FictionSpring 2018

The Improviser – Jenny Robertson

One minute he was singing grace notes, that proud-tail mockingbird in the sycamore, next he was pressed against the drive, held in a hawk’s talons. And then he was nothing but four feathers on the ground. It was garbage day, and Janice in her house slippers, her hand on the bin’s green handle, was the only witness. Which was fitting, as he was Janice’s own mockingbird. He sang in her backyard tree, the only one that shaded her 8’ x 24’ fenced-in joke of a courtyard. She’d lived in Apt P for two months, so she didn’t remember the swamp forest which used to fill the southwest acre. She didn’t see the condo developers scrape the forest to field, pile the sticks and stumps in great mounds along the property line. She only knew what the neighbors had told her, that for days after the bulldozers opossum, raccoons, and snakes streamed through the complex, heading north toward the city park.

She was lucky to have the one tree, the mockingbird in its branches. His melodies belonged to other birds, but she wouldn’t call him a mimic. An improviser, more like it, inspired by the lives around him. He seemed a blessing on her move. She’d left her husband of thirty-five years, left him everything: the house, the furniture, the Iowa snow and a shovel. You’re a bitch, half of his messages said. I love you, I miss you, come home, said the other half. She played each message until she understood the pattern, then erased them all.

Janice believed in life cycles, in the overall balance of predator to prey. So when the hawk took the mockingbird, her first thought was reverence, even gratitude. But then orange well-drilling trucks with orange ladders appeared on the southwest acre. They set their tungsten teeth to the ground, and their engines whined high and low like queasy chainsaws. Janice shut her windows, abandoned her backyard. She set up chairs in front, planted kale in clay pots, looked toward the north and listened.

A golden retriever charged in her front door, stole a ham sandwich and escaped. A widower brought her sweet wine, called her a stuck-up Yankee, asked her for some affection. Young men in the parking lot sat in cars and smoked dope. A couple strolled by in the evenings, swinging their toddler between them.

Squirrels colonized the sycamore. Hawks hunted in pairs, attacked bird feeders, chased songbirds into chimneys. Storm clouds built up from nothing, dropped six inches of rain on Louisiana. Her clay pots filled to their rims and overflowed. Ants invaded her bathroom. Janice sprayed them with vinegar and soap, left their bodies on the floor as a warning. More came. She bought poison. The ants brought it back to their queen. The wind picked up and Janice unpacked her sweaters. Her daughters called, and she told them about the weather. Told them to spend Christmas with their dad. Told them she’d be fine alone.

 


 

Author Bio: Jenny Robertson grew up in Minnesota, studied natural history at Carleton College, and received an MFA in Fiction from Pacific University. She’s served as writer-in-residence for Front Street Writers, creative writing instructor at Interlochen Arts Camp, and is currently a PhD student at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette. Her stories and poems have appeared in Dislocate, Dunes Review, Hypertext, and BITE: An Anthology of Flash Fiction. Her short story “Green Skins” placed second in Cutthroat’s annual fiction contest, judged by Stuart Dybek.

The author: Mike Robbins