Joyland

The Midwest |

Rhyme Game

by Bonnie Jo Campbell

edited by Anna Prushinskaya

Editor's Note: This story is part of Joyland's Michigan stories series. Come back throughout April for more Michigan stories.

Tinny Marie and her mother rattled along Halfmoon Road in the pick-up truck, heading east toward the risen sun. Bits of trash flew out of the cans and barrels in the back  a plastic bag from Spartan egg noodles, a popsicle wrapper, grocery store receipts. Tinny Marie’s mother had canceled weekly garbage service because she could save money by storing the trash until she had a truckload and then dumping it herself. The longer she saved it, the more she was getting out of her eight-dollar compactor fee. Between compactor visits, cans of garbage lined up outside the back door, waiting.

Tinny Marie’s mother was driving with one hand and holding a cup of coffee in the other. Coffee sloshed with each bump, spilling and soaking into the foam rubber where the bench seat was ripped. The smell of burned coffee made Tinny want to gag. She knelt on the seat sideways and leaned out the window to watch the swamp glide past. The tips of marsh grasses were white with frost. When the pick-up crossed the stream which flowed under the road and later crossed their property, Tinny spit out the window toward the water. She turned her side view mirror in all directions to see the road shimmy up from behind.

“That coffee smells real bad,” she said.

“Best coffee I ever had,” said her mother.

“Does the coffee make you glad?  Or mad?”

Tinny’s mother honked and waved at a man coming toward them in the opposite lane in a Martin’s Excavating dump truck. In order to wave, she let loose the wheel, causing the truck to swerve right. Tinny closed her eyes and clutched the cracked seat and door handle. Her brothers had promised to take her with them to the auto parts junk yard, but the way her mother drove, there was no guarantee she’d be alive to go. Loose gravel spit up as Tinny’s mother jerked the truck back onto the pavement.

“Looks like we’re here,” said her mother as she braked to turn into the compactor driveway. 

“Let’s have a beer,” said Tinny Marie. 

“Did you peer in the mirror?”

“I’m a queer reindeer.”

They backed into the unloading zone, and Tinny helped her mother empty the blue plastic oil drums and galvanized tin cans. The more an object was unlike garbage, the better Tinny liked throwing it into the pit. Her favorites were pieces of busted furniture, appliances, books. A handwritten sign on the side of the operator’s shack said “Do not put televisions into the hole.” Tinny Marie would’ve liked nothing better than to see a TV explode.

After they had emptied the cans and barrels and swept out the rusting truck bed, Tinny climbed on top of the cab. The roof bowed and made a sound like thunder beneath her weight. From inside his shack below her, the compactor man turned on the hydraulics and a chunk of the world began to compress. Lengths of wood splintered and snapped like bones. Cans flattened and bottles popped. Tinny imagined a stray cat jumping into the hole. She closed her eyes and hunched her shoulders against a shiver. 

“Tinny Marie, what do you see?” asked her mother from the ground.

Tinny opened her eyes. “I see a tree and it sees me.”

“What if I were you?” asked her mother. “And you were me?”

“What if bumbles was a bee? What if there was a flea on the bee? On his knee?”

Tinny’s mother carried her empty cup into the shack with the compactor man and closed the door. Hands on her hips, Tinny surveyed the field beyond the mowed grounds. She could see all the way through to Indian Road from her perch, nearly all the way home across the yellow scratch of fall. The reds of the sumac trees are like scabs, she thought, on hills that were like knees. “These trees are bees’ fleas’ knees,” she said aloud. 

From the top of the truck, she could see Jimmy Poke’s red and white cows lounging in the sun beside the farm pond edged with frost. The cows didn’t seem to care that winter was coming.  They lay chewing as if seasons didn’t change. Jimmy Poke was a friend of her mother’s. He dragged one leg behind him as he walked and called all the women “Dahlin’.”  He always kissed her mother on the mouth. Tinny Marie said “Dah-lin” twice out loud but couldn’t find a rhyme. 

Late last winter, Jimmy Poke had called their house to say that one of his cows had walked out on the ice and fallen through. If there was a thaw, he said, the carcass would poison the water.  Her mother could have the meat if they could get the cow out. Tinny had gone along but stayed on shore while her mom and two brothers went out with a rowboat. They took lengths of rope and a chain saw as well as a splitting maul to bust up the ice.

The cow in the water was frozen solid, and that was why they had to cut her legs off. As the chain saw buzzed, Tinny had buried her face in the shoulder of a Guernsey heifer. Her brothers tossed the legs one at a time toward the shore, and the legs clattered as they skipped across the ice. If those cold white legs were there now, she would kick them into the compactor and bravely watch them snap. Last winter they had carried the frozen cow home in the back of the truck, and her brothers had skinned her and hung her body in the garage. The weather broke, and over the next few days the boys cut the meat from the bones. Her mother finished the job on the kitchen table, wrapping ugly five-pound chunks in freezer paper and gray tape.

The truckload of garbage was smashed into a tight package, and through the window of the little hut, Tinny Marie could see her mother laughing with the compactor man. Their mouths moved in speech she couldn’t hear. When finally another truck pulled in and honked, the two strolled out, her mother with a full cup of coffee. From the truck cab roof, Tinny watched her mother place the cup on the dashboard below her. A ghost of steam formed above it on the windshield. Her mother turned the key and the truck made spiraling sounds until the engine caught. She yelled up, “Tinny Marie, what do you see?”

“The hill is my knee,” she said. “My scab is a tree.”

“Come on down and get in with me.”

“I see a cow right now.”

“Get in. We’ve got to go,” said her mother.

“How about a one-legged crow.” Tinny laughed at the vision she’d conjured up: a one-legged crow standing on that one leg, then flying off with no problem. She slid into the passenger’s seat through the window. It’d been years since the door opened. They turned back onto Halfmoon road and her mother waved goodbye to the compactor man. As they bumped over the pavement, Tinny watched Jimmy Poke’s cows chew their cuds in the rear view mirror until they were lazy dots of fur. The pond shone like an icy mirror, then disappeared behind a hill.

“There’s a two-leg-ged crow,” said her mother.

“So?”  Tinny hung part-way out the window.

Her mother began to sing, “There lived an old Lord by the Northern Sea, bow down . . .” Tinny watched the marsh. The sun was warming the air, and the iced tips of the grasses were melting. When they crossed the shallow stream again, Tinny threw one of her yellow plastic barrettes into the current and watched it float and turn and fall behind them. When she got home, she’d run to the creek to wait for it and see how long it took to travel. Slowly, as if in a daydream, a giant black bird lifted itself into flight with a bony stretch of wings.

“Look! The biggest crow in the world,” said Tinny. As her mother turned to see, the truck hit a pothole, and hot coffee splashed down the front of her mother’s shirt. She swore and pulled the shirt cloth away from her.  Tinny saw another truck was coming toward them, and her mother was not paying attention. She squeezed her eyes shut and gritted her teeth until she heard her mother resume singing. “I gave my lo-ove a gay gold ring, the boughs they bend to me . . .”

Tinny Marie opened her eyes slowly. The truck had not hit them. Their own truck had not been reduced to shattered glass and bent steel, nor she and Mother to bloody muscle and splintered bone. Their limbs would not be severed, and they would not be tossed piece by piece into the compactor to be crushed small. Her mother apparently hadn’t noticed how close they’d come to dying, for she just smiled at Tinny and took another drink of what coffee remained in her cup. The truck bounced and rattled on. Tinny spotted the big crow soaring above the marsh. It swooped clumsily to rest at the top of a swamp oak, on a tiny branch which bent beneath its weight. Tinny Marie turned backward in her seat to watch the crow flap its wings to keep its balance. She longed to view the world from such a height.

“I’ll fly to the top of that big crow’s tree,” said Tinny Marie.

“Long as I can see you, and you can see me,” said her mother.

* * *

“Rhyme Game” initially appeared in Women and Other Animals, Bonnie Jo Campbell's debut story collection published by University of Massachusetts Press. Author photo by John Campbell.