CNF: Mr. Nobody

by Kelly Magee

Tonight I dump dinner in the trash. Fishsticks singed to a puckered tray, smashed jar of tartar sopped with stained jeans. The jeans, too. I shoo my children to the street corner, where one licks cigarettes from the sidewalk and the other shoots his reflection in the window of what used to sell washing machines. He doesn’t say pow or bang or anything to suggest this is a game he doesn’t really—no, really—understand.

The other child doesn’t even know not to eat a cigarette.

It might not be the maternal thing to do when I point out a sparrow in the gutter, intact but filled with ants. I call it sleeping, as if the deadness isn’t the sum of its draw. And the one says, “It’s Mr. Nobody’s bird,” the way an empty chair is Mr. Nobody’s chair and an extra napkin—.

You get it.

And why, every time, do I get the feeling that Mr. Nobody is waiting somewhere to retrieve his belongings? Even that he urges us to throw more into his reach? My children wanted to leave him cookies, but I was afraid he’d mistake it for an invitation. Move in, fill the house with empty chairs.

Maybe it’s that I resent this Nobody fellow, this disgruntled mister tasked with invisibility, for leaving so many signs. Divorce means revealing your hand, and only concrete kinds of maternal love are admissible in court. Bottom line: I practiced attachment parenting, only to fuck up leaving any evidence of it. So the ants will dispose of the sparrow before a truck comes for our spoiled supper, and my children will gone by the time I come home tomorrow. Replaced by nobody’s children not mounding clothes on the carpet or dripping popsicle puddles on the counter, and not eating cigarettes because their mother never learned to cook.

Not really.

Custody depends on more than cuisine, though sometimes it feels like being handed a plate of shit. Before they leave, I’ll remind the children to brush before bed because sometimes your teeth are the only way they know who you are.

I’m sure Mr. Nobody never has morning breath or B.O. I’m sure he’s never been arrested or failed a lie detector. He might be behind every lockdown and amber alert, and he might ride shotgun in every minivan careening off the bridge, but he leaves allies and a visible trail. He’s careful and he doesn’t have fingerprints. I’d like to blame him for buckling my children into their seats and driving north all night before turning around at the border. And I’d like to blame him for turning around at the border.

My children want to bury the bird in a park across the street. They run into the intersection without looking, flurry of bare arms and neon shoes. A guy across the street sifts through garbage and watches them go, the only witness to this transformation of belonging into longing. Loss infects, even when the lost are right there.

They carry the bird by its wing. There is no proof that it ever flew.

The clothes, the burnt and sticky messes, the stash of feathers I’ll find tomorrow in a cup by the sink—prove things that cancel each other out. Presence and absence, simultaneously. No telling if it’s worse to leave the mess or clean it up.

The guy across the street lifts something from the can to his mouth. He waits to see if I’ll follow the bird’s delivery, or if I can be made to give up my ghosts.

Kelly Magee is the author of Body Language, winner of the Katherine Anne Porter Prize for Fiction, as well as several collaborative books. Her writing has appeared in Gulf Coast, Kenyon Review, Crazyhorse, Barrelhouse, Booth, and others. She teaches creative writing at Western Washington University and can be found at kellyelizabethmagee.com.

What surprising, fascinating stuff can you tell us about the origin, drafting, and/or final version of “Mr Nobody”?

    “Mr. Nobody” began as a short poem for last year’s poetry month about the way I get creeped out when my kids refer to Mr. Nobody, a character I’d never heard of, but who they both learned about in two different preschools years apart. I belong to a group of writers who all post one poem a day to a group Facebook page every April, and since I’m not really a poet, I spend the rest of the year turning my 30 poems into stories or essays or blends of the two, which is exactly what happened with “Mr. Nobody.”
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