Fields of Glass
by Rachael Fowler
When I still had freckles on my nose, Uncle Jordan told me about nuclear bombs.
“Sit down, Sophie,” he said, pointing to a burgundy recliner facing another just like it. He’d taken to wearing only flannel shirts by then, said the yellow criss-crosses felt like home and the soft scratch of the material wrapped around him like his hand-me-down childhood bedspread. “I got shit to say to ya.”
Magnolia branches tickled the window outside as water slid off the waxy brown-green of the leaves.
“What you know about them trinitite specimen?” he asked, shuffling hiking boots across a tobacco stain on the rug.
“I don’t know.” The cracks of stale leather scratched the backside of my thighs, but humidity was rampant. It was a day I’d peel myself from that seat, feeling every cell of skin rip from the chair’s surface.
“You know them bombs, the nuclear type. Been taught about them?”
“I’m not a sir, Sophie. Don’t gotta call me that.”
“Sorry, Uncle Jordan.”
“You know you don’t gotta call me sir.”
I scrunched back into my chair. Daddy didn’t like me saying “uncle.” But I met Jordan when I was too young to brush my teeth on my own. And he always smiled real nice and never talked too loud. So he was an uncle by default to me, because I wanted him to be.
“I guess I do know about the bombs.”
“Yeah?” he asked, holding his hand to his mouth and hiding his bottom lip with a bruised finger. “You ought to. That fancy ass school done taught you about them.”
“I’m not sure what that is. The specimen, I mean.” My dress was white and starched. I clutched the stiffness of it just above my knees. “I do know about the bombs though.”
Sweat weaved through crinkles on his sun-wrinkled forehead. “Yeah, you learned what they taught you. But they always leave out the important stuff.”
“They always leave out the beauty.”
He drug his fingers through shaggy hair. Granny always called him the pothead from up north who loved vanilla wafers and the smell of evergreen. Momma said he never spent Christmas at home, and Daddy said he didn’t have one. His real name was Ronald, or Reggie, or maybe Jack, or Martin. Other soldiers called him “Boots.” He never wore tie-dye.
My dress crumpled beneath the moisture in my hands. “What could be beautiful in a tragedy?” I asked him.
He paused with the confidence of a man who might smuggle cigars. “Them bombs were a monster and a miracle.”
I didn’t understand.
I remember trusting him for no reason. Young girls trust soldiers that way. He always gave me chocolate graham crackers with sugar dust on top and imported cans of watermelon water with faded neon labels. He once counted 32 freckles on my face, 14 on each arm, and 1 on my left knee. The knee one was a birthmark. We decided to call it a mole. My family shrugs when I ask about him now.
He was one of those uncles you call “uncle” even though he isn’t blood related and is only about twelve years older than you. He served in the army with Phil, my first cousin, visited every once and a while, mailed trinkets for every birthday, and stamped letters with an American flag. People say everyone who fights together becomes family. You see blood spill and become a different kind of blood-related. I guess some people died so he could be my family. I wonder if he meant to kill them on purpose. I’ll never figure out if he did because I never got to ask him. The day we talked about nuclear bombs, I pondered other questions.
“Hey, Uncle,” I said, caught on his idea of monsters and miracles. “Have you seen the daisy commercial? That’s what they showed us in class. You know it? The girl that counts by plucking daisy petals? And it ends in explosion?”
“Think I seen it.”
“Daisies are a beautiful part of that tragedy, aren’t they?”
“Flowers don’t set off bombs, Sophie. That don’t make sense.”
“But you said there was beauty in the tragedy.”
“I did. But what you know about piano octaves?”
“Lots. But we’re not talking about piano octaves. We’re talking about bombs.”
I folded my legs up underneath me, Indian style. I remembered the first day Phil brought Uncle Jordan over. It was noon on a Saturday. My pudgy baby fingers were poking at piano keys in an attempt to play a C scale. Phil said the god-awful noise was no way to welcome a guest. So I swiveled my legs around the mahogany piano bench, stuck out a hand, and said “My name’s Sophie.” Uncle Jordan put his hand in mine and told me to start working with the keys instead of stabbing at them. That was the first day I played the scale the whole way through. From then on, Uncle Jordan always talked about pianos.
“Fine. Let’s talk about piano octaves. What about them?” I asked, frustrated to be leaving our discussion of bombs.
“The thing is”—he held up a hand and swept it through the air between us—“humans can only see one octave on a piano.”
“I can see all the octaves.”
“Colors, Sophie. If you put the colors we can see on a whole piano, it would only be one octave. That’s a bunch of notes we’ll never experience.”
“What’s that got to do with bombs?”
“How did they explode?”
“Into a mushroom.”
“I told you they done got that wrong. Ain’t no nuclear reaction exploding into a simple mushroom. Explodes into a bunch of colors. You telling me a daisy could do that?”
“If it explodes into colors, then why don’t they teach us that in school?”
“We don’t even have names for them colors yet. Way past the human octave, you know? So people call it a tragedy instead. Think about it. Split an atom. Chance for so many lives to flash before so many eyes. You gonna get colors that never existed before.”
I rubbed my head right at the temples and remembered what Phil once told me. “This guy, Boots,” he said, “had to cheat his way through some tests on account he’s colorblind. But he says he can see the color yellow. And if he ever dies in battle, he wants us to bury him under a tree stump that we gotta paint yellow.”
The wind whipped against the house. It was the first tropical depression that year and the last my uncle would ever see.
“You get it now, Sophie?”
I kicked my legs back out in front of me and folded my hands together. “What’s all that got to do with the specimen then?”
“What does trinitite have to do with anything?” I asked.
“Well, that’s what we got left of the miracle. First bomb went off into a kaleidoscope and turned a whole desert into glass. You can get some if you want. Kinda hard to come by. Gotta be careful of fakes and all. You know that couple over on Jasper Drive? I seen that old man in an article before. Talking about how he got some trinitite shipped to his front door. Turned out fake. But they sent it back and got the real stuff now. He seemed real nice in that article. Name was Mr. Johnson. Good clean name.”
“So the trinitite is just glass?”
“Glass that came from a field of it. Born out a foreign rainbow.”
“It must hurt to walk across it.”
“Probably does. But I bet it reflects turquoise into the sky. Changes the way the whole sky looks. Wouldn’t that be nice to see?”
“I don’t believe it.”
“What you mean?”
“I don’t believe glass would change the sky. I won’t believe it until I see it.”
“Then I’ll get you some.”
“How you gonna do that?”
“That couple over on Jasper. Mr. Johnson will let me borrow his. He seemed real nice in that article. I’ll be back Thanksgiving holiday. Can you wait until then? Just a few months?”
“Yes, sir. I mean yeah.”
“Well then, let’s plan on it. Come Thanksgiving, you gonna understand. So tell me what songs you been playing on the piano.”
I told him about “Amazing Grace” and a ballad called “Moonlight.” I told him how my teacher’s voice squeaked like a bird who forgot how to chirp. And after I told him about my English class, he pointed to my left cheek and said I must’ve been out in the sun because I’d grown a new freckle patch. And after we decided it was a total of four new freckles, I watched him walk out the front door.
He never saw the freckles on my tummy.
On Thanksgiving Day, Uncle Jordan’s plate remained empty at the table. Dull scrapes on the oyster white plate stood out against all our piles of stuffing and cranberry sauce. The TV in the kitchen was just barely noticeable from our rustic dining table. The oven was still hot.
“Boots must’ve forgotten,” Phil said. “We should go ahead without him.”
“That funny stuff he smokes done ate up his brain,” Granny added. “We gotta pray first.”
I folded my hands.
Momma said she hoped he wasn’t alone somewhere and that the army did him no good for being punctual. She folded her hands.
“Bless us, O Lord,” I started.
“Wait!” Daddy said. “There he is.”
I listened for the sound of the front door creaking open.
Daddy pointed to the TV in the kitchen and left the table to get a closer look. We all followed him. I was the second one in the kitchen. My bare feet were cold against the oatmeal-colored tile.
Daddy raised the volume as the local news played.
“Good evening,” the news anchor said. “I’m Rosemary Rosenbloom, and this is your nightly news.” Her hair was round and bouncy, her lips a peach-colored gloss. “Startling events coming to us on this fine Thanksgiving Day. A home invasion on Jasper Drive has ended in the death of one young man.” Uncle Jordan’s driver’s license picture flashed onto the screen. “Mr. and Mrs. Johnson had a terrible fright as they ate their holiday turkey. Mr. Johnson reports seeing a man in a yellow shirt through his window. Police say Mr. Johnson warned the intruder to leave. But the man was reportedly hiding on the front porch behind Mr. Johnson’s American flag, trying to enter the home.” An image of the Johnsons’ modest brick home appeared on the screen. “Luckily, he was quick enough to protect his family from the mentally unstable intruder. One shot killed the intruder, whose family has not yet come forward. When asked if the intruder said anything, Mr. Johnson reports that he kept babbling about rainbows and daisies. The intruder appeared to be about 25 years old.”
Momma left the room and threw away the vanilla wafers she bought.
Granny said, “I knew it. Done burnt up all his brain cells.”
“Boots,” Phil said. “His name is Boots.”
“It’s Uncle Jordan?” I asked.
Granny said, “Well of course it is.”
Daddy placed his hand on my shoulder and turned my cheek towards him. “He’s not your uncle.”
“The man’s yellow shirt,” Rosemary Rosenbloom continued, “turned out to be a lifesaving warning. Now we know the true colors of a criminal. We’ll be back after this break to discuss the canned food drive on 4th street.”
Daddy switched the TV off. “Let’s go eat then.”
“Guess we won’t need that extra plate after all,” Granny said.
“Jesus, Granny,” Phil said. “You don’t have to say everything you think.”
Granny didn’t respond, which scared me more than her words.
We finished our turkey that day, argued about whether sweet potato casserole should have marshmallows on top, mushed our leftovers into plastic containers, and then ate Italian creme cake.
Phil left right after dessert. He asked my dad for gas money.
“Sure thing,” Daddy said. “Here’s two twenties.”
“Are you going to find his family?” Momma asked him.
“I don’t know,” Phil answered.
I wanted to go with him. But Momma wouldn’t let me.
Uncle Jordan had become a dead man in a yellow shirt. His combat uniform was never mentioned. For him, breaking into a house in America was deadlier than breaking into other countries with guns.
We didn’t see Phil for half a year.
I played four C scales every day during that half year I didn’t see Phil, a scale for each freckle Uncle Jordan counted that last time I saw him. When Phil finally came back, I’d played about 720 C scales. I was working with the keys then. I wasn’t jabbing at them. I was on scale 721 when Phil tapped on my shoulder.
“That sounds real nice now, Sophie,” he said.
“Where you been?” I responded. “You been gone forever.”
“Wanna go for a ride with me to see? Already asked your parents. They said it’s fine.”
“Momma said I could? Yeah sure, I’ll go.”
“Good,” he said. “Go put on some tennis shoes.”
“What’s wrong with my sandals? They let my toes breathe.”
“You need better shoes for this.”
“Fine,” I said, scuttering off to my room. “But all I got is soccer cleats.”
“I guess that’ll do,” Phil said. “Hurry up.”
We drove a couple hundred miles north on I-65, straight up Alabama. We zoomed past a bunch of grass, one casino on a reservation, two confederate flags, and a billboard over a watermill that read “Go to church or the Devil will get ya.”
I wanted to pee at a rest stop, but instead we parked on the interstate with no exit in sight. There were only woods and a sign warning drivers to watch for deer.
“Come on,” Phil said, stepping out of the truck.
I followed. “Where we going?”
We marched two miles into the woods. I smelled my own sweat and slapped mosquitos every other minute.
“Are we going towards Uncle Jordan’s house?” I asked.
“I don’t know.”
“Is this where his family lives?”
“Keep walking, Sophie. We’re close.”
“I really need to use the bathroom.”
“Go ahead, then. I won’t look.”
“Granny wouldn’t like that.”
“She don’t like anything.”
“She wouldn’t like that you said that.”
“Hold on,” Phil said as he held his hand up and stopped. “We’re here.” He shoved some prickly bushes to the side and let me walk ahead of him.
We ended up at a small lake, about sixty feet across. I never learned the name of that lake. I don’t think Phil knows either.
“What’s that over there?” I asked, pointing to a tree stump standing upright across the shore. “Is it painted?”
“Yeah, I painted it,” Phil said. “Yellow.”
“You did?” I collapsed to the ground, yanked off my cleats, and felt warm earth and the itch of pine straw beneath my legs. “I think I like it.”
“I think I do too.” Phil sat beside me. “So does Boots.”
“Yeah. He probably does. It’s real nice. But you know,” I continued, “I still wish I could’ve seen the specimen.”
“You know. The trinitite specimen.”
“I don’t know what that is, Sophie.”
“Uncle Jordan told me about it.”
“Well, whatever it is, I’m sure you’ll see it one day. Hell, if I find some I’ll show it to you.”
“How will you know it’s not a fake?”
“I’ll figure it out,” Phil said.
“Like Mr. Johnson, huh?”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“Never mind then.”
The wind didn’t blow.
Leaves never shivered off trees.
I didn’t see a single deer.
It never rained.
On the day we visited Uncle Jordan, the water stood still.
It reflected turquoise into the sky.
“Hey, Phil,” I said, rustling a twig between my fingers. “What do you think about monsters and miracles?”
Rachael Fowler is a graduate student in the English Department at the University of South Alabama. Though she was born and raised in Mobile, Alabama, she is currently working on a creative nonfiction thesis that centers around female Muslim converts near New Orleans. She frequently contributes to Ant Farm Journal and is an editor at Random Sample Online Review.