Dusk… the dying part of the day that always filled him with gloom. He turned off his car’s ignition and sat there for a moment, parked in front of his silent house. A wave of sadness washed over him. Pinching the bridge of his nose, he closed his eyes briefly. In the quiet semidarkness, he experienced a cheerless hint of what the long evening held in store for him.
Sam never minded the darkness when it finally, fully descended. It was the silvery state of limbo that twilight always brought, the sense of being caught between two worlds, that disturbed him. Not really light, not really dark. Two separate worlds trying to converge.
Sighing at his own foolishness, he emerged from the car and walked slowly toward his front door. Pausing on the front step, he tilted his head to one side, studying the house. In spite of his unease at the fading light, a yearning to linger outside and escape the house’s cloying loneliness kept him from putting the key to the lock. He really didn’t want to go inside; he wasn’t yet ready to face another Friday evening.
He disliked Friday nights. They were simply a prelude to the two non-workdays that stretched dismally before him. Forlorn, he sat down on the front step and looked out into the deepening darkness.
In spite of his mood, he had to admit it was a beautiful summer’s evening. The day’s earlier, crushing humidity had dissipated, and the approaching night air carried with it a trace of welcoming coolness. In the distance, he heard the voice of a mother coaxing a youngster to come inside and get ready for bed. He smiled slightly at the sound.
There was something all too familiar about the sweet tones of a mother’s voice calling out to her child. It awakened something in Sam. A tender memory. He forced it back. He didn’t want any tender memories just then. Not when he sat in twilight, caught between two worlds.
His attention was suddenly diverted by the sight of dozens of fireflies. Their bright, teasing flashes of light bobbed in and out of the darkness. June bugs. Well, it was June.
He recalled the Junes of his childhood and the ever-present appearance of those fanciful creatures and their sudden bursts of illumination.
His childhood summers in New York had seemed at the time filled with endless June days… days which seemed to go on forever as the summer sun lingered high in the afternoon sky. Days when the neighborhood kids would gather at one of the local baseball fields for little league games and heated debates about the Yankees and the Mets. Days of neighborhood block parties where families would gather and eat their fill of hotdogs and potato chips, washing them down with icy, sugary colas. And sometimes, days deemed so brutally hot that the cops would look the other way while some enterprising dad pried open the valve of a fire hydrant, and kids frolicked in the streets, playing in the gushing water and getting a few minutes’ respite from a sizzling, muggy day.
As a kid, his brother, Joey, had been particularly intrigued by them… he called them “lightning bugs.” Too many times to count, their mother would be looking for a glass jar to pour some leftover gravy or grease into, only to find all the jars missing; Joey had used them to capture the little bugs. A visit to the boy’s bedroom always disclosed a jar or two sitting on the nightstand, filled with a few lethargic captives, their once-bright bodies no longer having the energy for illumination… and, thus, no longer of any interest to the fickle young boy.
A bittersweet smile crossed Sam’s face at the memory.
The dusk weakened him. It crippled his resolve not to look back. Again, the urgent sense of being caught between two worlds rose up inside him.
Against his will, he found his thoughts drifting down the corridors of his past, preparing to open doors he normally kept locked. In his thoughts, he heard once again the too-eager and strident voice of his seven-year old brother: Sam! Sam! Look at ’em all! They’re lighting up the sky, Sam!
And they were, that long-ago June night. So many fireflies – nature’s own fireworks display. Joey ran about, jar in hand, jumping up and down in the velvet grayness of early evening, his little body frenetic in its attempts to capture and hold hostage a little of the light show.
Don’t be a dork, he remembered saying to the excited boy. They always die. Let ’em alone.
It’ll be different this time, scowled Joey, indignant at this brother’s lack of enthusiasm. You just wait and see – it’ll be different this time.
It will be different. This time.
How often had those words been said in Joey’s childhood? And, later, how often had the grown-up Joey said that very same thing to Connie? Or to an angry Sam when begging his brother’s forgiveness and promising to be a better, more responsible husband to his wife? But it was always the same old story. Nothing ever changed.
Joey. Thinking about his brother brought a painful lump to Sam’s throat as threatening tears were imprisoned there; he refused to allow them to make their way to his eyes.
The seeds of the man Joey was to become had been sown in childhood. Like father, like son.
It will be different this time.
The memory came on full force. Sam could almost smell again the scent of long-ago marigolds and feel once more the dying heat of a particular June day many summers ago. He’d been… what? Twelve?
It had come to him, that certain summer, that he needed his own space, a place where he could hide out with his precious books and escape the sounds coming from inside his own house.
There had been a tree in the backyard of the old row house, a survivor in spite of its parched, shabby surroundings. Most of the small yard was cemented over, with just a few clay pots scattered about, filled with his mother’s struggling petunias and marigolds. The “Nolan family garden” – although “garden” was too generous a term for the cracked pots of laboring plants. The few dismal flowers worked hard to be something they were not. So did his mother.
Also struggling was that aged tree, an old warrior of many years’ standing. Sam remembered once assuming the role of William Tell, and standing Joey up against that tree, attempting to shoot an apple off his head with a toy bow-and-arrow set. He also remembered the punishment that ensued for that childish escapade. The brothers used to charge the tree with their plastic toy swords, forcing it into the role of a towering, evil giant.
Oh, that wonderful old tree. Its roots had burrowed deep beneath the cracked concrete of the yard and its wizened old trunk reached upward for the sky, yearning to be free, in spite of the concrete’s attempts to restrain it. Sam had liked that old tree, liked its resiliency.
It was important to be resilient. He knew that, even as a child.
Wistfully, he remembered how he’d managed to coerce from old Mr. Mueller some planks of scarred, inferior lumber. The old man owned the small lumberyard in town. Mueller had always liked Sam, who, as a boy, used to help the old man out after school sometimes, tidying up the place, doing odds and ends. Mueller had been happy to give Sam some of the beat-up old wood; it wasn’t as if he’d sell it for top dollar anyway.
Excitement had danced in Joey’s eyes when Sam explained he was going to build a small shack up in the tree.
A fort! You’re building a fort! This’ll be great! I want to help!
Well, you can’t. This isn’t a fort. It’s my fortress.
What’s a fortress? asked the boy, not understanding the difference between the two words.
It’s a place for me to get away and read. Be by myself.
But I like to get away and read. I can be with you while we be by ourselves!
You’ve never read a book in your life! And how can we be by ourselves if we’re together?
The boy had looked crestfallen, and Sam had experienced a sudden sense of remorse. The kid didn’t have many friends – the boys in the neighborhood were older, and the kids his own age were girls.
Relenting, Sam said, Okay, okay. You can help. And you can use it, too – but you have to keep quiet when we’re up there – and you can’t take any other kids. It’s private. Got it?
Yeah, I got it!
The kid’s grateful eagerness had embarrassed Sam. And don’t fall out on your head, he said roughly. You can be such a doofus sometimes.
Their father had come out the back door, and eased his heavy frame into one of the webbed folding chairs near the clay pots. He’d already taken off his uniform, and sat there in his undershirt and an old pair of workpants, a cold bottle of beer in his hand. What are you laddies up to?
We’re going to build a fort, his brother had replied.
Are you, now? Well, that’s a grand idea, Joey. He had cocked an eyebrow in Sam’s direction, a look of challenge on his face. Sammy, you know how to do this?
Warily, Sam replied, I think I can figure it out.
Well, now… maybe you can, and maybe you can’t. Might not be a bad idea to have your Dad lend you a hand, hey? He sat the bottle down next to his chair and, thinking, looked down at the lumber. Now, here is what we need to do…
For the rest of that afternoon, the two boys had worked alongside their father, who provided instruction and helped them nail the planks together. You’ve got to have a plan, boys, he stated, not for the first time in Sam’s memory. You don’t have a plan, you don’t have nothing.
By early evening, a ramshackle wooden structure rested among the hardiest branches of the gnarled old tree, and three pieces of wood had been nailed to the trunk, allowing the boys to climb up inside the structure. Happily, they sat up there, looking down at their father. It had been a good day. Their father waved once and then turned and went inside the house.
Look, Sam! The lightning bugs! His expression rapt, the boy leaned forward, and pointed outward, almost losing his balance. Sam’s restraining hand pulled him back and secured his seating.
Don’t be an idiot, Joey! You wanna fall out? You’ve seen ’em before.
Not like this, not sitting up here in the sky! It’s… it’s fuckin’ beautiful!
Hey, watch your mouth! You want Daddy to hear that? That’s all we need!
He says it.
Yeah, well, you better not let him hear YOU say it or it’ll be your fuckin’ ass!
Joey had giggled. For some reason unbeknownst to Sam, it had always delighted the kid when Sam cursed.
A few minutes passed while from their perch the boys silently watched the June bugs glowing sporadically in the darkness.
Daddy was fun today, Sam.
For the second time that day, a wariness stole over Sam. Yeah… today.
He sure smiled a lot, said the boy, his voice hopeful. Wasn’t drinking much, either. Maybe it’ll be different this time, huh? I think it will. It’ll be different this time.
Sam had glanced at the kid, and had felt his heart wrench at what he saw. There had been such a plaintive look on the seven-year old’s face. No kid of seven should look that way, he remembered thinking. It wasn’t until much later that it occurred to him that the same could be said of a twelve year old.
Finally, he’d replied, Yeah… maybe it will be different this time.
They had continued gazing out into the darkness, mesmerized by the dancing flashes of light in the night sky, until at last they heard their mother’s voice, urging them inside.
Early the next morning, shortly after dawn, Sam had been disturbed by the sound of something thudding hard against a concrete surface. Too tired to open his eyes, he ignored the sound, trying to get back to sleep.
But the sounds grew louder, more insistent, penetrating Sam’s sleep-fogged brain until, finally, he awoke with a start, realizing with a sinking heart what he was hearing. Getting out of bed, he had scrambled over to the window and watched as his father yanked the wooden planks from the tree. He seemed furious about something; his hair was mussed wildly, and he still wore the shirt he’d worn yesterday, only it now bore stains of brownish yellow. Was it whiskey? Beer?
Did it really make any difference?
His brother had come running into his room. What’s he doing, Sammy? His face had been streaked with tears. Our fort… why is he doing this? Why, Sam?
Because he can, Sam had replied in a tired voice, one too old for his years. And because he’s a bastard.
Did we do something wrong? Is he punishing us?
Let it go, Joey, he had said, going back to bed and pulling the covers over his head. Just let it go.
He’d forced himself to ignore the child’s continuing presence. Still, Joey stood there, staring at Sam’s silent form under the covers. After several minutes, resigned, the boy turned away, his voice fading as he did so. I thought it would be different this time.
Sam shook his head at the memory. His soul troubled, he rose from the front step of his house. The dusk had finally faded into the blackness of night and, with it, the sense of being caught between two worlds. He turned toward the door to put the key in the lock, prepared now to allow the emptiness of the house to embrace him.
Suddenly, a bitter twist turned the corner of his mouth downward as he recalled another reason for June’s poignancy. Father’s Day.
Fathers and sons. Sons and fathers.
His boy, Jeff, was still stuck in Afghanistan, trying to bring some semblance of order to his troubled life. It bothered Sam that there was a lack of closeness between him and his only boy. But since the divorce, the boy had sided with his embittered mother. It was the way of things, he supposed.
And Joey… dead. A brutal death, fatally stabbed by a dealer when his brother could no longer come up with the money to support his habit. And Connie? Left with two kids and no husband, and back in New Jersey, living with her parents, trying to make ends meet.
Christ, Joey! This time Sam decided to let the tears fall, but like a faithless coquette, they had deserted him. The time for weeping for Joey had passed. He had grown into a man always running away from something – or toward something. Ever optimistic that things could be different – this time. A victim of the childhood they’d shared.
He shivered. Maybe he’d give Dave Benson a call. His old friend would probably be willing to stop by… there was a baseball game on tonight. They could watch a couple of innings, share a few beers… escape the monotony of being two lonely men, vulnerable at this season in their lives.
About to push open the door, he paused a moment, turning once more to look out into the darkness. There they were, still out there. Capriciously lighting up the sky. Just as they had so many summers ago.