Mary was born in a port city in the heel of Italy in 1928. She was the second Mary, a replacement for the first, who had entered and left the world in one day. Because she was the second Mary, her mother worried about her too much. When she turned five, she almost died anyway, burning up and turning bright red. She felt heavy and wet. Her brain swelled up and then went down again. As she laid in bed a parade of children came into her room, an endless line of them, identical pairs of her brothers and sisters.
Afterwards, she was changed. She cried and carried on about little things and helped less around the house. She got angry with her brothers and sisters. When her family moved to America, she threw fits. Her mother had to carry her onto the boat like a piece of luggage.
Mary grew up. She was a real American and would not speak Italian. On the steps of the New York Public Library, she met her husband who had shrapnel in his leg and smoked cigarettes. They married and moved to Long Island with its potato fields and long yellow grass. Perfect rows of houses. The saline smell of the ocean sometimes reached her when she stood on the front lawn. It reminded her of Italy, and she would have to go into the house to escape it.
Mary gave birth to a daughter, a wrinkled doll with little olive arms and legs. It puked on Mary’s clothing, so she stopped buying nice things.
The baby grew up. She had thick black eyebrows like her mother and developed big breasts, wore tight jeans and smoked cigarettes, stayed out late with her friends. Mary called her a slut and threw a bar of soap at her, blackening her eye. She got married and left. Mary had two more daughters to take the other’s place. They grew up and got degrees and left her.
She ate and grew fat, taking up more and more space on the couch, until her husband moved to the chair, and taking up more and more space in the bed, until he moved to one of the empty rooms left by the girls. He went away once for a whole week without telling her where he was going. She called her daughters and cried, and then her husband came back. A few years later he died of a heart attack and the house got quiet. No more cowboy movies, no more baseball. Only the stink of menthol smoke lingered in the couch cushions, the curtains, the bed, the clothes hanging in the closet.
Mary forgot to eat. She called her daughters and she shouted. She grew very thin. You’re shrinking, one of the daughters said. They cooked for her and watched her eat, and when they were satisfied that she’d eaten enough, they left again. Their names escaped her. She sent birthday cards in which she’d scribbled notes that unraveled like string. She used words that did not exist and took too much medication, which made her legs swell up. They went down again, but she was not allowed to be alone anymore. A doctor took a photograph of her brain and showed the daughters pockets of blackness in the greenish white image. They took her to a home for people who had forgotten. They did not tell her where they were going. A man came and got Mary out of the car and put her into a wheelchair. Come on, sweetheart, he said. Sweetheart? Was that her, he meant? She did not have her things with her, she thought. What would happen to her couch?
She shared a room with a woman who took all her clothes off and walked around like a saggy ghost. Every two weeks, someone came by to style her hair, which had gone completely white for the first time in her life. Nurses rushed in and out. She called them names, or complained that they were stealing from her or trying to kill her. She complained to her daughters when they visited, she begged them to fire the nurses. They couldn’t, they told her. Go away, she said. I don’t love you. I hate you.
Soon, she couldn’t get out of bed. She felt very light, falling into the lightness to sleep. She woke up to the sounds of talking and humming. People were talking about someone called “her” and someone called “she.”
Her daughters came and stood around her, watching her every day until her heart stopped. She saw herself walking up the steps of the New York Public Library, and then she was herself walking up the steps. She expected to see her husband, young again, with slick black hair, limping up the steps with a cigarette between his fingers. Instead, a girl was waiting for her at the top, blocking the door; she wore a fur coat and held a sequined clutch, neither of which Mary had ever owned. Can you let me in? Mary said. The girl seemed to be stunned out of a trance and almost dropped her purse. Oh, I’m sorry, she said, snapping open the clutch and handing Mary a rectangle of plastic. Here is your card, she said, and stepped out of the way.
Richard Mirabella is a fiction writer living in Upstate New York. His flash fiction has appeared in Glossolalia Flash Fiction and Pequin, both online. He is working on a novel.