I was slapping at the welts on my shins one green evening when you told me to suck on the head of a match. Sulfur, you said, would get in my blood and keep the mosquitoes away. One match a month was all it took, you told me. I went back to catching fireflies. You said it was phosphorous in their bulbs that kept them lighting up. I walked around with a match in my mouth for a week, the stick swollen soggy in my mouth, until my mother slapped it out because of the chemicals.
You told me once that you were Johnny Unitas. It was your stage name, and no wonder. A name like that, Unitas. You didn’t want to have people stopping you and making a scene. The secret to being a quarterback, you said, was seeing the whole field. I remember you stepping backward, feet like a fencer’s, palming an invisible ball and checking down the passing routes in our backyard. Scan the field, and make a read you said. I told everybody at school.
The two boys on our street, Kevin and his brother Christopher, didn’t believe me. Kevin sat on my back while Christopher punched me in the head and told me how stupid I was. A year later, after you’d died, I wasn’t angry that you’d lied. I was angry I couldn’t tell it like you did, my voice easy and convincing and plain.
I remember you told me once what it was like to be a paratrooper. You had just pulled up in front of Gramama’s house in your camper. The muscles in your forearms were cleaved by two thick pipes of muscle, and the hair that covered them was paper white and thick. You gave me an ice cream cone from the cooler in your camper, and I asked was it true you were in Vietnam.
You told me how it is after you jump, before your chute opens. You and the rest of your platoon are connected on a static line, and the bullets fly by you in the air, and you can’t hear them, but you feel their gravity, the way the marrow in your bones thrills toward and away the ripples in the air. And you’re so scared, you said, that you forget your body. You don’t even thrash around, but move like a swimmer, and it’s like your arms and legs are on strings, controlled like a marionette is, and you can’t even feel your muscles. Your arms float up next to your face, and you notice your hand, in the dark air, floating. You just felt light, you said.
I heard after you died that when you drank you were worse. My mother said that once you came in when we were all living in Alexandria and you told everybody to go into the bedroom and lay down on the floor with all the lights out. I was there, too young to remember. There wasn’t any time to talk, you said. Someone was looking for you, because of an assignment at work. You worked at the Pentagon. We all lay down, mother said, in the bedroom with our hands over our heads. After an hour passed and then another, mother walked out and found you passed out in the living room, your head tilted back on the sofa. She draped a blanket over you, and never talked about it again till I was grown.
I have spent my whole life trying to feel as light as you.
Danny Nowell is a blogger and writer living in Portland. His writing about the NBA appears at ESPN TrueHoop Network blogs, Portland Roundball Society, and HoopSpeak, and he reviews books for The Oxford American online. What he lacks in finesse he makes up for in zeal.
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