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.




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.




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.




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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