Marie Smysor Watson
Fly the Coop
While I'm still digesting the awesome sights and astounding sounds and amazing people I met on an astonishing section hike of the Appalachian Trail (more coming soon!), here's something for you, dear readers, to devour. Hope you like chicken;) ...
My new neighbor thinks I don’t like her because she used to be a lesbian. Wrong. I’m a solid liberal; I love the Community. No, I don't like her because she’s a vampire. But she doesn’t know that I know, which is a good thing. I think. At the very least, it will buy me some time. I think.
A bit of background for context: We moved into this house a few weeks ago, but it took me until today to introduce myself to the new neighbors. What can I say? Busy, busy, busy, and my husband, Jerry, isn’t much help. No surprise there - he never has been. I married him for his looks and his big package; now both are on a downward bent. I also didn’t know how uninclined he was to keep a job (hence, the new house). Stupid, but I was young - only nineteen - and he was better-looking than me at the time, so I was flattered. Now three girls and countless boxes of dark brown hair dye later, I’m drowning. Who knew things would change?
Anyway, the new neighbors. After weeks of threatening and cajoling and pleading for help and the girls generally ignoring me, I step out onto the side porch to gather myself. Okay, actually it’s to drink, but at least I have the decency to put it in a coffee sippy, so the neighborhood doesn’t give me the collective side-eye. It’s only ten in the morning. I’m decompressing with Jameson over ice, watching an army of nasty squirrels secret away precious lawn treasures when I hear a deep-throated, “Heeeeeeyyyy!” from across the yard.
“Archie and Tess,” he tells me, pointing to him and his wife, gazing at her like she’s rare meat. He barely gives me a glance, although I’m told often that I look really good for a forty-five year old who’s had three kids. All girls too; if there’s anything that’ll age you faster than a houseful of teenage girls, I don’t know what it is.
I lift my coffee cup and say “Hey-a!” in their general direction with more vigor than I’ve ever felt at the prospect of being neighborly. What can I say? I grew up out in the woods, seven miles from town. The trees were our only neighbors (curiously though, we had fewer squirrels out amongst the trees than I do here in the midst of people). There were no extraneous trips back into town, not for anything except serious medical issues. Once you got home, you stayed there. Although I have no desire to ever live outside of civilization again, old habits die hard. I won’t even drive the ten blocks to the grocery store to get milk when we’re out. I send Jerry, or we go without until the next big grocery run. The girls complain about stuff like this. Spoiled princesses. That’s Jerry’s fault.
The neighbors - Archie and Tess - there’s something familiar about them, but not in a good way. I brush it off. Stress, I tell myself. They’re unnaturally white. As they approach, I see it’s due to an incredibly thick layer of sunscreen. What the hell? I almost blurt before I catch myself, which temporarily boosts my mood. My oldest daughter says I never stop to think. Suddenly smug, I take a larger than normal sip. The Jameson tickles my tongue.
“Glad to meet ya,” says Archie, even though I haven’t introduced myself. They stand on my asphalt driveway looking up at me on the deck. They’re both dressed from head to toe in blousy black clothes. One of those matchy couples, I groan inwardly. But I do not say this out loud either, and I stick out my tongue at my oldest daughter in my mind. Brat.
“You too,” I say and then blink several times. They stand there expectantly. I take another sip of my drink and then realize what they’re waiting for. “Oh,” I sputter, “I’m Lucy.”
I’m not sure whether I should descend the stairs so we can shake hands or not. I don’t really want to, because of the lingering pandemic but also because I don’t really want to touch them. If they’re wearing that much sunscreen, then it’s probably still slicking up their hands too. People never wipe their hands before shaking.
“Haven’t we met before, Lucy?" Tess asks. Her voice is low, like a mooing cow, and twice as unpleasant.
“I don’t think so,” I say. I can’t see her eyes, caught behind mirrored sunglasses. I’d like to be a woman who wears sunglasses, but I’m forever misplacing or breaking them. You can’t be trusted with sunglasses, my second daughter crabs whenever I ask to borrow hers. She’s never without them.
“I’m sure we’ve met before,” she says. She pulls her glasses down, just like in the movies. Her eyes are yellow, like the inside of an egg. A feeling, something akin to peeing my pants, trickles down my innards.
“You look so familiar,” she says, smiling. Her teeth are too white. They match the sunscreen, making it hard to locate them in her face.
It’s like lightning, my memory, and just as cold. I know this only because my grandfather, George, was struck by lightning once, when he was trying to herd his cattle into the barn during a ferocious storm. Big black Angus, blacker than the clouds that rolled up from the trees. GG was standing in a puddle trying to get a particularly stubborn heifer to move when he was hit. He lost consciousness, but because the cows were so thick around him, he didn’t fall. The only way he knew what had happened was due to the giant hole burnt through in his work hat. He swore up until the day he died it was because of the I like Ike pin that he’d worn on that hat for twenty years. The lightning flipped his vote forever, but it also produced a weird aftereffect. He was convinced he saw a shadow over everyone’s face. Come into the light he would plead, which made me shudder as a kid. It makes me shudder now to think of him, my GG, sitting in his seat-sprung recliner, that keening tilt in his voice, telling me to step out of the shadows. It’s cold, he’d say, even during the hottest part of our midwestern summers. It’s cold, come into the light girl.
Anyway, that’s how I feel. Cold, like GG. Dark. I take another slug from my cup, but it might as well be water as much as it helps.
Eighteen. Working in a chicken processing plant, pre-Jerry, pre-girls. Night shift at the slaughterhouse, but they don’t like us to call it that. They being the guys in charge, the ones who wore the blue hats because they’re the supervisors, even though they don’t do much but hand out orders like cheap, splintered candy. I’m in charge of killing, meaning I’m not in charge of anything except slitting their throats after they’re hung upside down. It didn’t upset me. I’ve always liked chicken. Anyway, I grew up on a farm. Plenty of death there.
One day, there’s a new girl to my right and down a few spots. The killing seemed to upset her more than it did the rest of us. She would groan when the cut was made, moan when it poured out. The rest of us did our work in silence. We weren't a thoughtful group. It probably didn’t occur to us that we were actually killing the chickens. Only rendering them silent.
There was nothing silent about the new girl. That’s how I caught her in the bathroom. I was there, taking an unauthorized bathroom/smoke break. I did this just infrequently enough to fly under the radar of the blue hats, but often enough that the cigarettes I had taped to the underside of the toilet tank lid never went stale. I had finished smoking, and was picking blood from under my nails when I heard the creaking hiss of the hydraulic to the outer door. I instinctively pulled my legs up to my chest. (You might think it’d be hard to pull your legs up while sitting on the toilet, but I’d had plenty of practice of making myself small during childhood. You can imagine why.)
I saw her through the slit in the door. I heard a low moaning, almost like the bassbeat of an unpleasant song. Don’t ask me where she secreted it away - the memory was so deep I’d never unearthed before now. But the body was still shuddering and the blood hadn’t had time to clot as she tipped it up. I heard the gurgling. saw her throat working overtime to handle the flow from the empty neck, smelled the iron-y tang of fresh death, tasted the blood in my own mouth from biting the inside of my cheek. And I felt like GG must have always felt, with the fire in his veins that clouded his eyes and made his blood run cold.
She catches me later, behind my garage. I’m trying to figure out the best way to hang my bird feeders so that the tree-rats don’t get into them. Jerry was, of course, supposed to do it, but he hasn’t gotten around to it. Too tired, he says, when he gets home from work. He’s an accountant. For the life of me, I cannot figure out why running numbers would make a person that tired, but I don’t say anything. I’ve learned how to be silent, despite what my youngest daughter thinks.
“Please don’t tell Archie,” she says, smiling. Her teeth gleam in the dull afternoon light.
“Tell him about….?” I pretend
“You know,” she says. “Please don’t pretend.” She steps closer. She smells sweet. Probably how she lures in her prey.
“He’s very conservative,” she says. “He wouldn’t understand, even though I was so young then. Well, young-er,” she emphasizes, chuckling. Her laugh is squishy, horrible. I hate squishy laughs.
“I’m not sure what you’re referring to,” I say desperately. I hold my hands up like I have nothing to hide. Nothing, except my life.
“Penny,” she says and waits, unblinking. “Penny, my girlfriend?” she prompts.
I vaguely remember a butchy sort of woman that hung around her. Her face is covered in shadow - GG must be catching - but I do remember that she had piercings all the way up each ear, clear up through the cartilage. One of them got infected - cellulitis, probably from the germs that ran rampant through the river of blood and shit we waded through each day - and it swelled up like a mushroom. She had to remove all of her piercings. I remember not recognizing her without them, like she was a ghost of someone I should’ve known.
“Remember,” she pushes. I nod.
“Listen, it’s just that Archie thinks we are this perfect heterosexual couple,” she continues. “And we are! Now, we are! He doesn’t need to know about my past. About Penny.”
“What happened to her?” I whisper. My fake casualness has fled. Or shit the bed, as Jerry says sometimes, to be funny.
“Oh, she’s gone. Flown the coop,” she says and laughs pointedly. My face betrays nothing. From inside the house, I hear a fight begin between all three of the girls. Funny how I can distinguish each voice, even though I can’t hear the words.
I watch Tess’s back as she walks away. The air shimmers around her. No shadows. Inside, Oldest and Middle are arguing - probably over clothes, or hair products, or both; Youngest is bridging the great divide between them with low-spoken reason.
“Plant garlic,” she calls. “They hate garlic.”
“Who?” The single word catches on my teeth. The voices inside chatter like raindrops on a tin roof before a terrific storm.
“Squirrels.” She laughs again.
“Did you finally meet the new neighbors?” Jerry asks that evening, as the sun bleeds out on the horizon. “I finally saw them out and about when I pulled up. I waved,” he says smugly.
We’re the new neighbors, I think but don’t say. I’m tired, edgy from memory. The girls are out, scattered like squirrels, each unto their own corner of town. If I had to place any of them in their correct location, I would fail. It is getting dark. I should know where my children are.
Jerry does not worry about such things. He’s a man, a father - no shadow-gatherer, he. Instead, he sorts through the mail. He does this every night when he comes home from work, Nothing in the mail is ever for him, except for the odd flier or magazine; still, he giggles like a sunny kid whenever he spots his name. All of the bills are addressed to me, although I’ve never liked being in charge. Heavy is the head that wears the blue hat, I whisper.
“Lookie here! Coupons to the new chicken place! We should try it on Friday.” His smile cracks his face wide open.
“I think I found a way to beat the squirrels at their own game,” I reply.