Summertime in the South Texas' hill country, dusk falls like the skin of ash on charcoal. The rattling dissonance of cicadas reverberates and swells from the darkening trees, and a Mexican bat swirls between sentinels of pale stone. Barefoot and in a floral cotton dress, Kate sat halfway down the back porch steps. Her anklet was a keepsake of braided colored thread.

Knowing where to find her at this time of day I walked around from the driveway, sat down and gave her a kiss. "Here, this time you do the honors," I said, handing over a lottery ticket.

Kate jerked awake, as if from a dream. "I nearly forgot." She jumped to her feet and hurried up the stairs. "I've got something baking."

The screen door clapped shut. The oven door banged open.

Still holding the lottery ticket I called out, "The pot is five million."

By the kitchen window, Kate shouted, "Iced tea or lemonade?"

Kate returned with quart jars of iced tea dripping with condensation. She handed me one, set hers aside, and turned to leave. I caught the scent of freshly baked spice cookies.

"Where that stands," I motioned at the old shed with bags of concrete and junk piled around it, "we should build you a nice studio."

Kate halted at the screen door. "Yeah? With what money?"

I wagged the lottery ticket.

"Oh," Kate said. "I had forgotten about that." The screen door slammed shut once more.

"Five million dollars is a lot to forget." It was a good point and I decided to take my own advice and play the ticket myself. Using a thumbnail, I discovered bananas, cherries, and sevens, all magically aligned and adding up to a big zero. I threw the crumpled ticket away.

Kate appeared a short time later with a platter of cookies. She sat down and raised a toast to the last rays of sunset and the coming twilight. "To the here and now."

The bodies of sugary anise soldiers piled up high on the dish, like the dead burying the dead. Thier eyes were X'ed out and bandoleros of icing crisscrossed their cinnamon-tanned torsos. The recipe was homemade, rebellious, and pricked the senses in the mind's back alley, inciting a cookie riot. I had another one---revolutionary.

Kate and I spent the majority of that summer on her porch, up to our eyeballs in "inertia languor." That was her phrase for it, meaning it was too hot to move or think more than needed.

As we got to know each other she introduced me to the yard family one by one. They weren't for sale. There was Maynard, Cheryl, John, and Nebraska, among others. They appeared to be little more than broken chunks of concrete and bent rebar standing in the grass. Art. When I first saw them, I assumed they had been stolen from a landfill. They looked much better at night. An incandescent bulb lying on the ground illuminated the center. This brought the whole deal together and vaguely human figures gathered around one crowned with rusty barbed wire.

Art. I once stubbed my toe on a miniature piece of art that was also serving as Kate's bathroom doorstop. I almost took out the towel rack. The girl was no doubt conceptually adept and perceptually gifted. But (while massaging my big toe) I just didn't get her art.

I can be slow to appreciate things. In the end, it didn't matter all that much. Everything about our summer together, the sweltering nights, the stone family, the cicadas---everything eventually fused in my brain and crisped at the edges like dough on Kate's cookie sheet. She casually says to me one day, "Victor, you kind of let me down. As long as things go easy, it's all hunky-dory with you. Don't you feel the need to give a bit?"

"A bit of what?" I said.

"A bit of yourself."

"To what?" I said.

"Something, anything with heart."

"I'm working on a story," I lied. It was the same old "work-in-progress" I'd been screwing around with for years. My main characters had all the depth of a cardboard cutouts.

"Ah good! Let me read," Kate sat up. She was genuinely interested.

"Well, I'm still writing it," I said. Tsk tsk. Liar, liar, pants on fire. "So far, a guy and a girl rob a liquor store for kicks. They get away with forty-three dollars. But they don't care. They are in love. Leaving town, they stop at a county fair and have their photo taken flashing forty-three dollars for the camera. The photo incriminates them. She plea bargains, and he goes to jail."

"What happens then?" Kate asked.

"I'm still working on that," Like hell I was. "Just maybe I'll have the main character escape and..."

Kate hushed me. "Look at the fireflies!"

I only gave it a cursory glance at first. I couldn't believe she was interupting me and my stupid story.

"See how they dangle by the trees where the yard is darkest," Kate said. Doesn't it look magical?"

I'd seen a million fireflies. Everyone has, but Kate was right. They appeared to be magical, or like buoys blinking and bobbing over a hidden reef. It depends on the beholder.

My friends and I used to chase fireflies when we were kids. They don't resist much, sometimes alighting on your hand even as you reach out to catch them. We often smeared their phosphorescent bellies on our arms, cheeks, and foreheads. We wrote our initials on the fence with their glow and watched them fade away, dying so slowly that it was impossible to tell when they were completely gone.

Kate laughed when I told her this. She lifted my face and gazed at me intently and laughed again. "I wish I was there with you, glowing cheeks and all. Promise me you'll write a story about that someday," she said.

I promised I would in a purely conversational way. Who knows the future? The past offers clues here and there.

When I was a teenager doing odd jobs, I retrieved a rake from the lady's toolshed. A gust of wind slammed the door shut, locking me inside. On the shelf was a chainsaw. When the panic set in, I didn't think twice about using it. Just as the nice lady arrived with a pitcher of lemonade, I climbed through the hole I had cut in the wall, out of the sawdust and bluish exhaust. It was not pretty work. I have a thing about tight spaces.

Kate and I didn't last very long. Things got tight.

Single again I returned to my endless work-in-progress. And five years later my main character was still in the state pen for armed robbery. I couldn't get past this idiotic section until one night when I managed to get myself into his shoes. To spite me he took off his shoes and sat on a prison bunk. I stayed on him. He laid back and stared at the ceiling for hours. What was it that he wanted? I was going to find out. 

Let me tell you, the bang of iron doors echoing down the cellblock at three a.m. has an unmistakable garbage dumpster quality to it. Punctuating phlegmatic coughs, inmates snore and mutter in their sleep. We were a sleeping-car, shunting noisily over the tracks. The train rolled through towns we once knew, the lights all snuffed out, and the sidewalks rolled up.

The warden allowed me to construct a model of the Spirit of St. Louis. The plane looked great. In the morning, we'd put the rubber band engine to the test. She'd fly. It'd be perfect for his son, said the warden. I had to agree. It was all practice. Planning my escape I was quietly building a time machine. I designed it to look like my bunk. My pillow hid the navigation system.

The question remained whether I should go forward in time to the day of parole and walk out sane and whole, or whether I should go back in time and change the future. I started to believe that anything was possible. And, yes, I knew I was going off the deep end. Perhaps I welcomed it. What I didn't understand, curled on the bunk in the dark, was all the fireflies.

Fireflies passed through the bars, softly winking, making lazy declarations, outside-in, inside-out. The cellblock's hard lines softened and became gradient, almost like smoke. I laid back and closed my eyes.

"Are you awake?" It was Kate's whisper.

A rude, crackling buzz through the iron bars above landed with a thump against the curtain. I knew it. I mean to say I remembered it. After years buried I remembered. How memories awake! A cicada hung there, twisting in the blue moonlight, by a claw hooked into the lace of the curtain.

Kate stood up to free the cicada. She plucked it from the curtain. "Half of what you seek also seeks you," she said, tossing it outside. Restless now she returned to our little mattress island on the floor. "Are you asleep?" she asked.

Yes. No. If I responded, it had to be a drowsy slur of words. I had the sensation of being lowered down a hole by a rope in a bucket.

The sound of her voice thrummed the rope that held me suspended. Dark as a new moon, she looked down upon me, inert and submerged. To say she spoke, I must confess that I had no idea what she said. It was just a sound. The words elude me. Nonetheless, I remember faithfully and understand that the reconstruction will be flawed. So be it.

Kate's mother strictly prohibited her from walking along the railroad tracks. Nevertheless, it was along the tracks that young Kate found a monkey. It was dry as cardboard, she said. Patches of fur were missing. A row of white teeth stuck up along the jaw.

Kate knelt in order to get a better look. The poor flat monkey's tail was twisted and his hands were tiny. She gently prodded the little guy's body with a stick as she said hello.

Brown skin stretched over the monkey's small bones. Tiny ants crawled. Kate guessed that he must have fallen off the train. A circus train passed through town while everyone was sleeping, its flatcars stacked with locked and barred animals. He could have slipped through the bars.

One hand, balled up in front of his face, appeared to indicate that he was still clutching something. Kate snatched her breath in awe of the discovery. A closely guarded secret! It had to be the key to his escape.

I tumbled back into the prison bunk, through concrete walls and barbed wire. Still, back I fell, becoming myself again, falling further into a senseless and deep sleep.


The thunderheads ahead reduced the county road to a thin cleft shot through a leafy sea, to the drooping fringe of blue. As chain lightning danced on the horizon, the dash radio crackled. A gust of wind shook my progress down the road. A dozen large drops of water splattered across the windshield. I bumped on the wipers.

A few miles back, I passed a sizeable ugly billboard. It read:

State Penitentiary

Do Not Pick Up Hitchhikers

I passed the hard-edged prison complex set back from the road. With its guard towers and double fences, the red institutional brick, the place was a mystery. When I saw the prison, I felt sorry for the men who were imprisoned there---and guilty for thinking that way.

Something fluttered ahead of me. I touched the brake pedal and shifted down. For a brief moment, something lifted. I came to a halt when I was close enough to make out the shape. A gust of wind wedged it in the opposite shoulder's gully. I parked and got out.

I flipped it over. It was a balsa-wood recreation of the Spirit of St. Louis. The wingspan was twenty-four inches long, skinned in translucent white paper. The propeller was powered by a rubber band. It was most likely months in the making, lovingly handcrafted.

The wind was now picking up. I carried the plane up to my truck. I looked up and down the road, but I knew the model builder would be in the cluster of buildings behind the guard towers, behind the fence, some miles away. I thought about that while I stowed the plane in the cab.

I liked the idea of discovering a hidden message inside the plane, written by a desperate inmate facing a long sentence for murder, robbery, or whatever. Half-right, as I would later discover, the plane itself was the message.

I began to recall. Kate and I didn't keep in touch over the years. I was suddenly convinced that I'd waited far too long to see her crazy self again. I drove to her house for a surprise visit.

I got the news by asking around the small hill-country town where she lived. Kate had donated a liver to a friend in the hospital a month before, and she died on the operating table due to complications during surgery.

At Kate's place, I plugged in the electric cord that was lying on the side of the house. There was still electricity. The Stone family were there. The cicadas were there. A Mexican bat flew. I sat down on the steps, half-way down. I don't play the lottery anymore.

END