Before It's Too Late
by Mark Spencer
Mark Spencer is the author of two novels and two collections of short stories. His work has received the Faulkner Society Faulkner Award for the Short Novel, The Omaha Prize for the Novel, the Bradshaw Book Award, the Cairns Short Fiction Award, and four Special Mentions in Pushcart Prize. "Before It's Too Late" is based on material from Mark's recently completed novel Ghost Walking. Mark is Dean of the School of Arts and Humanities at the University of Arkansas at Monticello.
Your Horoscope for July 28, 1948—Aries : If traveling, beware of Sagittarius. A relative will give sage advice.
For the first hour of the train trip, Marie reads all the horoscopes and looks at the advertisements and crime stories in the newspaper she got from Clyde, who sells papers on the sidewalk outside the Downtowner Hotel in Memphis, where Marie has lived and worked as a maid for twenty-one years. Clyde lost his legs from the hips down in the First World War and scoots himself around on his knuckles and stumps, a canvas sack of newspapers dangling from his neck. Most days, from down on the cracked sidewalk, he says something like, "You need you a man, Miss Marie, that will 'preciate them nice legs of yours. If I wasn't married and had nine kids, I'd be spoonin' after ya myself." She always ignores his flirting as she quickly flips the pages of the paper, anxious to see her horoscope. This morning, he asked, "Why you dressed in black?"
"Pardon me, Clyde?"
"Why you dressed in black?"
"I'm taking the train to Indiana," she said vaguely and hurried away.
Outside the train window, the rolling green landscape of Tennessee and then Kentucky shimmers. She can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times she's been on a train. Her first, she remembers, was when her mama took her to Paris, Texas, after Mama's great-aunt died. Marie was seven years old and had never met the great-aunt and felt only excitement because she thought she was going to see the Eiffel Tower and Frenchmen in berets.
After the train stops briefly in a town on the Kentucky side of the Ohio River and then begins moving again, crossing a bridge into Indiana, a tall man in a brown suit carries a salesman sample case down the aisle and takes the seat across from her. He turns sideways to stretch his very long legs into the aisle and she feels his eyes on her.
"Where you going?" the man asks.
"Where you headed? Chicago?"
"No. Just Greensburg."
He has a long horse face with a narrow red mouth under a nose like a dagger. His hair is slicked back, wet looking. His temples are gray. She senses he's the kind of man Mama warned her about thirty years ago. She says bluntly, "There's been a death in my family."
"Oh, I'm so sorry. My condolences. Blood or by marriage?"
"Blood or by marriage? Your departed family member."
"Well, that's not too bad then."
She looks down at the newspaper in her lap. "Are you a Sagittarius?"
He blinks twice. "I'm a Catholic. Say, I noticed you're not married."
"You're not wearing a ring."
"I'm . . . I'm widowed."
"Why you take your ring off?"
"We were divorced."
"Well, then you're divorced, not widowed." He's smiling.
"You like to say that, don't you? Pardon. Where you from? I'm from Chicago myself. We don't say 'pardon' much. We just say, 'What the hell?' Pardon my French. Hey, I just said 'pardon.' Well, how about that?"
Marie narrows her eyes at him. "You're a Sagittarius."
"No. Like I said, I'm Catholic and a Chicagoan. I sell spark plugs. From Chicago to Indianapolis to Louisville and all the little burgs in between. Sell these here spark plugs." He pats the sample case on the seat beside him. "I tell my customers, 'I'll even screw 'em in for ya!'" He makes a twisting motion with his wrist. "Name's Howard but my own mother don't call me that any more. Everybody calls me Sparky. Cause I sell these spark plugs." He pats his sample case again.
"When's your birthday?"
"Why? You wanta give me a present?"
She laughs. "You're definitely a Sagittarius."
"You saying I'm funny?"
She frowns at him now. "No. I'm not saying that at all. I'm just saying you're a Sagittarius. The horoscope is always right."
"The what?" He looks away and then back at her. "Is this some Southern thing? Some kind of joke?"
He's not handsome like Boyd, her ex-husband, but he reminds her of him in a way. Mama always referred to Boyd as "The Yankee Trash."
"Do you believe in destiny?" she asks.
"I do if there's a good time in it for me."
Greensburg, Indiana, is green and flat and hot under the July sun, just like the day Boyd Bonner brought her here on the train from Memphis in 1924.
The sunlight harshly illuminates the deep lines in the faces of her former in-laws, who attempt smiles and ask how her trip was. Although Mr. Bonner is bent and shrunken, he insists on taking her suitcase from a porter on the platform of the train station. Mrs. Bonner hugs her and immediately starts crying. Marie pats her bony back and can feel the curve of the old woman's spine. The Bonners are walking skeletons.
In the backseat of the Bonners' trembling '35 Dodge, Marie looks out the window at bungalows with dirt yards and at high, rusted fences behind which are factories belching black plumes into the white sky. For the twenty years since the divorce, her ex-in-laws have continued to send her fruit cakes, ill-fitting blouses, and home-made preserves for her birthday and at Christmas. They have sent her cards that say, "For a wonderful daughter-in-law." After news of Boyd's death came, Marie received a letter from Mrs. Bonner:
Your all thats left of Boyd to us. We are to old to travell much, but if you came see us before it's too late, like for Boyd, we would love you for it. Boyd was our only boy you know and as far as we and God care, the other wives don't count.
At the Bonners' little clapboard house with white paint blistering and falling away in jagged strips, the wooden screen door slaps behind them, and Mrs. Bonner latches it. They take seats in the dark front room. Mr. Bonner's threadbare upholstered chair has frayed arms and a dark stain at the back from years of supporting his oiled head. Mrs. Bonner sits in the same oak rocker Marie remembers from 1924—which actually doesn't seem long ago at all. For Marie, life truly got started when Boyd married her, but then it stalled out like the car Boyd bought that had a cracked engine block and bled black oil everywhere. After the divorce, Marie expected Boyd to come back to her, but instead he kept marrying other women. She kept thinking that any day her horoscope would say, "Expect the return of an old flame." She saw that very prediction for Taurus one time and another time for Pisces.
One day in 1940, her horoscope said, "Prepare for an old romance to heat back up." Boyd had just married his fourth wife and moved to Los Angeles, but she got a letter from him telling her how he had once again made the mistake of marrying a woman who was not her. For about a decade he worked as a traveling salesman (Fuller Brush, then encyclopedias, then pomade, then laxatives and youth elixirs), and whenever he traveled through Memphis, every year or two, she'd sleep with him because she told herself that, if she did, he might not leave and go back to the newest wife.
Now, at the age of forty-two, he's dead, and here she sits in a straight-back wooden chair Mr. Bonner dragged from the kitchen. The hard chair reminds her of sitting in a church pew. They sit silent for a while until Mrs. Bonner offers iced tea. Marie accepts, and with the glass cold in her hand, the ice cubes clicking against each other, they all sit silently again until Mrs. Bonner fills the dim room with the words, "It was a heart attack."
Mr. Bonner nods.
"We couldn't afford that trip all the way to Los Angeles to go to the funeral," Boyd's mother says. "I don't know why he had to live out there. Did he think he was going to be a movie star?"
"Now, Ethel, you know he worked at that furniture store."
"Of course, I know." Boyd's mother looks at Marie. "Did you know that furniture store used to be Aimee McPherson's Four Square Gospel Church?"
Mr. Bonner snorts. "She had it all and threw it away."
"Who?" Mrs. Bonner asks.
"Sister Aimee. She had that big church and all them followers, and then she had to run off with that married fella. Back in twenty-seven. Or six?"
"Like with Marie here," Boyd's mother says.
Boyd's father looks at Marie with his mouth agape. "You done that? You run off with some married fella?"
"No!" Mrs. Bonner says. "I meant Boyd."
"What? You're crazy, woman."
"I mean Boyd had it all with Marie. And then he just threw it all away."
Marie doesn't know whether to say "thank you" or deny that Boyd had it all with her. She remains silent, smiling and sweating.
"Sometimes," Mrs. Bonner says, "I hear him." She's not looking at Marie—or at anything really. "He says, 'Ma,' clear as can be. Just like that. 'Ma.' You don't have to believe me."
Eagerly, Marie says, "Oh, I believe you. I do. Sometimes I sense Mama . . . ."
"Boyd said he still wrote you," Mrs. Bonner says. "Did you go to the funeral?"
Mr. Bonner waves his hand. "Now how's she gonna get all the way out to Los Angeles?"
"On . . . the . . . train," his wife says.
"Yeah, and Connie would have jabbed a knife in her heart."
Down the dark hallway is a bedroom where Marie and Boyd slept for part of 1924 and all of 1925. During the days, Boyd punched rivets into sheets of steel at a factory three blocks away, Boyd having had a falling out with the cousin who co-owned the billiards hall with him in Memphis. Boyd would never tell her what the fight with his cousin was about, but years after the divorce, the cousin accosted Marie on the sidewalk outside the Downtowner one glaring summer afternoon and said, "You know, that son of a bitch diddled my Sara." Marie didn't understand at first, just stood shaking her head, saying nothing, squinting against the sun over his shoulder. Then the cousin, who was thin and unshaven, grinned and revealed brown teeth crooked as old tombstones and said, "I beat her good. She never cheated on me again. I walloped hell out of her." Marie staggered away, grasping in her hand, by coincidence, a letter from Boyd telling her he missed her, that his newest wife was nothing like her.
"Yes, we always wrote," she says now to Boyd's mother. "We always stayed friendly."
"Not that his other wives liked it none."
"No, I supposed they might not. He never said."
Mr. Bonner raises his chin off his chest and says, "That Connie girl raised holy hell 'bout it."
Mrs. Bonner nods.
Marie knows nothing to do but nod, too.
"He's gone," Boyd's mother says. "He's gone. Heart attack."
"And so young," Marie says.
"Not that young," Mr. Bonner says. "Your age."
Marie sits wide-eyed. The ice in her glass has melted.
"You see him recently?" Boyd's mother asks.
Marie clears her throat. "Not since he gave up the traveling sales job. Guess it was . . . oh, three years ago."
"He never stopped loving you."
Marie looks at Mrs. Bonner, who is still looking at nothing, her face slack, toothless.
The Bonners feed her sliced cucumbers and fried baloney. Boyd's sister, Agnes, comes over. She's gray and obese and loud.
"Well, look at the skinny little thing!" She hugs Marie in the greasy-smelling kitchen and then stands back looking at her. She has dark little pig eyes. "Look how skinny Marie is, Mama. Look at the little caboose on that gal."
"I'm skinny too," Boyd's mother says.
"I'm the only cow in this family." She hugs Marie again. "Jesus, can you believe Boyd is gone? I mean, can you by Jesus believe it? My little brother."
"It was a shock," Marie says.
"So, hey, you got you a beau?"
Marie smiles, shakes her head. "Oh, no."
"Skinny little thing like you oughta be beatin' off the men."
"You watch your language," Boyd's mother says.
"Just beatin' 'em off," Agnes says. "Hey, you want me to fix you up? I could have you on a date tonight."
"No, no, I couldn't."
"Agnes!" Boyd's mother slaps Agnes' big round shoulder. "Boyd just died three weeks ago. Give her some time."
"Jesus on the cross, mama, they been divorced twenty years."
Marie can't sleep, so she gets up and turns on the light. The room hasn't changed. The bed is in the same corner under the window. The walls are the same apple green. There's a small picture of Jesus on one wall, and on the opposite wall is a large photo of Boyd as a boy of fourteen, a blond cowlick sticking up from his forehead, his grin revealing that one crooked tooth in a mouth otherwise perfect. His eyes are slanted away from the camera as though something distracted him as the shutter clicked. The top of the shabby maple dresser is crowded with pool trophies he won as a teenager—he beat men who had played for thirty years. In the closet are childhood clothes—night shirts and knickers—he grew out of but that his mother never threw away.
When he wolf whistled at her and called her "cutie" on the sidewalk outside his pool hall twenty-five years ago, she had never gotten so much attention from such a pretty boy. She was crazy about his long legs and his cowlick and that crooked tooth and his blue eyes. He introduced her to alcohol and all the secret pleasures of the flesh. She was seventeen and told her friends they were going to have twelve babies. But they never had any babies. She miscarried twice before she was twenty, and the doctor in Cincinnati, where they moved in 1926 so that Boyd could try to have another pool hall, told her that she had something wrong that could never be fixed.
Then one day, her horoscope in the Cincinnati Enquirer said, "Brace yourself for a surprise." And later that day, Boyd told her the Church of Christ preacher's daughter who lived in the flat above them was in the family way with his child. "Now stop that crying," Boyd said. "Stop it. You know your crying makes my head split." She apologized but kept crying. Then he said, "This is your fault. If you hadn't lost my babies . . . ." That stopped her tears. She stared at him, awed by the revelation. "That's right, girl. And now that preacher is going to shoot me if I don't marry his daughter."
"You can't," she whispered.
"What? You want me dead?"
The next morning at the Greensburg station, before boarding the train, Marie cries as Boyd's mother hugs her and says once again, "He's gone from us all." Then Marie hugs bony old Mr. Bonner, and his old man smell makes her blurt out, "Life isn't fair! It's not fair at all!" Images of Boyd flash behind her tightly squeezed eyelids. She says to herself, He's in the ground.
Then Agnes steps forward and pulls Marie away and says, "Now you stop that. You need to get your happy pants on."
"Thank you, Agnes. Thank you. I'll be fine. You take care."
Then in a low growl, Agnes says, "You get you a man and you let him wear you out. That's what you need. Before it's too late." Agnes pinches Marie's face. "Before those little cheeks sag any worse and all that pretty red hair turns gray."
Marie steps back as if she had been punched. She shakes her head, not knowing what to say any more than she did the day Boyd's cousin accosted her with the news that Boyd had "diddled" the cousin's wife—or the day Boyd told her he had to marry that preacher's daughter to avoid an early grave.
She steps up into the train and makes her way through one car and then another.
The third-class passenger car is half empty, and almost all the other passengers are on the platform side so that they can wave to friends and relatives. Marie chooses a seat on the other side, which looks out at sidelined coal cars and box cars and the intricate mingling of rusty tracks.
After glancing around, Marie takes a flask from her purse and takes three long drinks of rum. The whistle blows. Marie has not seen her horoscope for the day and has no way to know what to expect. The train begins with a jolt, and then in a few minutes, the wheels are humming.
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