The Buzzard of the Highways
He watched from his post on the evergreen top, that one good tree that was could carry his pride. The other branches, the weak ones of the pear trees and the hybrid apples, they shook and wailed under his hooked feet like scared things. Desperate things. The types of things he glanced over, flipped his top knot like they were so ridiculous in his presence, but they were. They couldn’t help it, those struggling branches, and not even the Oregon moss gave them a coat thick enough to act tough. Not like the buzzard would have noticed anyway. Not like he cared.
The four-wheeled monsters, the two-wheeled ones, they whipped by fast along the asphalt, as fast as he could fly. But they were scooted along in the filth, and sometimes their bellies scraped the bumps. Pathetic little things. Sometimes they were just as useless as the prey he watched sprint across the yellow, dashed lines.
Buzzard tousled his top knot over his scapular, glorious atop the world. Death was beneath him, bits of snake pancaked from a worn-out wheel. An hour ago, he’d watched it happen and for just a moment—he swore it, just a slip of time—he’d thought about snatching the slithering miniature beast for himself. Then it wriggled of course, spilling over with life and energy. He hadn’t even been hungry, wasn’t even thinking of slipping scales and long, long bone between his beak today. Snake was tough, not his favorite. But the eyes he could imagine popping in his throat, juices sluicing quick into his belly. And the tongue, the tongue. He liked to think of it splitting all the way to its other end, filling him with ribbony pieces of pink that soaked into his hollow bones.
Just look at them down there, pitiful and shrieking at each other. Crow bounced around ridiculous, pecking between wing flutters of the Vultures. “You’re pathetic,” he called down from his perch, waiting between the highway horn blows to rain down his judgments.
“Says who?” Young Vulture asked, tiny entrails spraying from his beak. “The one who thinks he’s too good for us, sitting fat like a god in his tree?”
“Disgusting,” said Buzzard. “All of you, the lot of you. Eating deadness. Eating trash.”
Young Vulture fluffed himself, rolled his eyes as his elders shushed him. Crow, he never spoke to Buzzard, pretended like he couldn’t hear. Stupid, Buzzard knew he heard all.
As dusk slid its slippery black fingers over the pines, Young Vulture played the afternoon over and over in his head. Idiot Buzzard, so prideful. So vain. Him and his stupid pile of hair-feathers balanced like a crown in the sky. “Why’s he gotta do that?” he asked his elders, but they quieted him like always with no answers. And he was sick of it.
Young Vulture, he knew where Buzzard slept. Knew the tree where he buried down in the night, the one with the wires wrapped around it and the bed made of dried grass and decaying pine cones. And he knew Buzzard slept well, slept hard, stomach full and heavy with the dying animals he’d snatched that day, their blood keeping him warm ‘til morning.
He waited until the nests in his own tower were quiet all around him, nothing but the dream-induced fluffing and quivers in the purple sky. Grabbing the old knife from the storage branch, the rusty one that still held sharpness, he tucked it into his claw and delighted in its weight. He’d never touched it before, though he’d loved it the minute his brother had carried it home. “What are you, a magpie?” his mother had laughed. He’d always adored the shiniest things. Only then, with the slicer cradled like a scared rat below him, did he leave the roost, hop in silence from the commune before taking a wobbly flight into the deep.
Buzzard’s nest wasn’t far, and Young Vulture knew he’d be back before anyone would miss him. I thought I’d seen a mouse. Today’s carrion made me feel ill. He ran over the excuses, rolled them across his tongue to make them taste natural in case any elders saw him come back and required an excuse. Something believable.
He’d never seen Buzzard’s nest up close. The smell was different, the acid from the pines making it softer and warmer than his own. And he slept different than Young Vulture’s elders, not curled up nearly as tightly. He slept alone, could spread out and let his feathers fall like grace across the branches. Now, in this moment, he looked almost peaceful.
His top knot, it really was beautiful, thick and grand. Young Vulture didn’t really get the point of such a vanity, but like everyone else he admired it. Not that he’d ever tell Buzzard that (nobody did), but it was Fact. His own head was clean and bald, not a single feather to be found. It’s what made him ugly.
The snip was over fast, but the memory burned into his brain. The sound the top knot made when the knife flashed through it. How it felt so much lighter than he’d imagined clutched in his talons. Buzzard didn’t even move and now—now—now, now, now …
Buzzard was ugly, too.
Fear gripped Young Vulture on the brief flight back, even as the river beneath him glistened like the shiniest of all greatness. And the top knot grew heavier, heavier in his grip, so heavy he couldn’t keep hold. So he let go, let all that beauty get wrapped up in the winds and scattered like droppings to the earth below. The knife, too, the evidence of his badness.
Young Vulture slept late, a rarity for him. Like the rest of his family, he was often up early, eager to see what treats had been broken, beaten and splayed open like a gift on the black flattops below. Why didn’t anyone wake him? Why was everyone lined up like dutiful soldiers on the big wire?
“What time—“ he began to ask his mother as he settled next to her, his eyes still full of sleep.
“Shh,” she said, motioning to the earth.
What seemed like miles below, Buzzard was hunched, looking bald and naked, amongst the empty cans and discarded sandwich wrappers. In his feet, a smashed squirrel’s head lolled backwards. Young Vulture could smell the wheel-death of the big-tailed animal from way up here.
“Is he … why’s he eating carrion?” he asked his mother. She shrugged, eyes embarrassed for the poor thing, and nudged her son back to the nest.
Sex starts small, I learned that young. I was four, and (like most inching towards Kindergarten), I don’t remember much. I remember this—standing on the autumn leaves while my father built a little house for me in the backyard. Years later, it would be home to the big pool pump even after the water had dried up and the lining got cracked. I remember finger painting with my mother on the rickety metal card table in the living room, her screaming at me to be happy and enjoy myself. I hated finger painting, it made me feel dirty. I remember the eyes of the Indian woman in the hallway painting, how they’d watch me no matter which way I walked, and how she’d only do it when nobody else was looking.
And I remember the time in the bathtub.
Our water came from the well, and I hated the taste. Like metal gone bad. Sometimes it had a rusty color, and I didn’t want to bathe in it, but my mom didn’t believe in showers. Demanded that baths were relaxing and, like her, I was only allowed to soak. But I’d throw a fit when the water was too brown, so she’d squirt in half a bottle of blue food coloring to bury my silence. “It’s like a lagoon! A tropical paradise. Hawaii,” she’d crow, even though she’d never been anywhere beaches were warm. She’d only seen the sands of Oregon, and we called them coasts here. And once, once, I’d been told we’d seen the blinding white sands of Florida, but I wasn’t sure that was true. She said I was still in diapers and didn’t remember, and the people in the pictures looked like they were in a play. My mom looked too young, my dad didn’t have his moustache, and the baby they held had nothing of me in it. Those blue eyes in the photos had long turned to Cherokee green.
And sometimes not even the blue food coloring satisfied me. I swear, I could still see the grains of the filth. The well’s underbelly would sneak in through the pipes, deposit a dusting of what I was sure were crushed insects along the porcelain floor. I wouldn’t get in. “Jesus Christ, Justine,” my mom would say, and then glub-glub half a cup of dish soap in the tub. It covered the secrets up, but I could still feel the broken bugs on my too-thick thighs and flat butt. I just knew enough not to complain anymore.
I’d stay in the bathroom for an hour. It didn’t matter that the water went cold or that every last bubble popped. I didn’t care that the dish soap dried up my skin so much that it began to pain, or that I could feel the slime of it seeping into my pores. That my hair, no matter how many times I dunked it, never really got truly clean in the soupy well water. I was told that this was Relaxing Time and it was the only time my mother left me alone. When I was ready to get out, I had to call her. She hated the thought of leaving soap to line and sit in the tub, so I’d have to stand as the water drained and she hosed down each piece of the liner, inch by inch. Once the escaping water reached my feet that looked just like hers, she’d start to hose me down, too. The well, it was running dry, and by then the water from the hose was always almost-cool at best. Usually, it had gone cold. And she’d have me spin, turn, hold up my hair to spray down my slippery neck. At four, I’d already learned fast to hate this process. It was like being one of those hanged, headless, skinless animals at the slaughterhouse down the street. Hooked and waiting for the butchery to be done while my insides, my private areas, were on display.
We had one bathroom in the entire house, and so I wasn’t allowed to lock the door. My mom, in the summer, would always be in the yard, covering our one, long acre in discount perennials. Tending to the marijuana that she planted along with the tomato plants because they looked kind of alike. Pulling up weeds, yelling at my dad to mow the grass, swatting away the latest animal she had acquired, shrieking at it to behave against its instinct and act like she thought it should. Goats, turkeys, ponies, and rabbits. Sometimes, her or my dad would come into the bathroom, pull down their pants to defecate or stream yellow into the chipped bowl. I could only see the flanks of their thighs when this happened, the toilet was on the other side of the bathtub wall with the sawed-off spout. My mom’s white-white jiggly side-butt or my dad’s milk chocolate cream with the sparse black hairs. It always shocked me, how much lighter his Indian skin was on the parts where the sun couldn’t reach. To me, he was Hershey brown, a color that must have run out of me in birth.
Sometimes they’d say something to me, most times they didn’t. Especially not my dad—I don’t think he knew what to say. But this time, when I was squarely Four, I was well-armed. I was always swimming in toys, always used, always garage sale finds he would bring to me in soft, worn-out boxes from his Saturday hunts. My favorite was a plastic alligator squirt gun. My mom hated that, that I often went to the boy toys instead of the cutesy stuff she liked. She hated that I hated Sesame Street and picked He-Man or Thundercats when I had a choice. She hated that I didn’t like dresses, preferred the black t-shirts with monsters on them. Werewolves, vampires and Frankensteins.
Just a month ago, my mom had painted big, fat blue raindrops everywhere on the bathroom walls. I had to help, and it was obvious which were mine and which were hers. Mine were fast, hurried. I didn’t want to be doing it. She did that, stuff like that. Our house was the weird one, but I was just now figuring out to be embarrassed. Embarrassment is something that comes in random bursts, like a growth. I guess it has to be that way, doesn’t it? Otherwise babies would be way too embarrassed with their poop and vomit and nipple sucking to ever get big. Embarrassment was coming in buckets to me that summer, like it had gotten lazy and was playing catch up.
It had only been a couple of weeks since the last big embarrassment. My mom, determined that I would know everything about sex since she had known nothing, had blasted words like penis and vagina at me since before I could remember. Intercourse, sex, orgasm, sperm. They were as common to me as yellow, blue, rectangle, and square. She didn’t want me to be like her, turn thirteen years old and come home crying because a boy had accidentally brushed his khaki-clad Penis against me in the school hallway and thinking I might be pregnant. So two weeks ago, while I stood on a chair playing with my dad’s long black hair, twisting it into twin mounts on top of my head and giggling, I caught myself when my mom walked by and asked, “What are you doing?”
“I’m making him horny.” I heard it, my try at making a joke—horns to horny—turn to filth between my lips. I knew it before I saw the shift in his eyes, before I felt the silence shoot at me from my mother’s presence. And I said nothing, just let go of his locks and scooted back down off the chair.
“What are you doing?”
My dad had come into the bathroom so quiet I hadn’t even heard the footsteps in the hall. He could do that, unlike my mom. Move like a cat, like a big sneaky thing. Her footsteps always announced themselves from what felt like miles away, a lumbering lack of grace before her musky smell announced itself.
“Nothing,” I told him. He stood before the vanity mirror, the one that opened with a soft press to reveal his green Barasol can that turned the shelves dark red. His old razor. My mom’s dull tweezers and silver hair clips. His back to me, he watched me in the mirror as he lathered his face. Like snow spreading across peaks and mountains. Something had changed in him. This mask, the snowy one, I’d seen hundreds of times. But always, I’d known what was below. Thought I’d known. It was my dad, the one who would drink an entire liter of Coke and half a can of peanuts. The one who took me to the Red Barn Auction on Thursday nights, to McDonald’s for their spongy pancakes and warm syrup on Saturday mornings after the first best garage sales had been ransacked. The one who flew me around like I was a plane in the photos, who grew that moustache because I got to watch Born in East L.A. and thought he looked just like Cheech Marin. “Grow a moustache! Grow a moustache!” I’d begged of him, and he had. It came in slow, so we all got used to it together. Now, it was the dad in the photos that looked like a stranger. I couldn’t remember what his full upper lip looked like anymore, but I knew what his moustache looked like after he ate all those peanuts. Dusted in salt and little nut skin flakes.
What are you doing? What are you doing. He said these words for a different reason than my mom. Because it made him sound like he cared, and he knew my answer would be short. My mom asked because she had to know everything, didn’t realize that children came with their own deep-inside personalities that she couldn’t keep choke-collar tight. I’d seen that after the horny incident, saw her face scrambling to contain the wild animal she thought she’d spotted in me. I wanted to explain that it was a joke, that my words came faster than my head could manage, but that would just make it worse. Wouldn’t it? Wouldn’t that just make it worse?
My dad’s face was half white snow now, the top half the same brown skin as always and those green-gold eyes. They crawled over me like insects, and I could feel the itchy dead bodies at my legs again. They had disappeared when I’d first lowered myself into the water. But now that water was cool, the bubbles gone, and the false blue wasn’t enough to offer any comfort. There were dark bits floating at the surface now, too. What body parts might those be? Maybe tiny little alien eyes, or a leg all akimbo. Flecks stuck to my skin where the water licked at my belly. My sides. Right below my nipples. And I was ashamed.
It was like in Sunday School, how they tell you about Adam and Eve. Eat the wrong thing, and you get embarrassed all at once. Not over time like you’re supposed to. I don’t know if my dad had ever changed my diaper. Given me a bath when I was too little to do it myself. I know he’d never hosed me off—that was my mom’s job.
“You gon’ stay in there much longer?” he asked as he picked up the razor, held the blade to his cheek. It was old, and I knew he’d cut himself. Leave the bathroom with bloody bits of paper stuck like bows at the sharpest angles. His Oklahoma accent spilt something fierce through his snow-flaked lips.
“I don’t know,” I said. Penis. Vagina. I could see the start of my vagina at the depths of the blue, blue water. His eyes kept marching over me. Down my throat to rest in the hollow of my collarbone. Across my shoulders, peeling from the early summer shine. He carved out a piece of brown from the white, the soft scrape-scrape sound echoing in the tiny room. He’d shut the bathroom door. Why had he shut the door? It was too small with two people in here, the raindrop walls moving uncomfortably close. It was pouring.
“Hmm,” he said, revealing another section of skin. His chin, the one unlike mine. Mine was like my mom’s, a slight dimple. Butt-face, that one boy had called me at Vacation Bible School. Jesus hadn’t cared, just kept staring at the ceiling from the big cross up front, eyes faded and looking bored. Not like my dad’s eyes. They moved to my upper arms, the ones I already knew were too big.
“You can always tell when a girl is gonna be fat by her upper arms,” my mom would say, pointing out girls my age, younger, older, it didn’t matter. “It’s all in the arms,” she’d say, with a sad shake of her head. “It’s a terrible thing, to have to watch your weight your whole life. God, what I would give to be thin and rich. That’s all I want in my next life.”
In my water-logged fingers, the hollow alligator nuzzled close. I could fill it with one hand, I’d been practicing. Like an army man, and I hadn’t even known a war was coming. Just knew, like instinct. I had to be able to load this gun one-handed, simple as that. Slow, careful, tucking the alligator against my hip I pulled his orange syringe like I was lapping up all the poison. He grew heavier in my palm, didn’t want to pop up to the surface anymore. He was so full with the water, he was happy to stay weighted and deadly ‘til I was ready.
My dad moved the razor against the long moustache hairs, careful to keep each side equally thick. It must have been hard to do without looking. Or maybe you get used to it. I wanted to see if he’d locked the door or just closed it, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t look away, or his eyes could race too fast to somewhere they shouldn’t be.
To my elbows they went, the crooks of them at the water’s surface. The razor slid to his throat. His eyes to my nipples. Now. The alligator attacked.
It was perfect, not a sound or a splash. I took aim like I always did, arm stretched out, trigger ready. But I shot for his face, the one in the mirror with the searching eyes, and the alligator vomited a blue stream all across his back.
“Goddamnit!” he yelled, raking the razor across his barely-there Adam’s apple and it went from white to bright red in a second. “What the—Rhoda! Rhoda!” he yelled, calling for my mom. Her heavy feet slapped against the linoleum in the kitchen, just a few steps away.
“Jimmy? What is it? Is Justi—” she screamed from behind the door, and it flew open. It wasn’t locked, wasn’t locked, wasn’t locked. “What happened?” she asked, scanning him as he clutched a wash rag to his throat, me sitting with my knees drawn up to cover my nipples.
“She shot me!” he said, like he couldn’t believe it himself.
“Justine! What the hell are you doing?” she asked.
“No, I—I didn’t do it. It was the alligator.” It was the truth.