In November 1972, in the living room of our two-story
home south of Pittsburgh, my family stopped being whole
when Mom sat up on the couch, looked directly my way, and
said, “Larry, where’s the damn lighter fluid?”

Dad had come home from the steel mill earlier, fatigued as
usual, and ignored Mom on his way to bed. He had been
appearing to us in spurts, as if he would rather work two
jobs than deal with five kids and a combative wife. He was
always doing good deeds for others, though. For instance,
one time Dad drove to Wildwood, New Jersey to save a
cousin, arrested for drugs, who was too afraid to call his own
parents. And recently Dad had gone out in a blizzard at
three in the morning because a neighbor’s furnace had shut
down. He didn’t accept a penny for his service. He never
charged anybody poor more than a bowl of soup for his
labor. “They can’t afford it,” he told Mom. Mom never did
appreciate the New Jersey trip, and the pro bono furnace
work had put her in a foul mood, seeing as how we lived
paycheck to paycheck.

That night Mom’s green eyes looked as if they were
seething, almost smoldering on the couch like a dying
campfire. She dug through an ashtray for a puffable cigarette

I sat across from her on a torn recliner, flipping through my
stack of Motown records, trying to ignore her. She was out of
cigarettes. She was always scarier when she was low on
cigs. I pretended to laugh at Johnny Carson’s monologue,
but my laugh came out stilted. Mom and I had watched The
Tonight Show together since I was six years old. Mom tried
to light one of the butts, but her lighter wouldn’t light. My
hands sweated onto my stack of vinyl records, and one, Otis
Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness,” slipped from my hands
and rolled toward Mom. She glared at the record, then at
me. She threw the crinkled butt at Johnny Carson and the
television set.

“Where’s my damn lighter fluid, Larry?” Mom asked again,
before marching into the kitchen. Her terrycloth robe opened
and the slip underneath was shiny and wrinkled. I slid off
the recliner and followed her.

What now, I thought. Was she going to set Dad on fire?
Mom never barbecued so I doubted she’d put on some
chicken now, at midnight, with the weather around fourteen
degrees. I watched as she combed through kitchen cabinets,
slamming them as she went along.

“Aha!” she yelled when she found the fluid underneath the
sink. “Larry, get me my matches upstairs next to my bed.”

I hurried up the stairs, but then thought, Jesus, what if she
was going to burn the house down? Once, while fighting with
Dad, she had threatened to do just that. I slowed down my
search for the matches.

I sat at the top of the stairs and thought about how we’d
almost made it. But this was the end. I knew it. Whatever
Mom had planned, it was the end. I now look back and think,
crazy never leaves crazy, does it? The chaos couldn’t leave
us. The chaos was us. The alley where we lived, with all the
neighboring support, couldn’t even protect us. Dad had built
our hillside house next to Pa Calamia. Right then we all
should have been worried. What sane man, a Polish man,
builds a house next to his Italian father-in-law?

Dad was sound asleep in the bedroom when I went in and
grabbed the matches. I then thought the weirdest thing. I
was an accomplice to whatever Mom had planned. Wherever
we were now headed, I was an accomplice. It didn’t feel
right, and yet I headed downstairs and handed Mom the

“Where’d you go—Timbuktu for the damn matches?” Mom
found a fairly substantial cigarette butt in the ashtray and lit
it immediately. She went over to the pantry in the kitchen
and pulled a television box out of it.

“What’s in that box, Mom?”


“Pictures?” I looked at the lighter fluid and then the box.
“You’re not going to burn our pictures?”

“Don’t tell me what I can and can’t do,” Mom said.

Mom then went deep into the hall closet and pulled out a
pair of boots. I watched her balance herself against the
closet door and struggle to get the boots on, the cig
dangling from her lips. Mom grabbed her Woolworth’s coat
off a hanger and put it on. She rushed back to the box and
dragged it near the kitchen door. She flicked an ash into the
ashtray. Then she looked at me.

“I’ll do whatever the hell I want to do,” she said.

Mom trudged into the snowy Pennsylvania tundra. I watched
as she dragged the cardboard box overflowing with our
family photographs behind her. I had no idea she had been
taking down photos for days—off shelves, off walls. Years
later, my brother told me that he had noticed, but Mom had
shrugged his questions off by saying she was going to
wallpaper the house.

I rushed up to my sisters’ dormer window and kneeled on the
window bench for a bird’s-eye view into the alley. My sisters
were asleep in their pink bedroom. The painted white clouds
on the walls looked shadowy. Mom’s coat hung over her
nightgown, and, of course, the cigarette still dangled from
her lips. She wiggled the box one way, paused, puffed, and
wiggled it another way, slowly edging the box up the cracked
sidewalk. Determined, always so damned determined. The
red rubber boots helped with her traction, and finally she
wiggled the box into our alley. I was embarrassed and
scared at the same time. I needed to wake my dad, but I
didn’t want
that fight. Dad had taken most of the photos
with his Kodak Instamatic camera, and I knew he’d be

Mom sat on the front bumper of Grandpa’s Chrysler, a
telephone pole spotlight illuminating her. She crossed her
legs casually and then grabbed the can of lighter fluid out of
the box and placed it on the hood. She sifted through the
photos, lingering over some of them. Every so often her
thumb slid past one or two as if pushing hair off a forehead.
I sensed her dilemma, her conflicted feelings between love,
indifference, and hate. She opened a photo album, stayed
with it longer than the others, and then flipped it into the
box as if it were a dog-eared JCPenney catalog. Mom then
bent over and reached inside the box. She pulled one
photograph out, stared at it for a long time before sticking it
in the side pocket of her nightgown, the pocket she kept her
Kleenex in. What photograph was she keeping?

I swear, in this life of mine, I have already had too many
moments of cowardice, too many regrets. And yet I don’t
think I’ve ever been more cowardly than at that moment,
knowing full well that not only were our pictures about to be
lost forever, but also the proof of our existence—our
existence as a family. How could I sit there staring so
Do something, Larry! Wake Dad up. Bang on the

Mom reached for the lighter fluid and stood up. She circled
the box, dousing it with fluid. She looked altruistic. As if she
was giving a gift to her family. Mom paused and took one
last drag of her cigarette. I opened my mouth, but no words
came out. She then lowered her head and flicked the cig into
the box. It was magnificent—the orange and red flames
against the swirling snow—our past flickering into the night
sky. My brother Steve happened to be out that night, or he
would have stopped it. My three sisters—Valerie, Julie, and
Cindy—slept soundly behind me. They looked so peaceful
with the flashes of light and shadow shimmering across their
faces. I caught a reflection of myself in their bedroom mirror.
I looked like a spirit. The pictures burned and so did the last
remnants of our family, at least the family I desperately

Watching our pictures burn convinced me that marrying
young was a terrible idea for all involved. Crazy families
were never born crazy. Young parents were bound to screw
up children. And a childhood was too everlasting to screw
up. My mom and dad didn’t stand a chance. They married at
eighteen; they were kids having kids.

I don’t know. Maybe I shouldn’t judge, or be so harsh about
the “no pictures” thing. Uncle Jack claimed my siblings and I
were lucky to be alive. He insisted that Mom practically set
us on fire during a good poker hand. He swore that many
times Mom’s ash hovered centimeters above our chubby
thighs, sometimes even burned our diapers, while she
cradled us, clicked open jars of Gerber peas, and bet
quarters. He swore that he once saw me crying, at the age
of two or three, heating my own bottle on the stove because
Mom had a good hand. Who’d want a picture of that? When I
asked Mom about the stories she said Uncle Jack was “a
jackass who needed to mind his own business.”

Even with the proof incinerated, I still hold on to the belief
that we weren’t always broken. Sometimes I imagine a
photo of my family gathering Easter eggs on our hillside
yard, my three sisters, my brother, my beautiful mom
smoking her cigarettes, my chiseled dad opening an Iron City
beer—all of us frozen in time, living the good, proud, blue-
collar life in our beloved alley.

Two of Bob Dzik’s short stories were finalists in the Glimmer Train
fiction contest. The manuscript for his memoir The Cigarette Ballet
was a finalist at the Writers’ League of Texas Conference contest
and at the Woodlands Writers Conference contest.
by Bob Dzik