Mary's Shrug

A Passage from Luminous Airplanes, or Things As They Were: A Hyperromance

Mysteries were my grandmother’s weakness: she found in them a harmless place to exercise her natural tendency to suspect the worst of everyone. On fine summer afternoons, she took a chair out to her gardening shed, and I’d find her there, tapping her fingers on the top of a paperback, her eyebrows bunched up, as if she were having a silent but terrible argument with the book’s author. Sometimes, involuntarily, she’d speak aloud: “Idiot! The train, the train!” And she went back to reading, her eyebrows drawn together, her tongue darting forth from the corner of her mouth like an organ of extrasensory perception.

Where did Mary’s suspicious nature come from? Of all her mysteries, that one is the hardest to solve. I suspect that much of the evidence in the case remains buried: some literally, with her and her family; some figuratively, in attics, and in the memories of her sister and the few cousins who remember her. Still, I have a couple of hypotheses:

1) that Mary, my grandmother, wasn’t always like that. That her bitter doubt belonged to the latter part of her life, like her gardening—the fruits of which were often bitter in a more straightforward way. That Mary was, up to a point, innocent, trusting, whatever you like, and that something happened to turn her. I suspect Richard Ente. And now I find myself becoming very much like my grandmother, and imagining dark, hidden stories, crimes concealed by other crimes.

What if my mother wasn’t the only one Richard seduced? What if he worked his charms on Mary also? So that when he romanced Marie, and left, she was doubly betrayed? That would be enough, I think, to sour a person on innocence forever. Mary saved herself from guilt by playing the detective, knowing all along that she was in one of those tricky whodunits which turns out to be an Idunit, banking on the fact that no one loved mysteries as much as she did. She was right about that. If Mary was guilty, no one ever proved it. Probably no one suspected her until now.

2) That the cause lies farther back in Mary’s past. I know very little about my grandmother’s parents, only that they were rich, absent, carefree, Connecticut-based. Possibly they had horses. Let’s say, as I have, that Mary’s shrug made the Celestes opaque and unyielding. What family chemistry, what configuration of feelings, created her shrug? Were my great-grandparents too strict with her, too mild?

I see horses, trees, a stranger, a scene in the marble-floored living room (which I’m inventing: no one ever told me anything about a marble-floored living room). I see Mary’s father stroking his beard, shrugging, turning away, his narrow (why?) back getting narrower still as it walks onto the patio (which no one has ever mentioned to me). Mary has been disgraced: marred, but not married. She is sent away…

No. That’s just my tendency to see Richard Entes everywhere: everywhere the same story, an endless outward progression of concentric circles. The truth is, my story has reached a blank spot with the origin of Mary’s shrug. It’s a kind of limit, maybe the only kind this commentary can have, a place where, if I’m honest, I have to admit that I don’t know.

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