“It was a kind of rhythm,” she said, stirring
ever so slightly in the porch swing, until
it creaked to a stop. I could not quite see her –
interval of first firefly, evening star.
“I was ten years old when they discovered it.
Overnight, towns with five hundred people
shot up to five thousand. They thought the gas
would last forever, that the millennium had come.”
“They walked with a swagger – proud of the way
they wasted it. They let the streetlamps burn
night and day. Too much trouble to hire a man
to go around and put them out each morning.”
She was silent for a moment. It was a long ago.
“My stepmother had my father sign up to pay
a dollar a month for workmen to run a pipe out
to our side yard, to give light. It was called
“a flambeau, and it burned night and day.
Never went out. For a ten-year-old farm girl
it was like the pillar of fire and smoke
the Israelites followed to the promised land.”
She had spoken of that house before: how once
a photographer came, and posed father, stepmother,
her own brother, Glenn, her two stepbrothers
and her stepsister, with the house behind them.
She recalled her father wore a Democratic badge;
it must have been at the time of Cleveland’s
second inaugural. And the boys, how they fancied
long mustaches, waxed and curled, like those
of villains they saw in plays at the opera house.
Her stepmother wound her hands in her best apron.
My grandmother, fourteen, wore a straw hat and gloves.
I never saw the photo, it was lost before I was born.
Sometimes she talked about it – how expectant
they all looked, standing there. The gas would
flow uninterruptedly for ten more years, forming
a ring of factories and buildings – a vast globe
of energy hovering over the farmlands, veined,
casting no shadow. “I remember,” she went on,
“how cold it was, that last morning, when the gas
finally gave out. We looked across the fields
“toward town, and it was dark, and we knew
the boom was over. Done. We could hear
people calling out and shouting, all that way –
they were ruined. They had lost everything.”
She fell silent. An evening chill had come on.
I sensed, for the first time, that the photographer
had taken care to keep the flambeau in the yard
behind them, that what she remembered,
what she noticed, even in the way they posed,
back when they thought it would last forever
(“a rhythm. You could reach out and touch it”) –
the way the girls interlaced their arms –
all of that was tinged by a strange glow,
as though standing behind them, invisible
in that earthly garden, some presence, terrible
and unforgiving, was about to lift its sword.