Bag LadyFiction — By Susie Finkbeiner on July 21, 2012 at 7:00 am
The woman pulled the red stocking hat down over her ears. The wind whipping through the alley singed her skin with cold. She held the collar of her coat under her chin. Wished she had a scarf.
“It’s worth the cold,” she thought out loud. “What’s in the food box is worth anything.”
She followed the smells of the restaurant. Frying potatoes and roasting meat. Fresh bread baking. No matter how cold that alley was, the smells of food made her feel warm. But the food she would have wasn’t warm. It would have cooled from sitting overnight after the dinner crowd had left. Dumped in the morning by the lunch cooks.
“What treasures today?” she asked herself. “A little fried chicken, maybe. Or a slab of beef. I hope for some green beans. That would make me happy.”
She flashed a memory. Her mother, putting out dishes on the table. The crisp, starched, white table cloth. The one with embroidery along the edges. Small flowers of blue and yellow. She would finger the lines of fabric that ran through the linen. Smell the food. Hear the clink of silver on china. The sun always seemed to shine through the windows.
“No rainy days,” she said, remembering. “Always good weather. Always smiling faces.”
Then another memory flashed. Her mother, pushing her down the cellar steps. Screaming. It was so, so dark down there. The rats’ claws made scratching sounds on the wooden stairs.
Which was true? Which memory?
“Fried chicken and mashed potatoes. We’d eat that every day,” she said, walking down the alley.
The dumpster behind the diner was shut. She had to flip the lid up. It clanged against the concrete wall.
She flinched. Hid for a second. The manager of the restaurant didn’t like her going through the dumpster. He would yell and try to chase her away with his spatula in hand. He was nothing more than a noisy dog. He didn’t scare her.
“If he wants me to stay outta the food, he’d better just bring me out a sandwich,” she said, glowering at the back of the restaurant.
Not seeing or hearing the manager, she reached into the big, metal bin. That day her hands felt something different.
“Oh, oh, oh,” she said, fingering the soft blanket, her armpits resting on the edge of the dumpster. “No, no, no.”
She could swear that something under the blanket was moving. Wiggling.
Then she heard the cry. Her brain snapped backwards, into a memory.
Out in the field with her big brother. Him with a sling shot. Shooting at the rabbits. He wasn’t a good shot. Either that or he was cruel. He hit most of them in the side or on the back. They would keep running, scared and hurt, screaming just like a baby.
“God,” she whispered to the blanket. “Them rabbits cried. Just like a baby.”
Lifting the soft, filth covered blanket, she saw it. The flesh of the thing was so yellow. Touching the skin, it was so warm. Hot, even.
“Who would’da did this?” She looked all around her. No one was there. “Who would’a?”
Breathless, she picked up the small creature. It changed. Purple. Blue. Green. Like a vision sweeping and swirling in front of her eyes. In her hands.
“No. That’s not real,” she said, shaking her head. “What is real?”
The dumpster. The hard, cold concrete. The stink of the alley. All real.
Was she real? No telling. The baby? Was it even a baby? Or some lump of leftover ham that went bad in the restaurant fridge. She could never be sure.
Just in case, she carried the bundle, still crying like a rabbit, to the streets. She shushed the sounds. Told it that everything would be okay. That they would find help. Cooing and muttering. The cry didn’t stop, though.
A man walked by. Full suit. He talked on a phone. Walked with a purpose.
“Hey, mister!” she yelled out to him. “Mister, I need your help.”
He turned his head. “Can’t walk out here without some bum wanting a buck,” he said into the phone.
“Can you tell me if this is real?” she asked him. “I found something in the dumpster.”
He shook his head. “Listen, I’ll call you back.”
She walked toward him. The sound was a wail.
“I just need you to tell me if this is real,” she said, holding it out toward him.
He looked at what she held. Laughed at her. Pulled a dollar from his pocket and gave it to her. Walked away.
She chased after him. Calling out to him. But then he turned into a monster. Hairy and growing with each step he took. He turned to her and growled.
“That’s not real,” she whispered to the blanket in her arms. “What is real?”
The blue sky. The stinging cold. The cars driving past.
The face of the baby in her arms. The quieting of the cries. The tiny splashes of rain she felt on her nose.
She sat up in the top branches of a tree. Hiding. She didn’t know who she hid from. Her mother? Brother? Father? Herself? How could she hide from herself? The rain started to fall. But it never rained. It was always sunny. She changed it in her mind. The rain stopped. The sun beamed.
What was real?
Was it the sun or the rain or both?
“Just tell me the truth for once,” she said. “Stop lying.”
Someone walked past her, staring.
“Was it rain or sun?” she asked the passerby. “Do you know?”
The person walked faster.
“Can you tell me if this is real?” She held out the bundle. “Someone tell me if this is real!”
The crying started anew. She touched the bundle. The skin had turned cold. Rubbery.
Flash. Memory. She stopped with the thoughts.
Pouring down rain. Up in the tree. Her mother screaming inside the house. Crashing china plates against the kitchen wall. The linen tablecloth covered with stains. Covered with mashed potatoes and chicken grease.
A crying rabbit in the field. Her brother killing it. Or was he gone by then? Wasn’t he gone on the day of the smashing plates? Yes. He and Father were gone.
Father and son both gone away never to return again.
The words chanted through her brain. Like a prayer. Up in the tree. Never to return again.
The rabbits were crying in the field. But she heard the screams still. The wails. The terrible horror of something in pain. In fear.
She felt the rain, held the bundle closer.
“No more memories,” she said. “Tell me no more. Never to return again. Amen.”
The thing in her arms shrieked. Louder. Higher. More frantic. She neared a bench. Near a bus stop. Sitting, she patted the bundle. Caressed it.
“Look at her,” a teen boy said, pointing. “Whatcha think she’s on?”
“Probably drunk,” his companion said.
They stood feet from her.
“Where you think she got that?” one asked.
“Don’t know. Don’t really wanna know,” answered the other.
“Hey, lady,” the first one said. “Hey. Where’d ya get that thing?”
She turned. “I found it.”
“In a dumpster.” She looked at the boy. She wanted him to look like her brother. But he didn’t. Not even a little. “Can you tell me. Is this real?”
His friend nudged him. Laughing. But the one boy. He didn’t laugh. He took a half step toward her. Looked at the bundle. She thought his eyes looked kind. Not like her brother. Not even a tiny bit.
Never to return again.
The boy cocked his head. Looked at her face.
“Is it real?” she asked again. “I can’t tell.”
His eyes changed color. Over and over again. A bird landed on his shoulder. Was she that bird?
What was real?
She didn’t know.
“Is it real?” she asked one last time.
“Well,” he said. “What do you think?”
“I don’t know.”
“It’s a chicken. Like the kind you buy in the store.” He looked at his feet. “It’s a real chicken. But it’s real dirty. You should throw it away before it makes you sick.”
She looked from the boy to the bundle. Bumpy skin. A hole where the head would have been. Did it smell? She couldn’t smell it.
“But it was crying,” she said. “Just like a baby. Like a scared rabbit.”
“Let’s get outta here,” his friend said. “She’s just a crazy old lady.”
“Just a sec,” the boy said. He looked back at her.
“It’s been crying and screaming.”
“Was it crying just now? Before we started talking?”
“Yes. It was terrible.”
He kicked a piece of loose concrete. “It wasn’t crying.”
“You didn’t hear it?”
“Well, that chicken wasn’t crying.”
“Then what was that sound? What is real? I can’t tell.”
The boy. His hair short as a fresh mowed lawn. The way he talked so kindly. Those things were real.
“It was you.” He looked away, embarrassed. “You were crying.”
“Yes. That was real.”
The tree. Breaking plates. Father and son both gone away. The pouring down rain.
And her. Up in the tree. Screaming like a rabbit. Like a little baby.
That was real.