The Other One from Issue 74
Inside her small brick house on Grier Street, behind the rusted iron railing that led to a peeling turquoise door, Sabrena Covington stroked the parakeet perched on her finger and waited for the reporter, curious that she did not feel sadder.
Two nights ago her father has been hit by a car, flung into a ditch near the broken-down camper where he’d lived like a hermit since her mother threw him out, when Sabrena was eighteen. Since her mother’s death, Rudell had called once a month from a pay phone at the Circle K to see if Sabrena had any money to spare him. Her father hadn’t loved her, of this she was sure. She’d had a family once─her sister Janie, a mother, a father─all the seats in their blue Torino filled. Now she was alone in the world now, though she did not yet feel the deep-sea depth of it.
A columnist for the Hickory Daily News had stumbled on the accident and called this morning to see if he could write about Rudell. “Why?” Sabrena asked. “He wasn’t famous or anything.”
Exactly, Wedge Hoskins answered. Regular folks were the ones he favored, right here in North Carolina. When she hesitated, Hoskins trotted out his argument. Talking about her father might help her work through the loss.
Now, Hoskins was in front of Sabrena’s house, removing his clip-on sunglasses and climbing out of his dusty Nissan slowly, as though his knees were stiff. His khakis and blazer were rumpled and he looked other than the mug shot that appeared with his column. He had a cell phone to his ear, and looked annoyed. As he picked his way up the broken concrete walk, he pocketed the phone and crushed his cigarette on the sole of a loafer. The butt landed under a nandina bush Sabrena’s mother has won at a bingo game.
Sabrena gave Freddie one more stroke down his spine and put him back in his cage, leaving the door open the way he liked it. Hoskins rang the bell, which hadn’t worked in years. Sabrena braced herself; perhaps this was a bad idea.
Hoskins introduced himself and offered condolences that sounded like the sorry-for-your-loss of TV cop shows. His hand, when she shook it, was dry and bony; her own was damp. As he entered the living room, Freddie swooped across his path. Hoskins flinched.
“Freddie won’t bother you,” Sabrena said.
“I don’t much like birds indoors.” He looked Sabrena squarely in the eye, not as a challenge, more of a sizing up. Sabrena was thirty, a time when women were often at the peak of their beauty. Sabrena did not, however, have a comely face. Her limp black hair trailed around her soft jaw, where there was hardly any chin. She had full lips, the bottom one thicker than the top. When she wasn’t speaker, her mouth often hung open slightly, as if she had a stopped-up nose and could breathe no other way. She couldn’t change this, though she tried. Below her sloping shoulder her figure was round, the exact proportions of it hidden beneath the sweatshirt she wore over a gather, denim skirt.
Hoskins searched for a place to sit. Most of the level surfaces were covered with plastic boxes filled with beads. Sabrena cleared the threadbare rocker.
“Sorry for the mess,” she said. “I make jewelry.”
“How long you been doing that?” He took a pen from his pocket.
“Since my mother died. That was three years ago. It’s kind of extra income.”
“You sell it?”
“The farmer’s marker, church bazaars. Stuff like that. My regular job I work concessions at Startown Theater.”
“So you see the movies for free.” Hoskins tried to settle himself into the low rocker. His knees came too close to his chest.
“When we’re not busy. But whenever somebody gets up I got to run back to the counter, though most times it’s just a lady going to the restroom.” She wished she’d cleared off a different chair. He looked uncomfortable. “You want coffee?” When her mother died, people were always coming by the house. This time, the coffeemaker was on, but no one had come by. A few people had called. The obituary wouldn’t appear until tomorrow.
“Coffee would be nice,” Hoskins said. “Thank you.”
Sabrena went into the kitchen, leaving Hoskins to study the room. She figured her beads would look like clutter to him─in jars beneath the coffee table, boxes over the TV. On the card table in the middle of the room she’d let a half-finished necklace, the kind that looks like a rosary. She wondered if he would notice the paintings. He was sitting across the Indian on a horse, which she’d copied from the old Hollywood postcard.
She heard Hoskins talking. Had he pulled out his cell phone? “I’m here,” he said. “Fine. I’ll have it by five.” There was a pause. She got out the mugs quietly so she could hear. “Well that was yesterday. By five, I promise. No I am not hung over.”
Sabrena listed, but didn’t hear any more. She took the kitchen phone off the hook, so they wouldn’t be disturbed, and returned to the living room, pushing the rosary necklace aside to make room for the purple mugs. Freddie perched on a ladder back chair, regarding Hoskins with the one-eyed watch a robin might use on a worm. Hoskins was plain but honest-looking, Sabrena decided. His ears didn’t match. The left one was smaller, closer to his head, barely big enough to hold the earpiece of his bifocals. Around the ear, skin that was smooth and pinker than the rest formed a V-shape to his collar. An accident? Sabrena imagined an explosion─firecrackers or gasoline, maybe a card accident. She liked him better for it.
“I’m a little nervous,” Sabrena said. “I’ve never talked to a reporter before.” The hand that held the coffee was shaking. This was her fourth cup today after not much sleep. She carried the mug to her lips, blowing on it, eye closed. She had long lashes. Maybe he would write that.
“What is it you’re wanting to know?” she asked.
“About you father, and your life with him.” Hoskins’ eyes were pale gray; the left one wandered a bit. Sabrena concentrated on the right one.
“When I was little, eh used to take me to a park. There were ducks, and a big old slide. I’d climb the slide and he’d stand, at the bottom, holding his arms out for me, calling out funny words that rhymed with my name.”
Sabrena Bobina. Fee-fi-fo-fina. The last time she heard that was her ninth birthday, a hot day in April. He little sister Janie was with them, for Rudell never took Sabrena anywhere without Janie. When Sabrena swooshed down the slide and into his arms, Janie called in her squeaky voice from the top of the slide, “Me! Me next.” Sabrena tightened her grasp on her father’s neck and thought, not yet. Rudell set her gently on the ground and called to Janie. “Down the hatch, Princess.” Janie was seven. She had rosy cheeks and silky flax for hair. When Rudell lifted her off the slide and spun her around it looked to Sabrena as though they were dancing. Sabrena scrambled up the slide and cried out, but Janie’s legs were still wrapped around Rudell’s and they were sing Old MacDonald. Sabrena sang from her perch, “Ee-yi-ee-yi-yo!” but they did not look up. She slide down with no one to catch her.
Hoskins was looking around the room. Was he searching for an ashtray? Smoke was bad for Freddie’s asthma. “Go on,” he said.
“When I was very young,” she said, “Daddy had this mustache. All across his face when he smiled. I used to push my fingers on the ends of it. I’d make him laugh.”
Rudell stopped laughing the summer Sabrena was nine, after Janie waded too close to a drop-off at Moon Lake and drowned. He began to spend an hour every night being a neighbor’s shed, where nobody bothered the Wild Turkey he stashed beneath a bale of pine straw.
Hoskins said, “Tell me about your family.”
“I was an only child.” The little fib was not as had to get put as she expected.
“You have cousins? People coming to the funeral?”
“I got a cousin in South Caroline, another I don’t know where. Their parents are dead. Uncle Marty was Daddy’s brother.”
“Your cousin’ll be at the funeral?”
“Calvin. He can’t come. He didn’t like Daddy anyways.” It was Calvin’s church picnic where Janie died. When he saw her go under he dove in, but Janie’s legs were tangled on roots, one foot wedged between rocks. Calvin was twelve. When he came up from the water his hands were bloody and he was screaming for his daddy, a snarl of Janie’s blonde hair stuck on his Spiderman watch. After Janie’s funeral, Calvin started a fire and threw his Boy Scout uniform into the flames.
“It’s not a funeral,” Sabrena said. “Just a memorial service. He always said he wanted to be cremated.” She had no idea what Rudell would have wanted. She couldn’t afford a casket. They would give her a baggie of ashes and she would have to figure out what to do with them. She put down the steaming coffee and reached for a blue teardrop bead with yellow stripes, holding it up between her thumb and forefinger so the light could shine through it. The bead was slightly lopsided. “This one’s handmade,” she said.
“Did you make it?”
“You take a stick of glass and hold it over flame until it gets soft. Then you wind it on a metal rod. It looks like taffy.” She pointed to a pancake stack of red discs. “Those over there are camel vertebrae.”
“I guess you didn’t make those.”
Sabrena looked at him and blinked slowly, pulling her lower lip between her teeth. Was he making fun of her? “No,” she said, “but I painted them.”
Freddie burst into flight and Hoskins ducked, though the bird cam nowhere near his head. Freddie landed on the shade of a lamp shaped like an owl, the light bulb where its head would be.
Hoskins slid a notebook from his jacket pocket, smoothly, as though he didn’t want Sabrena to notice.
“Tell me about your father. Where did he work?”
“Dudley Shoals Mill, second shift. Worked there twenty years.”
“Second shift. So he was gone by the time you got home from school.”
“He’d get up to have breakfast with me, then go to sleep for another couple of hours. I saw a lot of him.” That was not quite right. Rudell was a bear about sleep. She’d had to tiptoe around the house in the mornings before school, eat her cereal without a sound. The clatter of dishes would bring threats from the bedroom.
Sabrena watched as Hoskins wrote. He was left-handed, and held his pen above the words instead of underneath, as though writing upside down. “Is this the kind of thing you want?” she asked.
He nodded. “You’re doing fine. Tell me more.”
Sabrena reached for a box of turquoise nuggets. She began to string them, first a turquoise bead, then a black one small as a birdseed, then another nugget. “Daddy was sweet. If I had a problem I could go to him and he’d help me out. He would’ve helped me with my homework if he’d been home.” Her hands worked swiftly. Nugget, seed, nugget. She imagined a room full of people, her voice grew stronger. “He was always saying ‘I wish I was home to be helping you with your math.’ He was a smart man.”
Rudell had dropped out in eight grade; he could barely read. Sabrena put down her string of nuggets and reached for an oval bead, fingering the polka dot bumps she’d dabbed on it with a stick of molten blue glass, like a paintbrush on fire.
“I played third base on the softball team at Catawba High. Once he called in sick just so he could see me in a tournament.” Her stomach began to burn, just below her ribs. Rudell had never seen her play. She rolled the polka dot bead between her fingers, the bumps poking small impressions on her skin. Whatever Hoskins put in the newspaper tomorrow, people would think was true. Over their eggs and bacon they’d turn to each other and say, Rudell Covington was a goof man. How brokenhearted his daughter must be.
“He taught me how to hit and not be afraid of the ball, like some girls are. He wanted me to go to college, and was sorry we didn’t have the money. He thought I should study art.”
Hoskins wasn’t writing anything. Did that mean he didn’t believe her? She spotted the Kleenex box across the room. She should be crying. He would expect it. She felt for a hankie in her pocket and thought about her mother lying in the hospital, all those tubes sticking out. He eyes watered, and she patted them.
“He loved my art, though he didn’t understand it.”
“Did you paint the Indian?” Hoskins asked.
“My stud is usually more abstract. Like the landscape over there.” Sabrena pointed to the dining room.
“That one was my high school art exhibit.” Her other painting in that exhibit was a portrait of Rudell. She’d painted him in front of a silver lake with dark clouds over it. His narrow black eyes stared into the distance and the ruddy skin of his neck was a thick reddish scar. Rudell, who was fair-skinned and blue-eyed with only scars that people couldn’t see, had exploded when he saw it at the school on Parents’ Day. “That supposed to be me? I don’t have no scar on my neck.” He pulled down his shirt collar and pointed. “Look, you see any scar?” As he grew angrier, the people around began to back away. “I don’t understand you. I’ve never understood you.”
“You never tried,” Sabrena cried, wishing the floor would swallow her. She ran to the girls’ restroom.
When she returned he was gone and her mother was standing alone. “Uncle Marty took him home,” she said.
“Why’s you even bring him?” Sabrina clutched a piece of balled up toilet paper.
“I thought he would be ok, honey. I’m sorry.”
“He’s never okay. Why can’t you see that?” Sabrena took down the portrait, leaving an empty space over the title that read, “Father.”
Hoskins lifted his pen from his notebook. “What was your mother like?”
“I miss her so much. She could always see the good in people. Made the best baked beans you ever tasted. My boyfriend Luther, he loved her ham loaf.” Luther had been her beau for three months, when she was twenty-one. He was thirty-nine and he knew how to treat a lady, pulling out her chair when he came to dinner and opening the door for her when they went out in his Buick. When he kissed her, there in the Buick, he’d brush his fingers over the front of her blouse, making her nipples hard.
After that, Sabrena went to Belk’s and bought a lacy, black bra that hooked in the front beneath a tiny rose. Every night she imagined how it would feel when Luther unbuttoned her blouse, unhooked the little rose and gently touched her breasts. But he never did. One day he said he loved her, but not in that way you needed to be married. Six month later he married a nurse and mother to Myrtle Beach. Sabrena never had another boyfriend after that.
“Mama worked in the ladies’ wear department down at Sears, ‘til she retired. Then she got cancer.” Sabrena made a kissing noise and Freddie flew to her shoulder. As she stroked his back, he picked at the seam of her sweatshirt.
“Why did you parents split up?” Hoskins asked.
“You’re not going to write about that, are you?” Sabrena looked at him straight on. “I don’t know. They just drifted apart.” Her mother had finally thrown out Rudell when he was fired for being drunk on the job.
“His neighbors said he drank,” Hoskins said. “When did that start?”
“Those stupid neighbors didn’t know him. You talk to that guy lives next door to the Circle K? Smokes dope on his porch every night. You going to believe him?” Sabrena closed the box of turquoise nuggets, banging it with her fist until it snapped on. “The way he lived at the end, it could happen to anybody. You ever think about that?” She gave him a hard look. “Anybody.”
Hoskins lifted the pen off his notebook and began speaking in a low, confidential tone. “My father was a drinker. He used to whack me with a belt when he got drunk.”
Sabrena was suspicious. Hoskins was probably trying to trip her up, pretending they had something in common. She bet his daddy never spanked him once. “My father didn’t do that to me. He never drank around us.” She shoved the box of nuggets out of the way, laid her palms on the table, and leaned toward Hoskins. “Why are you here, anyway? My daddy was a good man and he loved me. If that’s not what you’re going to write, don’t write anything.”
As she said this, Freddie charged for Hoskins’ head. Hoskins raised his hand in a swat and the bird plopped to the floor. One pale green feather floated above him. Sabrena knelt and cupped him in her hands. He’d landed upright, like a cat with nine lives.
“Is he breathing?” Hoskins asked. “He startled me. I didn’t mean to hurt him.”
“Sweet Jesus, you could have killed him.” She cooed to Freddie and caressed his chest. He rasped out a cough. “I guess he’s okay,” Sabrena said, studying him. She struggled up from her knees and carried him to his cage. They watched Freddie leap to the side and gnaw on the wires.
“I should get going,” Hoskins said, slipping his notebook into his jacket pocket as quietly as he’d removed it. “Do you have a picture of your father?”
Sabrena closed the cage door. “We weren’t much on pictures.” After Janie died, Rudell stopped taking family snapshots.
“You don’t even have one?”
She thought for a minute. He might find it strange if she didn’t have even one picture. “Maybe,” she said, and went to the oak buffet where her mother had kept Sabrena’s school portraits. In the bottom of a drawer she found a dog-eared Polaroid of her Uncle Marty, his arm around Sabrena and her mother. They looked like a little family. “Here we are,” she said, and held it out to him.
“Your father and mother?” Hoskins asked. Sabrena nodded. Her armpits had grown sticky with sweat.
“Mind if I take it for the story? We would just use a little of it—a head shot of him.”
Sabrena caught her breath and pulled the picture to her chest. “It’s all I got. I couldn’t.”
“I’ll bring it right back. Tomorrow. I promise.”
Her lower lip trembled and she felt Hoskins watching her. Uncle Marty was dead and Calvin was far away. What difference would it make if Uncle Marty’s picture were in the paper? He didn’t look much like Rudell—he’d been more handsome—but this was a picture of a young man. Looks changed. Who would know? People would see the photo of Uncle Marty and think that what Sabrena felt was the large but ordinary sadness that followed a parent’s death, not this lifelong sorriness that could never be mended. She handed him the picture.
“Pretty good condition for a Polaroid,” Hoskins said, squinting at the photo before removing a pack of Winstons from his shirt pocket and sliding the photo in its place. “Back tomorrow morning, I promise.” He shook a cigarette from the pack. “Thanks for seeing me. I know it was difficult.”
Sabrena looked warily at the cigarette. “So what now? This’ll be in tomorrow’s paper?”
“Unless something comes up. Sometimes they have to hold my column. You know, for breaking news.” He rolled the cigarette between his thumb and forefinger. He’s dying to smoke, Sabrena thought, and showed him to the door. She watched him walk to his dusty old car and snap the lighter to his cancer stick. That pink skin around his ear was probably from a burn. Maybe he was dumb enough to smoke in bed. One thing Rudell never did was smoke.
That night, Sabrena lay awake, wondering if it was too late to cancel Hoskins’ story, to tell him she’d lied. She slipped on her flip-flops and shuffled into the kitchen, pouring a glass of milk for herself and cutting into an orange for Freddie. When she pulled back the cover of his cage he hopped towards her. The prick of his toothpick nails was as familiar to her as the edge of a tooth. Her mother had picked him out at the pet store because his tail turned brilliant teal at the tip. He’d been partial to
Sabrena from the start, ringing the bell in his cage when she came home.
She gave him the orange slice and he nibbled it once before returning to his favorite corner. Of course it was too late to call the newspaper. She would have to live with what she’d done.
Sabrena padded back to bed and prayed that a big breaking story had postponed Hoskins’ column—a drug bust in a farmer’s field, or an earthquake in Seattle. Surely it was a sin to desire an earthquake, even one with no injuries.
At dawn she heard the thump of the paper against the stoop and hurried to the door. The headline over Hoskins’ column read: “A Daughter Mourns.” The story started this way:
“Some folks might think the biggest dent Rudell Covington made on this earth was the crimp he put in the Corvette that bounced him 112 feet to his death in a honeysuckle thicket.
According to police, Covington was a loner who lived in a broken-down camper—an unlucky soul who didn’t look or couldn’t see both ways when he crossed Route 31 around midnight Monday, after buying a bottle of Night Train at the all-night Circle K. What else was there to say?
Much more than that, according to his daughter, Sabrena.”
The column went on to quote her and describe her house, the living room full of her creations, her beads, her mother. Uncle Marty’s head appeared halfway down the page, with a caption that said simply, “Covington.” Sabrena felt a white hot glare on her face, as though a spotlight were shining up at her from the ground. She closed her eyes, but it was still there. She couldn’t remember saying all of those things, quite like that.
Sabrena went inside and read the story again, the spotlight following her. In her distraction, she didn’t notice the stillness of the room. Though Freddie’s cage was still covered, he should have been awake, scratching about and cracking seed. Sabrena threw down the paper, pulled the cover off his cage and saw him on lying on the bottom. He was still warm, but not breathing. She’d never held anything so limp. She touched her thumb to his stubby beak. His eyes were open and blank.
Punishment, she thought. This was her punishment for lying, maybe even for living. She sat in the rocker and wept. Loneliness closed over her like a muddy lake.
Soon the phone began to ring. First was one of the women from her mother’s church circle. Her mother never told them much about Rudell. “Are you eating, dear? I’m going to bring you some ham biscuits.
Your father looked quite different as a young man, didn’t he?”
Then her boss at the theater called. “How are you holding up?” he asked. “What’s that Hoskins guy like?”
“He hates birds,” Sabrena said. “Excuse me, I got to go.”
She left the phone off the hook and took Freddie into the bedroom, searching for something to bury him in. Her new ankle-strap sandals from Shoe Warehouse were still in their box, wrapped in pink tissue paper. Sabrena took out the sandals and crumpled the paper into a nest. Rummaging through her dresser, she found the lacy black bra that closed in front. It didn’t fit anymore. She lay Freddie in one of the cups and folded the other cup underneath. The tiny rose was at his feet. She set the bra in the pink nest. It looked cozy. She would bury him in the front yard, under the fig tree.
Sabrena found her mother’s garden trowel under the sink and settled back into the rocker, Freddie’s pink box on her lap. She picked at a bit of orange dirt that clung to the trowel. Out of the corner of her eye she saw a green Bronco stop in front of the house.
It was Calvin. She hadn’t talked to him since her mother died, when he’d arrived at the funeral in that very Bronco with a woman he’d married in a private ceremony on St. Thomas Island. He had done well in the plumbing business; Rudell used to hit him up for money. A wave of nausea swept over her. Had he seen Hoskins’ column? How had he found out so fast?
Calvin charged up the walk, knowing not to bother with the bell. Sabrena considered not answering the door. He knocked again, more loudly. She carried her paltry defenses to the door, Freddie’s box in one hand, her mother’s trowel in the other. Calvin put his foot in the doorway, as though expecting her to shut him out before he could speak. “Why didn’t you call me?” he said.
“I don’t know. I didn’t figure you could come. I was going to call you. I didn’t have your number.” He was mad. She couldn’t remember him ever being mad at her. “How’d you find out?”
“Karen’s mother. She lives here, remember?” Karen was his first wife, a scrappy little thing who died of an aneurysm a year after he married her. “She read it to me on the phone. I couldn’t believe it.”
Sabrena leaned back against the wall, holding Freddie’s box against her reeling stomach. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean nothing.”
Calvin stepped inside and put his arms around her, Freddie between them. He was more than six feet tall, and strong. Through his blue knit shirt she could smell deodorant and a little sweat. When they were children, Calvin lived in the smallest house on Eureka Street. Sabrena had idolized him. His grown-up success made her feel like a torn dress on a dime store bargain rack.
“My parakeet died. That stupid reporter hit him and he died this morning. Like a concussion or something.”
“It might have been something else.”
“I loved Freddie.” She said this into Calvin’s shoulder while he rubbed her back in broad circles.
She didn’t see the car stop behind Calvin’s Bronco. She didn’t see Hoskins until he was coming up the walk.
“Oh God,” she said, and pulled out of Calvin’s arms. “He’s bringing your daddy’s picture back. Go out there and get the picture but don’t tell him nothing.”
“You used him,” Calvin said. He took hold of her shoulders and fixed his eyes on her. The scrutiny wilted her. “Maybe you didn’t mean for it to look that way, but that’s what you did.”
Sabrena’s chest shook with the force of a sob she would not let out. Hoskins and his stupid column, preying on people when they were down. She wrapped her hand around the handle of the door so Calvin couldn’t open it. Through the screen she said to Hoskins, “You killed Freddie.”
“Your bird died? After I left?” Hoskins seemed genuinely pained. His forehead wrinkled.
“Last night. This morning. Sometime. You shouldn’t have gone and hit him. I don’t want you here. I wish you’d never come.”
“I’m sorry. What can I do? Can I buy you another bird?”
“Nooo!” Sabrena howled. “Didn’t you ever have a pet? There aren’t no other birds.”
Hoskins skimmed a finger around the inside of his collar. His neck was red with a flush that covered his mismatched ears. “I’ll just leave the picture here on the porch,” he said.
“You’ve got to tell him,” Calvin said.
“No. You can’t make me.”
“Tell me what?” Hoskins asked.
Calvin pried Sabrena’s hand off the door handle. “Don’t!” she cried as he pushed out the door. He took Hoskins by the arm and led him off the porch.
Sabrena leaned against the wall, watching the two men walk to the tiny patch of shade by the fig tree, just out of earshot. Calvin was going to spoil everything. He would tell Hoskins about Janie, about Rudell’s drinking, about what Sabrena’s life had really been like. Calvin might even tell Hoskins about the summer night after Janie died, when he found Sabrena hiding in the bushes under her parents’ bedroom window. Inside, Rudell was crying and her mother was trying to shush him when he said, “Why couldn’t it have been the other one?” Calvin had hauled Sabrena out of the bushes so fast her toes scraped soil and a rock skinned her knee.
Now Calvin stood in Sabrena’s yard, the facts of her life slipping from his lips like third-rate garnets off a broken necklace. She stepped out on the porch and steadied herself on the iron railing, still cool where the sun had not hit it. Clutching the trowel in one hand and Freddie’s box in the other, she tramped towards the fig tree.
Hoskins held a thumb to his forehead and was massaging a spot between his eyes.
“She could never have told you the truth,” Calvin said.
Hoskins had lit a cigarette and now he exhaled slowly. “In a way, she did.”
Sabrena waved at the stinging smoke. Something was poking her eye and she pulled at her lid to get it out. Her fingers were dirty from picking at the trowel.
Calvin reached over and brushed at her face. “It was an eyelash,” he said. “It’s gone.”
The prick stayed in her eye as if the eyelash were still there. It wouldn’t help to rub now. She concentrated on a scrawny patch of clover by Hoskins’ loafer, where a honeybee worked a lone white flower. Hoskins would have to move aside, and then she could begin her task. The hole would be deep.