It is hot.
The afternoon sunlight pours down, its relentless heat soaking into the worn concrete of the neighborhood sidewalks, blanketing the wilted lawns in sweltering beams. The group of us sits panting on my father-in-law’s porch, watching as the children—my own Violet, joined by a sprawl of young cousins—gallop from one end of the wire fence to the other, fresh beads of sweat freckling their little reddened faces.
My father-in-law, Roy, is celebrating his sixtieth birthday today. We onlookers laze under the aluminum awning of his Hamilton, Ohio home, most of us seated cross-legged and listless. We are a stanch lot of children, grandchildren, in-laws, siblings, and one weathered matriarch gathered in obligatory celebration.
Coralee, Roy’s mother, shifts her weight, bending to retrieve a crumpled pack of cigarettes from a threadbare purse stashed beneath her lawn chair. After righting herself, she takes a breath and raises a Pall Mall to her lips. I observe her cumbersome movements with affection; Coralee is eighty, but she is undeniably quick-witted. Despite the fierce contender that she is, I’ve never found it difficult to like her; she is the quintessential embodiment of a strong-minded southern woman.
“Kyle,” she gestures toward my husband’s younger brother. “Fetch me a Diet Coke. I’m wore slap-out from this party a’ Roy’s.”
I look on as Kyle finishes his own cigarette and flicks the still glowing butt of it into Roy’s front yard. “You want ice, Mamaw?” he asks, rising from his seat.
“Yes, baby. A' course I want ice.”
Kyle opens the patio door and starts toward the kitchen. He walks with a dazed, wiry step, his hair congealed into an oily, crochet-like tangle against his shoulders (not quite proper dreadlocks; just a knotted, unkempt mess). As I watch him slink along, I wonder how many days he’s been out of rehab. I want to believe he’s still clean, yet I can’t help but notice that my husband (guarded in the way only a helpless family member of a life-long addict could ever understand) is keeping his distance. I look away from Kyle only to see that Coralee has trained her eyes on him as well, her stare heavy with the same tone of guarded, helpless concern.
Suddenly, everyone’s attention is drawn toward the yard as high-pitched squeals of delight ring out against the blistering air. The throng of children shouts simultaneously, forming a close-knit circle around my daughter. I stand, my curiosity piqued by the commotion, and see Violet brandishing a sizeable locust. Her thin arm is outstretched toward her gaping cousins, a look of triumphant admiration painted across her porcelain face as the enormous insect, poised and unblinking, rests motionless upon her tiny wrist.
I smile at the sight of my small daughter carefully wielding this compact, robust creature, displaying it protectively for everyone to see. She cautiously ambles over to where the adults convene beneath the shade of the awning, holding out her earthly treasure to us, the parade of sticky-faced cousins still romping eagerly behind.
“Mommy,” she says. “Look at this hopper bug!”
I stare down in reverence at the delicate, beautiful thing my daughter has presented—a dense emerald rendered in striking bands of citron, muted sage, and rust-stained khaki; lean, supple legs effortlessly coil to each side of a flawless physique, verging on elastic ascent, primed to leap into the abyss with barely a moment’s anticipation.
“That’s fantastic, Viol—”
Before I can finish speaking, the locust shoots upward, spiraling into the air, and then diving perilously back toward the ground as quickly as it rose. I watch in quiet horror as calamity unfolds; the insect lands dangerously close to the rollicking mob of children and is crushed almost instantaneously by a single clumsy misstep. The culpable child gingerly lifts his foot to reveal a pained, crippled version of the former elegance we all beheld moments before.
The creature writhes pitifully. Its swiveling antennas reverberating with the aftershock of its bruising. Its right leg now bends to the side, almost dangling from the socket. Violet eyes it hopelessly. I watch as, even at the tender age of four, something deep within her recognizes the agony she is meant to feel when a life is wasted without reason. I watch as she tries to make sense of this new unfairness, and although I want to, I cannot bring myself to look away from the sharp grief blooming within my child’s knowing gaze.
“Move aside,” Coralee barks. Without warning, she brings the heel of her sandal down—hard. “There! Damnit, poor critter.” With the edge of her foot, she brushes the flattened remains into the divot where the walkway meets the grass. “Now, shoo!” she commands, and the other children bound away at once.
But my daughter? She stares at the wet stain on the concrete that serves as a cold reminder of past vitality— the life which sat upon her skin a moment ago. It is in this instant I realize I can never save my daughter from the pain life has in store for her.
I avert my eyes as Violet turns to me for answers, her tears already beginning to fall. Instead, I turn back toward Coralee; she is now holding her glass of Diet Coke, but instead of drinking, she looks past her straw and into Kyle’s glassy eyes. As I watch her standing there, stoic in the presence of her opioid-dependent grandson, I wonder at which point in her life Coralee realized she could never save the people she loved either.
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