A Season of Firsts: Tangled Sky

Tangled Sky

It’s odd how you never really remember the good days in quite the same way you do the bad. It’s those oddments, like Grams used to say, the small things you hardly notice most time that registered. The bad kinda crushed you out flat, taking your wind, draining you. Things slowed down, like that accident with the tractor, me too young, too stupid, to be trying tricks. It’d rolled like they do on an incline, trapping me and it sucked me into the mud, mud that still stuck good to the broke wrist and an ache they said would go away.

It didn’t. Unless I worked it out, worked out how to think on other things and not how it felt to be helpless and embarrassed and scared shitless Pops would beat me to a pulp when he found me. He didn’t. Ma did. That was worse, way worse than Pops doing his once and done. Ma had a long memory and liked to trot it out when it suited. Just between her and me when there was a lesson to be learned or a reminder how I owed her for keeping quiet.

Grams used to say, “The devil’s in the details, boy,” so I asked her once what that meant. And she spoke of how you looked at normal—everyday events she called them—and found the good bits, the bits what got you by for when bad came again, like it always did.

Grams had a plan for living that included the Good Book but went another step past it to point out how living in the moment made all the difference.

I’d asked, “What’s that mean, living in the moment?”

She’d bid me sit, there on the floor, on the chipped linoleum, and then she’d talk about starch and the bits of pretty with lace, hankies I guess they were. And the iron, how it had to be just right, heated up special, everything special, and the way you knew was to spit on your finger and tap it, tap the hot metal and anytime, any other time you’d do that on the cook stove or hot plate or horseshoes fresh from the forge, she’d have screamed bloody murder. How you were stupid and didn’t know no better, but if it was special … that made it all right.

So she’d tap it, tap that hot metal with spit on her finger and if it sizzled a certain way, a special way, she knew it was ready. Ready for the hanky and the starch and the pressure that flattened it, made it smooth and glossy and so perfect you feared touching it.

She’d set it aside. Pops had made a sort of bench along the wall in what was a laundry room, though it was more a place to dump our boots and muddied jeans and all the crap we forgot to put away in the proper place down to the barn or in the garage. There’d be stacks of those hankies, piled one atop t’other on that bench, some with the frillies, others plain. The plain belonged to Pops and he didn’t much care about the starch. But Grams did, so that’s what counted.

Starch don’t smell like anything except starch, but when you heated it up with the iron, Grams said it smelled clean … clean in a way pulling it through the wringer and hanging it on the line outside to shiver in the breeze and pick up the scent of wind and trees and damp soil, that kind of clean wasn’t the exact clean she wanted.

For that you needed starch. And heat. And pressure from hot metal.

“Do you understand, boy?”

I shook my head, not seeing it at first, but she was patient, way more than Ma who took your measure quick, dismissed you if you didn’t catch on right off.

When I caught on to what we’d been talking about, about how you remember different, how this is important enough to save up for later but that isn’t and it just floats on away like a leaf in a river, I pointed to the stack of stiff hankies and asked, “Is that a good day?”

She nodded, like my question made sense, like she knew the real one on the tip of my tongue but those words were still back in my throat, struggling to form themselves in a way both of us would understand.

Her answer came soft, soft enough to remember. “If you want it to be.”


She got that kindly look, like she knew how much want I had inside and it was there, just there, waiting to come out. Then she picked it up, the perfect stack of perfect bits of linen and cotton, raised them up with two hands, reverent like, as if it mattered and it did, to her, it mattered more than to me but that was the lesson… To understand that something mattered and it was up to me to figure out what that was.

She’d learned a thing I hadn’t, how to make things matter, how to find the details that set everything apart, made it special, special enough to remind how you had everything you needed.


“Zach?” My mouth was fuzzy, like I’d been sucking down cotton candy at the fairgrounds. Anticipating but the particulars weren’t there, the details, the special details that would make this day special, good and special. A day to remember.

The sky’d been a riot of colors toward the end there, pinks and orange and blue seeping in, dark blue going near to black but the clouds had blanked out the stars so now it was muddy, like the mud on my wrist, clinging to the pain.

Zach had me laid out just so, back off the mudflat and stingy nettles, tucked into a final outcrop of green, thick and lush despite the heat and the dry burning us all up from the inside out. The flats had gone wide now, the pond losing the war, tucking itself in tight, holding on to the only shock of cool left. The surface walled the heat away from the underbelly and the thick mat of spry ferny things tickling your toes.

We’d swum like we always did, not bothering to wait like they told us, just jumping in, swinging off the rope we’d hung from the thick-set branch, swinging out wide in an arc. Timing it, just so, to find the deepest part, the part you’d arch your body through, imagining the bubbles rising to the surface, bubbles you exhaled deliberate as the cool slammed your back and spread out and around and pulled you down, all the way to the bottom with the ferny, leafy, creepy, sucky mud slicked away as you scrabbled back to the muggy warmth of dark.

He was watching me, his head tilted to the side. “Do you like that?”

“Unh-huh.” My chin was tucked so tight to my chest it was hard to say anything, hard to think.

“How about this?”

If you lay back, eyes squeezed shut tight, your head in the mat of grass, using it sorta like a pillow, a ticklish pillow of knives slick-slicing your neck or ear, or chin and cheek if you turned side-to-side, thrashing in a sort of dance with what was happening inside your head, that’s when you’d find it. You’d find a body new and different because it’d turned secret and dirty, and that made it special in ways that had no words. Just an image. A flash of this, then that, and then it turned impossible and you stopped wondering and thinking on it.

You let it happen.

We’d touched, the two of us, touched ’til it sprayed us with wonder and the joy of being together, of having a secret we shared, just the two of us. But this, this was the hot iron and spit and a quick tap for the sizzle and it was right, so right to feel that tap there and there and there, a long sweep of sweet, and the sizzle zinged me like it was a race, a race to drive me mad with wanting, with needing.

I asked again, “Zach, what’re you doing?” because I wanted to understand this, learn its particulars, learn to keep it, save it for later. Just in case.

“We only got two weeks, Jackie. I’m making ’em count.”

Zach pulled me, sucked me up, up off the soft mat of grass, his fingers probing, prodding, lifting my hips high, higher, so high only my shoulders touched dirt and the spiny, slick-slicing tangle of weeds and blades, and I opened my eyes to the night of night, in wonder.

It’d gone flat, the dark, like it did when the blanket of haze settled around the cool, and off in the distance you heard the bullfrogs burping soft, sounding far away though they were just there, but there had no place, no space now that there was here, right here in heat and tenderness and the hard suckling that created a cavern of desire inside your gut.

The clench was it, the detail you needed, the trigger letting you know how it was, how it would be, and then it was anticipation and mirrors broke to bits under your skin, poking, pricking at you. Demanding to be set free.

When it exploded, the fireworks fluttered just at the edge of your vision, and you saw it, right then and there, the vision of fireflies flitting, flicking—on, off, on, off, like syncopation… Pop pop pop. Hips bucking, bucking hard as a finger probed secret and dirty, so dirty it made it too special to understand, so you remembered the fireflies and the fireworks, and the swallowing sucking out your soul, and that cavern in your gut got replaced, replaced permanent with a cavern in your heart, and you finally knew the devil and all his details.

When Zach stopped, he crawled up for a kiss, a taste of us together, special together, and heart hammering, lungs shit out of air, painful hurting in a way my new body craved, I whispered the question onto his lips, “Is this a good day?”

“If you want it to be.”

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