Amy L. Eggert
Amy L. Eggert lives in Peoria, IL where she teaches composition, literature, and creative writing for Bradley University and Midstate College. She has a Ph.D. in English Studies from Illinois State University, and she is the fiction editor of Heart, an online quarterly arts magazine. With an academic background in psychology and composition, Amy enjoys merging the two fields in her creative and critical work and examining the turns and twists the human psyche travels in the aftermath of emotional upheaval. Her work appears in several university literary journals and in the American Book Review.
Festival of Language events: 2012 Chicago AWP, 2013 Milwaukee M/MLA
a reading eXperiment events: 2013 Milwaukee M/MLA
Something About the Birds
We moved into this neighborhood over two months ago, and it won’t stop raining. Here is our house, a neo-mansard two-story with a half-finished, walk-out basement. A sprawling floor plan, three bedrooms, three-and-a-half baths, abundant livable as well as storage space. The back lot of the house slopes into a wooded jungle of green, especially vibrant under all of this rain. The front windows face a quiet suburban street, no sidewalks, so, on rare rainless days, the neighbors’ kids pedal their first two-wheelers down the middle of the road, careen wide arcs up our driveway, and back out onto black asphalt where drivers know to slow their speed and stay vigilant. We’re the last house before the cusp of a cul-de-sac, so traffic mostly belongs to our street save the occasional delivery truck.
Neighbors wave to each other here, a quick raise of the palm driving or walking past. Even as I read in my main level study beside the water-strewn window, they catch me through the pane, lift a hand in greeting from the street. This reminds me of the boaters’ code, summers ago on our twenty-five foot cuddy cabin cutting through brown breakers on the Illinois River but minus the seedy swinger rumors that surrounded our mainly middle-aged marina. Passing boats often brandished as many as ten palms extended in simultaneous greeting, and Peter and I would comply in form, feeling funny about it but wanting to fit in, not wanting to stand out as rude or seemingly superior to our older and somewhat flirtatious cohorts. We sold the boat two summers ago as repair costs exceeded what we paid for our slip and for gas the few times a season we were able to cast off. This was around the same time we began house-hunting, hoping for a place away from our city street apartment where the perpetual sounds of sirens wailed into the early morning, where I kept an aluminum baseball bat next to the bed, where walking to my car in the back lot invited harassment and pleas for pocket change.
Peter and I aren’t married, though most strangers assume we are. We’ve been together thirteen years, lived together nine. We engage in self- and other-deprecating banter; we enjoy each other’s company, hold hands in public, grocery shop as a pair, sometimes retreat to separate stations when bored or peeved at the other, but always under the same roof, him to his workbench in the basement, me to the study on the main level. We’d like one day to make a family.
The small balcony off the upstairs master bedroom is rotting and in need of sealing, and rain drips into the living room into a garbage can I’ve positioned in front of the couch. Water also seeps in at the foundation in the basement, though fortunately this has been restricted to the unfinished area where we’ve stacked cardboard boxes and plastic bins up on pallets a few inches off the concrete.
We’re not married because Peter doesn’t believe a slip of paper should determine a relationship status and because his own family was cracked in half by parental divorce, his two older brothers departing with their father, Peter and his sister left behind with their mother. He references the mutual contempt, the pitting of child against parent, the guilt trips over visits, the alimony disputes, the custody hearings, the forced therapy sessions. His siblings are all on their first marriage; all have children. Nonetheless, his faith in the institution is shaken, and no amount of emotional discussion or contrary evidence sways him.
One overcast but dry afternoon, I circle the perimeter of the house to check the progress of the seeds and bulbs I planted our first week here. The house stands out from the neighbors’ in that, with the exception of the lush forest behind the property, the lot is devoid of vegetation. The front yard is a flat expanse of grass, treeless, flowerless, no shrubs, buds, or blossoms of any sort, siding and large panes of glass fully exposed to the street. One of our neighbors, a dad from down the street, told us that a bachelor lived in our house for years before we moved in, a night shift police officer who showed no interest in maintaining a picturesque façade. I take on the reversal of this trend as my personal mission.
Nothing grows yet. I glance up into the sunless sky, wish for change, for light and warmth. The woman from across the street, a young mother pushing her daughter in a stroller along the curb, raises her hand in greeting, and I return the gesture. Beyond her relaxed pace, her front yard blooms in color as tulips open in bright reds and yellows; a pear tree bursts white pedals. I circle to the back of our house, find a cardinal, its neck broken, a puddle of red feathers on the patio stone. I’m not good at this type of thing, but I find a gardening shovel, scoop the little body up, and pitch it down the sloped earth, into the woods. A drizzle starts to fall, so I go back inside, read by the rain-streaked study window. In the street outside, minivans and SUVs splash rainwater up over curbs, parents bringing their kids home from school. Several who notice me at the window lift a hand in acknowledgement.
Cardinals keep slamming into the back windows. Peter reads on the internet that it’s a territorial thing, that they should stop once breeding season has ended. I find their dead bodies on the patio stone, red-feathered necks twisted, toss them with my shovel down the slope, into the trees. Soon after, the clockwork thwaps as another one thinks he’s warding away competition when it’s his own muted reflection in the glass. I smooth some static clings over the pane—snowflakes in June, but it’s all I have—to clear up the confusion, but within days, I go outside to water the soil and find its small corpse, a red heap at my feet.
And my plants aren’t growing. The gardens I started lie empty, vacant beds of dirt and dust. The rain has stopped, the drought begun, and as often as I circle the perimeter of the house with my watering can, the little seedlings that have sprouted up and out from the soil wilt, give up, and die. I don’t know enough about under-watering and over-watering, so I try both, fail. Outside the back windows, lush greenery; out the front windows are other people’s children splashing in kiddie pools, dancing through sprinklers, racing bikes, pushed in strollers, pulled in wagons. Their parents with the mechanical waves.
Peter’s sister visits with her family, insists on staying in a hotel so the children don’t dishevel our house with their toys and their temper-tantrums and their overarching mayhem. Plus, she says, it’s not as though we’ve child-proofed the place. The kids call me “auntie” even though technically, legally, I am not. As their parents and Peter sit outside at the hotel pool, I read the children stories, tuck them carefully into bed for their naps, kiss their sleeping faces. And I feel empty inside, scraped out, hollow.
At home, the front lawn is browning under the naked gaze of the sun. I keep watering, but to no avail. Nothing grows here.
Peter and I argue more, the frustration of things not going as planned, of failed attempts. Long, barren stretches of silence. We withdraw more often to separate corners, him to the basement, me to my books, my dead gardens. And the birds keep committing suicide.
Despite the sweltering temperatures, I always feel cold, spend more time outside. I water the soil, the dying grass, position my lounger under the sun to warm my skin, to chase the shivering chill away. Neighbors walk past, women guiding strollers in tandem, a moms’ club I’m not a part of. They see me and wave in unison without a smile or disruption of their mom-speak, walk away, their little ones lethargic and sweating under cloth canopies. I pretend to read, to focus on the pages in front of me, but I watch the families shrink into the landscape of the neighborhood, lawns lined with hedges and crowded by flowerbeds, shaded by flourishing branches which dangle tire swings, leaves which rustle and whisper gossip in the hot breeze. And I feel so alone.
I let the sun scorch my skin. My insides, I think, must be ash. When the red blisters begin to peel, Peter calls me irresponsible, and I strip the outer layer away, crave new beginnings.
For the most part, the inside of the house has shaped up nicely. A fresh coat of paint in the living room, the wood of the master balcony replaced and watertight, new plush carpeting in the basement. I arrange cut flowers bought at the grocery store in vases across the main floor, pockets of color that remind me to hope, on coffee tables and end tables, on tiered stands, on kitchen counters, centered on our little dinette set for two. The second and third bedrooms we initially left empty, anticipating new furniture, a future, we now crowd with boxes, stash things we haven’t decided to save or throw away, and the doors stay closed.
Peter works tirelessly on the outside of the house, replacing rotted wood around windows, patching the roof, touching up paint where necessary. I tend to the dry cracked dirt in the gardens, watering until mud bubbles and pools up, spills over onto the driveway. Then I water the lawn, hose water raining down, straw-like blades crunching under my feet. I round the corner to the backyard to find Peter who measures deck boards in the shade of intertwining maple branches. My presence startles away a cardinal who has just begun to thump against the patio windows. The bird flutters off into the woods, a red speck swallowed by green where the rattle of cicadas suddenly intensifies, crescendos into an unnerving roar before just as suddenly it ceases.
Up and down our street, trees bleed leaves onto lawns. The road is a winding trail of red, orange, and gold confetti, someone else’s parade having just passed through. Our yard is bare. The woods behind us briefly transformed into a brilliant yellow out the back windows before quickly shedding their colors one overnight, and we woke to bony blackened branches, stark naked and empty.
I sit and read by the study windows. The family of five across the street shares the task of raking and bagging leaves. They work as a smooth-running machine, moving in unison, each clearing a separate patch of grass, orange jack-o-lantern trash bag stretched wide and smiling, ready for a full load of leaves lifted on an upturned rake, each team member seeming attuned to the others without obvious verbal communication. One of the little boys catches me watching and waves, which sparks four other gloved hands to rise into the air. I wave back, move away from the window, bump up the temperature on the thermostat to kick the furnace on. I’m always so cold.
Peter has begun to spend Sunday afternoons at a bar across town with coworkers. I’ve started a book club with some of my women friends and tried to organize it to overlap with his absences, so that we could meet during those hours I spend alone. However, my friends have husbands and kids, and Sunday afternoons away from home are off limits. As are evenings and weekend hours in general. Our meeting time is still up in the air.
I plant some Rose of Sharon along the driveway, hope that next spring the small bushes will sprout. I drag a rake to the back yard, the only area where leaves, brown and decomposing, litter the grass and require removal. Scratching at the ground with metal hooks, I clear the space around me in sweeping arcs while the gaunt trees with their black bark weave and sway in the wind, bend treacherously close to the powerlines. I shiver against the chill, move away from the house, closer to where the earth slopes away, the hooks of my rake tangling in the dry leaves, in the grass.
Buried in the browning foliage near the base of a tree trunk, I find a fallen nest. Four eggs lie inside, one cracked open, holding the pink hued body of a baby cardinal. I let the rake slip to the ground and reach with gloved hands for the little abandoned nest.
Down in the hollow of the trees, where our property drops off, falls away, disembodied voices of children echo and cry, and I can’t tell where they’re coming from or where they’re going, and I think they must be ghosts, dim, dead children playing chase in the shadows. I don’t know where to go from here, so I’m still, listless and listening, pining for the ghost babies lost in the trees, clutching the rotting nest with the bad eggs inside.