by Katie Bowler

One thing I didn’t know, like most people, was how to tell apart all those birds: sandpiping whooping cranes from the red-throated warble-nested wobble feeders, flat-tail shimming-abbobing azure jays from ordinary finches. One thing I did know, like the next girl, is a dead bird from a live one. And this bird—I tapped at the door of the cage–was about the deadest bird I’d ever seen. I stepped from the porch, past the cage, and followed everyone through the doorway and into the house anyway. Most people would have. We have some sense of obligation, or perhaps politeness, after having driven for hours to meet a new friend’s mother. So what if she keeps a dead bird on the porch.

I wasn’t sure what to expect after the dead bird and the one cat, his mother swore, who, for inexplicable reasons, had fourteen bowls on the porch and seemed to be missing. Peacock Warson’s mother said, while we all stood at the front door looking back into the thinned-out winter woods surrounding the house, that there wasn’t more than one cat, or maybe there were only “two more at the most,” since the last time he’d been there. We all watched the woods like we were waiting for a cat to come scrambling home, and then I heard Peacock say that an “old man’s gotta do what an old man’s gotta do.” I just looked toward them, where Mrs. Warson kept looking at the woods like she didn’t hear that, or at least pretending she didn’t hear that, and she never mentioned where the old man even was. I’m nearly sure I didn’t see him on that first trip to Mississippi. Didn’t occur to me till years later that the shots I heard in the distance that day probably were from his gun out there in the woods, shooting those cats. “An old man’s gotta do what an old man’s gotta do.”

One reason clichés have stuck around so long is that they’re true: time heals most wounds, time will tell, and also what they say about hindsight. There are markers we don’t see along the way. But I can look back over my shoulder at the long stretch of time from then to now and see those markers, the signs and the forks in the road. It’s been years since I went to the Warson’s that day. I find that, as time passes, more things make sense. Never ceases to amaze me how we can see and re-see the same events with new perspective and a greater sense of clarity, and we can see how predictable it all must have been although while living inside of it, I never knew what was coming next.

Mrs. Warson had pushed down the wrinkles in her apron and pulled at the strings around her back as soon as the door snapped shut behind us and we were standing in her living room. “Now, why don’t ya’ll sit down,” she said. “Have something? Water? Tea?” and then tapped on her son’s cheek right before planting a kiss on it and turning to us to repeat, “Sit down, sit down.”

Never mind that the millennium had turned, and never mind that this was the same woman who kept a dead bird on her porch. She really talked like that.

By the time we arrived at Mrs. Warson’s house, I hadn’t known Danny Scott more than four and a half hours. I’d spent most of that time in the back seat of his uncle’s loaner Mustang, riding toward Poplarville, Mississippi. Danny was the best friend of Peacock Warson, having recently arrived in town from Costa Rica, proof, it seemed, that some southern boys did move far away from home. Or at least had rich uncles with small coffee plantations near exotic rain forests I’d never been to. And so I was tagging along on their old reunion trip to Poplarville.

Peacock’s sudden proximity to Danny seemed to increase his need to throw things out the window. Though most of my life had been spent in states where road signs provided target practice for bottles and bullets, this was a first. I’d never actually seen anything tossed from a car window while I was in the back seat. By Peacock, no less. My boyfriend.

Peacock hadn’t been born Peacock any more than I’d been born Janie. I think the nickname started in elementary school, and not from the most generous accusation, but it sort of grew on him—like other parts—and by the time he was a teenager he was fully settled on Peacock, which, if you asked me, suited him, for other reasons. Narcissism, my mother would say—she said like it like it was two words: narci-sism. The thing about boys like Peacock Warson is that all girls should get a boy like that out of their life before they turn sixteen, when there aren’t even any issues about driving and bottles and, well, while he’s supposed to still be a boy. Girls should know better, certainly by the time we’re nearly adults. You got math and English and social studies in the schools. You got physical education and chemistry. You got to ask yourself why there’s no class called What Not to Do in Life (Or, Boys Like Peacock Warson). What did I know? Dead birds, bottles tossed from windows. You’d have thought I thought this was ordinary and acceptable. Maybe I was just curious. Maybe anybody would have been. You probably wanted me to go inside, too, right after you heard I arrived at a house where someone kept her dead pet bird in a cage on the front porch. You thought, What did it look like inside? Who was this woman? Why was that bird still there? You, like me, were interested. You’re just reading a story, though; you’re not a late-twenties woman who was still making life decisions with what God put between your legs. And you know better than I did back then that some things never do find good answers.

No, I just leaned back in the back seat of that red Mustang like I was being escorted to paradise by two Southern gentlemen. Never occurred to me that I might end up just like the beer bottle sailing past the window. I lived oblivious that any of this was happening when that boy laughed or turned back to look over the seat and give me a smile. A kind of rapture.

At least until I got a half-wit in my head and shimmied between the seats to say, “What the hell are you two doing?”

And they both looked back, surprised, like they’d never been told by their mama or a girlfriend not to throw something out the window.

When they said they wouldn’t do it again, I was happier, as though I had just altered their perspective, made them grow up in one instant, but what really had happened is that, goddammit, I had suddenly surrendered some period of my life to being some big boy’s grown-up girlfriend-mama.

Mrs. Warson had gone into town to the grocery store to get the foods Peacock told her we liked. She knew, of course, what Danny liked, had liked since he was fifteen and living down the road.

We sat at the kitchen counter and I spun back and forth on the stool popping grapes in my mouth like there was no dead bird out there and Mr. Warson wasn’t off shooting cats while Mrs. Warson and Danny caught up on the last few years. Mrs. Warson asked about the kids she received letters from sometimes, the ones she sent old clothes sometimes, the barefoot kids in Costa Rica she liked to think she was helping while she dragged on her cigarette and turned down the volume on the television when Danny started talking. I had no idea who the hell these people were, or how I’d gotten there. I just watched and listened—how they seemed to be paying such close attention to one another—and I popped more grapes in my mouth, one at a time, and somehow—somehow I knew I’d be around these people a long time.

Three years, and I’d be sitting at home with a baby. Mrs. Warson with me for weeks at a time. Who knows where Peacock was? Some days, I thought I had actually married Mrs. Warson, who rarely spoke of Peacock when he wasn’t there. She’d help around the house, with the laundry and a run to the store, and she’d never ask where her son had gone or when he might be coming back. Good thing, of course, because I didn’t have any answers. I leaned over the crib while she was quiet in the next room, and saw Sam sleeping, his little fingers beside his face like he was thinking too, and I thought, Well, Sam, it’s me and you now.

I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to stay out of her way or entertain her, these weeks on maternity. So I stayed in the living room, reading and watching TV, in case she wanted to join me, but she never did. She stayed in the extra room doing her Sudoku and occasionally stepping out the back door to light her inferno of cigarettes. Then she’d come by to see if the baby needed a diaper or I needed food. I flicked the movie to pause, I put a bookmark in the book, I said, No, thank you, I said, Sure, thanks. Don’t know why I never did say, Go.

It isn’t that she didn’t help. She helped a lot, and I was thankful. I know maybe it doesn’t sound like I was, but I was. What bothers, bothers more now, years later, when I think back on details, is that I might have understood better if I had been paying better attention. I might have realized how some of the smallest tasks took her the greatest effort. Day after day, I came out of the bathroom and said, “I think I saved you enough hot water,” but she never did anything about it, not right after, not an hour after, not even that night, or the next day. She could stay with me for weeks and never step into the tub. She did, however, disappear into the bathroom. She’d close the door and stay a long time. More than an hour, sometimes almost two. She never turned on the water, though. Didn’t use the toilet or make a blip of a sound. I’m not sure what did in there. A few times, I paced past the door with Sam in my arms, and I gave a knock, said, “Are you okay in there, Mrs. Warson,” and she just said “Mmm,” then paused and added, “Yeah-yeah,” like she didn’t quite mean it. So I have to wonder: was she sitting at the edge of the tub, trying to work up the mental energy to take off her clothes and slip one arm and then the other through the shirt, and put her naked body into a shower of warm water? Now, years later and long after she’s been gone, I wonder if she sat on the floor with her head in her hands, wondering how all this was happening all over again.

Then, when she finally packed her bags and went back to Poplarville, I found that odd things had disappeared: a framed photo of her with Peacock, a small figurine from my dresser, a roll of Christmas paper that would show up on next year’s presents.

If a story is more memory than story, which often it is for the storyteller, than those stories can actually cause a heavy heart, even a decade later. Perhaps if I had understood sooner how everything passed from one generation to the next unless we did something deliberately to prevent that, well, perhaps everything might have turned out differently. Everything being a fog of disassociated images and incidents I try to put together. I tell stories to new friends, the smaller stories within the larger story, and I can get a laugh. Sometimes, though, I get a sidelong glance that says, Is that really all true, Jane?

The thing is, even the fact that I got in that car and stayed in the backseat with those boys drinking and throwing bottles out the window and, well, liking me between all that, has its own roots, or origin.

Years would pass with Peacock sitting at the edge of the bed or on the side of the tub staring nowhere really, and going a long time without saying anything before telling me that perhaps we’d be better off without him. Me and Sam, he meant. Most often I pleaded with him, told him all the reasons we were happy he was in our lives. I never mentioned the beer bottles out the window, of course. Or the drinking. I pretended I didn’t know prescriptions went missing. Or maybe I believed what I knew wasn’t so.

Finally one day, when I realized Peacock Warson wasn’t still sleeping but was just loaded again, I packed up me and Sam, and we left. By that time, most of the stories I don’t repeat had already happened. It was the beginning of us going separate ways. Don’t you think there was peace in that, either.

Years later, on the T.V., stories happen: reminders. It’s too far after the turn of the millennium for bunny ears, but I wiggle them anyway, trying to get the six o’clock news. This won’t keep up for long with digital ahead. I can’t stay away from the story, though: some woman in New York who drove her van the wrong way on the interstate and killed eight people, including herself and her neices, drinking the day away by noon. I can’t seem to let her go. Everywhere I go, there she is, and there are her kids. There are her brother’s children. All of them dead, and only the grieving remains, plus the uneasy feeling of the living trying to understand how no one saw this coming, or how, upon futher reflection, perhaps could have seen it coming. I can’t stop wondering what those moments might have been: had anybody knocked on this woman’s bedroom door, time after time, to say Are you alright in there? Did anybody ever sit in the backseat while she got lost driving? Didn’t anybody wonder why a woman who doesn’t drink has been carrying the same bottle of vodka from her house to her camp every weekend—like anybody ever heard of anybody who didn’t like to drink carrying around a bottle? This last fact that someone repeats on the news, someone being her living husband, is just absurd. Go figure, though, why it’s so hard for grown adults to see what’s right in front of them. I keep watching all these incidents unfolding, though, on T.V., the oblivious things people say, the heart-breakingness of all of it, and, there I am again, back in the car with Peacock—

Sam is in back. It’s Thanksgiving. We have been at Mrs. Warson’s for hours, long enough for turkey and gravy. The road is dark, windy, a rural road in Mississippi, and it’s late at night. Or maybe it’s early in the evening. The inability to say the time of day comes from the difficulty of putting memories back together. Sometimes, they are puzzles in which the same picture can be made by too many variations of pieces. Which makes me wonder if, for years, the same things just kept happening over and over again.

“Sometimes,” I say, “I wish we could just keep on driving. Like, all the way to the desert. You ever been to the desert?”

Peacock turns the music louder, shakes his head. He isn’t telling me he hasn’t been to the desert, he’s telling me we aren’t going now, nor are we talking about it. It doesn’t make sense anyway, going to the desert. Sam is finally not crying anymore. There’s a silence behind the music, and Peacock is driving. I keep letting him drive. I tell myself that a lot. I let him drive. Though, truthfully, I don’t ever remember conversations about who might drive, or choices, though certainly there were always choices. I can’t seem to find them in the memories—rather, can’t seem to find any moments in which I saw that there were choices.

It’s no longer dark on the road, or we are moving at such a fast speed that all I can concentrate on is the speedometer, the ticker moving farther around the clock of speed, the car like a jolt of lightning, Sam in back. Between cars, around cars, cars so close I could reach out and burn my hands on them on this interstate. Cars so fast I can’t speak, cars so close they’re too close. Or we’re too close. Cars in front of us, suddenly beside us, then behind us. Cars with horns. Cars with drivers. Cars with people. People.

“What the fuck are you doing!” I finally yell.

Peacock watches me too long, so I say, “Watch the road, not me,” and he just says he knows what he’s doing. “Did you see how close you were back there?” I say, and he says of course he saw how close he was. He knows what he’s doing.

Remind him who’s in the car. Remind him I am me and Sam is Sam. But reminders are nothing: little bits of nothing worth nothing.

You can’t just walk out of a situation like this. You can try. You can say you’re going to leave if this doesn’t stop. That won’t make anything stop. So you pack your bags and pack your trunk while he sleeps off another. You belt Sam into the seat, pat his head, and drive off like you know what you’re doing, like you know how you’re going to make it through the next stage. Later, though, things happen. Like late-night phone calls and forced-open bedroom windows, like unexpected visits, and not the kind of visit your mother brings—visits that for years will leave you concerned about shapes in the dark, the sound of a car passing in the night. Then you find your clothes and books burned in a pit in the yard, or there’s a knife in your face. Between these times, he’s standing on the porch asking for money, begging, actually, and now he has tracks on his arms. You lock your doors. You say you never saw this coming. You call his mother. You say, “I’m worried.” You won’t let Sam near this man, so she hangs up. None of this makes any sense. You aren’t sure if it’s worse because more drugs and alcohol are involved, or if it’s worse because you are trying to stop this from being in your life now, or if it’s worse because you finally understand what’s going on. So you buy new locks for your doors, and you look over your shoulder.

You start telling stories like this, too. You say, You, when you mean I, because changing the pronouns helps make it feel like this might be happening to someone else instead. Eventually, you learn to say Me, and Mine.

Then you call the old girlfriend you never met, the one about whom you have heard the most bizarre stories, the ones that never did make sense.

I had found Danny’s phone number in the pocket of a coat I hadn’t worn in years, and called him, asked if he knew how I could find Elena. I called her too, and when she answered, her voice was flat and unsurprised, as though over the eight years or so that had passed since Peacock stormed out of her life, she too knew it would happen all over again, and that one day, she might hear from me.

He had told me the story so many times I have to wonder if he was trying to convince himself how it happened: that he thought Elena was seeing some other guy, so he just packed his stuff and moved out in a flash without asking her what was going on. I didn’t need her to tell me there was no such affair, it was obvious in how she told the story: that Peacock kept coming back, not when he was supposed to, of course, but when she was at work or off to dinner with a friend. He let himself in through a window which he left wide open on his way out. He took her things, like her mother’s family vase and her history of necklaces. She moved out too after a series of weeks like that, and stayed with her sister. I tried to imagine that scene from his perspective, knowing he had done that in my house, too, and wondered what it must be like to have a series of relationships filled with break-ins and knives and bottles against the wall, and how, much as he must be sorry to see that torrid series of events revealing that they’re about to happen again, he must enjoy the process a bit: seeing the terror in someone’s eyes, or stealing around their apartment in darkness and mystery, taking objects that, years later, could have new and complicated stories about their origins, about how much they meant to him. He’d clean up for a short time, host a party, put the vase in the middle of a table with some sunflowers and dahlias, and when guests remarked to him and his wife what a beautiful vase it was, he would say, Yes, yes, it’s been in my family for generations.