Thursday, March 30, 2017

“Marion’s Mercedes” by Suzanne Burchell


Marion blew her breath into the thick mittens and placed them on her freezing feet. She wiggled her feet around to create a wee bit more heat. Cold feet would keep her awake. She would sleep in the back seat of her car tonight not the front. Alternating front seat and back seat was a way to ‘change up’ this home away from home. Marion knew that once her feet got warm she could fall asleep. That was all she needed, warm feet. Mittens on her feet were one of the many tricks she had learned to use since she had started living in her car.

For the past three years she had lived in an abandoned barn in her silver Mercedes. She would have to move her Mercedes out of the abandoned barn tomorrow morning because she had seen surveyors on the farm land late in the afternoon. For now all she needed was to fall asleep and let the next day come what may.

Tonight nothing seemed to help her frozen feet to thaw. Staying awake would result in thoughts whirling for hours. First she would remember three years ago trips to the islands and scorching afternoons on the beach. Then she would recall long winter nights curled up beside one of her three fireplaces or a long steamy shower in the steam room beside her home gym. All these thoughts served to only make her shiver and feel the cold right into her bones.

Her mind would think over and over of what a fool she had been not to have known about Jim’s debts. The police had been  kind and efficient three years ago. They told her there were several witnesses who saw her husband climb out onto the ice and wade into the rushing water that took him over the thundering Niagara Falls. He was not the first or last victim of the Casino. Revenue Canada had been quick to take their share of back tax, the partner in his law firm swooped in to take back the secret loans. On and on the creditors had come. Within six weeks  the house was sold, the cars and all bank accounts closed and emptied. Their former friends stopped calling adding to her losses.

In a flash of time she found herself with no home, no money and no friends. She had done the proverbial ‘put her man through law school’ by working in retail and restaurants.  

She had no formal training or education herself. Her own family was in no position to help her nor did they want to. She had come from what was known as poor folk. Her family stopped communicating with her years ago saying she had become too good for them.

With one knock on her Lakeshore mansion door three years ago Marion had lost it all. The sheriff had ordered her off the property. The sheriff had waited until she drove her Mercedes down the long driveway and out onto the street. That day Marion became the all time cliché of a homeless woman when she drove away from her mansion and life of luxury. Marion would begin to live her homeless life in her car. The car had been her birthday present from Jim the year before. Extravagance was just the way they lived. Jim liked to say he deserved only the best.

 One afternoon, a few years back, while the cleaning lady was scrubbing the kitchen, Marion had sat in her sun room over looking the lake sipping a fine wine in an expensive crystal glass as she watched Oprah interview three homeless women who had been society women just like herself. They had all stayed at home, arranged parties, attended Junior League and did volunteer work. In one fell swoop those three women found themselves penniless exactly like Marion was today. They went from luxury mansions to living in an empty refrigerator, car and cardboard box. 

Watching those women Marion had thought how ridiculous that they ended up living on the streets. Surely those women could have done better if they had only planned more intelligently. The women interviewed that day had all left their lives on the streets behind and had regained homes and family by daring enough to take any jobs and eventually going back to school for some job training. None of those women had ever supported themselves before. Now, incredibly Marion was one of those homeless women.

Marion felt she would live in her car forever. Job hunting was out of the question. Marion had not spoken a word to anyone for three years. Marion’s last spoken words were to the sheriff when she said, “Here are the keys.” That day she drove away in her Mercedes with 3 suitcases of designer clothes and her precious kitty.

For the past three years she returned each night to this safe spot in the abandoned barn where she burrowed into a space in the car invisible and alone. Lady Luck had taken her to this empty barn in an undeveloped landsite where she had parked and set up residence. She found the barn that same day she gave up the key to her house to the sheriff. The car had not moved since the day she closed the barn doors. She would leave the barn after dark and walk to town for food. She was careful to return before sun rise to the old barn watchful that no one saw her. Marion only came out at night when she was hungry. The very thought of speaking to another human caused Marion to fall apart. Once she began living in her car she had not uttered a sound.


Marion’s nights were spent in and out of Tim Horton’s or Mc Donald’s or all night restaurants. Marion scavenged leftovers with  stealth. No one paid any attention to her. She looked so very fine in her tasteful attire. She rotated eating locations so as not to be noticed. Her designer coats, suits boots and shoes camouflaged her reality. She washed up in all night diners or restrooms. She stole tips left on tables to save enough for gas to keep herself warm in the car once in a while when temperatures dipped.  Only once did Marion stay in a shelter when she could not get back to her car on a night of a blizzard that had shut down the city.

For the first few months she had kept her cat in the car until it was too cold. Losing money, her house and social position was one thing but taking her cat to the animal shelter almost did her in. Marion silently passed the cat over to the woman in the animal shelter knowing this was best for the cat but knowing she had never felt such deep pain. Marion cried inside making no sound when the woman took her beloved kitty. Marion and her husband did not have time for children as they climbed the consuming social ladder. Instead they had a cat that had filled a love gap of not having a child.

The morning after seeing the surveyors Marion backed the car out of the barn onto the road before the men arrived. After sitting for three years the car had started up like a charm. She gripped the wheel with her soft kid leather driving gloves that she kept hidden under the seat. There was enough gas to drive around town once or maybe twice.

With every ounce of courage she could muster she drove in the daylight to a nearby mall. In the food court Marion grabbed a snack thanks to a sloppy kid who threw her food on the floor. Marion watched people coming and going and wondered about her next move. She felt the old terror take hold of her. The music piped into the court became loud and unbearable. She could not breathe or move. She rummaged in her purse for her car keys to make her escape. The keys were not there. Marion grabbed hold of the table ledge frozen with fear.

“Lady are these your keys ?” a small voice asked.

Marion shuddered as she saw her keys held up to her by a small young girl. All she could do was nod her head yes.

“My Mommy is shopping,” the little girl said, “My name is Ella Mae. Can I sit with you?”

Marion nodded yes. Her heart pounded having someone so close to her after all those years of avoiding any human contact.

The little girl chattered away telling Marion about her favourite toys, tv shows, books and what ever else popped into her head. Marion just kept nodding yes and smiling. Ella Mae said she was not afraid to sit with her until her Mommy came. Ella Mae told Marion she was not afraid of the dark or dogs or spiders or dinosaurs or the boogey man cause he was just pretend. 

She told Marion that she had a back pack with Iron Man on it and dinosaur sheets on her bed. She said she slept with a big stuffed shark to keep her safe from bad dreams. Ella Mae showed Marion her blankie that she carried with her all the time even to school. Marion noticed the blankie was really more of a thread bare rag. Ella told Marion she had been afraid to go to the dentist but the dentist always gave her a toy so she was not scared any more. The little girl asked Marion if she was ever afraid of anything ?

Marion tried to reply but no sound came out.

  After what seemed a long time Marion heard a scream. There stood Ella Mae’s mother crying uncontrollably.

“This is my little girl,” the Mother sobbed over and over and holding Ella Mae close.

Ella Mae told her Mother how nice Marion was and that she had not been afraid because the kind lady stayed with her.

“Thank you for staying with her,” the Mother stammered,“ I have been looking every where. How kind you are. How can I ever repay you ? Security is looking for Ella. I was so scared that .............well you know.”

Marion smiled and nodded. The woman passed Marion her business card adding that if ever she needed anything to just call. Marion could only smile and nod again. She stuffed the card in her pocket.

The woman and little girl hugged Marion. They walked away. Ella Mae turned and waved to Marion. Marion mouthed the words, “Goodbye Ella Mae.”

That night Marion parked her car behind an old building where no one ever came. The next morning she drove back to the mall. In her pocket were a few coins. She gripped them tightly as she walked into the mall. One by one she dropped the coins into the pay phone and dialed the number on the card Ella Mae’s mother had given her. The phone rang 5 times. With each ring Marion’s heart beat harder.

A little voice answered,“ Hello, Ella Mae speaking.”

Marion heard a raspy voice answering back, “ Is your Mommy home ? ”

Marion tried to speak. No sound came out. She hung up.

Her Mercedes gave her a haven for the rest of the morning. She watched shoppers come and go. At noon she started the car and checked the gas gauge. The tank was half full. This was enough gas.

Marion drove to the near by highway watching for a ramp she knew well. The sign read Niagara Falls 50 kilometres.

Suzanne Burchell retired from teaching secondary school drama after 38 years but continues to  lecture in Drama in Education at Brock University. She is developing a new profession as a story teller in Ontario after having a lengthy time of story-telling in the summer in her homeland of Nova Scotia. 

See Brian Henry’s schedule here, including writing workshops and creative writing courses in Algonquin Park, Bolton, Barrie, Brampton, Burlington, Caledon, Georgetown, Guelph, Hamilton, Ingersoll, Kingston, Kitchener, London, Midland, Mississauga, Oakville, Ottawa, Peterborough, St. Catharines, Saint John, NB, Sudbury, Thessalon, Toronto, Windsor, Woodstock, Halton, Kitchener-Waterloo, Muskoka, Peel, Simcoe, York Region, the GTA, Ontario and beyond.

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