Nebraska Center for Writers

DROWNING IN FLAMES
by Craig Womack

"DON'T WORRY SON,

"Don't worry, son. Your Aunt Lucille knows what to do when it hurts." I put my arms around his neck, and he lifted me from beneath the covers. I held one hand over my throbbing ear and tensed each time I felt the pulse of pain.

"Shh ... shh . ... You'll be all right." My uncle patted my head, and I leaned over and lay against his neck, wiping my tears on his shoulder. "Lucille's already up and sitting in her chair waiting for you. She'll make you better." He patted my head again, and, when we got to Aunt Lucy, seated in the kitchen, I unwrapped my arms from around him. She reached out, clutched me, and sat me in the middle of her lap. I turned around to face her while my uncle left the room.
"Son," she said. "Listen. Stop fussing with that earache." I had my hand clapped over my ear. She put my hand in my lap, and I looked at her hands, calloused and rough like a man's, always moving while she spoke. "I reckon I'll just talk into your good ear then," she joked, pulling on the one that didn't hurt none. She lit the Marlboro and breathed in the smoke, looking past me into the darkness outside the kitchen window. I turned and saw nothing. I bent to the side, turned my face toward her, and she moved close. She breathed deeply, and the red end of the cigarette lit up her face in the dimness. For a moment only, I saw her eyes, brown, nested in furrows, looking straight at me. She exhaled a long stream of smoke into my ear; I felt a hot wave against a bank of pain. Aunt Lucy, breathing smoke and stories into me, said, "Mama useta say, hofónof, long time ago, that in the beginning it was so foggy you couldn't see nowheres, not even anyone around you."
"I don't want to hear a story," I protested. "You done told me that. Get out your trumpet and play 'Stardust.'" I loved the sound of that dreamy old tune.
"I can't go playing trumpet here in the middle of the night. Your uncle has work in the morning."
"But everybody says you play all night in the bars," I tell her.
"Who says that?" Lucy asks, annoyed.
I figure I better not tell. She might not be happy to know that my mom, her own niece, says such things.
"I may play in bars, but does this look like a beer joint to you?"
I never have seen the kind of place she's talking about, but I sure heard people go on about it and how a woman has no business there. According to some of them I shouldn't even be staying over at Aunt Lucy's house.
I felt her legs, so much bigger than mine; her muscles relaxed beneath my fingertips as she began to speak. Lucy pulled me closer, deeper into her lap, until I could feel her breathing in and out, each exhalation in rhythm with her voice. The smoke floated with her words through the kitchen, and a cloud settled around an old tube radio on a high shelf above her head.
"Josh, are you listening?" she asked. I stopped tugging on her robe and looked up at her. She continued. "See, a mighty fog had covered us after we'd settled in our new home. You know, we'd just moved there after the earth had opened up and spit us out in the beginning. We'd come a long ways. For a long time we wandered about in darkness. And we all — some way or other out in the dark, I s'pose — got lost from one another; couldn't see nothing, and we got real scared. Whenever we heard someone we knew calling, we followed their voice and held fast to that person, so we wouldn't be separated."
I wrapped my arms around her waist until I could feel her flesh beneath the robe. I clasped my hands together behind her back.

Reprinted with permission
from Drowning in Flames
Copyright © 2001
by Craig Womack


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