Mark – Guardian Angel of the Key Lime Pie
It started with a scream from an old lady – specifically somebody’s grandmother – my grandmother. When an 80 year-old woman screams, people tend to stop what they’re doing and notice. That’s exactly what happened with Mark, who was upstairs minding his own business in his rented room in the white house on Lincoln Avenue when it happened. But what started as a scream turned into a lifelong relationship with a guardian angel whose pragmatism and bare bones lifestyle could only be matched by his desire for friendship.
Guys don’t come much taller or more awkward than my angel, Mark. Only a few years my senior, Mark was responsible and gainfully employed, which was something I regrettably could not say for myself at the time our paths crossed. He worked as an engineer for a local company that dealt with filtration systems and stuff that was so far above my head I didn’t ask many questions about his work. A loner whose appearance leant itself to being painfully shy and not making friends easily, Mark rented an upstairs bedroom at the home of my maternal grandmother. He had kitchen privileges and a bright yellow Ford Fiesta, complete with festive cloth seats, which may have been the one big selfish splurge in his entire life.
For a long time, I didn’t know much about Mark other than that he spent a whole lot of time in his room at the white house on Lincoln Ave, that he didn’t make full use of his kitchen privileges, and that he wasn’t a bad guy. It wasn’t until the mouse incident that we became friends. It happened one afternoon when my cousin Vickie and I weren’t around. Vickie lived with my grandmother, mostly because her parents didn’t really want another mouth to feed around the house and, after all, she’d turned 18, and your parents didn’t have to legally provide shelter and food for you once you reached that magical 18th birthday. I didn’t live with my grandmother because I was off at college, but when I was home, I spent most of my time there because you couldn’t help but love my grandmother, who smoked Salem menthol cigarettes, had a calico cat named Charlee, still mourned for a pet parrot named Joey, and wrote religiously in a diary she encouraged you to read after she’d gone to bed for the evening.
It was mid-afternoon when the scream occurred, and as tall as he was, Mark probably descended the two flights of stairs with the dark wood banister in about three steps once he realized it wasn’t just the usual soap opera drama blaring from the television in the living room. When he rounded the corner and got to the kitchen, he saw my grandmother frozen in place. She was gripping the rubber handles on that walker she used to get from her chair to the bathroom so tight that the bicycle basket with the little plastic flowers on the front we had strapped on to help her carry things back and forth was threatening to tip itself over. Mark knew that wouldn’t be a good thing because, though she refused to admit it, we all surmised that my grandmother tried to save on the water bill by disposing of her toilet paper in the waste basket instead of with a flush. That meant the toilet paper was transported in that bicycle basket on the front of her walker. If you spent enough time with her, you just knew not to accept a tissue from her – ever!
Though she’d asked him to call her Kathryn, Kate, or even Weena, which is what we all called my grandmother, Mark stayed with Mrs. Fish, which was the surname of her second husband, so it never quite fit her exactly. She was practically squawking, shouting something about a mouse and needing help quickly. Mark took the scene in and, just about the time he started looking around for a mouse, the poor little rodent resurfaced, probably just coming out of its own state of shock at the situation, and started running in circles around my grandmother’s feet. Nearly seven feet of ectomorph lurched this way and that, trying to corner the mouse, but just as he got the mouse into a corner, the little guy took a leap of faith and ran straight ahead blindly – right between my grandmother’s feet. It looked to the left, and it looked to the right, and then it leaped. The leap was an absolute vertical catapult right onto the hem of my grandmother’s delicately flowered housedress. From there, well, there really wasn’t anywhere for the poor critter to go but up, and up, and up.
Up to the promised land it scurried, squealing all the way in between the cotton fabric and the well-worn silkiness of my grandmother’s slip. When it reached the deep hollow between her breasts where her heart was pounding, it grabbed and hung on for dear life as my grandmother screamed at Mark to, “Do something, please!” So he did. Awkward, shy, dear Mark started at the bottom, probably figuring it was safest, and began searching for little Mickey or Minnie. But that mouse was small and sneaky, and probably nearly as terrified as Mark, who had quite likely never been this close to the female body in real life. Poor Mark, who didn’t date because he was so painfully shy and uncomfortable around people, was about to reach the promised land with – of all people, my grandmother!
When the bottom-up approach clearly did not work, my grandmother screamed again. “Do something, Mark. Please!” And while I’m certain that wasn’t exactly the plaintive pleading Mark had read about in the Playboy magazines he kept under his mattress in the big front bedroom he rented from Weena, he obeyed her commands and the towering giant plunged into her flowered housedress, apologizing profusely as he rummaged around through old lady apparatus and got to second base with my grandmother – the hard way!
Finally latching onto something that he sure hoped was the mouse, both Mark’s and my grandmother’s eyes flew open at contact – just long enough for the mouse to drop out of the tangled clothing, turn tail and run for its life.
We never saw the mouse again, but it didn’t matter because, in the space of one afternoon, my grandmother had been given something far more interesting to write in her diary than the weather and what Mrs. Chancellor was up to on The Young and Restless, and Mark had become a member of the family. Word of his attempts to rip my grandmother’s clothes off under the guise of trying to rescue her from a mouse made the rounds between my cousin (another surreptitious diary-reader) and me, and from there to our siblings and anyone else who would listen. Once we’d all stopped laughing at the image of this gentle giant with his hands down my screaming grandmother’s bodice, we started to look at Mark a little differently. And he started looking at us in a different way, too. We now had a common dysfunctionalism to share.
It was about this time that I ran out of money for the college I’d been attending out of town and had to move back home – or, more accurately, had to move in with my grandmother, who lived just down the hill from the state university campus and, more importantly, invited me to stay with her. This was a good thing because, by then, I was 18 too, and the same unwritten rule about being out of the house by the age of 18 applied to me, too. By this time Mark had found a cavernous and cheap apartment in the Italian section of town, so I took over renting his room (at no cost because Weena said she liked having me around, or more likely she knew I was broke), and attended classes at the college, while working nights in one of the school’s cafeterias stocking the salad bar for members of the college’s football team and physical education students. Depressed and devastated that I’d had to drop out of on-campus life at college because I couldn’t afford it, I wasn’t much fun to be around. I had no money, no car, and, at the time, no hope, in mourning for my college friends who seemed to have gone on with their lives and didn’t even miss me back at school.
Every Friday evening I would have to stay late and work in the cafeteria, first smashing the hearts out of heads of iceberg lettuce, then rinsing them in ice cold water, and finally slicing a thousand bagels in preparation for the Saturday morning breakfast for students who hadn’t run out of money and were able to go to the college of their choice and actually live there. After the last of the students had been fed, and the bagels were all sliced and ready to be toasted and slathered with cream cheese the following morning, I’d head out into the cold darkness, plodding my way home all alone, a coach’s whistle dangling around my neck to keep me from being raped or kidnapped, since I was sure nobody would have even noticed if I disappeared.
One Friday evening, a little yellow Ford Fiesta pulled up next to me. It was Mark – he pretended that he just happened to be going by the obscure road I was taking home and said he stopped because he’d noticed that I was walking home alone on a dark street and wondered if that was the brightest idea in the world. He offered me a ride, but when I got into the car, he started to complain that he was hungry and wanted to go out for a burger, but couldn’t bear the thought of eating another meal all alone. He wondered if I’d be willing to join him – his treat. A starving college student would have been mad to turn down such an offer, and we started sharing dinner every Friday evening. It wasn’t just dinner, though; Mark wanted to make sure every course was covered, so when dinner was over, he’d suggest dessert. It was Mark who first introduced me to the tart deliciousness of Key Lime Pie, and who taught me how to deftly sneak the check from the waiter so no one would have that uncomfortable moment when the math needs to be done and the check split. I began to look forward to Friday evenings because they meant spending a couple of hours being normal at a time when most of the rest of my world certainly did not feel very normal. It wasn’t about romance or hormones – it was about friendship and Key Lime Pie. He told me about wanting to learn to fly a plane, and I had a chance to mourn my lost chance at graduating from college and delight him with stories of serving salad to the football players who seemed unable to even grunt in the mother tongue.
By the following Easter, I’d quit the state college and was attempting to keep from paying my student loans by taking a couple of classes at the local community college, while working full time at a dairy where the milk was sold in returnable glass bottles and the staff wore festive red and white striped carnival barker blazers to identify us as happy dairy workers. On Easter Sunday, just as I was getting ready to call Mark to see if he wanted to go out and do something, the yellow rotary telephone rang. That phone hung from the wall and had a long, long spiral cord, which was handy because you could walk all around the large kitchen and even into the bathroom situated off the kitchen if you wanted either privacy or a way to escape the blaring sound of an 80 year-old woman’s television.
The call was from Mark’s dad, letting me know that Mark wouldn’t be coming home that night, or ever again. I suspect he was still in shock and I was too stunned by the news. Mark hadn’t been sick, and aside from being the skinniest man I’d ever met, and probably the tallest, too, he seemed pretty healthy. His dad explained that Mark had been just sitting at the kitchen table with his parents after spending a weekend home with his family. He was just getting ready to head back to his apartment, and even told his folks he might be doing something with me and a couple of my cousins when he returned, but that he wasn’t sure because he had been struggling with a bit of a cold. And then, before they even had a chance to respond or continue the conversation, Mark had slumped over and was gone before the ambulance ever arrived. No one ever forced an autopsy in those days unless there was some suspicion of drugs or foul play, and since there was neither, all that was left was to notify family and friends.
About a week after the services were over, I passed by the airport one afternoon and saw Mark’s canary yellow Ford Fiesta with the brightly colored striped seats that looked like Mexican blankets. I swung back around just in time to watch Mark’s dad taking off in a small plane, carrying Mark’s ashes to toss them into the wind and let them scatter onto the countryside and through the seven valleys of the place his son had come to call home. Though I have plenty of male friends, in fact, most of my closest friends tend to be men, I’ve never met anyone quite like Mark again, and though I think I may possibly have tried every one from Key West to Canada, Key Lime Pie has never again tasted as delicious as it did on those 52 Fridays with the tallest guardian angel ever – the one who made it to second base with my 80 year-old grandmother and never did catch that mouse.