Catching Butterflies | Fiction
This story was originally published by the literary anthology Out of Place in 2011. An updated version appears in full in the short story collection, You, Me and the Rest of US: #NewYorkStories. The book is available in ebook and paperback at all major retailers.
The Bronx was on fire and I was watching it burn from my ninth floor window. That’s really 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 in my mom after seeing me tag a hallway with images 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 let 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 a 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 Mommy 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 savage economics policies. 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.”
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.
I eventually heard sirens, but by then the fires had already consumed most of the buildings. Also within sight, though much closer than the fire, was a Friday night party in a neighboring courtyard. With my head turned to the crowd bursting with self-expression, I thought about the bit of vandalism that got me in trouble that day: a butterfly with wings of fire.
The next day the buildings were charred. I kept my eyes on their craggy, charcoal exteriors while putting on my only sports T-shirt. I dressed slowly as my father waited for me in the kitchen, finishing breakfast with my mother. After tying my sneakers and kissing mom goodbye we were off to Crotona Park.
I’m not going into how poor my community was. You can find enough stats to tell you what you need in that department. What I remember was that the weather was beautiful. Dad bought me a lemon-flavored piragua from one of the old men who pushed his block of ice and accompanying syrups up and down the block. I remember Dad stopped to joke with a neighbor and they talked shit about what the kids were listening to nowadays.
Most importantly, I remember seeing the 2 train as it sped by. It was covered in spray paint. Every square inch of metal told a story with cartoon characters, stylized letters, and vivid colors that made me stare at each subway car that passed. I’m pretty sure my father noticed me looking, but I can’t be one hundred percent about it. Like I said, it was a while ago.
What I wanted to do was run away from the ball court my father was bringing me to and chase that train. I didn’t, of course, and walked beside him as we entered the park.
Dad was real athletic with several trophies in the hallway that I never felt too interested in asking about, in the same way I never asked about the gold and white patterned wallpaper. They were both there and in no way connected to any decisions I made. I say that to say that childhood is complicated, right? You want to be yourself or find out what that self is, but you want to feel accepted and loved by those you love. Those desires conflict and you end up not sure where to go. That’s how I felt anyway, but I’m going to go out on a limb and assume I wasn’t the only kid to feel that way.
My uncle Frank was waiting for us at the ball court with his nephew. Frank’s Spanish was all kinds of messed up and I would find out a year or so later that he wasn’t a blood relation, but a swarthy Italian dude that my father knew from going to school on the north side as a kid. He was funny, and he greeted my dad with a hug.
“Hey, Uncle Frank.”
“So tell me what’s happening? I hear you’re trying to redecorate your school?” I looked down with a bashful smile and he told me, “You should feel a little bad about it, but I’ll leave it to your dad to talk some sense into you. My question is, are you ready to play ball?”
“I think I’m ready.”
“Sounds like a champ to me. I’ll tell you what.” He looked at my father. “For every shot that Daniel and Mike get, I’ll get ‘em a scoop of ice cream.”
“Danny already had a piragua. Too many sweets in one day, Frank.”
Uncle Frank turned his head to his nephew who was several feet away. “You hear that, Mike? You need to take some lessons from Daniel and stop eating so much junk.”
Dad looked down at me and shook his head at his loud brother from another mother. We walked onto the court and I could hear Frank whisper to my father, “Then he needs to give some lessons to my fucking wife before I need to get a truck to carry her big ass around town.” Dad laughed and I sat on the bench next to Mike.
This story appears in full in the short story collection, You, Me and the Rest of US: #NewYorkStories. The book is available in ebook and paperback at all major retailers.