Spark of Life
written by: Sharon Frame Gay
I’m the kid who did dumb-ass things growing up. I stuck fingers in light sockets, turned the gas on the stove just to smell it, and crawled under porches looking for snakes. Folks said it wasn’t fittin’ behavior for a girl. Guess I should have played under a shade tree with a dollhouse and tea set.
When my fingers got too big for the sockets, I poked at ’em with a fork. The jolt knocked me silly. I believe that’s why there’s a streak of white hair on my head resembling a lightning strike. Mama said it was a mark from the Devil, a reminder not to claim me when I die, ’cause I was even too much for Hell.
That’s how I got my name. Sparky. My birth certificate says I’m Luanne Reese, but nobody calls me Luanne. Not even when I’m in trouble.
Speakin’ of trouble, I guess it was no surprise I got knocked up at the drive-in movie by Lester Johnson. I had a pregnancy test six weeks later, and could hardly believe a baby was on the way.
After staring at the results for a while, I poured myself a whisky from Daddy’s stash. Helped myself to another. Then I got in my beat up old Ford and high-tailed to Lester’s house. He lived across the river, on the other side of town.
Cedar Mill is named after the mill, and the wood that rides through the saws every day. Here it is, 1962, and there’s still no imagination in this damned town. Even the stop light on Main Street doesn’t have enough gumption to do anything but blink yellow on and off all day, afraid to try something exciting like red or green. I swear, if folks around here had to think to breathe, dead bodies would be scattered everywhere. I laughed like crazy at the notion. Kept it up all the way through the light until reality set in, and I remembered what was going on.
When I got to Lester’s, I woke him from a dead sleep. Boy, the fur flew then. Lester got a crafty look on his face and suggested that the baby might not be his. I clocked him under the right eye with a metal ashtray from Barney’s Bar and Grill.
“What do you want me to do about it, Sparky?” Lester dabbed at his eyebrow with the sheet and stared at the blood. He lit a cigarette and leaned back on the bed. Regaining his composure, he peered at me like a judge, instead of the one who committed the crime.
“Hell, Les, I dunno,” I said. “I can barely think right now.” I sniffled, and wrapped an arm around my stomach, cradled the cells growing there.
Lester glanced over at the clock. “I gotta be at work in three hours. Why don’t we talk about this tomorrow after we’ve both had time to think.”
He stubbed out the cigarette, scratched under an armpit, drew an old army blanket up against his chest and gazed at the door. I guess that was his way of telling me to go home.
I looked hard at him. He was tall and skinny, a guy who folds into a chair like a jackknife. His gray eyes were so light they looked silver. I guess that’s what I found most attractive about him. Sure wasn’t his personality, or the way he treated me. But there was something about those eyes when he walked into the bar on a Saturday night that got me all worked up.
I knew he had nowhere to go, so he wouldn’t skip town. He was too stupid for that. So I slunk out the door like I had toilet paper trailin’ off my shoe, got back in the Ford and cranked it up as dawn poked through the cracked windshield.
On the way home, I pulled over at a picnic area by the river, got out and walked around. The water was flowin’ easy that morning, leaves spinning in lazy circles, following each other downstream. By late spring the river rushes along, icy and bold from higher up. That’s when local kids drown, carried away by the current until they give up and get pulled under, trapped by logs that escaped the mill. The wood forms arches under the surface, just waiting for some dumb-ass to get tangled in ’em. Then God shakes his head, fishes the sorry soul out of the drink, and dumps it on the shore of Eternity.
I lit a Camel cigarette. Still tasted Daddy’s whisky in my mouth and wondered if the baby was likin’ what I was already putting it through. It was shameful, but not enough to stop that very minute. I figured there’d be no keepin’ this little baby, anyway. At least that was the reasoning at six o’clock on a Thursday morning.
I never did anything right. After high school, I got a job at the Bar and Grill, waitin’ tables. College, or working in an office, didn’t sit well with me. Mama and Daddy let me live in the back bedroom after I graduated. I frittered away every penny I earned, so it looks like there’s no way I’d ever afford my own place.
There was a rustling nearby, and a robin poked its head into the bushes with a worm in its mouth. Her babies set up squallin’ for their breakfast, and the mama robin pushed it down their open beaks. That’s when I put my sorry head in my hands and cried until the cigarette burned down and scorched my finger. I hopped around and cussed, climbed down to the riverbank and stuck my finger in the water. Then dragged myself back to the car and headed home.
I pulled into our driveway and squinted my eyes, wonderin’ what the baby might think of my home. It needed a coat of paint. The siding was worn down to the wood in patches, as if the house cried itself silly and left smudges of mascara here and there. I put a hole through a window about three years ago. Daddy plugged it up with cardboard, duct tape, and a hunk of tar paper. So now the window looks like it has a permanent black eye. When I climbed out of the car, the scent of coffee and bacon rode through an open window. Everything looked the same, but it wasn’t. Things had changed forever. I skulked into the kitchen. The screen door sighed on its hinges like it knew my secrets.
Mama and Daddy were sitting at the kitchen table. I figured this was as good a time as any to make my big announcement. So I flopped into a chair and started talkin’.
Daddy banged his mug down hard on the table and ran calloused hands through his hair. It was red, just like mine. His had comb tracks runnin’ through it, and skin poked out in patches where the hair decided to stop growing. His eyes were as mad as I’d ever seen ’em. But before he could open his mouth to holler, Mama cried into her hands, tears leaking out and dripping down on her plate.
“A baby!” Mama moaned. “Oh, Sparky, how could you?”
“Well, it actually wasn’t all that difficult to do, and…”
“Enough!” Daddy cut me off as he rose from the table, the whole floor shaking.
“Who the hell did this to you?” he snarled, reaching for his coat like an avenger for a cape.
“Now, Daddy, calm down. I’m eighteen years old and it’s my business to figure this out.” His angry stare made me feel like a little kid. I looked down at my nails, picked at a broken one, and got all choked up. “I guess it was Lester.”
“Lester Johnson! That skinny, watery-eyed son of a bitch? Huh. I’d think he’d shoot nothin’ but rain drops.”
“That’s enough, Harvey,” Mama said. After she soaked up her face with the kitchen towel, we sat together and discussed things.
The conversation took a real turn when Mama said the inevitable. She slumped in her chair, aimed her gaze at me, warmed up her lips and fired.
“Why couldn’t you be more like your brother Wade?”
This was a common theme. Wade was older than me, and a better person than I could ever be. I was still a wild little tomboy when he went off to join the U.S. Army. Wade came home on leave in a scratchy uniform that gave him a “look of distinction,” as Daddy said. Then, before you knew it, he went off to war in Korea. The next time he came home, he was lyin’ in a coffin under a flag. Mr. Norris, the undertaker, said we ought to keep it closed on account of “the situation,” meaning Wade probably looked like hell.
Back then, I was still young enough to wonder if Wade drank water in Heaven. And if he did, would it come leaking out of all those bullet holes like the cartoon characters I saw at the movies? So to be safe, I tossed a tin of band aids in the grave when all the mourners were walkin’ back to their cars.
Since then, Wade’s been our local hero and our family idol, with me a far-away second. It sure wasn’t getting any better now.
I went up to my room, fell into bed and stared at the ceiling until the next morning when I heard Daddy leave for work. I took a long shower. Gazed at myself in the mirror, sucked in my gut and tweaked my breasts to see if anything different was goin’ on. Then headed downstairs.
Mama was in the front room, watching “As The World Turns” and tapping her foot like it wanted to run out of the house without her. Her lips were pinched up, and she hadn’t bothered to take her apron off when she sat down. Instead, she twisted it back and forth in her hands like wringin’ a chicken’s neck. I knew I’d better grab a cup of coffee and hear the verdict.
“You ain’t killing that baby,” she said, each word dropping out of her mouth like it was pushed through her throat by Jesus.
I nodded. I already knew that. We’re Baptists. We don’t believe in killing babies. If I killed that baby, I would never see Mama or Daddy, or Wade for that matter, ever again. They’d be whooping it up in Heaven with God, and I’d be peering up at ’em like they were walking around on glass floors. All I’d ever see would be the soles of their shoes. I wasn’t sure about much, but one thing I know is I ain’t about to go messin’ with the Lord, and losing all hope of redemption. I’d rather go back to that river and let the lost logs find me.
Mama stood up and turned off the television. All I heard then was a buzzing in my ears and the Logan’s dog, Jimbo, barking in the distance like he was relaying all this to God. Mama sighed, stared out the window as if searchin’ the sky for words. Her voice sounded far away and sad.
“Your Daddy and I had a talk, and we decided you cain’t stay here.”
“What?” I nearly spit out my coffee. Guess I hadn’t thought that far ahead.
“We won’t be looked down on in this town because you do such stupid things. I called Aunt Lorna over in Des Moines. She said you can stay with her and work part-time until you have the baby. Then give it up for adoption. We think you should leave by early next week. And Sparky, there’s no other answer we’ll abide, unless you marry that Johnson boy. Do you want your daddy to talk to him?”
I pictured Lester, eyes that look like silver dollars shot clean out of his skull with Daddy’s pistol, and shook my head.
“Naw. You tell Daddy I’ll talk to Lester myself. Tonight.”
That part was easy. I found Lester right where I left him, scratchin’ under his arm, with a cigarette hanging from his lips like a noose on a scaffold. He never bothered to lock the door, so I walked in like the Righteous, stared him straight in the eye, and lied my head off.
“I don’t know if you’re the daddy.”
He relaxed against the pillow, relief seepin’ out of his pores, and said “I always knew you was a whore.”
I nodded, walked away, heard the door click behind me and strutted out to the car with my chin up. Then I trembled all over.
It was the only thing I could think to say. I didn’t want to marry Lester. No matter what happened next, we were already a sad song. I sure as hell couldn’t live under that silvery gaze for the rest of my life.
“I took a bullet for you, Baby,” I whispered to my belly. Then cranked the Ford and cut some pretty nice chunks out of his yard with my wheels, if I say so myself.
Mama and Daddy helped pack my car a week later. It was sad to see what a small amount I owned. All of it fit in old burlap bags, so dark I couldn’t see what was inside them, like they were hidin’ in shame. I couldn’t see what was hidin’ inside of me either. But the past few days I felt something shift. Like when you walk out of the house one morning and know spring’s coming, just from the way the wind decides to warm itself on your face.
Daddy gave me a hundred dollars. Said I should use it for food so I won’t impose on Aunt Lorna. He rubbed the crack in the windshield as though his sleeve could fix it, and I’d head out of here in glory like Wade. Only nothing happened but the Logan’s dog barkin’ again. They both kissed my cheek, told me to call when I got to Des Moines, and walked back to the house, closing the door behind ’em. I sat in the driveway for a while like a fool, with nothing to show in my life so far but a bunch of mistakes. I put the car in gear and backed away from home. Watched it get smaller by the second.
I drove out of town past the cemetery and stopped at Wade’s grave. Everything looked so nice and perfect. The gravestone was clean, his name chiseled in an upright, heroic sort of way, as if the best thing you can ever do with your life is lose it. Mama came every week and tended the plot, so it was a thing to behold. I sat on the grass next to him, and we talked for a long time. I left one of Mama’s roses by his headstone, the breeze stroking the petals like a favorite child.
Near a truck stop on the outskirts of Cedar Mill, there was a restaurant with a sign that bragged it had the best hotcakes around, so I settled at the counter and ordered the blueberry ones. I slathered ’em with butter and real maple syrup from Vermont, let it swirl in my mouth like words of comfort. Slugged down a glass of orange juice and took a sip of black coffee. Then everything rose up, and I ran to the bathroom. I just made it before I clutched the toilet and watched it all flush down the drain.
Right across the street was a drugstore. I walked in, and in a bold voice asked what was the best thing for morning sickness. Wandered down the baby aisle. I saw myself reflected in the drugstore window, loadin’ up a basket with diapers, bibs, rattles, and sweet smelling lotion. I paid for everything and stepped out the door, held that bag to my heart just as tight as could be, and decided there would never be no lettin’ go. Not today. Not ever.
I could hardly see that crack in the windshield at all as we headed down the highway towards Des Moines. I turned on the radio and rolled down the window. Sang at the top of my lungs, one hand on the steering wheel, the other on my belly as we passed first one sign, then another, on our way out of town.
Sharon Frame Gay
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