Belinda came steaming from the kitchen into the living room searching for the weed she used last night to fall asleep and needed again this morning to wake up. Pillows and old magazines tossed aside revealed nothing. She looked under cushions, checked bookshelves, and abandoned the living room to comb through their bedroom. She’d put the jar in a place she’d be sure to remember and that warranty made this exercise all the more irritating. A calm voice in her head, the voice Doro described as the one minding the store, said her behavior was approaching an OCD blowout and if she didn’t change up soon her frustration would begin to breathe and think and act on its own and Belinda would be along only for the ride. One more minute. That was all. While she was excavating the many mysteries of the bathroom, the one room in the house that had been almost exclusively Doro’s domain, her downstairs neighbor cranked Aerosmith so hard the toothbrushes shimmied in their stand. It meant two things: Esteban was home and he’d shut off the water. She turned the tap. The pipe gasped wet air.
In the past week she’d left Esteban several sharply worded voicemails about his DIY bathroom remodel and the erratic water shutoffs that went with it. Her phone rang. Otis bitched he still had shampoo in his hair and had to get to work. It was Belinda’s responsibility as president of their association, he argued over the pings of incoming calls, to do something. She cut him off and punched up Esteban, pushed a drawer shut with her hip while his phone rang, picked through cosmetics and ointments, creams and hair products, lipsticks and nail polishes crammed on every available surface, her hope expressed in the one-hit snug in the V of her fingers. Esteban didn’t answer. She dropped the one-hit. While it clattered around the sink, she went out and turned the water on. Immediately her phone rang. It was, of course, Esteban. Belinda took a deep yoga breath and picked up.
“Yeah, I did. People in the middle of showers or planning a birthday party need water.
“Luis. He’s three today and Tina needs to make a shit ton of ice for the snow cone machine.
“You did not. Nobody got a text.
“You didn’t forget. You’re police. You know procedure. Get a plumber. I’m not putting up with this.”
That was when Esteban jumped grooves to remind Belinda of their appointment that afternoon. She closed out the call, went back inside, and plucked the one-hit from the sink. Doro had asked her to stop and she had. Fifteen years with neither a smoke nor a spliff. Belinda swept the shower curtain aside. They say it’s always the last place you look. How did that ever become a thing? Of course it’s the last place you look. Why would you keep looking for something if you found it? She took a drag of nothing. God damn that Doro if she’d reached beyond the grave only to hide the pot.
Belinda ran to the carport, a zig-zag pattern designed to eliminate any chance Esteban might see and intercept her. Food-S-Mart was ten minutes away and the dispensary half an hour. She let geography settle the question. She got in, backed out, swung the car around, and came face-to-face with the little bird who’d taken over the dumpster. One foot on the rim, the other leg too short to reach, all spring he’d sung along with the many finches and sparrows chirping for mates. The others drifted away two-by-two as the days grew longer, until only little bird remained. Every day he swept up to the top of the sludge-stained dumpster to land just under the yard spot there. Even as summer overtook his mating season, he chittered and hopped around on one leg, his other shortened by a misshapen ball of a foot as red as a match that would never light. Still calling, still hoping, though the empty days warned no lady bird would settle for so banged up a mate. Belinda roused herself. It was instinct. Nothing else. Do not cry for a fucking bird. She put the car in drive and gunned it.
Food-S-Mart was a Station of the Cross, one of a series of stops Doro hit the weekends they left town for the ocean, a reflex that wasn’t much different from Belinda touching all the doorknobs every night before bed but still. Jesus Gets Cash, Doro would announce pulling up to the ATM, her first devotion, then her mother’s house for a quick check in, You alright, Ma?, Saladino’s for sandwiches, You can’t get shit this good anywhere else, and Food-S-Mart, their favorite store for sunscreen, lip balm, cheap sunglasses, pool noodles, and all the other hoo-ha they didn’t need but Doro, used to the protections of a twenty-pound police belt, loved to gear up. Belinda reached Food-S-Mart and barely had to touch the wheel for the car to leap to the entrance. It shuddered to a stop and ticked as Belinda headed for the door.
Food-S-Mart had fascinated Doro, who said it was pure Americana. How she got Americana from hotdogs so long on the rollers they’d become mummy fingers was lost on Belinda, but that was Doro, charming as a summer day. Belinda got in line behind a woman made tall by mud-caked boots just visible below work-worn jeans held to her hips by a leather belt studded with medallions of tooled silver. A thresher had dusted her white beater with brown dirt and slivers of green. The woman nudged a case of Coors forward, lifted her straw cowboy hat to sweep back blonde strands escaping from a twist and resettled her sweat-soaked Stetson. “And gimme a fifth of Roses,” she said. It was just after 9 a.m. If Doro were here Belinda would lean into her and whisper, You have to admire these farm chicks, they know how to take care of business. And Doro would laugh and circle her arms around Belinda’s waist. Belinda whose last drink was her toast to Doro the day they’d married fifteen years ago. Farm Chick wedged the fifth into the back of her jeans and hoisted the case to her shoulder. She turned, offered Belinda a wink, and was out the door in three easy strides, leaving in her wake hints of gasoline, cow shit, and the green juice of a cut field.
Belinda stepped to the counter. A scattering of dried mud crumbled softly beneath her Timberlines. She leaned her elbows on the scarred Lotto mat. The clerk, barely old enough to buy and sell liquor, was new. “Where’s Betty?” Belinda asked.
“I dunno about any Bettybody.”
“Don’t you keep track of your people?”
The clerk’s demeanor hardened at ‘your people.’ “Excuse me?”
“I mean the store,” Belinda said. “Store people.” But it was too late.
The clerk looked her up and down and Belinda braced for what was coming, thrust her chin out to meet the derisive, “You buyin’ somethin’ here… lady?”
A prickling charge like electricity on the loose beneath her skin burned Belinda’s arms and legs. “Okay, Seven-Elesbian, here’s something Betty did. She ran a good counter. She knew her customers.” Belinda set off for the cold cases in the back. She’d already broken her promise about smoking; why not throw in a brew?
The clerk stepped from behind the counter and followed her. Belinda whipped around. “What? You think I’m gonna lift any of this pathetic shit?” She glanced at a rack of circus peanuts to legitimize her point.
The clerk pulled her phone from her back pocket. “I’m calling you in as belligerent. Store policy now, precautionary.”
“To the police? You do that, Jessica Jones.”
“Wait,” the clerk said, recognition now in full flower on her face. “You’re that woman from the mall. I saw you on TV.” The clerk came over to stand next to Belinda. She positioned her phone. “Mind if I get a selfie?”
Belinda batted the phone away and hurried to the counter; stepped behind it and rummaged through the cigarettes. “I’m taking a red box,” she said. Belinda shoved the Marlboros into her hip pocket. She studied a lighter display and chose a blue one, Doro’s signature nail and lip color, and held it up for the clerk to see. “Put it on our tab, Belinda and Doro,” she said and headed for the door.
“What’re you talking about?”
“Betty runs a tab for us.”
“There. Is. No. FUCKING. BETTY.” The woman followed her declaration with a jet of saliva spit at Belinda, an ambitious insult that failed to reach even the halfway mark but landed, instead, among the Funyons.
Belinda grabbed the door and rattled the bell hard enough to warn the town of fire roaring over the hill.
Belinda started the car and held the wheel but didn’t release the brake. She hoped Doro hadn’t seen that. Doro always there, hovering along the periphery. A glance to the propane rack was all it took for Belinda to see Doro going over to check on her street rats, calling her location into the radio at her shoulder, her hand on her service pistol, Makes them feel important, she’d said; to hear Doro’s voice talking to those white boys as she approached them on their fat-tire scraper bikes.
“Wha’ya want?” said one, hesitant, aware of his friends’ wealth of acidic ridicule.
“Nah,” Doro said. “Imma school you.” The boy crossed his arms and leaned back. Doro snatched cigarettes from the pocket of his ice blue tee, narrowed her eyes to slits, tightened her mouth to a straight line. She shook a smoke free and balanced it on her bottom lip. As she slid the lighter from the pack, she looked at the boy like he was nothing. “Wha’duhya want?” She drew it out slowly, gave the expression menace; flicked the flame, brought it up, and pulled fire through the tobacco. “Hold the eyes,” she instructed. “Wha’duhya want?” The question rode the column of smoke she blew. “Nothing overt. All tension ready to spring.” Doro handed off the cigarette and exchanged a cross-town, jingle tap, fist bump combination with the boy before coming back to Belinda; that duck waddle under the spread and weight of everything on her belt.
“Imma school you?” Belinda had said, eyebrows straight up. “You went to Stanford.”
“On scholarship,” Doro had said. “I got roots.” Her laughter like rain prayed for and come at last.
The Food-S-Mart chick was at the window looking straight at Belinda, phone to her ear, yelling and waving her arm around. Belinda was not holding it together. Edges once only frayed now split easy as Dollar Store Christmas ribbon. She was still on leave from the zoo. Her supervisor said she couldn’t return until she could evince a consistently calm demeanor. Animals are much more receptive to their surroundings than are humans, he’d explained, as though Belinda didn’t have years of experience on top of an Ag degree from UC Davis. Still, he was right. Stress lives in the body and Belinda had the primates skittering away with their heads twisted to the side, one huge, white-rimmed eye staring back in alarm.
She drove out to the deep country, windows down, wind whipping through the car and flossing her hair. Each step toward happiness invites annihilation. The harder you reach, the higher the stakes. Someone, somewhere, waited hidden among ordinary people, watching through a scope, finger on the trigger. It happened at Safeway. Belinda had been shopping when a commotion rippled through the store. She pulled the buds from her ears and followed the rush to exit the building. Outside, people were huddled close to the ground, their children silent with terror. A line of cruisers like zipper teeth had pinched off a section of the parking lot, their doors open to create a shield. Esteban balanced a rifle on top of one door and, blue light swirling around him, had his head low to draw the bead. Belinda was searching for her wife when Doro’s voice sounded through a bullhorn, distorted and remote as though it already belonged to the sky. Belinda saw her just as a quick pop, like nothing, like a tight lid coming off a stubborn jar, bit the quiet of a hundred breaths held in a hundred chests and Doro’s face went to ash. Dozens of rounds split the air. Doro’s legs folded beneath her. Belinda started to run but had been held back. Get up, Belinda screamed. Girl, you better get on up.
The gas gauge drifted to E and Belinda stopped to fill up, ashamed she’d put all that carbon in the air, embarrassed to be buying more. With the tank full but nowhere to go and nothing to do, she drove home, the last place she wanted to be.
Mrs. Morales had let her dog run free again. He was on the corner, his concentrated gaze idling in middle space, his spine arched to omega, a brown nub peeking from his butt. Belinda took the turn into the driveway and immediately saw the U-Haul parked in VISITORS near the sour dumpster. Esteban and his girlfriend Rita had the doors open and were moving large boxes to the pavement. Belinda parked T-bone to the front of the hauler. She got out and didn’t bother to shut the door after her. “You finally taking care of that shit pile?” She waved her hand in the direction of Esteban’s parking space and the old sink and other detritus from the remodel, all of it covered by a frayed blue tarp.
Esteban looked to Rita, the anguish on his face evident even to Belinda, who used the opportunity to ante up. “I’m going upstairs and taking a shower. I want all this gone by the time I come down.”
Esteban said only, “Belinda.” But Rita stepped forward. She reached for Belinda’s hands. “It’s time,” she said.
Belinda jerked her hands away. “What does that even mean, it’s time? It’s always time. Time never stops.”
“Let it go, B,” Esteban said, his voice almost too quiet to be heard above little bird. “It’s what Doro wanted. You know that.”
“Oh?” Belinda said. “That directive we signed? The one that was just a formality, we’d never need it? That?”
“Rita and I will take care of everything.”
“I can handle my own life.”
The look on Esteban’s face infuriated Belinda. A rage surged beneath the skin of her arms and legs like a swarm of angry bees.
Esteban had been assembling a wardrobe box, but now dusted off his hands and approached. When he was within range Belinda launched a punch that caught him in the neck. Rita jumped her from behind and pinned Belinda’s arms to her sides so Esteban could come in and clinch the hold.
“Get off me,” Belinda screamed. A woman passing by stopped. The child in her arms held the string of a puffy, silver balloon declaring the numeral 3 and when he squirmed it bounced. “Call the police,” Belinda shouted. The woman hurried on, her hand over the child’s eyes. Belinda bucked but Esteban had her and he let her kick the air and scream.
“You had a clean shot,” she cried.
“No, corazón.” He smoothed her hair. “I did not.”
“I saw it all go down,” Belinda said, furious at the tears leaking down her face.
“These things.” He turned Belinda to face him. “They look different from different angles.”
“Doro would’ve got him.”
Esteban caught the fire in Rita’s eyes, tilted back, and pursed his lips as he shook his head to take the heat out of her. She stood down and Esteban cupped the back of Belinda’s head in his palm, pulled her to his shoulder.
They stood like that at the back of the U-Haul next to the dumpster, letting quiet settle around them, disturbed only by little bird calling and calling. Belinda grew uncomfortable in Esteban’s embrace. “I haven’t packed anything,” she said as she pushed away from him.
“It’s okay.” Esteban motioned to Rita. “Get the wardrobe, will you, babe? I’ll bring the big boxes in.”
“Nothing from the living room,” Belinda said. “Not the flag. Her books and our pictures stay. Doro said so. Only her clothes and shoes. And things from the bathroom. Her drawers are to the right of the sink. Her nightstand is on the right. There’s a Glock in there. Some Kevlar in the storage unit.” Belinda handed Esteban the key and tipped her head toward her space. “That beat up dining room furniture in there, take that shit.” Belinda turned away, unable to resist but unwilling to witness.
Sleep wouldn’t come despite exhaustion. Before the funeral, when Doro was in an accessible place, a place Belinda might go, the hospital, the morgue, the funeral home downtown, fatigue was enough to carry her to black. Now, six feet of dirt was as good as Kryptonite sealing off the place her Doro was, which was not here, and Belinda could not sleep. Everybody offered a remedy and she had tried them all. No podcast or playlist, no patter of rain on jungle leaves, no whale song, no essence of lavender could cancel the accusing gleam of moonlight on the now empty bar in Doro’s closet; could silence the hollow resound when Belinda rapped on Doro’s nightstand or bathroom drawers. She started another circuit of the dark house, touched each door knob she passed.
As she came from the hall a white rectangle shot into the living room and bounced off the glass cover protecting the flag from Doro’s casket. On the shelf, next to the flag, Doro’s rookie portrait flared so brilliantly it seemed as though Doro, forever young, always beautiful, could break free from the frame that held her back and march straight into the living room. Belinda stopped breathing. Let it be a sign. Let Doro say something to fill the pit in her chest. The light quit as suddenly as a thrown switch and Belinda lost the sense Doro was near.
In the kitchen she turned the water on. Rinsed her face. As she put the towel to her cheeks, that same semaphore of light returned for a minute and then extinguished. It came back in a beat. Disappeared. Returned. Animals likely tripping the motion detector on the spot above the dumpster, deer come down from the dry hills to lick the sprinkler heads. Belinda went to the dark window and looked out. No deer. No Doro. Belinda slid to the floor. The light flared. Went dark. Belinda lay flat on her back, her arm thrown over her eyes. She would rest here just until some inner resolve currently unavailable picked her off the floor and put her to bed.
Belinda woke with her cheek stuck to the kitchen floor, unsure how much time had elapsed. White light came hard at the window. She closed her eyes. The light vanished. Belinda opened her eyes. Light again burst through the window. Off. On. Off. On. Belinda reached for the counter top and pulled herself up. Above the trees the morning star shone pure white against palest blue. Little bird sat on the dumpster, the spot haloing him. Belinda slid the window open. He blew three clear notes. When the light timed out, his leap brought it back and his song rang crisp and sweet in the thin air of morning.
She’d seen animals at the zoo who’d lost their mates. Some became so distressed they chewed the skin off their knuckles, scraped their foreheads raw against a fence. Worried for little bird, she tried to whistle back but her mouth was dry. She ran to the sink, turned the tap, slid her finger under the stream. As she bent to the cool water, a flutter of tree branches stopped her. Belinda held still for a heartbeat and then quietly shut the tap, turned slowly to the window, and waited. Little bird bobbed up and down. From a nearby tree came an answer in exact imitation of his call. Little bird cocked his head, listening. After an unbearably long time Belinda’s heart screamed, Answer her for fuck’s sake. Go. Make a nest. Fill it with a clutch of eggs. No matter their shells thinned and crackled by the pollution you breathe and eat, no matter the chicks malformed by whatever genetic disaster you bequeath them. Finally, he threw his three notes into the air and again he was answered. Little bird flashed his light and sang again and again until the lady bird dropped down to the rim of the dumpster and eyed him. After some bobbing and trilling, they flew off circling each other, rising and falling in a pattern of swooping dives. Belinda cracked like a windshield struck full force by a flying heart.
When her nose ran dry, when her eyes ran dry, when the swelling came down, when she could breathe normally, when she could open her mouth without slick, webby strings of mucus running from her teeth, when her jagged lips regained their form, she returned to the window, but the sky had absorbed little bird and his mate. Without him, without his song, the dumpster was just a filthy metal box holding only putrid, gelatinous scraps of food waste and the endless mutations of plastic packaging. Belinda pulled her tee shirt over her head and wiped her face with it, blew her nose into it, ran it under the faucet, then wrung the wad of it out and put it back on.
The day was yellow and fine. Her uniform, once snug, hung from her shoulders, barely touching any other part of her, missing her ass entirely. After coffee, she called the zoo to say she was coming in.
Rebecca Chekouras is an American writer of short fiction and essays. She lives in California where it’s always something.