The Woman Lit by Firefliesby Jim Harrison
“Harrison is unfailingly entertaining but he is much more—a haunting, gifted writer . . . a consummate storyteller—truly one of those writers whose books are hard to put down.” —Los Angeles Times
Jim Harrison has garnered critical acclaim for masterpieces such as Legends of the Fall, The Beast God Forgot to Invent, and, most recently, Returning to Earth. Now, The Woman Lit by Fireflies, one of his best-loved books, is available as a Grove paperback.
Across the odd contours of the American landscape, people are searching for the things that aren’t irretrievably lost, for the incandescent beneath the ordinary. An ex-Bible student with raucously asocial tendencies rescues the preserved body of an Indian chief from the frigid depths of Lake Superior in a caper that nets a wildly unexpected bounty. A band of sixties radicals, now approaching middle age, reunite to free an old comrade from a Mexican jail. A fifty-year-old suburban housewife flees quietly from her abusive businessman husband at a highway rest stop, climbs a fence, and explores the bittersweet pageant of the preceding years within the sanctuary of an Iowa cornfield.
The Woman Lit by Fireflies is the work of a classic writer at the very top of his form—a hard-living, hard-writing hero of American letters whose novellas comprise a sweeping tribute to the nation’s heartland and the colorful, courageous characters who inhabit it.
“A luminous, satisfying collection. Harrison has a powerful imagination. . . . These sharp and surprising stories will outlive most of us.” —USA Today
“Harrison is unfailingly entertaining but he is much more—a haunting, gifted writer . . . a consummate storyteller—truly one of those writers whose books are hard to put down.” —Los Angeles Times
“A brilliant tour de force . . . Jim Harrison at his peak: comic, erotic, and insightful.” —San Francisco Chronicle
Just before dark at the bottom of the sea I found the Indian. It was the inland sea called Lake Superior. The Indian, and he was a big one, was sitting there on a ledge of rock in about seventy feet of water. There was a frayed rope attached to his leg and I had to think the current had carried him in from far deeper water. What few people know is that Lake Superior stays so cold near the bottom that drowned bodies never make it to the surface. Bodies don’t rot and bloat like in other fresh water, which means they don’t make the gas to carry them up to the top. This fact upsets working sailors on all sorts of ships. If the craft goes down in a storm their loved ones will never see them again. To me this is a stupid worry. If you’re dead, who cares? The point here is the Indian, not death. I wish to God I had never found him. He could have drowned the day before if it hadn’t been for his eyes, which were missing.
These aren’t my exact words.
A fine young woman named Shelley, who is also acting as my legal guardian and semi-probation officer, is helping me get this all down on paper. I wouldn’t say I’m stupid. I don’t amount to much, and you can’t get more ordinary, but no one ever called me stupid. Shelley and me go back about two years and our love is based on a fib, a lie. The main reason she is helping me write this is so I can stop lying to myself and others, which from my way of thinking will cut the interesting heart right out of my life. Terms are terms. We’ll see. Shelley believes in “oneness” and if we’re going to try to be “one” I’ll try to play by her rules.
I’m a diver, or was a diver, for Grand Marais Salvage Corporation, which is a fancy name for a scavenging operation. You’d be surprised what people will pay for a porthole, even though they got no use for it. An old binnacle is worth a fortune. We sold one last July for a thousand dollars, though Bob takes three quarters because he owns the equipment. Bob is a young fellow who was a Navy SEAL, the same outfit that lost the hero, Stethem, who was beat to death by the towel-heads. Bob is still damned angry and hopes to get revenge someday.
“Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord,” I quoted.
“Do you believe that, B.D.?” he asked.
“Nope. Can’t say I’m sure. But if you believed it, it would save you from going way over there and having the Arabs shoot your ass off.”
Bob is a hothead. A salvage bunch up in Duluth owed him a compressor so we drove over. The three of them were sleeping off a drunk so we took two compressors, and three portholes for interest. Two of the guys woke up punching but Bob put them away again. I’m not saying Bob is a bully, just a bit quick to take offense.
I’ve been reminded to get the basis of my salvation out of the way, to start at the beginning, as she says. Shelley is twenty-four and I’m forty-two. That means when I’m one hundred she’ll be eighty-two. Age is quite the leveler. She is a fair-size girl by modern standards, but not in the Upper Peninsula where you would call her normal-size, perhaps a tad shy of normal. In a cold climate a larger woman is favored by all except transplants from down below (the southern peninsula of Michigan where all the people are) who bring girlfriends up here who look like they jumped right off the pages of a magazine. Nobody pays them much attention unless the situation is desperate. Why take a little girl if you can get a big one? It’s as simple as that.
Anyway, on a rainy June evening two years ago Shelley came into the Dunes Saloon with two fellows who wore beards and hundred-dollar tennis shoes. They were all graduate students in anthropology at University of Michigan and were looking for an old Chippewa herbalist I was talking to at the bar. They came over and introduced themselves and Claude announced it was his birthday.
“How wonderful,” said Shelley. “How old are you? We’ve driven three hundred and fifty miles to talk to you.”
Claude gazed at the three of them for a full minute, then sped out of the bar.
When the screen door slammed Shelley looked at me. “What did we do wrong?” she asked.
“Goddammit, we blew it,” said the redheaded fellow with a big Adam’s apple.
“You missed your cue. When Claude says it’s his birthday you’re supposed to ask if you can buy him a drink. If someone else is buying he drinks a double martini,” I said.
“Is there a chance we can make up for this?” said the third, a blond-haired little fellow in a Sierra Club T-shirt. “We were counting on talking to him.”
Shelley pushed herself closer, unconsciously using her breasts to lead. “Are you related? I mean are you an Indian?”
“I don’t talk about my people to strangers.” Now I’m no more Indian than a keg of nails. At least I don’t think there’s any back there. I grew up near the reservation over in Escanaba and a lot of Indians aren’t even Indian so far as I can tell. What I was doing was being a little difficult. If you want a girl to take notice it’s better to start out being a little difficult.
“We’re really getting off on the wrong foot here. I didn’t mean to intrude.” She was nervous and upset.
“How the hell could we know he wanted a double martini,” whined the redhead. “You don’t push drinks on an old Indian. I’ve been around a lot of them.”
“What do you know about my people, you shit-sucking dick-head?” I yelled. The three of them jumped back as if hit by a cattle prod.
I moved down to the end of the bar and pretended to watch the Tigers-Milwaukee ball game. Since we are much farther from Detroit than Milwaukee there are a lot of Brewers fans up here. Frank, the bartender, came over shaking his head.
“B.D., why’d you yell at those folks when the lady’s got beautiful tits?”
“Strategy,” I said. “She’ll be down here with a peace offering pretty soon.”
The three of them were huddled by the window table, no doubt figuring their next move. I began to question my yell. In fact, I’m not known to raise my voice unless you set off a firecracker right behind me. Finally she got up and walked down the bar toward me with a certain determination.
“I’m Shelley Newkirk. Let’s start all over again. The three of us have a great deal of admiration for Native Americans. We love and respect them. That’s why we study them. We want to offer you an apology.”
I stared deeply into my glass of Stroh’s while Frank darted into the kitchen. When she spoke I thought he was going to laugh, but he’s too good of a friend to blow my cover.
“The name’s B.D.,” I said. “It stands for Brown Dog, my Anishinabe name.” At this point I wasn’t bullshitting. Brown Dog, or B.D., has been my nickname since I was in the seventh grade and had a crush on a Chippewa girl down the road. I played ball with her brothers but she didn’t seem to care for me. Their mother called me Brown Dog because I was hanging around their yard all the time. Once when she was slopping their pigs this girl, Rose by name, threw a whole pail of garbage on me. I actually broke into tears on the spot though I was fourteen. Love will do that. Her brothers helped clean me off and said they guessed their sister didn’t like me. I didn’t give up and that’s why the name stuck with me. I was sort of following her around before a school assembly to see where she was going to sit when she hit me on the head with a schoolbook and knocked me to the floor. “Brown Dog, you asshole, stop following me,” she screamed. I got to my feet with everyone in the gymnasium laughing at me. The principal tapped the microphone. “Rose, watch your language. Mr. Brown Dog, I think it’s evident to all assembled here that Rose wishes you would stop following her.”
So that’s how I got my name and how, much later, I met Shelley. Right now it’s October outside and already snowing though we’re sure to have a bit of Indian summer. I don’t care because I like cold weather. The farthest south I’ve ever been is Chicago and it was too goddamned hot down there for me. It was okay when I got there in March but by June I was uncomfortable as hell with the bad air and heat. That was when I was nineteen and was sent off on scholarship to the Moody Bible Institute, but then I got involved with the student radicals who were rioting and my religion went out the window. It was actually a fire-breathing Jewish girl from New York City who led me astray. She wore a beaded headband and flowers in her hair and kept telling me I was “one of the people,” and I had to agree with her. At her urging, when we were camped in the city park, I led a charge against the cops and got the shit kicked out of me and got stuck in jail. She bailed me out and we went off to a commune near Buffalo, New York, where they didn’t eat chicken or any other kind of meat. They supposedly ate fish though I didn’t see much of it around, but that’s another story. At honest Shelley’s insistence I will add here that I was kicked out of the commune because I snuck off to a bar, got drunk and ate about five hamburgers. They didn’t drink either.
Just four months ago in late June was when I found the Indian. You’ll have to understand how the cold at the bottom of Lake Superior preserves things. It was hard on my partner Bob. On one of our first dives together off Grand Island near Munising he came across a Holstein cow as big as day and looking damn near alive. He said the cow scared him as much as any shark he’d seen in the tropics. Then, as if to cap it off, a week later we found a new wreck off Baraga and the cook was still in the galley of the freighter. The cook didn’t look all that unhappy in death except for his eyes, which like the Holstein’s plain weren’t there. The cook seemed to be smiling but it was the effect of the icy water tightening his lips. After the Holstein and the cook Bob was ready for anything, which didn’t prove true when he saw the Indian.
Shelley just came in from the cold and sat down next to me. Before I get on to our drowned Native American friend, she wants me to lay down a few more background effects, partly so I won’t appear to be worse than I am when we get to what I did. I keep wanting to get to the Chief, he was dressed in the old-time clothes of a tribal leader, but she says my actions will not be understood without an honest “confrontation” with the past.
To me the past is not as interesting as finding a three-hundred-pound ancient Indian chief sitting bolt upright on the bottom of Lake Superior. Your average man on the street doesn’t know that the hair continues to grow after death and the Chief’s long black hair wavered in the current. Besides, you can’t walk right up to your past, tap it on the chest and tell it to “fess up.” It has reason to be evasive and not want to talk about the whole thing, which for most of us has been a shitstorm.
Luckily there are methods for digging up the past and confronting it, and Shelley knows these methods like the back of her hand. This knowledge didn’t come from her university training but from her troubled youth. Her dad was and is a big deal gynecologist in the Detroit area and his overfamiliarity with women on the job made him act remote and impersonal to Shelley. Or so she tells it. “Too much of a good thing?” I offered, which she didn’t think was funny. The upshot was that Shelley went to psychiatrists, therapists and psychologists, and learned their methods. How you tell the difference is the first can give medicine (not cheap), the second goes deep into your past, and the third offers cut-rate tips on how to get through the day. That’s my rundown on it anyway.
So we set aside an hour or two each day and she asks me questions in a professional manner. She calls this “probing,” just as she was probed because of her haywire times with her dad. They’re in fine shape now. He even gave her a new 4WD made in England when she got her master’s degree. I’d call that a top drawer relationship for a father and daughter on a certain level. Anyway, Shelley was probed from eight to eighteen at who knows what cost because she says there’s no way to add it up. It seems the real problem was that her mother’s younger brother, Uncle Nick by name, used to make Shelley play with his weenie on camping trips. Between this and her father’s occupation father and daughter kept their distance until it all came out in the wash. I suggested we go find Uncle Nick and kick his ass but she said that was missing the point. What’s the point then, I wondered. She’s pals with her dad and fearless about weenies? That was part of it but mostly it’s that she’s not upset for mysterious reasons. That made a lot of sense to me because you can’t even shoot a grouse or a deer properly if you’re upset about something vague.
And now that she’s at one with herself and the world she can work my brain over with high horsepower energy. For instance, she nailed me to the wall on the story of how the student radicals in Chicago had ruined my future in Christian work. She got me all soothed on the sofa by talking about things I love like all the different kinds of trees and fish in the U.P. Sometimes her voice gives me a boner but I’m out of luck because this business does not allow a quick time out, sad to say, for fucking.
We went back to the ordinary sadness of those hot days in Chicago and what really happened, not all of it my fault. The church treasurer in Escanaba had made a mistake and sent the scholarship check directly to me instead of to the Bible Institute. I didn’t even open the envelope right away because I thought it was just another letter saying that everyone in the congregation back home was praying for me. I just sat on my bed in the Christian rooming house (no smoking or drinking) and had a sip of after-school peppermint schnapps. I remember I was thinking about Beatrice who was a bubble-butted waitress at a diner near the school. She was a dusky beauty but when I asked her what nationality she was she said, “What do you care, you snot-nosed little Bible thumper?” We had to carry our Bibles (King James Version) at all times. I guess I looked so downcast that she came over when I finished my oatmeal and said she was part black and part Italian. I told her that to me she was the most beautiful woman in the world. I’d have my oatmeal and breakfast coffee and spring a hard-on just watching Beatrice wipe off a table.
So I was sitting there in my room thinking of Beatrice, and not wanting to exhaust myself on unclean thoughts I opened the letter from the church. It was a check made out for three hundred and ninety dollars. The possibilities hit like lightning so I dropped to my knees and prayed for strength which did not arrive.
I hit the bank as if shot from a rocket, then trembled my way over to the diner for an early supper. Mind you, I didn’t order thirty-cent oatmeal for breakfast out of choice but because it was all the budget would allow. It was irksome to sit at the counter and watch a neighbor eat ham, eggs and potatoes. I have always had a weakness for catsup, but it didn’t go too well with oatmeal. I tried it once and it wasn’t a popular move at the diner. For days afterwards other customers would look at me and shake their heads. So when I got to the diner I took a full-size table in Beatrice’s section and ordered a T-bone steak with all the trimmings. She doubted I had the money, so I flashed my roll and she smiled. I had become handsome between breakfast and dinner. The owner even nodded to me when he saw me eating a steak. I admit I was feeling like an instant big shot when I asked Beatrice to go out.
“You looking for a chance to talk about yourself or are you after free pussy? In either case, the answer is no.”
“I’d be a fool to think anything was free in Chicago except hot weather and bad air,” I said, catching the drift. I’d always flunked the courtship routine so I might as well try to sin boldly and quick.
Well, she wrote down her address and told me to come over at nine, but not unless I had a fifty-dollar bill in my pocket. I said I’d be there, though fifty bucks about equaled the largest amount I’d ever made in a week. This fact and a lot more caused the next three hours to be pretty uncomfortable. There was a sense in my small room that I was wrestling with Satan and I somehow knew I was going to lose to His power. I felt the overwhelming heat of His presence in the room though I realized it was mostly the weather. I prayed and almost wept and even gnashed my teeth. The guy in the next room, Fred, a poor kid from Indiana who was also a Moody Bible Institute student, heard the noise and came over to pray with me. Of course I didn’t tell him the nature of the problem. The trouble with Fred’s prayers was that he sounded like the popular comedian from Indiana, Herb Shriner. At one point the devil made me laugh out loud. I gave Fred ten bucks and he ran out with plans to eat a whole fried chicken. My food budget was two dollars a day and his was only one. The week before his mom had sent him cookies and he ate them all at once and puked.
I worked on my term paper on Nicodemus but the bubble-butt of Beatrice seemed to arise from the page and smack my nose. How could I think of spending fifty bucks straight off the collection plate of the poor folks back home? Few unbelievers and upper-class-type Protestants understand this kind of test and the fact that deep faith is a surefire goad to lust. Forbidden bubble-butt fruit is what I was dealing with. Years later when President Carter spoke of the lust in his heart I sure as hell knew what he was talking about.
To be frank, as some of you might have guessed already, I failed the test. I still feel a trace of shame over my five days in Beatrice’s school of love. That’s what we jokingly called it. We started slow but soon enough we were on the fast track, me to perdition, and for her, business as usual.
When I got to her small apartment the first evening she was still in her waitress uniform making late dinner for a little boy about four years old. While she took a shower I read the kid a book called Yertle the Turtle about ten times, which was not much of a warm-up for sex. She came out of the bathroom in a blue satin robe and white furry slippers and took the kid down the hall to a babysitter. While she was gone a mean-looking black guy peeked in the door and tried to give me a bad look which didn’t work. I was known around my hometown as a first-rate fistfighter and I had dug enough eight-foot-deep well pits by hand not to take any bullying.
So she came back, we went into the bedroom and it was over in less than three minutes. What I bought was what she called a “half-and-half” which is half “French” and full entry. She took off her robe and had nothing on but a teeny pair of red undies. I was dizzy from holding my breath without knowing it. She undid my trousers and let them drop to my ankles, went down on me for a few seconds, and when I groaned she jumped up, pulled down the undies and bent over. I had barely plugged her when I shot and fell over backwards to the floor, where I thought for a moment of my young love for Rose. I looked up in despair at Beatrice’s fanny, then she turned and started laughing. She put her robe back on and went out to the other room still laughing. Was it for this that I had betrayed all my principles?
We sat on the couch and had a beer and I became cagey. I pointed out that at her current rate for work done she was making a thousand bucks an hour which was more than the President of the United States. “Fuck the President,” she said, still laughing. I tried to slide a hand in on her breast and she slapped it away. I developed a lump in my throat and got up to leave with shame sweating out of my pores. She stopped me and said for another twenty bucks we could transfer the deal to an hourly rate. She let a breast slip out of her robe and I agreed. I also had to do the dishes because she was sicker than shit of dishes and food.
It was while washing the dishes that I realized I was in the hands of forces far larger than myself. There was a temptation to cut and run, reduce my losses to the T-bone dinner and seventy bucks (I had immediately turned over the twenty for the hourly rate). I could tell the Institute that the money had been stolen from my room while I was at prayer service. Tears formed at the image of me on my knees while some craven thief stole the church’s money, stealing money from God Himself. Only that isn’t what happened, I corrected myself.
I turned then to see Beatrice on the sofa, now with her robe off and only the red panties to cover herself. She was reading Life magazine which seemed to me a coincidence.
“What I was wondering is this. Is the dish-washing time using up my hourly rate?”
“It depends. It all depends. I’ll take another beer.”
I brought her a bottle of beer and she set the cold bottom of it first on one nipple, then on the other. The nipples perked up and she shivered.
“It concerns me that you don’t know fuck-all about what you’re doing. You’re an amateur at this, aren’t you?” She slid off her undies and took another drink.
“You’re crazy if you think it’s my first time. I’d say you were about number eleven. Maybe twelve.”
She was actually number three. The first, by the name of Florence, was thin as a chicken carcass and we did it standing up against a pine tree in a cloud of mosquitoes. The second, Lily, was enormously fat and drunk, and I can’t even guarantee I was on target, though I suppose it’s fair to count it.
“Let me tell you, B.D., I don’t like men who don’t know what they’re doing. It’s simple as that. You’re one of them. I have feelings. We all need pleasure, you understand.”
She tugged my arm and I knelt down by the couch. She rubbed a hand through my hair and laughed. “You got the ugliest head of hair in the world.” True, my hair is bristly and will stand straight up without a goad soaking of Vitalis. She tugged my ears, then pressed a hand on the back of my neck, pushing it downward. And thus I faced the beautiful mouth of hell.
Five days of this and I had run out of money. I went over on the sixth evening and she was friendly enough but it was no dice. Her “professional standards” made what she called “freebies” out of the question. Her heart of gold was actual gold and not very warm at that. She was cooking spaghetti for her boyfriend and served me a single meatball before showing me the door. I tried to get a little sentimental and she just shook her head like she did the day I tried catsup on my oatmeal. It is hard for me to admit that I didn’t turn her head one little bit. But still, a wise man would do well to go looking for a woman who’s half black and half Italian. There’s no point in searching the U.P. because the population is too scant for such a combination.
Within a week I was locked out of my room for nonpayment of rent and was bumming around the park. When I think of that room now I wonder what they did with the new robin’s-egg blue suit Grandpa gave me, my schoolbooks and Scholfield Reference Bible (KJV), the single dirty picture of Beatrice, a present, stuck under the mattress. The last must have been an eye opener for the kindly old landlady, at least she was kindly until I ran out of money. I was lower than a snake dick until I cast my lot with the student radicals in the park who assured me I was one of the people. I couldn’t wait to disrupt a political convention, though we never got inside to see the big deals. At least there was plenty to eat. I didn’t realize at the time that college students were expert thieves.