Previously, Sparrows

Amy Victoria Blakemore

2014 Kenyon Review Short Fiction Contest Winner

After every argument, we make a shopping list. Eggs, soy milk, cucumbers, rye. Cookie dough, salmon pinwheels, vegan cheese (she’s lactose intolerant). Dollar Store DVDs, packs of socks. Maybe, previously, we were sparrows. They build nests out of anything, even cigarette butts. If we wanted a child, I imagine it would breach as a bird, gloopy and feathered, talkative without words. No one imagines birds that way.

Tonight, my punishment is a packet of chicken cutlets. The flesh is pearlescent, more glamorous than skin—expensive looking. I buy four pounds. A girl presses her face against the lobster tank next to me, her breath blurring their swimmerets.

“They’re fighting!” she shouts to her mother. “I hope the little one wins.” Her mom is comparing seltzer water brands, holding them higher and higher to the light, discerning the water quality—the mingling of fizzing particles. She picks Orange Vanilla Polar and sets it upright in her cart.

The lobsters settle into a stillness. The bubbling slows as if their tank has filled with air. I say sorry. I am accustomed to apologizing for the actions of specters. I imagine Titan men pulling their red bodies out of the ocean like they’re already skeletons.

“Sorry.”

The girl keeps chanting without eye contact, “I hope the little one wins.”

 

Lucy is waiting at the kitchen table for my offering. Her hair is pulled back tightly, yet carelessly, little bubbled locks popping out on top. She’s in my shirt. I place the package down in the center.

“We can make parm tonight. It would go nice with your wine.”

She yanks a handle of vodka up from beside her seat—a big, frosty weed. She doesn’t set it down gently, and my chicken gems quiver.

“Wine didn’t pan out.”

“A shortage?”

“A thirst.” A smirk plays hide-and-go-seek with me from the corner of her lip.

“I’m guessing you weren’t thirsty for milk . . . or eggs.”

She glances upward, all eyes. Her pupils may have swallowed her irises. I’m sure they had a color.

“No. I wasn’t.”

We met in a funny way. I was sitting behind her on the train, and she was holding up a compact mirror—a big square one to examine her skin—(I think her eyes were brown then.) I stared at her reflection until she found me there, beside hers. We flirted in the glass for six stops straight, not facing one another (not really), until she got up to leave, smiling, “You’re a pretty rearview.”

 

We try something new with the lists: in a diplomatic moment, we sit in different rooms and transcribe our needs separately. For me, this is easy. I am Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia. I am Q-tips. Diet Coke lime, pink lady apples, coupons for next time. Maybe one surprise. I find her by the window, the cat kneading the couch as she rests her hand on its back.

I hold out my hand first. Her list is an origami crane. I debone its paper skeleton and lay it out on my knee, smoothing it with the soft side of my fist. There’s only one item she needs. Creases dart through the word like flight paths:
                             a lobster
“Lucy.” She levels her sight with my knees. “Do you really?” “Louise,” she exhales, “I really.”

 

I am a Titan in discounted jeans. I am entering Stop & Shop. I am hooking my hand around the first cart that stumbles toward me. I am ignoring the sale on green beans. I am feeding her depression. Maybe it was craving something sweet. Maybe I should buy bread crumbs and butter to accompany this lobster. I tell the man in the dirty white apron to “wrap it up.” I don’t how this works.

“Have a preference, sweetie?”

The overcrowded tank captivates me. “Which one dies the quickest?”

He glares. One arm plunged into the water, he scoops the littlest one off the bottom. I whip my head side-to-side. He releases the lobster, and it floats down light as paper.

“Honey,” he shuffles, “are you even gonna eat it?”

“Give me the one that fights all the other ones.”

“He’s the heaviest.” The man rubbed his fingers together, churning dollars from his nail beds.

“Fine. Perfect.” I look away as he snatches the lobster. My hands enjoy my pockets. He comes around the counter and places the package in my baby seat.

“Forty-eight hours.” He makes a flattened gesture as if he’s pushing the air between us downward. “Tops.”

“It’s not for me,” I snap. He throws his fingers back. I grab the wrapped vessel and pummel away from him, holding the cold to my chest, cart discarded. I earn money in rewards savings. Three dollars.

The lobster rides shotgun. It feels like a courtesy.

 

Lucy removes the rubber bands, first thing. I warn her that he is nasty. She doesn’t even have water boiling yet. He pinches her and she screams, accidentally flinging him into the sink.

I slink behind her and run water over his body. It’s not the ocean, but it’s something.

“What are you doing?” She pushes me out of the way. The cat leaps up onto the counter and starts hissing at it, its fur a furious static. I snatch her by the belly and run her to the bed. Her throat brews a wordless hate.

“Louise!” Lucy is screaming. “I’m bleeding!” My head finds the wall on my way back out. The surface grounds me, and suddenly, she’s shrieking.

The lobster is squeezing her thumb and blood is pouring onto the wooden cutting block my mother got us. I envision someone repeatedly stabbing a tree, the skin being compromised, the age rings stained. We used to chop brussels sprouts.

“Louise! Louise!

The knife is surprisingly gentle when it meets my hand. It does not want to do this, either. I hold my gaze like whiskey, neat. She needs all her fingers. She can hardly keep touch with the world as is.

Death is a crunch. I leave her to handle the funerary services. I find the body later in our garbage.

 

Lucy writes another shopping list. This time:
                             the sea

And maybe, I think, I could bring her the sea. Titan me. I could jar it like honey, and she could drink, and she would realize these things will only make her thirsty.

A blue horizon extends an arm to me, white and foamy. You’d think it would tan. Empty plastic buckets rustle in the trunk of my van. I think they’re gossiping, looking for a filling.

The sand is textureless on my boots, but it pulls. The tide yanks it back to a ponytail, entrails littering its pale complexion.

A body of a lobster finds its way to the water. I swore I saw it swimming. I am not the first to discern what holds our earth together. Yes, her; yes, me; yes, previously, sparrows. Back turned, I feel the sea settling to a stillness. Maybe, when I open the door to our apartment, my body will flush with salt.

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