Still wearing jail slippers and the clothes she’d slept in, Nancy Jackson took a seat in front of a huge mahogany desk. Behind it was a narrow window clouded with industrial waste. Between the desk and the window sat a thirty-something gentleman in a striped shirt and paisley tie whose short cropped hair sported intentional cowlicks.
“Hi, Mrs. Jackson, I’m Dr. David Sorensen, the case worker assigned to you. Can I get you anything? A cup of coffee? Bottle of water?”
Oh, God, does it have to be another shrink?
The first one—there had been many—was intent on the accident; the second one dwelled on her depression; the third tried anger management; the fourth sent her to A.A. meetings. Her psychiatrist prescribed medication that Nancy sold them, turning her profit to cigarettes and vodka. Then there was that female shrink in the thick-rimmed glasses who insisted that prostitution was not an answer but a “manifestation.”
“I work for the probation department’s Advisory Board and my job is to gather information for what is called a risk assessment. I’ve been told that you have refused to speak to the judge, your attorney, the attendants, anyone. Is that true?”
The question lingered in the air like an imaginary puff of smoke that might conceivably crown her Queen for a Day if only she’d accept the oblation.
Shoplifting and slapping a police officer was no big deal; possession of an illegal substance was no big deal; having an extended history of big deals in her personal résumé of big deals was also no big deal. Nancy was done with rebuffs and mental gymnastics. She’d suffered enough the emotional details of losing loved ones in a fiery crash, of relating the persistent emptiness, the physical dynamics of sex for hire and drug-induced raptures. No more would she rationalize a life lived on the thorny edge of existence. It just didn’t matter anymore.
He thumbed through her file, lifting its bulk ever so slightly. “You’ve had a hard life; we understand that. What I hope to find out is how motivated you are to seek a better life for yourself, to stay clean and out of jail.”
She stiffened her spine, making every inch of it as straight as a dancer’s pole, fixing her eyes intently on Dr. David Sorensen, drawing her brow slightly inward toward the base of her nose, all muscles set like an Olympic runner.
“First of all, may I call you Nancy?”
She studied his fingernails, the picture on his desk, his tie, loosened just below the Adam’s apple—the indication of a glass half-empty—and the ring on his finger.
“Okay, Nancy, do you have any concerns of your own, any questions I can answer? Anything at all before we begin?”
She checked out his dental work. Where’d you get those pearly whites, Doc? Must have cost your mama a fortune.
The good doctor fluttered through her file as if it were a hoagie he couldn’t wait to dive into.
“You’re a survivor, Nancy, and I understand that you are tired of people like me, but your cooperation will not only help the process, it is expected.”
She guessed a bottle of whiskey lay hidden in the bottom right hand drawer.
“I see that you were born and raised in Nebraska.”
Ah, yes, here it comes, my wonderful childhood. Why do you people persist so? Why don’t you get your head out of your books and files and look into the world that brought me here? It’s more interesting and by far more insane.
In my day truth was delivered on a platter of red, white, and blue and served up at the Pascal Meal every Sunday morning. Mine was a world of closet disciplines. As long as we all kept the law, the law kept us all in a pair of rose-colored glasses. My parents meticulously groomed me to become a perfect status symbol of the survivors of WWII and the Great Depression. I wonder if my file says that. Does it, Doc? Does it emphasize the word “perfect”?
“What was it like, growing up on a farm, Nancy? I’m a city boy, myself.”
I grew up with parasitic sheep and chicken shit. Once a brown egg always a brown egg; that’s what I learned being six years old, doing women’s work on the farm, me and Mama and her laying hens. I learned that white eggs are not brown eggs turned pale from getting old; they’re just white eggs. Everybody knows brown eggs are better.
Nancy was beginning to like her newfound silence. Like the visually impaired who develop an acuity of auditory senses, Nancy discovered a whole new world within the silent haven she had created for herself—clear as church bells on a Sunday morning, better than marijuana, cheaper than cocaine.
Mama didn’t get rich selling eggs. She pocketed the money so she could buy millet for her brood. They gave; she took; she gave back. No one questioned the rationale of anything in those days.
It was Nasty Rooster did the squawking for us. I hated that bird. I asked Mama once why we don’t get rid of him. She said he was good for the hens. Mama knew everything there was to know about hens.
“You didn’t list anyone for a contact. Do you have a friend, a relative, anyone we can call for you?”
Varmints come in all colors; that’s what Papa always said. He hadn’t heard of a red fox in our area in a good many years, but that’s what it was, the varmint that got into the chicken coop. It always left a sorry mess of broken brown eggs, feathers, and desecrated nests, like the bed of someone who just woke up from a very bad dream. It didn’t matter that there were fewer eggs to gather that day, Mama said. The chickens did their job and so they would get their reward. While I scattered their feed, Mama and her hens went about like nothing happened. It didn’t feel like nothing happened, and I always thought someone should demand justification for Nasty Rooster’s hens. What about you, Mr. Collector of Information? Do you dare demand it for him?
“Nancy. Are you listening?”
Papa always said youth was wasted on the young. You weren’t even dry behind the ears yet when women were burning their bras and men were burning their flags, when the righteous burned churches and justifiers bombed abortion clinics, when hypocrites dangled men to their miserable deaths. Does that piece of paper tell you where I was when the world churned with anger and enthusiasm and want for change? I was in church, on my knees, praying and confessing sins I hadn’t committed, doing penance for sins committed by heart-less people. I was taught to fear the things they were taught to fear. I was fed answers to questions I never asked, questions and answers mapped out in black and white like a script for the dummy and his ventriloquist. Guide the head, guide the jaw, and the heart will follow. So go ahead and ask, Mr. Healer-of-the-Depressed-Populace. Ask so we all can dance to the string of life.
“And you went back to school to get a nursing degree in 1984. It takes courage to start over like that. Do you keep your license updated?”
People assume too much about uniforms. No one ever bothers to ask me if I wanted to become a nurse in the first place, or whether I liked the job when I got it. I did it for the money, and then for the drugs. Otherwise I might have joined the Peace Corps, the Peace Boat, hell, any Peace would have done; but where was I going to find peace in the middle of hell? Besides, there were bills to pay and varmints to stave off.
“Your history of drug and alcohol abuse is quite extensive. Do you still attend A.A. meetings?”
Wouldn’t he be proud?
“And you were arrested for solicitation back in…”
You ignorant piece of shit. You guys just don’t get it, do you? Does that piece of paper mention my passion for the dance, or my fondness for daylilies? Does it state my desire to join a monastery and live a cloistered life, but that I chose marriage instead so I could live among angels? Does it tell how many well-balanced meals I fed my family, or how many rules I had to enforce to keep them safely tucked beneath my broken wings? Does it mention all the safety nets laid beneath my feet, or how quickly they broke beneath the weight of all that perfection? I sacrificed my life’s blood like any soldier on any foreign soil who thought he understood his cause and hoped never to discover, on some later date, that he didn’t. I did my tour of duty; I fought the good fight, but I lost the war to some sick bastard who had neither a cause nor a conscience.
“We have a place for you at Serenity House for the duration of our assessment. You’ll have your own room. The women there plan and cook their own meals and a bus route runs by this building every day. You have the freedom to resume all daily activities but please understand, Nancy, that Serenity House is a safe house for women in need and is provided for you by the county. The court wouldn’t look kindly on an abuse of its services. Also, keeping your scheduled appointments with me is a non-negotiable part of the agreement.
He looks at me like I am an insect. What about you, Doc? Are you a survivor, too? Does it make you feel more normal sitting next to the likes of me? Why don’t all of you do-gooders just go away and leave me alone? Do it. Get up and bolt out of here like the phonies you pretend not to be. When was the last time any of you were truly original? You and your kind are all rotting in your own textbooks for the lack of an original thought.
“According to the police report you were caught shoplifting a floor mop. A floor mop, Nancy? Why would anyone steal a floor mop? It’s not like you could hide it in your pocket and sneak out unnoticed. You slapped the police officer, and I quote, ‘without provocation.’”
Suppose I had never been born. Suppose I had never passed through that narrow tunnel of life. I wonder what that would feel like, me a fifty-year-old unborn infant still floating around in my mother’s womb. What would I know? What would I dream about? Incubation for a chicken is just long enough, but for us humans, maybe requires more.
Not all varmints have tails attached to them. Our fox didn’t have a tail. Mama said it probably got caught in a trap one day and that he chewed it right off so he could get free. That sounded like an impossible thing to me. We jumped up and down and squawked like we were nasty roosters. He ran away, but Mama said he’s got the taste for brown eggs now and he’d be back. The next night we took our place behind the barn and waited. Sure enough, there he was. We loaded up with rocks; Mama got him a good one, right in the hiney. I cheered like it was the World Series, but Mama frowned and said she didn’t think she hurt him enough.
I thought about that for a long time. I’d never known Mama to be of the hurtful persuasion.
Doc tossed her file aside carelessly and leaned back in his chair, hands locked behind his head. “You know what I think, Nancy? I think this whole thing was a big ruse—stealing a floor mop. Really, Nancy? I think you are a deeply scarred and lonely woman, angry at the world and hopelessly lost in it. You lost control of your own life so you’ve chosen to manipulate ours instead. Is that it?
“I’ve been reading about your accident,” he continued.
She rubbed an invisible spot from the hem of her blouse between her thumb and forefinger.
“I can’t even imagine the kind of horror you went through, but since you won’t talk to me, I’m going to have to make some assumptions about you. I’m going to assume that you saw your family perish in that fire. I’m going to assume that you had nightmares long after the fact, and maybe still do today.”
Nightmares? They’re nothing, nothing at all I tell you. You simply pickle them in the right amount of gin and tonic and they’ll solidify like boiled eggs and forevermore float around in their own juice till they turn into harmless, rubbery rot. I have thousands of them curing on my shelves. It’s the memories that don’t go away.
Ozzie and Harriet never had to pickle their dreams. They never had any. They had the Roadrunner and Wiley Coyote do their dreaming for them; got himself blown up every Saturday as bounty for the Acme Fail-Safe Revolution.
“I’m going to assume that you’ve been angry; angry at God, angry at the other driver—drunk driver, wasn’t it?”
Speed and those little red devils don’t pickle nightmares; they produce reality. Wake up to a sleazy punk in a bed full of the pox. Now that’s the kind of reality you don’t learn about in textbooks. What about you, Doc? Ever wake up to a whore you couldn’t refuse? Ever choke on your own vomit? Ever have your stomach pumped so you could go out and love some more? Now there is a worthy question.
“We want to help you. Try to place just a little trust in the system…”
I trusted God once. I trusted my peers. I trusted the authorities. I trusted my teachers, my dolls, my skate key. Hell, I even trusted myself once.
While Nancy focused on an imaginary speck on the wall, Doc poked a little harder. He spoke with the clear and deliberate tone of authority, drawing a definitive line of demarcation between patient and doctor. “Did you hear me? I asked if you ever think about taking your own life?”
Suicide? How about this? I’ll show you my evil twin when you show me yours. Do you think I like sitting here like a specimen in a test tube waiting to be dissected for your livelihood? Of course I think about suicide. Anyone in her right mind thinks about suicide at one time or another. You wouldn’t know anything about that, now would you, Mr. Half-Full, Half-Empty? You don’t look like the kind of man who prays for non-existence, to be erased completely from your past by way of your present so that your future holds no memory of you. So much for suicide; so much for insects beneath your feet.
Three nights in a row, me and Mama hid behind the barn. Three nights in a row we threw rocks at a fox without a tail. On the fourth day, Nasty Rooster didn’t chase me to the school bus anymore because he was all bloodied up on the edge of the cornfield. I couldn’t think about anything else that whole day. I knew Mama was taking care of him. She would use her ax like she did with her dressing hens. I know because I watched one day when I wasn’t supposed to. Chickens don’t die with their heads cut off; they flop around a while like they can’t believe what just happened. Chickens don’t know nothing about betrayal and appetites and such. Even though we never got another rooster, Mama’s hens kept right on laying brown eggs.
Papa finally went out and took care of the varmint for us. That was a sad day for me. Even without a tail I thought he was a beautiful creature. I remember asking Mama if animals go to heaven. Yes, child, she said, even varmints go to heaven.
That night I asked God to keep an eye on Nasty Rooster—you know, just in case.
Papa nailed the varmint’s hide to the side of the chicken coop, splayed out like some silly scarecrow. Even Mama didn’t like it. Said it was a humiliating display of the poor creature and it didn’t scare nobody anyways.
“Tell me about your family.”
I was all bloodied up on the edge of the road, busted, paralyzed with pain. My husband dead, slumped over the steering wheel; my precious babies’ noses pressed to the window, looking out at me. Mommy, Mommy, Timmy called. I can still hear him. “Mommy, Mommy!” And see the terror on my Jenny’s face.
It was like I was participating in a still-life nightmare. I couldn’t wake up. I couldn’t go back to sleep. Fire. Flames licking at them from under the seat. “Mommy, Mommy!” I chewed through every fabric of my being, gnawed away at my pain with every cog of my existence, but there’s not so much as a phantom limb to sacrifice to the terminal living.
A single tear drained down her cheek.
“It’s memories you want, Doc. Why didn’t you say so. I got memories.”
There was no mistake in her voice. It was harsh, grated, and emotional as she spit her words out with deliberate accuracy.
“Let me tell you the last memory I have of my children. It is of Them watching Me watching Them burn to death—and Me unable to prevent it. Oddly enough, the last memory my children have of their mother is the same one: Them watching Me watching Them die an unspeakable death—and doing nothing to prevent it.
“I’m really sorry for you, Nancy.”
“Oh, no! No you don’t! You don’t get to be sorry. You only get to sit there and listen. You asked for this, and I’m going to fill your glass so full it oozes clear down into your socks.”
“Now, here’s another memory. Pay close attention, Doc, because this is the best one yet. You know that bastard who slammed into us that night? Guess where he was just before he put his drunken ass behind the wheel of his car? At Hooters! Now ain’t that a hoot? And the report said he died ‘on impact.’ On impact! Do you realize what that means? It means that his last memory was being at Hooters fucking himself with a bottle of Tequila.”
Doc added a bit of his own silence to his end of her memories.
“Do you know what sin is, Doc?”
She glared at him.
“Sin is the intentional act of wrongdoing. Intentional! So that drunken bastard, even though he killed my entire family, as well as himself, is innocent of any wrongdoing. Even drunk driving in those days wasn’t but a misdemeanor. The fuck didn’t even have the decency to live a few painful minutes to obtain a single memory of killing my family. He didn’t have the decency to remember how it felt to have his steering wheel crush his chest, or the motor shattering his kneecaps, or his muddled brain splatter inside his skull. Luckiest bastard in the world, he was. No sin. No bad memories. No celestial judgment.
She stopped to take a deep cleansing breath.
“So how’s that for memories, Doc? Tell me. Was it good for you, too?”
She watched him swallow his Adam’s apple and loosen his tie even further as he fell to silence and began to thumb erratically through her chart. Finding what he was looking for he said, “Five years ago some new information came in about your drunken bastard. Were you aware of it?”
Nancy wasn’t sure she heard what he said.
“It seems that his DNA was implicated in the killing of an innocent bystander during a crossfire between Dade County police and the local drug cartel. He was not then arrested, but evidence is pretty conclusive that he was involved in that murder. What do you think of your innocent bastard now?”
“Don’t fuck with me, Doc.”
“A young man crossing the street was struck in the lung with a bullet—his bullet. Not a cop’s bullet but one from the gun of a drug cartel dealer. He was a thug, Nancy. It’s all here. Do you want to read it?”
Nancy grabbed her chart and read the words. She ran her thumb over the paper. The ink did not rub off. She read every bit of the three-page report, knowing nothing of its contents, caring little for any of it except for the one word that jumped off the page and onto her lapel like a yellow sticky-note flag—“premeditated murder.”
Mama’s hens finally stopped laying eggs so she dressed and sold the last of them. Papa decided to build himself a tool shed so he tore down the coop, plank by plank, and set it ablaze. Darn varmint clung to his ashes clear to the very last spark.
She sat down again exhausted, the flag still waving in a far distance, and offered up one more memory.
“My Jenny was special you know. She never talked. Not a single word her whole life. She wasn’t like other little girls. She wasn’t retarded. I never believed that about her. Today they would have called her autistic. Like a fucking elephant had been sitting on her chest since the day she was born.
“Got a cigarette, Doc?”
“Sorry, no smoking.”
Fucking control freak.
She inhaled deeply and continued.
“That day, in the car, I saw her at that window, eyes wide with fear. She wanted to call out to me like her brother did, but she couldn’t. She just couldn’t do it. But I heard her voice for the first time in my heart. She called out to me, “Mommy.” All these years I imagined the sound of that voice in heaven. Maybe sitting under an eternal shade tree as we speak, playing cards with that bastard, giggling and saying things like, “Go Fish,” and all the time wondering why Mommy don’t come join them.”
On the bench, waiting for the bus to arrive, Nancy lit a cigarette, slowly letting the smoke escape through her nostrils. Two more puffs held deeply in her lungs brought back her equilibrium while a monarch butterfly fluttered past and near to the ground, close to her feet. Nancy held perfectly still, watching it, letting the cigarette simmer slowly between her fingers.
A song sparrow had also been watching the winged beauty from a perch in the tree just above. It came down in one fell swoop and snatched it in its beak then hopped a few feet away with its mouth full of fluttering wings. When the bus arrived, the bird flew off, leaving the monarch badly injured on the sidewalk.
Nancy turned to look up at the third story window of the Municipal Court Building where David Sorensen and his loosed tie occupied a space.
“Hey, lady, you in or out?” the driver called.
One more puff and quick exhalation before she tossed the burning ember off to the side.
“I’m in,” she called back.
Climbing onto the bus, Nancy extinguished the burning ember as well as the injured butterfly with a crushing twist beneath her foot.
Linda McHenry is a wife, mother, grandmother, and outdoor enthusiast. Her work has appeared in Glimmer Train, Read This, the Montana State University’s Literature and Arts Publication, Raphael Village, Forge Journal, and Halfway Down the Stairs.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH Annihilation by Insect Wings:
The power of this piece lies in the strong voice of the main character into whose cold thoughts the reader is thrust. Nancy Jackson’s attitude and voice quickly make her a sympathetic character, although not for the reasons one thinks at first. As the story progresses, author Linda McHenry, through the brilliant use of direct thoughts, slowly reveals the character and builds a powerful image and memory that has only been hinted at along the way. And it is that image, the climax of the story, that fixes the whole in our minds.