The Care of Birds

The following short story appeared in Descant, 1993.  Wanting to know how these characters got to this place in 1992, I decided to write a novel.  Now the problem: this chapter may change radically based on the original draft and the subsequent "deep" editing I've been doing since the beginning of 2012.

              Among the scattered seeds and droppings, a finch had settled to the floor of the cage.  On the wire above it, the other finches were perched, fourteen voices and bodies strung like so many socks on a windless day.

            “What’s happening with you fellows?  You’re awfully quiet, if you ask me.”

            Marty moved around the kitchen without her glasses, aware some­thing was off-kilter.  As she looked for her pack of Winstons, she hoped the coffeemaker’s automatic timer was still working.  Seeing the finch, claws pulled tight against his shrunken body, she prayed he hadn’t died of something contagious.  If he had, well . . .  Hadn’t she had lots of practice?

            Burying her dead had come easy for Marty.  All of them there in the backyard between the patchy cactus and beneath the some­times shadow of the lone Joshua tree.  All of them wrapped in layers of plastic bread bags, the colors mixed together like the smattering of wildflowers in late winter.  She remembered each bird, their names and the mystery or tragedy surrounding their deaths.  Conners was there, along with a whole slew of macaws, cockatiels and cockatoos--Mr. Hurley, Gondola, Castor Oil.  The finches were a different story.  “Too many of you to bother naming your frivolous souls,” she would tell them, refusing to kneel over any of their graves.

            The finch lay on his side on a piece of newspaper beside Marty’s ashtray and cup of coffee.  “I thought you were going to stop smoking,” she said, waving the cigarette to the air before her.  “Well, not this morning.”                                                                                

            From the living room, she heard Rose Ellen getting up from the sofa.  It was strange her granddaughter being there.  She listened to the unfamiliar sounds of someone else dressing.  It’d probably be the same shirt and jeans.  Now she must be stuffing her sleeping bag.  She said she’d be leaving today.  All too soon, old lady . . .

            “You were talking to yourself,” Rose Ellen said, standing in the doorway.

            “It was the birds,” Marty said, thinking the girl was accusing her of something beyond being crazy.  “One of them’s died.”

            “Oh.”  She walked over to the table and looked down at the bird.

            “I didn’t mean to wake you.”  Marty thought her voice came out too apologetic.

            “‘Sa’ll right,” Rose Ellen said.  “I need to get going.”

            “You’ve barely got here,” she said, remembering the last four days.

            “I told you I could only stay so long,” she said, and reached down as if to poke the bird.  But she didn’t.  “Mom’ll be worried.”

            “You could borrow a phone and call her.  At least let her know you’re here.” 

            She watched her granddaughter tuck her thumbs in the back pockets of her jeans, and mentally crossed her fingers.

            But Rose Ellen turned toward the bathroom.  “She knows where I’m at.  I’d better take a shower.”         

            “Use a clean towel,” Marty said, wondering when the girl had called Glennie.  “There’re plenty.”

            The shower sputtered along with bangs and gurgles.  She hadn’t noticed before how much noise it created.  With the back of her hand, Marty pushed the finch over, thinking it was watch­ing her, knowing all the time it wouldn’t be looking at some old lady.  Ashes from her cigarette fell on the matted feathers.


            The plain white envelope had come three months before; it had included Rose Ellen’s high school graduation announcement and a color photograph.  Marty had rubbed her fingers across the raised letters, stared into the photograph’s small eyes.  She had even called up Greyhound from Mrs. Gutierrez’s, thinking she ought to go to Seattle.  Surprise them all.  Her daughter Glennie especially.  But she hadn’t got beyond that one phone call.

            Now, she felt guilty.  She could have written.  Or sent a present of some kind.

            When Rose Ellen had showed up at the door late Friday afternoon, Marty hadn’t known who she was.  She couldn’t be expected to though.  Hadn’t it been fourteen years and some months since she’d seen her last?  And then she’d been little more than a baby, walking like it was some sort of adventure.  Even with that graduation photograph still in mind, she couldn’t have known.  This girl’s hair wasn’t blond enough, and it was straight and spiky on top.  In the picture, it had seemed longer.  She hadn’t put it together until the girl had spoken and said how she’d got there.  How she’d hitchhiked on I‑5, got rides with two long-distance truckers.  She’d laughed.  Those guys couldn’t believe she was out there alone.  A girl who could have been one of their daughters, they’d said.

            Marty had started to lecture her about that.  “What would your. . . ?”  She’d wanted to tell her about taking chances like that, but kept her mouth shut when she saw how the girl’s eyes were puffy and dark like she’d been crying for hours.  This girl who said she was her granddaughter.  Maybe she could see a bit of Glennie in her. She’d been tempted to ask if her mother knew she was here, but decided that could wait.  “You must be beat,” she’d said finally, feeling she was being tested.

            “Not really,” the girl said.

            And Rose Ellen didn’t ask why she hadn’t come to her gradua­tion.  That still bothered Marty more than if she had put that question to her.  But then she didn’t ask her why she’d come to the desert, or even how she’d found the house.

            Instead, she’d opened the screen door and said, “You must be thirsty.  How about some lemonade?  It’s the frozen kind, but it’s not bad.”

            She’d watched as Rose Ellen grabbed a sleeping bag and small day pack she’d stashed beside the porch.  Now, Marty realized the girl hadn’t thought she was going to be welcomed.


            When her grandmother had turned in the doorway that first after­noon, Rose Ellen had noticed how her skinny body was ringed in light, glowing like some alien in a horror movie.  The flow­ered print of the thin dress her grandmother wore only added to the effect, making her seem to float inches above the floor.  Rose Ellen felt uncomfortable because she couldn’t tell if her grandmother was smiling or frowning.  But then scratchy sounds, guttural like the ones her German teacher, old Mrs. Mashed Potato, had tried to get her to make, came pouring out of the kitchen.  She remembered the birds.  Do they spit when they sing? she wondered.

            The woman at the market off of Highway 14 had talked about the birds when Rose Ellen had stopped to ask directions.  “She’s got hordes of the damnedest birds.  I’m surprised that Mrs. Crawford hasn’t gotten some disease off of them by now.  Why you going up there?”  When Rose Ellen didn’t say anything, she continued, “I’ve never seen it myself, but I heard . . .”

            With barely a thank-you, Rose Ellen had taken the piece of paper that the woman had scribbled a map on.  She’d almost told the woman a dollar for the Diet Pepsi was a rip, but that seemed too rude.  Besides she’d been real thirsty.

            “OK. OK.  Mother’s here.  I’ll feed you later.  Hush.  Hush now, or I’ll have to cover you fellows up.”

            Already Rose Ellen was wondering why she’d lied and told her grandmother she’d hitchhiked from Seattle.  That was childish, something her mother would have done to save her from what she called the Truth.  Whatever that was, it seemed to change on a daily basis.  The truth was she’d gotten a ride with a classmate whose family was moving to California, and then had taken the bus north out of L.A.  From Lancaster, she’d had to hitch.  But she’d been careful, taking a ride from a soldier and his family who were returning to Edwards Air Force Base.  She’d got to sit in the back seat next to the little girl who’d been as cute as a bug’s ear.

            “Don’t be shy about the birds,” her grandmother was saying as she bent over first one drawer, then another.  She was so thin that her dress barely seemed to touch her back, Rose Ellen noticed.  It fell from shoulders as narrow as a clothes hanger.  “It’s got to be here.”

            Maybe it was just that the truckers sounded more romantic, or at least more dangerous, she thought.  But they’d have been nice guys.  But maybe she’d wanted her grandmother’s disapproval along with everybody else’s.

            “I could just drink water,” Rose Ellen said.

            “Not the kind we have here.  Ha, I knew I’d find it,” her grand­mother said, holding up a can opener.  To Rose Ellen, it looked like the kind that never worked for her.

            Watching her grandmother clear the table, she found it hard to think of her as anything other than some strange old woman, one of those bag ladies pushing a shopping cart, or someone caught scrounging in the Safeway dumpster.  Someone you’d never meet in the eye because they might ask you for something. Watch­ing her grandmother move about was like seeing a speeded-up film: newspapers tossed in a box by the door, the dirty coffee cup and a small plate disappearing into the sink, cigarette butts dumped, ashtray whisked out with a rag and set back on the now washed table.  Then, she was done and pointing at her, at Rose Ellen, to “Sit” in the chair.  She couldn’t tell if it was an order or a request.

            A glass pitcher of lemonade stuffed with ice cubes appeared on the table, along with two glasses and a pink Melmac plate of soda crackers.

            “I don’t have any cheese or peanut butter,” her grandmother said, standing with the refrigerator door open.

            Rose Ellen was surprised at how clean everything was.  Somehow she’d expected her to be the slob her mother had made out, the one she’d held up to her as a model of what not to be. She stared at the drops of water that had condensed on the pitcher; they could have been dew on bright yellow and orange flowers.  Like the marigolds in her mother’s garden in late summer.


            Once Marty settled herself in her chair and lit a cigarette, she felt ready to talk to the girl.  Though she didn’t want to look at her for long; when she did, she noticed the smudges around her eyes weren’t from crying, but had to have been made by thick, black liner pencil.  It made her look old and very young at the same time.

            “I’m kind of a kitchen person,” she said finally, as if that would explain anything.  The girl looked at her.  Marty turned away and then pointed at the largest cage.  “It’s bright and warm for the birds.”

            “You’ve got lots,” said Rose Ellen.

            “Too many.  But they give me company.  Though none of these fellows talk back,” she said with a laugh.  “I used to have a mynah, but he didn’t say much either.  Just squawked along to beat the band.”  All the while, she was thinking, this kitchen is the last place I ever saw you, my only granddaughter.  “Don’t you remember being here?  Ever?”

            “No,” Rose Ellen said.  “Mom doesn’t talk much about . . . when we lived in California.” 

She took a long sip of lemonade.

            Like hell, Marty thought.  She stubbed out her cigarette and said,  “Glennie couldn’t have changed that much.  She wasn’t the kind that could, or would, keep her opinions to herself.”

            “Boy, you’re right on that,” Rose Ellen said.  She grinned, but clamped down on it almost

as quickly, like she was willing herself not to smile or be agreeable.

            To herself, Marty was thinking about that last time her daughter had brought Rose Ellen to the house, only to tell her she couldn’t or wouldn’t come again; it was the same thing.  They were moving.  Glennie had even snuck out here without her husband’s “permission.”  Probably the only gutsy thing she ever did.  No man would have ever . . .

            To her granddaughter, she said, “Yeah, she used to say I was a ‘bad influence.’  And your dad called me a ‘hellion.’  That was like the pot calling the pan black.”

            You shouldn’t be bringing that up so soon, old lady.  But people change, she thought.  Don’t grandmothers have rights?  Didn’t she yell that at her daughter?  But maybe she couldn’t remember some of it right.  Yeah, I used to get on the gin a bit and whatever else I could find.  But her memory seemed to have gone the way of so much else.  You’ll be chasing this girl off before too long, she thought.

            When Rose Ellen didn’t say anything, she added, “Well, that’s neither here nor there.  You’re here now.”

            The girl sat quietly, swirling the ice cubes in her glass.  They sounded like bells dinging a long ways off.

            “You don’t mind, do you?”

            Marty didn’t hear any question or apology in those words.  It was as if the girl--it was hard to think of her as her grand­daughter --was daring her to mind.  Why should she?  I’m not the one showing up at someone else’s door.

            “No.  But we’ll have to get some food.  If you’re planning to stay long.”

            “Three, four days max.  Does it matter?”

            “I suppose not,” Marty said, angry that this girl seemed to be wanting her to say both yes and no to some bigger unspoken re­quest.  “Like I said, you’re here.  All I’ve got is the sofa out there.  Take it or leave it.”


            Rose Ellen wasn’t able to sleep, but that wasn’t the couch’s fault.  Her mind wouldn’t settle down.  It kept going over things all on its own.

            When she’d left Seattle three days before, her mother was still bugging her to go to the community college in the fall.  She’d acted as if her life, not Rose Ellen’s, depended on it.  It had seemed so contradictory because her mother had always made her feel stupid and inept about anything she’d tried to do.  And now her mother was thinking she’d do better at Highline than working at a restaurant or going to data processing school for six months.  I just don’t get it, she kept on thinking.

            They’d argued about it since the beginning of her senior year.  Especially after Rose Ellen had brought home a bunch of brochures from the counselor and made some joke about them.  Her mother had slapped her for not being more serious about her “future.”  “If you’re not smart, you’ll end up married with three kids,” she’d said.

            “What would be so bad about that?” Rose Ellen had yelled, thinking it might have been nice if she’d had a sister or a brother.

            The idea of getting married was a laugh on her mother.  She’d gone out with boys from school.  To movies mainly.  Even dances after a couple basketball games.  Her mother accused her of sleeping around, because sometimes Rose Ellen would stay all night at a girlfriend’s house.  She wouldn’t tell her mother which girl and so her mother never believed her.

            There’d even been a party on graduation night and she’d drunk rum and coke, but not so much that she hadn’t known what she was doing.  She’d ended up sitting on the couch in the downstairs rec room with Chris Dieter.  She couldn’t remember how they’d got there, but his hand was between her panties and her skin, fumbling its way downward, grabbing at her skin, her hair.  Neither hurting nor caressing.  It could have been funny, but there was something hurried and impersonal about the whole thing.  It’d always been that way with boys.  She’d finally gotten tired of Chris feeling around like that, not really touching her, like he was afraid to, and pulled away.  She didn’t want to help him out.

            Rather than waiting for her friends to give her a lift home, Rose Ellen had left, walking the

three miles along Military Road in the dark.  One car had slowed down to look at her, but she kept her head down, willing herself to be invisible, and the car sped off.  After it had disappeared, she’d started running.

            That’s why she had to laugh at her mother taking her to the gynecologist two years before (“I don’t want any accidents from you”) and thinking she’d be married by the time she was nineteen.  Just proves she doesn’t know shit about me.  And never will.

            It seemed pointless lying there, rolling from one side to her stomach to her back and on to her side again, staring first at the ceiling and then out into the dark room or at the back of the couch.  Maybe she wanted to go to college, but not when her mother had to keep pushing it at her.  Can’t she just leave me alone?  Finally, she grew tired of picking at the knobby material in the couch and walked to the kitchen, thinking her grandmother might have left her cigarettes.  She would never notice one missing.

            Although the kitchen was dark, Rose Ellen could make out the covered cages.  “Anybody home,” she whispered, and then giggled.  She flipped on the light.  The pack of Winstons was next to the ashtray by the sink.  They weren’t her favorite, but beggars can’t be choosers.


            Marty hugged her knees, her bare arms stretched tight beneath her chin as if she was cold, but she was sweating with the temperature already eating into the nineties.  Too goddamn’ hot to be moving around.  From where she sat, barely in the shadows on the porch’s top step, she could follow Rose Ellen as she walked around the yard.  There couldn’t be much for the girl to see.

            But hadn’t the two of them made it fine through a night and a morning?  They’d even started up the car and drove into Mojave for groceries, Marty driving faster than needed.

            Even though she’d had all those school pictures--Couldn’t Glennie have written something about how they were doing over the years?--this girl didn’t look right.  But she might get used to her.  When she tried to focus beyond her granddaughter, Marty’s vision wavered in the miles of heat coming off the Mojave, rippling like it was old window glass.

            “What do you do out here?” Rose Ellen said.

            “Sometimes I go for walks.  In the spring, the real spring, it’s nice.  It’s always quiet.  We

haven’t had any spring in quite a while though.”

            “No, I mean for work.  What do you do for work?”

            “I haven’t worked for about a year,” Marty said, holding her hand up.  “I had to have a cyst taken out.”

            “Was it bad?”

            “You mean cancer?” Marty said, uncomfortable with Rose Ellen’s concern.  “No.  But it’s never got its strength back.  I proved it was my job that caused it,” she said, bending her wrist like she was carrying a tray.  “So I get some money from the state.  That and most of my social security.”

            “Mom said you used to sew a lot.”

            “That was a few years back.  By the time I moved out here, I was tired of making clothes.  Besides, nobody out here could afford my prices and I didn’t want to just ‘fix’ things that somebody else had started.”

            “Mom said you did it for movie stars.”

            “Oh, yeah, there’d been a few.  You wouldn’t know their names.  Even Glennie thought I was an old fuddy for getting worked up about ‘em.”

            “It must’ve been interesting.  Did you go to their houses?  In Hollywood?”

            Marty felt a sigh coming up.  “Yes, that or the studio.  That’s the way you did it then.”  Why did people always find this so almighty interesting?  It was no more than making underwear for the rich, and they weren’t any different from the rest of us, were they?

            “I even sewed you some dresses.  A regular wardrobe.  My favorite was this flared jacket with a dark brown velvet collar and a tam to match.  A real beaut.  ‘Cept your mother wouldn’t let you wear them around here.  Do you remember any of that?”

            “Not really.”

            Yes, and you saying, “I made them clothes” and “I’d like to see her in them.” 

            Yes, and Glenda wanting to know where you got the money for the material.  “Which husband is it now?  Or just some man you met at a bar?  Where’s my Daddy?  You can’t even tell me that, can you?”  And didn’t the arguing go downhill from there, Marty?

            “I don’t remember,” said Rose Ellen.  “My parents got divorced when I was eight.”

            Was that supposed to explain her not remembering?  After a moment, Marty said, “Probably just as well.”

            “Mom never has remarried, you know?” Rose Ellen said.

            Marty felt all the years, the anger, the part each of them had played coming through in the girl’s words.  She stood up, but not too fast, thinking she might faint.  “How could I know any of that?” she said.


            Her mother’s voice sounded extra worried.  That made Rose Ellen smile at the circle of reflections in the phone booth glass.

            “You think you’re smart, don’t you?” her mother said, when she told her she was “at grandma’s.”  “You know, I called the police.  Now I’ll have to call them back.  Jesus. You can be a royal pain.”

            “I can take care of myself.”

            “Right, you and who else?  Who’s calling collect?  Your dear ‘Grandma’ won’t even pay for this.  She was always cheap.”

            Inside, Rose Ellen wanted to say, “Please, don’t be sarcas­tic.  Just this once.”  But all that came out was: “She’s smaller than you told me.”  But her mother misunderstood and thought she was saying her grandmother was better looking or nicer or some­thing.  That wasn’t it at all.  She thought about the flat gray of her grandmother’s hair, about that house out in the desert, a mile from the nearest highway.  She tried again.  “She’s real old and thin.”

            There was a long pause, and then her mother’s voice again:  “Well, give me the phone number.  Just in case.”

            When she said there wasn’t one, her mother said she was a liar.  Rose Ellen only said, “I’ll

call in a week.”

            After she hung up the receiver, Rose Ellen wondered if her mother would have called if there had been a phone at her grandmother’s.  Would she have recognized her voice?  And what could they have to say to one another after all these years?


            How Rose Ellen had convinced her to get out the old Singer Marty wasn’t sure.  She’d made the mistake of telling her grand­daughter she still had a couple boxes of material stored in the bedroom closet.  She had begged her until she couldn’t resist opening those boxes up herself, peeling back the plastic and lifting out the material piece by piece, and still smelling of sizing.  And then when they’d gone to some teen movie in Palmdale, Rose Ellen had made her stop at the Mini Mart to pick up Vogue and Cosmopolitan.

            “Maybe we’ll get some ideas,” she had said.

            Marty hadn’t been so sure that there would be anything she’d want to try patterning off of.  Besides, she’d told her that her wrist would never hold up.  But her granddaughter wanted these pair of pants (“They’d only get you a job in the circus”) and Marty realized the striped silk once meant for a sheath would fall perfectly to elastic cuffs.  And her wrist had yet to start aching.

            Listening to the soft hum of the motor and the steady sound of the needle piercing the cloth made her confident again.  Even the material beneath her fingers felt good, as if that’s where it and they were supposed to be.  Still, there was something hypnot­ic about the sound of the machine and the way the presser foot and feed dog worked together to move the cloth; she almost had nothing to do to keep the seam even.

            Seven had been the magic number with Jed, she was thinking.  Seven years.  There I am again, standing in the backyard.  That godawful Joshua tree threatening to fall even back then.  There I am holding them pieces of paper, thinking D-I-V-O-R-C-E.  Seemed like something worth celebrating.  Didn’t I think about burning those pieces of paper out back?  But it didn’t seem to deserve much attention, now did it, Marty girl?  Yes, it had all happened without much gumption on my part.  Just a lot of waiting, right?  That’s always been my strong suit. . .

            “He’s gone for seven years,” she said to Rose Ellen who was sitting opposite her at the table.  She was still thumbing through the magazines, turning the corners under when she found something she liked.

            “Huh?” she said, looking up.

            “Jed.  Your grandfather.  I guess he was really your step grand­father.  He’s gone seven of the eight years we were mar­ried.  But he’s the reason I started getting the birds.  He bought me one for my birthday.  A macaw that I named Conners.  He’s the one that painted this house yellow.  I’ve kept it that color since.”

            “Mom said you’d been married a dozen times.”

            Marty laughed.  “Not quite that many.  Only six times and twice to the same fellow, your real grandfather.  Glennie’s father.”

            “What was his name?”

            “Frank Dorsey.  Didn’t your mother tell you anything?”

            “Hardly,” said Rose Ellen.

            “Well, I’m not sure why I married him the second time.  Maybe because he was Irish.  He wasn’t any better the second time, though your mother was the result.  Peas,” Marty said when the needle broke running over a straight pin.  “Was that the worst thing Glennie said about me?”

            Rose Ellen didn’t say anything.  That made Marty kind of mad.  It meant she had said much worse.

            “Not really,” said Rose Ellen.  “But that was when she was feeling down.  About herself really.  Or maybe just ticked off at me.”

            “I can’t imagine her feeling down on herself.  She always was hard toward me.  Your mother was.  I suppose she had her reasons.”

            Rose Ellen turned another page.  Marty didn’t think she was paying attention to what was in front of her.

            “Jed went off to get ice cream in Mojave.  I’d wanted him to get some flypaper, too.  He never came back.  Left everything, except for his carpenter’s belt.  Took that with him.”

            “That’s kind of funny,” said Rose Ellen.  “Weren’t you worried though, that he’d been in an accident?  Maybe he’d been mugged, or murdered?”

            “People didn’t get mugged in those days.  I did report it to the sheriff.  It didn’t matter.”  What a liar, she thought.  “Jed took what was important to him.”  She remembered going through his clothing, keeping some work shirts.  Hadn’t they been about the same size?  Earlier, she’d remembered going dancing with him at the resort up at Lake Elizabeth.  “After seven years, I filed for the divorce.”

            Everything can be made so simple when you put it into words like that, Marty thought.  She pressed the sewing machine’s pedal harder with her knee, hoping to drown out anything else.


            Marty was thinking again how fast the four days had gone by, when Caruso screeched from the top of his cage.  His stocky green and yellow body shook with some complaint only he was aware of.  She saw the way Rose Ellen clenched her towel.  God, she must be hating the noisy fellows.  But maybe Caruso was ugly and a little frightening.  Especially now, the way he was cocking his head first one way and then the other and starting to chew with an unholy vengeance on the bars.

            “Hey, You, I can put you back in the cage damn’ quick.  Come on now, keep it down,” she said.  She didn’t have it in her to try soothing Caruso.  Anything she’d do wouldn’t make a lick of difference to him.  She’d learned early on what Caruso’s beak could do to a hand.  He didn’t even like to be petted on the back of his head.  What a useless bird, she thought.  “We have a guest, now don’t we?”

            Rose Ellen had gone back to towel-drying her hair.  The first morning hadn’t she told Marty it was weird not to have a blower?  “I’ve got no big hurry,” she’d told her granddaughter.  But maybe she’d buy her one.

            “The birds never quiet down, do they?” Rose Ellen said.

            “Well, mornings happen to be their time,” Marty said, listening to the squawking chirping coughing singing beeping.  All that sound had comforted her over the years.  Could her granddaughter ever get used to them being around?  She had her doubts.

            Rose Ellen picked at her toast and then brushed a crumb or something else off her new pants.  She was glad to see the girl wearing them.  They looked good on her.  The cloth had just the right rough softness to make a nice swishy sound when she’d walked out of the bathroom after her shower.

            Marty was needing to sit.  As she turned to the cage behind her, she felt the morning stiffness that had settled into her lower back.  She’d given up on chiropractors ages ago.  Nothing they could do about getting old.  She pulled out Trudy, not because she was the closest, but because she loved the cockatiel best of all.  Her feathers so soft and gray, the hint of yellow and red on her face, like perfect makeup.  Like you used to bother with, old girl.

            “I haven’t introduced you to Trudy.  My little friend.”

            The way that Trudy’s topnotch trembled as she bent forward to peck at her wrist, always made Marty’s heart ache strangely, like she was performing some important ritual, but a ritual that could end as easily as so many others--with death.  That’s what made the hurt, she realized now.

            “She’s got the same name as a friend of mine from high school,” she said, smiling at Rose Ellen.  “We’re still friends.  It’s been 46 years.  I write her at Christmas.  She writes back by Easter.  It’s a good system.  Not much happens in a year.  Trudy likes most any kind of music, don’t you, Dear?”

            “She’s pretty cute,” Rose Ellen said, and then took a sip from her coffee.

            That must be cold by now, Marty thought.  “You need that heated up?”

            “No.  I don’t like it hot.  I always burn my mouth.”

            “I used to have a chow that loved his coffee hot and with gobs of cream in it.”  Now, why’d you tell her that?  She doesn’t care about all your stupid animals.

            When Rose Ellen spoke again, she said, “I’m thinking about getting a job in Lancaster or maybe Palmdale.”

            Marty couldn’t look up at Rose Ellen.  She wasn’t sure what kind of face she’d see on the girl or what kind of face she’d give her.  “How would you manage that?”  She kept rubbing Trudy between the eyes.  “How’d you get there?”

            “Well, maybe I could use your car . . . Grandma.”

            Marty recognized the awkwardness in the word and looked at Rose Ellen.  Would “Grandmother,” or something else have sounded any better, she wondered?  She felt a little angry at the tenta­tive tone in her granddaughter’s voice.  Then again, she wasn’t sure she wanted the girl staying with her here.  But then again, it might be nice.  Oh, make up your mind.  You must be getting senile.

            “Yes.  Well, you might ask.”

            Rose Ellen looked down at the open magazine on the table.  “Or I was thinking we could try making clothes and selling them at boutiques?  There must be beaucoup in Palmdale and Lancaster.”

            “What an idea.”  Still, Marty turned it over in her mind.  She thought she might start liking it.  But she had to laugh, not sure she wanted to get used to her granddaughter being under foot.  “Can you see me going in any of those places?”

            “I’d do it,” Rose Ellen said.  “Well, maybe it is crazy.”

            No “Grandma” this time, huh?  “You can call me ‘Marty,’“ she  said.  “I’m more used to that.”  But maybe there would come a time for the other.  Or was she being an old fool again?

            She unlatched the cockatiels’ cage, coaxing Trudy off her finger and onto the wooden dowel.  “There, you go, Trudy darlin’.”  Then, she tapped bird seed into the plastic container, the whole time Trudy swaying and whistling before her miniature mirror.  “Yes, you are a beauty.”  She filled the reservoir with fresh water.  “You, hush now.”

            Rose Ellen went back to eating her toast.  That must be cold by now, too, Marty thought.  But she knows by now where the bread is, and the toaster.  And if she didn’t?  Well, she could learn to ask.

This short story appeared in Descant, 1993.  Wanting to know how these characters got to this place in 1992, I decided to write a novel.  Now the problem: this chapter may change radically based on the original draft and the subsequent "deep" editing I've been doing, intermittently, since the beginning of 2012.

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