“Butterflies on Fire”—Behind the Story
I mainly began researching the Cuyahoga River’s penchant for catching fire—it did so a bunch of times before the infamous 1969 fire—out of curiosity and for, perhaps, useful background information on what the characters in the novella Mistakes by the Lake might have experienced in their lifetimes. I jotted down some dates, some notes, some wonderful descriptions (like how the river oozed rather than flowed; that the river would, like a cauldron, bubble up; how rats as big as dogs would float down the river all bloated and dead). But I ended up not using much, if any, when drafting the novella.
Once, though, the vision of the collection came into focus—this decade-by-decade walk through Cleveland’s history—I knew I needed to write a burning river story. But it’s the story that scared me the most for reasons that still escape me. And I kept putting it off, putting it off, putting it off.
I’m glad I put it off.
Over the years of doing research and drafting/revising the nine other stories, I came into contact with the work of d.a. levy [sic]—poet, artist, alternative press publisher, and activist—whose visionary voice was an essential and prominent one in Cleveland in the 1960s. (Although, too, his voice went national when renowned poet Allen Ginsberg and others rightly recognized his work.) I read every issue of Buddhist Third Class Junkmail Oracle and Marrahwanna Quarterly I could get my hands on. This led to my reading The Buddhist Third Class Junkmail Oracle: The Art and Poetry of d.a. levy (levy and Mike Golden). It led to my watching if i scratch if I write…, a documentary film by Kon Pet Moon. I was taken by levy, his message, his passion. I was taken by his powerful voice.
The seeds of a character and a story were born. I liked the idea of a character trying to find his place in the underground counterculture. I liked the idea of a character attempting to meditate alongside the filthy Cuyahoga. I liked the idea of a character being both present and not present to the fire soon-to-enflame nearby. I liked the idea of an almost ethereal kaleidoscope of butterflies symbolizing both fragility and transformation. (Seriously, a group of butterflies is called a kaleidoscope! I’m scratching my head wondering why I didn’t include that tidbit in the story. Alas.) And, thanks to my mentor, Tony Macklin, I liked the poems of Don Marquis (particularly those featuring Archy the cockroach and Mehitabel the cat).
I used a few prevalent affectations of style and spelling, those used both by levy and by other writers of that era, to lend a hand in defining Dominic’s own voice—yes, all of those misspelled and mispunctuated words are intentional.
To get a better sense of location, I took a kayak tour of the Cuyahoga River. The picture at the top is from that tour. And, as near as I can reckon, the railroad trestle (visible on the right of that picture) is the one that initially caught fire in 1969. Alongside the contaminated and flammable river itself, the detritus that accumulates underneath that trestle certainly would have made for good tinder when a spark or two from a passing train would fall upon it. Really, it’s amazing the river didn’t burst into flames on a more regular basis.
Lastly, it never hurts to listen to Randy Newman’s “Burn On”:
Or REM’s “Cuyahoga”:
“Butterflies on Fire”—Excerpt
Dominic finds himself retching as he settles into his spot alongside the Cuyahoga River, a spot hes marked as his with well-read mimeos of Marrahwannah Quarterly, cigarette butts, various brands, beer bottles, empty & otherwise, several coffee cans of cat litter, fresh & not-so-fresh, a tiny green ceramic Buddha, seated, skin magazines, not as well read as Marrahwannah Quarterly, or, perhaps that well-read & more, he didnt like to count, cigarette butts or beer bottles or things well read, & aniway, he is here to count his breath, his breathing, here, now, & the last thing he wants to do is count the riffles & crimples of pieces of paper to see wat warranted worn, wat warranted well worn, & the differences thereof, therein, thereby, therewith.
He knows for a fact, as far as he knows facts, that, even money, the skin mag was less well-worn, still, than Marrahwannah Quarterly. Maybe, 2-1 or, hell, 5-1. Against. Its a good skin mag, Dominic thinks. Here he is counting again. Enuf, you fuck-off, get it together.
The river’s strong. The sewer of the city, it is, flows right through Cleveland, acts as its putrid, acrid, infected, chemical-and-shit-filled aorta. Its a challenge, here, sitting here, doing his breathing & counting thing. But if Dominic can raise his consciousness here, he thinks, in this place, with this smell, if he can do away with words and melt into experience, if he can somehow replace, rework, revise, revisit his broken parts, he could—
So the retching. First the retching. Then the counting, altho, yeah, he hates counting, but counting is kind of the thing, when it comes rite down to it. Alwaiz. Usually. He means, at least, thats how it went. Counting could come first, but why not cut to the retch? Ha! “Cut to the retch.” Hed have to remember that, after, write it down. For posterity, posterior, postage, postwar. Hed have to look that up. The difference. After. After retching, after smoking, after drinking, after breathing, after counting, after enlightening. Dominic has grown tired of flunking this here life—hed even nearly flunked death but Sarah had only caught him nodding—& hed heard the hallucinogens, the psychedelics, the LSDs, the grass, mite not be the third-eye-opening key of, of, of …
Dominic swigs from his beer. That alwaiz happens, doesnt it? he thinks. So close to having it, you know? Capital I. Capital T. But it goes, poof, flies downwind into the air, flows downstream into the river, & the sneering sun gives him a whatre-you-gonna-do-about-it? glare. As near as he can tell. A sun’s facial expressions arent alwaiz clear.
A boat, the Putzfrau, motors by Dominic’s meditative platform. German, I know German, he thinks. Nein, bitte, guten tag, sprechen, Götterdämmerung. Now theres a word! he thinks. Where on earth—? “Frau,” Dominic says. “Lady. Putz lady. Putz lady?” Tubes snaking out from the boat scoop and suck at the river’s surface. Cleaning lady? Dominic thinks. Ha. Yeah, good luck, fraulein, this here crack runs right through the middle of Death City.
Dominic spits up a few thick chunks of phlegm, washes down wats left in his mouth with another swig.
You remember, he thinks. I know you do, Sarah. When we were kids, & even tho we were kids, you my neighbor opposite Lincoln Park, you of the pigtails or pony tail or braids—you could of been cue ball bald, for all I cared—I knew I liked you in that its-more-than-like kind of tune, & I thot you liked me similar. Aniway, we used to play Sick Hand Tag, you remember? Id dip my hand in this chocolate-brown Cuyahoga goo, this goo that smelled everithing-but-chocolate, & Id chase yr ass all the way bak to Lincoln Park, you screaming yr head off, thinking my touching you with my tainted mitt would stain you, & Id first laugh but then Id scream becuz that shit, it fucking alwaiz burned until I rinsed it into the pool, creating weird rainbow eddies that shooed the other kids & gave us our own private part of the pool. Dominic rubs his hands together, feels a long-ago tingle rise up in his Sick Hand hand. You have to remember when my mom would take steel wool to me, scrape layers of skin, peel me open. Worth it, Sarah, worth it all the way.