The Death of God’s Poet
I go back to her, the old woman who lived beneath me. I go back to the green duplex in North Carolina. I go back to twenty-two, to the hurried lease after living in London, to the floorboards and the yellow, cracked walls.
She is a hoarder. Her front door can barely shut because of stacks of boxes, newspapers, dirty dishes,and shoes. Her license plate reads GODS POET. She sits on her porch directly below mine and wheezes into the wet and humid afternoon. She only leaves her house to go to church or to get fast food which she eats in fistfuls and in silence. My cat runs out to greet her when her red station wagon pulls up. God’s Poet giggles and scoops the creature onto her lap. I compliment her hibiscus plants and she says I can have them when she dies.
The night before she does, she asks to see my white, green-eyed cat.
I pass the cat to a woman below my porch. The woman says she is a cousin. I have never seen her before. She is tall and skinny. Her gold earrings peep beneath her short blonde hair. She can’t stand still. She hugs herself while looking up at me, asks me if I’d like to come down for some lemonade. Instead of saying yes, I tell her my cat loves to cuddle. She holds my cat like a bible and disappears into the hoarder’s house. I imagine the cat curls on the woman’s belly and purrs. I hear hushed voices through the floorboards. I boil water for tea. I am alone and listening for death.
I pace the floors wanting it to be over. I want her to pass on. I feel young and loud above a woman barely breathing, a woman who has to pack her house with objects because only a stranger’s cat and a distant cousin will come to claim her. A woman who calls herself a poet of God, a messenger of heaven. I want her to die so that I can continue to live.
I never go downstairs that night.
The moon rises. The cat comes back and raps at my window. She climbs in and curls up on my red couch. I stay awake, smoking on my porch. I can’t go inside. I can’t listen to the voices and the wheezing. I fill my lungs and breathe out white clouds.
When God’s Poet dies, I watch paramedics take her large body in an ambulance at one in the morning. I am above everything, looking down from my porch. Her skin is lifeless and gray. Her upper arms billow out over her nightgown. The fluorescent lights in the cabin of the truck hollow out the eyes of the men tending to her body. They work methodically. I am reminded of praying mantises. The stretcher bends with her weight. They pluck and prod her. The doors slam shut. The red and blue lights fade. Her life is stacked up in the windows of her apartment below. The cousin is nowhere to be seen. A smell leaks through her open door, sickly sweet like dead flowers.
The next day, I see the cousin throw the poet’s belongings onto the front lawn. When she’s done, she gives me a quick wave, ducks into her car and leaves. I am barefoot on the top porch in a t-shirt drinking coffee.
Hours later, they come.
Neighbors and strangers passing by. A young man with tattoos walks up, then an old couple, a dread-locked hippie, a toddler, and trio of young blonde girls. These strangers and neighbors pick through the dead poet’s belongings. Ink-stained arms and wrinkled hands tear shiny black plastic. They scatter the dead woman’s photographs and poetry across the sidewalk. They look up to the second floor of the duplex. They cross the lawn asking, eyes searching, palms facing up. They call out to me, Hey! They ask if this is my trash. Crates, books, frayed cords, porcelain owls,and electric alarm clocks at their feet. They want to know if it is okay. They want to know what they can take. I tell them that none of this is mine.
I take from her, too.
I take her hibiscus plants. They are wrapped in plastic, dead looking and stiff. Without the sun, the trunks have turned white. I tell myself this is what she wanted.
I pack the roots with soil. Black earth crusts beneath my nails. I am a worm, burrowing back into the dirt, naked and ribbed and writhing. I dig beneath the surface, down to the white roots sucking up the black belly. I want to forget her and yet I want to make her grow. I want to show her pretty things can come from this. I want to say I am sorry. I am sorry for never coming down the stairs, for smoking on the porch as she died. For sending the cat, when really, she was asking for me.
That summer, when her hibiscus bloom full and red outside my window, I move them to the downstairs porch.
The cat follows.
Brittany Hailer is a freelance journalist and educator based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her creative work has appeared in Fairy Tale Review, Barrelhouse, Hobart, Crab Fat Magazine and elsewhere. You can read her journalism and creative writing at BrittanyHailer.com.