Fiction by Naomi Ulsted
Ava’s mama yanked the wooden backed brush through her hair, whipping it into a tidy bun. No nonsense. Ava combed her fingers through her own short hair. It used to be long and wavy but tangled so easily her mother got tired of brushing it out for her. Now it was cut short and she looked like a boy.
“Get yourself some cereal this morning. Sammie will be here in an hour,” her mama said. She took a sip of coffee. Once, her mother brought her to work for a few minutes, until Ava’s grandpa, Papa Bob, arrived and drove her back home in his truck that smelled of cigarettes. The other nursing assistants always wore brightly colored scrubs with Mickey Mouse or smiley face prints. Her mother’s scrubs were a faded and joyless gray. When Papa Bob rattled up in his truck that backfired and scared the old people at the window, Ava felt herself turn red. She gave her mama a small wave then kept her head down in the cab of the truck.
“Sammie will stay with you until lunch, then she’ll take you to Nyssa’s,” said her mama as she hurried to her bedroom.
“Okay, Mama,” Ava replied, as she pulled out each box of cereal. She sat carefully, avoiding the rip in the vinyl chair that scratched her thighs when she was wearing shorts. Raisin Bran. Honey Bunches of Oats. Kix. She liked to have them lined up in front of her, so she felt the abundance of choices. Her mama’s voice came from the bedroom, singing a song about turning into an angel. Ava paused to listen like she always did when her mama started singing. She kept still as if her small movement might stop the singing, which didn’t come very often. As her mother walked down the hall, Ava turned and knocked her spoon from the table. It clattered to the floor and the moment was gone.
“I don’t know why you have to pull everything out of the cupboard,” said her mama, swooping down to pick up Ava’s spoon. “You could just choose and then there wouldn’t be such a mess.” She leaned over to kiss Ava’s head. Ava pushed into her mama’s softness, smelling detergent and old folks’ home.
As the screen door swung shut behind her mama, Ava reached out to touch the picture of the bee on the Honey Bunches of Oats box.
When Sammie arrived, Ava had finished her cereal and was watching Power Rangers. She knew she was supposed to like the Pink Power Ranger, but she preferred the Red Power Ranger. He always won the battles and everyone listened to him. Sammie plopped herself on the couch. She wore jean shorts and a tank top that didn’t fit over her stomach, leaving a strip of belly exposed. Ava felt a strong urge to poke it. She complained to her mom that she was bored when Sammie came over, but since Papa Bob had gotten sick, there wasn’t anyone else that her mama could afford. Mama had switched to working ten hours a day for four days instead of eight hours a day for five days though. And she let Ava stay with McKenzie and her mom, Nyssa, rather than have Sammie sit there all day. Ava couldn’t wait until she was a teenager and could stay by herself. But since she was only six, she had a long time to go.
Sammie switched the channel to a show with teenagers trying to win a contest.
“I was watching Power Rangers,” said Ava, as if this was going to make a difference.
“Well you’re not anymore. Go find something to play with.”
Ava rested her head on her bedroom windowsill and watched a June bug caught between the window and the screen. It buzzed in frustration as it bounced between the screen and the glass. She felt sorry for the bug, working so hard and going nowhere. She opened the window, jumping back as the bug flew into her room and crashed into a wall.
It was already too hot. Every day, the summer heat closed in on her, reminding her of the time she got stuck in the hall closet. She’d been pretending to play hide and seek, but when she tried to open the door, it was jammed. She’d knocked and cried, sweat running down her face and sides until her mother finished her shower and came looking for her. By noon, it would feel hot like the inside of a closet, but, luckily, by then it would be time to go to Nyssa’s house where there was AC.
None of the apartments where she and her mama lived had AC, and as a result, in the summertime, she saw a lot of the neighbors. They sat out on their stoops drinking beers that started cold and ended warm. When the men hauled their trash bags to the dumpster, Ava noticed their hairy legs. Their arms displayed detailed ink patterns as they smoked their cigarettes. The women’s breasts, what Papa Bob called “boobs,” hung out of halter tops as they scolded their toddlers to keep away from the cars in the parking lot. Sometimes the neighbors smiled at her, calling her “little lady.” But one time an old woman who wore tight shorts and a bikini top had grinned at her and motioned for her to come inside her apartment. In the school library, Ava had read about Hansel and Gretel. Even if the old woman’s apartment wasn’t made of candy, she was nervous. The old woman looked hungry. Ava turned and ran back to her own apartment.
Ava peeked out at Sammie who was still watching TV. She opened the door to her mama’s room and slipped in. Clothes were mounded on top of the dresser and bulged out of the overstuffed drawers. Sweatpants, scrubs, jeans. Ava touched her mama’s things lightly. Opening the closet, she put her hands in among the simple shirts and blouses. No dresses. Ava’s mama never got fancy, so there was nothing fun in the closet. She climbed up on the bed and lay on her side. The pillow smelled like her mama. Ava used to sleep here with her, the two of them curled like toasty warm caterpillars, until her mama told her she was too big for them both to fit into the twin bed. Ava suggested they get a bigger bed, but her mama moved Ava into her own bed and her own room. She opened the drawer in the nightstand and took out a few things. A couple pens. A few envelopes with bills in them. A bottle of Advil. She touched the edge of a small box in the back corner.
Inside, lying on a soft pillow of cotton was a sparkling blue bird. The cut glass figure was tiny and delicate, with glittering diamonds for eyes. The bird’s wings were spread, and as Ava held it up in the sunlight through the window, it sparkled and shone as if it were alive. It was attached to a silver chain. Ava had never seen her mother wear it. In fact, she was surprised she even owned it. She closed her eyes and held the bird to her lips. She pictured her mama’s tidy bun loosened and her hair in long, flowing curls. She imagined her mama wearing a beaded dress with the shining bird necklace around her neck. Then she put the bird carefully back into the box and closed the nightstand drawer.
Sammie put a few slices of baloney and cheese on two plates, along with some Saltine crackers and a few withered pea pods. Sammie ate while sitting on the couch watching a show. Ava sat at the table.
“I’m ready to go to Nyssa’s,” she said as she swallowed the last cracker.
“Hold on, the show’s almost over.” Sammie got up and removed two more slices of baloney from the pack, rolling them up and eating them without putting them on the plate.
“I’m hot. Can we go now?”
“No, in a minute.”
Ava rinsed her plate and left it in the sink. Sammie was back on the couch, watching the TV and scrolling through her phone.
“I can walk there myself. I know the way.”
“You’d better wait.”
“Really, I do it all the time,” Ava lied. It was true that she did know the way though. She didn’t need anyone to walk with her.
Sammie glanced at her and then back at the screen, where a boy and a girl were about to kiss. “You sure you do it all the time?”
“Yeah, all the time.”
“Okay, I guess so.”
Ava ran her fingers along the cyclone fencing around the apartment complex as she walked the path to the sidewalk. The concrete radiated heat. She’d heard that you could fry an egg on the sidewalk in mid-day Texas heat so she’d tried it once. She’d cracked the egg onto the cement and waited with her spatula to flip it, but there was a slight incline and the egg just oozed down the slope and off the edge into the grass. It left a slimy trail. Her mother had not bought more eggs because she’d counted just enough eggs for egg salad sandwiches for dinner, so Ava had to sit in Time Out that night.
Today, she stepped over the cracks carefully. She didn’t want to break her mother’s back. At the top of the hill, the concrete smoothed out. Bluebell flowers grew and the lawn in front of Nyssa’s apartment complex was lush and green. She and Nyssa’s daughter, McKenzie, played in the sprinklers that shot up from the lawn, the drops of water raining down on them in the evening sun like diamonds. She had met McKenzie last year in Mrs. Gonzales’s class. Since they both liked Power Rangers, they became friends.
But Ava didn’t really come over to play with McKenzie. She came over for McKenzie’s mother, Nyssa.
Nyssa opened the door when Ava knocked. Ava stepped gratefully into the rush of cool air. Nyssa’s hair was in two braids and she wore dangling earrings, a velvet skirt and a leather belt. She looked like a princess. Sometimes she let Ava and McKenzie try on her sparkling necklaces and bracelets from the large box in her bathroom. “Hi Ava, come in. McKenzie’s in her room.”
Ava and McKenzie played with Power Rangers. McKenzie liked to be the Pink Power Ranger, but sometimes she was too bossy. She never let Ava’s Red Power Ranger make the decision to use a Thunder Megazord. Ava thought when she got bossy, she should probably switch to the Red Power Ranger, who was at least supposed to make the decisions. She didn’t say anything though.
Later, they sat at the kitchen table to eat fruit roll ups and cheese crackers in the shape of little fish. Nyssa laid out matching cloth napkins that lay heavy in her lap and didn’t float off onto the floor like the paper towels they used at home. She liked the way the fish crackers crunched in her mouth.
“What did you do with Sammie today?” asked Nyssa.
“She watched TV.”
“Do you watch TV with her?”
“No, I don’t like what she watches. I like Power Rangers and Dora the Explorer.”
“We don’t watch much TV here,” she replied. “We try to use our imagination, right, McKenzie?”
“Yeah,” said McKenzie as she ripped a small strip of fruit leather off the plastic. “We don’t like to rot our brains.” Ava watched McKenzie roll the strip of fruit leather into a ball and eat it. She ripped off a small strip of her own fruit leather, rolling it into a ball the same way.
“Do you get to have breakfast with your mom?” asked Nyssa, as she folded her napkin neatly and placed it back on the table.
“My mom doesn’t eat breakfast, but I got out the cereal.”
“I think I’ll get you girls some carrots,” she said. “It’s important to eat vegetables, right, McKenzie? Especially if you’re only eating cereal for breakfast.”
“Yeah,” said McKenzie. Ava swung her legs back and forth under her chair. She didn’t like carrots, but she didn’t want to disappoint Nyssa, so she kept quiet.
That evening, her mama said it was too hot to cook anything, so while Ava watched Frozen, her mama made sandwiches. They ate ham and cheese and potato chips while they watched the movie.
When the sun went down, they moved outside to the stoop where it was cooler. “Look up at the sky, Ava,” said her mom. The sky was orange and red flames.
“It looks like a dragon,” said Ava.
“That’s one benefit of all that smog, right?” Her mom was quiet for a while, and then she said, “When I lived in Arkansas, before Papa Bob got his job in Texas and we moved here, the sunsets were really beautiful. Like this every night. But you could also see the stars when it got dark. More than here.”
“Why don’t we have stars here?”
“We do, but you can’t see them. Too many lights from the city. I used to want to live in the city. I thought I did anyway.” She stretched out her legs over the stoop. “One time I climbed up to the roof of our house and looked out as far as I could see.”
“How’d you get up to the roof?”
“It was just one level, so it wasn’t very high. First, you had to climb up onto the shed, then jump over and pull yourself up. When I looked out, I thought I was looking at big city lights all spread out in front of me, and I told myself, ‘one day, I’m going to New York City, and I’m going to be a famous singer.’”
“Heck no. I was nowhere near New York. Those were the lights of downtown Alma.”
“We should move to New York.”
“This is as much city as I want. More than I want. Besides, my job is here.”
“I wish we could go wherever we wanted.”
Her mama made a snorting sound. “Me too, baby. But that’s life. We got to work.”
“How come Ava’s mom gets to stay home all day with her, but you have to go to work?”
Her mama shifted away from her to scratch at a bug bite on her leg. “Nyssa’s husband works.”
“So if you had a husband maybe you could stay home with me all the time, and we wouldn’t need Sammie.”
Her mom grunted. “Doubt it. I’d still need to work. Unless he was some kind of lawyer or something.”
Ava was silent, running her fingers across some small fringes of grass poking up from the crack in the concrete steps. “Mama,” she said hesitating. “I found something today.”
“Promise you won’t be mad?”
Her mama sighed. “What did you find?”
Ava left her mama on the stoop and retrieved the tiny box from the drawer. When she handed it to her, her mama took the box with familiarity.
“What are you doing going through my things?” she asked with a small edge to her voice.
“Sorry,” Ava said. “I was bored.”
Her mama opened the box, and they both looked at the sparkling bird. She held it up so the bird dangled and twirled. “I forgot this was even back there,” she said.
“You should wear it, Mama.”
“This is just a little thing from a long time ago. I don’t even know why I have it anymore.”
“Did someone give it to you?” Ava tried to imagine a boyfriend like Sven in Frozen giving her mother the necklace. Twirling her around. Making her smile in a way that Ava couldn’t.
“I bought it myself. From money I made singing. That used to be my job.”
“It reminded me of that bird you saved.”
Her mama set the bluebird on the concrete stairs.
Ava remembered the baby bird she’d come across when they were camping last summer. She’d found it on the road while walking back from the camp bathrooms, its tiny head tilted to the side, eyes open and staring at Ava. Frightened, Ava had searched for its mother, but there were no other birds in sight. She’d dragged her mama from the tent to go look at it. Her mama had made her stay in the tent while she took it to a sunnier spot. “He just needs a little sunshine,” she’d said as she cradled the broken bird.
Now, Ava felt the coarse rub of concrete on the back of her legs. “Put the necklace on, Mama. You should wear it to work. You’d look pretty.”
“Why not?” Ava pressed, against her better judgment.
“I don’t need to look pretty, Ava. I’m a nurse. Something like this would get in the way.” She stood up lifting the necklace from the concrete. “Now, stay out of my things, please.” Ava’s mama left her on the stoop.
Ava felt the empty space next to her.
When she went back in, the bird lay on the kitchen counter. Like it was a dirty spoon or a dishrag.
The next day, Ava tucked the bird into her shorts pocket when she went to McKenzie’s. Nyssa’s skin was tanned with freckles and her fingers were long and graceful as she re-buttoned Ava’s shirt for her. Ava hadn’t noticed she’d missed a button. Nyssa pulled her in for a quick hug and Ava smelled a soft flowery scent.
“Want to see something pretty?” she asked.
“Sure,” said Nyssa.
They sat together on the fluffy sofa, moving a couple pillows to the side. Ava pulled the necklace from her pocket while McKenzie and her mom watched.
“It’s beautiful,” whispered Nyssa. “Can I hold it?”
Ava handed it to her.
“It’s so delicate,” she said. “Where did you get this?”
“It’s my mama’s.”
“Really? Your mom wears this?”
“No,” said Ava. “It’s just hers.” She thought of the box shoved into a corner of her mama’s dresser drawer. “Want to try it on?”
“Okay.” Nyssa smiled. She unclasped the hook and brought the chain around her own tanned skin, asking McKenzie to hold her hair up off her neck. The bluebird twinkled there against her chest.
Nyssa skipped to the bathroom to admire it in the mirror. “It’s beautiful,” she said, turning this way and that, touching the little bird. “I can’t believe this is your mom’s. Can I wear it for a while?”
“I guess so,” said Ava.
McKenzie and Ava played with McKenzie’s dollhouse in her bedroom for a long time, but Ava made excuses to come out. She needed a drink of water. She had to go to the bathroom. Ava watched Nyssa read a magazine, holding onto the bird absentmindedly. She saw her mix a pitcher of lemonade, the necklace swinging slightly around her neck. Ava heard her in the bathroom again, and when she peeked out of McKenzie’s room, she saw Nyssa admiring the necklace in the mirror. Ava thought of the box crammed full of glittering jewelry that Nyssa already had.
At the kitchen table, they drank lemonade and ate homemade peanut butter cookies.
“These are my favorite cookies,” said McKenzie.
“I like Oreos the best,” replied Ava, spewing crumbs.
Nyssa handed her a napkin. “In our house, we don’t talk with our mouths full,” she said gently.
After the snack, McKenzie and Ava wiped down the table with a sponge while Nyssa swept up any crumbs from the floor. As she emptied the dustpan into the trash, she said, “There, that’s better. You want to develop good hygiene habits and keep a clean house. Keeps the germs away.”
Ava rinsed the sponge out in the sink. “Okay,” she said catching a glimpse of the blue bird against Nyssa’s chest. She wished it were back in her pocket.
“I want to teach you good habits so you know how to keep clean when you have your own house.”
The water from the faucet ran over the bright yellow sponge in Ava’s hand. “I know how to keep clean.”
“I know you do, sweetie. But I’ve seen your place, so I know how it gets sometimes. I just want to show you for when you’re older.”
Ava thought of her mom rubbing her sore legs at night as they sat on the stoop, dirty dishes in the sweltering kitchen. She squeezed the sponge out and replaced it on the sink.
McKenzie had gotten some markers and was spreading paper on the table. “We’re going to draw now,” she announced.
“McKenzie has some new markers,” said Nyssa. “Make sure you put them back in the box when you’re done.” She walked down the hall. McKenzie was dividing up the markers. Of course, she took the red marker for herself.
Ava sketched a boat on the ocean, but she thought about the necklace. What if Nyssa didn’t give it back? Would her mother even notice? What if her mother asked her where it was? She’d have to tell the truth. That she’d given it to someone else. That she’d stolen it. Ava scribbled across the boat using thick, black lines. Maybe it would be better to lie and say it had broken. But what if her mama saw the necklace later around Nyssa’s neck? Nyssa didn’t seem like she was going to take it off again. Ever. When McKenzie grabbed the blue marker from her, she burst into tears. Nyssa dabbed her face with Kleenex while Ava stared sorrowfully at the bird necklace. She opened her mouth to ask for it back, but no words would come.
By the end of the afternoon, Ava knew her mother would be coming soon and she would see the necklace around Nyssa’s neck. She would know Ava had given it away. Desperately, Ava went in search of Nyssa. She found her in the bathroom.
“Can I have the necklace back now?” she blurted and then realized Nyssa was no longer wearing the necklace.
“What necklace?” Nyssa asked, smiling.
Confused, Ava looked at the empty counters. “The bird necklace. My mama’s necklace.”
Nyssa’s pretty face darkened for a moment. “Oh, that necklace,” she said with a quick smile that didn’t feel like a smile. “I guess I wasn’t even thinking and just took it off.” She retrieved it from her own jewelry box. The little bird lay among the large, gaudy jewels. “Here you go” she tossed it to Ava. She leaned toward the mirror and combed her eyebrows with a tiny brush. “If you want to, you can try on some of my jewelry,” she said, reaching for a thick, gold chain.
“No,” said Ava. “I mean, no thank you.” She clutched the bluebird in her hand.
“Suit yourself,” said Nyssa.
Papa Bob came over for dinner, bringing cheeseburgers and fries. They fanned themselves while they ate, although Ava wasn’t very hungry. Papa Bob tickled her and called her Little Miss Snortlepuss until her insides hurt from laughter and he had to take a rest and use his oxygen tank for a while.
When he leaned down to hug her goodbye, he whispered, “You be good for your mama.”
“I will,” she promised. She thought of the necklace she’d returned earlier that night, tucking it back into its dark box in the drawer.
Then, Ava and her mom sat together on the couch, dark except for the flashing of the cartoon images on the screen. All the doors and windows were open and occasionally a breeze touched Ava’s face, like a cool whisper. They both wore shorts and flimsy tank tops. “Hey,” said her mama. “How about we visit a school tomorrow? I might have found a place for you to go during the day.”
“So I wouldn’t be at Nyssa’s?”
“Yeah,” her mama’s voice hesitated a fraction of a second. “Would that be okay?”
She thought of Sammie scrolling through her phone. She thought of Nyssa’s skirts and jewelry. McKenzie’s toys. The bird necklace around Nyssa’s neck. Relief washed over her. “Yeah,” she said. “It would be okay with me.”
Ava’s mama’s face was lit by the light from the TV. A few beads of sweat darkened the hair at her temples.
“Mama, do you want me to get you some ice for your water?”
“No, honey.” She patted the space next to her. Although both of them were damp with sweat, Ava leaned in, resting her head against her mama’s soft side.
“Mama,” she said quietly.
“It’s okay if you don’t want to wear the bird necklace. But maybe you could let me look at it sometimes.”
Her mama’s body was still for a moment and then she leaned over and kissed Ava. “Sure, if you like that old thing, that’s fine with me.”
The next morning, the sun was shining bright when Ava padded into the kitchen in her pajamas. She dragged a chair over to the sink for some water, and as she reached up to the faucet, she noticed the bird necklace hanging in the window. Sunlight reflected off the cut glass wings, sending a rainbow across the pale sink, the drab kitchen floor, the stained walls. Ava turned so her knees faced the back of the chair. She let her breath out slowly and stretched her hand forward. The room was bathed in a kaleidoscope of colors that shimmered and sang in the new morning.
© Naomi Ulsted
[This piece was selected by Sarah Broderick. Read Naomi’s interview]
Image courtesy of Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. “Representative Song Birds.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1902.
Naomi is a memoir, fiction and screenplay writer from Portland, Oregon. Her work has been published in Salon, Mud Season Review and Full Grown People, among others. She’s the recipient of the 2018 Oregon Literary Arts Fellowship in drama. She’s married with two kids and is the director of a job corps center for underprivileged youth.