Behind the Screen by Jo Ann Beard

I’m looking at the backs of all their heads.  They’re sitting on lawn chairs in the dusk and so am I, only their lawn chairs are on the lawn while mine is on the enclosed back porch.  I have to look at the back of their heads through the screen.  We’re waiting for the fireworks to begin.

My sister is wearing shorts, a midriff top, and all manner of jewelry – a pop-bead necklace, a Timex wristwatch, a mood ring, and a charm bracelet that makes a busy metallic rustle every time she moves her arm, which she does frequently. On the charm bracelet, between a high-stepping majorette and a sewing machine with moveable parts, a little silver book that opens like a locket to display the Teen Commandments. Engraved in infinitesimal letters: Don’t let your parents down, they brought you up; Choose a date who would make a good mate;  and the famous  At the first moment turn away from unclean thinking – at the first moment.  It has such an urgent tone it forces you to think uncleanly. Right now my sister is sitting in a lawn chair waiting for it to get dark. Every few minutes she raises and lowers her right arm so the charm bracelet, which I covet, clanks up to her elbow and then slides slowly and sensuously back down to her wrist. She doesn’t bother turning around to see how I take this. She knows it’s killing me.

They won’t let me off the porch because I’m having an allergy attack. A low whistling sound emanates from my chest whenever I breathe. I can put a little or a lot of force behind it, depending on my mood. I’m allergic to ragweed and thistles and marigolds and dandelions and daisies, so we’re all used to me being stuck on the porch while everyone else is having fun. Also grass; I’m allergic to grass. Right now one nostril is completely plugged up while the other runs in a steady drip.

My four-year-old brother is wearing cowboy boots and shorty pajamas, a gunbelt minus the guns, and a hat with earflaps. He’s shooting each member of my family in turn with his crayon-size index fingers. He smiles at me, his little teeth glinting in the dusk. “You dead,” he says.

I press my face up against the screen. It smells like dirt. I put my tongue out tentatively. It tastes like dirt. “Go to H,” I say.

My mother turns her head halfway around and looks into my father’s ear. “You’re gonna get a whole lot sicker, miss,” she tells me. Stars are beginning to be visible through the cloudy beehive of her teased hair. It’s the Fourth of July 1962, and our city is having a fireworks display in the park. I have my own bowl of popcorn on the porch, and a glass of pop. The fireworks will be visible over the top of the dying elm tree in our backyard. It’s impossible for me to eat the popcorn because I’m wearing a nose tourniquet, an invention I came up with myself: half of a twisted Kleenex, one end stuffed into one nostril, the other end in the other nostril. It has a wicking effect, and saves the effort of swabbing all the time.

“I can’t even taste this pop,” I say to the screen, after taking a sip. They all ignore me. The family dog, Yimmer, is sitting on my father’s lap, growling quietly each time my brother shoots her.

My sister takes a loud swig out of a bottle of Pepsi, wipes her mouth elaborately, and says “Man, was that good.”

I examine a series of interesting scabs on my right knee. None of them are ready to be removed, although a couple are close. “You should see the scabs,” I say to the backs of their heads.

My brother marches in place, talking to himself in a stern whisper.

My mother lights another Salem and positions a beanbag ashtray on the metal arm of her chair.

My father leans down and gives Yimmer’s head a kiss.

Suddenly the scruffy edges of the elm tree are illuminated. The night sky turns pale above the garage, staccato gunfire, and a torpedo of light wiggles upward, stops, and fizzles, a long sigh is heard from my family and the family next door.

I have my forehead against the screen, breathing in the night air and the heavy, funereal scent of roses, the only flower I’m not allergic to. A noodle skids across the sky, releasing a shower of blue spangles, jewels on a black velvet bodice. Way up there is outer space. I lean back and touch my forehead; an indented grid from the screen has been pressed into it. All these fireworks are somehow scaring me. “You should see my forehead,” I say to my mother’s hair.

“What’s wrong with it?” she asks patiently. She doesn’t turn around.

“I keep pressing it on the screen,” I say.

“Don’t push on that screen,” my father says.

“I’m not.” I say.

The sky is full of missiles. All different colors come out this time, falling in slow motion, red and blue turning to orange and green. It’s so beautiful, I have to close my eyes. My family joins the neighbors in oohing. Suddenly, as the delayed booms draw near, I have to lean forward and put my head on my knees, inhaling the scent of Bactine and dirt. Everything is falling away from me. I open my eyes.

Black sky, dissipating puffs of gray smoke, the barely visible edges of the elm tree. My father’s hand is dark against the white of the dog’s fur. My brother is aiming both forefingers at the sky. A match flares suddenly; my mother touches it to her cigarette and inhales.

I am stuck somewhere between the Fourth of July and the rest of time, the usual chaos inside my head distilled down into nothing. I put my cheek against the screen, feeling the grid. There is an uproar, gunfire, sounds from the crowd.

Shooting stars in the cold of outer space; one after another the missiles are launched until the sky is brilliant with activity and smoke, huge arcs of pink and yellow. Orange things that fizzle for an instant and then sends out sonic booms. Long terrible waterfalls of yellow and blue. In the brightness, the backs of all their heads look rapt. My brother has his hands over his ears. My sister’s mouth is open. The dog has her head in my father’s armpit. It goes on for minutes, the booming sounds and the brilliant light. Closing my eyes doesn’t work, it makes me feel like I’m falling backward. Instead I watch their hair, all the different styles right in my own backyard, and say the Teen Commandments quietly to myself: Avoid following the crowed; be an engine, not a caboose. Stop and think before you drink. Gunfire, one last wild spiraling of colors, and it’s over.

“I’m not going to bed,” my brother says resolutely.

The dog jumps down and stretches.

I remain in my lawn chair as they all troop into the house. One of my sister’s better personalities comes out and she stops to comb her fingers through my hair and carries my full popcorn bowl into the house.

“She can’t eat a thing,” she tells my mother piously.

“Bath,” my mother says to her. I hear my sister stomp up the stairs and then I hear my brother stomp up behind her, two feet on each stair.

“I saw a goddamned mosquito in here,” my mother says. There’s some flailing around, the whap of the flyswatter, and then my dad says, “Ick.” The freezer opens, a bowl is clattered out of the cupboard. Ice cream. There’s the unscrewing sound of a jar opening. Marshmallow stuff. My head hurts. I remove my spent nose tourniquet and start twisting a new one. Before I can get it in place there is a damp trickle on my lip.

“You guys?” I say. Any minute now they’re going to send me upstairs.

There’s an expectant pause in the kitchen.

“This lawn chair is stuck to my legs,” I tell them.

A bottle is opened and an audible swig is taken. The lighter snaps and there’s silence while she exhales.

Uh-oh.

Bath,” she says.

Jo Ann Beard is one of my favorite flash storytellers. This story is included in her autobiographical collection Boys of My Youth (1999) and in the anthology Short Takes: Brief Encounters With Contemporary Nonfiction (2005). Both are prized possessions. Please read more of her work.

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Categories: sample stories

4 Comments on “Behind the Screen by Jo Ann Beard”

  1. August 1, 2013 at 3:33 pm #

    “What, you too? I thought I was the only one…” That nose tourniquet is so fabulous! (It totally works, by the way.) I so love all the sensory details. I remember the taste of window screen—the description made me unconsciously touch my tongue to my lips. I’m off to read more from Jo Ann Beard.

  2. August 1, 2013 at 9:14 pm #

    I waited months to post this story, it’s one of my all-time faves. It sent me back to Boys of My Youth, and I’ve been doling out a couple stories a week savoring it again for the (??) time. :)
    Thanks for commenting, Tami!

  3. October 6, 2013 at 9:49 am #

    Your posting of this story, (and my purchase of “Boys of My Youth,”) led to more than one amazing discovery. I give FlashMemoirs (and “Boys”) a shout-out on my web site/ Goodreads review here: http://bit.ly/19tFXuI Cheers!
    (Alison in Iowa)

    • October 7, 2013 at 11:19 am #

      So glad to find a kindred spirit, Alison. Thanks for the shout-outs!

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