Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
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2181 words
SHJ Issue 7
Spring 2013

White Chin Hair and a Lonely Female Cardinal

by Roisin McLean

You wake in a start. The clock’s red LED numbers on the top shelf of the light-hued Scandinavian computer hutch in the corner say 8:32, and you’re surprised the morning birdsong hasn’t awakened you sooner. Not really—you sleep later and later these days. You peek out the shade. No car in the driveway. Your daughter must have left early for church. Nature calls immediately, as it always does now, and the TV and high, neatly-arranged DVD stacks on the bureau obscure the reflection in the mirror of everything below your nude upper torso as you rush past and bounce only once off the doorframe—once being a nice change.

During ablutions, while you critically assess your physical self in the mirror above the sink, you recall the titillating words of a sweet silver-haired man who looked up at you mid-“dalliance” a week or month ago. “You have the breasts of a teenager,” he said with glee, his face aglow. Which now makes you toss your once-brunette, then-white, now-platinum-blonde mane in a happy perky shy way that ill suits your new age of sixty but not your current state of mind. Your divorce from that expletive-deleted deserter will be final soon, and it seems important to take stock of things anew. One thing at a time, you’ve learned, one compartmentalized area of your brain at a time—otherwise, the whole picture looms panoramic as a tidal wave. The bathroom mirror doesn’t reveal the whole picture of your body, however. Since this seems to be the day you will take stock of your physicality—and why not, church doesn’t do it for you any more, and your unemployed days for months have been spent in little more than stupor—you sashay naked down the hall to your daughter’s room and the full-length mirror on her closet door.

The light is brighter here. The crooked scar radiating out from your right nipple, where a suspicious mass one-quarter the size of your breast was excised from the inside, is fading with time. (You don’t remember the pain.) Post-biopsy, the mass proved to consist of not one but five pre-cancerous tissues. For two years post-surgery, the nipple remained numb, which creeped you out sufficiently that you simply stopped touching it, and your husband, still around then, had long before lost interest in your nipples—and your mind, for that matter.

At least the surgeon sewed you back up so that it still looks like a breast. Most of the women on both sides of your family had their breasts lopped off during their fifties but too late to save their lives. Grateful to be alive and still have your right breast, you cup it and touch the nipple, feel the nipple feel the touch, watch the nipple perk up hard, feel the pleasant sensation lower down. Which makes you laugh—you’d assumed since youth, even though no one ever told you, that sexual desire just stopped, like growth of wisdom teeth and menstruation. Seriously, what mother would speak of such a thing? Would you tell your daughter? Maybe. When she’s forty or fifty. Whenever she realizes life is not a never-ending promise.

A promise of what, you wonder. That seems an issue for another day, and you glance at your inner arms and sigh. You’ve been heaving those eight-pound dumbbells backward over each shoulder for months now, and you’ve still got wrinkly jello to show for your dedication. Despite the forty pounds you lost, sick with betrayal and hypomania, after your husband left. You don’t want to marry again, so what difference does it make what shape your body is in, you wonder. Tons, you answer. You care, you’re right to care, and that’s what counts—taking good care of yourself, jello and all.

Your eyes scan lower, down to the waist that was always too wide. A twelve-inch difference between bust size and waist and between hip size and waist? Only a man could have determined those dimensions, which you tried futilely to fulfill for far too long. Was any female ever 36-24-36? Maybe Marilyn Monroe, but look what it got her. Or Barbie. No, actually she’s about 5-3-5 and if proportionally human size would lack the requisite body fat to menstruate. So you’re stuck with 39-33-37, which isn’t really that displeasing, you decide. Except when you look at that wrinkled pouch (as wide as your hip circumference, and why can’t the proverbial “they” cut clothing for this particular problem) that juts out above the six-inch-wide Caesarian section scar, where another surgeon’s knife (you don’t remember the pain) bisected a muscle, which cannot ever resume normal function. But, you conclude, the scar performs a most beneficial function; it mirrors the smile on your face every time you think of your daughter, and what greater joy is there than that.

Moving on, your eyes settle on the saddle bags, which for whatever reason you never worried about. Down to the knobby knees. The right knee bulges more than the left, permanently swollen, where yet another surgeon’s knife (you don’t remember the pain) performed an arthroscopy when you were fifty to trim both torn lateral and medial menisci and remove the shredded ACL. A surgery usually performed on professional football players who are bashed, thrown, and then buried below a massive heap of Hulk-size men. All you did was step on your dog’s leash, as the obedience trainer instructed, your dog bolted, the bottom half of your leg went one way and the upper half the other, and the next thing you perceived was gravel from the parking lot poking into your back. No matter that you couldn’t walk for three weeks or that the recovery period lasted fourteen months, not three. Water under the bridge. You’ve mastered the exercises that keep your quads strong enough to compensate for that mysterious ACL, which looks like a thin stick of gum but is deceptive, has incredible tensile strength, weaves through the knee and maintains its stability under normal, but not all, circumstances. You bow and give quads their due.

Your calves, nicely curved and muscled, pass muster. Your feet are too tiny for your height, which is why you’re a clutz and can stumble on a wisp of dandelion fuzz, but men seem to like tiny feet. Especially with toenail polish. Why should it matter, your feminist self demands. Because you care, you answer. Because you want a man again. As absurd as that may seem at age sixty. Or maybe it’s not absurd. No one ever told you about that either.

So your body “is what it is”—damn the cliché—and can only get worse, not better. Yet that’s OK, you decide with maturity. Which is when you gasp and spin terrified to face your daughter’s bed. No one is there. Not like a few Sundays ago when you thought you had the house to yourself so didn’t bother to shut your bedroom door when you catered to your personal “whims,” indulging in sighs and moans fit for a celebratory queen, only to discover with horror once your daughter returned from church that her boyfriend was lying upstairs in her bed the whole time—and wide awake, he made a point of telling you later, but with no telltale smirk or horror of his own. Not the sort of embarrassment you ever expect at age sixty. Falling and breaking a hip, sprouting a dowager’s hump, yes, but can’t even give this unspeakable thing a name. You shudder. Hardly auspicious for the decade to come. Your shoulders hunch.

Car tires crunch gravel in the driveway. You race into your room to dress. Black jeans, a V-neck teal sweater. You take the stairs quickly, hand gripping the rail tightly—second nature for ten years now since the knee fiasco—anxious to bask in the joy on your daughter’s face after she teaches Sunday school. Where is she? You open the back door, which she forgot to lock on her way out, again. No car in the driveway. You hear the faint strains of “Neverland”—your hearing’s still keen—and race back up the stairs for your cell phone in your pocketbook, tucked under the bed in case of burglary (like burglars would fail to look there).

“Hey, Mum,” your daughter greets you. “I forgot to stop at Panera. My treat. Do you want anything?”

“Are you driving while you’re talking on the cell phone?” you ask.

“I’m at the red light at Eagle Rock and Mt. Pleasant.” Her undisguised disgust lowers the pitch of her voice.

“Sorry, sweetie. It’s that ‘ole Mom thing.’ I’d love a lemon poppy seed muffin and a large dark roast coffee. Thanks.”

“No prob, Mum,” she says, so she’s already forgiven you, but she’s off the wireless line before you can say “I love you.”

You wander back downstairs to the kitchen where you nuke a cup of Irish Breakfast tea before you realize how dumb a move that is, coffee and all on its way. On the sofa in the living room while you’re sipping your tea—which you’ll throw down the drain as soon as you hear tires on the driveway again in order to avoid the embarrassment of explaining how quickly you forgot blah-blah-blah—you hear a strange sound in the kitchen. Probably just the Rose of Sharon branches brushing the windows. But it repeats. Flap-tap-whoosh. Again. And again.

Your steps across the berber carpet are silent, and you tiptoe barefoot along the vinyl flooring past the basement door to peer around the stove. A female cardinal perches in the Rose of Sharon. She flings herself full force into the window, flap-tap, falls in a whoosh to the outer ledge, and peeks up and inside to the little ceramic statue of three open-mouthed hungry chicks, not cardinals, on the inner ledge. She retreats to the Rose of Sharon and repeats her dangerous, flinging flap-tap-whoosh.

You can’t bear the thought of her breaking her neck. Before you can rap lightly on the window, she’s gone in a flash of rustling leaves. A pair of cardinals, which mate for life, adopted your backyard years ago, and the joy of their presence dissolved over time into something you took for granted. You recall seeing the male, a handsome scarlet fellow, last Spring. It can’t be empty-nest syndrome crazing the female; it’s October. Has a neighborhood cat got her mate? Has he died of old age? You wish you could help this suffering female before she commits suicide.

“Neverland” plays again.

“I’m stopping at Shoprite, too,” your daughter says. “We’re out of milk. Want some fresh salmon for dinner?”

You try to explain in a somewhat hysterical confused rush about the female cardinal, but your daughter’s in a rush, too. “Mum, what do you want?”

You agree to salmon and find yourself standing at the kitchen window weeping. “What do you want?” you ask yourself. The tears run to your chin before you wipe them with your hand and feel the stubble of one thick, strong, stubborn fiber, which you somehow missed during the neck- and chin-shaving ritual that—so help you, you can’t think of in any way other than masculine—is now part of your daily feminine ablutions. At the downstairs bathroom mirror, it seems the stubble is invisible. Well, not quite, you discover. It’s still a miracle, though. Your chin hair is finally turning white—you won’t have to shave any more! At which you suspect you’ve wasted the morning on shame-on-you shallow ruminations.

Back at the kitchen window, you bend that stubborn sole stubble this way and that with your index finger as you ponder again what you want out of life between now and the promise of life’s end. In your mind’s eye, you see reflected in the kitchen window the flame of a lone candle. It is night, and the soft shush of snow outside turns the landscape pointillistic, coats the ground with a warm, downy quilt, heaps high atop the bird-feeder for the lonely female cardinal (you feel her pain). In the window’s reflection, you see yourself alone (you feel your pain). Then a man with a white beard joins you, hands you a glass cup of eggnog laced with rum. He rubs his beard against your cheek, your chin. You rub back and smile, secure in the knowledge that he can’t feel your white stubble against his, that he knows you have white stubble, that he doesn’t care a whit about it. As the peace outside and in envelops you, you feel his arm circle your not-24-inch waist, and you respond in kind. That simple, you think. It’s hardly a young girl’s dream. Is it the dream of the inner child in your sixty-year-old body? Maybe so. A winter-tale dream for comfort, or an “After” photo if you wish for more than dreams.

The driveway gravel crunches. You wake from your winter tale, wish for more than dreams, and smell the coffee, rich, mellow, and round.


—First published in Winter Tales II: Women on the Art of Aging,
edited by R.A. Rycraft and Leslie What (Serving House Books, 2012)


SHJ Issue 7
Spring 2013

Roisin McLean

holds an MFA in Creative Writing, Fiction, from Fairleigh Dickinson University, has been nominated four times for the prestigious Pushcart Prize, and was a semifinalist for The Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Fiction (Nimrod/Hardman).

She has published fiction (under various pen names) in Perigee: Publication for the Arts, Fiction Week Literary Review, Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts, and Pithead Chapel: An Online Journal of Gutsy Narratives. Her essays appear in Winter Tales II: Women on the Art of Aging and in OH SANDY! A Humorous Anthology with a Serious Purpose. Her interviews with ex-pat author Thomas E. Kennedy appear in The McNeese Review and in Ecotone.

She is currently working on a linked short story and novella collection and is Catalog Administrator for Passaic County Community College.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury