When Frank Bronkowski, my father, was alive, he’d read and reread his Polish newspapers, the Gwiazda Polarna, the Nowy Dziennik. He’d speak no English on Sundays and drink a Polish beer. His pocket watch—brought from the old country—stands in its place of honor on the dining-room table. Next to it, Ma has fresh peonies in the vase shaped like the Virgin Mary praying. When I’m home from sailing like I am now, Ma heats up my favorite lunch. With a flour-sack bib around my neck, I make the Sign of the Cross, wind my dad’s watch, then dine on a chunk of Russian rye and two or three cans of Beanie Weenies. Done, I wipe my face and hands with a damp washcloth and signal for dessert.
How I got here after the accident starts with the wheelsman Orville Lee. He’ll tell you how to sail from Buffalo to the Southeast Shoal on Lake Erie. “When you’re heading upbound, lay a 248 course for sixty miles to pass off of Long Point, Ontario,” he’ll say. “Then steer the 249 course for 134 miles to one mile south of the shoal.” He can tell you how to sail from the old lighthouse at Point Iroquois on Lake Superior to Outer Pancake Shoal, and from there, home. By talking to him and studying lake charts, I’ve learned that vessels contact Seaway Long Point, VHF-FM channel 11, to report to the Coast Guard when off of Long Point. I’ve learned that oil- and gas-drilling towers in Canadian waters warn you with a flash of light and a two-second blast from a fog-signal beacon followed by eighteen seconds of silence. This information comes from Ed Bronkowski, sailor, via Orville Lee and the Army Corps of Engineers’ Lake Superior Chart No. 9.
Last week with the vessel following the 302 course a little beyond Southeast Shoal, my brain began shutting down. In the night with the Stimson bound for Pelee Point Light, I’m getting a drink of water when she rolls in a stiff northwest wind. Depending on the height of the waves, the strength of the wind, and how much cargo or ballast we’re carrying, a vessel can roll sixty degrees around that shoal. When she did, I fell. I hit my head. The water glass broke. When Bull LaVoy, the mate, found me in my berth, I was sitting in my underpants, knee cut, face bloody. I told him, “Lemme go on with the fight, Bull. I got my jab working.”
“Fight’s over, kid,” he said, when they put me on the mail boat in the Detroit River to bring me to the hospital. For a few days, I could recall the incident, then I’d forget what happened. I figured the cut to my noggin and the general condition of my brain after losing twenty pro fights had done me in.
With my seniority as a deckhand, fifteen years of lugging mooring cables along docks, scraping paint, sweeping spilled cargo overboard, and hosing down decks, I get nine weeks’ vacation. I take them three at a time during shipping season. When I called the head office, the secretary said, “Captain Johnson phoned in the accident report. How do you feel, Mr. Bronkowski?”
“I got a concussion and had a seizure from what’s on my mind. I’m taking vacation. I’ve got frequent flyer miles. I’ll get in fighting shape when I’m in Superior.”
“Let us know when you’re better, and I’ll tell you what port to meet your boat in. You’re fifty-one years old. My husband saw you fight in Lorrain.”
“The Joe Lovely bout. Did I win?” I ask, hoping to save her the embarrassment of talking to a loser.
“That was the name. That’s right. I wouldn’t advise boxing anymore,” she said.
“Did I win? Did I beat Joe Lovely?” I kept asking until the line went dead.
Now the accident, the Detroit River, and the hospital are behind me. I recover fast. The mail has brought get-well cards from Verna Larson, my girlfriend on the H.L. Stimson, and from Bull LaVoy. Safe at Ma’s, I wonder if I’ll remember anything again. I know Merrihew Lakes Transit is a good shipping company. I know I have a cousin, Leon Adjukiewicz, in Milwaukee and two brothers, Walt and Alphonse, here in Superior. I have the nephews, Keith and Andy. I’ve been to every Great Lakes port and fought in half of them. I’ve sailed on straightdeckers and self-unloaders hauling grain, salt, ore, and cement. I remember this, yet one of Walt’s kids says to me yesterday, “What’s the distance from the sun to the earth? How old’s America’s oldest city? Name one kind of dragonfly.”
Intellectual things puzzle me. Why not ask about the coal pile at the power plant in Ashland or the Stimson’s turbine engines? I wanted to swear at the kid, but not in front of his little brother who’s eight or nine years old. In honor of our heritage, I call the younger one Andrzej. It’s pronounced “Awn-jay.” He worships me. He visits me at Ma’s. When I’m asleep on the couch because it’s stuffy upstairs, she will wake me, no matter the hour, and say, “Andy’s here.”
Coming to, I remember who I lost fights to in the Omaha Civic Center and the Milwaukee Auditorium. I remember how my old man would call me “Bokser” in Polish and shake his head in disappointment. To remain this sharp, I must be younger than fifty-one.
“Is Butch, my manager, alive? How old am I?” I ask Ma.
“Old enough,” she says.
She worries about me when I fly off the handle at the TV or newspaper articles. I wonder how long she will put up with it. Still, Ma, my nephew, and Verna Larson on the boat care about me. That’s why Ma’s up early trying to please me with what she cooks and bakes, and why Andrzej has come over today.
“Uncle Ed, will you help me?” he asks. Very gently he touches my stitches as if by tickling them he can get me to agree.
“Help how? I’m getting off of watch. I can’t go anywhere at six a.m.,” I tell him, pretending to be on the Stimson. Banged up like I am, the living-room couch will do me fine, I think. Then I say to myself and Andrzej things that Pa used to mutter: “Próznowanie poczatkiem wsztstkiego zlego . . . Idleness is the root of all evil,” or “Kto rano wstaje, temu Pan Bóg daje . . . Who rises early, to him God gives.” He likes hearing the Polish, but this don’t quiet him.
“My brother has to help Mr. DuBose look for dragonflies. He’s with the DNR,” he says.
Even when I wash up, the kid’s talking. As I complain to my beat-up face in the bathroom mirror, I picture him and Ma in the kitchen—the kid with the curious look and round, sweet face and the gray-haired lady in a housecoat trying to catch her breath because of breathing problems. I picture my old man beside me in the mirror shaking his head saying, “Bokser, Bokser.”
When I come in freshly shaved, Andrzej’s bragging about me. How can I not love him? He’s a big fan. “Uncle Ed said that,” or “Uncle Ed did this,” he tells Ma as she ties the flour sack about me and hands me a napkin.
“Beanie Weenies for lunch later?” Ma asks when Andrzej stops for a second.
“Beanie Weenies,” I say. “My girlfriend don’t serve them on the boat.”
“Sausages with them? I know you like to supplement your meals.”
“Let’s try the apple bratwurst. We should be home by noon,” I say, finishing my coffee and cinnamon toast.
When Ma wipes my chin, we leave her for the morning. Keith, the youthful scientist, needs supervision. At his house, his dad’s Kia stands outside.
“Where’s the old man?” I ask.
Staring at his iPhone, the kid turns away from me. “He’s upstairs.”
“Take both sets of car keys. I’m going to sleep,” Walter calls from the bedroom. He’s worn out after the night shift, and my sister-in-law’s already left for work in her car. If I don’t go to the bog, it’ll mean no fun for the nine-year-old nephew while his uncle’s home.
I’d rather play with Andrzej’s remote-control cars or the LEGOs kit than go out there. Knowing my head’s been punched over the years, the doctors advise me, Try to put bad thoughts from your mind. Verna tells me this, too—thoughts like how the older one never thanks me for birthday cards and money, or how he gets sullen when I talk.
“Tell him a Blue Darner is one name of a dragonfly, Uncle Ed. Another is Twelve-Spotted Skimmer. Keith has a book full of their pictures,” Andrzej says. He’s smart for his age. Running to the car, he climbs in back while the other nephew is still texting.
“Because of my head injuries, I don’t remember if dragonflies are bigger or smaller than birds,” I tell them.
“Come on!” Keith says, not believing someone wouldn’t know this. “I bet you saw them on the Cuyahoga River when it was burning from the oil and flammable sludge in 1969. Mr. DuBose told me about the river fire. He’s getting me a job someday.”
“That was in Cleveland. I was too young to leave home then. Don’t worry, I’ve seen things you can’t imagine.”
“Like how we were sailing off of Copper Harbor when a flock of birds landed on the Stimson. They were migrating. The captain called them warblers. They settled down with us and slept. We were heading southeast to Whitefish Point, they were heading north, so they lost time.”
Thinking about this quiets the scientist. I can observe him by sitting in front. He has blond hair a shade darker than Andrzej’s. Never subjected to the boxing ring or to life, Keith’s face and heart are scar-free. Something gives him this defiant look. When he admires himself in the rearview mirror, I think it’s impolite to do so, especially with others around. He’s not as handsome as he thinks. His nose ain’t perfect. Maybe right now his life ain’t perfect. Maybe he needs a swat.
“Do you want to see how you look, Uncle Ed?” he asks.
“Won’t be necessary,” I say, needing no reminder of my curled up ears and swollen cheekbones.
Why do I think Keith laughs at me? I fit out the Stimson for the shipping season, make a few trips up and down the lakes, return home with head busted open, and right away I’m angry when I see him. Dear Jesus, keep me from going crazy. This is what I’m peeved at. If he catches me in mistakes, he says, “No, it isn’t like that,” or “You’re wrong about that.” Andrzej, the younger one, knows I ain’t bright. I pray he’ll love his Uncle Ed and remember me and talk about my accomplishments in the ring someday.
On the map open on my knees, I trace my finger along the county road. “It looks like a sharp turn,” I tell Keith when we enter the woods that go for hundreds of miles. In my other hand, I hold the dragonfly book Andrzej’s passed to me from in back. “Slow up,” I tell his brother. “I’m a wheelsman.”
“How do you figure that, Uncle Ed? You said you were a deckhand.”
“Get your stories straight,” Keith says.
“I’ve seen breakwaters, that’s all I know,” I say, which follows nothing the boys have said. If I make no sense sitting with a blank look on my face, Keith will know I’m hopeless. “In Huron, Ohio, one breakwater only hooks part way to shore. This causes sand to build up,” I tell him. “You must go far left of the right breakwater so as not to run aground.”
“Who cares about Huron?” Keith asks. Angry that I came today, he expects some point in what I’m telling them. Driving too fast, he almost steers us off the road. Maybe he should slow down. He should understand I’ve fought in Indiana and Nebraska. I have jumped from the fantail of the H.L. Stimson to rescue a sailor in the St. Mary’s River. Keith should learn from me, but he sends messages and listens to his hip-hop singers through the earbuds of that thing.
“I told you ease off the gas pedal.”
“What was the point of your story?”
“The Huron one.”
“What about it?” I ask, head hurting.
It’s no use. I’ve lost my train of thought again. Instead, I can remember that our trip to the bog has brought us past the creosote plant, Four Corners, Amnicon Lake. I can recall that 28,000 people live in Superior, the one big city in Douglas County. When you think you’re in wild country in the forests outside of town, up the road it’s always wilder. I sense its mystery when we’re east of the turn. My mind is clear on one thing: The smirk on the older kid’s face.
Keith’s dragonfly book says that when American Emerald dragonflies breed they “prefer bog ponds and boggy lakes, forest ponds, fens and sedge marshes.” In the air, the males “hover and dart, hover and dart.” In the book’s beautiful photos, they have bright green eyes, a yellow ring on their abdomen, and two sets of wings with a triangle mark on the front wings.
“What’s a fens?” I ask to calm my anger at Keith. “Why don’t you call the fellow you’re writing to?”
“Who calls anyone? We text,” he says. “We don’t read books either. I can find dragonfly pictures online.” Slowing the car, he eyes the dirt road. He asks the little sprout whether he’s going wading with him now that we’re here.
When we leave the county road, it’s like the earth floats on bogs from the beginning of time. What’s the word for this place, prime-something . . . primeval? The bog pond, 150 feet across, ends at a wall of trees. Covered by lily pads and duckweed the way the pond is, I will not blame Andrzej for staying out of it. One thousand years will pass, yet all will remain the same here—the tall grass, the forest, the screech of birds. Waving my hands to keep away blackflies, I start talking to the DNR man when Keith interrupts me. “I only have a driver learner’s permit, Mr. DuBose. My uncle had to come today.”
Mr. DuBose is thirty years younger than me. He wears a bush hat. “Did the boy tell you I have extra waders in the truck?”
“I’m not in shape to exert myself.”
“It’s deep,” Andrzej says.
“You don’t need waders anyway. Roll up your jeans, Andy. The peat holds you up. The dragonfly skeletons we get are ex-u-vi-ae.” Keith pronounces the syllables slow as though otherwise I won’t understand.
My shirt is soaked through from the humidity. When Keith tells me not to stir up flies in this miserable place, my head feels worse. I should surprise him with a jab to the chin. No rule says a man must accept insults.
“You heard of me, Mr. DuBose?”
“You were the boxer.”
“My brother was a Marine.”
“Tough family,” Mr. DuBose says. “The fieldwork I do is safer than boxing. By the way, Ebony Boghaunters emerge in late May. They’re a ‘glacial relict,’ a holdover from thousands of years ago. We flag spots where we find their exoskeletons. That way we create a map of the bog and the exoskeletons using the flags’ coordinates. The Kennedy’s Emerald emerged three days ago, June fourth. We collected six exoskeletons.”
“A relict is like you, Uncle Ed, a remnant of an otherwise extinct organism,” Keith says.
I don’t catch his meaning at first, then things fall silent. It isn’t right for the son of a bitch to say this about me.
In the heat and stillness, Andrzej knows I’m angry. “Your brother don’t take me serious. He don’t like me. Do I look stupid in the bib at Ma’s?” I ask, watching the scientists wade through the water to the shady side of the pond.
“That’s not it,” Andrzej says.
“He don’t know what a seiche is, I bet. It’s pretty scientific. See, Andrzej, I learn stuff. You can’t be blamed for not knowing the term. You’re young. I know you’ll be a sailor. I can see you’re captain material.”
“Do you have a girlfriend?” he asks, catching me off guard. “Keith’s girlfriend drives him here in her ma’s car. He’s a year behind her in high school. Her name’s Johanna. She wants to be a scientist. That’s who he’s texting.”
“Why couldn’t she bring him here when I’m recovering?”
“She’s tired this morning and can’t. ‘Get Barnacle Bill,’ Keith told me when he needed to get out here. ‘He has time to take us.’ Some days Keith is sad about her. They always argue over things.”
“I have a girlfriend. She bakes nice things. I got a card from her.”
Trying to remember if there’s more that Andrzej’s asked me, I tell him about another girlfriend. “When I was fifteen, I’d go to her house. I found her a stone shaped like a heart. Years later, I got married but not to Mae. When my career’s going great but nothing else is, one night Mae shows up for an Ed ‘The Bronko’ Bronkowski fight. I’m coming out of the ring, everybody congratulating me, and I see her in the doorway. She’s a nurse. It’s 1988. When my trainer wipes my face, I give my old girlfriend a hug. ‘I saved the heart-shaped stone you gave me, Eddie,’ she says. She could’ve forgotten me. That was when my wife was breaking my heart for no reason I knew about.”
When I look over, Andrzej’s flushed with heat. Maybe he’s preoccupied with his brother. The frail Andrzej Bronkowski won’t be a seaman. Surrounded by the drowsy buzz of the pond, he can hardly keep his eyes open. The poor kid, why should he care if someone saved me a stone? He’s got important things on his mind. With a stalk of tall grass, I shoo flies and mosquitoes from him.
“Will you show me a dragonfly, Uncle Ed?” he asks.
“Remember how we played LEGOs?”
“We can play laser tag after lunch,” he says. “I think Keith is sad.”
Then he gets too tired to care about anything. His head lolls against a tree. I realize again how everything’s in place: the thick, silent woods, the quiet flutter of birds’ wings, Mr. DuBose’s soft voice, the ride here, my fight career. On the bog, things follow a natural order, and I know I’ve done kind deeds for others like Ma and Verna on the Stimson, and Mae did kind things for me, as did Bull LaVoy when he found me injured.
Maybe it’s 1975. Adele, my future wife, was a girl. My wife didn’t know me when I liked Mae. Years afterward Adele and me get married. The book says dragonflies hover, zigzag, and fly about. They disappear, return, disappear like my wife after our marriage. Across from us Keith and Mr. DuBose place their flags.
To see if Andrzej’s awake, I say, “Pretend we’re on the breakwater at our end of Lake Superior. Your Uncle Ed’s a boy. I’ve ridden my bike to the end of Wisconsin Point fourteen miles one-way from home to see if what I heard is true about the lake. Are you still listening, Andrzej? In the distance, I see Duluth. Where I am, the channel enters Superior Bay. No one’s around. It’s quiet. The concrete breakwater that forms one side of the channel extends 200 feet into the lake. You can walk to the end. In the water halfway out are boulders that driftwood gets trapped on. The boulders stabilize the breakwater and the shore. You ever gone there?”
“With my dad,” Andrzej says, though he’s sleepy.
“In the story I’m telling, all day the lake’s been quiet. Now the water laps up and down against the breakwater. There’s no breeze. When the day’s been still, how could the water on Lake Superior start moving like this? It’s mysterious. Except for the lake, all I see are the woods of Wisconsin Point and the shore curving to the other lighthouse.”
I hope wherever Andrzej is in dreams, he’ll hear this and remember. He’s a sweet child. “On the eastern shore of Lake Superior, the water’s piled up from the storm that pushed it there,” I tell him. “The water has to return. It’s called a ‘seiche’ when this happens—like if you tilt a bowl of water, when you put down the bowl the water returns from one side to even out the surface. I read about this a few days later in a library book. The great blue summer spread before me that day. I was fifteen. Then, suddenly, the lapping water. I saw it when it started. I was a boy like you and your brother.”
Saying the words seiche or moonglade or scintillation, which is the reason stars appear to move in the night sky, I’m teaching the one young person in the world who cares about me. Talking to a sleeping Andrzej reminds me of the hopes I had when I liked Mae Beecher or when I loved my wife. All I asked was for things to work out. Now I have words to remember when everything’s gone. I’ve held on to them. I’ve never told Andrzej or anyone. Seiche. Scintillation. Moonglade.
Keith’s book describes the habitat of dragonflies, what they eat, how, once they’ve left their larval shell and are in the “teneral” stage, sometimes it takes an hour for their wings to dry before they fly away. A group of dragonflies is a “dazzle.” Leaving my nephew, I examine one by the pond. As delicately as I’ve held my wife’s hand in marriage or my newborn son at baptism, I place my index finger beside the Ebony Boghaunter. The finger was broke in a fight. I nudge the Boghaunter close with the tip of another finger broke in a fight. Wings moving, it feels lighter than moonlight. It is a relict like Uncle Ed Bronkowski.
When I say “Seiche. Scintillation. Moonglade,” I think the words have never been spoken together before. Nudging the Ebony Boghaunter into my palm, I repeat the words knowing its ancestors hovered about when I was born, when I was in school, when I fought out of Butch Maeder’s gym, then when Adele, my wife, left with my son, and I didn’t know where they went. During this moment when I feel the creature’s weight and see its delicate, transparent wings outlined in black, it’s as if I recall every opportunity for beauty I’ve seen and lost. I whisper, “I have to love one final thing. Something has to remember I loved it,” so when Andrzej sees the dragonfly, he might not forget it. Memories will tie us together the way beauty ties everything.
As my nephew stirs, the Boghaunter rises. “Wait! Let me show you to Andrzej,” I say, still feeling the spot where the dragonfly rested. “Look! Look!” I call to my nephew as though I’ve found something for Mae Beecher and it is thirty-five years ago. I point to the pond where small wings flash and glitter. For a second Andrzej doesn’t know what I’m pointing to. Then I think he spots it. “I believe you,” he calls.
“I held it in my hand. It stayed with me, Andrzej. You should’ve seen it.”
He looks like he’s confused about where he is. When he rubs his eyes to wake up, it’s like only at that moment he remembers his brother walking in the pond and Uncle Ed home from the lakes. I have faith that Andrzej has seen what I have if only in his dreams, that he’ll remember me when I’m in a rest home, which is where they put you when you have no words. I hope someday he will bring me a book with pictures and say that he has held an Ebony Boghaunter and whispered to it.
When we walk over to Keith and Mr. DuBose, my hand on Andrzej’s shoulder for support, he says, “Tell me what is moonglade? I was falling asleep when you started to tell me. I want to remember.”
“It’s the pattern bright moonlight makes on a large expanse of water,” I tell him. “Say you’re upbound for Superior on the H.L. Stimson from some port on the lower lakes. Say you’re getting off of watch, and ahead of you the moon is bright and hundreds of warblers surround you. Moonglade is so bright it lights your way.”
“What are the other words?”
“Seiche. Do you remember seiche?”
“Yes, I remember it.”
“Do you remember what scintillation is, when stars appear to move because of changes in the atmosphere?”
“Yes, I do,” he says as I try explaining further.
“I memorized a meaning for it. Scintillation means ‘rapid changes in the brightness of a celestial body.’”
“Like it’s God’s shadow falling across the sky?”
“That’s its cause,” I tell him.
When I’m done with the words I’m thankful to remember, I don’t feel as bad about how my life’s turned out. But I am very sad for the older kid. I thought he had everything going for him with his straight-A’s, a girlfriend, a learner’s permit, and Mr. DuBose of the DNR. Now that I’ve heard about Keith and his girlfriend, I’m not angry. He has his own sorrow with her. He is heartbroken when I glance across at him. I wouldn’t want to go through that again. I won’t have to worry about things like this much longer.
What the younger boy and I share about beauty is as important as what Keith is experiencing about love. I have held a dragonfly, and Andrzej is remaining a child long enough for me to join him. When I’m his age, we’ll play many games, and he can feed me Beanie Weenies at Ma’s house.
“Don’t grow up. Please don’t,” I say to him the way I said “Wait! Wait!” to the Ebony Boghaunter. Maybe in a few months or a year when my mind goes, I’ll need him to tie my bib, need him to tell me stories of the sea. All through his life, I hope he stays innocent. You can keep a little of your childhood when you grow up. I’m proof. Look at my hands swollen from fighting. Look where the Boghaunter rested in one hand. If I can remember this miracle a few moments after it happened, then my nephew can remember me. Andrzej will find a way to return to the bog. When he’s successful, he’ll drive here to recall Uncle Ed. He’ll return and whisper words.
In these last days with him, I’ll remember a June morning when dragonflies, a dazzle of them, emerge and sparkle above the pond. I’ve never seen anything like it. They stop and hover. They dart and zigzag when they fly past. You can hear their wings beating the air. It is a kind of magic song or prayer I cannot decipher. It is like they know Andrzej and me. “See, Andrzej? See what I told you?” I say, “‘Who rises early, to him God gives.’”