“Yeah. Hot.” A book called Savage Passion is dropped on the counter. Typical cover in the Indian/White Heaving Breasted Lady genre: An American Indian who looks like he lifts weights. He’s wearing a feather, loincloth, and not much else. A lady, poofy blond hair like a 1980s porn star, with lots of green eyeshadow. A bit of tit and leg is showing from her Victorian gown, leaving enough to the imagination to be allowed at a grocery store bookrack. Mary Smith used to read such books, mainly when she was 14, and grew weary of the genre shortly thereafter, for even clichéd characters can only stand so much of the same. Mary Smith prefers the various yarns spun by Danielle Steele. Now that is literature, is what Mary thinks, and that she need never vary in her choice of author, as Steele releases a new 400 page tome to indefeatable true love every three days or so.
And then he comes in. Mary Smith hears the refrain from that awful song she somehow made up on the spot this morning. Todayyyyy…
He’s the one, thinks Mary. He likes to read, he’s handsome, he’s perfect. Will he notice me?
What does Mary Smith’s future lover look like? Hugh Grant ( He’ll look like Hugh Cronin by the time this story is over)? We think he should look like perfection, the sort manufactured not by nature but by a Mattel factory. He is Ken articulated with the breath of life and perhaps looking for his Barbie in the flesh.
Mary Smith is a Barbie doll, Paperback Exchange Barbie, not manufactured by Mattel, but still ‘swell.’ She fantasizes about this man coming up to her, giving her a lengthy kiss rivaling a 1940s movie scene. I love you, Mary…
He’s coming to the counter. He’s coming.
“Hi,” Mary Smith says for the first time in a long time without having to fake enthusiasm.
“Hey,” says Ken, putting one hand in the pocket of his jeans. “You got a public rest room?”
The day progresses. It is around 3pm. The book store has thinned out and now Mary Smith is alone with a newspaper crossword. A mother comes in dragging her son by the hand. He looks to be about 6, years-old, brown hair almost the color of Mary’s. Mary Smith thought as a young girl that she would one day have a child of her own. Maybe her phantom child would look somewhat like this little boy.
She goes back to her crossword puzzle. The boy is bored as his mom looks at suspense novels. The owner of the bookstore likes knickknacks, the kind that have a sticker on the bottom that says, “Made Exclusively for Dollar Tree.” Cherubs, frogs, gnomes, and ceramic Jesus Christs all vie to be noticed on the tops of the bookshelves. One curio, a genuine African Mask (made in China of painted china), has caught the boy’s attention. His mother is oblivious to him though she is roughly 8 feet away. He starts to climb one shelf to get the mask. It would be fun to put over his face and pretend he is a masked superhero , we believe the child thinks.
The shelves only are about eye level to the average adult, so from the first shelf, the boy can reach…just reach.
Suddenly a crash, the little African Mask now lies on the linoleum floor in several pieces. Mary Smith turns to look at what happened. The boy is still standing on the first shelf, one hand frozen in mid-air, the other clinging to the shelf. Before Mary Smith can reassure the boy’s mother that the mask was of no real consequence, the mother has gone red with rage. “Now what have you done? G—damn IDIOT!”
Don’t look, Mary. Not your problem, Mary. Mary Smith resumes writing an answer on her puzzle. Her hand is shaking just a bit. She isn’t looking, but she hears. We see that the mother is small, blond, and in her early twenties. She doesn’t look capable of hurting her son, nor does she look capable of keeping him under control. Her frustration and rage is peaking. She grabs the boy off the shelf, but holds him kicking at the air 2 feet below him. Walks far enough away with him to clear the remains of the china African mask before dropping the child to the floor. The sound of the child’s body hitting the floor makes Mary Smith’s pen draw a line off of the paper as her shaking hand drops the pen.
Mary Smith can’t open her mouth. Her lips are stuck together, her tongue sticks to the roof of her mouth. Her voice is paralyzed. A movie of the week scene and she can’t turn the channel or swallow. The woman grabs up her son so that he stands again. He is winded, shocked, and not crying. She grabs his hand and they leave the store as they came.
Mary Smith is alone now. The mask is in the floor in several pieces. One piece containing a hole for an eye and a bit of forehead is on its side. To Mary Smith it looks like the eyeless socket is staring at her.
There was a time when Mary might have said something. How long ago was that? Ten years ago, maybe fifteen? Since before she let life pass her by. Before she began just trying to get on with life. Before her ideals began to shrivel and maturity blotted them out.
Mary Smith begins to pick up the pieces of the china African mask until she feels a sharp pain in her palm. The piece that had pricked her conscience has now cut her hand. This is the high melodrama we hoped Mary Smith, cliché of the great American short story, would give us. Emotional, physical pain, the kind that will translate well on the silver screen. Keep going,Mary!
Mary Smith drops the offending piece into a plastic bag she is using to collect the debris and then opens her palm. Blood, not massive, but considerable enough is leaking from a small cut. She stares at the red fluid that pumps through her body as though entranced. Funny the thoughts one thinks. Look, Mary, you’re alive. You’re still a person. Can you feel it? (Mournful reprise of the “Today” song’s music should be placed here in the movie version).
Perhaps a potential vampire boyfriend should materialize like a shark smelling blood? You know, a nice pale guy, handsome, opens the door for his lady-love before draining her of her lifeblood. So popular now, but we decide we like this story sans Dracula, and…
Mary Smith bandages her hand in the bathroom, places the last piece in the bag, and makes her way to the wastebasket behind the counter. But for some strange reason she can’t toss the tied bag into the basket. Something, some force has prevented her from throwing the mask away. Perhaps the mask is cursed, right? Not likely. Hello, it came from the wild forest pf The Dollar Tree, not an ancient African tribe. Probably something else. It seems to her that to throw the mask’s remains away after what happened would be wrong…almost bordering on disrespectful for her phantom son’s pain.
It’s time to close. Mary Smith is glad. It’s been a long day. I’ll throw it away when I get home, and with that she stuffs the plastic bag in her purse. The ‘closed’ sign is hung on the door, she sets the alarm, and locks the door . She is out on a generic sidewalk in NYC, Boston, Chicago, or LA.
The loneliness of a large city is something Mary Smith is used to, but something has happened. The late afternoon sunlight is almost like it’s not there to her. The oppressive heat seems to not bother her. She almost feels cold. The world is gray like an anti-depressant commercial pre-pill. People are all around her and she feels invisible until she bumps into a man (OK, here must be the meeting of the male romantic lead. FINALLY. Such a tedious read).
“Why don’t you watch where you’re going?” a man in a business suit admonishes.
“Sorry,” Mary Smith replies in the same tone as the gent.
Everything is wrong somehow. People are so unkind and she is tired of it all. Mary Smith is relieved to lock herself safely into her apartment away from everyone. Suddenly she remembers skimming through the paper that day, the stories. Along with the daily dose of murder, mayham, and outed gay conservatives, there was the story of a man who lived in an apartment building not far from where Mary Smith lives. He hung himself in his closet and wasn’t found for a week, not until someone smelled him. What if one day that happens to me? What if I died one day by natural causes or by dispatching myself and they only found me because I stunk? Would anyone wonder what happened to me? Would anyone care? Oh, knock it off, Mary. Someone would call, your employer, your landlady sure would be on the case if the rent was late. Maybe a friend sometime.
My life doesn’t matter.
Eat something, Mary. You’re just tired and hungry.
Would anyone remember me for anything? No one would. I’m nothing in this world.
Rinse off your face. Get a grip. Ugh, no wonder no one loves me.The mirror doesn’t lie!
The mask is still in her purse, which she has hung on the coat rack. She takes the bag out of the purse, empties the pieces on a tray, hunts down her super glue, and pieces The Dollar Tree African mask together.
Watch something on the TV.
Canned laughter, fake, beautiful people sitting on couches talking their humorous adventures in love and life. Oh kill me now. I’m going to bed.
“Maybe today? Fuck it. Tomorrow,” she sings as she slips into bed. Mary Smith covers her head with her pillow and drowns the out the world.
The next day she picks up the dried mask from where she glued it together. The mask falls to pieces again. Mary Smith sweeps the pieces into the plastic bag and throws it away on the way to work.