“You see this here?” my mother said. “If I would’ve got a seven, I would’ve had one row, and that means three bucks, and the ticket pays for itself. See this one, Billie? If it had been a fifty-two, then I’d have three rows, and that means....” She sat at the kitchen table, back bent, one hand holding a quarter, the other anchoring the lottery scratch-off ticket to the table. Fanned around her were more tickets, all spent, none paying. Tiny specks of silver littered the area, some stuck to her arm like metallic ants. By her right hand, piled neatly, was a new stack of scratchers, waiting for scratching.
I watched her and knew it was time to get out of the house. The choice of game corresponded to my mother’s level of anxiety. Scratchers were a recent favorite. I didn’t mind them so much, because then she was closest to normal, or what I thought normal was, considering the only normal I knew was based on the way my friends’ mothers acted. My own mother would buy tickets by the dozen and sit at the kitchen table methodically undoing them, usually with a quarter or maybe a butter knife. Then she’d point out where she would’ve won.
“See? I got a whole bunch of numbers in the beginning, leading me to a false sense that I was gonna win. That’s the M.O. of these guys, that’s why you think you’re going to win and don’t. It’s such a racket....” Scratchers are OK, I thought. I sighed through my nose so she wouldn’t hear. Crossword puzzles were worse, and jigsaw puzzles, well, that’s when I’d throw some snacks in a backpack and head out for the day. That’s when she got mean. But that wasn’t this day.
The worst thing about the scratchers was no hot breakfast, because when my mother started in with them, that’s all she did. All day. That’s OK, I thought, getting into the cupboard for cereal. It could be worse. I finished up my cereal at the same table Mom was slaughtering her cards. I put my dish in the sink. I’m gonna get out of here today. Do something fun. I don’t want to be here at all. I grabbed my jean jacket off the peg on the wall and walked across the street to the park. I climbed up on top of the cone-shaped jungle gym and sat, chin in hand.
In those days, my lucky number was my age; nine at the time. I looked around the park for sets of nine: nine dead flowers in a bunch? Maybe nine pieces of wood made up the bench? Nine crows in the trees? Nine dead scratchers. Nine sets of nine—I was on the seventh “set” when I spotted Morris and Peter. I squeezed my eyes, rubbing my temples—Dad always did that when he knew something was going to annoy him, like when Billy Martin used to come charging out of the Yankee dugout after a bad call. He’s gonna slow down the damn game again, or something, my dad would say. Anyway, I raised my eyes at Morris and prepared for battle.
“Hey, it’s Will-hell-mina Kestrel! How ya doin’, Billie?”
“Good,” I replied.
Morris and Peter were ten, a grade ahead of me. Peter and I had been friends since as long as I could remember. We played Ghosts in the Graveyard and Star Wars for hours in the park, until the shadows grew longer than their hosts and the streetlights came on. One of our mothers would call out from the front door that Dinner is ready! and in we ran. But at school, Peter and I never talked to each other because having a best friend of the opposite sex was forbidden among the third grade set.
Then Morris moved into the neighborhood and took Peter over. Morris’ canine teeth were longer than his front ones, and sometimes they even poked over his bottom lip. As he approached he started smiling, looking like a child vampire who smelled blood. “Hey, Billie, how’s it hanging?” Morris asked, climbing up to just below where I sat. “Isn’t that what you ask a guy? Since you have a guy’s name, you should know!”
“Shut up, Morris,” I said, putting my hands on my hips. Peter looked down, avoiding my glance, pretending to be interested in something in the dirt, the wimp.
Morris cackled, his pointy teeth scraping his bottom lip. “Too bad you weren’t a real guy, then you could hang with us!”
“I don’t want to hang with you!”
“Yeah, sure you do! We’re going down to the river today to see if we can catch some fish. I bet you wanna come with us!”
Peter traced the bottom bar of the jungle gym with his foot, while Morris laughed, his blond hair flopping in his eyes. Peter’s silence made me furious. “At least, Morris, my teeth don’t look like the plastic fangs I bought for Halloween.,” I said. “I forgot to tell you, this year I’m going as you! How ya like that?”
Morris’ smile dropped. “Shut up.”
Morris stayed put. “You’d better shut up, Billie.”
Then I smiled. This was turning out to be fun! Seeing Morris upset felt more satisfying than the hot breakfast would have been. “I saw Mr. Patterson walk his bulldog the other day,” I said, “and I could swear it was you! How’d you get off that leash?” Even Peter laughed, but a sharp look from Morris made him pull his smile in quick.
Morris pointed at me. “OK, if that’s the way you want it. I was going to see if you wanted to come fishing with us, but now you blew it. Fine. You just better be looking over your shoulder from now on. You never know when I’m going to get you.”
I kept smiling, but inside I was afraid. My heart beat hard and my face felt flush, but I didn’t want him to see that. Morris could smell fear, as all the weak members of the schoolyard jungle could attest. “I’m not scared of you,” I said, even if I was. “Beat it.”
Morris smiled and jumped off the bars. “Bye-bye, little Billie. You’d better start praying. You’d better even hide. Only God can help you now.” Morris and Peter left, walking side by side. Peter wore a Yankees hat backwards—I pictured my father, rubbing his temples.
I reached into my pocket and pulled out my prism, turning it in my hand, being careful not to drop it. It made a rainbow on the bar of the jungle gym. I had bought it at the science fair that year, not really understanding what it was. As it turned out, I got something that occupied me for hours on a sunny day. I’d take the prism and sit by the window where the sunlight was the strongest, and make rainbow after rainbow, shooting them across the room in streaks of color. I made up stories about rainbows. Sometimes I was an elf with long pointed ears that protected a pot of gold. Sometimes I was a scientist whose job was to find any missing colors by splitting the light into pieces. Not understanding how the prism worked, I had brought it to my teacher. He said that the light was made up of all the colors but they were mashed together so they appeared white. “You see, the light splits into its true form, all the colors of the spectrum. They are invisible to the naked eye, so you need a device like a prism to see them.”
Across the street, I saw my father come out the front door, get the hose from the side of the house, then drag it to the backyard. Watering the garden; better than staying in the house, I guessed. My father had been in some sort of war, I didn't know at the time which one. He didn’t talk about it much, and I never asked him about it, either. But every once in a while he would mention it, and it always came after me not wanting to do something simple, like drying the dishes. You don’t want to dry the dishes? My mother had wanted me to dry, but I'd desperately wanted to look at a new book I'd got. So my father told a “war story.” He had said, swinging around from his seat at the kitchen table, “Be thankful that’s all you have to do! How about getting shot at by mortar rounds, thousands of them and at night, too! Sometimes you can see God in the light those guns make. Yup.” He paused, and looked far off. “Sometimes you see God there.” He kept looking straight, but brought his coffee up to his lips, a few drops falling on the table as he sipped it. God was in the light of the guns? He saw God in light? I had stopped resisting then, and dried, thinking about it. My dad saw God. Pretty neat.
After Morris and Peter left, I played with my prism, watching its rainbow move back and forth over the bars of the jungle gym, light split into colors. Suddenly something came to me. I thought of Morris; Only God can help you now. I sat up straight. Light. God. If God was in light, there had to be a way to get him out. I needed help here! There were scratchers, and Morris, and no breakfast, and who knew what else would happen that day? Sometimes I wanted to run away, but I knew I’d be too scared. If, however, I could stay home with God, then I’d be OK.
I decided I needed a different prism, a better one with more power. Because if this one worked well enough, I would have seen God already, and that certainly wasn’t the case. I climbed down from the bars and ran home. First I needed to get the other light-splitting objects in my room—after discovering the wonders of my prism, I'd started hoarding anything that light could pass through, like a glass paperweight and costume jewelry crusted with rhinestones. On the way up the stairs I thought about the guest room. It would be perfect. There were windows facing almost every direction, and it was the nicest room in the house, since no one was allowed in there. And that day, with my mother preoccupied, she wouldn’t even notice.
I walked in. Yes. The sun slanted strong through the east window. I took the prism out of my pocket and placed it carefully on the windowsill. Two rainbows appeared simultaneously on opposite ends of the room, one an oval as big as an owl, and the other a circle no bigger than a dime. Good start. Then I went into my room and came back with all my rhinestone pins. But even they weren’t enough. Need something else. I stood in the doorway, hands on hips; slowly moving my head from side to side, then I started searching through the house to pick up whatever I could find. Soon, the guest room windowsills were so cluttered that I could not fit anything else on them, and color washed the white walls. Glass paperweights, crystal candle sticks from the attic, my marble collection, a few mirrors and a small crystal swan. As I'd placed these items carefully around the room, I thought of all the things I’d ask God when he showed up. Are ghosts real? Who will be president next year? I stood back and surveyed my work. Nice. But there was one problem. It wasn’t working.
I didn’t know what I'd expected. I'd thought that maybe, when the right amount of light was cracked, God would pop out. But what was the right amount? I needed more things, and the daylight was waning. The spectrums on the ceiling and all over the walls were shifting little by little, tiny colorful celestial bodies moving with the clock and changing shape with time. If I didn’t hurry, the day would be over and I'd have failed miserably.
I slunk out of the room and peeked around the corner into the living room. No one was there. I tiptoed past the kitchen and into the dining room. One by one, I took all the glasses out of my mother’s good cabinet. There were Waterford crystal wine glasses, tiny cordials, red wine glasses and water goblets. I snuck a glance at the kitchen. My mother still sat, bent over the scratchers, slowly working on them. She wouldn’t hear a thing.
I brought all the glasses into the guest room a few at a time, as many as I thought I could hold without dropping any. Soon I had all the glasses lined up on the opposite wall, where the sun started to slant in while on its way back down to the horizon.
I started to get uneasy. It’s going too quickly! I had never thought of a day as long or short before. But the sunlight was slanting and growing more gold than silver. Once, for a terrible second, a cloud passed and the light show ceased instantly. A pain sprang into my chest, but a heartbeat later the sun came back.
I looked at all the glasses. I had left some on the floor and they were the most expensive of the lot. There was no more room to place anything else so the only thing to do was hang the glasses up. I went back to my room and under the bed was a ball of yarn. I took it, picked a few dust bunnies off, and started to tie the stems of the glasses together.
It was hard work. I tied each stem of the glass to the yarn, then, down about five inches, I repeated the same procedure. I experimented with the first two to see if when I picked up the yarn and stretched it the glasses would hit into each other. Broken glasses would mean a big punishment and who needed that—everything so far that day was punishment enough. The glasses didn’t even come close to touching each other. I’m doing good.
After a while, I had the glasses and yarn stung across the windows like garland. I sat on a pillow and watched all the rainbows, hundreds of them, on all four walls. I got up and gingerly moved around. Where is God? Why isn’t he here yet? Is he stuck? A spectrum hit me in the eye, momentarily blinding me with green. I stood still and moved, ever so slightly, to my left. Red light swarmed. Then I moved a little more back to the right and the light turned orange. Then yellow, and so on until I saw purple. I moved a little more and the color went away. I moved back into the purple, then blue, then—“Ho-ly shit! What the hell is this?” I spun around. My father stood in the doorway, looking like he just swallowed a bug. “What are you doing? Why is all this stuff here? Your mother is going to have a fit.”
I stammered. “I…I…was…building....”
“Building what? A thousand dollar sculpture? Christ! Clean this stuff up and put it back before your mother sees it! Now!” He looked around for a moment longer, and for a second his eyes got what I’ve come to call “the war look.” Then they cleared; he shook his head, turned on one heel and marched out into the hall, slamming the door.
The slam vibrated the room. The homemade stars hemorrhaged. I closed my eyes, as if that could muffle the sound of crashing glass. I opened them; one goblet had slipped out of the string and smashed on the floor. Then silence. A tear shimmied down my cheek. I looked around and nothing else moved. Slowly, I picked up the pieces of glass, careful not to cut myself. I walked down the stairs and into the kitchen. From its other doorway, I could see my father as he sat on the couch in the living room, pressing the ON button on the remote control until the Yankee game sprang onto the TV screen. He put down the remote and picked up a can of beer. On my other side, my mother sat at the kitchen table and scratched.
I walked into the living room looking down at my feet. “C’mere,” my father said. I sat on the couch next to him. “What’s your mother doing in there?”
I shrugged, then made a gesture as if I was scratching a lottery ticket.
He sighed, and looked out the window. I knew he was looking at the grill on the patio and soon he would ask me to get some frozen meat out of the freezer, but not yet. “Jesus,” he muttered. “More importantly, what were you doing up there? I hope you cleaned up.”
I shrugged again. “Nothing. I was doing nothing.” And I'd clean up later, but I liked sitting with my father. He held out his unopened beer can to me. I wove my fingers in the tab and pulled it open, my father’s grip anchoring the can. Then he took a big swig and settled back, letting the beer drain down his throat. “Let’s watch the game. Yankees are going to the Series. That’s really all that matters.”
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