The Barbie Tree

by Max Hipp

In the window facing the Memphis-to-Birmingham traffic hangs a pink neon Psychic sign, a hand with an eye in the palm. The palm reader’s trailer looms behind a barbwire fence as tornado sirens howl. I’ve chained our wedding rings around my neck like dog tags.

The dirt driveway winds through pin oaks to the back of the property where Barbies hang from a crepe myrtle on fishing line, random arms and legs gone. Others are shoe-laced to branches.

A woman maybe ten years deader than me with crystalline eyes stands in the doorway. Silver hair covered with a scarf, she motions to the greenish clouds. “Could you pick a worse time?”

“There’s a worse everything.” What I mean is my wife left, the sun came up anyway, and I’m too sad to drink.

She crosses her arms. “Twenty for a half-hour. Forty for the full.”

The sirens will catch fire if they don’t moan to rest for two minutes before starting again. Their stopping never means danger is past. It doesn’t mean my wife will return to fix my life’s wreck.

“Fifty for hazard pay.” She leaves the door open.

It smells of grains and teas and self-righteousness, like my wife’s going to drop into down dog or warrior one, like people can stop the ice shelves from melting and the totalitarian march by saving themselves first.</p.

She sits at a metal table in a bedroom. Tapestries printed with mazes and feathered lions hang from the ceiling and walls like we’re children in a blanket fort. I place my hand palm-up on the table with two Jacksons and a Hamilton.

“You’re in danger.” She peers into my eyes without blinking. “You never see what’s coming even when it’s in front of your face.” I want to laugh but she’s serious. Lightning snaps the air a split-second before the windows rattle.

She snatches the cash and presses my hand against the table. “You’re going to die.” Her voice cracks. She flips her own palm over, shows the same short lifeline as mine, same broken heart-line and faint fate.

Rain finally gravels the roof.

“My wife’s been gone two years,” I say. “She’s remarried.”

The churning world drowns out the sirens. My ears pop. She shrieks at what’s over my shoulder.

Out the window, a wall cloud tilts the horizon as the funnel presses down. Branches and deadfall arrow in every direction. Shapes appear in the gray-brown blur: galloping stallions, giant hornets, whirlpools of toxic foam. It whips up the fields to fill the window with spinning.

A threshold moment blinks in my head. The old woman in eye-doctor sunglasses at the end of the pier as a hurricane of gulls descends. One with a missing foot squawks and fights, snaps up the lumps of potato and wet sprigs of dill she flings. My wife is backgrounded by the storm of gulls.

Something flesh-colored whaps off the glass: Barbie.

Sawmill air blasts the front door open as we hunker down in the hallway. The Barbie tree’s laces stream sideways and I’m thrown back to what tethers me. Here I’ve been thinking the past is what kills. But the palm reader sees the future and she’s wailing.

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