Halloween Novella

Hello! I’m going to post a novella of mine called Army of Flamingos, about a man trying to cope with his newly dead mother’s sentient lawn ornaments. Happy Halloween everyone.

ARMY OF FLAMINGOS

PART ONE:

  They sit out there, stuck into the hard, cold ground, biding their time.  

   Flamingos. Plastic pink and hollow, full of malice, the spaces inside filled with a juicy invisible menace. I pull back my curtains, the blue ones I found at the thrift store. The purple chickens and the black ducklings line the hems like an avian army.  The small neat lawn, the legion of pink demons in my misty eyesight. Their  flamingo eyes find me, though the painted eyes don’t move. They find me, those eyes. Mock me. Warn me not to sleep or rest or let down my guard. Because they are coming. A pink plastic legion. An army. Coming soon. I let the curtain drop.

     I don’t know why they would target me for their crusade. But they have. My safety, sanity and well-being amuse and enrage them. I have become their enemy. Not the little brown dog, with the funny ear, that comes sniffing through once in a while, then pees on them. Their only enemy is the man blinking at them from behind a rather silly curtain.

     Defenses. I need defenses. I’ve had this vague thought before. Those flamingos belonged to my mother, she collected them, thought them ‘cute’ and ‘funny’ and ‘so American’. She’s buried out in the desert. No no, she died in her sleep, she had a bad heart, and there was no money for her funeral. Her death was not caused by me in any way. My mother lived and she died, simple as that. She worked most of her life as a clerk, Walgreen’s to Wal-Mart to Joanne’s, and then the doctors, at the end, took her feeble life savings. And she wanted to be buried without any fuss– just put me in the ground, she’d told me. No damn funeral homes, look at what they charge! I won’t pay that. I won’t! I took her at her word. I told everyone, well, about three people, that she just went away. That she’s visiting her sister. Her sister lives in Florida. Aunt Carol never calls, writes or visits here. Has never called, written or visited here. My mother never had time for friends, relatives, acquaintances or enemies, anyway. No one checked. No one’s checking now. Her Social Security checks go to her bank account, automatic deposits. My name is on that account. I use it to pay bills, for home repair, nothing that would garner any scrutiny. We lived together very modestly. Our biggest expenses were groceries. Or to get something repaired.  I don’t think she’d mind, at all, that her checks will keep coming until I arrange to have her die, somewhere else, be buried, somewhere else. Except there’s paperwork, death certificates…sigh. Another problem that needs my attention. I might just lead whoever needs to see the body to where my mother is buried. Face whatever might be done to me for doing as she asked.

     My mother was a most unpleasant woman, with a voice like a cartoon shark. She worked and she collected plastic flamingos. How she came to have me at all is a mystery. I’ve never known my father or her to have a boyfriend, a lover, a one night stand. Maybe she wished me into being. Some women have that sort of power. They can wish for things and things they get. I drink coffee behind my closed and locked bedroom door, wondering about my father, hearing the odd hopping of the spy flamingos in the little house.

     They are meant to be outside, stuck in flowerbeds. A metal spike exudes from their centers or maybe two long sturdy wires acting as legs. My mother collected both kinds. At night, they’ll send two or three into the house, just to check things out, to get ready, to scare me. I hear them hopping about, the odd whistling of air in their hollow bodies. At night, sometimes, they are almost real birds. With feathers and long beaks. And they balance by my door, if on a single spike or they balance precariously on their two thin cheap metal legs. Listen to me listening to them. I stand there, by my door, my hands wrapped around a baseball bat, just in case. I know it won’t hurt them, not enough to make them go away and leave me alone. I haven’t yet found the cure for the malignant magical flamingos that haunt my life.

     It was my mother, you see. She did something to them. I don’t know what. She fell asleep and never woke up and never told me how to call them off or strip them of the life slowly infusing them; how to offset their utter smoking hatred of me. My mother and I got along, we were amicable toward each other. I can’t make them understand this so they’ll turn their fury toward something else. How do you make barely sentient things know you’re not their bete noire? I haven’t lucked into the right combination of words or deeds yet to do just that. My mother never included me in her training of her metal disciples. Such stories, that include disciples and savior queens, need a betrayer or a supreme adversary. Perhaps my mother had told her too-attendant flock that I was the devil in their world. I cannot ask them, but what little sense they have seems directed at destroying me.

     I didn’t kill her, I tell them every day. I stand out in the lawn among them, twenty-three in all. Which is actually five. If you add the two and the three, it’s five. That’s a magic number, a number with power. I can’t tell you why. I just know. Numbers have power, they tap into the lines and pull of the universe around us, provide order out of chaos. Math is the language of the universe, someone said. The horrible ancient sound of a universe learning to speak, with things we don’t wish to hear, no matter our pretending otherwise. I have no wish to know the truth about what lives behind the sky or who hung that moon, if anything hung that moon…I have no real wish to know the actuality of such things. The terrible finality of such knowledge would surely rip the skin off my little quivering soul. Off all our souls. We’d have to face things. We’d have to line up in rows and face things and we’re not good at that. At all, we humans. I don’t know, my mind wanders off, the way gets fuzzy as a stretched out old sweater, my eyes fill with sandy tears.

          I have soup heating in a pan on the old G.E. snot-puke colored stove. It’s stained and filthy, my mother was no housekeeper. I try to keep it clean but I am sadly distracted by trying to save my life at the present so the house looks horrible. Dust. Crumpled up papers. Mail I haven’t opened. I go to work, yes, I pay the bills, yes. I’m still functioning somewhat. I work as a nurse at a nursing home. One of the three males that work there. Terry, is what my nametag says, my credentials swinging against my skinny belly. I get asked all the time if I’m one of those gayboys. I don’t have time for love. I’m an ugly little man with small ratty eyes, invisible to women. My voice could best be called ‘fits and starts’. What women wishes sweet nothings whispered in her ear by such a voice as mine? I cannot dance. When I attempt small talk, it sounds strange and ill-rehearsed. Rather like a child being asked to recite a poem they just learned five minutes ago, with words too big for their mouths. Women’s eyes move over me as if I were air or a rock on the ground. I really don’t care, not anymore. I used to get upset and wait to grow, to get bigger. I never did. Sort of a male Cinderella. I can laugh about that now. It used to be such a tragedy at one time. It’s not true that men don’t want love; we do. We do. I did. And if I’m honest, I still wait, a bit, for someone to smile back at me with a real shimmery light in their lovely eyes. But I keep that to myself and every year, it fades, just a little. Just a little. Not everyone finds love, that is a truth that universe will tell you in its mathematical linguistics. For every one plus one, there is a one plus zero, after all. That is just math and it doesn’t care about loneliness, despair or even rage at being so alone all the time.

     No, not a gayboy. But the ones who ask such a rude, harsh question, meant to wound and humiliate, never believe whatever you might claim otherwise. And it’s not really an insult to me. It’s just another way of loving people, being gay, being queer, the other names nice or horrible applied to such matters. My mother hated them, gay folks, but said everyone did in her day and she was too old to just go changing. I told her she didn’t really hate them, it was just a habit to say so. She told me to shut up. Carleen had no interest in exploring her mind or heart or the world around her. She invested everything in her damn plastic monsters.

     My mother’s name was Carleen. I wrote that, in permanent marker, on the rock by her grave. She had scoffed at paying good money for a funeral home rock carved with details. Just write my name on a rock or a bit of wood, Terry! And so I had.

     She’d have two or three in her room sometimes. I’d catch her talking to them, as if they were her friends or the children she wished had slithered from her womb. She’d stroke their heads, run her fingers along their long, curving necks, smile at them, when she smiled at no one, ever. The one with the crack remained her favorite. She smiled at that one all the time, when she smiled at nothing else. Not even her only puny son, who’d taken a few nursing classes and managed to get a job. I stayed with her because she’d asked me to. This house will be yours, she had told me. Why waste your money on rent? Save up, kid, you’re gonna need it. Which I knew to be very, very true. This tiny house belonged at one time to my grandfather, a convicted bank robber.

     But. The soup, it boils, chicken noodle. I haven’t been grocery shopping and I have two cans of soup left, some iffy eggs and a pickle jar with two pickles in it. Dill pickles. My mother loved sweet ones. I bought a little jar as a sort of celebration after I returned from interring her. Nalley’s. Dill pickle chips. My mother used to go out and arrange her army of flamingos. In rows. In circles. In squares. Formations that appealed to her or formations they whispered in her ears. Maybe they gave her instructions, chirped to her about God. Told her of the devil. There are no real neighbors, so if anyone noticed a fat old lady playing with plastic flamingos, well. The wandering dog belongs perhaps to the Basque family but they are not dog people. Nobody much around at all out here. They could not possibly know the flamingos had turned evil. Nobody but me knows that.

     I pour soup into the green glass bowl that had been in my family for generations. Just an ordinary Anchor Hocking bowl. I’ve seen them priced in antique places for five dollars to twenty apiece. Not that valuable. I suppose a real man wouldn’t care what he ate his manly portion of raw meat in. Sometimes, I can be bitter, too. My mother passed it along in my blood when she formed me almost forty years ago. Odd stains of bitter notions spiking my thoughts.

     Something clatters in the closet.

     I stop eating, a cracker lifted to my lips. I listen. I listen. I listen.

     Faint. The scrape of a metal spike against the wood floor. The faint shoosh of a plastic side rubbing against my winter coat. My bladder goes tight and heavy. I clench my spoon. I’m a child in a dark bedroom, just like that. Waiting for that monster under the bed to pounce. My bowels feel a bit loose and hot. I force myself to stand, wondering if they ever give out medals for facing whatever’s in a closet despite control over bladder and bowels being iffy at best. Of course not. They give medals for shows of courage. I have none.  I move a box of books against that closet door, to keep whatever’s in there, in there.    

     A big heavy box of historical romances, James Michener tomes, biographies on Cary Grant, Fatty Arbuckle and Ronald Reagan. My mother’s books. Whatever is in that closet will have to push the box away, after somehow unlocking the closet from the inside. There’s a lock on the door, for some reason. Why would you need to lock a closet door? That puzzles me to this day. Just a simple slide lock, but still. You push the little lever and it comfortingly slides in the metal confines and blocks the door from opening. Who went out and bought it? Maybe grandpa kept his stolen bank booty in there. Instead of burying it out in the backyard by the elm tree. It makes me…wonder. What had someone tried to keep secret in this closet? And who were they hiding it from or for? It’s not a new slide locking mechanism. Sometimes it sticks. I have to use WD-40 on it. The flamingos like that hall closet, I find them in there in the mornings. Maybe it feels safe to them, a little safe musty haven from the too-wide, not safe at all outdoors.

     I hear the tap and slide of a metal spike from inside that little hall closet. I knew it was one of them. I knew it. I went to the window, lifted those chicken and duck curtains, peeked out casually, did a quick count. Twenty. There were three missing.

     Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Mother, Maiden and Crone. They were female, those flamingos, nothing in them of that dry male desert god and His dry male desert son. Whatever the flamingos were, they were mostly female. My cell rang and I jumped, my bladder let go. Hot urine stained my sweat pants. I nearly sobbed as my phone kept blandly ringing, set to a Caribbean guitar riff. My eyes, burning, stinging, read the number. Work.

     Can you cover a shift tonight? We’re short-handed. Jessica’s been stealing, we caught her, can you come? Eleven to seven.

     I answered yes, not even sure at the moment who or what Jessica was and why she’d steal when she knew there were cameras all over. But no one had liked Jessica, a quiet, stand-offish sort who was not a hardcore Christian and was perhaps an atheist. There were rumors and whispers. No one cared what I was, men were needed to lift things and the old men told me their secrets when they were too shy to talk to the women on duty. Mr. Carstairs had told me there had been blood in his urine. He had still died, but he had died floating on pain killers in a hospital bed. I was male yet safe and no one thought to pin anything on my head or accuse me of being in league with Lucifer–

     A deliberate creak from the bathroom. I spun about. No. No. But I had to change my clothes now, take a shower. I smelled like urine and stank of fear. There. A sly pink head peering at me from the bathroom, the door left open always now, it was just me here…except it wasn’t. I was not alone here at all. Leaning up against the white, dirty wall. A plastic flamingo on two metal legs.

     I had not put it there.

     My entire being shuddered at touching them. They felt repulsively smooth. And hot, as if fevered. Even on cold days, the plastic felt fevered. Not enough to melt it, but still.

     They never moved when I looked at them. They moved about when I turned my back or when I was locked in my room. At night. They moved about out on the lawn. They’d be in different formations. My mother had last arranged them in an odd circle, with each one almost touching the one next to it. An oddly…familial grouping. Or as if they were planning. As if they needed to plan something. The flamingos could sense my eyes on them. Perhaps they showed my mother what they could do. But they loved her. She found them cute and kitschy, my mother who had had no sense of whimsy or possessed any other collections. She read romance novels for the descriptions of clothes, not the breathless descriptions of couples coupling. They did not challenge her, rather like Wheel of Fortune, her favorite show. She did not do puzzles, [she considered Wheel of Fortune more a relaxing sedative than an actual show about puzzles], or play games. Card games left her exhausted and grumpy. She had her flamingos, she read a few books that would pass through her brain without leaving anything much behind and she drank coffee in her yellow cup, every morning, until the morning that she did not.

     I took a potholder, took two of them. My soup went cold in the green bowl. I heard a faint indignant slide of metal on wood floor from the closet. Could it see in the dark? That rose-hued plastic decoration watched me. It watched me creep toward it, with potholders in my fists. It saw the dark shameful stain down the front of my gray sweats. It saw how afraid I was. And it enjoyed all that immensely. Even if I managed to kill it, it would enjoy going to hell knowing I’d peed myself and had to use padded cloth protection against it. I took it by the long loathsome neck, and I swear to anything watching over the world, whether meek Jesus or savage Kali, that it shuddered, moved slightly, gave a faint little honk, bulging black eyes shifting slightly to glare at me. I carried it to the front door and then just tossed it outside, onto the lawn, where the twenty remaining flamingos were lined up, seven to each line. There was a flamingo missing from the middle line. Two flamingos had been out front, like two generals. Three lines of seven, twenty one. Two generals, which made twenty three.

     The discovered-and-thrown outside plastic decoration lay on its side, one metal leg bent, it had caught and bent. The twin metal stands that stood in for legs had a cheap flimsy quality to them. I had wounded it a bit. Uh-oh. No forgiveness for me. They could not forgive me for a sin I didn’t remember committing, that first sin against them, whatever it had been. Perhaps that I was not Carleen, not my mother, not the mother figure, the mother savior these female lawn decorations wanted. They willed themselves into life for her. Perhaps my first and fatal sin was not being the one they could love with such a single, ghastly passion. The remaining army looked at that wounded comrade then shifted their interest toward me, in the open doorway, concentrating their malicious will into a single awful mist. It drifted into my nostrils, into the holes of my ears, into the little pores of my skin. A coating of slime and vicious eternal anger. Their anger would never end and they would never forgive or forget; ancient little savages without mercy for me at all.

     I slammed the door shut, sucked in clean air, even though it smelled, inside the house, of stale bread, dust and a dead mouse decaying somewhere. That mist coated me, seeking more entrances, to find my soul to strangle it. I peeked out and oh, the thrown flamingo had already been moved or had moved itself. Back into that missing spot in the line, leaning sideways on its bad metal leg. I let the curtains fall. Work.

     I took a shower, a long one and washed their filth from me, watching it swirl down the drain, imagining it as pink foam being sucked down the drain and going off into the sewers where it could do no harm. I put on my scrubs, I made some coffee. This was my day off but I didn’t wish to stay in the house with the wandering kitsch lawn decorations from hell’s little circus.

     I took two uppers, Mother’s Little Helper, they used to be called. I preferred Ritalin. They gave me a nice buzz and kept me awake. And I felt justified in downing a couple. I hadn’t adjusted my sleeping schedule to work a night shift, I was doing the Knotty Pines Retirement Center a favor. The flamingo in the closet tap taps against the door, I hear it. Probably sending a message to those outside, some sort of Morse code for possessed lawn toys. I know how this sounds, I know. It’s comical.

     It’s not comical when it’s happening to you.

     My little battered Chevy Nova is parked out back. They are crouched near the front of the house. I lock my house and then realize I haven’t found the third flamingo. That it’s still at large, still hiding. One in the closet, one in the bathroom, where would the other one be hiding? One of the generals, not a follower. A planner. One who plans. One who can draw up plans. And then get the others to execute those plans so carefully

planned. I stand by my car, the air cold. My coat remains in the closet. I get the car started, I’m low on gas. I’ll need to put some in on the way there.

     I get gas, get a large gas station coffee, knowing the coffee at work will be decaf, as Marsha, who also works the night shift on Thursdays, thinks caffeine causes all the modern day problems, like obesity and cancer. Starbucks has given us all cancer and made us fat, she drones to anyone at all, regardless of the topic. Dutch Brothers, Java Hut, Mud and Sticks, whatever the name, they give us cancer and make us fat! I keep my mouth shut, she could flatten me like a bug, and anyone who works with her knows to bring something with a jolt. Marsha controls everything around her and tells everyone how nice she is. No one thinks she’s very nice, but she keeps telling us she is. She’s also something of a tireless workhorse, so she’s valuable in her own way. We wonder what she does take to stay awake all night. No Doz? Speed? Maybe she talks herself into believing one type of speedy fake chemical alertness is righteous while another is not. Don’t we all have such hypocrisies in our personal little inner baskets?

     The shift drags on. I hear that Jessica was caught stealing. Pain pills, morphine-based, from Mr. Olvetti, who has rheumatoid arthritis and can barely move without bursting into tears. She’d been halving his medication, and palming the rest. Somebody caught her doing that. What a shitty thing to do, I say in total agreement when Marsha whispers this me, but she always whispers, her voice wispy and ethereal, coming from her thick, liver-tinged lips. She stands about six foot one and has the build I should have had once upon a time. Big meaty shoulders, thick muscled arms and legs, the neck of a wrestler or a bear, a belly of steel covered with a goodly layer of fat. Marsha is not one of those soft fat ladies that look like marshmallows come to life. She’s hard-fleshed and solid, with forearms that make mine look like matchsticks. Oh well.

     My mind fills with flamingos. All over my lawn.

     In my house.

     Waiting for me to come home, so tired, so very tired and careless and just fall into my sagging bed. To forget to lock my door.

          I drink the remaining ice cold dregs of my gas station coffee; I find my mouth full of coffee grinds and sugar. One packet, all settled at the bottom of the plastic cup, instead of mixing with the brew. My eyes burn. I want to sleep. It’s three oh seven. Marsha comes back from checking everyone as I do charts and paperwork. A quiet night, a slow night. I hear someone having a bad dream. I got to check and it’s the newbie. No family. Very much alone, an old lady they threw away. Mrs. Bronson. Depressed, diabetes, in a wheelchair. I stand near the end of her bed, as she moans and farts and shudders. Her roommate, a Miss Standage, lies awake, staring at the ceiling, her hands folded over her flacid ruin of a belly. Miss Standage, despite never marrying, has a bit of a shady past. She had a child out of wedlock, and she broke up two marriages. She kept pictures of herself when much, much younger. A sort of Veronica Lake crossed with Marilyn Monroe, that smooth shining hair coupled with a soft-looking hourglass form. That inviting smile of a homewrecker. The eyes of a woman not quite easy with being a mother. Often at night, she’d study those photos of her no doubt very fun youth, the door to her room left open on her request, as she had a bad heart and had a touch of claustrophobia. Her fingers would trace the smooth lines of her face, the outline of her slender, tempting younger self. She had grown stout and graceless, that rounded feminine shape changing into slumpy hanging breasts, an overflowing big belly, sloughy arms and doughy dimpled legs, with hair sprouting from her somewhat weak chin. Miss Standage looks at me as I wait to see if Mrs. Bronson is having a stroke or just a bit of a dream. I smile at her and she looks back up at the ceiling, the pictures of her younger self turned over tonight on her nightstand, as if she cannot bear to look at herself so young and fair this long, slow night.

     I decide it’s not a stroke and leave the two to their own ends. Marsha has been watching, to back me up in case anyone accuses me of anything.

     Marsha goes off to tidy the supply cupboard. I go back to continue catching up on paperwork for the state. We have an inspection coming up, our ducks have to at least look like they’re in a row. Ha ha. Ducks. I’m not scared out of my wits by ducks. I catch a glimpse of something pink from the corner of my eye, wishing I had more coffee or that I could run out for some. Wondering if someone had left any real coffee in the staff room. The kitchen staff would be here around five or so. There’d be real coffee then. Even with hulking, whisper-voiced Marsha squeaking about obesity and cancer. I look up from filling in reports. No.

     No.

     There, against the wall, a flamingo, with a single metal spike, and a crack along the neck seam. The general, the leader. The head flamingo. My mother’s favorite. She had put duct tape over that crack many a time. Once a bandage. How was it here, how had it gotten here? I rose from the desk, having been entering information into the generic file form on the center’s main computer. It saved trees, the director had said, at a meeting. It saves trees to use online forms.

     Those sly painted eyes marked me. Marked me as a dead man.

     It had followed me here, to show I was not safe anywhere. No lock or door or trip to work would spare me the coming wrath of the lawn flamingos.

     No god or devil would intervene to write me a pardon or help me in any way against the coming wrath of the lawn flamingos.

     The flamingo fell over. It had been leaned up carelessly against the wall. I gasped, my bowels filled with hot rats chewing at my insides. Hot biting rodents. I slowly moved toward the bathrooms, quite sure an accident would happen before I got to a toilet. That fallen bird watched me, already triumphant. Already confident that it had won and I had lost.

     I slide toward the bathroom, so careful not to turn my back on that plastic commander of a small, powerful, invincible army. It observes me from its place on the shining white floor. Marsha makes sure that floor is cleaner than the plates in the dining room. My tennis shoes make complaining sighs. Marsha comes from Mr. Appleby’s room, checking a worrisome cut on his foot that won’t heal up. I’ve checked it, too. He’ll soon be off for the hospital and the morgue, frankly. We just don’t say it aloud. He doesn’t, either. She asks me what I’m doing, as I play some sort of sliding game, apparently, and then notices the flamingo. Where did that come from? I just love them. They’re so weird and cute.

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