Night Lights of Kansas, by Ellen S. Jaffe

The train rumbled and tumbled through the night lights of Kansas where the Wicked Witch of the West lived. No, it was Dorothy who lived there, before she whirled to Oz inside the tornado and her house fell down on the Wicked Witch of the East, owner of the ruby slippers. My mother and I were hurtling across the country to an equally wonderful California: the place where my parents lived during the War, before my father was sent Overseas and my mother returned to her parents’ apartment in New York City to have me.

After my father came home, my parents and I stayed in the apartment and my grandparents moved to an old brick building whose lobby was filled with birds in cages – finches, canaries, parrots, lovebirds. I hoped the birds would talk, but they never did.
[expander_maker more=”Read more” less=”Read less”]The day before we left for California, we went to say goodbye to my grandparents. My mother went upstairs first, while my father took me to say goodbye to the birds. The lobby was dark, even in daytime. I wondered if the birds missed the light, and my father said birds could get used to lots of things. He stopped in front of one of the cages. The parrot inside was blue, red, and green, like finger-paints. He looked sort of crumpled. “He looks sad, all by himself, Daddy.”
My father said the parrot reminded him of a story he’d heard during the war, about a bird in a mysterious jungle who was the last living speaker of an extinct language. “Extinct is when people don’t speak it any more. They taught the birds to talk, but then everyone died – all the people and all the birds except that one. Their language was strange. When people spoke it, they couldn’t understand each other. Just the opposite of what’s supposed to happen when we talk. So they got confused and angry, and began fighting.”
“We’re supposed to use our words when we get mad,” I said. “My teacher always tells us that.”
Daddy ruffled my hair. “That’s right, sweetheart. But sometimes we get mixed up about what words mean. A little like the people in that jungle.” He looked sad, like the bird.
“Mean is like angry,” I said.
“Yes – but it’s also about something else. When a word ‘means’ something, it tells you what that thing is all about. Like ‘daughter’ means you’re my little girl.” He picked me up and hugged me close. “And you’re very sweet – certainly not mean.”
“So ‘Daddy’ means you’re my Daddy!” I said.
“And I’ll always love you. I want you to understand that.” He tickled my nose.
I said I would, even though he wasn’t coming with us to California. He had to stay in New York to work. He was a doctor and had to make sick people feel better.

On the train, my mother slept in the upper berth and I slept in lower one, my clothes tucked into a little hammock next to the window. During the night, while my mother snored softly, I would wake up and look out the window at flickering yellow and red lights. I imagined they were the eyes of monsters watching from dark caves.
When the train finally stopped in California, a jeep took us to a place called Sunset Ranch. My mother and I had a cottage to ourselves, but there were lots of other people there, mainly mothers and children. I made friends with a boy named Danny in the cottage next door. He had red hair and freckles and came from Baltimore, Maryland. It sounded like Merry-land. A nice place, like the game Candy-Land. But Danny didn’t act very merry. He was seven, two years older than me. One day, while we were feeding carrots to the donkeys, he whispered that my mom and dad were splitting up, just like his parents. “They don’t want to live together anymore,” he explained, when I wondered if they were going to “split apart” like broken glass, or the firewood split with an axe for campfires.
“I don’t believe you,” I yelled back at him. “My daddy stayed home because of his work. He’s a famous doctor.”
“Sure,” he said. “That’s what they tell you. They think we’re stupid or something.” He brushed a lock of hair out of his eyes.
I thought about his words that night when I couldn’t get to sleep. I still didn’t believe him. But I didn’t ask my mother about it. She cried a lot now, especially when she talked to Danny’s mom and the other ladies.
Danny also told me that my mom and dad did something naughty in bed, in the dark. Something that sounded like “fox.” “You know,” was all he said when I asked for more information. I pictured my parents in bed with a hungry red fox lying between them, its fur flying.

We telephoned Daddy once a week, and sometimes Grandma and Grandpa.
The phone was in a little booth, like a closet, outside the Dining Hall. On the wall next to the booth was a bright green map with the letters NEVADA on top.
“What does NEEV-a-da mean?” I asked Danny one day.
“What?”
“You know, NEEV-a-da — N-E-V-A-D-A – on the map.” The word sounded hot and dry, like the weather.
“Nuh-VAH-da,” he said. “That’s how you say it, and that’s where we are. Don’t you even know that?”
“You mean California?”
Danny rolled his eyes, and went to play ball with some boys. I decided the two words, Nevada and California, meant the same thing. Like forest and trees, ocean and sea.

July stretched into August, and one hot, sticky afternoon Danny told me that tomorrow he’d be going home with his mom and baby sister. “Maybe I’ll get to see my dad,” he said, “but just once in a while.”
We were alone behind the barn, by a patch of tall, itchy grass. Danny’s red hair ruffled in the breeze, reminding me of foxes and also of the Scarecrow in Wizard of Oz. We’d each seen the movie, and Danny had the real book. I felt sorriest for the Tin Man because he had no heart, but Danny liked the Cowardly Lion best. “He really wants to be brave.” Danny was coloring all the pictures with crayons, even though you weren’t supposed to draw in books. “It’s okay ‘cause I’m making it look pretty.”
“I’ll show you mine if you show me yours,” Danny whispered now, tugging at his denim shorts. “Yours, you know, down there.”
He started to lift the skirt of my buttercup-yellow sundress but I did it myself, then pulled down my white underpants with the day of the week – Monday – stitched in pink. In a flash, my panties puddled around my ankles. Danny whipped down his own shorts and underpants to show his “thing,” sticking out like it was proud of itself. “You can’t do that,” he said, “You’ve got nothing there.”
“I do so.”
His hand reached out – gently exploring my soft pipi-place. And I touched him, stroking the crinkly-smooth skin. Our eyes met.
Then the dinner gong rang, breaking the spell. Danny gave me a little wink. Then we yanked on our clothes, and went to join our mothers.
After dinner we called Daddy. I told him I was having fun and he said he was blowing me a kiss all the way out west. “See,” I told Danny later as we played in front of our cottages, “we talk to him on the phone. They can’t be splitting up.”
“He’s back in New York, ain’t he?” Danny said, pressing the burnt-sienna crayon so hard he tore the Cowardly Lion’s mane.
I got mad at him, mad at everything he’d said and done and mad because he was leaving. So when he went inside to pee, I ripped the picture of the lion out of his book, folded it up small, and stuffed it in my pocket. Then my mother called me in for bed.
“My picture’s gone!” I heard Danny shout when he came back outside. “Did you see my lion, Mary-Beth?” I pretended I didn’t hear him roaring through the screen door.
Next morning, I finished coloring the picture and would have given it back – maybe – but Danny stayed indoors helping his mom. Then Pete, the caretaker, drove them to the train station.
“Bye, Danny,” I called as the jeep pulled away, but he didn’t answer. I waved for a long time.
That night, I touched myself under the blankets, thinking about the tall grass. “Do you and Daddy have foxes anymore?” I asked Mommy, but she didn’t understand.
A week after Danny and his family left, my mother and I left Sunset Ranch, too. Like Dorothy, I wanted to go home. I had two souvenirs in my suitcase: a beaded headband, which Pete gave me for helping with chores, and the picture of the Cowardly Lion. I made believe I could put on my ruby headband, click my heels together, and fly back to New York, like Dorothy wearing her magic slippers. And I pictured my heart, like the Tin Man’s, red and bright and unbreakable as one of those rubies. At night, I sank deep into the cushioned berth, watching the lights flicker outside the window, feeling the rocking of the train as it sped back through Kansas, entering other worlds.

the narrator with her ruby headband.

***

3rd place, short fiction, in Hamilton’s gritLIT competition, 2012, and published in the competition chapbook, None and All of This Is True. Also published in Great Lakes Review, Fall 2013, where it was selected as a nominee for the 2014 Pushcart Prize. The mysterious bird in the jungle is taken from The Book of Beasts: Being a Translation of a Latin Bestiary from the Twelfth Century by T.H. White.
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