Lizzie called to let me know she was in labor and asked if I’d drive out to California to help. “Don’t bring the boys,” she said. “It would just be too much for me right now.” She almost whispered it, in her usual trance of apathy. She told me the baby would be there by morning. I’d known this was coming, my daughter birthing another human she wouldn’t love. But even so, the news felt unexpected. Her words blew out of the phone like a flurry of dead leaves, and their dry sound circled around my head for hours.
Eli and Jacob did not ask about their mother. Eli was four and Jacob was six. They couldn’t sit still long enough to realize the woman trying to hug them was postmenopause, sagging with the guilt of her entire life, one of the only things going for her being the way her long red hair carried the scent of shampoo. I looked at this woman in the mirror every day. I waved to her. I told her she did her best.
Eli and Jacob’s favorite game was to act out natural disasters—spinning through the house like tornadoes, knocking things off tables as if earthquakes were happening, leaving water running in sinks and the tub to damage the floor as if there was a flood. And I let them. It gave them joy—a charged light in their eyes that might someday reflect a different life—and the release of energy helped them sleep, which would not be possible otherwise.
My mother had recently moved to St. Jo and now lived a mile from my house. She loved me. She would always love me because she followed the endless path toward heaven. Some might think that love is mandatory, and my mother may say so to her plump, church-going friends, but the way she put her hands on my shoulders this morning was anything but mandatory. We paused for several moments in the doorway, her fingertips tensing and releasing with fears she wouldn’t talk about, a love that was deeper than hell.
Then we separated.
She asked if I was packed.
“Yeah,” I said. “Enough for a week.”
“Good,” she said, nodding. “That’s great. She needs you.”
I thanked her for watching the boys.
Behind us, Jacob had helped Eli onto the kitchen counter. The faucet ran into the sock Eli had stuffed into the drain, and the sound of the water deepened as the sink began to fill. My mother walked over, slapped Eli’s bare leg, and shut off the water.
“You know better,” she said. “You know better. And if you don’t, you want to. Do you know the story of Noah’s Ark?”
“Noah,” Jacob said behind her. “Know-a-SHARK.” And he hit her ass with the open mouth of a shark water toy, which squirted week-old bathwater down the leg of her pants.
The boys laughed their stormy laughs. Somehow, my mother got them into timeout on opposite ends of the couch. The quiet air unzipped darkness from their eyes. I thought of how I’d raised Lizzie, how I’d carried her under my arm to search for her father across Missouri, then pulled her behind me across three more states looking for his replacement, how I’d taken my broken heart seriously enough to follow its swampy will for over a decade. And in the process Lizzie became poisoned by an indifference that had been necessary during her backseat existence, an indifference that slowed the beating of her heart. That’s why the terror of Eli and Jacob was something I wanted to preserve, because at least they had life ringing through them. Lizzie would probably die the same girl she was at twelve. She had every right to blame me, every right to expect the repair that her bad decisions required to be handled by me. I had no doubt that Lizzie didn’t want her newborn baby, that I would leave California with a new set of cries to be soothed.
I got into my car at dusk. My mother waved gently from the other side of the front window, while Eli and Jacob banged their fists on the glass, their heads moving in circles, and I thought I saw a rainbow of colors pouring from their ears.
A bird landed on the hood and hopped. Just a bird—neutral colors, small beak—a generic copy of the thousands of other birds that dotted the trees and the sky. Its toes, however, seemed longer than those of most birds, and they clicked around the hood lightly. The keys were in the ignition; I knocked them together with my fingers. I opened my mouth to speak, almost asked the bird to get a move on. Then the bird opened its beak slightly, and didn’t close it until I closed my mouth. I waved again at the now empty front window. The bird did the same. I looked behind me to see if it was safe to pull out of the driveway. When I turned back around, the bird was now perched on a windshield wiper, its long and skinny toes wrapped around it.
“What makes you think that’s going to work out?” I asked.
I started the car, thinking the bird would fly away out of fear. But the rumbling engine under the hood only shook the bird’s feathers, and I saw its toes clutch even tighter.
“Suit yourself,” I said. “You insane thing.”
The bird rode comfortably through town, watching my hands steer the wheel, watching the tree-shaped air freshener swing clumsily between us, cocking its head, just being there. I was sure the seventy miles-per-hour on I-70 West would pluck the bird from my car and I’d be able to focus on things, but the bird merely closed its eyes once we reached high speeds, and it remained.
When I was a child, I feared my nightlight. I imagined it unplugging from the wall, floating circles around my ankles, flashing on and off, stirring the nightmares it was meant to dissipate, following me. After sweating through years of nights with the nightlight, checking on it every hour, I finally came to my senses and boxed it away in the shadows of my closet. Sometimes, my mother would unbox it and plug it back into the wall, thinking she was being helpful. I imagined her bending down and whispering to a crowd of birds in the front yard before coming inside this afternoon, telling them that I needed help, trying to convince one of them to follow me and keep an eye out.
After a few hours of driving, I checked my phone. My mother had not called. I wondered if the boys had buried her phone in the backyard. I wondered if they had turned out all the lights and hid in the pantry, laughing over the sound of their grandmother moving blindly along a wall hoping to catch a light switch, muttering promises of punishment. I knew that as soon as the words left her mouth, threatening or not, they would fall to her feet in a cloud of dust.
I never scolded the boys.
It was dark now. The bird illuminated with each passing car. Its feathers looked sharp. I hadn’t slowed down. The bird hadn’t loosened its grip.
I pulled into a rest stop in Kansas around midnight. Every man entering the convenience store, exiting the convenience store, pumping gas, sitting in a car, sitting in a truck, looked over after I pulled in. They all looked away just as quickly when they saw what kind of body got out of the car.
I prepaid for gas. The clerk looked young, but wasn’t. I asked for a carton of Marlboro Reds.
“Need a lighter?” he asked.
I didn’t. I had about twenty lighters in the glove compartment. But there was something about lighting cigarettes with the same lighter for too long, and I suddenly feared that the next time I tried, the flame wouldn’t spark.
“Wow,” I said. “Thank you so much for asking. Yes. I need a lighter.”
He pointed to a row of cheap, transparent lighters, and to a row of thick, colorful, healthy lighters. I pointed to the better row.
“Color,” he said, meaning it as a question.
I didn’t have a favorite color. Eli and Jacob didn’t have a favorite color, either, so I couldn’t pick a color in their honor. Impatient breaths collected behind me in a ball that turned against the back of my head. I had grown a tail of people. I realized I was taking too long. I realized that most people did not consider a convenience store as the place to be. But it was quickly becoming that for me. I wanted the clerk to ask me something else, to tell me I had more choices.
“Green,” I said.
He nodded. He added a line to the receipt that waited to spit out.
“Anything else?” he asked.
There it was.
“Yes,” I said.
His face opened and held itself out like two hands ready to receive my answer. He did not share the heated anxiety of the people behind me, nor did he seem indifferent. He had the flat, preplanned expression that comes from being at work. But he was patient, polite. I wondered if he slept through the night, if he always had. I wondered if he was raised like Lizzie, with a quiet yet blooming grudge behind his eyes, or if he was raised like Eli and Jacob, the air of his actions in a constant coughing fit, out of control. His simple kindness was unfamiliar. It was clear he was loved. But his hands were clenched, bloodless. His knuckles had that snowy look of waiting for another bad thing. Nerves. Maybe he had always been that way. I imagined a mother’s soft, thin voice putting him back together after a nightmare. She wrapped him in the blanket she crocheted for him before he existed, the scent of repeated love wound tightly in the fibers. She sat on the edge of his bed. Her hands held his face between them, in the space where prayers lived.
“You have a good mother,” I said. “You must.”
He smiled. “Mmhmm.”
The voices of people behind me punched into my back, one after the other, until it was bumper-to-bumper frustration all the way out the door. “Lady, what the fuck” and “Really” and “Jesus Christ.”
“Ma’am, is there anything else you need?” he asked.
“Yes,” a woman said from the back of the line. “What else can we all do for you?”
“Your total is fifty-four dollars and eleven cents,” he said.
“I’m a mother,” I said. “I’m a grandmother, even.”
“Congratulations,” the clerk said.
“Just so you know,” I said, with the intention of following it with something profound, but nothing came.
I paid. The clerk shut the register drawer and looked beyond me, already zapping even the memory of our exchange.
When I turned, the line of people had become a tunnel of eyes, hovering and staring. They blinked quickly and separately. A chorus of blinks that I imagined would be what snowflakes sounded like against warm concrete if I were patient enough to listen. I couldn’t look at any of them.
The bird was still clutching the windshield wipers with its gangly toes.
I grabbed a fistful of dirt and tossed it in the air. The bird shut its eyes, shook itself off, and resumed standing still.
“I hate that you’re here,” I said. “I hate what you’re doing.”
I got in the car and turned on the windshield wipers. The bird swung back and forth over the dry glass. It looked like a leaf.
I drove for about a mile on the highway like that, listening to the bird move across the windshield, watched it begin to lose its feathers, its protection, all because I couldn’t stand the idea of something just being okay without needing a reason, an unfamiliar set of eyes watching me drive to repeat a life I’d already lived.
I pulled over and turned off the engine. The wiper with the bird was in midswing. The bird’s feet had tangled underneath it. It was still alive. It allowed me to untangle its feet, to smooth its remaining feathers. I was fully prepared for the bird to launch itself at my face, peck me, mistake the freckles under my eyes as seed and tear at my most sensitive flesh, scream into my ear as punishment for my behavior. But it didn’t. The bird hopped right back to its place, forgave me, could still look at me with its beady eyes.
My car door was open. I got back in. The seat breathed in the weight of my body. My mother had called and left a voice message of her, Eli, and Jacob singing about Jesus, their Lord, their Savior, a hymn I couldn’t place. I knew they didn’t know it, but their voices were at peace, tucked into the comfort of chance, of that clarity, that good feeling they might find.
I heard the pitchy hum of Lizzie’s voice, traveling through the veins of the earth to find me, tell me that it had happened, that there was another redhead, another ball of fire that will burn into something out of my control and yet completely my doing, another pair of lips to search for a message of clarity that had been evaporating gradually each generation. I thought my way back through the wombs—Lizzie’s womb, my womb, my mother’s, her mother’s, all the mothers’—to the beginning, whenever that was, and felt the red health of the first mother’s insides, everything fine, the sense that light was coming, that endless good feeling that rides beside no experience, the feeling of being the first to try.
Amy Scharmann lives in Long Beach, CA. She earned her BA in English Literature from Kansas State University and her MFA in fiction from the University of Florida. Her work has appeared in the Flash Fridays series at Tin House, New Orleans Review, Passages North, PANK, SmokeLong Quarterly, and elsewhere. See more of her work at amyscharmann.com. She tweets @amyscharmann.