Joe Heithaus, Butterfly


Joe Heithaus, Butterfly


Lulu was in a Pink Pearl, five feet off the ground.  Her Papaw was deeper in the orchard directing his pickers, migrants who spoke a language she didn’t know.  They were working a long line of Honeycrisp, but Lulu was in a special part of the orchard with the names she’d sing – Redlove, Lady Alice, Beauty of Bath.  A boy, a child, like herself, climbed up and inched near her.  There were other people in the orchard, families picking their own bushels.  Even then she knew that she didn’t much like nearness, begrudged the hugs to her by her mother, her grandparents, and her distant dad.  But the boy, blonde haired, sort of empty-eyed, reached out to touch her hair.  She slipped and screamed and fell.   Soon the faces loomed around her like too close clouds as she grasped for a grasp of breath.  Things stopped.  Above her: the tree’s branches, pink fruit dangling, fluttering leaves, some mother’s hair hanging down around her ears, and then the woman’s lips and mouth pressed to hers, pushing in breath.  Soon she was coughing and being lifted to the bed of her Papaw’s old Chevy and still more people around her as it jounced to somewhere she’ll never remember.  She doesn’t even remember this.  Lost this memory like a toy.  Has none of it or only enough to get a chill she can’t explain when she sees certain apples at the grocery store.  Papaw passed before she turned nine.  This happened when she was five.

On the day she put her mask on for the first time she remembered that her Papaw had been a ball turret gunner during the war and flew missions over Europe inside in a B17.  The first thing to come to her was the name of the plane: Shoo Shoo Shoo Baby.  For years she thought it was shoe, shoe, shoe, like tap dancing.  But sometime in high school while helping out in the elementary school, she heard a child sing Shoo fly, Don’t Bother Me, and it clicked.   She could smell her grandfather’s cigarette and apple breath, see his eyes shining in lamp light as he talked about being inside that bubble on the bottom of the plane searching the fields and towns below, grasping the handles of his gun.    

He never talked about killing, though that is surely what he did.  It was a gray day a year or so before he died.  They were in the farmhouse and Grams was in another room.  His missions were during the day and they’d come in low over forests, unkempt farmland, orchards, and then climb when the target city or factory was near.  In those flights he’d first thought about planting apple trees.  He tried to describe the black clouds of flack, the sounds of the cannons below, the coldness of the air all seen and felt from inside that little dome of plastic glass.  He said he saw the eyes of the other people—German pilots and gunners.  Because it was such a tiny cramped space, they chose him to do it, the smallest man on the plane. 

Just as she put the straps of the mask around her ears and stared at herself in her hallway mirror, she thought of the strange intimacy he must have felt while shooting someone out of the sky all holed up like a baby inside an upside down dome of glass.  His stories appeared to her as a kind of shadow behind a bright scrawl of words: Shoo Shoo Shoo Baby.  She could only see her eyes.

For as long as she could remember Lulu had shoo shoo shooed people away from her, kept some kind of invisible gorge around herself.  Her parents had divorced even before she’d fallen from the tree and her father lived in New Mexico.  She only visited her father twice as a child, but she fell in love with the unbroken distances, the empty mesas, the muted reds and pales and pinks in striations of rocks.  She refused to hold his hand on their hikes across the wide fields of sage.  When she went back as an adult just a few months ago, the southwest appealed to her in a new way.  Driving out across the Texas panhandle from Indiana to see her father, his second wife gone, now in his new senior community, she felt a calm she seldom felt anywhere.   No one in her passenger seat.   Hardly another car for long expanses of highway.  Acres of emptiness. Whole trains taken in in an eyeful.  There was no one near her and that’s how she liked it.  

When she arrived, and crossed his threshold, she could barely stay inside. 

Hi Henry.

She’d given up Dad sometime in college.

Hey Lu.  How’s the drive? Car hold up? 

They had almost nothing to say to one another.  He didn’t get up.  She didn’t lean down for a hug.  That night they stared at the golf course outside his window.  He didn’t golf.  She had picked it up as a pastime, trudging nine or eighteen alone, back in Indiana.  Though she was no good at it, it was something to do.  She didn’t tell her father that she’d never had a true friend.   Though she’d been attracted to men, and a few women, her need for space had kept her back.  She was an impossible date.  She hated movie theaters, crowded restaurants, concerts, and rides at amusement parks.  She’d never really kissed anyone.

What are they doing Lu?

It isn’t as boring as you think Henry.  It is about calculating distance, about numbers and precision and calm.  You’d like it, if you could get past being really bad at something for a while.

Not for me Lu.  I’d say it looks relaxing, but I can hear the men, and even women sometimes, cursing, throwing their clubs.  

Lulu was across the room stirring a highball with a tiny straw from her father’s bar, a red cherry rising up to the surface like a drunken sun.  

A month later She and her mother were making an apple pie.  It was late winter and March had brought a snowstorm.  Lulu watched it swirl around her Honda in the driveway as her mother carefully smoothed the dough with a rolling pin.  Lulu held her head back from the window, back straight, arms at her side.  But she was on her toes, heels rising.  She wanted to bolt out into the cold.  

See a therapist, Lu.

I just don’t like being in a room with other people.

You are in a room with another person right now, Hon.

I know and I don’t like it Mom.  I’ve never liked breathing the same air as you or anyone.

Lu, pass me the flour.

Lulu worked at the town’s university library in the basement.  She got the job just out of college.  She repaired and restored books and culled the books no one wanted to read anymore.  Sometimes she’d take a lonely tome home and work her way through.  Her favorite throwaway was from 1905.  The title made her laugh: Much In Little: A Work Intended to Teach How to Cure Yourself of Disease by the Power of Magnetism in Such a Concise Manner that All Can Understand and Apply.  Now with the quarantine, it sat on her bedside table unread and she worked at her small kitchen table going through the library’s online catalogues and marking the books that needed removal.   She had a horseshoe magnet on the fridge and stared at it for days before she turned it up for good luck.  

This was her first time leaving the house after Covid 19 hit big in late March and everyone hunkered down.  It was April, finally a warm day.  She looked in the mirror and tried to make serious sad eyes, though she was smiling beneath the mask. She was thinking of Papaw, the dead airmen who didn’t come back from the war, him shooting other planes and killing, just to give herself serious eyes, to try to look somber.  But the very idea that everyone needed to stay six feet distant delighted her.  This, finally, was her moment. 

At the Kroger she saw him behind the butcher case, black mask, deep brown eyes, dark hair below a cap, a fleck of blood on his apron.  Lou on the nametag.  They matched. 

A quarter pound of Italian sausage, I’m making homemade sauce.  

Make sure you put in plenty of garlic.

This was their first communication.  She went back to Produce and bought two more bulbs.  Days later he was shopping, she supposed, before going home from work, pushing his cart which looked giant in front of him.  He was small and slender like her grandfather.  They were in the ice cream aisle.  She watched him in the cold windows.  Her mother had made her a butterfly mask, a giant monarch across her lips.  

Heavenly Hash, he said, holding up his quart.  It’s like Rocky Road, has marshmallows. 

Heavenly, she replied, smiling behind her mask. 

He had kept his distance, but for the first time in her life, even though it was now required, Lulu wanted a person right beside her. She could feel the frigid air from the door he just shut waft by her.  He waved.  She waved back and turned the corner in search of toilet paper.  

Their first date was awkward, she asked him if he’d like to take a walk with her and met on the corner of Washington and Wood by the Dairy Castle.  Lou brought her a bag of apples, Pink Ladies.  She didn’t want to touch them, Covid and all.  He muttered that it was stupid of him, he just wanted to give her something, some token.


Oh no, don’t be. I love apples.  My grandfather had an orchard.  

Lulu got a deep chill she didn’t understand, though the day was warm, spring coming on in giant pink magnolias, daffodils swaying.   They walked up Wood and turned on Seminary.  For a moment they stood beside three beautiful sunset colored tulips around a telephone pole.  

I like the mask, he said.  I read a book this winter, before everything.  It’s called, The Last Butterflies.  

A butcher named Lou reading The Last Butterflies.  Lulu made a deep happy sigh.  The apples swung from his arm like a pendulum and they walked in silence for a while.

My grandfather was a ball turret gunner in World War II.  There’s a terribly sad poem I once read about what he did, how it must have felt.  He survived to plant that orchard. When I found the poem in college long after he was gone.  It made me cry.  I can still remember it.  

With that she was speaking poetry:

The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner, she announced. 

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,

And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.

Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,

I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.

When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

There was a sudden breeze.  A car rumbled by with a heavy base sound that entered them both.  Some flowers fell from a tree.

I can’t remember who wrote it.  I’m sorry, she said.

I’m sorry, he said, again.

No, I don’t know why I’m telling your this, Lou.  I just thought apples, my grandfather, the poem.  I’m nervous, she said, breathless, she said. His plane was called Shoo, Shoo, Shoo, Baby.

And then a robin landed in the grass and Lulu began to remember the fall from the tree, the woman’s kiss of life, the pink pearls above her.  She watched Lou’s eyes follow the bird to the ground, his mouth behind his plain black mask.  And the distance of the monarchs’ long migrations, all the flat emptiness of Texas and New Mexico, the mysterious distances of time and death. The lonely bombers of war and the horrible spaces below them.  Even the distance of one language from another.  All of it collapsed in a single moment and with the snap of magnets Lulu and Lou embraced.  Masks still on, blackness meeting butterfly, they kissed. 

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