Read Delicate Edible Birds Online

Authors: Lauren Groff

Delicate Edible Birds

FOR CLAY

EVERY VILLAGE HAS ITS RHYTHM, AND EVERY
year Templeton's was the same. Summer meant tourists to the baseball museum, the crawl of traffic down Main Street, even a drunken soprano flinging an aria into the night on her stagger back to the Opera. With fall, the tourists thinned out and the families of Phillies Phanatics ceded the town to retired couples with binoculars, there to watch the hills run riot with color.

Come winter, Templeton hunkered into itself. We natives were so grateful for this quiet—when we could hear the sleigh bells at the Farmers' Museum all the way to the Susquehanna—that we almost didn't mind the shops closing up. In winter we believed in our own virtue, lauded ourselves for being the kind of people to renounce the comforts of city life for a tight community and spectacular beauty. We packed on our winter fat and waited for spring, for the lake to melt, for
the cherry blossoms, for the town to burst into its all-American charm, and the rapid crescendo of tourists.

This was our rhythm, at least, until the Lucky Chow Fun girls. That year, the snow didn't melt until mid-May, and the Templeton High School Boys' Swim Team won the State Championships. That year, we natives stopped looking one another in the eye.

 

I WAS SEVENTEEN
that spring and filled with longing, which I tried to sate with the books of myth and folklore that I was devouring by the dozens. I couldn't read enough of the stories, tiny doors that opened only to reveal a place I hadn't known I'd known; stories so old they felt ingrained in my genes. I loved Medea, Isolde, Allerleirauh. I imagined myself as a beautiful Cassandra, wandering vast and lonely halls, spilling prophesies that everyone laughed at, only to watch them come tragically true in the end. This feeling of mutedness, of injustice, was particularly strong in me, though I had no particular prophesies to tell, no clear-sighted warnings. On the nights I stuffed myself with myths, I dreamed of college, of being pumped full of all the old knowledge until I knew everything there was to know, all the past cultures picked clean like delicious roasted chickens.

All March, I skidded home from school as fast as I could in my ratty Honda Civic to look for my college acceptance letters in the mailbox; all of my friends had gotten in early, but because I was being recruited for swimming, I had to
wait for the regular acceptances. All March, there was nothing. By the time my little sister, Petra—Pot—trudged the mile home over the snowdrifts, I would be sitting at the kitchen table, having eaten an entire box of cereal plus a bowl of ice cream, feeling sick.

“Oh, God, Lollie,” she'd say, dumping her backpack. “Nothing?”

“Nope,” I'd say. “Nothing.”

And she'd sigh and sit across from me. Her days were also hard, as she was too weird for the other fourth graders, too plump, too spastic. She never once had a sleepover or even a best friend. But instead of complaining, Pot would try to cheer me up by mimicking the new birdsongs she'd learned that day.
“Drop-it, drop-it, cover-it-up, cover-it-up, pull-it-up, pull-it-up,”
she'd sing, then say, “Brown Thrasher,” her dumpling face suddenly luminous. That year, Pot was on a strange ornithological kick, as if her entire pudgy being were stuffed with feathers. She fell asleep to tapes of tweets and whistles and had a growing collection of taxidermied birds scattered around her bedroom. I had no idea where she had gotten them, but was too moony with my own troubles to ask. I avoided her room as much as possible, because she had one particular gyrfalcon perched on her dresser that seemed malicious, if not downright evil, ready to scratch at your jugular if you were to saunter innocently by.

Those melancholy afternoons, Pot would chirp away until my mother came home from her own bad day at the high school in Van Hornesville, where she taught biology. No—
my mother never came in, she blew in like the dust devil of a woman she was, stomping the snow off her boots, sending great clouds of snow from her shoulders. “Oh, God, Lollie, nothing?” she would say, releasing her springy gray hair from her cap.

“Nothing,” Pot would trill, then leap up to rejoin her stiff little aviary upstairs.

My mother would look at the wreckage of my snack, frown, and hug me. “Elizabeth,” she'd say, and I could hear the vibration of her words in her chest, feel the press of each individual bone of her rib cage. “Don't you worry. It will all work out in the end. You're no Podunk idiot like the kids I teach—”

“Spare me,” I'd interrupt, and give her a kiss on the chin. Then I'd stand, late for swim practice, and leave my nervous little mother to peep out the window at me as I pulled away. That spring she was dating The Garbageman, and when I came home I may have seen her before going to bed, or I may not have seen her until morning, singing during her preparations for school.

 

THERE ARE HUNDREDS OF VERSIONS
of the Cinderella story throughout the world: Serbian Pepelyouga, Norwegian Kari Trestakk, Chinese Yeh-hsien, German Aschenputtel, French Cendrillon. What most of the stories have in common is both a good, absent mother and an evil, present one. Fairy tales are not like real life in all its beautiful ambiguity.
There are no semigood semiabsent mothers. Or, for that matter, semipresent very good ones.

 

THAT WINTER, IT WAS ONLY IN THE POOL,
feeling the thrust and slide of my body through the water, that I felt good. Only then could I escape the niggling terror of what would happen to my mother and sister when I left them, their sad dinners, my sister talking only of birds, my mother talking only of the crap day she had at school, neither heard by the other, neither listening.

I was the captain and the only girl on the Varsity boys' swim team that year, though not much of a leader. During the long bus rides, I only giggled nervously at the boys' boasts about boning chicks I knew they never touched. I wasn't chosen as a captain because I was a leader, but rather because of my teammates' small-town gallantry and my minor celebrity as an oddity in the papers. I was the fastest butterflier around and could beat everyone, boy or girl, in the region, save for one lightning-swift boy from Glens Falls. The papers all the way to Albany couldn't stop chortling over this fact. They ran photos of me every week, careful to take only my fairly pretty face and leave my—let's face it—overweight body on the cutting room floor. I was very heavy. “Rubenesque,” my mother called it, but the boys were clearly no aesthetes because they never looked directly at me, not even when I was on the block, waiting for the start. I was no pushover, though. If a boy made fun of the way I bulged in
my bathing suit, calling me Moby Dickless, for instance, that boy would find himself stunned on the pool bottom, having been swum over by my own impersonation of a great white whale.

One Friday night in March, after an exceptionally hard relay practice, Tim Summerton leaned over the gutter when I came trundling in from the last race. He was no looker, all wonky-eyed and stippled with pimples, but he had a heart so kind he never went without a date to any school dance. He spat a stream of warm water into my face; I ducked and spat back at him, laughing. Then he grinned.

“Hey,” he said. “The divers and I are going to the Lucky Chow Fun. Want to come?”

I looked at the little clump of divers snapping one another with towels. Those three boys were the exhibitionists of the team, with, truly, a little more to look at in their picklesuits than the swimmers had. I would know: I could see underwater remarkably well. “Oooh, Fun, Fun,” the divers were saying in a vaguely ethnic impression. “We have fun fun at Fun Fun.” They were not the smartest boys, our divers, but I suppose anybody who tries to shave his neck with the end of a diving board must be a little lacking in brainpower.

“Yeah,” I said. “Sure.”

“Great. Meet you there,” he said, tapping my swim-capped head with a pull buoy. I was overwhelmed with the desire to grab his hand, clutch it to me, cover it in kisses,
laugh like a madwoman. Instead I smiled then went back under the water, holding my breath until I could hold it no longer, then sent it up in a great silvery jellyfish-bubble of air. When I came up, Tim had gone.

That night, I showered with special care, washed the chlorine off my body, lotioned, powdered. And when I walked out into the cold night, all the gym's lights went out behind me and the last employee locked the door behind my back. I left my hat off to let my hair freeze into the thin little snakes I liked to crunch in my fingers, and thought of moo goo gai pan.

It was a Friday night, but there was a basketball game at the high school, so the town was very still as I drove though it. Only the Ambassador's mansion gave a sign of life, every window burning gold. The Ambassador was our local hero, a former ambassador to France and Guyana, and once-upon-a-time my father's great friend, and I always felt a wash of fondness for him when I passed his fine fieldstone mansion on the river. He was an erect, gray man of eighty years old with thin, bluish fingers and canny eyes. He had, they said, a huge collection of rare goods from all over the world: a room entirely devoted to masks, one for crystal bowls, one for vases, even one for his miniature schnauzer, with paintings done by great artists of the snarly little beast. Nobody knew for sure, though, because when we were invited, we saw only the ground floor. In any case, my family hadn't been invited since we lost my father.

Now, on Main Street, only a few shopwindows had left
their lights on, casting an oily shine on the baseball bats in the souvenir shops, making the artificial flowers in the General Store glow. The Red Dragoon Saloon was open and there were three Harleys in the sludge on Pioneer Street, but still I was able to park right in front of Lucky Chow Fun, behind Tim Summerton's Volvo.

The restaurant was newish, maybe two years old, and the town's first tentative step toward ethnic food, unless one counted Gino's Pizzeria and the Mennonite bakery on Main Street. It was a cheap linoleum joint, with an ugly, hand-drawn sign flapping in the wind off the lake, lit from above by a red light. It served a lot of sticky Americanized Chinese food, like General Tso's chicken and fried rice, and I loved it all, the fat and salt, the scandalous feeling of eating fast food in a hamlet that banned all fast-food places, the miniature mythmaking of the fortune cookies.

That night, when I stepped out of the car and around to the sidewalk, I almost knocked into a small, shivering figure in an overlarge tee-shirt, sweeping the new powder of snow from the walk. “Sorry,” I mumbled, and stepped away, not really looking at the girl I had nearly trampled, gathering only a vague impression of crooked teeth and a jagged haircut. She was just one of the girls who worked at the Lucky Chow Fun, one of the wives or daughters of the owners. Nobody in Templeton cared to figure out who the girls were, just as nobody figured out who the two men who ran the place were, calling them only Chen One and Chen Two, or Chen Glasses and Chen Fat. Only later did we realize that no
part of their names remotely resembled Chen, nor did the girls resemble the men in any way, either.

I feel the necessity of explaining our hard-heartedness, but I cannot. Templeton has always had a callousness about outsiders, having seen so many come through town, wreak destruction on our lake, trash the ancient baseball stadium, Cartwright Field, litter our streets, and move off. This wariness extended even to those who lived with us; anyone who wasn't related to everyone else was suspect. Newcomers were people who had lived in town for only fifteen years. The one black family who lived in Templeton during my childhood promptly pulled up roots and moved away after a year, and, to my knowledge, there were only three Jewish children in school. The only Asians were preternaturally cheery and popular, adopted kids of the wealthiest of the doctors' families in town. This was a town that clung ferociously to the shameful high school mascot of the Redskins, though if we were any skins, we should have been the Whiteskins. I was born and raised in this attitude. That night, without a second thought, I stepped around the girl and into the fatty brightness of the restaurant, past old Chen Glasses, snoozing over his Chinese newspaper at the door.

The restaurant was nearly empty, the long kitchen in the back sending out a fine oily sizzle, girls like ghosts in white uniforms chopping things, frying things, talking quietly to one another. The back-lit photos above the register struck me so powerfully with their water chestnuts and lovingly fried bits of meat that I didn't at first see the divers, who were pre
tending to be walruses, chopsticks in their mouths like tusks. When they saw me, they took the chopsticks out so fast that it was clear who they were imitating. I was not unused to this. In fourth grade, the Garrett twins had named their science project, a miniature zeppelin,
The Lollie
. That night, I did what I always did, stifled the pang, pretended to smile.

“Very funny, boys,” I said. “Have you ordered?”

“Yeah,” said Brad Huxley. He was in my grade and blessed with a set of eyelashes that made every girl in school envious. He gave me a dimpled smile and said, “We each ordered our own. These two freaks don't like sharing,” nodding at the others. It was his sorrow in life that he was not endowed with hand-eye coordination; otherwise he would have been on the basketball court that evening with the cool kids. He overcompensated in the diving pool, and in a few weeks, at States, would come so close to the board on his reverse back pike that he flayed a strip of skin from his neck to mid-back and got a perfect score for that dive.

I was standing at the front, deciding what to order from solemn and scornful old Chen Fat, with his filthy apron, when Tim Summerton came from the back where the bathrooms were. His face was drawn and pale, and he looked half-excited, half-horrified. He didn't seem to see me, as he walked past me without a glance. He sat down at the table with the others and began to hiss at them something I couldn't quite make out.

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