The Marvelous Mary Alice
by Deb Kollar

Part One:  Mary Alice Finds a Date at Jewel-Osco

    Sixty-nine-year-old Mary Alice Moretti is on the hunt. She believes there is a saying for everything in life and for this particular outing, it is “the early bird catches the worm.”
    Over in the bakery department, a teenage boy is restocking the shelves with St. Patrick’s Day dessert trays and Polish paczki doughnuts for Fat Tuesday. Mary Alice strolls over and pretends to be interested as she surveys the lay of the land. An attractive redhead in her mid-thirties is standing by the deli counter asking for a single-serving chicken dinner. Bingo!
    One can find a suitable mate in the grocery store. Mary Alice is sure of it. After all, she handpicked her husband, Walter, in a Piggly Wiggly when he was unable to tell the difference between a honeydew and a cantaloupe.
    Her goal is to find a date for her son, Larry. She cannot fail at her mission, especially with her grandniece’s wedding only three months away; otherwise, her spiteful sister, Eunice, will stick him at the table with the rest of the single relatives — bored teenagers and drunk Uncle Sal. No, Larry must have his plus one.
     Mary Alice whispers, “The target is on the move.” She realizes her husband’s lifelong penchant for military movies has clearly infiltrated her matchmaking strategies. The bewildered teenage employee next to her looks around, then back at her again. Mary Alice grabs a grocery basket and follows the redhead to the dairy aisle.
    Yogurt is on sale. The woman swipes the remaining lot from the shelf. Mary Alice believes in signs, too, and considers this an indication the woman is both thrifty and health conscious. Not at all like the time she brought home Brenda from Walmart. Mary Alice makes the sign of the cross.
    She ought to have known Brenda was trouble. The woman’s cart had been filled with enough Hostess snack cakes to put a classroom full of children into a diabetic coma. Mary Alice is convinced women use chocolate to cover up mental issues. It took three months to chase Brenda away from her son and by the end of it, she had a new saying: never trust a woman addicted to Ho Hos.
    “That’s a good sale,” Mary Alice says.
    The woman looks her up and down. “Given your age, I suppose you’ll need me to squat down to check if there’s any yogurt left on the bottom shelf?”
    “Young lady, I was the wife and assistant to the famous magician, Walter Moretti. My body is strong and limber.” Mary Alice lifts her flared skirt, brings her right leg forward and points her ruby red mary jane pump. “You’re looking at the newspaper’s ‘Best Legs in Kane County 1969.’”
    “Watch,” says Mary Alice. She squats ladylike with her knees together, rummages around the bottom shelf, pulls out a yogurt, rises and takes a bow. “I am and will always be, The Marvelous Mary Alice.”
    She remembers when Walter first introduced her to the stage at the Hemmens Cultural Center in 1970. “Please give a round of applause to my assistant—The Marvelous Mary Alice.”
     The sharpness of the woman’s retort brings her back to the moment. “Fine. You’re like a senior Wonder Woman.” She rolls her eyes and moves on.
    This redhead is trying her patience. Mary Alice is not the type to give up without a fight. Besides, it’s slim pickings at a grocery store on a Monday morning.
    She catches up to the woman in the frozen food aisle perusing Banquet pot pie dinners. As an Italian, she knows food is the great equalizer and nobody can pass up her Italian Sunday gravy.
    Mary Alice peeks her head into the freezer door and whispers, “You know, those pot pies are like butter on your thighs. How would you like a nice homecooked dinner?”
    The redhead slams the freezer door. “Are you following me, lady?”
    Mary Alice looks behind her. The aisle is empty except for the soothing voice of Karen Carpenter singing “Close to You” over the store’s music system. “Excuse me?”
    “You were at the deli counter watching me. Now you’re here.” The woman glares at Mary Alice. “Are you stalking me?”
     Mary Alice laughs. “Stalking at a grocery store? Who would do such a thing?” It isn’t like she’ll follow the woman home and she certainly won’t dismember her body and store it in a freezer like that Jeffrey Dahmer fellow. “I am no stalker!”
    “Either you’re stalking me or you’re lonely. There are mental institutions for the first and nursing homes for the second.”
    Mary Alice scoffs. She points her finger into the redhead’s face. “You’ll need to say three Hail Marys for that mouth.”
    “You’re crazy.” As the woman pushes the cart away, she turns and shouts, “And don’t follow me!”
    Mary Alice waves her hand in the air. “Marone!”
    Another cart goes by. This time it’s a brunette with two small children. She sighs as she contemplates the idea. It could be nice to have instant grandchildren. After checking for a wedding ring, Mary Alice sets out for the brunette. She is on the hunt again.
    Two hours later, Mary Alice enters the front seat of her Lincoln Continental in Jewel-Osco’s parking lot. Matchmaking in a grocery store is difficult work. It didn’t help the brunette with children threatened to call security.
    Lifting the rosary beads hanging from her rear-view mirror, she kisses the wooden cross. Mary Alice clutches the store receipt with the phone number in her hand. Thank goodness for the long pharmacy line.
    The poufy blonde had at least a twenty-minute wait to fill her prescription. It was enough time for Mary Alice to ease in and not immediately go in for the kill; however, it was surprisingly quick to persuade her.
    She wonders if Larry will mind a few quirks, like a misdemeanor, and an unsightly face piercing. Beggars can’t be choosers — if there’s a saying for her 40-year-old son living in her basement, Mary Alice is sure this would be it.
    On her way home, Mary Alice makes a detour to Jefferson Avenue on the north side of Elgin. She parks across the street, turns off the engine and surveys the Sears bungalow hoping she will catch a glimpse of her through the window. Tears well up as she remembers the promises she had made to her late husband. To keep them all together. To help their children find the love they were blessed with for 45 years. Dear God, how am I going to fix this?

Part Two: Chickens, Chihuahuas and Cherry Pie

    Determination. Spunk. Fortitude.
    These are the traits sixty-nine-year-old Mary Alice Moretti feels are needed for Matchmaking 101. It took all of her skills, along with two hours of hunting at a Jewel-Osco grocery store, to find a suitable plus-one for her son to take to his cousin Bianca’s wedding.
    Mary Alice decides to let the blonde’s confession of her slight stint in Cook County jail reveal itself organically. Preferably, not until after the wedding cake. She has always loved good Italian mascarpone.
    So the girl has a few issues. Don’t we all?
    Turning on Douglas Avenue, she still marvels at the grand houses of Elgin’s Gold Coast; especially, at the Victorian built by her great-grandfather in 1889 after the Elgin Watch Company had recruited him as a master watchmaker. For 130 years, it has been kept in the family in pristine and proper condition; well, except for her middle-aged son living in the basement and turning it into his “man cave.”
    Arriving home, she notices Larry’s Toyota is not in the driveway as she parks in the garage. Maybe he is looking for a job? She kisses her fingertips and raises them up to the Lord. “Perhaps one with benefits if it’s not too much to ask,” she says to Him.
    Mary Alice finds herself heading upstairs to the walk-in closet of the master bedroom to commune with her husband. She pulls on the chain of the closet light and sits down on a short, round, wooden bench in the middle like she is center stage. It is an extra closet they had made from an adjoining storage room to use for Walter’s magician items: robes, tuxedos, top hats, smaller tricks and polished black wingtip shoes—the left next to the right, as if they are still waiting to be put on. If shoes can miss their owner, Mary Alice is sure they miss her Walter as she does.    
    She rubs the end of his favorite cape, purple silk with gold stars. “I didn’t find someone special, Walter. Not anyone like you. I tried.”
    He had asked her to look after the kids the day he passed. They had all been so close when he was alive. Now her daughter is estranged, and her son lives in the basement. One divorced, the other, never married. No grandchildren.
    “I let you down, my love.” She adds another saying to her collection: It is the world’s cruel joke to make women outlive their husbands and for children to grow up no longer needing their mothers.
    Mary Alice is taken out of her thoughts by the sound of a car horn repeatedly blaring next door. Her best friend and neighbor, Ruby, passed away a year ago and her no-good kids are still squabbling over the property’s value.
    Looking down from the bedroom’s bay window, Mary Alice spots two U-Hauls parking in the adjacent driveways, one backing up into Larry’s spot.  An older stout man standing in the front yard in faded jeans and work boots gives the driver a thumbs-up.
    For the next thirty minutes, Mary Alice watches in horror as a frenzy of people down below work to move brightly colored and uncoordinated furniture into Ruby’s Queen Anne home. Two of the younger men haul chicken wire rolls from the pickup truck parked on the street and toss them in the backyard over what used to be her best friend’s prized vegetable garden.
    A woman and a young boy start to carry out cages from the garage and place them on the ground in the backyard next to the wire and other building materials. She opens the window and shouts. “Hey, you. You over there. What’s inside the cages?” Busy with their work, they are unaware. She hears a faint clucking and then immediately knows what it is — chickens.
    Poor Ruby Ray Montgomery will be rolling in her grave. Her home had been on the Historic Elgin House Tour. In the 90s, she received the Mayor’s Award for Preservation. Now her yard is being turned into a chicken farm.
    To add insult to injury, a small, tan and white dog hears Mary Alice’s cry from the window. It waddles over, looks up at the bay window, bares its teeth and growls.
    Mary Alice shakes her head. People today just do not realize a loose dog is dangerous. The furry, little mongrel could not weigh more than ten pounds soaking wet; but it still could outrun and take down ninety-eight-year-old Mrs. Henderson who shuffles to the stop sign and back each day to keep limber.
     “You stop that growling right now,” she yells out the window, pointing a finger at him. The dog lifts its hind leg over her blooming bed of snowdrops bordering the side of her house and urinates.
    Outraged, she takes a step back. Oh, this will not do. She closes the window and stomps down the oak stairs to the kitchen counter. No, this most certainly will not.
    She grabs a notebook from the junk drawer and writes a step-by-step to-do list to get rid of the neighbors. Step one: call someone. About what? A moving van in her driveway? A ferocious dog? Chickens!
    The phone book is underneath the radio. Sliding the pen down the yellow pages she locates Elgin’s code enforcement number. Bingo! She calls the number and leaves a message. She crosses off step one and looks at her notebook.
    Step two: bake them a housewarming cherry pie for tomorrow and snoop. Mary Alice smiles. She is on the hunt again.
    “Ma, what is going on out there?” Larry says placing his keys and satchel on the table. “I had to park by the curb. It’s like World War 3 next door.”
    “Grab your keys, Larry. We’re going to Anderson Animal Shelter.” Step three: buy an attack dog. Hopefully, one who eats Chihuahuas.
    “Oh, and by the way,” Mary Alice says as they walk out the front door. “You’re bringing Miss Tabby Jo James to your cousin Bianca’s wedding.”
 

BRAVO serial fiction presents an original short story by a local writer in a series of short sections of approximately 1000 words each. "The Marvelous Mary Alice" will continue monthly from March through September 2019.

Debra Kollar and her husband moved to Elgin eighteen years ago, as many newlyweds do, to afford their first home. She loves the town’s determination to preserve its history, the welcoming attitude for diversity with its people and the arts, the award-winning library and all the local haunts that give Elgin a hometown feel. After the series, she hopes to expand “The Marvelous Mary Alice” into a novel.