Mayflies and Memories
Bar-goers called him “The Amish Guy.” He wasn’t but smiled while he shook their drinks and wore the title patrons gave him. I sold cigars at the end of the bar he tended. My shaved head and dark waistcoat got patrons to call me “the hitman” when they had too much scotch to remember my name.
Bryan was a prodigy bartender who would buy mescal to infuse with chipotle for his cocktail inventions that made the bar a destination for bankers to show their potential clients something new and good in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
I would test his prototype drinks with an uneducated but experienced pallet. “Stop measuring the drinks,” I’d tell him.
“You have to measure drinks for consistency.”
“People don’t want consistency,” I would say after a few full samples. “People don’t want consistency, because consistency is mathematical, and math is depressing.”
“How is consistency depressing?”
“I didn’t say consistency was depressing, I said ‘mathematical’ was depressing.”
“Fine. How’s mathematical depressing then?”
“’Mathematically, you’re not special. Mathematically none of us are.”
“Yeah that’s depressing!” He laughed.
“I’ll have another in a tall glass, no fruit . . . Your drinks are special, man, because they’re not math, they’re approximately you . . . all a little different.” I knew that he’d heard my words, but he didn’t hear me.
In a few months he would join me for late summer lounges on my girlfriend’s porch, long after she had gone to bed.
Daylight was getting longer; it meant nothing to us besides warmer nights to talk and drink through. We laughed at absurd conversation, punctuated by silence, a lone car driving by, and the chill of a real thought. Sometime after the fireflies had risen from the grass and faded among the stars, I asked Brian, “You think a suicidal person has any fear?”
“What do you mean?”
“Like a guy is driving home to finish a bottle of muscle relaxers, does he get scared if a car pulls out in front of him even though he’s looking to off himself?”
“No? You sound pretty certain about that. Who’s to say that he’s not scared of his reaction because it wasn’t part of his plan? Maybe he’s still scared to die, just not on his own terms . . . especially if it’s just in that moment of reaction.”
“You weren’t what?”
His voice was higher and softer than his frame and beard might suggest, but there was a certainty that I wasn’t used to. “You weren’t scared?”
He took a long drink off the top of his Jim Beam and Coke.
“I didn’t care at all.”
“Are you telling me?”
“Well go ahead! I’ve never heard this one.” A mayfly landed on his arm. “It’s a mayfly. They don’t bite.”
“Are you an expert in mayflies?”
“No more than any below average fly fisher. They hatch underwater and work their way to the surface before they sprout their wings.”
“At least they get to fly.”
“Not for long.”
He killed it and started into his story.
The idea was there way before I had to turn my headlights on when I came up to the Route 30 Bridge. The sunset was orange and pink, but no good to drive into, so I pulled my visor down. It rattled against the inside of the windshield on one good hinge and the orange-pink light still reflected off the Susquehanna River and into my eyes. Rotting mayflies tempted me to roll the window up. Their carcasses in late summer drifted past lampposts and piled up on embankments like plowed snow.
My windows stayed down. The AC in the Corolla had broken shortly after I got it, and the smell would be gone soon with the river anyway.
The minutes to my brother’s went fast after the bridge, because so did I . . . way too fast . . . and I didn’t care. Mayflies slammed into my windshield. Actually, my windshield slammed into them, and I had to put the wipers on.
A pickup truck crawled by the porch, and I used the pause in Bryan’s story to ask him if he wanted a refill. I hadn’t checked his glass, but I was empty.
“I’m good.” He said. He was empty too.
“You know that mayfly thing on the bridge was in the news. They had to use snowplows to get them off the road. Sorry to interrupt, Bry; you were saying?”
I got to my brother’s cookout and was playing with my nieces.
“It’s your turn Uncle Bry! Go down the slide.”
“Yeah go down the slide! Are you scared?”
“I am scared!” When I leaned forward and looked down on the plastic slide they came in for a private consultation.
“What is it Uncle Bry?”
“Well it looks so fun when you girls are going down the slide, but I’m scared.”
Adele put her hand to her mouth. “Hey!” She whispered loud, “I was scared too!”
“You liar!” said Claire. “You said you were never scared when I was too afraid to go.”
“I was just saying that so you would go.”
“How do I know that you’re both not lying to me right now just to get me to go down the slide?” I said.
“Just do it, Uncle Bry! It’s so fun!”
“Yeah! It’s fun!”
“Well if it’s so fun, why would you want me to join? You girls would have to wait longer if I took turns with you.”
“’Cause it’s more fun with you!”
“Yeah! It’s way more fun to see you have fun too!”
I climbed back up the six-step ladder and sat at the top of the plastic slide. The girls jumped and cheered. I held the crossbar above desperately and kicked my legs until the girls cheered louder.
“Go down Uncle Bry!”
“Yeah, go down!”
I went down.
The slide buckled a little and static cracked in my ears. Air whooshed and the single bump in the middle threw my stomach. When my feet hit the fresh cut grass, my heels slid out. I landed hard, my tailbone protested, and reminded me that it was the same tailbone that might have fractured when a group of guys jumped me outside a club for handling their friend. Spikes shot up my spine but I smiled through the tears at the adoring fans that jumped and screamed around me. Adele tripped on the slide but got up and hugged me.
“I think it’s about time for bed ladies.” My brother came toward us. He looked at Adele’s knee. Darkness wouldn’t show much to unadjusted eyes, but I could see the trail of blood that ran the length of her shin to her dirty sock.
“Mommy’s waiting to tuck you in.” He kissed hair-knotted heads and sent them into the light of the house.
Rob handed me one of his bottled beers and pulled chairs over for my dad and me to sit around.
“The girls like ya!” Dad held his beer out like a cheers. My brother grabbed one of the cans I had brought and cracked it.
“You won’t like it,” I said.
“Well you brought it.”
“I didn’t think you’d go with fancy bottles.”
“You knew I wouldn’t like it.”
Dad put his beer down hard on the glass table. “Look at the stars tonight! Haven’ seen ‘em like this in a while.”
I handed out cigars and we passed around a cutter and lighter.
My dad tried smoke rings that faded among a breeze. “A great night,” he said.
“Too much air for smoke rings,” Rob said.
“Sorry for the beer,” I said.
“Perfect beer for tonight,” Dad was upbeat.
“Everything seems perfect tonight, Dad,” said Rob.
Our dad took a long sip from his cigar and kept looking up at the dark. “That’s how it feels. Sometimes the planets align right when you’re looking up to see ‘em”
“Need some water?” Rob said.
“No, I’m only on my third . . . Just a few times in your life the planets align. You’ll miss it if you’re not looking up enough.”
“Bryan, did you lace these cigars?”
“Only yours, Rob.”
“My boys are here, my daughter-in-law, grandkids . . . Everything is perfect . . . Except that air . . . It kills my smoke rings.”
We sat and smoked and sipped beer. Rob and I watched the stars and planets tick over the black sky like an hour hand that moves too slow to see, unless you forget about it and look again later. Our cigars burned down and the ash from mine fell on Rob’s lumber patio. He saw.
“Guess I’ll take care of that too.”
I tried to kick it toward the edge, but it fell apart over the boards.
“Thanks, that’s a new patio and treated lumber.”
“Of course you’re sorry.”
“Whatever ash is still there, it’ll wash off the treated lumber.”
“Who’s washing off the treated lumber? Are you going to spill your canned beer on it? Will your canned beer let the grass and blood stains on Adele’s school dress wash out?”
“You missed it boys. Shooting star right over there.” Dad pointed somewhere over the Susquehanna.
Rob didn’t look. “Nice of you to show up and do the bare minimum as usual so my girls can love you.”
“They forced me to go down the slide.”
“Two children forced you to go down my slide?”
“I couldn’t let them down.”
“I let them down all the time. Why do you think they listened to me to go inside? I let them down enough that they know what to expect . . . I’ve never been down the slide that I built.”
Dad set the nub of his cigar in the ashtray and swigged from the can of beer that I brought. He looked up the whole time. Rob looked up too. Somewhere their sightline intersected. I laid my cigar in the ashtray with Dad’s.
“Good cigars Bryan . . . good beer . . . perfect night.”
The sliding door rolled open and we all looked. Jenny stepped through. “The girls won’t shut their eyes till Grandpa says goodnight.”
“O’ course, Jenny.” Dad stood up. “The boys were just figuring something out.”
“And what was that?”
Rob crushed his beer can in one hand and his cigar stub in the ashtray with the other. “We figured out that it’s a perfect night, Jenny.” He went over and kissed her on the forehead. “Dad . . . Bry, thanks for coming. I love you . . . ‘till next time.”
“‘Till next time,” we said.
Jenny let Rob stumble past. “Hey Bryan!” She smiled and pointed at me with two fingers and then at her eyes to let me know that I was under her surveillance. She let Dad in. “Hey Bry, I want a hug before you go.” I got up and hugged her. “Take it easy on your older brother,” she said. “He just gets jealous of you.”
“Ha! Does he want my Corolla, my nonexistent girlfriend, or my rented apartment?”
Jenny laughed. “I mean it, Bry . . . You know we worry about you.”
“You should get better company than that “hit man” guy from your work. He’s not helping you along any.”
“He’s not so bad, Jenny. He’s just content.”
“Content is toxic, Bry. Would you rather drink from a puddle or a stream?”
“I’ve lost you Jenny. He’s not a bad guy though.”
“Drive safe Bryan.”
The city slept while I tried to roll back the miles. My wheels screamed over crumbling asphalt as I raced to retrace the route that I had used to get there.
A swarm of mayflies drifted from the true light of extinguished Little League floodlights, across a barren ball field after innings of excitement, victory, defeat, and now onto the road in front of me. They dotted my windshield, and I had to turn my wipers on again. Some came through the rolled-down window to get stuck in my beard. The old movie theater slept alone in its lot after a long day of showing swarms of patrons true light of made up stories with happy endings and scripted smiles. I pressed the gas and a current swept me to the highway where I drifted over lines and between glowing red tail lights. There was the stench of rotten mayflies on a rushing breeze before I saw lights, speckling the bridge in a mathematically ordered line. When I came to them, the light from each post would swing over me with a slight shadow between each. A crest of light and a trough of dark spaced perfectly to the ba-bup of my tires hitting the incremental bridge creases. Halfway across the bridge, consistent, electric lamps drowned out scattered stars. A mathematically chaotic river moved under me.
Black water raced but never re-traced over and between hidden rocks. I leaned over the bridge’s concrete wall to watch. Its ripples sparkled light from the riverside town in the distance. A black hole and galaxy spun below in a vortex of swirling water. I heard the girls yelling, “Go down!” I breathed deep and almost choked on the rotten air of mayfly corpses. Upstream, another, older bridge mediated the York and Lancaster sides. On the surface of the distant, black water, a distorted riverside town fought to hold an approximate image in the reflection. Against the endless here-and-gone of rushing river droplets, the lights on the black surface danced. I had plans to have no plans after that moment. I stood up on the wall. My face itched and when I scratched my beard, it set free a few mayflies from back at the baseball field. How lucky were they to make it out of all this alive? How unlucky were the ones who hit my windshield? I guess that it didn’t matter to the ones flying out of my beard. They scattered out and faded among the dark. Lights danced on the ripples of black water. “Go down! Go down!” bounced between my ears. The water was black and beckoning. “Go down! Go down!” The lights from the town on the dark surface fluttered and fragmented . . . approximate, but consistent, and there. “Go down! Go down!”
I went down to my car and drove home. The smell of rotten mayflies faded into the air.
The ice in our glasses had melted like an hour hand. I grabbed Bryan’s glass and we went inside.
“Want it like the last one?” I said.
“Make it like yours.”
“Staying here then I guess?”
It was a perfect night, and we savored it like a minute hand.
Bryan left a few months later to a town in a state that was far and different from Lancaster and York. We talk sometimes. That porch and girlfriend are there, but gone to me. He has a kid now. The image of our friendship lasts, somewhat distorted by the chaos of drunken memories, and held together by approximately us. Our planets won’t align like that again. The droplet of that moment was swept up a long time ago and it raced away like a second hand, faded among the river. The droplet of that moment was swept away a long time ago, dissolved into the river.