The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 20, No. 4

A Walk-Through Human Heart

by Elizabeth McCracken

Some grackles might possess souls and some grackles might possess intelligence but it is impossible that any one grackle possess both. Not enough room in their brilliantined heads. The birds were as unnerving as infants. A flock walked around the parking lot outside the vintage store like a family at a hotel wedding, looking for the right ballroom. One grackle was missing a foot, and Thea blamed him for it. If they were magpies she might count them up, wondering what they augured, but grackles were just seagulls in widow's weeds. They were not omens of anything other than more grackles.
     She was here to buy a present. The world had promised a baby (though of course the world broke such promises all the time), and Thea planned to become that uninteresting thing: a doting grandmother. What was doting? A sort of avian love, a tender pecking. Thea had already referred to the baby as my baby, and Georgia—who still lived in Portland, where she'd grown up and nearly died—said, "Mom, don't be disgusting."
     So she was here before she began to dote.
     The vintage store was a cavern built of confiscated things. Immediately Thea's hatred of castoffery came upon her like an allergy. She wanted to sneeze with depression: all these fingerprinted objects that had made it just this far. Instead of stalactites overhead, a series of old suitcases hanging from hooks (flowered, plaid, embarrassed at having their insufficient metal wheels exposed). Instead of stalagmites, the kind of barstools once beloved by kicky grandmothers.
     She wouldn't be a kicky grandmother. If anybody indeed were kicky these days. Her apartment was so spare people asked her when she'd moved in: ten years before.
     She closed her eyes and envisioned the particular item she wanted to buy. Was she trying to divine its presence or magic it into place? No matter: amid the shot glasses and quilted skirts she pictured a baby doll. Then she reopened her eyes to the great accumulation.
     No surprise that the memorabilia of her youth were for sale—little plastic homunculi on rhomboid plinths inscribed I love you this much; Playboy ashtrays; a lacy and emphatic Cross Your Heart bra. Her adolescence was as ugly arranged by color and category as it had been in the kitchens and rumpus rooms and Spencer Gifts of her hometown. Wheat–patterned, avocado-hued: vintage. That's how it worked. Your belongings marched alongside you as you moved toward death: thrift shop, vintage shop, antique store, museum. Look there—Thea's chrome childhood breadbox, with the Bakelite latch and the identifying badge: bread.
     Behind the front counter, a woman in a strapless plaid dress shot through with gold stood sorting a parliament of macramé owls. The owls smelled, Thea imagined, of tuna noodle casserole and Virginia Slims.
     "Excuse me," she said.
     The woman turned, holding a beige owl by its top and bottom, like a town crier with a proclamation. She was plump, luscious, a mouse waitress from a cartoon biker bar, cat–eye glasses, carmine lipstick, a pair of wings tattooed across the territory below her throat and above her breasts. Her cleavage put a crease at the bottom of it. Her hair was the red that pistachios used to be. "Something you're looking for?" she asked Thea.
     "Yes," said Thea, and then she turned shy. "Do you have a doll section?"
     "Not really. I think we got a Pee–wee Herman. Or there's her." The woman pointed to a trepanned bisque head in the display case. Thea shook her head. "Other than that—not really." On a map the woman circled a number of local vintage shops. Soon she would age out of those glasses, or out of the implicit irony: she would be an actual middle–aged broad, not a young woman playing the part. "Try here. Amanda. Out on Burnett. She's got a ton of dolls."

All grackles are beautiful the way all babies are. If you liked them, yes. Otherwise, only an occasional specimen. They were not hummingbirds nor cardinals, they did not flash. Sunlight revealed the iridescence in their dark plumage like poison in a glass. In the morning and evening they held meetings on telephone wires: you drove under conventions of grackles, their shadowy bodies, their pensive, long tails. The birds of Portland, Oregon, had wanted nothing from Thea except her dropped crumbs, which they busied away like busboys. In Austin, on the lawns of bungalows, grackles had a patient, dangerous, purposeful look, as though they'd come to collect a debt. They seemed to walk more than most birds. The one–footed one hopped along the parking lot. His mouth was jacked open. He eyed Thea: I'm a bird but I could still fuck you up. She got in the car.
     The collective noun for grackles is grackle: a grackle of grackles.

The doll Thea sought was Baby Alive. You fed Baby Alive's mechanical mouth, and Baby Alive's mechanical digestive tract eventually emptied its mechanical bowels into its diaper, which you changed. Please, Georgia had said, twenty years before, in the shocked, weeping voice of children whose parents don't understand their passion. PLE–e–ase. "You've got a baby doll," Thea had told her, "pretend it can eat." About a year ago now Georgia had mentioned the doll once more, and Thea had said, "Oh, if you'd really bugged me I would have got it for you," and Georgia had gasped, betrayed.

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