“Mom said we’re not supposed to get out of the truck this time.”
I was already opening the Dodge’s heavy door, slowly as to keep the hinges from groaning.
“I know but I’ve got to pee.” I slid out through the gap then called back through the open window, “I’ll be real quick.”
Behind the truck, Roger’s dusty driveway stretched until it met the even dustier county road. A thick pine scrub grew on both sides of the driveway and I slipped into that prickly refuge for privacy. I squatted behind a cluster of saw palmettos though I could have just gone in the middle of the road: I had never seen any other cars out this far.
Relieved, I crept back to the truck, thinking that I would give Jess a little scare but when I looked in, I saw that she was busy drawing on her foot with a blue pen she had fished out earlier from under the driver’s seat.She did not notice me, so I let her be.
We had already been waiting in the truck for almost half an hour and I was tired of sitting. The sun had begun to sink below the treetops, but the narrow mobile home remained dark; had I not seen my mom go up the metal steps and let herself in, I would have thought that the place was empty. I decided to stretch my legs.
I passed Roger’s truck parked as usual on the right side of the house, its tailgate missing and a large rusty dent next to the gas tank door. Jess and I had been in the truck only once. Roger had come into town and picked us up in front of the Kmart. He took us downtown for ice cream: Superman for me and Jess, pistachio for himself, strawberry for our mom. Jess and I kept checking each other’s tongue: is it blue, it’s red, is it blue, no, it’s purple, is it blue, yes, wow, it is blue, like really blue. We walked back towards the truck but when we got to the county courthouse, Roger pulled out his cracked leather wallet. He gave us each a handful of pennies so we could make wishes in the lopsided brick fountain. Our mom protested and told us to give them all back except one.
“You can’t make more than one wish at a time,” said our mom. “It’s unlucky.”
We poured the coins back into Roger’s hands.
“Says who?” Roger asked, winking at us. “We make our own luck, right? Here,” he said, trading our last pennies for quarters. “Let’s push our luck. I wonder, do you even have twenty-five wishes?”
Jess and I nodded. I was pretty certain I knew Jess’: Appaloosa, Tennessee Walking Horse, Pintabian, Paso Fino- twenty-four different horse breeds and a stable to house them all. As for myself, I could only think of a pair of white leather sneakers I wanted, just like Amanda Richards’, and a new backpack for school. I wanted to think of something more daring, more significant, but since they were waiting for me, I just tossed the quarter into the shallow water, short of desire. Jess and I watched the coins sink to the bottom where copper and silver laid upon each other like fish scales. I had an impulse to reach into the cold water and snatch them back out- quarters were hard to come by.
The shadows stretched out long and skinny over the backyard. I made my way towards the aluminum storage shed that doubled as a workshop, curious about the progress Roger had made on the motorcycle he was rebuilding. It had been a few months since we’d been up to see him so I expected he was almost finished. He had bought the motorcycle from a friend at work; a pile of metal that would become an Indian Chief when he was finished with it. Once our mom deemed it roadworthy, Jess and I would get to ride on the back. He showed us a picture of what it had looked like, black with red detailing, curvy and strong. Jess said it reminded her of a horse and everyone laughed, except her.
The backyard had been taken over by weeds: red sorrel, thorny bull thistle, yellow dandelions, sprawling spurge, but most noticeably a swath of y-shaped bahia grass stalks with their tiny flea-like seeds ready to cling to anything that passed, especially the white socks I wore pulled up high just under my knees.
I had just made it to the shed’s sun-splintered ramp when I heard the faint sound of maracas, muffled but distinct. The sound was coming from under my feet. My dad had said that if you heard the rattle it was too late. The only thing to do, he said, was to freeze so the creature would feel the threat had passed and they could escape without a fight. So, I stood rigid, playing a game of statues gone awry. I tried to slow my breathing, tried to stop my heart from pounding out of my chest. Nothing existed beyond that moment; every detail around me was magnified. Overhead, a red-tailed hawk lazily patrolled the cloudless sky. The wind blew, stirring the long emerald green pine needles. A blue jay fussed at a pair of squirrels racing along the branches of the hickory tree behind the shed. About a dozen mosquitoes lighted on my arms and swelled with my blood. After what felt like forever, the rattling ceased. I heard a swift rustling under the shed, then from the bushes at the back. My heart was free to race as fast as it could go, to fill the new silence with its furious drumming.
I thought of running back to the safety of the truck but since the doors were right in front of me, I thought it best to satisfy my curiosity first. I began to pry open the sliding doors. I knew they were tricky from watching Roger struggle with them. After a few determined tugs, I found a way to open them by rocking them inch by inch along their railings. There was no light in the
shed, so I had to open the doors wide to let the fading sunlight illuminate the musty interior with a soft orange glow.
Before me was the worktable Roger had erected, a thick sheet of plywood with sawhorses for legs. The engine was as it had been: a mess of gears, springs, and pistons, splayed across the table. Over everything, including the cobwebs, was a dingy gray dust. On the floor was a red toolbox that looked as if it had been knocked over then hastily righted. I stepped over it and used my finger to make a smiley face in the dust, on the table between the gears and a bulbous rusted muffler. I left the cramped space without bothering to pull the doors shut.
Still thinking of my earlier fright, I took the rake that was propped up against the corner of the shed and made my way back through the weeds, swinging it back and forth before me like a pendulum, stirring up grasshoppers and tiny white moths that rose and fell like petals.
Rounding the corner of the trailer, I saw that the truck door was open and could no longer see the top of Jess’ blond head. I dropped the rake and bounded across the yard like a white-tailed deer, thinking about how much trouble I was going to be in if Jess had wandered off again. I arrived at the old blue Ford out of breath, only to find her stretched the length of the vinyl bench seat, sound asleep.
I swatted the mosquitoes that were feasting on Jess’ bare legs and arms, brushed them off her stomach where her thin yellow tee-shirt was riding up. Leaning over her, I rolled up the window on the driver’s side and then did the same on the passenger side before easing out of the truck and closing the door gently.
Still the trailer remained dark.
A bat dipped near my head and it was then, as I watched it ascend, that I noticed the swarm of dragonflies. I could not recall having seen a dragonfly all summer but now there must have been at least fifty flying over my head. I had never seen so many of them together. Each insect followed its own trajectory but remained within the group, rising and falling, turning then turning again, a winged twilight waltz.
I remembered a story my grandpa had told me about his time in Japan, just after the war. He was out on patrol in a neighborhood when he saw a group of schoolchildren, standing in a sandlot park with their fingers pointed at the sky. He went closer to see what they were looking at and realized they were not pointing at anything but waiting for these giant blue dragonflies, hoping one of them would land on their fingertips. They did not have to wait for long before one perched on the smallest child’s index finger. The look of joy on the child’s dirt-streaked face made him want to try as well, but as soon as he approached the group, they ran off shrieking: foreigner! foreigner! Undeterred, he stood in that park with his arm stretched high until it became numb.
After that, any time he saw a dragonfly he pointed his finger up and hoped he would get lucky, though he never did. Tombo, he called them, the only Japanese I ever heard him say.
I decided to try my own luck. I pointed my finger at the darkening heavens, streaked neon pink and tangerine. A few dragonflies came near but none showed interest in me nor my outstretched finger. Perhaps I was too short, I thought and looked around for something longer before remembering the forsaken rake. I ran to retrieve it then centered myself under the swarm. I held the metal rake head and swung the wooden handle skyward. A dragonfly happened to be flying past at that moment and collided with the handle then plummeted to the ground. I watched it fall and saw its final twitches in the dirt. I was sorry for its demise and yet at the same time, knocking it out of the air thrilled me, much like a baseball player enjoys hitting a curveball.
I lifted the rake again, and again, swinging and missing, swinging and hitting. Soon, the ground around me was littered with dragonfly corpses and the surviving swarm moved away, fleeing into the safety of the now dark woods where the crickets were warming up for their nightly concert. I heard the front door slam shut and turned around to see my mom standing behind me.
The trailer loomed behind her like a shadow.
My mom’s eyes were shining with tears but I did not think much of it as she had been crying a lot lately. She wiped away the few that had escaped down her cheeks then asked, “Where’s your sister?”.
I pointed at the truck. “She’s sleeping.”
My mom nodded, looked at the truck then back at me. “You hungry?”
“You need to put that rake back. Where did you get it from?”
“Right here,” I said, dropping it. She nodded again. We walked over to the truck and climbed in, moving Jess so that her feet were on my lap. She had grown a lot over the summer, losing the last of her baby chub to become long and skinny.
I do not remember much of the ride home as I fell asleep once we were just a few miles down the road. I do remember waking up, thinking we were stopping for something to eat at a drive-thru, only to realize that we were idling at a stop sign, no traffic in sight. My mom was rummaging through the glove box, feeling for something that she was not finding. At last, she pulled out a travel pack of Kleenex and closed the glove box.
“Damnit,” she said, realizing that it was stuffed full of balled up tissues. She resorted to using the sleeve of her blouse to wipe away the tears and snot that was covering her face. Just then, a car coming from the opposite direction passed us, its headlights shining on my mother. She looked over at me and seeing me watching her, she smiled. Her face was red and puffy, glistening, ugly.
“You can turn on the radio if you like,” she said. I just shook my head and leaned against the window, my cheek pressed flat against the cool glass, my eyelids heavy. I don’t remember being carried inside, but in the morning I woke up in my bed, still wearing yesterday’s clothes.