PRAYERS FOR PIGEONS by Chris Wilkensen

On a bright summer morning, Edith craved something different to do. In the 1960s, without school, TV or a radio, she went outside and peered at the pigeon coop, maybe the only clear possessions of value that her father owned. She decided to say hi to them, the closest things she had to pets. 

Pigeons weren’t cuddly or pretty. But they were company for Edith, creatures that wouldn’t take out their frustrations on her and she enjoyed feeding them. Watching animals eat was almost like going to the movies. Edith picked up the cup inside the 50-pound bag of bird seed, making sure it filled to the top. “Breakfast time.” She opened the gate. One pigeon squeezed through the slightly open door because Edith wasn’t fast enough to feed them.

“You’re going to get me in big trouble, little bird,” she called out after it. While she had her back turned, another pigeon pushed out and flew into the sky.

“Not you too! Please come back, you have to come back! Father will notice that two of you are missing! Please.” She closed and locked the gate so no more could escape, vowing this was her first and last time feeding the pigeons. 

The more she yelled for their return, the more out of sight they flew. They had disappeared, just as she had sometimes thought about running away from her father. She scurried back to the house to make sure that no one saw.

Like most of the summer, Edith was alone during the daytime hours. Her father was at the store cutting up meat. Her stepmother worked a full, floating schedule between bakery clerk and office building cleaner. Thank God she wasn’t home because Edith’s stepmom might have told on her immediately. 

Edith wished she had a brother or sister around, never more so than today. They could have talked about what to do, how to split the blame, how to calm down her dad, something, anything. Edith locked up the house and walked to her friend Clare’s for advice. She knocked on her door, but her mother answered. 

“Hi there, Edith. I’m afraid Clare can’t play today because she’s at Vacation Bible School. You could’ve gone with her if you were Lutheran like us.” She smiled and shut the door in Edith’s face. 

But that gave Edith an idea, one she thought would actually help. She would go to her Catholic church and pray for the return of those two fly-away pigeons. Her father, who didn’t seem to like anything, didn’t seem to mind going to Saint Joseph. There, she saw him do things he never did anywhere else: kneel, cry, and, occasionally, smile.

So Edith entered the Catholic church, found a pew, and sat. She said in her heart the words to the Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be hundreds of times during those hours. She also prayed directly for those pigeons, that they were safe, but most importantly, that they would return. Or that her father wouldn’t know they were gone. Everything would be OK then.

The sky dimmed to dusk. Edith’s tummy rumbled louder and louder, but she had no appetite. “It’s late now. You have to go, my child.” A nun said from behind, walking toward the front of the church.

When Edith felt the summer breeze, she got goosebumps. She knocked on Clare’s front door again because she had to be home from Vacation Bible School by now. Clare’s mother answered. “Do you have any idea what time it is, Edith? For heaven’s sake, go home!” The door closed in her face again.

Half a block allowed meant time for one more “Our Father.” Edith hoped they returned. When she arrived at the pigeon coop, she counted the pigeons. The numbers added up, including the two that left. They must have returned. A miracle! She skipped to the house, opened the doorknob that led to the kitchen. 

“There she is!” her stepmother called out. “Enough worry for one day. I found two pigeons waiting outside the coop when I got home. I put them back in and didn’t tell your father. Would you know anything about this?”

Before Edith could answer, her father came in the kitchen. “We were worried about you, that something happened to you. Gone all day.” 

Edith’s prayers, that either the pigeons would return or that no one would find out that the pigeons fled, must have worked. She was so happy she started to cry. 

“You have no idea how much you worried me by staying out all day and into the night. You’re my daughter, and I thought something happened to you. Don’t ever do this again.” Her father removed his belt, rolled it up ,belted her on the back. He started to count out loud while Edith prayed in silence. 

God, please let him get tired soon, Edith prayed on the inside, cried on the outside. It’s past my bedtime and he should be in bed. 

“Don’t be too hard on her. This is the first time she’s been out after supper. I’ll be in bed.” Edith’s stepmom walked out of the room. 

After her father counted to five, he put his belt back onto his pants. “Now go to sleep, Edith. I love you.” He turned off the kitchen lights. 

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SHOWERLESS by Chris Wilkensen

This train is a church in both its movements and its congregation. No one dares interrupt the silence. Metal rolling over rusted metal. Outside the scenery passes by like life to a teenager: fleeting but feeling never-ending. Most passengers wish they could be anywhere else to feel anything else, to feel something other than strictly operational. At each stop people straggle off, mostly alone, onto their next journey. 

New passengers come aboard. She hovers over me. She breathes harder and heavier. No other free seats. Her pink hair raises my own arm-hair. I move my bag to the ground for her to sit. She only eyes my phone. A blank screen that reflects her face. No makeup, freckles. Thin, rough skin covers her well-proportioned face.

When she gets closer, the stench smacks me. I take a deep breath, look at her and cough. 

“Sorry, I haven’t taken a shower in a few days now,” she whispers. The suits and skirts around focused even harder on their cell phones.

“Oh, I see,” I say.

“I’m homeless. Makes it hard,” she says.

Twisting my head to the right, I look at the side of her face. She looks down, maybe ashamed, but I gaze toward her lap, afraid of eye contact. Her jeans are gross, not in any type of style in vogue to teenagers, with black spots and purple spots of dried blood, maybe. Her yellow boots remind me of construction attire. 

“I’m sorry.” I look down at my Calvin Klein dress shoes and North Face backpack. 

“Yeah, me too.” She crosses her arms. 

I’m a suburban transplant who moved to the city to be closer to downtown for school, still new to city life and city people. My parents budget callowness into my college expenses. She can use my parents’ overhead more than we can. 

I can’t let the other people on the crowded train, who I’ll never see again, witness me cry in sympathy. Hunching up in the seat, I take out my wallet from my back pocket.

“Here. Maybe this can help.” I extend the money toward her.

She hesitates, looks around.

“Is this for real?” This is when my eyes meet hers. Wide, blue, elusive. 

I nod.

She looks at my hand, taking the $40 like a busy cashier, before her hand grazes my arm. Doors open at the next stop. She jumps off without waving or looking back. 

I abhor the thought of another conversation, especially with someone who saw what just happened. The passengers just glance at me. I still smell the rough circumstances that embarrassed her. 

The train trails until the end of the line when we all get off. Long after the stop for my studio. Standing outside alone in the train station I wonder which could come first: someone talking to me or me talking to someone. People pass. I fiddle on my cell phone, nothing productive or fun, just killing battery. No WiFi to entertain me. Only me and my thoughts.  

The temperature drops, so I walk faster to warm my blood. Shops are closing, five minutes before 9. I beg a bakery to please stay open because I haven't eaten or drunken anything in hours. They don't care. They just repeat their opening hours. I check my phone to verify the time.

So I walk. I’ll try this for a night. Just one night. In the distance, I see a park without people. The inside top of the slide can be my room for the evening. I’m experiencing and learning new things, what college is for. Hopefully I can run into her again. It’s Friday night, so I can go until Monday morning without showering. 

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