J-O-E-Y in the Dark

Close-up of sparklers against blurred background

Close-up of sparklers against blurred background, Getty Images

You could feel the effervescent burns
on your little hand, like incandescent
bubbles from a flaming ginger ale,
as Dad held your wrist,
writing your name in the silver-gold spray
of your first sparklers.
Your eyes would shine in the darkness,
watching the J-O-E-Y form before you,
then seeing the glowing ghost trail
of what would become a shining touchstone
of your childhood’s memories —
the smoky aroma of hotdogs,
of drippy watermelon,
the vinegary sweetness
of Grandma’s German potato salad,
your first taste of beer and
how something barely legal
almost always felt so good.

As I said before, when I was a kid, fireworks were illegal in New York State, though we were allowed to have sparklers. I’m not saying I know this story to be 100% true, but the feelings and images sure as hell are.

Memories Are Fireproof Things

Burning Old Memories by Gerla Brakee

Burning Old Memories by Gerla Brakee

I noticed the smoke coming from the chimney as I turned the corner. Smoke from Eddie’s backyard grill I could understand, but not the thick grey smudge climbing like ivy into the street side oak out front.

I hustled my way to his front door and knocked, Eddie never did give me a key, even if I was his lone living relative. He’d changed the old locks anyway. After my third bout of rapping on the door, its frame and the glass, I heard Eddie call from inside.

“Go ‘way. Nobody home,” he said from the living room. I could see his head poke up from behind Mom’s floral couch, the one she left Eddie and me when we got her house and it contents in her will. I sold Eddie half of my half.

“C’mon, Eddie, open up. What the hell you doing in there,” I shouted through the old mail slot. I could smell smoke coming from within.

From behind the old lace sheer curtains on the door window, I could see the fuzzed up image of my big brother coming my way, feel his stomping tread on the floor all the way out to the front porch. I knew this wasn’t going to be an easy visit.

Eddie unlocked the door, opened it about ten inches against his foot and gave me a look like I was his third Jehovah’s Witness at the door that day. I wasn’t, but I was still mighty interested in my brother’s well-being. It was my job now.

“What the hell do you want? I told you I was busy,” he said.

“I tried calling you to say I was coming over, just to say hi and see how you’re doing. You never answered or returned any of my messages.”

“I been busy. Besides I told you I didn’t want to see you over here. It’s my house now and I’ll decide who to let in,” Eddie said. He started closing the door, not slamming it for a change, but this time it was my foot that braced against its bottom. I gave it a hard push back into the foyer, knocking Eddie back with it.

“God damn it, Charlie, I think you broke my nose,” Eddie said.

“You’re lucky I don’t break your neck,” I said, trying to maintain the self-imposed adult demeanor I’d developed in helping Mom with Eddie, as well as in defending my brother and his issues for most of our lives.

“I got a call from Melody that you’re not speaking with her these days either. What’s going on, man?”

“Nothing that concerns you…or her. Now get the hell out of my house.”

“Still a piece of mine, man. And I want to make sure you’re not destroying that piece. Now what the hell you bring in the fireplace on a 85-degree day in July?” I said.

“I told you. None of your business.”

“I pushed past Eddie in the foyer and strode into the living room, where that smoke I was outside was also clouding the room from the fireplace up to the ceiling.

“One, you shouldn’t be burning anything, at any time. Two, I closed the flue back in April, so that’s why it looks like a fog in here. It’s a wonder you haven’t keeled over from carbon monoxide. Three, open the fucking windows so we can get this smoke out of here so at least I don’t die today. And finally, four, What’re you burning, anyway?” I said.

“None of your business, little brother. None of anybody’s business now.” Eddie said. He pouted and stomped around the first floor opening the windows and back door.

The room looked as neat as ever, Eddie being a fastidious guy, even if sometimes his mind left most of its toys out for us all, mostly Eddie, to trip over. But there in front of the hearth, an old cardboard box stood tipped on its side, piles of old black and white and faded Polaroid photos scattered in an arc along the floor as if they were marching their way into the fireplace.

It was the box of family photos Mom kept on the top shelf in her closet. I hadn’t seen it for years. Never looked in the closet after she died, except to give her clothes to Goodwill. That’s thrown Eddie for a loop, like we were erasing Mom from the place like we erased her from the world by burying her.

“Now what’s the deal, Ed. This isn’t like you at all. It’s okay to go through Mom’s pictures, of course, but what’re yu doing during the damn things? What if I wanted to see them?”

“No.” Eddie’s face turned red and his eyes looked like they would burst into tears at any moment. “You don’t want to see these people anymore. And I really don’t. You don’t know what I do.”

I kind of doubted that, since I was the only member of our family to ever go to college and Eddie, well Eddie went to his school, but no further.

“Talk to me, bro. We’re in this together, right? With Mom gone, we gotta work together to make it through. Now what is it you know that I don’t?”

Eddie picked up four or five more photographs off the pile and tossed them into the shrinking fire. As he picked through some more, I grabbed them from his hand and said, “Stop this. What’s going on?”

He nodded at my hand, in which I now held three photos of Mom and Grandpa, Grandma and Grandpa and one of all of us at some Christmas back I don’t know when.

“There, ya see now?” Eddie said.

“No, just pictures of Mom. Why’d you want to burn pictures of Mom. I’d never expect this shit from you.”

“You don’t get it, do you?” Eddie said and kicked a little book, its cover a faded pink with a rainbow drawn in the lower right of its cover. The top corner read: Missy Bruno. Mom.

“Open it. Open it anywhere and read. I found it in the attic. In a little chest stuck in the corner. You’ll see.”

I could see the pages had been pulled back and the dust freshly smudged by I assume Eddie. I looked at the page that was opened by Eddie’s kick. It read:
D came in agin last night. And he did it agin. I asked him why. He said cause he loves me. But I cant tell M cause she wouldn’t understand and be upset with me. That’s what D said. Confused.

“The whole fucking thing is full of that stuff,” Eddie said, calmer but still angry. “I’d kill that old bastard if I could get my hands on him.”

I finally got it.

“Are there any more of these?”

“Lots. Burned them.”

“They all say the same thing? That Grandpa abused Mom?”

“Yeah, and a lot more.”

“Like what?” I said, not really sure I wanted an answer.

“Like about me. About Grandpa. Him, mom and me. And you.” Eddie said, and then his eyes finally let go, and not from the smoke.

I spent the next few nights with Ed. Got us both settled. And we burned every one of that bastard’s pictures. But memories are fireproof things. Not sure Eddie and I can bury those along with poor Mom.

Here’s the first of my stories for the Story A Day may challenge I crazily accepted the day after I completed Poem A Day April. I may not share them all with you, but I figured I’d give you this first draft (and I mean totally untouched by editorial hand, no time) of a story I was prompted to write in 30 minutes. Just made it. I write fast, but unfortunately these days I think much too slowly. Product of the muck of too many memories, maybe.