Broken Mary (Paperback)
Pay no attention to Jim Shorts; he is a figment of the imagination. This story is being told by Kevin Matthews.
My mother often said that I would talk to myself as a child. She could see my mouth move, but heard no words. Then my head would turn to the sky, and I would say my “friends” were not from earth. “I play with spacemans, Momma. Can’t you see them?”
Those early imaginative encounters in Pontiac, Michigan, provided a refuge for a little one lost in the 1960s confusion of family—Dad, Mom, older brother, big sister, and twin sister—and of the cars, the stores, the doctors, the yelling, the screaming, the hospitals, the cigarette smoke, the smell of alcohol, and the neighborhood, with its yelling, barking, riots, minority folk, and hatred. I experienced fear and loneliness with no one to play with except my friend, the Alien. And I was the only one who knew him by name. That was my secret.
You’d better wake up now, Kevin, said the Alien. Your mother is calling, and if your dad comes up here, he will beat the shit out of one of us. Get up now. I first met the Alien when I was four, maybe five years old. He would come to bed and protect me while I slept, and later when I was seven, he would walk me to school.
I used to hear old people say that they had to walk five miles every day to school and liked it. I hated walking to school. My twin sister and I went together every morning, sunshine, rain, or blizzard. It was a death march, filled with mental horrors. It always began the same way.
“We are leaving!” my sister and I would yell to our mother, and silently I asked, Are you with me, Alien?
Yes. I am, Kevin. Keep walking. You’re fine. Trust me. Up the street we would go. The first house belonged to the Spencers. They were old and the husband was in a wheelchair with tubing hanging from his nose.
Is he going to die soon, Alien?
Pretty soon, Kevin. Keep walking, because you can’t be late. The next houses belonged to some really weird monsters. After the Spencers’ house was one with two drunks, a screaming woman with mascara stains and messy black hair and her sodden husband; they fought nightly in the front yard and haunted their passed-out house in the day.
Are they going to get drunk tonight, Alien?
Most likely, Kevin. Keep walking and watch your sister. As we continued, the houses we routinely passed got more frightening. Beside the drunks lived a short fat lady in a place covered with vines and trees.
I hate walking past this house, Alien. It scares me big time.
Remember, Kevin, we are walking on the other side of the block, and it is divided by the road. You are safe. No way would we ever walk on her side, in front of her yard, because she is always in the bushes, on guard, ready to drag us into her creepy hidden home of leaves and thorns.
Then we went uphill, and our first block was nearly finished. We had triumphed over the wheelchair man, the drunks, and the vine lady by walking on the opposite side of the street. At the highest peak, we knew there were eight more to go. On Francis Street, we learned to turn right. This street was a busy two-lane and cars stopped for no one, especially pets. A big double-decker house stood at the top there, and we were joined by its kids, two dirty sisters in old and worn dresses, and an older brother, Alvin.
Why does he have yellow syrup on his hands? I questioned my friend. His hands are always sticky.
He does not wash that often, Kevin. It’s not his fault. He’s one of us, trust me. Keep walking, Kevin. School starts in twenty-five minutes. Hurry up and pay attention.
We walked past Mario Guzzo’s house every morning. It was my job to stop and ring the doorbell, and out Mario and his younger sister, Maria, would come. They carried sack lunches, wore nice clothes, and had washed and combed hair. Momma Guzzo would wave and make sure they joined our herd of children safely. She reminded us all to be careful crossing the biggest street of all.
I hated crossing what I called “All Burn Avenue.” It was a busy four-lane road with a traffic light and a safety patrolman, who was in the fifth grade. He wore a white belt that covered one shoulder and wrapped tightly around his winter coat. I wanted his job someday, because safety patrol boys got out of school early. I would have done anything to get out of school early.
Help me cross the street, Alien. I hate this street. I hate having to time this red light. Am I going to be killed this morning?
No. Watch your sister and run when I tell you to go. I stood in the center of the pack of kids, our toes on the edge of the curb. The light would stay green for hours, it seemed, and then change to yellow, while the traffic—all four lanes coming from both directions—would slowly come to a red light and stop.
Run now, but don’t trip and fall. I would run as fast as I could up from the street and land, both feet at once, on the sidewalk, then spin around and look for my sister.
Did she make it?
I have hated Auburn Avenue all my life, because just two years later, one of my best friends was hit right where I had been walking every day. A car struck him in the head and for weeks he lay in St. Joseph Hospital. When he returned home, he was never the same: Part of his head was missing, and he could barely walk. He never remembered my name again.
The Alien and I knew we were getting close after the big crossing. There were only two easy blocks, one with a wreck of a home, but we could begin to hear the sounds of kids— some friends, some enemies—teachers, parents, the hubbub of school, just one block away.
Be careful now, Kevin. Walk. Don’t run. Lots of parents are dropping off kids lucky enough to arrive at school in a warm car with real guardians as parents. Not you, not you and your sister; but I will protect you all day, every day, for the rest of your life.
I got to school every day just like that.
I hated school. I would just look out the window and watch birds fly by, wishing I were one of them. I wore my brother’s and sisters’ old clothes. I never wore socks. I took a bath once a week, and sometimes ate a school lunch if Dad remembered to leave money on the table. My sister and I were in the second grade, but in two different classrooms.
Why does my teacher hate me, Alien?
She doesn’t hate you, Kevin. She just doesn’t know how to teach you. She doesn’t know how to deal with someone like you who has eye problems. She doesn’t understand why you can’t seem to learn your ABCs. And you don’t pay attention. It’s okay. I love you.
When the school day ended, my sister and I took a different way home. So we could drop off other kids who did not walk with us in the morning, our little herd processed in a circle. We still had to cross Auburn Avenue, but the return trip only had two weird and scary houses. Three blocks into the walk was the witch’s house. From her attic window, a thin old woman watched without expression every child returning home from school. No one ever walked on her lawn. If anyone did, she would pound on the glass, banging the window with her long and bony fingers.
Is she a witch, Alien?
No, but everyone thinks she is. Just keep walking and don’t turn around and look up at her. With two more blocks to go, the trek seemed forever. I knew I was almost home when I saw the Gibsons’ house. It was white with a rusted red fence that kept in the biggest dog I had ever seen. Ace was a Great Dane. He would run along the fence and had the deepest bark. The owners were mean to him. I noticed that he never lived inside the house; his pen was behind the garage, a fenced-in dog run with an empty food dish and water bowl, a cold plywood dog- house, and dog turds covering the ground. I came to like Ace, until Animal Control took him away by force.
After the Gibsons, we were home, but it was not a safe house. If Dad brought home beer, I knew that he would begin yelling. The more beer he drank, the meaner he got. The only safety I had was my bed upstairs, away from the yelling. I remember to this day lying in bed, crying and pleading with the Alien, whose real name is God, Please just let me die. Let me be with you. Please, please take me away. The Alien has always been with me, from crossing the busy street to hearing my request for heaven.