Steve Carr, who lives in Richmond, Va., began his writing career as a military journalist and has had over 230 short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals and anthologies since June, 2016. He has two collections of short stories, Sand and Rain, that have been published by Clarendon House Publications. His third collection of short stories, Heat, was published by Czykmate Productions. His YA collection of stories, The Tales of Talker Knock was published by Clarendon House Publications. His plays have been produced in several states in the U.S. He was a 2017 Pushcart Prize nominee. His website is https://www.stevecarr960.com/.
By Steve Carr
Look at her.
Henrietta, who everyone calls Honeysuckle, sits on the bus stop bench holding a covered birdcage in her lap. Honeysuckle is eighteen. Look at the way she rests her shaved head on the top of the cage and closes her eyes, shutting out the heavy traffic slowly going by. Hot wind blows dirt and trash down the sidewalk and over her feet. A Styrofoam cup catches on the shoelace of her left purple sneaker and hangs there for several moments before being dislodged by a gust of wind created by a passing semi. When the bird sings out, watch how she gently pats the side of the cage as if she were patting the bird. She can’t be heard by the elderly man sitting on the bench next to her, but she’s singing to the bird. The bus pulls up to the curb and the bus doors whoosh open. Watch how carefully Honeysuckle carries the birdcage onto the bus.
The bus is crowded and there are no seats available. Honeysuckle stands near the back of the bus, holding the cage in one arm while holding onto an overhead bar with her free hand. The bus stops and starts behind the SUV in front of it, causing everyone who’s standing to lurch forward and back. See the concerned look on Honeysuckle’s face as she talks to the bird through the cover.
“It’s okay,” she says, soothingly. “We’ll be home soon. Honeysuckle’s here.”
The man who was sitting on the bench next to her is now standing next to her. His face is lined with wrinkles and his eyes are rheumy. His shirt is stiff from starch.
“Why are you taking a bird on a bus?” he asks.
“She’s not just any bird. Her name is Mae. She hasn’t been well so I took her to see my doctor,” she replies.
“You mean your vet?”
Look at how Honeysuckle searches his face, trying to discern in his expression why he didn’t understand what she said. “No, my doctor,” she says.
For the remainder of the ride, Honeysuckle keeps her face pressed against the birdcage. At the bus stop where she gets off the bus, she nudges her way past several passengers and descends the stairs with both arms tight around the cage. The walk to her apartment building is a short one. Children on the sidewalk in front of her building stop playing, circle around her, and ask, “Is Mae Okay?”
See the flash of panic that crosses her face. She knows these children, but it takes her a moment to remember how to react each time they get near to her.
“The doctor gave her some medicine with an eyedropper,” she answers. “She should feel better by tomorrow morning.”
Honeysuckle climbs the stairs and goes into her building. In the lobby, Leonard, the building manager, is on a ladder and replacing a light bulb. He looks down at Honeysuckle.
“You’re late with your rent, Honeysuckle,” he says. “I’m tired of telling you and your father every month that your rent is past due.”
She presses the button for the elevator. “My father didn’t get his social security check yet and I’ve had fewer hours at work recently,” she says. She doesn’t want to tell him that her father donated his check to the National Audubon Society. “I’ll be getting a check tonight and I’ll bring you the rent in the morning.”
When the door opens and Honeysuckle steps into the elevator, watch as she turns and sticks her tongue out at him. The door closes and she takes the elevator to the seventh floor. She passes four doors before she reaches her apartment. She sets the cage on the floor and fishes her key out of a pants pocket crammed with Q-Tips and tongue depressors given to her by the doctor. She puts the key into the lock.
Even in hot weather her father keeps the heat up too high. She walks into the apartment and gasps at the temperature. Her father is sitting on the sofa and staring at the television. The sound is muted and the captions are rolling across the bottom of the screen. He considers it regular reading. There are two tables in the living room stacked with old magazines. Two broken televisions sit in a corner. Seeing Honeysuckle, he jumps up and rushes to her. He takes the cage from her arms, removes the cover, and hangs the cage on its stand.
“I’ve missed you, Mae,” he says to the bright yellow canary. “You don’t look so well, sweetheart.”
Mae is perched on a wooden dowel that extends across the cage. She warbles a few notes.
“The doctor gave her some medicine,” Honeysuckle says. “She might be better by morning, but if she dies you can get another canary and name that one Mae, just like you did all the others.”
“This one is special,” he says. He sticks his finger through the bars of the cage and makes clicking sounds with his tongue. “Mae West was before my time, but I’ve seen every movie she did. She was considered a great beauty in her time.”
“You told me that so many times I’ve lost count,” she says. “I need to get some sleep before work tonight.” She starts toward her bedroom.
“Did the doctor say anything about your disease?” he asks, his finger still extended out to Mae.
See Honeysuckle turn, her face registering her search for an answer. Since being diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome when she was in sixth grade it has been one more thing she doesn’t fully understand about herself. “It’s not a disease,” she says. “I only talked to the doctor about Mae.”
Watch as she goes into her bedroom and takes the Q-Tips and tongue depressors from her pockets and carefully inserts them into a maze of toothpicks, sugar packets and pencil stubs she has laid out on a card table.
She removes her sneakers and climbs onto her bed. See her gaze around her room at the different colors of Christmas garland that she has taped all over the walls. Her room sparkles. She closes her eyes.
The Padwell Garland Company is a large, brick, warehouse-type building. Its only windows are those in the offices on the second floor. Watch Honeysuckle enter through the front door and stand in line with a dozen other women waiting to punch in their time cards. It’s been three days since she last worked. Although none of the women say anything, she catches them staring at her newly shaved head. It was the bright yellow color of her hair that gave her the nickname, Honeysuckle. She thought shaving her head would change how she felt being Honeysuckle, but in the three days since using her father’s electric razor to remove her hair, she felt no different. Look at how she nervously bites her lower lip. She doesn’t talk to the other women and they don’t talk to her. Once she has punched in, she goes to the conveyer belt where she wraps garland around sheets of white cardboard. The evening shift worker has left an empty water bottle on the stool. See the look of consternation on her face; drinking anything at the work stations is prohibited and there are no trash cans nearby. She opens the brown bag that contains her lunch and stuffs the bottle into the bag, smashing her bologne sandwich.
She pulls a large box containing the cardboard sheets to the side of her stool and sits down. She pushes the button to start the conveyer belt. It takes several minutes before the women who make the garland to begin to pile completed strands further down on the belt. The color garland they’re making tonight is silver. As the first garland reaches her she takes a sheet of cardboard from the box and quickly wraps the garland around it and then places it back on the belt. The remainder of the packaging will be done further down the belt. With the exception of a thirty minute lunch that she eats alone in a bathroom stall, she wraps garland around sheets of cardboard all night. Before leaving the conveyer belt in the morning, watch as she breaks off a large piece of the last strand of garland sent through on the belt and stuffs it into her empty lunch bag. She turns off the belt and goes up the stairs to the payroll office.
Joe Spivey is the payroll manager. He has a wood nameplate on his desk. He’s a big man, in both height and weight. When he talks his double chin wobbles.
Watch how Honeysuckle seems to shrink in size as she stands in front of his desk. It’s as if she’s collapsing in on herself. “Can I get an advance on my pay?” she asks.
He looks at her head. “What happened to your hair?”
“That’s why I need an advance. I have some kind of disease and I need money to pay for the treatments.”
“I hope it’s not catching,” he says as he runs his hand over his balding head.
“I don’t think so,” she says.
He opens a ledger and runs a fat finger down a page filled with names and numbers. He stops at her name, looks at the numbers accompanying it, and says, “Sorry, Henrietta, you’ve gotten as many advances as we allow. You’ll have to wait until payday.”
“That’s two weeks,” she says, her voice filled with panic.
“I can give you a personal loan of twenty dollars if that will help,” he says. “Maybe more if you’re not doing anything this evening.”
Watch as she abruptly turns, rushes out of the office, and down the stairs.
At the bus stop, see how she closes her eyes and tries to meditate. It’s something a therapist taught her, but it has never worked. She opens her eyes in time to see her bus go by without stopping.
When she goes into her apartment, her father is sitting on the sofa. He’s holding Mae’s body in his hands. There are tears streaming down his face.
Look at how Honeysuckle sits down next to him and kisses him lightly on the cheek. She opens the lunch bag and takes out the garland. She then gingerly lifts Mae from her father’s hands and wraps the bird in the garland. “We’ll give this Mae a fancy funeral,” she says.
He looks at his daughter and wipes the tears from his face. “Mae West was before my time, but I’ve seen every movie she did. She was considered a great beauty in her time.”