Saturday, April 23, 2011

Mary Ann Walker’s Urn

Mary Ann Walker’s Urn

Mary Ann Walker’s tiny shop sat, amid a sea of larger, more imposing shops, on the east side of the plaza in downtown Highland, a Dallas suburb. She’d bought the business early spring and had already moved into the narrow storefront. She’d even replaced the old sign, “Aunt Latesia’s Quilts and Things,” with “Mary Ann’s Antique Shop.” A plain name like her plain shop. No script. No gold. No fancy spelling. She’d gone for the plain ever since grade school when Dollie Jean Bedford accused her of thinking she was better than everybody else. That’s when she dropped the “e” from Anne.

Betty Ruth Stowers, owner of an exclusive shop across the plaza and Mary Ann’s best friend, studied the new sign. “What in the world do you mean?” she said, waving her arms in two big arcs. “You have no retail experience.” Betty Ruth’s face changed from ruddy to crimson.
“I’ve been watching you,” Mary Ann said, hands on hips. No way she’d let Betty Ruth take up where George had left off. It was a new day, a new season. Dogwoods were blooming in square, raised planters all around the plaza’s gurgling fountain.

“I’m not sure you shouldn’t be committed.” Betty Ruth continued.

“Well, I am: to a year’s lease.” She wouldn’t tell that she’d secured the lease with George’s small life insurance policy. But why was she feeling guilty? It wasn’t like she’d scrimped on his funeral. She had even picked out a top-of-the-line casket for him: all copper with a silk lining.
Betty Ruth persisted. “Besides, your sign’s all wrong,” she said. “It should read “antiques” with an “s.”

“Not so,” Mary Ann said, holding her ground. “This way, I only have to have one antique. I don’t want to be accused of false advertising.” George’s rickety oak rocking chair, his most prized possession, was definitely antique, and it sat in the now-sparkling front window of the shop beside a small marble-topped table circa 1950. And, yes, she’d be glad to get rid of the chair that, with every squeak, reminded her of him.

Betty Ruth, shop-owner ire in the air, scanned the room’s inventory and, without another word, slammed the front door and sashayed across the mall.

It was good to get tired and then rest her sixty-five year old body, Mary Ann thought as she got back to cleaning. But, maybe Betty Ruth was right: she might be crazy. The accountant’s call the week after the funeral said it all. She had no money, and here she was Windexing dirty glassware. What had she been thinking? Well, for one thing, that she might actually go out of her mind after George died, some nights waking mid-dream, had he called out? She’d be halfway up, realize that his bed was empty. His constant complaining would almost be a welcome break to the silence in their split-level house in the suburbs.

She soothed the fear. It was her glassware and who knew what could happen in a year? She might even make a clean break: sell the house, move into the apartment above the shop. But how long could she climb the stairs? A bed downstairs, who’d know if she slept there? A wardrobe for her clothes. A coffee pot and microwave. She could take a whore’s bath, as Mama had called it. Mary Ann cheered: both at her plan and the thought of her mama whose straightforward talk had always set George off, but now it didn’t matter.

The two Persians would make good shop cats. But what about her stuff? She’d sell it, without a thought*everything but her box collection. Some wooden, some silver, some ceramic. New, old. Big, small. Expensive, cheap. She’d bought what she liked, until George said, “That’s enough,” and threw in the trash the little silver pill box, a last purchase.

Mary Ann had had a couple of sales when she found the untagged items in a corner: a rose dresser set, a Haviland bowl, some 1950’s costume jewelry. These were the things Latesia had mentioned. The things some man had brought in just before she’d sold the shop. What had she said about the man? Mary Ann couldn’t quite remember why he’d sold the objects.

She forgot all about Latesia and the man when, under a pile of linens, she found the covered jar, in bright blues and orange with birds and flowers swirling around its fat middle. She gasped, went down on one knee, and gently lifted the urn. Sixteen inches tall, she estimated, a funny animal atop, lid stuck. No matter. Hardly breathing, she wiped the urn and imagined it on the shelf with her finest porcelain boxes. Hadn’t she seen something similar in one of Latesia’s books?

Shortly, dreading*hoping*she paged through the book: Japanese Imari. There, on page sixty-two: a 1700’s Genroku (whatever that was) fifteen inches tall. She eyed her prize. Fifteen inches*with or without the finial? A foo dog of brown matte glaze. Yes, foo dog. Brown glaze? Maybe. The price? She gasped again. The urn was worth boo-coos. Mary Ann felt faint, wiped her face, remembered a diamond worth thousands found in an old kitchen cabinet. What, too, of the original copy of the Constitution someone discovered behind a cheap framed print? And here she, Mary Ann Walker, widowed, impoverished and in the sunset of life, had been visited with similar fortune. She was reaping the good she’d done in putting up with George.

What should she do with the jar? Hide it? That was probably best, until she could show it to some big auction house, but could she really sell it? This prize of all prizes? Furthermore, what about Latesia in the old folk’s asylum, as Mama called it. And the man who’d sold the stuff? What obligation did she have to him? Both should have recognized the Imari and it’s value. Latesia had been sick*maybe she’d give her a couple hundred dollars, but Mary Ann knew she had no responsibility to a man so insensitive, so uncaring. She didn’t even know his name. So she placed the urn in a locking curio cabinet midway back in the shop until she could sort things out.
“Ah, yes, may I see this piece in the cabinet?” a man asked a couple of weeks later. At last someone wanted to see the Imari. Mary Ann had already sized up the man: sophisticated if a little thread worn, some six feet tall with silver hair*collar length*and a handlebar mustache. Probably he was about seventy-two or three. She had a hard time guessing ages now, as seventy was the new sixty. She bothered all afternoon that he reminded her of someone. Only in that twilight before sleep did it come to her. Yes, Lorne Green or Anthony Quinn. She went to sleep quite contented with her new life. Two finds. The urn*ah, the urn*and a customer who appreciated it. In fact, the man seemed to have been searching for something like it.
“You collect Imari?” she’d asked as she had unlocked the case.

“Yea, something like that,” he’d whispered.

She stepped away and kept watch from behind a 1920’s walnut dresser. First the man stared reverently at the urn and then, hesitantly, carefully, picked it up. Mary Ann tensed. What if he dropped it? He didn’t and Mary Ann saw him close his eyes and softly stroke the jar. After a few minutes he carefully replaced it on the shelf, shut the door, and turned the key. Mary Ann stepped from her hiding place, smiled into his eyes, and immediately felt the connection. He loved the urn. Touching his arm, she said softly, “I feel the same way as you.”

He wiped his eyes. “Really?” he asked. “What about?”

“The urn, of course.”

“Oh, the urn,” he said, glancing back toward it, his eyes misting. “Er, what do you want for it?” Were his eyes begging? Surely he knew he couldn’t possibly afford it.

“Oh, I think I’ll keep it for a while. I just like to look at it.” She couldn’t part with it, no matter how badly he wanted it.

“I’ll be back,” he said at the door. Their eyes met again.

“It’ll be here,” she promised, her voice high-pitched. When the man glanced over his shoulder, Mary Ann felt as though she’d just propositioned him. In the moment, she could feel him touching her lovingly, as he had touched the urn. Her body sent a response she’d not felt in years. Standing before the curio with the urn, she folded her arms and hugged herself, knowing that something wonderful had happened. Why hadn’t George loved her?
By late spring with the dogwoods leafed out in bright chartreuse, Mary Ann had the shop spotless and divided into small room-like settings, giving the shop, with limitations, the feel of a real house*her home now, the Woodcrest house just storage and a place to sleep. Her favorite “room” was the little parlor near the curio where she could watch the Imari and ponder her good fortune. Betty Ruth had noticed the difference. She’d asked, “Just what are you so dreamy-eyed about?”

“Just tired, I guess,” Mary Ann had said, truthfully, for she wasn’t sleeping well, but she’d never tell her luscious dream of the morning when her alarm clock sounded. She’d groaned. She and “Lorne”*she called him “Lorne”*had been sitting in the little parlor with their knees touching, finishing cups of tea when “Lorne,” with a body-stirring smile, had gone into the bath room, then reappeared almost instantly wrapped only in a towel, his hair wet and hanging tantalizingly over one eye. His chest, muscular, glistened with drops of water, and Mary Ann could see that under the towel his stomach was flat and….That was when the bell at the front door…well, the alarm clock…chimed.

Sure enough that night “Lorne” dropped the towel, but the bed’s movement had been Ralph and Alice, her two cats, fighting. Awakened, she lay there, flushed and angry. As George would say, her pump was primed but the bucket was left hanging empty.

Mary Ann lived and relived the dream and then worried, what if “Lorne” never came back? But what if he did? The new self-assured Mary Ann cleaned out her savings and bought new clothes, styles George would declare outlandish for an “elderly woman,” but she didn’t feel elderly. A hair rinse the red of years past made her skin look soft and creamy, so the mirror in the shop’s shadowy bathroom told her. She’d even shaved her legs.

She rearranged the parlor to configure to her dream: the two chairs moved to within a knee’s touch. Naughty, you’re so naughty, she thought and smiled at the thought of a towel-less “Lorne.” She’d offer him something to drink*what would it be? Coca-Cola? Definitely not beer. George was a beer man. Tea? Yes, her dream was right. “Lorne” would like tea.

But first, she’d have him write his name in the fancy register she’d bought at the bridal shop across the mall. After all, she should know his real name. For nighttime perusal, she’d take his picture with the digital camera bought with her grocery money. She could stand to lose a few pounds at one hundred fifteen.

One night George messed up Mary Ann’s dream, when it was he and not “Lorne,” who came to her bed, but with several days of concentrated effort, she regained the old passion for “Lorne,” and two weeks later when he came in, she was in full excitement. It was early June, with the dogwood trees leafed out deep green, when he casually signed the register. He’d even asked her name, hadn’t he? But knowing each other so well, shouldn’t he have talked more and maybe made a pass or two? She knew how little beads formed across his lip when he was excited, how his breath smelled of mint when he kissed, the way the back of his neck felt when she caressed it. She even could see the black mole between his shoulders. He’d better get it checked. That’s the way George’s cancer had started. Just what was his sense of her?

But then, they had been interrupted by a female customer who wore a fake leopard knit jump suit which, Mary Ann noticed, cupped under her ample behind. Mary Ann was chagrinned when the woman (she was no lady) pushed in close to “Lorne” at picture taking time. She had no right to be so close.

“Leopard Woman” collected Hummels, so she said, and Mary Ann rushed to show her five in a cabinet and be done with her. But the woman, with bright red lips and fake eyelashes, wasted precious minutes denigrating Mary Ann’s Hummels. They were Japanese fakes, she said. By the time the woman finished looking and started to the door, “Lorne” had cut short his time with the Imari. He followed the woman to the door, reached around her and, smiling lightly, opened it for her.

Mary Ann nearly broke down in tears. She and “Lorne,” had lost precious minutes because of this classless woman. But when was he going to take charge and profess his love for her: that love expressed in their mutual devotion to the urn? At least she’d seen the longing in his eyes when he’d said, “I’ll see you next time.” And hadn’t he urgently pressed her arm? Yes, she was sure he had. But what should she do? Stretch a fake zebra skin leotard over her boney behind?
Mary Ann eagerly picked up the registry and read. “Gregory Wallace.” His name in his own handwriting*and with curlicues around it. She almost scratched out The Fat Hussy’s name where she’d signed under his. “Jeanine Gillispie.”

The man’s name fairly sang in Mary Ann’s head and confirmed everything she felt about him. “Gregory Wallace.” He was sophisticated, sensuous, a gentle lover. He’d make a wonderful husband. “Mary Ann Wallace,” she repeated over and over. “W’s” were always last. “Alston.” Why couldn’t his name be “Alston”? Silly, any name would be wonderful as long as it was his. She went to sleep that night with a photograph torn in half on her pillow and the feel of his hands on her bare arm. And on her shoulders, her waist….

Weeks passed. Business was pretty good. Maybe Mary Ann wasn’t crazy to have bought the shop. She had two regular customers. That woman, Jeanine “What‘s her name?,” whom she dreaded to see walk in. Jeanine would look around, complain, never buy. Then, Gregory came in every few days. He’d go to the curio cabinet, hold the urn, and then leave. Mary Ann couldn’t get him anywhere near the chairs in the “parlor.” Oh, he stopped to chat, and Mary Ann spoke to him about the Imari in lover’s terms, but he never caught on. He was such a gentleman*and so busy, rushing out to…well, whatever it was he did. 

Mary Ann cinched her waist, padded her bra, but Gregory’s constraint outmatched her seduction. She was quite desperate by the time the bricks on the plaza sizzled with heat and the dogwood trees drooped, water starved, despite automatic sprinklers.

On toward July the Fourth, Mary Ann sat, as usual, in one of the chairs in the “parlor” when in walked Gregory. She was waiting for him when he closed the curio door. “It’s a holiday, so we’re treating customers,” she said. “Sit here, Gregory, in my little parlor and I’ll get you something. Tea all right?”

“I’ll take a beer if you have one.”

Mary Ann was surprised at his choice, but she’d not quibble. She was thinking how George had come through for once. How she was glad that she’d included the last two beers when she’d cleaned out the refrigerator at home and brought the leftovers to the shop.

She handed Gregory a can as she inched her way into the tight space between the chairs and sat down. She’d been right: their knees did touch. Just then the front door opened and Jeanine came in wearing shorts that rode up in her crack. What man would be interested in that trollop? Mary Ann wondered and rolled her eyes at Gregory. “I’ll get rid of this customer and join you in a minute.” Gregory paled*with excitement, she thought as she inched her way out again, placing her hand on his shoulder for support.

“I’ve just run out of tea,” Mary Ann said to Jeanine. I really should respect my customer. Offer her something. After all, the woman, fat butt or not, seemed lonely: coming in all the time but never buying anything. Mary Ann unlocked the cabinet to retrieve a “first bee mark” Hummel she’d bought the day before: a little girl with an umbrella.

“I don’t care for anything,” Jeanine said in a whiney voice as she glanced back, saw Gregory with the beer. I really should offer her one, Mary Ann thought as the woman pushed the Hummel away. “Look, I’m not interested,” Jeanine said suddenly, her voice sharp. “I’ve got to go. That Hummel is way too high.”

“Well, I hope you’ll come back soon anyway.” Mary Ann said. Not really. Here I’ve tried to please her and she can’t be pleased.” She pushed the thought away as she was tingling with excitement now that she could get back to Gregory, but he had set his beer can on the table, left the tête-à-tête setting and rushed toward the front. The door had just closed when he leaned across the counter. 

“Thanks for the beer, but I have to go doctor’s appointment, you know.” Deep lines had etched themselves across his face.

Mary Ann’s heart clinched at the sight. “Oh, are you all right?” The mole, she thought and, still holding the Hummel, hurried behind him to the door. She couldn’t lose him. Not now. They’d just found each other.

“I hope so,” he said and let the door slam. She paced back and forth and, teary-eyed, watched him race across the plaza a few feet behind Jeanine. Finally Mary Ann placed the Hummel on the table beside George’s rocking chair.

What a wonderful man, cancer-stricken, but carrying on, Mary Ann thought as she returned to the parlor setting, ran her hand along the back of Gregory’s chair, relived their few moments together. The beer can sat on the table where he’ d set it. She grabbed it up. Just as she had feared, a big white circle marred the table top. But that was okay. She’d get the mayonnaise, rub it out. She paused. The beer can. She gasped, held it out, stared at it. His hand …his lips. His lips had touched….Hand shaking, she brought the can to her lips, tipped it, swirled the beer into her mouth. Yuk. Luke warm. The beer was lukewarm. Flat.

That night she dreamed that Gregory brought the urn with him to her bed, laid it between them. She had just started to remove the lid when he laughed and pulled away, letting the urn roll toward the edge of the bed. 

Then weeks passed and no Gregory. Mary Ann worried over the dream and what could have happened to him. Was he throwing up with the cancer treatments? She should be there. If only he’d drop his middle class prudery. Didn’t he know that she’d marry him, even if he was sick? Desperate, she carried her camera across the plaza to Betty Ruth.

“No,” Betty Ruth said. “I don’t know either of them, but she came in my shop last week.”
That must have been the day, Mary Ann remembered, when Jeanine had come in and wandered around the shop, pausing at the curio with the urn. Mary Ann softened. A second Imari fan? Before she’d had a chance to ask, Jeanine pushed past her and walked quickly to the door. Mary Ann averted her eyes from where Jeanine’s leopard jump suit strained at the seams. Mary Ann was sorry for the woman, as she really was quite pathetic.

August came and went. September turned the tree leaves on the plaza to gold. Mary Ann paced the floor, rearranged the shop, sat in “her” chair across from “Gregory’s.” She vacillated. Some days she could see herself bathing his face between kisses. Others, she spent their time together kicking his knees between slaps to his face. How dare him stay away, keeping her uninformed about how he was doing? One desperate morning when dusting the Imari, she considered slamming it to the floor. It’d serve Gregory right to come in and find his precious jar smashed. Instead, she set the Imari on the wobbly table in the front window beside the little Hummel. That would show him. He would panic when he saw it there.

Mary Ann wound up at her desk. What was she doing? Spiting Gregory, over the thing that had brought them together? And him dying with cancer. She decried herself as wretched, selfish, uncaring. Dots swirling in front of her eyes, she had just put her head on the desk when Gregory, quite disheveled with jacket tossed across his shoulder, his face scarlet and covered in moisture, rushed in and headed straight for the curio. “Where is it?” he demanded, turning to her, his face wild. “Where is it?”

Her head clearing, Mary Ann got up, rushed to him and, ignoring the damp of his shirt, its odor, grabbed him around the middle. “Calm down, my love. It’s here. It’s here,” she cried against his chest. “And I’m going to let you have it. I was so selfish to keep the urn from you. I’m giving it to you.” She kissed one side of his face, then the other and was about to kiss his mouth when he pulled away. His breath scorched her face.

“What in God’s name are you doing?” he asked and stepped back, his face distorted.
“I know everything,” Mary Ann said, “about the cancer. About everything. I’ll take care of you, see you through this….”

Gregory caught Mary Ann by the shoulders. “What cancer?”

“The mole.”

His eyes wide, mouth agape, he stared, then gasped, “What mole?”

“The one on your back.”

“You crazy woman. There’s no mole on my back. I don’t have cancer.” He grimaced, put his hands to his head, shook it.

He was lying to protect her. Mary Ann knew it. She had to get through to him. “I’m not a innocent child. I’m a mature woman with desires just like you. Take me now. Take me here.” She looked around for a sofa, a table. Something not too hard. I really should lock the front door, she thought.

Gregory raised his hands toward her. Her chest hardened, cut off her breath, as she looked at something terrible in his eyes. “My god, woman, you are nuts.” He glanced around the shop. “Where’s the urn, goddammit? I’ll pay you whatever you ask. Just get out of my life.”

“There,” Mary Ann said, keeping her voice calm and pointing toward the front. He didn’t mean to curse at her like this. It was the cancer talking. She’d calm him down and everything would be all right. She’d done it often enough with George. “There,” she said, “on the table by the rocking chair.”

Relief swept across Gregory’s face and he charged around her, headed to the front of the shop and the urn. Mary Ann followed a few steps behind. This is all just a misunderstanding, she thought. Just as they approached the table, Jeanine Gillispie*always Jeanine*erect, determined, entered. Any other time Mary Ann would have been glad to see her. Well, tolerated her, anyway.

“I have a deal for you on that Hummel,” Mary Ann shrieked and tried to slip past Gregory. She must cover for him, keep Jeanine from seeing him in such a state. Gregory, his eyes riveted toward the front, pushed Mary Ann hard and she stumbled. From her knees, she watched as the two pounced on the table simultaneously, causing it, the urn and the Hummel all to teeter. Gregory grabbed for the urn, and Jeanine, Mary Ann thought, grabbed for the Hummel. “Be careful,” she shouted. Just as Gregory almost had the jar in hand, Jeanine grabbed it away from him. The Hummel splattered to the floor.

Silence reigned and time stood still as Jeanine and Gregory stepped back. Jeanine, eyes locked on Gregory’s face, smiled, a victor in battle. Gregory stood frozen, the vanquished.
“I told you to quit coming here to see her,” Jeanine shouted, her bosom rising, falling rapidly under a tight t-shirt with a growling tiger outlined in glitter. What is this? Mary Ann wondered. Jeanine and Gregory? And they are fighting over me? She’d never had two guys fighting over her, and now she was the “other woman.” How delicious! Then, Mary Ann, realizing Jeanine’s intention, stumbled to her feet and, stretching out her hands, tried to intercept Jeanine before she could act. She would do what Gregory couldn’t. But it was too late. “No,” she cried as Jeanine, eyes bulleted toward Gregory, opened her hands. The urn crashed to the floor, exploding into a thousand pieces. 

There goes my life, Mary Ann thought, scrunching up head to chest, arms over her head, as a gray fog rose up like smoke from the rubble, covering everything in its path.

“Couldn’t get over Margaret.” Jeanine’s lip curled, mockingly. “I told you’d I’d smash her to smithereens.” By now Jeanine was shaking a fist toward Gregory, who, his face contorted in agony, had fallen to the floor and was trying to scoop up the gray dust with his hands. Jeanine watched him briefly and then with a satisfied nod toward Mary Ann, turned and strutted out the front door.

Mary Ann brushed the gray powder from her face and saw Gregory rise, stare, first at the vibrating front door and, then, at the mess on the floor. His chin fell to his chest and tears boiled down his cheeks like rivers through gray-hot lava.

Shocked, disconcerted, Mary Ann raked with her shoe at a piece of the urn at her feet. What had just happened? The lid, the foo dog. She picked up the little chipped figure and, careful of its jagged edges, rolled it over in her hand. Mary Ann’s stomach retched. Not fine porcelain, just cheap ceramic. She was going to be sick. Forget me, she thought. Gregory was the important one. Here was a man who needed comforting if she’d ever seen one. Widowed. left alone to fight the cancer, attacked by a crazy woman….She would take care of him to the very end.
She paused, glanced out at the plaza. Winter was coming. No time to waste. Then, looking through the gray haze between them, spoke. “Oh, Gregory, darling, come on back and let me get you a beer.” It was fresh, bought that day.

She waited just long enough to see him turn to follow.


Rena McClure Taylor holds Bachelor and Master degrees in education, has taught school and owned an antiques shop. She has studied creative writing at SMU and is a member of Writer’s Garret in Dallas.