Our Lady of Perpetual Mold

by: Deborah M. Prum

Hope manifests itself in the most curious of ways….

Our Woman of

Mattie wrote with a black marker on the back of a large torn envelope:

Dear Friends and Family,

I am tired. I am very tired.

She stared at the words. They look nice. Nice and clean and definite.

She read them again. Oh no, Friends and Family. I can just hear Ma now: ‘You always put your friends first, Mattie. Me and Grandma worked our fingers to the bone raising you. We might as well be dead.

Mattie crushed the paper and tossed it toward the overflowing pail by the kitchen sink. The wad bounced off of the top and landed on the floor by a black banana peel and gum wrappers.

Mattie started again, this time on the back of an overdue bill:

Dear Family and Friends,

I am tired. I am exhausted.

What more did she want to say? She couldn’t think of anything else. She had never written a suicide note before. This was a lot harder than she expected.

Her stomach growled. She got up and went to the refrigerator. Pretty empty. She hadn’t been shopping since Billy left three weeks ago. Her belly hurt just thinking about him.

She reached in and took out a jar of apple butter left over from Christmas last year. Then, she pulled out the four bottles of beer Billy forgot to take with him.

She found some saltines, scraped the green stuff off of the apple butter and smeared it on the crackers. She ate four in a row, standing over the sink. Tastes like bleu cheese dressing, she thought as she drank most of a bottle of beer to get rid of the flavor.

Using pliers to open the tap, Mattie rinsed her sticky fingers in cold water. Two weeks ago when she’d told her landlord Mike that the faucet handle snapped off, he handed her the pliers and said, “Here, take these. I’ll fix it tomorrow.” Mattie threw the pliers back into the sink, taking a huge chip out of the enamel.

Back to the note. She sat down and finished the rest of the beer. Mattie tried to think, just exactly what was she tired of.

Mike’s voice boomed from the apartment downstairs. “Whaddya call this crap? It’s not dinner – it’s bird food! Give it to the damn birds.” She heard glass breaking, then a baby crying. Mike’s wife kept silent. Mattie twisted the cap off of the second bottle of beer. Maybe that was it. Maybe she was tired of men. How could she write that in the note? She thought of Billy, with his greenish blond hair. One day, she had walked into the bathroom while he was pouring peroxide on it. “Get out of here!” he screeched and threw the bottle at her as she closed the door.

Mattie had met Billy in a bar where he played back-up drummer for tips two nights a week. He was skinny, no hips and no butt. That night, Billy bought her drinks and talked to her for hours. “Next year, I’m going to leave this hole. I got a buddy in New York. Lots of good clubs there.” His hopes and plans entranced her. She pictured a dazzling future with him. He never asked her a question though, and he never seemed interested in her dreams.

She couldn’t remember precisely why she took him home, or why she let him stay for the next two years. Maybe she hoped her life miraculously would become bigger and better.

Grandma called Billy a hoodlum and wouldn’t let him visit her apartment. Maybe that made him more attractive to Mattie. Or maybe she was tired of watching romantic comedies alone.

She supported them both by working days on a computer at a print shop. Same job, same computer since she graduated from high school five years ago. One tiny window, high above her desk, where she’d look out and imagine the ocean or shooting stars or anything but the brick wall of the building next store. Most of the week Billy slept, drank and smoked dope in her apartment.

Two months ago, Mattie came home from a bad day at work. Even though she felt tired and sick, she stopped to pick up milk, pasta, fish sticks, lettuce, carrots, cheese, bread, wine, two jars of sauce and detergent. She lugged them up two flights of stairs, heart pounding and gasping for air by the second flight.

Mattie smelled smoke from the hallway. The air in the apartment hung thick and gray.  Billy sat hunched over on the couch, snorting white powder. Mattie threw her bags on the floor and yelled, “Just get out of here. Just go!”

He left. Four hours later, he returned with three wilted red roses and a package of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. She let him in.

Billy told her a joke about the pope, Brad Pitt and a lawyer who walked into a bar. She laughed. They watched Sleepless in Seattle at her request. He ate all the peanut butter cups, drank an entire bottle of wine and fell asleep an hour into the movie.

Then one Saturday night three weeks ago, Mattie woke to see Billy standing in the doorway of their bedroom. He ran his hand through his phony hair. “Hey, Mattie.  I’m leaving. I met somebody at the bar. I’ll just take my stuff.”  He spent ten minutes cramming junk into his duffle bag. And, that was it. Gone.

On the Sunday morning after he left, Mattie emptied the ashtrays, threw out the beer bottles and washed her sheets. She kept the TV on all day and tossed out a pair of Billy’s socks she found under the couch. She thought she might miss him, but she didn’t. She slept longer and later. The more she slept, the more exhausted she felt.

The following week, Mattie threw up three mornings in a row. She drove to a drugstore across town. The pregnancy test cost fifteen dollars. She paid the clerk using her right hand and kept the left one, the one with no ring, out of sight. The old clerk leered at her, “Expecting good news?”

Maybe she was tired of men. She didn’t bother to hunt down Billy to tell him she was pregnant. No point to it. She couldn’t stand seeing his face another time. This would kill her grandmother. Grandma held high hopes for Mattie. The old woman had dragged Mattie to church so many times. Mattie would sit, stuffed between Grandma and her heavily-perfumed lady friend. As a kid she’d think, Maybe this is what hell will be like – dressed in scratchy petticoats and tight patent leathers, sucking in stale air forever.

Yeah, Grandma would be disappointed in her, disappointed that all the church-going didn’t have a better effect.

But what could Ma say? Not much. When Mattie was old enough to talk, one of her first questions was, “Where’s my Daddy?” Her mother had stood in front of a mirror, getting ready for a date. She clipped on earrings, earrings made of little red roses trapped in clear plastic cubes.

“There’s no Daddy. Never was. Grandma and I are good enough for you. Don’t ask about a Daddy.” So that was it. Mattie had a daddy who never was.

Mattie had hit upon it. She definitely was tired of men. By now, she had finished the third beer and had drunk her way well into the fourth. She was tired of writing her suicide note too.

Mattie walked to the bathroom and pulled on the chain. A naked bulb lit the room. Roaches scattered and hid under the radiator. Mattie dragged an old picnic basket from below the sink. She emptied out medicine bottles, gauze, several bars of hotel soap, and then lifted a hair dryer box from the bottom. Mattie opened the box and removed a small handgun.

She shoved all the junk back into the basket, then stood and leaned on the sink, looking at the silver gun in her hand. “Lucky me. It’s already loaded.” She slurred as she spoke the words aloud.

Mattie had bought the gun for sixty dollars at a pawn shop last week. The shop’s broken sign “GU S” caught her eye. She walked in and said she needed a small gun. The guy handed her one for fifty dollars. He had a huge brown mole on his left nostril. She tried not to stare. “I’ll buy it. Load it for me?”

“Nah, it’s not safe to carry it loaded. I can’t.” He scratched his nose. He knew she was trying not to look.

“Load it. Here’s an extra ten bucks.”

He put six bullets in, one by one. How easy this all was, she thought.

Mattie drew back the ragged yellow curtain from the claw-foot tub. She’d shoot herself while sitting in the tub – less of a mess for Mike. She was about to step in, when she heard Mike peeing downstairs in the bathroom below hers. Great fountains of pee. It seemed like he’d never stop. She listened for the flush. The fourth beer hit her bladder, so she sat on the toilet and looked down into its rust-colored cavern. The plumbing was old. She waited until she heard that Mike’s tank had refilled then she flushed. As Mattie walked past the bathroom mirror, she took one last look: wild black hair, tangled curls.  Her whole family had hair like that. But her eyes were different, pale green with dark flecks, you could almost see through them. No one had those eyes, except maybe her father. Mattie struck the mirror with the butt of the gun. It cracked in all directions.

Mattie eased herself into the cold tub. The dampness soaked her jeans. She extended her legs and held the gun in her right hand. Where should she shoot herself? She hadn’t considered this before. In her temple? Through the roof of her mouth? No. Grandma would want an open casket. Maybe Billy would come. She wanted him to feel guilty. If she had a gaping head wound, he’d just feel revolted.

She’d shoot herself in the heart. Where was her heart?  Left side. Her left hand found the steady thump-thump.

What about the baby? The baby was on its own. Mattie started to cry. At least wherever she was going, she’d take the baby with her. She cried harder.

Mattie curved her right index finger around the trigger and held the barrel against her chest. She took a deep breath and stared straight forward to the end of the tub. Some of the pink tiles had fallen off, the whole area around the faucets was covered with mold.

Should have scrubbed that mold, Mike’s going to have a fit. Probably won’t get back my security deposit. Ha! Definitely won’t get back my security deposit. Mattie bit her lower lip. Her breathing became fast and shallow. She cocked the hammer.

Mattie looked at the mold again. The mold grew thickest in the grout of the tiles, looking like a giant crucifix. The top branched out a little. A crown of thorns? That’s it! Jesus in the Bathtub! People were spotting images of him on trees, on cave walls. Here he was, right in her own bathroom.

Mattie started to sob. What did you ever do for me? She thought of that children’s song she had to sing in Grandma’s church, Jesus Loves Me.

“This is how you love me?”

There were six bullets in the gun. Mattie needed only one. She had plenty to spare.   She aimed straight ahead.

Well, moldy Jesus – you can die with me! She steadied the gun with her left hand and pulled the trigger with her right.

There was a loud blast. The bullet grazed Mattie’s left foot, nicking her little toe. Blood dripped from the wound.

Water gushed from behind the tile where the bullet lodged. Within seconds, it began flowing straight out of the wall and down through the cracks in the wooden floor into the downstairs apartment. She could hear Mike cursing from below.

“Mattie, what the hell is going on up there? MATTIE, what are you doing?”

Icy water splashed on Mattie’s face, shirt and jeans. She jumped out of the tub gasping and laughing. She was drenched.

She grabbed gauze from under the sink and tried to wrap her bleeding foot. This hurts, she thought.

“My whole damn life hurts….but I’m still alive.” she said aloud. “I guess that’s worth something.”

Mattie heard Mike pounding on her apartment door. When she didn’t answer, she could hear a loud creak as he forced the door open. She yelled, “In here. In the bathroom.”

Water still cascaded out of the pipe, pooling at the base of the tub and all around Mattie who now sat on the floor holding her bleeding foot. She noticed that the blood had already soaked through the bandages. It dripped into a pink watery puddle that formed around her. She felt faint, but told herself, Breathe, just breathe, one big breath at a time.

Mike kicked open the bathroom door. “My God, Mattie – what did you do?”

Every morning I wake up to the sound of the ocean slapping up against the dock at the end of our backyard. Mama says I’ve got the sea in my blood. Maybe she’s right. Some days, when the weather is nice and calm, I hear my heart beating along to the lap, lap, lap of the waves.

Mama and I have lived in this little house pretty much since I’ve been born which was seven years and two months ago. I can’t remember being anywhere else and that’s fine by me. I love the feeling of the sugary sand between my toes and the sound of the sea gulls arguing overhead and the sight of the sun filling up the clouds with red-purple light.

Our house is teeny-weeny little, but we have a back porch where we can eat supper if it’s not too cold and watch shooting stars any old time, but really they’re the best in August. Mama works at the bakery right next store. Her boss is a man named Pete who dances and sings songs and every day says, “I love you Mattie, dear. When will you marry me?”

Mama used to smile and say, “I’m all done with men, Pete. Don’t you know that by now?”

But, lately I’ve seen her looking at patterns for a wedding dress. She bought some shiny white cloth, too. And, yesterday, I heard her talking on the phone to Grandma, about how soon she and Great Granny can drive down from Connecticut to North Carolina.

I hope she marries Pete. He can burp for a whole minute straight. He throws me in the air and always remembers to catch me. He tells me the names of birds and bugs. He shows me where to find the biggest fish (on the sound side under the city dock). And, he already calls me “son,” which I like a whole lot.

Deborah Prum is an award-winning author whose work has appeared in many places, including The Virginia Quarterly Review, Ladies’ Home Journal,The Writer’s Handbook, and on NPR-member stations. She is the founder of Still Mountain Bookworks which hosts workshops and classes, publishes books (print, audio, ebooks and iBooks), and provides developmental editing services, partnering with authors to craft excellent writing. Her work can be found on her website, her blog, or at Amazon

Header art is the work of the talented, Boston-based artist, A.F. Marlow

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