Mary May Kincaid
A Short Story by Daniel Alexander
Finalist - Tucson Festival of Books Literary Awards 2019
The boy is holding onto her leg as the sliding door opens and frigid air buffets them both. He wails, decries her, rails against the pointless cruelty and injustice as the fluorescent lights of the neighborhood superstore grow smaller behind them. Mary May Kincaid does not hear what the boy says. She knows it does not matter, not really. Her left hand rummages in her pocket for the car keys as she tries to remember her parking space and her right hand keeps a tight grip on the boy’s arm, making sure he does not slip away. She has an irrational fear that if she lets go, he will slide into the dark underbelly of a car and she will never see him again. She squeezes harder, just in case.
The wind picks up and in the back of her mind, she is glad that she got a haircut just last week. Last winter saw far too many days where she was turned around or falling down because of dark curls obscuring her vision. Still, it is hard to see her way. Half the lights seem to be broken or flickering intermittently and the boy’s cries coupled with the wind flinging white flakes in her face keep her from focusing on finding the car. She steps to the side to catch her breath and pry him off of her leg, only to realize that she stands next to her old hatchback, its worn paint job obscured under the coating of snow but still recognizable from the solid dent in the trunk.
The boy does not want to get in the car and Mary May Kincaid must use the last of her strength to strap him in. She has already forgotten what toy or trinket has gotten him so worked up, although he has not and he is certain he never will. Surely, he believes, he will remain furious with her for the rest of his life. Surely he will never forgive her. But like so many other moments in his life, he will have forgotten this one within a month. He will forget the toy, the parking lot, the wind, the way he seized her leg and refused to let go. He will forget by the time he asks for another toy the next year and again she says no .He will forget by the time he asks if he can go on vacation with his friend’s family and again she says no. He will forget by the time he asks for the car keys so he can go study with a friend except they both know he is doing no such thing and again she says no.
But Mary May Kincaid will not forget. She will not forget the sound of his muffled cries as she walks around the car to the driver’s seat. She will not forget the fluorescent lights of the store and the way they shone out onto the unbroken snow. She will not forget how she held him tight and did not let go until he was safely buckled in. Sometimes, she will wonder why, out of the memories made and lost, this one sticks with her. She will not know the answer.
But she will remember.
The sting of old spray paint fills the air as the red haired girl with the blue eyes leans forward, squinting at her handiwork. Mary May Kincaid sits atop the dumpster behind her, leaning against the schoolhouse. The sun filters down through the air and she breathes deeply, inhaling the scent of the paint, of that day’s taco lunch, of the lavender and mint she always seems to smell around the red haired girl, no matter where they are.
She doesn’t know about the whispers that follow the two of them through the halls. She can’t see the strange looks and narrowed eyes, the glares from teachers and other parents. She simply isn’t looking for such things, and so they remain beyond her scope. Only later, much, much later will she remember the days when the red haired girl took her hand and pulled her down the halls and how the crowds parted a bit too quickly and how the eyes staring after them weren’t entirely innocent. But by then, she will not have seen the red haired girl for some years and she will try to forget, although she won’t entirely be able to.
The red haired girl joins her on the dumpster, tossing the can of spray paint aside. She has painted over the plain brick a simple question.
Who watches the watchmen?
Mary May Kincaid tells her that nobody will understand the reference. The red haired girl asks her if she understands, and she nods. The red haired girl grins and says that no one else matters. She leans in quickly and they are suddenly very close, very close together.
Mary May Kincaid will taste lavender and mint on her lips for hours after.
Somewhere else, the boy is crying.
She is just now realizing that she does not want to be here. It all seemed to be quite important just moments before, but now it rings hollow in her ears. The minister is speaking empty words about commitment and care that seem to drift past her like a gentle wind. The people from her family and the people from his family sit still and stare straight at her. She can feel their smiles and she does not like it. She wishes she could run back down the aisle, away, to some other place, some other time, anywhere at all.
She does love him – this she knows, has known for a long time. She knew it for much longer than he did, and knew he loved her for longer still. He reads his vows and they’re perfect. They meet for the first time and he stutters so much she can barely understand. He has lost his stutter, except for when he is angry or sad or overjoyed or in moments of passion. As he speaks, she forgets the words to her own vows and he is perfect and this moment is perfect except she wishes they could be anywhere else and so when he finishes, she steps forward and kisses him. He is surprised, but only for a moment. The minister is flustered and belatedly instructs them to kiss. The families stand and applaud and go through the motions they are meant to go through. Mary May Kincaid does not hear any of them.
Her kiss tastes of lavender and mint. The red haired girl is not at the wedding.
It is far too nice a day. She wishes it were dark and raining with thunder cracking like the fury of the gods but it is not. The sun presides above a cloudless sky. Birds sing and flit above. Flowers bloom. The casket is lowered into the ground amidst grass that is unnaturally green.
Mary May Kincaid does not leave the grave. She stands there hours after everyone else has gone away. It is two days earlier and she is opening the bathroom door. She sees the pills on the floor, the half-empty whiskey bottle clutched by a hand she knows is cold and stiff. Years earlier, the same hand waves to her as she walks off to school for the first time. It writes little notes that are slipped into her lunchbox on her birthday and whenever she has a big test. They huddle together under a blanket as they watch old cheesy movies late into the night. She does not cry until she stands over the grave and the sun has almost begun to set.
The red haired girl calls her and she does not pick up. She does not look at the phone, she does not mute it, she just lets it ring until it stops. It is three days later and she is standing outside the red haired girl’s house. She stays the night and leaves late the next afternoon.
She is in a bus three weeks later as the town fades behind her. She does not look back. She kneels by the grave and clenches her fist. She wants to punch the dirt, the headstone, something, but she doesn’t. It would do nothing but bruise her knuckles, so she sits and does not leave until she cannot read the epitaph in the darkness.
She wishes she could be anywhere else.
Earlier, they ran in the ocean spray and laughed as she splashed him and he responded by chasing after her. The water is warm in the summer, warm enough to make the air feel cooler in contrast. Not as cool as the winter night as she drags the boy to the car, but refreshing in a way that only a summer swim can be. She sits on the beach towel, stretched beneath an old umbrella from the back of his car, and lies down.
He lies beside her and asks what she’s thinking about. She tells him she is thinking of nothing and he understands. Mary May Kincaid loves him for it. He knows that not every moment needs to be filled. Not every silence needs to be broken. Sometimes, like now, it is enough to be still. Three months from now she suggests they get married and he is stuttering as he tries to say yes. They kiss and their families clap. Lavender and mint.
The breeze is soft and the sun dips behind a cloud. She smiles and lets herself forget a little bit, forget to worry, forget to obsess, forget herself – only for a moment, but it is a peaceful moment.
The dirt beneath her knuckles is too solid to hit. The freezing air bites at her face.
The labor has been long, too long, but finally it is over and Mary May Kincaid is born, handed to her mother who cradles her in her arms. The pills spill across the floor. She cries and her mother hushes and coos to her, a tired smile across her face. Never in her life has she loved anyone or anything as instantly as she loves this child, this tiny being who did not exist not so long ago. She cannot imagine being away from her for a single second.
The baby’s eyes are screwed shut. She cries in the strange new world. The boy cries with her, years away, miles apart. She gradually stops, breathing softly in her mother’s arms. The doctors and nurses make the rounds, do the checkups, smiles all around. Mary May Kincaid is healthy, free of any discernible defects or injuries. For a few hours, everything is perfect.
Nighttime is quiet in the hospital and the new mother stares at an empty chair beside her, feeling a similar emptiness creep in. Mary May Kincaid does not feel empty, not yet, but she will in time. Some piece is missing, some person who ought to be there. She is opening the mailbox and there is a postcard for her from Algeria, Sweden, Chile, Portugal. They all say the same thing, the same worn out excuses, the same hollow cheer, the same emptiness and she gradually understands that the postcards are not for her, but for the one sending them. She imagines it makes him feel happier – or, at the very least, a little less guilty about leaving. It doesn’t matter much to her – her mother is there, her mother has always been there, so what does she need him for?
The beach is quiet as she pounds the unyielding earth.
She is staring at her phone, trying to tell herself not to get out of the car. She should just drive back to her hotel, ignore the text, let the rest of her trip pass with meetings and seminars and all the other minutiae the company wants her to attend. But she knows she will not do this. It has been nearly twenty years since she last saw her, but she knows that she cannot help herself.
The house looks nice as Mary May Kincaid walks up the front steps. It’s a small, one story structure, in decent repair. Attempts at a flowerbed reside by one of the windows, now withered and brittle. She rings the doorbell. No one answers immediately, and a tiny part of her tells her to leave, to walk back to the car, to run back and return to her life, her good life. Then the door opens.
She is sitting on the dumpster and they are kissing. The red haired girl – now a woman, she supposes – is standing in the door. It takes her a moment to recognize Mary May Kincaid, and when she does, her eyes and smile widen.
They are inside, sitting at the kitchen table, trading life stories, laughing, and Mary May Kincaid can remember how right they felt together. The tiny voice, whispering to her about her husband, her son, is easily ignored. She feels good, feels right, feels whole for the first time in recent memory, sitting at the table, just being with the red haired woman. She refuses to let this slip away from her. She deserves this, deserves to feel good about herself. Their hands touch briefly, and linger. Neither of them draw away.
They are sprawled across the mattress and Mary May Kincaid’s mind is racing, trying to think, trying to reason, but then the red haired girl kisses her and she lets her thoughts melt away with the paint dripping down the wall. The beach breezes gently ruffle against them as the buttons of her shirt are undone. Her hands are stained brown with dirt and the red haired girl rubs them with a damp cloth. Their fingers intertwine. They are quiet, so as not to disturb the parents who sleep just a few rooms over.
She shouldn’t be here. She knows that. But she will take another business trip, and another, and return each time. She can no longer smell the lavender or the mint, but she knows she needs this.
She realizes she never told him. Not about the red haired girl, not about the afternoon and the spray paint, not about the night spent in each other’s arms – not any of it. He only ever knew that she was seeing someone who was not him. They sit and stare into their drinks, not talking – coffee, black, and something with so many different creams and trimmings that she can’t understand how it’s still classified a liquid. The booth is small, cloistered away from the other tables – the perfect place to hide away and think, or the perfect place to talk with no one overhearing.
He speaks first, asks her if she’s still seeing the woman with the red hair. She tells him no, she stopped a few months ago. She isn’t lying, but she can’t help but feel like she is, somehow. Mary May Kincaid waits for him to keep talking, to fill the silence, but he does not.
She tells him she still loves him. This too feels like a lie. The man nods. He tells her he still loves her too. The silence returns as they sit. Neither of them understand why – why, if they love each other, is this not working? If they still care, shouldn’t the answer be simple and easy and right?
He asks about their son. She smiles and they start talking, slowly, but they talk. They both know most of it already, most of the stories and adventures their excitable child loves to get up to – neither of them has full custody, after all. They begin discussing holidays, family events, and talk turns to a reunion of sorts. She does not dare to hope, but she does anyway – all of them under the same roof, laughing together again, just being together again. Perhaps, she thinks. Perhaps there is a chance.
They lie on the mattress and they talk.
The machines that once filled the room have been wheeled out, their incessant whirring and chittering fading down the hall until she can no longer hear them. No one has told her that her time is up, but she knows enough. She can feel it as well – the weariness is seeping out of her bones, pooling on the floor, running out. It makes her feel light, as if she could float to the ceiling and sometimes she thinks she is and then she blinks and focuses and she is in the cot once more.
The boy is asleep in a chair that stares out onto the city lights. She supposes he’s not really a boy anymore, but she cannot help herself – he is her boy, and always will be. His breaths are soft and measured, in time with the winds at the beach, with her fists hitting the ground, with the slow walk through the snow. The glass against his cheek is fogging up and she smiles.
She can see the red haired girl now, leaning over her. A fleck of paint colors her left cheek, the cloth coated with dirt lies folded in her pocket. She can smell the lavender and mint as they kiss. It is her wedding day and she wants to be somewhere else, somewhere peaceful and quiet, just like the stillness of the hospital where nothing moves or makes a sound unless it absolutely must. She closes her eyes and breathes out for the last time, a smile on her lips.
“I can’t keep doing this.”
“You know, you keep saying that, and yet every few months I hear you knocking on my door again.”
“It’s a mistake. You know it’s a mistake.”
“All the best things in life are mistakes. Besides, it’s not as if we’re actually hurting anyone.”
“He found out.”
“. . . So what? Is that it? Are you just going to leave the moment it gets too tough?”
“You know I care about you—”
“No, Mary, I don’t know that. I just – I just thought that all of this meant something. I guess that makes me the romantic idiot in this scenario.”
“It does mean something. But it needs to end.”
“Can you tell me why? And don’t say it’s just because we’re not a secret anymore. I know you too well to buy that.”
“Do you remember when we were kids, when I came to your house that one night?”
“Your knuckles were almost cut open, and they were covered in dirt. I remember.”
“And that time, behind the school – you were spraying some graffiti on the wall.”
“I . . . don’t actually remember that part.”
“I do. And I’ve been thinking recently, about what sorts of things I can remember. The graffiti, that night with you, the day I got married, this one day on the beach where everything was just still and calm and empty for just a moment. And the more I think about all of it, the more jumbled it gets in my head, all mixing and changing to the point where it feels like it’s all happening at once. Like everything I’ve done and everything I’ve seen is somehow the same thing, over and over and over again. People leaving, people coming back, people just waiting for something to happen. I don’t know. Maybe it’s nothing, but I just can’t do this anymore. Because everything I am feels like it’s filled to bursting, like I just can’t deal with it anymore, and if I try to hold onto this, I think I’ll start losing other pieces of myself. Does that make any sense?”
“Not to me. But I think it makes sense to you, which is who it’s supposed to make sense for anyway.”
“Thanks. And I’m sorry. I don’t want this to be painful, but it feels like it might be headed that way.”
“If it isn’t painful, then it wasn’t real. And yeah, I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t hurt me, that you want us to end. But I think as long as you remember me, remember us, that should be enough.”
“And I will remember you, Mary May Kincaid.”