L. Desharnais

Mary and the Incident


Those who corrupt cells owe their new styles of weakness to our diseases.
— Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980)

Mary refused to leave the area after the incident. The faces came and knocked daily. Beady black-eyed squints on pinkish palettes. She put in a screen door to make it a more impressionistic lens, but they still managed to burn through. The ‘incident’, as she called it, was not something easy to locate in time. Now 57 years old, she had moved to the area to be married in her 20s. No one noticed when the land was bought but the signs became difficult to ignore. In fact, they became intolerable for nearly everyone except Mary. Her girlfriends and co- workers regularly had miscarriages. The children that were born suffered from birth defects. They found out the land contained 21,000 tons of dumped chemicals: caustics, alkalines, fatty acids and chlorinated hydrocarbons from the manufacturing of dyes, perfumes, solvents for rubber and synthetic resins. Rolling this new foreign vocabulary over and over in her mind, Mary would shrewdly watch little George’s club foot slump along the linoleum floor of Carol’s kitchen. Looking as if it would start leaking something. Carol’s family left town first.

Mary had lived alone for more than 20 years before the land’s truth emerged. She was barren. She had known this before moving to the area to be married. It couldn’t be anything chemical, then, in her case. Her husband, who still worked at a nearby plant, had left her because of it. After the incident she began to wonder whether the land was reflected in her or she in the land. Each morning the land seemed to push the fog away, as if two wrong ends of a magnet were trying to touch. Mary had moved here under the pretense that she could produce a child and live a happy life. He had always spoken of children, cupping her breasts and stomach, marveling at her fertile capacity. They met when he passed through the farm town where she was born. He spent that winter working as a roughneck to make money fast. After his long days on the rig she would meet him in his hotel room. She worked in the bar downstairs, putting the little she earned towards paying off her parents’ mortgage. The radiator in his hotel room hissed. It calmed her as their bodies met, mixing with his grunts. Whenever she passed a nodding oil donkey on her way to work, she would hear this hissing- grunt in the whistling machinery. It was the sound of an opaque promise. Of a release.

In Mary’s eyes the problem was much bigger than the incident itself. She would often find herself angry with others. She knew they had suffered. But how quick they were to compare their lot to some standard quality of life made up one rainy day. How quick they were to allow themselves to be studied in test tubes. They passed straight from the irrational violence of a mean God, killing all their babies, to the comfort of a phony science. Mary never liked doctors much. To her they seemed to enjoy it when something went wrong. In the doctor’s office you are always on trial. You have to recount the symptoms to the best of your ability. Then the doctor makes his judgement to cure you. But Mary knew there was no cure for her since there were no signs to be read. To prove any abnormal affect the incident had had on her she would have to become pregnant in the first place. Her monstrous child would be the sign of something wrong with her and possibly testify to the land’s guilt. Mary’s dossier would then join a collection of other dossiers, other women, suspected to suffer from the same signs. Together with their children's bodies, they would form an abnormal norm entirely specific to conditions of life they shared on the land.

But this was not Mary's case. Mary, in fact, could not contain or narrate her life according to the reasoning of ‘a case.’ She felt entirely useless for the progress of science. Such progress, defined by data collection, also became the town’s will to knowledge. More and more in the face of this will, Mary believed herself to embody only the singularity of her own human actions on this planet. She was the abnormal deviation from the abnormal norm. She was the madwoman picking through the rags of lepers at the end of the epidemic. To Mary, the incident was just one cancerous speck among many on the sonogram of humanity. It buzzed around like the figures on television, barely visible between the screen’s halation and the smoke of her lady-thin cigarettes. For the town, the promise of happiness was irreparably broken along with their bodies. Perhaps it could be erected again if they moved further west. But for Mary such a promise was only ever just that, a promise. In spite of her body and in spite of the land, it could live on.

When they moved to the area Mary got a job as a bank teller and her husband started a nine-to-five at the plant. Mary carried her secret like the child she couldn’t have. Sometimes she forgot about being barren all together. When he made love to her she partook in the fantasy of a child that, she somehow knew, marked his final pleasure. Mary would watch him shave in the morning after sex. She lay spread on the bed unwashed, with her curly dark hair strewn over the white cotton pillowcase. Come back to me, she thought every time but never said it. He was always so quick to leave her body. As if he had broken some law or trespassed on someone else’s property. But the child’s imaginary body would stretch deep into both of their workdays. A little arm replaced the plant lever. A soft round head replaced the parking meter outside the bank. These days there was no talk of chromosomal damage. In fact, Mary would only learn what a chromosome was when the incident became news.

Mary always got home from work before her husband. By this time of day the fantasy had worn off. She knew that really, like that damned doctor had said after all her trouble, there could be no child. This had become a proven fact as the years passed. Her body confirmed his hypothesis. The fantasy, along with her husband’s sperm, only sedimented somewhere deep inside her out of reach. He eventually left without many words. Money came in the mail once a month. Around the same time, the work she was doing for the bank became mostly automated and she worked fewer hours. Pretty soon the bank just closed. People got money from the oil company after the lawsuit was settled and moved other places they thought were less toxic. Women mourned their damaged chemical wombs and strapped their deformed offspring into station wagons. Watching from her porch Mary thought how she would have taken one of their freaks any day. She hoped they found their ways in the world. At 57 years old, she would laugh, I’m like a rock with no fossils to mark the passing of time. Nothing had lived to leave a trace in me. Only I, the rock, came out alive. What is it to be alive? To live love as something good is nothing abstract. She wipes the counter. What is an avoidable death? She finishes her crossword. What kind of death can you control? Millions of barrels of oil are produced every day, on a television special. What kind of life can be successfully defended? She turns out the light.

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