Arts and Activism
Arts and Education
The Flight of the Pink Flamingo: A Meditation on Lawn Ornaments
by Jenny Flynn
Harlem, Montana, June 1996
Winter here is a birth: when the acute pain is over, forgetfulness comes like mercy. Forty below, we remind each other, but now that this wet, wet June has come I for one am already forgetting. I try to recall how every day in January I hovered at the window past noon, watching the thermometer, waiting for it to rise to ten below. Then I went for my daily walk, trudging down the relatively snow-free centers of streets in my Canadian boots. "Hold on to your hair!" somebody once yelled out a car window, cracked open an inch.
I had it easy. Tom, my husband, got up at six to get to the tribal college where he teaches science. Overnight the air temperature would have dropped to twenty-five, thirty-five below or even--this was the record--minus forty-eight. Most mornings he managed to coax the car to life, talking to it, fiddling with the choke, breathing shallowly to keep the air out of his lungs, because breathing hurt. One December day in Havre, the big town, I bought a houseplant at the K-Mart. I figured our trailer could use a little greenery. For the hour drive home, I nurtured that plant at the heating vents. But between car and front door--about twenty paces--it froze. It was dead by morning. You need some kind of magic, ten green fingers and ten green toes, to keep plants alive through a Harlem winter.
Harlem: It's a comical name for a rural, no-stoplight town in north-central Montana, on the northern railway tier called the Hi-Line, but nobody who lives here is laughing. This town is home to about a thousand souls with other things on their minds. Traditionally the population has been half Indian (Gros Ventre, Assiniboine, Cree-Chippewa), half white (Norwegian, Swedish, German), along with a few, very few, outsiders and passers through like me. Each year a chunk of the citizenry--young people, mostly--breaks off and floats away like glacial ice, calved and gone.
The most conspicuous lawn ornaments are FOR SALE signs battered by wind, dust, and ice until they weather in. I talked to a lady at the Missouri Valley Realty office in Malta (towns along this stretch of the Northern Pacific Railroad are named with Old World imagination: Malta, Zurich, Havre, Glasgow...). She says she's got some nice, clean properties, three-bedroom houses in the $30,000 range. The little yellow traditional I've been eyeing in town will go for $19,900.
Out my window this June the usually dry, scabby, wheat- and cattle-growing country looks as green as Scotland, at least down here in the mosquito-ridden bottoms of the Milk River in flood. Ducks paddle up to the edge of the road. Rafts of terns settle in flooded fields. Soon, I know, it will dry; withered grasses will try, and fail, to hold down the dust. But right now, the brief lawn season is upon us, and in Harlem a young woman's fancy turns to...lawn ornaments. I walk the town in search of them.
I am immediately a freak. Rule Number One of the Hi-Line is Thou Shalt Not Walk. For an adult, walking is a sign of poverty--can't afford a car. Or else, of sin--lost the license to a fifth DWI. And I'm also noticeable for my violation of Rule Number Two: Thou Shall Eat Cheese Sauce. Winter here makes the body desperate for calories, firing a genetic longing to slather everything down to the morning Wheaties in melted Velveeta. In the supermarkets, pyramids of stacked cheese sauce end-cap every aisle. As a relatively thin (give me a few more winters) pedestrian, I am immediately conspicuous. Many times a truck or car has pulled up alongside me, the driver asking in an amazed, kindly voice, did I need a ride? Had my car broken down? Did I need some cheese sauce?
Perhaps my violation of these rules explains the behavior of my neighbor, who likes to lean over his stoop railing, taking the air. Beside his double wide (which is not, like our rental with its gopher patch of a lawn, a dump) are planted bird statues: cardinals with hinged wings that turn in the wind. Constantly. Hysterically. There are also two wooden crows, one in a fishing cap, the other in a straw hat with flowers. 2 Old Crows Live Here, a carved caption reads. I think of him as 1 Old Crow. I've never met the second Old Crow, and I hope she's still around.
"Hello," I call up to 1 Old Crow. "How are you?" I lift my hand, giving the cool, restrained Hi-Line wave, four fingers stiffly up, no thumb action, no waggling. Better if the fingers just rise over the steering wheel of a pick-up, but I do my best.
The self-described Old Crow just keeps staring to the north, toward the green-tinged stretch of Saskatchewan, flat as a well-made bed to the Arctic Circle. I figure--I hope--he's not so much snubbing me as unsure of what to make of me, pedestrian stranger. Or maybe he's deaf. I move on. In Harlem I don't expect all my questions to be answered.
The 2 Old Crows' birds form part of a theme of animal ornaments, beasts of such sweetness and docility they seem plucked from Walt Disney's overheated imagination. A bunny in a bonnet. Reclining lambs with pink ears. A mother goose followed by five goslings, their beaks all painted a sunny orange. Plant holders shaped like swans. I've noticed a large population of spotted fawns guarding neat houses with matching shutters and trim. On these properties, there are rock gardens, trellises, and lilac hedges--even a few magnificent cherry trees, pink with heavy blossoms that scatter in the wind and land in puddles where they float face down, slowing turning brown. Occasionally a shiny playset sits on a meticulous back lawn, but usually not. The owners are aging residents in this aging part of the world. The most careful sweep away the cherry blossoms even before the wind gets them. Let them rot somewhere else.
Other houses wear only the memory of paint weathered into striations on bare wood. Outside those flayed walls, however, the owners also keep lambs, or windmills, or, in one case, a festive donkey in a Mexican hat pulling a red cart. And then there are the places with no ornaments at all--the few modern four-plex apartments, undistinguished ranch homes, and rental trailers like our own, all with a temporary feel. And finally, there are the houses that have given themselves completely up to the weather. My favorite is an abandoned late Victorian by the train tracks, the one with real, not plastic swallows roosting in the eaves, its former splendor as collapsed as its porch, squares of tar paper blown off to expose the skin of its pitched roof.
The Victorian's decay is honest. After all, a lamb resting on a Harlem lawn is a sort of lie. When the electricity--and therefore heat--went out one night in January, we on the raft of our bed under all possible blankets listened to the trailer creak like a ship girdled by arctic ice. As the inner air cooled, the outer walls began to contract so fast we could feel the shrinking, like water pushing at depth. The metal roof sucked itself in; new dents sounded off like low-caliber shots, contained but menacing pops. Outside, a cottonwood's branches groaned with ice. If they grew heavy enough, they would fall and shatter on our bedroom. Inside, we plotted how we would turn on the (gas) oven and stand before it, alternately broiling each side until morning. I was just getting to the kitchen when the power came back on.
At forty-five below you hear death humming against the walls, feel the pull to snuggle with the plastic lambs on the snow-covered lawns and just go to sleep--a desire only partially overcome by cheese sauce, or drink. On my winter walks I would linger at the windows of houses where the news was on TV; I regretted, intensely, our decision to do without cable. Even bad news comforted, as long as I could remember someplace else existed. But I wouldn't stay long; under layers of scarf the hollows behind my cheekbones began to ache. The body recognizes what the mind and its ornaments deny: Sometimes it's just too damn hard to stay alive. There are gardens in Harlem (one lot entirely given up to obscenely sunny yellow tulips), but this has never been an Eden. Twelve inches of rain a year and it still floods every spring; mosquitoes born of that water leave all exposed skin a pattern of welts. At least the ubiquitous prairie rattlers are famously unbold, almost retiring.
For venomous snakes, that is.
One late May weekend we went to a prairie bird refuge east of Malta. Before the area was diked during the Depression, birds that came to these marshes died of botulism bred in the stagnant water. But now, the refuge pamphlet assures me, the extra irrigation water is "sufficient during most years to prevent the serious disease problems" of the past. That's certainly a relief. We watched dozens of white pelicans, their wings tipped smoky charcoal, land gracefully in the water. The flooded lake was choppy. Salt pans crunched under our boots. Newly hatched bugs beat against us like hail; we were rooting for the swallows, hundreds catching insects on the wing. Inexplicably, a girl of ten or eleven drove by at the wheel of a battered Cadillac. When she waved a stiff-fingered greeting, we waved back.
What will the future bring that girl? In the Harlem coin laundry (its sign too faded to read--everyone knows what it is), feuds are inscribed as graffiti in the wallboards. Crude scrawls charge promiscuity, illegitimacy, drug abuse, bestiality, pure mean-spiritedness. We clean our clothes with rumors. It has been a winter of threats, accusations, government shut-downs, power shut-offs, innuendoes, much-needed assistance checks withheld, and power plays. It has been a winter of small-town politics, tribal politics, and government politics at their ugliest. The laundromat's walls are completely tattooed with potently misspelled insults, symbols of love, and poignant regrets; when I ran my hands over the plywood, the carved surface read rage, frustration, and loneliness right into my skin. Now that we sleep with open windows we hear, late into the night, police and ambulance sirens wailing. "It's easiest to turn on each other," one of Tom's students told me, by way of explanation.
At minus thirty-five you can throw boiling water out of a mug into the air and watch it fall as fine snow. On Highway 2 by Zurich somebody has cemented a door into the ground--no house, just a door, a passage from nothing to nowhere. At Deb's Diner, the only restaurant open in town, there are a dozen clocks on the walls, all of them stopped.
I don't mean to suggest time is frozen here. No--it seems to cycle relentlessly on. Late winter, there are calves to be branded. Spring, school ends, kids graduate and move away or don't, hanging on. Their names appear on the honor roll, the laundry wall, the police report. In fall, the wheat harvest comes in. And all day, all night, all year there is a succession of trains, the mournful howl of the Northern Pacific as it passes, pausing only to pick up grain or meat on the hoof. A human passenger can't board Amtrak in Harlem. Even to get on a train you have to hitch a ride out of here.
This attempt to read the signs is a way of grappling with an America I suspect most citizens, like me, have heard rumors about but don't understand: the draining center, where boiling water rains down as snow; where bugs, thick as hail, do battle with swallows in botulism-infected sloughs; where the human instinct for survival can so easily become its opposite, a turning on each other, even--especially--on the self, and the only easy gentleness comes from the K-Mart in Havre in the form of a plastic lamb. Where there's no money to repaint the house this year, and meanwhile the kids have moved to Billings, Denver, or Portland, Oregon. These mountain towns and coastal cities have become the Shangri-la of possibility this very place once was to an earlier era's imagination. And meanwhile, the plastic donkey at the door strides forward, pulling its burden.
Perhaps I'm guilty of looking at this backwards, of seeing only the burden and not the burro. The For Sale signs reflect a familiar, stereotyped, Dust-bowl impression of this part of the world, as though Harlem were a film set, a quaint study in artful decay. Yet the burro is a sign of life. So maybe I, an outsider stunned by wind, should ask other questions. Like, what's really up with those plastic bunnies?
We live on the southwestern edge of town. This spring I've noticed a neighbor whose door faces the prevailing winds, out on his stoop, having a smoke. Unlike the 1 Old Crow, he says hello if I do, but I haven't worked up the courage yet to compliment him on his lawn ornaments. He has my favorite arrangement in Harlem, bar none: a flock of pink flamingos leaning, with comic equanimity, square into the wind.
Jenny Flynn, moving from one dusty homeland to another, now lives at the wind center of the universe, the Rosebud Reservation of southcentral South Dakota. She currently teaches writing at Sinte Gleska University and is being slowly coopted by an unruly green-eyed cat who will inevitably outsmart her.
This essay was originally published in the Summer 1998 issue of Orion. To order a copy of this issue, please visit The Orion Society Marketplace, call (413) 528-4422, write The Orion Society, 195 Main Street, Great Barrington, MA 01230, or e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.