ANOTHER WORK OF FICTION
Every morning, I park my car in the upper garage and board the subway downtown for work. Every morning, she sits there across from the platform.
No one really seems to notice her. Or if they do, they walk on pretending they don’t. She sits there on the pavement with a big empty plastic soda cup between her feet, asking for change.
Most people ignore her or tell her to get lost or get a job. A few people drop coins into he cup and shake their heads at her. A lot of people swear at her and tell her to go bumming someplace else.
Fred, the security guard for the subway, threatens to call the police if she doesn’t leave.
But she doesn’t. Every morning, I see her. She always sits in the same spot.
I saw her the first time about five weeks ago, near the end of October. I hadn’t ever noticed her before, and I wondered where she came from.
“Don’t rightly know where she came from,” Fred told me when I finally asked him one morning. “I came to work one morning, and there she was. She looked lost and cold and hungry. I bought her a sandwich and a cup of coffee.”
She’s thin as a rail. She’d be pretty, but her curly honey hair is always a mess. If it weren’t for the knitted pink cap she always wears, it would probably fly straight off her head.
If it could move to fly away. God only knows the last time she washed her hair! Funny thing is, her face is always clean.
So are her teeth. I’ve seen ‘em before, when she’s smiled at Fred or someone else who’s been nice to her. White as pearls. How on earth does she brush them?
It’s raining this morning. Here she is again. How can she just sit here in the pouring rain like that? She’s wearing a gray fleece sweat suit and a really old pair of tennis shoes. No gloves, but at least she wearing a scarf.
“Morning, Alison.” Fred’s just coming out of the coffee shop as I reach the platform. He hands me a cup of coffee. “Heavy cream and two sugars, right?”
Good old Fred. He never forgets a thing! “Thanks, Fred. I didn’t have time to make coffee this morning.”
“Sure.” We stand under one of the eaves to keep out of the downpour. “Anything new and exciting happening at work?”
“I’m going to start my Fall art classes soon. Looking forward to it.”
“Teaching, you mean?” He looks interested.
So does she. She’s left her spot on the pavement and is standing at the other end of the platform, about five feet away from us. Her arms are outstretched, holding the plastic cup in front of her.
Fred excuses himself and walks up to her.
“Mary, what have I told you about being on the platform? You know you ain’t supposed to be here at all, Mary. You can’t go begging to people on the platform. You don’t want me calling the police again, do you?”
He’s gentle with her, but firm. I’ve never once heard Fred raise his voice to her. To other people, sure. But not to her.
She looks at him for a moment. Her eyes are sad. She hangs her head.
“Please, Mr. Fred, don’t call the cops! I wasn’t gonna bother nobody, honest. I was just trying to get outta the rain for a few minutes, that’s all.”
He shakes his head.
“All right, Mary. You can stay here out of the rain. But you go and sit that bench over there. And don’t you let me catch you asking nobody for money. You understand?”
“Yes sir, Mr. Fred. Thank you.”
Fred stands watching her to make sure she goes no further than the bench. She sits down and looks over at us, but doesn’t say a word.
Fred sits down again, still shaking his head.
“Poor kid. I feels bad for her. I do, but I can’t have her pestering people trying to get to work on time. Now, did you say you was gonna start teaching art classes, Alison?”
“Yes. First class is Thursday night. Starts at six thirty. You interested, Fred?”
“That depends. What you teaching?”
“Drawing and painting this time, mostly. I also teach a clay sculpting class. You wanna give it a try, maybe?”
He throws his head back and laughs kind of loudly, then looks at me with a huge smile on his face.
“Maybe? Oh, sure. What the hell! Why not?”
“That’s the spirit, Fred!”
I catch a glimpse of Mary from the corner of my eye. She perked up the minute I mentioned the art class to Fred. Her eyes were still sad, but her teeth shone as white as ever.
The subway just pulled up. Fred and I say our usual “See you later” and he walks over to Mary on the bench.
I take a seat in the back of the subway and stare out the window at the rain.
Was she an artist once too, I wonder?
I work as an art teacher by night. By day, I’m the proprietor of a bakery called MARY’S LITTLE LAMB. I got the name for the place one night when I was unpacking in my new house.
I was riffling through a box of old college mementos when I found her. My favourite toy and best friend from childhood. A big, fluffy white lamb with a black face.
Now, the name may sound corny to some, but I like it. I even painted a picture of a lamb on the pink sign that hangs over my bakery.
When I was a kid, there were two things I loved. Being in the kitchen with my mother and Grandmother, and drawing. Well, any kind of art, really.
I was always getting into trouble at school for doodling when I should have been studying. When my fifth grade class to a trip to the local art museum, I was infatuated!
When I graduated from high school, I couldn’t decide what I wanted to do. It was Mom who suggested culinary school.
I loved cooking and baking all the time, but I wasn’t fully satisfied. I felt like something was missing.
I went back to that art museum. That summer, I enrolled in my very first formal art class.
I can’t get her out of my mind. I keep seeing her sitting there, all huddled up on the bench, afraid to look at anyone except Fred and me.
What had happened to her? Why did she live on the streets? Why didn’t she just go and find herself a job and an apartment someplace?
From the few conversations I’d caught her having with Fred, she sure seemed smart enough. So, why not?
Maybe she was just too lazy. Maybe she just doesn’t give a damn about herself or anyone else, for that matter. Maybe she’s all alone and lonely. Maybe she doesn’t have a family of her own.
Maybe Fred is like a father or an uncle or something for her. Maybe she comes to the subway station every day to see Fred so she won’t have to be alone.
It must be horrible not having a family.
Is Mary even her real name?
Five o’clock already? Where has the day gone? My last customer for the day thanks me and heads out the door. I lock up and follow suit. The rain has finally stopped, but it’s cold enough to freeze hell over.
I start for the subway station, but something tells me to turn round and go back. I unlock the door of the bakery and hurry inside.
I take an empty wicker basket from the shelf and walk around, looking for stuff to fill it up with. Some bagels and bread, and a few cookies and doughnuts that didn’t sell today.
Oh, and some croissants and muffins and scones, too.
The basket is awfully full. Too full for one person, I guess…but she must be starving! Maybe she knows someone she can share this stuff with. Sweets are the worst thing to feed someone, but she’s so thin!
Maybe a bit of sugar will put some meat on her rickety bones.
Back at the subway station, I don’t see her. I look over at her usual spot on the pavement, but she’s not there. Fred greets me with his usual big smile.
“How was work today, Alison? What you got in that basket? Sure smells good!”
“Work was good today, thanks Fred. Would you like a blueberry orange muffin? I made them myself this morning.”
He takes the muffin politely and thanks me. Fred loves it when I give him stuff from the bakery. I love seeing his big, teddy bear grin.
“If you’re looking for Mary,” he tells me, “she ain’t here no more.”
Oh, no! Someone must have gotten fed up with her and called the police.
Fred catches the anxious expression on my face.
“She’s all right, Alison. The women’s shelter opens up for the night at five thirty. She has to be standing in line by a quarter to five if she wants a bed for the night.”
The women’s shelter on the corner of Conrad and Jackson. I drive by it every night on my way home.
“I’m glad she doesn’t have to sleep out here at night,” I tell Fred.
“Me too,” he says. “I can’t imagine how awful it must be not having a place to call home.”
“Doesn’t she have someone who could take her in for a while?”
He shrugs. “Don’t think so. She never mentions no family or friends to me. Don’t think she has anyone. Sad, ain’t it?”
“Fred, do you think the staff at the shelter would let me leave this basket for Mary and the other women? I hate the thought of it just going to waste and rotting in the garbage if maybe someone else might enjoy it.”
“I don’t sees why not,” Fred says with his big smile. “my wife and I takes stuff to ‘em every Sunday after church services.”
“Bless your soul, Fred Barker. And you’re wife’s too.” I reach up on tiptoe and kiss his cheek.
“See you tomorrow,” I turn to look him over my shoulder. He smiles again and waves back. “Yep, see you then!”
When I get to the shelter, the front door is open, but there’s no one at the main desk. I take a piece of paper and a pen from my purse and leave a note.
For Subway Mary,
Just some leftovers from my bakery. Hope you enjoy them.
I can’t sleep. I can’t stop thinking about Mary. How long has she lived from the streets to the shelter? How long has she been homeless? Why doesn’t someone try to help her and get her off the streets once and for all?
She doesn’t really like living on the streets…does she?
The next morning, I decide to be a little late for work. I park my car in the usual spot and walk up the slope to the subway station. Fred sees me and waves to me.
“Morning, Alison! That muffin you gave me was the best I’ve ever tasted. Next to my Momma’s, of course.”
“Morning, Fred. Thanks for the compliment. The muffin recipe was my Grandma’s. Any time you want more, just ask. I took the basket of stuff to the shelter last night, but no one was at the front desk, so I left a note for Mary. I hope they let her have the basket.”
“I’m sure they did, Alison. The staff at the shelter are really nice folks. They don’t judge the people who go there for help.”
We don’t speak for a while. I feel so lucky to have my family. And my job. And my oversized house. I’m glad I have money so I can take care of myself and the things I need to take care of.
Mom never forced me to go to church when I was a kid, but she always made sure I knew there was a God watching over me.
Why doesn’t He watch over Mary?
I sit on the bench next to Fred on this freezing November morning feeling guilty.
What did Mary do in her life that was so awful that she ended up homeless and all alone? Why was I so different from her? Why was Fred?
The thoughts keep twisting themselves round and round in my mind.
“You okay, Alison?” Fred is looking at me.
“Yeah, just thinking.”
“What you doing here this late? You missed your usual subway. Won’t be another one going your way for another forty five minutes or so.”
“Yeah, I know. It’s okay though. I don’t care if I’m late.”
“You sure you’re all right?”
“I’m fine, thanks Fred.”
I’ve just realised…Mary’s not here. Alarmed, I turn to Fred.
“Where is Mary this morning? Have you seen her?”
“No, I ain’t seen her, come to think on it.” Fred stands up and looks around. “The shelter’s closed for the day…funny…maybe she got picked by the cops or something.”
I start to shiver inside my thick coat.
Fred’s worried, too. I can see it in his eyes. He excuses himself and starts walking frantically around the subway station. He bumps into another security guard who’s just coming off his night shift duties.
“Hey, James! You seen anything of Subway Mary this morning?”