get up and wander around the house doing strange things, like polishing the door knobs and pouring glasses of milk for her cat.
Mary had suffered from intermittent somnambulism since she was small, but until recently she’d always had someone—her mother, a roommate, Paul—to help her manage it. Now it had carte blanche, and she had no way of knowing what she’d been saying or doing. It was terrifying. She was afraid to go to sleep at night. Yet she found her waking hours harder and harder to bear. There was no escape. Her life had become one big, endless nightmare, she thought, and she wondered whether she would ever work up the nerve to do something about it.
No, not that. She squeezed her eyelids shut and told herself to breathe. She wanted to go back to sleep, if only for an hour, but understood that her body wouldn’t consent. So she just lied still and tried not to think.
Mary’s next door neighbor, Liz, was on her porch watering flowers when Mary, wearing her bathrobe and slippers, emerged from the house around eight thirty to collect the newspaper. She greeted Liz and said “very well” when Liz asked how she was doing.
“Gorgeous day,” Liz observed.
“Yes,” Mary said, squinting up at the azure sky, then down at her neglected, brown-spotted lawn, “it certainly is.”
There was a moment of silence that Mary thought was probably awkward for Liz—she could sense that Liz was groping for something anodyne to say, perhaps another banal comment about the weather. Mary had been sensing that a lot. Ever since. It felt as though everyone else felt as though they were walking on eggshells around her. It irritated her and she wished they wouldn’t behave that way. Liz said:
“Hope it holds up. They’re saying a chance of thunder storms later on.”
“Hope so,” she said with a diluted smile and, taking mercy on Liz, added a conversation-closing, “Tell Don I say hi.” She started up the steps of her porch to her front door.
“Will do. By the way,” Liz said, “we’ll be out on the patio later on, if you’re not doing anything. Don’s sister is in town from New York, and Nick and Tonya are coming by as well. Why don’t you join us?”
Mary smiled again and said she wasn’t sure if she would be around later (she certainly would be), but that if she was she would think about maybe stopping by for a while. Liz said she hoped to see her. They both waved and said take care, have a nice day, and Liz went back to her watering as Mary disappeared into the house.
She threw the paper in the garbage and sat down at the kitchen table and uselessly massaged her temples. The same gray, foggy headache had persisted for two weeks—would persist for another two, it seemed, and another two after that. Bobo, her twelve-year-old Abyssinian, lay stretched out on the hardwood floor, bathing in the sunlight that spilled in with the breeze through the open window. It was Sunday, and Mary wondered whether Bobo recognized that things were different.
Three months ago she and Paul would’ve been sharing the newspaper between them (though there wasn’t much sharing required, his interest confined almost exclusively to the sports page, about which Mary couldn’t have cared less) while they drank black coffee and ate breakfast—yoghurt, fruit and a single piece of bacon for her, two scrambled eggs and the remainder of the bacon for Paul. In spite of his blood pressure. After they were done eating Mary would clean up the kitchen while Paul took a shower; then they would get dressed, Paul into his best shirt and tie, and drive to Saint Michael’s for ten o’clock mass.
Mary had attended mass regularly despite the fact that she’d lost her faith, assuming she ever had it to begin with (she really couldn’t remember), when she was twelve or thirteen, and that she found all the pomp and circumstance somewhat embarrassing. While she could and did appreciate the literature of the Bible, she had little patience for the dogma.
It was for Paul’s sake that she went through the motions week after week, never registering an objection or intimating her real attitude. The church was—and is, Mary supposed cynically—a central component of Paul’s identity. It informed everything from his worldview to his social life, and yet it meant absolutely nothing to Mary, which seemed absurd to her now. Absurd to have been so accommodating and so compliant for so long. So dishonest. For what? To keep her life on an even keel? To spare Paul’s feelings? Look where it got her. She could kill him. Mary closed her eyes and took a deep breath to stave off the rage she felt smoldering in her chest. She had been a fool her entire life. The whole thing had been a sham. A joke. She was a joke. There was no coming to terms with that. No starting over. You have one life and she’d made a spectacular mess out of hers.
Mary was about to start weeping when the phone rang. She moved to the wall, picked up the receiver and said flatly:
“Hello, Mrs. Erickson?”
“Yes. Who’s this.”
“Hello. My name is Rachel Abbott and I’m a reporter for WBRN—channel six news. How are you this morning?”
“Where did you get this number,” Mary demanded.
“I was hoping I could ask you a few questions, Mrs. Erickson,” the voice beamed, ignoring Mary’s question, “if it’s not inconvenient for you.”
“Don’t call here again.”
“Trust me, Mrs. Erickson, I understand that this is a difficult time for—”
“Did you hear me?” Mary cut in, her voice firm and inflected. “Don’t call this number again, ever, or I’ll call the police.”
The voice was making a pro forma apology, which it no doubt intended to parlay into a line of invasive questioning, when Mary hung up. Appalled, she disconnected the phone before reconnecting it less than a minute later, cognizant of the fact that Chelsea, her and Paul’s only child, a speech pathologist who lived with her architect boyfriend in Seattle, had no other means of reaching her.
Mary missed Chelsea; she wanted badly to see her. Chelsea had flown over and stayed with Mary at the house for three days when the ordeal commenced, when there was still a seed of doubt planted firmly in their minds, in everyone’s minds, when they could still sit around feeling indignant on his behalf, as if the whole thing was a gratuitous plot to tear them apart and ruin their lives—”The worst thing is that this will hang over him for the rest of his life,” Mary had said at the time, prompting somber nods of agreement from her daughter—but Chelsea hadn’t been back at all during the intervening months, explaining that she couldn’t take any more time off work. It was an uninspired lie, Mary thought; a part of her was indignant that her daughter could be so remiss (how did she know Mary wasn’t suicidal, for instance?), and yet her empathy was overriding: if she were able to, Mary would stay away too.
Bobo gawked up at her from beside his empty food dish. Mary filled his dish to the rim and fixed her eyes on the liquor cabinet. It was stocked with assorted bottles in different states of fullness. Tanqueray, Wild Turkey, Stoli, Hennessey, Rémy Martin, Johnny Walker, Bacardi, an array of liqueurs … Paul had always insisted on keeping a virtual bar “for our guests”—and while it was true that he and Mary had been known to host an occasional soiree, Paul drank at least half the liquor himself. He was given to recalling, at times apropos of absolutely nothing, that Jesus was a social drinker, as if that gave grounds for his own intemperance. Always justifying.
Mary continued to stare, and she found herself wondering, not for the first time, how it was to be able to depend on alcohol as a crutch, an escape, a remedy for despair. It seemed to her that her mind worked inversely. The more despondent she became, the less inclined she was to drink. That’s how you’d know Mary was in a bad way: when the Bénédictine sat undisturbed for a month. It was going on three months since she’d last touched it. Three months since. May 16. That evening. She was making dinner. Waiting for him. He was late. Why. Mary felt a sharp pain behind her eyes as her mind cast itself back to the phone call. She got it in fragments.
I think I’m in a frame, Mare … I don’t know … Something about my old truck … They won’t let me leave … I’m not kidding … Remember that coed … All kinds of weird questions … They’ve got it in their heads that I’m this … Try not to worry … They called my lawyer down … If Chelsea asks …
Presently a deranged regret at not having been born with the right psychology—the type that would compel her to turn to substance abuse in times of personal crisis—seized her, and then she was pulling open the door of the liquor cabinet and defiantly taking out the vodka. She poured what she figured was a double shot into a glass and filled the rest with orange juice, forcing herself to choke it down in quick, breathless gulps. The second one she drank more slowly, aware of a creeping nausea, and once she was finished with this she made a third and carried it into the living room where she flopped down on the sofa, her head swimming.
On the table beside the sofa stood a framed picture of Mary and Paul on their honeymoon, aged twenty-one and twenty-three respectively. Mary took the picture from the table and held it to her face. It was an utter cliché. Dusk in Cabo. Resort. Beach. Outdoor restaurant on the coast. The newlyweds sat at a small table with a bottle of champagne between them, smiling vibrantly at the camera, behind which, presumably, stood their waiter. It must have been after dinner judging by the amount of champagne in the bottle. Before dessert, perhaps. Paul, mustached and unibrowed, eyes blue and piercing, wore a straw boater and white polo shirt, against which the tanned skin of his chest appeared brown, as if he was native to the region. Mary had on an indigo tube top with a floral print and a white skirt, her sun-bleached hair parted straight down the center, a small diamond sparkling modestly on her left hand. Behind them a dark expanse of ocean. Motionless waves. Another universe.
Mary brought the photo in closer and scrutinized Paul’s visage, searching for a mark, a clue, some vague betrayal of latent brutality, but she could find none—he appeared as human to her now as he had on the night the picture was taken. Such contentedness then, filled with a hopeful anxiety about the future, oblivious to what it held …
Mary felt a pang of bitter nostalgia and laid the frame face down on the table. Then she slept.
The doorbell. Mary blinked and wiped the drool from her face. The late afternoon sun was blinding. Her arm was asleep. She shook the feeling back into it and frowned at the front door. The bell rang again. Straightening her hair, which hadn’t been washed in three days, Mary moved furtively to the window and looked out at the driveway, where a black Volkswagen was parked. She frowned again and walked to the door and, her pulse quickening, slowly pulled it open, expecting to find a reporter or, worse, a family member of one of the girls. Instead she found her brother-in-law, dressed in a t-shirt and jeans.
“Henry,” she said with surprise.
“Hi Mare.” He nodded and smiled faintly. “Can I come in?”
She stepped aside; he moved past her into the hallway. He asked if he should take his shoes off and Mary said he could leave them on. She mechanically asked if she could get him anything.
“No thanks,” he said.
Mary led him into the living room and sat back down on the sofa while Henry meandered around with his hands behind his back, pretending to inspect the décor. The wooden planks creaked beneath his feet. Mary looked down at her bathrobe and cringed, overcome by a feeling of self-consciousness and self-loathing. She looked hideous.
“That’s nice,” Henry said, indicating a candelabra on the mantel. “Where’d you get it?” Mary stood up and said:
“Excuse me a minute, will you?”
She carried her vodka orange juice into the kitchen and dumped it in the sink. She put the bottle in a cupboard. Then she walked upstairs, into the bathroom and closed the door. She splashed her face with warm water and patted it dry with a washcloth. Brushed her teeth. Gazed reluctantly into the mirror. Her hair looked dreadful, zigzagging every which way as though it were rebelling against her head. She tried brushing it into submission before capitulating and tying it back in a loose ponytail. Dusting off her cosmetics case, she applied a thin layer of foundation and a bit of mascara. She moved into her bedroom and got dressed, and it struck her then that she’d lost a lot of weight—her jeans hung loose around her waist where they used to fit snug; her t-shirt was baggy. She must have dropped fifteen pounds, maybe more. She felt cachectic.
“That wasn’t necessary,” Henry said when Mary returned to the living room. He was sitting in the armchair now.
“Changing on my account.”
“It’s OK. I was just about to when you came.”
“Sorry for popping in like that.”
She told him it was OK again. He asked how she was doing.
Avoiding eye contact, she answered, “Oh, you know.”
“Yeah,” he said awkwardly. “I know.”
There was a prolonged silence. Mary stared down at the floor; for some reason she was afraid to meet Henry’s eyes. Finally she looked at him and said:
“Your brother bought it.”
Henry furrowed his brow. “Bought what?”
She nodded at the mantel. “The candle holder. He bought it at an antique shop.”
“Oh, I see.”
“He always had a good eye for that stuff.”
“Interesting …” He paused for a while and started looking around the room again, as if trying to find a cue card. Bobo strolled in and leaped onto the couch and sat down next to Mary. “Listen,” Henry said, “I just want you to know that—that I’m with you on this. I mean, you’re not alone, you know? We’re all going through it together. I want you to know that.”
“I know,” Mary said tonelessly.
“How’s Chelsea?” He seemed pleased to have come up with another thing to say.
Mary decided to be frank. “Haven’t talked to her much.”
“I see,” he said again. “She won’t be there tomorrow?”
Mary shook her head. She saw that she was making him feel uncomfortable, like he was invading her personal space. Like all the others, he was walking on eggshells. There was no way around it: she found it impossible to express that she was glad to see him. That part of her personality had been killed off. She was only half a person now.
“Will you?” Henry asked.
Mary sighed. “I don’t know. I have absolutely nothing to wear.” What an odd thing to say, she thought.
There was another extended pause. Henry broke it.
“Greg and Jess are doing well.”
Mary tried, and failed, to feel guilty about neglecting to ask Henry about his family. She said:
“That’s good to hear.”
“Did you ever have any—you know, inkling that he … because I was completely taken aback,” Henry said suddenly. “It was like getting struck by lightning.”
“It’s still hard for me to believe.”
“I believe it,” Mary said brutally.
Henry chewed his lip. Then he cracked a smile. “Do you remember the time when we had that big Christmas party years ago, and he got drunk and started singing that song …” He began snapping his fingers. “What’s it called …”
“That Holiday Feeling.”
“That’s it. But he didn’t know the words, or even the melody really. So he just made them up as he went. And the whole time you were sitting there with that look on your face, shaking your head and trying not to laugh. It was like part of you disapproved, but another part knew that was why you married him to begin with. That spontaneity.”
“I doubt I’ll ever forget that,” Mary said.
“That’s the Paul I knew. That guy.” Henry was speaking to himself now. “But I guess I didn’t really know him at all. I guess no one did.”
Mary said nothing.
Quarter past seven. Mary could hear the voices carrying in amiably from Liz’s patio. She lay on the sofa in the waning light, holding the letter, creased and supple and slightly discolored with age, in her right hand. Henry had asked for it back just before he left, under the pretext of putting the past behind them, but Mary lied and told him she’d destroyed it a long time ago. Once he was gone she took it out from its hiding spot in the pages of Of Human Bondage—Paul hadn’t read a word of fiction as long as Mary knew him, including the Bible—read it for perhaps the hundredth time and, for the first time, felt utterly nothing. The words to which she had clung for fifteen years had become, like everything else, empty and meaningless. She reflected on this with a cold indifference as the thunder cracked in the sky and the rain started lashing down crosswise against the side of her house, through the open windows. There was a cacophony of interjections and curses next door as Liz and Don and their guests scrambled for shelter. Bobo made for the basement. Mary gaped numbly at the ceiling. Lightning flashed brilliant on the heels of another crash of thunder. Mary tore the letter to pieces and, turning onto her side, felt her heart flutter in her chest, for the arraignment was tomorrow morning and, it was true, she had absolutely nothing to wear.
Michael Howard is a writer and teacher living in Vietnam. His fiction and creative nonfiction has appeared in Fleas on the Dog, After the Pause, Hypertext Magazine, The Forge, New Pop Lit, The Opiate and The Fiction Pool, among others. His political essays have appeared in a wide variety of publications and have been translated into several languages.
© 2019, Michael Howard