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Karin Rosman

Red-Winged Blackbirds and Other Things You Can't Live Without

        Many times he had envied it, that bend in the road at the furthest point in his property, where it wended its way back to town.  For many years he saw it as the most remote place of his existence.  Nobody rounded that corner unless he was lost.
        When Kay Lee, his wife of twenty-six years, finally succumbed to gout, William sold all but one acre of their twelve thousand.  He didn’t even keep the house and outbuildings.  He got as good as he got and most of it went to creditors.  But he kept the caboose and moved it to the bend in the road.  The caboose had served as a bunkhouse for the harvest crew, so there were not too many changes that he needed to make.  He had a place to sleep, to cook, and damn-it-all if having put in a waterless toilet wasn’t the best idea he had in a decade.  He hauled it to its new location, setting it so that it looked away from the road, so he wouldn’t have to see all those lost souls kicking up road dust.
        It wasn’t a month before Laird came, pulling a flatbed loaded with the boxcar.  He never did take proper care of his truck and it was struggling but it got there.  He said, “She left half to me, dad.  Half.”  And he put that boxcar between William and the one thing William thought he would never lose, the view of the wheat field he didn’t have to harvest.  That old boxcar used to be the chicken shed, but he did right by it, cleaning it out and getting rid of the stink.
        And so it was that William was lying on his back in the heat of the day, thinking about old Kay Lee and things that come around.  He was feeling sorry for himself, wondering if he ought to pick up a hobby.  But he was resistant to such things that take up time without having a clear point or purpose.
        It was then that a glint crossed his ceiling and stopped.  He thought that maybe it was the reflection off the mail lady’s windshield, but the glint stayed.  When he looked out his small window at what used to be the front of the caboose but was now the back of his house, he saw nothing but a bare field and snow drifts leaning on a fence.  Then it shifted and disappeared.  A blue hatchback moved from behind the drift.  It traveled along until it came to where it should turn for town but it didn’t.  It turned down his driveway.  He watched until he was sure and then he went to the back of the caboose and out the front door and waited by that big wheel that was at one time used to put a stop to things.
        She drove past without so much as a wave and stopped in front of Laird’s.  She gave two short blasts of her horn and gathered her items from the front seat and got out.  She was young and she was pretty in a hard-edged way.  She kicked her tall heels in the dust, heels tall enough to break an ankle so she kicked gently but in a way that showed her disgust.  He should have known that it would be Gretta.  She always did have places to go.
        “Willard,” she shouted, because that was his son’s name.  Everyone used to call him “Lard” for short but when he grew up, he went by “Laird.”
        She leaned into the car and pushed on the horn, one long blast that should have killed the battery.  She said something to the little girl in the backseat and the little girl kicked the front seat and got out.  She was dressed in black leggings and a black shirt that had gold embroidery.  She and the same hard look on her face as her mother.  It was all very fancy.  Gretta said something in German and then leaned on the horn again.
        “Go kill your battery somewhere else,” said William.
        Laird took his time but finally rolled back his door and rubbed his eyes.  It was the middle of the day and he had probably been asleep.  The “free beer” bird was making its call.  It was in the willow tree that was on the other side of the fence.  The fence separated William’s from what used to be William’s.  There were often meadowlarks on that fence, and he thought to himself that if there weren’t any wire fences, there wouldn’t be any meadowlarks.  And that was a fact.  Not because they needed something to sit on, but because for so many generations, people like him had been spraying and cutting and planting so that none of it was natural anymore, except for what didn’t get sprayed along the fence line.  That was the last thing he read on the Internet, and then he cut the cable and stopped mowing his grass.  He even planted camas bulbs but without the Internet, he wasn’t sure how to cook them.  Last week, when the farmer who bought what used to be William’s came out to clean the irrigation ditch, William tried to talk him into going organic.  Talked his ear off but none of it did any good.
        Gretta opened the trunk and took out a small suitcase and set it at the girl’s feet.  She hugged the girl and said something nice in German.  “Two weeks,” he heard her say.  He knew that much German because she was always saying that she would be gone in two weeks.
        She tried to hug the girl again but the girl pushed her away and opened her suitcase.  She kneeled on the ground and played with whatever was inside it.  Gretta got in the car and drove away.  It was a Barbie Doll that the girl played with.  Barbie was waving good-bye to mommy.  The car didn’t take ten minutes to disappear.  The little girl stared at William.
        “Who are you?” he said.
        She put her Barbie Doll in the suitcase and clasped it shut.  She sat in the driveway, her fancy little girl clothes getting dirty.  She looked at Wiliam and then Laird and then back to William.  Her shoulders heaved.  She picked up her suitcase and she went into Laird’s boxcar.

Some hours later, William knocked on Laird’s door.  It was a clear night, not quite warm but the stars were out.  He thought the little girl would be asleep, but it was she who rolled the door back.
        There are many things you can do to make a boxcar livable, especially the old wooden ones.  Laird put in windows and wired it for lights, running a generator.  There was a bed set up high on one end and under the bed was a kitchen and tiny bathroom with real plumbing.  William and Laird had their differences but one thing he had taught Laird and taught him well was how to take care of yourself if the rest of the world went to hell.
        On the other side of the boxcar was a couch and small table with a lamp.  The little girl was sitting there now.  She had a pink thing that looked like a small laptop.  Her shoulders jerked each time she pressed a button.
        “What’s that?” William asked.
        The little girl ignored him.  She smelled faintly of child sweat.  Her barrettes were slipping and she looked prettier that way.  Sadder, too.
        “Where’s Laird?” he said, though he could see his son’s lying-down-self just fine.
        She still ignored him.
        He never could control his voice and it bounced off the walls, startling the little girl.  Her brown eyes searched and then glared at him before returning to whatever it was she had in her hands.
        “What’s that?” he asked again.
        “Super Mario.”
        “What’s wrong with regular Mario?”
        She ignored him.  The sound of the game drifted like it was in the background of something else.
        “It’s a joke,” he said, not surprised that she didn’t get it.  “Who’s Mario, anyway?”
        She looked up at him.
        “Keep your voice down,” Laird said.
        The little girl laughed.  It wasn’t clear why she laughed.  Maybe it was the game.
        Laird came down from the loft, pushed past William and sat on the couch, lacing his work boots.
        “Who’s this?” said William.
        “It’s my daughter.  Gracey, meet your grandpa and say good-bye so daddy can go to work.”
        “Bye,” she said.
        “What are you going to do with her when you’re at work?”
        “You can sleep, can’t you Gracey?” said Laird.
        “I can sleep.”
        “Need a night light?”
        “Don’t knock on my door when you screw this up,” said William when he left.

Now that the little girl lived at Laird’s, weekends turned into something else.  They were always coming and going with blue ribbons in her hair.  Fourth of July was the worst.  Laird and the little girl disappeared for all the day and came back in the evening.  Little Blue Ribbons, William called her.  She had her head out the window and she was waving and eating blue ice cream.  Blue!  What could possibly taste like the sky on a cloudless day?  Probably tasted like bubblegum or watermelon.  He couldn’t chew bubblegum ice cream.  He just kept it in his mouth until it melted.
        Laird parked his truck and her ribbons stopped fluttering.  There were blue smudges on her cheeks, chin and throat.  And then, plop!  The ice cream fell on the side of the truck.  She leaned out to scoop it up.  And, plop!  The ice cream landed in the dirt.  And then, wah!
        “Wah-wah-wah,” said William from the steps of his caboose.
        She didn’t look like the smug little girl at the beginning of summer.  She even had a gingham shirt on.
        Laird got out and came to her side of the truck, scooping the ice cream back into the cone, brushing off the dirt and flecks of gravel, getting the ice cream all over his fancy red, white and blue cowboy shirt.
        “Used to be it was a desecration to wear such a shirt,” said William.
        Laird didn’t say anything but, “Here, here. I can make this alright.  Don’t cry.”
        William waved them off and went inside.
        After dark, the sky turned into a marvelous fury of sound and light, then drifting smudges of sulfur.  Eventually, the stars took back their night and the coyotes began to sing.  In his bed, William turned and turned, trying to find a better way to sleep.

“How long is this going to be, anyway?”
        “Her mother called to say it could be for the summer.”
        “You got a phone in there?” said William.
        “Cell phone, dad,” said Laird, pulling one from a holster at his belt.  “Nothing new.  Lots of people have them.”
        “Didn’t know you and Gretta had a kid,” said William, watching his son replace the cell phone back in his belt.
        “I didn’t either.”
        “You just took it on faith that she’s yours.”
        “You did.”
        “But they have special tests for that, now.”
        To that, Laird just shrugged.
        “I thought it would be good to get to know my daughter,” he said.  “Be part of a family for a change.”
        “This is someone’s life you’re messing with,” said William.
        “I thought I was doing alright by her.”
        “I wasn’t talking about the little girl.”
        “You ever thought you drove her to it?” said Laird.
        “Your mom?  Hell yes.  And none too soon.”

There came a day when William needed groceries and started off on foot as he normally would.  But five miles out he was sitting on the side of the road, trying to catch his breath.  He didn’t know what was wrong with him, but it had to do with the heat and his heart and the amount of stress he was now carrying on account of having a granddaughter.
        “Give you a lift?” said Laird.
        He had her with him.  William got in the back of the truck.  He leaned over to look in his son’s window.
        “She don’t look a thing like you,” he said.
        Laird stepped on the gas so hard William almost fell out.

He was sitting in a lawn chair, watching the road and wondering at the chances that Laird had a daughter, when it occurred to him that the view of the wheat field was rightfully his.  He was the one who worked the field, planting it, spraying it, harvesting it.  The whole situation, him sitting on his lawn chair looking at the road, wondering just how it was that Laird got himself a daughter, brought to mind the day he let his son and Gretta move into the master bedroom.  (Kay Lee had long since moved into the computer room with a  hot-plate and mini refrigerator.)  The very next morning, he walked past the bedroom window and there were her heels (did she never take them off?) up in the air and his son’s own fanny.  Maybe he had given his son too many advantages, thought William.  He moved his chair so that it was in front of the boxcar, giving himself a better view of the wheat field.
        This was his favorite season.  When the wheat was tall and yellow, a smell that was less ripe and more brittle.  The threshing crew would come soon.  There would be noise and dust and people, but for now, it was just him looking at the field and listening to the birds.  He thought that nothing sounded better than a red-winged blackbird, especially when the grass was high and the bird was sitting on top of the seed heads and giving off that trilling sound.  The wind shifted.  The bird fluttered, held on.  And Miss Blue Ribbons shot William with a rocket.
        “What are you doing?” he said.
        It wasn’t much of a rocket.  It was made of foam and it bounced off the back of his hat.  He wouldn’t have even felt it if it weren’t for his hat tipping forward just a little.
        “What are you doing?” she said.
        “Enjoying the birds.  You ever sit and listen to the birds?”
        “That’s boring.”
        She shot him in the head with another rocket.  She had a handheld mechanism.  She punched the red button and the rocket flew his direction.
        “Knock that off,” said William.
        And another rocket.
        “I said knock that off.”
        And another.
        “How many of those do you have?”
        “A bunch.”
        There had been rain some time ago.  It rained and then the ground turned hard.  He leaned down and picked up a dirt clod and threw it, hitting Gracey not in the face but in the belly.  That pink-gingham-shirt belly and the dirt clod hit her hard and splattered and she went crying off to daddy or whoever he was to her.
        “Daddy-daddy-daddy,” said William to himself, turning his attention to the blackbird that was now gone but somewhere it let out another trilling song.
        Laird came out and kicked his lawn chair over.  William didn’t have a chance to catch himself and he fell on his side.
        “What are you doing?”
        “Get up,” said Laird, his fists cocked.
        “Knock that off.”
        “Get up.”
        William did, but quietly so that his son wouldn’t hit him.  He folded his chair and carried it over to his caboose.  He climbed the ladder that took him to the seat that looked out over everything and sat down.  He tried to look out over the wheat, which was the only thing he wanted to do that day, but he became disgusted and he went to his bed.
        The next morning, he woke to his son pounding stakes in the ground behind the boxcar.  By the end of the week, there was a fence up and not a wimpy fence but a tall one, tall enough that Laird needed a ladder to pound the nails in.  It was made solid with one-by-sixes.
        “The hell,” said William to himself.
        He took a walk into town and had his first drink in ten years.  He drank at the only bar in town, old Roberta’s.  There were others at the bar but they mostly ignored him.  He was thinking about her a lot lately, how she used to fry her pancakes in bacon fat.  He didn’t think there was another woman alive who still did that.  And her jug of homemade Kahlúa, which she did not serve in her bar.  She had the same dark hair and used the same primrose cream on her hands.  She served him beer after beer but she never talked to him.  When he was the only one left at the bar, he said, “Why haven’t you come out to see me?  You could just come by to say hi.  You don’t have to move in or anything.”
        She turned on the lights and told him to pay his tab.  He did and she locked the till and put the chairs on the table.  Her son came to give her a ride home.
        “You want me to talk to him?” William heard him say.
        “You don’t need to,” said William.  “It’s official.  We were never anything real.  Or maybe we were real but not legal.  Or maybe we were unreal and illegal.  Isn’t that what you kids call something really good these days?  Unreal?”
        The kid asked if he was drunk and his fists were cocked like he was bored enough to fight an old man.
        She held the door open for him.  He touched his hat as he walked past her.  He spent the night in a pickup truck.  It wasn’t hers and it wasn’t his.  It was just unlocked.  He felt like hell in the morning, and for that reason he took a ride from the mail lady.  She looked like a younger version of Roberta.
        “You related?” he asked.
        “Not that I know of,” said the mail lady.
        “What’s your name?”
        “Bailey,” she said.  Then she added, “I’m Missy’s daughter,” as if that meant something to him.
        Whenever she stopped, he leaned out the window and opened the mailbox, collecting whatever was in it and giving it to her, then stuffing it with whatever she handed to him.  He didn’t know what she would have done without him, though she must have managed just fine.
        “You really stink,” she said.  “Your well gone dry?”
        “No, my well hasn’t gone dry.  Don’t be impertinent.”
        “Someone needs to tell you.  I bet you went into town smelling like that.  Tried to sweet talk Roberta, did you?”
        “That’s none of your business.”
        “And slept in Jackie’s truck.”
        He didn’t say anything.  He just shoved the mail into the boxes.  His head hurt so much he wanted to tell her to stop talking but he knew if he did, she would talk more.  He never understood how women got on so well or didn’t, but they never stopped gabbing.
        “That’s alright.  She’s in Miles City for a while.  left her truck unlocked because her boyfriend hadn’t collected his stuff.”
        “It’s still there,” said William.
        “Your stop, sir,” said BaileyBailey.
        “How do you know where I live?”
        “I deliver your mail,” she said.
        He got out.  She handed him Laird’s mail.  He put it in the box.
        “Why don’t you take it to him?” she said.  Then she turned off the ignition, which was never a good sign.  “You two haven’t spoken in how many years?”
        “We speak.”
        She rolled her eyes.
        “Time’s running out, William.  You’re not so old and now you have another chance with your granddaughter.”
        “What do you know about Gracie?”
        “So you do know her name.”
        She sat back and started her van.  He was about to say something when her window glided up.  He got a good look at himself reflected back and he rubbed a hand over his salt and pepper chin.  He supposed he did need a shower.  The window went back down.
        “You know, you clean yourself up and don’t make an ass of yourself when you do get to town, you might be able to get somewhere with Roberta.”
        The window went back up.  He was finally left alone.  He still had Laird’s mail in his hand.  He thought, maybe I ought to take it to him.  He was halfway down the driveway before he realized that his caboose was gone.  Burned to a pile of smoldering wood.  The little stove held some framing up, but that was all that was standing.  His son was walking towards him with his hand held up as if to stop him.
        “Just a minute,” said Laird.
        Laird’s mouth was set in a thin, hard line.  William knew it without him saying it.  Little Miss Blue Ribbons burned his house down.
        “Where is she?” he said.
        “Now let me tell you what happened.  See, it was the campfire activity.  She said she’d heard you can start a fire with just some sticks and grass and I told her to go ahead and give it a try and she did.  Only I didn’t know where she was.  And I didn’t think she knew what she was doing.  Okay?”
        “You put up that big fence and you can’t keep her in it?”
        “Well.  I told her to go outside and when she went out, I thought she would do it in the driveway.  See.  That way if she did make a fire, nothing would catch on fire.  So. And when she did, I thought she would run and get me but she didn’t.”
        “And you didn’t think to check if she had matches.  You know, in case she wasn’t successful the first time.”
        “No.  I did not think about that.”
        “Did you or did you not volunteer for the VFD?  Weren’t that how you met little Miss Blue Ribbons’ mother?”
        “It might have been that I was asleep.”
        “Your daughter’s out starting fires and you decided to take a nap?”
        “I didn’t just decide to.  It just happened.”
        “Aren’t you smart.”
        Laird’s mouth smoothed and he scratched his head.
        “Don’t be hard on her.  She didn’t mean to.”
        “Sure.  She didn’t burn your home down.”
        He handed Laird his mail and turned to go back to his caboose.  Only it wasn’t there.
        “Guess you got to sleep at my place.”
        “Guess you’re pitching a tent.”
        Later, after Laird went to work, William filled out the credit card application that came in Laird’s mail.  “Pre-approved,” it said.
        Well, goody, he thought.

        They were just about the same in all of their habits, except in the way that Laird liked people and sought them out.  The little sink was scrubbed clean, the dishrag hung over the faucet.  Each plate, each mug was put away with symmetry.  It was like living at his own place but with a better view.  Except for that fence.  But he fixed that.  He pulled enough boards so that he could look out at the field.  They were harvesting.  Dust raised up and the sound of combines broke the sound of birds in the mornings.
        He let Little Blue Ribbons sleep on the couch but Laird slept in the tent.  At first, Laird hung out at the boxcar, was even late for his night shift, just to make sure that William wasn’t going to hurt his daughter.  But Little Blue Ribbons showed herself to be immune to the old man and his threats, telling him straight up that she meant to burn the caboose down because it was stupid and he was mean to her.
        “Well,” said William, “some of my own spit back in my eye.”
        “I thought you were inside and would put it out,” she said.
        “Well, that’s something to consider.”
        He got used to things.  He made coffee with the percolator and he put milk and sugar in.  He mended her clothes, surprised to learn that girls could be just as hard on pants as boys.  He braided her hair and scrubbed grass stains from her white socks.  When winter came, he chided her about leaving her mittens and hat at school but he also crocheted her a new set.  He let Laird have the bed during the day and their past difficulties blended into morning duties.  William still made coffee for Gracie, that is until Laird found out and told her that it would stunt her growth and then she wouldn’t drink it anymore.  And William no longer braided her hair and she went to school with crooked braids because Laird never got things straight.  And he wouldn’t let William crochet any more mittens until she brought home all the mittens she left at school.  And they couldn’t talk about these disagreements because the only time they saw each other was when she was home and Laird wouldn’t argue in front of her.  It was like being married all over again.
        Nobody considered that this wasn’t suppose to last into the school year.  William just carried on, making sure she was at the bus stop on time, making her go on her own but watching at the window until the bus went around the bend.  And because the school communicated through the Internet, William got back online.

What happened next didn’t happen until January, but it seemed to happen right away.  She came.  Laird knew about it but Little Blue Ribbons didn’t.  She screamed and clung and Laird, so stoic, slipped in the snow and ice as he carried her to the hatchback.  When Laird was almost there, she went limp, her coat and shirt shrugged up so that her belly showed pink in the cold.  He set her in the car.  Gretta put the car in gear and backed away.  She backed until she could turn around and then she drove away.

You would think that one less person living in a boxcar would make things easier, but it didn’t.  What’s worse is that William left the stove on and the pot heated up and their curtains caught fire.  He got it out in time but that whole corner blackened and the smell never went away.  And Laird never winterized the place, so the pipes froze.  But the computer still worked.  William learned on the Internet that he could order a little house and they would put it on a flatbed and drive it along the prairie roads until they got there.  But there was also a bigger house, two stories with two bedrooms and a den.  The problem was the money.  he brought this up with Laird, and Laird said he couldn’t afford a two bedroom plus den, but fair being fair, he would buy William the one bedroom.  It would take all of his savings but since Gracie did burn his caboose down, he would do this for his dad.
        “But I want the two bedroom.”
        “Can’t do it,” said Laird.  “You let me know when you’re ready for a one bedroom.”
        He went to work and William sat looking at the brochure.  He had most of the information memorized.  It came with a refrigerator that had an ice maker and double-hung windows.  The company would put it on the foundation and secure it but he had to build the foundation.
        Before Gretta took Gracie away, the credit card came.  Gracie, who collected the mail when she got off the school bus, brought it to him.  He was embarrassed about what he had done and put it in his little box of mementos.  There were nine good things that had occurred to him in all of his life, two of which were Gracie’s blue ribbons.  Now he took the card out and made the phone call.

The house came on a summer day and a deferred payment plan.  Moving along, it arrived on two flatbeds; the wheat already high but still green, waving a little with the wind so that the house looked like it was floating.
        They couldn’t make the turn onto the driveway because of the fence, so William went out and took the corner post down, walking it back carefully in such a way that the wires didn’t tangle.  Laird was there, too.  His mouth was open and he was probably saying, “I said a one bedroom,” but William didn’t hear him.  He had felt this happy only once before and that was when Little Blue Ribbons was with them, and that was a feeling that came on gradually.  This was liable to stop his heart but he didn’t care.  That was his house coming down the drive.  It was a wonder.  It came wrapped in plastic and it was insulated and the pipes weren’t going to freeze and they would build a wrap around porch and put a swinging chair on that porch.  It was white and had a corrugated roof.  It looked like a farm house in pieces--one would be stacked on top of the other, just like building blocks.  They would sit together, he and Little Blue Ribbons, and watch the sun set.  They would add on to the back, a room for Laird, and then burn his boxcar down and roast hot dogs and marshmallows.
        “Well, that’s just not going to happen,” said Laird.
        He didn’t have the straight mouth he got when he was somewhere between mad and scared.  he was just pale-faced and sad.
        “Come on,” said William, “let’s inspect it.  Make sure everything is as it should be.”
        “She’s not coming back,” said Laird.
        “What do you mean?  Gracie can’t stay with that woman.  She don’t even say hello when she comes to visit.”
        “Someone did a test and Gracie’s not mine.”
        “Of course she’s yours.  She’s yours because she’s not mine.”
        “No, dad, she’s not.”
        “The hell,” said William.

The next day he went out to get the mail.  There was a rattrap in the mailbox and it got him.  The pain was bad enough he couldn’t get the trap off and he couldn’t think for all the shouting he was doing. Then he became accustomed to the pain and was able to remove the trap and read the note that was under it.
        You old sonovabitch.  I get the room facing the wheat.
        PS - I put a lock on my credit.
        A glint passed over his face and he stepped back for the mail lady to pull forward.  The window glided down.  Her hand reached out with Laird’s mail in it.  She was laughing like she was in on the joke.
        “I do believe you finally learned something,” said Bailey.
        Then the window glided up and her bullet shaped van disappeared around the bend.