Twilight in the garden. Rudy rubbed the tomato plant leaf nearest him and did not call Elaine. Elaine was with Donnie now and Donnie was a philistine, Donnie was a thief. “Donnie came to my house,” Rudy said out loud, “and stole a leg of beef.”
Jesus—was it possible the aphids were back? Plant lice. Aphids. An infestation. Not that Elaine gave a shit about his fucking flora, as she called everything he grew (except the broccoli, prone to cabbage worms, which she called his goddamn ass-fucking flora). Yet Rudy continued to not call Elaine, and he felt pride in his restraint, his perpetual and constant restraint in everything he did including his garden, which he tended with a kind of British restraint, he knew, sure, yes.
But there she was, Elaine on his walkway (his quaint, British-seeming walkway) keening toward him in the twilight of his garden.
What could she possibly want from him that she hadn’t already taken? “Your parrot’s dead,” she said. Hadn’t Rudy told her that Chummy would drop dead if she fought for custody? Hadn’t he explained more than once how birds establish complicated, co-dependent attachments to their humans?
“It was that Welshman killed Chummy,” Rudy said, trying to growl, “directly or indirectly.”
Elaine said, “Donnie’s from Jersey, Rudy. You know that.”
“Donnie was a Welshman,” Rudy said, rising from his garden bench. “Donnie was a thief.” Rudy’s heart thumped and whimpered its little dirge at Chummy’s demise, and in this moment he understood, always, how much there was hidden from him in plain view. The garden was bursting at the seams with decay and invasive species and flea beetles, for instance. He’d had Chummy, known Chummy, loved Chummy, almost all Chummy’s life, eight years longer than he’d known and loved Elaine even.
“What were his last words?” Rudy said.
“I love you,” Elaine said. “He said, I love you.” “No he didn’t!” Rudy said, as the locusts kicked up their sad screams.
“He did,” Elaine said. And she left him to his squash and beans and flea beetles. To his aphids. She left him alone and messy, heartbroken and in love, with what, he wasn’t sure.
Sherrie’s story pairs sent to Sam Ligon:
–Janice squatted in the bushes to pee. The train rumbled by, a long band of K-Line cars clacking above her on the rails.
–Twilight in the garden. Rudy rubbed the tomato plant leaf nearest him and did not call Elaine. —Country music mumbled through the screen door. The clap of thunder off in the distance hit an A chord dead on.
I picked Sam as my collaborator because we’d recently organized a mini-reading tour together in Washington State and had such a good time that I wanted to continue the fun. He did not disappoint! I found this collaboration invigorating partly because we were both working very hard to create a complex story. The energy of working together was fantastic, creating a world that we both could only partially see, two sentences at a time. I will admit when Sam added the parrot I had a little nervous breakdown. I had to read what we had so far and then put the story away for a couple days to try and really understand the parrot and Rudy’s relationship to it. What could have been a parody moment turned into a really important component of the story itself. I think we were able to pull this whole thing off because we trusted each other going forward.
Sherrie Flick is the author of the novel Reconsidering Happiness, the flash fiction chapbook I Call This Flirting, and the short story collection Whiskey, Etc. Her fiction appears in Flash Fiction Forward, New Sudden Fiction, Ploughshares, SmokeLong, Corium, New World Writing, Booth, and elsewhere. She serves as co-director of the Chautauqua Writers’ Festival and teaches in the MFA and Food Studies programs at Chatham University
It’s rare to get to collaborate with another writer. The pleasure of it is in the surprises, in challenging each other, inching the story forward while listening hard to what your collaborator is doing and where she might want to go with the story. We were limited to writing two lines at a time with this story, so I found myself wanting to answer Sherrie, to follow what she laid down, but also to push the story in new directions. Both Sherrie and I are musicians, so we’re used to listening to people we collaborate with. My greatest pleasure in this story was the last words Sherrie gave our dead parrot. I dropped that in her lap, had Rudy demand to know those last words. The answer Sherrie wrote for Elaine was perfect, I think, and provide just the right surprise and inevitability this story needs, while also moving us toward closure.
Samuel Ligon is the author of two novels—Among the Dead and Dreaming and Safe in Heaven Dead—and two collections of stories, Wonderland, illustrated by Stephen Knezovich, and Drift and Swerve. He edits the journal Willow Springs, teaches at Eastern Washington University, and is Artistic Director of the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference.