COBY-DILLON ENGLISH

Leslie Birch Was Not Real

For this piece, I was really preoccupied with the emotion of loneliness: relational loneliness, Indigenous loneliness, loneliness under capitalism. John Keene, in his book Annotations, writes “loneliness is solitude unfulfilled by its own presence.” I wanted to explore that, in a character that feels as if loneliness is something that he cannot remove from himself, and feels as though he is barred from the pleasures and peace of solitude. This is not a critique, but rather a critical observation of the ways in which loneliness is an emotion we can wield in ourselves through our own behaviors, but also a condition forced upon us by colonial and capitalistic powers.

Leslie Birch was not real. He stood on the corner of Western and Polk in Chicago, Illinois, in November. It was a real place and a real time. If Leslie had really thought about it, he might have wished or even hoped for the realness of this corner to rub off on him. Gum on the shoe. Stuck. Two minutes ago, he was buying a pack of beer when he looked outside the window of the corner shop and he thought it was snowing. He swore he saw snow falling, small, dry flakes, dust or dandruff. He left the beer on the counter and the woman standing at the cash register didn’t call his name because she didn’t know what to say. Leslie Birch stepped outside and it was not snowing. Just cold. The grey of the sky stayed up there out of reach.

         Leslie left the beer and walked down the street. On a street this cold and this grey, there was only a smattering of life. Only a few people walking, stepping out of their own corner shops, looking up at their own grey skies. A trio of boys circled the block on bikes. Once, twice, three times. Leslie didn’t mind leaving the beer on the counter. He didn’t really want the beer. What he had wanted was to stand in front of a cashier and hand her some crumpled dollar bills and for her to take them from him.

It was Tuesday afternoon and Leslie had missed four shifts at the package facility. When he didn’t show up for the first shift, one of the floor-leads or operations managers would have called him repeatedly. Leslie’s phone died on Saturday. None of the calls went through. When he didn’t show for the second shift, he would have been terminated automatically and his information would have been erased from the system. By the third shift, someone would have cleared out his locker, only to find a pack of nicotine gum and a stick of deodorant. At the start of the fourth shift, it would be as if there was no Leslie Birch, here or anywhere else. Leslie Birch walked down Western Avenue and no one noticed.

Real or not, Leslie heard the bone break. He heard the snap of the bone first, and then silence. He turned and the street was empty, except for the three boys and their bikes. They were maybe nine years old. Maybe they were fourteen. Leslie had two sons who were adults now, but they had never been nine or fourteen, not in his memory. The boys in the street wore thin jackets and their cheeks and noses were red-stung by winter winds. Two were standing with their bikes still between their legs. The third boy was on the ground, his bike scattered in one direction, his body in another. Leslie saw the boy on the ground try to raise his left arm, and saw where the arm fell away from the shoulder, where it hung too low. Even through his jacket, Leslie could tell his arm was broken. The standing boys looked at Leslie and back at their friend and then to Leslie again. No one made a sound. Down the street, a dozen pigeons all took flight at the same time, as if they had planned it. One, two, three. Leslie, who was not real, who had been walking through the city for five days and sleeping during the mornings in parks and libraries, turned and walked away. Surely someone would come. Someone who could help. There was that lady at the corner store; the boys were still in the view of the window where Leslie had sworn he’d seen snow. Leslie Birch had nothing to offer.

Leslie made it only two blocks before he turned around. He picked up his left foot to take a step further way from the boys, to keep walking, and instead used it to turn his body around. Western Avenue was wide, and the buildings on either side were low. To the east, Leslie could see the downtown of Chicago blooming like a mushroom cloud in the distance, many miles away. These streets were empty and made of the same color as the sky. Grey above, grey below, sun-bleached like the posters that hung in the windows of corner shops that promoted old music festivals and strip clubs. When he turned around, the boys were still in the middle of the street. Everything was still frozen. Leslie walked to where the broken boy was laid out, and kneeled beside him.

You left, one of the standing boys said.

Leslie grabbed the broken boy’s hand on the uninjured arm and squeezed. The boy squeezed back. His grip was weak and his face was drained of color.

What’s your name? Leslie asked the broken boy. His voice was calmer than he had expected. It was the first time he had spoken to anyone in five days. His tone was smooth. His words didn’t catch on anything in his throat.

You, you, you, the boy said. His voice was shaking and he spoke between short bursts of breath.

Where are your parents? Who’s taking care of you?

You, you, you, the boy said again.

Leslie turned to the two boys still standing with their bikes. What’s his name? Where are his parents? He spoke louder now, pinched the words between his teeth. The boys just looked at him. No one moved.

You left, they said.

Wind whipped down the street. Leslie tensed his shoulders as a chill passed through him. He caught a whiff of himself and suppressed a gag. He thought for a second that no one would ever again ask for his name. The thought was as quick and sharp as a needle in the eye. He leaned down to whisper in the broken boy’s ear.

I’m not real. I can’t help you. I don’t know what to do with you.

You, you, you, the boy echoed.

Earlier today, when a cop had kicked his leg to wake him from sleeping against a tree in Humboldt Park, Leslie had decided to take what money he had on him and buy a bus ticket to Oklahoma. Leslie’s father had died earlier that year and he had been a Choctaw Indian who grew up in Oklahoma and never talked about it. That made Leslie half an Indian and he had the blood certificate to prove it, but he didn’t know anything more about being Choctaw than he knew about being Cherokee or Chickasaw, and when he was drunk, sometimes he mixed them up.

Leslie thought his whole life his father had been part of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, but it wasn’t until he passed away that he learned his father was actually Mississippi Band. It wasn’t until he passed away that Leslie knew those were two different things, that there was a difference between the people who stayed and the people who didn’t and that, somehow, his father had lived with both. No one from either tribe came to his funeral. Neither Leslie nor his older brothers knew who to call. His brothers had accepted their father’s silence a long time ago and were now silent Indians themselves, standing like poplar trees at the edge of a field.

The funeral was just Leslie, his white mother, and his half-Indian brothers who also had white wives. There were their children, who knew even less. If he had still been married, Leslie’s own white wife and his own quarter-blood sons would have been there as well. The only Indians Leslie knew were his brothers and his fathers and his sons. The only Indians Leslie knew were the ones who made him and the ones he made. None of them knew what any of it meant. All these words, delineations, blood quantum, lines drawn between one river or another. They didn’t know the language, the stories, the families, the past.

Being half-Indian with no history was like being just half-white, the other half a mystery. Not real. They had none of it, none of the stuff of being Indian, and it was Leslie’s father who had kept it from them. Leslie had asked, first in quiet, timid tones and then in hollers and screeches louder than winds. His father had never answered, and Leslie had never figured it out. What did a son know of his father’s behavior, of his intentions, of his choices and consequences? Or of his own? Nothing, nothing.

Leslie had tried to go to Oklahoma before and never made it. Short spells of compulsion, time that Leslie couldn’t answer for. He’d come to and find himself on a highway approaching St. Louis. He would always turn around, always a job to get back to, sons he couldn’t leave behind then. Leslie thought, because he wasn’t real anymore, that maybe this time he could make it. In the back of his mind, Leslie knew that there wasn’t anything down there for him. There would be no family, no long-lost cousins, no one who would know his name or his father’s. Leslie knew that if he wasn’t real here that he wouldn’t be real there, but it was the motion of the thing. Leslie could be not real, but he could be unreal with movement, with direction, with velocity. That trajectory kept him solid. He had been walking for the past five days. And now, he was kneeling in the middle of the street with a broken boy and no one was moving.

I’ve called an ambulance! The lady from the corner store was standing on the sidewalk with a phone to her ear. A small crowd of onlookers had stopped on the sidewalk. Leslie looked up at them and saw what they must have seen. A broken boy lying there in the middle of the street. A not-real man kneeling at his side. The two boys with bikes stood above them like angels. It must have looked like a painting or an oil spill. Something like that.

After the ambulance came and took the boys away, the small crowd of passersby slipped back into side streets and the woman went back into her corner store. The boys left their bikes in the street, and Leslie dragged them out of the street and leaned them against a boarded-up storefront. When he turned around, the grey street was empty again. There was no sign that the boys had been there, or that Leslie had either. He walked to the middle of the street where the boy had fallen. Leslie felt something twist behind his sternum, then the sensation of a string being pulled taut from his anus to his throat. He leaned over and vomited onto the pavement. The partially digested food and stomach bile that had left Leslie’s body was now as much his as the street was his, as the sky was his. In the cold November air, steam rose from the warm vomit and spilled out of Leslie’s mouth and no one noticed.

Coby-Dillon English (they/them) is a writer from the Great Lakes. A member of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, they currently are an MFA fiction candidate at the University of Virginia, where they teach writing and serve as the editor-in-chief for Meridian. They were a 2023 Tin House Scholar and a 2021 Periplus Collective Fellow. Their writing has received two Pushcart Prize nominations, a Best of the Net nomination, and PEN/Dau Prize nomination for best debut short story. Their work can be found or is forthcoming in Cream City Review, Yellow Medicine Review, Salt Hill Journal, and others. 

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Leslie Birch Was Not Real, Coby-Dillon English
Bughouse, Shauna Friesen
The Genie & Me, Rosalind Margulies
Why Are You Still Here, Jona Whipple
An Entirely Different Girl, Linda Woolford

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