Under the light of a punchy, yellow moon, Pops jammed a cigarette in my mouth and put his thumb to work on our flip-top lighter. After a while, the flint wheel peeled up his scab and showed me his insides, which were bright and clean (and A-negative, Pops says). He sucked the blood like barbecue sauce, then flick, flick, flick, nothing, flick, flick—
While the unlit cigarette hung in my mouth, I watched a zealous mosquito nibble on my knuckle. It sucked and swelled with a bug-gallon of my A-negative, then buzzed away into the thickets. The bite rose on my finger like a muffin in the oven. Ma used to bake muffins. Only the smell of them was one of those fleeting memories made of smoke.
Sometimes I remembered myself baking inside Ma’s oven, pushing her belly tight as a drum, then squeezing out her bellybutton like toothpaste. Pops said the memory might be real because I was born C-section; he usually tells me about it when we’re gutting rabbits or opossums. It seems like magic how someone with rubber gloves gutted Ma, and now I was here, sitting under the moon, feeding mosquitos, thinking about muffins and C-sections and bellybutton toothpaste.
Pops shook the lighter near his ear, swishing the fluid. There was plenty left to spark a flame if it weren’t for his trembling fingers. “You see the butane?”
I shook my head. “None in the tent, Pops. And we’re almost out of cigarettes.” He nodded, working on the wheel again.
We had a fire going. The heat tightened the skin on my face. Our birch-log teepee even warmed the chirping night creatures in the outer brush—crickets and katydids, frogs and toads—and the moon swallowed the stars that night, floating close enough to whisper lunar secrets. Maybe Mr. Moon would explain why his mouth and eyes were always O’s and reveal the meaning behind his cosmic surprise.
Perhaps his heart was out of sync with the seasons. It was early spring, I think, because we didn’t need propane to keep the tent warm; the water flowed again in the surrounding brooks and rills; the lily pads had begun swimming on the bogs. But Pops was still living in the winter, sleeping all day and hardly eating.
“Does the moon have secrets?” I asked, knowing full well it does. (Pops knew things like this, too.)
“Maybe,” Pops chuckled, letting his face take ponderous shapes. I bucked up in my lawn chair. The armrests were level with my ears. “But we could never hear them from down here.”
“Well ‘cause sound waves can’t travel through space.”
“What if he mouthed the words?”
“What makes you think the moon wants to share his secrets, anyhow?” Pops scooted his chair closer. “You know, we’re keeping secrets, too, living out here.” He pointed through the trees, making sure I looked. “If people knew about us, they’d take us away from the sun and the grass and the trees, and they’d lock us behind steel bars. Away from the moon… They almost took us when you were just a small boy, no taller than my gonads.” He grabbed his crotch and squeezed. “I ‘member, ‘cause sometimes you’d headbutt my balls when I came around corners. Little bugger!” We both laughed, then he remembered the lighter. Flick, flick, flick, nothing.
I thought about it. “But what if I go to the moon? Like the man with the strong arms.”
With a deep sigh, Pops patted my leg. “It’s erbout time we had a talk. Yer a man now. Practically eleven, eh?” He itched his scruff and flakes fell. I nodded. “You know erbout death?”
“Uh-huh. From huntin’ an’ trappin’.”
“Right, so look here.” He leaned forward. “See my eyes? They’re yella.”
“Yeah… and what’re those red spiderwebs—?”
“They’re bloodshot. Means somethin’s dyin’ on my insides.”
Pops reached between his feet, fishing his fingers in the soil until he found an earthworm. He squashed the worm in his fingers and sniffed the guts. “Too many folks fear death now o’ days. They come ‘round and make the bodies disappear. They stick ‘em in bottles or graveyards. But not me. Yer gonna smoke and dance over my body ‘cause dyin’s a celebration.” Flick, flick—
“Who’s gonna smoke and dance over my body?”
—flick, nothing. “You won’t know. Dyin’s like sleepin’. Like how it felt before you came out C-section.” He cupped my jaw, rubbing the worm guts on my cheek, then the other cheek. My chest inflated with the cold, grainy war paint. “Yer a man now, Worm Cheeks.” He paused. “Ha-ha, I like that. Worm Cheeks!”
I scratched the mosquito bite. “But you’re big and hairy and I’m small and smooth, see?” I rubbed my arm. “Am I still a man?”
“It ain’t about the hair on yer chest, it’s about the hair on yer soul.” He patted my sternum with a bruising force. “Yer like a great big bear inside.” He jumped up with his arms in the air, teetering on stiff legs. “ROAR!”
I hopped out of my chair and stretched my hands high. The cigarette fell from my mouth as I roared up at him. He laughed wildly. “Attaboy, Worm Cheeks! You got the soul of a bear, the heart of a wolf, and the blood of yer old man—”
His eyes shot open wider than the moon’s. Two big O’s. His face turned red then purple, then a blue vein swelled near his Adam’s apple, snaking under his chin. He clutched his chest and wheezed, then with the stiffness of a rake, Pops face-planted in the grass. I took the lighter from his pocket and picked up my cigarette. Just when I thought it might not light—flick, flick, flick, flame—it did.
I looked up at the moon and knew it was time to smoke and dance.
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