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The Elephants

After the Flu, Philadelphia 1917: Nature Morte

Frankie Rollins

The butcher is dead. His son doesn’t have the strength or knowledge of his father, yet he accepts a shipment of meat, opens the store. The packages he hands over bear strangely shaped cuts, knobbed with gristle and bone.

The nurse wakes. She puts on water for tea and stretches. She doesn’t think about her friends Edna or Violet or Jean once, the whole time the water heats, a full set of minutes. When she remembers they have died, she gasps and bends hard over her knees.

An old cat with stringy fur inches herself down in the yard’s sunny grass. The girl, watching from the window, does not run out and squeeze her as she would have. Her mother asked her not to bother the cat, and then that night Mother turned blue and they took her away. Now the girl knows not to bother the cat.

The first funeral after the flu and it lasts for thirty minutes. There is time to remember the elderly lady’s life, for her family to weep. Only a handful of people are there, because her son has died, and her friends’ sons and daughters have died. The absences ring like bells. A son misses his mother’s dark crown of hair. Siblings speak of Papa. Remember how he called us bambinos, they say. Someone cries easily, and is hard to console. This is how life resumes.

At night, loss rises cold from the unused beds of the dead. The living curse the government, the parade, the war, the other countries, sidewalk spit, God.

The grocer survived the flu, but is greatly weakened. His chronic wheezing and coughing discourages customers who eye his hands arranging the fruit. What haunts.

Armistice, the grandmother breathed, reading from the newspaper to an empty room.

The doctor closes his eyes and sees the rows of white sheeted beds. The doctor opens his eyes to the dark corners of his bedroom. The doctor closes his eyes and see the rows of white sheeted beds. The doctor opens his eyes.

Someone coughs. The audience’s hands cover their mouths as if choreographed; they turn and glare at the cougher. The cough is only a tickle, a bit of dust, so it stops. The audience settles. The first reel flickers and what is next begins.

Frankie Rollins has published a collection of short fiction, The Sin Eater & Other Stories (Queen’s Ferry Press, 2013). Also, she has published work in Feminist Wire, Fairy Tale Review, Sonora Review, Conjunctions, and The New England Review, among others. Rollins’ work was noted on the 2016 Masters Review Fiction Shortlist, and she has received a Pushcart Prize Special Mention. She teaches writing at Pima Community College in Tucson. Every summer she attempts to fry an egg on the sidewalk.

This originally appeared on July 28, 2017