Bad Survivalist: Stephanie Austin
The sky over my chosen park bench is summer and painful. Fold my hands. Block out the kids running with the little red ball. Close my eyes. Breathe.
The bench shifts. Another woman, an older woman, situates herself next to me. She smells like cinnamon gum. She reaches into her coat pocket, and her elbow bumps my arm. She clicks her tongue and tosses seeds and a curtain of birds descends. Pigeons.
I have spikes along the outside of my house to keep away the pigeons. Before the spikes went up, I had a pest service come out and the guy tried to explain the humane ways in which they removed the birds, and I said kill the fucking birds I don’t care.
Under the cinnamon gum, there is another smell. Old earth. A dead garden.
My stepfather had two birds. A parrot and a Mynah bird. The parrot was a mean yellow and red and green blob who screeched at all hours unless the towel was over her cage. The parrot attacked my arm when I tried to feed her. She drew blood. Such a mean parrot. I begged my mother to tell my stepfather to let me stop feeding the bird. Would take any other chore. No more bird. She told me she asked him, and he said no.
The woman clucks at the pigeons. “Hello babies,” she says. She blows them kisses. “Pretty babies, hello, hello.”
I went to my stepfather on my own, and I said, look, I don’t want to feed the parrot.
The parrot scares me.
Oh, the parrot scares you?
So then he stood next to me, and I had to open the cage, and I’d watch the parrot rev up, puff out her wings getting ready to lunge at me, and I cried, and I cried and he crossed his arms and my mom sat at the kitchen table and said nothing.
“Baby birdies,” the woman says and tosses more seeds.
I figured out to put gloves on, those big yellow rubber dishwashing gloves, so at least she stopped drawing blood. The feel of her knocking into my arm like that still gets me.
Lessons. My stepfather was fond of lessons. The trick to him was pretending like lessons did not bother you anymore. Took me years to figure that out. Took me years to learn how to save myself.
The Mynah bird was nice. He made a lot of noise, but he was pleasant when I reached in his cage. He died from smoke inhalation. Bacon grease fire. The house filled with smoke, and the parrot was fine but the Mynah bird was dead in his cage. I wished the parrot dead. I wished my stepfather dead. My stepfather told me to throw the Mynah bird in the trash, and I went to my mother and said we should bury him, and she went to my stepfather to tell him I told her we should bury him, and he made me pick up the dead bird from the cage and drop him in the trash can outside. Later, I got a stool and picked the dead bird out of the trash and buried him in the backyard when my stepdad was at work. A stray cat or dog dug him up, his peaceful final resting place desecrated because no matter if you do your best and care about something, in the end, we’re all meant for the consumption of others.
“Honey, you should smile more,” she says to me. “Young girls are so much prettier when they smile.”
My mother hoarded cats after my stepfather died. My mother needed to be needed. She chose cats. Irony. Cats don’t need anyone.
Those children scream at each other about taking turns with the ball. Children always want it to be their turn. That is the lesson of childhood. Childhood is the only real turn people get.
“Do you have a boyfriend?” she asks. “You’re so pretty. I bet you have a lot of boyfriends.”
The pigeons peck at the ground near my feet. I pull away.
“When I was young, I had a lot of boyfriends,” she says. “My husband though. My heart. He was everything to me. He’s been dead oh, say, five years now.” She reaches into her pocket again, her elbow knocking my arm again.
I clutch my bag.
The woman gazes up at the sky, puts her arm up to shield her eyes from the sun. “What a beautiful day. I didn’t think I’d be able to ever say that again, but here I am.” She throws more kisses toward the pigeons.
I stand, walk away from the bench, toward the parking lot, looking for a worker to tell about the woman. She interrupted my quiet time. She was wrong to do that, and she has hurt me. The parking lot is empty. One of the trash bins is overflowing. I need someone to tell. There is no one to tell.
Stephanie Austin’s short stories and essays have appeared in The Fiddlehead, American Short Fiction, Washington Square Review, The New England Review, Fiction, Eclectica, The Nervous Breakdown, Emrys Journal, The Sonder Review, Carve, Pembroke Magazine, The Jellyfish Review, and Pithead Chapel. She is on Twitter @lucysky.