Honorable Mention, Adult Fiction Category; 2010 Bethesda Magazine/Bethesda Urban Partnership Short Story and Essay Contest
Each year in August, when my Grandfather comes to visit, I am reminded why we still keep the two rusted wire chairs on the front porch. They get no use the rest of the year—my family is too comfortable in the air-conditioned house to venture outside for long. But, during my Grandfather’s visit, he retires to the porch a few times each day, sinks comfortably into one of the chairs, and smokes a cigarette.
It’s late evening when I join him for his last smoke. The sun has almost sunk behind the tree line and the neighborhood is mostly quiet—only the gentle humming of an air conditioning unit and the chirping of a few crickets. My Grandfather stares across the front lawn to where a few fireflies are lazily floating around, then he picks up the red and white package from the small table between us. He removes a cigarette, clenches it between his lips, takes a lighter from his shirt pocket, lights the cigarette, and then puts the lighter and pack down on the table. He does all this in one motion, with the instinct of one who has long forgotten that smoking is a learned habit.
His face shows the signs of smoke and of years: yellowed teeth, hard lines around his lips, splotches of age on his forehead, and eyes that are magnified to three times their normal size by Coke-bottle glasses. He doesn’t look like other smokers I have seen—young women with skinny thighs sitting on pool tables, delicately balancing cigarettes between slender, well-manicured fingers. A headline that says, “Be Young Again.”
He smokes without using his hands, still staring across the front lawn, the glow of his cigarette pulsing rhythmically. I have read recently that that little circle of fire can reach temperatures of 1200 degrees.
“It was hot today,” I tell him. “Nasty weather, huh?”
“Well,” he removes the cigarette from his lips, but he doesn’t turn to look at me. “I suppose it’s summer, after all,” he replies before replacing the cigarette.
He rests his hands on the arms of the chair. One of his fingers finds a rust spot and begins to pick at it. His hands are leathery and badly scarred. I try to imagine where the scars come from. It can’t be, as my dad once told me, a nervous habit—scratching his hands until they bleed and then picking the scabs.
“But wasn’t he in the Navy during the war?” I asked my dad a few days before Grandpa arrived. I imagined the scars being remnants of some heroic deed that he must have performed—pulling wounded men off a flaming battleship and swimming them three miles to shore.
My dad just laughs. “He talks like a war hero,” he says, shaking his head “but he never saw any combat.”
The fireflies are coming out in full force now, a few hundred blinking lights hovering above the front lawn. I try to keep my eyes on one that flies near the porch, but between glows it floats back out to the lawn and gets lost in the group.
My grandpa is still staring across the front yard, his eyes wide. “I’ve never seen so many lights,” he says. “Not since the ship yards.” I wait, expecting him to explain, but he sits silently.
“What was it like?” I ask him. “The Navy? The War?”
“Hell,” he replies after a moment’s pause. “War is hell.”
The line sounds familiar, like something I’ve heard in a movie, or on another one of those cigarette ads. I imagine the tag line: “War without Winston is hell.”
“What was the worst part?” I ask.
He looks at me, the first time he has looked at me since we’ve been on the porch. His large eyes blink a few times. I feel like he’s trying to figure me out—trying to figure out why I’m asking these questions. He extinguishes his cigarette and flicks the butt onto the front lawn. He pulls another one out of the pack and lights it. “That’s where I learned this,” he says, holding out the cigarette between his thumb and forefinger.
The air is silent now. It’s grown cool enough that even the air conditioning units are taking a break. I can only hear my Grandfather’s deep and rattly breathing. He has nearly finished his cigarette, and with each drag, it grows shorter and shorter. One of the fireflies has ventured back over to the porch. It hovers near my grandfather, and I can see his eyes following it. It flies in a few tight circles between our chairs, as if it’s an airplane making its final approach, and then it settles onto the back of my Grandpa’s hand.
For a moment, he stares at it. Then he slowly lifts his hand and watches the glowing bug crawl across his knuckles. Without taking his eyes off of it, he slowly moves his free hand and pinches the bug around its torso. It tries to flutter its wings and its glow turns rapid—an insect SOS, I imagine.
“I’ll teach you something,” my grandpa says, speaking out of the corner of his mouth and letting the cigarette wobble between his lips. I imagine him directing my attention to the insect’s lower abdomen and explaining how a firefly can produce light without producing any heat. He will tell me that there are 2,000 firefly species in the world, and one—the female Photuris—uses her light to attract male fireflies, and then eats them.
“She is the femme fatale,” he will say. And then he will impart a grandfatherly life-lesson on me: “Beware the femme fatale.”
Instead he holds the bug up to his eyes. “We used to play with these when we were kids,” he says. With his other hand, he positions the insect between his thumb and forefinger and presses it gently until it pops. He squeezes the bioluminescent goo from the back of the bug, then flicks the extinguished body to the ground. “If we got enough of them, we could paint our faces like warriors.”
He removes his glasses and I notice how delicate his eyes look.
“We would smear it here and here,” he says, indicating the areas just above his cheek bones. He does not actually smear it. He only points to the area where, at a younger age, he would have innocently placed it. He stares at me for a second, perhaps waiting for my reaction—I smile a little, not sure of what to say—then he replaces his glasses and wipes the guts on the leg of his pants.
“Well, I’m turning in for the night,” he says before taking one last drag on his cigarette. Then he drops the butt on the porch, taps it out with his foot, and goes inside.
I remain for a few more moments, watching the oblivious flickering lights over the front lawn. I look down at the porch to where my Grandpa has dropped his cigarette. There is a faint green glow on its filter. I sit for a moment and watch the dying light. Then I twist it under the toe of my shoe and snuff it out completely.
Ben Smith, a resident of Poolesville, is a 2009 graduate of Brigham Young University, in Provo, Utah, where he studied English, with an emphasis on creative writing. He is continuing to pursue writing. He works part-time at Barnes and Noble in Bethesda, and as a freelance Web designer and programmer.