POPCORN: A MATTER OF SURVIVAL
Late afternoon clouds dimmed the sky over the brick crumble and wood rot of late 19th century buildings in the old part of Omaha. The few people on the street had been delayed inside by activity or interest and now hurried past dark places where others, unseen, might wait.
Inside Just's Market the light was harsh on aisles of goods. A woman, about fifty, fingered a geranium reduced to half price. Bud leaves fell to the floor. She looked through the window. Her eyes grew wide. She left without making a purchase.
At the checkout, Andrew Just tapped out the prices of a customer's selections: bananas stiff and atheistically pale, grapes like large knots in a green rope, macaroni in a box, meat in a can.
"Robbery," the shiny-faced man with overactive oil glands complained. "The street isn't the only place you get robbed." He took a hand from where hair would be, if he had any, and poked around for his wallet. "May as well give it to you as the next guy," he reasoned sourly. "One way or another, it's gone!" As he fumbled, he told a story. "Three weeks ago, my Aunt Mary was struck down for her purse. Right in front of her apartment building. $132. Poor old woman, proud that she is, she's been living on canned soup for years. She's eating better now in the hospital." He threw down the bills in disgust as if the problems of society fell squarely upon the redheaded man with the immediate claim.
As if an apology or consolation, or for lack of better response, the freckled checker smiled, then turned to tally the merchandise of a dark-skinned woman with bead-and-shell jewelry at her neck, ears and wrists. She hugged to her chest a large handbag made of a peculiar woven material, and it shifted to the shape of her advanced stage of pregnancy.
"Hello again," the cashier said with obvious recognition though he could not, or did not use her name. He slid the merchandise past his register: milk, cheese, overripe peaches and a sack of popcorn. "You must really like popcorn," he observed. "Your other purchases vary, but you always buy popcorn."
"Popcorn is bad for the stomach," she replied.
"For a child then," he said conversationally.
"My only child is with me." She patted the huge stomach. "I buy it for the rats," she said matter-of-factly.
The squat customer who lingered to read a newspaper turned back. "You mean you feed the rats in your building? Lady, you're crazy! You know that? Crazy! And I suppose you put little suits and dresses on them and teach them tricks!"
"Everything can be trained."
"You're nuts, lady! Totally bonkers!"
"Perhaps," she said. "Perhaps not."
He grumbled under his breath and continued reading. "It says here that a Joseph Whitten was found dead in an alley this morning. Not more than three blocks from here."
The storekeeper put the woman's goods into a sack.
She placed her purse on the counter, and it shifted. She paid with bills from her hand.
"Thank you, ma'am. Have a safe evening."
She replied, "I intend to."
The man whose t-shirt was a greasy match for his complexion interrupted the congenial moment. "Did you know Joseph Whitten?" He seemed not to care who answered.
"He was just one of the local street people," Andrew replied. "Known felon. A junkie. What did he die of? An overdose?"
"No. And there were no marks of violence on his body. Snakebite, it says. Paralysis and death by snake bite, an African mamba! There are no such snakes in these parts, are there? In Omaha?" He tugged at his chin. "We have to worry about burglars, muggers, kidnappers, rapists, and purse snatchers. And now we are prey to venomous snakes!"
"Rats," the woman said as she organized the small grocery bag and huge, shifting purse in her grasp.
"Rats? Rats what?" the bald man said loudly with annoyance. "Why are you going on about rats? Rats are a relatively small problem in these times should some idiot not choose to increase their numbers by feeding them."
"You misunderstand," she said with a smile stretched across her dark lips and a gleam in her eyes. "The mamba, the African mamba eats rats."
WORDS WITH A MACAW
Within sight of wind- ruffled Lake Erie, near the railroad yards of Sandusky, in a community of grape pickers, and from a crate-poor dwelling, a parrot as bright as a melt of stub crayons squawked at a rusty screen.
"Awk-k-k... Bodies in the water!"
Two men with cob faces paused to light cigarettes as they passed by. Their conversation carried.
"Now there have been two bodies found in Lake Erie. Tuesday, an old man. A young woman on Friday. What's going on? Few people fish there now."
"It's mighty peculiar," said the one with black hair. "I bet there's a killer about."
"But what did they have in common? One was a retired businessman, the other a rich man's daughter. What was the connection between them?"
"Both were last seen at Phoebe's Pub and Skillet. Phoebe herself told me that." The man with tinted glasses threw his hand like old papers, aside. "I suppose you also believe Phoebe weighs 100 pounds."
The other laughed. "Which leg? Nevertheless, the deaths were not accidental."
"True. Even without concrete evidence, violence is already a fact."
"Maybe a cult, think? These are days of mocked religion. Who can be trusted when Bibles lie? Hard Times. Strange times. Or, could it be both were suicides?"
"More likely muggings."
"No, no, too common," the other disagreed, and they faded down the broken stretch of sidewalk.
The Macaw looked in the opposite direction. Gray wisp slid under the deeper gray of cloud cover. A dark bird crossed, gliding.
The door of Phoebe's Pub & Skillet swung open. A well-dressed man held onto it for balance. He tried to brush stains from his suit and made a poor pretense of sobriety as he started up the sidewalk. He hiccuped and it altered his balance.
The bird watched the staggering man approach, then squawked. "Come-here! Come-here. Step-over-here!"
"Who? What?... (Ech!) Are you talking to me, Sir?"
"I'm-not-a -sir, you-twit! I'm-a-parrot. Awk-k-k!"
"Good." (Ech!) You're not so intensely ugly as a bird."
"Awk-k-k!" The Macaw rattled its feathers. "Bodies in the water!"
"I'm (Ech!) 'streamly tired of this preoccupation with (Ech!) death. I'm glad I don't live here, but (Ech!) in Chicago where we have culture for conversation. Death. Drowning. That's all they talked about in the lounge."
"What (Ech!) would you know about money?"
The inebriated man scratched his head. "I can't believe (Ech!) I'm talking to a bird."
"Money-in-your- pockets? Money-in-your- pockets?"
"Of course there is, you twit!"
"Big-money? Big money!"
The bird leaned closer, cocked its head. "Wan-nm-nt-m-m-more?"
"What are you talking about? Hey, my hiccups are gone."
"Come-closer. Look-in-the-room. What do-you-see?" The bird paced back and forth, squawking, "Bodies In the water! Bodies in the water!"
"Stop it," the man said, and he peered into the room. There was nothing impressive inside, just an old woman who appeared to be asleep in a wooden rocker, and some sort of a cabinet. "What kind of game are you playing, bird?"
"You better pipe down. You're going to wake her up. She'll be mad as hell and pluck you featherless."
"Nope! Nope! Deaf-e-e-eaf as-a-post!" The parrot pecked at something, struck its beak clean, and looked at the drunk from a cockeyed position. "Money-in- the-dresser. Thousands. Thousands. Want-some? Want-some? Want-it-all? Fortune!"
"Hmmmmmmm," the man said.
"N-oo-time-for-humming, no-o-time-for- music."
"Do you think I'm stupid? What's in this for you?"
He laughed. "Take the money yourself and buy yourself an airplane ticket."
"Sil-l-ly m-man. The-door-is-too-heavy, heavy for-me-to open, but-I-can-unhook-the latch, latch-and-let-you-in." Again, the bird paced, then once again eyeballed him. "Hurr-rry, hurry before she wakes up."
The intoxicated man scratched through the barbed wire of his hair and moved from the window to the door. He heard a thump and scratching. He pressed the door. It opened. He peered Inside.
The Macaw crossed the floor. Its long tail was little more than a stem of color. It stopped on the threadbare carpet in front of the rocking chair. The chair was empty. A shawl was draped toward the floor. A gray wad of hair almost as big as a cat lay on the seat.
Slowly, the man looked around the door.
An Oriental face grinned above the white spot of a cameo pin that gathered the neckline of a black smock. Small hands rose in practiced posture.
The rich man from Chicago didn't have time to call out, was muted to the sound of someone gumming mush.
The Macaw returned to the windowsill. It's squawked and turned away as its owner pummeled the rich man to the floor, then went through the pockets of the thousand dollar suit.
"Shut up, you stupid bird!" said the small Oriental man. His voice had twangy intonation. He could put it in anywhere.
The bird rattled its feathers and squawked. "Awk-k-k! Bodies in the water! Bodies in the water! Awk-k-k!"
That was, after all, all the bird could say.