Tuesday, June 28, 2011


The bird appeared every morning as she was making coffee. It floated past the kitchen window and landed on the arm of the metal chair on the deck.

They’d argued about that chair. She wanted to cover it for winter, to protect it so it wouldn’t rust.

It’s older than dirt, he’d said, a little more rust won’t make a difference.

But isn’t rust an erosion, an eating away that will eventually weaken the whole structure of the chair and leave it in a pile of metal splinters on our deck? She was prone to exaggeration, but only to make a point. He wasn’t listening.

She had pulled a piece of plastic over the chair in early November. It was gone the next day—the wind or Warren—could have been either. She hadn’t seen it go and there was no sign of it wound around the railing or caught in a tree beyond the porch. She should have tied it down.

And now there was this bird on the arm of the chair every morning, leaving its prints in the thin film of snow that coated the green metal. She wondered if Warren had hired the bird to come—to prove both the aesthetic and practical worth of an unprotected chair in winter.

The bird performed the same routine every morning: it alit at the end of the arm, walked the length to the chair back, pecked at the vertical slats so diligently that she heard a tick and a ting with each bob of its head. Then it perched on the back of the chair, swiveled its head to see if she was at the window, and flew off.

She began placing single seeds on the chair arm and tucking a couple in the pitted grooves of the chair slats. The bird accepted the unexpected gifts with aplomb. It took the single seed in its beak as it strutted along the arm and pecked at the slats with its usual vigor. She couldn’t tell if it actually swallowed the seeds, but the cavities were empty when she brought new seeds.

So she’d been wrong about the chair.

She began to wonder what else she’d been wrong about:

—painting the bathroom the color of pee—according to Warren;

—locking the door at night—which, Warren said, wouldn’t stop anybody who really wanted to get in;

—humming in the morning as she got dressed—too damn early;

—lighting candles at dinnertime—a pollutant;

—marrying Warren? That one stopped her.

Had she been wrong? Hard to say. A bird settled on the arm of the metal chair every morning because of Warren—but was it enough?

© 2011 Kathleen Coskran

Monday, June 27, 2011

One Starry Night

The boy ran through the woods screaming and crying, ran through branches scraping his face like fingers. He stepped in a hole, fell, got up, and ran. The dog ran with him—stopped when he fell—and then they ran again. Screaming took too much air, so he forced himself to quiet down, to stop crying, but he didn’t stop running. The old dog stayed right with him, step by step, and when he fell down again and stayed down this time, the dog lay next to him, close enough that he could feel the damp heat of her body. He put his head on her neck and let the rise and fall of her breath slow his. When he was calm and rested, he sat up.

The dog leapt up.

“No,” the boy whispered. “Stay.”

It was just twilight. The last rays of light were fading and the woods were darkening fast. The cicadas were already out and he heard some small animal—probably just a mouse—moving in the leaves nearby. He wasn’t afraid. His daddy would have given up long ago, but they couldn’t stay in the woods all night. The mosquitoes had come out with the cicadas and were already feasting on his sweaty arms and neck.

“Let’s go,” he said to the dog. He hitched his shirt up over his neck and held it there to keep the mosquitoes off and they walked quickly. His eyes had adjusted to the dim light, and he knew where they were. It wasn’t the first time he’d fled the strap at night, but it would be the last.

He turned towards town when they got to the county highway. The sky was clearing and the stars were out, every one of them. A breeze had come up. He let go of the neck of his shirt and took a deep breath. Alfalfa just in bloom.

They were two, three miles out. Good. He needed the time to consider what he would do next.

He wasn’t going back, not this time. Really not going back. Couldn’t even think of going back, but where?

The cicadas were still loud in the fields and the wind played a ripple of sound in the young alfalfa. The air was sweet and the starry heavens were more beautiful than anything on earth. The bowl of the sky so perfectly surrounded them that the boy didn’t have to look up to see the stars. They were everywhere. Everywhere.

After a while he saw the lights from the Shell station on the edge of town and the great yellow sign he once mistook for the full moon. He still remembered the air in his chest when he’d seen that moon of yellow. “Daddy,” he’d whispered, “Look at that. The moon.”

His father had laughed. “Stupid kid,” he’d said. “Goddamned idiot kid, that’s what I’ve got.” And then he’d told the story a hundred times how his moron for a son thought a GD Shell sign was the moon.

The boy stopped walking. The moon of the gas station beckoned and the stars overhead waited. The dog sat patiently.

He couldn’t go to town. There was half a chance his father would be there waiting for him. It had happened before. What had he been thinking?

He smiled. The yellow neon sign had saved him this time. He wasn’t a complete idiot. And he was 15 now, not 5. Almost a man.

He turned and started back down the way they had come. The dog didn’t hesitate. She was right there with him. “Look at that sky, will you?” he said. “There’s only one moon, but stars! There’s a million other stars. A million other places to be.”

©2011 Kathleen Coskran

Thursday, June 9, 2011


The nurse left work at 5:00. She hurried to the bus stop, pausing once to pull her orange sweater around her shoulders—cold for late September—stupid to buy a sweater with no buttons—but she’d liked the way it grazed her hips, liked the color—Clementine orange. Orange draws the eye, her mother said. You don’t want that.

Her mother was wrong—she did want it. She wanted anything that drew the eye to her, that made her somebody to notice. She grabbed at the sweater again and looked up just as the 5:12 pulled away. Shit. The 5:22 would be crowded, no chance of a seat, she’d miss her connection, and her mother would have something to say about that too. She wrapped the sweater tighter, stepped into the shelter, and slumped against the glass.

She didn’t see the boy or hear him until she felt him standing too close. She automatically stepped to the front of the shelter, not looking down, never really seeing him. He stepped up with her, still too close, but not touching. She hunched in her sweater, leaned against the dirty side wall and closed her eyes.

She felt the warmth of his narrow body before she realized he was actually leaning against her, his head resting in the crook of her waist, his bare arms folded across his chest. She put her hand on his shoulder to push him away.

“Hi,” he said in a voice as thin as he was. She kept the hand on him and held him back for a good look. He was a bony, freckle-faced kid with tangled hair, brown eyes, a slash of dirt on one cheek, eight years old, maybe nine, but slight for nine. T-shirt, no jacket, jeans, flip flops. He smiled. Missing a tooth.

He was alone. There was no one else in the bus shelter, no one bent against the wind hurrying towards him. She felt like shaking him, teaching him a lesson, telling him not to talk to strangers, but he was surprisingly warm. Somebody should take his temperature, she thought, then released him, crossed her arms over the thin orange sweater and turned her back on him as obviously as she could. Not her problem.

She peered through the filthy glass. No sign of the 5E. Looked at her watch – 5:19.

He was next to her again, as close as he could be without actually touching. “I ride free with you,” he whispered.

She pretended she didn’t hear him and looked out the cloudy window again. The wind had picked up a plastic bag and papered it on the glass, blocking her gaze.

“Missus?” his voice a whisper.

She was nobody’s missus.

“Missus, I ride free with you.”

“Oh you do, do you?” She spoke more harshly than she meant to, but she was nobody’s missus, and he wasn’t her boy. Somebody had taught him to sidle up to some respectable woman, somebody poor or in uniform, somebody tired, some nobody, somebody to get him on free. Not my problem. She looked up—the 5E had just turned the corner.

She moved away from him again, but now his warm hand was under the orange sweater, in her empty pocket as if it belonged there, as if he were her boy, and the two of them boarded the 5E together every evening at 5:22.

Not the worst thought she’d ever had.

She jammed her hand in the pocket, clenched her clean fingers around his dirty ones, pulled both their hands out and jerked him towards the bus as the door opened. “Hurry up,” she said, “You’re always so slow.”

~©2011 Kathleen Coskran


Fratricide. No, that wasn’t the word he was looking for. Didn’t that mean some kind of brotherly murder or was it incest? He’d never been good with words. They were not on the tip of his tongue. Numbers, ah numbers, yes, numbers fell off in a proper order: 1, 2, 3,—10, 20, 30—prime 2, 5, 7, 11. Numbers obeyed and came when beckoned.

Which is why he needed to name what he was doing so he could get on with it.

He laughed at that thought—or get it on. Now, those words had come to him as easily as 1, 2, 3. Simple, one-syllable words: get it on.

Which is what he wanted to do with Marie’s sister. His wife’s sister. His sister-in-law. A woman with a name, but if he never allowed himself to utter that name, a name that conveniently started with N just like the word name, 1, 2, 3, maybe this wasn’t happening and he wouldn’t have to think of the word for wanting to . . . to what? Make love with his wife’s sister whose name begins with N.

How many letters in that name? Five—a prime number. That gave him comfort. He was closer now to understanding the pull, the attraction, and the lust. He’d always hated the “s” in that word, lust. Made it sound like a mistake, some kind of primal lisp, when, in fact, lust came unbidden, and the fact that he lusted for N and found her in his conjugal bed, metaphorically speaking, was making him uneasy. Very uneasy.

Which was why he only allowed himself to think of her as N—lovely, lustful N—to protect against any possibility of his shouting out her name in an unguarded moment of passion. Yes, he could be passionate. He was more than an ordered set, more than a quadratic equation, more than a neat array spreading across his mental screen.

Which was why N was so disturbing. What was the word for thinking about something, not doing it, being obsessed with it, looking forward to doing it every time you saw your wife, the majestic Marie, slide the strap of that thin black thing he bought her for Christmas and climb into bed with him, smelling of garlic, onions, and burnt butter—tomorrow’s dinner, always made the night before. Marie was as precise and as orderly, as numerically dependable as he—1, 2, 3—but N, oh sweet N, lispy N, decidedly lusty N, was not.

~©2011 Kathleen Coskran

Monday, June 6, 2011


The nurse left work at 5:00. She was happy, really happy, elated, smiling to herself, pleased with the sound of her rubber soles in the parking ramp, nodding to her shadow in car windows, elated, relieved, excited, happy, just plain happy. So she didn’t notice the boy in the back seat of her car when she got in. She tossed her purse back and didn’t see him duck. She didn’t even hear the sharp intake of breath when her heavy bag landed in his lap.

She was humming some song—she didn’t know the name—never knew the names of things—and was turning on the radio, backing out of the parking space and saying “Roland Roland Roland” into her Bluetooth until it connected.

Scattered showers today. The radio.

Ring. Ring. The phone.

The boy in the back was quiet. He held her purse gingerly. It had fallen open against his chest and he could see her wallet, a crumpled tissue, a brush, a pen, mints. He wouldn’t have put his hand in a woman’s purse except for the mints.

She turned the radio up a notch. Roland’s phone rang, then clicked over. “Roland here. You know what to do.”

Roland’s message was so loud that the boy heard it—a man telling him what to do. Go for the mints, Boy. You’re hungry. She won’t care. You know what to do.

“Shit,” she said. Her first unhappy word. The glow was fading. She turned the radio off, but didn’t hear the rustle in the back seat, didn’t hear the soft fall of two mints into a dirty hand, didn’t hear his mouth receiving them or the click of the box closing. But she smelled mint.

“Mint,” she said as she pulled out of the ramp. “I smell mint.” That made her happy again.

© Kathleen Coskran 2011