FIREFLIES (AN ILLUSTRATED SHORT STORY)

 

Insomnia has a sound. Usually it’s something like a hollow wooden tick-tick-tick – the sound of a clock – or sometimes it’s a faint metallic noise, mercury dripping into a rusty bucket of lukewarm pond water. It’s a frustrating sound because you can’t really put your finger on exactly what it is, but when the angels of sleep won’t come, that sound is there.

            In New York City, where I am tonight, an alley cat outside my studio window is howling holy hell for a mate. It’s summertime in this northern city and it’s hot, like being locked up inside a sweaty sock without an air conditioner and the cat outside my window, five floors down, doesn’t have anybody to love. I guess we’re all lonely and frustrated tonight.

 

I’m a healthy young man – not yet thirty years old – but tonight I’m thinking about other things, all the old irrationals: Do I have testicular cancer? Will I ever find a woman to love? Did I shave yesterday? Should I get up and shave now? Will my receding hairline ever stop receding? Why is there more hair growing in my ears than on the top of my head? Will I lose my mind if I get really old? Is this cancer on my cheek or is it just a pimple? Am I fat or am I average? If I meet that Woman, what if our kids are losers? Are Gypsies real? What if my plane crashes? What’s my triglyceride count? Do I drink too much whiskey? Do I drink too much coffee? I think I broke my pinky toe yesterday on the bathroom doorframe. Are my teeth rotting? When my Dad told me, “Good luck in New York, Boy, you’re gonna need it” was he wishing me well or kicking me in the pants as I left home? Did I make a bad career choice? Will I be able to pay my rent next month?  

 

It’s never rational thoughts at 4:13 on a Monday morning, awake and alone.

 

My big dream growing up in Pensacola, Florida was to a be a racecar driver, and I’m not talking Formula One or that other sissy European stuff – I wanted to be a NASCAR man with a hundred thousand people cheering me on at two-hundred miles an hour, blonde girls in bikinis at all of the finish lines with bouquets of flowers and cans of ice cold beer. I had it very specifically planned out at a very young age: Get a job in some pit crew somewhere and basically learn the ropes of the trade, work my way up to a pole position. Simple.

            My friend Howard Trustless always laughed at me when we shared our ideas about what the future would look like because Howard wanted to be a baseball player, first base for some contender. He said NASCAR was a southern hick cliché. And that was another thing I never liked about Howard Trustless when we were kids: He had a handle on the English language at a very early age, always using words like cliché and articulate. I pretty much hated that about him.

           But none of that matters now, I suppose. I’m all grown up and living here in New York City, driving a school bus for “under-privileged” kids in the Bronx. And it’s ironic, because until I had to give up my dreams of being a racecar driver and take this crummy job, I had actually felt privileged.

 

I’ve been lying here on my futon now for hours in this cheap little studio apartment. It’s not much but it’s all I can afford, driving the bus forty hours a week. And my thoughts are rambling away uncontrollably in that silent, after-hours way: Does eternity hurt? What’s the worse way to die, fire or drowning? Dear God: Please don’t let me die before my mother does, and let my mother live forever. And I’m realizing now these little flashes of light outside my window on the fire escape, and then the light slowly fading out, like lightning bugs except it isn’t a little green light, it’s a little orange light. It flashes white each time at the beginning, glows faintly orange and then disappears for a minute or two. It’s a subtle thing, like fireflies, and has been going on outside on the fire escape for fifteen or twenty minutes. By the time I recognize it I realize that it’s been going on for a while. Maybe I’ve just been writing those little flashes off as part of the long, hot night.

            I lift my head up and look over there, through the darkened little kitchen to the window leading out to the fire escape. Another firefly sparks, burns and fades. And there in the fading light is a figure, a scrawny skeleton out there on my fire escape wearing an overcoat in all of this heat. Jesus, baby Jesus. I slip from the futon and fall to the floor like water. This is my deepest nighttime paranoia manifest: Somebody – or worse, some thing – breaking into my apartment for blood or for money. Sweet Christ.

            My biggest fear when I was a kid growing up on Pembroke Lane in Pensacola was burglars, uninvited guests casting their shadows on my bedroom door as they walked down the hall, poking their heads around the corner into my room. It was all imagination, but I used to lay awake for hours underneath the covers sweating and shaking out of fear for that thing that wasn’t there. But in the end, that was the problem: If the burglars were there, what else was possible? The idea of it all was terrifying. It still is. There are fireflies on my fire escape and a figure. I live on the fifth floor of a pre-war building in New York City and there’s no reason for fireflies or figures to be up here. Not now. We should all be sleeping.

 

I’ve got to get closer, though, because I’m not a child anymore. I’m an adult. I drive a bus full of “under-privileged” kids forty hours a week. Paid holidays.

 

I slink along the wooden floor of the living room on my hands and knees, onto the cool linoleum of the little kitchenette of my studio apartment. Another little white light flashes, burns briefly and then fades away. In the brief light this time the fireflies’ dark keeper is clearer, some human thing out there on the fire escape. The kitchen window is open because it’s hot and I needed a cross draft tonight. I scoot along the floor there to the open window and pull my chin up to its ledge.

            “Ruby?”

            “Hey. It’s-my-birthday.”

            Good God. It’s Ruby

            Ruby is a homeless man in our neighborhood – a middle-aged black man, dangerously thin but seemingly impervious to all the various elements of New York City. The heat, the cold, the crime, the crack, the hunger – none of it ever seems to really bother Ruby. He’s been living in the parking lot of the fried chicken shack across the street from my apartment building for as long as I’ve been here, and he’s always treated me like a neighbor, like we’ve both bought into some sort of card game where when he asks me if I can spare any money, it doesn’t matter if I can or if I can’t. No hard feelings, that sort of thing.

            “Ruby, what the hell are you doing out here?”

            “A-A-Ahm just looking…At...It’s-crazy-what-people-throw-away.” Ruby has a lapful of discarded Lotto tickets, all scratched up and bent and wet. “Youknow…L-L-Last week…I-got-five-hundred-dollars-off-one-of-these. Because… peoplelookatthemtoofast!”

            I’ve known all kinds of people who speak like Ruby does, or at least in the ballpark – not quite a stutter, but a pattern of words that the brain can’t quite get in line in time for the mouth. As far as anybody can tell, Ruby lives off of these things, spent Lotto tickets that are really winners. Any day of the week – summer, spring, winter or fall – you’ll see him out on Broadway with his head down to the ground, like he’s hunting for arrowheads on a beach. Or you’ll see him in some dark doorway late at night with his bent, cracked bifocals, scanning used Lotto tickets like a man in a high-stakes poker game at the Golden Nugget. And I’ve always accepted this about him: We’re all fighting for it. Ruby’s just sort of made up his own rules, like we all do, I suppose, but his rules are a little less conventional or, at least, a little more rigorous.

            “Ruby. What are you doing up here on my fire escape?”

            “It’s-my-birthday,” he says.

            Every time you see Ruby he tells you that it’s his birthday. It’s a panhandler’s refrain, but he always says it and I don’t even think he realizes that he’s saying it anymore. It’s just a line he came up with, however-many-years-ago, and it stuck because maybe it worked for a while as a sympathy vote for loose change, and then at some point he just kept on saying it anyway. Or maybe he did say it on his actual birthday once, standing outside the dollar burger joint down the street, and for that night it really worked – worked like wildfire – and he was rolling in paper money for a day or two, all because he was down on his luck on his birthday and everybody has birthdays and everybody can sympathize with that.

            “But Ruby, it’s four o’clock in the morning. And you’re on a fifth-floor fire escape. My fire escape.”

            “People-never-really-look-at-these-things,” he blurts out in a contorted whisper, holding half-a-dozen spent tickets. “Youknow…L-L-Last week…I-got-five-hundred-dollars-off-one-of-these.” In his lap among the spent tickets are matchbooks, too, the blank white kind you get with cigarettes for free at the bodega across the street. “I-used-to-work-in-advertising,” he says. “IhadthePerdueChickenaccount.”

            It’s dark on the fire escape now.

            “Y-You know,” Ruby says, “peacocks always sleep in the trees because wolves can’t climb trees.”

            He sets his wrinkled cards down and grabs a book of matches from his pile, tears one out, strikes it and quickly moves it to the top card in his hand, squinting there in the faint light at what’s been scratched away and what might still be there. A white flash, then orange, then dark again.

            “Did you win anything tonight, Ruby?” I ask him quietly. I’m exhausted, but there’s a comforting breeze coming from out there on the fire escape.

            “N-N-No,” he says. “But-it’s-my-birthday.”

            “I’ve got to get some sleep, Ruby.”

            “Nobody-ever-checks-these-things,” he says.

 

I stand up and head back to the old futon, lay my head down on the damp pillow and look up at the same ceiling. Ruby strikes another match out there on my fire escape and squints – a white flash, then orange, then dark again. I close my eyes and sleep comes easily now, because I’m not alone and Ruby’s safe from the wolves on his birthday.

 

*Originally published in ON SECOND THOUGHT (2010), a publication of the North Dakota Humanities Council