Fireflies Redux The New Word Mechanic

The Bacon Review was an online literary journal published from 2011 to 2016. Its editors Jason Barry and Eric Westerlind were a delight to read as well as to write for, and their commitment to good writing and to the writers they published is evident in the effort they made to preserve the work in an archive that’s easily accessible and well worth the time to peruse.

Jeannie, Mary Ann’s younger sister, watches me as I stand beside the sink with a glass of water in my hand. She’s a high school freshman with hair the color of dark cherries, full lips, and a mature figure that she presses against her partners when she dances. Hints of forbidden perfume and secretive “mmmms” against a partner’s ear. She watches me and I become embarrassed and have to turn away before being exposed as a lecher right there in front of Mary Ann’s family.

I draw another glass of water. “She bathed in dew in the valley and walked…”

Pop’s sketchbook filled with pages of Mom. Mom in the hollow of Old Man’s Cave. Mom gazing across the Detroit River from Windsor. Mom, nude, reclining, eyes laughing, mouth pouting teasingly. A sheet draped over her shoulder, one breast triumphantly exposed like a painting by Gauguin. A virginal goddess in a waist high field of daisies. Diaphanous folds of cloth clinging to sculptured youth.

Flipping the pages, I linger over each charcoal drawing and pencil sketch. Mother before cancer destroyed her body. Mother as a lover. An artist’s mistress. A mother a son seldom sees, and I can hear her laugh as Pop shows her the drawings. See her blush as she extracts a promise from him never to show them, to either destroy them or put them where they’ll be safe, where the children will never see them. And I hear Pop’s answering laugh, silenced now for more than four years, teasing her while running his fingers through her corn silk hair and whispering her name. Sarah.

I close the book. Visions of Mother mingle with memories, and the two don’t always mesh. I return the sketches to their shelf, the book carefully put back beneath three rolled up posters. Emotions swirl inside me, a mixture of fear and anger. Arousal. I leave the garage studio on a cold Saturday afternoon, the first in November, and I watch the fireplace smoke curling above the chimney.

The old man has hated Pop since Mom first introduced them twenty years ago. At Mom’s funeral, the seventy-five year old veteran swung his heavy cane at his son-in-law and called him a soulless bastard. Everyone said it was grief and felt obliged to point out how well he had borne the strain. They led him away to an empty parlor where he sat – hands on his cane, chin on his hands – and stared at the wall.

Three weeks later, he came to the house with Grandma and Uncle Pete, Margaret’s and Mom’s youngest brother, to take Margaret home. But when she announced she was staying, he threw his cane across the room, narrowly missing Pop’s head and knocking an ancient Japanese vase from the mantel. Then he stood and walked out unassisted, refusing help from his wife, who followed just ahead of Margaret. Pete stayed behind to apologize, but Pop, staring at the broken porcelain in front of the fireplace, silently waved him away with the cane he had picked up from the floor.

“Come, Eva.” He stomped from the house and planted himself in the back seat of Pete’s car while his wife stood in the doorway and stared at their daughter. Grandma’s eyes said she wanted to stay. They also said she wished Margaret would go with them. Then she left, followed by Pete, who got in the car and drove away. Before the car had left the driveway, Margaret was in the living room on her knees at the edge of the rug next to Pop, picking up the pieces.

“Mary Ann is really sick.” Jeannie says pushing up close to me, and I feel her cheek move against mine as she lifts her lips up toward my ear. “She was really bad Christmas night.” We’re dancing in our socks in a gymnasium with red and green flood lights. “But the doctor says she’ll live.” She wrinkles her nose the same way Mary Ann does. But it isn’t disgust. It’s an invitation.

Inside, I take my place at the scorer’s table and begin copying the names and numbers of players from both teams into the book and get set to keep track of who plays and who scores or fouls as the teams come to the center of the floor. The gym is filled to capacity, but I can see Mary Ann sitting in the fifth row with Marty Williams on the opposite side of the court. During the half, while cheerleaders turn cartwheels, I watch Mary Ann and Marty climb down from their seats and make their way to the exit. At the doors, Marty turns and looks back at me then waves. It’s too late to pretend I don’t see them, so I wave back and take the coke the opponent’s scorekeeper offers. Mary Ann doesn’t look at me as they leave.

Outside after the game, the wind has calmed but the rain keeps coming down. Tina is waiting for me at the car. “I’m sorry,” I say. “About before.” But she sits silently the whole way home, staring out the window so she doesn’t have to look at me. She doesn’t want to go for pizza; doesn’t wait for me to come around to open the car door when we get to her house; and walks ahead of me to the door where she tosses back a barely audible good night that is lost in the freezing rain as the door closes.

In my mind, I see Uncle Willie. Master Sergeant Willard Spillwell. Ten years at St. Theresa’s where I envision him seated on a hard bunk, staring at the walls of his tiny cell with bars on the door and a window too high to reach. One naked bulb hangs in the middle of the room over an unfinished worm riddled table. His beard never grows and always looks a week old. His worn army shirt is sweat soaked and stained black by blood. Cockroaches crawl around his feet while he sits stoically staring at the harsh stone wall and says nothing.

At times, they say, he is lucid enough to remark on the fresh flowers on his side table and smile at the nurse while he pauses on his daily walk to smell the roses outside his window. In the winter he builds snowmen or makes snow angels for other patients to see. But most of the time he is lost in a fog on top a hill in Korea or in the middle of a snow storm in a German forest. The faces of people he sees around him become the composite of two wars. Companies of muscled youth weave in and out of one another, and the names become mixed as Willie searches for patterns in an effort to predict. “For if one can predict,” he tells a nurse one day, “one can survive.”

Aunt Margaret visits him once a month. Drives the one hundred and fifty miles by herself to listen to him babble and then comes home to report what she has seen. “He doesn’t remember me from one time to the next, Gene. He doesn’t know who I am. Today he thought I was an Army nurse, and he told me about ‘Peggy.’ Told me how pretty she was. Told me this was going to be the last war.”

“I really hate her,” she went on. “She’s not at all like you or me. She’s not even practical. You know she talks about being a nun as if she was the only girl that ever got the idea. Then she turns right around and acts like a selfish bitch. I’m glad she’s gone to Colorado. I can’t stand her around the house any more. It’s going to be hell when she comes home. Don’t you want to kiss me?”

Strawberry lips. Tongue. My hand coming to rest on her naked thigh. Moving up along the denim contour of her hip. Finding my way under her blouse and then my fingers tracing the edge of her bra, undoing the row of hooks. Hearing her softly moan as she rolls herself closer to me. My hand cupping her breast, feeling her nipple harden in my palm.

Aunt Margaret comes home on Sunday. She is wearing a simple green suit with pink flowers in her green hat. “Let’s get out of this horrid place at once. I always feel so dirty after traveling. Jason, look at you. You’ve lost weight. You’ve not been eating right. I knew it. I told your father you wouldn’t. Even with working at the diner I knew you wouldn’t eat the way you should. There’s part of my luggage. Be careful with that big one. There’s things in there that are your father’s. I don’t want them to get broken. He’s decided to go on to Montana and stay there for a while to paint. I’m glad he’s decided that. He needs to. He said to tell you how sorry he was. We’re both sorry. Sorry we couldn’t get back in time for the funeral, even though we didn’t know her very well. There’s my other bag. Now let’s get out of here. I hope you haven’t parked too far away.”