City Famous for Poisoned Birds
The eagles arrive at dawn.
We're touched on our shoulders by the chaplain: his service for ours.
There's no body for us to remember over. The box in the driveway is empty.
"Best we can do," the eagles say. "Doesn't make him any less."
The chaplain crosses himself for him and for us and for the heartland.
They're gone and my father and I are looking over the empty box. We sand down its rough and drape over it the flag. We drag it to the yard where once there was a garden with chains and the pickup. We unwind the hose and soften the dirt and the clay beneath the dirt.
My mother watches through the window us dig. I think it kills her. We hear her body drop onto the kitchen floor.
My father lifts her apron. Palpitations in her chest. Heaving in her abdomen.
I ask my father if it's a new brother kicking.
He stops me from pulling the knife from her hand. "Nothing left worth saving or protecting," he says.
It's the same thing his boss says when the steelyard's shut down. The union's broken. The corporation's multinational.
My father opens a beer. "What can you do?" he says.
I don't know how to answer. I'm too young for war, let alone blue collar.
He repeats it at the popping of the tab of each new beer. "What. Can. You. Do?"
I'm an American in the heartland and I know it means someday leaving.
I steal the pickup from the yard and take the highway named for my slain brother to another highway named for a number. The zero means cross-country, both coasts, but I don't make it out of the heartland.
I'm stuck on the side of the highway in the city famous for poisoned birds falling out of the sky. I leave the pickup to rust. I walk along a road that leads to the river in which the bodies of the birds float upstream to the Great Lakes. The water's green and thick as melted plastic. It's growing season. Algal blooms have made everything toxic. Nothing's safe to drink except drinks.
I'm sitting in an alley with the first thing I see move. She's got spirits. She pours me a glass. "My last didn't speak English," she says. "So he killed."
She pours another. The glass is dirtied up with past lips.
"Tell me how many fingers," she says.
The drink's dry. I've got a mouthful of desert. I've had enough.
"You ever cut a man for the insides of his pockets?" she says. "Can you tell me what's inside your pockets?"
I've got nothing.
"Why am I even here?" she says. She empties the bottle. She leans into me and whispers in my ear, "I think it's the c'mere-stranger thing you do with your eyes Can you show me how you do that?"
"I think I'm the stranger," I say.
She screams and I'm surrounded. My arms are pulled behind my back.
"Do you know who this man is?" the surrounding says.
"He's a stranger," the woman says before striking me with the bottle.
I'm still alive on the floor of a hallway in some place I didn't mean to be.
A man taps me on the shoulder with his boot. "Forget-who's throwing a party," he says. "You coming?"
A door opens.
"I don't know anybody," I say.
"Nobody knows anybody but Jerry," he says. "We're all brothers somehow."
Jerry's dressed up in dress-blues drinking straight from a bottle. "Enough with the music," he says. "Put on the television."
"It's all war," someone says.
"We don't need no more war," someone else says.
We surround him.
"Never mind," Jerry says.
"You should know better," we say.
"I know plenty. I fought for all of you."
"We don't need it anymore," we say. "We need more of something more."
"We need a life like pictures," someone says. "Television the way it used to be."
"Wear for us a lampshade on your head like it's a sitcom," someone else says.
"Do it for us," we say.
We ask forget-who where she keeps the lamps.
"There aren't any," she says. "I only burn oil here."
We find instead a vase with no flowers. "Wear this," we say. "It'll fit you."
"The hell it will," Jerry says.
"How far won't you go to make our lives livable?" we say.
"I've tried," Jerry says. "I've got scars to prove it."
"But what is enough?" we say. "Isn't there more you can do?"
Someone sneaks up behind Jerry and shatters the vase over his head.
Jerry's cut up bad. We're delighted.
"There are red curls growing out of your pores," we say.
Jerry's all choked up like pledging allegiance. "God help us all," Jerry says.
We laugh. It's a good line by a good man who's tried. We're grateful for him. We pour him spirits out of our gratitude.
Jerry slumps onto the floor before he can drink.
"Like the pictures," we say. We pour the glass over the parts of him broken open.
"My floor," forget-who says.
We've made a mess of everything.
We carry Jerry to a tub full of cold water. We stick him in headfirst with all of our gratitude.
He doesn't come to.
"But look how clean," someone says.
"Clean as god would've wanted things," someone else says.
The clean makes us uncomfortable.
"I've got just the thing," someone says.
It's an old bag of topsoil someone bought from the Walmart. We tear it open with our teeth and fill the tub like a holiday weekend with good times until all that's visible are arms and legs.
"I've always thought him lovely as a fir," someone says.
"I've always thought him lovely as a spruce," someone else says.
We perch tight on Jerry's limbs delighted and delighted like who ever would want to leave?
Michael Credico's fiction has recently appeared in Black Warrior Review, Booth, Diagram, Hobart, NANO Fiction, SmokeLong Quarterly, Quarterly West, Word Riot, and others. He lives in Cleveland, Ohio.