Chewing on the heat lamp cold wedding fare, filet mignon and rubbery pink shrimp, Ethan watched the surface of his wine vibrate in the thick stemmed glass. His nephew, too small, anxious, was kicking the table through the buzz of excitement and clinking glasses. Ethan starred at his plate, pushing the butter sogged green beans with his fork. He looked at the hodgepodge of faces around the table and nodded politely at the lame banter. His sister was pregnant and couldn't eat. The baby inside her liked to push her gag reflex button. She had narrowly escaped the ceremony twice while walking fast to the frankincense flavored washroom. Her husband had put plenty of hours in the week before and the shadows under his eyes showed blue. Mom was chatting it up with long lost cousins. A chair was empty at the table.
"Hey, the boy looks like he needs to run a bit, I'm going to take him to the lobby.
Excuse me." He said.
The table looked up and smiled while his brother-in-law unstrapped the little boy from the chair. Standing up, he placed the crumpled white knit napkin on the table.
Ethan pushed the brass plated handle down and opened the faux oak door into the banquet hall of wannabe fancy. Wall to wall plush geo-carpet laid posh under gaudy tiered chandeliers. Printed pastels the motif. Alex ran. He ran fast. The three adjacent banquet rooms were in effect. Black and white clad servers shuffled like matadors, while folks in fancy dresses and ties milled in the stale air con hallway, sneaking a smoke or hitting the head, before returning to their respective wedding stall. Ethan let Alex run, his legs too short and his head craning back to see if he would follow.
Ethan rubbed his temples, feeling too much of last night and the stress that finds a soul at family gatherings.
"Cute kid. How old is he?
He looked up into a face he might have known too long ago. Her hair was ear length jet black and fastened flat with dragonfly barrettes. Her face was angular and curvy full. A black gown hung on her with spaghetti straps like a curtain blowing in an open window. Her collarbones stuck out of her skin, and little pools of shadow swayed in the shallows there like a crescent moon. Her breasts were firm and pushed up. She was holding a cigarette close to her face and her lips were pasty pink.
"Uh, he just turned two." He stammered, feeling sweat on his fingertips.
She held out her free hand and introduced herself as Judith, an old friend of his cousin. He exchanged pleasantries, and then Alex came up and grabbed his hand. "Outside, Pleeease…" He pleaded desperately, tugging Ethan's hand. Ethan stretched a smile (all lips) when she started to walk toward the glass doors.
"C'mon then, let's go mister antsinyerpants."
It was the middle of July in Chicago and the heat index was sweltering even though dusk had drifted in like midnight blue over the polluted sunset. She held the door for them and reached her hand out to Alex. He is a jovial sort and extra kind to pretty ladies. He ditched Ethan no problem as he felt his little hand slip out of his as she ran with him, heels clicking to a photo shoot veranda across the walkway.
Ethan looked at his watch and at the teenage valets checking out her heart shaped ass, slapping each other in the arms and laughing, one said "MILF" under his breath. Ethan meandered over to the veranda where Judith was sitting with Alex on her lap, holding him close, pushing a dandelion into his nose as he giggled and squirmed. She looked up at them with dark eyes.
"I have a picture of you at home." She said. Ethan crossed his bushy eyebrows and pushed his chin into the white starched collar of his shirt. She gently brushed Alex's hair as he twiddled the dandelion in his hand.
"It's a picture of you and my sister Leslie. The two of you are holding sunflowers."
It was the summer after Reagan had been elected and they were going to his boyhood home. The lot of his mother's side of the family lived in the same town. The family took the two hour journey West to see grandpa and grandma about every other month. City mouse, country mouse. Dixon wasn't quite the country; most of the farms in western Illinois had folded with the high interest rates of the Carter years. The state had opened a prison there to boost the economy, and most folks traded in their John Deere for maximum-security desk jobs. Ethan's Uncle Jim was no exception, his acreage had dwindled down and now, with grown children, he kept a bit of land as a hobby farm. Jus' some corn and some chickens.
Ethan was seven and skinny, it was summer and the sun had burned a tan into his skin. He looked forward to going to Dixon. Being the youngest of sixteen cousins, the older kids always showed him something new.
He liked the town, with the rushing Rock River where his mom almost drown, and the cemeteries that were part of the neighborhoods. Every corner had a Church and a bar that served hot sandwiches and Old Style. Signs said so. Signs also told you what kind of corn was growing in the fields. It was mysterious there and he didn't have to jockey for social standing. Being the low man, he was overlooked for free.
Pulling into the gravel driveway off the two lane highway, toward the towering white clapboard house. Ethan could hear the rocks under the radials crunching into themselves and a cloud of dust erupted in their wake. Cars and (mostly) trucks were parked on either side and on the lawn like giant mechanical grazing cows turned into broken piano keys. The chicken coop and barn waited on the left in a pool of dusty dirt. The four of them, his parents, sister and Ethan, piled out of the baby blue Pontiac Phoenix and headed toward the back yard. He was excited to see his older and wiser cousin Scott, who was the only boy his age.
They walked around the house greeted with handshakes and howdys. A badminton net was tethered next to a line of red checked picnic tables. Coolers sat in the shade under an old oak with a rope tied to a bough that once held a tire swing. Years of erosion had left a circle of hard packed dirt around the trunk. Gnarled roots creeped out of like breaching sea serpents. He searched for his cousin Scott but only found his sisters who said he was at camp. Nimbus clouds hung high in the blue sky and the sun beat down on the forever rows of cornfield that fenced the yard. Flies worried over plates of fried chicken and potato salad and he didn't know what to do.
Ethan felt a heavy hand on his shoulder. "Eh, Ethan, why don' cha' go git me a beer."
It was Uncle Jim. Red faced, checkered polyester short sleeve shirt you could see through. He was smiling and wearing his aviator glasses, Ethan's ears spread out like wings in their reflection. He was helpful. Ethan ran pigeon-toed to the Styrofoam coolers and felt the cool air rush out when he lifted the lid. He fished out a Pabst and could feel the beads of cool water fall through the Goosebumps of his chilly flesh.
The day waned and Ethan didn't so much like the game of chasing chickens. The adults were sitting on the woven nylon fold out lawn chairs with frayed edges, drinking beer and smoking. The older kids were playing Volleyball and he was "too little". He sat under the Oak scratching the dirt with a stick.
A mother was changing a baby on the trunk of a car with a little girl tugging at her dress.
"Leslie, quit hanging on me, why don't you go play with that little boy?"
She said, pointing to Ethan. He looked away blushing, and then stood up and ran toward the barn. His knees knocked with each awkward gait.
The barn housed a giant tractor and tools. It smelled of hay and oil. The fold up doors were always open, and the white washed chris-cross trim was flaking and weathered. Ethan heard voices, and could see the reflections of heads through the spotted window in the back. He crept beyond the side and peeked around. The teenagers were smoking and passing the acrid smelling cigarette around. They were laughing and drinking beer. They were framed in the middle of a row of sunflowers that lined the edge of the barn and endless rows of tall corn on the other. Sky and dirt made up the sides. Ethan felt a shove from behind.
The teenagers jumped with the startle as a blur of skinny arms went flailing into the rows of corn. Ethan caught himself, but not before he had torn into a few stalks. He smelled the green of the ripped leaves. Laughs erupted as they helped him to his feet as he looked into the face of the culprit, a gap toothed girl with dirty blond pigtails in a green dress.
"Dang Ethan, that girl flattened you, you gonna let her do that?"
Someone sneered instigation.
He stammered, wanting to cry, choked with embarrassment.
The little girl spoke twang matter of fact. "Let's have a contest and y'all will be the judge." The girl said with her hands on her hips.
"Okay? Let's see who can stand on one leg the longest. Ready. Set. Go."
They both bent one leg up like a pelican while the peanut gallery judges looked at the ground. This wasn't a fair game.
When he lost the standing contest, Ethan went on to lose the staring contest, the blinking contest and thumb wrestling. The teenagers had grown tired of the brief bout of entertainment and wanted the kids out of their hair. Ethan's cousin, Mike took out his pocket knife and pushed two enormous sunflowers to the ground. He turned the stalks and ripped the fibrous tissue until it snapped away.
"Awright, " He said. Now you each take one of these sunflowers and you go run into the field there. Now keep the sunflowers up 'cuz that'll be how you find each other. Leslie, you is 'it' first. Now git on." Mike pushed her with his boot. The girl and Ethan looked at one another and warded the danger of wandering into a corn field. Reading their minds, Mike put them at ease.
"That's why you got them sunflowers so we can see y'all, if you get to far, we'll give you a shout." I ran into the field.
Bugs sprayed up and swarmed as Ethan crashed through the field. His small fists were wrapped tight around the sunflower and it was difficult to keep upright. The thin white hairs of the stalk scratched and rubbed against his shoulder. He finally stopped, panting, sweating, itching. He kept quiet and listened. Broad leaves pushed into him and he couldn't see anything in any direction. He walked cautiously.
He crouched low to the ground, keeping his eyes fixed on the golden tassels that flowed in the wind. Gnats and noseeums swarmed around his head, and he watched their infinity figure eight swirls through the breaking light and blue sky. His heart thudded in his chest and he felt the sweat drops on his skin grow cool in a wave of breeze.
Waiting for some time, he felt the foolishness of a snipe hunter discovering himself the prey. Then he heard a rustle and could see the buckles of her white sandals catch a ray of light. He sneezed and a moment later Leslie kissed her hanging sunflower head to his. She giggled and yelled,
She ran away, breaking through the ever changing tide, splashing leaves with her elbows. Ethan "clunk, clunked" followed. They never stopped catching each other. Parents finally called in for dinner and took a picture of them standing there.
After dinner, when the sky sighed, the children were covered with mosquito repellant and sent with a coffee can to catch fireflies.
The photo on Judith's refrigerator was of a little boy and her sister Leslie, who had died in a bus crash. The two were holding sunflowers in front of a field of corn. The boy was sunburned tan and skinny, his ribs stretched his skin taught like the edge of a bubble. Leslie was wearing a green dress with an enormous winged collar that her braided pigtails lapped upon. Her arm was draped around the skinny boy's neck, stuck there with sweat and lemonade. He was looking right into the camera with shy, sheepish eyes and a flat lipped smile. Leslie had her eyes closed tight and a wide grin, sans her two front teeth.
Heavy nimbus clouds hung in the periwinkle sky, though the shadows of years had turned it gray green. The photo was of a picnic during the late lease of summer and the two had found each other as children do. Judith had heard of the stories of making that boy from the city chase chickens and his skill at catching fireflies. When she was older, when Leslie was gone, Judith would catch the flashing bugs and let them crawl around her palm dumbfounded until they popped their wings and motored into the sky. Then she would hold her hand close to her face and smell the loose pheromones. She imagined that this was how the skinny sunburned boy in the picture smelled.
Judith didn't remember that day, she was barely a year old. The events had still trickled down to her through the ramblings of her parents and their friends and when they wanted her to go away, they told her to go play sunflower tag. She was jealous of the game and hated it because it was the only remnant of her sister. The picture and now the long lost boy, bald and skinny, twenty years later not knowing who she was.
"I remember," Ethan said, touching his smooth face, watching in slow motion as she stood, not looking him in the eye.
Then she did look him in the eye and he averted his eyes away. They both knew why sunflowers mourn.
She shook his hand and said she had to get going because she had an early flight in the morning. Ethan corralled Alex and they walked back in silence. Twenty minutes of gut wrenching and Ethan made a stroll to the lobby, she was hugging someone as her date waited impatiently by the door. Ethan swallowed hard and made his move. She saw him and waved while walking out the door. He stopped and waved back.
Standing there in a puddle of lost opportunity Ethan smelled his hand, her perfume lingered there as he huffed deeply.
Judith walked away into the night and she wondered about trading in this boyfriend when she moved to Minneapolis next month for grad school. He was a good looking but a drag, he didn't even open the car door for her. As she waited for the lock to open she stole a whiff of her hand. It smelled like fireflies.