In The Light (1st draft).

“And if we did win the lotto, what then?” Kate handed me back the ticket, unscratched.

I wasn’t about to let her ruin it. Refusal to play is the end of the game. I applied a thumbnail and promised half the winnings. Kate climbed up from the back porch steps where we sat. Her feet were bare, and a bracelet of dark braided cotton wrapped one ankle. She went indoors.

Tossing the worthless ticket aside, I damned the evening heat. The crickets paused. Nothing happened. True, it was hot. Potted vines climbed the trellis-work in the corner. There a grey statuette sitting cross-legged caught my eye, not for the first time. It must be a charming business to watch.

Instead of unwinding, I unravel—my attempts at bright conversation ring like tin. And games I hate I bring down to play. Kate and I liked each other very much. I feared one day she would see through me. And one day she did.

Most poignant at the time was after several weeks of living together; I did not understand her need for silence was no attempt to shut me up.

In the corner, it was exactly what a stone buddha could speak that mocked me with a smile.

The screen door clapped behind Kate. She set a dish of warm cookies down and went back inside for two quart jars sweating with iced lemonade. Sitting down, she lifted her jar to the last glow of sunset and the purple coming of twilight. “To the here and now.”

Bandolero icing crisscrossed tanned torsos. Dead burying the dead, the dish was piled high with the bodies of sugared anise men. Her recipe was homegrown, insurgent, voluptuously inciting a cookie riot. I had another one. Revolutionary.

It must be forgiven. My quart jar goes up. That was 15 hard years ago.

Most of that summer, we spent on the back porch waiting for the house to cool. Her place was a little A-frame off a winding dirt road in the Texas Hill Country. After work, we lounged, up to our eyeballs in a state of inertia languor. That was her term for it–inertia languor. Too damn hot to move or think much is what she meant.

Crickets joined the drone of cicadas, and the night throbbed. Over the scrappy lawn winking yellow lights milled about bone-white sculptures.

Not so very far away towards town was a dance hall with a beer garden called the Horny Toad. Strings of light bulbs bridged the oak trees. The waitresses shuttled pitchers of beer among picnic tables. It was a beautiful place to go, but after meeting Kate at the jukebox, she and I never went back. It was amazing how fast our scene contracted, became exclusionary, simplified, and complicated. I dropped in at the Horny Toad one last time for a pack of cigarettes. John behind the bar called out, “Hey, road dog, where’s your shock collar?”

She introduced me to her art by name. There was Maynard, John, Cheryl, Nebraska… She treated them like family. They weren’t for sale. To the eye, they were merely chunks of concrete and bent rebar. Occasionally, she gave one the hair of rusty barbed wire.

Where they stood or laid in the yard, they stayed. The best I can describe them is architectural columns and foundation brought down to size with a wrecking ball. No self-respecting landfill would turn them down. I stubbed my toe on a miniature, doubling as a bathroom doorstep. I almost took out the towel rack. The girl was no doubt conceptually adept and perceptually gifted–I massaged my big toe–only I just didn’t get her art.

And who was I in this place? Our summer together, the sweltering nights, the stone, Kate’s mesmerizing tone, all eventually fused in my lizard brain and crisped at the edges like dough on a cookie sheet.

Where did I fit in? It was her world. I merely lived in it. Kate was a beautiful woman, patient to a purpose, hideously direct at times.

“You kind of let me down,” she said one night, out of the blue. “As long as things go your vaporous way, everything is just hunky-dory. Don’t you feel the need to try?”

“Try what?” I said.

“Something, anything.”

I changed the subject, became tediously eloquent on a topic I insisted we stay on having with no more purpose than to hear myself talk. I never knew how much fun it was to pontificate on the rules of thermodynamics while flipping off the stone buddha behind Kate’s back.

I was in full stride like this one night when she derailed my train of thought with a mystified whisper.

“Look at the fireflies,” she said.

I wonder now if, like a dragon, she slept with one eye open. I hardly glanced at the fireflies. “They sure are pretty,” I said.

“Of course, they are,” she said. “But look how they dangle above the ground by the trees where the yard is darkest. Don’t they look magic?”

I was raised in South Texas. I’d seen a million fireflies, but following Kate’s suggestion, I looked again. They didn’t zip about like most flying insects. With soft winking, they looked like buoys marking out the presence of something critical underneath the surface. They did look–for lack of a better word–like magic. She was right.

As kids, we used to follow them around catching them. They don’t resist, sometimes alighting on your hand as you reach out. Even a crying child could catch them. I don’t know where the idea came from, but we would smear their phosphorescence on our arms, cheeks, and foreheads. We wrote our initials on the fence with their glow and watched it fade so slowly we couldn’t be sure when it was entirely gone.

After sharing this, I glanced down, not sure. Kate laughed. She lifted my face and gazed at me intently and laughed again. Then she turned serious. “I tell you right now, don’t go all sorry and ashamed for my sake. You’ll spoil your memory. It might be the kid in you, glowing cheeks and all, was the reason we met. At any rate, it’s the most interesting thing you said tonight.”

Breaking Up

“Don’t say the word art like that,” If Kate was steaming mad, she wasn’t alone.“You wouldn’t know art if it rose up to bite you on the ass.”

“I know art when it’s got my name written on it. Tell me, what were you thinking?”

“I don’t know. I guess I was wrong, maybe. I thought you’d feel honored. Plainly I was wrong.” She got up and went into the bathroom, brought out the doorstop, the one she gave my name, and carried it out to the backyard.

I sat on the couch. When she came back in, I could tell she’d been crying. She sat beside me and put a hand on my knee.

“How can you suggest I’m like those others out there: John, Ernest, Dakota…”

“Nebraska, the name is Nebraska, not Dakota.”

“And John, that wouldn’t be John at the Horny Toad would it? Oh shit! What the hell? And you equate me with those blockheads?”

“None of them were blockheads. Everyone has broken out of their concrete and barbed wire.”

Still, I didn’t understand her art. I picked up my jacket. “I’m going out.”

“Just stay.”

Kate liked trading stories of when we were young and in our separate worlds. The way we thought, she said it was intimate. So grasping at straws, I told her the first thing then that popped into my brain.

When I was a teenager working in the toolshed, the wind clapped the door locked behind me. I didn’t freak out but calmly took the chainsaw down from the shelf and cut a hole in the wall. I stepped out sweating but free again just as my mother came outside with a pitcher of lemonade.

Kate got up and exhibited the door. “This one is never locked. You’re free to use it at any time.”

And that was it between us except for the shower of pebbles she threw against my windshield as I backed my truck out of the drive.

Five years later, I was in the state prison for armed robbery.

Let me tell you at three in the morning there is an unmistakable garbage dumpster quality to the series of iron doors in the corridor. That’s when the catwalk above pinged and creaked under the weight of a change of guard.

I had finally proved to myself I could be a fool in love with a girl, any girl. Macarena drove getaway while I counted a wad of cash. Our hall was $43 and a pack of cigarettes. We laughed at the ridiculousness of it all. The store had just opened in the morning. But I did it on a dare anyway.

You can’t talk sense to somebody when they feel on top of the world. In fact, before leaving town, we stopped at the county fair to play a few rounds of ring toss. If you’ve seen our photo, it’s one we had taken there. It’s classic black and white. The photographer was outstanding.

In the photo tent, my girl sat on my lap wearing cutoffs and a white bikini top. I flashed my silver tooth. Between us, we fanned out $43 for the camera like a winning hand. Macarena was loose-lipped about doing it again. That might have sunk us, but here’s the thing: any man who robs a liquor store and then gets his picture taken at a carnival–all in his monogrammed bowling shirt–has got a screw loose somewhere.

Macarena’s father was a bigshot lawyer. She got off with a plea bargain. It hit me hard how she lied. But I eventually shrugged it off.

The Flat Monkey

Before the change of guard had finished echoing throughout the cell block, the inmates fell back into their regular rhythm of snores and phlegmatic coughs. It was as if we were on a train sleeping car, shunting noisily over a switch of rails. We passed through towns we once knew, the lights all snuffed, and the sidewalks rolled up. There was no stopping. We just kept pushing on until morning.

I sincerely doubted I would come out whole. I prayed to Christ that I might. The pain of being locked up can devour you. I’d been doing calculations in thermodynamics, and I’d built a model plane to keep me sane. I knew it was only delaying the inevitable. What I needed was a time machine to work my calculations on. I could fashion it to look like my bunk. My pillow could hold the guidance system.

The question was whether to go forward to the day of parole and walk out sane and whole, or should I go back in time? You see, I started to believe it was possible. That’s when a wave of anguish and fear washed over me. I rolled on my side and didn’t understand what I saw next.

Fireflies.

Softly winking, they passed through the bars, in and out of my cell. It was warm. They seemed to be making lazy declarations, outside-in, inside-out. The harsh lines of my cell softened, became gradient, even like smoke. I closed my eyes and lay back.

“Are you sleeping?” It was Kate’s voice. It was her breath.

She said something more.

I say she spoke. But, again, I have no real sense of the actual words. I can only recall being held in sway, with her palm pressed to my heart, between two worlds.

A moment later, a rude crackling buzz came in through the window above. It landed with a thump against the curtain, and I knew it. I didn’t need to look. A cicada hung there by a claw hooked in the lace of the curtain. It twisted in the blue moonlight.

Kate got up to pluck it free. “Half of what you seek also seeks you.” She tossed it out.

I remembered the night vaguely. Our mattress was an island on the floor, the sheets damp.

Kate returned to bed. Beside me, she felt restless.

She lay on my chest. “Are you sure you’re sleeping?”

Yes. No. Descending by a rope in a bucket down a hole, if I gave a reply, then it had to be of the most perfunctory and heavily laden with the drift of sleep.

A moon shadow on my face, she looked down. I felt her studying me, inert and submerged.

“I made you some art.”

Thrumming the rope that held me suspended between states, it was her sounds. She whispered, seeding a dream as I should dream under her watchful gaze.

How long? Almost eight years now. How memories awake.

She told me more.

As a child, she was forbidden to walk along the railroad tracks. But they always called to her.

One day she was compelled to walk between the rails and over the cross ties. It was then she found a monkey. It was flat and dried up, mummified.

She said it was terrific. Patches of short fur were still on it. A row of white teeth sticking up along its jaw. She bent low to have a better look. It’s not every day you find something like that.

With its kinked up tail, long arms, and legs, the small almost human hands were like nothing she’d ever imagined. She said hello and talked tenderly while prodding its body with a stick.

The skin was dark brown stretched tied over delicate small bones. Tiny ants crawled here and there. He must have fallen off the train, she guessed.

The theory was instant as it was solid; there’d been a circus train that passed the night while the town slept. It had to be at night because circus trains always move in secret. The flatcars were stacked with animals locked and barred.

He could have gotten through the cage bars—the poor flat monkey.

She studied the tiny sharp teeth again, and the curled up fingers on one hand balled up in front of his face. He seemed to hold it forward to show he still held something.

A secret. Yes, that’s what Kate thought, the secret of his escape.

Even sleeping dreams need the light.

“Just remember this one, and you will never be alone,” said Kate, letting me go.

With that, I tumbled, my pillow set for a trip back in time.

Like the Spirit

The dash radio crackled as chain-lightning danced low on the horizon. In the next moment, the radio played again. A gust of wind buffeted my progress down the road, and a dozen large drops of water splattered across the windshield. Then it stopped. This was the country of my youth under the influence of rolling weather.

A bump on the wipers cleared my view. Though the tremendous line of thunderheads was ten miles distant, their effect on the senses was to reduce the two-lane county road to a thin cleft shot through a leafy sea of green—deep with maize—unbroken to the drooping fringe of blue.

A few miles back, I passed a sizeable ugly billboard. It read:

State Penitentiary
Do Not Pick Up Hitchhikers

I didn’t have to read the billboard, but I did it anyway. I didn’t have to seek the hard-edged prison complex set back from the road, but I did that too. Bored wonder often invites a guy to look again as if for the first time. And with its guard towers and double fences, the red institutional brick, the place always attracted my attention. On this route, there was little else to see, but the crops standing in endless rows and a hollowed-out clapboard house leaning at an absurd angle.

The thing was, in seeing the prison, I always felt a sense of care for the men locked up in there—and guilt somehow for my freedom. They were, after all, still men.

Something fluttered to the side of the road up ahead. I lightly touched the brake pedal and downshifted. Sitting up and focusing, nearer now, the something lifted for a moment. Slowing down and close enough to make out the shape, I stopped. A gust of wind lifted the thing clear of the road to wedge it in the gully of the opposite shoulder. There were no other vehicles. I parked and clambered out for the plane.

In the ditch, I turned it over and picked it up. It was a balsa replica of the Spirit of St. Louis in all its glory. The wingspan was twenty-four inches, and the ribbing was skinned tight with milky translucent paper. There was a small tear in the fuselage, but the propeller was rubberband powered. Lovingly handcrafted likely it was months in the making.

The wind was picking up now. I carried the plane up to my truck. Searching the road up and down, for miles around the only model plane builder would be in that cluster of buildings behind the guard towers, behind the fence. I thought about that as I stowed the plane in the cab.

I liked the idea there might be a secret message hidden inside written by a desperate inmate—someone looking at a long sentence for murder or robbery or something equally incredible.

Half-right, I would find out later, the craft itself was the message.

END