Burning Mary

Tom Drury


De la revista GRANTA: The best of young American novelists

That summer, the summer of 1979, Arthur Fiedler died one day, and Skylab fell on Australia the next, and the economy was miserable, but Paul Emmons was a college student with no money behind him and none in front and so he seemed immune from trouble. He had come to Boston for a research internship that had turned out to be meaningless: no one cared what the results were, and if there were no results, it would not matter-. But Paul was twenty-two years old and happy to be living in a city. He had grown up in rural Rhode Island and was between his third and fourth years at a college in rural Quebec. His uncle, a captain in the Boston Police Department, had helped him get the internship.

Paul had sub-let an apartment for the summer in the used furniture district of Somerville, and while the neighborhood did not seem like a good place to get to know people, the rent was cheap, and Paul had found that cleaning the sink with Lysol kept the cockroaches off guard. He lived above a vegetable market run by a large woman in a wheelchair who liked to tell Paul about a time in Somerville's history when the people did not want railroads and put up barricades to keep out the trains. 'They thought they could stop it,' she said. Of course they were wrong. No one could stop the iron horse. But you have to admire the fact that they tried.'

'Good for them,' said Paul.

He worked downtown, at night, on the twenty-seventh floor of a narrow building of burnished silver near Boston Harbor. He would ride the Red Line across the Charles River and into town and come up from the subway stop under South Station carrying a brown paper bag with his supper and a beer inside. The sun would be going down, laying shadows across Summer Street. Yellow cabs and Ryder trucks rattled along Atlantic Avenue. The wind came off the harbor, and on stormy nights the elevator would scrape the shaft sides going up or down.

Paul's job was to enter felony-assault data into a computer. He worked alone in a room full of xeroxed crime records from seven cities in the Greater Boston area. The seven cities had not wanted to make or consolidate these copies but had done so under the terms of a federal grant that they used to buy new guns and undercover disguises. The records were kept in damp cardboard boxes on unstable shelves that would groan and shift when Paul took a box down or put it back. He would read one report, type a summary of it, then read the next. It was absurdly slow work. One box took all night, and there were many more boxes than there would he nights.

The computer was called a Bytek Comrade. In those days the computer industry was open to almost anything, and the makers of the Bytek were not the only pioneering manufacturers who seemed to have drawn their design standards form that old television serial featuring a hero in a flying suit with a bullet-like casing over his head. The console of the Comrade curved toward the users sheltering Paul's typing fingers as the bandshell on the Esplanade might shelter the Boston Pops Orchestra, but not Arthur Fiedler anymore

The room Paul worked in was dark at night except for the light from the computer and a green-shaded table lamp and moonlight when there was a moon. The fluorescent lights between the stacks were on timers. The room was hushed and tomb-like so that when Paul opened a beer or whistled or scraped the chair legs against the floor, the sound rose and echoed. He did not know what to make of his work. The only trend he had identified was the tendency of domestic assaults to happen in the kitchen.

A professor of criminology named Leonard Draco came up once or twice a week to make sure Paul was doing something. Draco was a tall man with dark, lively eyes and a mustache. One night in the third week of July the professor opened the opaque glass door wearing a wine-colored vest and a wide-blimmed leather hat and carrying magazines under his arm. These would be copies of Hot Rod and Motor Trend and Automobile Week. Paul knew, for Leonard Draco was an automobile enthusiast who had restored a Fiat convertible.

'There've been three more kitchen scenes tonight, Professor Draco' said Paul. 'One with a serving fork.'

Draco removed the hat and sat down at the end of the long table. The hat had left an indent in his hair. 'Don't think about patterns,' he said. 'Don't worry about what room you're in or what weapon is being used. Just concentrate on the data.'

Draco lit a cigarette and opened one of the magazines. He smoked emphatically, with the cigarette jammed down between his index and middle fingers. 'Otherwise you could miss things.', he said. 'You take any two researchers and give them the same material, and the chances are that one will make cool and startling observations, and the other one will end up saying, "Jesus, how did that important trend escape me?" Well, your mind was closed. You got entranced by the anecdotal. And for that reason you can kiss your funding good-bye for next time.'

'Was one of those researchers you?' said Paul.

'Maybe it was; maybe it wasn't,' said Draco.

'The woman in the kitchen's name was Cheryl,' said Paul. 'When the cops arrived, she was standing by the electric range with a fork hanging out of her arm.'

'It is a wicked world,' said the professor.

'It really isn't' said Paul.

'I drove the Fiat tonight and let tell you what, I think it needs a new head.'

'That'll cost you.'

Leonard Draco got up and went to one of the windows. 'I'm getting this white smoke. It's just a little white smoke. And I don't like to drive the Fiat downtown in the best of conditions. The thing with a convertible is that they can slice through the roof and tear out the radio in a heartbeat. But my wife, Mary, has our station wagon, so I don't know what else I'm supposed to do.'

Paul stared at his terminal, interlaced his fingers, cracked his knuckles. 'You leave it on the street?'

'Parking garage.' said Draco. 'And you're right, you'd think I could relax. But I can't. Because even in a garage someone could go ahead and slash through the roof in a matter of seconds.'

'You must have insurance,' said Paul.

Leonard Draco was quiet for a while but finally said, 'Yeah, I've got insurance.'

'Listen to this one,' said Paul. 'Defendant states that he did not mean to hit complainant in face Defendant states furthermore that he does not know that gets into him sometimes.'

Draco came back to the long table. He took out a cigarette lighter and a tin of Ronsonol and began filling the lighter. 'What's your major again?'

'Biology,' said Paul.

'See, this is the problem,' said the professor. 'I don't know why this internship never gets criminology majors. It's not like there aren't any. But year after year they throw in obscure majors like you just because your old man is a big deal down at the cop shop. You know who I had last year? A marine biologist.'

'It's my uncle.'

'Very well, your uncle,' said Draco. 'I mean, it's no wonder you don't know what you're doing. What school did you go to?'

'Montrose University,' said Paul. 'It's in Quebec. I'm sorry if you don't think I'm the one for the job, but it all seems like some kind of joke anyway.'

'Well, that's right,' said Draco. 'It is a joke. But even joke books have a serious chapter.'

'I could type faster if I had a better terminal,' said Paul. 'That's what I mean by joke.'

'They'll never go for that,' said Draco. 'Why Quebec? Are you Canadian?'

Paul shook his head. 'I'm from Rhode Island. Montrose gave me the best deal of the colleges I applied to.'

Leonard Draco slid the yellow-and-blue Ronsonol tin into his vest pocket and said, 'I'll bet that was a spirited competition.'

In the daytime Paul went to Revere Beach, the parks of the Emerald Necklace and Harvard University. He was surprised that the Harvard students looked like students at all. He was surprised that you could just walk into the middle of the campus, that you could just walk into Widener Library, sit down and read a book. He had expected gates that never opened, earthen banks, a difference in elevation. He had expected to get so close and no closer. The forking sidewalks of Harvard Yard seemed to suggest the rich and intricate lives that lay ahead of the Harvard students, and once, when a woman asked Paul for the time as he crossed the campus, he thought that she must have taken him for a Harvard student. Paul considered his own school, Montrose, overlooking Lake Memphremagog. It was a pretty campus, but it was not Harvard.

Paul had a black tin mailbox in the doorway of his apartment building but he rarely got mail. One day as he was leaving for work, however, he encountered the mailman, who took from his bag a long white envelope and said, 'Do you work for the City of Boston?'

'More or less,' said Paul.

'I'd like to know how you swung that,' said the mailman. 'You got to know somebody to get that gig.'

Then he handed Paul the envelope, which contained a letter saying that Professor Leonard Draco had died in an automobile accident on Route 127 near Singing Beach. The funeral service would be held at the Church of Saint Bernadette in Lexington, with burial to follow at Hopp Hill Cemetery.

Paul went to a clothing store on Summer Street to buy a necktie for the funeral. The salesman was an old gentleman with a faint accent from some other country.

'It's for a funeral,' said Paul.

'How sad,' said the salesman. 'Well, I've been to my share of them.' From a display table he picked up a blue tie with small white dots. 'Now, this is a good pattern for a funeral, you could wear it anywhere. Go ahead, feel it. That's one hundred per cent silk.'

'Are you from England?' said Paul.

'I come from a small town in the north of Scotland,' said the salesman. 'It's a beautiful place, but my brother is there, and we don't get along.'

'You came a long way,' said Paul.

'He's not the only reason,' said the salesman. 'But if you met him you would know what I mean.'

Paul got his old green Plymouth Fury out of a storage lot in Somerville and drove to Lexington on the day of the funeral. Saint Bernadette's was a brick church with a shallow peaked roof and six bronze medallions set into the facade, three on each side of the doors. The medallions had been embossed with religious scenes, and Paul examined one while waiting for the funeral to start.

Jesus was on the cross with a cut under the ribs from which a wide ribbon of blood flowed into an urn below his feet. Two deer with fern-like antlers drank from the urn, while in the background a candle burned on one side of the cross, and on the other side a skeleton leaned forward as if discouraged, with finger bones fanned over eye sockets. The image suggested victory over death but had been rendered with a lurid lack of subtlety. As Paul read the inscription —MAN IS THE SPRING OF EVERLASTING LIFE he heard two women talking on the steps of the church.

'They say there wasn't a mark on him,' said one.

'And the car was a convertible,' said the other.

'It's almost a miracle.'

The church had a black-and-white checkered carpet and a large yellow altar. The casket was open. Paul stood in line, waiting his turn. Leonard Draco looked young and self-conscious and as if his lips had been sealed with glue. Paul thought that dying would be easy compared with lying in a box like this with everyone staring. Then he realized something. He and Leonard Draco were wearing the same tie: dark blue with small white dots.

Later Paul would wonder if this had been an omen, but just then he felt as if he had been caught in some sick practical joke. He made the sign of the cross, hurried from the casket and took a seat in the back of the church, far from Leonard, where no one would be likely to make the connection between their ties.

Some of Leonard's friends got up to talk about his life. They said he liked the art of the Southwest, that he was a gifted mimic and that he had a well-hidden generous side. No one mentioned cars. Paul imagined a speech he could give: 'I did not know Leonard Draco well and yet I say to you that he loved cars and car parts.' Then the priest and his helpers gave communion. Paul knelt at the rail eating the bread and drinking the wine. He did not believe in God, but he believed in communion.

Paul joined the automotive caravan to the cemetery. The other drivers would not admit his car until the end of the line, as if they suspected that he did not care about Professor Draco and had wanted only to see what the funeral would be like. Paul floored it through red lights to keep up. He wrenched the dead man's tie off and jammed it under the seat.

It was a hot and sunny day with wind gusting through the beech and willow trees of the cemetery. Paul stood on the opposite side of the grave from the criminologist's wife. She wore a longsleeved black dress and a dark veil.

'The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved,' said the priest.

The casket was silver-blue and suspended on a motorized lift over the grave.

From the cemetery everyone went to the Draco home in Lexington for supper and drinks. Mourners drifted through the house, past desert paintings, sand-colored and green; past rattlesnake bones and lamps made of smooth stones. Leonard had been a Johnny Mathis fan, evidently, and his wife drank Tom Collinses, spun Mathis records and swayed slightly to the rise and fall of the strings. Her veil hung now on a bleached steer horn, and Paul saw that her hair was golden and that her eyes were round and blue and calm. 'Take my hand,' sang Johnny Mathis. 'I'm a stranger in . . . paradise.'

The wake wound down. Students from Leonard's summer classes sat glumly on wooden chairs near the empty fireplace, and Paul felt no affinity with them. He thought his relationship with Professor Draco had occupied some higher level because he had worked alone in a deserted room and because he and the professor had not liked each other. Yes, he thought sagely, drinking Scotch, emptiness and animosity are the touchstones of adult life.

It was late afternoon, and the sun streamed over the garden and into the windows of the house, and the light was clear and warm. Paul finished his drink and went over to the young widow and kissed the top of her forehead.

'I was one of your husband's students,' he said.

She looked up with tranquil eyes. 'So was I,' she said. 'But that was a while ago.'

'How long have you been married?'

'Three years,' said Mary Draco. 'Would you like to see my wedding dress?'


'Well, you're looking at it.' She was still wearing the black dress with long sleeves. The cloth looked like crepe. She lifted her arms. 'Get it? This is my wedding dress.'

'I don't get it,' said Paul.

'Well, it isn't a very good joke,' said Mary. She sighed. 'Why don't you come out to the kitchen with me?'

They left the living room, crossed the kitchen, climbed the back stairs and entered a sky-blue bedroom with clouds painted on the ceiling. Mary walked into a large closet, and Paul examined a row of model horses standing on top of a dresser. Little gold chains hung from the horses' bridles, and the saddles were made of leather.

Mary came out of the closet after a while wearing a white dress. The upper part was embroidered, and the skirt was long and glossy and full and smooth. The neckline was not low but it revealed the curve of her shoulders.

'This is really it,' she said.

'Did you like being married?' said Paul.

'We were getting there,' said Mary. 'We were getting to like it. But you have to understand Len.'

'I don't understand Len,' said Paul. 'I had no idea he collected paintings.'

'Those are mine, really,' said Mary. 'I painted them. I can paint in virtually any style, and the desert scenes are what he wanted.'

While they talked, she looked at him very steadily. He was not used to her gaze and he felt heat rising to his face although he could not tell whether she was looking at him any differently from how she looked at anyone else.

'On our honeymoon we went to Lake Mead,' said Mary. 'That's in Nevada. To me it was very hot and dry, but as for Len, I've never seen him happier.'

Paul did no more work on the study of assaults. There was no more supervision and nothing to supervise. He spent his nights on the twenty-seventh floor reading and drinking. He had switched from beer to wine. This seemed to him like a great leap forward. A glass of red wine spill, staining the pages of Looking Backward, a Utopian novel by Edward Bellamy, in which a doctor falls asleep in Boston and wakes up 113 years later, finding the world much improved. Paul lugged in a television set and watched The Movie Loft on Channel 38.

One night he opened a file cabinet and found some cigarettes and car magazines. He brought them back to the long table where he used to work and began reading about the new Corvette. The new Corvette looked so bad compared to the Corvettes of his youth that Paul thought the makers should call off the model before the proud name became a joke. The article asked who could resist the chance to drive around in a bright yellow Corvette, and Paul said aloud, 'I could resist that.' Then he called Mary in Lexington and asked her to come into town for the magazines.

'Can they wait?' she said.

'They could,' he said, 'but I want to see you.'

And so she said she would come.

Paul straightened his work table and took the elevator to the lobby of the building, where rain streamed down the big windows. Mary arrived wearing blue sneakers, white jeans and a yellow slicker, and carrying a white canvas bag. Paul took her up to the room where he worked, and she headed straight for the computer.

She took off her slicker and laid it on the table. Underneath it she wore a yellow ribbed sweater with short sleeves. She leaned over the computer and turned it on. 'You don't see many of these,' she said.

'It is junk,' said Paul.

'I program, you know,' said Mary. 'That's how I make my living.' She began typing. 'This terminal is primitive but still it responds to the Basic language. What I'm doing right now is creating an infinite random pattern.'

She stood back, and together they watched as a green helix caromed slowly around the screen. Then Paul took her hands. He kissed her hands and her face and her lips.

'Yes please,' said Mary. She pulled a folded Navajo blanket from the white bag, while Paul locked the door of the room. They made their way between the stacks and spread the blanket on the floor.

Later they pulled their clothes on and sat on a window sill. The rain had stopped. They smoked Leonard's Pall Malls. Mary seemed lost in her thoughts, and ash from her cigarette fell on her sweater. Blue pearls of fire raced up the fabric.

'Do you really think I'm a good painter?' said Mary.

'Mary, you're on fire,' said Paul, and at the same moment a key turned in the lock.

'Jesus Christ Almighty,' said Mary. She slid off the window sill slapping her chest and shoulders.

Paul pulled her close and pressed his hand to her mouth.

They could not be seen from the door. Bitter smoke rose from Mary's sweater. Paul thought that someone from either the college or the police was about to discover that his assault research consisted of watching The Movie Loft and making love to the criminologist's widow.

Instead it was two men exchanging money.

'Here,' said one.

'I never held in my hands a hundred and forty thousand dollars,' said the other.

'You mean a hundred and thirty.'

'Didn't we say a hundred and forty, Bud?'

'No, Don, we sure didn't.'

'Well, I don't see how that could be. I told Tim a hundred and forty. That's what Tim's expecting.'

'What you told Tim is between you and Tim.'

'You could fix it,' said Don. 'If you wanted to, you know you could.'

'I don't want to.'

'What's that smell?'

'I don't smell anything.'

'Well I do. It's like a chemistry set.'

'I don't smell anything.'

'What do they do in here?'

'Nothing anymore. They were doing research at night, but the guy died. You know—that professor who rolled his convertible.'

'Maybe it was a chemical experiment.'

'Nah. It was that smoking professor and that creepy scowling intern. They say he was thrown from the car. That always makes me wonder. It sounds like it wouldn't necessarily be so bad, you know? It sounds like you might bounce a couple times and then land on soft grass.'

'They bounce all right.'

'Now, how are we going to do this?' said Bud. 'D'you want the money? Or shall I go back and say, 48It now appears that Don, for reasons best known to himself . . . "'

'No, no, no, no. But what you forget is by the time everybody gets their cut, I'm bringing home the minimum wage. Meanwhile the addition to my house keeps fading farther and farther from reality. Do you have any idea where my kids sleep?'

'The basement.'

'Well, that's right. Their room is in the basement.'

'You already told me that once.'

'How would you like to grow up in a room without windows? It wouldn't be much fun, would it? You should hear them. It's enough to break your heart. Oh it really is. On a sunny morning, on a perfectly sunny day, they call up the stairs, "Oh, Daddy, can you tell us if it's raining? Should we wear rain clothes, Daddy?"'

'You kill me, Don. What do I look like, Squirrel Nutkin? Is that what I look like to you?'

'No, Bud. I don't even know what Squirrel Nutkin is.'

Then their voices quieted, and eventually the door clicked, and they were gone. Paul and Mary had been pressed together and still for some time now and they began kissing again.

'What were they talking about?' said Mary. 'Who are those people?'

'Maybe they were cops,' said Paul. 'Do you think I scowl?'

'A little you do, but I wouldn't really call it scowling.'

He helped her out of her pullover. 'You can forget about this sweater,' he said. 'Did you get burned, darling?'

She shook her head, pressed her hands to her ribcage. Her skin was dark against the whiteness of her bra.

Paul's Aunt Jean and Uncle Bernard lived in Arlington, and Paul went over to their house one evening in August. After supper he and Uncle Bernard sat in the living room watching the Red Sox on television. Uncle Bernard was a small man who wore a black beret. He and Paul talked while keeping their eyes on the game.

'I imagine you'll be going back to Montreal soon,' said Uncle Bernard.

'Ten days,' said Paul. 'It's not Montreal though.'

'Montreal is a great town.'

'Where I go is south-east of Montreal.'

'Well, I hope you were able to take something from being an intern. Although it's too bad about your supervisor.'

'It is too bad.'

'They say there wasn't a mark on him,' said Uncle Bernard.

'Hey, you know, that reminds me,' said Paul. Then he explained what he and Mary had overheard on the night her sweater burned. Uncle Bernard listened to the story and sipped beer. He and Paul were drinking from tall glasses with the Anheiser-Busch logo printed on them in red.

'Well, hell, Paul,' Uncle Bernard finally said, 'there's no law against putting an addition on your house.'

'Maybe I haven't explained this very well.'

Uncle Bernard got up, turned off the television and sat back down. 'Let me tell you something that might prove useful. This is something your grandfather said.'

'All right.'

'He said: Very easy to get into trouble; very hard to get out. And the reason he said this was because someone had fallen down the stairs, and I wanted to help him, and he didn't think we should.'

'Who was it that fell?'

'A drunk named Hibby, if you want to know.'

'I'm not aiming to get into trouble,' said Paul. 'It just seemed like I should tell someone.'

'Well, you told the right person,' said Uncle Bernard. 'You know, another thing your grandfather liked to say was this: Be careful what you accept, because that's what you get.'

'What did he mean by that?' said Paul.

'I don't remember the context anymore,' said Uncle Bernard. He pressed the heels of his hands to his forehead and let up. He was a man who spoke almost entirely in aphorisms.

Labor Day was coming. The mornings and evenings had turned cold. Paul packed his car for the trip north and turned in the keys to his apartment. On his way out of town he dropped a letter to Mary into a mailbox in Central Square and then stopped into a tavern called Tommy's for a beer.

He leaned on the bar and tried to remember exactly what he had said in the letter. He had wanted to say that he was all for Mary, and that she would be a good painter, but he hadn't quite got it right. He felt as if he were abandoning her. But letters were tough for him anyway. He always thought the person he was writing to would read between the lines and sit there getting madder and madder.