Friday 1 October 2021

The Appearance of Crows


by Mike Lee

several iced coffees


Laurie dyed her hair black again, with navy blue highlights. She believed the latter propitious the following morning when a crow flew into the restaurant, landing on her table.

She stared at the crow while recovering from her initial shock. The bird appraised her for a moment, jerking back and forth before flying back to the rafters.

Laurie did not return to her meal of tofu and shredded onion breakfast tacos. She had eaten one and half the other, the rice and beans partially consumed.

Laurie recalled reading that in dreams, the appearance of a crow portends change, sometimes even a death. This memory made her feel uneasy. She couldn’t touch her coffee, and pushed the platter away.

She did not want to think about sudden change. It was too early in the morning. Today was Sunday, and her day off. She dyed her hair and dressed up, not necessarily to present as an artist of confident beauty, or to be noticed, but to express a rejection of her late mother, which she resolved to do daily since she died.

It angered Laurie that people who knew her mother say she resembles her, and they talk about her still whenever she runs into them.

They also tell Laurie about how talented and cool she was, with envy in their voice.

They never talk about the drug addiction, or how she constantly dumped Laurie with her grandmother while she went out on tour with the various bands she played with, or how she finally didn’t bother to pick her up one afternoon when Laurie was fourteen. Also disgusting was the parade of boyfriends more dysfunctional even than she. Laurie’s father was one of them. The last time she saw him he unraveled a piece of aluminum foil exposing a lump of heroin, lit a cigarette lighter underneath and began trying to smoke it.

She was fifteen, then.

Mom never stuck with anyone very long, and that included her daughter. Her commitment was to her music. Laurie’s grandmother called her a free spirit seeking her place in life. Laurie sat during the funeral speech holding her tongue. She didn’t’ have the best of relationships with her grandmother, but she needed her until she received her next installment payment as per her mother’s will. After that, Laurie wanted to make distance. Holidays and maybe an occasional lunch. Just enough to stay in touch, until she felt she no longer felt the need to maintain a connection.

In school, her friends knew better not to ask, but others asked if she was Maggie McDougal’s kid. Yes, Maggie McDougal who owned Modern Rock on Billboard for half a decade and for several years Laurie saw her performing on MTV and VH1 more than she saw her in person.

She couldn’t say her name. After she died, when filling out forms, for parents she scrawled firmly “N/A.” They were two junkie parents with talent and charm. So. Fucking. Sweet. Fuck them.

Afterward, Laurie never could find it within herself to fathom why anyone from her mother’s past would continue talking to her. Laurie’s therapist said they didn’t understand, that they were afraid to accept responsibility themselves or that they had a misplaced notion that any pain inflicted on others were outweighed by her mother’s musical and songwriting talent, and that the pleasure and insight she gave her audience.

“That’s really fucked up,” Laurie said.

“Yes, it is,” said Alix, the therapist. “They are not mature people, just like your mother.”

Laurie did resemble her mother, before she went punk rock feral in high school to become the sainted martyr to generations of singer songwriters and beloved enough to provide quarterly royalty checks direct deposited into Laurie’s bank account. That paid for basics and the psychotherapy, nearly dollar for dollar.

She couldn’t wait to get that final settlement.

Yes, she did look like her mother. The small Irish nose, the sea green eyes with yellow streaks, the broad shoulders and shapely legs. Laurie was shorter, but that was partially due to poor nutrition as a child. She still struggles with eating; another issue she is working with Alix on.

The mother constantly dyed her hair platinum. Laurie went full raven as early as her grandmother allowed. She wanted to be as much as opposite her mother as possible. As she grew older Laurie began to see that the more she changed her appearance she expressed a sense of total separation—a negation—from her mother. When she died, Laurie felt so distant from her that this event was an afterthought.

Also, Laurie eschewed tattoos. Her mother had a lot of them, and one tattoo she had on her upper back was particularly nauseatingly irksome for Laurie.

It was of a Russian doll that opened to a baby. When at the cremation, predominant among Laurie’s thoughts was of its destruction in the flames.

After she died, Laurie graduated with honors from high school. Her grandmother asked what she wanted for a gift.

“A life,” was all Laurie could bring herself to answer. She told Alix about that at the following session. Alix hugged her. They seemed to have much to relate to, but the professional relationship they had only allowed Alix to drop hints.

“Why couldn’t you be my mother?” Laurie blurted out toward the end of another session.

There was silence in the office, the air heavy with bouncing against boundaries.

“I’m sorry,” Laurie said.

“It’s okay, said Alix. “I understand you wish you had lived a different set of circumstances. From this point, you continue to learn and work on developing the tools to be a good person—a mother—yourself. If you choose.”

Laurie wondered what lay behind those words. Still does.

After that session, Laurie began to create a different image distinct from her mother. She shopped in the vintage shops on South Congress Avenue, developing a more sedate but charming style that separated her from both her punk mother and aging hippie grandmother.

What inspired her was finding a handbook from the Camp Fire Girls. They were cool, at least the girls drawn on the cover were. The illustration was of two blond twins, their hair cropped to their shoulders, wearing black berets, white short sleeved collared buttoned down blouses and black A-line skirts. They also wore red bandanas around their necks.

So Laurie went for that as a core style, expanding out as time and body changes transpired. People assume her to be rockabilly or pin-up in style, but she wasn’t. This artifice was just another tribe, like the one her mother chose to belong to. Laurie was very much aware she was taking on a false representation of stability from a time that perhaps was only apparently real used to create a veneer for painful realities.

If this is the case, then why not, Laurie thought. She had a lot to cover beyond her flesh.


Laurie paid the check. After adjusting the gold and green scarf and fixing her makeup she got on her Vespa scooter and rode down South Lamar. Again, this was her day off. She was on the way to see the therapist. She had bookstores to browse, and clothes to try on in vintage and consignment stores. She also would go riding through the old neighborhoods to look at all the homes she dreamed of living in, but knew she never would.

When Laurie was asked about the new look, she confessed to Alix that denying her mother by not following her gave Laurie a perverse pleasure. Her mother had multiple piercings—Laurie had done only her ears, and preferred to wear studs, namely the ones her great-grandmother gave her for high school graduation. Where Maggie wore Doc Martins and cowboy boots, Laurie chose strappy flats and stilettos. The star was never without her ripped jeans. Laurie had tailored trousers.

Alix told Laurie that changing her appearance in such a dramatic counterpoint to Maggie’s was a channeled expression of anger at her mother.

“What if I were to say that you are rejecting your mother and everything she represented?”

“It was the only power I felt I had,” Laurie said. “Other than a desire to live very, very well.”

She paused, adding, “My mother was so insecure she had to join a tribe. I chose to be an individual, so here you see the tribe of Laurie.”

Alix tilted her head to the side, and smiled. That therapist certainly had a story behind every word of advice, Laurie thought.

Laurie also told her that in their rare, terse conversations before she died, Maggie revealed that she believed at least she was honest, speaking with a rising defensive tenor grounded by whisky that she was who she was: authentic, and following her spirit animal.

The spirit animals changed with each repetition of the confessional. Sometimes Maggie was a wolf, or an eagle. A tiger. Finally, Laurie sighed and let her ramble as she sat wordlessly wondering how she was spawned by such a piece of shit. She concluded her mother was a grackle, a noisy, unlikable creature that steals the songs from other birds.

Just like her. Her mother did not become a big star because she sounded like everyone else and came out with her work a week after everyone else did.

Alix was always lovely to look at when Laurie came in to talk. Alix dressed carefully, presenting herself in beautiful floral patterned blouses and pencil skirts. She was Maggie's age, and though Alix was carefully guarded about herself, there was an unsaid assumption between the two that she knew who her mother was.

Laurie did a Google search and saw her was in a band around the same time Maggie was. The joke in Austin was everyone there either went to yoga or played guitar. Laurie placed a lot of trust in her, but she wanted to someday ask Alix how and why she became a social worker. Well, in Austin, they often talk about the velvet rut, moving through life in Austin basically sleepwalking. Doing jobs for low pay, either for the University, or waiting tables while talking about being a musician, a writer, or elsewhere in the arts, but never quite making it.

Sometimes Laurie wishes Alix was her mother. She had one already, and it did not work out. But Alix listens, and that Laurie needed, particularly now. Though she could daydream all she wanted, Laurie concluded that you never miss what you never had.

But, in a way, Alix fills the role as a listener and dispenser of wisdom. For 45 minutes at 175 per session, on Tuesdays except for weeks off on holidays, and the second week in August.

The appearance of crows in dreams or in the jarring way Laurie experienced in the restaurant presaged change. Laurie also read that crows might see your soul. For example, crows build their nests higher than other birds. They do this so can see everything.

As she drove her Vespa through the University area, heading closer to her appointment with Alix, Laurie thought again about accepting that Maggie was her mother. Laurie admitted to herself that she avoided a lot of her negative feelings—but there remained a closet full of sorrows, and a veritable fuckload of anger boiling over at times.

Laurie rearranged the artifice and papered over the pain. Up until now, the sessions with Alix skimmed the surface of the piss trails Maggie left in her wake. Laurie had to own up to expressing that shit, and dive deep into the rage.

Pulling up to the house where Alix had her office, she thought about who lived there sixty years ago. Did the house hold a mom and dad, with two sisters who were Camp Fire Girls clutching hands on their way to their troop meet? Were they normal, or were they crazy like Maggie and her grandmother? Laurie never knew normal, and as senior year in Plan II loomed, she had to do more to create a new normal than dressing differently and keeping her head down.

The necessary changes had to come from within. Alix cannot wave a magic wand to make the misery go away. Maggie was always going to be a part of her past. What was important was that past informed the present so Laurie could move on to an uncertain future.

She resolved to tell Alix about inheriting her mother’s musical equipment. She sold the guitars, amplifiers and other ephemera to help pay for college expenses not covered by her scholarships and grants. Her grandmother only helped with giving her a place to live. It seemed her daughter provided little for her after she died.

Laurie left one item purposely aside: the vintage C-2 Archtop Martin acoustic that was Maggie’s first guitar. This guitar belonged in the family for three generations.

Maggie learned how to play at age 9. Laurie saw the photos before giving them to her grandmother. It was her kid, after all. She felt nothing looking at them.

She remembered Maggie coming over to see her and her grandmother, carrying that Martin before leaving for tours. On the porch she would sing songs she wrote, smiling happily and staring right through her daughter as if she was fan in Birmingham, Alabama or Youngstown, Ohio.


Laurie took a sudden turn off of South Lamar Boulevard and drove to the pocket neighborhood where she lived with her grandmother.

It was time, she thought.

Grandma wasn’t there when she arrived, so it was easy to grab the guitar case and strap it to her back. She revved up the engine and drove the ten blocks to the music store.

At the store that leaned toward the collector’s market the guitar appraised for 8,550 dollars.

He looked sad. “I know who this belonged to,” he said, sliding his fingers gently over the fret board. “I worked on it several times in her career.”

“I know who you are, too.”

Laurie clasped her hands together, fingertips against her lips.

“Now, it belongs to you.”

With sadness, the clerk put the Martin in its case, and moved it to the edge of the counter.

She couldn’t help herself. “I bet that’s the only thing my mother didn’t hock.”

The clerk didn’t look up as he filled out the paperwork, and cut the check. Their eyes did not meet until he handed it over to her.

“Do take good care.”

“I am not her,” Laurie. “I will never be like her.”

He nodded, his face expressionless albeit with knowledge.

“I know the feeling,” he said. “Again, do take good care.”

“I always do,” Laurie. “Takes time to learn.”

Yes, the change needs to be deeper than dressing like a Camp Fire Girl, or a department store advertisement from 1955.

Laurie will tell Alix that story. Alix will respond, asking how doing that made her feel, and Laurie might have an answer for that, then. Right now she was trying hard of what to say. Maybe talk about the relief of unburdening symbolically. Yes, let’s start with that, she thought.

She was still a little early for the appointment. Laurie sat on the sofa in the waiting room, hands firmly clasped on her lap, legs set on the floor.

She looked over at the windowsill to see a crow staring at her, before suddenly it flew away. Laurie thought that was what it was always like with her mother.

And so it ends, I guess. Laurie pursed her lips, tongue pressed against teeth.


The office door opened.


About the author 

Mike Lee is a writer and editor in New York City. His work is published in CafeLit, Lunate, Ghost Parachute and many others. His story collection, The Northern Line (Atmosphere) is available on Amazon.

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