Fiction by Elizabeth Walztoni
Casey Fried’s grandfather had often told her that she was one of God’s honest children. He never would explain what it meant, to be one, but said the fact she could not understand was proof of it. She still thought about it wherever she went. God’s honest child has clocked in for first shift at the Marathon. They were out of unfiltered Lucky Strike shorts and Casey put one hand behind her to push their empty spring loader back and forth.
The Marathon stood empty almost all the time because the BP across the street sold its gas four cents cheaper on the gallon. She watched people come and go someplace else and dug her nails against the spiraling flesh of her elbows until it was time to walk home across five minutes of her ten-minute town. Outside the light hung gold like the sun was going down. She put her other hand on the counter and pressed her fingers down one by one so the knuckles turned white and the fingernails pink.
When she looked up, Lee and Hirsh had pulled in to the second pump in Lee’s rattling green truck with the rust arcing over the wheel wells. They left the engine running and sat talking to each other. The windows were rolled down. In the bed of the pickup a pitchfork and several shovels rested against a pile of lumber. Two sparrows dipped towards each other and away at the edge of the roof covering the gas pumps.
Casey knew Lee and Hirsh from the years they played cards with her grandfather before he had been struck by visions and left town. They nodded at her now and called her darlin but did not come by the house anymore. Her grandmother never liked them, and she pulled her velour armchair under the air conditioning unit in the living room window and scraped at the skin of her thumbs and said good riddance. Casey had grown up to share the habit of worrying her hands like this and where she stood behind the register she rolled quarters between her palms and yanked out blonde hairs that she let fall to the white countertop, shining and colorless in the yellow sun, blinded by the sunlight glancing off the flavored corn chip bags.
Lee got out of the truck and stood facing the pump. His grey ponytail was tucked under the collar of his shirt as if he had not cared to pull it out. Casey could see strips of pink skin through the places where his hair strung together over his head. Lee ducked back into the truck, said something to Hirsh and put on his hat, and they both walked toward the station together. Casey could see now, without Hirsh’s midsection blocking the inside of the truck, that something large and square covered by a stained sheet sat in the middle of the bench seat. She bent below the counter as if looking for something so she would not have to figure out how to arrange her face as she watched them walk inside.
The door bell clanged and Casey stood up.
Hi, darlin, how are you? Lee asked. Hirsh beamed at her and raised one hand in greeting. They brought with them a smell of grease and sun into the white air conditioning.
Hey, trouble, Casey said and put her hair behind her ear. I’m good. What’s up?
Lee looked at Hirsh, who turned his eyes to crescents with a smile. He was not smiling, Lee wasn’t, but he never had done that much smiling. He wore a feather wrapped to the band of his baseball cap with gut twine and it brushed his leathery ear.
Not so bad. I’ll take 40 on 2, and then we have something for you outside.
Anything for you, Casey said and smiled. Her face felt stiff like her knees when it rained. She punched in the sale. Die cut letters on the window reading BEAT THE HEAT WORK WITH COOL PEOPLE shadowed their words across her face and the cigarette wall. She had started this job for the $250 bonus they gave new hires after four months, which she wanted to save for a van to live in one day. Lee handed her his cash and Hirsh held up two fingers that he pointed at the Marlboros.
You got that Mother Mary look on your face, Lee said as she turned to pull the packs from their tension rods. Casey’s father used to say that about her, when she wasn’t speaking to anybody and looking into nowhere, that she had a face on like one of those tortured statues in church with the tears painted around their eyes. He never meant it as a good thing. It was a comment on the hysteric nature of women, he said to her grandfather once. Casey shrugged down at the register as she scanned the pack.
Well, it’s Monday, she said.
Hirsh took his change and waved her towards the door. She looked around the empty parking lot and lifted up the counter divider to duck out after them. Lee was shorter than her and Hirsh taller. The light outside fell longer and older and their shadows stretched one-two-three across the gasoline-stained pavement.
Hirsh opened the pickup door and stood behind it, pressing its handle against his waist. Lee stepped forward and motioned Casey near to him, into the smell of his hair oil and the dusty carpet upholstery. He pulled the sheet from a dog cage and Hirsh leaned through the window as they looked in on the body of a hawk thrashing sideways against the sudden light.
The bird’s pupils stretched wide and wet-looking, turning loosely inside its narrow red face. Feathers split from the small curve of its head and its fraying yellow beak picked at the thin bars of the cage, which Casey figured was left over from the years Lee spent breeding beagles in his backyard. The bird made a strangled noise and dragged its right wing behind it in a tight, swaying circle.
Oh, Casey said. She put a hand on the inside of the car door. Where’d you find him?
Lee stared at the hawk. The leathered skin around his strong nose did not move. He smiled then and pushed the feather in his hat back behind his ear. Hirsh had brought it for him from the body of a peacock he found dead on the New York City sidewalk when his ex wife made him take her on that trip years ago. Hirsh met the woman at the American Legion bar and married her in two months. They didn’t stay married too long. I’d rather be laying in hell with my back broke, Hirsh had said.
Hirsh found him hit in the road and sent me an email, Lee said. He did not look at her, still watching the bird, his fingers barely resting on the top bars of the cage. Nearly tore my gloves apart trying to get him in here.
The bird had slowed its movements but still beat its wings against the metal.
I think I’ve seen him before, Casey said. On the electricity poles off Zellman.
Lee looked up at her then.
A bird is a bird, honey, he said.
Casey shrugged. Maybe. What’re you going to do with him?
Thought I might keep him in the house, Lee looked at her and grinned. Pet hawk.
Something’s been killing my chickens and I want to settle up.
They have to eat too, don’t they?
Look, put your finger here. Lee ignored her and pushed through the top bar of the cage and the hawk snapped up at him. He drew his arm back and it brushed Casey’s shoulder. She reached careful to the edge of the cage and the hawk flapped his wings and thrust his beak towards her and his face hit the bars. The beak nearly latched onto her finger but she only felt it brush by. Lee and Hirsh both smiled and laughed, and the sun had shifted to sit on the back of her neck, and another car pulled onto the lot.
I’ve got to go, she said.
Come by the house tonight, now, Lee said and Hirsh stepped back. Come see us.
I will, alright.
Casey did not know whether really she had seen the hawk before or not. She did know it was unoriginal to think so. Nothing outside meant so much on its own. Her grandfather would say otherwise to her when he was around. He’d tell her to put down her homework in the empty afternoons and pull her into the yard and point to the things he knew something about. This number of crows in the yard–a bad thing is coming. This bird of prey–you need to be careful. That sparrow, he knows you too.
In that last year he turned to finding deeper signs in these things which before had only touched him. Casey watched. She felt the way he did, but to him feelings had a clarity, an urgency, a resolving point that she never could find for herself. The screen door banged against the kitchen wall at night when he wandered outside after the revelations that did not stretch to reach her too.
It had been shown to him one morning, while drinking his coffee on the porch before sunrise, that he was being followed by the spirit of the uncle who raised him. The things he felt and said in this place were not fully his own, though they were things he was proud of, pieces of himself he wanted. He talked to her careful and urgent and steady like trying to deliver her from his knowledge.
Casey tried to act as though she understood this danger and its fixing but she was never a good pretender. She had to be whoever she was and there was no modifying that, no matter where it came from. You are followed too, he said, you may not be your own. You must ask for help and keep your innocence about you.
She walked around the corner and down the street to her home. With one arm across herself she pushed the fingers over her ribs. There were the ridges and hollows and there she was inside. Her family lived in a small house with a carport. The backyard looked over a soybean field and trees growing up behind it, shading miles of field beyond. Her grandmother was out visiting a friend and her father at work still. The things inside the house sat still and waiting and watched. Casey put her fingers over the doilies and chairs and wall plaster on the way to the kitchen, where she ate two pieces of toast standing in front of the screen door, looking into the yard for a sign of a bird.
She thought she might not drive to Lee’s tonight. Though she felt he and Hirsh were good, she saw some cold torturous instinct of men in them today, the way they looked at the hawk for being helpless. This look was one she had seen at school and in woodlots and cornfields of nighttime and it frightened her. Sometimes it burned through her in the men she wanted to notice her who did not. There the instinct came to flesh in a different way: she could be gutted by indifference and consumed by nothing. All of this was there underneath and ready to come loose should she ever step wrong. Because she could not understand these things and thus could not protect herself, she could only get free by staying a ways off.
For these reasons she wanted to be alone in the evening and did not want to see Lee and Hirsh grinning over that bird with its own life gone. If she stayed home she could look out her window upstairs and work on her hook and latch rug of a smiley face, which her grandmother had brought home from the craft store clearance rack. She would put on the radio and listen to the advice callers until the sun went down. But her grandmother came home in an angry mood and her father came home on time, and the house felt too full, so after they picked over cold pork chops she walked down the driveway still hot from the sun and drove down the road in her grandmother’s car.
Trees moved faster than fields along the roads out of town and down another dirt road and a long turning driveway to Lee’s house. He and Hirsh sat on the porch each holding a beer. The cage was uncovered at their feet and Lee rested his boots on the top.
Hirsh raised his hand and waved and Casey watched their faces as she slid from the sedan to the gravel driveway. The house stood two white stories, mossy green where the clapboard overlapped, the windows covered inside by tacked-up bedsheets. Lee’s remaining chickens bobbed in their run next to the porch. A pile of sawed logs and loose branches loomed behind them with a riding lawnmower parked beside it.
The river snaking flat across the road held a layer of haze from the day. Casey wrapped an arm around the porch column and leaned against it. She pushed her fingers into the bubbling paint.
Here I am, she said.
It’s good to see you, honey, Lee said.
He held out his hand to a third plastic chair. Casey slid into it and crossed her legs and looked over her knees into the crate. The bird did not thrash anymore. It rested sideways against the bars of the crate and its loose liquid eye swung between Lee’s feet and Casey’s face.
Hirsh lit his pipe and flicked the match to the ground. Casey watched the water flattening and turning and felt the near distance of Lee and Hirsh’s elbows. They sat next to her and said nothing. They had what they wanted.
A black vulture wheeled slow over something dead in the road. Casey’s pulse moved in the skin over her eyes. The bird spiraled down until its shadow grazed Lee’s patchy lawn. Its wings pulled tight with a greasy sound as it dove into the chicken run onto the chest of a hen. Lee ran from the porch towards it, shouting and waving his arms with Hirsh behind him. The chicken made a low strangled screaming sound that shook in the low trunks of the trees.
Casey sat still on the porch. She looked down at the hawk. It crouched flat and low in its cage, one wing pulled to its back and the other splayed out. Several feathers spread through the bars and brushed the porch. The flat plastic of the chair’s arms touched Casey’s palms but she did not run its sides between her fingers.
She could not remember what she was doing with her hands on the last night she saw her grandfather. They were sitting in the back yard drinking seltzer and watching the lightning bugs. He had begun to cry, and the thin metal can buckled in planes under her frightened hand.
You are innocent, he had said to her, putting one hand in her hair against the dark of the full night. I want you to know. His fingers stuck in the tangles below her head. You are good, and people do bad things to you. You don’t deserve it.
His voice was short and the night crickets faded under it. Casey had cried then too. She asked him was she still innocent if she knew she was, after he had told her now, had he ruined it. Would she become bad if it was true she had been good before. He had looked over her head and his hand was still and the light flickered.
To be innocent was not always to be good, she got it wrong. The birds were innocent and they did not know, they did not know anything of themselves through those wet eyes, and which innocence suffered more? Lee and Hirsh shouted to each other in the yard over the chicken who had fallen silent. The bird that killed it circled up into the night. On the porch of the house Casey’s blood thickened and the hawk lay down in its cage.
Elizabeth Walztoni’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Eclectica Magazine, FRiGG, The Schuylkill Valley Journal, and elsewhere. She is Short Fiction Editor at Five South. Her work has been nominated for Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize.