There had been blackbirds outside the window all morning. They cast shrewd eyes on me as I burned the eggs and dropped the toast.
It wasn’t just the blackbirds. A few days prior she had given me her best two dresses and a pair of expensive jeweled shoes two sizes too small. She hadn’t called since. There was a dread. A sick fear snaking up. A sorrow winding up through my stomach and out of my esophagus–thick clotting, wriggling,thick tendrils of sorrow. There was hidden knowledge about to be revealed and guilt for my non-disclosure.
I called him at work. “I think there’s something wrong with your mother. We should go check on her. I think she’s dead.” I could have been more tactful. I wasn’t. The snake had my throat. It cracked my voice. My heart beat staccato in my chest. I couldn’t find the soft words or the gentle speech. He responded with the courtesy anger expected in such situations. To my coldness and dry tone. To his own fears and his forced ignorance. We went to her house. The black birds followed, like dreadful spirit eaters flocking to a meal. The omen that he couldn’t see. The truth I knew and he was about to experience. I was already grieving for him as he clung to tenuous strands of hope.
I loved him, you see, more than the sun, the moon, the stars, and all the heavens. I loved him. I loved him more than myself.
The fire department broke down the door when she didn’t answer. They found her dead in her bed. They wouldn’t let us inside. They said we wouldn’t want to see. The morbid part of me, the black bird inside, wanted to see. To see the foam spattered blue lips, the needle jutting from the vein, the excrement on the sheets, the vomit on the floor. To see death’s fine and terrible work at play in the universe. I held my tongue. Locked the desire down deep inside and held the crying boy.
I didn’t have the same capacity for loss as him. It wasn’t in my nature to be less than accepting of fate’s grand plans. I had no answer for the whys and hows that inevitably followed. I didn’t have the faith to spew the obligatory speech about heaven and joyful afterlives. I couldn’t muster those standard, meaningless condolences. I said I was sorry and left him to his tears and rage.
I watched as brother and sister riffled through the echoes of her life. Smelled the perfumed clothes, cried over the pictures on the wall, blamed themselves for her illness. Divided the spoils of her memories. Gathered needles into sharps containers. Disposed of hidden heroine to preserve the decorum of the dead. Kept the cocaine as an escape plan. They said they should have known, they said they if they had just been less selfish they could have saved her. If they had been less involved in their own lives it would have been different. She would have lived. I felt guilty in a small way. I should have told them. I had known all along.
It was painted on her face like makeup. It was in her vacant eyes. It was in the constant gifts and the advice she gave to care for each other deeply. It was in the martyred charity and the track marks. I thought they knew as well. They hadn’t seen it coming. I could have said something, but I was a stranger to their family and didn’t have the right. In the dark, under the flicker of memorial candles, pure and ghostly white, my boyfriend inhaled an eight ball of grief. “It’s ok”, he said. “It won’t hurt soon.” Having not the capacity to console him, I joined him. I breathed deep the mourning.
I fell in love again.
Carolina was beautiful.
Pale and sparkling like ground diamonds. Her radiance was undeniable. The soft powder so bitter and precious, numbing the painful parts of me. She was generous, giving me both day and night to experience the world. She was kind, forever sparing me of my agony. Bestowing upon me, like a great heathen Goddess, joy and beauty. Filling my body with tingling bits of glorious light. Through her I opened the door to the universe. Stood at her alter and sacrificed the best of me. I gave her all my wealth, my aching flesh, my weakened dignity, my childhood traumas, my exhaustion, and my soul.
She rewarded me with the height of mountains and epiphanies of starlit nights. She gave me brilliant dawns and the intoxicating scent of gasoline mixed with Armani. She rewarded me with rich scarlet streaming from my nose - a wondrous affirmation that I was still alive. She let me see what the firemen would not. I caressed the silken robe of death and felt the thrill of coming close to his power.
She gave me addiction and I accepted it gratefully with the whole of my damaged heart.
She spoke to me in pictures. Like a shoe box of photos, new and old, dumped into my head. Some black and white, some color, some sepia with elaborate handwritten paragraphs on the back. Each a piece of me I barely understood. She dropped them one by one, first the large ones, the glossy 8 by 10’s with names and dates, then quicker came the faded 5 by 7’s, then the cascade of blurry 3 by 5’s and passport photos. They rained down on me like quiet hell.
"Jist git you a litt’l piece o’ vict’ry an y’ll understand, girl.” He had chaw tar dripping from the corner of his mouth, down the big wrinkled jowls that made him look like Methuselah’s bulldog. Pa finished the business about the hay and hustled me out of the shack. “Don’t listen to him”, he said, “He had a wife once that never owned a new dress and a boy that went barefoot all year long. More than enough money too, got it all squirreled away for the rapture. I reckon he’s gonna bribe Saint Peter.” Till a girl hits a certain age, the point when her arms get lean and long, her hips spread, her thighs get strong, and her feet plant firm enough to hold down during a knocking blow, she’s not worth much more than giving advice too. There’s plenty of it to give, apparently, and not much of it is worth the breath used to give it. But, that’s what little country girls are for, giving advice and sweet treats to, growing them up quick for working or breeding or both.
Click. Snap. Flip.
A country road, a red Chevy pickup. Old Scratch and me whittling the day away with little pointed words. “Echo, I don’t want to tell you more than you need to know, but let me make something clear. I’ve dunna lot in life and I know more than a few things about the world. Let me tell you – Never drink too much whiskey, smoke too many cigarettes, or run around with too many women and you’ll be just fine.” Uncle Duck died that winter from cancer. I suppose Ma and I are the only two people in the world who could rightfully say that we had mourned the devil.
Whirrrrrrrrr. Flash. Photos faster. Faster and faster. First a scrapbook, then a flipbook, then a Kinetoscope complete with carnival music and swirling nausea.
The City. The lights. My body writhing under pulsing strobes. Grown men falling off their bar stools before I’d even gotten started. Chain smoking. A lady or two to wrap my corn-fed thighs around. Southern charm enough to get boys to pay the bills.
110mph down a winding country road with a frosted nose and suspended fear. A dead catfish nailed to a road sign. Cherry blossoms fluttering down like soft pink rain.
A black eye. A busted lip. A cracked rib. Switch marks and blood.
Snap. Flash. Whirrrr.
A neighborhood. A boy’s face, blurry, and unrecognizable. Carolina holding my hand. My car. Me. Where? Cold.
Things that look like people.
Noises like insects, buzzing.
A blackbird. Dead in the snow.