6.08 / July 2011

The Virtues of Being Mary

listen to this story as read by Jane Koh

charity in a pair of secondhand shoes

Mary Vo received a pair of maroon loafers for her tenth birthday.  Each shoe had a slit on the patent leather, and each slit held a shiny penny.  Mary’s mother made her don the shoes and parade back and forth in the living room.

Mrs. Vo stood with her thumb on her chin and marveled at her clever purchase.  “On sale, good price,” she said.  “Father will be happy.”

The worn brown carpet caused static to creep through the soles of Mary’s feet, and when she sat down in the metal folding chair to remove the shoes, an uncomfortable buzz emitted from her thighs.  This made her think about the cartoon image she had seen of Benjamin Franklin flying a kite on the public broadcasting station, the only channel she and her sister were permitted to watch.  Mary slipped the shoes back into their box, thanked her mother, and disappeared into the room she shared with her sister Bao.

A week went by, and the shoes remained under the bunk bed, neatly tucked inside folds of tissue paper.  That afternoon, Mrs. Vo stood at the front door and watched her youngest daughter come up the sidewalk, book bag bouncing off her knees with every step.  Mrs. Vo eyed the tattered sandals on the girl’s feet and asked why she had not worn her new shoes.  Did she not like the shoes?  Did they not fit correctly?  Did she not appreciate her gift?

The girl replied that she did not want to get them dirty, that she wanted to preserve the newness of her shoes forever.  The penny loafers were, in fact, the first thing Mary had ever gotten that had a price tag still attached.  For ten years, she only received something “new” once the hem fell too short or the collar too tight on her sister.  Even the labels on her cotton underwear displayed “B.V.” in faded ballpoint ink.

Mrs. Vo patted her daughter on the head and told her from now on, she will get a new pair of shoes for every birthday, but that she must learn to accept all things given to her.

The next morning, Mrs. Vo peeked under the breakfast table, and while she would normally frown at shoes inside the house, she was pleased to see the penny loafers on Mary’s feet.  The girl began to wear the loafers everywhere.  She wore them to school and church and family dinners until the left heel was shaved down to a mere matter of millimeters, the leather creased and supple.

When Mary outgrew the shoes, Mrs. Vo decided it was time to hand them down to her brother-in-law’s daughter.  She told Mary to pack the shoes back in its box and bring them with her to Sunday dinner at Grandpas house.  After bickering with her eldest about whether or not lipstick was appropriate for thirteen-year-olds, Mrs. Vo left the bathroom and passed by the girls’ room to check on Mary.  There she found her other daughter staring at the loafers inside the uncovered box.  The girl’s back was to the door, and her already small frame was made even tinier by the way she folded into a tight crouch by the closet.

“What are you doing?” her mother asked.

This startled Mary, and she turned to regard her mother’s petite stature in the doorway.  Mrs. Vo was surprised to find longing in her daughter’s wide-eyed face.  She reminded her that her birthday was fast approaching, and she would receive new shoes even nicer than these.  But this did not seem to comfort Mary, and so it was with reluctance that the girl handed the box over to her cousin, Alice, who was not yet even eight years old.

Alice, fair-skinned with hair impeccably pulled back into a single braid, threw open the box and pawed at the tissue paper with pearl pink fingernails.  Mary watched her cousin’s nose wrinkle at the sight of the secondhand shoes.

“I don’t want this,” she said and shoved the box back into Mary’s arms.

While Mary was relieved to reclaim her beloved shoes, she did not understand why anyone would refuse a gift.

chastity with a drunken groom

Mary turned twenty-one the day her sister Bao got married.  The restaurant’s banquet room was dressed ivory and crimson for the reception.  Mary spilled butter cream icing on the front of her burgundy dress and excused herself to the ladies room.  It was nearly eleven o’clock, and the hallway was empty.  The strap of her high heels cut into her ankles, and her toes were tingly from the poor circulation.  She could not wait to go home and soothe the inflamed nerves in her extremities, massage feeling back into her feet.  As she exited the restroom, Mary’s new brother-in-law intercepted her.  He smelled of cognac, and his bow tie dangled in his hand.

“Can you help me with this?” he asked.

Mary took the tie, wrapped it around his collar, and fidgeted with the clip.  That was when his face lurched toward hers, but she ducked just in time, and he caught a mouthful of hair instead.

He called out her name between apologetic words, but she was already down the hall, running back to the party.  Bao met Mary at the entrance.  Her white gown glittered and danced with each step.

“Have you seen my husband?” the bride asked.  Her big brown eyes glistened mischievously under the false lashes.  She swung a pair of keys next to her face and smiled.  “It’s time for consummation.”

Mary pointed in the direction of the restrooms and wished her sister a very happy marriage.

Bao kissed Mary on the cheek.  “And happy birthday to you, my maid of honor.”

kindness for a loosed tooth

There was a period during Mary’s adolescence when her uncle and cousin Alice came to live with them.  Mary’s father placed a lacquered folding partition in the middle of the living room and declared one side the private quarters for his brother and niece.

Mary asked Bao, then fifteen, why their uncle and cousin moved in.

“Because, stupid, Aunt Loan has a gambling problem,” Bao said.

Mary knew gambling was what adults did at dinner parties long after their children fell asleep.  She knew it was what her Aunt Loan intended to do when she boarded a charter bus headed east for Louisiana.  The gambling blood ran deep in the Vietnamese vein, but Mary’s father played very little cards and her mother not at all.  When their friends tried to coax her mother into betting a hand, she laughed and said she already had a long list of things to confess to Father Phan.

Mary’s parents often had serious discussions at the dining table with Alice’s father.  Mary’s father had a lot to say, pausing only to inhale from his cigarette.  He said the words ly d? many times, to which her mother averted her eyes and clucked her tongue.  This only made her father’s voice crescendo, his fist coming down hard on the table to punctuate his point.  The ashtray rattled, and her cousin would start to cry.  Her uncle buried his head in his hands.  Even though Mary did not cry, she felt the poisonous air, thick with smoke and pensiveness, seep deep into her bones.  Her father would pause to give the girls quizzical looks, and in the silence, her mother ushered them back into Bao and Mary’s bedroom.

Her uncle and cousin had lived with them for a month before Mary broached the subject with her mother.  She asked what ly d? meant, and her mother took time to turn off the sewing machine before speaking.

“Divorce,” she said.

Mary asked if that meant Alice’s parents would go to hell, but instead of answering, Mrs. Vo hushed her daughter, saying that word is not allowed in this house.

One Saturday afternoon, Alice and Mary found themselves home alone.  The men were at work, Mrs. Vo was at the oriental flea market, and Bao was watching a matinee with friends.  Mary ate a steamed pork bun alone in the kitchen and was on her way back to finish her homework when she found the bedroom door locked.  She rapped on the door but there was no response.  She called out her cousins’ name and pressed her ear against the particleboard.  Mary returned to the living room and glanced behind the partition at the makeshift bedroom.  Blankets and pillows were stacked neatly on the nylon cot.

She called her cousin’s name again but there was still no answer.  Mary found a toothpick and inserted it into the hole of the knob.  Inside she found Alice under the covers on the top bunk, pretending to sleep.  Mary gathered her textbook and laid out everything on the dining table where she remained to complete her pre-algebra problems.

At ten o’clock that night, the adults were still in the middle of their usual conversation.  Mary brushed her teeth and found Bao in the bottom bunk reading a magazine.  Mary had climbed the ladder and was swinging her leg onto the mattress when her cousin popped up from underneath the blanket and snarled like a dog.

Taken by surprise, Mary lost her balance and fell backwards onto the floor.  On the way down, her chin smacked the wooden bed frame.

Bao peered over the edge.  “Gross.  Go clean your face before it gets all over the carpet.”

In the bathroom, Mary wiped the blood from her mouth with wads of toilet paper.  Nearly half the roll was gone before she finally stopped bleeding.  Crusty streaks mottled the lower half of her face, making her appear allergic to something.  Her gums ached but not terribly so.  She leaned in closer to the mirror.  There was a gap where her lateral incisor used to be.

Back in the room, Bao was engrossed in her magazine, and Alice was again pretending to sleep in Mary’s bed.  The tooth was easy to spot against the dark carpet.  She placed it underneath the pillow after dragging the cot into the room and settling into the sagging fabric.

The next day, Mrs. Vo saw the hole in Mary’s mouth and demanded to know what happened.  Mary said she fell off the bunk bed.  Mrs. Vo scolded the girl for her carelessness and then got on the phone to call the dentist.

“Where’s the tooth?  Bring me the tooth,” Mrs. Vo said.

Mary went to the bedroom, and saw Alice kneeling by the cot.  Upon seeing her cousin, Alice reached out her arms.  Cradled inside the cupped palms was the offering, a tooth, smaller and less bloody than it had appeared the day before.

temperance by spilled wine

Because Bao married well, she frequently treated Mary out to fine restaurants every month.  On this particular evening, Bao made reservations for two at the new French bistro whose escargots de bourgogne had local food critics raving.

“What’d you eat for lunch today?  A microwavable meal?  A peanut butter jelly sandwich?  Frozen pizza?” Bao asked.

The truth was Mary had both a frozen pizza and a peanut butter jelly sandwich, but not wanting to give her sister the satisfaction, she simply shook her head.

“Well, eat up,” Bao said, pushing the humongous dish containing a dainty pat of foie gras toward Mary.

Mary asked her sister how her husband was doing, to which Bao replied he had been traveling to Boston every week for meetings.

“What about you?  Boyfriend yet?”

Mary shook her head again.  She was slightly embarrassed of the fact that at age twenty-five, she had yet to taste the sweetness of a serious relationship.  But this was Bao, and if she could not be honest with anybody else, she could at least be honest with someone she had shared a room with for thirteen years.

Bao scooped mint peas and let them roll of her fork onto her tongue.  She sipped some bordeaux, expressed her pleasure at its smoothness, and set down her glass before continuing.  “What about that Joe guy?”

The Joe guy Bao referred to was Joe Ma, Mary’s colleague in the Neuroscience Ph.D. program at Baylor.  They met in Anatomy and Development of the Nervous System last year when Joe posted a sign outside the classroom calling for all students interested in forming a study circle.  The group started with six students, but by the end of the semester, there were only Mary and Joe.

Mary wasn’t sure how she felt about Joe.  She liked him enough but he never showed signs of interest in anything but neurons and synaptic transmissions.  Mary, too, was deeply involved in her work.  It was not uncommon for her to be in the laboratory until two or three o’clock in the morning, hooking her mice up to miniature electrodes and recording their various spasms.

As Mary searched her brain for ways to steer the conversation away from Joe Ma, the waiter appeared at their table.  Without looking up, Bao held out her wine glass for a refill, and the waiter obliged.

“More wine for you, ma’am?” he asked Mary.

She nodded, and he also filled her glass halfway.  Mary imitated her sister by swirling and inhaling the wine before taking a gulp.

“Do you like it?” Bao asked.  “It’s completely worth the price.”

Mary asked how much the bottle costed but Bao only revealed that it was more than a hundred and less than a thousand.  This made Mary’s eyes bulge, and images of the unkempt beggar children she saw during her one trip to Vietnam flashed across her cerebrum.  She made sure not to leave a single spot of food on her plate.

“Look at that.  My unsophisticated baby sister is finally learning to appreciate the finer things in life,” Bao said.

Mary was tonguing the beef bits stuck in her bridge when the waiter stopped at their table.  Bao’s empty glass was quickly full again.  To signal she did not want another serving, Mary reached over to cover the mouth of her glass.  At that exact moment, the waiter tilted the bottle, and Mary’s hand was immediately doused in the cool red liquid of fermented French grapes.

After the waiter apologized and mopped up as much of the mess as he could, Bao stared at the unsightly stain on the tablecloth and muttered, “What a waste.”

diligence in a negligent girlfriend

Mary always had a fascination with science.  Her first pet was a rust-colored beta fish that her father bought at the flea market for fifty cents.  It swam endless circles in its bowl on the windowsill, and she enjoyed watching Bao drop fish food into the water if only to observe its tiny mouth open and close around the colorful flakes.  One day, the fish mysteriously met its death, and while Bao cried pitifully over the fresh carcass, Mary was more interested in the fish’s involuntary flops and twitches which continued to erupt for several seconds after the declared time of death.

In middle school, she won second place in the regional science fair for her project on the effects of various activities on male and female heart rates.  She recorded each parent’s beats per minute before, during, and after they watched a horror film, played a Vietnamese dice game, drank a beer, and listened to their favorite Vietnamese singers.  As Mary expected, her mother’s heart rate increased more than her father’s after the scary movie, but it was a surprise to all of them when it was her father’s heart that beat much quicker than her mother’s after one can of Budweiser.  It was her mother, after all, that complained of feeling dizzy and flush after just one sip of alcohol.

In high school, Mary was Vice President of the Junior Einsteins club.  She organized a trip for members to the research facility of a nearby medical school.  There a graduate student took them on a tour through the sleep lab where patients with insomnia were hooked up to machines and observed during the night.  Then they moved over to the anatomy lab and donned surgical masks and robes before they were allowed to feel a cadaver.  Such things enthralled Mary, and when it was time to declare a major on her college applications, she checked the “Biology” box without any hesitation.

Thanks to Bao’s many phone calls home while away at university, Mary did not come across too many surprises her freshman year.  She lived in the dorms because her sister said dorm life would give her a sense of the true college experience.  She knew to avoid eating the wings and fries because it would guarantee a gain of fifteen pounds or more.  Unlike many of her classmates, she did not wait until the night before an examination to begin studying.  And while Bao endorsed sorority life, Mary preferred to politely decline invitations to rush functions and instead spend Friday nights playing billiards or watching foreign films in the student union.  Bao advised her about all these things, but what she failed to tell Mary was how intelligent and attractive the boys would be in college.

Jack had hair so red it looked like his head was on fire.  His pale skin was full of freckles, and he was constantly scrunching up his nose to keep his glasses from sliding off his face.  He was not the sort of guy college girls swooned over, but Mary was nevertheless drawn to him.  It was not an instant attraction, nor was it a very deep infatuation.  It was more a steady and persistent effervescence in her heart.  The organ did not skip or even flutter behind her sternum when she looked at him across the library table, his forehead furrowed in thought, a pen cap hanging from the corner of his lips.  But what made Jack special was he was the first boy she met who seemed to share the same zeal and hard work for science as her.  In Biology 301, Jack and Mary took turns setting the curve for each exam, and this good-natured competition made them lively and natural companions.

They began as typical classmates, exchanging phone numbers in case one had questions about the lecture.  Then they started studying together, and of course late nights at the library during finals week led to late nights at the coffee shop, and late nights at the coffee shop led to intense conversation.

Back at the library, the caffeine eventually wore off, and Mary pushed three chairs together so she could lie down and take a nap.  Noticing her thin shoulders shivering in her sleep, Jack took off his sweatshirt and draped it over her.  This woke her up, but she pretended to stay asleep for another twenty minutes, pleased to be wrapped in his worn sweater, happy to be lost in his smell.

They never declared their relationship, and from the outside, it did not look like much of one.  They never held hands, never kissed, never called each other pet names, not even when it was just the two of them.  In fact, they appeared to be nothing more than good friends or close colleagues.  This did not bother Mary until the day her mother called.

“How your finals going?” her mother asked.  “Stay up late?  Study hard?”

Mary said everything is fine, yes she sleeps late, yes she studies hard.

“You eating okay?”

Yes, Mary is eating just fine.  She purposely neglected to tell her mother she had started eating the wings and fries.  They were, after all, the only food available at midnight in the dorms.

“Bao tell me you have boyfriend,” her mother said.  “This true?”

Mary did not know how to respond.  She simply never broached the relationship topic with her mother.  Mary did not feel it was in her place to do so, and if Jack was never going to bring it up, then she figured they would just remain friends.  She told her mother Bao was mistaken, that she did not have a boyfriend.

“Good,” her mother said.  “Boyfriend will distract you from school.”

Jack and Mary were studying for their last final exam of the semester when he threw his pen down and sighed.  Thinking the chemical equations had finally broken him, Mary did not look up from her notes.

Jack sighed again and pulled her spiral notebook out of her hands.  “We need to talk.”

Mary did not say anything but waited for him to continue.

“I like hanging out with you, Mary.  You’re smart.”  And that was how Jack made their relationship official.

Jack and Mary each went home to spend winter break with their respective families.  Jack flew back to Santa Fe, and Mary drove two-and-a-half hours to her childhood home.  It was only going to be Mary and her parents for the holidays; Bao was studying abroad in Spain and decided to take the train around western Europe before her student visa expired.

While at home, Mary watched a documentary about how different diseases affected the nervous system.  That was when it clicked inside her brain that her vocational path would be in neurological research.

In the spring semester, Jack and Mary had almost the exact same course schedule.  They bought only one set of textbooks and took turns reading the assigned pages.  While Mary was still determined to maintain her grade point average, Jack’s interest in his studies dwindled.

On the evening their young relationship died, they were together in his dorm room working on a homework assignment.  Closing his book, Jack said, “Let’s go do something fun.  I’m sick of this.”

Mary gave him a puzzled look.

“Oh, come on.  This class is easy.  We’ll get everything in on time,” Jack said.

When Mary shook her head, Jack protested.  He said she was too serious a girl, that life was passing her by.  “Carpe diem,” he said.

But Mary did not care for Latin poetry, and she did not care for frivolity.  She stated so, and this turned Jack’s face almost as red as his hair.  But instead of saying more, he sat down and flipped through the textbook in search of the answers to the questions they had left.

patience with a destroyed dolphin

Mary’s seven-year-old boy stood in the middle of his room in nothing but his underwear.  With the same flick of the thumb he had seen his grandfather do many times over, the boy sent a flame bursting from the plastic lighter.

When Mary discovered the dolphin costume his Aunt Alice bought him for Halloween, it was nothing more than shreds of black and gray polyester, its foamy bottle nose deformed and limp.  She let the remains fall to the closet floor and shouted for John Joseph Ma to come here right this instant.

The boy came back into his room.  He was still dressed only in his underwear.

Mary demanded to know what he did to the poor dolphin.

“I burned it,” he said.

It surprised her that he did not stammer or lie.  She asked him why he did such a thing when his Aunt Alice was nice enough to buy him a beautiful fish costume.

“A dolphins’ not a fish, Mom,” he reminded her.

She said he knew what she meant.  When the boy shrugged and offered no further explanation for his pyromania, Mary told him he will have to answer to his father for this.

Outside, Mary dumped the costume into the trash bin and rubbed her hands clean of the ash.  She wondered how different life would be if she had given birth to a daughter.  But according to her mother, girls were troublesome too.  Perhaps a daughter would still be ungrateful for Aunt Alice’s gift, choosing to ruin the costume with a tube of her mommy’s vermillion lipstick rather than her grandfather’s lighter.  Either way, Mary was well into her forties, and the thought of any more children utterly exhausted her.

humility by bloodshed

In a white dress, white stockings, and white mary janes, Mary felt like a snow princess.  Her mother rubbed rouge on her cheeks in the church bathroom.  She looked in the mirror and both mother and daughter smiled at the reflection.

But later in the aisle leading up to the altar, Mary was only a mold, a paper doll, one of a dozen snow princesses.  She saw her parents and sister standing in a pew.  Her mother waved while her father held the camera up to his face.  Suddenly, Mary was shy.  She looked away from her family and concentrated on the sacrament that was about to happen.

The line moved quickly.  Only three girls stood between her and Father Phan.  She wiped her clammy palms on the front of her dress, but upon realizing her parents were watching, she pretended to smooth the white tulle.

Now Mary was next in line.  She saw Father Phan gently place a communion host in the palms of Quynh Tran’s outstretched hands.  The girl put it in her mouth and stepped over to Deacon Thao.

“The blood of Christ,” Deacon Thao said.

“Amen,” Quynh Tran said obediently and put her lips to the chalice.

“The body of Christ broken for you,” Father Phan said.

Mary cupped her right hand underneath her left the way her mother had made her practice that morning and stood solemnly before the priest.  She could hear her father clicking away on his camera.  “Amen.”

The wafer was a perfect circle and cardboard thin.  Mary placed it on her tongue, and it dissolved and tasted of nothingness.  The eucharist did not look like flesh nor did it taste like bread.  It was not at all how Mary expected.  She stepped over to Deacon Thao.

“The blood of Christ shed for you,” Deacon Thao said.

“Amen.”  But instead of gracefully receiving the cup the way she had at home with her mother, Mary’s nervous fingers were unsteady, and the chalice slipped from her grip, the blood of Christ splattering an angry red across her frilly skirt.

Christine Ha is a M.F.A. candidate in fiction at University of Houston's Creative Writing Program where she serves as a Fiction Editor for Gulf Coast. In 2001, she received a B.B.A. in Finance from The University of Texas at Austin, but after an autoimmune condition caused permanent vision loss, she decided words rather than numbers were more her thing. When not reading or writing, she can be found in her kitchen trying her hand at the stove—just in case, you know, this writing thing doesn't pan out.