Gale Acuff

I’m on the front porch with my parents. They
smoke cigarettes and Father drinks a beer.
I have ice cream, chocolate, in a bowl.
The cat lies on the porch swing—there’s no room
for me. I sit on the top step and watch
lightning bugs. On. Off. On. Off. And several
on’s at the same time, and several off’s.
My dog’s beside me, behaving himself
because he wants some of my ice cream, or
all, if he can get it. I give him some
anyway. Mother warns me, Don’t let him
eat from your spoon.
So I use my finger.
It’s cold, of course, and his tongue’s almost hot.
I pull it away, say Gross, and wipe it
on my jeans. Don’t use the same finger
, my mother says, so that means I can
give him some ice cream ten times—I have
ten fingers, if you count the thumbs. I do.
But I stop at three digits—I’m finished,
and then I go inside. Don’t let him in,
Father says. Too late. We’re in the kitchen
and I put the bowl down and he licks it,
the dog, I mean, clean, but only because
I hold it still for him—his tongue’s strong
and can push the bowl across the floor and
if he tries to hold it fast with one paw
he just steps into it and gets chocolate
on him and tracks it on the floor and I
catch it from Mother. When he’s finished I
put the bowl in the sink. We’re on our way

back to the porch when I remember to
run some water in the bowl and rinse it
out to get the germs from his mouth off it
and then I fill it again and leave it.
I’d wash it myself but they don’t trust me
to do that right. All I can do is dry.
We go back to the porch and I sit where
I was sitting before because I’ve sat
there so many times, it’s more like a chair
than a top step. It’s really the porch
floor but Father is firm that we count it
as a step. So it’s a step and the floor,
but try telling him that—he won’t have it.
Don’t argue with me, he says. It can’t be
. But he just can’t admit he’s wrong. My
bedroom’s in the attic. There are twelve steps,
not counting the top step, which is the floor,
which makes thirteen—fourteen, if you figure

that the first floor is really the first step.
That signifies with me. I tell Father
there are fourteen steps up to my bedroom.
No, he says. I’ll prove it. I’ll show you. He
walks up with me, side by side. He counts; I
repeat. Twelve, he says, in triumph, stepping
onto the second floor. Thirteen, I say
—the second floor is the thirteenth step. Boy,
he growls, the floor itself can’t be a step.
You step up to it, you step onto it,
but it’s not a step itself.
Sure, it is,
I say. It has to be or you wouldn’t
be standing on it now. My dog runs up
the stairs. I pet him as Father glowers
at us. Go fetch me a beer, he commands.

That was last week. Now I sit on the porch
with my dog. Father puts two cigarettes
in his mouth—Father’s mouth—lights them, and gives
one to Mother. Thanks, she says. You’re welcome,
he says. Except when they give me problems
they’re always awfully polite. The smoke
wafts into the darkness, making darkness
somehow dirtier. I sneeze. My dog thinks
I’ve called him. Calm down, I say. There are five
steps, I think aloud, on this porch. No, sir,
says Father. Only four. One. Two Three. Four.
He points with his cigarette. In the dark
it moves back and forth like a jerky comet.
But I’m sitting on the fifth one, I say.
No, sir, he says. You’re sitting on the porch.
Mother says, I want a sip of your beer.

The crickets are cranking up, rehearsing,
but they’ll never play the kind of music
you can dance to or that sounds like bird songs.
Then the frogs start with their croaking—ditto.
It’s getting too noisy out here for me,
Mother says. I’m going in. She leaves and
the dog sneaks inside behind her before
the screen door slams shut. Father yawns—the beer,
I guess, and the cigarettes. He smokes heaps.
Well, I guess I’ll join your mother, he says,
and goes. I’m all alone with my future
—it’s out there somewhere, among the lightning
bugs and frogs and crickets and moon and stars.
How many steps to Heaven, I wonder,
and is the earth the first and God the last?

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