SPOTLIGHT: Some Birds Nest in Broken Branches by Kip Knott

Real Smoke

Jack smokes. Sure he smokes. And not those battery-powered electric cigarettes that billow fake smoke. “Dildo Smokes,” he calls them. Jack smokes Camel Wides. Almost two packs a day. And the smoke that fills his lungs, the smoke that clings to his beard and hair, that is real smoke, not something that can be manufactured by a microscopic motherboard.

Jack’s daddy smoked, too. So did his granddaddy. His daddy smoked Lucky’s. His granddaddy smoked dried cornsilk wrapped in newspapers when he was 10-years-old before moving on to Old Gold’s he rolled himself. Both Jack’s daddy and granddaddy lived to be 84. Both men died in accidents: his granddaddy having fallen from a hayloft; his daddy killed trying to beat the train at 7-Mile Turn on Route 13.

Jack was born, raised, and still lives in the same house on Route 13 just outside of Moxahala, an old coal town in the Appalachian part of Ohio. He was born on November 13. He weighed 13 pounds and 13 ounces when he was born. His momma, who smoked Salems, had to be cut open after nearly two days of trying to push Jack out. Doc Miller told Jack he was lucky to come out alive. “Babies big as you usually aren’t breathing once I get to them,” Doc told Jack. “The mothers never survive.” That last part about the mothers was true for Jack’s momma. Jack still had the last pack of Salems his momma never got around to smoking. He kept it in an old tin Folgers can along with his daddy’s beat-up but still ticking Timex and his own dinged-up wedding ring.

Every year on his birthday for the last ten years—ever since his wife left him for the vice principle of Miller K-12 after 13 years of a marriage that was rocky even during the good times—Jack got a carton of Camel Wides from his son. His son smokes Camel Menthols, the same cigarette that his momma, Jack’s now ex-wife, used to smoke. Jack always

thought any cigarette with a flavor other than tobacco wasn’t a real smoke, but he never said anything to his son because he wanted that carton of Wides every year.

“Found me a vintage Joe Camel money clip on eBay yesterday,” Jack’s son tells him this year, the year that Jack turns 65 and can finally retire from his janitor job at Miller. Jack pulls a twenty from a wad of other twenties wrapped in a heavy duty rubberband and sets it on the counter of the 7-Mile Turn Gas-N-Go, the best place around for a chopped steak sandwich and a basket of onion rings.

Out in the parking lot, Jack’s son pulls the carton of Wides (unwrapped) and a birthday card (not in an envelope) from the passenger side of his candy-apple red Toyota RAV4. “Thanks for lunch, Pop,” his son says, handing him the carton and card. “You can have the money clip if you want. I should get it in a couple days.”

“I’m good,” Jack tells his son. “Got my rubberband. It holds what I need good enough.”

“I gave momma a Joe Camel bathrobe and slippers on her birthday. She loved ‘em.”

“She still good?” Jack asks.

“She’s still got the oxygen,” his son says. “Some days is better than others. Carl left her, you know.”

“Nope. Didn’t know,” Jack says. “She all alone now?”

“No. You know Momma. It weren’t but a month before she found someone else. Some guy who sold her that new CPAP contraption she has to wear at night. They been carrying on for the best part of six months now.”

“Some birds just keep building nests in broken branches,” Jack sighed. “Your momma’s a survivor, though. She still smoke?”

“Mostly she don’t. Used to be I’d notice a smoke or two missing after I seen her. I never said nothin’ to her, though. There weren’t no point.”

“Like I said, she’s a survivor,” Jack repeats.

“What about you, Pop?”

“What about me?”

“You a survivor?”

Jack waves the carton of cigarettes in the air. “Thanks for the smokes,” he says as he climbs into his rust-bucket Ford pickup. He start’s the engine after a couple of tries, then rolls down the window. “You know menthols ain’t real smokes, right?” he yells to his son over the mufflerless rumble of his truck.

“I don’t smoke them no more,” his son yells back with a smile. “I vape now. Doc says if I won’t quit, I’m better off vaping.”

Jack shakes his head and rolls the window back up. He sits in the truck until his son pulls away, then opens the carton and grabs the first pack on top. He bangs the pack thirteen times on his palm before he unwraps it, expertly taps out one cigarette, clenches it in his teeth, and lights it with his daddy’s Zippo, letting the real smoke fills his lungs. Jack always bangs the pack thirteen times. Ten times, he learned, wasn’t enough to pack the tobacco right. Fifteen times packed the tobacco too tight. So Jack settled on thirteen, even though deep down he knew thirteen was never his lucky number.

Firefly Nightlights

The firefly flickers in my loosely closed fist, its light seeping between my fingers like silent Morse code. It could be sending an insect S.O.S. out into the world for all I know, calling for help to escape the cage of my hand. I unlatch my fingers one at a time, ready to seize the tiny creature if it tries to fly off. But it stays put, blinking its mysterious iridescent message. I study it for a moment just as I imagine some early scientist studied one hundreds of years ago trying to understand the witchcraft of its light.

My mother used to look at fireflies in just this way when I was child. The spring I turned seven, she taught me how to reach for them delicately with cupped hands and coax them from the air and into my palms rather than swiping at them wildly and scaring them off. My mother was the most delicate woman I’ve ever known, like a porcelain ballerina who seemed to glide on tip-toes through the house whenever she dusted, gathered dirty laundry, cooked dinner. She also taught me how to fill a blue Mason jar with dozens of fireflies, turning it into an ethereal night light that flickered with an otherworldly green on my bedside table.

My mother taught me these things after my father left us the winter I turned six. Before then, my mother devoted most of her energy to him, doting on him, fussing over him, and generally answering his every beck and call. I’m not saying that my mother neglected me. I’m not saying that at all. She made sure that I was fed good meals, that my long, dark hair was always clean and braided, and that I fell asleep every night to her voice reading Grimm’s Fairy Tales in hushed tones. But spending time teaching me how to catch fireflies in just the right way was something that she had little time for when my father was still with us. The day he left seemed to close one door inside my mother and open up another door to a place where she found

me waiting. From that day on, my mother devoted all of her energy to me, doted on me, fussed over me, and answered my every beck and call, though I rarely becked and called her without good reason.

I loved my mother, and I loved all the attention that she paid me. But I also felt sorry for my mother. I knew that the empty, dented place on her left ring finger was a wound that would never scar over completely. She never wore another real ring on that finger, and I watched her rub that spot absentmindedly every day for the remaining years of her life. When my mother died of ovarian cancer nineteen years to the day after my father left, I knew that whatever tumor grew inside her had been planted there by my father on that day. I held her hand as she drew in then released a final small breath, rubbing her wounded ring finger for her until she died.

I call Lillie over, pulling her away from picking a bouquet of the pink and purple columbines that grow wild in our yard. I show her the glowing jewel glittering in my hand.

“Remember how I told you that Grandma was the one who taught me to catch fireflies in just the right way?” Lillie drops the flowers at her feet and nods, transfixed by the light at the center my palm. “I was the same age you are now. And we used to fill jars up, too, like your jar. And just like you will do tonight, I used to fall asleep with a firefly nightlight next to my bed.”

“Did Grandma read you bedtime stories?” Lillie asks, never taking her eyes off of the light.

“Yes she did. Every night. The same stories I read you.”

“Did Grandpa read you stories?”

I stiffen for an instant, hopefully without Lillie noticing. She has never asked about my father before, and I have never mentioned my father to her. As an only child, a child born from an anonymous donor, a child who never had a father of her own, a child who seemed unfazed and perfectly

happy with all the ways I have devoted all of my energy to her, doted on her, fussed over her, and answered her every beck and call, she has never asked about why she has no father in her life.

“Here,” I say, as I pinch the head and thorax of the firefly between the forefinger and thumb of my left hand. “Let me show you something beautiful.” I twist the pulsing fluorescent tail off with the forefinger and thumb of my right hand, let the head and thorax fall to the ground, and then stick the glittering jewel on the ring finger of my left hand. “See? It’s a ring. A firefly ring. I can make one for you so we can be twins. Would you like that?” Lillie, mouth agape and eyes wide and bright as two small moons in the dark, nods slowly. I don’t tell her that my mother taught me that, too.


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