They looked as big as fireworks bursting in a blank summer sky. Sometimes they looked as big as the stars themselves. I watch my sons growing up and I know those explosions are a part of me and I worry.
For vacation this year my wife and I have taken our sons to the beach. Just a rented house in a shore town. We had breakfast at the local diner and my eight year old knocked over his glass of orange juice and those colors flared up behind my eyes.
That night we went to the beach to see the real fireworks, and as they exploded over our heads I grew afraid.
It would often happen in my happiest moments. Or what happy moments I’m capable of remembering. I would be wired on whatever it was that makes eight-year-olds wired, something from school maybe, something a fellow third-grader had said that had stuck in my head and made me laugh. At home I would remember it and repeat it and laugh out loud, and if I laughed too loudly and he was around I would see those blossoms of red and orange behind my eyes as he hit me. He’d always tell me to shut up, and I mentioned that I was probably being loud, but that’s all a lie because he would hit me whenever he wanted to and tack on whatever reason he needed after the fact.
Yet that’s when I remember it happening: during my happiest moments. But maybe that’s because those are the only instances that stand out in my memory. They had some sense of cause and effect. Me laughing, my father beating me. I suppose the red and orange explosions could have occurred at any time whenever he needed someone to suffer, but memory doesn’t work that way and all I remember is my laughter making my father hate me.
The stars were different than the fireworks. I learned later why, or possibly this categorizing of his beatings is arbitrary and entirely inside my head, but regardless I learned that when the skull is thumped in a certain way it can cause the occipital lobe to fire and this makes white flashes appear before your eyes. So the stars usually came during a head-on encounter. And that means the stars would come when I was being told how stupid I was. He liked to glare at me with those hate filled eyes and, I believe this was a favorite of his, cup his palm to my head and slam my skull back into the wall. That was what would rattle my occipital lobe, when I was proving what a fucking idiot I was to my father.
Bursts of color. Starbursts of light.
After he hit me he would always yell at me to cry, dare me to, and I would. But after a few years of this I stopped crying in front of him. He would hit me and sneer at me to cry and I’d hold it in and eventually he would relent or, more commonly, get distracted or, less commonly, crumble in on himself like a volcano diffused and I would run away to be alone. The urge to cry would well up inside me once I was alone and I would shove my fists into my eyes and order myself not to. That made sense of it I guess. It helped if there had been a reason for my father beating me. By ordering myself not to cry, I could turn it all into a warped kind of lesson.
My knuckles would grind into my eyes and I would swear at myself, repeating his anger, calling myself horrible insults and ordering myself not to cry. If I didn’t cry I didn’t lose.
My toys would come out eventually. Plastic figures in combat suits with specialized weapons that matched their names. One of them would cry.
Their play mission would go wrong, or the bad guy would get in a sneak attack, or sometimes they would just lose it and one of them would break down into weak little tears. The rest of the crew would be furious with whoever had lost it and loathe those horrible baby-ish wails and they would berate him and swear at him and I would feel a bit better I think.
The hurt and fear that had been wrenching at my heart would lessen as it became reenacted in miniature. The tears would seem small, the pain would be manageable, and it all would concentrate down into a little man I could hold in my hand. Massive fireworks in the night sky, entire stars in the darkness, they shrank down to be held in my palm in the half-pretend sobbing of some plastic toy. Then I would be in control. My jaw would set and the weak character in the group would get beat up, often at the hands of his own disgusted crew members. Clenched in my fist I would do my best to snap his head back and pop the little plastic body in two.
Eventually I would wear myself out, seething and playing, and the razor sharp edges of my emotions would blunt and grow bleary and I would fall asleep on the floor of my bedroom next to my toys.
At the diner this morning the waitress told my family that this late in the season they always get a patch of phosphorescent plankton in the water. It’s not in high concentration, possibly some of the lowest you’ll ever come across. And there aren’t any night tours and no one goes out in kayaks to stir it up and watch it glow like I’ve heard about in the islands, but it’s there. But the waitress told us that near dawn on the shore, where wave after wave has risen, paused, and then receded, enough plankton settles into the sand so that if you take a walk at night bright flecks of light will burst from under your steps like your feet are sending sparks scattering in all directions. Apply pressure and they flare up, lift your foot and they fade.
Last night my wife and my boys were on the beach watching fireworks in the air. Bursts of light and searing orange. They seemed so large to me. They seemed to take up the entire sky. They seemed like stars that could crush my entire world and I worried if I would ever get out from under those bursts of light, if I could ever leave them behind. It feels like they will always be inside of me and I stared at my boys sleeping in their rented room for a long time before walking through town tonight and out onto the beach.
Walking down to the water I came across the luminescent plankton. An invisible blanket of sparks just waiting for some pressure to explode. And they did, they sparked and flashed under my feet as I walked along. For them their entire being was screaming with light. Their world was nothing but explosions.
And I looked up at the ocean, at how much larger it was than any of those sparks. The plankton thinks its world is searing brightness but the world is so much bigger than any flares, than any fireworks, even the stars in the night sky are reduced to tiny pinpricks of light. And I knew that I was only one small spot of fire in the world, a world that had my wife in it as well. A world that had my two boys in it along with me. A huge world that even still had my father in it somewhere. From where I stood the tiny bits of plankton sparkled with pressure and then faded away. Small, little bits of light that mean nothing if you look at how much else there is in this grandiose existence. Just flashes in the dark, a dim memory of the past.
Joseph Devon – Hailing from New Jersey, Joseph is sarcastic, caustic, abrasive, and yet a surprisingly good cook. As the eldest member of the arena’s cadre, Joseph has come to rely on discipline over flash and dozens of rewrites over bursts of creativity. He also sometimes remembers where he put his dentures. Joseph grew up fighting for attention over loud guidos and even louder New Yorkers and polished a knack for concise, striking imagery. A fan of most anything silly, Joseph also has a depth hidden under his love of talking animals that can rope in unsuspecting readers and make them think before they realize they’re reading anything of substance. Joseph is the author of the first two books of the Matthew and Epp trilogy,Probability Angels and Persistent Illusions and is hard at work on the third.