The Flaming Tadpoles
by Matt McGee
You’ll do some really embarrassing shit when you’re a kid. Trust me on this. You’ve probably already done it and are repressing like mad. Yet someday, someone, always some jerkoff who has nothing better to do than document the shit out of everything until there are no gray areas left in the world will pop up with video evidence that yes, you too were once this much of an idiot.
Lucky for those of us born in the 60’s, our childhoods were pre-cell phone, pre-VHS. Only faded still photographs and a few Super-8 films remain, susceptible to the deterioration of time and, thank God, faulty human memories.
Unfortunately for me though, there is still Tommy Carver.
He’s rarely seen in public and still in social media denial, but if you can pin him down, Tommy will tell you about the time I stood in front of our third grade class and told everyone we’d seen a UFO.
Choosing UFOs for our class report was a no-brainer. Television had jumped on the Close Encounters craze by airing one ‘unidentified object’ show after another. NBC had a hit with Project UFO, a Cold War, alien-tinged CSI; a pair of crack Air Force investigators could debunk everything. Still, we the public just couldn’t stop believin’.
And Tommy and I had seen something. It drifted across the horizon, a glowing orange ball with a tail we could clearly make out.
“Like a flaming tadpole,” I’d said to the class. Skeptical faces broke into smirks. Tommy, four rows back, buried his face in his hands. My family moved that summer to the Arizona desert. I heard through the grapevine that ‘flaming tadpole’ was a nickname that followed Tommy for years.
Forty years later, in town for a family reunion, I pulled a rented Nissan to the curb of my old house and walked into the backyard. Residents don’t believe in fences. And if the new owners asked, I’d show them a photo of me, age nine, in what is today their living room.
It was the same time of afternoon when we’d seen our UFO. I watched. I waited. Minutes later, something slowly drifted into the sky.
I picked up my cell.
“My old house. It faces east.”
“Is that you?” Tommy asked.
“The flaming tadpole. It was a jetliner.”
“No shit it was a jetliner. There’s a flight path right over the mountain range. Airlines use the railroad to mark their route.”
“So when the sun sets,” I said, “it lights up every passing jetliner.”
“That’s right Project UFO, all we saw was another flight on its way to JFK.”
He couldn’t see the dismissive smile. “Sorry, man.”
“Are you kidding? You move to Arizona right after scuttling my social life and all I get ‘sorry?’”
“I’m really sorry?”
“Seriously,” I said, “how much social life did you ever have?”
“I don’t know. Still.”
“OK. Beers on me at Flaherty’s.”
The rustling on the other end was someone getting out of a comfortable chair and reaching for car keys.
“That’s a start.”
I arrived first, as Tommy’s wife had saddled him with errands. I watched most of the Mets game over the head of a minor league hot blonde bartender. Spotting her coy smile, I asked:
“What do you know of chemistry?”
She looked at me sideways. She shoved her bar rag into her back pocket.
“You're not with Al-Queda or something are you?”
“Yes,” I said, instinctively. “I’m bringing down an old institution.”
“Intriguing.” She put a hand on the bar, the other on a jutted out hip. Her name was Jessica. “What did you have in mind, Sirhan Sirhan?”
“A mind eraser.”
I gave her the general idea and Jessica started pulling bottles from shelves, under counters, out of coolers, every shade of the whiskey rainbow. When he walked in forty minutes later, Tommy’s first words weren’t ‘hey man’ or ‘how was your flight?’ Instead I got:
“What the fuck’s burning in here?”
Jessica and I eyed the middle-aged, Mackinawed man. “Get over here. Jessica’s made us something special.”
Tommy sidled up. He tossed a knit hat on the bar top and nodded at Jessica as if they knew each other from around.
“Jess, do your magic.”
Jessica became a blonde octopus, mixing the ingredients we’d worked out. I handed the concoction to Tommy. He sniffed, then backed the drink slightly away.
Jessica pulled a cigarette lighter from her hip pocket. One quick scratch of flint and Carver’s glass lit up.
“Behold,” I announced, “the Flaming Tadpole!”
Carver held the glass at arms length and wedding toast height. He shook his head.
“Jesus Christ. You’re here half a day ...”
“Don’t worry, Jess here’s already taken a photo and posted it on… what’s it called?”
“See? Our future’s already televised.”
Carver studied the glass. “How am I supposed to drink this with a beard like I got?”
Jessica heaved herself onto the bar like a gymnast would a pummel horse. She leaned in and blew out the flame. Carver mumbled thanks and brought the glass gently to his lips, testing its heat index, then sipped.
He sipped again.
“Jesus Christ that’s pretty fucking good.”
Jessica and I nodded.
“He likes it,” I said.
“I think he does.”
“Damn right I do.” Carver sipped heartily, then he chugged the whole thing and pounded the tumbler onto the bar.
“A-plusses for both of you!”
Jessica set up three fresh tumblers and went back into octopus mode. Just as she was about to pull out the lighter, she held up a pointer finger and spun on a toe. She flipped a wall switch, throwing the room into darkness, then lit the drinks. Everyone grabbed a glass and hoisted.
“Here’s to shitty nicknames!” I said.
“Flaming tadpoles 4evah!” Jessica shouted, and we all chanted it. We brought our glasses up, leaned into the burning blue flames and, with a quick breath, blew away the remnants of another exhausted childhood memory.
MATT McGEE writes short fiction in the Los Angeles area. In 2018 his short stories ‘Schneider’s Last Stand’ appeared in Grey Wolfe’s ‘Legends’ anthology and ‘Auto-99’ appeared in Don Kingfisher’s ‘Spectrum’ anthology. His story ‘Unseen Among Kings’ received a 2015 Pushcart nomination. He may or may not have seen a UFO as a child.
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