She drives past the house a third time. She wants to be a natural. The blinds are closing. Maybe that’s enough for today.
The rumor starts out with flamingos. The zoo is nearby, and since their clipped wings grow back, it’s commonplace for them to flee and get away with it.
But it turns out a macaw had slunk out of his cage and latched onto a Westfalia’s bumper, freshly aslop with vacation soil. All this, despite his inability to fly.
Harboring a fugitive bird after the family’s leisurely enterprises were freshly accomplished would’ve been a story that foamed on the driver’s lips had he been made aware. This macaw’s approximation of freedom showed up in the papers days later nonetheless.
Gretchen rummages through the cupboard while the dog mashes a chew toy into her shin bone.
One thing about Marleena, she has her priorities straight, Gretchen thinks. She’d laminated a pizza delivery flyer and placed it overtop her activity schedule on the fridge. Undisclosed ointments and human teeth beckon from the junk drawer. Plus, her front door is always slamming itself. And remnants of what appears to be a parade float line the basement floor.
Gretchen tucks a tissue paper flower into her bosom.
Gretchen has always been afraid that once she settles into pet-sitting for a friend, said pet will suddenly keel over in her care. What she isn’t prepared for is the death of her friend while she’s pet-sitting. The dog’s coat has never looked shinier though.
Marleena was an elderly woman, so it could be worse. Her grown son calls the landline in striking mournful clarity. Gretchen usually thinks she can tell who’s calling by the sound of the ring, but this time she’s way off.
Some parents are desperate to get creative with the spelling of their children’s names but not with the names themselves. Marleena was no exception. He immediately tells Gretchen that he is Marleena’s son, Frankk-with-two-Ks. He’ll be there soon to settle the affairs, quell the tide of histrionic relatives, and relieve her of her dog-watching duties.
Groove is in the heart, sure, but grief is in the voice. And Frankk doesn’t sound too broken up about the situation.
Returning from a walk with Snacks, Gretchen spies a uniformed man crouching in the grass.
He’s here for the repair work on the house’s foundation.
“Sorry, I got held up last week. Nice to finally meet you, Mrs. Stewart.”
Gretchen mangles his extended hand.
“Please, call me Marleena.”
“Well, Marleena, we have one more form for you to fill out. Paperwork. You know how it goes.”
He passes her a clipboard.
Gretchen skims over the material. A bubbled floater in her eye keeps her spot on the page like a singalong video.
Frankk’s pre-distressed jeans look ambitious.
Gretchen lets him in and offers him some gazpacho. She sits him down on the couch and heads for the kitchen.
“I’m onto you,” she says into his soup bowl.
She eeks out a dollop from one of the mystery ointments. It makes a satisfactory plop when it mingles with bits of ground cumin and diced peppers.
She paws at the tissue paper flower melting into her chest from the heat of revenge.
He’s swaddling himself in a dusty quilt on the couch when she enters the room.
“Best served cold,” she grins.
Snacks nuzzles at her knees.
A subterranean clunking and clanging begins.
“What is that? Is someone down there?” he asks.
“A slight restructuring. Don’t worry about it.”
Gretchen knocks at the door across the street. She knows Marleena was close with the guy who lives here.
He answers. As she’s explaining that Marleena has extended her trip, that he’ll be seeing a lot of her in the next couple weeks, a tuft of pink fuzz flashes from behind his left shoulder.
This neighbor, Craig, is a session musician who side-hustles for a singing telegram service because it pays well. The pink gorilla costume is hands-down the most popular request. He’s learning to yodel so he can add to his repertoire. Craig doesn’t explain any of this to Gretchen. He doesn’t know the costume’s in view, and probably wouldn’t tell her even if he did.
Gretchen sidles away, a little dizzy with pink possibilities.
Betsy was Marleena’s best friend. Gretchen remembers hearing about her before. Gretchen sees Betsy’s name penciled in on the activity calendar and gives her a call.
She tells Betsy the same story Craig received.
“Really? She likes it that much? She’s not ready to come back?”
“It’s plausible,” Gretchen says.
They agree to the rec league game as planned.
“You sound young. You’ll add some vigor to the court. Do some squats the day before, just in case,” Betsy says, then hangs up.
Betsy immediately calls back.
“Bring your own shuttlecock.”
Then she hangs up again.
The day of the match, Gretchen surveils the gymscape in front of her.
In one corner, by the vending machines, is what looks to be a field trip for bankers.
She finds a bunch of white-haired ladies stretching each other’s hamstrings. She guesses which one’s Betsy, waves.
Gretchen reflects on the macaw. She wonders what became of him. He could’ve made it to Costa Rica by now.
At Betsy’s approach, she cries soundlessly, mouth open.
Claire Hopple is the author of two story collections and one novella. Her fiction has appeared in Hobart, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Heavy Feather Review, Timber, and others. More at clairehopple.com.