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  • Grasshopper Kings
  • Thomas Pierce (bio)

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Illustration by Liz Priddy with photos by the following: smoke rings, David O'Connor; hand with cigar, Azmole; tower, Pete Birkinshaw; smoke wisps, Mikko Miettinen.

His son flings the stick behind the hedges when he spots the car approaching. Flynn is home late again. The boy is on the front lawn in a shirt with the sleeves cut off, his wiry arms behind his back now. Even from a distance, Flynn saw the flames eating the end of the stick. The smoke hovers around his son's head like an apparition as Flynn steps toward him. Ryan, my sweet boy, he says, I thought we'd put this fire business behind us. [End Page 36]

His son's eyes are like his wife's eyes, which are like an owl's eyes, hardly blinking and gigantic. Nothing else about his wife is owl-like. She is skinny as a ferret and not at all nocturnal. She's in bed by eight, or seven thirty if Jeopardy's a repeat. He sends Ryan off to bed with the stuffed blue bear, Mookie. His wife used to call her sister Mookie, but that was years ago, before cancer took Mookie away at the nearly young age of forty-three. His wife doesn't like to talk about her sister's death, not ever. Ryan and Mookie (the bear) share many common interests: kites, erector sets, matches, magnifying glasses, flaming sticks, aerosol sprays, hot rods. Ryan and Mookie (the aunt) never met unless you count the birth, but Flynn doesn't count the birth, as his son was not then a real, thinking human animal.

Flynn collects the stick from the hedges, wipes the ash from the tip, and takes it into his son's room wrapped in a red shower towel. Watching his son sleep, or pretend to sleep, he swishes a toothpick back and forth across his lower lip. The toothpick is no substitute for a cigarette. He rations out his pack across the week as a means of quitting, and he smoked the last of the day's allowance at work.

He stayed late tonight to help paint the set for an upcoming theater production. Flynn is the activity director at an upscale drug and alcohol treatment center in the mountains, and as such, he's in charge of the play, a romantic comedy adapted from a film. Paul Bunsen—"Small Paul," with the needle marks between his toes—has agreed to play the lead. Small Paul also goes by "Paul Bunyan," which is meant ironically, since you could fold the man into a shoebox. Tickets are on sale now, and it's buy-one-get-one-free unless you're a resident, in which case it's always free.

Flynn sits down on the bed, and the boy opens his eyes. His brown hair is wild and messy, the small snub nose just above the covers. He's short for his age, just over four feet, but then again, so was Flynn at nine.

I don't need to tell you I'm disappointed, Flynn says, Because you already know that. I really thought we'd solved this.

The closet door is decorated with Ryan's school paintings, and on the other side of that door, Flynn knows, there's a black ring burned into the beige carpet, hidden by a doormat. Ryan is not a pyromaniac, or not yet, anyway.

The doctor calls him a "fire-starter." He's more curious than compulsive.

I'm sorry, the boy says.

Is it because of my smoking? Flynn wonders. Did you see me light too many matches? Is it because I work too much? Do I not pay you enough attention? Should we play more catch? Do you need more hobbies? Should I take you fishing? My father took me fishing and made me gut them in the [End Page 38] sink behind the house, and at the time I hated him for it, but looking back, it makes me smile. Should we go fishing together? Would you like me to teach you how to weight the line...


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pp. 36-57
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