My existence was just one of the many tragic events in the life of my grandmother, Marian Ann Bird. She told me she found me in an empty cardboard box next to an industrial garbage bin in the alley behind the Green Valley Bar in Plains, Montana. That was on April 10, 1976, and she determined I wasn’t more than a few days old. She handed me over to the woman who’d become my mother for 12 years—AnnMarie Constance Bird. At the time,Marian was 41 years old. AnnMarie was just 19 and as innocent as a small child herself.
Thin and frail with stringy dark hair and deep green eyes, AnnMarie wasn’t beautiful, but there was something intriguing about the fairness of her skin and the small blanket of dark freckles that lay beneath her eyes and across the delicate bridge of her nose. And although she wasn’t very affectionate when I was growing up, she showed a degree of tenderness simply in the way she moved and in the softness of her voice.
I never called AnnMarie by anything other than her first name. She was, in a sense, my mother, but I always considered her to be more like a sister, and this was only because we lived together. In reality, she was nothing more than my best friend. And since I didn’t have any others, and neither did she, this seemed to be the most fitting definition of our relationship. But I think there was a part of AnnMarie that wanted to be more to me than she was. There were moments when I could see it in her face—the sudden wrinkle in her brow resulting from a thought in her head that maybe she should touch me or talk to me, but she didn’t know how. It only led to frustration, and she’d choose to simply smile at me and say, “Oh, Lucky.”
Lucky was the name Marian gave me. AnnMarie said it was because I was truly special—a really lucky little girl to have been found healthy and alive. But Marian, stinking of whiskey and cigarettes and cheap perfume, looked directly into my eyes one night and told me the real reason.
“If it wasn’t for Tom Cressfield trying to feel me up all night, you never would’ve been found,” she’d said. “I went out the back way ‘cause he was waiting for me by the front door when I came outta the bathroom. That’s when I found you all stuffed in that cardboard box, squealing. You’re damn lucky. That’s how you got your name, girl, and don’t you forget it.”
I am Lucky Bird. And if not for Tom Cressfield, my life’s story would be much different, if at all. Tom was a tall man with thinning gray hair, dirty hazel eyes, and a thick wiry mustache. Every time I saw him, he’d be wearing the same faded blue jeans and red flannel shirt, and his weathered sneakers always looked as though they’d been soaked in motor oil. And I remember his hands were always dirty—hands that knew Marian’s body quite well, even before the night she snuck out the back way of the Green Valley Bar.
I was 12 years old in the summer of 1988 when Tom stopped by our little brown clapboard house one day, unannounced. Although Marian stayed at Tom’s place more often than she stayed at home, he rarely came to our house, and never without being in her company. He stood on the porch with his hands on his hips and a thin smile across his lips, waiting for AnnMarie to open the screen door and let him in.
“Marian forgot my check for the battery I put in her Ford,” Tom said. “I need it, and I told her I was comin’ over here to git it.”
“You wait here,” AnnMarie said. “I’ll get it for you.”
“Sure thing, Ms. AnnMarie,” Tom replied.
She stepped slowly backwards, her eyes on him. I watched her from my place on the living room sofa. Her face appeared a pale shade of gray, her eyes wide and her mouth turned down. I saw the same look on her face one time before when I was six years old and we came across a rabid squirrel perched on the wooden steps at the back door. It was trembling and gagging with a thick film of frothy saliva coating its mouth. I looked at AnnMarie’s face as she took hold of my arm, and then she stepped between me and the animal just before it snarled and lunged towards us.
I set down the book I was reading and lowered my feet from the coffee table. I couldn’t see Tom from where I was. I tried leaning back to peer at him through the window, but he was still invisible to me. When I heard the creak of the screen door hinges, I knew he’d stepped into the foyer. I smelled him even before I saw him. As familiar as the stench of whisky and cigarettes was to Marian, so was the scent of Tom’s cologne—a thick musky odor that reminded me of rain-soaked wood. Marian’s clothes always smelled as though they’d been washed in it.
AnnMarie had already disappeared into the kitchen. I remained still as Tom passed slowly through the foyer and into the dining room. He stepped out of sight then and into the kitchen, and I heard AnnMarie’s voice quiver as she told him to please go back outside and wait on the porch.
“Could I have a glass of water, Ms. AnnMarie?” Tom asked.
There was a long pause, and then I heard AnnMarie pull a glass from the cupboard next to the refrigerator. I heard the faucet and the rush of water filling the glass.
“Thank you,” Tom said. “You sure look pretty today, Ms. AnnMarie.”
“Here’s your money,” she replied, her voice still quivering.
I heard Tom set the glass on the tile counter next to the sink. There was another long pause, and then the shuffle of shoes on the linoleum floor and a strained whimper escaping from somewhere deep in AnnMarie’s chest.
I stood up and walked towards the kitchen. Tom was standing in front of the kitchen sink, his back to me, but I knew AnnMarie was jammed between him and the edge of the sink. I could see her hands pressed firmly on the counter, the veins in her forearms bulging. Tom’s hands were in front of him. I had no idea what he was doing with them, but I suddenly felt the need to make myself known. I cleared my throat.
Tom turned around abruptly and wiped his mouth with the back of one hand.
“Well hello there, Ms. Lucky,” he stammered. “You’re just like a lil’ mouse, aren’t you?”
He spoke as though he had a mouth full of marbles.
AnnMarie stepped away from him, brushing at her skirt with the tips of her fingers. Her jaw was clenched tight as she held back the tears that were building.
“Guess I’ll be on my way, then,” Tom said, his eyes on me.
He tucked the envelope of money into the front pocket of his flannel shirt and stepped around me, into the dining room and through the foyer. I stared at AnnMarie. When I heard the creak of the screen door hinges again, she hustled past me to close and lock the main door.
It was later that evening, while AnnMarie sat on the edge of my bed carefully brushing through the twisted tangles of my long brown hair, that she asked me not to tell Marian about what I saw in the kitchen.
“He stayed outside and I brought him the envelope, okay?” she said.
“Okay,” I replied.
I looked at her through the oval mirror on my dresser, but she didn’t meet my gaze. Instead, her eyes remained focused on the boar bristle brush and on the hand she used to slowly stroke the back of my head. It was an almost nightly tradition, but not one normally spent in silence. And outside of the hug she gave me every morning when she dropped me off at school, it was the only time AnnMarie touched me.
For several days after Tom stopped by the house, we kept seeing him—at the Safeway grocery store, at the Shell station where we’d go to buy taffy sticks, and at the hardware store where Marian sent us to purchase a new faucet for the bathroom sink. Each time we saw him, Annemarie ignored his presence, but he’d somehow manage to catch my eye. He’d smile at me and wave—an act most people would’ve found completely innocent. But it was the way in which he smiled and waved that made the gesture malicious. With his head dropped slightly, his eyes narrowed to slits and his lips pressed tightly together, he’d use just the pointer finger on his right hand to wave. If he turned his hand so it faced him, rather than a wave, it would’ve appeared as though he were signaling me to come to him.
As the weeks passed, I began to notice a change in AnnMarie. Our walks to and from the Plains Public Library each day where she worked, and where I spent my summer days reading and drawing, became quiet and cumbersome. She kept her head down, her eyes focused on the dusty road, but I was certain she was seeing something far different than the rocks and dirt. And when we returned home at the end of each day, she went directly to her room and locked the door. She was no longer interested in going to the cottonwood grove at the edge of the Clark Fork River, as we so often did together during the hottest of summer days. We’d make peanut butter and honey sandwiches, pack them in a basket with bottled Coca Colas, and walk the short distance along the trodden path that cut through the meadow behind the house. Once at the cottonwoods, we’d eat and read and soak our feet in the cool, crystal water.
AnnMarie had been taking me to the cottonwood grove since I was a baby—often for nothing more than to listen to the river and watch the diamond-shaped leaves dance in the breeze. When I was eight years old, she told me about the first time she brought me there.
“You were just a few months old,” she’d said. “It was June, but still pretty cold. I dipped your tiny toes into that water, and you just looked at me and smiled. I couldn’t believe it. You actually smiled. I knew right then, Lucky, that you’d be okay. No matter what happened.”
Nearly a month passed before I approached Marian about AnnMarie’s unusual behavior.
“For crying out loud, girl, mind your own business,” Marian snapped.
She grabbed her purse from the dining room table. She was a thick woman—not fat, but husky—and not much taller than me at 5’4. Her dark, brittle hair was pulled back in a brass clip, exposing her small crimson ears. She had brown eyes, wrinkled olive skin, and high protruding cheekbones. I think there might’ve been a time when Marian was attractive, but at 53 years old, she looked weathered to me.
“You’re imagining things,” she said. “Now, you two hurry up. School’s just started for the year and I don’t want you already being late.”
She pulled her keys from her purse and stormed out the front door. I heard the gasping of the Ford’s engine before it roared to life, and then I watched through the dining room window as the car disappeared behind a cloud of churning dust and dirt.
I didn’t bring it up again. I sat back while AnnMarie sank. On the night of October 10, 1988, I awoke to the sound of Marian shouting. Each time she stopped to breathe, I heard another noise, faint and muffled, but audible. I knew within seconds it was AnnMarie. She was crying. I lay in my bed for what seemed like hours, listening and waiting for Marian to stop. I’m not sure how long it was before I fell back to sleep, but I woke up terrified.
When I finally made my way to the dining room just after 7:30, Marian was already gone and AnnMarie was in the kitchen preparing our breakfast of oatmeal and wheat toast. Besides the thick dark circles under her bloodshot eyes, she looked okay. She smiled at me, and we talked a little as we ate. While she made a ham sandwich and sliced apples for my lunch, I cleared our plates and wiped down the dining room table with a wet cloth. Like every morning since my first day of kindergarten, we left the house together at 8 o’clock sharp to walk to my school. From there, AnnMarie would turn around and walk back to the library.
When we reached the school that morning, AnnMarie gave me a hug and told me to have a good day. I watched her walk away. Later that afternoon when I stepped out of the school and didn’t see her standing by the flagpole, I sensed something was terribly wrong. Not one time since my first day of kindergarten had AnnMarie not been there to pick me up. She lived her life by a simple routine, and that routine had never been broken.
I stood there at the entrance of the school for a long time, staring at the red, white, and blue flag flapping gently in the wind. The voices and laughter of the other children became muffled as I listened intently to the incessant clinking of the halyard pulley against the aluminum pole. It was a distant sound—hollow and empty. I hadn’t really noticed the flagpole much prior to that day, other than knowing it was the spot where AnnMarie dropped me off and picked me up. But at that moment, staring at the pole’s sharp white glimmer, it appeared evil, as though it might suddenly bend over, grab me, and in one quick movement, strangle me dead by twisting its thick metal around my neck.
The sun was making its rapid evening descent beyond the western horizon when I finally realized AnnMarie wasn’t, in fact, coming to get me. I sat motionless in the cool grass at the edge of the schoolyard, and turned only when the voice of Principal Mary Collins interrupted my dizziness.
“Lucky Bird,” she said, “what’re you still doing here?”
I cocked my head, not exactly sure how to answer the question. This had never happened to me before. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know what to do. I just stared at her face, the silver in her hair appearing a rich shade of deep amber in the glow of the setting sun. She pushed her spectacles along the bridge of her nose with one long, thin finger.
“You can’t stay out here all night, young lady,” she said.
She glanced from side to side, hoping for any possible sign of AnnMarie, or somebody. With her right hand, she motioned for me to rise from my spot on the grass.
“I’ll take you home,” she said.
When I walked through the front door of the house, I saw Marian sitting at the dining room table, weeping softly, her hands gently folded in front of her, her head tilted slightly forward. I couldn’t recall a time in my life when I’d seen Marian cry. There was a police officer sitting across from her, and when I stepped through the foyer into the dining room, he lifted his eyes to mine and smiled. It was a tight smile. He stared at me for some time, I’m sure pondering whether to speak directly to me or question me through Marian. I was only 12 years old, after all.
“You must be Lucky,” the officer said.
Marian looked up at me, her eyes cold.
“Yes,” I replied.
I kept my gaze on her, not sure if I should look at the officer. My heart was pounding in my chest. He stood up and walked towards me, placing the palm of his left hand on my shoulder.
“Your mother didn’t make it to the library this morning, Lucky,” he said. “We’re gonna do everything we can to find her.”
He turned and looked at Marian. “If you hear from her…if you hear from anybody…give me a call.”
He nodded, squeezed my shoulder, and then walked into the foyer and out the front door. I listened to the thud of his boots across the porch boards and down the wooden steps. There was a moment of silence, and then I heard him continue across the dirt path. I heard a car door open and shut. I heard an engine rumble. And then, nothing, as though the officer hadn’t been there at all.
Marian rubbed nervously at the knuckles on her left hand as she chewed on her lower lip. Her cheeks were stained with tears. My thumbs were locked tight beneath the straps of my backpack, as though I feared somebody might try and yank the bag from my shoulders. My books were in there, and my pens and pencils, and a paper lunch sack with the remaining half of my ham sandwich wrapped in cellophane. I was supposed to have eaten it on the walk home with AnnMarie, like I did every day.
Marian pushed her chair back and stood up.
“I’m going out,” she whispered.
I remained still as she walked past me and out the front door. The Ford’s engine choked and gasped, and then rumbled loudly in the growing darkness.
I’m not sure how long I stood there, staring across the empty dining room and through the window to the blackness beyond. I listened to my breathing and to the steady thumping of my heart. The silence around me was so thick and heavy that at one point I thought my eardrums might actually explode.
And then I was so completely terrified I couldn’t move. I couldn’t close my eyes. I couldn’t even breathe.
I waited. AnnMarie didn’t come home.