Showing posts with label mary thorson. Show all posts
Showing posts with label mary thorson. Show all posts

Monday, June 6, 2022

Undark, fiction by Mary Thorson

Ottawa, IL. 1930

Annie carefully handled the watch faces. Looking at them for ten hours a day could make it seem as if she dealt in frozen time. When she finally glanced up at the clock on the wall, she couldn’t help but think it was strange when the hands moved. She had become more comfortable with time when it was stopped. She dipped the brush in the glow paint and did one slow stroke along the minute hand. Then she put the brush between her lips to gather the bristles to a point and painted the stubby hour hand. She had to apply a certain amount of pressure without any assisting resistance, which was always difficult. 

“I’m so tired, I could fall asleep with my eyes open,” Vikki said.  

“Mhmm,” Annie hummed in an effort to keep her lips taut. 

They had two hours left in the day, which would go slower the closer it came to an end. Of course, every job was like that, but the factory acted as a vacuum for time. Inside they kept the lights lower to better see the paint. The work was monotonous but needed a steady hand and an eye for detail. Small, small details. The women—all of them were women—talked to each other, but they did so quietly, fearing if they made louder noises, it might knock their strokes out of line. 

Vikki had been slowing down lately. Her bin was coming up shorter, and Annie would give her some to meet the quota. She slumped next to Annie, and her spine curved out from her dramatically, folding her down to the table. Annie tried to straighten herself out in response, trying to press herself up for as long as she could until she forgot. She always had fine posture. Years of her mother prodding with boney fingers at the middle of her back, or pulling at her shoulders, ensured it. Unconsciously, she must have been mimicking Vikki, the way couples start to look like one another after a while because they pick up each other’s mannerisms. Or how some people’s dogs to look like them. She hated the idea that Vikki might have more of an imprint on her than Frank, but it made sense. Annie had counted it out once. One-hundred-and-sixty-eight hours in a week, and the saying went, “eight hours for work, eight hours for sleep, and eight hours for what we will.” It would be nice if time split so perfectly, but Frank worked third shift at the glass plant. He slept until dinner, and Annie hesitated to call his first hour waking, but she needed the time so it would be four hours until he left at 10:30 p.m. Then she slept alone. She didn’t even need the waking distinction; she spent more time with Vikki without question. 

“I need a new brush,” Vikki said, holding the pulled-out bristles in-between her teeth. 

Annie reached for the jar of fresh ones, her fingers aching as she stretched them out for the first time in hours. She picked one out and handed it over without looking, but Vikki didn’t grab it. She waited, pushing it closer, and still nothing. 

“Here,” she said. 

But Vikki stared down into her own hand, in which she held something small. Annie leaned closer, rocking on her tailbone. It was a tooth. Not a piece of one, but whole. Wet and with roots, it shined in Vikki’s hand like a pearl. For a moment, Annie got the sensation that she was dreaming. She had never seen a whole adult tooth apart from the body before. She had always taken care of her teeth. She looked up at Vikki who still studied it. Vikki swept a finger in her mouth and it came out with very little blood. 

“I don’t know,” Vikki started. 

“Let’s go to the bathroom,” Annie said. 

She got up, grabbing Vikki’s other hand so she could continue cradling the tooth. They walked to the bathroom, Annie trying to go as fast as she could so no one would see. Inside the small pale room, she had her sit down on the toilet. 

“Open,” Annie said. 

Vikki shook her head. 

“Come on, now. Let’s see what happened.” 

“Nothing happened,” Vikki said. It came out strange as she tried not moving her lips, like a ventriloquist. 

“You must have bit on the brush, that’s why the bristles came off.”

She shook her head again and started to cry. Annie kneeled in front of her, folding her fingers over the tooth so she couldn’t look anymore. 

“It’s just a tooth, dear. Let me see.”

Vikki let out shaky breaths and opened her mouth a little. Annie could barely see, but she found the dark spot.

“It’s a back tooth, you’ll hardly be able to notice,” she said. 

Then she saw another blank space on the other side. 

“Vikki,” she said. 

Vikki closed her mouth, rolling her lips in, making a straight, colorless line on her face, and shook her head as she started to cry. She brought her hands up to cover her face, but then the tooth was there. 

“I don’t know what’s happening. Two this week. I thought it was an accident the first time. I was eating and maybe I had bitten down wrong. I thought it was strange that the whole tooth came loose, but I have had a terrible ache. I thought, just a cavity.” She shrugged, her hands starting to shake. 

“Did you make an appointment with the dentist?”

“I thought, since the tooth fell out, that I didn’t need to anymore.”

“What about the toothache? Still there?”

“It’s everywhere.” Vikki put her fingers to her jaw but held them just over the skin, afraid to touch. 

“Let’s go after work, okay? I’ll walk with you.”

Vikki nodded, rubbing the tooth in her hand with her thumb. 


The dentist was closed when they arrived, which Annie suspected would happen. Vikki stayed behind as Annie went up to the window and peered into the dark office. The hard dentist chairs and trays reflected some light from outside, but it was otherwise empty. She walked Vikki home; she only lived a few blocks from the factory. Vikki stayed quiet the whole way and stared down at the sidewalk. When they got to her door, Annie noticed that the white paint was chipping off, and the frame was slightly warped. Vikki went in, leaving the door open behind her, so Annie followed. The inside was dirty more than messy. It smelled like the inside of an unwashed laundry hamper. Vikki kept walking toward the back of the house without turning any lights on. She went into her bedroom and laid down, facing away from the door. 

“Do you need anything?” Annie asked. 

“I just need to rest. I’m so tired.”

“Do you still have the tooth?” 

Vikki stretched her arm behind her and opened up her hand, giving it to her. Annie hesitated and held her breath as she grabbed it. 

“Where should I put it?” 

“Next to the other one on my nightstand, there.” 

The other looked just like the one she held. For some reason, it surprised her. She laid it down so it would line up next to its twin.

“You’ll go tomorrow morning, then? First thing?”

Vikki nodded with her head against the pillow. Her brown hair fell out of the bun it had been in. 

“Do you want anything to eat before…” But she trailed off. 

Vikki didn’t answer. 

“I’ll come check on you tomorrow, after work. I’m sure it’s nothing, darling. I’m sure you have nothing to be worried about. Could just be your diet, that’s all.” 

As Annie struggled to shut the front door, she thought about what it might take to jam a tooth back into its place. 


Frank was asleep in his chair when Annie walked in. The darkness in her house made her think a layer of grime was covering every surface, so she hurried over to the lamp that stood just over his head. 

“God, Annie,” Frank said, covering his face with both arms. 

He barely opened his eyes as he looked up at her, trying to make her out in those first moments after waking. After he focused, he grabbed her hand and pulled her down onto his lap. 

“Let’s sleep a bit longer here, okay?”

She pressed into him for a moment, putting her face against his neck and smelling him before pushing herself off. 

“I have to make dinner.”

“Who can eat when they’re this tired?” 

“When you are tired. Besides, you have to work soon,” she said as she walked into the kitchen.

“What time is it?”

“About 8:30.” 

“And you’re just getting home? Where’ve you been?” 

“Vikki’s tooth fell out. Her second tooth, I guess, so I took over to the dentist, which was closed, then I walked her home,” Annie said. “Oh, don’t look like that, it’s not what you think.” 

“What is it?” He said, dropping his hand from his mouth. 

“I don’t know, really. They weren’t rotted, they looked like perfectly fine teeth.” 

Frank shivered. “I’m not so sure I’m ready to eat just yet.”

“You’ll get over it.” 

“Well, I thought we might lie down for a bit.” He came up behind her, putting his hands on both of her arms, squeezing just slightly. 

She tried not to but tensed against him, and he let go as if she had burned him. 

“Nothing will happen if we don’t try,” he said as he walked back into the living room. 

She grabbed hold of the counter and leaned over the sink. Her right hand still felt stiff from the day, and she stretched it out. Annie turned on the faucet and splashed some cold water on her face. Thinking about going to bed with Frank terrified her. It had been months since it had been pleasurable. Months since they talked to each other quietly in their own home, as if they were teenagers. Months since they touched each other discreetly and then luridly, with the freedom of not having to be careful. A different kind of fun than before. After the first twelve months, the first twelve disappointments of reaching down and finding that she had not stopped herself, they went to the doctor, who told them, “Nothing to worry about. Sometimes it just takes a while. People always think it’ll be easy, like they can think themselves into having a baby, but it can take work. All good things take work.” The way he said it made it feel as if she was being scolded for being presumptive or lazy. She tried to explain her family history, how her mother had eight children, and how Frank was one of ten, that it didn’t seem to be an issue for any of her siblings. The doctor waved them off. After that, she dreaded sex. She started to see it as something she had to do until they got what they wanted, and then they could stop. 

Frank had his head in his hands, and for a second Annie thought he was crying.

“Frank?” she asked. 

He looked up at her, dry-eyed and angry. 

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I think it’s me. I don’t think I can.” 

Frank got up and put his arms around her. She thought, then, that it would be appropriate to cry, but she couldn’t force herself to. She had gotten used to the feeling of being empty there. She thought of a dark cavity that was slowly spreading but remembered that Vikki’s teeth were almost perfectly white. Frank moved his hands  over her back slowly. He sighed and hummed lowly against her hair. Now would be a good time to do something. To sway slightly against him, not seductively, but enough to respond. She couldn’t, though. The rigidness ran through her, set deep in her bones, and she couldn’t let it go. She tried; she imagined it leaking out and breaking apart in her blood. But, when she shifted, it was there still. Frank let go. 

“Alright, Annie.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I have to go. They want me in early tonight.” 

“What about dinner?” 

“Not hungry,” he said as he grabbed his coat and left. 

Annie expected him to slam the door, but he didn’t. He closed it as if he were trying to keep quiet. 


Annie sat alone at work the next day, possibly for the first time. She couldn’t remember a day before when Vikki wasn’t there on her right. The longer the day went on, the more exposed she felt. Annie couldn’t help herself from checking the clock on the wall, over and over, and it kept going, but slowly. She had never seen it go so slow. When she looked down at the watch face, only the fifth one she’d been able to put in her hand that day, her fingers tingled slightly, or she thought they did. She rubbed them on her skirt hoping the feeling would show itself again, but it didn’t. Against her, her fingers felt normal. 

“Are you alright?” The shift supervisor stood above her with her hands behind her back. 

“I’m fine, sorry.”

The supervisor tilted her head towards the empty bin. 

“I know. I’m sorry, I haven’t felt very well this morning.”

“Ah, must be going around. Your table partner is ill as well.”

“Did you talk to her?” 

“No, somebody called on her behalf. I believe it was her doctor.” 

Annie looked over at the empty stool.

“Do you need to go home? I don’t want anyone else on my floor getting sick.”

“I think I might.” 

The woman smiled in a way that made Annie feel ashamed. She was thick all the way through. Not large, just solid. Sturdy. Someone had once said that about Annie; she couldn’t remember who, maybe her father or an uncle, but it was a long time ago. The woman turned and stepped over to the next table. Annie put the watch face down. She had only painted the hands and half of the numbers. Three to nine. The dot in-between the five and six was slightly off the mark. She would have to throw this one away. She grabbed her purse and walked toward the stairs. On her way, she saw something out of the corner of her eye, something floating in the dark. She stopped and stared, then she understood. Two of the younger girls were in the bathroom, and their giggling made Annie’s skin crawl. The light was off, but she could see their mouths. Their teeth. One had painted her front teeth and smiled in the mirror. The other had painted a moustache that twirled into spirals on her cheeks. Their nails glowed, too, as they touched their lips and looked at themselves, laughing.


Outside was unforgivingly bright, and Annie kept her eyes tight as she walked, only looking up when she came to an intersection. She traced back the way from the day before, and when she approached the block of white rowhouses, she became nervous. She saw Vikki’s, the fifth one in, and she stared at it. Once, when she was a teenager, she was watching her baby brother, and he fell out of his high chair. It was very quiet for a moment, and instead of rushing to him, her first reaction was to step backward. She wanted to run from him, and the feeling was instinctual, a sudden reflex that took over her entire body. Then he started screaming, and she knew she had to move. She liked to think that she waited in the silence because she didn’t think he was hurt, but that wasn’t it. She knew what it was, and she was afraid of it now, but she started moving, anyway.  

When she got to the dullest house on the block, she lightly knocked on the door. Someone moved around inside quickly, then they opened the door. For a moment, Annie was relieved. Vikki seemed just fine. She looked healthier than the day before, to be sure. But then, it wasn’t Vikki. Of course, it wasn’t. Her hair was more auburn. Brilliantly auburn, and her eyes, while they were blue and shaped like almonds, were brighter and more animated. They looked around intentionally, their lids reacting appropriately. 

“I’m sorry,” Annie said. 

The woman smiled and leaned against the door frame. She reached out as Annie started down the stairs. 

“It’s alright,” she said. “Are you here for Vikki?”  

 Annie was on the third step of the little cement porch with her hand on the wrought iron railing.

“Is she home?” Annie asked. 

Then the woman did a strange thing. It was almost as if she wilted. She looked down at the ground and then back at Annie. 

“No, I’m afraid not. She’s in the hospital.”

Annie didn’t answer right away. She thought the woman meant to say something else. 

“What for?”

“Would you want to come in? I’ve cleaned up a little bit since I got here. I’ve been looking for some of her things, you know, toiletries and what not that I could bring her. It’s all been hard to find.” The woman walked inside, leaving the door open behind her, and Annie followed. 

It looked different with the lights on. Worse. Every surface, including the couch and the chair, had the kind of clutter that collects after too much time and abandon. It reminded Annie of how Frank’s apartment looked the first time he invited her upstairs. 

“I’m sorry, what’s your name? I didn’t ask before.” 

“Annie. I work with Vikki at the factory.”

“Nice to meet you, Annie. I’m Viviane, Vikki’s older sister.” 

She picked up magazines and books that had seemed to spread themselves out and piled them so they could sit. Annie couldn’t believe that she was older than Vikki, but she wasn’t entirely sure how old Vikki was. She couldn’t have been too far apart from herself in age. 

“Do you know where I might find her pajamas? In case she wants them?” 

Annie shook her head. 

“Why is she in the hospital? Did she swallow one?” 

Viviane’s head tilted, and her darkly drawn-on brows dropped. Annie put her fingers to her lips and started to pull the bottom one down a bit.

“I’m sorry?” Viviane asked. 

“A tooth, I mean.” 

“Oh,” Viviane said. “No. It’s a bit more serious than that, I’m afraid. Well, she went to the dentist this morning because of her teeth and terrible pain in her jaw. During the…” she shifted in her seat and stared at her hands, picking at the skin around her thumb nail. “During the examination, something happened with her jaw bone.”

“What bone?”

“The dentist, he was very beside himself when he called me. He sounded so—so frightened. Very upset. He promised he wasn’t squeezing or doing anything too hard, he said he’s always very gentle with his female patients. It fell apart, like chalk, he said. Such a strange thing to say about it, but he kept repeating that it felt like chalk snapping in his hand.”

“But--,” Annie whispered. 

Viviane looked up at her and smiled a little. 

“The doctors don’t know for certain, but they think it’s some kind of cancer in her bones. They have her at the hospital now and fixed it so she can sleep. It’s all she really wants to do, anyhow. You said you work with her?”


“Well, I don’t think she’ll be coming back, but please do tell the girls there where she is. I’m sure she’d love the company. Maybe give it a week or so, so she can get used to talking differently. The doctor said that will be difficult at first because she won’t be able to use parts of her jaw and teeth to press her tongue against. I never thought about that until he said it.” 

“Sure,” Annie said. 

Viviane kept the smile on her face while Annie sat on the couch, confused. 

“I should get back to the hospital, though. I’ll tell her you stopped by.”

“Oh.” Annie got up so fast that the corners of her vision started to grow shadows. “Please do, thank you. Let me know if she needs anything or if there’s anything I can do.” This all came out slower because Annie tried to say it without pressing her tongue against her bottom row of teeth.

Viviane seemed not to notice as she smiled and quickly nodded.  As Annie got up and buttoned her coat, Viviane stayed seated on the couch. Annie could see a tiny drop of blood coming from her thumb’s nailbed. She walked toward the door, wanting to get away as fast as possible without being obvious about it. She accidentally bumped her hip against an end table, and she made an unintentionally loud noise at the sharp pain that shot up from it. It didn’t matter, though. Viviane wasn’t paying attention. 


  Frank had a beer in his hand and an empty one at his feet. Annie’s stomach tightened, and she marched past him down the hallway into their bedroom. She took off her coat and dropped it on the floor. She felt dirty like she somehow tracked the grime from Vikki’s house back with her and it was spreading on her skin. She pictured tiny bugs in her hair and under her clothes, and she thought she could feel them crawling with their tiny legs and their tiny mouths making tiny holes in which to burrow. She undressed quickly, popping a stitch at her waist as she yanked the dress over her head. She stepped into the shower and turned it as hot as it would go, standing underneath the water until her hands turned viciously red and steam had filled the room. 

“Annie, can I talk to you?”

Annie screamed. She hadn’t heard Frank come in. She turned the water off and stood behind the curtain holding her arms up against her with her hands in fists underneath her chin. Frank pulled the curtain over, and his face went dark. 

“Jesus, Annie. What happened to your hip?” 

She looked down and saw the spot she had hit before. A large, dark red mark had already formed. It was so dark it looked brown. 

“I ran into a table. I didn’t even notice it.” 

He knelt down on the tile floor, grabbing the back of her thighs to bring her closer to him. 

“It looks like it hurt you,” he said, brushing his thumb over it. 

He looked up at her, and she put her hands on the top of his head. He bowed towards her again, pressing against her with his mouth. She stroked his hair, pulling strands between her fingers as he put his lips on it. He leaned back and grabbed her hand, kissed it before standing up, and pulled her into the bedroom. As she walked behind him, she saw the way his fingers were knotted and greasy with oil and how she liked the way they looked against her beet red skin. He turned out the light as she was staring at their hands, but she could still see them. She could still see hers. Her eyes needed no adjusting. There, faintly in the dark, she could still see how her hand held his. She could see how her knuckles bent and her fingers gripped against him. An iridescent light came out from her, illuminating her nails and the bones that raked the back of her hand. She could see herself. She was glowing from the inside now.

Mary Thorson is from Milwaukee, WI. She received her undergraduate degree in Creative Writing at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and her MFA at Pacific University's low-residency program in Oregon. She has been previously published in Milwaukee Noir, Worcester Review, Tough, & Ink Stains Anthology. 

Her stories have been nominated for a Derringer Award and a Pushcart Prize. 

Monday, September 24, 2018

She Goes First, by Mary Thorson

New York, 1928

Lula couldn’t remember when Tom started discreetly coming to and leaving their bed, but there must have been a particular day when he decided to be quieter. It didn’t matter, she was such a light sleeper that it wasn’t the bird or the phone call that woke her, it was the absence of his weight. When she came into the kitchen, he was moving very fast, almost so her tired eyes couldn’t keep up with him, and he blurred as he paced from one spot to another. Lula pulled her hair behind her ears and watched him. It had been a long time since she had seen him like this, and she was nervous.
“Who was on the phone?”
“Work, they want me for something big up in New York,” he said over his shoulder.
“New York? Why?”
A few months ago, they had moved into their DC apartment from his studio in Chicago. Tom had said it was too cramped for him there, and there was an opening at the DC bureau of the Chicago Tribune. But Lula didn’t think it was any bigger, now. Just emptier. The only furniture being the bed, a couch in the living room, and a kitchen table set that came cheap because it had been scratched in the store.
“You know that big case where the woman killed her husband? The dumbbell murder?”
Lula shook her head, she didn’t pay attention to the news, which Tom had liked at the start. She knew it made him feel good to tell her about things.
“They’re executing them next week and they want me to come in and take pictures.” 
“Pictures of what?”
“The execution,” he said with a too big smile. “Just her, though. They’re going to run it on the front page.”
“You can’t be serious,” she said. “You mean, when she dies?”
“Why would anyone want to see that?” Lula asked while letting her vision blur as she stared out the window. The snow was coming down in big heavy flakes as a few men in dark jackets started to make their trek to work.
“People can’t not look,” he said.
He would be working for the New York Daily News, he explained, because no photographers were being let into Ruth Snyder’s execution, just reporters. The editors thought it would be clever to bring someone in that the guards had never seen before. They hired another man to make them a camera special for the job. The body of it would be strapped to Tom's ankle, the lens facing out and angled up, and the shutter release would be wired up through his pant leg to the arm of his jacket, so he could press it as if he were clicking a pen. It was single use.
She turned to look at Tom. His face was always astonishing. Hard set features, nothing soft there, not even his lips. A nose that had been broken more than once and eyes set deep. He cut into the space around him.
“That’s sinful,” she said.
If he could have left earlier, if the Daily News would have let him stay in one of their kept rooms at a hotel in the city, he would have been gone already, but they made him wait. Lula could sense him vibrating underneath his skin. He could see an exit.
“What about the bird?” Lula asked.
“What about him?”
“Do you expect me to take care of him?”
“Actually, yes. I do,” Tom said. “It’s not hard.”
He walked over to the cage and let the bird out onto his finger. The bird twisted its head around to stare at her. Its neck bent unnaturally, and it made her put a hand up to her throat. Tom stroked it and whispered something that Lula couldn’t hear.
The bird loved Tom. It was his bird. Well, not to start with. To start with it belonged to her. His wife’s bird. During the divorce Lula and Tom had gone on an adventure; that’s what he’d called it. They went to the house he had shared with her and broke in. He hadn’t planned on it being dramatic as all that, but Margaret had changed the locks like she said she would. A rock the size of his fist got them in. One small broken window above the basement and it became something else.
Lula remembered the way Tom looked at her as if heat burned through his eyes. He helped her down and slid his hands over the length of her, touching every part. When her feet were flat on the ground, he held her there in front of him, against him. And when Lula turned, he had her there – it was the last time it went like that.
They walked right out the front door with the bird still in its cage and that black sheet over it. An African Grey. He had bought it for Margaret in place of an engagement ring. This bird looked as though all the color had been drained from him, everything but the tail which fanned out in a stark red cape. Lula liked the idea of getting Margaret’s declaration of love as if it could be transferred over like money in a bank account.
Turned out Margaret couldn’t stand the thing either, because she never came after it. Never said a word about it, and she always had a lot to say. This, Lula knew, had gotten under Tom’s skin. He was excited the first few days, waiting to hear from Margaret once she came back to town. Said she would fight like a wet cat for that bird. Then the week rolled over to the next. He would ask if she called. Lula would ask why he cared, but she knew. Back in the beginning, when he and Lula had just started, he had told Margaret that the love bites on his neck were from the bird. But the bird never bit him.
She read whatever she could find on Ruth and her lover. She hoped she could somehow learn more about them than Tom. Have an intimate insight into their lives that Tom wouldn’t be able to capture and show. Ruth was 32. She was unemployed. She was a mother. Her daughter’s name was Lorraine. Her husband’s name was Albert. She and her lover, Judd, had killed him. Judd was a corset salesman and losing money. Ruth and Judd held chloroform soaked rags over Albert’s mouth and nose. Judd tied a wire around Albert’s neck. Judd convinced Ruth to do it so they could be together. Ruth convinced Judd to do it so they could be together. Ruth and Judd had been lovers for two years. Ruth and Judd turned on each other in two hours. All of it Lula memorized. She wanted Tom to quiz her. She wanted him to bring something up, or get something wrong, and if he did, she would gently correct him. “No, that’s not what happened; it went like this,” she would say. And he would thank her. But Tom didn’t talk about it. He just kept checking his backup camera and taking pictures of the bird. 
She had trouble sleeping when he was gone. Even though they had turned away from each other, his weight in the bed was enough. If not enough, something – a pull she could feel. A reminder in physics. After Tom left, Lula ticked through those facts at night. When she did sleep, she dreamt of Ruth and Judd – but then it wasn’t Judd, it was Tom. They stood in a room that had been torn apart, and he stood behind her, tying up her corset before he left. He kissed her in the space between her shoulder blades, grabbing her shoulder as if he wanted to take a part of her with him. Lula would wake up sweating. It reminded her of before. He would do this with Lula when her breathing got caught up and uneven. He would touch her with a kind of determined pressure. He had an agenda. He pawed at her while attempting to disguise it as comfort. He wanted.
But, over time, that pressure she needed had eased. He wouldn’t touch her with any of his strength. She braced herself, ready to push back harder against him, but there was nothing. Quickly his hand would be gone altogether, leaving no imprint of where it had been. She used to be able to feel him the next day. Her hips would ache, and she’d stretch until she could feel the soreness. He bruised her neck with his mouth, and she’d open her collar up to the mirror as she examined the marks.  Now he didn’t leave anything behind.
The day that Tom was due back, Lula woke up in the early afternoon, and the bird was squawking. She put the pillow over her head to try and block it out, but it didn’t work. She threw the covers off of her and walked to the kitchen to make some coffee. She would not address the bird until she was ready. She would make it wait. When the coffee was ready, she poured it into a little white cup with delicate pink and blue roses on it and a gold painted trim around the rim. Lula had not bought this, it was not her style. She liked plain things—sturdy things. The bird squawked again. It was hungry. On her way out of the kitchen she tripped on the leg of the table, dropping her coffee cup on the ground. The thing seemed to shatter in slow motion, and she didn’t move to stop it. The handle flew off like it had torn along a seam.
“Shit,” she whispered sharply.
“Shit! Shit!” came back at her from the living room.
The noise the cup made when it fell sounded like it came from inside her skull, and she put her hands over her ears. Lula stepped around the ceramic pieces and walked into the living room, balling up the folds of her robe in her fists. If she kept them free, she’d be liable to swing.
The bird heard her coming, and the cage started to shake. The black sheet with white embroidered vines covered it as it rocked back and forth. A heavy thing, made so the bird wouldn’t be able to knock it off on its own.
“Please,” Lula said, putting her mouth to the sheet. “Will you please, just, be quiet? I need you to do this for me. Can you? Please?” She breathed out, thinking maybe the hot air from her lungs would do something, like a car in a garage.
“Please! Please!” came from behind the sheet, like a ghost.
The bird’s voice came out differently, this time. It sounded more like her, or how she thought she might sound to someone else. Desperate. Something was wrong with it. She wanted to be away from the bird, away from that voice, so she quietly walked to the front door hoping that it wouldn’t hear her leave. When she stepped outside, the sun hit her as if interrogating her, and she sank down on the stairs. It was cold and she held her coat tightly to her chest. Her feet were bare but she was testing herself. It was a game; how long could she stand it. She would turn around to keep them moving, and was facing the navy blue door when she heard a car pull up in front of the house. She lifted her head and watched him. Tom paused for a moment, staring at her. He looked as if he’d gotten out at the wrong place. He kept his hand on top of the taxi, then he smiled and reached inside his coat. He pulled out a small bunch of crushed red roses and shook them her direction. He hit the roof and started towards her.
“What are you doing out here?” This was a thing he used to laugh at, but now it was a quick smile. She would have missed it if she had blinked. Thank God.
“I was hot, inside.”
“You shouldn’t be out here like this.”
He opened the door and herded her through it. Inside, the bird started up again. Tom walked over, pulled off the sheet like a magic trick and leaned in.
“Hiya, buddy!” he yelled.
Lula put her hands up to her ears, fearing that her voice would come back out of its beak, but it was silent.
“There’s a good man.” Tom opened up the wire door and stuck his finger in. The bird marched onto it from its little swing. It flapped its wings and jumped onto Tom’s shoulder, then stomped around a bit before settling down. Glad to be home.
“Seems a little stir crazy, must have gotten up early,” Tom said, looking from the bird to Lula. His stare was accusatory.
“Excuse me,” she said. “I need to wash up.”
In the bathroom, she sat on the lid of the toilet with her hands between her knees. She leaned her head against the frosted window, and appreciated its coolness. Lula put her hand to her mouth and started to pick at the dry pieces of skin on her lips. Then she thought about lipstick – if she still had that color he used to like, or if he had ever mentioned liking one in particular.
Lula walked back to the kitchen and stopped in the doorway. She curled her toes to grip the floor. Tom had started another pot with the mess on the floor just inches away from his feet. He had the newspaper tucked into his waistband the way a cop carries a gun. She didn’t want to ask about it, but had nothing else to say.
“How did it go, then?”
He turned and smiled at her, the kind of smile she hadn’t seen in months. She almost returned it. He grabbed the newspaper and unrolled it. He held it up next to his face as if he were posing with some big game he had hunted.
“Take a look.”
Lula couldn’t understand at first. It wasn’t something she could easily make out. She squinted her eyes causing the pain in her forehead to spread up underneath her hair and across to both temples. She became dizzy. In the picture, Ruth Snyder grabbed both arms of the chair with a grip that she never could have managed before that moment. Her ankles were straining against the leather strap, her feet kicked out to either side. She was wearing black loafers; Lula had a similar pair. Something black covered Ruth’s face; it looked like a muzzle made for dogs. The photograph was blurry, and Lula couldn’t tell if that was because she could actually see the electricity moving through Ruth’s body or if it was the way the picture had been taken. Every sharp line in the photograph couldn’t hold its content, the blacks and grays of her were bleeding out. At the bottom of the picture, there was something hard and shiny. A shoe. Tom’s shoe. It looked so large and invasive. Right above the photo was a single big, bold word: DEAD!
“You ever seen anything like that?”
“Of course not.” Lula rocked a little, placing one cold hand on the wall for balance. She felt as if she had been attacked.
“Here, take a look.” Tom brought it close to her face, and she put her hands up.
“Look! Look!” the bird yelled out.
Lula sat down, and Tom grabbed the flowers he had set on the table.
“I’m sorry about these,” he said. “They looked more alive when I got them.” He started to poke through the petals, seemingly trying to find something in between them. Lula could feel the silk coming off on her fingertips.
“You shouldn’t touch them,” Lula said, louder than she had meant to.
A rigidness set in his shoulders at the sound of her voice, and she could see his jaw clench.
“What was it like?” she asked.
She saw him relax, and he turned back with a slight smile.
“Fast,” he said. He pulled out a chair and sat down hard.
“The guard checked us.” His hands were suddenly on her, moving up and down her sides. Lula took in a sharp breath. “Patted us down and let us in the room. I thought he would feel the wire, but you could tell they wanted to get that door closed. Press went to the back of the room, but I shoved up for a good spot where I could see her. Then they brought her in. You could tell she was scared; her lip quivered,” he said as he moved his lip with his finger. “And her eyes were wide as planets, but she wasn’t crying. They sat her down, strapped her in, then shaved the top of her head.”
“Why?” Lula put her hand on top of her own. She imagined a draft.
“They put a wet sponge there.” He tapped the top of her head, and she could almost feel her brain shake. “Makes the electrocution go faster, more humane.”
“Did she say anything?” she whispered.
“‘Forgive them father, for they know not what they do.’ Then they flipped it. She grabbed hold of the chair with everything she had, then she went limp. I almost didn’t get it in time, but everything lined up perfectly, thank God.”
“Thank God.” Lula repeated it back to him, slowly but reflexively. She couldn’t help herself.
Lula stared at him as he looked over the picture—he couldn’t stop smiling. He had caught something special, someone’s soul on the outside of their body. He had caught it for himself, and it ignited him. There was nothing in the room now, not even him. He was still there, with Ruth.
“I felt bad for Judd Gray. When they brought him in you could still smell something, like metal. He was weeping and tripping over his feet when they sat him down. She went better than him; that’s why they had her go first. They knew she would be better.”
“I don’t like it,” Lula said.
Tom looked at her as if she had hit him.
“She wasn’t a saint, you know.” He crossed his arms over himself and hardness set back in.
Lula thought Ruth might have been, at the very least, some sort of martyr for herself. Everything had been taken from her and burned up.
“She only had dignity in dying, and that’s what I got here.”
It was quiet for a moment and then the bird squawked, making Lula’s heart jump. 
“Can you please get rid of that damn bird?” she said, putting her hands over her ears.
Tom stroked the bird’s neck with his finger, then got up from his chair. 
“I’m tired,” he said with his eyes down. He didn’t say anything else right away. The way he had said it sounded almost like a question that she should answer, the way it hung there between them. When he finally did look at her, she stopped breathing, wanting to be as quiet as possible.
“I like the bird,” he said, before he turned and walked away.
Tom had left the bird on the table. Lula watched it and thought about how stuffy the room felt and how hot it had gotten with the sun coming in. She thought about opening a window while she scratched at her neck. The bird jumped down from the table to the ground so clumsily it surprised her. The bird couldn’t fly – its wings were regularly clipped – but she didn’t know if it even knew how. It walked over to the puddle of coffee on the linoleum and, with its beak to the floor, stuck its dry, gray tongue out, stabbing at the coffee in a way that made Lula feel sick again.
She had the newspaper in her hand. She didn’t know how it got there, really; she must have grabbed it. The paper was thick – special issue heavy. She felt weak and swimmy, but she moved fast. Maybe faster than she had ever moved in her life. She got him on the first swing, and it made a terrible noise. A sort of scream that tried to be human but failed and cracked back into something else. It went on like that until it was over. She wished to God it couldn’t talk, because even in the silence, with Tom looking at her in the doorway, wet and naked from the shower, she could still hear it ringing in her ears. Lula wondered if that’s why they muzzled her.