Catching Butterflies

Catching Butterflies

This story was originally published by the literary anthology Out of Place in 2011.

An updated version of this short story is included in the book, “You, Me and the Rest of US: #NewYorkStories.”


The Bronx was on fire and I was watching it burn from my ninth floor window—that’s where it started, since you asked. There were two buildings on the horizon—in Mott Haven probably—that were lighting up the dark sky and otherwise bleak landscape of broken, demolished apartments and abandoned lots. I didn’t hear the sirens of fire trucks, and I didn’t expect them. That was fine with me though, as the flames were all the distraction I needed from the sounds outside my bedroom door.

I was trying to take my mind off the loud, bilingual noise of my parents as they talked about their disappointment in me. Well, I don’t want to be too harsh. They didn’t use those words exactly, but that was the gist. I had messed up and they couldn’t understand where they went wrong. Why were my grades slipping, and why did the principal have to call my mother after seeing me tag a hallway with scrawls of butterflies? I certainly didn’t have an answer for them. The butterfly thing hadn’t become serious yet, only an idea, but I liked the pretty bug and started drawing pictures of it on building steps and in my notebook during class.

My parents went back and forth while I imagined I was a butterfly, able to float through the hot night air to observe the work of efficient arsonists and an overworked fire department which had fifty stations closed by city bureaucrats who looked more at balance sheets than the faces of flesh and blood South Bronx residents. Who knows though? I’m assuming, and this was a long time ago.

“I don’t know what else I can do. You can’t act like I’m not around. Like I’m not spending time with Danny.”

“Not saying that…”

Mumbles. I grabbed my notebook and started drawing. “…but lets him understand we’re not angry at him.”

My parents weren’t the volatile type with all that screaming about who fucked up. They talked loudly but with love. As a kid you appreciate that stuff, if only unconsciously. The background conversations and moods of your parents become part of you in an unplanned way, like throwing fertilizer when they think they’re just dusting off their hands.

More mumbles, and then, “Okay. Well, I got tomorrow off so what you think about me taking Danny to the park to play some ball and talk?”

“As long as he gets the point that things can’t go on like this.”

I expected the visit from my dad and within a half hour he knocked on the door of my small room—a partitioned section of the living room. I had positioned my chair to face the window, but when he came in I turned it around to face him and said, “Hey, Daddy.”

He didn’t smile as he normally did, but he wasn’t angry. I assumed he was just tired from working at the warehouse where he tossed boxes of clothes all day.

He said, “You know why I’m here?”

“Cause the principal called Mom today?”

“Yeah. Me and your mom don’t know what’s gotten into you lately. Is there something you wanna tell me? Is there a reason why she had to get called?”

What I should have told him was that I wanted to draw but didn’t feel like I had any outlets or that anybody cared. Like the kids around the way who painted murals on the ugly brick of half broken buildings, I had something I wanted to express but didn’t feel like I had a way of getting it out. Those kids met in the park to dance on cardboard. They played vinyl for the crowds. What I did was draw butterflies cause when I did, I felt like I could fly away from the fires that burned through my borough with all of its wasted potential sucked in by crime and Carter economics. I wanted others to know that they could fly above it all too.

At ten years old I was, at most, aware of only a quarter of all that. All I could really say was that I was trying to find out who I was. I looked at the floor and said, “I don’t know, Daddy.”

He sucked on his bottom lip and said, “Tomorrow I’m going to play some ball with Uncle Frank. I want you to come. We can play a little ball and talk little too. How does that sound?”

“That sounds okay.”

“Good.”

He kissed me on the forehead and lumbered out of the room, leaving me to look forward to the next day. No, of course I didn’t really look forward to it. I was never a sports guy. Even now the idea of shooting hoops or swinging a bat are as exciting to me as getting my prostate checked. And as a kid, I could barely stand up against a strong wind.


Hey there… So, this story’s not all here anymore. An updated version of this short story is included in the book, “You, Me and the Rest of US: #NewYorkStories.

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