That's when I knew (fiction)

It was one of those hot Nebraska nights when the air was so thick you felt like you couldn't breathe. Only in the Midwest could you have 100% humidity and 103 degrees at 11 o'clock at night. It didn't help that I was laying in the back seat of a '57 Chevy in which the window cranks were broken, my skin sticking to the vinyl seat material, and we were creeping along at a speed equivalent to a tricycle with a flat tire.

As we crept along the county road, waiting for the traffic to break up I saw something that I'd never seen before, and haven't seen since. At this time of year, fireflies are thick in Nebraska. One summer evening I must have caught 200 of them, sticking them all in a gallon size pickle jar; when I put the jar on my dresser the light show kept me up all night. However, on this particular night, as we waited in a line of cars, the fireflies seemed to have lost their minds. The had parked themselves on the limbs of all the trees and instead of blinking and flashing they were burning their lights steady. All along the sides of the road every tree looked like a Christmas tree decorated with pale greenish-yellow lights. It was beautiful and creepy at the same time. Maybe because of all the car lights they had become confused. Or maybe they were just watching the crazy people go by.

It was the 4th of July and we were leaving the annual fireworks display at Holme's Lake in Lincoln. Even at that time, before computerized fuses and synchronized music, it was quite a show. We sat on the far side of the lake where we could see the explosions reflected on the water. To an 8 year old boy who spent the previous few days trying to blow his fingers off with his own dime store firecrackers, the big booms where memorable.

The sights and sounds burned themselves into my mind that night in a way that no other evening of my childhood had. Not because this particular holiday was in any way more spectacular, but because of what happened during the rest of the drive.

My father was driving. He always drove the Chevy, it was his baby. I don't remember him having another car before this one. It was almost 20 years old, but it was like new. The paint, the interior, even the white-wall tires were like they had just driven off the lot. My earliest memories of my father were of him with his head under that hood. Unfortunately there was another memory - he always had a beer in his hand.

Being 8, I never thought much about it. The word "alcoholic" wasn't even in my vocabulary. The huge barrel in the garage that was always full of beer cans - even though it was emptied once a week - the smell of it on my dad's breath, the fact that he would lie down on the floor in front of the T.V. and "sleep", not getting up until morning, This was just how things were. I didn't know any different.

He had a beer in his hand then, as he drove. There were many empties on the floor next to me in the back. He'd toss them over the seat as he finished them. I don't know how many there were, but my little brother, who liked to sleep curled up on the floor, had to get up on the seat next to me at some point because he didn't like the cans rolling over on him. And that was only the ones he had drunk since we got in the car after the fireworks. I don't know how many he had at the lake before and during the fireworks.

Finally, the traffic broke up as the people turned off to head to their homes in all the small towns scattered around this corner of the state. We too turned off on the route that would take us the 30 miles or so to our own small town. It was pretty much a straight shot from this turn, the only stop being a flashing read light at the only intersection in the only town between here and home. The drive was relatively short, but dark, only a few farm houses offering their light along the way.

I dozed as I looked up through the back window at the moonless night sky, wondering as I always did why the stars didn't seem to move as the rest of the world sped by. Another can thrown over the back woke me. That's when I realized something was wrong.

My mother was whispering in severe and hushed tones. I couldn't hear what she and my father were saying, but it was obvious they were arguing. As I set up in the seat, they noticed and stopped. But as I looked out the window, I became scared. Instead of floating along, drifting with the gentle curves of the road, the car was weaving harshly from one side to the other. As the tires would hit the loose dirt and gravel on one side it would jerk violently back onto the road only to quickly hit the gravel on the other side. And we were going fast, really fast. The dotted center line, when we weren't crossing it, was blurred to the point of seeming a solid white streak.

That's when I knew. That's when I made the connection between the pile of beer cans on the floor and problem with my father. Actually, this was the first I realized there was a problem. When the car spun off the road into a ditch and then dangerously back on - almost going off the other side into a much deeper hole, we all screamed, except my father. He laughed.

I didn't have much reference for how fathers were supposed to be. We didn't go to church. The few friends I had, those whose houses I had visited anyway, never seemed to have a father at home at the time. All my teachers to this point had been female. The only other father-age figure in my life was my school principal, and being a well behaved student I never spent much time with him. The afternoon reruns of Gilligan's Island and The Brady Bunch were the only other references I had of grown men. I had always assumed my father was the way he was supposed to be, until now, speeding ridiculously down the road, laughing as the rest of his family was terrified.

I don't remember how we got home. Maybe it was one of those episodes that the brain blocks out because it's so terrifying. I do remember my brother and I running to our room and locking the door, he hiding under the covers on his bottom bunk, me burying myself under the bean bag chair in the corner. On the other side of the wall, in the kitchen, there was a shouting match going on. The first I remember, but not the last. I don't know how long it went on, but things were different after that. I can't explain exactly how they were different, but I rarely heard my parents speak to each other after that.

That's when I knew.