There are thirteen bathtub Marys between our house and the middle school. There used to be fifteen, if you counted the one we had, plus the one at the Hwangs'.
I wanted to keep ours. It was my favorite thing about the house when we moved in, but as soon as we were done unpacking our stuff and setting up everything all nice, my mom went outside in her cutoffs and gardening gloves. She dug Mary up and put her out on the curb with the garbage.
When she came back inside, she pulled off her gloves, smacked her hands together and held up her palms. "Glad that's all taken care of," she said, sighing. She had a big smudge of dirt across her cheek. "Now, it feels like we live here."
"Can't we keep her?" I begged, holding my hands up to her, folded in a teepee like Mary's. "We can put her in the backyard, maybe?"
"We're Jewish!" she said, wiping her face, making the dirt smudge wider.
"You always say Jewish is our ethnicity, not our religion." I traced the line of one of the floorboards with my toe. "So, what I figure is that our religion is up for grabs."
"No, it isn't."
"Well, if it's not, then what are we?" I asked, hands on my hips, using my annoyed voice as much as I could get away with.
"Realists," she said, raising her right eyebrow at me as a warning.
I tried to move Mary from the curb while my mom was in the shower washing "all that holy dirt" off of herself, but Mary was too heavy, and I only succeeded in knocking her over.
She was a beautiful Mary too. Not just plain concrete, or concrete painted white. She was painted all over in full color. Her face was pale peach, and her lips and cheeks were just the slightest bit darker. She had bright blue eyes and her hair was covered with a matching blue scarf that waved and draped like it was real silk, not stone. She looked so sad, laying there in the gutter on a bed of rotting leaves and broken sticks that were all bunched up by the drainage grate, but I wasn't strong enough to save her. When the garbage men came on Monday morning, I couldn't even look.
About a week later, my mother came home with a big ugly gargoyle and stuck it in the bathtub. "Isn't it a hoot?" she said, smiling, trying hard to get me excited about it. "Why don't you name him? We can dress him up for holidays. Maybe a sheet for Halloween. Some antlers at Christmas."
"We're Jewish," I said. "We don't celebrate Christmas."
So, she named the stupid gargoyle Harry and put these big tacky sunglasses from the discount bin at Ben Franklin on him. His gross bat wings were too wide for the bathtub, so she had to turn him crooked to get him to fit.
For awhile after Mary came down and Harry went up, cars slowed down when they drove past our house. Elderly couples going by on their after-dinner walks would stop, stare, and shake their heads at our house from across the street. "Such a shame," I imagined them whispering to each other. "Such a shame."
When the Hwang family moved in three houses down, they had a landscaping crew come and pull up their Mary, bathtub and all. Theirs wasn't a real bathtub like ours. It was a concrete one, and the whole thing came up after a few hours of digging and some guys tying ropes around Mary. They looped the ropes through the back of a pickup truck and drove away until Mary broke off of the rest of it. Then they started all over again to get the bathtub out of the ground.
The Hwangs' Mary was little; she only came up to my knees. Sunday night, after my mom fell asleep on the couch watching Cagney and Lacy, I snuck out the back door in my nightgown, loaded the little Mary in my wagon and dumped her in the weeds behind our house.
When I got back inside, I tried to be so so quiet, but the door slipped away from me and slammed shut. My mom sat up on the couch and yelled, "Oh God!" She held her hand over her heart. "Damn it, Margie! What are you doing?"
"I was just looking outside," I said. "I thought I heard a raccoon."
"So you went outside? They're not tame, Margie. You don't go running outside to see wild animals."
"I didn't even. I just opened the door," I said, hoping she wouldn't notice my dirty bare feet. "I may have even been sleepwalking."
"Yeah, well, you sleepwalk yourself back to bed and stay there." My mom lay back down on the couch and pulled the turquoise afghan back up to her chin. She never slept in her bed. If I ever caught her on the couch in the morning, she'd say she just fell asleep watching TV, but her bed was always made, and it didn't sag in the middle the way the couch and my bed did.
I went back to my room and scuffled my feet on the dark brown carpet to get the dirt off before I climbed between the sheets. I closed my eyes and pictured my new concrete Mary's heavenly face watching over me. "Thank you," she whispered. "Thank you for saving me, Margie."
The next day, after school, I tried pumping our neighbor, Mrs. Bianchi, for tips on how to care for my Mary.
"Mrs. Bianchi," I said, being careful to pronounce it Bee-on-key, like she taught me, "your Mary is so beautiful. How do you take such beautiful care of her?" I brushed pizzelle crumbs off of my T-shirt and took a polite sip of my milk instead of gulping it down, so I'd look more adult.
"Well," she said, making a tinkling sound with her spoon while she stirred her coffee, "Mr. Bianchi paints the shrine every year. In the spring. The blue, I picked out myself." She got up and went over to the junk drawer. After riffling through rubber bands and twist ties, she came back with a little paper card that was blue on one side and blank on the other. It was the same color as the inside of the bathtub. "Tiffany blue." She handed the card to me.
I ran my hand along the blue. It was smooth and the paper was thick. It said Robins Egg in black letters on a white bar at the bottom.
"My mother had this necklace," Mrs. Bianchi touched her neck right at the part where it dipped in and made a little cup, "with a real pearl. My father bought it for her at Tiffany's when he went to New York on a business trip. And it came in a box that was just this color blue. Exactly this color." She pointed to the card. I handed it back to her.
"When my mother died," Mrs. Bianchi crossed herself and looked up at the ceiling, "my sister took the necklace. I wanted it so badly, but it's material. It's not the most important thing. The most important things are God and family. I don't fight with family over a necklace." She took a sip of her coffee. Maybe it was too hot, or maybe she really was sad about the necklace, because her eyes teared up a little.
She sniffed and looked at me. "The next time Mr. Bianchi paints the shrine, I tell him you help. Huh? You like that idea?"
"Yes," I said, nodding my head and helping myself to another pizzelle.
My mother said I was too old for a babysitter, so I had to go home by myself every day after school until she got home from her shift. I wore my house key on a piece of yarn around my neck like all the other latch key kids. But one day, after we'd only been living in our new house for three weeks, I forgot my key in my gym locker. While I was sitting on the steps crying, Mrs. Bianchi walked by on her "afternoon constitutional." She took me home with her and gave me a handkerchief with pink flowers that smelled like face powder, and showed me how to make pizzelles with a special kind of waffle iron. I had so much fun that I forgot about being locked out of the house until it was dark outside, and I had to run to get home before my mother started to worry.
Mrs. Bianchi said that she had fun too because I was delightful company, and I was welcome over for coffee (even though for me it meant milk) any time I wanted. So I went over for coffee a lot. Not every day. Sometimes, I liked to sit on the couch at home and eat those little bags of chips that my mom bought for me, have a few Capri-Suns and watch cartoons while I did my homework. But sometimes, I wanted company, and it was nice that Mrs. Bianchi did too.
The summer after sixth grade, I spent a lot of time at Mrs. Bianchi's house. She taught me how to garden, and she gave me a necklace that wasn't really a necklace and taught me about penance and Hail Marys and Jesus. Mrs. Bianchi gave me a piece of lace to wear in my hair that was just like hers only my size. She made it herself with thin thread and tiny needles. We lit candles in the afternoon and murmured while we touched our beads, kneeling on the living room floor in front of a picture of Mary with big blue eyes like puddles.
"Hail Mary, full of grace," I would murmur, making my voice low and somber like Mrs. Bianchi's.
"Thank you," Mary would whisper back to me in my head. "Thank you for praying for me, Margie."
On the days when Mrs. Bianchi played canasta, I took my beads and my lace out to my Mary in the weeds. I'd wash her with hose water to baptize her, and line pine cones up around her feet pretending they were candles.
"Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee, blessed are thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus." When I got to the part about Mary's womb, my belly always felt funny and my hands shook a little. Sometimes, Mary would whisper back in my head, but mostly that only happened in Mrs. Bianchi's living room.
I was always careful to lie Mary down in the weeds when I was done, and hide my rosary and lace under my mattress before my mom got home.
In August, just before I had to go back to school, the Bianchis' son Blake came to visit. He was pale and thin and didn't look anything like the high school picture of him that hung on the wall next to the Mary with the puddle eyes. Sometimes when we were praying to Mary, I'd heard Mrs. Bianchi mention Blake, but otherwise she never really talked about him.
Blake spent most days on the porch swing wearing big black Wayfarer sunglasses, wrapped up in Mrs. Bianchi's orange crocheted afghan, even though it was eighty-five degrees. When I went over there, after I was done praying with Mrs. Bianchi, I would sit on the swing with Blake and try to be still, because swinging "didn't agree with him."
He told me stories about Miami, where he lived, and his best friend Bart. "It's so warm," he said, "like wearing a blanket all the time."
"It's warm here too," I said, "right now at least."
"Here," he said, "It's cold in more ways than one, if you get what I mean."
"Yeah," I said, even though I didn't.
Later that night I was doing the dishes with my mom after dinner.
"Oh, Rio, Rio, dance across the Rio Grande," I was singing, trying to teach my mom the song that Blake taught me.
"Does she walk on water, this Rio lady?" my mom asked.
"I don't know, Mom, it's just a song," I said, shrugging and trying to remember what came next.
The doorbell rang.
"Keep scrubbing," my mom said. When she opened the door, Mrs. Maguire came barging in.
"Now, I know it's none of my business, but you work hard and you're all alone and someone needs to look out for that little girl when you're not here," Mrs. Maguire said, like she'd rehearsed it.
Now, I know it's none of my business was her favorite way to start a conversation. Now I know it's none of my business, but your lawn is awfully long—that was my mother's favorite one. She would slam the door behind Mrs. Maguire and have a glass of wine to toast to busybodies.
"I know it's none of my business," Mrs. Maguire said again, "but I saw little Margie with Blake Bianchi today."
"So?" my mother said. I couldn't see her, but I could picture her with her hand on her hip and her hip jutted out far so she looked tough.
"So, you don't want her to get infected, do you?" Mrs. Maguire said the word infected like she was whispering, but it was still loud enough for me to hear.
"I certainly don't," my mother said, in her fake smile voice, "so I think you'd better leave. I hear ignorance is highly contagious."
Mrs. Maguire left in a mess of stammering and stomping feet. My mother slammed the door behind her. She came into the kitchen, poured herself a glass of wine and leaned her hip against the counter.
"Sing me some more about this Rio lady," she said, tugging my ponytail.
"What was Mrs. Maguire talking about?"
"Don't worry about it, kiddo. She's an old bat." She clinked her wine glass against my empty milk glass on the counter. "To busybodies!"
I didn't go to the Bianchis' the next morning. My mom took a vacation day so she could take me shopping for school clothes. We went to K-mart and Sears, and had lunch in a restaurant, and she let me buy a pair of pink sneakers with double Velcro straps even though she said the sound of the Velcro made her teeth itch.
When we got home, we pretended I was putting on a fashion show. She turned the radio up loud and I walked down the hallway to Stevie Nicks, putting my hand on my hip and twirling around when I got to the end.
When I was done, I sat on the couch next to her with my pink sneakers on, holding my hand over the first Velcro strap. "I'm going to do it," I said, laughing.
"Don't do it," she yelled in fake horror. "Don't do it, Margie." She dove across me to knock my hand away from my shoe in fake slow motion.
I laughed until tears ran down my cheeks and I got the hiccups. My mom went into the kitchen to get me a glass of water. Someone pounded on the front door, hard with their fist, even though we had a doorbell. I jumped up and opened the door just as my mom yelled, "Ask who it is first, Margie."
Mr. Bianchi stood on the front step in his white undershirt and trousers, with his forehead all wrinkled up. His eyes looked runny, like he'd just sneezed. He walked past me into the house like I wasn't even there.
"I didn't hear you ask who it was," my mother said, flicking off the radio on her way back from the kitchen. When she saw Mr. Bianchi, she stopped and put my glass of water on the coffee table without looking for a coaster.
I hiccupped, but neither of them looked at me.
"Margie said you're a nurse," Mr. Bianchi said to my mother.
"Yes," my mom nodded. She walked over to the door and stepped into her shoes.
It felt like they must have said something to each other in secret adult language because my mother seemed to know that she should go with Mr. Bianchi, even though he didn't say anything else to her that I heard.
"Stay here, Margie. There are toaster oven pizzas in the freezer." Her voice was calm and slow, but her fingers moved fast, taking the rubber band off of her wrist and twisting it around her hair to make a bun. "O.K.?" She grabbed my arm and put her face close to mine. "If you need me, you call the Bianchis' house, O.K.? Don't come over. Call." She pushed my bangs away, kissed my forehead and was out the door with Mr. Bianchi before I could say anything.
I wiped her Chapstick off of my face and sat down on the couch. My hiccups were gone, but I fake hiccupped a few times just to make some noise. I grabbed the glass of water, wiping the water ring off of the coffee table with my sleeve. When I gulped it down, the swallowing sound my throat made was loud and horrible. I pulled my feet up next to me and fastened and unfastened my new Velcro sneakers until I thought my teeth were itching too. I was too nervous to be hungry, so I wrapped myself up in the turquoise afghan and turned on the TV.
I was asleep when my mom came home. The sound of the door opening made me jump like when you have a dream that you're falling and your whole body jolts you awake before you can hit the ground. Most of her hair had fallen out of the bun, and her makeup was pooled under her eyes like a raccoon.
She sat next to me on the couch and kissed my cheek. Her lips were dry. "Let's get you to bed, kiddo."
"We'll talk about it tomorrow," she said, but then she put her head in her hands and started crying. I'd never seen her cry before. At least not where I was sure. Sometimes, after my dad left I'd catch her alone and her eyes would be red, but she always had a good reason: hay fever, or she just yawned, or she'd been rubbing her eyes because they itched. This time she was really crying, and I didn't know how to make it stop.
"Blake died," she said into her hands. She looked up at me and pursed her lips together. "I did everything I could." Her nose pinched in at the sides and her chin wrinkled up. I took the afghan off and wrapped it around her shoulders.
We slept in her bed that night. Both of us, on top of the covers, still in our clothes, huddled under the turquoise afghan. When she fell asleep, I went into my bedroom and got my lace and beads. I didn't want to wake her up by opening the front door, so I knelt at the side of my bed and prayed. "Hail Mary, full of grace," over and over. Finally, in my head I saw Mary with the puddle eyes. "No one could save him," she said, "Not even me."
My mom checked the paper for calling hours, but there weren't any. Three days after Blake died, Mr. and Mrs. Bianchi left the house wearing fancy clothes, and didn't come back until it was almost dark.
When my mom got home from work she made a casserole and told me to put on my new corduroy school dress even though it was really hot out. "There will probably be other people there too," she said. "Best manners." But when we got to the Bianchis' house, we were the only ones.
Mrs. Bianchi hugged my mother and said, "Bless you," over and over again even though no one sneezed. Mr. Bianchi excused himself and went out to the garage.
No one ate the casserole. Mrs. Bianchi showed me pictures of Blake in his high school play, on the soccer team, missing a tooth, and in diapers. She dabbed her eyes and wiped at her nose with one of her flowery handkerchiefs. My mom sat across from us with her hands folded in her lap, smiling at me whenever I looked at her.
"You're such a comfort to them," she said when we left. "I'm proud of you."
I didn't tell her how awful I felt the whole time we were there, or that I didn't think I wanted to go to the Bianchis' anymore. I wanted her to stay proud of me.
A few nights later, someone stole the Bianchis' Mary. There was a hole in the ground where her feet had been and a big red X spray-painted over the perfect Tiffany blue on the inside of the bathtub.
"How Christian of them," my mother said, when she saw it. Her voice sounded the same as when she toasted to Mrs. Maguire.
After she left for work, I walked to the hardware store, even though I wasn't supposed to leave the neighborhood. I looked through the paint chip display until I found the one for Robin's Egg.
I brought the chip up to the counter and tried to look casual as I waited for the guy behind the counter to mix it. "I'm not supposed to sell paint to kids," he said, as I handed him three weeks worth of allowance for the can and a big, thick brush. "But you don't look like a vandal."
I wondered if he said the same thing to whoever bought the red spray paint.
That night, after my mom fell asleep on the couch, I snuck out the back door with my brush and the Robin's Egg paint. I lifted my Mary out of the weeds and lay her in my wagon. "Hail Mary, full of grace," I prayed over her.
I heard a voice say, "I'll pull," but it wasn't Mary, and it wasn't in my head. When I looked up, my mom was standing there. I couldn't see her face in the dark. She reached out her hand and grabbed the wagon handle.
Copyright © Allie Larkin 2008.