by William Reese Hamilton
Starlings strut across my lawn. Ugly, black, metallic things, cawing from the hedges and the trees, staring out at me with cold, beady eyes.
When I was a girl, it was quiet here. Now cars and trucks stream by through the summer heat, spewing exhaust, vibrating in the sun. The old sheltering trees are gone from along the street, replaced by thick, buzzing power lines and the hot blare of street lamps at night. Split ranches and scraggly saplings crowd the once open pastures out back. Tawdry mansions tower on the hill where apple trees once paraded virgin pink and white each spring. They must think they are living on the Riviera, for land's sake.
Old age attacks me now in the joints and eyes, invades my teeth. I suck at the root of my pain, shiver at anything hot or cold. The old neighborhood suffers the same indignity. These handsome colonials, once trim and immaculate, fronted the quiet dirt road with pride, surrounded by pools of cool green shade. Now they are wasted at the root, their inner rot hidden under a cheap veneer of vinyl or aluminum siding. Our once open lawns have been cut up hodgepodge by rickety fences and badly kept hedges. Across the way the new owner has covered his clapboard with chicken wire and an obscene coat of gray stucco. He had the front porch torn off to show off his new outsized picture windows. No sense of proportion. It is all out of whack.
I am the very last of the Zees, settlers of this land before the English, tenant farmers for the Dutch mill on the river. Papa told me we have been here since the sixteen hundreds, but I have seen no papers and Papa is long dead. Now our only history is scratched on eroding tombstones in abandoned graveyards. Sic transit gloria, as Papa was so fond of saying.
You might have known my father, the doctor to this town. Always dressed in a dark suit, vest and tie, his white collar starched, his white hair always trimmed and neatly combed. Always carrying his big black bag. Papa had his first Ford parked proudly on the road when others were still driving by in horse and carriage. He was a respected elder at our church.
There is a young girl named Sally from up the street who walks a schnauzer by our house. Her sweetness seems out of place in these hard times. She is always here in the morning, smiling up at me, so pink and blonde, calling out my name, her little dog straining at his leash, sniffing along the path, cocking his leg against our hedge.
"Did you hear, Miss Zee, did you hear?"
"They're putting up a pizza parlor."
"By the bar on the corner, across the street from the gas station. Isn't it just too much? Mom says it's just too much."
"Not a restaurant, a pizza joint, Mom says."
"We already have a restaurant and a delicatessen up there. Less than half-a-block away."
"It's just too much."
"Perhaps it is the last straw."
"Mom says that camel's back is already broke. They broke it with that second gas station. They broke it when the bar expanded."
"Perhaps that is what these starlings mean."
"I believe they are the vultures of our time."
She scoops her schnauzer up into her arms, squeezes him tight, rubs her cheek against his neck.
"Isn't he just too sassy, Miss Zee? He's my fat little Max. Daddy says he's too dumb, but I think he's just bold."
"He's a manly dog, all right, the way he struts."
"Isn't he just too sassy?" She brings him for me to pet. "He thinks he owns your whole yard. Why I bet he would run right into your house if we let him."
"Good boy," I say, scratching his head, rubbing his ear. "Good Maxie." He squirms to loose himself, grunting and snorting, wishing to lick at me, sniff my legs, parade before me and leave his calling card. He wants to spray on everything and mark out his domain. "Such a manly little fellow."
My father strutted about like that. So neat and wiry. A handsome, firm, sweet-smelling man. Such a creature of pride. Papa is clear as the photograph standing in the parlor. Every vestige etched into my brain. Papa and I were very close.
Mama is just a smooth-worn orb hanging over me on moonlit nights. She died long ago when I was much too young. And so innocent. The influenza was devastating to our town. Papa was busy everywhere, running off night and day with his black bag. So many citizens took deathly ill. So many funerals at the church. Everyone was frantic with fear. Papa took Mama's picture down and turned its face to the wall. He looked tired but he did not cry. He studied me with dark, sad eyes. From then on Papa and I lived alone.
The starlings waddle across my lawn like babies with their diapers full, fouling my yard, ignorant of my roses and delphiniums, my poppies and Queen Anne's lace. They glisten in the noonlight like young men's hair greased down with macasar oil. "Fouling my yard," I whisper to myself and smile. I think of them as my fates, like the Furies that pursued Orestes in that sad Greek play.
But I will not listen to my fates when it comes to these birds. Long ago Papa told me of a special poison. I am surprised it has taken me so long to remember it. Papa knew his poison as he knew his medicine. A special poison he used on field rats that came into our cellar with the first winter chill.
"This will rid us of the vermin," he told me. He held small green pellets in his hand.
"What will it do?"
"It will make them thirsty," he said. "It will give them a thirst they have never known before. It will drive them out of the house to search madly for water and they will die in the fields."
"Won't they suffer?"
"They will bleed inside and they will ache and vomit. But it is necessary. And we will not see them. They will cry out for water. They will be lost in the undergrowth far from our house."
Why has it taken me so long? That was forty years ago. And Papa has been gone for over thirty. He knew his poisons, that's certain. I search our dark cellar. A single bare electric bulb lights it for me, casting deep shadows into the corners. Even here it is sweltering. How neatly he has everything laid out. Each tool hung precisely in its own special place. As if he had left it yesterday. I look among the little shelves and niches built over the workbench. Among cans of screws and nails and hinges and hooks. All marked so neatly with the same yellowing prescription labels. I think of Orestes in his long dark flight.
Then there it is, just a wisp of cobweb across the label. Marked out simply in his own tight, elegant hand: "RAT POISON." I take the tin down and open it with a shiver of delight. I shake the small pellets into my hand. They are just as I remember them lying in Papa's smooth soft palm. They could be anything. Green and harmless as rabbit food.
Was it yesterday the young woman came by? She has a page filled with signatures. They have such faith that they can change things with simple democracy. My young neighbors who come and go, who buy the old houses and live here five or ten years and think they know the town. She wishes me to sign her petition.
"What's it for?"
"We don't want that pizzeria right next to the bar. We already have drunks making noise late into the night, throwing beer bottles into our yards, shouting at each other in the street at four in the morning. Imagine what the pizza parlor will bring."
"You can't stop it with a petition. It just gets worse. Traffic and noise. People and waste."
"The petition is for the zoning board. We want them to deny the variance."
"Oh yes. We've done it all before. But they're all for development down in the village. They call it progress."
"We can stop it if we all get together."
"You can't stop it. It's like a sickness in ourselves."
"You won't sign?"
"It's no use. The traffic gets worse. Noise and refuse and starlings on our lawns."
"I'm sorry you feel that way."
When did I lose my hope? Was it when Papa first placed his stethoscope between my firm young breasts? When he sighed that he was lonely in his cold empty bed? When he asked me to disrobe so he could examine me? My flesh trembles when I think of his soft touch, his weeping in the night. I shiver even in this awful heat.
In the potting shed I mix the pellets into a bucket of grass seed. It is an old outbuilding just slightly askew. Earthenware pots are lined up pretty much as Papa left them. My neighbors use new sheds made of aluminum. Ours is simple wood, like everything back then. That is how the first gas station started. A simple shed down at the corner. Papa sold him the land. Just as he willed property to the volunteer fire department for the station up the street. There was only a market back then. Hardly a commercial zone. A simple country market on a quiet dirt road. Who could have known? Now we are zoned commercial A.
It is early evening when I begin to cast my mix across my lawn. The neighbors will think I am just a mad old woman who doesn't know well enough not to broadcast seed in the heat of August. As I spread the pellets and grain I sing my own private song about fouling my lawn and reaping what you sow. Perhaps it will work, perhaps it will not. But it is more likely to succeed than petitions.
At night the music blares from the open doors of the tavern and from the loud traffic on the street. Not a breeze. The heat is a dead weight. I lie awake conjuring grackles and starlings pecking at my lawn. And I wait to watch them come at dawn.
"The zoning board voted on the pizzeria last night," my young neighbor says.
"And what did they say?"
"That chairman's a little Napoleon. He just treated us like a mob of riffraff. When we told him we wanted to save the old village, that there were too many restaurants and taverns and gas stations, he said we are already zoned commercial A. The pizzeria would not make a difference."
"Yes, I told you so."
"People said there was too much noise and traffic and refuse. And no place for us to park our own cars. And you know what that little tyrant said?"
"I can imagine. They have said lots of things before."
"He said our old village was hardly a sylvan glade!"
"It will not get better," I say to her as she leaves. Papa knew the truth of that. He knew the sickness is in ourselves and would get no better. He knew it in the battle between his pride and his guilt. And petitioning the Lord at church could not make it go away. Papa knew his medicine. So late at night when I was sound asleep he left our bed. He sat naked in the darkness of our back yard and took his medicine straight.
By the time I was wakened by his screams, there were already many people gathered down there and they would not let me near him. By then I could only hear a vomiting rasp and gurgle as they put him in the ambulance, covered now with a gray blanket. It was much later I heard how he had died. He had swallowed a cup of Drano and burnt his insides away. The pain must have been intolerable. Even his lips were charred by the froth. Papa knew his medicine. And he knew there is no cure in petitions.
"Miss Zee?" the little girl asks.
"Did they tell you about Max?"
"He ran away last night. Into the woods. Papa found him by the brook. He was just lying on his side, all wet and muddy."
"Papa thinks it was poison maybe. He was acting so funny at dinnertime."
"I'm so sorry. Oh, so terribly sorry."
"Why would someone do such a thing?" It is a question only innocence could ask.
"It's a sickness, like everything." Papa knew how to burn away his guilt, but what of mine?
I look across my lawn. It is withering in the August heat. And starlings waddle all around us, staring at us with beady eyes.