Giving Up

“Hey, Mary, come over here…you gotta meet this guy,” Thom called across the crowded den. Mary had come to this house with Thom and his girlfriend Aileen weeks ago, and every night seemed to be a party. She met the couple on her way from a little farm town a few hours south of Chicago to San Francisco. She was at a truck stop in Omaha asking for rides and found out that they were on their way to California, too. She held up a finger to Thom and politely excused herself from the people she’d been sitting with and then walked over to meet the guy he stood with.

“This is Greg,” Thom said when Mary walked up. He and Aileen had taken Mary in as a traveling companion. She had been infatuated with Thom when they first met, but he was really stuck on Aileen. Mary couldn’t be jealous because she liked Aileen too much, too. Thom introduced Mary to every guy he liked, but she usually thought they were dirtbags. She didn’t imagine this guy would be any different. “Greg is out here from some small town in Indiana,” Thom said. “You guys probably have a lot in common!”

“What’s happenin, Mary? Nice to meet you,” Greg said. He sounded like he might be trying too hard to sound cool, but maybe he was high. He was tall with an athletic build and shoulder-length dark-brown hair and a thick moustache. Mary liked his hypnotic green eyes and the way his high cheek bones made his eyes seem to smile. He was more attractive than most of the guys Thom introduced. It was early, so if Greg turned out to be an asshole, Mary could ditch him and still have a nice night.

“Hey Greg,” she said. “What’s goin on?” Thom had already wandered off to talk with someone else. “Do you have any grass?” Having the Midwest in common wasn’t really much to start with. She needed some kind of icebreaker. If the conversation was lame, at least the grass would make it tolerable.

“Yeah, I got this little number here,” Greg answered. He reached underneath his hair and pulled a joint out from behind his ear. “I was gonna save it for later, but now’s fine, too. Wanna sit down somewhere?”

“Sure,” she answered. Something in the tone of his voice put her at ease. He sounded a little different from other guys, but she couldn’t quite place what it was. She followed him through the house to the crowded front room. People sat in all the available seats and everyone else stood or sat on the floor. Greg pointed to the front door and gave a questioning shrug. Mary nodded. Fresh air would be nice. They were met on the porch by the cool breeze from the bay. Only one person was on the porch, probably because it was a cold night by Northern California standards. For a couple Midwesterners, it was nothing. Mary recognized the other guy on the porch from other parties or shows she’d been to. He sat on the railing at the far end of the porch and played his guitar softly. It sounded like something classical. Mary enjoyed it. She waited for the guy to look so she could nod in approval, but he kept his eyes closed and kept playing. She stopped waiting and took a seat next to Greg at the top of the steps.

“You’re not nervous about cops, are you?” Greg asked. He didn’t seem to be nervous, and it didn’t bother Mary much. She’d smoked joints at concerts and rallies with cops less than twenty feet away. Smoking on the porch steps didn’t bother her at all. She shook her head and Greg lit the joint. She watched as he lit the joint. He was even more attractive than she’d first given him credit for, which was a strike against him. Most of the good-looking guys she’d known were complete assholes. She dated plenty of them through high school and in her year at the community college before she left home. After the last asshole, she and a friend shared an epiphany—a vast majority of the assholes in the world must’ve been good-looking. The only ugly guys who could afford to be assholes were the ones who were pissed about being ugly. If she was patient, Greg was sure to demonstrate that he was an asshole sooner or later.

“No, the cops don’t bother me at all,” Mary said absent-mindedly as he passed the joint. She took a couple of gentle puffs. She didn’t want to seem greedy. It was pretty good weed. It had a rich, velvety sort of taste and tickled Mary’s throat as she exhaled. She focused on not coughing as she passed it back to Greg. She exhaled slowly and watched him take long, slow drags from the joint. His mannerisms, the way he carried himself—he didn’t seem like an asshole. He stared out into the street with a thoughtful, almost pensive look as he sat waiting for her to smoke. When the joint changed hands, he was careful, attentive. He seemed confident without being arrogant. Apparently he wasn’t going to force conversation. Mary’s curiosity one out and she asked a question. “So, what are you into?”

“Peace love and respect, man…isn’t that what everyone’s into?” he answered with an ironic grin. He passed the joint back, his smirk remaining. Mary smiled reservedly, not sure what he meant. If he was trying to be funny, she didn’t get it.

“Well,” she started. She considered trying to rephrase her question, but opted to hit the joint again first.

“Sorry,” he said. “I guess I’ve just been hanging out with these crowds a little too long. Everybody just wants to hang out and get high and listen to music, talking all the time about peace and love and never doing anything.” He looked into her eyes. “You know, wearing the same types of clothes as everybody like some new kind of uniform, and going around with everyone else’s ideas like they’re yours. I mean, not yours, but you know. It’s exactly the kind of thing we should be trying to get away from,” he said. He reached out and took the joint from her outstretched hand.

“Yeah, I see what you’re saying,” she said, feeling vaguely self-conscious. Did he mean to include her in the indictment? She looked at his clothes, which were rather conservative, but still fashionable. He could probably get hired for a straight job wearing what he had on. She didn’t want to get defensive. “I guess I could say that sometimes my ideas are a lot like the ideas other people have, but I feel like I’m working towards something with it, you know? Talking to people, raising awareness and stuff…”

“Yeah, yeah, all of that’s pretty important,” he said. His tone suggested he was talking with her, not at her. “I’ve been hangin these kids in the bay area for a couple of years now, though. I feel like we spend a lot of time trying to understand the problems, and trying to come up with solutions, and trying to raise awareness, and that’s all good. But sometimes it all just seems like a big excuse to party and do nothing but talk,” he said, staring blankly out at the street. He passed the joint back to Mary. “Hell, maybe it’s just me that I’m talking about. Maybe I just feel like I’m the one who’s not doing anything.”

He remained silent while Mary hit the joint and passed it back. It was now barely long enough for him to squeeze between the tips of his fingers as he tried to take another puff. He couldn’t close his lips around the narrowed edges of the paper. The smoke he inhaled came around the outside of the joint instead of through the opening at the end, and the paper burned right up to the skin of his fingertips. They must’ve been calloused already, because he didn’t flinch. He exhaled the little bit of smoke he got and passed the joint to his other hand. He wetted the burnt fingertips underneath his tongue and pressed them to the cherry, which hissed as it went out. He wiped his fingertips on his pant leg and dropped what was left of the joint into his front shirt pocket. He rested his arms on his knees and gazed out into the street for a minute or two. Mary forgot about him as she closed her eyes to enjoy buzz as it sank in. Then Greg looked over at her and smiled.

“I paint, by the way. I’m into art…that’s what you originally asked about, right?”

“Oh, cool! Do you have stuff?” Mary asked. “I mean, could I check out some of your work sometime?” She was warming up to him. He seemed more sincere than any other guy she’d ever met. “I had a groovy art history class when I was in college.”

“Well, yeah. I could let you see some of my paintings, but I don’t feel like I’ve made a whole lot that means anything to me. The stuff I have here is all important to me, but now I feel like I’ve reached this level of social and political awareness and my work should do something to serve that, you know? If it doesn’t serve some bigger purpose, it’s just masturbation.”

“Yeah, totally…I see what you’re saying,” Mary responded, also staring vacantly into the street.

“Hey, so what do you do?” Greg asked, looking over at her. Their eyes met and she hesitated.

“I think I might want to write someday,” she started. She hated the idea of sounding like every other wannabe artist. “I mean, I feel like I’ve got lots of stories to tell, but I’ve just never been able to get myself to sit down and get them out. But I always feel like if I could get these ideas out on paper, it would really help people to see how messed up things are, you know? And maybe inspire people to do something.”

“For sure, for sure. You should do that,” he said, looking her in the eyes. “You seem like you’ve got a good head on your shoulders. You’re an honest person.” She smiled at him and then looked away. A minute or two passed in silence, but she moved down to the step he was sitting on and slid a little closer to him.

“So where do you keep your stuff? Do you have a place?” she asked.

“No, I’ve been crashing with this guy at his folks’ house for the last month or two. They’ve been staying in their other house, in San Diego, so he let me stay with him for a while. His parents will be back in any day now, so I’ll need to be moving on. I keep my paintings in a shed there.” He didn’t say anything for a moment, and then turned to look at Mary. “Where do you stay?”

“Here,” she answered. “That guy Thom, the one who introduced us, he went to high school with the guy who owns this place. I feel like I’ve been crashing here too long, ‘cause sometimes things get sorta tense around here. There are like seven of us staying here regularly, and others come and go, so tempers get kinda hot sometimes.”

“Yeah, I know how that goes. Sometime people seem cool at first, but when you get to know ‘em, you realize they’ve got a bad vibe.” They sat in silence for a few minutes. They each gradually leaned in closer to each other until they were resting against one another. Mary felt more comfortable than she’d felt in a long time, probably since she the last night she’d slept at home in Illinois, where she shared a bed with her sister. She missed her brothers and sisters, and her parents. She wondered for a moment if her brother—the oldest brother, a year younger than she was—had been sent to Vietnam. She left home when her father insisted that he join the Navy, and now she didn’t know where he was. Sitting there with Greg, she missed her family a little bit less than usual. Then he stood up and turned to look at her.

“So you feel like crashin’ with me until my friend’s parents come back?” His voice trembled slightly. It was the only suggestion he’d given at any point that he had anything less than perfect self-confidence. Mary let the meaning of the question sink in as she studied his face to be sure he was serious. Before her mind could completely wrap around the idea, something deep inside her said it was the right move. Greg looked determined but nervous, as if he felt the same way—that this was irrational and hasty, but there was something that felt profoundly right about it anyway.

“Sure,” Mary blurted out. “Let me just grab my things.” Portability was one of the benefits of Mary’s lifestyle. All of her belongings fit into a duffel bag and a backpack. The living arrangements changed around from day to day, which meant picking up her bags and moving from one room to another when it was necessary. Some nights she had a room to herself, but other nights she had to share a room with people passing through. If she felt uncomfortable with the strangers, Thom and Aileen would offer to let her stay in their room for a night. She wasn’t exactly sure what she was getting into with Greg, but the good feeling she had about him was clear and persistent. She went into the house and grabbed her bags, and she gave Thom a hug and Aileen a kiss on the cheek on her way back out to the porch. She said she’d see them around. They smiled and wished her well.

Greg greeted her warmly when she came out the front door, and they walked together arm-in-arm to the place where he was staying. It must’ve taken them an hour and a half to walk, but it felt like it went quickly. They talked about art, politics, and how life should be. When they reached the house where he stayed, Greg led Mary to his room. He motioned to her to take a seat on the bed while he reached underneath and fumbled around for something. He found what he was looking for and showed it to Mary—a pipe. He what was left of the joint out of his pocket and broke it up into the pipe. They each took a hit and it was done.

They lay down on top of the blankets in their clothes and continued their conversation. Mary lay on her side in his bed, mostly staring starry-eyed at him as he explained his views. He was articulate and passionate, and everything he said seemed right on. When she didn’t understand what he was saying or didn’t agree with him, they talked it over until they reached a mutual understanding. When they began to talk about family, Mary explained that her dad had been in the Navy at the tail end of World War II. He insisted that Mary’s oldest brother join when he finished high school the year after she did. She fought with her father and her brother about it until she got so fed up that she decided to drop out of the community college and hitchhike west, because she didn’t know of anything else to do. Greg’s smiling green eyes exuded compassion as he listened intently to her story. He didn’t treat the story like it was nothing more than a supporting argument to be against the war. He seemed to care about what it all meant to her personally. After consoling her, Greg told Mary that he’d tried to sign up to be a Marine like his father. They hadn’t taken him because of his asthma. The asthma had been especially bad at the time, maybe because of the stress of finishing high school and wanting to make his dad proud. The California air seemed to be good for him; his asthma hadn’t bothered him much since he moved west, even with all the grass he smoked. His father never uttered a word of disappointment, but Greg couldn’t stand the guilt anyway.

When they were too tired to keep talking, Mary rolled over and put her back to Greg. He moved closer and put his arm around her. She leaned back and pressed her body to his. She trembled with anticipation as she waited for Greg to make a move. She fell asleep before anything happened, and woke up in the morning in the same position.

They spent most of the morning looking at Greg’s paintings in a small shed behind the house. They talked about art and what Greg hoped to accomplish with it. They wandered down to the wharf in the late morning or early afternoon and ate lunch. Mary told Greg about a story she wanted to write, using a group of kids in a neighborhood as a metaphor for international affairs. He told her to sit down and write sometime, to make it happen. He told her it was a very promising idea, and he meant it. When they returned to the house, Mary met Greg’s friends. They decided to cook a bunch of food and have people over for dinner. It turned into a nice, mellow early evening party. Mary was surprised at how many people at the party she already knew. She and Greg had so many mutual friends, how was it that they hadn’t met sooner? The house was calm and quiet later in the evening, after most of the people migrated to the real parties. Mary and Greg sat together on a loveseat by the fireplace and listened as Greg’s friends talked about music and politics. Mary didn’t say much. For all the facts and ideas people tossed back and forth, it really didn’t seem to change anything for her. If it didn’t reaffirm that the war was bogus, it reaffirmed that music and community were the solutions. She held Greg close, her head on his chest as she watched flames dance back and forth in the fireplace. Greg paid attention to the conversation, offering bits of seasoned wisdom on occasion, morsels for the rest of the group to chew on. Mary started to drift into a peaceful sleep, and Greg gently woke her and suggested that they go to bed.

They said their good nights and walked to his bedroom, Greg’s arm around Mary as she shuffled her feet across the hardwood floor. When they reached the bedroom, Greg began to undress. It was a little awkward. They hadn’t been anything less than fully-clothed with one another yet. Mary bashfully stripped down to her underwear and climbed under the heavy blankets. Greg joined her wearing nothing but boxer shorts.

“Mary, I want to talk about something,” he said, as he situated himself under the blankets. “I feel really good about you,” he said. “That’s why I asked you to come crash with me. But there’s something I should tell you before we get too involved.”

Mary felt like her kite had just lost all its wind, and it was falling fast. What could it be? He’s not looking for something serious? He doesn’t want to get serious with me? He’s queer? No, that can’t be it.

“I gotta go back to Indiana,” he said. “All day long I kept thinking about two things. The first was how glad I am that I found you. The second is the fact that I’m in a rut out here, and I don’t think I’ll get out of it until I move on. If I really want to change things, I have to go back and reach the people who need to hear new ideas. I know…”

“I’m kinda falling for you, Greg,” Mary interrupted. The wind picked up strong, and the kite soared so high that she nearly lost hold of the string. “If you have to go back,” she said, “I wanna come with you.” She stared at him silently for a moment, and then her smile began to fade when he didn’t respond to her. “I mean, only if you want me to, that is…”

“I would love that,” he said with enthusiasm. “I just didn’t think it’d be right to ask you to, you know? You haven’t been out here for very long at all, what if this place has more to offer you? I didn’t want to keep you from any of that.”

“I think you’re right about this scene,” she said. “It’s like a big party. I don’t see myself doing much of anything if I stay, except enjoying the party. That’s not what I want. I want to help you. I want to learn from you. We can go back, and you can paint and I’ll start writing. It doesn’t even have to be good. I’ll never write if I stay here, so anything at all is better than nothing. I already got the best of what I’m gonna get out here, if I got you,” she said. Greg smiled.

“You got me,” he said. He leaned in and kissed her, their first kiss.

***

They spent the next couple of weeks getting to know each other better. They tried to round all the paintings that Greg had left in people’s houses and garages. He managed to get a little cash for a few of them, and they tried to save up as much money as possible for the trip home. Mary waited tables for a week and Greg put in a few days of carpentry for his friend’s uncle. About a week before they had to get out of the house they were staying in, they met a man who was about to drive to Nebraska. He said they could ride if they had cash or weed, and Greg had a bit of both. It took a couple different rides to finish the trip from Omaha across Iowa and into Central Illinois, and catching those rides took a little extra time walking down the road, thumbs extended.

Once they arrived in Mary’s hometown, Mary sent Greg into the one of the many downtown bars while she called home from a pay phone outside. Her mother was shocked to hear her voice. She insisted that Mary come home for dinner with her family, and Mary explained that she was traveling with Greg, and that they were moving to Indiana together. Her mother suggested that Greg join them for dinner, but she didn’t do a very good job disguising the uncertainty in her voice. “Sure, I’ll bring him,” Mary said.

The two arrived at shortly before dinnertime. Mary’s father was a hard-working laborer and a devout Catholic. Greg was an artist and an outspoken atheist. Mary had warned Greg about her father, but her father knew nothing about Greg. He was able to make a few good guesses about Greg, based on the way he looked. He said very little to Greg after they’d been introduced and remained silent through dinner.

Mary’s younger brothers and sisters asked eagerly about California and painting and music. Mary’s father choked down his honey-glazed ham and green-bean casserole with a scowl. During the silences between questions from the siblings, Greg glanced around the house at the quaint furniture that looked like it could’ve been handmade, and the old paintings hanging against the faded floral paper on the wall. He was from the Midwest, too, but not a rural farm town like this. Mary couldn’t help but notice how old-fashioned her family must seem to Greg, with her hospitable mother and eager brothers and sisters. Even her father’s tension hardly seemed to faze Greg. His smile seemed to indicate that he found it all very quaint. Mary had been glad to learn that her brother was on a boat in the Mediterranean, not Vietnam, but she wished he was here to meet Greg.

Greg slept on the couch and Mary slept with her sisters in their bedroom. The next morning, Mary woke when her father tapped her shoulder and told her to come to the kitchen. She walked in just as he closed the lid of his lunch box. He glanced at Mary before he began to pour his coffee into a thermos. Mary waited. He screwed the lid tightly onto the thermos and then set it by his lunch box. He crossed his arms over his chest and looked over the rim of his glasses at her.

“Are you planning to live with him?” He asked.

“Well…” she said, not wanting to answer. Her father would never understand. He continued to stare, waiting for her to complete the thought. “I don’t know,” she finally said. “I guess that’s what we were thinking about…”

“When things go wrong,” he interrupted, “you’ll regret it. Your mother and I didn’t raise you to live that way. I want you to keep that in mind when you decide whether or not you’ll leave today.” He grabbed his lunchbox and thermos and walked out the back door without another word. No matter how deep her resolve ran, her father was always able to introduce doubt. She sat in the kitchen until her mother came in to make more coffee and start breakfast for the kids. Mary helped with breakfast and getting her sisters ready for school. When the last of the kids were out the door, she sat and drank coffee with her mother, who didn’t say anything about the situation. Greg eventually wandered into the kitchen, and Mary’s mother said she’d get him coffee and breakfast. He tried to decline, but she paid no attention. Mary watched Greg sip his coffee sleepily and watched him smile at her mother as she set a plate of fried eggs and toast in front of him. Mary knew she had to go with him.

***

When they made it to Gary, they stayed with Greg’s uncle Bruce for three weeks before finding an apartment of their own, above a bar. Gary was full of rough neighborhoods, and theirs was no exception. The apartment was nice, for what they were paying. Mary found a job waiting tables in a diner a few blocks away. Greg painted houses with a union during the day and canvasses in a studio at night.

Mary worked second-shift, and usually finished up around nine or ten o’clock each night. Greg rarely made it home before ten-thirty or eleven. He generally finished work between five and six and stopped off at the diner for a quick snack before going to his studio, the back room of a run-down storefront his uncle owned. There were a few nights that he stayed out really late, painting until midnight or one.

“Do you have to keep at it this late?” She asked one night, when he didn’t make it home until one-thirty. She’d waited without eating all night so they could cook dinner together. “I wish you’d at least let me know if you think you might stay late some nights,” she said.

“I’m sorry, Mary. I just feel like I’m really close on this one piece, but it’s not going where I want it to. I can’t seem to get it right. It’s easy to forget about time and hunger and everything.”

“That’s easy for you to say, after you ate in the diner this evening.” She hadn’t written a thing since they’d been in Indiana, while he spent hours each night working on his paintings. “Well, I’m just going to make a bologna sandwich for myself, because it’s too late to eat much. If you want something, you can make it yourself,” she said. He didn’t respond, and the hurt look on his face nearly made her feel bad for being mad at him. But it wouldn’t make any sense not to stay mad for the rest of the night, so she kept it up. Greg didn’t say anything in his defense, but worked alongside her making himself a bologna and mustard sandwich, too. They sat at the table and ate in silence. Mary felt a bit nauseous as she ate. It was probably because she hadn’t eaten since lunchtime.

When she woke in the morning, Greg was already gone to work. She still felt a bit sick, but drank a couple glasses of water before making herself some coffee. She sat at the kitchen table sipping her coffee and decided to write. All morning she’d been picturing the look on Greg’s face when she’d told him to make is own sandwich, how his genuine concern for her shined through in his remorse at having come home late. It was a sad face, but she couldn’t help but be overjoyed by it. She spent the morning scribbling in a notebook, trying to put together a poem about the look. By the time she had to go to work, she still hadn’t come up with anything that she liked.

She felt irritable on the way to work, upset that she finally began writing and now she had to stop and go to work. She expected a frustrating shift at work, but the first few hours went well. Business wasn’t slow, but she had enough of a routine or a groove set at work that she was able to handle things without wearing herself out. She felt upbeat and cheerful, so when Greg walked into the diner, she leaned over the counter and wrapped her arms around him. He hugged back, and then she playfully kissed his neck in a spot that always seemed to tickle him. He laughed as he pulled himself away from her.

“Somebody isn’t mad anymore,” he said. “Having a good day?”

“Yes, an excellent day,” she answered. “I even did some writing this morning!”

“That’s great,” Greg said. “Maybe I should piss you off more often, huh?”

“Don’t you dare,” she said, swinging her towel like she was going to hit him. He pretended to cower.

“Is there anyone else I could fight for my dinner? I don’t think I can beat you,” he laughed.

“Damn right!” she said. She swung the towel a couple more times, then turned and went to get him a soda. “You want the usual, babe?”

“Yeah, that’d be good,” he said. He flipped open a newspaper and scanned the headlines while Mary got a house salad and a cup of soup for him, the only food items the employees could take without paying. She wasn’t supposed to give it to Greg, but her supervisor never said anything about it.

Mary gave Greg his food and continued waiting on her tables in her happy-go-lucky manner. Just before he left, she began to feel nauseous again.

“Baby, I’ve been feeling sick today. That bologna wasn’t old, was it?”

“No,” Greg answered. “I think it was fine, we just got it last week. Why, what’s wrong?”

“It’s nothing too bad. Just a little funny in my stomach,” she said. “I’ll have a bit of soup, too. I’ll be fine. Have fun with your painting tonight, okay?”

“Okay,” he said, standing up off his stool. “Hey,” he said, looking into Mary’s eyes. “I’m sorry again about last night. All I could think when you got mad was just how much I love you,” he said. He reached up and put his hand on her cheek. “I’m so happy that you came with me, hardly knowing me at all.” He leaned in and kissed her.

“Well, I knew you were the warmest, most caring guy I’d met,” she said. “That was good enough for me. Even if you do completely screw up once in a while.” She kissed him again and he smiled. He turned and left.

When she finished work, Mary walked home on her normal path. When she turned the corner to their block, she saw people milling around in front of the bar downstairs from their apartment. Apparently they were having some sort of special party in the bar that night, and it was so packed that people overflowed onto the sidewalk. She felt a bit uneasy as she unlocked her door, but she slipped in quickly and shut the door behind her, and then made her way up the steps to her hallway. The noise coming from the party below was still a bit much, but she went back to her notebook and started trying to figure the poem out again, tuning out the yells and music below.

Mary lost track of time until she began to feel hungry. She heard a siren outside and looked at the clock. Eleven-thirty. Greg should be home anytime, so she decided to go ahead and start dinner without him. She didn’t want to have to wait any longer than necessary. She whipped up a nice big batch of spaghetti and made some garlic toast, and brought it all out to the table. Fifteen after midnight. She could wait a little bit, she thought. She ate her garlic toast and played around with her poem a little more. When it was past twelve-thirty, she decided she wasn’t going to wait any longer. He had a lot of nerve to come late two nights in a row. She finished her spaghetti, put his in the refrigerator, and went to bed.

When she woke the next morning, Greg was gone again. Already out to work, she hadn’t even felt him get in bed the night before. She was nauseous again. It probably hadn’t been a good idea to eat a bunch of spaghetti right before bed. She went to the bathroom, and by the time she made it there she felt like she needed to throw up. She got it out of her system, and then brushed her teeth. She went into the kitchen for a glass of juice, hoping that Greg might’ve left an apology note for her somewhere. She opened the refrigerator and saw the plate of spaghetti. He hadn’t even eaten his dinner. She drank her juice and rinsed the glass, and then heard a knock at the door. She went to the door and found Greg’s uncle, who looked distraught.

“Bruce, what’s going on,” she asked. “Are you okay?”

“I’m sorry,” he said as his eyes filled with tears.

“What is it?” she demanded. Something didn’t feel right all of a sudden.

“I’m sorry,” he said again. “I’m sorry…there was a situation at the bar downstairs last night,” he stuttered.

“So what happened?” She asked, not sure what he was getting at.

“Greg was killed when he was coming home,” he said, reaching out to hug Mary.

She pushed him away.

“That’s ridiculous,” she said. “He’s at work…why would anyone kill Greg?” She was beginning to feel faint.

“I’m sorry, Mary. I just came from the morgue. No one knew who he was, and when they figured it out they called me. He was killed downstairs last night. They said he came home right around the time a bar-fight worked its way out into the street. Someone pulled a gun. I don’t know anything more about it.”

Mary’s face felt wet, but she didn’t know why she was crying. She didn’t believe it. It didn’t make any sense. Bruce continued to try to hug her, and she pushed him again, weakly. She gave up and he got his arms around her, and she rested her face on his shoulder. She cried freely as she began to realize that she wouldn’t go to work that afternoon, and he wouldn’t come in for a house salad and cup of soup. But why not? She should be able to just go to work and then he would show up. She pushed Bruce away again.

“I’ve got to get ready for work,” she sobbed. She wiped her eyes and began to walk quickly to her room.

“He’s dead,” Bruce called after her. “I’m sorry!” Mary stopped at the edge of the hallway, leaned against the wall, and began to whimper softly as reality set in.

***

Mary went through the funeral and visitation with Greg’s family and hardly stopped crying from the moment she learned Greg died until the funeral was over and done with, four days later. She stayed in Bruce’s house with other members of the family who’d traveled for the funeral, including Greg’s mother and sister. Meeting those two was the most painful moment for Mary. When Greg had been alive, she had been terrified that the women in his family wouldn’t accept her. But as soon as she laid eyes on them, she saw that they were as warm and caring as Greg had been. Their eyes were red and puffy, but they smiled wide, hugged Mary and held her tight. They didn’t say much to her or to each other; the three just cried together.

After the funeral, Mary called home to tell her mother what happened. She asked to speak to her father, and after a long silence, her mother came back and said that he couldn’t talk. Bruce let Mary stay in his house for another week. He insisted that she could stay as long as she wanted, but she knew she needed to move on soon. In the rare moments she thought about anything other than Greg, she tried to figure out what she would do with herself. After a couple days of mourning, she decided to go back to work. On her first day back to work, Mary was sick again within an hour of starting her shift. She’d been sick a few times that week. When she came out of the bathroom, she complained about it to the woman she worked with.

“Have you ever hurt so much that you just keep getting sick?”

“I don’t know…I don’t really think so. Why, you keep getting sick?”

“Yeah, especially when I wake up in the morning. I just feel…a little out of whack. I thought it would go away after the funeral. I stopped crying so much and started to eat again. But I just have to puke from time to time, no matter what I eat.”

“Oh my God, Mary! What if you’re pregnant?” She asked. Mary took a step backward. That was absurd. But as soon as that heavy word worked its way from her head to her heart, and then settled deep in her gut, Mary shuddered. As much as she wanted her friend to be wrong, a feeling inside told her it was true. Now that she felt it, she wondered how she hadn’t known sooner.

A visit to the doctor the next morning confirmed it, and Mary stayed in bed and cried for the rest of the day. She knew she had to call home. Late in the day, when she finally called, her father answered.

“Dad?” she said, her voice as soft as she could manage.

“What is it?” He asked coldly, sternly.

“Dad, I’m pregnant,” she stuttered. He was so silent that she wondered if he was still on the line, but her sisters’ voices echoed in the background.

“You need to come home,” he finally said. “But not with the baby.”

“Dad?” She was horrified. What was he suggesting?

“Go to my brother’s in Chicago. I will call him and tell him you’re coming.”

***

On the ride back to Central Illinois from Chicago, Mary silently stared out the window at the passing cornfields. The plants, each a foot or two high, blended together in as they passed until they were nothing more than a light green blur going the opposite direction. The blur was like the eight months she’d spent with her uncle, each day a cornstalk indistinguishable from the others, up until the mid-June day in the hospital. The pain of losing Greg and shock of pregnancy were quickly muted by awe and anxiety about what took place inside of her. During the day, she read her uncle’s books, cleaned his house, and looked for ways to stay busy. Late each afternoon, she bought groceries at the nearby market and made dinner. Her uncle came home in the early evening, and they ate together in front of the television. The closest they came to mentioning the pregnancy was to talk about appointments at the doctor’s office or with Catholic Social Services.

Mary looked away from the green blur of the cornfields to the off-white blur of the pavement just outside the car. She was going home, and she could start a new life for herself. She stared at the bare road and prayed the first of many prayers that her daughter would be okay, would be happy and loved, wherever she ended up.

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