Barbara Litkowski

Posted on July 29, 2011

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Juncos and All That Jazz

“I’m going to get rid of this wretched Cotoneaster if it’s the last thing I do,” Valerie announced, raising a pansy-patterned fist in the air.

It was the last thing she had done. The paramedics, when they arrived, had been forced to pry her gardening-gloved fingers from the shovel’s wooden handle. Acute myocardial infarction, they said.

Forty years of marriage gone just like that, Jack thought. Who except Valerie would remember he didn’t like cinnamon? Or care?

After the graveside service, Jack went home, stripped off his clothes, unplugged the phone. In the weeks that followed, he stopped flossing his teeth, going to church, eating green vegetables. His vital organs: lungs, heart, brain, bowels slowed down, while the horny yellow nails on his toes grew unchecked. During the day, he took long naps, stumbling into the bedroom, kicking off his moccasins, plunging into the welter of unwashed sheets. Was there such a thing as death by dust mites? He hoped so. Nights, he lay awake, wanting to die.

He felt, rather than heard, the UPS truck on the driveway.

A white, oblong package with dime-sized holes at regular intervals was waiting for him on the porch. The return address said Holland, Michigan. He sensed Valerie’s dead hand at work. She must have ordered something from a catalogue. Bulb companies were cagey that way, selling on dreams, at the peak of someone else’s bloom.

Inside the box were several mesh bags bursting with copper-skinned bulbs. Each bag labeled: Candy Kisses, Pink Fire, Tropical Punch, All That Jazz, Moulin Rouge. It had been so long since he used his voice, it sounded rusty when he bent over the box and whispered, “What do you say, ladies? Wanna boogie?”

In the backyard, he dug a deep hole, pressed the bulbs into it, willy-nilly. It didn’t really matter to him what color went where. Color was color. The only problem was that by the time he had replaced the soil, the hole had reversed into a hillock. Might as well advertise. “All you can eat. Free Wi-Fi.”

There was nothing for it but to tamp down the offending mound. Inexplicably, this simple motion brought a sense of release, as if something old and sour were flowing out of his body through the sole of his shoe. Press, release, press, press, release. It was a little like dancing. He closed his eyes and let the motion take him. Tamp, step, step, tamp. The breeze smelled sharply of brush piles, dry leaves, bitter walnut hulls, life passing away. The October sun shone cool on his face. When the dance ended, Jack went back to bed, pulled the covers over his head. Slept. Slept through the falling leaves and Christmas carolers, slept through endless gray days of snow and juncos, slept until one day he awoke, staggered outside, and spotted Valerie’s sharp green fingernails clawing their way out of the cold earth.

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Barbara Litkowski is a graduate student in Butler University’s MFA program in creative writing and a former recipient of an Individual Artists Project Grant awarded by the Indiana Arts Commission/NEA.

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