The State Bird of Arkansas

southernlit

words: Marla Cantrell

Violet can’t do math. She gets by okay, but salespeople and con artists could rob her blind, and she’d never know. The year she was supposed to learn long division and memorize her times tables, the school had decided to switch things up. The kids changed classes three times a day, something they’d never done before, and each teacher covered two subjects, so Violet, along with every other third-grader, was taught math by their Arkansas History teacher who had never taught anything else. Today, she can tell you that the state bird is the mockingbird, adopted in 1929 and that Thomas Jefferson had a pet mockingbird he named “Dick,” but she can’t tell you the product of seven times nine.

 

Which is a problem for Violet, who’s been asked, on this fourth day of October, to be in charge of the cash drawer at the fruit market where she usually works sorting produce. At the end of the day, after checking out a steady influx of customers, she’s twelve dollars and fourteen cents short, and she’s in tears.

 

“My poodle could do a better job than you,” Violet’s boss says, and Violet tells him what he can do with his dog.

 

The next day Violet’s due back at three but she decides not to go to work at all. Violet looks in her purse. She has a twenty-dollar bill, a credit card with a limit of five hundred dollars that she’s never used, and a full tank of gas. She considers calling her mom, to ask her advice, but her mom lives in Sedona now and wears a lot of turquoise, and the last time Violet talked to her, she asked Violet to call her by her first name and then told Violet a wildly inappropriate story about a man she was seeing.

 

She grabs her purse and locks the door behind her. Violet slides behind the steering wheel of her old Escape and heads north. She notices the leaves on her neighbor’s sugar maple have already turned the color of cherries, and she feels the old excitement fall brings. On the other side of the Bobby Hopper Tunnel, the trees are starting to really show off. Violet imagines Heaven sometimes, and when she does, it’s always autumn. If angels wore halos of crimson maple leaves, she’d feel right at home.

 

In Fayetteville, she gets off the interstate. She drives by the University of Arkansas. Violet had a boyfriend once named Todd who went there, and she’d come see him almost every weekend. If Todd ever loved her, he hadn’t said so. She hadn’t loved him either, but that seemed beside the point.

 

With the windows down, Violet’s hair is blowing. She likes her hair. It’s still the blonde of childhood. All her other blonde friends have gone brunette over the years, their hair and their moods darkening. Violet likes her legs and her cheekbones. She likes her mood, mostly. Everything else she’d change if she could.

 

In Whole Foods, Violet buys cheese from the Netherlands with her credit card. She buys crackers whose name she can’t pronounce. She eats an entire pizza while sitting on a bar stool with the heels of her cowboy boots hooked across the rung.

 

A little girl in purple rain boots smiles at her. A man with a hoop earring and a tattoo of a buffalo on his forearm looks her up and down and winks and then blushes, a contradiction from head to toe. An older woman tells her she has pizza sauce on her chin, and Violet blushes too.

 

When she gets to her car, the sun is sinking. Violet has always loved this time of day. She leans against the Escape and watches the sky. When she was a girl, her family lived on a farm that was loud with animals. The cows lowed. Horses whinnied. Roosters crowed. She loved the hens the best. They squawked and complained and bragged all day long. She named one Velta. That old bird lived for ten years.

 

At this time of the day, at this time of the year, Violet would lay hidden in the fallow field, the tall grass of autumn as gold as the straw Rumpelstiltskin had spun in his fairytale. At times, she could hear her parents, their voices like lamplight as they walked past her to the barn holding hands, never seeing her, talking about the neighbors or the cost of feed. When she learned the word “clandestine” she knew that’s how she felt on those perfect days.

 

What she loved, even more, was the way the wind sang across the top of the grass, how it moved the grass in waves but didn’t touch her. She’d tried to explain the feeling to her then-husband but he didn’t get it. When he left, he said, “You’re like one of those poems that doesn’t rhyme. I’ve pretended to understand you all this time, but I never ever did.”

 

Violet pulls her leather jacket from the backseat and slips it on. The coat used to be her father’s, and the leather is cracked at the elbows. When he died, she took the jacket that smelled like soap and motor oil and hay and slept with it for a full month. She took his belt with the three holes that were stretched wider than the others, three signs of her dad’s growing waist over the years. She took his Timex with its linked metal band you could twist like a pretzel. When she wore them all, it was like he was still there.

 

There is a patch of grass near Whole Foods, and Violet takes the old blanket from the back of her car and heads that way. People watch her–she can feel it–but she doesn’t care. She spreads the plaid blanket out and lies down, as inconspicuous as she can be on this busy thoroughfare, and puts her hands behind her head.

 

At thirty, she should not have an ex-husband and a dead daddy. She sighs, crosses her legs at the ankle, touches her ring finger that still has an indention where her wedding band used to be.

 

Traffic hums along. Sometimes a horn blares, but mostly the sound is brakes, and tires on pavement and a radio turned up too loud. Above, night is crawling out of its bed. A star appears and then another. The moon, when it shows its face, is half of its whole self, and that seems right to Violet.

 

She hears footsteps that cause her to sit up. Above her, the man with the buffalo tattoo stands. “Hey,” he says, and he rubs his arms against the cold. “I saw you come this way, and I just wanted to make sure you’re OK.”

 

Violet pulls the cuffs of her jacket over her fingers. “Yeah,” she says, “just, you know, taking in the night.”

 

“Mind if I sit?” the man says, and Violet scoots over, even though she’s not certain she should. He holds out his hand and says, “August Patton,” and Violet takes it and says, “Violet Franklin.”

 

“It’s a good night,” August says, and then he points. “Stars.”

 

“Moon,” Violet says, and points even higher.

 

“I saw three shooting stars last night,” August says. “Within fifteen minutes.”

 

August has blue eyes and black hair that’s going gray at the temples. When he smiles, he looks too young for gray hair.

 

“I quit my job today,” Violet says.

 

“What did you do?”

 

“Stocked produce at a fruit stand. Tried to make change. Couldn’t do it.”

 

“I work at a call center. I talk to people about their credit scores.”

 

“Does it make you happy?”

 

“Not one bit,” August says and picks a blade of grass that’s halfway between green and brown and puts it between his teeth.

 

Violet lies back and looks again at the sky. “I thought I’d have life figured out by now.”

 

“I don’t think it works like that.”

 

“Then how does it work?”

 

August shakes his head. “Like a jigsaw puzzle. You don’t know how it turns out until the very end.”

 

“Doesn’t that drive you crazy?”

 

“No,” August says, “I don’t think I’d like to see too far ahead.”

 

A cloud crosses the moon. “I used to lie in the tall grass when I was a kid,” Violet says. “I’d flatten out a space just big enough for me, and when I lay against the ground it would still be warm, and the wind would move the grass like a hula skirt, but never touch me.”

 

August lies down. “I bet you felt as safe as if you were in a cradle,” he says, and Violet turns on her side to face him. “That’s exactly how I felt,” she says, and she feels tears burn her eyes. “You think it’s possible to feel that way again?”

 

August doesn’t speak for a few moments. The traffic is dying down, and even in this city, there are cicadas singing. Bugs flock to the lights of the parking lot and the sound of them is like a choir humming. “I do,” August finally says, and Violet feels something akin to electricity rocket through her.

 

She wants to reach out and touch August but instead she says, “Arkansas’ state tree is a pine,” and August says, “You don’t say.”

 

“The state mineral is quartz crystal, and the state bird is a mockingbird. A mockingbird can sound like anything it wants. A barking dog, a wet thumb squeaking across a window, even a frog,” she says and this time, she reaches for August’s hand.

 

August’s fingers intertwine with Violet’s. “You’re smart as a whip,” he says.

 

“My ex-husband thought I was a nut.”

 

“He sounds like a jerk. I could wreck his credit score if you wanted me to.”

 

Violet laughs. “That’s the nicest thing anyone’s said to me in a long time.”

 

August pulls his work ID from his shirt pocket. “I really could,” he says. “I’d get fired if anyone found out, but what the heck.”

 

The clouds shift again and new stars appear. A plane blinks across the sky. On the other side of College Avenue, a car lot’s sign announces the best deals of the year. Violet wonders how good the deals could be. Maybe the best deal of the year is right beside her.

 

August lets go of her hand and slips his arm underneath her shoulder. His body this close feels brand new and older than the earth beneath her. Nothing has ever felt this way before, and she starts to say so. But instead she puts her hand on August’s chest just to feel his heart beat, and that seems like more than enough on a night like this.

 

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