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Quetzalcoatl Eats Plums

02/05/2011

Joy J. Henry is writing a series of connected short stories to accompany songs by The Mountain Goats. Have a listen:

The Mountain Goats- Quetzalcoatl Eats Plums

After I got the call that Jenny had been in a car accident, I stared out the window for some time. Welfare kids played in the sand between the apartment units, ramped their bikes through the ditch. One with ash-colored hair and a green cast on his wrist sailed at least five feet into the air.

Like Jenny, these unwanted kids were developing slightly superhuman powers; the poison of being abandoned manifested  in unforeseen ways, like being exposed to nuclear waste in a comic book: breaking the same bone five times and yet healing over again; effortlessly playing Legos while an aunt or grandma or whoever cared for them screamed at someone on the phone.

Jenny’s mother Beth, my daughter, had skipped town while Jenny was still in the cradle. I changed Jenny’s diapers, fed her mashed up bananas. She grew up sweet but detached. When she turned 11, she began stealing car batteries from Pep Boys for me when mine died, but she wouldn’t ever tell me what she was thinking. On the day she started her period, she woke up in a pool of fresh blood.

“I’ll deal with it, Nana,” she said, balling the sheets up and putting them in the washer.

Now Jenny was dead at 17, a year younger than Beth had been when she gave birth to Jenny and left town.

*

When I went into labor with Jenny’s mother, Harold and I had gone to the then new Seven Rivers Hospital. Now I wouldn’t take my dog there, if I had one. At the hospital, they put me in a gown, sat me in a chair.

“The baby’s coming,” I said. The nurse stared at me blankly, in her paper hat and white shoes. “The doctor’s not ready yet,” she said.  “You’re going to have to keep the baby inside you until he’s ready. Here, let me show you how.”

The nurse climbed onto the bed, turned on her side, and pulled her knees up to her chest.

I didn’t know any better, so I imitated her as best I could. Harold stroked my head, getting more and more exasperated as I wheezed and grunted against Beth’s desire to escape. “That doctor can eat plums!” Harold yelled, so they could hear him down at the nurse’s station. Harold was Catholic, had worn the same crew cut since he served in WWII. “Plums!”

Eventually, the doctor came. When I woke up from the twilight sleep I had a baby girl and a burst womb. Beth was alive, but I had poisoned her that day, holding her inside against her will.

When Beth hit 14, she started sleeping with the shrimpers when they came to dock on the weekends. During the week she hung out with the burnouts from school, the ones who parked their cars on dead end roads and smoked dope. She had Jenny just before graduating high school, left a few months later with a top man from the Army Corps of Engineers.

He was the one who’d come up with the idea to build a cross-Florida barge canal, dredge a convenient shipping route through the state. Soon, Greenpeace was raising a stink about the endangered wading birds, killing the project. Beth flew with the engineer across the world, leaving behind a baby and a five mile long useless canal. A year later, Harold died of throat cancer. Envelopes arrived from time to time, with checks made out to Jenny and blank postcards indicating Beth’s current exotic location. I put them in a cabinet above the fridge.

I did the best I could raising Jenny. As a child she’d always loomed over me, like the three-legged frogs that came out of the woods near the canal, after they’d sprayed defoliant chemicals. “I can sense that something’s wrong with me,” she seemed to be saying. “And who did it? Was it you?”

What was I supposed to say? I accidentally poisoned you and your mother a long time ago? I told Jenny that her mother was an important government operative, and when she got too old for the act, I didn’t say much of anything.

“Your mother’s just off eating plums, honey,” Harold would’ve said.

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