Jeff Sharlet | Longreads | February 2015 | 24 minutes (5,994 words)
- Mary Mazur, 61, set off near midnight to buy her Thanksgiving turkey. She took her plant with her. “He doesn’t like to be left alone,” she later explained. The plant rode in a white cart, Mary in her wheelchair. With only one hand to wheel herself, the other on the cart, she’d push the left wheel forward, switch hands, push the right. Left, right, cursing, until a sweet girl found her, and wheeled her into Crown Fried Chicken. “Do not forget my plant!” she shouted at the girl. I held the door. // “I have a problem with my foot,” she said—the left one, a scabbed stump, purple in the cold. Her slipper wouldn’t stay on. // Mary wore purple. Purple sweats, purple fleece. 30 degrees. “I bet you have a coat,” she said. Not asking, just observing. Measuring the distance. Between us. Between her and her turkey. Miles away. “You’ll freeze,” I said. “I’ll starve,” she said. I offered her chicken. “I have to have my turkey!” Also, a microwave. Her motel didn’t have one. // “Nobody will help you,” she said. “Not even if you’re bleeding from your two eyes.” // Two paramedics from the fire department. Two cops. An ambulance, two EMTs. “I didn’t call you!” she shouted. “I don’t care who called me,” said one of the cops. One of the paramedics put on blue latex gloves. “She won’t go without this—this friggin’ plant,” he said. “You’ll go,” said the cop. “You’re not my husband!” said Mary. The cop laughed. “Thank god,” he said. The whole gang laughed. One of them said maybe her plant was her husband. That made them laugh, too. “I’m not going!” said Mary. “Your plant is going,” said the cop. Mary caved. Stood on one foot. “Don’t touch me!” They lowered her onto the stretcher. “Let me hold it,” she said. “What?” said the EMT. “The plant,” said the cop. He lifted it out of the cart. “Be careful!” she shouted. He smirked but he was. “Thank you,” she rasped, her shouting all gone. Mary Mazur, 61, shrank into the blankets, muttering into the leaves, whispering to her only friend.
- After the ambulance took Mary, I walked down State Street to her motel. The Scottish Chalet. 24-hour surveillance, front desk behind glass. Ashok Patel runs it. Small man with a smooth round head, smooth round body. He knew Mary. DSS. Department of Social Services. Good business. “They always pay,” he said. $60 a night. Six weeks so far. $3600. “Until they find a bed in a shelter.” He thought they gave her food. At the beginning. “Cans.” She ate them cold. “We worried,” said Patel’s wife. “We called her every day,” said Patel. They didn’t want her to die at the Scottish Chalet. // The cans were empty. Her stomach was empty. So she put on all her clothes, her purple sweats, purple fleece, purple slippers that would not stay on the foot covered in scabs. She hoisted herself into the wheelchair she got from Social Services in Albany, after the police broke her last one, the last time they took her to the hospital. She put her plant in her white cart. All she had. Where she went, he went. For six weeks she had gone nowhere. Hadn’t left her room once. But she’d run out of choices. She’d even called the police. They wouldn’t take her to the grocery. “I have food stamps,” she’d told them. “I’m not poor.” But they wouldn’t listen. There were no more choices. Together, they wheeled into the darkness. They would have their turkey or they would freeze. Mary Mazur, 61, was not going to die in a motel room.
- Next day I called the hospital. I wanted to know if Mary Mazur would have her turkey. A Thanksgiving dinner for the patients? Yes, there would be something. For the patients. But not for Mary Mazur, who’d checked herself out into the blizzard. // I called her motel. Mary Mazur had returned. And she’d gone again. “Into the snow,” said Mrs. Patel. To buy a turkey. “I try to stop her.” She’d called the police, but they wouldn’t come. They’d had enough of Mary Mazur. Her right to freeze if she wanted to. // I called a number Mary Mazur had given me. Social Services. A woman asked me to spell my name. DOB. SS #. “I’m not the client,” I said. “All the same,” she said. // “With whom am I speaking?” I asked. // “Emergency Call,” she said. Mary Mazur, I said, 61, hospitalized, now likely lost again in the snow. “You need Adult Protective Services,” she said. “I work in Child Protective Services.” But there’d be nothing “Adult” could do. // “A danger to herself,” I said. “That’s hard to prove,” said Emergency Call. // I drove into the blizzard. Empty roads, room to slide, but no Mary Mazur. // I went to the motel. NO PETS / NO CHECKS / NO REFUND / NO PARTY… ONE BED / TWO BED / KING… IN GOD WE TRUST / LIMITED TIME. // A man came in from the cold. A younger Patel, weight in the chest, the shoulders. The son. “What do you want?” he asked. “I’m looking for a woman,” I began. “Crackhead?” he said. “Sixty-one,” I said. “Mary Mazur, wheelchair.” Her. “She went out into the snow. I tried to stop her.” Until she screamed. Then he held the door. “What choice did I have?” None. “What do you want?” he said. He stepped closer. “What are we supposed to do?” Chin to chin. “Should be Social Services,” I said. He agreed. “Leave us out of it,” he said. “It’s not our fault.” He stepped back. “I’ve been here since I was 6 years old.” He stepped back again. “We’re just a motel.” He turned away. “This place is a joke.” He left me standing there.
- “It’s ok,” Kayla whispered to her husband, reaching out the door. “He’s a reporter.” She turned and smiled. We were talking about Mary. Kayla saw her last. // “I immediately seen she wasn’t right.” It wasn’t the wheelchair or the foot or going out in a storm in nothing but a hoodie. It was the plant, its leaves. Mary had taped ripped ones together. // “I told her the bus don’t run for 20 minutes,” said Kayla. “I told her why not wait inside.” She hoped the cops might get there in time. But the cops weren’t coming, and Mary was going. “Pushing that lady cart thing,” said Kayla. So she put Mary’s hood up and wheeled her into the storm. // “Your plant’s gonna die in this cold,” Kayla told her. “My plant,” said Mary, “will die inside.” Plants need light. Mrs. Patel, claimed Mary, turned hers off. // “It is not true,” said Mrs. Patel. “It isn’t,” agreed Kayla. “It is on a sensor,” said Mrs. Patel. “She don’t move.” Mrs. Patel checks on her every day. They speak through the door. “Because she don’t wear the clothes.” // A red-faced man staggered up. He grabbed Mrs. Patel. “Excuse me!” she said. “You’re warm,” he said. “Is he a cop?” “I’m a writer,” I said. “Just asking about an old lady.” He looked at Kayla. “You?” Kayla pulled her hood up. “Do I look like an old lady, bro?” He stared. “You look really young,” he said. “You wanna hang?” He put both hands on Mrs. Patel. “Excuse me, sir!” “You live here, bro?” Kayla asked. Her door cracked open. Inside, her children, 3 and 5. They live here. “She asked you three times not to touch her,” Kayla said, stepping forward. The man wobbled. Forward, back, away. “122,” he said. “If you wanna hang.” // “The problem is the plant,” said Kayla. “She’s a germaphobe.” Mary’s afraid it’ll be contaminated if she leaves. Afraid she’ll starve if she stays. // Kayla thought she got on the bus. “When I looked, she was gone.” Kayla knew the buses. “She could ride for hours. // I left at 10:30. This morning, I called. Mary had returned. “Yes, yes,” said Mr. Patel. “With a bag of groceries.” Something to eat—yes, yes—a cold can, in the dark, naked, talking with the leaves.
* * *
- At first she’ll speak only through a crack in the door. She is not, she explains, wearing pants. “You want to interview me?” she says. “Why? I don’t have any power!” She slams the door. Opens it an inch. “What’s in it for a little old lady like me?” She asks for three forms of ID. “Wait,” she says. “I have to wash my hands.” Half an hour later, she opens the door. “You can come in. But you might not like me.”
- “I bounce around,” says Mary. An apartment here, a shelter there, nights beneath a bridge in between. She’s lived in the Scottish Chalet, State and Route 7, six weeks now. “Bugs,” she whispers. She doesn’t want Mrs. Patel, the owner’s wife, to hear. Not out of kindness; she’s afraid she’ll be evicted. “They try to say you brought them.” Not Mary. “I’m a germaphobe,” she says. That’s why I can’t sit down. That’s why there’s newsprint—pages neatly torn from free copies of Auto Trader—folded around the door handle. That’s why, she says, she’s ashamed. “I-I-I-”—Mary has a stutter, it comes out when she discusses her mother, her children, her condition—“I am,” she says, gathering her voice up like an infant to be stilled, “n-n-n. Not as clean as I would like to be.” She crooks her finger. Whispers. “Come closer,” she says. She stands on one foot, the other hardly a foot at all, wounds festering years now, the scabrous skin that remains red and purple and orange and flaking like ash. She gestures at her body. Her arms are very long. Graceful. “Do I—?” she asks. She wrinkles her nose. // “I was pretty,” she says. She was. Look closer. The eyes, what’s left of her cheekbones. She’s wearing lipstick. Mary Mazur, 61, most of her days in the dark in this room, half naked, will prepare for a visitor. // Mary Mazur at 21, 1974: her first year on welfare, her first year without her mother. “C-c-c-cancer,” she says. / Mary Mazur at 19, 1972: a mother the first time. “Jerry,” she says. She gave him up when he was—“well, he was walking,” is what she remembers. / Mary Mazur at 13, her father finally gone. “Nursing home,” she says. “Three strokes.” She does not stutter when she says his name. “The temper,” she says. // Mary, 13, just Mary and her mother. “Sh-sh-sh-sh-sh.” She stops, twists her toothless jaw, and with her long graceful arms waves away invisible things. Her brow lifts, her lips purse, and she says what she wants to say. A voice like a young woman’s: “She was my friend.” She says, “Her name was.” She stops. She won’t stutter. “Her name was Anna May.”
- #A_Resourceful_Woman. “Maybe you better not use that word,” says Mary. She means “c—-,” rhymes with daisy. I’d quoted one of the cops who’d declared her “a danger to herself” a few nights before: “C—- old lady,” he’d said, nervous about touching her. Mary shakes her head. That’s not what she is. “I’m one tough bitch. I’m not what they peg me to be.” They: cops, Social Services, Adult Protective Services, forty years of ER nurses and landlords and the managers who ban her from grocery stores. And maybe—she won’t say it—her mother. When Mary quit school her mother sent her to a stepbrother, across the country. “She said otherwise they’d put me in a home.” They might have. They do things, they really do. The “they” who put her in the motel, the “they” who put on rubber gloves to shovel her into squad cars, the “they” she met in bars, the “they” who took her to rooms, the “they” who used to give her rides—“truckers,” she says, “the truckers,” nothing really bad ever happened, “I never got killed”—the they who took her three children. They put them in homes. They are, Mary says, right about some things. Her children? “I don’t have children,” she snaps. “I had children.” Jerry and ______ and _____. She doesn’t remember their names. // She’s made some bad decisions. “But they’re mine.” She puts up an open palm: “No” to that word I’m not to say. “I am not,” she says, “a whackadoodle.” Her real problem is upstairs. “These people right here.” She points up. Three brothers. “Certifiable ding-dongs.” They harass her. Mock her, follow her, try to make her fall down. Nobody stops them. “Not their nanny, I’ll tell you that!” Mary says. Their nanny? How old are these boys? She does the math. “They showed up in ’94.” At the last good apartment Mary had. Every place since. They move with her. Always above. “Like cockroaches.” She thinks they’re spies. From Welfare. “The question is: Why?” It’s the double standard that kills her. “They slide through life, and I’m the one who gets treated like a nut.” She sighs. “I know it makes me sound—” We won’t say that word. There are other concerns: Footsteps above. “Listen!” she says. “They’re here.”
- “They think I can’t do nothing,” says Mary. “But they don’t know.” They: The three brothers she says live upstairs, the three ding dongs, she calls them. Her three children—rather, she insists, the children she bore—gone, but some ghosts never leave. “They turn off my lights, they change my channels.” She makes her hands into fists. Grins. Stands on her one good foot. “Psychos!” she says. “They don’t know I’m a fighter.” She hops to her TV. Taps it on with a knuckle. Bumps through channels, looking for static. “Snow!” she says, she hits the volume, loud as it goes. Upstairs there’s stomping. She grins at her TV. “Hear that?” she shouts—to me, to them, to anybody. // Mary loves her television. She likes Raymond, she likes Don Knotts. She likes horror. “My scary movies,” she says. She likes slashers. “Michael and Jason.” Halloween and Friday the 13th. She keeps her stars in pairs, and above them all: Clint & Burt. Burt is the light, the one who makes her laugh, Smokey and Hooper. “And that one where everybody thinks he’s crazy just because he’s trying to kill himself?” The End, with Dom Deluise. Clint is the dark, the one who makes her feels strong. She holds out her palms, a star in each hand, and clasps them together, the joke and the revenge. “Fistful of Dollars,” she says. “The Good, the Bad. High Plains Drifter. Pale Rider.” She pauses. “Unforgiven?” I ask. She nods. She likes the end. After Clint has given up his children, after he’s accepted what he is, after his partner has been killed. “Morgan Freeman,” I say. She’s not listening. “They whipped him,” she says. “Actually whipped him. And when Clint finds out from one of the hookers, the whores, he goes into town. And it’s raining. And he rides through the rain. And, ohhh…” Her hands over her eyes. The rain, the torches, the friend’s body on the porch of the saloon. She hears Clint cock his shotgun. “First he shoots the bartender. And Gene Hackman says, ‘You shot an unarmed man.’ Clint says, ‘Well, he shouldda armed himself.’ Clint says—” She opens her eyes, black and wide: “Any man don’t want to get killed better clear on out the back.” They run. Clear on out. “It’s beautiful,” says Mary.
- PAUSE. || I forgot something important. Mary told that particular story in pairs—Clint and Burt, her favorite stars, Pale Rider and Unforgiven, the darkest and most doubting of Eastwood’s westerns. And her recollection, her reconstruction, of Unforgiven came as a pair, too. I gave one half, the finale, Clint as death, unforgiven, unforgiving, unforgiveable. “Beautiful,” said Mary. But that’s not all she told me. “And I like it when all three of them”—Clint, Morgan Freeman, and the Schofield Kid—“are out there on their horses. That part’s good.” A gentle scene, sunlight and soft music and the Kid, he’s the comedy, can’t shoot straight, a braggart, never really shot a man. And maybe he won’t have to. That’s the promise of those scenes on the prairie, the three friends riding together. I think that’s what Mary likes about them: the possibility that it won’t all end in sorrow, even if you’ve seen this movie before.
- We’ve been talking for hours and Mary’s thirsty. She hops on her good foot over to her refrigerator, which is the space between the screen and the glass. “I need my sugar,” she says. Nesquik or A&W. “If I’m going to die, I’ll drink water.” She doesn’t like going outside. “I’m a TV bug.” She watches and she sleeps and she eats her food stamp groceries. She tries to eat healthy. Cans. Lasagna. Frozen seafood. “Thaws in a day.” Eats it all room temp. Keeps watching. The Nesquik dries up, then the root beer. Then Mary. “Just my throat,” she says. “Gets raspy, you know?” Then—only then—water. “Because I still have my cookies.” Her cookies, her movies, Clint Eastwood, Burt Reynolds. No love stories; “sickening.” Then she eats her last cookie. Keeps watching. “I’m just a bug, a TV bug, a bug.” // This is how it began, she says. 1982, ’83, she can’t remember. Not long after the last of the three children she bore was taken. “’82, ’83, that’s when I got in the system.” Adult Protective Services. “It’s not too good what I did.” She looks sad. “You won’t think good of me.” Her hands fall into her lap, her face goes still. For a moment she’s one kind of lovely. Then she flicks back her hair, sends her hands aloft, and she is Mary Mazur, 61, her own woman. “I don’t care if I make bad choices!” Her hands whirl, point, shake, conduct. “I don’t care a rat’s spit!” she says. “I’m not like everybody else!” She wouldn’t want to be. “It’s my brain,” she says. “I’ll do what I want with it.” Watch TV as long as she wants to, all goddamn night if she wants to, weeks if she wants to. That’s what she did after her children were gone. Watched, ate, slept, drank her sugar, lived on water, water alone. Then they took her away, too. Just like the children. It’s been the same ever since. Watch, eat, sleep, starve. She was seven days hungry when I first met her. “I screw myself,” she says. Says it with pride, her wrinkles returning, her creases and folds, wrapping around a caved-in grin, one dark eye glaring—the knot she has tied, the only thing that can’t be taken. It’s what she owns.
- Pumpkin pies, Mary’s Thanksgiving after the fact, the tub her pantry. “Of course, I can’t get clean,” she says of her tub’s other function. She doesn’t like the way she smells. “I’m not stupid,” she says. “I know how I’m perceived.” Every day the motel owner’s wife knocks on her door. “To see if I’m alive.” Once Mrs. Patel opened it. “Afraid of me dying.” Mary was asleep. Naked, on top of the covers. “Just because someone’s in their bed doesn’t mean you’re dead.” Mary’s not dead. Just dirty, and that’s not a permanent condition. She could be clean. She could be pretty. There’s a certain store, she knows, with a blue suede coat, “down to your toes!” She caresses her cheek, imagining how it’ll feel. She’ll wash her hair when she’s ready to wear blue suede. She’ll put her lipstick on, she’ll buy shoes. She has just the one right now, a single grey sneaker. She’ll buy shoes in which she can stand, shoes in which she can walk out of here. To hell with her pies. She’ll leave them behind, she’ll quit her wheelchair. She’ll walk out of this dump on her own, robed in blue suede. “Pretty as the rain!” She’ll rent her own apartment. She’ll have a refrigerator. She’ll never have to ask the front desk for toilet paper again. Blue suede, faux fur lining. On sale, $170. She says she put $12 down. Gave it to a girl in the store. Told the girl she was coming back with more. // I wonder who took that $12? What did she buy with Mary’s money?
- We’re going to Walmart. To buy a microwave. With what money? Mary has a gift card. “$150.” From who? “My money,” she says. “Social Services, that’s how they give it to you.” The problem’s getting there. “You’ll drive me?” she asks. I will. “And Bandit?” she says. He’s been sitting quietly on the bed while we’ve been talking. Her best friend. They watch TV together. Mary under the covers, Bandit sitting right up by the screen. “Well,” says Mary, “Bandit doesn’t watch.” Bandit doesn’t have eyes. “But he listens.” You can tell, she says, because when the volume’s too loud, he turns his away his leaves. // Mary’s had a lot of pets over the years. “I’m a bird girl,” she says. Parakeets, couple of cockatiels. It’s not easy on the street, wheeling yourself around with a birdcage. “But you gotta love something.” Now the birds are gone. // For a while she was alone. Then she found Bandit. Or, rather, the plant he was clipped from. At St. Peter’s. “You could see it from the hallway,” she says. “Very handsome.” When Mary left, a social worker gave her a piece, and some soil. “She was kind,” Mary says. “Very kind.” // Mary doesn’t go anywhere without him. “He doesn’t like to be alone.” // She knows he’s not a person. “It’s a PLANT,” she says. She knows that. She does. // “You can’t touch him!” I’m trying to help lift Bandit from the center of her bed, where he’s surrounded by the remains of her last haul of groceries. She doesn’t want Bandit to be contaminated by me. He’s sick. His leaves are broken. She’s been bandaging them. He needs attention. He can’t be left alone. // I prop the door open with my foot. That’s okay. Just not my hands. I pull them back into my sleeves. Now Mary can hold onto my arm. No skin. “I know, I know,” she says. She does. She knows how it sounds. // “Bandit,” I say as together we hobble. “As in Smokey and?” One of her favorite movies. “No,” she says. “He’s named after one of my birds.” A bird named Bandit. Coincidence? “No, she says. “The bird, he was named after Burt.” Reynolds, she means. “Bandit”—she smiles into the leaves—“he’s named after the bird.”
- Lost in the dark with Mary and Bandit, searching for Walmart on a cold highway. Snow in the headlights. Mary moans. She doesn’t like dark roads. Bad memories. Truck stop days. She pushes her face into Bandit’s leaves. I try to distract her. “Everybody Loves Raymond,” I say. One of her shows. “What’s your favorite episode?” She thinks. “I don’t really remember those so good,” she says. “Now horror, though.” We’re on the wrong road. “Ask me about horror,” she says. Michael and Jason, Halloween and Friday the 13th. “They both wear masks,” she observes. I slow down, pull a U-turn. “What do you like about them?” I ask. “You like being scared?” She looks up from the leaves. “No.” Her voice gone sharp. “I’m not a little girl! I’m not the one who’s scared.” She likes being the one who’s not scared. She likes being the one who scares. Scary Mary. // “Oh, it’s dark out here,” she says. “You ever been out alone on a really dark highway?” I have. “I mean really dark?” Sure. “Like so dark you have to take any ride you get?” No. “I have,” she says. California. Florida. “Georgia.” She shudders. We’re on the right road now. Walmart, glowing blue and white, parking lot near empty. “Bring me in close,” says Mary.
- Right up to the door. She has her choice of motorized shopping carts. She carries the plant, Bandit, with one hand and hangs on to my arm and hops on her good foot from cart to cart, studying seats, until she picks the right one. Bandit up front. She wishes there was a seat belt. There isn’t, so he’d better hold on—because Mary is off. Full speed. Laps round the lobby. Like the original Bandit, like Burt in his black and gold Trans Am. Nobody can catch him. Nothing can slow Mary down. There’s a speed bump at the help desk—the Walmart gift card through which her case worker keeps her on a leash is worth $50, not $150—but Mary keeps cruising. She has food stamps. The card will get her what she needs. A microwave! She used to have one. She’ll have one again. Tonight’s the night. She has the card, she has me to carry the machine. “Let’s go check them out,” I say. “We will,” she answers. No rush. So much to see. “I like the light here,” she says. She likes the space. “Room,” she says. She stretches her arms condor-wide. Warming up. Grips the handles. Ready to roll. Past the jewelry, beaming like it’s hers. Past the Christmas sweaters—“looks great,” she says of a blue one with two snowmen. Past a stock clerk who fails to answer her questions about chocolate milk. “Nice boy,” she says, but he doesn’t get it. Here, Mary chooses. There’s no case worker, no motel lady, no stalker ding dongs. No ghosts. Here her money—stamp, card, cash—is as good as yours, and she’s as good as you. Maybe better. “I’m a shopper,” she says. Here—with a thousand constraints—she sets the terms.
- Mary’s microwave brand is Sunbeam. That’s what she’s looking for. A big one, big enough for her frozen lasagna. “They’re all big enough for lasagna,” I say. “No,” she snaps. The microwave she’s looking for must be just so. White. “Here’s a white one,” I say. No. It must have a clock, too. “They all have clocks, Mary.” No. Not like the clock she’s looking for. And big buttons, too. “I know what I want,” she says. She does. I can’t tell her otherwise. “This one’s $55,” I say. “I’ll spot you $5 if you want it.” “No,” she says. “You can give me $5 if you want, but I’m not taking that microwave.” She flags a stock clerk. “Sunbeam,” she says. He smiles. She frowns. She doesn’t mean him. Not a very bright man, thinks Mary. “S-S-S,” she says. The first time I’ve heard her stutter in hours. “Sunbeam,” she says. The one that belongs to her. The one she’s thinking of. “You’re supposed to have everything,” she says. // “I don’t think we have a Sunbeam,” says the clerk. He pauses. Takes in the fullness of Mary Mazur. The plant riding along. The plant’s bandages. The slick shine of her hair. Her foot. The wounds. The smell. It’s rich, the smell. As complicated as her condition. Sweat and shit and dust and, yes, lasagna. Frozen food thawed at room temperature over days, and the smell of what remains in the ring of cans in which Mary sits in darkness, and flies, maggots if she’s too tired to clean. It’s always hot in her room, must be over 80, but Mary smells cold, too. What does cold smell like? Like Mary Mazur. // The clerk takes a big breath—that’s what I did, too, the first time, it’s what we do when we encounter a human being around whom the veil of the world is very thin—and he does not turn away. He does not turn away. He doesn’t smile, either. Maybe he’s not so dumb after all. “I get it,” he says. “You gotta have your Sunbeam.” He doesn’t offer to find it for her. He can’t. They don’t have one. He’s not selling. This isn’t his store. He just works here. She just shops here. We’re just three bodies amidst the things, and there’s nothing we can do now about the choices that aren’t offered.
- I take Mary Mazur to Walmart late Sunday evening, and leave her there after midnight with cab fare. As she wishes. Bright lights, warm air, nobody making decisions for her. For almost 24 hours she glides down aisles on her motorized cart, selecting and discarding and asking questions, dispatching clerks in search of her needs and desires. When we speak next I ask her what she bought. “You’ll never believe!” A coat? “An aquarium!” // A fish tank, plus ten fish, calico fantails, $2.39 or $2.49 per, she can’t remember. Pinky, Cleopatra, and Beauty. Ten fish, three names. “That’s all I have.” Namewise, she means. “It’s all I want,” she says. They’re gold and black and silver, “and orange and red and blue, and oh, I’ve never seen colors like these! D-d-do you want to see them?” Her stutter, so far reserved for talk of her dead mother and her long gone children. It’s big, inviting someone over to see your aquarium. Especially when you’ve spent most of the money you had in the world to buy it, and you can’t afford all the supplies, and one fish has already died—“she wouldn’t eat!”—and the water is murky, and you love these fish as much as you’ve loved anything outside of a television screen in years. As much as you loved your three parakeets, who were named Cleopatra, Beauty, and Blue Jay, because Pinky is no name for a bird. And the fish are named for your three little parakeets, who died because you did something you shouldn’t have. It takes you awhile to say it, eyes downcast—“I fed them pasta,” you whisper, dry pasta, it expands, “I didn’t know”—and there were three parakeets, so there are three names. The parakeets are named for—“I don’t know where the names begin,” you say. Three fish, three birds, three children. // “I’m saving her,” Mary says of her dead fish when I arrive. “I’m not ready to let go.” Bandit, the plant with its bandaged leaves; a fish that no longer shares the name Beauty, dead in a box for days. “I don’t let go so easily anymore.” Take a picture, says Mary.
- So I take a picture, the fish and Mary Mazur, 62, Christmas was her birthday. It was a Thursday, and she was hungry, because by then all her food was gone, and her fish food was gone. “If you don’t eat, you’re going to be starving.” Two more days before she could go shopping, and that might be why her fish died. She doesn’t know. She can’t remember its name. She sprinkles the body with water when she feels sad. // “I do stupid things,” she says. “What I did was wrong.” We’re talking about the birds, now. Not the parakeets, the cockatiel: Bandit, for whom her injured plant is named. What Mary did was ask someone to take care of him. A woman who seemed kind, who took her to a different Walmart, and returned her to a different motel, two motels before this one. When that motel told Mary to leave, she asked the kind woman to take her bird. It would be cold where Mary was going. The kind woman took the bird, but she did not take care of him, and Bandit died. “It’s my fault,” says Mary. // “I was in the street,” she says. “I didn’t have anything.” She’s not talking about Bandit now. She’s talking about Jerry, her baby boy. He was wanted. She was going to keep him warm. 1973, ’74, she can’t remember. A boarding house, but Mary was leaving. Why doesn’t matter. She was leaving, and the baby was in the carriage, and the landlady—“that fat bitch!”—called somebody, “the cops, I guess,” and then Jerry was gone. “I was the mother!” She can’t remember how old he was. She remembers herself, standing alone, she remembers the empty carriage. // They brought him to see her once. Knocked on her door. Mary didn’t answer. “I didn’t know who was there,” she says. “It could’ve been anybody.” // He’d be 42 now. “Like you,” she tells me. I’m not her son, though. She knows that. She does. She knows that he’s gone. Jerry and the two she can’t name, the two they took from her before she left the hospital. “My children,” she says. The first time she’s called them her own. She should not have let them take her babies. “I didn’t know,” she says. “I didn’t know. I wasn’t as smart then as I am now.”
- The first time Mary was raped, she was 13. “A punk,” she says. “Sandy-haired.” After that? She counts on her fingers. There was her uncle, of course. “He nearly killed me.” She was 17. And the truckstops. Her fingers unfurl, one hand then the other. But the number she settles on is three. That seems right, she says. Something like that. She’s lucky, she says. She’s heard there are some women, they get raped, they never recover. // “Let me ask you,” I say. “I don’t know. Maybe I’m just seeing something that’s not there. Well, there’s three kids.” Mary nods. “Three,” she agrees. “There’s three parakeets,” I say. A grin spreads across her face. And three Bandits: Burt, the bird, the plant with the bandaged leaves. Mary giggles. It’s girlish, this sound. There are the three names for the nine fish that remain. “And there are three people upstairs who haunt you.” She stares. Her mouth splits open. The heat within her seems to be escaping. I can smell it. We listen to the fish tank bubble. Three ghosts. Three fish. Three birds. Three rapes. Three children. // She composes herself. She’s smarter now than she was then. “I see what you mean,” she says. “The curse of three.” It should be six, she says. “Like the devil. Three sixes.” She stops. Three sixes. “There’s still three!” She gestures up with her eyes. “Yeah,” she says, “there’s three of them.” The three brothers she believes stalk her. “Well, four, with the bitch.” The woman who takes care of them. “Well, there were three kids I had,” she continues, then stops: Four, with the mother. // We watch the fish. Cleo, Pinky, and Beauty. “I’m a tough bitch,” Mary says. Twice. First to herself. Then to me. “I’m a tough bitch,” she says. // She tells me to stand in the corner. “Face the wall.” She’s going to get up. She doesn’t have pants. She’s wearing a plastic bag. “You’re not my boyfriend,” she says. I stare at the wall. She has a job for me. The trash. I’m to put it in the lobby. “Turn around,” she says. She’s arranged it in three piles. The maggots are contained. Easy to carry. “Are you sure you’re ready?” she asks. “I am,” I say. “Take it away,” Mary tells me.
One last picture for Mary. “Oh, I know a little something about fish,” she says as I peer into her tank. “And I’ve never seen colors like these.” I show her this picture. “Oh, that’s Beauty,” she says. Could be. “She’s special.” Mary’s right: she is.
* * *
Jeff Sharlet’s books include The Family, C Street, and Sweet Heaven When I Die. He’s an associate professor of creative writing at Dartmouth College, and he recently was honored with a National Magazine Award for his GQ story, “Inside the Iron Closet.” Read more of his Instagram essays at http://instagram.com/jeffsharlet