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Salty Owl

by Kristin Kozlowski

I don’t know what drew mama to the bay window that morning, but it was her almost inaudible what the hell? in her Ozark accent while she looked towards the street that drew me there. 

There was just enough room between the gray-on-gray checkered curtains for me to fit next to her, and I leaned in to see what mama saw: our 80-something year old neighbor wobble into the driver’s seat of his rusted Cutlass. The car door creaked like an angry bird as he swung it closed. And then slowly, slowly he backed it out his driveway. The car moved like it weighed a ton, like it weighed more than it should, like I could have pushed it faster, at least with mama helping. And I couldn’t see why he was taking his time, but he was, and maybe it was just because he had the time to take being so old and all. But even when he pulled onto the street between our house and his, he inched the car slowly backwards, like he needed to position it just right. 

It was that precision, the way he was painstakingly lining his car up in the center of the street that made me look at more than just my neighbor but at the whole street. And that’s when I saw there was something in the street. Something across the street. A whole lot of somethings; somethings of every color glinting in the sunlight and looking like the Legos my brother leaves lying on the carpet sometimes. I squinted through the window and pressed my arm into mama’s to get a closer look. 

It was the neighbor’s collection of salt-and-pepper-shakers – not the man who was in the car but his wife, the one who died last winter. There were dozens of shakers: a pair of watchful owls, bright pink pigs wearing bathing suits, red foxes with their noses curled into their tails, old train engines, palm trees, Santa and Mrs. Clause, a squat pumpkin and a lean squash. They were all lined up like they could have been holding hands, like they could be playing a recess game of Red-Rover-Red-Rover. 

My neighbor stopped his car and sat there for a long time, staring at his wife’s collection. The salt-and-pepper-shakers stared back, at least those with eyes did, and I thought of my mama and the way I’d catch her sometimes staring at the picture on the mantel of her mama; how mama sometimes didn’t hear me come home from school because she was staring at the picture so hard, like she was willing it to speak to her, or daring it to. I could never be sure with mama. 

And then, without hesitation, my neighbor laid on the gas. His old Cutlass jerked forward and a gulp of air caught in mama’s throat and my eyes grew so big they hurt but I still couldn’t look away. It wasn’t but a few seconds before that Cutlass, going full-tilt, plowed into the row of salt-and-pepper-shakers. There were two loud bursts like balloons popping as first the front tires and then the back rolled right over his wife’s collection. One house down, he stomped the brakes, put the car in reverse and rolled over them again. Broken shards of colors flew up like dust around his tires and speckled both our lawn and his. And I can’t say I ever knew which set of salt-and-pepper-shakers his wife liked the most or which the least. Which ones were gifts and which she’d selected herself. But all of them were smashed in the end. 

When he finished, my neighbor steered the Cutlass back into his driveway, parked it, and shuffled into his house. Mama abandoned the window a few minutes later when it was clear that he wasn’t coming back out, muttering damn fool before she strode into the kitchen and filled the sink with suds. But I snuck out the front door and into the street, examining the remains. The smell of pepper clouded the air. Our street was a mosaic, but a mosaic of what I wasn’t sure. Grief maybe. Or loneliness. Or something else between husbands and wives that I didn’t understand yet and maybe never would. But mama, I was sure, understood it just fine. At my foot was the mostly intact head of one of the owls. It stared up at the sky and from where I stood it didn’t look wise at all. It just looked empty.

Kristin Kozlowski lives and works in the Midwest US. Some of her work is available online at Lost Balloon, Longleaf Review, Pidgeonholes, Occulum, and Nightingale and Sparrow, among others. In 2019, she was awarded Editor’s Choice from Arkana for her CNF piece, A POCKET OF AIR. She was also named a finalist in Forge Literary Magazine’s Forge Flash Competition 2019 for her CNF piece, RELATIONSTASIS. If you tweet: @kriskozlowski 

Lead image: “1964 Oldsmobile Cutlass” (via Flickr user Greg Gjerdingen)