Because I couldn’t help them I left. I could hear their clucking, beaks tapping on the cardboard box like someone knocking to get out. I knew their feet scraped the bottom in small, straight lines, directional lines on a highway. I knew without seeing them. I was ten years old when I turned the brass knob on the thick front door and walked away from the rented summer cottage perched on a sand dune, windows staring at the ocean where light stroked the surface of the water horizontally. I believed I could open a window at high tide and waves would pour into the house like soda into a thirsty mouth. But I left my parents’ house without knowing where I was going, on foot, without food, no stores or restaurants for several miles, only an expanse of packed sand and stubby grass, the shimmering curves of parked cars, the gray, weathered squares of other families’ houses. I left my little sister behind.
It was my mother. Her lipstick left red smears blossoming everywhere, white linen napkins, martini glasses, embroidered pillow cases, the collars of strange men’s shirts. Her tea-colored hair, the way she snaked her tongue into liquor while drinking it would interest neighborhood husbands, wealthier and more powerful than my father.
“Honey, we have to go now,” my father would say to Mother, whose glass sweated large tears down the length of her arm. Her red fingernails wrapped around the edge clicking a warning. The man she was talking to said nothing.
“Not now dear,” she would say, turning her back to him as though he was no longer there, as though she had forgotten his name already.
It was one of those parties where adults were in one room and the children in another. Where we grimaced at a clown who could barely tie balloons into the crude shapes of dogs or elephants. Smiles arranged on our faces, we waited for our parents to rescue us. Or politely excused ourselves to go to the bathroom. I spied my mother’s beautiful face hovering near men talking about Eisenhower, men nodding and touching the peplum suit encasing her elbow.
“Can’t you go out on the highway and play?” mother asked my six-year-old sister without smiling. My sister’s blue cat’s eye glasses lengthened across the width of her face and were studded with rhinestones. Her eyes swam underneath the thick lenses. She blinked at Mother’s moving lips trying not to hear the words.
“How about playing Parcheesi?” my sister answered without meaning to. We knew mother remembered she had children because you were supposed to have them then.
Soon afterwards Father brought them home. Three chicks with feathers that were still yellow fur, their wings were tiny letters lost in the paragraphs of their bodies, unflappable. Their feet were no larger than pennies. One walked from my hand to my shoulder without falling. Its small beak tapping Morse code against my palm. “Leave,” I thought it said without knowing why then.
“What do you feed them?” Mother asked Father. He ignored the question, telling her instead that she reminded him of a beautiful vase filled with lilacs, slowly dissolving in their own water. He loved: the ocean with its continuous waves; work at the clothes store where dresses wafted on mannequins like clouds in the sky; mother; cookies with marshmallows blanketed with chocolate. Not necessarily in that order.
I could taste the salt in the air that insidiously rusted metal, leaving orange crumbs in its place. Hansel and Gretel trails. Heat enfolded my body like a suit making it heavy, sweat staining my forehead, rivulets running down my underarms. I kept on walking. The stunted trees were bent into hands plucking at something just out of reach.
Sand shifted around my shoes, finding its way into crevices, in my elbows, at my knees and wandering between my socks and sneakers. Then I almost tripped onto a bright green square of freshly mowed lawn. A red convertible was wedged at its side like a dessert. A chubby baby girl threw her navy blue ball into a corner and she didn’t know how to work her legs well enough. No one was around. I quickly ran and slipped that ball into my shorts pocket, a companion. It bulged resembling a new limb. The baby screamed and I started walking again. I pulled at my bathing suit top to keep it from losing me.
“Bird food,” my sister and I answered, a chorus.
Mother grew tired thinking about it. She slipped into a room without Father, held the turquoise telephone against the petal of her ear. “I only want you,” she whispered to the plastic receiver.
This had happened before. Mother’s men overflowing, at a door or window or ringing the telephone. “Can’t you do anything?” I asked Father as if we had a termite problem.
The birds grew. They flitted between my knees as I sat cross-legged on the floor, bouncing back and forth, their wings propelling small gusts of air. My little airplanes, I thought.
“God Damn chickens,” Mother said, her red fingernails in the kitchen, flashing light in the silverware drawer. Rufus, Stan, Vivian. One too big. One too small. One just right.
Mother asked Father to move to a motel in another town. The word “separation” was mentioned twice. I thought about the waves coming and going, reluctant witnesses along the crooked shore. My sister and I practiced kicking sand backwards into waterfalls, pecking at the beach. We watched sand granules cascade through our fingers to the ground, imagining four ugly toes, soft, red wattle swinging at our necks. Our matching hair bands curled on the dry earth. My sister’s clear glasses tilted on her nose. She forgot to comb her hair. We held each other’s hands.
I was thirsty. Light dripped from tiny, twisted leaves, the roofs of houses, dark, rolling driveways. It was so bright, everything seemed to shift. I focused on a tree while I was walking. But it was always nearer or farther than it appeared to be. A tricycle was wavy in the heat as though it was moving of its own accord. When I neared I knew it was stationary. It seemed as though I’d been walking forever. No sidewalks, only the packed sand and earth pushed aside by the road.
The world was built for grown-ups. Their parties, their spidery talks, their seesawing with one another. Chairs and tables were always too big, the windows and doors to keep you in or out. Their gossip about money. The best part was toys. They would buy them for us. The hothouse colors of favorite jacks and Hula Hoops. The shrunken shapes of dolls or trucks or plush animals.
The man’s car blinded me. When it pulled up next to me the man that was driving opened his door and said something to me and unzipped his pants. Something soft and almost pink flowed out and began moving. He touched it tenderly. I thought about feathers. The other man got out of the car and came toward me. I couldn’t hear what he was saying. He danced a little in the sunlight. When I threw the ball, hitting him hard in the face, I could hear him spitting curses. I ran fast through the short, biting grass, rounded pebbles and broken seashells shifting under my feet. I hid behind a piece of driftwood resembling a whale stuck in sand. I waited until I couldn’t hear voices any longer. Only the monotonous waves behind me like someone breathing. A butterfly headed straight toward my face. “Like Little Red Riding Hood,” I whispered to it as it veered away at the last minute.
Things disappeared. Where were the wings? When our chickens didn’t use them they were hidden under feathers, invisible, tucked in like luggage for a short trip. The beaks were hard, unforgiving. The chickens were nearly full grown. Their cardboard box was too confining and there was a flurry inside all the time. A whirlwind of pecking, scratching, and shuffling. I could see the box moving, bumping along the floor.
Father visited and explained that divorce was not such a bad thing. But I knew he meant that his heart wasn’t in it anymore. I wasn’t sure about mine either. I imagined mother crawling with men like ants at a picnic. I wrote in my diary: if only I had eaten peanut butter and jelly instead of tuna fish or cleaned up a little more. If only I had been better.
My sister stayed in bed where her uncombed hair snagged the pillow, her mouth opened and closed without words. She reminded me of a fish without water.
I placed a quarter on the beach one night. The deer-colored sand, the compliant waves with their unseen undertow, stars littering the water with light broken into pieces and scattered across its surface. The moon peered down into the face of the coin with a look of recognition. In the morning nothing was there, only soft indentations in the pliant sand.
Later I came home from a neighbor’s house. “They’re gone,” Mother said from her blood-red mouth, her red fingernails rubbing her arm, straightening her hair.
Silence overwhelmed the house, eddying into corners, sitting in the too large chairs, resting on my twin bed, spreading along the frilly pink bedspread. I tried on my sister’s glasses, pulling them on and off my nose. The world swirled, blurring everything together into long streaks. I tried walking around the bedroom, bumping into the furniture. I remembered pressing Stan’s tendons that opened and closed his claws involuntarily as though he wanted something he couldn’t keep.
“Dinner,” my mother called but I wouldn’t go downstairs, even though I could smell it was one of my favorite meatloaf TV dinners again. She was rushing around, getting ready for a date. Her features enlarged in the mirror where she feverishly applied make-up, darkness outlining the rims of her eyes. Tipping her head back, she ignited her lips with flame colors that would be smeared off anyway. Powder washing her face.
“Bye, Dears,” and then she said it in French. “Take care of your sister,” but I wasn’t sure who she was talking to. My sister and I watched TV and then watched sand enter the house, arranging itself in little piles, coating the wicker furniture.
I left the next morning, early. Before I had to see her smudged and stained and wobbling in her slippers, her body leaking from her terrycloth bathrobe. I didn’t think about destinations, where I could go. One day there would be nothing left of her.
Clots of weeds approached and floated by me. My thirst returned. I played games as I walked. Counting the number of boats I could see bobbing in the distance. Tracing the flights of seagulls in imaginary lines that tangled into knots. I repeated baby’s nursery rhymes. “Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall….” Sandy clumps fell from scabs around my knees. I had lightning bolt scratches on the backs of my legs from the grass. One shorts pocket hung empty and inside out like a useless tongue. My dark hair was matted down with sweat. When I passed houses I wondered what went on inside the walls, whether the family inside would mind another child. We didn’t have any living relatives. I would make my own way. That was how I thought.
Then I saw Jerry’s Beachcomber Hut with its stiff straw roof, windows without screens opening onto the beach.
“These mosquitoes are killing me,” mother used to say. “It must be my blood.” She brushed her clothes.
“Too sweet?” my sister and I said together, laughing.
Mother would look over the menu. “The food here is…cute.” And she glanced at Father, who twirled the miniature umbrella in his drink, the papery wings spreading and folding over the toothpick handle.
“Another one,” he’d say to the waitress in frayed shorts and a round straw hat, pale blue flowers climbing her shirt.
I creaked the door open and no one was there. It must have been mid-afternoon, before the dinner crowd. I sat at the bar with its high chairs curling around the tall table shaped like a parenthesis. I was tired. My wet skin stuck to the plastic seat and I could feel my scabs, seams in my flesh.
“Hello, there.” It was Jerry, the owner, without his beachcomber hat.
“Can I have some water? Please?”
“Sure, little lady.” He placed the glass in front of me and I drank it quickly. He looked at me. “Let me get you another.” And he left while I sipped the water more slowly. This time I finished it and carefully positioned the empty glass on the slick bar.
He came back. “Your Mama will be here soon to pick you up. She’s sure a real beauty. Like some kind of exotic bird,” He smiled, his hands carving the air. He was missing a tooth. “Put in a good word for me.” And he winked.
That was when I began to cry.