Toy Whistle

Cezarija Abartis


Paula couldn’t understand. What was love about? How in all of this too-muchness there was a line to something. How to make sense of her life, her mother’s life. Maybe no sense, no meaning. Probably that. Likely that. That was the secret. To be content with that.


The meteorologist predicted spring storms, maybe even hail. Yesterday the heat descended and, strangely, the wind lashed the leaves. Today the air was still. Just a couple birds warbling in the distance. Paula remembered a bird-shaped toy whistle with water in it. This was before plastic was used for everything. She tried to remember the material. Not wood. Tin? Her grandmother gave it to her, showed her how to fill it with water–not too much–and blow on the red whistle. Paula’s brother had one too. As if there wasn’t enough noise in her mother’s life with the two children and the mother-in-law.


Paula’s mother enjoyed a good joke. “If your wife and your lawyer were drowning and you had to choose–would you go to lunch or to the movies?” Now that would be labeled sexist, and her mother would have to substitute “spouse.” Her mother had fluttered her lashes over sea-blue eyes and laughed. “I heard that on television.” Paula joked back, “I don’t have a wife,” and her mother laughed again. “You’re clever, dear,” and kissed her forehead. “You should be a lawyer.” “But then I might drown,” Paula said. She liked making her mother laugh.


Her mother liked riddles and rhymes too. This little piggy went to market, this little piggy . . .  To be or not to be, that is the question. Why did the chicken cross the road? Better a pig satisfied than Socrates dissatisfied. Who wants to be Socrates, anyway, Paula wondered. Her mother did. She read Camus, didn’t like Sartre, liked Jane Austen. “What falls but never gets hurt?” she asked. And answered, “Water, from a tap or a river.” She clapped her hands in glee. “If you drop a yellow hat in the Red Sea, what does it become?” She closed her eyes and laughed hysterically. “Wet.”


Today Paula had a cold and it hurt to swallow. She felt as if she were holding her breath. It was the anniversary of her mother’s death. Well, call it what it was, suicide. And she was the exact age of her mother–forty-one–so the day had special weight. She didn’t particularly believe that history repeated itself, so she was free in that respect, but she was not free of the resentment for all the years she didn’t have with her mother. Not free of the pity that she felt for her mother in pain.


She used to think the fault was hers. Survivor’s guilt. When she was young she wondered if she’d disappointed her mother by not getting all A’s on her report card that time. Or not having rich and beautiful friends. Or not taking care of her dog when Mother was working in the laundromat. But now she knew nothing would’ve worked. Not more friends nor angelic behavior nor good grades.


Maybe her mother made the right decision. Maybe consciousness was not a good thing. Paula had entertained the notion that it was better to be a pig satisfied, to have no memories, no aspirations. But even pigs wanted things: food, sex, warm mud. And then they were slaughtered, eaten by humans, who were themselves eaten by worms. Circle of life, ha ha. Or circle of death. Yes.


She peered out the window at the heavy clouds. “Let there be light!” Genesis recorded. And the universe snapped into existence.


Light first; and then life emerged from the water. Fish, birds, everything. The latest evidence showed that birds were related to dinosaurs, relics of an ancient era, memories from 150 million years ago.


She opened a can of tuna feast and spooned it out for Schrödinger, who meowed and stropped her ankles. She turned on the television. The microwave beeped and she went to get her coffee. She saw the light from the television flickering, flashing colors. Thunder at 7:18. Carpentering in the distance, hammering; someone didn’t believe a storm would happen. The sky was thick, unchanging as sidewalk cement, though she knew it wasn’t. Cement cracked, sidewalks lifted.


She sat at the kitchen table, tapped the pile of books for the classes she was teaching. She had started the semester by saying, “Welcome to my Literature 125 class. In the beginning was the word. What a beautiful way to begin the world.” She wasn’t sure they understood.


Was God lonely? Did He need to communicate, want to watch and speak with intelligent beings instead of persisting in the clanging darkness? He wanted company, needed another consciousness to watch and love. That was the old story the nuns told her. And there was water and life in the world.


What were the last words her mother spoke to her? Before she went to jump off the Smithfield Street Bridge. Paula couldn’t remember. Was it better to make something up?


I have to go now. Turn off the porch light. Watch for cars. Look both ways when you cross. Always take care of your skin. Stand up straight. Brush your teeth.


She had tried not to remember. She was a girl walking to school. Probably it was “Good-bye.” No, it was “I love you.”


In the middle of religion class, she was called to the office, where Sister Alverna smiled sadly at her and told her to go home to her father. Paula wondered if he had been injured by a press in the factory. Perhaps his little finger was caught, or maybe something fell down on his steel-toed shoes, or maybe something worse, which she would not allow herself to imagine.


Her mother dressed in her pink suit and jumped into the Monongahela River. There were two suicides that year from the bridges.


Paula put a second cup of coffee to heat in the microwave. She petted Schrödinger in her lap as he watched the birds in the yard. Birds wanted to fly; he wanted to catch them; she wanted something too. Last week she taught Chekhov in her Intro to Lit class, his sympathy with flawed characters. The story was “Grief,” in which the sledge driver wants to tell his sorrow to one passenger after another and to a fellow cab driver but none of them listen, preoccupied as they are with their own appointments and parties or fatigue. He needed to speak and finally he does. The microwave beeped. Paula forgave her mother for the suicide, the impossible aspirations, the severity, for everything. “Mama, I forgive you.”


She toyed with her breakfast muffin, chewed on a fragment, stared out the window where a sparrow fluttered to the clothesline and the sky was gray as their feathers; she sneezed, swallowed, and inhaled some crumbs, raisins. Schrödinger jumped out of her lap. She couldn’t catch her breath. Drowning would feel like this. She was alone. She leaned over the kitchen sink. Coughed up the crumb. Expelled some phlegm. Exhausted. She wheezed, gasped. Threw up a glob of raisin. Insides coming out. Bubbles in her esophagus. She wiped her mouth, panted. She ran the water in the sink. The phlegm circled down the drain. With a tissue, she picked up the raisin from the sink and tossed it in the trash.


She dropped on the chair and breathed. It was easy now, no longer labored and cutting. There were voices she heard, words like ripples. Her mother but also Chekhov and Chaucer and Elizabeth Bishop. And the news on television. Schrödinger nuzzled her hand, comforted her.


On the news was the story of a killer cyclone in Bangladesh. Thousands drowned in the twenty-foot storm surge. The news reader said the poor who had built their huts on the edge of the sea were most vulnerable. They and their huts were swept away. Those farther inland lost their crops, their livestock, their pets. The next dangers would be homelessness, starvation, cholera. Her small sadness was nothing compared to this. She petted Schrödinger so hard he turned around and nipped her and jumped down.


She gasped for air, sat back, wheezed.


She had thought her cold was better. She took a deep breath in. Her chest burned as it tore. Air circled around in heat and ripped at the center every time she breathed.


She leaned to pet Schrödinger. He arched his back under her hand and purred. “Have to go,” she said.


She needed to get ready for class. There was one student–there’s always one–who didn’t disguise her boredom, stared out the window, thrummed her fingers on the desk. Now they were near the end of the semester. The girl seemed distracted, wasn’t doing the assignments, didn’t pay attention, didn’t take the tests, didn’t write the paper. Last week, when Paula asked her after class if there was a problem, the girl’s eyes skittered away. Heather clamped her mouth shut and shook her head. She hurried out, saying, “Have to go,” not even looking over her shoulder.


Why didn’t she just do an official withdrawal from the class and go on her merry way? Why did she have to take up space in front of Paula, make Paula wonder if it was her fault, if she should extend herself? She didn’t know.


Yesterday she’d asked her again. “What happened, Heather? You were doing fine at the beginning of the semester.” The girl was sturdy, jittery, blank-faced. She ducked her head, saying, “Have to go,” and left. She wore a water-blue t-shirt on which was printed the university motto: “Think. Do. Change the World.”


In the hall Paula had walked by the students’ art show on ecology: ice shelf in Antarctica shrinking, trees cut down in Brazil, oceans rising, bird song disappearing. The world was changing.


At the end of the hall, shambling up the stairs, was Dr. Laird, who at sixty- seven, would be retiring next year. He had undergone electroshock therapy for his depression. Which helped, supposedly. Fortunately, his wife looked after him. He was a Mark Twain scholar and liked to joke that the news of his retirement had been greatly exaggerated but was now imminent. He said he was going to buy a red convertible and drive to the Grand Casino in Hinckley, where he intended to break the bank. Then he laughed hilariously. When Paula had complained in the mailroom that the students in the back row were reading the school newspaper, he paused and  offered in his creaky voice, “At least they’re reading.”


Today Paula finished teaching the composition classes and the Intro to Lit, in which they were studying Hamlet. As she was explaining his soliloquy on life and death, she had a fit of coughing. Her temperature was 98.4 last night. No fever. So what was this? Something respiratory. She took a breath, closed her book, paper-clipped her notes. The students filed out smiling at her, waving good-by as they looked forward to the weekend. One tall, bulky student began to cough uncontrollably. Paula took a step back. Had he been the one to give her the cold? Or perhaps she had given it to him. A girl from class, Annie, walked up to him and stroked his arm. She leaned in and whispered something, and he smiled. Paula hadn’t noticed her being flirtatious before. Annie searched in her purse and offered him a mint. She spider-walked her fingers up his arm and to his shoulder and neck. She laughed. Paula thought she was one of the smartest students in the class, and what did she see in this lummox, this handsome lummox, this coughing lummox? Annie bumped her shoulder into his as they walked out the door. Paula stared at them disapprovingly, enviously. She shouldn’t have cared. Lovers in springtime, the only pretty ring-time. The weather would break, and the April showers would bring May flowers.


Heather stayed behind, fumbling with her backpack, putting away her notebook and pen. She hadn’t brought her book. Would she ask for an extension on the paper that was due? The topics were madness and sanity in Hamlet or family relationships in the play. Probably Heather wouldn’t turn the paper in. She would ask for an Incomplete at the end of the course. Paula coughed, fixed her eyes on her. “Heather, what happened?” The girl slumped, folded in on herself. Her hair was wet; she must’ve come to class straight from the shower. Her eyes were moist.


She probably would say she couldn’t drop the class, that she was on probation this semester or that she needed the class for graduation or that her paper was on a computer that crashed. “Heather, what happened?”


Heather cleared her throat, shook her head. “I don’t know. My dad was diagnosed with ALS. I don’t know.” She tapped her fingers together and slowly released the hands into the empty air. “It was seventeen months ago. I don’t know.”


Paula swallowed a cough. She took a step back. “I’m sorry.” Outside the window, the breeze ruffled the leaves; one leaf floated away. “I’m so sorry.”


Heather looked away. She pulled at the hem of her t-shirt. “He’s a shell of what he was. Mom is planning his funeral. His friends and co-workers come by. He drives a FedEx truck. Used to. He’s only fifty-two.” She teared up. “I’m sorry.” She crumpled a tissue and wiped at her eyes. “I didn’t mean to cry.”


Paula reached her hand out and let it hover in the air. She lightly touched the shoulder seam of Heather’s t-shirt. She brought her hand back to her side.


Heather wiped her eyes and straightened. “We–Mom and I–are planning his memorial service. He chose the music. His favorite song is ‘Mr. Bojangles.’ I need to find a poem. Can you think of a poem? He used to play the guitar. Not anymore though. Can you think of a poem?”


Paula was the expert. Her mouth opened and closed. She clasped her hands over her stomach, as if the insides were unreeling out.


She wanted to help this wounded girl, this father’s child. But there were no words. There was only, yes, Chekhov felt this, Shakespeare felt this, Emily Dickinson. You are not alone, and this is the only consolation. Maybe that was enough. It would have to be enough.


She didn’t say that. “I’ll try to come up with some poems,” she said. “I’ll bring copies next time.”


“He’s such a good guy. He loves Mom and me and Princess. Princess is our dog. Dad chose her at the shelter because she has only one eye, but she gets around fine. We’ve had her eight years–since I was twelve She romps around and then keeps Dad company. She loves Dad, sits on the floor next to him. Dogs have good hearing. She can hear if Dad needs something, even if she’s in the next room. He likes to sit next to the window and watch the birds in the bird feeder he put up. I fill the bird feeder. That’s my job. The squirrels eat most of the seeds.” She snorted and shook her head like a wise granny, accepting, accommodating. “He can’t talk anymore, but he smiles. He used to tell jokes.” She raised her hand to her throat over her voice box and looked up at the ceiling and around the room. Her open eyes were large and blue like those of a Madonna searching for her child, but as if all along she knew his fate. She clicked her tongue.


Paula heard a siren in the distance, the shrill whistle of an ambulance speeding to help someone.


Heather rushed to the window and stopped at the desk in front of it, her back to Paula, her red t-shirt against the gray air. The ambulance had driven on, the siren pulsing away into the distance. “Why is this happening to us? Did I do something wrong?” She turned around and giggled. “I’m such a dope. He said, no, back when he could talk, that I was fine, that there was nothing to forgive. I borrowed his car and was in an accident. Only a fender bender, but it cost eight hundred dollars.” She smoothed her wet hair. Her hand trembled. “He just forgave me.” She flicked her hand as if there were drops of water on it. “I don’t care about school so much anymore. But I’m doing it for him. It’s my job.” She rubbed her forehead as if to erase the pain or remember more sins. “I’m lucky to have him.”


Paula nodded. “Is there anything I can do?” She knew, even as she said the conventional words of sympathy, what the answer would be. The best that could happen would be that Heather and her mother could get through this more or less quickly to the other side without sinking, that they could rest and breathe air, grow flowers, watch birds, eat dinner together. There were two of them. They could help each other. The chance was possible. “It’s hard, I know.”


“Thanks.” Heather shook her head. “I have to go,” she said. “I’m on the swim team.” She pulled a strand of hair in front of her nose. “My hair smells like chlorine.” She sighed, stepped toward Paula and hugged her. Paula flinched in surprise and then hugged this suffering child. Heather’s shoulders heaved.


“I’ll find some poems,” Paula said.


Heather stepped back and straightened her shoulders. “Thank you.” Her eyes were moist, resigned.


Outside the window a squirrel hopped across the greening lawn, tail loosely curved, a fluffy flag sailing behind. On the trunk of the oak tree, another squirrel ran straight up. Above them the sun was hidden by clouds, but the year was moving toward summer.


Anxiety and expectation gleamed in Heather’s moist eyes.


“I’ll bring the poems,” Paula said.


Paula coughed a long, stuttering cough. This came from her heart, swirled around her chest. She lowered her head and released a long, clear cough.


“I’m sorry you don’t feel well,” Heather said. “I saw you coughing in class. It sounded painful. I haven’t caught a cold. I’m lucky, I guess.” She turned to her backpack and pulled out a tissue and extended it to Paula.


Paula put it to her mouth, coughed again, but the spasm was mostly done. She wiped her wet eyes. “Thank you.” The moisture made the world glare in spikes and stars. She wiped that away and said thanks again as Heather buttoned her jacket, walked toward the door. She was solid and straight-backed and gave a small wave. In the distance, the siren receded far off and dim. A bird on a tree branch whistled louder than the siren.


CEZARIJA ABARTIS has published a collection, Nice Girls and Other Stories (New Rivers Press) and stories in Bennington Review, Columbia Journal, FRiGGmatchbook, and New York Tyrant, among others. Recently she completed a crime novel. She teaches at St. Cloud State University.