A Little Dead Thing
…in which mama disappears.
Will materialized in front of Elmore, a jumping jack.
“Daddy! Come look! It’s something horrible!”
Elmore wore a wilted white towel, just out of the bathtub. Self-consciously, he made sure the ratty old Cannon covered the worst of his scars, the ones on the right abdomen, the right thigh. A noisy box fan, full power, blew his wet hair straight back. He smelled like Right Guard.
Chunky little Will’s face looked so much like his mother’s that moment. Then a Bellisle profile appeared in duplicate — Mary popped into view by her brother’s side. Both kids gasped, wild-eyed.
“It’s horrible!” Mary shrieked, delighted in her hysteria.
A minute later, halfway down the dirt driveway, Elmore admitted the kids were right.
That thing was horrible.
A newborn baby mockingbird lay still, fallen from its nest — pushed by a cowbird hatchling, probably. A baby cowbird was a big freak. It hatched from an intruder egg laid in the nest by a female cowbird while the mockingbird parents hunted food.
Will could do that to his sister, Elmore mused. But he loves her.
The baby bird sprawled in hideous pink saurian helplessness, its gaping mouth opened with no sounds, its eyes forever blind. Rapacious fire ants covered the tiny, already-stiffening body under a shining coat of deadly red-black armor.
“Daddy, what is it?”
Will’s eyes bugged wide with a blend of fear and excitement, and Mary danced a little mad jig.
The big brother stepped back all at once, bravely, Elmore thought, and spread his arms protectively in front of his sister. Was that for show? Did Will think the tiny awful corpse really might leap up from the ground and get after Mary?
And... look there.
Timmy Wragg stood like an outcast, 10 feet off. Timmy’s fancy Spyder bicycle lay hastily thrown down, its front wheel spinning. Everything about Timmy’s little body looked ready to run and run fast. But he couldn’t take his eyes off the dead baby bird.
“Daddy! What IS that dang thang?”
Will’s voice carried the roostery note of young boyhood.
“Is she alive, daddy?” Mary wondered.
Elmore toed the tiny corpse. A furious eruption of fire ants made all four bystanders quickly step back.
“It’s a baby. It would have been a mockingbird when it got big,” Elmore told his children, thinking carefully about his words.
Will’s eyes widened even more. “Daddy, that ain’t a bird!” He was incredulous. “That don’t look like a bird one bit!”
“Yes, sir, it’s a baby bird,” Elmore said solemnly. “It fell out of the nest.”
Mary, of course, asked more.
“Why did it fall out of the nest, Daddy?”
Elmore thought hard for a second.
“Maybe the storm, sugar. It got pretty bad last night. Remember how the wind howled?”
The kids absorbed this.
“Mr. Elmore, do people bury dead birds?”
Timmy Wragg edged closer and had spoken up at last.
“I think so, Timmy. I think that’s a real nice idea. Y’all go get the shovel in back of the house. We can give this little bird a decent send-off.”
Elmore limped back inside to get his shoes. By the time he returned, Will had already scraped a shallow hole in the red clay. He did manful work — Alabama earth turned to iron in summer, even after rain. The shovel made a ringing sound each time Will struck the ground.
Out of some hiding place girls always had, Mary had produced a paper napkin from The Doughnut Hole, a place the Rogers liked to go for Saturday treats. Elmore folded the napkin carefully around the bird for a shroud.
Hidden from sight and as clean of fire ants as they could get it, the little bird disappeared under Will’s two light shovelfuls of red dirt.
Elmore started a prayer. Then, to his surprise... and shock, really... he drew a blank. Was he that out of practice? He simply couldn’t think of one single word for something like this. How... worrisome.
“You young’uns want to say the prayers?” he finally said. “Y’all think of something nice.”
Will straightened, the shovel erect in his hand.
“Lord, even if it was so horrible ugly, please let that bird go to heaven,” he prayed.
“Amen,” said Mary.
“Double amen,” added Timmy Wragg. “Mockingbird heaven.”
The solstice sun still bloodied the sky as the Rogers family set off for town in their big boxy chariot.
The passed the Mayhew Tree. They rolled the windows down and Will let his hand play dolphin in the wind.
Lafayette’s first true signs of settlement showed up just after the big highway hump. The state had built an overpass decades ago to let the two-lane Road 5 rise without interruption over trains chugging through to Chattanooga or New Orleans, wherever locomotives went. The trains still passed, some so extravagantly long it took four engines to haul all the flatbeds and boxcars. Now and then, an Amtrak zoomed past, too, but mostly the locomotives hauled whole logs or planks or stacked plywood going out from Mr. Wood’s busy empire of mills.
After the roller-coaster novelty of the hump — Will and Mary cheered going over it — the road passed Lafayette General Hospital, a giant red brick with sunset windows ablaze up all four stories. Will pointed to the bright orange windsock on top of the facility, and he knowledgeably explained how it helped the medical helicopter pilots land safely.
Elmore knew a thing or two about a medical helicopter. He had inside knowledge. But he let Will proudly show off and never mentioned his own experiences.
Not too far past the hospital, Lafayette’s two biggest car sales businesses, Soltis Subaru and Askew AutoLand, spread out. These held down the earth on either side of the road, each competing for the money of true patriots with its own enormous American flag. It took something close to a gale to bring all those stars and stripes fluttering fully into view.
Elmore clicked on the radio.
The Allman Brothers played “Rambling Man,” and Elmore happily held the steering wheel with his knees and played air guitar. That Friday feeling.
Elmore now wheeled past fast-food places, franchises for burgers and chicken and ribs and pizza and catfish. A giant neon catfish with stylish Hollywood-villain whiskers and a shiny top hat winked one eye from a billboard. (Fresh from the Black Warrior! All you care to eat!) Next door and across the highway, fleets of cars jammed a Chinese place with a gold plastic dragon on top, and even more packed the lots of two Mexican restaurants, each with the same name, Los Hermanos, and run by brothers.
Further along, an out-of-business Indian buffet jarringly interrupted the sweep of Lafayette prosperity.
Boards over the dark windows had not prevented vandals from knocking out the restaurant’s plate glass. It struck Elmore as kind of sad. The owners had chosen a really bad name for a food venture in west Alabama. Samrat. One of Elmore’s National Guard buddies told him that name meant emperor in India.
It didn’t mean emperor in Alabama.
Elmore had never darkened the doors of the place, and he didn’t remember ever seeing a single automobile out front.
Maybe the name Wood meant emperor in Alabama. Elmore ticked off one establishment after another topped by the name: Wood Savings & Loan. Wood Commercial. Wood Realty. Wood Insurance. Wood Park.
It was Wood World out there.
Lafayette’s strip scenery included pawn shops with lurid flashing signs out by the road and one or two shady-looking convenience stores. No place in Lafayette served alcohol, though, and in fact no bars existed anywhere in Lafayette County... at least legally. In the county he ran, Mr. Wood was not so fond of people who drank.
Elmore leaned and kissed the top of the gingery little head in the middle seat. Will, of course, hung out the window like a dog, riding shotgun.
“Why do they hang those colored flags above all those cars?”
Mary meant the merry pennants fluttering over Perkins Used Boats and Motors.
“You’re dumb!” groused Will. “It’s to make people look, igmo!”
Sometimes Elmore truly did tire of Will’s constant hectoring. Why did Mary deserve scorn?
Mary showed pluck, though.
“YOU’RE dumb!” she said. “That’s not why!”
“Well, why then, smarty pants?”
Elmore stopped the truck for a red light. He could practically hear Mary’s brain working through little gears.
“Well, they could put up a flag for every boat they sell,” she pronounced. “And the more boats they sell, the more flags they fly.”
“That’s dumb!” Will snorted. “I already told you the reason.”
“Well, I told YOU the reason.”
“You’re a space alien!” Will announced.
“Well... you’re a space alien TWIN, then!”
Touché, Mary! Elmore tried not to laugh.
“Daddy, why do I got to be a twin?” Will demanded. “She’s a girl!”
Will said it with contempt, like spitting sour milk.
“Well... you’re both right.” Elmore carefully practiced fatherly statesmanship. “Will, you’re right. The pennants do make people look over to see what’s for sale. And Mary, you’re right, too, sweetie. They hang up a new one every time a boat or a motor gets towed off the sales lot.”
Elmore peeked to see how his diplomacy had worked.
Will looked like his head might explode. Mary wore a smug I-told-you-so twinkle.
Old Lafayette courthouse came into view, its historic dome rising over the low buildings downtown like a baby Vatican.
The Rogers had made it downtown.
“Okay, y’all... milkshakes before the movie?”
Elmore’s grand suggestion changed the mood in the cab. Welcome to Happy Time!
Now Elton John sang through the radio — “Rocket Man.” Rocket Man! Burning up somewhere up there alone! Elmore wrongly sang along.
He pulled the oversized truck into a parking space at The Milky Way. Elmore reckoned this place had been serving ice cream since the cold sweet stuff was invented. His own daddy and mama, bless ’em both, brought Elmore here and let him buy milk shakes and delicious hot dogs with spicy chili when he had a good report card. Now, all these years later, Elmore brought Will and Mary.
The kids scrambled out of the truck behind Elmore, on the driver’s side. Daylight faded to dark blue now, and the ice cream shop lights twinkled merrily, like... well, like The Milky Way.
Elmore happily thought of a summer night over the Rogers’s little rental house, above their pine trees and out beyond the telephone poles that marched up the drive to bring their electricity. Elmore swore to the kids that he could actually count a million stars twinkling up there. A million! Someday, he told them, if you learn your arithmetic, you’ll both be able to count to a million...
Elmore held his children’s hands on the way across the parking lot, a family in happy communion.
Coming out the front door, Kelly Rogers nearly bumped into them.
Elmore felt so many things at once that he couldn’t sort them, couldn’t really feel any one thing by itself.
Kelly stared in disbelief. She wore an expression like she’d run into... what? Ghosts? Angels, with a devil?
Kelly just stared at Mary and Will. She glanced up at Elmore. She opened and closed one hand. Those beautiful eyes, haunted.
Now she stooped to the level of Will’s and Mary’s faces. Wrapped in a napkin in her left hand, she held a melting chocolate ice cream cone dotted with red sprinkles.
“Hey, babies.” She whispered. “Do you... remember your mama?”
A silence followed. Elmore felt something hurt so bad inside.
“Will. Mary. Y’all give your mama a hug.”
The little bodies welded themselves to Kelly.
Elmore turned his head away. He looked down. Up. Anywhere. The one million bright stars in the indigo sky blurred and melted together. Elmore blinked and blinked again, trying to see clear again.
“My little babies,” Kelly whispered, fiercely this time.
Elmore couldn’t see her face, only her black unruly hair tangled in hugs. Kelly’s pale arms gripped and clinched, changed positions, desperately embraced the two little bodies again.
“We came to get some milk shakes,” Elmore said after a long time.
Kelly stood so fast it surprised them all.
“You can have my ice cream!” she burst out, close to pleading.
She offered the cone... but it was empty. The ice cream scoop had gotten knocked off by the hugs. It lay on the sidewalk by Mary’s tennis shoe.
Elmore saw the little dead bird. Then he saw something else.
The roasting goddamn car with little Will and Mary inside. His children. Pulling wet red hair out of their own heads in agony.
Anger flooded Elmore, washing out every other feeling. He felt himself fight that black rush, longed to hold onto other emotions. The sweet memories. The bottomless well of devotion. The electric attraction.
Elmore felt his mouth open, though, and say a bitter, terrible thing.
“Look at them, Kelly. Alive and well. Disappointed?”
Elmore saw the bright, joyous light that had just kindled in Kelly’s face instantly switch off. Like he’d flipped a steel switch and shut off an animating current.
Click. Just like that.
It killed her.
Kelly opened her mouth.
Not a word came out. No sound.
Elmore wished to the core of his soul he could take back his cruel words. He felt a death current himself, a misery surge inside, his conscience writhing, agonizing.
Elmore had hurt Kelly. His Kelly.
Mary spoke, her sweet wonderful beautiful face lifted.
“Will and Daddy take good care of me. But I miss you.”
Will, stout little Will, burst into tears that moment, and he blubbered something nobody could understand at all. Elmore believed he heard the words nighttime and some time and always.
Elmore saw the world go out of focus again, watery, his hope drowning, dying in the deep.
He waited too long.
Kelly Rogers already walked away, fast. The high heels made a clicking noise, fading away. That black waterfall of hair swung down the back of a black waterfall of a dress. She didn’t look back.
She reached the corner of The Milky Way and then ran to reach the green VW bug in the parking lot.
Elmore felt his meanness again, crowding other emotions out of the nest, killing them all.
Did Kelly have a date? Why was she dressed like that? A woman who felt guilty about trying to kills her kids shouldn’t come strolling out of The Milky Way dressed to kill.
The angry Elmore wondered why Kelly didn’t even bother to say goodbye to the kids, or glance back at them.
And then Elmore felt something even more powerful. It flooded him.
“Will and Mary, y’all stay right here,” he ordered, sharply. He had a painful lump in his throat. They knew Daddy meant it. “Do not move from this spot.”
And Elmore ran like his life depended on it.
The little green Volkswagen sputtered from its parking place toward an exit into the streets of Lafayette.
Elmore ran as fast as he could run. He felt the terrible pains of war and lost love choking him.
“Kelly! KELLY!” He cried out her name and waved his hands. “Kelly! Please!”
Elmore couldn’t run fast enough.
Kelly was gone, lost in the night.