Woo‘s short stories and essays have appeared in The New York Times, McSweeney’s, and KoreAm Journal. His debut novel, Everything Asian (2009), won the 2010 Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature (Youth category). He lives in Washington, New Jersey.
–For Rhian Ellis, inspired in part by her novel After Life
Twenty-two years ago, I almost died in a car crash. There was no foul play involved, just bad luck, the other driver momentarily taking her eyes off the road and slamming into me head on. I was in my Honda hatchback while she was in a boat of a Buick, and I didn’t have my seat belt on. My body was launched straight through the windshield like a cannonball, and the only reason I survived was luck. According to the police report, if I had landed just half a foot to either side, my skull would’ve been crushed by the rocks below. But all I’d hit was sand, soft, water-logged sand that cradled me like a mother.
A month after the crash, I was in a convenience store to buy a pack of AA batteries. It was a few minutes past midnight, and there were four people in the store including me. One of them, his face pantyhose-squished, pulled out a shotgun hidden in his trench coat and aimed its twin barrels at the clerk, who emptied the contents of the register into a plastic bag without a word. I’d been at the counter, in the middle of purchasing the batteries, so I handed my purse to the clerk. I remember the hold-up man smiling behind his mask, his lips flattening underneath the nylon to reveal the glint of a gold front tooth. Behind him, the other customer tried to flee. The man turned around and shot her in the back, at which point the clerk pulled out his own pistol and shot the man at point-blank range, but his aim had been off and he took a chunk of an ear. More than anything, that’s what I recall from that night, the man’s frayed ear blooming forth from the constriction of the pantyhose, tatters of bullet-blown flesh flapping like a flag amid a swirl of bloody mist. And then there were two more shots, one from the man and one from the clerk simultaneously, both to the chest. My ears rang hollow for days.
You’d think that after two encounters like that, I would’ve been angry at the world, or God, or whatever else was out there. But I wasn’t. At the time, I thought I deserved every bit of misery, because that summer, the day before we were to leave for our respective colleges, in my backyard, I grabbed a shovel and swung it as hard as I could at my boyfriend’s head. It was morning, the green grass soaked in dew, and he’d been dozing on the folding chair, and now he was slumped on the ground, bleeding out onto the tarp I’d laid out.
* * *
There was an investigation. I wasn’t there in person, since I’d gone off to college in another state, but since the university library had a subscription to my hometown newspaper, I was able to keep abreast of the situation. I’d been questioned by the police before I left, since everyone knew Andrew and I were in a relationship, but I must’ve played the part of the grieving girlfriend well enough. They couldn’t find a reason to keep me.
So each morning before my first class, I read about the case, but a strange thing happened. As I read about the state-wide search and Andrew’s sister’s tears and his parents’ lament and all the names and streets of the place I knew so well, I began to feel less familiar with what was going on, the very act of reading these printed words creating a distancing effect, as if I were watching a movie playing before my eyes.
Perhaps it was a coping mechanism, a way for my subconscious to keep me from dialing the phone number on the business card of the detective in charge and confess. Even though I’d dumped his body a hundred miles from the shore – weighed down with six of the heaviest dumbbells gathering dust in the attic, rolling him off the stern of my father’s motorboat and into the blue fathoms of the Atlantic Ocean – I had a hard time convincing myself that I wouldn’t be caught. It was only in books and movies that people got away with murder. In reality, the police weren’t inept, the criminals weren’t brilliant, and bad people got what they deserved.
But then other information began to surface. That Andrew’s father was involved in a pyramid scheme with shady investors, some with ties to the Russian mob, while his mother had purchased prescription painkillers from an unlicensed doctor in New Mexico. The focus of the investigation spread wider, which was good for me, but for a couple of days this was national news, which didn’t seem so good. And yet in the end, I had nothing to worry about.
Because misfortune has a shelf life. The story of Andrew’s disappearance petered out in less than a month, as the media found more compelling stories to chomp on. The case remained open, but by the time I returned home for Thanksgiving, it was as if Andrew had never lived at all.
* * *
I’m a psychic. That’s how I make my living, by giving people readings of various kinds – their futures, their past, often involving the deceased. I used to be ashamed of my profession, and there’s probably still a part of me that continues to be embarrassed, but by and large, I’ve made peace with it. At parties – not that I can even recall when I last went to one – when small talk turns to people’s jobs, somebody inevitably makes some snide comment. My response: I don’t work in a cubicle, I don’t have a boss, and I make enough money to keep a roof over my head and food on the table.
“So,” says the unbeliever, “what am I thinking?”
“I have no idea,” I say. “I’m looking into your head right now, but you know, I’m not finding much.”
Usually this gets a few people chuckling, but it’s not a joke.
Most people don’t understand that what I do is not a parlor trick. It is real, but at the same time, unquantifiable, like any other art. As long as I have faith from my client, I can deliver.
Doubters will scoff, of course. Why wouldn’t I target the poor folks who already believe in this mumbo-jumbo? That’s why they’re here in the first place, because they’re gullible enough, stupid enough, to swallow my lies.
Except it’s not like that. The relationship between medium and client is closer to coach and athlete, teacher and student, and although shrinks never want to hear this, therapist and patient. One cannot exist without the other; it’s an even exchange, a feedback loop of the most beautiful kind. What I am is a conduit, a vessel that brings out the information that is already contained within the body of the seeker. Everyone has a key, and when they’re ready, I can help them turn the knob and swing open the door.
* * *
I give readings in the furnished basement of my home. The walls are lined with red velvet and the round table where I sit across from the client is made of mahogany, its edge smoothed by two centuries of human touch. I don’t have a crystal ball or Tarot cards; what I do is hold onto the client’s hands, close my eyes, and blank out my mind to concentrate on the faint voices surrounding me.
I’ve heard voices for as long as I can remember. In childhood, they were my imaginary friends. In grammar school, I was often scolded by teachers for my lack of attention, and in junior high I spent a summer in a sleepaway camp that was actually closer to a sanitarium. But by the time I got to high school, I’d learned enough about myself to keep quiet. The only reason I went to college was to get away from home, and after the first semester, I dropped out and started working for Madame Bouvier, who wasn’t the least bit French and who was even less of a medium. What I learned from her was how far you could go in this business without any actual ability. She always looked the part, never leaving the house without wrapping herself in an elaborate shawl, her frizzy red hair perpetually styled to a slight dishevelment, giving her an air of quirky preoccupation.
After a year of apprenticeship, I set up my own practice, and it was here, yesterday, that Andrew’s mother paid me a visit.
* * *
It’s amazing what you can forget, even something as momentous as killing another human being. Many people think it’s the greatest sin, and I agree. More than two decades ago, I held the wooden handle of the shovel, and knowing exactly what the end result would be, I swung. It’s called a crime of passion if you commit it in a blind fit of love, a temporary lapse of reason, crossing over the line between sanity and insanity. My actions did not fit this definition, but there’s no question in my mind that I did it for love. I loved Andrew, and Andrew loved me. Maybe his wasn’t as much or as strong as mine, but that was just because of time. Like a fruit on a tree, love ripens, and mine just happened to be sweeter, juicier, than his.
Before I wrapped him in the tarp, I cupped the indentation in his skull, Andrew’s blood pooling in my hand, and felt the sticky warmth leak through my fingers and I squeezed my eyes shut and told myself to remember this moment for the rest of my life. Because even though what I’d done was right, it was also selfish. I’d taken away a person’s life, and this was never going to change.
For a good long while, I thought of that day every morning. It felt good to remember Andrew’s death right after I woke up, because sleeping was like a death, and each rising sun was a rebirth. But then came a time when I wouldn’t think of him until I was brushing my teeth, and it wasn’t long until I’d skip a day or two until an image from the day returned to me: the dampness of the shovel’s worn handle from the misty morning, the comma-shaped cowlick in his auburn hair, the ebbing warmth and the whorls of smoke from the embers of the fire pit.
It’s just what happens when you keep living while the other person remains dead. Evolution dictates that we shed what we don’t use, and I wasn’t using Andrew anymore. There was no need to, so he, like my menagerie of stuffed animals on the bed of my childhood, receded into the distant shores of my past.
My forgetting of Andrew does not make me a bad person. It just makes me like everybody else.
* * *
There are two types of people who come for a reading: those who believe and those in desperation. Andrew’s mother, Jocelyn, was the latter. Her eyes darted at the darkened corners of the room, and for the duration of her visit, she never uncrossed her arms.
It was shocking how old she’d gotten, her blonde hair gone platinum, a noticeable stoop in her narrow shoulders, but then again, I’m sure she’d thought the same of me. No longer was I the lithe, nubile thing that had been the source of her son’s infatuation. I wouldn’t call myself fat, but I’m most likely headed there. Which is fine with me. It happens to the best of us.
“Mel,” she said, and that was another shock, a name nobody calls me anymore. If I run into a client at the grocery store, they always address me in full, Madame Melody. Every piece of mail I receive reconfirms my grown-up identity. “Mel” embodies my adolescence, and I almost swooned from the strength of its nostalgia.
“Jocelyn,” I said. From the get-go, she’d wanted to be addressed by her first name. She looked relieved.
“For a second, I had the horrible thought that you might not remember me.”
“Now why would you think that.”
“It’s been a long time.”
“That is true.”
She opened a Ziploc sandwich bag and placed a bone in my hand.
“Be careful,” she said. “It’s brittle.”
Andrew, in my hand. I knew it was him. The bone was white and hollow, a curved piece of human resiliency about the size of my pinky, tapered at the ends and shaped like a smile, or a frown, I suppose, depending on how you held it.
“What part is it?” I asked.
It was a rib. After more than two decades, a deep-sea fisherman had found the remains of her son’s body, his hook catching on the rib cage. As years passed under the ocean, Andrew’s jaw had fallen into the cavity where his heart had once been.
Enough of his teeth were still attached to make the identification against dental records.
“Did you bring the rest of the bones?”
“No,” Jocelyn said. “They’re in a casket.”
“And you came to see me because…”
“Well,” she said, squeezing her arms even closer to herself, “you knew him.”
“I thought it might help, that you knew him.”
For the first time, she looked like the woman I used to know. She had a temper; Andrew used to tell me how everyone was afraid of her.
“Why are you making this difficult?”
And here I told her my usual speech, that I needed her to believe. If she wanted for me to communicate with her son, then she was the one who had to do it.
She said nothing for a long time. We just sat there, in the dying hours of the afternoon, a shard of sunlight from the curtained window splitting the tabletop.
“Will it work?” she finally asked.
“If we both want it to, then yes.”
“I want to know what happened,” she said, “what happened to my baby.”
I laid my hands on the table, palm side up, and she slipped her hands into mine, her skin as delicate as tissue paper. When she leaned closer, I could smell the same peachy perfume she always wore.
I listened, but I had trouble concentrating because for some reason, I had to pee, even though I’d hardly had anything to drink all day.
“This is embarrassing,” I said, “but could you excuse me for one second?”
Jocelyn nodded, and I hurried up the stairs.
I had to shade my eyes from the living room walls, glaring like blank billboards on a sunny day. I ducked into the bathroom and sat down on the toilet without turning on the light, and it was as if the Hoover dam broke, my pee just going and going.
So far, I thought I was managing this situation. The mother of the boy I’d murdered was in my house, and she was asking me to get in touch with him. The circumstances were unusual, but not impossible. In fact, on a logical level, it made absolute sense. I’d known him before I killed him, and because of my line of work, why wouldn’t his mother enlist me for this purpose? There was no one else better for the job to recall her dead son to the plane of the living.
But it wasn’t like I hadn’t tried before.
I’m not the same person who’d snuck into the tool shed and removed the blue tarp from the shelf, grabbing the shovel on the way out. I hate it when people ask the question, “If you had to do it all over again, would you?” Of course I would. That’s why I am who I am.
I killed Andrew because I never wanted him to leave. I know that sounds crazy, but back then, it seemed sensible, even practical. I couldn’t imagine being so far away from him, and this way, he’d always be by my side. Every day I was speaking with the deceased, from a pair of twin uncles on my mother’s side to a six-year-old boy who’d lived two houses down before the Great Depression, so I was confident, I was young, I was stupid. My belief in my abilities was so strong that it didn’t even occur to me that I could fail, that when the rusted head of the shovel struck Andrew, when the vibration from the impact of metal striking bone ran all the way up to my collarbone, it would be the last time I’d feel him.
Back at the table of my reading room, when I’d held Jocelyn’s hand once more, there was nothing I wanted more than to feel Andrew’s presence.
“Is he…here?” she asked. Those three words of hers carried such vulnerability, the barest skein of hope, a sliver of frailty that pierced the very center of me.
“Yes,” I said.
Sometimes I lie to my clients. I don’t enjoy this part of my job, but there are times when it has to be done.
“Why?” she asked. “Can you please ask him why?”
I opened my eyes.
“Love,” I said.
* * *
The funeral is like a high school reunion, all the familiar faces of my youth congregated on this grassy hill. Time has been cruel to just about everyone equally, the men with swollen bellies and receding hairlines, the women wearing too much makeup in an effort to conceal the obvious.
I don’t even like driving by cemeteries, because for me, they’re as loud as a convention hall. I hum a tune to fight the overwhelming gaggle of conversations inside my head, Simon and Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair,” the last song I heard before arriving here.
Nobody pays me any attention, not even a glance, which is just fine by me. I was Invisible Mel back in the day, the weirdo with the Ouija board in her backpack, so it’s no surprise that I continue to be shunned.
“I’m glad you made it,” Jocelyn says. She’s wearing black like all the other women. I feel a little self-conscious with my burgundy dress, but it’s the darkest thing I own.
“It’s good to see you again,” I say, and it’s true. I’d forgotten how much she’d meant to me until I saw her again. With the amount of time I’d spent in their household, she was like a second mother.
She leads me to a row of seats on the other side of the grave, opposite from where her husband and daughter are sitting.
“You don’t want to be with your family?” I ask.
“They need their space,” she says.
Once we sit, I see not only see Andrew’s headstone but another one adjacent to it:
JOCELYN SUMMERS: 1943-2011
“I didn’t know you were dead,” I say.
“Death is life, and life is death,” Jocelyn says. “Just the flip side of the same coin.”
“You don’t look dead.”
She smiled. “I’ll take that as a compliment.”
“I should’ve known you were dead. It’s my job to know.”
Jocelyn lays a hand on my shoulder. “We’re not perfect.”
It’s been a long time since I cried. So long that I can’t remember the last time. And now that I’ve started, I’m not sure if I can stop. Jocelyn offers me a handkerchief, and I deluge it with my tears.
“I was sure I’d be reunited with him once I died, but that’s not how it works. He’s still lost to me.”
I want to tell her that it was me, I did it, I was the one who brained her baby, but even now, I can’t do it. It’s one thing to know the truth in yourself, but to say it to another – it’s like you’re giving it away, and I don’t want to do that. The actions I’d taken those many years ago belong to no one else but me.
“The funny thing about being dead,” Jocelyn says, “it’s not that different from being alive. Isn’t that just awful?”
Across from us, her husband and daughter are clutching each other as the minister reads a passage from the Bible.
Jocelyn rises, and I rise with her. She reaches for me, and I grab her cold, cold hand, and we walk down the aisle of the grieving living, and leave this verdant sadness together.
Order THE2NDHAND’s 10th-anniversary collection, All Hands On, featuring the work of more than 40 contributors.
“Around the World” is after the Daft Punk song of the same name. Brian Warfield lives in Philadelphia and makes small books with Turtleneck Press.
He packed his bag, he packed it. From his drawers he took his clothes. He folded his underwear. He packed his bag. His bag was brown, his bag was packed.
He stood in line. He stood up tall. He stood in line behind a family of three. He looked at the family. They stood in front of him, not in a line but in some other formation. A formation of three, like a triangle.
He packed his bag, he said when they asked him if he packed his bag. The family packed the family’s bag.
He walked in a straight line between two points. He had walked from his house to where he was going. He bought a ticket. He stood in line and bought the ticket. There were windows all around.
His first stop was France. He was going to France. He was going to Paris. He had been to Paris, France. He was going to Paris, France, Eiffel Tower, Louvre, croissants. Paris. He would eat a croissant. He would not visit the Louvre or see any towers. In France, when he was in France. He had his bag in France. Underwear, pants, shirt, cologne, tooth paste, tooth brush, in France, socks, shoes, books, some wire, a bomb, a magazine, a tennis racket, France. Bacon was made out of pig. French, he knew some words. Une chienne avec croissant. He went to France and blew it up by twisting a wire to its undercarriage. He got his shoes dirty. Second pair in bag. Take out shoes and switch them. In the French airport he said “oui” when the airport asked if he had packed his bag. “Oui” was French for “yes.” He’d packed his bag. In France. In French.
He went on another airplane. The plane went up and then down. He sat in his seat with the tray up. He went up and came down. The plane hit the ground. It rode along on the runway in Belgium. It was Belgium. He was in Belgium. The plane was in Belgium. His bag was in Belgium. With its wires and his underwear and dirty shoes and dirty secrets and magazines he’d packed. Belgium invented French fries. Belgium invented Belgian waffles. Belgium invented brussels sprouts. He ate a brussels sprout. It looked like a miniature cabbage. He killed many people, Belgians. He killed them with pipe packed with C4. Belgian Belgium. He had sex with a stranger. Bag, underwear, cologne, money. In the morning he left the stranger and walked to the airport. The airport was made of cotton. He wore the airport like kid gloves. The gloves were made out of children. He put the airport on his hands and packed his bag himself. In the airport, waiting for the airplane, there were televisions. They had the news playing with news of his actions. They didn’t know that it was him or who it was. The news, the television, the Belgians or non-Belgians in the airport waiting to go somewhere else. They looked at him like he was one of them.
He’d eaten an eyeball before. The stranger would wake up, naked, handcuffed, a long incision along the inside of a thigh.
Bag packed. Stowed in the overhead compartment. The Twilight Zone episode with the gremlin on the wing. Tornadoes eating towns. Swedish meatballs. Sweden. A cool, immaculate clearness to the air, he’d expected. A Swedish flag. He got off the airplane, walked across the tarmac. Tether. He tied the prime minister up and cut the thumbs of the prime minister off. The 1st and 3rd and 5th and 7th fingers. The prime minister could not play the piano. Eating the meatball of Sweden and a roast with potatoes marinated in the blood of the lamb and carrots. Trailing the wires, twisting a fuse. The people who said hello to him in Swedish. The muppet. Was it Sweden that was neutral, or Switzerland, he always forgot. He’d have to sow the burned-down Sweden with salt. Black lichen scorched to oblivion. He struck a match. The flicker of a flame. He twisted the arm of a sailor. He made a wish when the bone broke.
He ate a slice of chicken. He ate a slice of chicken and a slice of chicken. He ate a slice of chicken. He ate a slice of chicken. He ate a kernel of corn.
In the morning, he looked at a mirror. He checked out of his Swedish hotel. Switzerland Swedish. He checked his itinerary. Could he make a detour to Switzerland and shave the mustaches off famous paintings? Could he buy sixteen Swiss army knives and plunge them into the soft bellies of sixteen-year-olds? Could he sew the eyelids shut of anyone? He looked at his watch and he didn’t have time.
He stepped through the doors of the airport. The airport doors opened themselves up for him. He flew to Latvia and to Turkey where he ate Turkish delight and slaughtered 5000 nuns and to Yemen and to India. The red dot on the center of the forehead was a laser.
In China he read Mao’s little red book on a train and the train took him to different parts of the country where his shoes were untied and his underwear taken off and slung over the radiator and naked bodies writhed over him like snakes. Half-eaten dumplings gathering insects in a corner.
The bag sat like an open mouth at the foot of the bed. He picked it up and packed the things he needed into it. He walked to the airport. He had been inside 1,000 airports. He took the Xiang Fu airport apart screw by screw. It collapsed upon the black-haired heads of 10,000 Chinese. The airplane lifted him out of the destructed airport and into the pristine sky cluttered only by clouds.
His bag insisted on being carried to Guam, where he slathered a balm of napalm all along the cracks and crevices of the foundations of museums and libraries. In Hawaii, he ate a pineapple and he gutted a pig and a Hawaiian and roasted them over a fire and he thrust his fists into the hot meat and he walked inside of a volcano where he bathed himself in lava. He stood up and he sat down and he moved his legs as he walked a mile and he lifted his bag by its handle over the rotating metal of the turnstiles and he put his bag through metal detectors where no metal was detected.
In Mexico, a mariachi band was strangulated and he stretched the skin of their bodies end to end covering the floor of his hovel. He raped Venezuela in the navel and swam across the ocean to Morocco where they filmed Casablanca and he was cast as an extra. He ordered drinks at the bar and opened his bag and took out his ax and split the skull of Peter Lorre. He walked through Spain and took the spear out of the hide of a slain bull and breathed into its nostrils.
And then, back home, he unpacked his bag in his home, where he lived. Took his shirt and shoes and pants and underwear and the bits and pieces and ears out of the bag for one night or one week or one whatever. He closed his eyes and fell asleep. He dreamt a dream and he dreamt that he was flying in an airplane that never came down. He dreamt that he was flying without his bag toward France.
Mattern, of San Bernardino, Calif. (where he lives with his dog, Wrigley, and still calls Chicago home), has been published in Burning Word, Criminal Class Review, The Toucan, This Paper City and Pacific Review. He is an active member in POETRIE, a reading series dedicated to showcasing the literary voices of California’s Inland Empire.
This is where we come, you and I, neighbors and friends as we are known by your husband and everyone else. On top of the hill that hangs over our quiet desert town, we sit like how we are told Indians sit on a giant boulder that has been painted to look like a skull. We come here at night and wait for all the porch lights below to flicker out. It is then, in the safety of night and assurances of townspeople’s dreams, that we tell each other our secrets.
You tell me when you were a little girl you stole a candy bar from a convenient store. You tell me in your shy, secretive voice that you were too scared to eat it and that you hid it in your neighbor’s mailbox.
I close my eyes and imagine you as a child, in a bright yellow raincoat, sprinting from the store with the candy bar in your hand like a baton, your little hummingbird lungs firing fast as you turn down your cul-de-sac.
The thought of you scared makes me brave, so I tell you the things we could do if you had not married the wrong man. You sigh and rest your head on my shoulder. Our lips are inches away and they want to be closer, we know this. But the air is thick between them, polluted with microscopic spirits whispering, If only. We sit here on the edge, not talking, until it is time to leave.
Our town has many problems. But mainly our town’s problem is this: Lately, birds have been falling from the sky without reason. Their wings just give out. Their hollow bones lose heft and they fall like feathery meteors. Scientists have made our town a destination. They flock here to collect data on air pollution, to take blood samples from rodents, to find some hidden chemical in our soil with hopes of explaining the mystery to the community.
We are watching them from the hill. A research team in white lab coats, all holding up binoculars to the sky and lowering them as a brownish-red hawk in a tailspin smashes into a parked car with a thudding puff of blood and feathers. Some rush to the scene. The others mark the time and trajectory of the fall in their tiny notepads. You look away as they lift the broken bird by its talons and slip it into a plastic evidence bag.
My secret is one I do not tell. When we sit up on the skull boulder and you remind me that it is my turn to tell you something personal by playfully elbowing me in the side, I do not tell you what I do most nights when I am alone. Instead, I tell you that when I was seven I wanted to marry my cousin and that we even kissed once up in the crooked arm of a Joshua tree behind my Aunt’s house. You are not sickened by this, and it makes me think I love you. But I do not tell you this, or even what I wish I could. I do not tell you that after we leave the hill every night, I sit with my back to the wooden fence that separates our houses and listen until I am too tired or too cold to try. I do not tell you that I listen to every sound loud enough to leave your house. I do not tell you that I know exactly how you sound in the arms of another man.
The problem with the birds has gotten worse, so our Mayor has begun recruiting citizens for the cleanup effort. At a town hall meeting, held in a cramped portable classroom at the high school, you and I sit and listen in the back row of desks. The Mayor, a feeble man with tan liver spots on his head and large glasses that make him look like a turtle, stands at the front of the room with some of the scientists at his sides. He is drawing names out of a shoebox. While he unfolds each slip of paper, the townspeople quietly hold their breath and exhale with relief when their name is not called.
You look beautiful this afternoon. I write these same words on a scrap of paper and pass it over to you like a student would. You smile as you read it. You look back at me and blink twice and I think this might be a secret message to me saying thank you, that I am handsome, that tonight on the hill you might finally tell me a secret I’ve been waiting to hear. I quickly scribble another note that says this:
Do you like me?
[ ] YES
[ ] NO
[ ] MAYBE
You prop open a faceless child’s clam-shell desk and rifle for a pen. Thinking for a moment, you look up at the particleboard ceiling and tap the pen against your lips. You pass the paper back to me with the MAYBE box checked with red ink. I gently fold up the note and place it in my shirt pocket. In my head I am thinking of places in my house to tack it up.
The Mayor opens the final slip of paper and reads my name aloud. Maybe the classroom is getting to you because you scrunch your face and point at me like a schoolgirl, as if saying, Ha ha you have clean up the bi-irds. Suddenly I feel stupid for feeling proud to be selected for the task force. I try not to think about it. Instead, I focus on your black hair and how you don’t realize a strand of it is stuck to your lips. I think about what it might mean for me to reach over and tuck it behind your ear.
The first time we kiss is less than magical. There are no bursts of color or throngs of music, as I’d had fantasized while lying in bed at night. It is dark and secretive like the rest of our nights on the hill. It happens like this:
I ask you if you are ever going to leave your husband. You tell me that your relationship with Tom is not easy to explain. You use his name, Tom, hard and fast like how I imagine he makes love to you and it makes my heart grow cold. You take my hand.
“It’s complicated,” you say, like a math problem or an inoperable tumor.
Upset about the birds or Tom and desperate to show you that love is not complicated, I grab you by the shoulders and kiss you like a man who has something to prove. But you push me away. You look at me with terrified eyes and blink twice and I wonder what the message is this time.
“I can’t,” you tell me. But you do. You fall into me and kiss me so hard I think we might slip off the boulder and go tumbling down the hill. It is not a romantic kiss but a ravenous one. It is meat and we are starving. “I can’t be that woman,” you mumble onto my lips. But we don’t stop, even though I know you are crying. I can feel warm tears dribble down our cheeks and into our mouths. I can taste the salt and bitter of running mascara as we push black streams back and forth between our tongues. I try to pull away but you just yank me in closer. I try to speak, but my words get lost in your whimpering.
This morning there are two dead sparrows like balled-up paper napkins in my driveway. While I stand there and stare at them, your husband comes out of your house and stands behind me. I think for sure you have told him about our secrets, about our kiss. He is a short, overweight man, so I think I can outrun him if I need to.
“I don’t think it’ll ever quit,” he tells me. I look over my shoulder at him and then up to the sky. “Shoot, just yesterday a crow fell right into my damned windshield while I was driving. Cracked it up good.” He comes up next to me and looks down at the two birds. “Poor bastards.”
We stand there silently for a few moments, both staring at the mess on my driveway.
“Kinda makes you think, doesn’t it?”
“What do you mean?” I ask.
“Just that, I don’t know, maybe things were never meant to fly. Like, you can’t cheat gravity, you know?” With that he turns and makes towards your front door.
“Hey Tom,” I call.
I think about telling him everything. About how I cheated him. How we cheated him. But I don’t.
“Nothing. Never mind.” He nods and disappears into your house. I go around to the side of my house to get a shovel. With your husband’s words swimming in my head, I scrape up the remains and flip them into the trashcan. I grab the hose and wash away the tiny heart the adjoining pools of blood have formed, feeling terrible as the brown water rushes to the gutter.
We look like convicts on the side of the highway in our orange vests and hardhats. There are two jobs: picking and sorting. The pickers are given black garbage bags and trash claws to pick up the birds. When they fill their bags, they bring them to the sorters. The sorters, assisted by a team of scientists, separate the carcasses by species and place them accordingly into plastic bins.
I am a picker. I have spent all afternoon hefting dead birds, crows with stale wings and hawks with broken legs and crooked beaks, from off the asphalt and into bags. There are eight pickers out here on this four-mile stretch of road, but it is nowhere near enough. One of the pickers, a young guy with a head too small for a hardhat and a midsection too bony for a vest says it best:
“It’s like the bird holocaust.”
A local news team is covering the cleanup effort. The guy smiles with pride when the reporter refers to the incident as “The Bird Holocaust,” giving the phrase he coined a place in history.
It has been three days since we kissed and I have yet to hear from you. For the past three nights the skull boulder has been empty and your house has been silent. I am usually too cautious to call you on the phone but there is something about the sour stench of rotting birds that gives a man guts.
On my break, I sit on a red ice chest and dial your number. It is then, as the sound of your phone ringing vibrates in my ear, that a stray pigeon comes careening down from the sky and smashes right into my face. The blow knocks me off the cooler and onto my back. It sends my hardhat rolling off into the desert and my phone spinning, splayed open in the middle of the road. I lay there holding my face with both hands, feeling the hot rush of blood flow through them and down my arms as the crew panics and forms a circle around me. They offer me towels and water, all pulling at my arms to assess the damage. The news reporter breaks through the chain of pickers and sorters and shoves a microphone into my face, hoping to get a statement from the first potential casualty of the “Holocaust.” The crew’s voices and the reporter’s questions all blur into a low hum, almost silent. Through it all I can hear you crying. With my vision blurry and equilibrium nonexistent, I stand and push my way through the crowd. I follow your voice, staggering. Your cries are louder now as I crawl around on the cracked blacktop. By the time I reach the phone, your sobs are desperate and guttural. I stand up and say your name into the phone, but you do not respond. Holding it to my ear, I realize the sound is coming from somewhere else.
On the ground near my feet lies the pigeon who let me have it. Despite a broken neck, it has hopped to the center of the highway. It looks up at me, its head right-side-up but body upside down. It is blinking slowly and cooing like a sad woman. I sit down beside it and wait for it to go completely silent, then carefully carry it back to the scientists.
My face is a rotten plum. My left eye is purple and completely closed. My nose has a dent in the bridge and my upper lip is swollen. If headaches were tornadoes, mine would turn the earth into a cloud of dust. Though none of this hurts as much as your car being gone for five straight days. After getting hit by the pigeon and the news story that followed, the Mayor relieves me of duty. So I have had plenty of time to steep in your absence.
But today, after a week passes, you call.
“Hi,” you say.
“Hello,” I say.
“I saw your face in the paper. Are you all right?”
“Yeah, I’m fine. Listen, where are you?” I ask.
“At my Mom’s.”
“Oh,” I say. “Are you coming back?”
“I don’t think so.”
“No,” you say.
“Does Tom know?” I ask. “I mean, that you’re not coming back.”
“And what about us?”
“I’m sorry,” you say.
“I don’t understand.” I can hear someone in the background with you, perhaps your Mom. You begin to whisper.
“I said I can’t be that woman. Not to Tom. Not to you either. I’m sorry,” you say again.
Tonight I hike up the hill to be alone. Next to the boulder, there is a small bird skeleton that has been picked clean by scavengers. I pick up its tiny skull and roll it between my fingertips.
After a few moments of waiting for the town to get dark, I hear footsteps crunching sand behind me. I know it’s you and my heart begins to flutter. I hop off the rock to greet you only to find Tom, looking broken and empty.
“What are you doing up here?” he asks.
I can’t tell him the truth, so I say, “I come here to think sometimes.”
“Ah. You know I’ve been looking up at this skull for years and not once have I ever come to see it up close.” I sit back down on the boulder and he follows. “Quite a shiner you got,” he says, pointing at my eye.
“Yeah,” I say, showing him the bird skull and then tossing it off the side of the hill.
“Yeah I read about it. You won’t have to worry about that again, though.”
“You didn’t hear?”
I shake my head.
“The birds have quit falling. Scientists said it was some freak thing like the Bermuda Triangle or something.”
“Yeah,” he says, nodding. Then, he says, “She’s gone, you know. She left me.”
“I’m sorry,” I tell him.
He just nods.
Neither of us say anything for a while. I just stare out at the remaining porch lights and Tom looks down at his folded hands. Sitting here with Tom has made me realize what you mean by being that woman. The type of woman who leaves two grown men sulking and wondering where they went wrong. I understand how much harder this is for you. “I’m sorry,” I say again — not to Tom, but to you.
I wait for the last light in town to burn out before I ask Tom if I can tell him a secret.
Join us for this last of our regular first-Tuesday-of-the-month installments at the Hungry Brain in Chicago. This one brings house band Good Evening and our inveterate redneck crooner of a host, Harold Ray, together with several quite recent THE2NDHAND contributors. Y’all, we couldn’t be no prouder.
So You Think You Have Nerves of Steel?
Feb. 7, 8:30 p.m. @ Hungry Brain, 2319 W. Belmont, Chicago
Click through the text links on their names for recent work from the three. And don’t miss it… (A-and keep an eye out for a late-March blowout at the Brain to thank the kind staff there for the great year-and-a-half-or-so we’ve resided there.)
Milam’s poem “Chicago,” featured in our All Hands ON: THE2NDHAND After 10 collection, is likewise now available in a special-edition letterpress/digital print chapbook. You can pick it up here. Milam lives and writes in Bellingham, Wash.
She put her sex blue eyes high on me. Are you lost? her driver called out as they rolled up in their all terrain golf cart, with two spaniels riding in the jumper. He saw that I was carrying a book; perhaps he took it for a guide, took it for a ride. I strolled to, foul weather or fair, certainly strange. The cart puttered to a stop and are you lost? seeing a book in my hands and damn well not now, walking to and greeting in the western way, to.
They stay in the cart parked and I bend down or bow to bend to, going east, young. First thing his oil rigged hair; he could have been a session man for Jerry Lee and her hair hung up in my eyes, she turned her sex blue eyes a cool bit to the back my way and I smiled and shook, shook hands.
I’m a friend of the property, I explain. Tucked on my belt out of just sight or sign is my silver saddled in .357 should things get natural that way. He gave me his full name, alpha and omega, and I heard hers a sweet word, not quite double my years, her head back against the rest and the shade there shadowed the blue down, down from the sky and she thought of summers ago never shared with her driver now.
He and I talked of forest fires and resources and gates open or closed, tire marks and cabins burning in the winter distance. Wishing well we took care to sun-pleased smiles and her sex blue eyes had set on me beyond the ridge where I would not be staying long, except.