Tommy straddled the bench on one side of the table, opposite Jack and Gina. He stared at the glass of wine positioned between his knees. One hand rested flat upon its base, as the other traced circles around the rim. Across the yard, Phil focused on something distant, while seated to his right Margaret reflected with eyelids shut. No one spoke, stunned by Estelle’s story.
In the background, typical smells and sounds of Labor Day weekend filled the air. Steaks and chicken, corn on the cob and baked potatoes grilled nearby. Boys played touch football in the street, as girls cheered and screamed. Bells on bicycle handlebars rang, and the lullaby of an ice cream truck drifted up and down neighboring blocks. Summer was ending, but not without one final party.
“Can I bring anything from inside?” Estelle interrupted the stillness in her yard, as she stood by the door leading to the kitchen.
Tommy surveyed the scene shifting nothing but his eyes. He prayed somebody would respond.
“Yeah, bring some of that potato salad Margaret made.”
Jack always accommodated.
“G, you should get the recipe. Your potato salad sucks.”
Gina took her right hand, swung it across her body, and smacked Jack on the front of his right shoulder, “Jerk!”
Both smiled and laughed. She knew he was kidding. but smacked him anyway. He deserved it, even wanted it. They married nineteen years ago, had no children, and wanted none. They were the happiest married couple Tommy ever met.
“Hey Estelle, bring another bottle of red, too, will ya? This one’s done.”
Inspired by Jack, Tommy followed suit. He was the youngest of the seven, and honored to be included in their group. He grew up in the neighborhood where the rest still lived, but ten years ago, moved to Manhattan, determined to make it his home.
Estelle slid the door closed behind her and disappeared into the kitchen. Tommy wondered if she cried.
“Did she leave because she had to?”
Gina turned towards Patricia and initiated conversation. Margaret placed her ashtray on the picnic table, and dragged her chair to join them. Phil stepped to the makeshift bar atop the back deck, and mixed another screwdriver. He drank vodka or white wine, cheap white wine. He was an alcoholic and stuttered when drunk. It worsened each year. In less than one hour, Phil would stop talking.
Seated at the table, Tommy and Jack argued about baseball. Jack was a Yankee fan; Tommy rooted for the Mets. When done with sports, they discussed politics, then music. Often, they disagreed with the other’s opinions, sometimes on purpose. Mostly, they joked, but occasionally it turned serious. They promised, however, not to hold grudges. They reconnected but once a year.
When Estelle emerged from inside, she carried a plate overflowing with Margaret’s concoction. She walked through the grass, and dropped the plate in front of Jack from a few inches above the table. A portion bounced off top, and landed in his lap. His effort rewarded, he pretended not to notice, but grinned as he concluded his sentence. Phil chuckled, happy to see Estelle’s mood was lighter. For now, life had crept back into the yard.
She returned inside, and gathered the fresh bottle along with two glasses. She grabbed a corkscrew from the bar, and handed all to Tommy.
“Pour two, for Patty and me.”
They normally drank beer. But Tommy found no reason to comment. He lifted the open bottle, and emptied what remained. He then took the new one, sliced the foil from its neck, and uncorked. Estelle realized the motive behind his request and faked an attitude.
“This one’s Pinot, I hope you like it.”
Tommy smiled at her, knowing she caught him doing nothing of significance other than exposing the subtle nuances that make friends, friends.
Estelle handed one glass to Patty and reclined into the wicker loveseat. Shorter than her girlfriend, she tucked her left leg under the right, and eased her left shoulder into the right side of Patricia’s chest. Patricia wrapped her arm around Estelle’s shoulders as she tilted her head back, using the arm as a pillow. All were comfortable, and the conversations slowed.
“I went to work that morning, like I’d done every other, the previous twenty-six years,”
Phil began, taking advantage of the lull.
Tommy froze and listened to Phil, as he did for Estelle twenty minutes earlier. Everyone respected his decision to speak. Tommy wasn’t sure if she intended this when she told her story. He feared his turn might come. He didn’t go there that day expecting this. “What if I’m not ready?”
“…Then on Wednesday, I went to work again, like any other day, except I was the only one in the office. When I retired in 2010, all the people there were different.”
And that was how he ended it. Tommy was certain after hearing Estelle, Phil figured he should recount his day now, before he stuttered and quite possibly, while still alive.
Before anyone reacted, Margaret spoke. Her voice rasped from cigarettes.
“Did she start smoking because of Brendan’s accident?”
Tommy pondered. Margaret’s oldest child died in an accident as a teenager. Soon after, her husband disappeared, and she suffered alone. Yet somehow, she refused to be lonely.
Her words never caught hold of his attention as the previous had. His mind produced memories of class pictures he discovered in his parent’s basement once they were gone. Photographs of him and Brendan, and dozens of grammar school classmates dressed in uniform, for annual portraits. He couldn’t decipher if the memories of Brendan were real or the stories of the memories. He felt sad and ignored what Mrs. Mullin said.
“I don’t want to go.”
Circumstances brought him to the first barbeque. His father passed in March, 2000, and his mother became sick by year’s end. Caring for his mother was the sole reason he attended. Any other summer he would have partied at the Shore, the Hamptons, or Breezy Point. That year, the most difficult of his life, he spent in the old neighborhood. He ran into Estelle, and she invited him for dinner. The same people in attendance that weekend are the same people she entertained at each gathering since, no more, no less.
Mrs. Mullin took a deep last drag of her cigarette and stubbed it in the ashtray. She selected another from the pack sitting in her lap and struck a match for fire. She didn’t believe in buying lighters when packs came with free matches. Her story, too, was now over.
“Excuse me a minute.”
Tommy rose and walked inside to use the bathroom. He had to go, but could have waited. His palms sweated, and his eyesight blurred. He hoped Jack and Gina ended this procession, because he would be next. Resigned to this fate, he organized his thoughts.
Through the bathroom window, Tommy listened to Jack mumble. His voice was low and his words indiscernible. He leaned forward toward the mirror and consoled his reflection.
“You’re not getting out of this now, pal.”
He dried his hands and shut the light, and prepared to share his recollections.
By the time Tommy returned, Jack was done. It only took a couple of minutes to tell. He and Gina vacationed in Myrtle Beach that day, that week. Tommy knew of this and didn’t need to hear it again. Jack felt Tommy was nervous, but wanted to hear what he had to say. Tommy never told anybody, not even his mother. She passed away Monday, September 17, 2001.
All eyes looked his way. Tommy breathed deep but, before beginning, approached Mrs. Mullin and asked for a cigarette. She lit one, and handed it to him with another, unlit. He thanked her and retraced his steps through the yard, choosing now to sit on the deck’s top step.
In September, 2001, Tommy lived with a childhood friend in a crappy apartment in Brooklyn. He accepted his first real job offer in October, 2000, working as a trainee in a Wall Street brokerage firm. He was miserable and earned little money. His roommate was hired by the New York City Fire Department months earlier in 2001. He, too, received a small salary, but was thrilled to be a firefighter.
“My roommate Mike and I went to school together from first grade through high school. I moved to Boston for college, and he got a job. Six years after graduation, in the summer of 2001, we rented a cheap, two-bedroom apartment, in Sheepshead Bay. We only lived together for two short months.”
Tommy pulled on the first cigarette and coughed. He didn’t like them, and was confused as to why he wanted one; he just did.
“I took vacation the two weeks after Labor Day that year because I had no seniority. That’s all that was available to me. Luckily, it was a busy hurricane season, so Mike and I surfed a lot. On Monday the tenth, we surfed, then went out drinking. We planned to do it again Tuesday morning, but got drunk and fought, and never saw each other again. The last thing he said to me was, ‘You’re still pissed you failed the physical.’ I aced the FD’s written exam, but failed the physical. He passed both.”
Tommy finished the wine in his glass, and placed it on the surface besides him. He retrieved the fresh bottle from the picnic table and reclaimed his spot on the stairs. He refilled his glass and resumed his story.
“I woke the next morning on the couch, with the TV on. The first thing I saw was the South Tower collapse. Mike wasn’t home, but was off that day. I called Mom and checked if she was okay, and she was. At least the best a woman one week from dying could be. She told me she phoned my sister and she, too, was safe. She worked in Midtown. She wasn’t in any danger.
“Not knowing what to do, I decided the beach was the safest place to go. I hopped in my car and drove through Five Towns to Breezy, because the cops had closed the bridge. I got to the Club and asked a maintenance man to open the beach gate. The season was over and the gate locked. He offered a ride and reminded me of the board strapped to my car. I told him I didn’t need it; I wasn’t going in the water.
“From the beach at Breezy, I watched the plumes grow where the towers once stood. On the ride through Rockaway, the North Tower collapsed, too. I climbed the lifeguard stand, and simply sat, and looked. For a few minutes, I would look south at the ocean, then turn north, to the city. I was shocked and sat for, I don’t know how many hours. I can’t be certain. I don’t remember most of it now. I think I remember what I’ve seen on TV since, more than anything.”
Tommy sparked the second cigarette with the ember from the first. He swallowed another mouthful of wine and continued.
“One thing left an impression though, I can’t forget. After a while, I noticed what must have been thousands, maybe millions of butterflies right at the shore. They stretched away some distance from the water’s edge, and never ventured out over the waves. It was like there was a wall of butterflies forty feet high and forty feet deep, from the jetty to the Silver Gull. It was the weirdest thing I had ever seen. I don’t remember if they were there the entire time. But, when I left, they were zigzagging all over the place. It seemed there wasn’t enough room for all of them to fly.”
He allowed his friends a moment to imagine the scene, and finished.
“You know? The black and orange ones…with spots all over their wings. I get goose bumps just thinking about it.”
With that, Mrs. Mullin peered right into Tommy’s eyes. She drew on her cigarette, ashing almost half of it. She sipped her drink, lowered her head, and spoke.
“Monarchs…they’re called Monarchs.”
She, too, paused, then emphasized this point.
“Those orange butterflies with the dots are called Monarchs.”
She took another second and collected her thoughts.
“You know what some people say about seeing a butterfly?”
Nobody said a word. Everyone waited for her to answer the question.
“Butterflies represent souls passing into heaven.”
She was calm, but intense, and stared at the floor. She wondered for an instant if Tommy lied, but swore it impossible.
Tommy couldn’t believe what he had heard.
“Could she be making this up? There’s no way. She reacted too quickly, and with instinct.”
“That’s the first I’ve heard of this,” Tommy admitted.
He could tell nobody else had, either by the emotions throughout the yard. Again, goose bumps formed upon his skin. Nobody budged for quite a few minutes.
Finally, breaking the silence, “Mike died that day?” Gina asked.
Tommy cleared his throat.
“Yeah, he got up before me, grabbed some gear, and headed to the firehouse. He wasn’t scheduled to work, but went anyway. He ran up the stairs in the first building and never made it down. The following week, Mom died. By Christmas, I moved out of the apartment, and out of the neighborhood for good. I still work at the same place, though, and bought a place in Battery Park two years later. That was the first time we ate together at a barbeque, and I won’t miss one as long as Estelle keeps having them.”
“You’re always invited Tommy, barbecue or not.”