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Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Lightning Bugs

Lightning Bug
Firefly.
Lampyrid.
I liked that one best - noctiluca. I found it in the encyclopedia Mama brought home from the Piggly Wiggly that a lady paid for with S & H green stamps but never picked up (Mama only got A through L because that’s all the lady had ordered, but she promised me she’d get the rest someday.)
The book said in Latin that’s what they called them, noctiluca. It sounded like castanets when I said it aloud, but I preferred lightning bug. The colloquialism made me think of the luminous glow in their bellies, flickering in the dark. (Colloquialism was the section I found on language, just before the encyclopedia ran out, but Daddy says to quit using it ‘cause it sounded nasty.)
Our front yard back in Pearl, Mississippi, was filled with lightning bugs. When I was little, I thought they were invisible during the day, hidden by the sunlight like fairies, revealing themselves when the sun disappeared behind the hill’s edge. I’m eleven now, so I know better. Now I know they sleep during the day; and at night, after they stretch and wake up, they go to look for dates, much like my Uncle Rudy.
After the sun dims in our neighborhood and the yellowed living room lights seep out onto the roads, the steps in front of the clapboard houses crowd with mothers. They sit with their daughters between their legs, untangling their daughter’s long hair with their fingers and the local gossip with their tongues. 
Mama likes to sit with the ladies, sometimes messing with either of my sisters’ hair. Both Lou Ann and Amy still had flowing strands that cascaded down their backs. Mine was short and bobbed, making me look more like a boy to all my classmates.
I used to have long braids on each side of my head, but one night I stumbled into the bathroom and didn’t see one of my braids had ended up wet until it was too late. Mama chopped my hair off rather than, “…let you end up with typhoid.” I didn’t want to tell her that the encyclopedia said I’d have to ingest the toilet water for me to get sick.
I told anyone who asked that I cut it off because I was going to be a scientist when I grew up and it didn’t make sense to let it catch on fire in a Bunsen burner. I tossed my head at my sisters, them trapped between Mama’s knees, showing off how I got to run and play while Mama dug deep into their scalps with her Barbasol-dipped brushes. I liked it better chasing the lightning bugs with my cat, Brown Kitty, than listening to stories and having my head pulled raw by combs.
Once in awhile, a lightning bug would fly into my hand. For one moment, I would watch its tail light, the glow luminously lighting my own hand where it landed. I got so excited, cupping my hands around the lightning bug, feeling it flutter lightly against my palms. Over and over I would do this, feeling the lighting bug land calmly, getting so excited when it realized it was trapped, how frantic it became, not knowing I had no intention of hurting it ever. When the ache of holding one prisoner for too long tugged at me, I opened my fingers and let the lightning bug flutter clumsily away.
It was two months since we left Pearl and our pretty front yard, having been skirted away in a 1959 Ford van Daddy bought from Mr. Humphreys. He told Daddy the shift was on the column, but that it could pull stumps out like no ox ever could. And it was a good thing, seeing as Mama never could bring herself to get rid of half of the things she bought. Grandpa and Daddy hooked up a rented trailer to the van’s hitch, both taking turns to cuss out my mother’s frugalness, then turning to smile gently when she approached, arms loaded with sweet tea and Girl Scout cookies.
In the near dead of night, we set off for Hot Springs, Arkansas, exhausted from packing and crying good-byes. It was to be the first time we had ever lived more than 10 miles away from Grandpa and Grandma and I wasn’t quite sure we’d find our way back in a timely manner. Mama and Daddy promised we’d still all go to Florida later that summer with them; my Aunt Lavetta; her toy poodle, Punkin; and Uncle Rudy and his latest girl. (They didn’t add that last part, but I knew as sure as Uncle Rudy’d be smoking his cigars, he’d have some teased-haired woman from Branson on his arm if he could stand up straight long enough to ask her.)
The ride to our new town was simpler than I expected. The trailer swayed back in forth on the road, forcing Daddy to drive with two hands the whole time. Summer was easing into its middle, causing my sisters and me to sweat profusely while we slept in the back seats, even with all the windows rolled down. I was the only one who didn’t mind leaving; the only one who didn’t have someone other than family to see them off.


Hot Springs National Park was considered a thriving tourist town. Ladies in bathing suits and sunglasses in the hotel lobbies; men in three-piece suits, fanning themselves in the air-conditioned insides of the auction houses; shopkeepers filling their cases with horehound sugar sticks and cedar souvenirs, marking them all with a “Hot Springs, Ark. – The Natural State” stamp, a keepsake for every budget.
It had been like this for centuries, bringing in Frank and Jesse James to rob the Northerners on the trains when they came to town to rest and play the horses. Even Al Capone and his gang came down for a summer, holed up in the Arlington Hotel when their rival gang checked into the hotel across the street. Al and the other fellow meet in the middle of the street and shook hands, saying how there wouldn’t be any fighting on account of everyone being on vacation.
But for me, it was just one long day that was so hot and humid, that as soon as I stepped outside, it felt like I was walking through mud with a blow dryer on my face. Some days, I took my bike down to the Piggly Wiggly to trade in bottles so I could buy sheet music down at the piano store, but no matter what time I went, the streets were deserted like I had walked out in the middle of “The Andromeda Strain” (which Daddy let me watch with him the other night when Mama went to go to the new neighborlady’s house to play Hearts. She was always making friends so easy like that while me and Daddy stayed at home watching Andy Griffith reruns.)
At night, I went to play with the lightening bugs, but the heat kept them hibernating in their own homes, the humidity too heavy on their wings. I had only seen one or two since we moved and didn’t even dare catch them for fear of harming them. So few had appeared in our time there, I half thought I’d have to write to President Ford to see about getting them on the Endangered Species list.
I was thrilled when after months of either playing alone or sitting watching Perry Mason reruns, Mama announced we’d be starting school two weeks earlier than back home. She said when she went to register us, the superintendent told her it was because of the roofers.
“These men,” he said, taking a puff on his Marlboro, “they cain’t work the tar once the devil has gotten in the wind. The air’ll burn ‘em when it touches them. Tar’ll do worse. Get ‘em in here earlier, I say, and the children don’t got to smell it neither.”


School was my most favorite thing in the entire world. I could barely sleep nights before a test, not from fear, but from excitement, the sheer pleasure of handling the freshly mimeographed pages, smelling their sweet ink in the air and feeling the dampness of the pages, and then looking down the pages at all the questions lined up in rows.
When my old teacher, Mrs. Robinson, assigned us fifth graders a project of selecting a country and then presenting it, most of my classmates showed up with discarded shoeboxes filled with cutouts from their mothers’ Good Housekeeping magazines. I had carefully selected Italy and spent the prior three weeks shaping a dome to mimic the cathedral foyer I read in the section on Caravaggio, holding myself nearly upside down to paint the interior with the cobalt blue I bought over at the Ben Franklin store.
I used gold for the fleur-de-lis I painted on the ceiling, fresh sprigs of rosemary to imitate the decorative bushes in the foyer, and then I rigged Daddy’s leftover tiny, white Christmas lights to look like sconces near the alter. I turned the lights off in the room when I presented my diorama that Friday, and had borrowed my cousin Kyle’s Walkman so I could play Pavarotti singing like he would be in my chapel.
The room was quiet and chilled, even after I turned the lights back on. Nobody in the room would talk to me, not even Mrs. Robinson. Kim Crittenden whispered behind her hand to Christy Whittington and I heard the word brownnoser behind her fingers. I wiped my face, just in case.
It wasn’t the first time the room got quiet after I was done, but I didn’t mind. I was used to sitting by myself at lunch. Sometimes, I’d sit with June Connell, who nobody – not even the girl with purple fingers that everybody teases and says she has lice – would sit with June. But even that tapered off after awhile and I began eating my bologna sandwiches alone while I reread the outside of my Partridge Family lunch box.
Still, I loved school. I loved hearing Mr. Stiles, our principal, announce my name first when he called out the scores for the state tests or every six weeks when report cards came out. Mama would pat my head when I showed her and dig into the back of the freezer for a drumstick ice cream just for me.


Mama took me, Lou Ann, and Amy over to Little Rock to pick out new school dresses. She said, “Hot Springs don’t have nothing that nice girls can wear outside a they front yards. We just have to find the next big town over.”
And Little Rock was the biggest - four Sears, two JC Penney’s, and a full 2-story mall just like they had in the movies with its own Swenson’s and Casa Bonita.
Hours later, we emerged with white crisp bags full of dresses, tights, and slightly-high heeled shoes that tapped like dance shoes while I walked. My favorite dress was the creamy colored one with bright red cherries all over it that Mama found for me hidden in the size 8s. When I turned around to show Mama how I looked, the skirt lifted up and made me look like a ballerina in the mirror. I made sure I carried that bag all around the mall and kept it with me the whole two hour drive home, rather than let it sit in the trunk and get car fumes all over it.
“This year will be different, girls,” Mama said to the three of us. “Won’t it, Grace?”
“Yes, Mama,” I replied happily.
“We’ll get you some friends for sure,” she said more quietly, but she looked in the rear view mirror at me and smiled.
“Yes, Mama,” I replied hesitantly.


The night before school started, I tossed and turned, excited to wear my new dress and use my new supplies. Fresh pencils have such a fine sharpness that makes my signature look even more daring and creative. It irritated me to no end when one broke, especially during a test when I was concentrating hard. Every time, I’d be forced to walk to the back of the class, being watched as I was, listening to the snickering behind the boys’ hands, a slight push as I went by.
One time, right after pep club started, Mama spent the night before making my gorgeous regulation gold puffed sleeved shirt. I had worn it that morning in spite of having a test because there was a pep rally after school. I had gotten up to sharpen my pencil and on my way back, I saw Kim Crittenden whispering to Mark Bailey. Before I could figure out what she was saying, Mark’s foot went right out into my path. I came down hard on the floor. Kim rushed to help, she said later, but instead she jabbed my elbow hard. Normally, it wouldn’t have mattered, but Kim knew I was harboring a large scab under the silky golden fabric, a scab she put there just the week before, a scab that easily came loose, causing blood to ooze out and permanently stain the elbows of the shirt. I sat in my seat, in front of Kim and Mark, making sure to wipe my tears only when I could make it look like I was scratching an itch.
I didn’t want Mama to see the stain after all her hard work so I lied and said I didn’t like pep club afterall and I quit.
I laid in my bed remembering, looking over at the fresh white plastic bag on my new dress. They were going to ruin it, I just knew it. I got up and took it out, pulled it over my sunburnt face. I wanted one chance to wear it before they messed it up.
I stood in front of the mirror, turning from one side to the next, the cherries dancing even in the pale light. I smiled as it shimmered as I turned. But then I saw how my belly pudged out just a little, making me look fat and round. I saw the choppy haircut the girl from the beauty college had given me, taking the shine and bounciness out of my face. I could see the wrinkles under my eyes that had been there since I was a baby, always making me look a little older. I could see what they saw, Kim and all the rest. “No wonder,” I whispered. They had ruined my dress and I hadn’t even worn it yet.
I nearly tore the dress off, leaving it in a crumble on the floor. I fell back into my bed, my fresh pillow now burning against my cheek, fresh tears collecting on the pillowcase. I fell asleep without dreaming about my new crisp folder or my scented notebook paper or my brand new cherry dress.


The next day, Mama made me wear the dress after she picked it up off the floor, “Must have fallen in the night,” she said, dismissing any other possible reason. “None of them kids’ll notice the wrinkles.”
I shuffled through the morning silently, going from the office to get my New Student cards then going to each office to drop them off. When I came to my new sixth grade teacher’s room - Mrs. Hart – she had already started by having the whole class get up individually to introduce ourselves to each other by coming to the front of the class.
When Mrs. Hart leaned over to talk to me, I saw the boys in the class try to look up her dress. She was still young and wore a one-piece mini dress that came just above her knees, just like the girls on Charlie’s Angels. Her Love’s Baby Soft perfume floated around me as she told me quietly to sit in the back row. When she turned back to the class, they all quickly turned their attention to a little shiny-haired girl who talking about her summer at Springdale church camp.
Everyone took turns talking about themselves, and as each one came up, the others would make jokes or say their names in funny ways, the way they had for all the years they had known each other. I was the only one in the room who had not been in kindergarten up until now with the same children.
Mrs. Hart called me to the front and I hesitated. I had never not done something a teacher asked me to do.
“Don’t be shy,” she said warmly. “Everybody here’s your friend.” I figured she must be very young if she believed that.
When I stood at the front of the class, they were all silent, listening intently. I saw the shiny-haired girl, called Savannah, lean in to whisper to the boy named Elmer. When she pulled back, I saw her smile at me.
I started slow, talking about back home and school, but after awhile I forgot where I was and I started telling them all about my piano and Brown Kitty.
When I finished and started to pass by Savannah’s desk to reach mine, my whole body tensed and prepared for the fall. Instead, she reached forward with a fresh pencil, offering me one of hers with butterflies on it. “I like your dress,” she whispered. “I think the butterflies would look nice with them.”
When lunch came, a small group filtered out and crowded around me, asking me one smiling question after another, so curious about this place so far away, farther than they had ever been. A few of the boys looked on with curious gazes; others nodded with seemingly knowing and understanding nods, as if they knew exactly where I was talking about and that we were compatriots in our great travels of the world.
After school, we all clamored together, teasing and tickling as we walked through our new neighborhood. When we came to our house first, Mama seemed surprised but she recovered quickly and asked would “Miss Savannah” like to join us for dinner. She did indeed and went inside to call her mother, who was only too delighted to have one less person for her maid, Elsie, to cook for.
Mama made me change and gave Savannah one of Lou Ann’s old dresses to play in. We ran around my new front yard while Mama cooked dinner and Amy and Lou Ann argued over whose hair was longer. Savannah ran her pudgy fingers through my bob and said, “I like yours better. Looks like an ice skater.” I mentally made a note to see if I could be both a scientist and an ice skater.
Daddy got home and Mama called us in for supper and root beer ice cream, Savannah went back outside in the oncoming dark to wear a new path in our new yard. We pulled out my sisters’ Barbie cases and played with their Wal-Mart dolls, playing fairyland in our bushes.
As the sun dipped below the hang of the trees, three lighting bugs appeared, twinkling under the weeping willow. Excitedly, I pulled Savannah over to watch. I didn’t dare touch them myself, but Savannah easily put out her fingers and let one light on her fingertips. I watched her and then finally did the same.
I peeked inside and watched the lightning bug lighting the inside of my hand, turning it pink. I hadn’t seen one up close since we left Pearl. I smiled, wanting to tickle his belly. As I watched, I saw my lighting bug start to become agitated. I was just about to let him go, when Savannah said, “Wanna see something neat?”
Suddenly, she took a hold of her lightning bug between two fingers and dragged its tail across her shirt, leaving an iridescent trail. She looked at me, smiling, the remnants of her bug in her hand. “See, isn’t it pretty?”
I smiled back weakly, feeling my lightning bug clamoring against the bars of my fingers. I picked him up by his thorax, shaking. Looking at Savannah, I dragged his body against my shirt, leaving a shimmering trail behind. I quickly dropped the remainder and looked down at my belly, all beautiful and lit now, already beginning to fade.
I smiled at Savannah and she returned it, all big and loopy and giddy. She grabbed my hand and off we ran into the bushes, into fairyland.




copyright - All rights to the work posted on this site are retained by Cass Van Gelder. If you'd like to use some of my work, please ask. To do so, the permissions must be spelled out in writing...from me...I mean it. I have mean cats; don't make me use them.

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