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Les Lucioles, The Fireflies, by Henri-Camille Danger, France, 1896

Convertible

Angela comes awake in the night. A commotion outside. She paws Tomas’ side of the bed for an elbow, a fingertip, a soft curl. There is only the pressed sheet. In those first moments torn from sleep—before the soul has a chance to seat—she swims in fear.

Then she remembers: Tomas is away. He is never away.

***

Down the hall, opposite the stairs, the boy too rises. In a dream he was fighting Dan Masse on the playground. The boy has no brothers. He doesn’t know how to fight. He kicked at Dan Masse’s shins like he was trying to steal a soccer ball. The bigger boy grabbed him by his shirt collar, tossed him into a row of metal trash cans. Whatever wakes the boy coincides with this impact. He goes out into the hall and expects Dan Masse to be standing there. Instead it is his mother, sashing up a robe she never wears.

Mother and son look down from the boy’s window. Under street lights, one tire of a car has hopped the curb into their yard. The boy knows cars. It’s a Chrysler LeBaron, a convertible with the top up. The boy has never ridden in a convertible, but it is on his list, to sit in the back seat on the highway and feel the air rushing all around him, trying to abduct him into the sky.

On the street a woman stands outside the car. She shouts words the boy is embarrassed to hear in his mother’s company. The woman tugs at a strap through the LeBaron’s open window. When it breaks she falls to the street and cries out, a purse coming out after her, lipsticks spilling out, a rolling can of something. When the car backs off the curb it crunches over the bag, rests upon on it and rocks, like a boot attempting to separate the bones of a hand.

***

Angela curls her fingers around a silver chain she never unclips, finds the worn stone that slides along its links. Now the night will involve them.

Tomas gave her the necklace when they were only lovers, when Angela still believed in a world with magic in it. Now she wants to rub the stone thrice and have it become him. If Tomas were here, he would tell them to stay inside, keep the door locked until he came back.

In her mind, Tomas tells Angela not to answer the door. He repeats it.  Do not answer the door. She takes a deep breath, bites down on a knuckle. The boy’s eyes are the only brightness in the room.

***

Mother and son stand at the top of the stairs. They hear the car speed off, how its engine speaks through gritted teeth. The boy’s stomach feels as it does when he watches Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the scene when the crossing gates come down, lights flashing, bells ringing, only there is no train.

When the doorbell rings, the boy realizes this is what they are waiting for.

“Stay here,” his mother says. She stops on the steps when their eyes level, kisses the worried lines on his forehead.

The boy knows he should be the one answering the door. He also knows he is no match for Dan Masse.   

His mother flips the porch light, opens the door part way. Beyond it the screen is locked and beyond the screen, a woman stands in a black dress carrying her shoes. She drags her purse by its severed straps.

“I told him, let me out,” she’s saying. “Anywhere. Any-fucking-where.”

The boy creeps down the steps until he too can see her. How tears have rearranged her make-up into a Halloween mask. The boy sits on the stairs and watches a purple bruise darken under her eye.

  “Can I come in? Please.”

The woman claws at the screen, seems to slide down it. Like she’s in a cage, the boy thinks. As she lunges forward she sees, for the first time, the boy on the stairs. Their eyes meet. Though the woman is looking at someone else.

***

Angela assesses the woman. Her disheveled dress. Her eyes which seem permanently narrowed.

“I can call you a cab. I can pay the fare,” Angela says. “But you can’t come inside.”

Angela’s judgment is papered over by scenarios in which the woman is not a victim, but fastened to the hook of a con. Each version ends with the LeBaron roaring back onto their yard and the woman tugging the boy out to it by his underarms—by that same soft skin that she once powdered in a crib.

Angela tells the boy to get the phone book. She stands at the desk thumbing the yellow pages, but her fingers shake. The phone keeps slipping off her shoulder. Even with a hand in the crease the book wants to shut itself, to make a secret of all the extensions one might call for help.

***

The boy wants to hold his mother. But he wants to be bigger, to be like his stepfather Tomas. To clutch her arms to her sides so tight her nervous fingers give up their dance.

“Buddy,” she says to the boy. “I need you to dial for me.”

The boy presses buttons as his mother reads the numbers, slowly, like the lady on TV for the state lotto. And the first ball up is…When the lotto lady finishes, Tomas always balls up his ticket and throws it against the shut window.

“I wish my dreams were worth more than a dollar,” he says.

The boy wishes it too. He wishes for dreams without Dan Masse in them. He hears his mother giving their address and wonders if she is calling for a taxi or for the police.

Outside he sees a quick flash in the dark and soon their porch smells like the bowling alley on Sunday morning. The boy knows he is not supposed to play with lighters. Certainly, he is not to smoke cigarettes. Though this has not kept him from pining for the power to breathe fire.

***

Angela stands by the door, one hand on the screen.

“Did he hurt you?”

“That’s about all he’s fucking capable of,” the woman says.

“Please,” Angela says. “My boy.”

As she puffs, the woman’s malice seems also to release into the air. “How old is your son?”

I’m seven,” the boy offers.

“You have kids?” Angela asks.

“Had,” she says. “According to the courts.” Now the woman addresses the street cataloging all the world has done to her—her broken marriage, her life lived as the ball in a sport played with rackets.

As the woman talks, Angela pulls Tomas’ old varsity jacket from the closet, the very same she brings to the boy’s little league games and wombs around herself when the sky threatens rain. She whispers for the boy to stay put, but when she gets to the screen door, Angela pauses. She can’t keep herself from looking up the street and down it, for the first signs of headlights in the trees.

It’s okay, Tomas, she says.

The door groans when Angela opens it. No one has oiled it in a long time.

***

The boy’s mother steps out onto the porch and drapes the jacket over the woman’s hunched shoulders. The boy watches as his mother sits, ever so slowly, beside the woman. Like wading into a cold pool.

The boy is thinking now of a photo at his grandmother’s, a picture of his mother and his aunt, both about his age. The two girls are out on a night patio with their backs to the camera, all of each sister’s weight leaned onto the other. The boy’s favorite part of the photo is what’s on the concrete between them—a jar with its faint light of caught fireflies.

The boy too has the urge to open the door, to go out and sit beside his mother. He wants to ask the woman how it feels to ride in a convertible. Specifically, he wants to know how it felt the very first time, the wind imparting all her shouted words and exhaled breath right back into her. How long, he wants to ask, until she stopped being afraid.

Greg Tebbano is employed as a grocery worker and, occasionally, as an artist. He lives in upstate New York where he works harder than is necessary. gregtebbano.com…. Greg Tebbano recommends the work of Olufunke Grace Bankole.