I have found no job since my nasty split with the town’s Oriental rug shop.
Illustration by Ansellia Kulikku.
At daybreak, a bird flew into our bedroom, smacked the wall mirror, and fell on Darla’s back. She slept on. The meds really wipe her out.
Only minutes before this she was cheating on me, in my dreams. We’d moved back to the city, into a crummy third-floor rental. Darla was the only one of us who had a job (of course), so things were testy. And one night she went to a work party and never came home, and I sat on the apartment’s worn linoleum for hours, frantic that she’d been killed, or run off the road by rapists, or everything else you can imagine that keeps you awake and a wreck in a dream. She came home the next morning, swearing she’d just been too drunk to drive.
We both knew she was lying. It was, after all, my mind. Yet the more I begged for reckoning, the more she clung to her story. “Take it. Leave it. Whatever,” she said.
From the pain of this lazy lie I awoke, in our puny town, in the South. The room felt like a sweat lodge. The quilt was kicked to the foot of the bed, and the sheets beneath us were damp. I looked over at Darla, a vague ridge of shadows and dawn blush, and reached out to wake her for an argument.
The sound of the birds outside cut me off. A river, a symphony, I’d never heard anything like it in full daylight: layer upon layer of birdsong. Its construction made me think of my art, my process, and how I might capture this sound as diorama. For that matter, I wondered, what is diorama, when devoid of adequate light? When constructed primarily of sound? Can there even be an “—orama” without the seeing, the “di—”? Further, if my art can’t be seen, then what control do I wield? Who am I?
I drowsed in ambitious creative thought . . . until something clanged from the other room. Bolting into the den, I found that Dim, the cat, had knocked out a window screen and fled. I figured that cat would be demolished in the street. I knew that Darla would blame me forever. I was the one who insisted the windows be left open, to save money on air-conditioning. I was the one who was unemployed—even in his dreams.
I was the one, always me.
I got back in bed and stared at the rose-lit ceiling. And THAT was when the bird flew through the open window, hit the mirror and fumbled onto Darla’s lower back.
I was terrified that the bird’s talons might break her skin, injecting some otherwise run-of-the-mill bacteria, and sending us straight to the emergency room, again. The bird, a big black one, stood up and stomped in place. Darla bore no thoughts of her sickness, or sepsis, or hospital; she didn’t budge. If anything, she probably reckoned it was Dim skulking atop her like always, kneading invisible biscuits with its de-clawed paws.
Teeming with anxiety, I moved only my eyes. (Such self-control is difficult, you know, when a bird is pacing Darla’s back.) It was a grackle, which I knew from many hours of looking at backyard birds while consulting the Sibley Guide to Birds, likewise scanning the book for birds I wished would visit Mississippi. It was missing one eye, and its feathers gave off a blue-purple hue in the sunrise.
Its dead socket stayed on me until I sighed, at which point the grackle whipped its head around, revealing a stark, corn-yellow eye. It cocked its head and blinked.
My God, I thought. What can I do?
I tumble around town a neglected dioramist.
I tumble around town a neglected dioramist. Though I constantly sketch, map, and digest every inch of our environment—town square to Yarn Barn to A.M.E. church, Civil War Memorial to Vanity Fair Outlet Mall—not one of the town’s seven thousand residents has ever asked me, seriously, about my artwork. If the subject even comes up I am generally lumped in with the cousin who carves melon sculptures at the Dogwood Festival, or invited to some snoozy, brown bag at the county library. I call my artist friends back in the city to complain, using an accent that Darla says is cheap and unfair and not even close. “‘Varmints’ abound in the South,” I declare, describing hawklike mosquitoes and vole infestations. “Ever’body down here smiles while talkin’ to you. But because they’re smilin’ they cain’t be confrontational. No suh, you must avoid unpleasantness at all costs!”
My old friends laugh at me. They use their own shucks-y accents to describe southern stupidities that I haven’t witnessed, and I indulge this, and it’s like I’m still with them, still a part of the scene.
In the city, Darla had been all mine (devotionally, not propertywise). She crunched budgets for young designers and had support groups to go to, and I had gallery representation, and site-specific commissions that would prop me up for months at a clip. Darla would surprise me with Zuni animal carvings bought from this Native American folk art boutique; I could easily find pancetta and cook us carbonara. In early spring, songbirds made nests in the tiny trees that grew in plots along the sidewalk. You would not believe how beautiful our life was, among the throng, insignificant. Strangers there didn’t smile like maniacs, or stop you to remark on something pretty, or ask who “your people” were. They were simply mean or indifferent. Yes, the city drove Darla and me together, against the jerks.
I have found no job since my nasty split with the town’s Oriental rug shop. A few weeks ago, I was passed over for a window dresser position at a women’s boutique on the square. Though demoralized, I decided that the right opportunity would find me if I just held out, just held on. I shared this optimism with Darla when she got home from work. She tore her navy blazer off, said, “Gee, man, it must be tough having tons of time and no expectation. Thank god we can’t have children.” She then laughed at her own sorry situation, infertility being one perk of her illness.
Once a month we drive up to Memphis to pick up her regiment of pills, and to try and feel decent and anonymous for a few hours.
Once a month we drive up to Memphis to pick up her regiment of pills, and to try and feel decent and anonymous for a few hours. There’s a downtown garage called Parking Can Be Fun, and we park there, and it’s not really fun, but just a normal city parking garage, bored attendants and tire squeals, the stairwells foul with piss. We park and pay and walk out into the bustle, and smell the dank Mississippi River, and maybe get overpriced Thai. It’s lovely, this escape, façade, this dialogue with our first “term,” which is what Darla calls our first four years together, in the city.
At the Walgreens here in town the pharmacists grin and say, Hey, y’all, and then whisper about us afterwards. On the town square or at Kroger’s the residents smile as they sidestep us, pulling their kids in tight.
Darla jostled, and the bird began pacing toward her head. It stared downward while doing so, like a philosopher. Helpless, I began to blame Dim.
We found that cat as kitten, beneath a ’91 Toyota Celica in Chinatown. It was February, and an icy rain pocked the streetside mounds of snow. I had just stepped into a pothole of slush. My right foot was in shock, my Italian boots ruined. And Darla and I stood there, freezing, yelling at each other because she was immune to my complaints. In lieu of empathy, she mocked my fortitude and my manhood in her greedy slog for Peking duck; she screamed in that displaced southern drawl of hers until she was out of breath—at which point we heard this little Graaaak beneath the shred of sleet off of passing cars. Graaaak, we heard it again, and we figured it was a sickly bird, and we bent down and there was Dim, frail and drenched and hunched over her paws, the size of a bun under the rusty Celica.
For the record, I was the one who wriggled under the car. (Also for the record, I wanted to name the cat ’91 Toyota Celica.) Dim wants birds enough to bash out all of our window screens, but has no idea how to catch them. She springs when she should creep, yards away from anything. No doubt this is due to lack of kittenhood instruction or support—which I’m sure is also my fault.
The grackle poked its beak into Darla’s jumbled sleep hair. This was too much. I punched it in the face. It half cawed while slamming against the underwear drawer of our oak dresser, then fell to the floor. Darla shot up.
“What the? Honey, wha?” she asked, her fingers fanning her hair. “You okay?”
“There’s a bird,” I said, pumped.
“Where’s Dim? Who bird?”
I pointed to the foot of the bed and we crept there. Peered over the footboard and saw it askew on the floor. Its good eye was half open.
“It targeted you,” I said.
For a beat, Darla’s face betrayed a soft look of fear. This was one of the looks I’d fallen in love with, six-ish years ago, when we were just friends of friends who’d never thought to x us up. When Darla was provocative and brash, but still emotionally frail, her giddy up dynamism a smokescreen for the belief that nobody could fall in love with a terminal infection.
But I could, and I did. And seeing this look, this Early Darla worry, I couldn’t help but clasp her wrist, smile, and nod to assure her. I’m here, I thought. And I’m not going anywhere.
“Bullshit, man,” she said, naked except for striped panties. “I see its eye right here.”
“What have you done?” she asked, pulling free.
“Done, nothing. There was an eyeless bird on your back.”
“Bullshit, man,” she said, naked except for striped panties. “I see its eye right here.”
“Yes, but . . . but what would you want me to do, Dar?”
“Well, for one, don’t murder anything!”
“ It pecked your head! It was awful, like those beast-walking birds on Animal Planet. On the . . . veldt!”
She reached into her mussed hair, confused, perhaps relieved—until the bird blinked.
“For heaven’s sake,” she said. “It’s a bird.”
“Whatever. Where’s the cat?” She got out of bed.
Those striped panties of hers had a cute little sag in the bottom. “Dim must be out,” I said. “To let this happen to you.”
“Out? Jesus, man, I’ll find the stupid cat.” She marched toward the den. “You take care of that bird.”
I shut my eyes and sought power, then reached to stroke the bird’s mangled wing.
“Please,” I whispered. Its beak parted when I touched it. I blew on it and it blinked. “Please die, bird. Die before Darla gets back.”
Before all of everything there was Darla and her Greek Revival mansion. She’s a Mississippi native, which is why she took up the offer from her folks to move us back down here after the city got too exhausting. When the energy it took to navigate choked the energy it provided, and, according to her homeopathic hippie nurse, kept Darla’s viral load jacked up. Yes, we moved to this self-styled arts town, which we’d seen showcased in the city paper’s Sunday magazine, written up as “quaint” and “affordable,” and which had made her homesick. She promised the place would be to my surprise, that I’d have space and time and money to make my art. That it was warm, and that the people were extremely friendly.
Though I’ve yet to visit her parents’ home outside Jackson, Darla once told me (over much wine) that her mother, called Miss Sally, keeps a room full of dead babies.
And it is and they are—always.
Though I’ve yet to visit her parents’ home outside Jackson, Darla once told me (over much wine) that her mother, called Miss Sally, keeps a room full of dead babies. That Miss Sally’s got somebody inside the women’s clinic, the last one open in Mississippi, and that every time a woman aborts, this spy-nurse gives her an eight-by-ten of the pre-procedure ultrasound. Darla said every inch of wall and counter and end table space in their upstairs study is covered with X-ray babies; she said it’s Zygote City, that the images are in silver frames her mom snaps up from Stein Mart and Marshalls.
Miss Sally had each frame professionally engraved, until it got crazy expensive. Now she goes to PetSmart and has the instant engraving machine print the date of procedure, the names she gives the babies, and a t-able version of the God talking to Jeremiah quote—I knew U B4 I knew U—etched onto twilight-blue dog tags that can be superglued onto the frames.
When Darla was growing up, her mother made her tour the shrine every Sunday after church. Miss Sally had her read the names and dates aloud, then explain to all why the world had treated them so poorly, and how things had gotten so bad.
Her father, Walker J., would insist that he be allowed to memorialize the aborted in his own way, dear, and then light out to ride the back nine at the C.C. of Jackson. Douse himself with Dewar’s and spend the night on his leather-and-tack office sofa.
Whatever. Darla still got a convertible BMW for her sixteenth birthday.
She met the soldier who would infect her over spring break, sophomore year. Throughout our relationship I’ve seen him in every uniformed guy. In every war movie, every tribute, every stupid soldier commercial. Woe, the battle-bruised warrior. The remorseful kid-killer. The one-night-stand hero whose viral dick still dictates our life.
We could have broken his hold early on. All we had to do was lose the condom: In the city, in Darla’s huge clawfoot tub. In the exposed brick bathroom that was roughly the size of my bedroom, its fifteen-foot ceilings and frosted-glass daylight. The tub where she told me the story of that soldier, the twenty-something Army man with the overburdened heart. The one who Darla had wanted to heal, as she’d been taught was a thing to do, as generations of her family’s women had done for their defeated southern men.
Yeah, we were in that clawfoot, lounging across from each other, our arms on the tub lip and knees cocked up, she making sure not to spike herself with the spout, and . . . and the wakes of rippled bathwater, the drips off of our elbows as we reached for our beers . . . the spatter on concrete floor and wet rings from the icy bottles . . . when I realized that we only had to fuck, unprotected. I told her this, and told her, truthfully, that I’d never adored anyone before, and that I was desperate to join her body forever, to charge the field of her mortality and wrest back control. For both of us.
Her refusal to let me is like a snapshot I can’t stop staring at. I still can’t believe she chose that soldier over me.
Darla stomped back in the bedroom and started throwing on clothes. “What are you doing to help?” she barked. The broken bird remained in a heap on the floor.
“Baby, please don’t be so mad,” I said. “I was only looking out for you. I mean, have you thought about histoplasmosis? That’s the condition Bob Dylan had in the sac around his heart. It’s no picnic of a disease, and folks say it comes from birds. Birds that . . .”
“I am so, so sorry, bird,” then picked it up, sighed, closed her eyes, and snapped its neck.
As I detailed the havoc of histoplasmosis on her shitty immune system, Darla nudged me aside, mumbled, “I am so, so sorry, bird,” then picked it up, sighed, closed her eyes, and snapped its neck.
She stared at me, eyes welling. “Oh, come on. Didn’t anybody ever take you hunting as a kid? You never winged a bird? Had to take responsibility?”
I shook my head no, horrified.
“Course they didn’t. Why would anyone teach anyone to be merciful?” She held the flimsy bird up, and started to sob. “You think that was easy?”
She walked off and tossed the bird into the master bath trashcan, grousing through her tears about life lessons and urban wimps. She then brought the can in and put it on the floor beside me, before going to scrub her hands. (The Waterless Pumice Hand Sanitizer is bolted to the bathroom wall because Dillon Chemical won’t make anything smaller than a gallon dispenser. The sound of her smacking the plastic nipple on the bottom gets me so flustered. She refuses to consider using any other scent besides Dillon’s Bayberry Breeze, even though she knows I can’t stand the smell of it, likewise that there are a bevy of pseudomonacidal, salmonellacidal, fungicidal, and virucidal cleansing scents to choose from. I constantly clean up her vomit, from bedside floor to underside of toilet rim, rarely giving back so much as a stutter because I adore her, and because vomit has no place in love. Still, nothing but Bayberry, Jesus Christ.) She threw her hand towel at me as she marched out of our bedroom. Seconds later, I heard the back door slam.
I stared down at the bird, in state, in its final nest of old floss and tissue. I supposed that given all the violence, Darla had brought it mercy. Deliverance. I had no idea what to do with it—bury it? chuck it?—so I just put the garbage can on top of the oak dresser and looked elsewhere, again.
To be fair, the thing about the birds in the city trees is that there isn’t much protection from the elements. Unlike the lush growth here, those trees are more like sticks with veils of sprig, so spring winds knock the nests to hell. In April, the urban sidewalks are littered with fallen hatchlings, their chicken skin and bulbous purple eyes. The buried trash of an entire cosmopolitan area emerges with the thaw, and next thing you know, there they are.
Darla was back within two minutes, scratches on her face and Dim in her arms. She looked at me, sitting on the bed, and then saw the can on the dresser. She flung the cat onto the floor, where it writhed in the ghosted bird’s scent.
“Follow me,” she said.
“I’m paralyzed. But you should clean those scratches up, quick,” I said.
“Come on, now.”
So I got up and followed her, through the living room and kitchen and den, and back to my art studio (the garage). She banged the fluorescent lights on, and shook her head at the burgeoning diorama.
“Darla,” I said. “You can see the progress I’ve been—”
“Tell them,” she instructed, pointing at my village, the landscape of which took up most of the room.
“Tell them what?”
“You know what,” she said.
“How is it that you’re the one from the South, but I’m the one that understands these folks?” I asked.
“You can’t just tell. Nobody tells down here. They just smile and pretend like everything’s perfect and gay.”
“Tell them what went wrong with us!” she screamed. “Explain how things got so bad!”
I cleared my throat for they: the miniature postal clerks and student-baristi, the genteel abortion doctors and half-painted pastors and proud teenage miscegenators and roadside retriever mixes.
“Well, um,” I said to the unfinished chaotica of small-town façade, to power tool, paint and plywood scrap. I cleared my throat for they: the miniature postal clerks and student-baristi, the genteel abortion doctors and half-painted pastors and proud teenage miscegenators and roadside retriever mixes. “Ahem,” I said, to not one goddamned soldier. “We moved down to Mississippi for the air and the restfulness. Darla has autoimmune issues. Surely you’ve heard of rales or rhonchi? She should really not have a cat. She was stupid as hell when she was younger, but is smarter by sexual default now.
And me? I’m a heel who doesn’t understand, who apparently doesn’t have to do anything, ever, and who is therefore the sole drag on her life. The heel outsider with normal blood counts who won’t take any stupid job, and who never meets anybody or contributes to any stupid anything. Who is frozen by the past. Where she loved him more than me.”
I turned to her, “That good, babe?”
“Always has to be about you,” she said, and walked out. “Always, always,” she repeated down the hall.
Accordingly, this is why the onus came upon me, as clerk, to wipe the milky vomit up.
I stood there, furious and guilty and sweaty, which oddly enough struck within me the desire to complete the pivotal scene from my current project, working title Township, which I hope will reflect a sort of postmodern dialogue with—or as response to?—the world’s largest diorama, the Cyclorama, in Atlanta. Based upon my final day clerking at the Oriental rug shop, and contrary to the Cyclorama’s depiction of the entire Battle of Atlanta during the Civil War, to the entire Battle of the South, really, the focal point of Township is an Ordinary Guy who stands up to Power. It takes place in the rug shop, and can be pictured thusly:
An upscale southern woman is patting her bald, tiny-headed baby, which hangs in a decorative sling over her shoulder. My boss, Mr. Dempster, a wad born of plantocratic stock, is explaining to the lady that an antique Heriz rug is in fact a treasure, despite the toughness of the wool and relative lack of dense Knots Per Square Inch (kpsi). I stand next to a stack of rugs, idle and silent, prepared to showcase another nine-by-twelve as cued by Dempster’s nod. The diorama woman swats and seems to be saying, Well, the rug is lovely Mister Dempster, but all said and done I’m concerned about the central medallion. The piece has to . . . She sways, sashays almost as she talks and swats, which is why the dioramic baby is vomiting/has vomited on the parquet floor. Accordingly, this is why the onus came upon me, as clerk, to wipe the milky vomit up.
When complete, my defiant pose will indicate that I’ve said: I’ll get you some paper towels. Mr. Dempster’s counter-pose will indicate that he has corrected me: No. You’ll GET some paper towels.
The problem, in terms of portraying the resulting tension to Darla, to the world, is how to edit-in all this action, which continues/continued as: Oh, the woman replied, aghast at the thought of wiping the vomit up herself; the baby’s bitsy head jostled, at the time driving me to conclude that if I were ever to sculpt a baby with a head so minuscule, it would be—and thus is now—deemed a disproportionate flaw (unlike portraying vomit, which may be imprecise); I walked to the back of the store and unraveled many paper towels from the spool, something I’d long gotten used to when cleaning Darla’s vomit at home; old popcorn was on the break table in a red plastic basket lifted from Chicken City; a stare-down ensued upon my return: the woman at Dempster, he at me; I stared at the baby and the vomit, and held the towels out for whomever would take them; nobody took them; the baby slung about, looking elsewhere; we were all at a crossroads, and my chest grew heavy as I again thought of Darla.
Odie Lindsey’s writing appears in Best American Short Stories, Iowa Review, Columbia, Forty Stories: New Writing from Harper Perennial, Fourteen Hills and elsewhere. He is a veteran and his related story collection, We Come To Our Senses, comes out from W.W. Norton later this month. This story is from that collection.
Photo credit: Nancy Russell.