Things That Don’t Keep a Lightning Bug Alive
A Storyby Brenden Willey
Last summer before we set out looking for my mother, I let lightning bugs die in jars. I didn’t mean for them to die, they just did. My dad is all the time telling me to get quick to the point, to go way back at the start and tell the long whole thing being a trait I family-inherited. Like how just the other day he was in from work and washing up (he paints houses), and I said, You’ll never guess who I saw today, Dad. I was thinking to tell him of the great horned who sometimes shows herself out of our back woods and who just that afternoon had done so. I saw he was watching me with his listening face so I went on. I was wanting to give him the whole story right up to the surprise of seeing her eyes on me (my dad always calls the great horned a her whether she is or not) and how Harold (that’s our dog) didn’t even bark to scare her away, and I was halfway down the hill (in the story) when my dad said, Who? Who, child? Just tell me who. Which was all of a sudden a pretty good joke, I thought, until my dad’s voice changed, seeing me giggle. Who? my dad said, like a sad hopeful owl. Then I saw, and it wasn’t funny, because it was only the great horned I’d seen. But I acted like it was funny, and said, The great horned! Who, who! And my dad, he acted like it was funny too.
Evenings before the sun sets on our yard the air will go alive with handfuls of lit-up heartbeats, tiny flashes in the dog lot, above the grass, on the road, up into the trees, everywhere. (I might could see calling them fireflies, like I’ve learned some call them, if they didn’t flash how they do, but lightning bug is the better name. My dad agrees.) I got a mason jar whose lid smelled like sweet pickles and I stabbed holes in the lid with my pocketknife, aiming for not too big, and you could see my dents all over from learning how hard I had to come down with the knife. I put the jar on the back porch railing with the lid and chased where they lit, running to where they looked to be heading and waiting for them to show again, getting low to see the dark little blur their wings make on the sky when the sky hasn’t got all the way dark. They don’t sting or bite and they are easy to catch, though be gentle, because I’ve crushed some, or swung too hard with my hand. They go green then forever and make a shooting star to the grass and don’t move and you can see them and feel sorry when you pass with ones more gentle in your hands to put in the jar. At night they flash from my dresser while I watch in bed, like a jar of stars my dad said, or he said, like airplanes you for one second thought were stars. But only at first because if you wake in the night and can’t sleep they’ll be flashing all at once together and how that could happen I don’t know. In the morning almost all the time, especially the first one, they’ll be up on the side of the jar or under the lid and won’t be moving, but they will if you tap on the lid or shake a little. That night they’ll all light like when you first caught them, but only if you switch off the overhead and the lamp and sit in the dark. You can make any sound in the room, it doesn’t matter, or none at all. Once you start finding them down at the bottom they’re dying, you’ve killed them in the jar.
After a while my dad asked me if it didn’t seem a little morally wrong to keep catching lightning bugs in jars, but I asked if they didn’t want to be caught why would they light up? That was a good question, I thought, because I learned in science about nocturnal animals and other things like that that don’t want to be seen and so you don’t never see them, or almost never. Like take for example the great horned, which easily you could go your whole life without ever seeing her, because she’s normally only out at night, and my dad says a great horned makes no sound when she flies or, he says, maybe that’s all owls? I see her on a tree branch over the back shed, looking at me and Harold wagging his tail, quiet as my dad says her wings are at night because his tail’s not beating my side, only air. She looks right at us and doesn’t move, all but her head. Far away she is like a giant moth up close, something to see. My dad says me and Harold will only ever see her because she wants us to see her, but why she does we both of us, my dad and me, wonder. My dad says he heard somewhere but can’t specifically remember how it was a sign or omen to be let to see an owl, meaning it had a meaning to see her. It was not the obvious one, I didn’t ask (I also didn’t tell my dad I hoped it would be the obvious one). But my dad says the meaning would never be simple or easy to understand, if it had one at all. Whether it does, Harold knows not to bark while we look at her letting us. I know he sees because he sees everything before I do, being a dog and a good one, the best. (Really he is. We took him one time sick to the vet, and the vet, he is about grandpa age, cried to tell us how Harold was. And the vet, he doesn’t usually cry. But my dad says that is Harold, who spent days and nights at the vet and cost more money than my dad ever spent on a dog in all his thirty-one years, and chewed his pills my mom made me feed him like they were regular good food, and is really the best.) He is always with me outside so I know how to know when he sees and doesn’t. He saw and didn’t bark, but I guess if he did bark the owl might would’ve flown and we’d have gotten to see how you can’t hear when she does. Instead we got to see her longer because she let us, which I guess is better.
I asked my dad over again about lightning bugs wanting to be caught because we both of us, my dad and me, couldn’t never answer if a lightning bug lit up because it wanted you to see, or because it wanted something to? Because if it didn’t want you to, why would it? If maybe it couldn’t help it (what my dad says, only guessing) then why couldn’t it? Or if something else makes it, what does? Why would something make it when it doesn’t want to? My dad said seeing as how I was so curious I ought to look for answers in a book, which he says he is not a book himself. He says sometimes asking too many questions might take the magic out of a thing. I got him to say he’d take me to the Kernersville Library, where I could go sometimes if my mom had dry cleaning or her or our medicines at Pinnix to get. But the library closes not long after my dad gets home from working all day, when he’s tired and wants us to eat the food he’s brought with him while it’s still warm in the styrofoam. Our school library, where I tried on my own, didn’t have a book to give me the answer in. One thing I did learn is Mrs. Jeffries the librarian is not so mean toward me as before (she is mean toward everyone, not just me, and still is), though now she is a little babying, saying she was thinking it wasn’t too long since my mom and even my dad were coming to our school, and now here I was asking young man questions, so she said she’d try to help me find young man answers, which really she didn’t, even though she did try. She was sorry to tell me there were no books she had on lightning bugs but she showed me to a part of one on what are called natural defenses. I learned already about natural defenses without knowing the word and so did Harold. Harold learned the hard way a while ago from a skunk and had to be bathed by me and my dad in tomato juice while none of us, me, my dad, and Harold, couldn’t hardly breathe. A skunk has stink for a natural defense is what Harold learned and what me and my dad already knew. Only my dad knew about the tomato juice. The tomato juice only sort of worked, so Harold was stinking for a while with me outside. Other things will bite you (like Harold could but wouldn’t ever) or sting you or poison you or have horns or turn colors or just run fast. My dad says fight or flight is what people do, and he says he was fight and my mother was flight and we can’t know yet about me. But I think thinking is mine, something I do a lot of, if it can be one. (You wouldn’t have thought either that fight was my dad’s more than my mom’s, but to think flight for her now, like my dad says, it’s no denying.) A lightning bug does not seem to have one. I can’t see how lighting up in the otherwise dark could be much in the way of a natural defense, though it was nice for Mrs. Jeffries to show me that part of the book. It seems more like a Here I Am, Come and Get Me, to anything bigger than it is. My dad says he knows that to be true because how else could a little doodle head like me catch and kill so many as to clear our whole backyard, though I know he knows it was fall did that, and besides, which ones I did kill I never meant to and told him so.
I don’t know what keeps a lightning bug alive in a jar on the dresser or anywhere. I poked holes in the lid, a good many, right from the start. When the first ones died I thought to poke more holes and did, but more holes didn’t make any difference. That was the first I tried, air. I tried grass and leaves with the twigs on them and with no twigs and just twigs and pine needles, all places you’ll see a lightning bug on when you haven’t caught it yet. I tried crabgrass and clover, even one four-leaf clover I found for good luck, but good luck didn’t matter, they died. My mason-jar bug jar started to smell like lightning bug, or I thought that was the smell it started to have. Have you ever smelled one to know if it was or wasn’t? I tried a new jar. I made a list called Things That Don’t Keep a Lightning Bug Alive. I have it in my room to add to this summer if I decide to, which, I don’t know yet. The list says, Amount of holes in the lid; Air; Leaves—red maple, sugar maple, sweet gum, black gum, pin oak, poplar, magnolia, maidenhair?, ivy; Twigs; Pine needle; Cypress needle; Grass—crabgrass, crowngrass, and broom sedge; Clover—regular, and one four leaf; Clover flower; Dandelion fluff—not blown; Bark—same trees as leaves; Magnolia cone; Pine cone; Cypress ball; Tomato vine; Wild onion; Wild mint; Dirt; Beggar lice; Fertilizer; Rocks; Being inside; Being inside in a different place; Being outside (in the jar); Being alone; Being in a group; Dead lightning bugs; Watermelon chunk; Watermelon chunk; Watermelon rind; Apple; Magnolia flower; Butterfly; June bug; Black-eyed Susan; Honeysuckle; Honeybee; Ants; Wolf spider; Water; Pepsi; Pee; Dog hair; Spit.
Maidenhair is some name for a tree, but my dad says it’s the name of it. What worked best was watermelon chunk, not because they stood on it or crawled or ate it. I don’t know why. They lived longer by, I counted, two days, all three times, but still they died, even with watermelon. My dad guesses it was maybe the moisture of the slice, whereas with just water maybe they drowned in it. With water, it’s hard to tell whether they died first or after they got in. All you see is they’re floating. (They didn’t last long with Pepsi or with the other my dad tells me I should be embarrassed to mention.) I tried more than one of Being Inside in a Different Place. In my room on the dresser was first and what I came back to once I saw it wasn’t my room especially made them dead in the jar. I tried in the kitchen on the counter the other side from the stove. I didn’t want them too hot, in case my dad used it. I tried the screened-in sleeping porch once before I tried all the way outside. The screened-in sleeping porch is what my dad calls it, though no one sleeps there ever, except for Harold in a snow, except for me one time playing hooky, with my head ducked low when I heard the bus coming, then stop (it squeals when it stops, so you always know what it is) up by our mailbox. Not even Harold sleeps there anymore after he jumped through the screen, going to do what my dad calls his personal business out in our woods. It showed how good Harold is, not wanting to do his business on our porch, which my dad agreed, but he still told Harold, From now on, snow or not, you are literally in the doghouse. (Playing hooky by the way is not worth it when you can’t go outside because you’re not sick or in school. TV all day is just talk shows and soaps and Harold doesn’t like to come inside, though he will if you tell him to. He’s not supposed to, either, but no one but us, me and Harold, will know, because it’s just my dad coming home, not my mom, and my dad won’t smell the air like her, saying does it smell like dog in here? and look at you like, I dare you not to be truthful.) The other two Being Inside in a Different Place I tried was in the car and the Myrtle Beach Days Inn. I would never have thought to, but I had some lightning bugs in my jar when my dad put my extra shorts and my white pants and a shirt with a collar (it was red with green stripes) into my book bag (both of us forgetting my underwear or socks), saying, Get what else you need for a couple days, then heap up an extra food dish and fill Harold’s water, we’re going to find your mother.
What else I needed besides the underwear and socks we didn’t remember was my toothbrush and toothpaste and my Hardy Boys The Tower Treasure that I was halfway through. (Frank, my favorite, who’s dark-haired like my dad and me are and is the smarter one I think, and his brother Joe, are looking for treasure they know’s been stolen and hidden in a tower, but what they don’t know is it’s two towers and they are looking in the wrong one.) What else I needed too was my Encyclopedia Brown The Case of the Exploding Plumbing, which, it’s obvious why I was going to read that one. (Honestly it’s not enough plumbing exploding in the book, a disappointment, which my dad agreed. It’s just one toilet that gets exploded by accident. It’s not even full or anything real awful. Nobody was even sitting on it, my dad said. Or cleaning it up, he said, real close and face first, or using a plunger. He said nobody was wounded or trapped by the debris, no old people or children or animals were harmed. He said if he wrote the books little doo-doo sniffers like me would have no sides left to split.) I read both books in the car so should’ve brought three, but my dad liked hearing the Encyclopedia Brown aloud, to see could he solve the cases himself. He said right off, the toilet exploder and smasher of junk was Alice the other junk seller (that was her name I think), saying how you going to give old Willard and his junk a ride to the junk sale, with all his boxes and crates, when your own junk has done filled the car? Same as Encyclopedia himself figured it. Our own car where my dad and me rode on the highway, shouting over the windows down, had spare room to add an extra somebody and some of her boxes and crates on top of that too. He had me read him “The Case of the Exploding Plumbing” first, though it was near the back of the book, because he agreed it had the most eye-catching title. He said solving the first one right off had got his confidence up, but he didn’t agree with how Encyclopedia solved “The Case of the Missing Elephant,” the second one I read him, going back to the start. He said if the owner of a living creature leaves the creature with you and always knows where it is to come and get back, then it’s yours once you’ve housed it and fed it for seventeen years. Encyclopedia didn’t think of that because he was too young to ever have housed or fed anything, my dad said. He liked “The Case of the Worn-Out Sayings,” because he said if there was a prize for the most worn-out saying he knew some people, my mother included, who would win it going away. He said though it could be what sayings are worn-out in North Carolina might not be worn-out in Alaska (where the contest was), and the other way around. He said how would he know, because he’d never been to Alaska and didn’t expect he ever would be. He said Myrtle Beach, SC, is about as far as he ever seems to get.
My dad said this would be my second time to the ocean and Myrtle Beach both, my first that I don’t remember being when he said I was a bottle-fed grub filling my rubber shorts on his and my mom’s beach-trip honeymoon. He said the water back then was cold cold, winter being when he and my mom could afford it. He said cold or not I was grinning whenever he dipped me in, which he said was more than some people could manage. When we saw the sign Smiling Faces, Beautiful Places, Welcome to South Carolina, my dad said seeing was believing so we’d believe it when we saw it, then he cursed and said he’d forgotten our swim shorts. The next sign was Welcome to Marlboro County, Historic Towns, Southern Charm, Rich Agriculture, and my dad said he thought it best to mistrust people who kept patting themselves on the back. At Entering Brightsville, he said, Do you see what I mean? Passing the Marlboro Country Club, he said he guessed we’d found the rich agriculture but he didn’t guess we ought to wait and find the charm. When the road just went and went, straight and long and flat on all sides either direction, he asked did I think this right here was where the towns had been, historically? He said he thought historical towns looked to be a trick of phrasing. When we passed the Pee Dee Church, he said, Don’t you say anything, those folks can have a church for whatever they please.
When we went in the ocean, I went right in in my (I didn’t know yet) only underwear (a step up, my dad says, from the first time when I was naked as a grub and my grub was too), and because I’m too small to go far in the hard waves by myself, my dad wore his whole shorts (though stripped his belt in the sand), because he says ending up in jail in Myrtle Beach, SC, is the last thing anybody needs, especially if while you’re at it it entails getting arrested in just the fruits of your loom. The best thing of being in the ocean is sitting on your dad’s shoulders while tall waves come high as your chest. The worst is water stinging your nose or throat or eyes, though my dad doesn’t mind as much as me when we’re both of us teary from it, and so he can hold me high while his head goes under. When you swim in the ocean you leave sand in the bathtub, much more than makes sense you had on you when you got in. I had about brought the whole beach with me, my dad said, rinsing it. He said it was fine to wear my white pants, telling me to watch I just minded the zipper, while my only underwear dried on the sink.
I don’t know if the beach is a good place for lightning bugs. I was going to bring them but my dad said it was too hot in the sun, so I set them under the shade of our dashboard. They were living when we left them and living when we came back, and my dad was right, because even in shade with the windows down the jar glass was warm to my coming-back hand. They lived on the dresser in the Myrtle Beach Days Inn, which my dad calls a funny name for a place you only want to be nights. They lived there on the dresser for one night and a little of two days, and they lived on the table of the Days Inn restaurant for dinner, then breakfast, and they lived in the car, like I said already, but my dad says, and is right, you have to leave them in one spot if you’re really trying Being Inside in a Different Place, and not Being Inside in All Kind of Places. I watched them instead of the Braves my dad turned on while he went to the lobby for extra towels but came back with none, telling me enough was enough and to put on my collared nice shirt. He didn’t mean enough was enough of my white pants and chicken chest, or enough was enough of my watching my jar. He meant that my mom didn’t want us to see her but we were anyway going to try. (It seemed like finding my mom, like he said we were doing, wasn’t going to take any finding, more like he had been knowing already where she was, a surprise even knowing my dad could be Encyclopedia Brown–type smart.) He said I could take my lightning bugs or leave them, they’d be all right either way I wanted, so I took them back to the car, because some of mine had never lasted that long and some longer and I was wanting to see would they live or what in the jar.
Where my mom was wasn’t never far from the Myrtle Beach Days Inn. On a worn-out-looking street past a One Stop and a Piggly Wiggly were buildings like the smaller motels we passed coming there and going back home, where my dad said I could see how my lightning bugs thought about roaches. (I haven’t never tried a roach yet, though him saying that gave me the idea to try spiders and ants and other bugs I could catch, which I didn’t never really think would work for keeping my lightning bugs alive, and didn’t.) He was asking me lots of questions about what all did I have in there in the jar, like did I get my magnolia cone from which down-the-road-neighbor’s yard, old Miss Trixie, or the Whickers, or the Knights at the corner (I told him old Miss Trixie), and what kind of grass was it I had picked this time (I told him regular), and telling me it’s no kind of grass called regular grass, and what I had was probably broom sedge or rye grass, he’d have to check and see, when, like Harold and me and the great horned on the branch over the shed, I knew my dad was seeing the blue Pontiac 2000, just like I was seeing it, in front of one of the apartment motel’s doors. He didn’t drive us right up to it but stopped us and shut the lights and motor where we could just sit and see the car. It’s not like my mom’s was the only blue Pontiac 2000 ever made or that I had ever seen, but it’s a feeling you get when it’s your mom’s or your dad’s car, or somebody you know’s, and I was having that feeling right then and knew my dad was too. He didn’t ask any more about what was there in the jar, but I looked at my lightning bugs crawling, probably from being moved by me and bounced by the car (which my dad says it doesn’t bounce, it is bounced, it’s old but not that old). With driving all the way from our house and swimming in the ocean and bathing off our sand and eating in the Days Inn restaurant, it had got to be nighttime and they were just starting to light, some of them, a good sign they won’t be killed on the jar bottom whenever you wake up.
I said to my dad that yes I knew he won’t never lie to me when he asked did I know that he won’t. I said to him yes I understood it when he said my mother does not want us to come make her see us, and so to not at first expect her to be happy whenever she opened the door. He looked for me to say so, that I understood, and I said yes I did. I said I am ready when he asked if I was, because I was and I wasn’t but wanted to be. He asked was I sure and I said I am. He turned the car back on, and the lights, and drove us up to a spot right by her car, on my side, and shut the lights off again. He said we were not trying to sneak up on anybody. I said I’d wait there in the car with the window down and my jar when he asked did I want to wait here, or come with him to the door. He said what we both of us, my dad and me, saw, that there didn’t look to be any lights on, down this part of the building. At her door, or what door was in front of the car (her car), he knocked and looked straight ahead. I knew it first got longer, then shorter between his knockings, because without meaning to I was counting the flashes in my jar. First I think was eleven, then fifteen, then all the way past thirty, a long time if you know the time between flashes, which I saw him look back at the end of, to see was I watching (I was), the only time he did, then it was ten, then seven, then two, when he was loud with his hand on the door, saying come look at him you chickenshit, and I knew him was me. In front of me the window by the door went light, then dark, and I thought it was her, but only a minute, because right after it went back off, the light over the next door went on, and I knew it meant the window was that door’s window and the light was that door’s light, not hers. I saw my dad look back from seeing the light too and kick the door with a big sound.
The man in the door whose light it was saw him do it. He was short and older in a loud shirt with a gut. After talking a lot and pointing at me, and the older man looking but not nodding or shaking or anything his head, my dad came and leaned in at the driver’s side window and asked me what did I think? Because Terrance (the man’s name, which my dad says wasn’t the right one for a pardon our French shit-brained asshole, and should have been Steve or Travis or Kyle) was over there saying he’d call the police if we didn’t leave, no matter how much my dad failed to be able to reason with him. He said he (my dad) didn’t want me to think he was giving up or quitting or afraid to fail to talk reason, to the police or whoever, if it would get my mother to open her door and look us two in the face. But he said, one, he couldn’t say for sure she was there in the first place, she might have gone out dancing all he knew (which he said he was sorry, it was no time to be saying a thing like that). And he said, two, he couldn’t tell me, if the police did come, what they would do, if they would throw him in jail or what. And he said if they did throw him in jail, he didn’t know what would happen then. He said if they took him in, it could be they’d make her hold on to me, until what time they let him out, which, then I’d be able to see her awhile, when she couldn’t say no. He said to just tell him what I needed was him to keep trying and he was willing to do all that, and would do it. But I told him what we both of us, my dad and me, already knew, which is ending up in jail in Myrtle Beach, SC, is the last thing anybody needs, in just the fruits of your loom or not. Even though wanting to see her was maybe the main feeling I had, the other feeling I don’t know how to say was, if she was home and not opening the door to see us when we were outside it asking her to, then making her keep me, just me and her, I did not want that.
My dad said I had come all this way I should at least see the boardwalk, and did I want to ride a thing called the Corkscrew at the Pavilion, a roller coaster we got last-minute worried about, until we saw I was tall enough by one inch, and let it corkscrew us all around, with me trying not to scream, but doing it anyway, and my dad screaming with me, so then we both of us would be and it wouldn’t matter. Afterward, my dad said he was glad we’d left the lightning bugs in the car, there was just no way they’d have been tall enough to ride and wouldn’t that have been disappointing. At the Haunted Inn we both of us stared up at a giant skeleton face, high as a great horned in a tree and huge, its eyes flashing at us scary red, while big finger bones hung and tapped from the windows. When the man out front asked did we want to come inside, my dad told him no thanks, we’d already got one of our own. When I asked how come they called it a boardwalk when it was just regular sidewalks and streets, my dad said because a boardwalk is just what people who need excitement come to the beach to do. He said, now that he thought of it this wasn’t called the boardwalk at all, it was what people called the strip. He said that sounded more like a command than a place, didn’t I think? He said maybe it was the ocean brought that to mind. But when we saw signs and T-shirts saying Grand Strand, Myrtle Beach he told me to just never mind all that from before, the Grand Strand was where we’d been this whole time.
Glad as I am to’ve seen the boardwalk or strip or Grand Strand and get corkscrewed at the Pavilion after coming all that way, when my dad asked how about a movie on the TV back at the room, I nodded my head right off, because where we were was crowded every which way with people and faces, and with French fry, cotton candy, fried-nut smells, and too much different music. But we didn’t neither of us, my dad and me, walk fast for our car, watching people like we both of us were, groups of faces laughing and eating and talking and yelling and even babies screaming too. We didn’t do a movie on the TV back at the room, my dad saying he had turned out to be tireder than he thought and me agreeing I was too, hoping to sleep before he started in snoring, which even though first I watched my jar go light, then dark on the dresser for a good while I still somehow managed to do.
Our Myrtle Beach morning was a big plate of free French toast in the Days Inn restaurant, for me being twelve and under, which my dad finished with his side of hash browns and two fried eggs (runny how I don’t like them, my mom too). Then I in my dry underwear hand-washed in the Days Inn sink, my lightning bugs still living in the jar, climbed in with my dad to drive us home. My dad said first we had to wiggle our piggies and get us a water jug for the road, which we did, the Piggly Wiggly looking just barely open on our Myrtle Beach morning, with just one white-haired old man too friendly at the register, and hardly any but us in the aisles except two women who you could see they were too old before you even saw their faces. My dad said it looked like Myrtle Beach got its daily bread after church, not before it. At the parking lot exit we both of us, my dad and me, saw the turn down her road of apartment motels, the road that way looking why my dad said it bounced, not us. My dad asked did I get the impression Terrance Travis Kyle was a morning person or not a morning person? Not a morning person is what I told him, though really Terrance Travis Kyle didn’t seem like he was a nighttime person either.
On the seat between us was our stack of Myrtle Beach brochures from the Days Inn front desk, and while I took the Grand Strand Amusement Park and spread out its big white coaster, my dad took the turn for the highway home. When he saw the picture, big across four folds, he read the name out loud (The Legendary Swamp Fox Coaster since 1966), saying forget the Pavilion, the legendary Swamp Fox at the Grand Strand Amusement Park had our names right on it. We’d know where to go, he said, the next time we came.
On the drive this time, I tried reading my Hardy Boys The Tower Treasure, which I knew how it ended, to my dad, who didn’t, and wouldn’t know there was a second tower where the treasure all along was, and might solve it himself, like with my Encyclopedia Brown “The Case of the Exploding Plumbing.” But reading it started hurting my stomach, so we I-spied awhile and talked over the windows down of what all I had tried in my jar until then, my dad giving me good ideas like liquid and flowers and fruit. I know it wasn’t nothing like there being two towers and one false one where we, my dad and me, were knocking at the door. This is my own real life, not a Hardy Boys mystery book. My dad found her whatever way he did, and there was her car, and that’s where she was living and not wanting us to find her, or not wanting us to see her at least. (I know it was never another apartment where she really was and we only went to the wrong one, for reasons I wrote in a list, like with my lightning bugs, but threw away. The reasons were: One, my dad says so. Two, I saw her car. Three, her neighbor. Her neighbor didn’t say to wait just a minute here, because whoever lived beside him was not your boy’s mom, because whoever lived beside him was his mom, Terrance Travis Kyle’s, who was already asleep and real, real old and too deaf anyway to hear you knock, like old Miss Trixie is. He didn’t say he knew it was nobody’s mother, because it’s a man lived there and the man wasn’t home, because he sold junk Saturday nights like Willard in Encyclopedia Brown wanted to. I know it was just the one apartment, with her inside, that my dad found whatever way he did, where she when we knocked didn’t answer us.)
But my dad says what I ought maybe to do is try and pretend. He says instead of being as (pardon our French) chicken-shitted as a two-mile henhouse—a saying he says wouldn’t win prize money for being worn-out, in Alaska or anywhere, a saying he says is so fresh you can smell it—he says, instead of that, let’s act like what happened, not to tell anybody but just ourselves, is she opened the door when we knocked. He says my mom even invited us in, into her living room. She had a couch we, my dad and me, sat on, waiting while my mom went to the kitchen and split us a can of Pepsi three ways and opened a bag of Cheese Doodles (my favorite) and turned off the TV where she was probably watching Dynasty before we came knocking. My mom’s kitchen table only had the one chair for herself, and she sat it across from us and sat down, and told us she was glad we’d come, because she said she’d been wanting to tell us why she’d left, because she said we both of us, my dad and me, we deserved to hear why she had. We even had to tell my mom thank you because we’d been wanting to hear it, and then she did it, my mom, she told us. He says she even looked at us both clear in the eye and smiled, and we even smiled back because we neither of us hadn’t ever expected to understand why my mom could do a thing like what she’d done to us, at least he hadn’t never expected, but there she was, telling us, and there we were, understanding her. He says the thing she was telling us, and the thing we had to keep on understanding, was that her reasons didn’t involve either of us two. He says well they were liable to involve him somewhat, at least that’s what he’d been thinking and what he understood my mom to be telling us, while we were sipping our Pepsis and I was eating near to her whole bag of Cheese Doodles and turning my fingers orange until they looked like Cheese Doodles themselves. But the reasons, he says, definitely didn’t involve me, that was the big thing he says he and I both understood while my mom was talking. He says afterwards she took our cups we’d emptied, and we knew my mom didn’t want any hugging or anything so we all just smiled again, and then me and him went back to our car and didn’t for a while say anything to each other at all. My dad says he thinks that was about the best thing could have happened, even though it was never what we both of us were wishing for when he went up and knocked on my mom’s door. He says to try and think of it like that and to keep trying for a while, and I do, I have been. (We have some pictures, a high school one, and some wedding ones, where the pastor is holding me up like I’m supposed to be giving them rings, when it’s no way I could have, looking how my dad called me a grub. So I can remember her face, and how she looked smiling, a little like me, like people stopped saying.) What I know is it’s never anyplace I’d want to live in, in an apartment motel on a worn-out street in Myrtle Beach, SC, with loud-shirted Terrance Travis Kyle for a neighbor, instead of down the road old Miss Trixie or Mr. Wallace. They don’t mind Harold and me ever being in their woods or crossing their yards if we need to, and old Miss Trixie will give you tea or a can of peaches if you rake her leaves or clean up her magnolia cones, and Mr. Wallace doesn’t never talk to you and is wetter than a rainbow trout, my dad says, but he waves so you know you’re fine doing what you’re doing. Here we have woods and a yard out back to run in and we have a whole house, which it’s not the nicest house I ever saw, with a laid-over porch rail my dad is all the time saying one of these weekends when he’s not wore out him and me are going to fix. But it’s not a Myrtle Beach apartment motel looking not as nice as the Days Inn even, where the joke is you only want to spend nights. Here you can spend all day like me and Harold do, which reminds me of the big ones. Here has all that, plus Harold, plus me.
My dad said I was putting everything in my mason-jar bug jar willy-nilly all together and maybe what I should try was one thing at a time in isolation. But me, I think it’s everything willy-nilly all together outside the jar, where lightning bugs seem to be living just fine, to fly and flash over our yard and trees. I think maybe it’s just the jar and lid that kills them dead. They warn you about one day ahead when they stop lighting up, no matter how dark you make where they are. You can take off the lid then but most of them just keep there inside, crawling around or just sitting on a leaf or twig or wherever, until you find them later dead at the bottom. Some that stopped lighting might climb toward where the lid’s gone, and some that climb there will fly. They don’t light anymore, so it’s hard to follow, and when I try, they bring me to notice all the rest of them who are lighting, on the ground or air, all over. Seeing the lighting ones, I lose the ones that flew the jar, and then it’s no way to ever see and find them, the ones that stopped, it’s no way for them to even let me see.
When we crossed the Little Pee Dee River, my dad asked how in the world did we ever miss the Little Pee Dee on our way down. He stopped behind a roadside truck with watermelons pyramiding from out the bed, which he called the spur of the moment, and he taught me how to knock them with my knuckles and listen, and look has the stem browned or withered, while the man in his tailgate chair watched us, his belly looking like he’d swallowed one whole or had one stuck under his shirt, a big one. The man said he bet seeing us boys come home with our arms full would sure tickle our parents, and my dad asked me, grinning, if I thought that was true, little brother, did I think Mom and Dad would like some of these here melons? We cut ours open right on our trunk with my dad’s pocketknife and he handed over big whole chunks he broke off, so sweet and juicy, like you didn’t know how thirsty you were until you took a bite. (I already said how my lightning-bug watermelon try ended, which was these Myrtle Beach road-trip lightning bugs lived two more whole days after I put a chunk in, longer than any others I kept alive in the jar until then or after.) When we’d eaten almost a half of it my dad went and bought a second and put them on the seats behind us and strapped them in with seatbelts. We washed the sticky off us with our Piggly Wiggly water jug and my dad said he guessed they could sure grow watermelons down here but let’s us act like we got them up over the good side of the state line for our own peace of mind.
The sign this way was little, saying just Marlboro County, which my dad said looked like Marlboro County didn’t give their fellow statesmen quite the welcome it gave us but could we see as we blamed them? At the Pee Dee Church, crowded with cars in the lot and cars down the roadside so we had to slow down passing them, my dad said on second thought I could give them my best shot, it looked like they could take it. When we passed their cemetery, he said he guessed those folks were pee dee dead. He said he’d still seen nothing in his travels along this road to suggest Brightsville for an appropriate name. Going past the Marlboro Country Club and the arrow left for Naked Creek and the Great Pee Dee River Basin, he didn’t say anything and neither did I. Our sign at the border just said Welcome to North Carolina, State Line, Richmond Co., my dad calling out over the windows down that that was right, South Carolina, up here we don’t make promises we can’t keep. He said we weren’t but a couple hours from home and Harold had no idea we were coming and what did I imagine he would be doing without us? But what Harold was doing was something I didn’t ever have to imagine, or pretend to know, because I could just see him and knew he was waiting for us on the porch, just off from our front door, with his black face laid on his paws, the hair gray around his whiskers and mouth, and only his eyes opening and sometimes moving to look after something he hears, and when the something he hears is the sound of our car first hitting our gravel, he is up and running to meet us, with his mouth open and his big tongue flapping out like happy, happy, happy, and his tail hitting us so hard we both of us, my dad and me, act like nothing has ever hurt us worse.