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Authors: David Pandolfe

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BOOK: Streetlights Like Fireworks
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My father takes a deep breath and, again, I can see it.
He’s preparing, collecting himself to state his case. “Jack, I never once
imagined having this conversation on the phone. I just thought…well, our plan
was to tell you when we thought you were ready.”

I experience two opposite reactions at the same time.
First, that this can’t be happening. That I must be dreaming. But my second
reaction—the one that rings true—is that I finally understand why I’ve always
felt like an unwanted guest in a house belonging to strangers.

“Jack?”

“I’m still here,” I say.

But what matters is, I really am here, where I now stand.
Not there. I’m very far away from there, thousands of miles away, and outside
the sun continues to cast light on rippling water. Seagulls ride currents of
air, trailing a ferry as it drifts across the bay.

“Was it possible that you were never going to tell me?”  

“We weren’t entirely sure,” my father says. “We just
wanted what was best for you. We were still trying to work it out.”

“Sure,” I say. “I understand.”

But all I really understand is that I’ve been raised by
two people who lied to me the entire time. Maybe, at first, they had my best
interests in mind. I get that. And possibly it wouldn’t bother me if they
hadn’t constantly backed away from me and acted like I wasn’t truly part of the
family. In that case, I would have been able to forgive the lie. But it hadn’t
gone that way at all.

“I should go,” I say. “Besides, don’t you have a meeting
or something?”

“In fact, I do,” my father says, and I can totally
picture him straightening his tie. “But that’s not important right now. What
matters is that you’re okay.”

“Sure, I’m fine. Seriously, you should go to your
meeting.” It’s so easy to imagine him checking his watch.

“How about I call you later? Maybe a few hours from now.
Wait, that’s probably not going to work. How about I call you this evening? Are
you sure you’re okay?”

The sun is still rising and the light has just hit the
top of those mountains. “I’m fine,” I say. “Don’t worry about me.”

~~~

Then it’s just me alone, listening to the silent house
around me, wondering which room Lauren is in and whether I can nudge her
shoulder and wait for her to open her eyes. I want to crawl into bed beside her
and make things as they’ve been until now—just the two of us on a journey with
a mystery pulling us forward and no knowledge of what waits at the other end.

Somehow, Lauren knew there was meaning on the other side
of all this and she made it happen. Maybe now she can tell me what to expect
next. I really need her to tell me how it’s possible that Jessica just happens
to get feelings about things too, why she told me to call my parents and ask
where I was born. How could she possibly get a feeling about something like
that? Maybe Lauren can help me understand these things. But when I open my
door, I hear nothing and it’s just an unfamiliar hallway full of unfamiliar
doors.

I walk softly down the hall and then down the stairs. I
go into the kitchen, thinking I’ll still be alone when get there. Jessica sits
at the kitchen table with a mug of coffee, gazing out the window. She turns to
look at me, her eyes rimmed red as if she hasn’t slept much. She offers a
smile.

“Did you sleep okay?” She doesn’t wait for me to answer
before adding, “I’m guessing probably not if you’re already up.”

“I slept a little.”

Jessica nods. “Would you like some coffee?”

“I think so,” I say. “Thank you.”

Jessica gets up from the table and takes a mug from the
cabinet. She fills it and adds milk and sugar, then comes back and sits across
from me. She looks into my eyes and it’s nothing like all the photos I’ve seen
of her over the years. Her eyes are still vividly green but there’s a sadness
there I haven’t perceived before or that maybe wasn’t there yesterday. Either
way, I never once imagined sitting across from Jessica Malcom at her kitchen
table while she wore a faded blue bathrobe, her hair disheveled and streaked
with gray.

After a few moments, she says, “You talked to your
parents, didn’t you.”

I wrap my hands around my mug. Part of me still feels
cold and numb. “I talked to my father. It would appear I was adopted.” Saying
it out loud doesn’t exactly make it real. I guess it’s going to take me some
time getting used to the truth. “How did you know?”

“I didn’t,” Jessica says. “It didn’t seem remotely
possible. But I have to admit, I got a feeling about it. Listen, I think
there’s something we should both take a look at together.”

19

The Moth Spectrum

           

We leave the kitchen together and I follow Jessica into the
living room, that space full of easels and canvases. She lifts the guitar case
from the sofa where she left it resting the night before and sets it on top of
an old steamer trunk—plastered with ancient, faded stickers—that must serve as
a coffee table. The only other things on top of the trunk are two small
screwdrivers, one a Phillips and the other flat.

Jessica takes a seat on the sofa and pats the cushion
beside hers. “Let’s find out,” she says.

I have no idea what she’s talking about but I sit next to
her. She looks at me, lifting her eyebrows momentarily, then turns her
attention to the guitar case. She frees the clasps and raises the lid.

“So,” she says, “a long time ago, I put something inside
this guitar. Something I never expected to see again. Since, after all, I never
expected to see this guitar again.” She lifts the Telecaster from its case and
rests it face up, flat across her knees. “I guess you might call it a message
in a bottle. Would you mind handing me that screwdriver—the small flathead?”

I pick up the screwdriver and pass it to her.

“The thing about these old Telecaster pickguards,” she
says, “is that people hardly ever remove them because they run beneath the
strings. There are also a ton of screws and you have to remove the tone and
volume knobs as well. It’s just too inconvenient to bother with unless you
really need to take it off.”

I watch as Jessica loosens the tiny screws on the sides
of the old knobs, which hold them tight against their posts. She lifts the
knobs from the guitar and places them on top of the steamer trunk.

“The string part is kind of an illusion,” she says. “It
looks like you’d have to take off the strings but once you remove the screws,
you can slide out the pickguard. Do you mind handing me the other one?”

Jessica passes me the tiny flathead and I pass her the
Phillips. She starts removing the small screws that hold the pickguard in
place. One by one, she hands them to me.

“So, theoretically, this is a great place to hide
something. As I said, theoretically.”

I wait as Jessica continues to remove the screws. I hold
my hand out, palm open to keep receiving them.

“There,” she finally says. “That’s the last one. Now, all
I have to do is slide this out from beneath the strings.”

Jessica carefully lifts the worn, scratched plastic plate
from the front of the guitar. She raises it above the pickups and slides it out
from beneath the strings. She takes a sudden, deep breath. “It’s still there,”
she says. “Do you see it?”

I see it too, of course, and I feel sure she’s asking me
to be sure she isn’t imagining it herself. Within the now exposed cavity in the
wood, tucked into the topmost recess, pinned beneath wires running to the
pickups, sits a folded square of paper.

“I see it,” I say.

Her hand trembling, Jessica removes the paper. She holds
it against her lap, her eyes meeting mine for just a moment, within her gaze a
shared message I don’t yet understand. Then, she unfolds the paper, carefully,
seam by seam. She spreads it open for both of us to read.

~~~

At first, it seems like a strange thing for Jessica to have
done, placing a birth certificate inside a guitar before sending it out into
the world. But it starts to make sense as she tells her story—how both the
guitar and document symbolized a past she felt forced to part with, how she
tied both together in an act of saying goodbye.

At the time, no one knew about her relationship with John
Gavuzzi. They did everything possible to keep things quiet since they weren’t
sure how it would affect the band. So, of course, no one else knew either when
Jessica found out she was pregnant. Other than John, of course.

Their last moments together didn’t go well, a memory
that’s haunted Jessica since. She didn’t blame him, not anymore. Those were
different times and they’d both been young. Still, John didn’t react well to
the news, his feeling being that she should have an abortion. Purge was rising
fast, gaining a huge following, and had just started to headline tours. Jessica
didn’t feel the same way at all. The fact was—something I never would have
guessed before—she’d always been a private person. She’d never imagined, when
she and Michelle Carter formed a garage band during high school, that anything
would happen with the music they made together. She hadn’t been going for fame
and, years later, still wasn’t interested. She was tired of the constant
touring, sleeping on the bus or in motel rooms night after night, the drugs and
alcohol, all of it. She was ready to move on.

But the timing for the news also couldn’t have been worse
for John. On the same day that Jessica discovered she was pregnant, John was
booked on a flight from Boston to Los Angeles. Having successfully managed
Purge for the past two years, he’d been offered an A&R position with
Interscope records, the opportunity of a lifetime for him personally and one
that might also lift Purge from indie to major label status. There was just no
way he was going to miss that flight. So, he left things unresolved and caught
a cab to Logan Airport. He made his flight but that plane never reached its
destination. No one ever determined whether the crash had been due to
mechanical failure, the severity of the storm the plane passed through, or
possibly both. Not that it mattered for most onboard. Very few survived the
crash into a rocky stretch of Arizona desert.

“We’d planned to talk about things more once John got to
LA,” Jessica says. “He said he’d call. I don’t know if we ever would have been
able to agree on what to do, but I never found out. I’ve always liked to think
that maybe he would have changed his mind.”

Jessica sets the birth certificate next to the guitar
case on the steamer trunk. She slides the pickguard back beneath the strings.
She reaches over, takes one of the screws out of my hand and places it back.

“After what happened, I could barely think. I loved John,
I really did. And I also thought it would be great for us to go in that
direction. Together. Alone, everything suddenly became different. It’s hard to
explain but nothing seemed to make sense. On top of that, I wasn’t anywhere near
ready. I just wasn’t sure I would make all that great of a single mother—if I
could be a mother at all. I just didn’t know what to do.” Jessica takes a
moment to wipe her eyes with the back of her hand, then says, “In the end, I
decided to have the baby but give it up for adoption. So, that’s what I did.
After that, I thought about going back to the band but things had changed too
much for me. I couldn’t do it. I just knew all of it was over.”

Jessica wipes her eyes again. Then, she tightens another
screw into place.

 “I went to live with my father for a while, outside
Boston. He lived in a small town called Marshfield. I don’t imagine you ever
would have heard of it.”

I shake my head and Jessica nods, not surprised.

“My parents divorced way before that. At some point, my
mother moved back to where she grew up. A place really far away from where
they’d lived together. A place really far away from almost everything.”

Jessica waits but it doesn’t take me long to put it
together. “Here?”

“Exactly,” she says. “It seems weird that two people from
so far away could end up together, but that’s how it went. They both went to
school in Boston back in the sixties and met each other there. Anyway,
obviously it didn’t work out. So, this is where I decided to hide for a while.”
Jessica tightens down another screw. “It wasn’t exactly my plan to stay this
long but it wasn’t like I had any plan at all. I just needed to get away. The
strange thing was, back then not too many people around here had even heard of
Purge. In those days this place was incredibly remote. There were maybe five or
six hundred people living out here total. No one was all that worried about
some band from the east coast.”

Jessica takes one of the few remaining screws from my
palm. “But life always has a way of bringing something else you didn’t expect.
A few years after I moved out here, my mother got sick. She died not too long
after that.”

“I’m sorry,” I say. I feel bad about having nothing more
to offer but it doesn’t seem to bother Jessica. Her eyes meet mine.

“Thank you. She was a wonderful person and I still miss
her. But that’s how I ended up owning this house and property and it made as
much sense as anything to stay on after that. Eventually, I bought the shop in
town, to have some sort of income as well as something to do. Not too long
after, I met Peter and we got married.”

While Jessica describes how she managed to create a new
life, my eyes keep drifting to that birth certificate spread out on the steamer
trunk. The baby’s name at birth, before adoption, had been John Malcom. And
while my family and friends all call me Jack, my actual name is John Atkinson.
Was it possible?

Maybe Jessica notices as I keep glancing at that piece of
paper, or maybe she reads my mind. But after she takes the last screw out of my
hand and finishes securing the pickguard, she settles the guitar back into its
case again. Then she turns to me.

“So, what do you think?” She could mean any number of
things but I understand.

“I’m not sure,” I say. “It doesn’t seem possible. I mean,
that I was the one to find the guitar.”

Jessica glances at the battered, old Telecaster resting
in its case. “Well, over the years, I’m guessing lots of people found it.”

Upstairs, I hear footsteps. I can’t be sure if it’s Peter
or Lauren. But the footsteps are light, the floorboards just barely creaking.
Then I hear a door close and running water.

“True,” I say. “It must have passed through a lot of
hands.” No one knows better than me, and Lauren, about that.

Jessica closes the guitar case and clicks the clasps back
into place. “But it seems like you noticed it in a different way. I’m guessing
that has to be true, given that you’re sitting here next to me.”

I think back to that afternoon when I first noticed the
Telecaster hanging on the wall in Gary’s shop. The way the light hit it, how I
felt compelled to cross the room and take it down. The way finding that guitar
changed everything so far and the way things continue to change.

“I just got a feeling about it,” I say.

Jessica smiles. “Yes, you did.”

Upstairs, the water stops running and a door opens.
Footsteps travel in our direction.

“This is what I know,” Jessica says, her voice soft. “My
child was born seventeen years ago. The adopting parents were from Virginia but
I never met them. I made only one request, that they name him John. Then my
baby was gone and I never saw him again.”

The footsteps reach the top of the stairs. Feet appear as
they take the steps, followed by legs and hips. A moment later, Lauren stands
on the landing wearing a black skirt, a purple t-shirt and a gray hoodie. Her
moth spectrum. She looks at us sitting there on the sofa.

“So, how far did you two get?” she says.

And that’s just one of the things I love about Lauren.
She always knows that more mysteries remain and she’s was just fine with it.

~~~

After breakfast, we pack our things back into the VW bus.
Not the Telecaster, of course. That old guitar, with all of its stories, has
been delivered home at last. Hopefully, to collect more stories. Jessica and
Peter stand by watching us. Peter has his arm around her while she rests her
head against his shoulder.

When we finish packing the van, I walk over to Peter
first and shake his hand. I’m not sure what else to say, other than, “Thanks
for having us.”

“Any time.” Peter glances at Jessica before his eyes meet
mine again. “It was great having you here.” He gives my hand another pump
before letting go.    

I take a step closer to Jessica. She steps toward me as
well, then opens her arms and wraps me in a hug. She presses her cheek against
mine and after a moment whispers, “You’ll let me know, right?”

I can’t help myself. “You already know,” I whisper back.
“We both do. But I promise I’ll call as soon as I find out more.”

Jessica holds me tight for a moment. “You better.”

“I promise,” I say again.

And a promise, after all, is a promise. A promise is a
string that runs through time and distance and never disappears, whether it’s
kept or broken. But there is no way I’m going to break that promise.

Then it’s just me and Lauren again in the van. She puts
the key in the ignition. I watch in the rearview mirror as Jessica and Peter
walk back toward the house.

“You okay, Pajama Boy?” she says.

I think about that for a moment. After all, it’s been a
lot to take in and my life is never going to be the same. Still, I know. I have
a feeling about it and I trust that feeling. “I’m okay,” I say. “Yeah, I think
I’m good now.”

“That’s kind of what I thought,” Lauren says, “You know,
Portland is just a few hours south of here. What do you think?”

I wipe a tear away, hoping Lauren doesn’t notice. But I’m
sure she does. She’s is a very observant person, after all. “Do you still have
that compass handy?”

“You know I do.” Lauren reaches into the pocket of her
hoodie and passes the compass to me. “Let me know if you get anything from it.”

I take the compass from her, press my hand around it and
close my eyes.

 

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