A DEAD CEDAR WAXWING

                                                                  

There’s a dead cedar waxwing

Yellow and white and black

On a shovel on the front porch

How it got there is a story

Why is too

 

Mother asked me

To bury it

To get it out of sight

She was embarrassed

Someone would see it

And blame her

 

She told me maybe

Her front windows

Were so clean

The bird thought

It was flying into

The blue sky

 

Like most everything

She was sad about it

And mad

At the same time

(Yellow Chair Review, Fall 2016)

THE SEASON

She lived in a trailer park in Tucson, Arizona.  She lived off coffee and cigarettes and candied ginger.  She collected Reader’s Digest and catalogs from Lands’ End.  She thought the guy on page seven looked like her first husband in emerald fleece, and further back was her second one, in black goose down.  Winter was the season of her imagination. 

She imagined the Mexican mailman was stealing her mail.  He called her at night and then hung up when she answered.  She called 911, but they didn’t do anything about it.  She complained to her sister back in Florida and all she said was “poor thing.”  She knew her sister was talking about the mailman.   

Two years ago, she quit leaving her trailer.  After that, everything got brought in, sometimes by her daughter and sometimes by her son-in-law, who smelled like a butcher shop.  Smelling was something she was good at.  Her daughter smelled like JIF peanut butter.  Her grandson, like broken celery.  The old man next door was a swamp of dead paperwhites.  Sometimes she told people what they smelled like.  Sometimes she told people she was widowed, if they asked.

Not too many people asked her things.  Not too many people wondered what she was before.  Now she was obvious: a blue hair waiting on a bus, a blue hair with tissue paper skin and sunspots and bruised forearms and brown bottle glasses and a white handkerchief balled up in her fist.  She went along with it.  She wore white Keds and daisy housedresses.  She kept to herself.  She kept her store ads piled up next to her beige telephone.  If her daughter called her and asked her what she needed, she pulled one out and told her what was on sale. 

The Mexican mailman was stealing her mail, though.  He collected Social Security checks and cashed them at a liquor store near the border.  He was the son of someone who didn’t exist, so he existed.  He was born here, but always hated it.  He collected catalogs too, but of condos in Cancun and timeshares in Acapulco.  He wanted to go somewhere he existed, where he spoke the language.  The language he spoke lived in his chest.  The language he pretended to speak lived in his lips.  His lips were always chapped.  His lips were always chapped because of the desert wind and the desert sun and because of all the pretending.    His lips hurt every time he said a word.

Right after Christmas was when she first noticed him. She saw him at the end of her driveway, shuffling her mail like playing cards.  She banged on the front window and called him “Brownie” to scare him away, but all he did was look up and smile.  Another time he brought her mail all the way up to her front porch.  She yelled at him through the door to stay away.  She thought he wanted to rape her, that’s why he came to the door and why he called her late at night, to see if she was home.  That’s what she told her sister in Florida on the telephone. 

It was times like these that a husband was for, she sometimes thought.  When the Mexican mailman was stealing your Social Security checks, a husband would do something about it.  A husband would call the government, or put up flyers at the club house.  A husband would get your only daughter, who smelled like peanut butter, to file a complaint with the authorities.

Times like these was always on CNN, she also sometimes thought.  She could hardly take her eyes off it, mostly because she didn’t know how to work the remote.  All she could do was go from CNN, to her show, and back again.  If she pushed the wrong button on accident she had to call her daughter and wait for her to come.  She told Larry King about her Mexican mailman one night, when she had some wine.  He was as old as she was, so she thought he’d understand.  Maybe he did and maybe he didn’t, but he sure didn’t do anything about it. 

It looked like things were going to go on like this forever.  Then all of a sudden one night, her left hand started to shake a little.  She didn’t tell her daughter, or her sister in Florida.  She cut her coffee in half, mixed half regular and half decaf, but that didn’t help.  Three days later her whole arm went numb.  First tingly, and then numb.  She was sitting down with her CNN when she started to sweat.  In the middle of a rerun of “Larry King” she thought she wet herself, but she couldn’t get up to see.  The last time she wet herself was laughing on the telephone with that sister in Florida.

Just after dark, later that same day, the daughter came by to check on her.

Two weeks after that, she fell asleep in her bed with her hands folded over her stomach and never woke up again.   

She died in that trailer park in Tucson, Arizona.  Her cupboards were full of coffee and cigarettes and candied ginger.  Piled next to her telephone were those store coupons and Reader’s Digests and catalogs from Lands’ End.  The guy on page seven looked like her first husband in emerald fleece, and further back was her second one, in black goose down.  She imagined the Mexican mailman was stealing her mail.  And he was. 

(This short story was first published in Passages North.) 

VIOLA

Viola knew what she knew at nine.  Drug dealers had bad eyesight and nubby yellow teeth.  They didn't keep their hair right.  They fell asleep in chairs.  Because Viola had drug dealers for parents, and then foster parents, because the last one hit her in the head with a hammer on a Wednesday in May, she knew what she knew at nine. 

At first Viola was just two neighbors talking over a splintering pine fence, clothesline to clothesline.  Then she went 9-1-1.  Then the 400 block of Mountain.  Then 9-1-1 again, and so on.  Papers got typed on and faxed and filed.  So much filing went on.  Two fat women who gave up on their weight were needed.  Two skinny men in navy polyester who work for the government were necessary too.  The death of a girl requires a bureaucracy is what I'm saying: a certain square footage of aqua linoleum. 

It takes a corniced courthouse after all, a metal detector, those shiny silver badges.  It takes a career in law enforcement, student loans, night school, a couple of tough days at the office, at least four shaky marriages to pull something like this off.  The marriages have to have been wrong from the start, kids marrying kids, and so on.  An affair in a Motel 6 helps, and then everything can accidental after that.  Too much beer and not enough condoms, and so on.  Personal histories hitting the fan.  

I meant History with a capital "H" too, sorry.  I meant to point out that History waits for Viola when nothing else will.  History is the track on which her train runs.

It's hard to pay attention to the details of the dead girl, isn't it?  After I told you she got hit in the head with a hammer on a Wednesday, you had to turn away.  But that's the point of this story: do not turn away. 

When the hammer hit the head of the girl that Wednesday, everything left land and went Internet.  People stood behind microphones and in front of police stations.  "Not in our wildest dreams," someone said.  "Not in our wildest dreams," someone else repeated. 

The death of a girl is primarily the result of a failure of the imagination. 

It was a clear warm Wednesday in May, I remember.  Grenades of yellow daises exploded across the face of that green apartment building in Santa Ana.  Flowers, flowers, shock and awe.  Pink oleanders ran along the fence too, I think.  I saw a small peach tree in bloom at the start of the driveway.  The day I heard the news of the dead girl Viola, I saw yellow daisy grenades exploding against a blue, blue sky.

(This short story was first published in Lake Effect.