The Secret of Mary Madigan’s Death
Mary Madigan never married. Then she died.
“Who found her?” Joyce Grant said. Joyce lived in the stucco house over Mary’s back fence.
“It was that cleaning person who found her, the one who cleans sometimes for Barbara Wakely and Jenny Anders,” said Mildred Evans, who was across the street. “Nobody else has been in the place for as long as, who knows?”
“All that while,” Tess Peterson said. Tess was on the east side.
Margaret Sutherland was on the west side. “How awful,” she said, wrinkling her nose.
“It’s perfectly natural,” Joyce said. “Where’s any problem about something when it’s perfectly natural?”
“But, such a long time,” Margaret said, wrinkling her nose. “It would have been awful for me, I can tell you. All that time.”
They looked across the street at the faded porch swing where each of them had sat with Mary Madigan, when Mary Madigan wanted anyone to sit.
“It is sad,” Mildred said. “We can all say that much, I believe.”
“That Mary died, you mean,” said Joyce. “I don’t agree. Regrettable is an apt word, but only if something was left undone. Sad? I just don’t accept any sad here.”
“Well, that’s you, then,” Mildred puffed. “Honestly, Joyce, why do you take such silly positions about things? It is sad, and sad is sad. Nobody close to her. No relative. No anyone, as far as, who knows? I’ll be sad if I want to.”
“We were her friends, certainly,” Tess said. “All of us can agree with that. I was, certainly. I always felt that Mary and I were good friends.”
The others nodded, except Joyce, who enjoyed being contrary.
“Anyway,” Joyce said, “wouldn’t you all just love to have ten minutes inside that house? Just from room to room. Ten minutes. What’s there? What’s on the walls? What’s on the floors? What’s tucked away in the closets? It’s a perfectly natural curiosity.”
“You mean, was she hiding something?” Tess said.
“I didn’t say hiding. Did I say hiding?” Joyce said. “Secretive, yes. That would be the word. All those years, and not once did anyone of us get inside that house. Secretive is a proper word. Natural, it certainly wasn’t.”
“Whatever could be a secret about Mary Madigan?” Margaret said. “Mary was as plain as Mary, every day, day after day.” She pointed at Mary’s swing.
“We, all of us, have a secret or two, don’t we?” Joyce said. She looked about for affirmation. “We all have a thing or two we wouldn’t want someone to know. What’s truer than that?”
The others did not know how to agree, or disagree, for that matter. No one wanted to turn around through life to verify something that should not have been there in the first place.
“Mary was just Mary,” Tess Peterson said.
“I confess,” Mildred said, “and I’m not ashamed to say it, I’ve always been a little curious about Mary Madigan. There’s natural for you.” She winked at Joyce. “Each of us sat on that swing so many times over the years, talking and visiting and drinking that Japanese tea and eating those delicious little powdered sugar scones she baked. And who knows anything more now about Mary Madigan than they ever did, sitting with Mary day after day, on that swing?”
“I loved those scones, I certainly did,” Tess said. “Sometimes I ate two scones. Isn’t that shameful?” She was plump and a bit red-faced. “We sat talking and talking about something or other, nothing in particular, whatever was on TV or what was in the morning paper, talking and talking, and sometimes I wondered later, whatever was it that we talked about?” She took a breath. “It was all I could do not to turn around and try to peer through those thick curtains. I wanted to say, ‘Mary, it’s so warm out here, don’t you think so? Why don’t we go in for a bit?’ I could never bring myself to say it, not once. I couldn’t get past those eyes.”
“None of us could say it,” Margaret agreed. “That was her house.”
“I wanted to turn around so many times and look and look,” Tess went on. “I hated myself. Why put us all through that when we were friends? Best friends. She came into all our houses to visit, didn’t she, whenever she came up our steps? Not once, mind you, did anyone I ever saw get past that front door. Except the cleaning woman. Mary had to let her in from time to time. And that’s odd. There’s another word for you; that is, if people are what people are and are natural. I don’t like being the one to say it, but it makes me just a little upset. We were friends, weren’t we? And that cleaning person, the only one to get in?”
The others nodded.
“Who knows, did anyone ever see any man over there?” Mildred asked.
“What man?” said Joyce.
“A man. Whatever man,” Mildred replied. “Any man.”
“I never saw any man,” Tess said emphatically. “I don’t count delivery men from Safeway or the mailman or any United Parcel man. Those really aren’t men.”
“No man, then. Not ever,” Margaret said, “now that you mention it.” Margaret often let others do the talking because someone else usually said what she wanted to say before she could say it anyway. “And where’s your natural there?”
The women sat in Mildred’s wicker chairs on Mildred’s front porch, watching the house across Poplar Street.
“Mary Madigan,” Mildred said quietly, “was not normal. There was something different or something. All right, dare I say it right out? Something not natural.”
“Like a secret,” Tess Peterson said.
The women bent forward. The street lamps bowed. The hedges beneath the picture windows moved manicured leaves. The sidewalk they had walked, year after year, with dogs and grandchildren and doddering men, strained against the confines of urban planning.
“Then, who knows?” Mildred whispered.
Mildred passed the teapot. The women dutifully ate the cinnamon cookies Mildred had made, since it was Mildred’s turn to make something. Everyone thought, these are all right, but certainly aren’t anything like Mary Madigan’s powdered sugar scones.
“What will happen?” Margaret asked, picking a crumb from the corner of her mouth.
“Happen where?” said Tess.
“To it,” Margaret said, pointing.
Everyone stared across Poplar Street at the faded clapboard walls that were like so many other clapboard walls.
“Come to think of it,” said Mildred, “who knows?”
“Something must happen, though,” Margaret said. “It just can’t be there.”
“Has anyone seen anyone around?” Tess said.
“I haven’t seen anyone,” Mildred said, “and I look all the time. Have you see anyone, Joyce?”
“I haven’t seen a soul either,” Joyce said, “but the back lawn is getting brown. No one’s taking care of anything.”
“What will they do with it?” asked Tess.
“What will who do with it?” Joyce replied.
“I don’t know,” Tess said. “Anyone. Whoever has to do with such things.”
“If there was anyone,” Margaret said, “they would be here by now.”
“I suppose that’s true,” Tess said. “But shouldn’t there be a cousin or an aunt or someone twice removed, or anyone? People just aren’t in this world and no one there with them.”
“Well, she never talked about anyone anywhere anytime I ever talked to her,” Margaret said. “I always talked about my grandchildren and my great grandchildren and everyone else, for that matter. Mary never said a word.”
“Me neither,” Joyce said.
“So, who knows?” Mildred said. “She was alone.”
They studied the house. The sun made shadows beneath the eaves and arches.
“I haven’t shown you all the latest pictures of Baby Catherine and Little Joe,” Joyce said. “Joe really isn’t that little anymore, of course. He’s almost four now and quite the young gentleman.” She opened her purse and removed two new photographs she kept pressed between the Medicare card and the card she used to buy drugs at Walgreen. She passed the photographs around. The others smiled, cooed, tapped the photos and nodded.
“Adorable,” Margaret said.
“There is nothing like grandchildren,” Joyce said. “These days, they keep you going.”
“They keep you alive,” Tess said.
“That’s for certain,” Mildred said. “And that’s reason enough.”
Mildred poured the tea. A cinnamon cookie remained on the plate. No one touched it.
“I’d love to be a fly, though,” Margaret said. “I have to admit it, as awful as it sounds.”
“Ten minutes,” Joyce said. “Just ten. Room to room.”
An automobile came along Poplar Street. It was a Ford Taurus, Emily Henchborn’s Taurus from up the street. Emily tooted the horn. The women on the porch waved. They liked waving at anyone who lived a few houses this way or that and waved back. Then that red sports thing with the tan rag top drove by, a bit too fast, to everyone’s thinking. It belonged to the young couple who had bought the Jessup house at the end of the block. Bill Jessup had survived his wife Ellen by six months before passing from loneliness. His family decided to sell the house because nobody could agree on who would live there or how they could pay the others rent. So they sold it to a red convertible. But why sell something if someone in the family needed to live somewhere? “The price on everything these days makes everything unnatural.” That’s how Joyce said it.
“Did she have a will, who knows?” Mildred asked.
“She never said anything to me about any will,” Tess said. “Of course, who would ask Mary about something like that?”
“True enough,” Margaret said. “Prying.”
Tess said, “You could pour your heart out, and there she’d sit and never volunteer a thing.”
“Blood from a turnip,” Mildred said.
“What will happen, then?” Margaret said. “Someone has to come. It can’t just be there, day after day, running down. Look how the lawn is turning brown.”
“That’s what I said before,” Joyce said.
“Someone from the county or the town or a bank or something,” Mildred said.
“She owned it free and clear,” Margaret said. “I saw the records at the courthouse.”
“Margaret,” Mildred smiled, “why don’t you just take that last cookie? I hate to have anything go to waste.”
A dusty black van stopped at the house across the street. A woman with fiery hair climbed out and went around to open the rear door.
“It’s that cleaning person,” Mildred said.
They watched the woman remove things from the van. She lowered a vacuum cleaner, buckets, a mop, two brooms and one of those extension things with a fluffy head to brush away cobwebs. She went to the front door of Mary Madigan’s house, unlocked it and took everything inside.
“A key,” Tess said. “She has a key.”
“Now isn’t that a fine how-do-you-do?” Mildred said.
The women stood, as if by signal. They stepped from the porch and went to the sidewalk. They looked at the van, which had a dent in the left front fender and a severe scratch the entire width of the door. They stepped across the street and stood on Mary Madigan’s sidewalk. They looked at Mary Madigan’s front door.
“Come on, now,” Joyce said.
They moved in a phalanx, then filed, on by one, up Mary Madigan’s steps. They stood in a row before Mary Madigan’s front door. The vacuum cleaner started inside.
Mildred turned the knob. She pushed open the door. The cleaning woman was bent above the vacuum, thrusting the brushes forward, pulling the brushes back, swaying smoothly up and back, in that practiced motion of one who cleans for a living.
“Hello, there,” Joyce called.
The cleaner scurried and whirred.
“Hello, again,” Joyce said, tapping the woman’s shoulder. The woman looked up, frowned and shut off the motor.
“We’re Mary’s neighbors here,” Joyce said.
“Mary’s best friends,” Mildred finished, smiling. “We were just having tea, across the street, the way we always did when Mary was here and could have tea with us too. We remember you from before. Don’t we, all?” She turned to the others.
“Yes,” Tess said. “We even asked Mary, did she think you might be interested sometime in cleaning for us. Didn’t we, now?”
The others nodded.
“What is it?” the woman said.
“Well,” Mildred said, a bit put off, “we’re Mary’s neighbors here. Her best friends. We saw you-.”
“We wanted to know, could we do something too?” Joyce interrupted. “We were so helpless after Mary passed. What could we do, we wondered. It was so sudden.”
“We can’t get used to it, in other words,” Margaret said. “It hit us so hard. It’s so sad. Mary was so nice. Can we do something?”
“I’m being paid,” the woman said. She was short, stoutish, with strong, hairless arms. Her fiery red hair and white face were punctuated by the palest blue eyes any of them had ever seen.
“I’m paid for this,” the woman went on. “This is my job.”
“We understand that,” Mildred said. “We only wanted to volunteer a little something.” It was all she could do to keep her eyes from wandering about.
“I’ll do the work,” the woman said. “Thank you.”
“Is someone buying the house, then?” Tess said, stepping forward.
“Nobody’s buying anything,” the woman said, becoming a bit annoyed. “Now, if you please, I have my work.”
“But-” more than one of them said.
“The house is to be sold, if you must know. The county is selling it. There is to be an auction. That’s what I know. Someone’s coming to take care of the yard.”
“When will this auction be?” Margaret asked.
“It’s not my business to know about auctions. Now, I have work here, if you please.”
“There is no one, then,” Mildred whispered.
The woman started the vacuum. She turned away. Joyce tapped her shoulder. “Excuse me again.”
“What is it?” the woman said.
Joyce looked at the others. “There is something.”
“What something?” the woman said, turning off the vacuum.
Tess tugged at Mildred’s sleeve. “Millie, isn’t that your wallpaper?” She pointed into the dining room.
Mildred stared. “It is my wallpaper,” she said.
Tess looked at the mohair chair in the living room. She pointed at the cushion. “And that’s my chair,” she said.
“Listen,” the woman said directly.
“There is something,” Joyce said hurriedly. “We were all such friends, all of us, always lending things and borrowing things, back and forth, when anybody needed anything, that after awhile we lost track of who had what. When someone needed something, someone just provided it. Isn’t that so, ladies?”
Mary Madigan had never borrowed anything, but the others agreed.
“We borrowed things back and forth and leant things. Cook books. Garden tools. Pots. China cups and saucers for a family get together and not enough things to go around. Crystal bowls for flowers. Things like that.”
“Like my toaster,” Margaret said. “Mary borrowed my old Sunbeam when her toaster broke down.”
Joyce said, “We’d like to retrieve our things, if you don’t mind. We wouldn’t want them to be sold at any auction. You understand. We’ll keep out of your way.”
The woman looked at them carefully. She shrugged. “Suit yourself,” she said.
The women went through the rooms. In the kitchen were Margaret’s water glasses, the ones with the fluted rims. Mildred’s everyday utensils were in the white pull-out drawer next to the sink. Tess’s padded oven glove, the red one, hung on a hook beside the stove. Mildred’s kitchen table and chairs sat in the middle of the floor. In the bathroom were Joyce’s beige towels, the exact shade. Joyce’s shower curtain, the one with the silver grommets and olive-blue stripes, was tucked into Mary Madigan’s porcelain tub. On the bedroom door knob Margaret found the blouse she had bought at Macy’s. On the bed was Tess’s comforter, the same comforter, flower for flower. In the bedroom closet were things they had bought at Ross or Marshall’s or Target, hung neatly on the wooden dowel. On the floor of the closet were shoes they wore, day after day.
The women walked into the living room. The cleaning person was in the dining room. She had pushed the chairs aside and was working under Margaret’s dining room table. The cushions on Mary Madigan’s dining room chairs were Margaret’s cushions.
“What on earth?” Margaret said.
They stood in the center of the floor watching the after-light blink through Mildred’s thick, pleated curtains.
“Nothing’s here,” Mildred said.
The women filed out the front door. They walked to Mildred’s house. They sat in Mildred’s wicker chairs on Mildred’s covered porch. They looked at the house across Poplar Street. No one said a word, but everyone wanted to say everything. Language, which they drew about themselves like a knitted shawl or a worn, woolen sweater, had grown cold.
[Check out Richard’s back porch wisdom]