A Midsummer Tale – First Place
“Every single thing matters. Know that. I don’t care what anyone else tries to tell you. They are lying. They are wrong. They are selling something. Everything matters. To someone. It might not be to you. At least not at the moment. But it’s hard to tell. When you’re in it.”
She had grabbed my hand hard and didn’t let go the whole time she was talking. I wasn’t even sure who she was, just some relative or friend of the family or something. Just some blonde lady in a cheap black dress that kept slipping low on her left shoulder, letting her white bra strap gleam there like a new tooth. I had just come back from the kitchen with a plate heaped with slices of coconut cake when she cornered me in the hallway, pressing me up against the dark paneling until I could feel the long routed lines of it through the back of my dress.
She smiled at me and past me. There was lipstick on her teeth and I figured I should tell her it was there but I didn’t want to. Every so often she would squeeze the hand she was holding, giving it a short quick burst of pressure with a little shake at the end. My other hand was getting tired. The cake plate was too heavy. It was a milky white thing with half round bumps all along the edge of it. Mom said it used to belong to some dead somebody I should care about.
She didn’t say anything for a long time, just squeezed my hand whenever I shifted or looked beseechingly through the archway into the living room. None of the adults saw my predicament.
“Um, I think I need to get this cake out to the buffet.”
“Ok, honey,” she said without looking at me.
She gave my hand another squeeze but didn’t let go. Instead she brought it roughly to her mouth and kissed the palm of it, leaving a streak of lipstick that looked like a wound. With that she turned back into the kitchen and banged through the screen door out onto the porch where the men were smoking and holding court around the rented keg.
They had whiskey out on the porch and probably Boilo too. Cigar smoke floated into the hall replacing the smell of perfume and beer and pantyhose that had clung to the lady. I waited, watching her leave. There was the sound of men laughing a moment after the door closed and it brought me back. I headed into the dining room and slid the plate in among the deviled eggs and kielbasa and halupki.
I swear people just go to funerals for the food afterwards. It was like a party. The only person who seemed sad was Uncle Mike’s sister Helen. She was sitting in the middle of the couch with one of her kids on either side and people kept getting her things, a soda or a plate of food. Once Mom disappeared upstairs and came back with a small pink pill that she tried to hand to Helen without anyone noticing. She looked at me and made a disappointed face when she saw me looking. I didn’t know why that was wrong.
Later, after everyone had eaten I went out back onto the porch. The men were still there although they were quieter than they had been earlier and the lady in the dress was gone. Cousin Bobby gave me a shot of Boilo and said it would put hair on my chest and all the men laughed. I only took a little taste and spit it back into the glass. It was gross but they laughed at that too so I grabbed the glass and drank it all down. Bobby slapped me on the back so hard it hurt but I knew he meant it as a good thing. I went outside and tried to catch lightning bugs as they rose from the grass. I would catch one and then let it go so I could catch another. Finally Bobby yelled out from the porch, “Why don’t you go get a jar from the garage? Then you can catch a bunch of ‘em.”
The garage was around the side of the house and hadn’t been redone when they put on the new siding. It was old and covered in diamond shaped brown and green tarpaper shingles that made it look like the skin of a dragon. There was no light in the garage, just the light from the street lamp at the corner of the driveway and whatever came through the little window on the far wall that faced the house.
I didn’t know where the jars would be. At home we kept all our mason jars in a couple of bushel baskets under the table in the woodshed, so I started looking low. All I found was an old lawnmower and some wooden crates. There was a workbench over in the corner on the other side of the car and I could just about see something shining in the light from the window. It was a jar full of nails so I dumped them out on the workbench and climbed back around the car. Cousin Bobby was standing in the doorway with a bottle of Boilo.
“D’ya find a jar?”
I held the jar at arms length, showing him my prize.
“Here. Let me see that.” He took the jar and poured a little liquid into it swishing it around for a minute then dumped the liquid onto the zinnias just outside the door. He poured more Boilo and the neck of the bottle knocked hard against the lip of the jar.
“Oooop,” he laughed, “don’t wanna break the glass now do we?” He handed me the jar but I shook my head.
“Come on,” he said, “let’s have a drink to good ol’ Uncle Mike.” I just looked at him. Something in the way he said that scared me. “You’re not scared are you? Well, it’s a man’s drink anyway.” He started to turn away but still kept his hand with the jar in it stretched toward me, watching me out of the corner of his eye. I snatched it from him and chugged the vile drink, nearly choking myself in a fit of coughing.
He put his hand on my back patting me, asking if I was going to make it. I tried to talk but the Boilo had gone down the wrong pipe and I couldn’t stop coughing that horrible croupy cough that made my eyes water and wouldn’t let me catch my breath. He kept his hand on my back and walked me over to the car.
“Here. You need to siddown.” He put the bottle on the roof of the car and opened the back door, ushering me onto the seat. Squatting down in front of me as I sat, legs dangling out of the car, he pulled out a handkerchief and gave it to me.
“You gonna live?” he asked.
“Yes, ” I sputtered, trying to sound in control.
“You want some water? Or another shot of Boilo?” he laughed jerking his head towards the roof of the car.
“Thanks. I’m fine,” I said, and crossed my legs, sitting up straighter.
Bobby looked at me then shook his head. He poured more Boilo into the jar, tipped it in my direction, and drank it.
“You’re stealing my jar,” I said.
“Huh?” He hadn’t moved but was looking around the garage, squinting into the darkening corners.
“Oh. Yeah. Yeah, your jar.” He set the bottle down on the concrete then pulled a bandana out of his back pocket. Bobby’s eyes locked with mine as he swiped the jar clean and held it out to me. I took it with both hands and held it on my lap while I waited for his to get up and let me out. He kept watching me.
A lightning bug landed on the window of the open car door, drawing his attention.
“See, ” he slurred, reaching up and brushing the bug into his hand, “you don’ even have ta try ta ketch ‘em. They’re comin’ ta you.”
I held out the jar for the bug, but he kept it in his cupped palm and held it close to his face.
“Hey,” he said, looking up,” you got pierced ears?”
“Not yet.” Unconsciously, I brushed my hair behind my ear. “Mom says I can get it done for my birthday.”
“Oh yeah? How old you gonna be?”
“Thirteen.” I said.
“A teenager.” He took another drink, this one straight from the bottle. “Ya know. I think a pretty girl like you should have special earrings.”
“My friend Kim says you have to get studs when you get them pierced but I really want a pair of little gold hoops. I saw the exact ones I want at the Piercing Pagoda at the mall, but they’re thirty bucks.”
He put the bottle down again and was playing with the lightning bug, flipping it over on its back and pinning it to his palm.
“Mom said she’ll pay for the piercing, but if I want the hoops I’ll have to use my birthday money and buy them myself.”
“I think you need real special earrings.” He flicked his thumb across his hand and it came up glowing, a small nugget of light stuck to his fingernail, a smear of luminescence on the hand he wiped on his jeans. Before I knew what he was doing, he broke the glowing bit in half, reached up with both hands and pressed the pieces to my earlobes. “There. That’s better.”
“What did you do?” I asked, dropping the jar as my hands went to my ears. They felt cold and sticky and came away smeared with greenish glow. The jar rolled under the car, crunching hollowly on the uneven concrete floor.
“It was the bug,” he said, looking at me like I was stupid. “Didn’t you ever make lightning bug earrings?”
“You mean you killed it?” Looking at the smear on his pant leg I saw the front half of the bug stuck to the fabric, legs flailing uselessly. I tried to get up, rubbing my ears and my hands, but he didn’t move and I fell back onto the seat. The glistening stuff was all over my hands, my clothes.
“It’s blood!” I nearly screamed. “You killed it!” I tried to stand up, grabbing the doorframe and pulling myself out of the car.
“Hey, relax!” he yelled over me, grabbing my hips and pushing me back onto the seat. “It was just a bug.”
“You got it all over me!” I was ready to cry and couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t just let me go.
Suddenly, the light from the door was blocked.
He started slightly. “What?” he snarled, obviously recognizing the voice.
It was the lady in the black dress. “Bobby get out here. Leave her alone.”
“Relax, Lisa. We were just catching lightning bugs.” He stood up and slowly folded his bandana and put it away, then he bent down to pick up the Boilo bottle.
“Let’s go, Bobby.” She seemed like she was really upset, but was trying not to show it. “Now. Come on.”
He started toward the door then turned back and said, “I think you looked real pretty with those earrings.” The lady looked past his and glared right at me. “Go back in the house,” she said in a mean way. “You shouldn’t be out here.”
“Ok,” I said. She kept glaring at me then shook her head and walked back to the porch with Cousin Bobby. When they got there I could see they were arguing, and she pulled him around the side of the house, and finally went to a car, got in and slammed the door. He just stood there watching her go, then he looked from the garage to the house. He walked back around to the porch and left the half-empty bottle of Boilo leaning against the railing on the edge of the steps.
I got out of the car and crawled underneath to retrieve the jar. I slid the nails back in and left it on the workbench. Suddenly I was trespassing. I heard a car start and walked outside. Cousin Bobby was in the car with the lady. Neither one of them was talking now, but as they pulled away, she watched me through the window and I knew then that she hated me.
Back in the house I sat in the kitchen, eating cold halupki and coconut cake. Mom banged into the kitchen balancing a tray full of dirty plates and glasses. She looked at my plate.
“That’s a nice combo. Is that all you’ve eaten today?”
“Yeah. I had some chips earlier.” I smashed a piece of cake with my fork, pressing the icing through the tines.
“You were a big help today,” she said as she sat down next to me and forked a mouthful of cake. She looked at me strangely for a moment then reached over and rubbed my ear between her fingers.
“What’s this?” she said, studying the luminescent smear.
“Nothing,” I said. “It’s nothing.”