“Mace, for Christ sake, you’re a stupid ass” she said.
I looked over at her but she’d turned to face her mom now, resting a forearm on her small shoulder and gently fingering a loose curl away from old Julia’s eye. The kids were jumping up and down for the show.
”Do it Uncle Mace”.
One of the little ones, Joanne, was holding her nose and looking at me as if I was a ghost and I hadn’t even done it yet. Another one, Barney, was hanging on the back of the LAZ-Y-BOY and giving little tugs to my ears. The only reason I didn’t tip back and squish him against the wall was that he couldn’t have weighed more than thirty pounds. I flicked the Zippo and shoved the flame up back there to scare him off.
I already had my nylon polo shirt pulled up to the top of my chest. It was a habit I’d gotten into years ago. I usually eat too much, so, about the time the rest of the adults are stubbing out their first post-meal butts into little leaking cysts of vanilla ice milk or dry chunks of angel food cake, I’ll slide into my old LAZ-Y-BOY, get loosened up and let the air whistle through the hair on my chest. It’s Russian hair. Long and black. The family hair was Cossack hair my old man used to say, but in my case it’s fine and silky. Darla’s pale Irish fingers and even her wedding band glide right through it without any tangle at all.
Darla and I have spent a lot of hours pressed tight and wound up together in this old chair over the years with the lights out and her doing just that while we talked about things. My father. The idea of children. Plans. That sort of thing. Then last year we got her diagnosis and since then we’ve been looking at the world through the wide hole that pulls the distance up close and makes the future look more compressed than the entire sum of our intertwined bodies.
I shook a cigarette out of the pack and put it in my mouth. The kids started whining louder at the delay but I knew if I didn’t torture them a little they’d be disappointed. I made them hush up while I flicked the lighter and lit my Camel. Nobody at the table was talking now either and most of them had turned to watch me. A few shook their heads and smirked at me through the smoke of their Winstons and Newports.
Darla repeated herself and said “Mason, you are a stupid ass. I swear to God”.
We made eye contact this time and I made sure to find a little dance within the moist deep green. I exhaled a cloud over the kids’ heads and set the smooth white cancer stick into the scoop of the amber glass ashtray on the stand. Then I looked down, flicked my favorite Zippo and lit my chest hair on fire.
The kids howled like coyotes and barked like hyenas. My hairs don’t really burn down toward the skin but sort of flame on top, burning upward and smoking out kind of quickly. I was flammable but under control. I lit another little patch to keep the show going.
The girls cried “peee-yewww” because it did give off a little stench, like burning chicken feathers.
The boys yelled ‘Go Unc….yeah…yeah” and ”Make it burn longer Uncle Mace”. Each little roll of the Zippo’s wheel set them off on another melee. I kept it up for a little while, even talking little Joanne into blowing one out by telling her to pretend I was a birthday cake. I finally had to pull my shirt down and tuck it in before they accepted the show was over and went off to hassle the dog or play some cards.
I was using the one with the pair of black dice floating in the fluid. There's something appealing to me about these see-through lighters. Any man’s life can be represented in them. There are fishing lures with colorful little ties, marbles, tie tacks. Just about anything. And if the Zippo people want to represent something in a lighter that won’t fit while in its natural state, they find a shrunken version. Mini basketballs, golf-clubs or weapons. But it seems like a trick too because they all survive in that death environment. In fact they look like they’re being preserved, protected even, within the same flammable fluid that can spark into destructive fire from the simple thumbing of a wheel against a flint. Now and then I’ll hold a lighter up to the fluorescent bulb in the garage and examine a tiny soccer ball or a mini hockey puck for signs of decomposition. And when I see the perfect little stitch or the unrelenting blackness of the paint I realize I’m a little disappointed that nothing’s been eaten away. I don’t really know why. I know the Zippos aren’t beautiful or objects of art. That would be a big overstatement for something basically cheap and everyday. But I collect them anyway. (Later I pulled the flint out of the black dice model and gave it to the boys along with some nickels so they could shake it for their craps games, even though there was plenty of regular dice in the hutch.)
The house finally emptied out and Darla and I went to bed. We aren’t having much sex anymore. The medications affect her in many ways, one of which is to dry up her vagina. We’ve both grown tired of using jelly and other artificial things so most nights now we lay in bed with my hand between her legs because she likes the pressure against her there. We’ll get curled up and I’ll reach through and caress her butt softly and she’ll squeeze herself around the hardness of my forearm. Her breasts get warm against my belly while my other arm, crooked up, gives her a pillow and allows my fingers to lightly rub her head. We’ll adjust around a little but mostly in this position we lay for hours, awake to distant sirens and cat shufflings in the yard outside the window.
Tonight she was afraid for me but I calmed her and assured her I would be fine; I had my job and her mother needed to be watched over. People in her family sort of counted on me I told her and I had no desire to disappoint anyone. Besides, I joked, there wasn’t anybody I could trust with my Zippos. She began to cry a little then and I tenderly pressed her face against my slightly singed chest and thought about the ever-expanding collection up on the shelf in the garage, just across from where I keep my big red can of gasoline.