An excerpt from “A Moment of Fireflies” — a novella by John McCluskey

May 24th, 2017

John McCluskey’s novella A Moment of Fireflies (New Plains Press), tells the story of Michael Callahan, a Depression era alcoholic husband and father, wrestling with a tormented past and its impact on him and his family, especially his young son David and younger daughter Meggy.

While the novel itself is not specific to jazz, there are sections, including this excerpt, where a character falls into a dreamlike stream of consciousness almost poetic trance, similar to the free form expressions jazz musicians typically employ.

This particular segment deals with Michael’s inability to control his rage after a long drinking bout and subsequent run-in with a tramp in the alley on the way home.  Upon his arrival at home late that night, he finds his young son at home, his son reminding him of how he was at the same young age of ten years old when he himself encountered a traumatic event. 




An excerpt from the novella A Moment of Fireflies 


John McCluskey

     Michael continued down the darkening street.  A gust of wind blew off the Lake.  His eyes watered.  He turned his back to the wind, and the wind blew hard, unfurling his coat and his pant legs. He bent into it to soften its assault, but he soon turned his back to protect his face against the onslaught.   A man and a woman hurried across the street, almost bumping into him, holding hands as if one would fly away.  The lid blew off of a trashcan and crashed wildly into the street; a car rattled by up ahead at the intersection.  When at last the street was empty with no more cars and no more men or women about, Michael found himself alone but for a few tossed snowflakes, though nothing would become of the snow.  He reached again for his empty flask, and the wind blew grit into his eyes.  He cursed the street and the wind, and he rushed his hands to his eyes to work the grit out when a full page of the Tribune flew wildly by and caught itself on his pant leg and stuck there: a panicky white flag with news of more jobs lost.

     “Why can’t Meggy be healthy! Michael said aloud to the night. He reached for a cigarette then cried out in frustration and anger when he remembered he had none. Needing another drink, and with time still on his hands, he looked down the street for a bar.  A distant light caught his eye; he staggered towards it and indeed it was an open tavern.  He shouldered his way in, bumping and tripping over the men, and he paid for his whiskey, and he drank it hard and fast, and he paid for the other men at the bar, whom he did not know, and they nodded, and Michael took more whiskey and tried to slow down, but the idea of Meggy going into the neighbor girl’s house would not leave him, nor succumb to the whiskey. He coughed and threw down his money. He took another shot and tripped on his way out, but he caught himself before falling out of the door and back into the cold street.  He hated the girl’s father for getting TB and passing it onto his daughter, then his own, and even though the wind had settled for a moment, it was not yet done, and it blew in haphazard gusts before falling off to a low moan. How angry Michael was at the girl, at her father, at the house and the pain, and another house and a wild Irish sea, so long ago, and horses running in the back yard, and why did he go in that house? Why would a ten-year old boy do such a foolish thing – why do children go into houses that leave such an everlasting pain?  How Michael hated the little boy who went into the house, and followed the farmer, and didn’t have enough sense to turn around.  “Turn Around! he yelled. He stopped in the middle of the street, deciding instead to cut through the alley; he waved his arms as if calling someone to come over quickly. “It’s all your fault! Why didn’t you turn around? Michael cried out into the purpling sky, and he swung wildly at the air. “I’ll show you not to turn around. Get back over here! I’ll teach you a lesson you’ll never forget! he yelled, and the wind quieted for a moment, and only Michael’s words rode the last of the day’s light down the alley, as he came upon a lost soul raising a bottle and drinking in great gulps, his sunken blue eyes reflecting a fear of what had just been lost and what was never to be found again.

“Oh, the unfinished is glorious and shattering!” the drunk said to no one.

He then raised the bottle to the sky.

“The floor of Purgatory lies littered with the shards of our luster!“

He brought the bottle to his mouth and took a long pull.  A few flurries tripped and floated down from the sky.

Michael watched, stunned by the man’s presence, though the sudden distraction tamped down his personal fire only momentarily. He thought how easy it would be to take the bottle; he could steal it effortlessly. The man, looking so disheveled, cold, and unsteady, would put up no fight, but Michael was not a thief.  The man looked up at Michael.  The look in his eyes did not fit the unshaven face and sallow skin, and he held the bottle out, and Michael took the bottle from the man’s offering hands, and he raised it high and took a healthy gulp.  When he took the bottle from his lips, he saw the man looking up at him intently, as if he had known Michael a long time.  His rough and hard hands had dipped into the fresh snow, and he let the virgin powder from the sky slip slowly and menacingly through his dirty rough fingers.

“Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow,” the man mumbled.  Michael dropped the bottle.

“You think I’m a bum, a drunk, I can see it in you!” the man said, looking directly at Michael.

Michael was thoroughly taken aback by the outburst and the image of the man’s hands.

“If I’m such a drunk, how come I’m sitting here reciting the Good Book, and my very own poetry, that’s right – mine! and you’re drinking my whiskey!  I go to the library. Where do you go−an alley with a drunk!” The man cackled. Michael turned from the man.

“Walk away!” the man called out. “ I’m a sight aren’t I? But The Almighty lives in all of us, even a wretch like me!” The drunk continued to recite, his words slurring into a convoluted drone.

“When you shatter: weep! Practice first with glory, let your tears drop like sparrows….” Then he turned his attention to the mouth of the bottle. “I suppose there’s a bit of The Almighty in here,” he muttered,  “and a bit of the devil, to be sure!”

He fell back against a garage door, laughing and spilling into the alley.

Michael burned with the red embers of the deepest level of self-loathing as he headed down the alley towards home, and the wind found its gusty breath again, and it blew as hard as ever.


                                                *   *   *


The boy at the kitchen table with a cup of tea and his schoolwork on a cold winter night.  His mother at the kitchen sink. The silence in the house and the buzz of the kitchen light bulb.  The sleeping little girl with a cough in the back bedroom.  The wind against the window, and the fingers of cold air slipping in under the back door.

The sudden rattle of the front room doorknob.  The mother’s eyes. “Get your jacket and go outside!”  The spilled tea spreading over schoolwork. The boy up at once and the search for a jacket. The lamp crashing to the front room floor. The trembling and retreating to the back of the house. The wind against the windows. The heavy coughing in the front room and the creaking floor of approach. The wild eyes. “Don’t you ever, ever go into that house!The aimless swinging arms. The self hatred. “I told you to turn around!The slurring of words. The trembling, and the buzz of the light bulb. The mother, in tears. The grabbing of the young boy’s arm. “No, Pop!The tripping over the kitchen chair while holding his boy’s arm. The mother in tears. The young boy, and the tight grip of the father’s hard hand on his boy’s arm.  His son’s arm; his own.  “Pop, please!The heavy whiskey’d breath, the determination to change the past.  The cursing; the flinching; the father’s wayward hand across the boy’s mouth, meant to break the fall of a stumbling father and son crashing over the kitchen table to the floor. The broken table.  The tender face, the faint taste of blood in the mouth.

The stopping of time. The boy’s disengagement.

     The early evening of summer and the last of the day’s warm wind thin and whispered on Keeler Avenue.

The remembering, the distant image, the pining for a return of father and son.

     The last of the day’s men drifting off the street, coats folded over forearms, collars pulled back to the warm wind, and the street swept clean, and the green leaves overhead, and the distant rumble of a single car passing away, and the calls of a distant child and a late jay overhead, then the sounds of nothing in the air, and the boy and his father sitting on the front porch steps in the tender beginnings of civil dusk.

The deep place inside of him reached.

     The father and the smoke from his cigarette, easy into the amaranthine beauty of the dying sky. The boy, one step down, and the tap-tap-tap of a discovered stick against the cement steps alongside his father. The cement porch, cool to the touch, and the father’s wordless look into the heavy air straight ahead; the boy’s silent place on the steps next to his father in the gloaming.

     A stick and the lazy   tap   tap   tap.  The smoke; no words; the peaceful heart, and the waiting for nothing at all.  A nail clipping of moon in the last ash of sky overhead.  An open window behind them. The early dew on the front paws of an evening cat.

     The last of smoke expelled and the tossed cigarette.  The standing, the stretching, the deep breath. The gold pocket watch in the palm of a working man’s hand. The marking of slow time granted father and son, disclosed to the evening in the sorrow of a distant child, and a boy looks up and drops his stick, and a father says “Let’s go” and the boy leaps up, and a walk in the silent darkening evening of now.





Excerpted from

A Moment of Fireflies


John McCluskey






John McCluskey has had poetry, short fiction, and photography published in various literary journals and anthologies including Jerry Jazz Musician, New Plains Review, Sonic Boom, Third Wednesday, The RavensPerch, Quill & Parchment, One For The Road, Connections: New York City Bridges in Poetry, and Cradle Songs: an Anthology of Poems on Motherhood (2013 International Book Award winner). John’s poem “My Gray Child” from Cradle Songs was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. John was born in Chicago, and received his undergraduate degree in finance from University of Southern California and graduate degree in writing from Manhattanville College. John lives in Connecticut with his family.  


Share this:

Comment on this article:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

In this Issue

photo courtesy John Bolger Collection
Philip Clark, author of Dave Brubeck: A Life in Time, discusses the enigmatic and extraordinary pianist, composer, and band leader, whose most notable achievements came during a time of major societal and cultural change, and often in the face of critics who at times found his music too technical and bombastic.

Greetings from Portland!

Commentary and photographs concerning the protests taking place in the city in which I live.


Mood Indigo by Matthew Hinds
An invitation was extended recently for poets to submit work that reflects this time of COVID, Black Lives Matter, and a heated political season. 14 poets contribute to the first volume of collected poetry.


photo by Russell duPont
The second volume of poetry reflecting this time of COVID, Black Lives Matter, and a heated political season features the work of 23 poets

Short Fiction

photo FDR Presidential Library & Museum
Short Fiction Contest-winning story #54 — “A Failed Artist’s Paradise” by Nathaniel Neil Whelan


Red Meditation by James Brewer
Creative artists and citizens of note respond to the question, "During this time of social distancing and isolation at home, what are examples of the music you are listening to, the books you are reading, and/or the television or films you are viewing?”


Ornette Coleman 1966/photo courtesy Mosaic Images
In a Jerry Jazz Musician interview, Ornette Coleman: The Territory And The Adventure author Maria Golia discusses her compelling and rewarding book about the artist whose philosophy and the astounding, adventurous music he created served to continually challenge the skeptical status quo, and made him a guiding light of the artistic avant-garde throughout a career spanning seven decades.

Spring Poetry Collection

A Collection of Jazz Poetry – Spring, 2020 Edition There are many good and often powerful poems within this collection, one that has the potential for changing the shape of a reader’s universe during an impossibly trying time, particularly if the reader has a love of music. 33 poets from all over the globe contribute 47 poems. Expect to read of love, loss, memoir, worship, freedom, heartbreak and hope – all collected here, in the heart of this unsettling spring. (Featuring the art of Martel Chapman)

Publisher’s Notes

On taking a road trip during the time of COVID...


photo by Veryl Oakland
In this edition of photographs and stories from Veryl Oakland’s book Jazz in Available Light, Dexter Gordon, Art Farmer and Johnny Griffin are featured


A now timely 2002 interview with Tim Madigan, author of The Burning: Massacre, Destruction, and the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. My hope when I produced this interview was that it would shed some light on this little-known brutal massacre, and help understand the pain and anger so entrenched in the American story. Eighteen years later, that remains my hope. .


photo by John Vachon/Library of Congress
“Climate Change” — Ten poems in sequence by John Stupp

Book Excerpt

In the introduction to Dave Brubeck: A Life in Time – the author Philip Clark writes about the origins of the book, and his interest in shining a light on how Brubeck, “thoughtful and sensitive as he was, had been changed as a musician and as a man by the troubled times through which he lived and during which he produced such optimistic, life-enhancing art.”


NBC Radio-photo by Ray Lee Jackson / Public domain
In a Jerry Jazz Musician interview, acclaimed biographer James Kaplan (Frank: The Voice and Sinatra: The Chairman) talks about his book, Irving Berlin: New York Genius, and Berlin's unparalleled musical career and business success, his intense sense of family and patriotism during a complex and evolving time, and the artist's permanent cultural significance.

Book Excerpt

In the introduction to Maria Golia’s Ornette Coleman: The Territory and the Adventure – excerpted here in its entirety – the author takes the reader through the four phases of the brilliant musician’s career her book focuses on.


Art by Charles Ingham
"Charles Ingham's Jazz Narratives" connect time, place, and subject in a way that ultimately allows the viewer a unique way of experiencing jazz history. This edition's narratives are "Nat King Cole: The Shadow of the Word," "Slain in Cold Blood" and "Local 767: The Black Musicians’ Union"


Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Carl Van Vechten Collection
Richard Crawford’s Summertime: George Gershwin’s Life in Music is a rich, detailed and rewarding musical biography that describes Gershwin's work throughout every stage of his career. In a Jerry Jazz Musician interview, Crawford discusses his book and the man he has described as a “fresh voice of the Jazz Age” who “challenged Americans to rethink their assumptions about composition and performance, nationalism, cultural hierarchy, and the racial divide.”

Jazz History Quiz #139

photo by William Gottlieb/Library of Congress
This bassist played with (among others) Charlie Parker, Erroll Garner, Art Tatum, Nat “King” Cole (pictured), Dexter Gordon, James Taylor and Rickie Lee Jones, and was one of the earliest modern jazz tuba soloists. He also turned down offers to join both Duke Ellington’s Orchestra and the Louis Armstrong All-Stars. Who is he?


photo unattributed/ Public domain
In a Jerry Jazz Musician interview with The Letters of Cole Porter co-author Dominic McHugh, he explains that “several of the big biographical tropes that we associate with Porter are either modified or contested by the letters,” and that “when you put together these letters, and add our quite extensive commentary between the letters, it creates a different picture of him.” Mr. McHugh discusses his book, and what the letters reveal about the life – in-and-out of music – of Cole Porter.


photo by Fred Price
Bob Hecht and Grover Sales host a previously unpublished 1985 interview with the late, great jazz saxophonist Lee Konitz, who talks about Miles, Kenton, Ornette, Tristano, and the art of improvisation...


photo by William Gottlieb/Library of Congress
Con Chapman, author of Rabbit's Blues: The Life and Music of Johnny Hodges discusses the great Ellington saxophonist


photo by William Gottlieb/Library of Congress
"Louis Armstrong on the Moon," by Dig Wayne

Pressed for All Time

A&M Records/photo by Carol Friedman
In this edition, producer John Snyder recalls Sun Ra, and his 1990 Purple Night recording session


photo by Bouna Ndaiye
Interview with Gerald Horne, author of Jazz and Justice: Racism and the Political Economy of the Music

Great Encounters

photo of Sidney Bechet by William Gottlieb/Library of Congress
In this edition of "Great Encounters," Con Chapman, author of Rabbit’s Blues: The Life and Music of Johnny Hodges, writes about Hodges’ early musical training, and the first meeting he had with Sidney Bechet, the influential and legendary reed player who Hodges called “tops in my book.”


The winter collection of poetry offers readers a look at the culture of jazz music through the imaginative writings of its 32 contributors. Within these 41 poems, writers express their deep connection to the music – and those who play it – in their own inventive and often philosophical language that communicates much, but especially love, sentiment, struggle, loss, and joy.

“What are 4 or 5 of your all-time favorite Blue Note albums?”

"What are 4 or 5 of your all-time favorite Blue Note albums?"
Dianne Reeves, Nate Chinen, Gary Giddins, Michael Cuscuna, Eliane Elias and Ashley Kahn are among the 12 writers, musicians, and music executives who list and write about their favorite Blue Note albums

In the Previous Issue

Interviews with three outstanding, acclaimed writers and scholars who discuss their books on Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, and Cole Porter, and their subjects’ lives in and out of music. These interviews – which each include photos and several full-length songs – provide readers easy access to an entertaining and enlightening learning experience about these three giants of American popular music.

In an Earlier Issue

photo by Carol Friedman
“The Jazz Photography Issue” features an interview with today’s most eminent jazz portrait photographer Carol Friedman, news from Michael Cuscuna about newly released Francis Wolff photos, as well as archived interviews with William Gottlieb, Herman Leonard, Lee Tanner, a piece on Milt Hinton, a new edition of photos from Veryl Oakland, and much more…

Contributing writers

Site Archive