H: You another one of them reporters? I already told you people my story – now leave me alone.
M: I’m not a reporter.
(I had flown on an airplane, and then driven for hours with nothing but trees and static for company. Now that I was here, I felt flat. A cardboard man.)
H: I did my time and now all I want is some peace and quiet.
(He takes a slug from a jar and I watch his Adam’s apple move. He wipes his mouth with the back of his hand, rocks and gazes off into the trees, which are a riot of fall colors.)
M: You’re not at all what I’d imagined. I thought you’d be bigger and tougher. Meaner.
H: I don’t care what you think of me. (Spits.)
M: You should care. Look at my face.
(A flicker then, hard to tell if it was a trick of the sunlight or something else.)
H: I don’t know you.
Me: Yes. You do.
(The silence goes on too long but I will not break it until he does. I won’t give him this.)
H: Took you long enough to find me, didn’t it? You must be just about grown.
M: I’m twenty years old.
H: Well. Time does fly. I guess you want to hear the story.
(Suddenly, I do want to hear the story. It seems that I’ve always wanted to hear the story. All those years of plotting and planning, and here I sit on the front porch with a worn-out old man waiting for a bedtime story. I am five years old again as he begins to speak and the porch creaks a little each time he rocks.)
H: We was always fightin. I didn’t mind that so much. It was always the making-up part that was my favorite. You’re old enough now to know what I mean, ain’t ya? (Winks.)
It was those goddamned hummingbirds.
I wouldna done it cept your mama, she wanted them fuckin critters so bad. Says she's tired of livin in the trailer park. Every damn time I got that girl's panties down, she starts in again with the same shit.
Just settle down, I’ll get to the point in my own time.
She wants a house on the edge of town away from the druggies and whores. Now, this don't make no sense to me because her whole family is right there in Luxury Court. Always have been and always will be.
I say to her, Won't you be lonely without Lulu and yer mama around? She just shifts her eyes away and makes her mouth real small.
Darla, I remind her, you wouldn't have such nice clothes if Lulu didn't pass down those pretty sweaters and whatnot. The truth is, aside from the drug dealers, Lulu is haulin in more bank than anyone else in the Court and she knows it. Her ass is prancin around in stiletto shoes from the mall and charging more for VIP room visits than any other peeler in the Court.
One night, I get up to piss and run smack dab into your mama in the hallway. We edged around each other in the narrow space, she shiny-eyed and keyed up, me porcupine-headed and drowsy. She musta known then that you was in her belly, but she never said a word. Standing over the pisser, coming slowly awake, I realized that something wasn’t right and by the time I got back to her, she was lacing up her sneakers, and wiping tears from her cheeks.
Lulu's in trouble and mama's pickin me up. We're gonna sit with her awhile.
In the time it takes me to even think up what to say, she's gone. I'd like to think that I'd have offered to help, but the truth is, there ain't no love lost between me and Lu and besides, I'm just too damn tired to deal with this shit. Probably Lulu gets in the car with the wrong guy after her shift and he roughs her up a bit. She might even deserve it, if someone was to ask me, which they don't.
I wander into the kitchen and pop a Bud Light. I'm awake now, might as well. On the kitchen table a cigarette butt has burnt clear up to the filter, almost to the sparkly lip-gloss part, but what I really notice is the newspaper laid wide open, with squares around some of the ads. One of them, near the fold in the center, has stars on each corner. Sitting there, I read:
One BR house for rent
Small but clean
Pretty yard with hummingbirds
This last word is written over and over again in the margins of both pages. It don’t look right to me, and I realize that sometimes she uses only one "m". What is it with this girl and hummingbirds? I'm sick to death of hearing about it, truth be told.
A couple of weeks before that, I come home and your mama’s got an empty soda bottle filled with sugar water so you could see it through the kitchen window. God, you'd a thought she won the lotto the way she went on about it and lit up like a neon sign at midnight. She poked little holes in it with the tip of the paring knife, so the little fuckers can suck it out. Those little birds was just lapping it up, too. For the next two weeks, it's hummingbird this, hummingbird that. Everyday she's only halfway listening when I try to tell her what I want for dinner, because she's got one eye out the window.
Look! There's another one! They like me!
She prattles and points til I can't take it no more. I get real mad, slam out the door and headed to The Pitstop. All the boys was there and I told em how she'd been treatin me. Got two free beers out of it, too. These boys know what a pain a woman can be. Don't worry, we'll take care of it, they say.
The next night I come home and there ain’t nothin on the stove for dinner. Her face is all red and puffed up. She don't say nothin, just cries and holds a shoe box on her lap with two dead birds inside. She wants me to dig a hole, but the ground is just as hard as a rock, and shit, I had just come from the bar and wasn't exactly steady on my feet. I told her to quit her blubbering and I threw the box in the dumpster out in the parking lot. That was the end of that.
All of a sudden, I realize I've been sittin at the kitchen table for a long time, and she still ain't back. Between the beer and the fact that it's gettin on to 4 in the am, my eyes are blurry so I heave myself up and head to bed. Next morning, I wake up late for work at the foundry when your mama comes into the room and trips over my boots. She stands beside the bed, the bright mornin light hugging a halo around her, and she looks plain beautiful. Her hair is exactly the color of sand in the sun and her eyes are a blue, blue ocean. Sometimes, just lookin at her was like taking one of those vacations you seen on TV. Her prettiness outweighed the thrift store t-shirt and the split ends of her hair. For just a moment, I could see the resemblance between her and her sister Lulu and I knew that if my Darla Jean had pointy red high-heels and her hair was teased up to high heaven, she'd be a force to be reckoned with. Like Lu. Maybe she even wants a dancing job like Lu. The anger is a bright red explosion in my head.
Later, after we've iced her eye, she cooks up some chopped steaks just the way I like and we eat em with ketchup and tater tots. We're in the living room flipping through the channels and I'm thinkin life is damn sweet when she starts up with the talkin again. She nuzzles up to my ear and tells me she wants a yard. Small, she says. Just big enough to plant some flowers and hang a hummingbird feeder. She wants somethin pretty, for once. Baby, don't you ever like things just because they're pretty? I tell her that she's all the pretty I need.
Nothing much changes until one night I wake up with an empty place next to me in the bed. Where was she? After a bit, I got up and looked but she wasn't in the house. Halfway through a bottle of Jack Daniel’s, I decide to start looking for clues. Jack always helps me think. Opening drawers, emptying them out on the floor. Sweeping things off the table with my arm so they make a crash and whump when they hit the floor. By the time she gets home, I’ve found the envelope underneath the couch cushion. Inside is $463 in ones and a whole mess of newspaper cuttings, apartments for rent. I'm just mad as hell when she tiptoes in smellin like cigarettes and perfume. She's wearing sneakers, jeans, and one of my old t-shirts but one look at her face tells me all I need to know. Her face is as pretty as a picture, eyeliner, mascara, the whole bit. And she's got $60 in ones stuffed in her purse, way down at the bottom. So that's it. I got so damn mad, I couldn’t see straight and son, that was your mama’s fault. That's pretty much the whole story.
M: That isn’t the whole story.
H: I been waiting a long time to tell this and I’m gonna tell it my way, boy. I saw you once before, you know. Your Aunt Lu brought you up to the prison when you was real small. I told you who I was, but you was just standin there, blubbering like a damn fool. I don’t know about what. I knew then I’d made the right decision, but I should have finished the job.
M: She was in the hospital for months after you beat her. She never could think straight after that. She’s had nightmares and headaches ever since. They say I’m lucky to be alive.
(It was strange to hear the words coming out of my mouth in my regular voice. Words like this should be uttered in a wail or a screech. Better yet, never needed at all.)
H: Like I said, I should have finished the job.
I’d had the gun in my pocket the whole time, and when I pulled it out, he didn’t even flinch. It was like he’d known the whole time. He’d been baiting me. He watched, and his eyes never left mine as I stood up. His mouth twisted into a sneer. I shot him then, even though I knew it was what he wanted and I shouldn’t have given him the satisfaction. I’d anticipated this moment thousands of times over the years, but I’d never envisioned it exactly this way - shooting a withered and weak man in the temple as he sat rocking in a chair on a gorgeous autumn afternoon. I’d hoped he’d put up more of a fight. I went to the trunk for supplies. First, I hung the hummingbird feeder out back and then I buried that son of a bitch by the creek.