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"State Birds", short story excerpt

Thursday 1/30/20

I don’t actually want to crack this lady in the face, but this isn’t what I want to be dealing with either. Just want it to stop. I’m at the CVS, which is an accomplishment for me.

The CVS is not in Antarctica. I have not had to make some courageous overland passage after months at sea, timed within a precise window in the weather that I have charted and forecasted, correctly, over years, and now my moment has come, in an inflatable raft, with one loyal dog, all that would fit. He is a Pekingese named Pedro.

But I am alone, and it feels the same way. Does after years of it. I recall a season where it snowed so much that snow came to have an inner life, you could say, snow buried in other snow.

The snow was scooped up by trucks plowing the roads, and the trucks brought the snow to a huge pile, a mountain of snow, at the dump. In July, some of the snow was still there, because all of that time, the innermost snow retained its original temperature, or close to it, cut off from the world by outer layers.

I took the train through a forest. Near the tracks the sun flashed in reflections off of metal and the mica in the rocks, throughout the grooves of railway cuttings, but you could look into the woods, east and west, in the pockets of shade, under the raftered branches of pine trees, and still see snow, though it was June.

Being alone is like being that snow. As hard to move on some days. You’re there, but people would have to be on a train and look pretty hard to see you.

The tenses of my life change. The past gets referred to as if it were the present. Summer snow.

“Kate comes over to me at the dance and I have never been so nervous, so I pretend not to see her, run out of the gym, and we’re just getting high in the bathroom, again, a few of us. Charlie is here, and he’s the one who first fingered Kate, who says I can, too, has set this up, but they don’t know I came into the bathroom to vomit because I am terrified, but now I’ll get high because they are here, I don’t want to fuck things up with my friends. Charlie made a joke about bruising her labia. He’s an asshole. I still want him to like me. Why am I like this? Just don’t puke in front of them, man.”

At first I do not know why I am thinking about the CVS in the present tense. Sure, it’s happening, but my present tense moments usually feel as though they have happened to someone else and I’m watching game tape of their past life.

I have animal crackers, Cheeze-Its because they are on sale—two boxes for $4, a nice price—granola because I want to eat healthier, and granola bars, which are different. I got the trail mix variety, which includes some mini-M&M-type candy in the architecture of the bars. They were also on sale. On a single-box basis—price markdown, not a two-for-one thing, which is why I have but the solitary box. I have a card for my sister, too, because she had a baby, and I should say something. She already had two kids. I ought to say something to them as well (“congrats on your sibling”), but I have some old cards at home I was going to throw away and I’ll use one of those first. I think there is a cardinal on the front. The cardinal is the state bird of seven states. The cardinal is the state bird of their state. They were going to move once to another state that also had the cardinal as its state bird. I made a joke about following the bird’s migratory path in its official symboldom. I don’t think my sister or her husband found it amusing. He’s not going to find anything funny, but I used to make her laugh. I don’t know why I know so much about cardinals. The female of the species is brown.

You check yourself out at the CVS. Self-automated stations. We are all waiting to use one of the stations because the others are either broken or you can only pay with a credit card. I’m paying with cash.

The woman standing in front of me is waiting for her husband. She flirts with the ancient. I think she must be late eighties. But she can stand on her own. No cane, she’s not leaning on anything.

Her husband, a few feet away, is doing the business end of their visit to the CVS. He’s why we are all standing here, because he’s struggling with the automated system, which he has to operate while leaning against a shopping cart. Balance is clearly an issue. I can tell she represents physical health, comparatively, in their union, but it’s important that he do the transacting. I’m not saying this is on account of some old world order, where the man symbolizes commerce, the woman domesticity. Could be that it’s easier for her to walk—though I can’t imagine it’s actually easy—and he needs this for his confidence, to not feel helpless, which I get.

But she keeps talking to me, you see. He’s taking so long, which gives her more time to talk to me, and she keeps saying the same thing: “Have a sweet tooth, do you?”

I don’t want to have this conversation, and it is not like I have a basket full of Kit-Kats, as if I am stockpiling them for the apocalypse and I can get my sugar high for a few more weeks yet.

All she can possibly be referring to is the one package of granola bars. There are only eight bars in the box. The bars are not liberally shellacked with M&Ms. There are some M&Ms. There are much more obviously husks of things—I don’t know, wheat—that are supposed to be healthy, and clearly what are fragments of peanuts, these mini-acorn-type clusters which could be fuck knows what.

What can my answer be? I don’t want the people in line behind me thinking I’m some fast-assed candy monster. Then she modulates. “It’s a sweet tooth you have?” “How sweet is your tooth?” My tooth? Like I possess a single inglorious fang? Some creepy dental root that descends out of my top jaw? Like a needle for boring? An auger-tooth? I am an anglerfish who has been in a fist fight and had all but a single tooth smacked clear out of its face? With which I will lance Kit-Kats? I say, “No, I don’t,” which she counters with, “Yes, you do, look at you,” pointing at my basket.


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