Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Gizzard Pearls

We are gathered around the newspaper spread out on the garage floor. My sister, my brother and two of the Maguire boys from down the street: Rob and Mick. Silvery red blood and shiny organs litter the newspaper as my father, in squatting position, gutting knife in hand, opens another hapless pheasant who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Later, this evening, this bird, and others, will be the main course of our Sunday supper, breaded and baked. But for now the dead bird is our biology lesson.

Popping the gizzard out with his thumb, knife still clenched in palm of the same hand, it plops down onto the newspaper, among the slimy remains of the bird previously gutted. The smell of newspaper dampened with blood is overpowering, leaving a metallic coating on the top of the mouth and up the back of the throat into my sinuses. The smell is scary and thrilling at once.

The organ is full and walnut sized and we are excited by the prospect of many treasures in this one. My father’s blood and dirt coated hands are fat and stumpy. The knife pops through the sheath of taut protective tissue and in to the muscle of the organ. Bloody fingers go into the slit and turn the organ inside out where the treasure is expelled in a blob on the already slimed newspaper. I am seeing pictures of Napalm fires and grime covered soldiers in tears at the fringes of the viscera my father is creating. The curved, pointed shaft of the knife pokes through the dark green/red mass and blood coated fingers pluck out a half digested cricket. “Ooh”s and “Ah”s eminate from the gathered crowd. Another newspaper page, also blood splattered, has hippies burning flags and I admire the long wavy hair that is so in contrast to my own thin, blond summer pixie cut.

In the slimy blob, excitement mounts as we are able to discern the bugs: when they have not been broken down much by the digestive juices we know that the bird ate just shortly before being shot from the sky. Another cricket and a wormy looking thing are there among the more digested unidentifiable matter. But what we are really after are the rocks. Little stones, like pearls, buried in the debris. These will be taken out and washed and distributed to the crowd as souvenirs. The rocks vary in size, but like slices of a birthday cake, the bigger ones are better. These rocks are not round like pearls: they are more toothlike. Each bird has two or three of these small toothy stones. They vary in color, though most are a dark gravelly gray, darker still as they emerge damp from the innards. The best ones are a creamy white or yellow in color. These tend to be smoother and more pearl-like than the others. I will put mine, once washed and dried and polished by the hem of my t-shirt, in the Bayer Aspirin pocket tin in my underwear drawer, stashed away until they are needed for wishing on or bartered away to a sibling for performing undesirable house chores.

I am envious of my older brother, who sometimes gets to go hunting with my father and the dog on Sunday when I am stuck in a dress and have to sit in the pew with my mother and sister while the boys get to go out there and shoot things out of the sky. My brother gets first choice of gizzard stones because he was involved in the bird harvest. My little sister gets next pick to quiet her insistent begging. The Maguire boys are next in line because they are guests. I get what is left. If there are any left. It’s rare I get a good white pearly one. But as compensation I do get first claim to a tail feather. That is after my father takes what he wants for tying flies. A dusty bouquet of once brilliantly colored pheasant tail feathers sits on my dresser, above the stashed away tin of gizzard pearls in the underwear drawer below. With these treasures I am a wealthy child. But not as wealthy as my brother or sister. Or the Maguire boys. Or Marsha Whitelsey. I know that lots of kids in my class don’t have a trove of gizzard pearls or a bouquet of feathers. Most don’t care, can’t appreciate the value of stones that have been warn almost to smooth in the insides of a beautiful bird. Marsha Whitelsey said they were gross when I brought them to school but I could tell she was envious of my possession. Especially when the boys gathered round and expressed an interest. Marsha has beautiful long brown wavy hair and is a snob. I want to be one of her sidekicks but things like bird anatomy and a pixie haircut have no place beside Marsha.

Marsha also makes fun of me when we have to share with the class our laboriously prepared pencil smeared essays on what we want to be when we grow up. She wants to be a mother and a wife. The boys want to be pilots and baseball players. I want to be an undertaker as inspired by the latest Nancy Drew mystery. I am reading grades above my level and the others don’t get the Nancy Drew connection. They think of dead people and freak out. I think of dead people and think of the pearls they may have hidden in them. Marsha allows as how this makes me a natural freak and her whispers to her sidekicks about me as I pass on the playground are too soft too hear but I do hear their responding snickers. I imagine Marsha filleted in an undertaker’s basement. Splayed out on a newspaper. There would be no pearls inside.

Rob Maguire is my age and also a middle child, but of five children. We only have the three. The Maguires have five boys. Rob’s mother does not hide the fact that she is bitterly disappointed that none of them are girls. When Tommy, the youngest was born, I went with my mother to take a meal down after they got back from the hospital. I was so excited to see a fresh new baby. Mothering instincts are strong, even in girls with pixie cuts. Mrs. Maguire sobs when she sees us. I sit down and Tommy is placed in my lap. He smells like bread dough and my mouth waters. His little miniature hand instinctively closes around my own finger as I pull it out from the swaddling to examine him. He is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever held. Mrs. Maguire is crying. She tells my mother it isn’t fair. Little Tommy was supposed to be her daughter. When we walk home I ask my mother if we can keep Tommy as Mrs. Maguire seems so unhappy and I would take care of Tommy all by myself since my Mother has already told me that she is done having babies. Mom is not supportive of this plan.

I feel sorry for Rob. He hangs out a lot at our house. His mother gave up on her boys when, probably after Rob was born, the disappointment of not having girls got to her. Rob is my best friend, except around school when we have to pretend not to like each other because he is a boy and I am a girl. Rob thinks it is cool that I want to be an undertaker.

One time when a bunch of us were swimming at the University pool we snuck out early before we were supposed to meet our mothers out front and we played hide and seek around the campus building where the pool was. Rob and I were hiding from my older brother and his next oldest brother, Mick. We ran up the hall, swimsuits dripping, wet footprints left behind. Rob and I ducked around a corner and tried a closed door. It was the weekend and I guess we weren’t worried about bursting in on a class. We had been in many classrooms for these games before. But this time somehow we had ducked into what must have been an anatomy lab classroom. As we slipped in the first thing noticed was the cold. It was shockingly cold. And it smelled funny. Like grandma’s pickled beets. There were about five tables around the middle of the room. The one closest to the door had a BODY on it. Rob and I stopped dead in our tracks. Without saying anything we took each other’s hand and stepped quietly up to the table. This was the body of an old man. His stomach was opened wide and there were a bunch of organs inside. Much larger than those of the birds’ that we have seen. There were pins with tags with very long words written on them stuck into some of the organs. None of the words were “gizzard.” Rob’s grip on my hand tightened. Just then we heard the voices of our older brothers going near the door. Rob dropped my hand and left me at the table as he went to the door and whispered to our brothers “here. Come here.”

They entered the room with lots of noise but then went silent. All three boys came and joined me at the table. My brother said “I think we shouldn’t be in here.” The clock on the wall made a short buzz marking the hour we were to be picked up. My brother looked at me and said “Don’t tell mom.” When we came on the next trip to the pool we spent the time, after our mothers left, trying to find that room again. We never did.

When I tell Rob I want to be an undertaker we talk about the old man’s body. He says dead people smell funny but I can tell he admires my choice of future profession. Not like Marsha Whitelsey. I would give up five Rob’s for one approval from Marsha Whitelsey. This is a safe statement as I know I will never have Marsha’s approval. And Rob is not going anywhere. We have a secret. We have seen a dead body.

Every night on the news they announce how many soldiers died and how many were injured that day. Every day. Even though I mostly don’t like my brother I worry that he will grow up and have to go to Viet Nam and will become a number on the news. My father takes turns with other University staff on patrolling the campus in the evenings. They are supposed to call the National Guard if they see students organizing for a demonstration. Rob’s father is in the National Guard. He has been out of town off and on dealing with student protests in different cities. When he goes on these assignments Rob spends even more time at our house because his mother is stuck at home with the baby and other younger brother. On the nights that my father has to patrol the campus I cannot fall asleep until I hear him come home. While I am waiting in bed to hear his return I talk to God and ask Him to “please don’t let the protestors do anything tonight. Please get Daddy home safely.” Sometimes I take the Bayer tin from my drawer and make the wish on the gizzard pearls, very quietly so Mom will not know I am out of bed, and wish for my father’s safe return, just as insurance in case the prayer doesn’t work. I want him to be safe. I don’t have enough gizzard pearls yet.

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