|Ellen Birkett Morris
Vera leaned on the old wooden porch railing and looked out past the yard. She wasn't really looking at anything. After all, there wasn't much to see. The yard was littered with toys. A rusty metal swing set sat in the corner of the yard. The swing swayed slightly in the breeze. Its creaking sound goaded her. She needed to take a deep breath and get back inside to the kids. They were, all three of them, crowded into the bath. Just moments ago she had sat on the toilet watching as they lost interest in their wash cloths and reached for the plastic fish in the bottom of the tub. The water turned a dull gray from their accumulated grime. Looking at it, she was reminded of Licking Creek back home. Each spring the water would rise and flood the backyard. When she was eight, she had gotten too close. She was watching a stick carried along by the current, stepped forward and ended up in over her head. The swampy water filled her mouth. Panicked, she flailed her arms and finally broke through the surface. She paddled around until she felt her toes touch solid ground. For days afterward, she marveled at cheating death. She would wrap her arms around herself feeling her cool skin and pointy elbows. I'm still here, she'd whisper to herself. Tonight, seeing her girls chattering in the dirty water, she'd had that panicked feeling again. Vera took a deep breath, coming back to herself. Behind her, the screen door creaked open. "Momma," said her oldest, wrapped in a faded pink towel. Vera turned, wrapped her arms around herself, and sighed. "Yeah baby, I'm still here."
Wednesday Night in Dayton
I smelled the burning grass before I ever saw her. Dad said Nancy was a juvenile delinquent. I thought she was cool, scary cool. She wore her hair long and straight like a Cher. She tossed it back as she laughed. If I thought about her too much it made my stomach jumpy.
She was sitting on the high concrete retaining wall that held the hill in place. If she fell she could skin her knees or bloody her nose. The smoke carried across the street to where I stood hanging on to the stair rail as the sky went dark. Inside families were gathering around their television sets, but the lure of danger was too much to pull me away, even if it meant I might miss the start of the Carol Burnett Show.
Nancy held a long stalk of dry grass in her hand. It was the kind of grass my little sister and I pretended to harvest like the girls from Little House on the Prairie. She may as well have been holding a bomb or a snake. The grass caught fire and burned swiftly. She held onto it until the last minute. The fire was almost to her fingers when she let go. The grass, still ablaze, floated through the air. The flame died before it hit the ground.
She fished a cigarette out of the pocket of her jeans and the streetlight came on. Right there at the corner of Page and Wrocklage, in the glow of the streetlight, she smoked a cigarette. In between puffs she sang the words of a song I'd heard on the radio a few times. Her boldness made me dizzy. I steadied myself and went inside.
Another Goddamn Wednesday night with nothing to do. The street was empty except for some wide-eyed kid across the street watching me, like I was from Mars instead of Dayton. Like I was somebody besides the middle child of Shirley and Stanley Elkin. Like I was dangerous or something.
The concrete was hard under my butt. I'd been sitting on the wall for the last hour hoping Johnny Quarles would ride by on his bike. All I'd seen were cars driven by fathers in business suits. The men parked in the driveways and dragged their weary asses into the house for meatloaf or Tuna Helper. Same old shit.
I could grow my hair out like Janis and wear bell bottoms and listen to my stereo on the loudest setting, but it didn't mean I was in Haight Ashbury or anything. I laughed loudly and saw the kid across the street flinch.
I picked a long stalk of grass and pulled out my purple Bick lighter. Let there be light. The grass burned quick. I dropped it just in time. Give the kid some excitement. I reached for my Pall Malls and lit up.
The streetlamp came up suddenly like a stage light. Me and Jim Morrison on stage together. I took a deep draw of my cigarette, lost in the fantasy. I started to sing, "Honey, get it while you can."
By the time the song was over the kid had gone inside. I stubbed out my cig and took off at a fast walk. If I hurried, I just might make it home for the start of the Carol Burnett Show.