Fiction from Cathy Mellett

Photo: Honey Caranzo

The Green Bridge

My mother Marnie was visiting us again. She said she left her husband for good this time. It was always for good, and she always went back to him. But for now, she was living with my grandmother and me. The first day Marnie was home, she phoned a friend of hers. I heard her say, “Sometimes I just wish there were nothing in the world to hold me back.” She wanted to be away from Grandmother and me for good, too.

My grandmother always told me, “You need to get to know your mother better.” For this visit, Grandmother engineered a shopping trip. She said that if I was good and didn’t aggravate my mother—because she was nervous—I’d also get a trip to the church carnival that weekend.

So we were off. Marnie gripped my hand so hard it hurt. She had a task to do—take her daughter shopping—and she was going to do it if it killed her.

When we were standing in front of our house, I let go of Marnie’s hand just long enough to pet our neighbor’s dog, a little Pekinese with a face almost as flat as a plate. Marnie took my hand between both of her beautiful hands, sandwiched it like a little hamburger.

The neighbor lady was saying how nice it was to see Marnie, she hadn’t seen her in so long, and how sweet it was for Marnie to be taking her little niece shopping for the afternoon. I was used to being the little niece. Grandmother had warned me that if people knew Marnie wasn’t married when she had me, they wouldn’t like Marnie. And they wouldn’t like me either.

The neighbor and her dog went into their house, and Marnie and I started walking to downtown. In a few blocks, we came to the bridge with the tall wrought iron railings. The section we were standing in was green with fresh paint. Marnie told me, “Don’t get near the railing. Don’t look over.”

I had no intention of looking over the railing. I passed over that river to go to downtown every Thursday in the summer. Except I was always with my grandmother who knew what to talk about on a shopping trip: what she was going to buy me and where we were going to have lunch. She’d given Marnie three tasks: to buy a new dress for me, something nice for herself, and a wedding present for Cousin Dennis and his new wife. Grandmother had given Marnie her department store charge card. She didn’t trust her with real money. With real money, she might go to a drugstore and buy too much medicine for her nerves. She already had enough medicine. If she took too much, she’d either get really aggravated or fall asleep.

I was excited about the new dress. I liked the way new material felt against my stomach and how the saleswomen would tell me I look pretty. I couldn’t wait.

When my mother warned me about the painted railing one more time, she stepped toward it herself with a look that was both playful and inviting. The kind of look my best friend Martha gave me when she dared me to do something we shouldn’t be doing, something new and a lot of fun.

There was nothing new over that railing. The colors in the river were just swirling and muddy like my paints when I mixed too many colors. There were no boats or ducks or rocks to look at. But now there was green paint on my pink-and-white checkered dress, my favorite. And although Marnie was very angry (“severely aggravated,” she said in her fiercest whisper), she smiled as she pointed at what I had done. In the same tone of voice she used when she said, “Don’t look over,” she now said, “I told you so, I told you.”

As we passed the workmen at the other end of the bridge, Marnie talked loudly about a little girl who was a bad girl, a very naughty girl, a little girl who got paint on her dress on purpose. Marnie’s voice sounded like the kind of voice Martha and I used when we were play-acting, high pitched and sing-songy. I thought those men would probably figure out that Marnie was talking about me. This all meant that I was a word Grandmother used when she talked about Marnie. I was incorrigible.

At the store, Marnie ignored me at first, which was awful because what if she got really mad and left me there? It meant something else bad, too. It meant we probably wouldn’t be going to the carnival that weekend.

The clerks knew my grandmother and me by name, and when the lady with white hair saw me, she said, “Here she is! Here’s my girl! Lydia. I saved something for you, dear.” She went behind the counter, brought out a cutout cardboard zoo with brown mountains for the background and lots of light blue sky and green grass, and gave it to me. I already knew I would never forget that zoo. The ground had narrow slots, and the animals had tabs under their feet so they could be stuck into different poses all over the zoo. I wanted to go home right away and play with it. I told this to the saleswoman, and she laughed and patted my head.

Because I wasn’t paying attention to her, Marnie picked up my hand, squeezed it hard, and whispered, “Lydia, you’re aggravating me.” This scared me. I not only forgot what I was doing but what I was thinking as well. Each time we went to a new department, I would offer my hand and Marnie would ignore me or dig through her purse for the charge card. Once, when I tried to take her hand, Marnie said, “Oh, come on, now. You’re too big for that,” even though I always held hands with Grandmother.

Marnie kept rushing ahead as if she was somebody else’s mother.

We passed the toy department, and I got happy, because the fact that we were there at all seemed to be a sign that I was forgiven. But Marnie turned to me and looked at the green paint spot on my dress. “I was going to get you something, but no,” she said. “Nothing for you. Not today. Not after what you did to your dress. And if you don’t behave, you can forget about the carnival, too. I’ll tell Mother what you did.”

Now, she clutched my hand and took a shortcut through Toys to the Housewares department, where a woman wearing a bright pink smock waited on us. The woman had a shiny steel pot that she brought with her, as if she were doomed to carry it around wherever she went. She looked like a grandmother, and now the two of us—the saleswoman and I—followed Marnie around as if we were in a little parade.

“I’m looking for a wedding gift,” Marnie explained, “although I can’t imagine anyone wanting to get married these days, can you?”

The woman laughed and patted my head. “This little one will get married some day, won’t you, dear? Most people end up in a married state.”

I quickly focused on a bowl of plastic eggs in front of me so I could pretend I didn’t hear. This was no time to take sides.

When the saleswoman thought I wasn’t paying attention, she whispered to Marnie, “Marriage is certainly better than the alternative, if you know what I mean.”

Marnie’s face got red. “What I mean is, with the state of the world these days, we’re probably all going to get blown up, don’t you think? So, why bother?”

“Well, we should always bother, dear. Otherwise, what’s the point?” She spoke slowly as if considering the matter and fingered the rim of the pot over and over. “My grandson is opposed to this war we’re going to be in. He marched in Washington and got the whole family to sign petitions to remove the President. He’s the one who’s putting us in harm’s way. My grandson says if there’s ever a nuclear war, the cockroaches are the only things that will survive.”

Marnie picked up an enameled frying pan with flowers around the rim and set it down as quickly as if it burned her.

The saleswoman continued. “He’s interested in other things, too. Whales, I think. Or dolphins.” She laughed. “I always get them mixed up. But the point is, dear, we have to care about something.”

Marnie pointed to a set of baking pans as if she didn’t want to touch them. “I’ll take those. They’ll be perfect.” She searched in her purse for the address Grandmother had written down. “I’ll send them . . . it’s just that there are so many terrible things happening in the world. And so much crime.”

“Oh, I know,” the saleswoman said, putting her pot down to ring up the purchase. “But that’s no reason to stop getting married, to stop having children, to stop, well, living. Why, I had six children, and they’re the delight of my life.”

Now Marnie would have to talk to me. She would have to say something—that people don’t breed like rabbits or dogs and that no one in her right mind would have six children. She’d said it all before. And Grandmother agreed.

“Common,” Marnie whispered to me as we waited for the elevator. I nodded. I would never confess that I planned to have at least five children. That way, I would always have someone to play with. I knew that because I wanted so many children, Marnie would think I was common, too.

Marnie whispered, “That saleswoman said ‘cockroaches.’ We don’t use that word. We say ‘waterbugs.’ It’s much more polite.”

I didn’t make sense to call one thing by another name, but I agreed anyway.

We stopped in the Women’s Dress Department. Plush beige carpeting stretched from one wall to the next. I dragged my foot hard on the carpet to make a mark when Marnie’s back was turned. My body felt like it was boiling under my skin, and doing this helped. Marnie was talking again about commonness and was relating it to me for asking how much a dress cost, right in front of the clerk.

“If you keep it up, you won’t be going to the carnival,” Marnie said. Her blue eyes were so bright they were hard to look at. Like a pair of ugly blue marbles my friend and I found in the park one day and buried near the base of an old oak tree.

Marnie glanced at the carpet where I had made the marks with my shoe. I knew she would not punish me right then but I wondered when it would happen and how.

I knew there would be no new dress for me. It was best to not even bring it up.

On the way home in the cab, she got happy and hugged me and whispered, “I don’t want to be mean, Lydia. I don’t want to. Something just comes over me. I can’t help it. I don’t feel well. You know I love you, don’t you? I love you, Lydia.”

And I whispered back, like I was telling a secret, “I know, Marnie. I love you, too.” I did love her. She was my mother. I loved her best when she plaited my hair and played bingo with me or hide and seek or Old Maid. I loved her when she was herself. But sometimes she was, as my grandmother said, “unpredictable.” So unpredictable that she did crazy things that made it hard to love her every day.

“Don’t tell Grandmother about what happened, okay?” Marnie said.

“I won’t,” I said, and I meant it. I wasn’t good at keeping secrets, but there really wasn’t much to tell. Shopping with Marnie was always the same. She got happy, and then she got sad, and then she felt sick, and then we went home by cab so we could get there fast and she could go right to bed. Our outings usually ended with Grandmother giving her some pills and tucking her in.

–§–

I was good the rest of the week, so on Saturday we went to the carnival. Marnie and I played all the games, and I rode ponies. Dusty, Sugar, and Blossom. I’d never been on a horse before, but I had always wanted to try it. Grandmother would have probably said no, it was too dangerous, I might fall, but Marnie said it was okay. I loved the way the ponies knew just where they were going and how beautifully their hair was braided and how, if you held up your hand, they licked it with whiskers that tickled. And as I rode around the ring, the wind whipped my hair around my face, and the look on faces of the kids whose parents wouldn’t let them ride told me something I already knew: that I was lucky. It had been a wonderful day, one of the best we’d had together. We’d been at the carnival since lunchtime, and Marnie hadn’t gotten sick once.

We saved the Ferris wheel for last because it was Marnie’s favorite. We got on, and the ride went up in one quick lurch with Marnie and me inside one of the cages, like a huge pumpkin made of chicken wire. We were the first in line and hung suspended for a long time while the other people got on. The city bobbed around us. I could see the bridge. At least, I thought it was the bridge near our house. It looked so far away. Marnie had bought several tickets so we could stay on and ride a second time or even a third if we wanted.

When we were at the very top, she reached for my hand. “Oh, Lydia,” she said. Her face reminded me of my Sunday school teacher, Mrs. Williams, when she talked about The Rapture. “I was just thinking . . . ”

“About another pony ride?”

“No. I was just thinking. If we could die together. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? Wouldn’t that be . . . I mean,” she said, looking at me, “it would be a way to rid ourselves of all the sickness and destruction in the world. What do you think, sweetheart? I could open the door and we could just jump. The two of us. Together.”

Now her blue eyes reminded me of a doll I had whose eyes always stuck open when you tried to put her to sleep. I wanted to throw that doll away, but Grandmother said I should keep her because she was a gift from my mother. So I hid the doll behind the bushes in the garden. I looked for her once because I felt bad about throwing her away, but I couldn’t find her.

I turned from Marnie and looked through the bars of the cage to the hills and the valleys of the city. Beautiful green grass bobbed all around us. I felt the smoothness of my cheek up and down, up and down, with the back of my hand.

Marnie looked so happy. Her fingers clutched the sides of the swaying cage.

What she said is a secret, I thought. A secret to keep until I can throw the words away forever. I pretended the secret was a stone I threw off the green bridge, plunk, into the water below.

Just then, Marnie said, “Listen to me, Lydia. You know I love you, don’t you? You know I don’t want to be mean.”

With her creamy white skin, long black hair, and big blue eyes, everyone said Marnie was beautiful. But right now, her face reminded me of our neighbor’s dog with its big pop-eyes and that crazy, gummy grin stretched wide across is face. That’s what she looked like. A dog. I couldn’t possibly take her seriously.

“You go first,” I said.

She looked confused.

“I’m going to live to be a hundred,” I told her. “And I’m going to have five children and all my children are going to love me. And I’m going to sleep in a great big bed with all my dogs!”

I drew my hands up like paws, barked, and licked Marnie’s horrified face. She wiped my spit away with the back of her hand and looked at me, disgusted. I felt great that I upset her. It made me feel giddy and solid and warm. It was new and wonderful and delicious.

She kept gazing at me, wide eyed and shocked.

I told her once again to jump. But she didn’t.
.

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Cathy Mellett‘s short stories, flash, and memoir have appeared in Arts & Letters, The Rumpus, The Yale Review, The Literary Review, Greensboro Review, Confrontation, Pif, Hobart, and more. She has received fellowships and residencies from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, Yaddo, Ragdale, and Villa Montalvo and has recently completed a memoir.

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