Green Hills Literary Lantern





Five Bullets




I’m visiting Mom in the hospital and I’m struggling to smile. It hurts my face. She had a stroke a week ago, Labor day. Her partner, a textiles salesman, called the hospital as soon as he saw spots of drool drop on scrambled egg gravel, and medical personnel administered the magic bullet. Now she sits up in a hospital bed, her partner has visited but once, and Mom’s talking about being seven. Her memories are lucid, visual, and surprisingly ethnic. Perhaps because she can only speak from the left side of her mouth, her words have returned home to Macedonia. Every sentence ends with a reedy rise. She tells a story about a chicken.


As she speaks, I glance away at a painting of a nude woman, standing over a washbasin. Eyes tired, hair imperfect, even knotted in places, she cares not that I see her.


Mom, in the story, wears a dress and white shoes with socks falling to her ankles. She pads after her mother, Babo Sophie, among tomatoes and latticed grapes in their backyard. A red chicken squawks playfully, encouraging Mom to toss food or chase him about. The chicken’s a pet given to them by a grateful neighbor. Dedo Chris, Mom’s Dad, had let the neighbors buy on credit late in the month, when money’s short.


Mom’s parents were immigrants, operating a variety store in Toronto’s west end. Dedo worked long hours and the three boys helped him. Mom, the baby and only girl, was spoiled, given to many a delightful game and flights of storytelling in the yard.


But during a holiday—it’s unclear which one—Babo Deanna, Sophie’s aunt with a long face, dark bandanna, and heavy accent, visited and insisted Babo cook the chicken. She teased, saying what are you saving it for, Macedonian Christmas? Babo knew how important the squawking chicken was to my mother but she also knew to respect her elders. “What’s a matter with you, you crazy?” Deanna repeated at regular intervals.


Mom sighs as she tells the story new. “You know how it was. Wanting to fit in.” Mom’s parents hated to be embarrassed. So, Dedo killed the chicken.


“What was the chicken’s name?” I ask.


“Why does it matter, Griff?” Mom’s eyes don’t look as bright as I remember. They’re murky.


“It’s harder to kill a pet if it has a name,” I say.


“It had a name. I just don’t remember it—”


“I can’t believe Dedo killed the chicken.”


“Yes. He killed it. Babo boiled and served it.”


“That’s gross,” my sister Michelle says. She’s forty now and still beautiful. Her dark black hair has brown highlights. She possesses all the grace and aesthetic beauty of our family. The nude painting on the wall was her idea. She posted it across from Mom, figuring it would provide a focal point of relaxation for the long hours Mom was alone. I find the painting too personal; its unabashed nakedness is more than what I want to look at. Even the brush strokes are coarse. “I bet nobody but Deanna ate the damn chicken,” Sis says. She visualizes the table. Everyone staring while Deanna eats.


“No, we all ate it. We didn’t want Deanna to feel bad.”


“Feel bad? She comes to your house—she makes you kill your chicken—” My sister’s eyes are muddy black, intense.


“Well, she came from the old country, you understand? She didn’t have any imagination.” Mom tries to smile; it pulls at her face. I too try and find my face sympathetically freezing with hers.


“I wouldn’t have eaten the chicken,” I say.


“That’s life,” Mom says. “Russian roulette. Sometimes the gun is loaded—five bullets. Sometimes one. You never know what you’re going to get.”


That’s not how Russian roulette works, Ma, I want to say, my anger startling me. She’s the one who encouraged me to pursue dreams of the heart, rather than those of the pocketbook, to be idealistic and hopeful in a world full of wounds and wonders. I dedicated my first detective novel to her, and I fight back the itch forming in my eyes.


“This is reality. This here—” She points at the nude. “Deal with it, Griff.” 


“Charlie. I bet the bird had a goofy name like Charlie.”


“You still aren’t dealing with it,” she says.


“I guess if it were a Macedonian chicken it would have a name like Nick, Peter, John or Christo.”


Mom makes a face, a half smile forming at the good corner of her mouth. Peter was Deanna’s husband. Upon reaching Canada, he took ill and was afraid to go to the hospital because of the black bottle—immigrants back then believed that hospitals stacked bottles of poison that they slipped to unsuspecting Eastern-Europeans. “They came from small villages. They weren’t sophisticated.” Peter died in his bed, before morning light. Influenza, 1919.


“No wonder she wanted to kill the fucking chicken. She was probably mad at the whole world.” My voice is a low, thin line.


No, no, Mom disagrees. “Deanna, thought I needed to grow up. That I was too much between up and down, head in the clouds, you understand? She was trying to teach me, hard knocks, make me stronger.” Unfortunately it didn’t work, she says. I married your father.


I turn to the nude and I want to fill in her nipples with the bulky padding of a bra. “Like hell she was right,” I bark. “What she needed was a little Russian roulette and I’ll supply the bullets. Five.” I hold up an open hand.


“Griff—” Mom wants to chastise me, but instead her tired eyes dampen and she searches for my hand. She hasn’t much of a grip, and I bite my upper lip as my sister hugs my shoulders. I don’t understand the painting, the subject’s effortless smile, glint of backlight on shoulders, and water trickling between breasts, but its artful grit hovers and if I look away from the paralyzed quiver of Mom’s lips long enough, maybe all of this will make sense.


“Charlie?” My mother laughs. “Oh, Griffin. What kind of name is that for a chicken?”






Grant Tracey teaches film and creative writing at the University of Northern Iowa. He also edits the North American Review. His third collection of stories, Lovers and Strangers (Pocol Press), was recently cited by The Kansas City Star as one of the top one-hundred books of 2009.