Excerpt

The Great American Songbook

Sam Allingham

November 22, 2016 
The following is from Sam Allingham’s collection, The Great American Songbook. Allingham’s essays and criticism have appeared in The Millions and Full Stop, and his fiction in No Tokens, Five Points, and One Story, among others. He lives in West Philadelphia.

Husbandry

 

One Saturday morning, three months after her father’s death, Cheryl wakes up early—barely gray dawn—to find her mother sitting at the kitchen table, a rifle in her hands.

The kitchen is arrayed for breakfast. The coffeepot drips. Bacon fat congeals in the cast-iron pan. Above the burners, on the part of the wall behind the stove’s dirty hood, a sign in needlepoint reads: Martha Stewart Doesn’t Live Here.

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Her mother does not drink coffee or enjoy bacon. These were her father’s favorites.

Cheryl likes bacon. She’s not so sure about coffee: a privilege she’s never been allowed.

“Go ahead,” her mother said. “Help yourself.”

Her mother’s appearance is confusing. No makeup, but traces of it from yesterday, shadows of vanished eyeliner that clash with the rest of her outfit: her father’s favorite fall hunting jacket, a soft mass of quilted fabric in a camouflage pattern.

Cheryl stands in the doorway, unsure of how to proceed. “Where are you going?”

Her mother strokes the rifle’s barrel with a sad expression, as if the gun were a sick animal she was taking to the hospital, or else out back, to put it out of its misery. “Henry said he’d take me along today.”

Henry is one of her father’s friends—if you can call men “friends” who only see each other on Saturdays in autumn, talking little, driving out on cold mornings to shoot deer.

“Hunting?” Cheryl asks.

Her mother nods softly. She is a tall woman, taller than Cheryl’s father had been, and the hunting jacket doesn’t look as ridiculous on her as it might have on someone smaller. Still, she seems uncomfortable swaddled in its folds.

Her mother has never hunted before—not to Cheryl’s knowledge. She wonders if the gentle way her mother strokes the barrel is an attempt to learn the rifle’s use by touch alone.

A horn calls from outside: Henry’s two soft bleats. Cheryl knows the sound by heart. It sometimes breaks her hazy Saturday sleep, entering her dreams.

Her mother gets up. “Have coffee if you want.” The kitchen light shows remnants of powder in the lines of her face. She has a hard time holding the gun and opening the door at the same time.

Once her mother is gone, Cheryl takes her coffee out onto the porch, overlooking the north end of Boyer Street. She strains her eyes toward the center of town, across from the Crosby General Store, where the ginko berries fall around the historic monument: orange-yellow ovals, uncrushed by human feet. The light is up; a mourning dove coos: Cheryl’s favorite bird, with its throaty cry. It makes its own echo.

Cheryl wants to become an ornithologist. She’s good at biology.

The coffee is bitter, but she drinks it all.

* * * *

Cheryl has never been hunting—except for once, when she was seven and her mother was away at a conference in Middletown. Cheryl only remembers snatches: the shadows of men moving quietly between trees, a rifle blast shattering the air. They say the deer carcass, dripping blood—two men carrying it between them—made her sick, but Cheryl doesn’t remember. Whenever her father and Henry joked about it, she would wonder if they made it up to remind her she was a girl.

Not that she ever wanted to repeat the experience; not that hunting seemed fun. On Saturdays Cheryl sometimes found her father at the table, hands wrapped around a coffee cup, complaining. His joints ached, his back ached, he’d rather stay in the hammock out back, drinking beer and reading car magazines.

On days when he came back with a deer, Cheryl would watch him through the window of the garage, hanging the field-dressed carcass on a hook, cutting the hide from lip to breastbone, removing the skin of the face to expose the naked teeth. He put on talk radio, and went about his work in slow silence, the way she imagined people worked in factories—as her father had, once, as a teenager, before getting his job as a salesman.

* * * *

It doesn’t take long for word to get out about her mother’s hunting trip. Cheryl assumes Henry’s wife Edna is to blame; everyone knows Edna is a gossip. They must have had a telephone chain that Saturday, spreading the news, because by the time Cheryl sits down in the high school cafeteria on Monday, all the girls from Danville—all her friends in the world—think they know the story.

“Your mom bring anything back?” Marcie asks, as if it were a casual question.

“Nah, bet she didn’t,” Jennifer says. “Prolly ain’t much of a shot.”

Cheryl wishes she could be at one of the other tables, with kids from Mullica Corners, or Watertown, or Stow Creek: any of the other tribes where cruel talk is kept less brazen, out of respect for grief.

“Well, I think it shows respect,” Molly says.

Molly is Cheryl’s best friend, but today everything about her seems silly: her blue track suit with a horse logo emblazoned on the chest, the yellow bands that keep her hair up in double tails.

“You know,” Molly adds. “Respect for your dad.”

“Shut up, Molly,” Cheryl says, low and hard, so everyone will know she’s serious.

Molly looks down at the hands folded in her lap. Cheryl can hear the boys at the next table, discussing the Sixers’ chances for a championship.

“It’s not right,” Tristan says. “Your mom shouldn’t try to take on your dad’s role. Men and women are made different in God’s image.”

Tristan is the only boy at their table, and the official tenth-grade amateur theologian. The girls tolerate him, Cheryl thinks, because they assume he’s gay, though whether he knows that himself is unclear. Usually Cheryl sympathizes with his confusion, but today he seems small and contemptible.

“Fuck God,” Cheryl says and gets up to leave.

“Your dad wouldn’t have wanted you to say that!” Tristan yells.

* * * *

Tristan is right. Cheryl’s father—while no churchgoer—would never have wanted her to say something so vicious. Her father was steadfast, decent; when people spoke of him it was as if they were speaking of a soldier who had died in battle—and this was when he was alive.

         Your father, they’d say, has never said an unkind word in his life.

This always seemed odd to Cheryl; not because her father wasn’t as decent as people thought he was (though sometimes she wondered), but because he had the least decent of human occupations: used-car salesman. Maybe they spoke of him this way because his boss, Ed Presley, was such a terrible person. Shyster, people called him—although Cheryl assumed most businessmen had to be shysters, sometimes.

His profession might be dishonest, his products often defective, but Cheryl’s father had a way of convincing the customer that although this ’92 Impala might have some loose gaskets it was the best they could hope for in their price range, and if there were any problems he could recommend a mechanic that would take care of it for much cheaper than the one over at Mullica Corners. But until the process was complete—until the money changed hands, assuring happiness—Cheryl’s father worried. He was the conduit through which everything flowed.

Cheryl wonders now, after the accident, if her father was ever actually a decent man, or if he was simply tormented into it, bullied by forces he couldn’t control. He seemed to be always defending himself against some accusation, just around the corner. Can a person live righteously, if only out of fear?

* * * *

Now her mother lives fearfully, shouldering her father’s responsibilities.

Not that Cheryl can blame her for feeling overwhelmed. She works full-time as a guidance counselor at Watertown High, rushes home every afternoon to make dinner, and then, in the little bit of autumn daylight left, she takes tin cans out to the edge of the field and sets them up on the half-broken slats of the wood fence.

Cheryl hears the shots ring out, but they don’t hit. Her aim is still poor.

Slowly, though, this changes. In early evening, sitting on the toilet in the back bathroom, Cheryl notices the hollow knock, strangely wooden, of the pierced cans falling.

Her mother has begun drinking coffee. Maybe this helps.

But it isn’t her mother’s external changes that bother Cheryl: jeans instead of skirts, the silent hours she spends in the garage, once her rifle skills have improved, trying to dress her first kill using an instructional manual.

She doesn’t even mind when her mother comes out afterward soaked in blood. At least now she knows Henry’s story about her one hunting trip was a lie; she doesn’t faint or vomit, watching the stray flies circling her mother’s head.

What bothers Cheryl is her mother’s inner transformation.

Her father always relied on her mother for lightness. Worn down, worried, he needed her jokes and soothing words. She poured pancakes in the shapes of bears and squirrels. She smelled like lemon and sang songs that were cheesy but full of peace:

 

And all through my coffee break time – I say a little prayer for you!

         * * * *

Now her mother mumbles instead of singing, and she stoops: this woman who always carried herself so well, as if she’d walked around balancing books on her head as a child.

Cheryl is embarrassed. People whisper that her mother is letting herself go; there are knots in her formerly perfect dirty-blonde hair, and she wears the hunting jacket when she runs to check the mail. Who could blame Cheryl for being a little ashamed? No sixteen-year-old girl wants to be the object of public scrutiny, even by relation.

And there are extra duties for Cheryl, now that it’s just the two of them—duties she finds unpleasant.

“Why don’t you take over some of the cooking?” Her mother’s voice is quiet and sad: her dad’s old way of speaking. “Just a little help.”

So Cheryl doesn’t go back to her job at the counter of Stow Creek Sub and Pizza, as she’d planned to, once the mourning period was over; instead she learns the basic tricks of home cuisine: how to smash a clove of garlic with the side of a knife, how to keep rice from burning, how tomatoes give up their juice.

Now Molly comes by in the afternoon, wearing her pink sweatshirt, and finds Cheryl in the kitchen, cooking, her hair up in a messy bun.

“Boys are playing football in the lot,” Molly says, tugging her ponytail nervously. “You wanna come out?”

“Busy,” Cheryl sighs.

“Fine,” Molly says, annoyed. “Suit yourself.”

It makes Cheryl feel so old.

Maybe if her mother wasn’t so silent, Cheryl might not mind acting like a wife. She would have married her old mother in a second, and helped her through her troubles, but she doesn’t want to be forced into connection with someone so joyless and dutiful, conducting rifle practice in the dim October evening.

Sometimes, when Cheryl is feeling particularly morbid, she imagines her father’s ghost is haunting them. Not them, really, but her mother’s body—making it move and speak in strange new ways.

* * * *

Perhaps if Cheryl’s father hadn’t died in such a frightening way, evoking such sympathy from the town, people wouldn’t have coddled her mother. Maybe Henry would never have taken her hunting. But given her father’s fate, nothing her mother does seems odd.

It happened in the middle of summer, when two men came to the dealership to sell a half-destroyed Dodge Charger. Cheryl wonders sometimes if her father could have treated them differently, given them less hope. He must have known they were tweakers, these tow-headed men with buzz cuts, loose white shirts and darting eyes: what people in Danville called Pineys, living in clearings in the Barrens where cops don’t go.

He could have turned them away with a convenient excuse, but he told them to come back tomorrow. He would have a talk with his boss.

The towheaded men were excited. They said they’d come back tomorrow for the money.

Cheryl’s father only laughed. He said he’d do his best.

Ed Presley, however, was not sympathetic. Those boys aren’t worth your time. Next time you see them you run them out of here, sweet as you can.

That night Cheryl’s father stayed up late, worrying: had he deceived these men? Even if they were drug-addled, he needed to do right. He had a cousin in Watertown who’d buy the parts, at least. He’d tell them that.

This reassurance let him sleep a little.

The next day the tow-headed men pulled up in the lot, their Charger making a high-pitched screeching: probably the timing belt. The men got out, shifting their agitated necks like chickens.

Looks like we won’t be able to make a deal, Cheryl’s father said. But a cousin of mine could give you good money for parts.

One of the tow-headed men screamed at him, grabbing his collar. You led me on, you faggot!

The other pulled him off, but not before he’d ripped two buttons off his shirt.

Ed Presley came out from the office, ample belly flopping, sweat beading in the high September sun. Get outta here, you fucking wasters!

The tow-headed men ran for the car and lit out, burning the road.

Presley was red-faced, holding his knees and panting hard. I said be sweet, AlexI didn’t say fight them!

Cheryl’s father stood there, trembling.

Don’t worry. Presley caught his breath. They’re just animals. Worse than animals. Goddamn!

Her father spent the rest of the day inside the office, doing paperwork. The main façade of the office had floor-to-ceiling glass windows, open to the road, which Presley had always told Cheryl’s father promoted a feeling of transparency in the customer. So that day, when he was working in the office, Cheryl’s father was exposed.

They came up fast, in the gray evening light just before closing: faster then a Charger should have been able to go. Behind the Charger came a mud-splattered F-150, rear bed cluttered with broken machinery. The people in the lot cleared out on either side of them, alerted by the sound of the whining engine and the weird whoops the tweakers gave from behind their broken windows. People dove to either side as they went straight for the front office glass, where Cheryl’s father sat.

Later Presley sat cross-legged, plucking at grass, oblivious to the cameras.

Animals! He muttered, through tears.

Cheryl saw it on the television screen at Stow Creek Sub & Pizza, where she was working an after-school shift: smoke leaking out of the glass front of the lot office, a ticker tape beneath explaining that the men in the cars were in critical condition, but no mention of her father—not until later.

Now, looking back, she remembers one man in particular who stood beside her in the restaurant, watching the screen: an old man with sagging jowls, holding his MIA veterans’ hat over his heart.

* * * *

One Saturday evening in mid-October, Cheryl is trying to catch up on Biology homework while cooking a pot of venison stew, when she smells the telltale signs of burning. She rushes over to the stove and stirs, bringing up black specks: a whole pot ruined.

For thirty minutes she paces the kitchen, close to panic—what will they eat for dinner?—before she hears her mother shuffling through the front door.

Cheryl’s anger explodes. “Why do you torture yourself like this?”

Her mother sits down at the kitchen table. Her hunting gear seems less strange—maybe because Cheryl has gotten used to it, maybe because the makeup is long since gone from her face, eyes heavy from insomnia: her father’s curse.

“I used to think like you,” she says eventually. “I used to tell him stay home, kick back, that the boys could get along without him one time, if he liked. I used to make fun of him sometimes, being so damn dour. It’s my duty, he said. Otherwise those deer will ruin everything.”

Her mother stares at the wall. Her vision plays across it, and for a moment Cheryl thinks her father is standing in the room with them, judging their actions.

I asked him, was he really afraid of deer? He just shook his head. We’re their only predators, Bobbie Jean. We got to do what’s right.”

Now she turns from the wall and looks Cheryl full in the face, her father’s voice coming through her mouth. “I never thought it was real, really—just an excuse to go out with the boys. But then, after what happened, with the cars…”

Why can’t she say it? Cheryl wonders. She can’t name it, so it turns into something else, in her mind.

“… I was out in the backyard,” her mother continues. “It was getting dark, and there were two deer out in the field, cozied up by the fence. I looked, stared ’em down. You ever look at an animal? I mean, really look? You ever try to consider what an animal’s thinking? I mean, I tried my best, baby girl. I stared for a long time, okay—those damn dark eyes. There’s nothing inside. They don’t think. It’s just muscle.”

She looks so tired, Cheryl thinks—but her hands are shaking.

Her mother pats the stock of the gun.

“So I picked up the gun, baby girl,” her mother says, her smile a half-grimace. “It is a duty.

“There’s no dinner,” Cheryl says. “I burned it all.”

“They’d come in the house, if we let ’em,” her mother continues. “Eat up everything we own, sleep in our beds like dogs.”

The doorbell rings. Cheryl looks up and sees Edna, Henry’s wife, waving through the screen. What a thin, fussy woman: too much foundation, avocado eyeliner.

“I just thought I’d come by and see if you two needed any help,” Edna says, voice full of concern, but Cheryl can already see her easing the door open, craning her neck to collect evidence.

“We’ve got it all under control.” Cheryl stands in the doorway of the kitchen, brandishing her ladle. She strides towards the door, fending off the intruder: her right, as woman of the house She succeeds: Edna backs off without a fight. For now.

“I never liked that woman,” Cheryl’s mother says, afterwards. .

Cheryl notices the barrel of the gun beneath the table, pointed towards the door. A coincidence.

* * * *

Maybe there’s another reason that the town, and Henry in particular, lets Cheryl’s mother get away with retreating from the world, as if she were some militiaman practicing her shot.

On the day of the funeral, wearing a black dress which was too big for her—her mother always overshot the mark, having been a large girl herself—Cheryl stood in the half-bare chapel off of Route 14, trying to fend off well-wishers with her eyes, when she saw an odd episode over by the food table, cluttered with nothing substantial: store-bought pies and strange arrangements of cookies and frosting. Why do people bring sweets to a funeral?

Standing next to the table, Henry put a hand on her mother’s shoulder, and her mother—in shock, of course, and probably only half-conscious of who was standing behind her—put her own hand on top of it.

She didn’t know Cheryl was watching. Otherwise she would have never have interlaced her fingers with his.

Cheryl wonders now—a full season after the fact—what Henry was really asking when he offered to take her mother hunting. Was he as surprised as she was, that late September morning, when she came out of the house, dressed to kill, a gun in her unsteady hands?

* * * *

Cheryl tells herself it’s only a phase: part of the mourning process. As long as her mother keeps it out of the house, Cheryl thinks. Deer season will soon be over, at least officially—though who knows what private lands Henry might be willing take her to, if she insisted.

Now that Cheryl is the one doing all the cooking, her mother can expand her shooting time. She’s free to sit on the back porch, gun at the ready.

As October gives way to November she begins to take shots at small, scurrying creatures. Her eye grows sharper. She can hit a groundhog easy, and even a chipmunk at a fair distance, its chubby body barely bigger than a cartridge.

They live far down Boyer, almost at the dead end of the river; if people heard shots they wouldn’t know them from hunter’s rifles. Still, Cheryl is afraid Molly will come by one afternoon and find her mother taking potshots. Not that Molly comes by much—Cheryl is too busy to idle away time. The other girls complain she’s grown surly.

Cheryl isn’t worried for the rodents. When she was in the Brownies there were girls who went gooey over chipmunks, but Cheryl has always thought of them as rats with fatter faces. It’s the birds she can’t forgive: the occasional blue jay, clipped out of the sky. It’s cruel. What harm do birds do?

Then one night she wakes up to the sound of a shot. That came from inside the house, she thinks, and, rushing downstairs, finds her mother in the living room, gun still warm across her knees, a hole in the screen of the living room window. It’s a warm night for October; she has the glass pushed up. A dead mourning dove nestles against the mesh.

“Trying to fly in,” her mother explains.

“It wasn’t trying to come inside,” Cheryl says. “Just sitting in the window!”

“So you say.” Her mother narrows her eyes.

The limp body bleeds onto the sill. Mourning doves were always her favorite. How could anyone kill a thing that cries so softly?

There is no one for Cheryl to tell, no one she can trust. Both sets of grandparents are dead; her mother was an only child, and her father’s cousins live far north of Middletown. She’s sure Edna would love to hear—to gossip about her mother’s odd habits—but Cheryl has her pride. She won’t be the subject of ridicule.

Cheryl has nightmares where her mother’s in a field, knocking helpless creatures out of flight. No one in Danville respects the season for common birds. Her mother can shoot them all year round.

* * * *

Cheryl begins devising a plan. One afternoon in early November, Cheryl tells Mr. Bumthwaite, her biology teacher, about a possible science fair project. She needs to know the best way to catch a bird, to tag it, and measure the movement of their local avian population: who flies away for winter, who returns.

Mr. Bumthwaite is happy to oblige, though he worries that the project might be a bit too loose. The two of them look online together. Cheryl takes copious notes, while her teacher looks on approvingly. There are not many children so intent on their studies, and Mr. Bumthwaite likes her, the poor man: oblivious to the taunts of the students, mocking his frizzy hair, his red, swollen fingers, and his eczema. He’s been sweeter to her since the accident, and Cheryl wonders what private tragedy has made him so sympathetic.

On Sunday, while her mother is hunting, Cheryl walks the length of Boyer, carrying a blue milk crate. Cars pass on the way to Danville Presbyterian, children’s faces pressed against the glass. Cheryl doesn’t care, happy enough to escape her house that she’s no longer afraid of meeting Molly on the street.

The milk crate trap is not as easy as it seemed on the Internet. The prop is difficult: it has to be firm enough to keep the crate upright, but light enough to fall at the slightest touch. It takes the entire afternoon to trap a tiny sparrow. It flutters against the milk crate’s walls, almost small enough to slip through the handle.

It takes great restraint to avoid tipping back the plastic and letting it free, but in the end Cheryl does as planned: drapes a sheet over the crate and slides the excess underneath, using an elastic band to keep the bird inside.

She puts the bird in a cage in her room, placing a sheet over it to keep it quiet when her mother comes home. She worries about feeding—a little sparrow needs to eat so much, or else it dies.

A few days later—by which time Cheryl has another sparrow, a finch, and a thin-legged bird with a tufted head she cannot seem to identify—she is leaving her room when her mother appears at the top of the stairs.

“Are there birds in the house?” she asks. “I keep hearing noises.”

“What I do in my room is my business,” Cheryl says. She opens the door, reaches for the opposite handle, and turns the interior lock.

When she comes home, later that evening, she sneaks around the roof of their wrap-around porch and shimmies into her room through an unlocked window. At the last moment she slips and falls flat on her bedroom floor.

The tittering birdsong is like laugher, but Cheryl doesn’t mind, even if it’s at her expense. How long has it been since anyone laughed in this house? She feels a tinge of conscience, to think she has to silence them.

* * * *

We’re gonna have a hell of a Thanksgiving this year.

Cheryl’s mother repeats this like a mantra. Sometimes it seems she’s convincing herself, psyching herself up for some kind of accomplishment, as if she must kill enough deer to provide a full table to all of their relatives—although Cheryl’s fairly certain no dinner has been planned and no relatives invited.

Sometimes it seems as if her mother is stating a clear and difficult fact, the way an old man might speak after the first snowfall of the season: it’s gonna be a hell of a winter this year.

And other times—as on Sunday morning, three weeks into November, her mother sitting in the kitchen in what looks to Cheryl like despair, staring at the far wall as if it were a glass window and some kind of tragedy were playing out behind it, terrifying and unreachable—she says it as if she is fully aware of how absurd the situation has become, as she might have back when she was a carefree kind of mother, burning a roast and saying, it’s gonna be a hell of a dinner tonight.

Only her voice is much drier and deader than it was, those many months ago; low and harsh, even threatening, the way a boy might say to another boy in the school parking lot, smacking fist to palm: we’re gonna have a hell of a time, you and me.

“I’ve let you down, baby girl,” her mother says. “I didn’t mean to.”

“What do you mean, Mom?” Cheryl asks.

“It’s gonna be a hell of a Thanksgiving,” her mother says. She puts her forehead in her arms and cries.

For the first time, Cheryl feels frightened. A teenage girl is a kind of animal too, and lately her mother doesn’t seem to see her, staring as if she can’t quite place her presence—and when she does focus, she seems suspicious, like she senses Cheryl has a plan.

Her mother gets up slowly, tapping the rifle stock against her palm, and heads out to the back door to get ready for hunting.

She is still out back when Henry’s horn comes from across the grass.

Cheryl gets up from her seat and rushes out the door. Henry is in his truck, mud splattered on the pitted hood. She goes toward him, arms raised, as if she were flagging him down to help in an accident.

“What’s the matter, Cher?” Henry asks.

Cher is her father’s nickname. The two men are quite alike: black T-shirts with pockets in front to hold their cigarettes, the smell of nicotine and sweat. Cheryl has to resist the powerful urge to lay her head on his shoulder and cry.

It comes out in a rush: how her mother has turned sour and serious, how she’s been shooting everything in sight, and how lately she’s seemed surly, moody, as if planning something.

Although when Henry asks her—quite rationally—what exactly she thinks her mother might be planning, Cheryl can’t bring herself to say.

Henry reaches through the windshield and squeezes her shoulder. “Look, Cher,” he says, measuring his words like heavy stones. “Everybody deals with stuff in their own way. Your mother has hers. You’ve got yours.”

You don’t get it, Cheryl thinks, but says nothing. When speaking to men like Henry, she is often aware of saying too much, the words leaking out like a whining girlish song they’d turn off quick if it came on the radio.   .

“Your mom out back?” Henry asks, scanning the house. “We don’t have all morning!”

He makes his voice sound jovial. Cheryl can’t stand it: the idea of waiting by the side of the truck as her mother makes her tired way across the lawn, impersonating her father’s gait, watching Henry pretend that everything is normal.

And yet all this only confirms that the plan is necessary. No one will believe her. She has only herself to rely on.

She rushes down Boyer Street as fast as she can. She doesn’t turn until she reaches the vacant lot where the boys sometimes play football in the warmer months, where she hides behind the trunk of a sycamore to catch her breath. She waits for almost an hour: long enough to be sure that Henry and her mother have left, and that the house will be empty when she gets back. She has patience.

 

Cheryl walks back slowly, using trees as cover, in case something odd has happened; she’s relieved to discover the driveway empty and the house quiet. From the driveway, looking back towards the shed, the view through the window frightens her; she thinks a person is standing in the window, dark face craning towards the glass.

It’s only the winch and hook from which the carcasses hang during butchering. She’s never liked the shed, even if it is empty, the bloodstains on the floor.

She walks up to the front of the house and hears, in the distance, the call of a mourning dove. She has a mourning dove now—her most prized bird, which she caught with a trap on the roof outside her room and carefully shuffled inside. It doesn’t call now, in captivity, which makes Cheryl sad.

There are storm clouds moving across the marsh, coming in off the bay, as Cheryl walks through the first floor, closing windows, though she would like to hear the rain beading the screens. She repeats this process on the second floor. In her mother’s room she notices the bed is disordered, sheets humped on one side, as if someone were sleeping. She hits the bed with her hand, checking—no one there. She thinks about making the bed, but the idea makes her angry. She’s nobody’s wife!

She closes the windows in her mother’s room, and then she goes up into the attic—which is hot, even in November, and smells of dust and cardboard—only to find that the one window up there is already closed.

Cheryl takes the cages from her room, the ones she’s rigged up from the crab traps you can buy at the marina, bolstered with zip ties. The birds look ragged, confused by the light. She’s been cruel, keeping them locked up so long.

Cheryl takes the cages into her mother’s room, one by one. Once they’re assembled, she removes the sheet from each one, and opens the latches. The finch bolts immediately, chirping and fluttering madly around the room, searching for an exit. Cheryl worries that she might brain herself against a window, the way cardinals sometimes do, tricked by their reflection.

It settles on the bedspread at last, beside the humped-up blanket.

The others are tentative. The fat mourning dove is so still Cheryl wonders if it might be dead, but when she taps it lightly with a pencil it ruffles its feathers and bobs away. “Take your time,” Cheryl says. She decides to close the door behind her. Better to keep the carnage contained to one room, and anyway the bedroom is her mother’s sacred space. Here she’ll be most angry at the intrusion, most likely to retaliate.

By the time all the birds are set up in their staging grounds, the cages safely stowed in Cheryl’s room, noon has already passed. Cheryl rests in the kitchen. She wastes an hour on her science homework – the delicate division of labor within a cell – but feels too restless to really concentrate. Her mother and Henry will be back toward evening, before the light fades. The exact hour depends on their patience. That leaves her a few more empty hours, at least – and yet she can’t risk being in the house, in case their day ends early.

So she leaves the room, walks down the stairs, and goes down Boyer Street again, just as she would if she were heading to the general store to buy groceries for tonight’s dinner. But she hasn’t even gotten as far as the abandoned lot when the sky begins pouring rain. The temperature drops, suddenly; even as Cheryl runs she feels herself shivering. By the time she gets to the store she’s soaked to the skin. Mrs. Edwards looks her up and down.

“I got umbrellas,” she says.

“Can I wait here awhile?” Cheryl asks. “Just until the rain stops?”

“You do what you like,” Mrs. Edwards shrugs. “No skin off my back.”

. She sits at the small interior table and watches the water run in rivulets into the gutters. She thinks of the birds bleeding through the house, trying to fly on battered wings, as her mother aims and fires. She smacks her forehead. Stop it. Get ahold of yourself!

Mrs. Edwards is behind the deli counter with a magazine. She isn’t paying attention.

Eventually the rain stops. The lowering sun pools  on the oily road as Cheryl walks down Boyer and turns up Wallingford, looking for Edna and Henry’s place. It’s getting dusky, the houses muddy in the fading light – but she recognizes   the house from Halloween nights, when the two of them dress up like the Munsters, Edna dolled up like a vamp in a black dress and heavy makeup. , But she didn’t go this year, their manicured lawn is already set for Thanksgiving, with paper cutouts of cartoon turkeys stuck into the soil.

Cheryl rings the bell. Is she really doing this? Is there no one else to turn to?

Edna comes to the door, brow furrowed with concern. “Cheryl, dear! What’s the matter?”

“It’s my mom,” she says. “She’s freaking out!”

She’d planned to fake tears, but now she finds they come unbidden; the hard part—after Edna rushes for her keys with eager steps, happy to be involved in a crisis—is making them stop.

Edna drives fast down Boyer, beeping at anyone foolhardy enough to cross the road. “Morons!” she says. “Emergency!” Cheryl shrinks down into her seat.

But when they get to the house, a surprise awaits: Henry’s car is in the driveway. He stands next to it, arms crossed.

“Cheryl!” he yells, hands balled into fists. “Where the hell you been? I been looking for you. You went off like a shot before.”

“I’ve been out.”

“She came to see me,” Edna says. “Said her mom was having some kind of a freakout.”

Henry narrows his eyes. “What game are you playing, girl?” he asks. “Your mother ain’t even here.”

“What do you mean?” Cheryl asks. “Didn’t she go with you?”

“She never came out this morning,” Henry says. “I knocked, even looked in the window. Then I thought I’d find you, ask what was happening, but you just ran off ! Even went down to Stathem’s Neck to see if your mom  beat me there. You two went and wasted my whole morning, you know that?”

His face is sour, like a kid who’s had his Sunday soccer match ruined by rain. Cheryl looks past him, stares at the house. Was her mother hiding, the whole time Cheryl set her trap?  “I don’t know anything,” Cheryl says. “I’ve been out walking.”

“Relax, you two,” Edna says, already nosing for secrets. “Let’s just have a look inside.”

The three of them walk to the door together. The two adults hang back, and let Cheryl open it. She hesitates; what if her mother saw through Cheryl all along, and now she’s waiting in the kitchen, ready to face these new intruders? But Cheryl never noticed her, even as she closed all the windows, up to the attic. Besides, she’s gone too far to stop now. She wants Edna to see her mother with a gun, the bloody birds. She wants someone to understand her situation and sympathize.

She opens the door, and finds silence: not even a coo. Cheryl is strangely disappointed. She’s lived with this anxious silence too long.

“You checked out back yet?” Edna asks Henry.

“No,” he says. “Didn’t want to seem like I was snooping.”

“Well, go now,” Edna says. “Maybe she’s just working there. Maybe she took a nap out back.”

“That’s not a place for naps,” Henry says, but does as he’s told.

Edna and Cheryl check the first floor—empty—before heading up the carpeted stairs. This time Edna goes first, unable to hide her growing interest, and Cheryl follows.

“That’s my room,” she says, when Edna tries the handle. “She’s not in there.”

Edna nods, and withdraws her hand. Cheryl’s relieved. She’ll hide the cages later , claim it was an accident. No one will blame her. “My mom’s room is the far one,” she says.

“It’s hot in here!” Edna says. “Why are all the windows closed?” Cheryl doesn’t bother answering; Edna’s already headed for her mother’s door.

Easing it open, Edna snorts: it does look unclean. Again Cheryl notices the humped sheets from the morning, only changed, somehow: bigger, as if there might be a body underneath it. She gasps.

For that one moment —before Edna eases closer, and taps the bed, as if to wake her sleeping mother—Cheryl has a vision which is really a wish: that her mother might be curled up in bed, asleep, just like her father always wanted to be on Saturday mornings, relieved of the burdens of husbandry. She imagines her mother sleeping so long that when she wakes she has no memory of hunting, or of her father; her head will be purged of blood, and the empty space that remains will be filled with bad jokes and cheesy songs, the lemon light of afternoon streaming through the window. But this vision only lasts a moment before Edna breaks it.

“Bobbie Jean?” she asks, putting a hand on the nightstand to steady herself. “You sleepin’?”

The nightstand is lighter than she thinks, and the weight of her body tips it over, sending the alarm clock clattering to the floor. Edna curses, and from the other side of the bed, huddled for safety beyond the humped sheets, a gaggle of birds rushes upward: finch, sparrow, mourning dove. A chaos of wingbeats,  batteringthe windows,  mixes with Edna’s screams.

* * * *

Because of the closed windows—not to mention the sound of Edna and the birds, overwhelming Cheryl’s ability to hear, see, or even think—neither of them can hear the smaller sound Henry makes: a kind of strangled cry, standing before the shed window.

He will refuse to let Cheryl see. Children should be spared at least some things, and anyway she’s had her share, this year. Is there any need to pile on more? People can only see so many things before breaking down. So he will argue to Cheryl, later, when she asks him why, and how, and what exactly happened.

He can’t blame her for being frustrated—not because Henry doesn’t mean well, but because he’s no genius with words, and when he tries to tell her what he saw he can’t help admitting, even as he tries, that he can’t come close to explaining.

The bare facts are easy. Her mother went back into the shed that morning, after Henry honked the horn and drove away but before Cheryl let the birds loose, sat in a chair with her lips around the barrel of a shotgun and used her toe to pull the trigger. All that’s clear from the coroner’s report—clear to Henry, even beforehand. He knows about blast radius. He knows the specs.

But what he can never quite explain to Cheryl—despite the many times she asks him to tell the story, calling him late at night, him and Edna, depending on who decides to pick up, as if the whole thing were somehow their responsibility—is the overall uncanny nature of the scene.

It was already a bloody place, with the saws and the hook where the carcasses had been hung. There were stains on the floors and trailing drops on the walls. A shotgun is messy, but so is a knife—especially when the person wielding it is a woman who’s never done this kind of thing before, who is learning to do it out of a book. She should never have gone in that place, Henry thinks, though he won’t say it, especially not to Cheryl.

She was lying where the deer might have lain, blown back, four limbs sprawled wide. Which animal was she? Who did those stains belong to, in the end?

Henry still gets a shiver, just thinking about it—lying in bed, his wife snoring, and this girl calling in the middle of the night, desperate to talk. She lives with her father’s cousins now, up in Middletown. She has a new family to burden with her problems, and yet here she is, raving about how Middletown is nothing but cement—how she stays up all night, waiting for the daylight birds , but the mourning dove is the only call  she recognizes.

There ought to be a lesson in this, Henry thinks as he hangs up the phone: something about roles. Women with women, animals in their place. Never mix two kinds of blood.

 

 

 

From THE GREAT AMERICAN SONGBOOK. Used with permission of A Strange Object. Copyright © 2016 by Sam Allingham.




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