Matt Starr: Phoenix
Southern Legitimacy Statement: I’m so Southern that it’s literally the only thing I know how to write about. I was born and raised in the mill town of Kannapolis, North Carolina to a family with accents so thick you could spread them on biscuits. Ever since, I’ve been blending the everyday with the spectacular, from stories my late Paw Paw told me to the local lore at the heart of every small Southern town. To me, the South just feels like home, from the snow-crowned mountains of Weaverville, North Carolina to the brown sugar sand of Topsail Beach.
During games of hide and seek, her demons always find her in the most obvious of places; they don’t manifest themselves physically, but rather as auras and shadows and whispers. She isn’t a psychic, and she’s never pretended to be. She doesn’t have premonitions and she never will. Billie is a medium. She talks to the dead. But the spirits that burden her aren’t like the ones that burden the other clairvoyants. She can’t communicate with departed mothers or reunite distraught parents with their prematurely deceased children. But if someone is yearning for a long-lost connection with their beloved household pet, then Billie is their best chance.
The media has been after Billie for years about a human interest story. “Animal telepath brings closure to owners left behind,” the tribune pitches. “Local woman reads stories from beyond the pet cemetery,” News 5 proposes. They’ve heard that Billie can bring voices back from the grave—and whether or not they find that to be true—they hope supernatural features can do the same for their freefalling ratings. Billie doesn’t pay attention to the news.
Sitting in the dimmed living room of a millhouse she shares with her sister, Nadine, Billie watches some afternoon rerun cop drama through eyes like smoke. Just as the smolder of a handsome detective fades into a commercial break, the phone rings, breaking the otherwise quiet of the day-to-day routine. Nadine cuts her eyes and picks up the phone. “Hello,” she says with a vinegary voice.
Billie looks across the room to her sister, a top-heavy woman whose hair has been dyed so many times that she can’t remember what her natural color really is. She sits in her recliner as if it is part of her, her back molded into its cushions and her leg propped on its arm rest.
“I ain’t interested,” Nadine says.
Unintelligible mumblings seep from the earpiece of the phone.
“Well, I ain’t got ten dollars,” Nadine says, her tone growing sassier by the syllable.
The voice on the other end becomes louder and faster.
Billie shakes her head.
“Look, Mack, I’m on disability. Every time ya’ll call, my blood pressure goes out the roof. Take my name off whatever list you got and don’t call back no more.” Nadine slams the phone.
“Who was it?” Billie asks.
Nadine swallows as if the conversation has left her breathless. “Them sorry bastards at the family video. Always wantin to put their hands in someone’s pockets.”
Billie nods in agreement as the show resumes. She looks on, but something doesn’t feel right. A vague light wraps itself around the television like a thin veil. Billie blinks, hoping it’s just one of those aggravating eye floaters, but she knows better. She tries to ignore it and devote her attention solely to the Pavlovian cadence barking from the surround sound speakers, but she can’t.
Billie looks in Nadine’s direction and her face furrows into a grimace.
Still calming down, Nadine locks eyes with her sister and sighs. “Billie. Again?”
“Yep,” she says listlessly.
Nadine raises her hands and drops them, slapping her knees. “I just had this house cleansed.”
“You know it don’t matter. They just follow me.”
Billie hobbles down the uneven brick of Main Street on her way to work in a wilted posture, the whistling wind at her back echoing deep in her bones. Winter’s morning breath chews on her exposed face as she pulls her scarf over her mouth; she wonders what motivates the local fitness nuts and power-walkers as they pass by. They all follow the same pattern: they offer her a fleeting glance before returning their eyes to the pavement on which they tread. She does the same. She knows all of their names and they know hers.
Billie grew up in a town where places are like people, with stories and memories, sorrows and dreams. She passes the orange and white-checkered water tower that she and her girlfriends used to climb to smoke cigarettes they’d stolen from their parents. She passes the mausoleum along the black-spired fence of the cemetery. She ignores her reflection as it dances through storefront windows and rounds the corner at the First Baptist Church where she was baptized as a little girl. She nearly reaches the marquee of the Pearl Movie Theater when she stops. She’s never been able to put the feeling into words, but it begins to happen around the same time almost every morning. The onsets vary from something as subtle and seemingly imperceptible as a mood change, to something as profound as a shift in the brilliance of hues in her visual plane. Oftentimes, she can hear them. They reach for her with faint whimpers and nonhuman language. And she understands them.
Today’s onset finds Billie as an unavoidable awareness of a presence that wasn’t there before. And in the strangest and most inexplicable of ways, something comes over her like a soft storm; and she feels as though she just stirred from a dream, the fragments of which she can piece together as each second becomes the next. Her Maw Maw—who noticed it in Billie from an early age—called it “risin”.
Billie searches her surroundings and looks to an elderly couple ahead, their bundled bodies nestled on a bench in town square. She contemplates trekking on in the opposite direction, her body still woozy, but her conscience doesn’t let her. She approaches the man and woman as the steam from their coffee cups drapes about them like swaying curtains. She stands in front of them momentarily and they smile at her in a synchronized nod before looking at each other as though they hope she’ll take the hint and continue on her way.
“She wants to say thank you,” Billie says.
“I’m sorry?” the man drawls.
“Your rescue. She wants to thank you for the ball of yarn. And the little chair you sat out at the screen door so that she could watch the road.” Billie turns to the woman. “And movie nights in your lap.”
The couple watches her with awe-frozen faces.
“And for bein her angels,” Billie says. She closes her eyes and begins to croon in a raspy baritone. “Anytime you’re feelin lonely, anytime you’re feelin blue, anytime you feel down-hearted, that will prove your love for me is true.”
The man grips the woman’s hand as they continue to stare. Billie opens her eyes and adjusts the strap of the threadbare bag on her shoulder. She lingers for another moment, uncomfortable and fatigued, before she departs in the other direction, the gray of the morning softening behind her.
“Put that shit back, Randy,” Billie says, her Southern voice dragging like heavy feet. A gaunt man with more fingers on his hands than teeth in his head reaches into the pocket of his coat and returns a bottle of shampoo to the shelf in front of him, a defeated scowl stretching across his leathery face. Billie has been a medium for as long as she can remember—maybe forty years. But rather than charge for services rendered, she earns her living at a daytime job as a technician in the town drugstore. She counts pills in between cigarette breaks, and when she’s not foiling petty thieves, she’s disregarding looks and whispers from regulars.
Standing bent in her baggy blue scrubs, Billie pecks away at an old keyboard and watches as Randy exits the front door. In the corner of the store, two women stand wide-eyed, exchanging gossips. Two small children squirm uneasily next to the gumball machine as they try to see for themselves whether or not the rumors their classmates have spread in the schoolyard are true. An older man pretends to read the active ingredients of an anti-diarrheal, just so he can get a closer look at the woman the preacher condemned on Sunday, without her noticing.
Billie zones out as if it will render her invisible. She has tried to keep certain parts of her life as private as possible, but there are no secrets in a town where people talk like they breathe. She was once-supple cheeked, with hair like nightshade, but decades of casted stones and a crowded mind have salted her gray. Aside from her inclination to tell it like she sees it, she isn’t as feisty as she once was. She still fans flames, but only dwindling embers remain from a once-hungry fire.
Despite being sought after by print dinosaurs and TV stations, Billie isn’t a local celebrity like Mute Maddie. Mute Maddie is the town’s other resident clairvoyant and her talents are more traditional: she can communicate with actual people who have crossed over. Stepping into buildings and offices and homes with her composition notepad, she’ll scribble her reads with arthritic fingers extending from marbled hands. Nobody really knows how old she is, they just know that her wrinkles are saturated with far too much makeup and that her wiry hair has been bleached white since the seventies. And since then, she’s never been one to back down from her cosmic calling.
Billie—on the other hand—has avoided mediumship whenever possible. Once, as she laid in bed when she was very young, a dark figure approached her, panting. A damp, moldy smell pervaded the air and Billie closed her eyes and prayed to God for it to go away, though she knew it wouldn’t. It was Dirk; he was the first one that ever sought her for help. He wanted his owners to know that he’d died of old age and not from years of ingesting paint chips from the backyard shed as they’d long suspected. Despite the fact that Billie considers her abilities a curse, she still has good thoughts of Dirk nonetheless. He was a good boy.
Billie surfaces from her memories and turns her attention back toward the line forming in front of her. A mustached man with whom Billie graduated high school casts a crumpled prescription onto the counter in front of her. She smiles at him warily, only to be stared at like she showed up to church naked in return. This isn’t anything new. For years she’s been looked at by the majority of the town as at least a freak, if not a hatless witch who dressed for Halloween on the wrong day. And as her generation grows older, she knows that children and grandchildren will be taught to fear her.
Billie purses her lips and nods as the gentleman goes on his way without a word. Before she can enter the prescription into the computer, a doughy, middle-aged man waddles to the counter, bristly eyebrows arched on his egg-shaped head.
Billie looks up and sighs. “Pickin up for your mama, Orrin?”
He clears his throat. “Not today.”
“Then what can I do for you?” she asks, her annoyed tone dressed with concern.
Orrin places his palms on the countertop and leans forward. His eyes dance back and forth between Billie’s forehead and the bins along the pharmacy wall. Tears begin to brim atop his red cheeks.
Billie rolls her eyes. “What’s wrong, Orrin?”
He sniffles and glances at the people in line behind him before he settles on Billie. “Do you think you could do another readin for me?”
“It’s the last time I’ll ask you, I swear,” he says with a rattle in his voice. “I just need to know, you know?”
Billie shakes her head. “I’ve tried three times, Orrin. He ain’t in there.”
Softly, Orrin begins to weep and every eye in the building falls on his wet face. Billie’s mouth curls as she hands him a tissue. She can be coarse, but she’s always had a weakness for people who need help. It’s the only time she chooses to access her abilities. “All right. But if I can’t get him this time, don’t come in here botherin me no more.”
Orrin smiles beneath glassy eyes and nods. He mouths, “thank you,” before blowing his nose into the tissue as he walks off toward the front door.
The next customer in line approaches cautiously, her face drawing with disgust. She stops, hugging her handbag close to her chest. “You know, I just think I’ll come back tomorrow.”
Billie smiles a muted smile. “Who’s next, please?”
The two women climbed the front steps of the cozy, vinyl-sided house that sat across the street from Plant 4 on the corner of what the locals called “mill row”. Mute Maddie poked at the door bell as Billie stood under the eaves of the porch, finishing her cigarette and wondering why the hell she had been duped into tagging along. A well-liked machine-fixer had died unexpectedly in this house the week before, leaving behind a wife and eight-year-old daughter. When the wife had called on Mute Maddie for a reading, the old mystic had done everything short of pulling Billie’s ear to get her into something she wanted no part of.
Standing there with her black and white-dappled notepad tucked under the arm of her polka-dotted housedress, Mute Maddie prodded at the door bell once more. A pretty, albeit pallid woman answered the door with dried tears streaked into her round cheeks. “Missus Maddie,” she said with a voice almost mellifluous.
Mute Maddie tipped her head toward the widow.
“I’m Billie. I’ll be accompanyin Ms. Maddie if that’s all right,” Billie said, stepping forward with an extended hand.
The widow took it and answered with a reluctant smile. “By all means,” she said. “Ya’ll come on in.”
Mute Maddie and Billie followed the widow into the living room of the house, lit by candles and the tulip-like bulbs of an antique ceiling fan overhead. A child in a cream-colored dress laid on the floor in front of the television watching her favorite show, “Mindy McStubbins, the Crime Fightin’ Corgi.” She looked over her shoulder, skeptical of her mother’s guests.
“Would ya’ll like a glass of sweet tea?” the widow asked.
Mute Maddie shook her head no.
“No thank you, honey,” Billie said.
“Of course,” the widow replied, unsure of how to proceed.
Mute Maddie put her pen to work feverishly against the wide-ruled lines of her notepad paper. She faced it toward the widow. In broken letters, it read: what can I help you with?
The widow smoothed out the creases of her dress and clasped her hands together. Her daughter joined her, standing at her side with a stuffed replica of Mindy McStubbins burrowed into her tiny arms. “Since my husband passed—” she paused. “Since my husband passed, strange things has been happenin in the house. Sometimes in the dead of night we hear funny noises. Or, sometimes this odd feelin like a cold draft will come through just up and out of nowhere and then leave.”
Mute Maddie nodded her head up and down. She gestured down the hall, seeking permission.
“Please,” the young widow said.
Billie followed Mute Maddie down the hall as the widow, with her daughter at her side, led them through the house. They stopped in the child’s room first, a stuffed-animal-festooned suite with meringue walls.
“This is a pretty room, darlin,” Billie said to the little girl, hoping to warm her out of her shyness.
The little girl drew closer to her mother and Billie smiled in understanding as Mute Maddie pushed on to the master bedroom. The widow flipped on the light switch just inside the doorway, revealing a beige-colored room and a large burgundy tapestry occluding light from the outside world. A vintage cherry wood vanity sat at the foot of the queen-sized bed and a golden-handled dresser stood cater-cornered at the far end of the room. The widow wore a hopeful gaze as Mute Maddie hovered next to the bed and lingered much longer than she had in the other room. Aside from sadness for the child, Billie felt nothing to speak of.
After a moment, Mute Maddie’s mouth puckered and she carried on into the kitchen, her slippers sliding on the linoleum floor beneath her. She combed the room up and down with eyes suited for the deepest of meditations.
The widow pointed to a light just above the sink. “That light flickers on and off from time to time since it happened.”
Mute Maddie pointed to the same light with her pen. She turned and questioned the widow with lifted eyebrows.
“Yes,” the widow said. “It was the light we left on so that he could find his way through the house when he came home from the graveyard shift.” She laughed a longing laugh and dipped her head toward her daughter. “So he wouldn’t break his neck on one of her toys.”
Mute Maddie stood at the kitchen sink for so long that Billie became restless. She began to tap her notepad with her pen—and after at least a minute of doing so—she let out a sharp grunt like the wince of a hurt animal. She approached the widow and frowned. She scribbled on her notepad and handed it to the young woman. It read: I’m not picking anything up, I’m sorry.
Tucking her chin, the widow teared up. She gasped and began to cry.
Billie remained in the corner next to the refrigerator feeling helpless as Mute Maddie wrapped her arm around the widow.
The little girl pouted and stepped away from her mother with hurt in her eyes. “He lied,” she said.
The three women looked at her, taken aback by the power in her voice.
Mute Maddie stepped toward her. What do you mean? she scrawled in her signature chicken scratch.
The girl gripped her stuffed dog. “He said he would never leave us. He said he would always be here,” she said. “He lied to us.”
Mute Maddie squinted at the child and knelt down in front of her. She wrote in the most precise lettering her shaky hands would allow: He is with you, youngin, and he will be forever.
The little girl started to cry as her mother looked on, and Mute Maddie took her into her boney arms, grasping her as if she’d fulfill the promise herself. Billie fidgeted in the corner, trying to choke back tears of her own. Mute Maddie patted the little girl on her back and rose to her feet. She took the widow by the wrists and offered more reassurance with a look than Billie imagined most people could with words.
The widow led the pair of mediums back down the hall and escorted them out of the house. “Thank you,” she said, embracing both of them and sniffling.
As the door shut behind them, Billie buried her eyes into the flowerbed beneath the edge of the porch, all the petals within beginning to strip of their color and wither. She felt a tap on her shoulder and turned to find Mute Maddie standing in front of her, the notepad in her hands chest-high and outward. Black ink read: you have the gift, you can do this too.
Fifteen minutes after quitting time, Billie arrives at the little pea-green house, strands of multi-colored holiday lights flashing around its gutters. Orrin is already waiting at the screen door and when he opens it, Billie can see the grooves of its wire mesh imprinted into his forehead. “I can’t thank you enough for this, Ms. Billie,” he says, clutching Billie’s hand with his clammy mitts. “Maybe you can get him this time.”
The “him” Orrin refers to is his dearly-departed parakeet—Herbert. Billie nods warmly and enters the house behind him, finding herself in a sparingly-lit den that smells stale and old. Herbert—who got sick in late summer—died perched atop the stoop inside his iron cage. This is Billie’s fourth time attempting to make contact with him. She isn’t optimistic, given the fact that she’s felt next to nothing during the previous three.
“Orrin. Who’s that?” a hoarse voice questions from the next room.
Orrin rolls his eyes and becomes flustered. “It’s Ms. Billie, Mama.”
“Oh Hell’s bells, Orrin, I wish you’d give that nonsense a rest!”
“Don’t you start!” Orrin yells, his voice cracking at the end.
Billie stands there quietly, resisting the urge to shake her head.
A diminutive woman emerges from the doorway at the left of the room, the ridges of a scowl permanently embedded into her brow-line. She’s hunched over and purple with crabbiness—dressed as if for a night on the town, but she’s not going anywhere. “Don’t you holler at me!” she scorns.
“Evenin, Mrs. Lilly,” Billie says.
Orrin’s mother turns toward Billie, the frown in the skin of her neck matching the one on her face. “Don’t you ‘evenin’ me, I know what you’re up to, hussy.”
“In cahoots with the Devil, Orrin. You need to get right for even talkin to her.”
Orrin shakes his head and exhales.
“Have fun, I ain’t stickin around for it,” his mother says, storming back toward the other room. “Y’all need Jesus!”
“Evenin, Mrs. Lilly,” Billie says again.
Orrin wipes his chapped lips and grumbles. “I’m so sorry, Ms. Billie. Please carry on.” He stands there in awkward and impatient stillness. He’s trying to be polite, but he’s anxious for answers. It’s a quality which Billie is all-too-familiar with. She wants to help him, but her rising can’t be forced; she doesn’t throw out feelers or manufacture cold reads like primetime mediums of the small screen. The spirit world is a murky place; it’s never cut and dry. This hard truth doesn’t exactly bode well for someone who wants to know whether or not their iguana has unfinished business or someone who craves assurance that their hedgehog is okay on the other side; but it is what it is. Billie doesn’t make the rules.
She stands in front of the silver Christmas tree, her head tilted and her arms to the side as if she’s just asked a question that no one else heard. Enveloped in a silence that is almost palpable, Orrin remains where he is, staring in wonderment. Billie scans the room, hoping that the familiar energy will find her again. She looks at the walls, dressed top to bottom with framed photos of Orrin and Herbert. She searches for answers, but all she finds is the same dumb picture dozens of times over—the only difference is the background. Orrin and Herbert in the backyard. Orrin and Herbert in the park. Orrin and Herbert at the Lutheran Church nativity scene.
Orrin begins to fidget as his excited smile wanes. “He ain’t talkin is he?” he asks.
Billie doesn’t respond.
Orrin sighs. “I knew it was too good to be true.”
“He was a little bastard anyway,” Orrin’s mother calls from the next room.
“Stay out of it, Mama!”
Billie stands there just the same, her body language reminiscent of a performer stricken with stage fright. She stands there like she hasn’t done this hundreds of times, but she has. She stands there like she doesn’t remember standing the same way four decades ago in her own backyard.
“What are you doin over there, Wilhelmina?” her daddy would ask.
“Don’t you pay that child no mind,” her Maw Maw would say, over the back and forth rhythm of the porch rocking chair. “She’s just risin. That’s all.”
Billie now digs deep into the corners of her mind, reaching out for anyone or anything that might be hiding. She turns to Orrin as if fresh out of a trance. “He’s in a better place, Orrin.”
Orrin’s eyes glimmer with hope as he looks on.
“And he don’t have cancer no more.”
Orrin opens his mouth to speak as if he will die otherwise.
Billie holds up her hand. “And his wings,” she begins before pausing and nodding in thought. “And his wings work real good.”
“He said that?” Orrin questions with a faltering voice.
“He said that. He ain’t here. He’s already moved on. But I can hear him. And I can see him. And there’s plenty of food in his feed. And the cage door is always open.”
Orrin erupts into tears. He lunges forward and Billie embraces him reluctantly. His cheek feels like snakeskin against her neck as he holds her far past the point of comfort. “I can’t thank you enough, Ms. Billie,” Orrin says, backing away from her at last. He wipes his nose and sniffles. “Let me go get my check book.”
Billie shakes her head. “No, Orrin. You know that ain’t necessary.” She offers her hand one last time and he accepts it, interlacing his fingers with hers and squeezing. She turns and makes her way toward the door.
“Ms. Billie,” Orrin says.
She turns. “Yes?”
Billie gently takes a bow and heads out the door, her stomach in knots over telling Orrin what he wanted to hear, rather than what she felt to be true in her heart.
Billie slouches on the same bench as the couple she approached earlier had; her mind wanders, as it has a habit of doing. She thinks about Orrin. She has an idea of why she lied to him about making contact with Herbert, but she doesn’t know completely. She doesn’t know a lot of things. She doesn’t know what it is about her that draws the animals who seek her. She’s never owned any pets herself, and she isn’t particularly fond of them. At the same time, she doesn’t know if they’d be lost without her, or if it’s actually her who’d be lost without them.
She hears a clamorous twang of voices ringing in the distance and turns to her right. Mute Maddie shuffles toward town hall ahead. A drove of people trail her as she gesticulates enthusiastically and jots jagged words and sketches onto her notepad. Her neon-flowered muumuu pierces the dimming daylight as her fingers bridge the gap between life and death for those who follow behind her. To them, Mute Maddie is fascinating, mysterious and charismatic—a star. Billie—on the other hand—is no better than a fraud behind a super-imposed 1-800 number on a television screen, peddling magic tricks.
Billie’s focus on the mob is broken by the patter of feet drawing near on the pavement ahead. She turns to see a young boy with chubby jowls hanging beneath his fuzzy knit cap. Little Andy Timmons had written a personal letter to Billie when his bunny rabbit had died. When she’d tried to do a reading for him with no success, he was inconsolable. He now studies her up and down, eyes beaming as mucus gleans from his upper lip. Billie studies him in return and offers a slight smile. The boy leans backward for a moment, reaching into his coverall pockets. His hand emerges with a small rock. He stares for another moment before stepping forward and hurling it with such force that it lifts him from his feet.
Billie flinches as the rock glances off of her left shoulder and the boy darts off clumsily in the direction from whence he came. She remains seated with downcast eyes as a warm pain radiates on the flesh beneath her coat. After a few minutes, she stands to her feet and saunters down Main Street, the sweetgum trees along the road bare and dead in her wake. She crosses the street in front of the train station; the windows behind the white antebellum-style columns glare at her as if watching and knowing and judging.
She makes it to her house—the same one that belonged to her mama and daddy—as the night’s first stars begin to glow behind the clouds above. She enters through the storm door and proceeds to the living room sofa without any intentions of turning the lights on. She wraps herself in the patchwork of the quilt her Maw Maw had made and passed down to her. She leans her head against the cushion behind her and closes her eyes. And at the end of the day, the meows and the barks fall heavily, quietly like snow in the windless night. But in the morning they rise like new monsters.
Waiting in line at the grocery store checkout, Billie tries to ignore the man in the next lane, who is poorly masking the fact that he’s staring at her. She checks her watch before gazing out at the parking lot beyond the storefront window as his mindless, empty eyes swallow her whole. She places her bag of apples onto the belt and sighs. She turns and finally acknowledges him with a weary expression.
“Is it true?” he asks, stuttering at first.
“Is what true?”
“Do all dogs really go to heaven?”