Mary’s Proposal (Chapter 22, Lou Grant)

1 09 2009

22.

Mary’s Proposal

“I’ve been lucky.” Mary addressed her friends seated around the table. Everyone stopped talking and turned their attention to her. “I know that. Things have a way of falling into place for me. People like me.”

“They adore you, Mary.” Sue Ann gritted her teeth in a smile. And in an aside to Ted who wasn’t listening, “God, is she going to go on like this all night?”

“They do, Sue Ann.” Mary nodded her head in appreciation. “I’m not saying I deserve it, but people go out of their way for me. Sue Ann taught me how to cook. She didn’t have to. She just jumped right in and took over.”

“Well.” Sue Ann giggled. “We didn’t want the Board of Health to shut down your kitchen.”

“And Ted.” Mary turned to Ted who smiled, waiting for his accustomed accolades. “Ted got me a bargain on a vintage Ford Pinto. I know nothing about cars but Ted walked into the used car lot and put his fist down.”

“Gee, Mary.” Ted blushed. “You’re embarrassing me. Keep going.”

LAUGH TRACK

“And Mr. Grant took a chance on a kid who was so green behind the knees.”

“Ears, Mary,” Lou responded. “You’re green behind your ears.”

“Not anymore Lou. I’ve learned so much.” Mary turned to Murray who sat beside  her and put her hand on his knee. “Murray found my apartment and taught me how to play poker.”

“We played for toothpicks!” Murray cried in his defense.

Mary pointed across the table at Rhoda. “That’s my best friend, Rhoda.” Rhoda began to shrink. Don’t do this to me, Mary. “Rhoda has always had a free shoulder for me to cry upon. She’s taught me not to give up and how to get up when I’ve been knocked down, and always to keep laughing, and…”

Rhoda started to weep. Sue Ann glanced at her. “Give me a break!”

Mary took a deep breath before continuing. “It’s been like that since I was a youngster and I don’t want to sound ungrateful, but my life has become… boring. Everyone is very sweet and generous. Everyday at the office is lovely, amusing, fun, but… it’s always the same. Everyone is the same. Ted, you’re always charming. Mr. Grant is grumpy but loveable. Sue Ann is respectable and kind. Murray is helpful. Rhoda, well Rhoda is always there for me. I said that before, didn’t I?”

“Ya, Mary!” Rhoda responded. “Come up with some new material.”

LAUGH TRACK

“But.” Mary sighed. “None of you ever change. No matter what happens on Friday, the next Monday morning, you’re absolutely the same. No problem is so serious that there isn’t something amusing about it. It’s like a sitcom. I swear I can hear the laugh track. No one is vicious, mean, madly passionate or dangerous. Am I the only one who has noticed? I can’t stand it anymore. It isn’t real.”

There was a long pregnant pause. Outside the clouds were smothering the sun. Night was rising like smoke from its ashes. Ted cleared his throat. Lou tucked his tie into his trousers. Sue Ann smiled. Rhoda held her stomach in.

“Did everyone like my show today?” Sue Ann piped up. “I thought my tribute to Chinese cuisine was quite clever. The Twenty Minute Wok Out.”

“Oh, ya!” Ted started to laugh. “I just got it.”

No one else responded. There was a crack in the timber of the sky. The sky lit up like a flash on a camera. Lovers trembled naked in their raincoats. Heart attack victims were stripped of their pride. Sunbathers pretended that they’re wearing sunglasses. The streetcars began to sing, One more night. And still there was silence at the table.

“So, Mary.” Lou Grant smirked glancing around the table before lighting on Mary. “Why exactly did you bring us here?

“Oh, Mr. Grant.” Mary shrugged off Lou’s question with a giggle. “You’re always looking for an ulterior motive.”

“We’re waiting, Mary.”

Mary looked around the bar, passed her friends and right at me sitting there nursing a beer. But she didn’t see a thing. I didn’t exist. I was invisible. Like when she’s looking in the mirror and notices that her skin has begun to turn to putty. Like the face cream she smears on her forehead and cheeks and breasts. Like the poems that melt like chocolate in her mouth.

“Don’t you just love this place?” Sue Ann piped up. “The first time I stepped in to use the little girl’s room, I fell in love. It looks so lived in. And look at the clientele. What characters!”

“Hookers, pimps, gamblers,” Lou snarled, “and us, the staff of the local news. But let Mary finish.”

“Sue Ann is right.” Mary added.

“I am?” Sue Ann gasped. “I thought I was being facetious.”

“Another dodo?” Ted laughed.

“Don’t you see it, Mr. Grant?” Mary pleaded.

Lou growled as he glanced around the room. “Bunch of lay-abouts, wasting away in a bar. Not unlike most people in bars. Half of them are trying to forget about today. The other half are afraid of tomorrow. Just what a bar was designed for. Home sweet home.”

Mary looked despondent as she addressed her boss. “Aren’t you interested in these people, Mr. Grant? What kind of lives they live? How they make their living? What their interests are, their dreams, their ambitions? These are the ones who make the news; we just report it. We are the scavengers. These are the glorious beasts of the hunt.”

My drink began to taste… sweet. God. I pushed it away. And ordered another.

Lou turned to Ted. “What the hell is Mary talking about?”

Ted smiled charmingly, and then shrugged his shoulders. He was bewildered.

“I’m in the dark too, Lou.” Ted grinned.

“Thanks, Ted.” Lou responded sarcastically. “I knew I could count on your support.”

“Strange bedfellows.” Rhoda mumbled. Got to keep my mouth shut. How can Mary be so innocent? Think about something else. A man’s unshaven face scratching the back of my knees. No! His beer breathe on my neck. No! Got to get these images out of my head. Hands on my hips softly shaking… No. Oh God.  Too many mornings of regrets and bad breathe and trips to the toilet. Maybe Mary is right. Maybe love is sweet. Maybe life is a flower opening up… No! Did I say that out loud. No one is looking at me. I hate this. Hate being me. Why do I have to know the truth?

“I was thinking.” Mary hesitated.

Everyone looked at Mary.

“A dangerous and addictive habit.” Rhoda muttered than almost apologized.

Sue Ann glared at Rhoda and placed her finger in front of her lips.

“I knew it!” Lou cried, smacking his hand on the table.

Sue Ann jumped.

Lou continued. “I knew there was a hidden agenda. Do I know human nature? You don’t spend thirty years in…”

“Bars…” Rhoda interjected.

“…in a newsroom.” Lou scowled as he looked at Rhoda then turned his attention back to the rest of the table. “You don’t spend all those years in a newsroom without learning something about human nature.”

“Mr. Grant, hear me out.” Lou continued to smile. Mary cleared her throat. “I thought we might do a series of investigative reports on the city’s underworld. Not organized crime or biker gangs, but the lower end of the criminal ladder. Small time criminals. Salt of the earth criminals. Gamblers, hustlers, pimps and hookers, pushers and thieves. The public is curious about how these people survive, what they do, what they’re like, where they come from…”

“How they make love?” Rhoda added. If Sue Ann says something I’m going to punch her lights out.

Sue Ann smirked. You’re such a slut?

Rhoda smiled at Sue Ann then winked. Why do I have to be such a smart ass? Why do I have to have these thoughts racing through my head. I didn’t ask for them.

Ted turned to Rhoda. “How do they make love, Rhoda?” Ted chuckled and then asked sincerely. “Is it really… different?”

Rhoda smiled. “Different than you, Ted, They don’t do it alone.”

“OH!” Ted laughed heartily as he thought over what Rhoda had just said. He rubbed his chin with his fingers, thought again, and then glared at Rhoda from beneath his eyebrows. “Wait a minute!”

LAUGH TRACK

“So charming and yet so cruel,” Sue Ann giggled.

“Thank you.” Rhoda bowed. “I knew I could count on your support.”

“You mean to say, Mary.” Ted spoke and then hesitated, waiting for everyone’s attention to fall his way. When it did not he cleared his throat and spoke with the force of his newscaster’s voice. “Mary!”

Mary looked up. “Yes, Ted.”

“Do you mean to say that the suburban crowd wants to sit back in their lazy boys and live the dangers of crime…” Ted hesitated so that he could pronounce each syllable of vicariously individually. “…vi-car-ri-ous-slee?”

Lou’s mouth fell open with shock. His eyes lid up.

Mary nodded. “That’s exactly it. Thank you, Mr. Baxter.”

Ted smiled and looked around the table for his accolades.

“Give it a rest, Ted,” Murray responded.

“I think it’s a marvelous idea,” Sue Ann piped up. “I know it would go over with my girls at the noon hour. We could have some criminals on my show to demonstrate their favorite recipes. Al Capone made wonderful pasta. And we can’t forget Eggs Bennedict.”

LAUGH TRACK

Lou choked on his scotch. Murray smacked him on the back. Lou glared at him.

“I thought you were choking, Lou.”

“I’m serious!” Sue Ann’s voice rose with her enthusiasm. “It would be great fun. I’ve always wondered how gangsters cooked. They have to watch their waistlines like the rest of us.”

LAUGH TRACK

Rhoda turned to Sue Ann. “You’re dangerous.”

“Exactly,” Lou asked turning to Mary, “how do you plan on going about this? These people are not exactly the type of folks who seek publicity for their work.”

“I’ll appeal to their vanity, Mr. Grant.” Mary smiled. “Everyone wants to be on television.”