Yes to Ice Cream
When his sister died, Maximilian called nobody.
He sat on the straight-backed chair in Gwendolyn’s bedroom. A bamboo tray in his lap held a piece of peanut butter toast and a yellow mug of coffee. Between bites and sips, he read recipes aloud from Better Home Living. It was Gwen’s favorite magazine.
She lay under a green wool blanket. A citrus tang filled the room. Maximilian had tied air fresheners shaped like oranges and limes to the unmoving ceiling fan above the bed.
From the Better Home Living, he read, “Top the pizza with chopped rosemary, sliced grapes and goat cheese, then add the duck meat.” He tongued the peanut butter between his teeth. “Duck pizza. Is that right?”
He glanced up. Gwen’s eyes were fixed on the doorway behind him. He turned in his chair. Nobody there. He looked back at his sister. Her face was larva-white, the blue drained from her eyes, her lips glossed with the balm he’d applied the night before—vanilla. Lips parted, still chapped. She was too still, calm as her furniture, and Maximilian knew. He stared down at the magazine’s blown-up picture of the pizza, with its withered grapes, charred meat in melted cheese, and blistered crust. He wondered if the pizza looked like one of Gwen’s bad cells, magnified.
“Well,” he said. He set the tray on the floor and the magazine in the chair and went upstairs to his room.
From his bookcase he pulled off The Encyclopedia of Plague and Pestilence, Volume One. He’d hidden a pack of tobacco and a matchbox behind the book. He pocketed these and got his tan oxfords from his closet. The sock drawer of his dresser was empty, so he went back downstairs to Gwen’s room and opened the oak bureau. In a tangle of underwear, he found her black socks with the print of jack-o-lanterns. He’d given her the socks on Halloween twenty-three years earlier, when he was ten, Gwen twenty. The heels had dissolved to mere threads.
He moved the chair in line with his sister’s eyes and put on her socks. For the first time since Gwen had come back home, he smoked, savoring the mint and wet bark and bitter chocolate flavors. He stubbed out the cigarette in the carpet. Slipped on his oxfords.
Dust glittered in rays of sunlight from the window above Gwen’s bed. Maximilian rolled the magazine and raised it to one eye. In the bright circle at the end of his paper telescope, the dust swam like strange bacteria in a Petri dish.
He turned on the clock radio beneath the pink lamp on the nightstand. It was 5:57. He thumbed the radio’s volume knob to high. Something country played. “Anywhere the lights are low, going where the lonely go,” crooned the gruff voice.
“We’re out of food,” Maximilian said. Gwen’s parted mouth, speechless, seemed to express her disapproval.
“I’ll go to the store,” he said, staring at the bread crusts on the tray on the floor.
He grabbed the Better Home Living from the chair. At the door, he flicked the wall switch for the ceiling fan. The cardboard oranges and limes began to spin.
“Back soon,” he said.
He left the drapes open, the window cracked.
Maximilian stood on the porch, inhaling the sweet rot of autumn.
Across the street, a boy hopped in the front yard of a stucco bungalow. He wore a mask with a large red beak and white feathers around the eyes. Bright streaks of blue and green paint covered his bare chest. He held a boomerang in one hand and slapped his other hand rapidly against his mouth. He whirled and hurled the boomerang. It somersaulted into treetops, scattering yellow leaves. It didn’t come back. The boy hooted and skipped into the woods beside his house. A woman in a purple jumpsuit came out the front door, hands on her hips. She scanned the yard, shook her head, and went back inside with a slam.
Maximilian gazed at the bungalow’s closed door. It had a wreath made of small orange and yellow gourds and pumpkins, all dried and withered.
The old neighbors on Tupelo Street were gone. Some had succumbed to disease, some to plain age. Some had moved south to San Antonio, St. Augustine, Destin—somewhere sandy to end their lives in undying sun. Away from the congested pines and kudzu of middle Georgia.
New families now lived on the street. They repainted their houses, hung seasonal wreathes and wind chimes, bird feeders. Tied birthday balloons to mailboxes. Cranked lawnmowers twice a month. The new families jogged and walked their dogs down the sidewalks, but they never seemed to notice Maximilian and Gwen in the brown split-level at the end of Tupelo. It was as if Maximilian’s house—the paint chipped and peeling, the roof mildewed—were a huge, sick animal separated from its healthy herd.
Maximilian stepped off his porch. Sunlight flickered through the high grass. Gnats smoked over the yard. Between gray clouds, a pale blue shone almost white, painful. He shut his eyes, trying not to feel, squinting against the ringing in his ears—a distant squeal, a razor-thin whine. Bombs away. The sky falling. Charred birds on the trim lawns.
He crouched and tugged up a clump of grass. It was warm and pungent with earth. He put a blade in his mouth and chewed. The acrid juice mixed with his saliva. He couldn’t imagine Gwen underground, blanketed with grass. His one sister, brunette and beautiful, gone bald, gone to bones.
The same holly shrubs from his childhood surrounded his house, red berries persistent under sharp leaves. Apart from the flaking paint and dark stains on the roof, Maximilian didn’t think the house had changed that much. The skeleton held up. The structure’s what matters, he thought. Everything else was skin, bound to decay. The same blue drapes with the faded pattern of pink and white perennials framed all the windows. The same bent drainpipes climbed the sides. The same dead moths filled the glass shade of the porch lamp.
Maximilian clutched the Better Home Living like a relay baton. The sun would go down soon. He needed to do something. He had a recipe. Last meal with his sister. Soon she would go down, too, all of her dissolve. Gwen Blankenship, who moved away to be a chef, now ingredients for grass.
The painted boy had returned to the yard across the street. He was kneeling. The bird mask rested atop his head, beak red as a bloody horn. He held the boomerang like a tomahawk, beating it into the ground.
Maximilian ran. His lungs burned as he headed toward Peachtree Lane, where the Greenlink bus line stopped. He sucked air with the glupping sound of a pool filter. His knees were pincushions with hundreds of pins stuck in them. His body hurt too much to think of Gwen.
In front of 1061, the peach-colored house with a Dixie flag in a window, a bug flew into his mouth. It lodged in his throat like a stuck vitamin. He hunched over, trying to hack up the bug. While pounding his fist into his chest, he noticed a small bird, a baby something—thrush, starling—lying by the curb. One of its wings looked broken. Ants teemed in its feathers. Maximilian’s eyes widened with each of his coughs. The bird zoomed in and out of focus. Its head twitched toward him, beak parting.
Maximilian sprang back. He felt the vitamin-sized bug—yellow jacket, fly—vibrate in his throat before dropping. He imagined the bug upside down inside him, clinging to the slick wall of his stomach above the acid puddle.
He spit. A thread of saliva dangled from his lip. He raised his index finger, hooked the saliva, flicked it. He stepped away from the dead—dying—bird. Endorphins or whatnot flipped across his nerves, neurotransleaping. Adrenaline? He counted his breaths. Six, seven. The bird was dead. It didn’t lift its head toward him. It couldn’t be helped. Ants crawled out of its eye sockets. Maximilian remembered leaving the window open in Gwen’s room. Bugs might get in too soon. Chiggers. Bees. He ran.
The Greenlink bus idled at the intersection of Peachtree and Tupelo. The bus driver, Carter, watched Maximilian from behind the glass of the folding door. Carter had a goiter. It swelled from his neck like a big sac of insect eggs beneath his skin, ready to break any minute and scatter what? Spiderlings. Baby ticks across the seats. Tickling your skin before burrowing in.
Carter opened the door, his white eyebrows raised at Maximilian, who held up a palm and panted.
“Everything okay?” Carter asked.
“Hop on, Mr. Blankenship.” Carter was one of the few people in town who knew Maximilian. “Caught a bug, did you?” He accelerated the bus.
Maximilian swayed while dropping change into the fare box.
“Something’s been going around,” said Carter. “Flu gets stronger every year they say. Harder to beat.” He nodded to himself as he spoke. Maximilian didn’t look at him, afraid he’d lose balance if he took his eyes off the fare box.
“Twenty more cents,” Carter said, scratching the pale strip of hair above his ear.
“What?” Maximilian stared at the coin slot in disbelief, as if it had swindled him. He fingered for more coins in his pockets, leaning against the metal box for support.
“Some bug got my wife, too,” Carter said. “Put her in bed for a month. Man was she ever a sack of sticks. And green. You wouldn’t think a person’s skin could turn green really, but Melinda’s did just that. Not Jolly Green Giant green but pea soup or I don’t know, like the insides of cucumbers. Made her a vegetable anyway. Okay, Mr. Blankenship, that’s the fare. Have a seat.”
Maximilian walked up the aisle. Carter kept talking at the top of his voice. “I tell you, this was no common flu! Poor Melinda. What she got must have come from far off. Bet you somewhere tropic. Like one of those stone ruins down in Mexico, where you have some tourist who goes in there breathing that dead air and goes back to Florida sneezing and kissing his wife, all huggy-buggy, and she goes and kisses her kids, and they get runny noses and go share lollipops with other kids, and before you know it, Melinda, she can’t walk or eat solids because of diarrhea.” At this point Carter was almost shouting. His wrinkled face filled the passenger-view mirror. “So Melinda gets home from teaching one day and says she has a sore throat, nothing bad, then bam! Out of work three weeks. Smelled like cabbage and glue the whole time. Imagine.”
Maximilian rubbed his throat. He was nauseated from swallowing the bug.
A girl maybe twelve years old sat on the bench to his right looking out the window. She kicked her legs in plum tights. The neckline of her leotard was too low for twelve, Maximilian thought. Her sternum had a dime-sized mole. Her breasts were barely. It was almost noon. Where were her parents? She wore diamond stud earrings. He continued up the aisle.
“Glide down to hell,” said a boy in a soccer uniform. Grass stains slashed across his black-and-white striped jersey. Dirt splotched his knees. One of his shins had crusted blood on it. He adjusted his headphones, eyes closed, and tapped a cleat on the floor. “Lick my fire,” he sang.
Maximilian scooted to a window seat. The water tower loomed into view, with “Kennesaw, Where Sunsets Matter” painted in bubble letters on its top. A few blocks later, two sunburned men in dirty jeans and loose T-shirts stood outside the library making exaggerated gestures at each other. One of them aimed an invisible rifle at the bus and pretended to jerk from kickback.
The bus stopped in front of Southern Trust Bank, its glowing green S and T logo forming a dollar sign.
The girl in plum tights had quit kicking her legs. Her blonde hair fanned across the glass in a halo of static. The soccer player’s head was tilted back, mouth open wide as a baby chick waiting for food.
A piercing feedback screeched through the speakers.
“A Great Heron starboard,” said Carter over the intercom. He always referred to the bus using nautical terms. He liked to point out local birds for passengers. He considered it a public service. “Observe the yellow legs, folks. That’s no egret. The Great Heron is a skilled predator. Uses its beak like a spear and gulps its prey down whole. Prefers to eat alone. Imagine.” He let the bus idle pensively before accelerating. In the middle of a small pond fronting the bank, a skinny, light-blue bird perched on a stone, still as a question mark. Its hard yellow eye didn’t blink as the bus departed.
“Careful, ma’am,” Carter said.
An elderly lady walked up the aisle. Maximilian had never seen her. She carried a shoebox. Her long-sleeved lilac dress fit high on her waist. Swirls of pearl traced her neckline. White feathers trimmed the bottom of her dress. The edges of her skin glimmered with sunlight.
She walked past Maximilian, smiling down at him. When the bus bumped over a rough section of road, she stumbled back and plopped into the seat next to his.
“Heavens,” she said, glancing at him.
They rode several blocks without speaking. Maximilian folded the Better Home Living as if preparing to swat a mosquito. The lady rested one hand over the other atop her shoebox. Her nails were painted the color of new pennies.
“Guess what I had for lunch today?” she asked, nudging her shoulder against his. He felt her eyes fly-circling his face. He studied his knees.
“Three ice cream sandwiches,” she said, straightening. “No less. Do you care for ice cream sandwiches?”
“They’re okay,” Maximilian said, hoping she’d ride quietly once he’d spoken.
“Okay? I’ll tell you what.” She patted the shoebox in her lap. “It’s either ice cream sandwiches,” she said, “or the same fuck all, the same basic shit on your plate.”
He leaned away from her. She was crazy. It’s an unstable lady who sits right next to you on a bus when thirty other seats are empty.
She touched his knuckles with cool fingers. He stiffened.
“Don’t you think?” she asked.
He risked a look at her. Webbed skin at the corners of a mouth glazed pink. Lipstick. He drummed the Better Home Living against his thigh.
“Just say what you’re thinking, dear,” she said, cocking her head at him. The roots of her white hair were bluish, as if extended from the spider veins around her eyes. A black plastic claw held the hair in place on top of her head.
Maximilian was at a loss. The bus rode past the old shopping mall, where long concrete parking-blocks were lined up like jumbo chalk marks numbering the days. Kids on skateboards weaved around the blocks.
“Yes,” he ventured.
He shifted in his seat. “About sandwiches.”
“Ice cream ones,” she said, her breath on his neck.
“Yes, fine.” He shot her a glance. “Look, I really don’t have time.” Her lips were pinched. “Yes to ice cream,” he said.
She smiled. “They have to be together. Sandwich,” she said, holding up her left palm, “and ice cream,” holding up her right palm. “Together.” She clapped. “Otherwise it’s the same basic shit.”
Maximilian slid his hands under his thighs, flustered. He tried to suppress a laugh. It was no laughing day. “You said that.”
“Like I said.” The lady bumped her shoulder against his again.
Something flicked his wrist. He looked down. A long tail of pinkish flesh wriggled out of a rectangular slit in the side of the lady’s shoebox. He jerked his hand back. The lady grabbed the tail and stroked it between her index finger and thumb.
She chuckled. “That’s Poe.”
“What is it?” he asked.
“He’s a rat.”
“You have a rat.”
“I have Poe.” She waved her hand over the box as if preparing a magic trick. “I have him for just one more afternoon. Yesterday, while I was on a walk, my landlord went into my apartment to check a leak, so he said, and that’s when he spotted Poe on the windowsill. Now Peter—that’s my landlord—he’s put poison all over Benton Arms. He thinks Poe’s just any scum rat, but I can’t tell him no different. We can’t have pets where I live. And Poe has way more sense than Peter, who’s a drunk pervert and a devil worshipper.”
“I see,” Maximilian said.
“Damn right you do.” She rocked in her seat. “He wears these shirts with pictures of upside-down crosses and naked women on the crosses with snakes coming out of their lalas.” She tapped the tip of Poe’s tail, and it recoiled back into the box. “Obscene. Poe’s an innocent creature, and here I’m having to let him go so poison won’t kill him.” Her voice quivered.
The bus rounded a corner. The warped stone wall of Franklin Cemetery curved around the orange and yellow leaves of the haggard treetops. The graves in rows of gray to the horizon were crooked as the teeth in the skulls beneath them. A blue tent covered a fresh burial. A girl stood between the black backs of mourners beneath the tent. She was turned away from the service, her shadowed eyes watching the road.
“I’m sorry,” he said to the lady, and his throat constricted. Maybe he was sorry for her. Or for Gwen, or for despising her body the longer she lay in bed. Her moist skin reeking of spoiled fruit and urine. They’d been so alone together. Maybe he was just sorry the bus took the same route to the same stops despite what anyone felt.
“Batch of swallows portside,” barked Carter through the loudspeakers. “Come winter they’ll flock to the Bahamas.”
Maximilian peered out the window of the bus. He didn’t see anything—just black wires snaking over the darkening sky. Carter’s sightings were too fast.
“The same shit,” said the lady. She pulled the shoebox closer to her stomach. The feathered hem of her dress lifted above her knee, revealing the delicate angles of bone and wax-paper skin with age-spots. Maximilian saw her sitting on the edge of her bed, rubbing with slow strokes orange- and lime-scented lotions into her calves and thighs. Her lilac dress deep in her closet, not yet selected. He liked to think she’d keep her bedroom door shut, even if she lived alone.
Babylon Garden Center, now abandoned, slid past Maximilian’s window: acres of pavement with long weeds in cracks, huge stone pots, broken trellises. Clusters of worn-out sneakers dangled by their laces from gazebos.
Maximilian bounced his knee. Gwen’s locked in the house, he thought. It’s good she’s inside.
When Gwen was a teenager, she spent a lot of time on the roof.
She and Maximilian had moved with their mom to Kennesaw up from a town south of Atlanta called Locust Grove, where their dad remained with a woman named Pert Hussy, according to their mom. There was no school that first summer in Kennesaw, so Max and Gwen stayed home while their mom worked full time as a check-out clerk at Bag-a-Lot, the local grocery store.
Gwen was in command while their mom was away, and she liked to remind Maximilian of her power. “Scrub the zucchini and give me the big knife,” she’d say. “Stand back. I’m in command.” Max would step aside as Gwen slipped her blouse off her freckled shoulders and tossed it before making a mess of the kitchen. She wore skin-colored bras. She splashed egg yolk and oregano and butter all over her arms and stomach. She mashed cheese into the floor with her bare feet and misted the kitchen with flour. She made zucchini pie, turnip bread, fennel cake and other weird pastries from the vegetables that she’d taken, Maximilian knew, from other peoples’ gardens. Ever the spontaneous cook when she was younger, Gwen gathered her ingredients indiscriminately: from the neighbors’ plots, from the rickety fruit wagons at intersections, from curbside bushes, from creeks, from the fields and trees. It was as if she wanted to eat as much of Kennesaw as possible.
“Clean up,” she’d say after putting a pie in the oven. “And I mean spotless. Take a bath, too—look at you.” She’d kiss Maximilian’s head and comment on how he tasted before announcing their usual meeting place. “We’ve sweetened you up, cinnamon boy. Sweetie. See you on the roof in fifty.”
Hair still wet with bathwater, Maximilian would crawl out the dormer window of the room he shared with Gwen, careful not to slip on the pine needles covering the roof. The humid June air clung to his skin with the shoe-polish smell of sap. Gwen was always waiting for him, her blouse back on, her knees pulled up to her chest and the aluminum pie pan in her lap. One time he climbed to the roof before her and smeared his cheeks with crust and turnip chunks, hoping to make Gwen laugh, but she got serious. “Don’t you come here alone,” she snapped. “Not ever.” She took the pan from him and flung it off the roof. “I’m responsible,” she said, looking down at the smashed pie in the grass. “You’ll be too one day.” He brushed crumbs from the corners of his mouth. Across the street, he could see through the wooden skeleton of a new house into the dense vines of kudzu behind.
An old crow approached the broken pie in the yard below with a lopsided hop. Another crow darted down and lunged at the old bird, which fell back shrieking. The two birds beat wings together before wheeling into the trees. Maximilian pointed and laughed.
“It’s sad,” Gwen said, and Max quieted. He looked away, embarrassed by her disappointment.
“I feel sorry for the old one,” she said.
They sat on the roof, unspeaking for ages. A hot wind carried scents of tarmac and honeysuckle and sawdust. Gwen said, “Max, don’t forget us when we’re old.”
He was too young, then, to answer. He squirmed back through their window. Skipped down the stairs and ran through the living room past the blue armchair and coffee table and framed picture of a horned owl on the wall. He shoved open the screen door. In the yard, he scooped the pie pieces back into the dented pan and spread the smaller crumbs through the grass. He’d wanted Gwen to see him cleaning, but when he’d looked up at the roof, she was gone.
During her last months, Gwen lay mostly comatose with morphine, dying in the room their mom died in. When he was 22, Maximilian quit his job as photographer at the Atlanta zoo, where he snapped Polaroids of families posed with pandas and polar bears on a rotating schedule. He went back to Kennesaw to nurse his mother, who’d been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Gwen was in New York at the time. She was chef somewhere uppity, and she never came south to visit. She called on weekends and now and then sent a check to help with food and supplies.
After their mother passed, he remained in the house, living off a meager inheritance. He kept the rooms neat, dusting the lamps, polishing the furniture and floorboards, killing mold, changing sheets, vacuuming the carpeted parts and parting all the curtains, letting light in. When Gwen returned years later, sick, her hair had thinned to wisps. Her skin was still smooth, but ashen, the lingering youth in her face wrapped tight around her bones, clinging. She asked to stay in their mom’s bed. Once there, she rarely moved again.
“Get out!” she screamed one night, chest heaving, eyes darting at the doorway.
Maximilian was standing at the foot of the bed. Coffee had splashed from his mug, scalding his wrist.
“Keep him away,” Gwen said. “I’ll kill him.” Maximilian glanced frantically around the room. From the top of the dresser, he grabbed the aerosol hairspray can Gwen had used on her wig. He crept from room to room in the house in search of an intruder, the coffee mug in one hand, the can of hairspray in the other as a bludgeon. Gwen fell asleep.
Sometimes she’d ask about herself. “Have you seen your sister?”
Maximilian dabbed cool washcloths against her forehead, massaged her palms. “Call Gwen,” she’d insist. “Tell her to come home,” or “Tell Gwen supper’s at seven.” Once, exasperated, Maximilian said Gwen didn’t want to come back and that she never would. “Her food will spoil,” she replied, and for hours she repeated, “It’ll spoil.”
Maximilian took care of her the best he knew how. He spooned her meals. He sponge-washed her loose flesh with a casual air, as if scrubbing dishes. He pretended not to notice her naked need of him. He told stories about summers on the rooftop and vegetable desserts and the bickering, curious birds. He patted her sheets down like a layer of breadcrumbs on a casserole and read her the recipes she’d never cook again. He soon gave up cleaning the house. The sicker Gwen became, the more her face resembled a plaster mold of somebody already gone, her eyes replacement marbles, just as their mother’s face and eyes had looked before she’d died. He collected Gwen’s secretions, but he didn’t even know her anymore. Maybe he never did. Some sympathy he had. He should have just unhinged a door. He should have laid the door with its hinges and pins in the bed, not Gwen. He should have just knocked and knocked on the door laid under the wool blanket, since that’s how he showed Gwen he loved her.
The blue ceiling lights inside the bus came on. The girl in plum tights and the soccer boy sank into gathering shadow.
“It gets dark sooner and sooner,” said the lady.
“I should be alone,” Maximilian said. The bus hummed over the newly paved section of Peachtree Lane, past undeveloped land with walls of pine trees falling toward the road on both sides.
The lady closed her eyes and nodded as if she understood completely.
“That’s why I’m here,” he said.
She put her hand on his leg. “Poe is ten months old. I found him on the countertop in my kitchen, settled as a paperweight, just waiting for me.”
She was odd but not crazy, Maximilian thought. If crazy, her sadness made it okay. Maybe it was best to sit next to a stranger when you were sad.
“How old are you?” she asked.
He could handle facts. He took a deep breath. Facts relaxed Maximilian. Ingredients. Encyclopedias.
“Thirty-two,” he said with confidence. Gwen was forty-two. She’d had a thirty-percent chance of living past forty. He’d come to accept that fact. Her seventy-percent chance of death any second slunk around the house like a famished panther. Maximilian couldn’t see the animal, but he knew it was only so big, so close, so hungry.
He glanced at the shoebox in the lady’s lap. “Rats live two to three years,” he said. He wondered if he’d just degraded her pet. “That’s a long life for them,” he added. “The house fly lives fifteen days. The yellow jacket, maybe a year.” He cleared his throat. “I think I swallowed one of those today.”
The lady watched him and said nothing. He thought of the dead bird he’d seen on the street earlier. He could have put it in a shoebox like the lady’s, maybe, and given it a decent burial. Ants were all over. “Worker ants,” he said, “live three to four weeks.”
The lady tilted her head as if contemplating an abstract sculpture made of wire and tape and feathers and teeth and busted light bulbs.
“The wren or thrush,” he went on, “your little birds—they rarely make ten years.”
Carter slammed the brakes. Maximilian fell forward, one arm instinctively swung out to hold the lady back. She hugged the shoebox like a football.
The boy in the soccer uniform toppled onto an elbow, jolted up, blinked around. The girl in plum tights braced herself against a pole.
Carter eased the bus to the roadside. His eyes bulged in the passenger-view mirror. “Everyone okay?” he asked over the intercom.
“Here,” the lady said, placing the shoebox in Maximilian’s lap. “Help.” She smoothed down her dress.
Maximilian held the box. He was surprised by the shifting weight of a living thing inside. He felt a desperate warmth move toward his hands.
“I want to get off here,” he said.
The lady looked at him. “Here?”
“Food,” said Maximilian. He gave the shoebox back to her. “It’s important.”
“I’ll go, too,” she said. “You won’t mind the company.”
At the front, Carter said, “Damn rabbit skittered across. Think I missed it.” He rubbed the egg-shaped protrusion on his neck.
“We’d like to go now,” the lady said.
Carter swiveled to see Maximilian. “Nothing here but that power field,” he said, thumbing to the right.
“I know,” said Maximilian.
“Well, watch your step.”
The lady wore green slippers with sequined peacocks on the toes. She stomped through the field as if with combat boots. A trail no wider than a bike tire led under and around the steel transmission towers that spanned the field. The towers clutched the ground, severe and consistent between the dead grass and silver-blue sky. At their tops, clumps of black insulator discs buzzed like beehives. ABC once broadcasted a story about how these metal towers caused cancer—the voltage entering your skin with warmth, swarming your cells. Before that, it was microwaves; later, bubble bath.
Yards ahead, the lady hummed something languorous and familiar.
Exhaust from the highway floated over the field. The moon had already appeared: a fingernail clipping caught in the black wires of the transmission towers. As the sky darkened, the clouds became deep purple bruises. The dust and whisks of dry grass and distant rush of cars made Maximilian feel more alone than he could remember ever feeling. He didn’t know where he was going. Just then, he believed disease came on like dusk, not descending, but budding small, dark tumors that expanded from the inside and began to smother light. Tomorrow, he’d wake up believing disease was the sun, spreading its rash of colors into his eyes. He thought of the alien cells that lived inside his sister, only to die when she died.
The lady placed the shoebox near a galvanized conduit that channeled the brown creek beneath the highway. The top of the highway’s embankment glowed from the shopping center where the supermarket was. Shards of broken bottles glinted on the ground around smashed paper cups and torn packets of ketchup. Maximilian toed an old sweatshirt. The creek smelled like sewage. Spikes of devil’s bit grew along the water’s edge—lavender orbs drooping on long downy stems.
“He’ll feel at home here,” the lady said, petting the lid of the box. “Rats like tunnels.”
She lifted the lid and the box quaked. She reached inside, bending close. “There,” she said. “Poe.” She lowered her other hand and the box shook so hard it slid across the ground. The lady looked back at Maximilian. “It’s harder than I thought it’d be.”
He listened to the traffic above them, to the trickling creek water below. A chill mossy draft came from the tunnel under the highway. In the twilight the silver transmission towers gleamed like giant monuments to viruses.
“Wait,” Maximilian said.
The rat squirmed between the lady’s hands, tail slashing, eyes a strange, pink gleam.
“Don’t let him go,” he said, unsure why. “Come with me.”
“Duck and pizza,” said the lady, wiping her hands on the front of her dress. “I never did eat neither by themselves. But I like them together.”
They sat at the cement table behind Maximilian’s house. It was night. The bug lamp hanging from the weeping willow crackled blue every few minutes. Maximilian stared at the black square of Gwendolyn’s bedroom window. Tomorrow he would have to call somebody. He had to clean, put things in order. Somebody would have to witness.
“Duck pizza,” he said, remembering the magazine’s picture. Swollen yellow folds around blackened meat. He’d followed the recipe. He’d eaten it. He’d shut Gwen’s door before inviting the lady into the kitchen.
“Ice cream pizza,” said the lady. She laughed.
Maximilian pressed his hands against his eyes until bright squirms of light swam behind his lids. The bacteria in his brain. He smiled despite himself. “Crow pizza,” he said, rubbing his eyes. The bug lamp zapped. “Lightning-bug pizza.”
“Yuck.” The lady removed the black clasp from her head. Hair fell in pale cursive around her face.
Maximilian opened his eyes. The light from the wall lanterns on the house emphasized the lady’s high, white cheekbones and hollowed out her eyes. He felt he was dining with a specter. The feeling pleased him. He wanted everything the lady touched to become ghostlike—transparent, wavering. The pizza, the plates, the table, the grass, the house. She laid a hand on his. With his ghost hands he would reach into the lady’s ghost heart, and as she moved closer to him, he’d see through his arms, his chest, until they both disappeared.
Now she touched his face. “Thank you for taking Poe,” she said, removing her fingers. With his ghost face he would lean through the wall of Gwendolyn’s bedroom, lean down into her skull and see the electric scrolls of memories folded in her brain. He’d open his ghost mouth, inhale her memories into his vapor.
“It’s okay,” he said, but his shoulders convulsed. His eyes welled up. His chest shuddered with sobs punching from the inside, wanting out.
The lady stood. “Oh shit,” she said.
A ruffling sound came from above them. Maximilian looked up, blinking the salt-sting from his eyes. On the roof of the house, the shadow of a tall, thin bird stretched its neck, lowered its wings. Its legs did a fluid sidestep along the gutters. When it paused against the night sky, Maximilian wasn’t certain it was there.
The lady stood. She took a leftover slice of pizza from the table. Clutching the crust, she twisted and threw the pizza like a Frisbee. It flopped in the air and landed on top of the roof. The darkness fluttered as the bird stepped back, wings half-uplifted. All at once it rushed above their heads, the wedge of pizza limp in its beak.
The lady raised her arms. “For the birds!” she shouted.
Maximilian stood next to her. She offered her hand. “I’m Faye,” she said. “You should know that.”
He felt the soft creases of years in her palm. “Maximilian.”
They stood together, watching the roof where the bird had been.
“I have a sister,” he said. “Gwen. Gwendolyn Lee Blankenship.” Her name expired from his lungs with the shush of a tired phantom. “She’s still inside.”
Faye patted the top of his hand and sighed. “In good time.”
The kitchen was a mess. Clots of goat cheese and mozzarella on the countertop. Sprays of flour. Tomato pulp and rosemary seeds. Marinara drips down the cabinets. Worms of dough, loose grapes. A wad of Kleenex next to a melting bar of butter. A rolling pin in a crystal bowl. Two big knives. A ladle. Fingerprints touching in the flour on the countertop. White footprints across the floor.
The rat nibbled at the droppings. Following a sharper scent out of the kitchen, its nose twitched into the living room, where it slipped behind the blue armchair and edged along the dark wainscot, sticky with the urine of Maximilian’s old Tabby cat, now two years dead.
Dust gathered in the rat’s claws. It scurried away from the armchair and wove around the brass figurines of turtles and geese in front of the fireplace. It clicked down the hardwood floor of the hallway, sniffing the dry delicacies of dead millipedes and moth wings in corners, the oils of bare feet, stale cracker crumbs and curlicues of hair.
An intoxicating odor beckoned from behind a cracked door. The rat nosed into the room. The powerfully sour air made its gums tingle. It stood on its hind legs, straining to inspect the pungent lump above. It circled a nearby chair, testing its claws against the wooden legs before scratching its way up to the seat. From that height, the rat saw the lifeless face of a familiar creature. It leapt from the chair to the nightstand, making the pink lamp totter. It sprang to the bed and explored the mound exuding the rich perfume.
The rat paused as voices called through the window. The voices carried other scents: sweet juice and spices and smoke and meat and lemon and wheat and the salt musk of life. The stench of it all. The rat inched under the blanket and hid. It curled into the motionless body. It waited for the voices without bodies to vanish.
Matthew Harrison grew up in several Georgia towns. Now he lives in western Massachusetts, where he’s working toward an MFA at UMass Amherst. His writing has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Gargoyle, At Length, Danse Macabre, Smokebox, The Battered Suitcase, and Phantom Kangaroo.
© 2011 prickofthespindle.com