Gracie Ellington didn’t know she’d backed over the boy until she saw him twisted and wriggling before the nose of her car. She almost didn’t even see him then, with her tires kicking up the hot Alabama dust.
Nothing worked right for Gracie. The little boy had black hair and the kind of skin that looked like it never darkened, no matter how much summer sun it got. She hated the boy in the dust, the mangled little bully. There would be problems because of this. Gracie Ellington was a meek woman, and the world took notice when you didn’t bite back.
She hit her head on the horn a few times and started crying, huffing with frustration through her tears. She felt like she was drowning in them. They trickled over her lips and teeth and dripped down her mouth. She could feel them pooling up inside her. Nothing was on Gracie’s side.
The morning shopping never got done. Gracie was still crying and slapping the steering wheel when a passing trucker knocked on her window. The man was black, scared to be in the presence of white people experiencing tragedy. Such people had a habit of inventing blame to level against the blameless.
The black man eventually radioed for the police, and a trooper on his way to Birmingham came by near sunset. He scolded the trucker, saying if he’d known the man was calling on behalf of a white woman he’d have gotten there sooner. It was sundown before the cold boy was hauled away, in a white pickup the county used for dead bodies and hurt blacks. The trucker was given a citation for unlawful trespass.
Ms. Gracie was given a pill and driven to Doc Shore’s house. The doctor wasn’t there, but his wife gave Gracie some bourbon and another pill. It wasn’t until after ten when Gracie mentioned her husband wouldn’t be there to pick her up.
Gracie sat through the night on the doctor’s porch swing, drinking coffee with chicory. Her shaking hands made her slop a lot of it. By sunrise the dried coffee had formed thick stains on the whitewashed boards.
Doc Shore drove her home. They had to go through the side door so as not to cut through the police tape out front. Ed’s hand lingered on the side of her bottom after he’d gotten her into bed, and when he realized it was there he snatched it back with a jerk.
Later, the stains in the dirt driveway looked a lot to Gracie like coffee spilled on whitewashed wood.
Delia is crying over the shriveled woman in the hospital bed. Gracie does her best to quiet her daughter. She can’t bear the idea of anyone morning the lifeless creature before them.
This dying thing corrupted Delia for ten years. There were nights where Gracie had been violently ill by the involuntary understanding of what her daughter did with Naomi. The woman was a predator, twenty years older than the girl she’d stolen. She’s defiled her in probably every way, tasting her and being tasted by her, a communion taken over the course of a decade.
Naomi is forty-seven, but the lymphoma has edged her closer to two hundred. Her skin is red and dry, peeling off in little square flakes, cracking wide wherever natural lines have formed. A little less than a dozen tough, wiry hairs are stuck across her head. Her eyes were closed long before the coma; it had been a hard fight before then just to keep them open.
The nurses come, and disconnect the machine that breathes for Naomi. The monitor records her slowing heartbeat. A doctor marks the time of death. Delia weeps in her shuddering mother’s arms.
“We did all we could,” she coos to her daughter. It was even easier than it’d been with Ed.
Children make faces as they pass Gracie’s house. Sometimes if they see her in the screened-in porch they’ll yell and call her “Murder Lady!”
In her kitchen, Gracie balances her checkbook, scribbling in the pink notepad she’s favored for two decades. Garish red and purple flowers overcrowd the cover, matching the rose vines etched in the heavy pen Ed gave her their first anniversary together.
The passing children throw rocks at a stray cat in Gracie’s yard. They think it belongs to the old woman. They’re excited by the excuse for cruelty.
The cat doesn’t run away. It hisses, charges, cuts a boy on the leg, and then darts into the woods. Later an angry mother pounds on Gracie’s door, yelling to the old woman to control the animals she doesn’t have.
“Do you want to kill the rest of the kids around here?” the middle-aged woman yells. Her slaps excite a yellow jacket resting on the doorframe, and it stings her above the ear. She flails her arms and runs back to the road.
Delia won’t stay with Gracie. She’s got her awful red cases packed inside the dead lesbian’s Volkswagen, red cases the lesbian bought for her. There’s almost nothing left of Delia that the dead woman’s lust didn’t conquer.
“You should stay,” Gracie begs. She was always short, but stooped as she is she could tumble into Delia’s chubby stomach.
“I can’t Mom. Naomi had affairs I said I’d settle…”
“Damn the affairs. What does she have left anymore?”
“Mom, I owe it to her.”
“You’re finally loose of her and you still can’t let anything of hers go.”
“I love you, Mom. I’ll call when I get there.”
“What kind of woman flees from family this way?”
Delia tries to kiss Gracie’s cheek, but her mother slaps at her, missing her with her palm but grazing her with stained nails. Red marks that will vanish in five minutes flare on her daughter’s cheek.
“I love you,” Delia reminds herself, and goes to the car. “I’ll call you soon.”
“You’d be better off dead!” Gracie shrieks. “For God’s sake baby, don’t you see…?”
The Volkswagen mutters to itself and bounces down the clay road. Gracie’s scared. She knows they give jobs to women up in Massachusetts, even those who submit to other women. Hell, she could get a job anywhere; things are different nowadays. Her ties won’t bind much longer. Gracie pulled her money from Delia’s college fund, but Delia graduated anyway. Soon it won’t matter how many dollars Gracie hides away behind invented shields of poverty.
There’s a nest of baby birds that won’t stop squalling, and Gracie takes Bobby’s air gun and shoots a pellet into the dark. There’s a squawk, and she hears wings flapping. The baby birds squall louder.
Gracie goes out. It’s after nine, during that summer hour when the sun fights with all it’s got to stay above the horizon. In the dim dusk Gracie sees a single wing slowly wave to her. A thrasher is on its side, its beak wide open. It doesn’t breathe. Something like water is spilling from its mouth, staining the concrete porch.
The other thrasher won’t go up to the nest when it returns. It flicks about, chirping and beating the dead bird with its wings. There’s a long moment when it bends down, like it’s listening for something. Gracie shoots it through the eye. The bird flops on its back, its legs making slow, swimming kicks while the rest of it lies prostrate and stiff.
The baby birds keep Gracie up all night. At some point she hears the growling of a cat and the hiss of a possum. In the morning the dead birds are still there.
Mothers pull their children away from Gracie while the old woman walks through the Food Tiger. A tall trooper with a skinny build and a lumpy gut comes up to her.
“How’re ya today, Ms. Gracie?”
“Can’t you people just leave me alone?” she begs, looking to the floor. She whispers it almost; any louder and she might cry.
“We won’t hurt you, Ms. Gracie,” the trooper tells her, almost like he’s sorry for her. He tips his hat and moves over to the meat cooler.
The cashier wrinkles her nose like Gracie smells bad, and practically throws her change to her. The trooper stands by the door while the bag boy loads the food into her car. On her way out of the parking lot she passes a red Impala. There’s a teenage boy behind the wheel, with a faint pink line on his cheek that was fresh about ten years before. He watches her as she turns onto Harris Road, and resists the urge to scratch the old scar. It only itches when he thinks about her.
Gracie unloads the groceries, yelling at the baby birds with every bag she brings in.
“Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!” she screeches. The last bag contains the Tylenol she takes about ten times a day. She shoves one bottle in her purse, puts the other five behind the bathroom mirror, beside the old straight razor of Ed’s. She carried that razor for awhile after he and the kids left, but for the last decade it’s sat on the same dusty glass rack, the chrome blade stained an ugly spilled brown.
“It was only a dog,” she mutters. She shuts the mirror with a slam.
She puts crumpled flowers pulled from her backyard on Ed’s grave. Cancer’s convenient. All you have to do is pull away. There isn’t a simpler weapon in the world. Even the old razor was never that easy to use.
Bobby’s grave is next to Ed’s. The town keeps the marker shining like the day it was bought. Yellowing notes are staked to the ground. “You poor little lamb.” “God bless the blighted children.”
Her plot is marked beside Ed’s, her space on the stone still blank. The grass here is always dying, washed as it is in piss. Maybe she could bury the birds here.
When she gets home the baby birds are still crying. The carcasses of the parents are gone now, leaving only ruffled feathers and chewed bits of skin.
A dog is calling from down the road. Probably the mutt the Davisons keep for their screaming kids. Gracie has a steak in the freezer for the dog, one she’s never gotten around to preparing. The days are always so short.
It’s after nine and the baby birds in the old hickory tree won’t stop squealing. Something has to be done. Gracie stomps to the bathroom in her old pink slippers and fishes the straight razor out from behind the mirror. There’s a half-moon out, and it’s bright enough to see by. Gracie turns the bare porch light on anyways.
There’s a stump left over from an oak Ed cut down, back before he left. Gracie uses it to get a leg up, then steps onto the small, leaning trunk of the dehydrated hickory tree, using the knobby bark for footholds.
The razor glints in the moonlight. Bobby once told her there isn’t any moonlight, just sunlight reflected off the moon. Gracie must not think about that too long. Too much consideration and she’ll spin. Life must be a pliable thing.
The blade shines in the light despite the puppy’s brown blood. Ed had railed at her for that, grabbed her even. Then she’d put the razor to his shoulder and he’d let her go. He’d planned to take Bobby with him when he left the next day, but of course there was only Delia to take away afterward.
The Black-Eyed Susans still grow where they’d put the nipping puppy, though how much was left of it to grow on Gracie couldn’t imagine. Weren’t mummies made from hot, dry dust?
Gracie grips the razor like she did on that day ten years ago, when the ice cream truck had stopped by her car, and the children had been bumping against her. The razor had flashed like cold lightning against the boy’s cheek. Afterward, tenderness to women had delivered her back into her home, but the judge had warned her: “I think now we know the kind of woman you are.”
But that boy hadn’t even died. If he had they wouldn’t have let her keep the razor. People were so eager to condemn the meek. Angry tears come. The world is a creeping vine. All she left him with was a little pink line on the cheek. Was that worth so much?
She thinks of Bobby in the dust. In the sunlight afforded to us at night, incidents and accidents enjoy mixed company.
She’s looking down into the nest now, her old arms shaking as she fights to keep hold to the shaking branches. Her white hair hangs loose, and she tries to shake it over her shoulder. The motion throws her off-balance, but she finds a lump of bark and steps down on it.
Except it isn’t a lump of bark, just a sprig of leaves poking out from a budding new branch. They yield to her weight instantly. Gracie scrapes at the bark of the tree with the razor as she falls.
She hits her face against the oak stump, and lands on her side with a sound like a wet bag of rocks. Her hip actually does hit a rock, and there’s so much pain that for a second she panics, thinking she won’t be able to face it. But she lucks out. The pain disappears, replaced with a heavy feeling of icy cold.
The wires to the porch light aren’t great, and the bulb goes dark. The moon beholds her, but doesn’t care. That’s alright. The moonlight isn’t there. Its indifference doesn’t hurt.
The razor is stuck a little ways into the palm of her hand. It’s folded against the ground, the handle split down the middle from the impact. She’s surprised the cut isn’t bleeding much, so maybe it’s not too bad.
She gets sleepy, but never actually falls asleep. After a couple hours she feels cool, but she doesn’t shiver. The right side of her face is so puffy she practically has a pillow to rest her head upon.
Her phone begins to ring in the kitchen. Delia is back in Boston now.
The phone rings and rings, and then goes quiet. Half an hour later, it rings again. Gracie, feeling cool in the summer heat, is content to let it ring.