I wish I could tell you, our theory about her is true. She’s still driving around town in that old orange pickup, taking the things that people don’t want. Broken toys, soiled clothes, smashed-up wicker chairs, busted washing machines, stacks and stacks of Reader’s Digest, white with mold. She’ll pick things up from the roadside too, shreds of rubber and abandoned couches and sometimes the rot-baked spines and ribcages of animals, once collectors have already taken the skulls. And she rides with the windows rolled down, singing along to old Cat Stevens tapes—“I listen to the wind, to the wind of my soul”—and she’s still so skinny, and her gray hair has gotten so long, down to her butt when it isn’t braided and piled on her head like a beehive. Folks wonder what exactly she does with all that stuff, but you know she lives pretty close to me, right up that hill, and her house is too small to keep much in it, and there’s no shed or barn and nothing in the yard but a bed of sunflowers and some rangy hydrangeas. Some still believe she sells that stuff to thrift stores or scrapyards or recycling centers, and that must be how she makes her living. But no one comes or goes from the house, no one drives that road, just her, and when she rides by, whether coming or going with an empty truck bed or a load of stuff, I always hear her singing with the windows rolled down, even though she isn’t all that loud.
Last week, on trash day, she saw me hauling your old treadmill to the curb, stopped in the road, asked if I needed help. Together, we loaded the thing onto her truck. I said you weren’t coming back to use it anytime soon, that I hadn’t heard from you in months. I no longer thought that we would stay friends. Vulture looked at me with sleepy eyes, blue-veined lids. “Anything else you want to get rid of?” she asked. “If so, I’ll take it.”
We spent the afternoon combing the house. I gave her your mugs, your photos, your Jim Croce records, the letters you wrote me while studying in Oaxaca, the coffee table scarred with your cup rings. I gave her your high school yearbooks, your Hollywood shit, those Christmas sweaters you got that light up and play songs, the kappa statuette in the bedroom, whose lucky head you’d worn smooth with your finger. I gave her shirts of mine that you’d stained with wine or nosebleeds or flavored lube, a fork you bent in the garbage disposal, a list you’d once made of children’s names, selecting your favorite for each letter of the alphabet. When we finished, Vulture and I were friends, I think. She told me a story about an old boyfriend who counted every bone he found when he touched her body, and I counted, too, each item we loaded on the pickup. I counted six-hundred and seventy-four. When I rode with her up the hill and helped her unload, I counted six-hundred and seventy-one. I still wonder what I missed.
In Vulture’s living room—I left everything in her living room—I realized that she did not own a stick of furniture, no art on the walls, no rugs, no houseplants, just a pale space of light fixtures and electrical outlets and doorknobs. “You could stay and watch,” Vulture said, “but only if you want to,” and I decided I didn’t want to. I thought it would be like watching a dog get put down. So, I went out, and I sat on the porch steps and watched the sunflowers trace the end of the day with their faces, the hydrangeas’ heads sinking under their own blue weight. Vulture was doing me a favor, but sometimes really good favors don’t feel as good as they are, and sometimes it’s hard to thank people once they’ve put their finger on your softest parts. But when Vulture reemerged and sighed with satisfaction and stretched her bony arms over her head, the room behind her shone with the lightness of an empty house, and I knew she was telling me we didn’t have to say any more about it.
Jen Julian is a Clarion alumna whose recent work has appeared or is upcoming in Third Coast Magazine, Pithead Chapel, wigleaf, and SmokeLong Quarterly, among other places. Her debut short story collection, Earthly Delights and Other Apocalypses, came out from Press 53 in 2018. She and her gigantic ginger cat currently live in the remote mountains of North Georgia, where she serves as an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Young Harris College. You can follow her work at jenjulian.com and by way of Twitter @jennicjul.