I wrote this a bit ago, some have read it and some have not. I want sure if it was public ready, bit what the hell
BUTTERFLIES AND POLAROIDS
Meredith Jane Baumgartner saw the world as a kaleidoscope of adventure. She was the temporary owner of every stray dog, the bully smasher of Henry David Thoreau grammar school, and my kid sister.
She used to chase butterflies in the vacant lot behind the house. Wide eyed and skinned knees, She would stand perfectly still among the wild flowers and try to get the monarchs to land on her. Sometimes, she got lucky, but most times she fidgeted like a bag of angry squirrels.
I have a box of Polaroids, dozens of photographs that show M.J. chasing, diving, falling and failing to catch what might have been a butterfly, she caught a leaf that was colored a little like a sick moth once, but she never caught a butterfly, except for the one time.
One day, right before Summer became not Summer. M.J. came barrelling up the alley to the front step of the house. She had just learned about the harm caused by stepping on cracks and lines, so the journey to where I was sitting was wrought with the incredible potential to destroy our mother’s back.
“Hey DaAanielllll! She screamed as she skipped and jumped across our worn sidewalk. She was using the short form of my official title. I was three years older then M.J. and until she figured out that she was probably smarter than me, My full name was Hey Daniel Why.
“DaAaniellll!!!” she yelled, “I got one, I really got one.” she stopped, dead, in front of me and extended her filthy arm.
“Whaaat do you want shrimp?” I replied.
She held the wings of the big brilliant monarch butterfly between her tiny fingertips. She used so much pressure the ends of her fingers had turned white. Her smile was wide with achievement.
“I wanted you to see. I caught one, I finally caught one.”
I looked at the butterfly, its wings pressed together. I saw the smile on her face. I watched as she released her fingers.
“Fly away!” She compassionately coached
The butterfly unflappingly fell to the ground, and I could see her smile fall, I could see her heart break and there was nothing I could do.
I took a Polaroid of the dead butterfly on the asphalt. Meredith buried her face into my filthy Pink Floyd t-shirt and pretended not to cry.
“Hey Daniel Why. . .” She muttered, using my full name.
“Some people say that butterflies are how souls get to heaven.” I don’t know why I said it. It was just something I had learned in school. It was a myth or something. “The Greek word for butterfly is Psyche. Psyche means soul.” I shouldn’t have said it, but the words fell out of my mouth.
“Did I stop it, can it still get to. . . “. She stopped to sniffle. The kaleidoscope in her head stopped and the colors drained away in her tears. She picked up the butterfly body and began to bury it next to the tree the city planted last summer after they tore up and then put in a new sidewalk.
“I'll fix it.” I said. “We can make it better.” It was a big brother lie. Big brother lies are what make the world turn.
I snapped a picture of the asphalt that had once held the body of the fallen butterfly. I carefully mixed the photo in the pack of that days polaroids.
I took Meredith’s hand and together we walked towards the gigantic vanity mirror in mom’s bedroom. I picked M.J. up and stood her on the worn wooden top. Mom would have killed me if she found out, we weren’t supposed to be in her room, much less climbing on her furniture.
I handed M.J. the photo with the cellophane tape already attached,
“Tape the picture to the glass.” I said as she reached to accomplish the task.
“Like this DaAanielll?” she sing songed at me, and placed the picture side against the glass.
I helped her down.
“Some people used to believe that if you took their picture, you were stealing their soul.” I explained
Meredith “uh-huhed” me weakly, pretending she really understood.
“And some people believe that mirrors can be gateways to places, like Alice’s looking glass. It’s why birds crash into windows, they are just trying to fly to a magical place. If we do this right we can send the butterfly’s soul to a magical place whene they can fly from flower to flower forever.”
“Really?” She said, her eyes a little wider.
“Would Hey Daniel Why lie to you?” I smiled, hating myself a little bit.
M.J. Went shopping with mom for shoes or a coat or school supplies. I don’t remember, but it was long enough to switch the photos.
The next day my named changed to Hey Daniel What, as in, Hey Daniel What happened to the butterfly? I told her it was super secret magic stuff, and she believed me. I felt bad about the deceit, but proud that I took away her pain. I don't know where that places me morally, but I don't think it matters any more.
I'm thinking about this stupid story as I the cab pulls up to her house. I'm carrying my old Polaroid and a box of photos. I realize I haven't seen her since the wedding, since she and Geoffrey the barbarian moved out of state.
Geoffrey was the kind of guy that you loved until you realized you hated everything about him. He was overbearing and a special kind of nonsensical blue collar condescension entered a room about two minutes before he did. He was a self serving revisionist of the highest caliber, and these were the non-chemical reasons not to like him.
So yesterday when she called out of the blue, and told me that everything was fine but in a way that made me not believe her. I called mom, which was pointless, and the airport, which was frustrating..
So, here I am, getting out of a cab in a too clean suburb, three states from home. I’m following a hunch that M.J. accidently killed another butterfly and needed some of the super secret magic stuff.
I could hear the argument as I approached the stairs. In the suburbs they call these things discussions, but I knew better. Discussions usually involved an exchange of ideas, an argument involved irrational yelling and occasional property damage.
“I don't have a problem. You have the problem. I'm fine with my drinking. I don't need to go to a meeting, maybe you need to go to a meeting!!” Geoffrey the barbarian, stopped yelling long enough to light a cigarette.
Geoffrey stood in the doorway as I kept my distance. He was leering at me as he dragged his smoke. He may have been silently threatening me, but the cocaine he had for breakfast made it difficult to get a read on him. He was too sniffy and twitchy. Those conditions don’t occur overnight.
“GET OUT” I could hear Meredith yelling as large a glass ashtray missed Geoffrey's head and shattered on the door frame. “I DON'T WANT YOU COMING BACK HERE, JUST GET THE FUCK OUT”. Her voice was going hoarse.
I snapped his picture with my polaroid. Geoffrey didn’t seem to like that and started to take a step towards me. I shook my head and set my gear in the driveway. This was not going to be the day I got my ass kicked by a drunken coke head.
I put the new polaroid in my jacket pocket, and Geoffrey the barbarian snorted like a bull as he walked away. I suddenly realized the Geoffrey was like one of those jokes that you found hysterical in college and 20 years later you realize exactly how offensive it was and you feel really guilty for finding it funny in the first place.
I picked up my gear after the barbarian had gotten into his car and drove away. I had an ambivalent feeling wash over me for halfway hoping he would have an accident or at least a DUI. It was irrelevant. M.J. had to be the primary concern.
I knocked on the still open door, but there was no reply. Upon entering the small house, I realized that more than an ashtray had been thrown. The room was littered with broken glassware and dishes. CDs and vinyl records were cracked and scattered in piles all around the room. I clicked the polaroid, and felt like one of those crime scene guys on those tv shows I refuse to watch.
When I finally found M.J. she was on the floor of the bathroom. She was crying and hugging the toilet like a repentant drunk. I didn’t say anything. I snapped another polaroid.
“It’s for the family album.” I said, trying to lighten an uncomfortable situation,
M.J. smiled and then flipped me of. “It would make a great Christmas card.” I can include it with the letter of all the things that happened to us this year.”
“I can see it now: This year we bought a new puppy, Geoffrey dabbled in illegal non-prescription drugs, and I survived a hurricane.” It was only half funny.
M.J. punched me in the stomach as I helped her to her feet. She looked small, smaller than she did on the butterfly day. She looked like someone had spent a long time viciously holding her wings together trying to keep her from flying.
“Get packed” I told her. “Pack like you aren’t coming pack.”
I felt guilty. I told her that I would fix it. I told her that we would make it okay. I thought I had. I thought I set the butterfly free, I thought I set M.J. free, but I was wrong, and I wasn’t going to let it happen again.
I pasted the new photo of my sister against the broken bathroom mirror face down, just like the butterfly. Loaded the luggage into her mini-van and drove away. Part of me wanted to set the house on fire and not look back, but I’t not a tough guy and the lesson learned is that if you love something, you don’t squeeze it tight, you cradle it, so it doesn’t fall, but can still fly when it needs to.
About two states into the trip, M.J. grabs my arm and squeezes. We stop at some stupid roadside attraction and have a stranger take out photograph (twice). I keep that photo, face up, in the mirror in my house, and the last time I saw M.J., she was sitting in her butterfly garden taking pictures with my polaroid, and our picture was taped to her mirror too.