You Oughtta See One Burn
I feel like maybe I could point out all the broken parts of my soul like crosses in a roadside ditch. Around here folks don’t say a girl is on meth. They say she has the jitters. I haven’t had the jitters for a few years now, but my mouth still does this thing like a snapping turtle. Sometimes my brain tells me stories. Stories are justifications, yellow blossoms against stark fabric. Nothing else feels like yellow.
The evenings are the longest, so I find ways to fill them. An evening is a rain bucket. Only joy is rain.
I used to stay with an old lady named Mabel every night. Her kids paid me ten bucks to bring her milk and fig newtons when she cried out in her sleep. When the lightning struck, her knees and elbows ached, and I stroked the tops of her hands. She told her family that I was nothing but a piece of shit. That girl is lazy bones, she’d say, but, at night, she asked me to stay beside her. I had her cross her arms over her chest and I spooned her, listening to her hum, feeling her shake.
An evening demands attention. After it storms, the frogs come out onto the asphalt. They want to taste the last bit of sun. I like to leave my porch and line them up in a row.“Stay there, stay there,” I whisper angrily. They are motionless in my palm, uncertain when I set them down. I can get four or five stick-straight before the air thickens so much it chokes and the dog or a car with too-bright headlights scares them off, scattered marbles across the pavement.
Brant just wants to hold a frog in his mouth for a minute, he says. Just for a little bit. He wouldn’t smoosh it. He is my good baby boy, a black lab who likes to eat rotting tomatoes from the garden. I once kept a bunch of caterpillars in the basement, wanting to see them evolve into butterflies, and Brant found one that had escaped. He picked it up lightly with his teeth and tossed it onto my stomach while I was reading. The caterpillar was perfectly fine, still inching and swirling, just a little wet with slobber. Baby Boy knew I would want to return it to its bed of leaves.
Mabel used to let caterpillars crawl along her arms.
“They’re measuring me,” she’d say.
I helped Mabel walk around the room when she couldn’t sleep. She’d take each step like she was avoiding spiderwebs. I spread her covers flat to keep the heat in so she would be warm when she was ready to return to bed. I held her up as she pointed to pictures on the wall. She would ask me if I took a picture, the one of her mother.
“No, Mabel,” I’d remind her. “You put that one away yourself. You said you didn’t want to see it.” One night Mabel flipped over and reached for me. Her eyes were wide open. She called me God.
I’ll save caterpillars, but I’ll kill all the ticks I can. The only way to really kill a tick is with a lighter. You can try smashing them, but they have such tight little bodies that safely flatten between your fingers. You can try drowning them, but they find their way back. They have a taste for you and won’t stop. So you pick a tick and put it on a metal table and take a lighter to it. You oughtta see one burn! It goes up real fast and just as quick leaves a small black speck. Sometimes I’ll sit and pick ticks off of Brant and me, the primate I am, through the long hours of the evening. Pick and burn. Pick and burn.
Then other nights I wait till the sun is just starting to set and hook up my speaker to the back porch. I find owl mating calls online and play them loudly into the woods. All the owls light on the branches around me. They call back to the speaker and call to each other. Their mating cries are strange, like the cries of chimpanzees. This is their private ceremony, and I am lost in their terrible noise.
Brant ignores the owls, bites at his feet or licks the cat’s butt till I am ready to go inside.
Then there are the nights when my hands won’t cooperate, and Brant takes off to chase the neighbor’s dog or to dig a new hole or to find a new path, his body like a prayer. My mind tells me story after story. All I can do is crumple the edge of my shirt and snap my mouth and watch the dark leaves shake till morning.
While the sun rose, I washed Mabel’s hair and combed it till it shone. The light from the window would glisten against the long gray strands. She told me about making pies and how to get the crust just right, to keep the butter cold. She said I should keep an osage orange under my bed. Mabel grabbed my hands and told them to hush.
“You’re losing yourself, kid,” she’d say. Tsk, tsk, tsk.
Her kids called me after she died, the week of that terrible flood. They said she had her covers pulled up to her chin and she called out my name.
I wanted to ask which name that was.
Brant sure does like sleeping by the fire, that good baby boy, lined up with his toy rabbit and pink pillow, stay there, stay there, stay there, Baby Boy. I curl up behind him and put my face in his neck, and he doesn’t mind my shaking so much. His fur smells of potato chips and rotten tomatoes. I ask him if I call out in my sleep. Soon the evening light turns pale yellow and is out,like putting out a match, like crosses in a roadside ditch.