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Hail Mary

Mary Grist grew, if she were honest, to hate the rosary.  It was the silent, plodding measure of devotion, like him: her husband rose every day at the same time, brewed coffee, ate two slices of wheat toast with butter, donned one of his white sleeveless shirts, stiff work pants, and boots, and went to work. If he had found paid work that day, he painted or built cabinets or sanded doors. If he did not have work, he tended the house, oiled window fixtures, changed light bulbs, repainted steps.

She dearly wished that some days, days when the bank account was full, that he would hit the snooze button on the alarm clock, roll over with his hand on her stomach, rise late, make breakfast for both of them, dream with her about children. But he was always a Marine. As soon as the day sputtered and caught, he rose and fell like a piston.

When he came home and ate his ham sandwich for lunch at the same time every day, he would ask what she had done that morning. Sometimes she had a productive morning, sorting coupons for the market, dusting the floorboards, canning peaches. But she dreaded the mornings where there was little to do. He never criticized with words, only his eyes.

The second half of the day: more work. She would sometimes sit with the upstairs tenants on their porch, holding a rosary for self-defense, waiting for him to return. That stately old house might stand forever for all his tender care of it. From the time he bought it as a bachelor, he painted it, oiled it, scraped it, sanded it, scrubbed it, finished it, protected it. Seventy-year old windows could be opened with one hand, but he never let her choose paint colors, replace wallpaper, update hardware. She was as much of a tenant as the upstairs renters were.

Who could blame her, then, for planning her escape? She had money, after all, that money from her uncle that her instinct told her to hide from him. Like an animal storing food, she hid her treasures: cash, letters from estranged friends, her secret faith in people, her even more secret doubt of God. She had marked on the calendar the days he would be gone fishing in Florida with his oldest friend. That was when she would make her move.

Afterwards, naturally, she wondered how she would tell him. He had been back for nearly a week. What kind of man was he, after all these years? Would the stoic in him prefer direct and blunt, like ripping off a scab? Should she cater to the engineer, carefully laying the groundwork, building up to a revelation? Or would the private part of him would prefer a note and time to digest it alone?

She sat in a chair on the porch with her rosary. It was a brilliant day in July, and the bees moved like clockwork through the holly bushes in the yard. She decided to be direct. The decision was more for her benefit than his. He had been painting a house in town; he came clomping up the stairs half-covered in goldenrod pollen and bluebell latex. He stepped high on the third stair from the top, the one that was a little higher than the others. He saw her and gave his brief smile.

Before he could walk past her into the house, before he could do anything, she said his name. He stopped without turning. He sensed something. Wary as a wolf, he waited.

She heard herself talking. Better to get it out.

“I’ve bought another house. I am moving into it next week.”

There. Now the results were out of her hands. She felt strangely good, irrationally exhilarated, like watching a storm gather. What would happen now? A lull? Destruction? She sipped her coffee. An off-taste: boiled peas.

Without saying a word, he went inside. Closed the door softly. She knew better than to move. The day was still and hot. The rosary felt slick in her hands.

He came back outside with a glass of ice water and sat heavily in the chair beside her. Took a sip, exhaled.

“I guess you had money,” he said finally.

There was no need to answer. She advanced the rosary automatically in her hands.

“What do you want me to do?”

For some reason, this is not a question she had considered. What did she want? Her hands were still advancing the rosary, bead by bead. Why was she holding this thing? She put it down and looked at him, this tired, aging man.

She was twenty again, sharing a home-brewed beer with him on the steps of this same big house. He would not let her come inside until they are married. He was careful that way. She loved and hated him for that. She wanted him to cherish, protect, plan for her. She wanted him to try things, to take liberties. She went home to the smell of citronella and the sound of the train.

They were newly married, and he was carrying her across the threshold. Though he had returned from the war in one piece, she had imagined she could almost smell the napalm sticking to his clothes. He hid the house keys in a tin can outside, moved it from place to place throughout the week. She made a game of finding them. He changed locks from time to time and forgot to tell her; she passed the afternoons at the neighbor’s. These days he was quiet, but his quietness was a remembering, not a forgetting. He hid in his work, this house, his dogged Catholicism, and on certain days, in her.

(When she was a girl, she would sit for hours in her father’s Kentucky barn with a book in her lap and a saucer of milk next to her, earning the feral cat’s trust.  She could assume nothing. When he finally emerged, blinding white out of the hanging tobacco leaves, and accepted food from her, she might be a stranger the next day. She learned to kill the desire, and only hold herself open, vacant.)

When there was a vacancy, sometimes for a month or more, she would find herself upstairs among the empty rooms. The feeling was delicious, like trespassing. She hid things in secret places up there: a key under a loose panel, a piece of map folded and stuffed behind the medicine cabinet. She imagined they were SOS signals, or maybe incantations: that perhaps someone would one day read them and see her there, her face staring out of the mirror, a ghost.

Lately his silence had switched from a silence of remembering to a silence of forgetting. She held herself firm, unmoving, but her warmth for him had begun to drain out of her like sap. The urgency had left his strict devotion; now, his rote motions were born of habit, not need. He would work for hours and then come to himself as if surprised, surfacing in a different body, a different world.

She surfaced, back on the porch, in the chair, the present. He had asked her a question. What do you want me to do?

“I want you to listen,” she said, “while I tell you about my house. And then I want you to think hard about whether you could live there.”

He nodded, resigned, and she began.