‘So I told her, I told her you couldn’t be doing that. That it could be done, yes Madeira, you can do that, Madeira, but the man said you needed to rest, to rest, it’s important to rest. The man said! You’re too old, Mads. You’re too damn old. Damn bird thought it could do what it wants without my consent, my help. She was too old! Serves her right, though. It isn’t my fault. It serves ‘er right for being so damn stubborn. And now look what happened!’
In the shimmering March heat wave (the best the little town of Bethesda could offer), Valter Manyer stood nodding his head, listening to this oval-shaped, middle-aged female while he filled his water bottles. A wisp of damp peroxided hair waved in the sticky Sunday morning grocery store as she see-sawed on two sizes 4 feet, resting one palm on the ice cream freezer sliding glass, the other on the aisle of grocery brand toilet paper.
In her cart, she had one empty water bottle to fill, along with a frosted packet of pet mince–frozen processed meat used as a cheap alternative to feeding cats and dogs–and a roll of tinfoil. He supposed the mince might be her lunch since her bare feet didn’t show any signs of high living. And the only pet she kept talking about was her canary, which might’ve been her only pet or responsibility.
She had the smell that created an aftertaste in your nose and mouth of cheap hardened shampoo and the sweet tangle of unwashed panties.
Valter filled his first 5-litre water bottle while the owner of the dead canary carried on. The clean light glinted in the man’s blue sloshing plastic, the 300-litre tank bubbling in its reverse osmosis. His reflection wobbled in the reflective back as the massive tank spat out the liquid. He looked to his right across the wilted flower stand and through the sweets and magazine aisle right into the bored cashiers running the products through the sounds of the barcode laser scanners. The machines beeped slowly away on the hot March morning. The dull rhythms hypnotised him.
‘It really is a shame.’
‘I’m sorry, what?’ Valter whipped his eyes back to the exacerbated woman. He tried to bring his focus back to this woman, this stranger, this fellow patron, but the chugging bottle clanged against the empty plastic like a waterfall, a pleasant waterfall, in his parched mind. The canary story faded into the barcode beepers.
‘It’s a damn shame, that bird, a damn shame. I’m telling you mister — I’m sorry, I didn’t get your name?’
As she watched the water and listened to the cashiers, Valter heard her voice rise, an inflexion. It was a question. He missed it.
He scolded himself before The Routine began. The Routine, his name for an automatic social response, was simple and always the same: a tingle in the spine–the oh, shit! response–a rubbing of the forehead, the automatic country mouse agreeing —
‘I hear ya –’
— a nodding of the head, and then finally waiting for the yammering to continue.
When the first bottle gurgled to the top, Valter twisted the container shut, placed the filled bottle in his trolley, crackled out the next plastic bottle (Valter’s called them “the blue geese”), and pivoted the second empty bottle for the forced feeding of water under the glossy black tap. He pushed the lever down and when the bubbles continued sans the yammering. He knew made a faux pas. He gave the wrong response. The system needed tweaking since different inflexions in the voice required different answers. His cheeks flushed hot when she tilted her head.
‘What do you mean you hear me? I said what’s your name, mister? Hell, you got snot in your ears or what!’ The canary woman slapped the freezer with a pink hand and bellowed a silent laugh. She threw her head back at the man’s apparent embarrassment as she wailed out a rabbit-caught-in-a-bear-trap squeal. An employee, dressed in black, green, and red–the colours of the store–gave them a cordial and brisk smile as she jogged past them into the STAFF ONLY local dispatch.
‘I’m sorry,’ Valter rubbed his neck. ‘It’s… Yes, it’s Valter. Valter Manyer.’ The second bottle gobbled the water up. He had four more geese to go. ‘My mind’s a bit occupied, that’s all.’
A Billie Holiday song–Strange Fruit or The Mood that I’m In–oozed into the rippling ambience of the supermarket’s fridge section as the woman, now Canary in his mind, continued her story along the backdrop of scuttling kids on Sunday’s best, the lost dad looking for the marked down crunchy peanut butter the wife insisted would be better for their pockets, bellies, and loyalty program, and the local preacher pushing his cart, ignoring his bodily calls for wines and other indulgences in the colder part of the store.
‘That’s okay, I understand. A lot of sin to repent, am I right?’
‘Well, like I said, it’s hot as hell in Bethesda. You know, the place that we’re in it,’ Canary slapped her knee, lurching over in laughter. ‘You know, mister Corn Ears. You know what I’m talking about. Hell, I nearly told you all that happened that would land me in a shitpile. And to a goddamn stranger in a store! Christ, I must be going mad! But these fuckers,’ she jabbed a sausage thumb behind her, ‘won’t even notice, or care, that my ol’ bird died. Or care how she died. Am I right?’
Beep-beep-beep, Valter mimicked the scanners.
‘So anyway,’ Canary continued, ‘I said don’t do it, Madeira, don’t drink no water and swallow those damn pills. The pills were making you sicker, the pills were drying you up, made you sweat and shit all over the place. Fucking nightmare to clean after you, clean where you sleep every damn day. Can’t be suicide, mister, don’t think that,’ she wagged a finger, ‘it wasn’t that. Miriam wouldn’t do that. Damn bird’s too senile to know how to kill herself in any way,’ she pushed out an asthmatic laugh, closed her eyes, and shook her head. She coughed, cleared her throat, and continued. ‘Then I have to clean your shit up again, and I won’t do it, Miriam. Goddamnit, I won’t do it again. Remember what the doctor said –’
Probably means vet, Valter filled the gap for himself. Idiot’s probably gone insane from this heat we’re having. Has to be the vet.
The human brain, along with inflexion in speech, can detect words that are out of the ordinary. The heart jumps when a person in unexpected circumstances, like a supermarket, uses words like rape, gun, murder, and the like. The brain spikes, or the oh, fuck! response kicks in. Different from the oh, shit! response. The same happened with swear words as well, but Valter had been conditioned in a household where an alcoholic Daddy showed his love with a white-knuckle punch to Mommy Dearest’s cheeks. After the second cheekbone broke on the little boy’s 7th birthday from Daddy’s love, cusses became as effervescent as the air you breathe.
Valter still kept an ear out for the oh, fuck! ripples as well.
‘– she wouldn’t listen. Now she’s gone and died on my ass. Kept taking those yellow pills. For pain relief, the doctor said, but the only pain was in her fucking head,’ she pushed her finger white against her pink scalp. ‘Stupid piece of shit bird. Serves her right. Serves her damn right. I tried to thumb the pills up out her gullet. Tried to save her life, teach her lesson, tried to show I mean business, you know what I mean? But her whistle as soft as ice goin’ pipes and crushed on me. It fucking crushed on me! Can you believe that? Felt the same as crushing the skull of an eight-week kitten, though,’
Canary chuckled in the slowly increasing and cheerful supermarket. ‘Well, I couldn’t save her. Choked to death. Suff-oh-cay-ted,’ she said the word, stressing each syllable, making sure she was saying the medical jargon correctly, adding a mocking tone with rolling eyes. ‘Anyway, it’s too bad. Not my fault, mister. Not my fault. Well, I hope with this heat, I hope the devil made a quick stop at our place to pick up her soul. If not, the corpse –’
Cadaver, you moron, the oh, fuck! response replied. People turn into corpses, animals into cadavers.
‘– stank to high heaven. Now ain’t that a contrast! The devil prancing to find the bloated body reaching the heavens. Ain’t that just pretty?’
The rhetorical question had its own kind of inflexion, Valter noticed, but since he paid partial attention, he gave another go-to assertion (‘Yip, it sure is. Strange world we live in’) and made eye contact. He smiled as she galloped her fingers on the cold glass of the freezer, timed the stopping of the water flow, closing of the bottle, crackled the heavy plastic between the other filled blue geese, and tipped the third empty one in. His mind jumped back to the force-fed geese his father used to bring as food to their table when he was just a boy, a geese farmer’s son.
As the Canary continued confessing to what seemed to Valter a minor crime (was it even illegal to kill a pet bird? he wondered), his ears prickled when Billie Holiday ended with a:
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.
Definitely “strange fruit,” Valter concluded. Holiday sure would’ve been right about this place as well.
‘Mister Valter, you sure have a way of talking to yourself, now don’t you?’
‘What? Did I say something?’
‘Yeah, something about “she sure would’ve been right” or something. Did you jump out of a psyche ward or what?’
No laughter this time, but the canary did stretch a smile under her large pink lips.
Valter saw the four front teeth were the only ones left in her mouth. The wisp of bleached hair kept bouncing on the pink scalp from the air-con duct. He wondered if this canary woman quite literally came from an avian line where, as the joke goes, the concerned little boy asked his mother if birds are made of metal because dad said he wants to screw the one next door.
‘No,’ Valter feigned a chuckle, using the punch line to fuel some humour into his own face. ‘No, but if you asked my Momma, she might tell you something different I’m sure.’
This made the canary woman howl, throwing her head back from ecstasy. ‘You sure funny, mister Valter. You sure are damn funny.’
‘Yeah, yeah,’ Valter rubbed his neck as he looked down at his third half-filled bottle. ‘Yeah. Hey, listen. I know you said I could go before you, but if I’m done with this one,’ he stabbed a finger into the crackling plastic.
His thoughts hopscotched to a crushed larynx, to the force-fed geese, to the Canary’s strange ramblings.
‘You can go ahead,’ Valter tried to give his best impression of a courtly bow, but it only made his lanky frame tremble timidly in the joyous grocer. ‘The pleasure would be mine, m’lady.’
Her eyes widened. She slapped the glass top and flapped a hand to the bowing gentleman. ‘What’re ye, some kind of pansy? Don’t do that. I said it’s fine, I have all the time in the world. No need to worry. Yes, sir. All the time in the world now.’
A curt man, slender and so upright it would make your backache, walked past them in broad steps without a smile.
Must be the manager, Valter thought.
The woman rolled her hands over the plastic cart’s handle. Valter didn’t see any bird feed or newspapers in her basket. But then, he reminded himself, since the canary, the one she killed this morning, had died this person wouldn’t need any of those things now, would she?
The barcode scanners, increasing in speed, now kept pace with the chugging water. A sudden rush of sound came into the store. Churchgoers were now worming in for their luncheons, roasts, and any other foodstuffs that made a week ever so more rewarding after a good sermon.
‘That’s mighty kind of you,’ Valter clasped his hand on the softly crackling goose. ‘That’s kind. I won’t be long, I promise.’
‘With the manners and all. Don’t worry, you fool,’ she rested her hands on the humming freezer again. ‘So like I said, a real shame about today. Luckily, she died on a –’
‘What kind of bird was it?’
The interruption from Valter shocked the woman, making him think that this kind of interaction had been a first in her life. The blood rushed to his head, pulsing with the water. Something felt wrong about the conversation, but he couldn’t put his finger on it. The third bottle almost frothed to the top. The scanners outpaced the chugging this time.
With eyes bulging and white, she cleared her jelly-like jowls as Etta James belted out Finders Keepers, Loser Weepers. ‘Oh, uhm? Hmm. Yes,’ she clicked her thick finger. ‘She… she was the kind of bird that–fucking kids!’
Valter shook the bottle in his hand from fright. It dropped onto the floor as he fumbled to catch it midair, but only manage to shake out the filled third bottle’s contents with a loud splatter and crackle. The linoleum floors glistened as he shook his wet hands and fiddled to close the open tap.
‘What the hell did you do that for?’ Valter burst out in sudden anger fuelled by his terror.
The Canary kept her eyes to her left, hands wrapped around her cart, water still dripping from the tank’s marbled stand, when a couple of kids stopped running, stopped next to the grocery branded toilet paper. The kids, the oldest a 7-year old pale girl with a pink butterfly dress and glittered sandals and a streak of red lipstick on her cheek, the boy with a Superman t-shirt underneath a pastel blue collar shirt, gripped each other’s hands. The giggles stopped while the enormous bird-like woman pierced their gazes with their own.
‘The store says no running, you hoodlums! No running!’ the finger trembled in her pink hands. ‘Where’s your mother or father, hmm? I need to show them, with these hands, what a couple of disciplined kids look like. Need to give you two fuckers a good smack that’s what –’
‘That’s enough of that.’
The Canary moved her eyes, white all around the icy iris, to the trembling Valter.
‘The store said no running, mister Valter. These kids –’
‘I know what you said,’ his voice quivered as he spoke. ‘But they’re just kids. They won’t do it again, won’t you?’
He wasn’t sure why he said they wouldn’t do it. It wasn’t his responsibility and quite frankly didn’t care, but the adrenaline from the outburst, embarrassment from the crashing bottle, the potential confrontation from this burly female, this cocktail of emotions had no way to release itself in a civilised way. He was afraid that this woman might beat him up on this hot Sunday morning over a bunch of kids running in a store, her eyes twitching and vile.
She did kill her bird this morning, he reminded himself, and was concerned that her quiet rage might spread to the public, his shaking frame the first causality from her apparent madness.
The laser beepers sped up with Etta James crooning over the filling store.
The little girl spoke up first. ‘We’re sorry mister. Ma’am,’ the girl bit her forefinger nail as she nudged the younger boy. ‘Aren’t we, Markus?’
The boy’s eyes glistened, sucking the green lollipop, and nodded with his eyes to his sister. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said in a muffled, sweet-in-cheek sound. ‘I’m really sorry, Denise.’ Spit dripped from his sticky mouth onto the print of his shirt. He was close to crying.
‘Don’t tell me,’ Denise nudged her brother again and tilted her head to the bird monster. ‘Tell it to her. And don’t talk with your mouth full. You know what Mommy says.’
The boy’s eyes brimmed with tears. He plucked out the wet sweet from his mouth, cleared his throat, and repeated, ‘I’m really, really, sorry.’
‘Thank you,’ Valter accepted the apology from the still distraught female. He wanted the kids to go away. ‘She also says thank you. Now run along.’
The girl and boy didn’t move. The boy pinched his eyes from the crouching female and watched his sister. Valter flapped a hand to try and calm the crazy woman.
He tried again. ‘I mean go away,’ it sounded harsh, but he needed them to leave. ‘Please. Go find your mother, will ya?’
The girl pulled her brother and gave a muffled ‘Thank you’ as they gave a brisk walk. The boy stuck the lollipop back in his mouth. Valter watched them slink around the toiletries isles, suspected the candy tasted bitter in the child’s mouth and cheeks full of saline and snot.
‘Damn kids,’ Canary wiped her upper lip. ‘Damn kids. They know –’
Valter picked up his slick bottle and pushed the opening into the dripping tap. The water clanged against the bottom, the laser beeps humming against the now noticed background music of The Beatles’ Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.
Bang, bang, Maxwell’s silver hammer
Came down upon her head
Bang, bang, Maxwell’s silver hammer
Made sure that she was dead
‘– there’s a sign. Damn parents need to chain their kids up. Animals can’t be contained, that’s what they are. Animals. Needs to be locked up in a cage where they belong.’
‘You never told me what kind of bird.’
‘I’m sorry?’ Canary whipped her eyes back to the thin man. ‘Oh, right. I said… What did I say? She was the kind of bird that… Well,’ she screwed her finger against her sleep. ‘Well, she was the kind of person –’
‘– that kind of was just there–’
Like all birds.
‘– and raised me –’
‘– for close to thirty years –’
Are you only thirty? Christ!
Beepbeepbeepbeepbeep! goes the laser scanners and Valter’s heart.
‘What kind of bird was it? Was it a finch, a budgie? Swallow? Canary? You haven’t told me what kind of bird it was.’ Valter repeated his question through pursed lips. ‘What kind of bird was it?’
The Canary’s eyes closed. She giggled, making Valter’s skin crawl. ‘Weren’t you listening? Damn, I was right,’ the Canary thrust a thumb behind her, swirled her hand back to front, and kept a finger to Valter as she chuckled, ‘No one listens. No one listens a damn. Madeira was right. Damn. She was right about one thing.’
The Canary shook her head in disgust and looked back at the silent Valter, eyes white around the iris again. ‘Do you think she was right? That people don’t listen. They never listen?’
The third bottle drowned and vomited water over the brim. The blue goose was dead. Valter flicked the tap shut and watched the Canary.
Valter wondered in amazement how he missed the whole conversation. How could he think that the victim was an actual bird and not an old lady, decomposing as they spoke? Was it a person’s throat the Canary crushed? Was it the name Maderia that threw him? How —
‘You know what,’ she pointed the finger at the filled bottle, shaking him from his head again. ‘I can see your mind is all over this fucking place,’ she chuckled and turned her cart around. ‘I’ll come back for that water. You finish up. Thanks for the chat, but I think I must go. Might have a hell of a day ahead of me and I must be going back.’
Valter watched the woman walk towards the cashiers at the back. His hands shook. The siblings stalked past again, relieved that the crazy lady was gone. Their dad, the one looking for the crunchy peanut butter, strolled past with his nose deep into the grocery list. The dad looked up at his waving daughter and nodded a greeting. Valter couldn’t raise his hands. The Beatles hammered their tune to the cheerful store. The preacher, making the second round around the locked isle of wine, smiled at Valter and pushed toward the sweets aisle.
A scrawny female, wired from the day’s responsibilities perhaps, held her finger to the tank. ‘Hey, mister. Are you done there?’
Valter screwed the bottle top back and nodded. The scrawny lady shook her head as Valter pushed the filled third bottle back between the crackling blue geese. He mouthed ‘Sorry’ while pushing his cart towards the ever-increasing beeps. His ears hissed and he couldn’t make out the next song. It didn’t matter to him now.
Valter pushed, with his wet and sweating hands, his cart of blue geese, looking to see if he could spot the Canary. It was still a hot Sunday morning, he knew that much, but since giving the name Canary to that woman, he wondered when the police would come searching for him if they ever found the dead canary in her house.
©2018 Theo Volschenk. All rights reserved.