Jeremy S. McQueen
excerpt from a novel, Nights On Fire
The only reason I’m here now hinges on the fact that I wasn’t there then. The Clover County General and the state news channels didn’t talk about that as much. Of course, that wasn’t the big story in their minds. But my absence from our valley home goes on as the feature that replays on a steady loop in my thoughts, as if someone keeps forgetting to change the reel for the picture show. Every once in a while it skips and I see Mikey’s soot-covered face.
He was there when the roof caved, consuming our childhood and all that went with it. The only thing the media could report was that three people were in the house when the fire ignited—and only one made it out alive. That much became common knowledge, since it was my brother’s testimony to the Clover County Sheriff’s Department. They decided it was best to lock him up on account of his juvenile record—a petty drug charge and one high school fist-throwing contest. I suppose they felt like they were caging a real menace to society.
Although one survived out of three, the circumstances took my whole family that day in July. State investigators determined that a fuel accelerant was used to increase the temperatures and the rapid burning. The county volunteer fire department didn’t have a snowball’s chance in Hell to smother the blaze. The fallen wood frame still crackled amongst the rubble late in the afternoon when I finally moved my shaky legs about the seared lawn.
But loneliness wasn’t always squatting on my charred doorstep. My family tree was small for more than a few generations—not exactly the norm for where we grew up. But I had family. They were as loving as any child could hope for his kin to be. I suppose that’s one part of the reason I’m still here now. Two of the other three parts sit at a table close to the stage.
The bass line hums through the open café on the fourth count of the drumsticks. We always begin our set with this cover and tonight won’t be the exception. I watch Curtis and Toni from my chair on the platform—his hand tries to keep up with his mind, jotting down whatever line follows the one before it. Toni sips on her Cherry Coke, studying her playscript like it’s the Book of Revelation. When the music makes it around the room, both sets of eyes look up at me.
My mouth almost touches the microphone, as if I’m leaning in for an intimate moment with a lover I’ll always know better than anybody else. Then, at the touch of a cymbal, my belly releases the raspy lyrics from “Come Together”—more like Steve Tyler and less of John Lennon than my Daddy would’ve preferred. The gravel in the words kicks up my anger and frustration for a stolen past, while the little café bobs its collective head like a floater on a fishing line.
If John and Caroline were here, they’d be on their feet right now, dancing and swaying with one another while Mikey laughed and shook his head at them. But he’d be tapping his black Chuck Taylors to the rhythm, not missing a single beat. This was Mikey’s favorite song—back when we had a home. He’d put the entire album on repeat and leave us all for just a little while. Now, he might be leaving me for good if I can’t think of some way to help him get out.
My folks loved the Beatles. Mommy gave me my name mostly on account of Daddy’s insistence. He liked to tell me that most people only need one hand to count their dependable friends. Those few become part of your family. Mommy would then chime in, “He just likes to hear himself talk, Jude. All of Clover County thinks they’re Johnny McElroy’s best friend.”
It was more than just plain luck to meet Curtis Wilson during my freshman year at Andrew Jackson High. We were both regulars at a popular lunch hour card table. He figured out my fondness for bluffing at poker before I did—a feat that cost me a pocketful of quarters.
Curtis moved to Clover from Chicago, where his father was raised. Mr. Wilson, a man of science and a mechanical engineer for Toyota Motors, married a native Kentuckian—who happened to be a registered nurse—fresh out of college. They moved to the Appalachian Mountains to be with Curtis’ grandmother in her final days—which might’ve seemed short-term.
His Granny Harris fought tooth and nail for more than three years, enduring the rides back and forth to UK Medical for her chemo bouts with the Devil. Not long after the cancer took his granny, Curtis’ mother disappeared—or likely skipped town. Mr. Wilson never shared an explanation, and he didn’t go chasing after her either. He and Curtis just hunkered down to ride out the storm, waiting for Sophie to wander back home. They’re both still waiting.
A lady near the front of the café thumps a pack against her palm, and draws a lone coffin nail. She lights the slim roll and begins sucking out the nicotine one long breath at a time, as if all that keeps her moving lies inside its paper. She nods her head and shakes her hips like she’s the belle of the ball, glancing over her shoulders to see who’s paying attention. I reckon Curtis’ mommy could be doing the same dance somewhere, but I wouldn’t have a single inkling.
When Mr. Wilson started spending more time away from home, Curtis stayed with my family. He seemed to enjoy the noise of being in a lively house, and Mommy and Daddy were happy to provide any kind of stability for him. Often it felt like I had another brother, a twin born a few months before me. He’d do all his homework in my bedroom, and work on articles for the Clover County General while listening to me callus my fingers with chord progressions.
“Do you ever wonder where your mom is, Curtis?” I asked one night, taking my eyes away from the fret board to stare at his body slumped over my desk. His brown eyes met mine.
“Yes, Jude. Of course, I do. There’s not an hour that goes by that I don’t think about her.”
“Do you ever hear from her? Phone calls or postcards?” He looked at me for half a minute without doing a thing, possibly thinking about another time, before Kentucky.
“Nope. Trust me—I’ve prayed for that very thing—anything to know that she’s out there somewhere, doing all right. But, so far, my prayers have been put on the backburner, I suppose. Maybe I should go to church more often—bump my selfishness to the front of the line.”
“Well, I ain’t sure if that’s got anything to do with it,” I said, lowering my head back to the neck of my Martin. “We don’t go to church any more often than we go see the Reds. You know that. And I’ve prayed for plenty of stuff. Some of it has come through and some hain’t.”
“Oh yeah. What have you prayed for lately?” Curtis raised his eyebrows at me, interested, but not sure he believed that I’d have anything worth praying about.
“I prayed for a guitar a few years ago,” I said, smiling a little. “That one worked out alright. I’ve prayed for other stuff, too. But just because it ain’t happened yet, doesn’t mean my prayers won’t be answered.” Curtis nodded at me and bowed his head back to his notebook.
The dancer pops the top on her silver Zippo and flicks the wheel again. The spark takes to the dry tobacco, and clouds of smoke roll out of her nostrils and drift toward the stage, coating the back of my throat. I can’t help thinking about my folks. Her eye sockets sink deep, draining her youth. Although she looks as old as death under her young gal mask, she starts twirling again when my fingers find the strings. Her hoarse voice tries to sing along with “Tiny Dancer.”
The summer before our senior year changed everything. Curtis and I attended a college camp in Richmond. It doesn’t take too much imagination to dream up how precious weeks away in the summertime can be for two high school boys. That time also nudged us both to escape our small town, even if that meant going to college—a wild beast nobody in my family had tamed.
Each foothold was an effort of careful precision and focus, while my leg muscles quivered with weakness. My heels shuffled around on the sandy, slick rocks, as I struggled to adjust my eyesight to the darkness.
But the idea of school took a swift turn when Toni Lyons snuck into my life. Our introductions came on a mid-summer outing, while stumbling through the vastness of Mammoth Cave. Our camp group joined the historic tour, and was led down inside the Earth through a slight decline, and then, steeper steps. The world got dark all around us.
Each foothold was an effort of careful precision and focus, while my leg muscles quivered with weakness. My heels shuffled around on the sandy, slick rocks, as I struggled to adjust my eyesight to the darkness. I’ve been a careful daredevil since birth—never broken a single bone. So, it’s ironic how my cautious side slid me into second base for the first time.
Wall lamps light most of Mammoth Cave throughout the tour pathways, but crevices sometimes block out the direct beams, allowing non-spelunkers the thrill of becoming briefly acquainted with the unknown around them. As the walkways narrowed, my eyes shifted downward to the wet stone beneath my sneakers. The rock walls were closing in on me.
Tight spaces and dimness rouse a primal reaction to move with caution. Most people feel out a way through their surroundings, and that’s how I handled my situation inside the dark cavern. After my arms were stretched, my fingertips lengthened. Nothing. So, bending my wrist backward, keeping my palms forward, my right hand finally met some resistance.
The feeling was soft, but firm and sizeable—unlike anything I’d grabbed up to that point—on that day or any prior. The cushion padding ruled out the possibility of limestone, and at the ripe age of seventeen, a teenage girl’s voice wasn’t even a tad expected.
“Um…who are you, and what do you think you’re doing?” Even hearing her didn’t startle me enough. The severed line between my brain and nerve endings made me freeze. My limbs seized—and if I’m honest—the tone and inflection of the sound might’ve caused me to squeeze a little more. “Okay, that’s enough pal. I think you’ve introduced yourself.”
Then, the light from a Nokia filled the space between us. In the high contrast, from the green glow of the backlit screen, her emerald eyes were fierce, and the paleness of her milky white skin shimmered, as if we were standing under a spotlighted sunlit luster.
The dullness of the engulfing black and gray couldn’t shade her auburn hair—a fiery collage of radiant, autumn leaves bundled in flowing tresses. The richness of the color brought me back into the moment—to notice my hand, resting on her right breast.
“I’m uh, very sorry. I didn’t mean to—” I jerked my hand away, as my voice tapered off. Words were caught in my throat, not willing to mutter a second thought. My feet must’ve kept moving while my head was down and my hands extended. She’d stopped, and turned just enough to move sideways through the walkway, offering up a brief alignment.
“It’s okay,” she said, holding her phone closer to her face. “You’re not the first guy to squeeze my tit. You are probably the first to ever introduce yourself with a boob shake—maybe in the entire history of modern civilization.” Her remark sent a rush of redness into my cheeks, but I focused on her mischievous grin, until the light from the Nokia disappeared.
The lady’s legs give out on her. She plops down at a nearby table to swig her Mountain Dew and pick at her leftover French fries. The waitress delivers two heaping plates to Curtis and Toni—burgers from the grill and two mounds of onion rings. The greasy batter smells like a happier time—when Mommy and Daddy would take Mikey and me to the county fair. It makes me sick when it mingles with the memory of the noxious air rising from the burnt ruins.
The band pauses for a minute to talk over the set. I always like to play one of Toni’s favorites when she’s about to sink her teeth into a bite of food. I’m not sure if she’s ever figured out this sly scheme of mine. But it always supplies the same effect. She’ll ignore her burger and keep her emerald gaze fixed on me for the whole song, not able to abandon her smile. My fingers open with a simple progression and repeat it once before she looks up from her playscript.
Toni’s lips stretch as wide as the Red River and her hands lay the pages on the table without breaking our locked eyes. She begins mouthing the words that Tom Petty wrote years ago, while keeping the rhythm with my guitar. We both sing about a good girl Tom must’ve known a while back, and I know how he felt then. I see her sitting just a few steps from me.
Upon exiting the cave that day, Toni found me. “Hey, I’m really sorry for not being
aware—” I began, “you probably didn’t think you were gonna get felt up on your cave tour.” She was smiling, which gave me a little more confidence. “Anyway, I’m Jude. I thought I’d offer a more traditional handshake.” She took my hand, and her top teeth bit down on her lower lip.
“Well, that’s okay, Jude. But, since you were already so friendly—maybe you could at least take me to a movie sometime.” Her words almost knocked the wind out of me, and the way she said it—the look in her eyes and the slight grin growing from her mouth—could’ve coaxed me into following her to the end of the flat world, and we would’ve left right then.
Toni and I became two peas in a pod throughout the rest of the summer. She even liked Curtis, which made us a good trio at times. She didn’t live in our town. But her house was only about an hour away, over in Perry County. The drive was an easy one on the Daniel Boone Parkway, and we’d meet every weekend and sometimes weekdays after school.
I’m liable to never forget our first date, when she ate all her French fries, then ate mine, and finished the leftovers on the plate at the booth behind us. That was just one instance of how she could always eat more than any man in the room while somehow managing to keep a slender frame—as if fried taters and cheeseburgers build and tone muscle mass.
And our Christmas holiday that year was the first time meeting one another’s parents. After spending the morning with Toni’s family, her folks let her ride back home with me for the afternoon. When we were late making it back for her curfew, she marched me inside her house to make sure her mother and father knew I was taking it easy on snowy roads.
During our first spring together, we attended two proms. Both times I had to wait for her to get dressed when I arrived at her A-frame on the hill. Once because, even after a manicure and hairstyling, she was on a tractor down in the valley, giving the grass its first spring cut. And the second time, she was in jeans and boots, helping her daddy build a cattle fence.
But our first visit to Flat Lick Falls taught me the most I can ever recall soaking up in one day. One of our impromptu weekday visits became a whimsical picnic jaunt. Toni packed all the food in one of those old-style baskets, made from wicker and oak, smiling as she climbed inside my Daddy’s cherry Chevy, tossing the basket on the bench seat between our anxious bodies.
The contour of her figure looked smoother than the waxed fiberglass in the May sunlight. She wore a red, plaid-pattern sundress, with brown, Trojan-style sandals. Her dazzling hair was braided behind her head and lay over her left shoulder. She put her feet on the dashboard as soon as she was inside, and then crossed her legs, noticing my eyes on her thigh. She commenced to tease me, tugging the hem of the dress towards her thin waistline like a slow breeze.
When we reached the forested park, the pickup slowed to a rest. I hopped out, repositioning my pants and its contents, as we moved down the trail to the head of the falls. Flat Lick lets guests step right next to the waterfall, and hikers often jump from the top. A shallow, cold pool collects below, ready to cleanse the soul like a baptism on a sweltering Kentucky day. We found a wooded nook with a view of the water off to the side of the drop.
Our picnic—fresh strawberries, cheddar and Pepper Jack cheeses, mini-sandwiches, and sparkling grape cider—was all gone within half an hour. Afterwards, we sat on the blanket, staring out toward the waterfall, while my left arm rested on Toni’s shoulders.
She reached down and took my free hand, placed it on her leg, and slid it toward her inner thigh. Within moments, my hands were reacquainted with her chest. The buttons at the top of her dress popped open, and her hem became level with her waist, while she unbuttoned my pants and climbed on top of my legs. Her hands tugged at the seams of my t-shirt, pulling the fabric over my head and twirling it in the air, before tossing it to the jade clearing.
There we were on the blanket, in sort of a meditative pose, relishing a blissful moment—and me, unsure of her knowledge, studying the fluidity of her movements. The change in temperature coupled with Flat Lick’s cooling mist sent a shiver up my naked spine.
After the first wave of euphoria passed, we sat there in that same shameless way, holding each other—her weight resting on top of me while I leaned forward to meet her in a sitting position. The sheen from our sweaty chests glistened like morning dew as we stared into the spring foliage. Toni lowered her chin closer to mine, slowing her heart with each give-out breath.
“What is this thing we have, Jude?” She opened her eyes to look into mine.
“I ain’t sure,” I replied. “How are we supposed to know?”
“I don’t know. I thought you might give me a hint.” She smiled and watched me sigh.
“I feel like we’re just free fallin’ out across Wood Creek Lake and nobody can even see us. They’re all just sittin’ on their docks and bass boats, and we can go anywhere.”
Small dimples appeared after hearing my words and I could tell she liked the notion. “What happens now? This won’t change anything between us, right? I don’t want it to be weird.”
“How could today make anything weird? As far as I’m concerned, this might be the best day of my life. I’m sure things will change a little—but only for the better, I think.”
“I’m glad you said that,” she said, letting her smile break open and allowing a tear to cut loose. “I wanted it to be special for you—for both of us.” This was a side I’d never seen from her. Her playfulness was gone, and her heart was exposed like porcelain under the waterfall.
“Well, I want you to know—I can’t rightly think of anything more special to me at this very moment. So, I reckon I’d have to ask you, Miss Lyons—what does happen now? I’m okay stayin’ right here for the time bein’, until you’re good and ready to move.”
“I just want us to be with each other. And I needed to be sure you wanted that, too. I feel like the best is yet to come, Jude. High school’s just a silly beginning to most things.”
“So, you wanna be a team? ‘Cause we can be whatever we want us to be.”
“Okay then,” she said smiling. “It’s a deal. We’ll be a team—a team with breathtaking benefits.” She pressed her lips against mine, separating long enough to whisper. “I think I love you, Jude McElroy.” She widened her grin, showing her pleasure in saying the words aloud.
“I love you, too, Miss Lyons.”
When our set closes, I walk out of the café on Main with two of the three that keep me hanging on. We hold each other just as we have many times before, traipsing around campus in the night like three strays roaming from door-to-door. We find the little ranch-style off Prospect and settle into our twin beds. Toni climbs in with me. Life might be as good as it’ll ever be.
Jeremy S. McQueen is the author of the essay and poetry collection Pillow Talk Confessions (Leisure Island Press, 2010). McQueen is currently finishing his first novel, Nights On Fire. He earned his Bachelor of Arts degree from Berea College and his Master of Science degree from Eastern Kentucky University. He lives in Somerset, Kentucky.