Mary Lou

By Robert Starr

There was a knock at the door.

At first, because no one actually knocked anymore, Mary Lou stopped, froze, and held her breath.

‘Something’s happened," her body told her. ‘Something’s gone wrong.’

And she waited for something next-smashing glass, the splintering of wood as a boot kicked her door in, or the rattling of the doorknob as someone tried the lock.

But nothing like that happened.

Just another knock- light from outside, unmistakable knuckles this time attached to someone’s authoritative hand.

Someone telling her:

" I know you’re in there and I won’t go away."

So she backed away from the kitchen sink and hid behind the refrigerator for cover, peering at the dark profile that looked to her like it had turned sideways looking for another way in.

"The phone," her brain told her, " make sure you can get to the phone."

But the phone was in the living room, down the hallway toward the front door and her shoulder twitched when she knew she was trapped.

As soon as she realised she had only one choice, she put her back and both her palms up against the cool refrigerator and took a few deep breaths to steel herself.

Then she walked down the hall quickly so her brain couldn’t tell her body to stop moving and opened the door to get it-whatever it was- over with.

"Yes?" she said looking down and swinging the screen door wide open so the caller had to back off the concrete porch. "What is it I can do for you?" she said, avoiding his eyes and running her fingers through her bangs to shown him she was all business-harried- and he’d better get straight to the point. When he looked down to kick a pebble with his shoe and saw he had his hands in the pockets of his jeans, she realised he was only a boy.

"Hi," he said looking up and using one of his hands to hood his eyes from the sun.

"My car broke down just down the road from here. Can I use your phone?"

And that made her list like a shifting heavy boat; her brain was quiet now, unsure and unprepared for this decent person. So, because she didn’t answer right away, everything got very quiet, mounting with the cresting wave of her own indecision that roared in her ears. Then she heard her voice..far away, dim, and involuntary. It surprised her like she’d been watching a video of herself or heard it for the first time on an answering machine.

"Yes," she said feeling herself capsize when she held the screen door open and backed up to let him in. "But be fast," she said lowering her voice, but it was too late to right herself

"Thank-you ," he said talking the door handle from her and she caught a whiff of grease and gasoline that made her think of the oil sardines come packed in.

"I tried to fix it myself," he said wiping his hands together.

"You can wash up in the downstairs bathroom," she said , quite amazed at this new creature she’d become.

"Oh, if that’s no trouble , thank you."

Mary Lou walked into the kitchen holding her shoulders out imitating a cobra she’d seen on TV, feeling better now, more herself, that she was getting ready to strike.

"Would you like a lemonade or a soda?" she said pulling her head out of the fridge to see him because her congeniality had gone over the top and she thought she might be giving herself away.

"Lemonade’s fine, thank-you," he said and she noticed he was looking toward the phone again.

"You won’t get the chance," her brain said and her body tensed, ready to lunge.

"No," she said to her body and brain,’The time isn’t right’ and then, "No, its no trouble," to the boy who was still looking at her phone.

"Would you like something to eat?" she said handing him a glass and realising again she’d crossed a line, that her acting was transparent.

And that’s when he changed too- she noticed it with a wobbly shock like she’d put her hand on something live. It was in his face, the way he was looking at her with a crinkled brow and downward mouth, serious and suddenly alarmed.

"What is it?" she said, trying to smile but the muscles in her face contorted so she just stopped, held her breath, and looked straight at him.

"Just what do you think I’m going to do here?" she said trying to lean nonchalantly against the refrigerator on one elbow but almost falling over when her skin slipped on the smooth surface.

The boy turned without asking again for the phone and started for the door.

"Don’t go," she said grabbing his arm with both hers and pulling gently backward. "Please don’t go," she said, but he flung his arm backward and accidentally knocked her down so she sat down on the hardwood floor.

He turned around when he heard the contact and his face immediately became soft, like they’d known each other for a long time, like he was upset it had come to this between such good friends.

"I’m sorry," he said as much for the way she acted as for her accident. "Here let me help you," he said offering his hand and crouching down like they’d both seen reason together and were about to be fine again.

"I just wanted to make you something to eat," she said refusing his hand, putting her knees up and folding her hands over them. Then Mary Lou started to rock back and forth slowly on the carpet; she could almost hear the snake charmer’s flute; she could almost feel herself rising out of the wicker basket as she raised her head.

"Don’t bother," she said sweetly, like she really wanted all forgotten, " just go and leave me alone."

"Will you be alright?" he said, and his monotone gave his insincerity away.

"Oh please," she said lowering her face to her knees, " just use the phone, I’m so embarrassed."

And Mary Lou waited quietly ; her body tensed and held itself rigid at her brain’s command so it could listen, so it could hear and gauge and wait through the moment where the boy stood at the door undecided, then padded across her rug for the phone

When she heard him dialing and knew his back was turned, she crab walked backward across the floor until she reached the kitchen, where she stood up and padded toward a cupboard.

"Everything will be alright again soon," her brain told her as it instructed her arm to open the knife drawer beside the refrigerator.

"The largest ones are right on the top."

She spun around with a warm plastic handle in her hand, put her back against the refrigerator door and took a few deep breaths to steady herself.

Then, when she heard the receiver hang up, she started down the hall toward the unsuspecting boy in her living room, walking quickly so her brain couldn’t tell her legs to stop and quietly with the knife behind her back, ready to strike like the magnificent thing she’d seen on television.

The End

Copyright © 2004 by Robert Starr




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