CivilWarLand in Bad Decline “Downtrodden Mary’s Failed Campaign of Terror” Summary
by George Saunders

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“Downtrodden Mary’s Failed Campaign of Terror” Summary

Mary, a ninety-two-year-old woman, works as a cleaner in a museum that features exhibitions about science and fantasy. After a young guest steals part of her costume, she visits her supervisor to report the loss and finds him uncharacteristically elated. Something special has happened, he tells her: the current iteration of the “see-through cow” survived his trip out of town.

Her supervisor’s next promotion hinges on the success of the see-through cow exhibit, Mary knows, but there’s a problem. The see-through cows—regular cows, fitted with a plexiglass window allowing patrons to see their digestive systems—keep dying, and nobody knows why. The museum is careful to protect this secret, but they’ve been through six cows already.

Mary listens to his latest presentation on the see-through cow, telling him it’s excellent. He thanks her, reminds her to deduct the time she spent in his office from her timesheet, and sends her off on her next task: a vomit clean-up near the Pickled Babies exhibit.

As she wanders through the museum, Mary reflects on her life. At her age, she muses, people assume she doesn’t remember her youth. She does, though—she remembers Herb, the only good man she’s ever known. And she remembers Bud, her husband, who slit Herb’s throat when he learned of their affair. “But what I've put up with, I've put up with for what I thought at the time was love,” she recalls. “What was I to do?”

At the Pickled Babies exhibit, Mary remembers the uncharacteristic kindness with which Bud handled her three stillborns, paying off the doctor so she could hold them longer than usual. He always made good money, she remembers, although she was bilked out of what remained of it by another man after Bud’s death. With dismay, Mary realizes that the vomit she’s been sent to clean up is only part of the mess: one of the babies has fallen and is lying in a puddle of formaldehyde on the floor. Coming around the corner, her supervisor is livid. He demands to know why Mary isn’t wearing protective gloves as she cleans up—she might damage the exhibit.

When she’s finished cleaning, Mary stops by her locker, picks up some rat poison, and heads for the farm exhibit. Pretending to clean the plexiglass panel on the see-through cow, she feeds it the poison. She’s killed all six to date, she admits—it’s the only way to jeopardize her supervisor’s promotion, and she wants him to stay a laughingstock. “It feels good to finally be asserting oneself,” she contends.

Mary then flees to the basement, moving as quickly as possible to put distance between herself and the dying cow, but it isn’t quite enough. To her dismay, her supervisor arrives holding her last pack of rat poison. “Locker spot-checks are fully legal,” he reminds her furiously. Before she can collect her coat, she’s ejected from the building and left outside in the cold.

Shivering and hopeless, and now without an income, Mary wanders down a pier,...

(The entire section is 774 words.)