An Excerpt from “Good-bye, Saint Louis”

Anne Valente

The night after the police killed a boy in the streets, a luna moth appeared on the spokes of my bike. Its green wings translucent, bathed in light from the supermoon that pushed down on our front porch where I sat beside the tires, the August air thick, the sound of the television sifting through the screen door as my father watched protests inside on the Sunday evening news, protests because the boy was unarmed, protests because the officer had fired twelve rounds. My father watched police in helmets, holding batons. Riot gear and tear gas. People in the streets, their hands raised, a boy left on the pavement for hours after the officer shot him, a black boy and a white officer and a Saint Louis township only six miles away, though we heard nothing, just the sound and stream of live news, just the soft fluttering of wings on my bike in the moonlight.

That night the full moon was 14 percent larger and 30 percent brighter, so close to the earth. That night I slammed the screen door shut behind me and crouched to the front steps to breathe, to leave my father and the television’s buzz behind. That night a luna moth trembled down to my parked bike and stayed for three days waiting for its wings to harden and then fly away, a rare moth that lived only one week and that I’d seen in field guides but never upon a Missouri leaf or branch among the monarchs and black swallowtails I logged. That night a mother mourned an eighteen-year-old boy only five years older than me while my father smoked on the couch and watched people take to the streets of a mostly black neighborhood and whispered three words to crack a dam, These fucking people.

What people? I’d asked from the armchair. Lungs folded tight in my chest.

He didn’t look at me. He dragged from his cigarette and blew the smoke through the blue light of the television where police officers held a soldiered line in riot gear, and I felt something flood up inside of me, and I went out to the porch. The moon pooled on the brick. Cicadas whined through the dark. The moth shuddered on the spokes, and the sound of breaking glass blared from the television inside. I closed my eyes, the moon flooding red. If not for a moth hardening its wings on the wheel beside me, only three days before it was strong enough to flee, I would have grabbed my bike. I would have grabbed my bike and disappeared.

 

My father worked in the signage industry, a small shop off Manchester Road where he bent glass tubing into fluorescent shapes and where he’d worked since I was five and my mother left us for some other elsewhere, some sun-blazed town out West where she still sometimes sent us postcards. Worn cardstock of tumbleweeds, of roadrunners, so many images that were as much a relic of the past as the neon signs my father crafted. Five-and-dime signs. Bud Light signs. Signs for businesses and for homes heated to malleability, bent into mercury-filled tubes.

My father was at the shop when the officer opened fire, a Saturday afternoon across a summer of so many humid-thick afternoons poking through the woods behind our house looking for specimens my father told me I was getting too old for. Shards of malachite and quartz crystal, gems I kept in the plastic drawers of a hobby cabinet on my nightstand beside jars of dried tiger-moth wings and a single tektite, a meteorite’s spinoff shrapnel I’d once bought at the Saint Louis Science Center on a class field trip. Things my father hated, things he said other kids would mock when I entered junior high that fall. He found me on the couch watching the news when he came home, August dusk sinking toward evening.

The police killed a boy, I said.

I know, Quinn. Heard it on the radio on my way home.

He sat down beside me. On-screen, teddy bears and carnations formed a memorial where the boy’s body had finally been taken away. We watched two police officers try to contain the growing crowd. We watched reporters stand at a distance, a constellation of votives flickering in the dark behind them.

Police know what they’re doing, my father said. That boy probably mouthed off.

The window unit kicked in. A flush of gooseflesh poked up on my skin. I wanted to ask if that was good enough reason, if talking back was grounds to kill. But I said nothing, and my father stood and grabbed a beer from the fridge.

What’d you do today? he shouted from the kitchen.

I’d ridden my bike. I’d thrown stones in the creek. I’d stalked through the woods behind our house and had seen an American snout moth and two chickadees in the trees—and then the news.

Nothing, I said.

Nothing at all?

I shook my head. On television, a police officer’s dog snouted the memorial.

There’s a supermoon tomorrow night, I said.

My father popped his beer. What in hell is a supermoon?

The moon’s closest approach to earth on its orbit, I told him. This month it coincides with a full moon.

Girl, thank God school starts soon, my father said. Someone’s getting bored.

On the news, the officer’s dog barked. Gatherers in the street stepped away. I said nothing to my father of the butterflies or the birds or the rocks, never anything of the handwritten logs I kept, how buckeye moths emerged from their cocoons in early summer or how the supermoon would last for three nights and how a Perseid meteor shower would pepper the sky at the same time, the moon’s broad glow blocking out its speckled light. My father’s beer fizzed in the can, and the officer pulled on the dog’s leash on-screen, and those who’d gathered filled the empty space the officer left.

. . .

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