I. Lightning Bugs
If the creek that flowed 100 yards east of our front door was my childhood’s lifeblood, the concrete and limestone bridge that crossed the stream was its heart.
The bridge had been built sometime between the 1950s or ’60s and eternity. The north side served as a dam. The west end was raised above ground before descending to the bridge itself. At the east end of the bridge another set of four or five more steps ascended to another raised section. One of the workmen had left a single hand print and a boot print in the concrete on the east side. No initials, no date. I liked to put my tiny hands and feet in the impressions, which gathered water when it rained. It was touching the past.
A mulberry tree and thick stands of nettles–we called it itchweed–grew along the west bank. In summer I’d climb the tree to gather the berries and put them in my cereal. Water pooled a foot and a half deep on the north side of the bridge before flowing over it, making a waterfall on the south side. Long strands of slimy green moss clung to the bridge beneath the flowing water. The Bell kids called it pussy hair.
The Bell kids–Rick, Sally, and Billy–lived just west of us, where our block-long street T-boned with the north-south main drag. Their house sat on a small hill. Next door to them, to the south, was an abandoned frame house, rumored to be haunted. Once we gathered the courage to creep up on the porch and look in the window. Dust-covered dishes and empty coffee cans on a table, frozen forever.
Behind their back yard were woods and a garage. A farm was tucked back in the woods. We’d hear roosters crowing sometimes. Behind the garage the Bell kids smoked cigarettes and played with matches stolen from their parents.
Rick was the oldest, about my sister’s age, four years older than me. He was quiet, thoughtful. Sally, the middle child, liked to place crank calls to the male burlesque club downtown, where we suspected their mother hung out. Billy was my age, a bed-wetter with bright red hair and freckles. One day he lounged around his room naked, displaying the angry rash on his chronically wet skin.
The Bell kids’ parents were shadowy figures. Their father drove a truck for a living. Now and then he’d bring home carnival trinkets for us: knock-off Hot Wheels cars, plastic toy soldiers, candy. He also kept a box of old Playboy magazines in the parents’ bedroom, an extension to the original house. Their mother seemed to have grown up hard. She kept the kids in line the best she could, but she often wasn’t home after school, and their dad would be on the road.
Sometimes I would spend a Friday night at the Bells’ house. The night always started with excitement and ended with Saturday morning disappointment–just another day of grocery shopping and hanging around the house or the creek and waiting for Saturday night TV and Sunday morning church. I remember trying to sleep on the floor of the Bells’ living room once, cars hissing by in the fresh rain outside, The Untouchables on TV, counting dead cockroaches under the furniture.
Some combination of the Bell kids were often at the creek with me. The creek flowed through the Parkway, a 26-mile stretch of green space and curving boulevard connecting St. Joseph, Missouri’s, Krug Park on the north side to Hyde Park on the south. Designed in 1918, it is one part of the city that has retained its dignity and utility since its conception. The section of the Parkway west of the creek joined our lawn; a row of bushes and our two apple trees informally marked the property line, but the Parkway gave us a vast back yard.
On the east side of the creek, a football-field-sized expanse of flat green rose to a hill. From the top of the hill I could survey it all–the gentle green slope, the field, the creek, our yard, our trees, our house. We sled down it in the winter.
We didn’t often play in the field. Sometimes we’d fly kites there, but being on the other side of the creek, it seemed like a million miles away. But one night, as the sun was setting behind our house, Rick Bell, some other kids, and I decided to use the field to hunt fireflies or, as we called them, lightning bugs.
Hunting lightning bugs was a nightly ritual in the early summer. Our yard was perfect for it, being filled with trees and bushes and a grape vine that gave the insects cover until the sky started turning pink, then purple, then black. Slowly they would start to venture out, glowing brightly with their yellow-green lights. They were easy to catch, especially before dark. Their lights would shine just long enough to give a sense of their trajectory, and then we could follow the shadows of their bodies against the gloaming. Slow and clumsy, they were easy to grab from the air, leaving a queer grassy scent on our fingers.
We usually hunted lightning bugs and put them in a glass jar so we could watch them crawl around and glow for an hour or so, then we would release them. We’d put some blades of grass in the jar, punch holes in the metal lid with an ice pick for air.
We weren’t always so friendly, though. Sometimes we’d take a few and turn them over, clenched in trembling fingers, while we pulled out the light with the other hand. We’d stick the light on our fingers like a ring, waving our hands around in the growing darkness.
That night in the field we lined our jars up on the east end of the bridge, near the foot- and hand prints. Rick stood at the east end of the bridge while we ran through the night collecting our lightning bugs. When I had several in my hand, I raced to Rick at the bridge for him to help put them in the jar. I held my hand out carefully as he placed his hand below mine so I could scrape the bugs into it. As soon as he had them in his hand, he threw them on the bridge, stomped them with his foot, and smeared them across the concrete, leaving shining streaks of bleeding color against the gray slab.
God started taking my mother’s voice around 1980. This was my 14-year-old perception: God was taking her voice. At the end of that year, Mark David Chapman shot and killed John Lennon outside his New York City home. So God took John Lennon, too.
My mother’s singing skills were legendary at our parish, St. Francis Xavier, where she sang every Sunday. I went to the parish grade school, and kids sometimes imitated her amazing voice–not in a mocking way, but in admiration. They were jealous. I knew that.
What was originally thought to be a cold, then laryngitis, was eventually diagnosed as Laryngeal dystonia. Though she would never solo in church again, she continued to sing in the choir until she died, from leukemia, in 2014. My dad would drive her to Columbia, Missouri, several times a year–a 350-mile round trip–for BoTox injections into her vocal cords. For weeks after the treatment mom’s voice would be high-pitched and mousy, but it was easier for her to talk, if not sing.
But in the years before all this there was rushing around the house on Sunday mornings. We would all go together to church, and it was a scramble to get everyone dressed and to the car. Mom would be working on dinner so it would be ready to eat when we got home–pounding meat, quartering chicken, peeling vegetables.
To the north of our house was a clean, 1950s-era subdivision called Strader Terrace. I went to school with some Strader Terrace kids, but more of them were public-school kids. They seemed dangerous to me, unpredictable. One of them, Wally Bennett, terrorized me after school one day. I ran home and hid in my room and asked God to do something terrible to him.
Outside of our dining-room window was a tree, and in the tree birds of some sort had made a nest and laid eggs. My mom could tell you what kinds of birds they were. She loved birds, because they sang and flitted about and were pretty and harmless. She faithfully kept feeders outside the kitchen window so she could watch them in the morning and as she was doing dishes at the sink.
One Sunday afternoon after church we were gathered around the table in the dining room, mom going between the dining room and the kitchen bringing in dinner. Suddenly, shadows appeared on the window. Mom stopped what she was doing, and we all looked outside. Strader Terrace kids in our yard. What did they want?
We all watched as the kids started looking around the birds’ nest in the tree. Then one of them reached into the nest and crushed all the eggs with his thumb.
My mother gasped as her free hand instinctively went to her chest. Then, after a moment, she went back to serving us dinner.
One great thing about growing up on the Parkway was that it connected not only the city’s north and south sides, but also the high schools that anchored both, Lafayette and Benton. In between the Parkway passed the city’s largest high school, Central, a few miles southwest of what would be my high school, Bishop LeBlond.
The Parkway was thus a thoroughfare for partying teenagers, with lots of places to pull off the road and disappear into the woods with a six pack or two. The green swards along the Parkway route itself were also convenient dumping grounds for empties passed from passing cars or, if the police were in pursuit, full cans.
This became important to me because when I was eleven or twelve, I became interested in collecting beer cans. I’ve since realized that many American boys became fascinated with beer cans around this time, the late 1970s. It was the beginning of massive consolidation in the brewing industry. St. Joseph had been home to the M.K. Goetz brewery, which was purchased by Pearl Brewing in 1961. The St. Joseph Pearl brewery closed in 1976, and by the time I was collecting beer cans, both brands, and Country Club, another Goetz product, were hard to find in St. Joe.
There was a parkway overpass just east of the bridge at the creek, and it was great beer-can hunting grounds. For some reason teenagers seemed to enjoy throwing cans off of things, like overpasses, and the grassless loess soil beneath the overpass was largely undisturbed when I started exploring it–graffiti notwithstanding. I’d find older cans there, even some coveted “flattops,” manufactured before ring-pull cans became ubiquitous.
The overpass was a place of mystery for me because it was rumored that our block-long street, Plattsburg Avenue, had once continued east from where it ended at our house and continued on, over the creek, under the overpass, and on to Plattsburg, Missouri, some thirty miles away. While this may not have been completely true, there was a road cut approaching the bridge from the west side that continuing on to the east on the other side, so it was easy to imagine a street having been there once. In the late 1990s I confirmed these suspicions when I found a map that did indeed show Plattsburg Avenue extending to the east beyond where it ends today and under the Parkway, though it was not clear whether it continued on to the city of Plattsburg.
One day as I approached the underpass, I saw a brown paper bag on the ground. The teenagers often threw cans away in bags, so I bent to pick it up. The bag was empty. Beneath it lay a bloody thing on the grass, dead and stripped of its fur, black holes where the eyes had been.
I dropped the bag and ran home.