Lloyd and Mary

A successful real estate agent and his wife live life by rote until an unbearable loss shatters their well-ordered world.

Honeybee on a honeycomb

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Lloyd had been sitting out by the shore all day, and it was nearly sunset before Mary came down to bring him a glass of tea, marching through the sand like it was snowdrifts.

“Well,” he said. “Where you been?”

“Oh, Lloyd, Abe and Janice are here; can’t you come up? Just for a while. Abe was asking—”

He took a sip of tea and let it ease down his throat, which had grown dry and cracked. He wondered what had kept her. She stood before him now with her dimpled knees, white shorts folded up above and a flowery blouse that whipped in the wind. He tried to read her face: disgust, he thought. Yes, there it was, like a shadow in the eyes. Guilt dropped over the disgust like a curtain, and behind that, love. That was it — that last part — love; that’s the part that interested him.

“It took you long enough to bring the tea,” he said.

“How’s the sugar?” she said.

“Not enough. Almost, but not quite.”

“Abe and Janice want to play euchre. We got four if you come up.”

“This hat’s got a hole in it,” he said, showing her a frayed point on the straw. “It’s got my head sunburnt.”

His voice had a whiny edge to it now, and she watched him rub his fingers along the hat, tracing the hole, and wanted to rip it from his hands and throw it to the sand.

“There’s another one up at the house,” she said.

“You’ll bring that down,” he said. It wasn’t an order, just a plain fact, like the sand or the water or the hole itself.

In the early days, when Mary first married Lloyd, he had been interested mainly in honeybees. He was in real estate, selling multimillion-dollar summer properties along the North Carolina coast, which he could do — he wore bow ties and rolled up his sleeves, he combed his hair over his bald spot, he made jokes — but at dinner he talked about honeybees.

“Did you know, Mary, that the honeybee’s wings beat at up to 200 times a second? Can you imagine that, Mary? Two hundred times!”

He wanted to get a house with room for wild overgrowth so he could get his own hive. Though Mary had no use for honeybees herself, she encouraged him. He was, after all, a successful man, and that counted. She sent him off in his bow ties every morning with two ham sandwiches in his lunch box and one Golden Delicious apple, and he would come home every night and say, “Did you know, Mary, those were the most delicious sandwiches I’ve ever had?”

She spent her mornings smoothing that mayonnaise to the edges just for him — it was like coloring a picture in the lines, getting the white to stop precisely at the crust. It seemed silly to her even as she did it, but she knew in half an hour he would be gone to work, and she could sit out back and read while the wind rattled the page corners. At dinner, he was back to the honeybees soon enough.

“Mary, did you know it would take 1,100 honeybee stings to kill a man? Can you imagine?”

In some ways, having Lloyd was like having anything, or anyone. It was just a matter of getting to know the peculiarities of him, where his corners started and stopped. Once Mary managed it, Lloyd seemed perfect, just exactly what she had imagined. She sent him to work, and every day he returned at near-exactly the same time and wanted exactly the same thing: A tall glass of sweet tea and his copy of Beehive magazine.

Mary’s parents, Buster and Nora, had been preparing her for marriage since she was a little girl with a round face and straight, dust-colored hair. They never mentioned a career or asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, although sometimes the teachers in school would ask. Once, she said she wanted to have a shop that sold snow globes. “But sand instead of snow,” she explained. “And tiny families playing on the beach. And a dog, a spotted one.” She imagined herself sitting on a white stool behind a cash register like Mrs. Lindie Comstock in her gift shop on Center Street. She would play flute music in the background and burn cinnamon sticks and offer little cups of sweet tea while shoppers picked out just the right globe. When she told her parents, they laughed and her mother ran her fingers along her fat cheek and said, “Aren’t you ambitious.”

When Buster and Nora really meant business, though, they talked about How to Find a Husband. It was one of their favorite subjects, even when Mary was small enough to be interested only in wearing the same purple-flowered dress to church every week and forgetting to brush her teeth. Nora would comb Mary’s hair, which was so fine it frayed with static, and say, “You’re going to be a beautiful woman one day, Mary, and you’ll marry yourself a good Christian man. You wait and see.” Over dinner, they would lay out the specifications: “He’s got to have at least a little money,” Buster was always saying. “He’s got to be kind, to you and the children,” Nora would say.

When Lloyd came along, which wasn’t until Mary was 22 and Buster and Nora were beginning to panic, they were pleased. Buster’s eyes lit up when Lloyd shook his hand, and Nora asked if he wanted her to turn on the furnace. “Are you cold, Lloyd? I feel a bit of a chill in the air; can I bring you a sweater?” Mary felt satisfied. She had found her parents a man. A symmetrical little fellow, too. His socks matched his shirt, and his tapered shoes were tied in delicate, tight knots.

“Oh, you’ve landed a good one, Mary,” Nora gushed when they passed in the hall. “Do you see how he looks at you?”

Only he hadn’t looked at her. He had been looking at Buster all evening, talking about honeybees, which was all right with her.

“And then, they eat their own honey all winter long,” Lloyd was saying. “That’s how they live!”

When they moved to a house with wild overgrowth and Lloyd got his beehive, Mary came out one afternoon to find Lloyd flat on the ground, blue in the face, spittle streaming down his chin. It turned out he was allergic to bees. It wouldn’t take 1,100 honeybees to kill him, just one or two, is how it turned out. Lloyd survived but was worse for it. The hive went, and with it Lloyd’s spirit. For months he sat in the den in the evenings and stared at the wood paneling while Mary watched TV.

Mary was secretly glad not to hear about honeybees anymore, though she had smiled indulgently through thousands of bee facts and through Lloyd’s bubbling enthusiasm at putting up the hives and stomping around out back wearing nets. Now that Lloyd had so much less to say, she found herself growing fonder of him.

When Mary went out into town, she would talk about Lloyd in that fond, exasperated, eye-rolling way all women talked about their husbands. “Lloyd only eats ham,” she told Sarah at the grocery. “Every day I tell him, ‘Lloyd, now why don’t you try turkey?’ and he says, ‘Mary, I know I like ham, and that’s what I want.’”

Mary felt satisfied as she pushed her cart of groceries to the car and then arranged them in the hatch according to size and shape. Eggs secured along the sides. Ham in the middle. Bread on top. Life seemed orderly, as if everything had been properly distributed and Mary’s only job was to organize it. She had to manage Lloyd and the house and read novels, mysteries mostly. In the latest one, a man had been cut into sections and parts of his body hidden around a small city in Maine. Mary devoured the book and a box of ginger snaps in a single afternoon. “My Lord,” she said, slamming it shut. “The things people will do.”

Mary was happy. She came to like the way Lloyd’s back swayed and his chest puffed out and his eyes gleamed when he saw the creamed chicken over biscuits they had every Thursday night. On Saturdays, Lloyd came to bed in only his Hanes boxer shorts, and Mary knew that was the night, and hung onto the sharp edges of his shoulder blades while he worked his way around her complicated nightie, which had ties and snaps both.

What Mary didn’t want was children. She passed them in town, clinging to their mothers, their faces mottled with rage, begging for this or that. She didn’t like the way they push out of you, coated with slime. But when she started to go to the grocery store and her friends were buying rubber nipples and eight-packs of bibs, she began to feel less satisfied.

“Lloyd, what do you think about having a baby?” Mary said on a creamed-chicken-over-biscuits night.

Lloyd didn’t reply. He didn’t say anything about it for three straight days, but then he brought home a book about baby facts he began to recite to her at the dinner table.

“Did you know, Mary, that babies have more bones than we do when they’re born? They fuse into each other as they grow!”

While Mary was pregnant, people would stop in town to run their hands over her stomach, claiming to feel kicks or bumps Mary didn’t feel. Even so, as they walked away, Mary found herself feeling satisfied again. She bought spit-up towels and packs of diapers and joked about the cost of babies with other women. The world felt orderly again. Like something had been rightly distributed to her, and all she had to do was put it in the right place.

When Petey was born three months early, he was the size of her fanned-out hand, veiny and bright red. He cried in long, thin, keening wails, an otherworldly sound. “I can’t stand the sound of it,” she told the nurse, who frowned at her. Mary spent an hour studying the vein that threaded up from his ear to the top of his skull. She imagined the tiny river of blood-flow through it. When she was finally able to hold him, she could barely stand to touch his translucent skin. But when she did, under the stern gaze of the nurse, he was warm to the touch, and soft. Touching his skin seemed suddenly like touching a part of herself, something deep and precious and old.

“He looks like my Uncle Bernie,” Lloyd said.

“Oh, he doesn’t either,” Mary said.

Petey grew like a bird: wobbly-legged and big-headed, his upper lip pointed downward like a beak. His brow was always furrowed, and his mouth was always in a slight wrinkle, and the keening wail continued through the first grade. Mary treated him like a mystical creature whose wisdom outstripped hers by the time he could form words. “What do you think, Petey? Tide or Arm and Hammer?” she would ask him.

“Tide,” Petey would squeak, seeming weary from the question.

“Should we drive by the cemetery on the way home or take Crawford Street?”

“The cemetery.”

Petey liked the cemetery for reasons that mystified Lloyd and enchanted Mary. She balanced him on the edges of mausoleums and took his picture while he furrowed his brow. “Such a handsome little thing,” she would say, showing the pictures to Buster and Nora.

“Honey, do you think — I mean, why the cemetery?” Nora would ask.

“Oh, we just like it,” Mary said.

The pictures seemed a lot more ominous after Petey died. He came down with pneumonia and got infections in the hospital, one after another. He was 7, but looked no older than 4. He’d had thin brown hair that Mary combed herself before the wake, spitting it down as she had when he was alive. Inside the casket was a print of the two of them posing in front of the Parker Family mausoleum, one thin arm linked into her fat one. “It’s such a good picture of us,” she said, pressing it into the silken lining next to him.

After Petey was gone, Mary returned to her mystery novels with a certain satisfaction. She’d had her child and bought the onesies and rubber nipples — the whole bit — and she’d cared for the boy and loved the boy, and now it was done. She wiggled her painted toes on the deck, letting the breeze flow through, closed her eyes and let the sun shine on her face.

But Lloyd began drifting off in the evenings, watching the wood paneling instead of the TV. He remembered what TV shows Petey liked and how he picked at his macaroni, eating each one separately, and not very many of them at that.

“If only we’d gotten him to eat,” Lloyd said.

“We gave him a good life,” Mary said matter-of-factly, in a voice that finalized the subject. It had been done, after all. What was expected.

In the years after, Mary began to bring people to their house, which was near the shore and two stories high with catwalks and balconies, and which had walls painted deep robin’s-egg blue and dusty yellow, and which had one tall antique grandfather clock from her parents’ house that chimed in the front hall. She served them tea and coffee and shortbread cookies cut into the shapes of flowers. Lloyd would come home and greet their guests with a smile and a joke, maybe, and then he’d disappear. Mary might find him in the basement, or the upstairs bathroom. She would knock on the door and he would say, “I’ll just be a minute, Mary,” but he wouldn’t be a minute. He would be in there for hours. When even Saturday would come and Mary would get into her nightie, and fasten the buttons and ties she hoped Lloyd would later undo, and Lloyd would be on the back deck listening to baseball on the radio instead of undoing them, she decided enough was enough.

“Lloyd, I’m calling Dr. Chandler,” she said.

Lloyd started taking little blue antidepressants with his coffee in the morning. He had noticed, over time, that something had changed between him and Mary. They used to have their own compartments: He had his work, which was expected. She had her mystery novels and decorators, and trips to town; she liked to keep up with whether the deck needed stained and whether the plaster needed fixed and that sort of business. Petey had connected them for a while, but even then, there was his Petey and her Petey. Mary’s Petey was the wizened hero of his own story, perfect in his dimensions, glorious in his limitations. Lloyd admired how Mary would deflect the pitying glances she received from the other women in town, or the statements they would sometimes make. “It must be so hard on you,” they would say in hushed tones while Petey was right there in his stroller, his tiny, waxy ears taking in every word. “I could not possibly feel more blessed,” Mary would reply in a high, queenly voice. And she meant it, too. Petey would look up at her solemnly with an expression only Mary and Lloyd knew to be love. “Don’t you pay any attention,” she would tell him.

Peculiar though Petey was, he somehow bore unmistakable signs of being his and Mary’s, even if it was only a shadow that sometimes fell across his face, or the way the ends of his mouth fluttered up when he tried to smile, as Lloyd’s did. It was enough to evoke involuntary spasms of love from Lloyd, which he took great pains to hide from the boy. “Eat your breakfast,” he would order, gruffly, as his father had done to him. Petey didn’t miss it.

He looked at his father solemnly and said, “I’ll try, Daddy.”

Petey spent his days at school hanging onto a teacher’s hand or sleeve, watching the rest of the children play. If a teacher gave him some paper and crayons and a quiet place to sit, he would draw faces, thousands of them, all in blue and purple and black, with skill and detail a boy so small and with such brittle-looking fingers shouldn’t have.

“It’s like a ghost drawing ghosts,” Lloyd remarked when Petey brought home one of these works of art.

“He is a prodigy,” Mary replied matter-of-factly.

“But there is something strange about him, Mary. Don’t you think?”

“He is handsome and smart. Why, he read me an entire chapter out of Gone with the Wind yesterday.”

When Petey died, Lloyd felt like someone had scraped out his insides and left them to rot on the sidewalk, truth be told. It was a great quaking, watching Petey struggle to breathe and, in the end, failing. His translucent skin went blue and then white, and when his heart stopped, the part of Petey that held Lloyd’s interior went up like smoke. Who was he without Petey to tell him?

But Mary, who had instructed Petey to cough and to eat and to take his medicine, also ordered him, when the time came, to let go.

“Just let go, baby,” she said. “Daddy and I will be okay.”

We won’t, Lloyd was thinking. I won’t.

The afternoon Petey died, Mary picked out a little white casket from a book like it was the JC Penney catalogue. “Oh, Petey would like that, wouldn’t he?” Lloyd stared straight at the picture of the funeral director’s family on his desk, two golden-haired girls and a wife with what looked like a frosted bouffant, and wondered how he would keep from sliding to the floor.

After the funeral, right after the funeral, after the last person had hugged them and offered condolences, Mary looked at Petey’s car seat, which looked unused even though he was light enough to have to used it until he died. Petey had been so light and careful, even as a baby, to not leave chewed-up bits of cookie in the fabric. Mary said, “Well, we’ll have to get that out of the back seat,” and it was as if she was thinking of running through the car wash.

That was when Lloyd announced he was going to live with his mother, Bernice.

He packed light: some work suits still in their dry-cleaning bags and two lightweight polo shirts he could wear sitting outside in the evenings. He forgot his shaving bag, and therefore a reddish beard sprouted over the next few weeks.

“You should go home to Mary,” his mother told him.

“Did you know almost half of marriages end in divorce?” Lloyd said, vacantly, staring out his mother’s kitchen window at the backyard soft and striped from a recent mowing.

When he did go home to Mary, three weeks later, he wore a flannel shirt and a straw hat over his long hair, which was curling up at the ends. His eyes were buried in his cheekbones and had a strange shine to them: not the liveliness they once had, but not the dullness after Petey died either.

“I’ve retired,” he told Mary. Mary had gotten somewhat used to his absence. She had started a Thursday-night card club, which happened to be the very night of the week Lloyd returned home looking like a mountain man. But she gasped at Lloyd’s announcement. It was so unusual for her to gasp that, in response, Lloyd also gasped. “Does that surprise you, Mary?” he asked.

“Well, Lloyd. What we will live on?”

“Well, I’ll think it over. I’m going right out to the sea to think about that very question. Look at it, rolling in, rolling out. It looks a bit green today.” He dragged the plastic Adirondack chair to the beach and sat while the sun set.

When it was dark, Mary came down to get him and saw tears rolling down his cheeks and getting caught in his beard. “What on earth,” she said.

“Remember the honeybees?” he said.

“The honeybees?”

“The way they’d hover, vibrating like little motors were attached to ’em. Ooh, could they work. They only got upset if you provoked ’em, moved their combs or jabbed a stick in their hive. Otherwise it was all work, all the time. I wonder, Mary. I’ve often wondered if they were happy.”

“You’ve wondered if they were — Lloyd, I believe I’m going to call someone.”

Lloyd looked up at her like a child might, eyelashes long and flush against his skin, brown eyes big and deep and filled with something. What? The desert, Mary thought, squinting at his irises. It’s like the desert in there, dry and sun-scorched. “Who, Mary,” he asked. “Who will you call?”

Dr. Chandler came the next day and suggested sewing some white sun flaps to Lloyd’s hat. He was getting baked red all over, the hair on his arms springing up white against his skin. Mary sewed the flaps herself. Then she called her mother.

“You never told me about this,” she said, hissing angrily into the phone. “Not one time did you ever say, ‘Mary, your husband may sit on the beach every day and quit his job and think about honeybees he got rid of 15 years ago.’ You never said it.”

“All you needed was a husband who would be good to you and your child,” Nora said. “And you tell me right now, Mary, and tell the truth. Wasn’t he?”

When the credit cards were canceled, Mary decided enough was enough. It had never occurred to her to get a job. Not one time in her life had she so much as thought of it, getting up in the cold morning air to put on skirts and hosiery and showing up someplace. And now that the idea had occurred to her, a sickening feeling accompanied it. Dread, she thought. Disapproval even. Who would spend their days in this manner? She brought a book to her first job interview, which was at the Middleton and Middleton Law Offices downtown. She knew Chubby Middleton from grade school.

“They call me Charles now,” Chubby said, looking perplexed. “Listen, Mary, I’d love to help you out, but you have to be trained to be a law clerk. You can’t just —”

“Oh, trained. What does it take, a little filing? I can learn. Oh, Chub-arles! You must have seen so much, doing this work. In this book I’m reading, they just found a head in a suburban neighborhood? Buried to its neck but there wasn’t a body. And the FBI had to get involved — do you know what they had to do to gather evidence off that head before it was even removed?”

He hired Mary as the secretary in the end, but not the main one — that was Mrs. Critz. Mary was the one they called on Mrs. Critz’s days off, and there were a lot of those. Mrs. Critz was near retirement and despised the law office, the lawyers and the clients alike, and spent her hours there making snide remarks to the bright blue beta fish in the bowl on her desk. “I guess they couldn’t have told me about this two days ago. No they could not. Just ‘Here, could you do this, Mrs. Critz?’ Of course I can do it. Do I want to do it is the question. Nobody asks that.” Mary envied Mrs. Critz her impending retirement. Already the job seemed too strenuous, even pulling the nylons past her thighs and fastening her skirt around her middle in the morning. She stopped eating her morning muffins, for the effort of all that. “I might be getting a little pudgy,” she said to Lloyd, who was breaking up a half-loaf of uneaten bread to throw to the birds later.

“Nonsense,” he muttered, but didn’t look up.

At work, as soon as she opened her book, pressing the pages eagerly flat, someone would come out and ask her to make a phone call. It seemed preposterous, though some more sensible part of Mary assumed it wasn’t. Just at the point that she rose up to go to lunch, someone would ask her to arrange a conference call or find a file. The whole thing was beginning to depress her. The very worst of it was, Middleton and Middleton was not a criminal law office. It specialized in tax law. Mary could not imagine anything duller, though it was occasionally interesting to see who needed representing: Phil Clifford for tax evasion; Eunice Miller for not even knowing she had to pay taxes. “Somebody might have mentioned it,” she told Mary, who smiled with genuine sympathy. But no one was discussing the contours of a missing human head, or keeping samples of it in evidence jars, as she had imagined.

“I do not understand the world,” she announced to Lloyd on the week of her one-month anniversary with Middleton and Middleton.

“Yes,” Lloyd agreed. “I might take issues with its roundness if it weren’t for those images from space.”

“My God. You have lost your mind. Of course the world is round, Lloyd; that is not what I mean.”

“What do you mean, Mary?”

“I just do not understand what people do. That is what it is. I don’t understand what it is they’re doing, and why they’re doing it.”

“Well,” Lloyd said. “You never did it before, did you?”

Mary supposed she hadn’t. Even having Petey had been a reluctant exercise in keeping up with the world. It’s what people did, but not necessarily what she, Mary, wanted to do. She had been raised to marry, and that was why she did that. It had worked out. But what she had really wanted to do was keep all of her porch swept and the walls painted.

“But now that I am doing it,” she said, “I want to know how one can devote his whole career to tax law. Every day, Charles and his father come to work and talk to clients and go over piles of paperwork. Numbers and rules. Now, why ever would they do that?”

“Perhaps it is not for you, Mary.”

Whether or not it was for Mary seemed less important than the fact that their house was being foreclosed on. They would have to move into an apartment in town. After the move, Lloyd decided to adopt a dog, which he picked himself at the pound — a cream-colored mutt he named Petey.

“Petey,” Mary repeated.

“They do resemble one another,” Lloyd said, preparing to argue. But Mary relented without argument. She didn’t argue even when people heard him calling after the dog in the park and cast them the oddest glances. Lloyd spent hours at the dog park near their apartment, talking to other dog owners about Petey’s eating habits and bowel movements. He bought grain-free dog food while he and Mary ate frozen lasagna and macaroni and cheese from a box. Over time, Lloyd began to gain his color back. The vacant look in his eyes gave way to focus, and he announced one day that they would be making a trip to the cemetery.

“Who?” Mary asked.

“Me and Petey.”

“To see Petey?”

“That’s right.”

Lloyd brought flowers, all in pale yellow the way Petey had liked. It was a girl’s color, but Petey had favored it, picking soft yellow shirts off clothing racks on the rare occasions they found that color in boys’ sections.

“This was my son,” Lloyd told the dog. “Petey. Petey the First.”

The flowers bent up against the stone, spraying yellow in a cheerful shock against it, and Lloyd thought the whole scene seemed somehow too bright for Petey. Despite his fondness for yellow, he had been a morose child. Lloyd, too, was morose; the caverns of himself were crumbling and caved in. He could feel it. He felt a pulsing hurt that pressed outward, like cancerous cells cracking bones; now, it pressed the tears from him so they rolled down his cheeks. He was not crying for Petey, who had managed the Great Transition already and was therefore free, he imagined. Pushing out of life had seemed as difficult as pushing into it, past pelvic bones each way, one’s skull bones sliding out of alignment in the great effort. For Petey, all of that was done now.

Lloyd was crying for himself.

He realized, as he swiped at his tears, that he stank. He hadn’t noticed before this moment the stench that rose from his skin, a pungent human smell, like unwashed hair.

“Oh, Lord,” he said, though it didn’t mean anything. It was a moment of discovery, is all. Back in the car, he stared at the worn corners of his steering wheel and said aloud, “So, Petey. This is how it is.”

He didn’t know if he was talking to the boy or the dog. But that, too, meant nothing, or nothing he could make any sense of. It was just one of those moments when everything seemed new, or clear in some way, or louder or brighter or more loving, maybe. Even his tenderest feeling for his son Petey did not compare to what he felt now. It was a softness toward himself, like soft hands cupping his elbows. The feeling was soft, as the air was, blowing against his cheek while he sat.

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Comments

  1. It is a wonderfully written story, though sad and tough emotionally and psychologically. You’re taken into the world of this couple before they had this little boy, Petey, during and after.

    One of the most telling sentences in it is when Mary’s mother Nora asks her why Petey wanted to stop by the cemetery. She asks ‘do you think’ without completing the sentence of ‘do you think he wants to go there because he knows he’s dying’?

    My own guess is that yes, he does, either consciously or subconsciously and being there gave him a certain peace of mind. It may have been God’s way of helping both Petey and Mary for the transition that would be coming.

    It takes very special people to work with special needs children like this sweet, precious child. Aside from the medical knowledge aspect and being caring and loving, they have to have a special inner mental/emotional ‘armor’ to not get emotionally attached to the child or they’ll be devastated over and over again. I applaud all of those who can, for I know I never could for this very reason.

    Hopefully Lloyd and Mary can gradually come to a place of peace with it, allowing themselves to enjoy the good days and helping each other get through the bad ones, knowing better ones will follow again.

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