Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary
Rob shoved the truck into gear. It lurched forward. At the turn onto Deb’s street, he skated through the four-way stop. “You’re my girl and I want everyone to know.” As the pickup gained speed, it rattled like a bucket filled with spinners. Deb slapped at his shoulder and yelled at him to slow down. And still, he went faster. His recklessness was foolish. The risk made her angry. The truck swung into her yard and slid to a stop. Debra stomped into her house, the screen door smacked shut behind her. The tires ground a divot in the gravel as he spun out of her driveway.
At school the next day, Debra ticked like there was a Geiger counter in her brain. The clicks sped up as Rob approached. He laughed with his friends as they ambled into the calculus review class. He chose a chair three desks over and one row back from hers and stood for a moment, all tight jeans and neat plaid shirt, then grinned her way. He tossed a textbook on the Formica-topped desk and boosted his leg over the back of the chair, entertained by the chatter surrounding him.
The smell of mower exhaust blended with freshly cut grass wafted through the open windows. The early June sunshine filled the room and ricocheted off the chairs lining the far wall. The desks, arranged in two half circles like bowls nested one inside the other, barely confined their restlessness.
The teacher called on Rob. Deb turned to watch him answer. She caught his eye, dared him to remember when his rough fingers spread across her belly and slowly inched downward.
Rob waited for her in the hall. He took her hand, intertwined his fingers with hers, and kissed the tips. This was his apology. Debra let him stand that way for a moment, before taking her hand back. They strolled down the hall, their arms bumping occasionally. She pinky-grabbed his little finger, squeezed and then let go. Both of them understood, two hands clasped together was a declaration. Graduation was less than two weeks away. They could wait that long.
They sat at the same table for lunch. A girl wearing a handmade dress of cotton calico glided by. The fabric may have begun life as tiny orange flowers on a white background, but with hard washing and line drying, it had faded to a pale peach.
“Tell me about your sister,” Debra said. She expected answers. It was part of his penance.
He sighed, “You know we live on our grandparents’ farm, right?”
She nodded, waited for him to explain the oddness. “My grandparents are Mennonite Brethren. They took Mary and me in when our parents were killed in a car accident.”
“Do your grandparents make her wear those high-necked dresses with the long skirts?”
“No one makes her. It’s called simple clothing. It’s a sign of respect and devotion.”
Debra hadn’t thought of it that way before. Clothing as a signal of piety, like a nun dressed in a habit. She looked down at her short skirt and camisole. “But you wear normal clothes.”
He shrugged. “Debra, what can I do? Girls get to choose just like guys do. It’s up to her.”
Debra smacked her hands on the table. “Rob, it’s not fair and you know it.”
He snorted and lifted one of her hands. “Getting mad at me won’t change anything. When I leave, she’ll stay. There’s nothing I can do.”
“No! You get to go to college.” She pulled her hand back. “Saying you can’t do anything isn’t good enough.”
“I know you don’t like it, but it’s her life and it’s her choice.” The school bell sounded and Rob pushed his chair out. “Anyway, I gotta head to work.”
“This isn’t ended, you know.”
“I know, Deb. I’ll call you later. Okay?”
“Fine, just don’t expect me to wear simple clothing.”
He didn’t call that night. When he didn’t answer her text, she sent a second, then a third. They went unanswered, too. Was he ignoring her on purpose? Frustrated, she set her social media accounts to mute and turned off her phone.
The school was unnaturally quiet when Debra stepped over the school threshold on Monday. Students milled around in the central hall. They silently clumped together then parted like fluff spun in circles each time the heavy front doors opened.
“What’s going on?” she asked Kathy. “It’s like they’re zombies.”
“Didn’t you hear? Rob Robertson died Saturday night. He was out with Chris Kinney and Mickey Shaw. They say he was driving too fast down East Main and crashed his truck.”
The words punctured Debra. She staggered, reached for the wall, slid down the cold tile. “But, I saw Mickey as I came in.”
“Chris and Mickey weren’t hurt. The ambulance brought them to the ER. They got checked out and sent home.”
“How do you know?”
“Where’ve you been Debra? It was all over the news yesterday.”
“I was studying. My phone was off. I have to talk to Mickey.” She rose from the floor. Ignoring Kathy, she searched the crowd. Mickey sat on one of the long wooden benches lining the hallway, ringed by a collection of seniors. She knelt and placed her hand over his. Normally, they didn’t converse.
“I’m sorry,” Deb whispered.
Mickey nodded, mumbled something.
She couldn’t breathe. “How did it happen?” Her steady eyes searched his.
“He wanted to see how fast we could go, but a car pulled out in front of us. Rob swerved, and we skidded into a light pole. The truck wrapped around it, right where Rob was.”
She whimpered then and folded over. Her forehead touched his knee in benediction; his hand rested in absolution on her head. The morning sunlight streamed through the windows that lined the hallway. The slanted shadows fell into chiaroscuro highlights on the scene. Sandy Garmond caught the picture. Later, the yearbook would use it for Rob’s memorial page.
Rob’s family chose a small stone chapel, lined with rows of wooden pews for the memorial service. A simple closed casket rested in the center front. Several people already knelt in prayer when she arrived. She stood against the back wall and wondered what she could say. It was more than sadness. How could she tell them she too had lost a future? The path that joined her with him and this family was now a cliff. The barrier was broken and hung loose where his truck punched through.
She waited in line; she touched the casket. Her head lowered, Deb murmured her sympathy to his grandparents. They had no idea who she was. They had never met.
Debra returned to her place and followed along with the memorial bulletin. A discreet notice at the bottom of the page caught her unaware. It read the family of Robert John Robertson, III, wishes to thank everyone for their condolences and kind words. There will be a graveside service at a family cemetery. Your kind acceptance that they would like to do this privately is gratefully acknowledged.
Debra heaves the thirty-pound pail of frozen berries into a metal cooler in the back of the pickup. As she slams the tailgate closed, across the parking lot, she notices Mary Robertson standing in the shade near the Agway loading dock. A thick braid of light-brown hair crowns her head. The last time she saw Mary was at Rob’s funeral two months ago. Deb crosses her arms and watches the farmers shift their purchases off the platform into their trucks and horse-drawn wagons.
Debra takes a deep breath and strides towards Mary.
“I never got to tell you how sorry I am about Rob.” She takes Mary’s left hand and holds it in both of hers. Mary’s ring finger, usually unadorned, now wears a simple silver band. “Mary, did you know I liked your brother?”
Mary blinks a bit, and a film of tears begins to fill her eyes, then she nods.
“I liked him a lot. And I think he liked me too. No, I know he liked me.”
Mary stands silent, tall and stately, placidly allowing Debra to hold her hand, without pulling or straining to take it back.
“He almost made it out, you know? He would have wanted you to try too.” The smell of laundry soap floats off Mary’s dress. Debra whispers. “Do you want that Mary? I can help you.”
Debra isn’t sure she hears it right, but then Mary shakes her head and says a bit louder, “No, no I don’t.”
Mary slips her hand out of Debra’s. “Mr. Weishaupt has asked me to marry him. After we’re wed, he’ll run my grandfather’s farm.”
“But Mary, you’re younger than I am.”
Mary steps back. “When I prayed for guidance, the Lord answered.”
Deb shakes her head, fights off the exasperation that punches at her throat.
Mary turns and heads towards the parking lot where her grandfather stands fanning his face with his straw hat. Halfway there, she turns back towards Debra and with a small nod says, “I’ll keep you in my prayers.”
Mary’s grandfather stares straight at Debra. He waits for Mary to climb into the high front seat of his battered pickup before clambering behind the wheel.
Debra watches him shift into gear and check for traffic before slowly turning onto the road. She glimpses Mary’s profile through the window as the truck rumbles past. After it disappears into the broken woods, she stands for a long time studying the trail of swirling dust as it settles.