The ringing telephone startled Mary awake. Her chest was heaving, her skin was clammy, and her white T-shirt clung to her shoulders and chest. She pushed the yellow sheets away from her face and tried to find quick safety in the old flowered wallpaper. As she lifted the phone from the cradle, she reminded herself that it was daylight. She forced herself up from nightmare panic to listen to the call. Once she answered, she wished she had stayed asleep and tried not to listen.
“Hello, Mary? It’s me, Garvin.”
It was her cousin from North Carolina—the D.C. party-girl turned married, saved mommy—calling way too early about nothing in particular. Always a dead giveaway. Garvin was calling, mostly, to be in her business.
Mary gave short answers: “Mm hmm” and “okay.” Her breathing settled as her mind spoke to her lungs. It was just a dream, she repeated under her breath. What happened before the call was all a dream, the dream she’d been having every night for a while now. But what was happening now—this phone call—unfortunately was real and just part of the nightmare of her daily routine.
Okay, so maybe she didn’t get a phone call every day, but it seemed that way. It felt like every day someone believed him or herself elected to tell Mary how to live her life.
Mary waited and pretended to listen to Garvin. She knew that sooner or later the conversation was going to come around to one thing—the same thing Garvin and everyone else seemed compelled to talk about.
There, she said it. It was a new millennium, and it didn’t seem like it should be such a big deal. But it was. In fact, somehow, it seemed like a bigger deal now. Years ago, no one seemed much concerned about her purity. She didn’t remember any messages in church about it. There were plenty of messages about not getting pregnant, but none about abstaining from sex. No words about being virtuous—virtue was for other people. People from the wrong side of the historical tracks didn’t get to have virtue. Honey, don’t have a baby before you get married! It will ruin your life! But no one seemed to care. Or, they seemed to take for granted that as she came of age, she would also come of knowledge.
Now, everyone seemed to want to talk about sex. And whether or not she was having any. More to the point, it seemed that Garvin and almost everyone else Mary knew spent all their waking hours reminding her that she shouldn’t be having any. Like the whole world should care? She was convinced that she was holding the interest of, and providing entertainment for, the entire free world. It felt like there was an anti-sex committee that took turns calling her.
Just wait. You’ve got plenty of time. Keep your eyes on the prize.
It’s not that sex was even on her mind. Well, not most of the time.
She was busy. Her life was fine. But who were they all kidding anyway? Prince Charming wasn’t beating down her door or the doors of any of the other single women she knew.
“Uh huh,” she said while Garvin’s voice droned on in her ear.
The truth was she was sick of all the friendly, concerned, unsolicited advice. Mary was particularly sick of the advice from people who had love, who had marriage; women who woke up in the morning after sleeping in the arms of their loving husbands, but who felt the need to preach to her, to tell her, “Wait on the Lord! Wait until you marry.” Or, they quoted Bible verses at her. “‘Whoso findeth a wife findeth a good thing!’ Let him find you, baby.” Or, “‘Seek ye first the kingdom of God’” or “The apostle Paul was single, you know.” Or the worst of all, “Be single and be satisfied!”
“Wait until you’re married”—all from people who suddenly got amnesia when they got married and forgot that they hadn’t waited. “Let the man find you!” from the same women who knew they chased their own men down and even flew from city to city so they could be seen on the front rows of churches in front of single pastors they weren’t supposed to be chasing. “Be single and be satisfied” from married people who didn’t have to be satisfied with being single. “The apostle Paul was single and look what he did” from the same married people who fed singles out of a long-handled spoon at church because they were single and wouldn’t let them serve in certain positions in the church because they were single. Single. Not human, not saved. Single.
When they weren’t calling her, the anti-sex committee, they were watching. When they were shaking their hands at her. Even in her sleep she could see their hands. Sometimes the hands were wringing and pleading, sometimes they were wagging and nagging, and other times they were pointing and accusing. Even though she wasn’t doing anything, the hands always signaled that she was. They filled her with guilt and doubt.
All this was unsolicited advice—advice about not breaking the Eleventh Commandment: Thou shalt not be thinking about a man, wanting a husband, and definitely not thinking about sex or romance in any way. This was advice from people who at the same time seemed to feel free to break the other Ten Commandments willy-nilly. They could have other gods before God—like making money, watching television, shopping, or seeking status and titles. They could steal by not paying tithes or by taking office supplies from work. They could kill by gossiping—saying mean and slanderous things about one another or about the preacher or even people they didn’t know. Their own commandment breaking seemed harmless to them. “The Lord knows it’s just how I am, chile.” However, they seemed dedicated to making sure that she and all other singles didn’t transgress in any way—that they didn’t break the Eleventh Commandment.
“I understand.” She spoke and nodded as though she was really listening to Garvin. “Mm hmm.”
Besides, it was hard to believe that the God of the whole universe—with all the wars, famine, and tragedy in the world—was so interested in whether she was sleeping around or not. It was all Mary could do to hold her tongue as she listened to Garvin drone on and on.
Mary had been to every singles conference. She went to church. She focused on the greater plan for her life. She kept busy caring for the needs of others. She had a hobby. She practiced going to the movies and out to dinner alone—even though it made her feel silly. But the truth was, she still felt alone. And there were no signs of a prince looking for her or even waiting to be found. Of course, he didn’t have to be a prince. At this point, the neighborhood mailman was starting to look pretty good.
Get off my back and out of my business! That’s what she wanted to yell at Garvin. That’s what she wanted to tell every uptight, nosy person who showered her with unwanted concern. But she didn’t. Love is patient, love is kind, even ... to people who are getting on your last nerve! Mary just tried not to listen.
When an opportunity appeared, she quickly said good-bye to her cousin, escaped from the phone, and slipped out of her bed. She carefully avoided looking in the mirror on her dresser as she stepped past her computer, through the doorway to her bathroom, and into the shower.
Everything was as it had always been—the same pink translucent shower curtain, the same pink tiles on the wall, the same pink rubber fish pasted to the bottom of the tub to keep her from slipping. All of it, each piece, reminded her of her granny. The bathroom things, the house, and some pictures were just about all that Mary had left of her grandmother.
When her granny was dying, Mary had stood by the front door waiting for her uncle to come. She didn’t know him—her mother’s brother, her granny’s son—but she needed someone. So, just before Granny had slipped away, she had waited by the door for him, waited for him to come and tell her that everything would be all right. It was strange what had happened instead. Instead of coming wrapped in love, he had been clothed in a strange kind of jealousy.
He made certain that everyone knew that she—Mary’s granny—had belonged to him and no one else—not to his niece Mary or other relatives. She belonged to him. Her friends were his alone. Granny’s things were his alone—even underwear, hair combs, and floral scented powder. His behavior was most peculiar. He was not so attentive in life, but in death he was consumed with controlling each detail.
Even the grief was his alone. The suffering he gave to Mary, but the grief was his alone. He got to put on the show. He got the comfort. Mary got the death. She got to determine when the last breath was breathed. She got the nights and days of death rattles, while he entertained the friends that used to be hers and Granny’s—the friends that were now only his. “She’s not suffering at all,” he told them, while in the other room Mary watched Granny grimacing in pain and struggling to breathe—her eyes, her face, saying she felt alone.
When it was all over, he told her to take whatever she wanted. “Go through her things. She would want you to have them,” he said. Then like Tolkien’s Gollum, jealousy and greed overcame him, and he wanted everything back. He wanted it all so badly that he even threatened Mary, accused her of stealing, and said he would call the police. He wanted it all—all the things, all the memories—except for the suffering. He generously gave that away.
From her pink shower, Mary looked toward the light coming through the bathroom window. Just before the memories could begin to drown her, she turned her face into the falls raining from the showerhead.
When she was finished washing, she stepped from the shower, got the courage to look in the mirror on her dresser, and sighed. Her hair was too short, dull, and black. She exercised, but her hips were too full. She looked down, straight to her feet. Something was missing! She was too small on the top. Seek the Kingdom and all else would be added? It looked like some of her added stuff must be on back order. And what had happened to her flowing hair, hair like the girls in the music videos? Girls who didn’t look like they were seeking anything but good times and mo’ money seemed to be getting all the good stuff while she was busy seeking. They were getting everything, including the handsome princes.
“Be happy with who you are, baby. God didn’t make no mistakes.” Mary could hear her grandmother’s voice speaking to her. “The man that’s looking for you will recognize you when he comes. Trouble is, women are always making themselves look like someone else and the man can’t find or recognize the one that is his meet, the one that is fit for him, the one his heart’s been searching for.” Mary smiled. Granny felt so near. “Just keep dancing in the skin you’re in. Wait on the Lord. He’s got a good plan.” It had been easier to be satisfied with her grandmother cheering her on to victory.
Mary looked at her hands and wanted to hide them. Besides her words of comfort, Mary treasured the memory of her granny’s hands, hands that had been smooth, steady, and strong. She used them to work hard, but her nails were always well shaped, and the skin smooth. They were feminine hands—working hands, but still feminine. Mary clenched her own hands, and then opened them wide to inspect them. Her nails were bitten and the cuticles torn. The skin, though, was smooth and brown and the water beading there was lovely until she took the towel and wiped the drops away.
After drying off and dressing, Mary reached into her dresser drawer. She stooped to feel toward the very back. When the tips of her fingers touched the cool surface of a box at the very back, she closed her fingers about it and dragged it from the darkness of the drawer into the light and set it on the dresser.
She carefully lifted the lid. Before it was completely opened, the heavy, sweet scent of the perfume escaped. There was a citrusy warmth to the aroma. Mary drew two fingers over the surface of the solid perfume, and then held her fingers to her nose. It was cool in the room, but the scent always had the same effect. In the cool of the room, or wherever she was, the fragrance carried her to the hot, humid, sensuous, jazzy streets of New Orleans.
Just the few days away there, after she lost her granny, had saved her life. She smelled the scent each day now. The smell reminded her of her plane ride to New Orleans, the hotel, and of the days and nights in the exotic city. She had felt more alive in New Orleans. The city seemed to snatch her back from following Granny into death. The city made her glad to be alive.
Mary rubbed her fingers on the veins that pulsed in her neck and at her temples, behind her ears, on her wrists, behind her knees, and on her breastbone until she could no longer smell her memories or loneliness. Instead she was transported to streets with horse-drawn carriages, shops with beautiful red, green, and blue cut-glass vases and goblets of amber-colored glass, and sidewalk cafés heavy with the smell of seafood and deep-fried, pillow-shaped confections drowned in powdered sugar—donut-like treats called beignets.
The smell took her back to a place where men flirted incessantly with her, called her chère and told her she was beautiful. In New Orleans, Mary had been alone, but not lonely.
She closed the engraved box and, looking left and right as though to make sure no one spied on her, slid her secret treasure back into its hiding place.
Mary stepped out of her front door onto her row house stoop and looked down the block at the tiny sloped and manicured lawns. All the brick fronts of the houses looked the same—two windows and a door with a cast-iron rail next to the steps. A stranger might have found the sameness odd, but to her, the predictability was comforting.
Patches of flowers dotted the edges of the stairways and seemed to get smaller the farther she looked, until way down Old Frederick Road, the flowers looked like pink, white, and yellow pastel dots. That was if she looked to the right. If she looked to the left, though, boards covered the windows of dilapidated red brick buildings—apartments that had once been people’s homes. It was a working-class neighborhood. People took pride in their homes. Yet the abandoned apartment buildings sat like something dead in the middle of the life of the street. Instead of flowers, there were clusters of navy blue–suited policemen on the lawns—a daily presence, she supposed, to keep the abandoned public housing from becoming home to drug dealers, users, and squatters.
Mary thought as she always thought when she looked at the projects. They knew the end from the beginning. They must have known. If the psychologists and sociologists knew all along that rats in cages—or in boxes next to boxes on boxes—would kill their neighbor, friend, and brother rats—then, certainly, city planners, sociologists, psychologists, and government officials knew that men crowded in boxes on boxes next to boxes would each one kill his neighbor, his brother, his friend, himself. How could they not have known?
Like most people, Mary didn’t want to think about it. So she looked the other way and headed for the bus.
As she walked along Old Frederick she noticed Sister Puddin and Brother Joe’s car missing and wondered when they would be back home.
Ain't No Mountain by Sharon Ewell Foster
Copyright © 2004 ; ISBN 0764228854, 0764229117
Published by Bethany House Publishers
Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.