I’ll stay as long as I can, it’s spring, I’m not afraid of cold anymore. The oak tree spotted with buds folds me into its shadow. At dusk this downtown park is deserted, and no one wonders what a woman is doing here alone. In the distance tall, hollow buildings gouged with squares of light flatten in the graying air. Soon night will erase everything outside this park, where a fountain’s plume rises, glows white and falls babbling. Part of my voice inside croons the time soon-night, soon-night, soonight. Now I can concentrate on sending the mice away.
The mice are the hunger in my brain and stomach. They scrape and scrabble under the floorboards and between the walls. I feel their paws clenching, bodies quaking, skinny tails running behind. There are more of them every minute.
Suddenly the mice are quiet, and my stomach is huge and vacant, light as a balloon. I would float away if my arms weren’t wrapped around my legs, holding me down, holding me together. When I tried to float away before, my cage of bones kept me here, under this tree, at dusk. I’m slighter now, because of the mice. Their teeth, tiny chisels, tick against my bones.
I’m not a bad person, but I like to be hidden because in the daylight people look at me as if I were a dog. Worse than the people are the pigeons. How they strut. Peck-peck at food too small for me to see. Before I got this way I fed those pigeons. They’re blue and gray, white and lavender and green, the colors of the farm as the morning fog dissolves. The fat man from Rockport owns the farm now, and the pigeons know it, they know what I had in the past and can’t go back to.
Last summer I swung for hours beside Leroi on the porch at the farm. We were as simple as a couple of the trees, their loads of leaves brimmed with evening light. The goats wandered through the old grape arbor, bells and bleats. The last songs of the birds as they flew home overlapped the chirrs of the first cricket. Light shifted over the Queen Anne’s lace and purple clover, and two pale yellow butterflies flitted around each other, whimsical doodles in the air. Leroi held a blade of grass to his lips and blew through it shrill. “I’m a night hawk,” he said. “I’m gonna fly away and take you with me.”
Before Mama went to work that night, she snarled, “When are you goin’ to stop seein’ that no-count boy? What are you so dressed up for – you got new jeans on for him to peel off? I heard a little somethin’ about that Leroi. He got a girl pregnant over in Braxton county and refused to marry her. Yeah, that boy’s rattletrap gets him around alright. I raised you to be a clean girl.”
“You were popped out with me when you married Daddy.”
“It’s not the same thing and you know it. If your daddy was alive, you wouldn’t be actin’ like a slut.”
“I’m not a slut.” I slammed my bedroom door between us. My own mother, talking to me like I was a piece of trash stuck on her windshield, not a girl she used to sew ruffled summer dresses, bribing me with those dresses, so I would sing in her god-awful church choir.
Here, it is so quiet, and from the gray sky a lone pigeon descends and promenades, puffed and smug, around the fountain. When it comes near, I fling pebbles. It knows, knows I was an idiot when I shoved my suitcase in the back of Leroi’s pickup.
We drove south all night. As I drifted into sleep, the smell of his cigarette smoke got mixed with the smell of the rain and the rub of the windshield wipers, and I had never been happier.
“Those things aren’t ours to sell,” I told the man who helped Leroi removed the gold couch, the armchair with ridiculous green-petaled flowers. The man stared at me with the oily, rumpled look of a crow. He and Leroi didn’t say a word. Leroi had – so quickly it seemed like a spell – become silent and vicious like the other people in this city.
Leroi came back for his shoes and clothes. He left the bed, the sheets, the blue cloth tacked over the window. And me. Afterwards the policemen started coming, looking for things they said he stole, asking where he was and touching my thigh.
My hand shakes now as I light the smoke that Marvin gave me. I was afraid of Marvin when he moved into the corner room downstairs. Every time he takes a step his whole body quivers. Not like me, I thought, nothing like me. But I found out he’s clean and decent. And he’s gentle in a way that only old people are. He says he’s lost everything that matters three times over.
He took me to the soup kitchen a few times, and he knows why I won’t go there anymore. “You think you want to die, but you’ll get over it,” he said. “Sometimes a body needs hunger to starve off their sickness.”
I’ve been saving the smoke. “Wait till the worst comes,” Marvin told me, “Then savor it. The smoke will make you feel as quiet as a baby.”
I loved how he said savor. Like it was a sure thing, a stone in a pocket. “How will I know when it’s the worst?”
“You’ll know.” But I don’t. This is the worst it’s been. Already it’s worse than I thought possible. I never thought I'd be crazy with hunger--not a good craziness, not crazy after fun gone wild too long. Instead, this is two days away from homeless craziness. I feel dumb as a doorknob without a door.
I touch the oak’s muscled roots to steady myself. The dark has fallen so heavily I can hardly stand. I skid and float, I’m the newspaper page that lifts and falls as it inches down the street, then I pass it.
Marvin’s door is open and he sits on his bed with the green army blanket neatly tucked in. “A man was here to see you,” he says.
“What did he look like?”
“Short big white guy, black hair.”
“Tic in his left check?”
“Right. Bug jumpin’ under his jaw. Said he’d be back. And here.” Marvin stands, knees and hands trembling, and hands me a grease-spotted bag. Inside are two eggrolls. I have one eaten before I finish climbing the stairs. I stop for a second, frightened at my savagery. Like when my finger stabs the ants on the kitchen counter – at first I’m repulsed, but then I do it with a cold rapacious anger. That’s how I eat the first eggroll. The second I eat slowly. The mice squeak so shrilly my ears ring. Then softly, and I hardly hear them between the drips of the faucet.
He’ll come knocking. Come sweet talking. He’ll want the money Mama sent. The money – exactly enough for the bus ride home – is under the mattress, folded back into Mama’s letter: “Come back. Don’t stay there. It’s a good thing you didn’t have no children.” From the bus station I can walk to the trailer where she lives now, on the edge of town.
I look out the window to the black alley. Nothing moves. Once when I was a kid I stood on an empty stage. I was late; the others kids were backstage putting on their glittery costumes. The auditorium was full of metal chairs that watched me with an insect-like intent, fixed and insidious. When I couldn’t find the opening in the center of the black velvet curtain, I beat it with frantic arms. The folds smothering me, I was lost between two ripples and the ripples multiplied and swayed around me, heavy and silent. I dropped to my knees and crawled beneath the black edge, came up gasping for light.
I wonder if Leroi remembers the night we walked through invisible woods toward the rushing sound of the river. All sense of light became distant and we seemed to be the only people in the world. We emerged from the ragged, huddled darkness to an s-shaped stretch of sky pricked and shattered bright by stars, and underneath ran an s-shaped stretch of river, quick with changing specks of silver.
We leaped down the river from one hazy rock to another. Underneath the ringing of the crickets was the quiet of a million leaves growing. The moon was ripe and I saw it smile after Leroi and I kissed.
Now I want to ask Leroi: tell me why you turned away from me. I want to know why. Then I’ll go back to what’s left of home.
But he’ll find the money. He’ll get it somehow. He’ll twist my arm till I’m on my knees yelping.
So I go out, under the midnight hum and blue-edged glare of the streetlights. I have dollars rolled in my fist and nothing to carry home. No souvenirs. A baby wails, a window slams, a car growls by, and then I reach the park where the fountain swallows all other sounds, except the running trill of the mice. They’ve come back. Under the oak, I stretch across the grass, slick with newness. I press my face and fits hard into the earth’s damp warmth, and its rich smell promises that anything is possible. Yes, I answer. And what part of anything is for me?
Laura Longsong is the author of Imagine a Door: Poems (Turning Point, 2009). Her fiction and poetry appear in New Orleans Review, North American Review and Southern Review and were awarded a James Michener Fellowship, Texas Individual Artist Fellowship, and two Pushcart Prize nominations. She lives in Virginia.