Creative NonFiction by Barlow Adams
My sister had painted the kitchen a sickly green and her meatloaf was dry. The onions in it were too big and there were too many of them. It was mama’s old recipe. It was only old now because mama died a year ago. Before then, it was just mom’s recipe. Hell, before it was just meatloaf. My sister never made the dish before mom died. Now she made it every time I came over. Burned it like a damn effigy.
“How is it?” Sissy asked.
“Great.” I scraped a great glob of ketchup off the top with a fork and smeared it in a corner of my plate. It was a preposterous amount of ketchup. Mama would have never served it with so much ketchup. “Why green?” I jabbed my fork at the new paint job.
“I like green. Mom liked green. What’s wrong with green?” Her voice had an indignant quality to it at all times. It made it difficult to determine when she was truly offended. The difference was just the smallest change of pitch, an almost imperceptible contrast of shrill on shrill. I typically assumed the worst and was usually right.
She’d made corn and instant mashed potatoes to go with the meatloaf. The potatoes were awful, as are all instant mashed potatoes, and I could tell their very presence bothered her. Mom would’ve never served instant mashed potatoes, and their place at the table was a muddy boot on her grave. But Sissy had exhausted what little time and culinary skill she possessed on the faithless meatloaf. She’d done her best, as she always did.
I liked the corn. Corn is corn. I stuffed a heap of it into my mouth and spoke on behalf of my mama’s ghost while I chewed. “You didn’t like the wallpaper? With the birds? Mama loved birds.”
My sister frowned. “Yeah, she did. But the paper was peeling and nasty at the corners.”
“You could have bought new bird wallpaper.”
“I guess.” She looked around the room. She’d chosen a farm theme, and there were various knicknacks depicting tractors and bales of hay, tiny barns and giant cows towering over miniaturized grain silos. “I just thought a change would be nice. Mom grew up on a farm, you know.”
There was a set of Precious Moment figurines standing on the cupboard. They had been Mama’s, and were supposed to represent the painting American Gothic, but neither my mother nor my sister knew that. A prong on the man’s silver pitchfork had broken off.
My sister was born with a witch finger on both hands, between her index finger and thumb. Amputated when she was a baby. As a result her remaining thumbs were short, oddly bent digits that often made her clumsy. I ate some more corn and tried not to look at the damaged prong.
Sissy had quit her job for the deathwatch, and continued through the passing, moving into Mama’s old house–walking in the middle of our mother’s abandoned life like a guard in a museum.
Until she painted the museum green.
“Yeah,” I said. Then, because I had nothing else to offer, “Do you need money?” I had money. Money was an easy fix. I preferred to give money. It was the least painful charity I could extend.
“No,” my sister waved her hand in the air as if swatting down my offer. She relished her poverty, a special, unending kind of poorness brought about by her own generosity of spirit.
“I kept the bird clock,” Sissy said, and pointed to the clock hanging above the kitchen sink.
It was old, yellowed by two dozen years of Mama’s cigarette smoke. In the same spot since I was eight years old. At every hour it had a different species of bird painted beside the number. When the small hand struck a number, the clock would release an approximate call of that bird. Mama’s favorite was the American goldfinch, which was located at three o’clock.
It had been nearly noon when I arrived at my old house for lunch, and the scarlet tanager called out accordingly while my sister set out the mashed potatoes.
“I saw. Well, I heard.”
“Do you want it?”
“No, why would I want it?”
“I don’t know. Just if you did, you could have it.”
“Didn’t you get it for her?”
“It should be yours, then.”
“I got her lots of things.”
“But that’s special. It means something.”
“Doesn’t it all mean something? I’m sure everything here means something to someone. Are we to divide it all up, then? Award it based on some sort of sentimentality scale?”
Sissy was a large woman with a perpetually red face and the air around her was always thick with emotion, like rain clouds fat with water. She had her own humidity, a hot, wet oppressiveness that threatened to close her throat at all times. After my comment, the space between us grew soggy with her feelings and her voice caught when she spoke. “Yeah, I guess it does….I don’t understand why you don’t care. It’s all special…it’s all precious.” She sobbed out this last bit and turned her head to stare at some knick-knack on the wall, only turning back when she was sure she wouldn’t cry. I poked at my meatloaf a few times then gave up and pushed my plate out of the way.
When my sister spoke, her voice was a thin sheet of glass. “You didn’t eat much?” She made it sound like a question.
I had to stop myself from asking for more corn. “Not very hungry.”
She eyed me suspiciously, but my answer seemed at least plausible to her. “Stress?”
“I guess,” I said, and got up to take my plate toward the trash.
Sissy jumped up and took the plate from my hands. “You don’t have to do that here. You’re a guest,” she said, before walking to the garbage can and emptying the unwanted food into the receptacle.
I frowned. “Sis, I’ve done it a thousand times. It’s no big deal.”
“Well,” she said, as she brought the empty plate to the sink and immediately loaded it into the dishwasher. “You don’t have to anymore.”
The dishwasher was new. Mama never owned one. She didn’t trust them.
I stared at the bird clock. Fifteen more minutes until the tufted titmouse told me it was one o’clock. I yearned to hear its call.
“You’re allowed to be upset, you know,” she continued.
“Well are you? Upset, I mean.”
“Not about mom. About being here. Does being here upset you?”
“Why would it?”
“I don’t know,” my sister said without turning around. “Why would it?”
I didn’t answer at first, and only replied when it became obvious she was going to repeat herself if I didn’t. “I have a house, sis.”
“I know. But this was your house. The one you grew up in.”
“And I saw you more days than not. Besides, you need the house.”
“There was nothing wrong with my old house.”
“It was falling apart, sis. Besides, that neighborhood started off bad and now it’s worse.”
I could feel the room getting muggy again. “That neighborhood is just fine. I never had a problem. Lots of good people still there.”
“I’m just saying you can still have it.”
“I couldn’t if I wanted. And I don’t. It’s yours. We went through this. It’s all legal and official now.”
“I don’t care what the law says.” And there was my sister in seven words.
I fiddled with her salt and pepper shakers. One was shaped like a scarecrow dressed in black and the other was a milkmaid. “Is the box of stuff still in dad’s office?”
“It’s a storage room now, but yes. It’s not much. Some trophies and stuff, a baseball glove, that Davy Crockett hat you got on vacation.”
“Junk, pretty much?”
“Mom would want you to have it.”
“I’m sure.” Then, because the question burned its way out of my head before I had time to stop it. “Do you ever feel her here? Like…more…than other places?”
Sissy gave me a look like I was an idiot. “There’s nothing to feel.”
What had been my dad’s office was a cluttered collection of a life only I remembered. Old suits and dresses still draped furniture that hadn’t been used since mama died. She’d done so right in this room, leaning back in a La-Z-Boy surrounded by family. The La-Z-Boy was gone. So was the smell of sickness, of iodine and vomit. Instead, the room was stuffy with neglect and overburdened with memories. Even the open windows couldn’t circulate enough air to disperse the dust.
I focused on the large box that sat where my father’s desk once had, and lost myself in it as quickly as possible so that I might escape the echoes still ringing in the corners of the room.
Most of the trophies were broken and the cardboard box rattled with the snapped limbs of metal football players and assorted action figures, from which time had taken the integrity of the rubber and the sanity of their assemblage.
The baseball glove my sister mentioned wasn’t mine. It was my cousin’s, who was left-handed. I tried it on, though I knew it would be too small to slide over my knuckles. When I held the glove and covered my face with it the scent of leather was intoxicating. I wondered had it been mine, would it have had a different smell after soaking up my childhood?
The coonskin hat was fake, of course. My parents had bought it for me in Nashville during one of our vacations, at a Tennessee-themed gift shop where everyone dressed like cowboys. I’d wanted a frilled jacket like Randy Travis wore, but it was too expensive. The faux-coonskin hat had been a compromise, an affordable victory for both me and my parents.
Unfortunately, they’d been out of the hat in kids’ sizes so we bought an adult. I wore it non-stop for the rest of vacation. In most of the pictures we took for the photo album, the too-large hat hung low and hid half my face. Mom was furious when we got the pictures developed, declaring the hat the worst thing she’d ever bought me, and the “ruiner” of our memories. Didn’t matter, I wore it for the rest of that summer, slept in the damn thing. Even after the tail tore off when it got caught in the screen door, I still wore it, with its ratty imitation fur and nub of a tail.
Until one day I didn’t. I abandoned it the way children often abandon things, without malice or concern. I didn’t grow to dislike the hat as much as it ceased to matter. It no longer called me from its place on my hat rack, and soon it lost even that distinction and drifted into the same ether that claimed G.I. Joes that fell between the cushions of the couch and the timeless summer days of my youth, only to show up years later in a box of broken memories.
Without thinking I stuck it on my head and was surprised to see it fit. The lining had been weakened from a summer’s worth of sweat. Age hadn’t done it any favors, either, causing the elastic to deteriorate unevenly so that it clung tightly to the left side of my head but hung floppy off the right. I left it on because it felt like the closest I would ever be to Tennessee again.
In the bottom of the box was my old lever-action Daisy BB gun. It was still noisy with BBs when I fished it out. The duct tape that hid the crack in the stock had come off but the sticky residue remained and it stuck against the fabric of my shirt as I put it to my shoulder and took aim at nothing in particular. I gave the lever a few pumps and was pleased to hear the sound of air compressing. It still worked.
My father had collected guns: pistols, shotguns, rifles, whatever he could get his hands on, and though he rarely shot them he spoke with great passion about their importance and about his right to own them, how they might one day be the only thing standing between the good people of this country and a suddenly tyrannical government.
I’d already seen The Blue Angels by then, and I knew dad and his collection of firearms would have no chance against them. I never said as much, because I longed for him to teach me how to use those glorious, adult weapons. And he did. Some. Under very close supervision, with lots of rules, which made wielding the awesome power of life and death much less fun than I’d anticipated. Plus they really hurt my ears.
The BB gun was another compromise. It was far less dangerous, and it allowed me the freedom to do what I wanted to do with the proper firearms: walk around and look cool. And that was the majority of what I did. I surveyed the yard and kept it safe from dangers, real (garter snakes, which my mother detested) and imaginary (everything else). I peered out my bedroom window at night and made sure no enemy force encroached on our house under cover of dark. I even trained our poodle, Frisky, as a hunting dog using a stuffed Sonic the Hedgehog I told him to imagine as a fox.
My mom indulged these fantasies because they kept the hated snakes from the yard and me out of her hair. Until I started to hunt her birds.
I’m not sure when it occurred to me that our yard, dotted as it was with bird houses and bird feeders, was–to a bird unaware that a sharpshooting safari hunter lived there–less of an aviary sanctuary and more of an irresistible death trap. For two days I visited unmerciful death upon the winged visitors to my domain. On the third day, mama went to mow the lawn and found the bodies, shades of fallen color on a green eternity. Bluejays, cardinals, orange-bellied robins, and green-headed grackles had all given way to my rifle expertise.
I watched from my window as she gathered the bright corpses and pitched them into a trash can. I could see her agitation even from there.
I decided to take my BB gun and escape to avoid punishment, somewhere remote where Mama would never find me, where I could live off the land, just me and my rifle and the big beard I would grow, never returning to civilization.
I packed three pairs of socks and a sweater when she burst into my room and demanded an explanation before spanking me and taking my BB gun, which she said I could have back when I became responsible enough to handle it.
I could hear her crying behind me while she spanked me. It was the only time she ever spanked me that I didn’t shed a tear. I was too scared, too embarrassed, too ashamed of the suffering I had conjured in her. She had been irritated at me before, even angry, but never hurt, never crushed. I didn’t know I had that power, not sure she did either, and the day we found out was terrible for us both.
I mourned for days after and barely ate, just moping my way through my unarmed life. I was a civilian again. Powerless. My parents ignored my complaints of vulnerability. Even my dad’s outrage and opinions concerning gun rights were nowhere to be found in the presence of Mama’s withering anger. Dad, it seemed, was less afraid to fight the government than to fight my mother. I didn’t blame him.
A week later I started peewee football and vacated the idea of myself as a frontiersman or soldier and replaced it with a vision of myself as Barry Sanders. I forgot about the BB gun.
But I never forgot my mama’s face when she came into my room the day she found the dead birds.
It was a battle there in my dad’s old room. That ripe memory of her, red-faced and larger than life, her disappointment a lash against the flesh of my unweathered heart, juxtaposed against the silent movie of her death that played in my head every time my mind wandered to the spot where that cursed La-Z-Boy had sat. I longed for the awfulness that was the first memory, the unbearable weight of her sadness, back when her sadness seemed huge and important and unsurvivable. Anything but the terrible enormity of the world in the second memory, when I was a man and she a small, brittle old woman dissolving in front of my eyes.
I might have stayed there forever, ground thin between the edges of those competing memories, if the finch hadn’t called out to me.
Three o’clock? How had I lost track of so much time?
I wandered back into the kitchen still wearing my coonskin hat and carrying my BB gun. My sister, who was now drinking coffee at the table and reading a magazine, gave me an odd look, but I paid her no mind. I looked up at the clock. I had missed the tufted titmouse’s song while in the other room, but still almost forty minutes until the red-winged blackbird announced that it was two.
Then, where had the sound come from?
I heard it again, the rapid-fire trilling that was the male of the species calling out. I followed the noise back into the old office and realized it was coming from outside, piped in through the window. It cried again.
Without stopping to respond to my sister, who called my name several times, I walked back through the kitchen and out the door to find the source.
Mama kept her yard manicured with a persistence that bordered on compulsive. Sissy didn’t share this fastidiousness, and the lawn, especially toward the back where we’d kept a garden, grew thick in patches. Not unruly, but more wild than Mama would have allowed.
Most noticeable, however, were the birdhouses. Growing up, there had been dozens and dozens, feeders too, all of them handcarved of wood and containing astonishing intricacies.
My uncle made them. He’d worked in a steel mill, but carpentry was his hobby. A deeply emotional and affectionate man, he’d never mastered a way to verbally communicate these feelings, and so he made things. I had a toy chest he had carved with my name on it. My sisters had rocking horses. And mama, who was his favorite sibling even though it was impolite to admit, had her birdhouses.
None of them were alike, each representing a different real-life building: a library, a schoolhouse, a jail, all of them painted and decorated in small, wonderful ways. They had started simple–a log cabin, a general store–and burgeoned into complex, obscure things. There was a Roman bathhouse and a power plant, a train station, and a beach bungalow. Mama had referred to the birds by the birdhouses they lived in.
“A new couple is staying at the motel. Out of towners, it looks like,” she’d say. Or, “It seems the sparrows have abandoned the police station. Crime will run rampant. We can only hope there’s no trouble at the saloon.” It became a running joke, and when the houses were full in high spring we had an entire village to gossip about over dinner.
Birds are not careful tenants, however. While meticulous in nature, birds were nervous creatures and they worried the wood off door frames and pecked the paint from signs. While she lived, mama had seen to the renovations, repairing the houses between seasons and chasing away the magpies and crows and blue jays. But in her absence, the neighborhood had gone downhill, and in just a year the property value must have been through the floor as most of the houses were already peeled by the sun or wrecked by undesirable residents.
Her favorite house was the church, and it seemed to have escaped the damage some of the other buildings suffered. She referred to the residents of this house as her “holy birds.” It was there that I found the pair of goldfinches, singing and leading their blessed lives.
They’d gathered up a nest, though it remained empty. I knew it contained milkweed and thistle, as finches preferred such things. The male wasn’t the brilliant yellow he would have been in spring. His colors had dulled the slightest bit as he neared his late summer molt, and the female looked positively drab.
They would be on watch now–in the hot days of early summer, waiting out the evenings until the female dropped her eggs–guarding their grand house from brown-headed cowbirds. Cowbirds didn’t nest themselves, but laid eggs in the homes of other birds hoping to usurp their property.
I knew all this at a glance. Just as I knew that even if a cowbird managed to cuckold the finches into raising their young, the babies wouldn’t survive because the American goldfinch was vegetarian, living off of seeds and forgoing insects, and the cowbird young simply couldn’t make it on that diet.
I knew these things because Mama knew them. Because of dinnertime gossip about our feathered friends. Mama was not an educated woman, but what she didn’t know about birds….
I wanted to not know it, wanted more than anything to forget–to invent another story, any story so long as it wasn’t true. I put the BB gun to my shoulder and put the less colorful female between the sights.
Though they could not have known the danger, they piped up under the barrel of my gun, calling to each other in staccato bursts, trilling off some secret warning. It was impossible to tell them apart by sound, and I hated myself for remembering that paired-up finches made virtually identical calls.
I switched between them, taking a turn placing each in my sights, and they chirped all the while. Warm red mouths open and throbbing in panic at some unperceived threat they couldn’t know was there.
I hated them in that instant, for their weakness, for their unity, for living a perfect, vibrant life in the middle of my ruinous graveyard.
Without thinking, without even meaning to, I’d been pumping the lever of the gun, and when I squeezed the trigger the pressurized air forced the BB out with a thunk. It was not a great sound, a gasp of breath, but it set the two birds to the wing. For the male it was a brief flutter that sent him to a branch on a nearby tree. But the female didn’t make it. She stayed airborne for only an instant before she fell, wings out, spiraling down to the ground.
The male only called to her at first. I trained my gun on him and watched him sing his useless song. He sang long and hard and loud, that trilling call of his. It seemed empty now in its uniqueness. It was hard to imagine that there had ever been one just like it. Indistinguishable from it.
He landed lightly beside her and nudged her, twittered into her neck, but she lay motionless. They were cheap sharp sounds and they had no power over death. When his song proved ineffective he pranced. He pranced and paced and called out in what had been her voice to the sky in his dumb, little bird way. And when that didn’t work he returned to the birdhouse. He sat and waited and sang, because that is what he had always done.
I thought about killing him. I pumped the BB gun back up, felt the tightness of the coiled air and put my finger on the trigger. But I couldn’t stop watching him, sitting there in his sacred home under the watchful eyes of whatever god birds prayed to, with his empty nest and his suddenly empty life. It occurred to me that if someone came now, without having ever seen or heard the female, it might appear like it had always been this way. It infuriated me that it didn’t look much different, and it infuriated me that it did. It infuriated me that the male just sat there like nothing had happened. It infuriated me the way he just kept living.
Stupid bird. Go. There’s nothing here for you now. I jerked the gun to the left and pulled the trigger. The sound frightened the male and he fluttered off and screamed, but after a minute he was back in his holy abode chirping stupidly.
I pumped the lever a dozen times and fired again. This time the BB found the wall of the church and knocked over the tiny marquee saying, “Come this Sunday. Every birdie welcome!” Again the male flew away only to return a few minutes later.
I shot again. And again. I shot until the white of the bird church was peppered with impact scars, but still he returned. Go. Get the hell out of here! Go! My arm ached from pumping air and still I kept at it, firing shot after shot until I was out of BBs, until pulling the trigger rewarded me with nothing but the rushing of air.
After my bullets were gone, the bird still remained, chirping. Not knowing what else to do, I walked up to the church and swung my BB gun like a club, sending the male shooting into the sky and bits of wood and thistle flying. Another swing took the birdhouse from its perch and broke off the already cracked stock of my rifle. Once the church was on the ground I hammered at it with what was left of my weapon, smashing it into bits, breaking it down into something unrecognizable.
A small shape whizzed by my head and I realized the male goldfinch was dive-bombing me. He zigged around my head, screeching his rage and sorrow. I swung my broken rifle at him but he dodged it easily. After a few minutes we were both exhausted. He retreated to the tree and trilled at me without breath or pause. I stood amid the ruins of the birdhouse, shoulders shaking with the effort of my anger.
I stared down the bird then pointed down to his dead mate, who lay a few steps from the broken house. “This? This is nothing. This is meat. There’s nothing here for you now!”
The finch hopped about in agitation and chirped.
I threw the wreck of my rifle down and walked away and sat on the grass, propped up on my hands. When I didn’t move for ten minutes, the finch became brave enough to fly down to the carnage I had wrought.
He shuffled his gold and black body through the rubble of what had been his life. He hopped to the corpse of his mate and briefly danced on her body. Returning to the smashed birdhouse, he called out twice, then rooted through the wreckage until he found the unused nest. It was torn on one side now and flat on the other. He picked it up in his beak and flew back to the nearby branch. Once there, he dropped it and poked at it like a weaver examining a broken loom. He screeched.
I got up, walked over, and picked up the dead female. The male cried louder than ever. I ignored him and carried the body to the trash can that sat by the side of the house. I dropped her in and closed the lid. The male never stopped his calling and his attention never left me.
I walked back in the house to find my sister waiting in the kitchen. “Are you okay? What have you been doing?”
“I’m fine,” I said, and I meant it.
Then the clock struck three and I heard that sweet song and I cried.
When she asked if she could do anything, I asked if I might have some more meatloaf. When she brought it back out, I sat in my worn-out coonskin hat and ate and cried and when I finished, I asked for more.