For the Child Learning that Everyone She Ever Comes to Know Will Die by Jennifer Popa

In kindergarten, back when I was Jenny, I sit next to the cookie hoarder. Chocolate chips smudge her teeth. Crumbs collect at her mouth’s crooks, her skirt’s valley. I tell Ms. Dunscumb. She does nothing. But then, the cookie hoarder’s brother dies. Dies the day after I see him at Meijer pouting to visit the toy section. I cannot explain this, how quickly someone can be there, then not there. He and his bicycle swallowed by an elderly woman’s Buick.

 

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By 1991, death is funny. I am Wednesday Addams for Halloween. Death is also not funny. In My Girl I learn bees can equal death. I cry with Vada Sultenfuss, fingering my throat in search of a chicken bone. When I find a dead bird, I tell no one and bury it next to the drainpipe and imagine excavating toothpick bones in a month. But when I dig, I find no bones, no feathers. Only an absence. Granular black stitches itself under my fingernails. Later, a second bird, a fledgling clouded in feathers. Alive, but without nest. I place it in a shoebox. Kneeling, I whisper to God in the dim of my bedroom. I go to church twice a week. I say three Our Fathers. Still, it dies.

 

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I will lose my childhood best friend when she discovers her father’s body in the morning. Having poisoned his own coffee during the night, she finds him slumped in his recliner. A Bible splayed across his lap. A letter of apology. Does poison taste sweet—like a trick? Gambling debts, the adults whisper. I will miss him, as he does not lie like my parents do. Because of him I now know that Unsolved Mysteries means the killer is still out there. Means Pay attention to strangers’ faces just in case. I learn some friends were never mine to keep. Anjani moves away, and spends what’s left of her childhood as her mother’s drinking buddy. She hasn’t even begun to bleed.

 

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For the child learning how to lose, death’s a wonder. In the same day Bluma died, my cousin Kyle was born. When the neighbor plummeted from ladder and bone erupted from his wrist, he somehow lived. Each night, I reminded the Lord to take me, in case he needed prompting. But here, twenty-odd years later, my mother calls. A second cousin, twice removed, just ran over his sister, a toddler, with a full-size tractor. The child is gone. I so rarely pray anymore. I muster How horrible. All I do is place the deceased here within this line. I never even ask for their names.

 

 

 

Jennifer Popa‘s recent work can be found at Colorado Review, The Boiler, Watershed Review, Monkeybicycle, Grist, and Fiction Southeast.

 

 

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