Mary Jo White
Rain patters steadily on the skylight above me, the sound a kind of white noise. I tip back precariously on a fragile, antique chair, one of six, all paid for, thank God, chairs bought when we, one big, unhappy family, moved in here. Sighing, I pull myself up to our trendy distressed cherry table, and begin scribbling another list, this of the few bills I can let slide this month. Tommy is again weeks late with his check. Lizzie and Anton, supposedly playing together on the kitchen floor, are in fact fighting. Lizzie screams in rage and belts her big brother. He’s grabbed another of the large, blue, particularly valuable legos she especially fancies.
“Mom, she hit me,” Anton yells from three feet away on the off chance that I may be deaf as well as blind. I’m thinking, good for her, when I see Spike our neurotic, little cockapoo, unstrung by the commotion, preparing to pee on a table leg.
“Enough!” I bellow. I scoop the dog up and carry him to the back door where he’s dumped unceremoniously onto the deck. He looks up at me, bewildered, then trots off as big drops of water splat onto the wood. Poor old Spike. Time after time, for no clear reason he can fathom, he is swooped down upon, lifted into the air and deposited elsewhere by the huge, capricious beings who rule his life. He has major trust issues as, come to think of it, do we all.
Anton and Lizzie, always interested in spectacle, stare, mouths half open. Then Lizzie turns and says,
She points to the window over the sink. The condensation from doing the supper dishes has evaporated and I can see the small, muddy ghost of a bird, arrested in mid-flight, imprinted on the glass.
“Go see if it’s hurt. Go see now.”
At four, Lizzie is so much like her absent father it might scare me if she wasn’t so solidly also herself, her own little person and my Lizzie Lou. But she possesses Tommy’s imperious manner, his grandiose gestures and, worst of all, she shares his habit of looking disbelievingly at me as if I were the no-contest, hands-down dolt of the western world. It amazes me how much I love her, how I simply look her way and my heart expands, a dry, crumbling sponge suddenly swelled, saturated with emotion.
We live in a big, expensive house, a house that’s been on the market for months with no takers in sight, whose mortgage I can only hope to pay through the working of some regular, monthly miracle. In March it was an unexpected early bonus courtesy of two eighty-hour weeks spent on the Atwood account.
This is Tommy’s dream house made, not well, mostly of glass. But it is not the casting of stones that is causing our present predicament. It is spring at last, late April, and the weather has been beyond wet. For the last three weeks, on window after window, we’ve found the perfect, small imprints of bird after bird, birds arrested in mid-flight, ambushed by their own reflections. Seeking what? A soulmate? One tantalizingly there but always just beyond reach?
The news however is not all bad. Lizzie and Anton and I have as yet found no small, feathered bodies on the deck, the patio, the porch, although we have looked carefully.
It’s raining now, hard, straight down; a steady rat-tat-tat sounds through the screen door. Anton, who’s seven and the big brother here, stares at this latest apparition on the kitchen window. The torture-by-legos he was in the midst of inflicting on his little sister has completely slipped his mind. He is, my son, much like me; I see my eyes, my skinny frame, my worried look. As a result our relationship is complicated and often difficult.
“We should go check,” he says to me. “This one could be hurt.”
Despite his fondness for tormenting Lizzie, he is always on the lookout for something that needs saving, rescuing, tending. There is no dearth of such things here: the afore-mentioned, intermittently housebroken Spike, two female hamsters, Wally and Gwendolyn (“the rats,” Tommy called them), a large murky tank of guppies all named Gus, three generations of de-clawed housecats, and of course Lizzie, and me, Lorraine, thirty-eight-year-old adult, and official mommy-in-charge. Once again I hear Tommy muttering darkly about no fun, too much responsibility, and myself talking to him, prophetically as it turns out, about heat, a kitchen, getting out.
So we all troop out onto the shelter of the front porch, which the window overlooks. The rain is beating on the grass with a sound like the fists of some small, enraged child. Spike, ambles up, soaked. Always looking for the main chance, he scoots between Anton’s legs into the house. I hear him shaking himself as I close the door. Forgetting for a moment his muddy paw prints on white, tiled floor, water dripping down the wallpaper, as though I’d turned on a lawn sprinkler in the hallway, I see that this time we have a casualty. One of the house wrens lies on the slippery, gray-painted boards, breathing so rapidly it amazes me its tiny chest is capable of meeting the demands being made upon it without imploding. Anton bends down to pick it up.
“Wait,” I say. “Leave it be. It’s only stunned; it may fly away.”
Not likely. It looks to have been pole-axed.
Lizzy hunkers down on her sweet, fat little legs, brow wrinkled with concentration. She is looking intently at this tiny, imperiled bit of life. Thunder is again grumbling off to the west. It occurs to me that we should be out buying plans for an ark instead of worrying about some small, dying bird.
“Lizzie. Leave it be,” Anton echoes to his sister, interrupting my diluvian thoughts. “It’s only stunned.”
He does this more and more often, interprets my words for Lizzie by repeating them. I don’t know what it means. He misses his dad. At least before, Anton got to see Tommy on the weekends. I worry about him now that his father is in goddam Tampa with Maureen. She’s a flight attendant. An oddly appropriate title, I think.
It pains me to have to admit that Anton is not the only one acting strangely. There is the matter of my list making. Lists litter the house. I find myself writing down the food I must buy, the annuals I mean to pick up at the nursery, the bills I can’t pay and, lately, my losses, which with the passage of time still do not feel any less sudden or severe. Rarely, and then only grudgingly, I force myself to set down my blessings.
“I ONLY want to see.” Lizzie is saying. Of course, she then takes her finger and gently pokes the hyperventilating little creature.
“LIZZY,” Anton yells.
“Look, ” I say. “Its breathing is slowing down. That’s a good sign.”
We stand, looking in silence. Any moment I fear the bird’s bright eyes will begin to dull, to turn milky as we watch.
“Okay, everybody inside,” I order. “We’ll check again in the morning but I bet this little birdie will be back in her nest before dark.”
“Before dark,” Anton says seriously to Lizzie who straightens up, looking, with eyes full of confidence and trust, first at her brother and then at her lying mommy.
“Before dark,” she echoes quietly.
The cloudburst has finally slackened. As I pull the door shut after us, I see lightning still playing among black, scudding clouds.
There will be one more trip outside tonight. Stepping out of a darkened, slumbering house into the bright circle of porch light, into the drowned night music of insects and frogs, I’ll bend down and cup a dead wren in my two hands, its body so immaterial, the feathered leavings so light, that when I momentarily close my eyes, it will feel as if there’s nothing there.
about the author
MJ White’s poetry has appeared in The Dayton Daily News, Nexus, Fogdog, The English Journal and the Main Street Rag, in the online journal Persimmon Tree, as well as on Border’s Open-Door Poetry website. Some of my poems have also been read on public radio station WYSO, on Conrad’s Corner.
My poems have been winners in four Dayton Daily News poetry contests and also in the 2002 Dayton/Montgomery and 2008 Clark County Library poetry contests. My poem, “Sleep at Sixty,” was awarded the 2006 Paul Laurence Dunbar Poetry Prize by poet and judge Jody Rambo. Another, “On Hawkins Road,” was chosen by Billy Collins as the adult winner of Borders’ 2008 national online poetry contest. A second poem was a finalist in that same contest.
This year, I was the first place recipient of the Judson Jerome Poetry Award from Antioch Writers’ Workshop, where I heard your editors speak about Mock Turtle Zine.