Fireworks

The funeral home clutches the side of the highway outside of town, about ten minutes past the Tastee Freez. The attendees consist mainly of Dwight, forty-two and newly aware of his own mortality, and his family—his wife, Marie, and their two children, Jordan and Luke—the preacher, whom the funeral home had called when Dwight revealed that his father hadn’t been in church since the Truman administration, and the large, black nurses who stand silently behind their lolling, wheelchair-bound VA hospital charges. An old private with a trucker’s hat covered in pins complains that he needs to go to the bathroom. His nurse tells him to hush and be respectful. He grumbles a response.

Dwight at the podium. The eulogy is largely biographical. His father had spent the Depression shooting rabbits and squirrels out in the field for his mother to boil that evening. A few years later, he took his talents to occupied France, where he found that the profile of a German head was larger and generally slower than what he’d been accustomed to. He came back to Kentucky with a bronze star, which he kept on his nightstand until the day his name was added to the great register of souls claimed by bacon and egg breakfasts. Dwight does not mention the womanizing that caused his mother to pack a steamer trunk and catch a Greyhound east when he was still a boy. Instead, he spreads praise on his father’s fidelity to traditions. How he used to watch his father sharpen his straight razor on a leather strop that his own father had given him. Seated in his heavy wooden chair with a shaving cream beard, he looked like a gaunt Santa Claus caught in an unguarded moment.

The longest part of the eulogy—which all told runs for nearly twenty minutes—is another story, about how the weekend after Decoration Day Dwight and his father would drive south for two hours past blasted fields and peeling billboards, until they found a squat, white building just off the Goodlettsville exit, a converted convenience store made of cinderblock, with the garish, tear-streaked clown face on the side. How inside they were always greeted by a smiling fat man in a gray, pinstriped suit and porkpie hat who called himself Wailing Willy and met everyone who came into his store with the enthusiasm of a boisterous second cousin who knew that he liked you even if you weren’t sure he could remember your name. How Willy began every one of his sentences with “Well, hell” (here Dwight can’t help but laugh as he assumes Willy’s oversized accent, with i’s as country as an engine backfiring). How, if you asked him, “What’s good this year, Willy,” he’d answer, “Well, hell, it’s all good!” Or if you asked, “Willy, you got any of those cherry bombs you were talking about,” he’d say, “Well, hell, I got bushels of them—let me cut you a deal.” How, in the evening, they would return home with the trunk sagging so low that if you hit a bump it would smack against the pavement and spray sparks all over the roadway on account of all the big, brown paper sacks of aerials, rockets, mortars, fountains, and spinners stuffed inside. How on the appointed evening (here Dwight begins to stammer) his father would gather up the whole family—cousins included—and take them up to their spot on top of the hill overlooking Jeff Davis park, where they would grill hot dogs over the built-in fire pit and shoot fireworks late into the night. How Pop would light all the fuses personally, surrounded by cousins drunk on beer and hollering from lawn chairs. How Dwight wished his children could have known their grandfather in that way.

Marie, built like a pillar, looks concerned if slightly confused. She likes to think she knows her husband, but has never heard this story before. When Dwight takes his seat, she puts her hand on his shoulder but does not say a word. Jordan, twelve years old and fresh from learning long division, has already lost interest and looks eagerly toward the window, as if he thinks he can spot the Tastee Freez from where he’s sitting. Next to him, Luke, barely six, is in tears, not from the story, but because he sees a half dozen Wermacht soldiers without heads seated in the folding chairs around him. The preacher takes the podium and makes his closing remarks. During the Lord’s Prayer, the old private loudly announces that he has gone and shit himself. His nurse wheels him from the visitation room.

 

The Kentucky-Tennessee border is desolate country. The pre-noon light catches the country by surprise—no one has yet come by to clean up what look like the remains of a scorched earth march in the middle of the night. Occasionally a skeletal barn rolls by. A pair of cows. An abandoned Ford with pink and blue and yellow stickers affixed to the windshield by the highway patrol. A wire fence, tracing a line gently undulating that doesn’t quite run parallel to the muted ground. Mostly it’s just ground, though. The border crossing threatens to go unnoticed, marked only by a faded sign that rises up from the ground and then races by before you’ve had a chance to anticipate it.

The drive is two weeks after the funeral, the Thursday before the holiday. In the back, Luke sits middlehump so his grandfather can have an entire seat to himself. Jordan protested in the driveway, saying he didn’t want to sit next to his brother in the car because he knew the leather seats would soon become unbearably hot and sticky and besides it was stupid to make room for the dead. Luke admonished his brother not to say such things in front of their grandfather. Dwight agreed that Pop would not want to be left out of the drive and insisted that he be allowed to sit in the backseat, though he extracted a promise from Luke to not touch his brother.

Between the Pleasant Valley and White House exits they hit deadlock. A mile ahead, a station wagon drunk-hauling a boat had collided with a farm truck, which overturned and spilled its cargo—tomatoes and chickens—all over the interstate. For near an hour highway patrol has been chasing down panicked chickens. One gets itself entangled in a life vest and it takes two officers almost ten minutes to catch it because it manages to fall into the creek and the current threatens to carry it off until its vest catches on a rock. When it becomes apparent to the family that they aren’t going anywhere soon, they relocate to the car’s trunk, where they eat the sandwiches that Marie had prepared that morning. When Jordan and Luke finish, they run to play with the dogs that people are walking along the median. Marie says, “Electric bill has been sitting on the table near a week now.”

“I’ll get it,” Dwight says.

“I don’t want to come home to no lights again.”

“Said I’ll get it.”

She looks out across the road and feels a sense of kinship with all the people in their stalled cars. “Also, I think the kitchen sink is clogged again and we’re out of drain cleaner.”

“We’ll stop at the store on the way home.”

Though Wailing Willy the man died years ago, his name has been preserved in a sprawling complex that straddles the interstate. Willy’s original operation has expanded from its original cinderblock outlet to include a gas station, liquor store, family restaurant, and casino. The crying clown face that was his trademark now covers billboards for miles in either direction, and the motif has been adopted by lesser competitors like Krying Karl and Melancholy Marvin, each of which lays claim to one of the state’s major arteries. Even during the hottest days of a late Tennessee June you can see someone dressed in Willy’s signature suit and hat, waving to cars coming in off the interstate and corralling them into the nearest convenient parking space. The original building has long since been demolished, replaced by an acre-sized white, windowless cube. If you saw it rising out of the Tennessee fields without the adjoining buildings, your first thought would be that it was set there for unknowable purposes by a higher intelligence. The kind of thing animals know not to go near.

The interior of the cube is laid out like a grocery store. The first clerk Dwight finds is sweeping the floor, a lanky boy of nineteen or twenty with close-cropped hair, long lost to Slayer’s hypnotic double bass and given to dreams of manning a machinegun, though the Verbal Expression component of the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery has twice thwarted his attempts to enlist. He bought himself a test prep book with all the answers in the back, and six months from now he will be on an armored personnel carrier rumbling down an IED-laden Afghan road. Deep in the aisles, Jordan pulls packages of fireworks off shelves and hands them to Luke to hold. The clerk eyes Dwight suspiciously. He clutches a broom to his chest the same you would a battle axe. Dwight asks the clerk what’s the best thing around and  he tells him that he guesses it’s all pretty good. “I’m trying to put together something good,” he says.

“We got Screamin Hellcats three for ten dollars,” the clerk says.

“No, no. I don’t want anything you got on sale. I want something good. Something worth remembering,”

“Who does anything worth remembering?”

Outside, Marie smokes a cigarette on the curb a few yards away from Wailing Willy’s impersonator, who smiles at her through his perpetual frown. She grew up in central Pennsylvania—knowing fireworks only indirectly, through their sharp reports and the briefly lit sky over the houses across from her window. Her parents had been Jehovah’s Witnesses and put all holidays, federal or no, into the same category of idolatry. Dwight emerges from the cube carrying a sack of fireworks in each arm. Behind him, the children appear, each holding their own sack. Marie looks at the bags incredulously. She asks him what all he bought and he tells her it’s a surprise.

“I don’t like surprises,” she says.

Dwight opens the trunk and uncovers the recess where a spare tire should be. Like a drug smuggler about to attempt a border crossing, he lays each bag gently in the recess, rearranging them several times until he finds the best fit. Then he replaces the cover and they leave. On the way home, he forgets to stop by the store to get the drain cleaner.

By the time they get back a perfect dark has fallen over the country. The haul is impressive. The most expensive are the cakes, collections of a dozen or more tubes fastened together and tied to a single fuse. Dwight’s favorite is a squat one called Smiling Buddha, whose back label promises fuchsia and azure lotus blossoms with a loud crackling finale. There are also a dozen upright tubes of Napalm Rain, a handful of the Screamin Hellcats, and Roman candles, as well as a gross of bottle rockets that Dwight only grabbed because they were on sale. He had spent more than Marie had asked him to, but what of it? Once he gets everything into the house, he gives each of the boys a small, tank-shaped piece with a pink cannon on the front. Jordan asks if they can make the tanks fight. Dwight sets the tanks facing one another about three yards apart. Then he gives Jordan a match and tells him to light one tank while he and Luke light the other. Marie stands with her arms folded on the porch.

What is supposed to happen is this: both fuses would be lit at the same time, and once the fuse burned down, a plume of sparks would erupt from the back of each tank, propelling the two toward one another, at which point the stubby pink cannons on the front of each tank would begin spitting sparks and smoke in a wide forward arc, simulating flashes of small arms fire from nearby infantry in addition to the tanks’ own weaponry. With a little luck, a sustained firefight would ensue in which one—though preferably both—of the combatants would be reduced to smoking wreckage.

What actually happens is this: Jordan gets excited and lights his tank before Dwight and Luke are ready and Dwight barely has time to light the fuse before he has to pull Luke out of the way of Jordan’s tank. Fortunately, before Jordan’s tank even gets close, one of its wheels becomes stuck on a groove in the concrete and flips onto its side, at which point the upended tank begins to spin like a top and spew sparks in a wide circle while Jordan, helpless to the side, stands dumbfounded like a trainer anxious to leap over the ropes to pick his boy up. Meanwhile, Dwight and Luke’s tank manages to veer from its intended course straight into the lawn, where it becomes stuck and proceeds to discharge its ordinance into the grass before Dwight, cursing loudly, runs over to stamp it out.

Marie watches from the porch but doesn’t speak until Jordan appears next to her. His eyes are red and watery—whether from the disappointment or merely from the thick white smoke that had settled over the driveway, it is unclear—and he asks his mother if he could set off something else, since the tanks hadn’t worked right. She tells him he’s going to have to wait until the weekend. “Where you going to put em?” Jordan asks.

“Somewhere you can’t get hold of em,” she says.

“I’ll find em somehow.”

After the children go to bed, Marie directs Dwight to hide the fireworks in the old doghouse. Then they sit on the porch for a long while, letting the bug zapper do all the talking.

The house they live in sits on its own acre along a numbered road. It had once belonged to Dwight’s uncle, who built it with his own hands before he went to war so that he and his sweetheart would have a place of their own when he got back. The family called it “The Lovers’ House,” but when Dwight’s uncle got back he learned that his sweetheart had skipped town with a draft-dodging TB-patient so his uncle had to move into the new house alone. One day the family moved the apostrophe without telling him. Though it was plenty special for Dwight that he got to live in his uncle’s house, it would have been nicer if the man had known how to put together a house. The porch is slightly uneven, so that if you set a marble down it will roll off one side. In the living room, you have to turn both switches on before the light works.

Marie at home while Dwight works and the kids are out. The kitchen sink is clogged. Dwight probably poured bacon grease down it and forgot to chase it with hot water. He has done this before. Marie pours more than the recommended amount of drain cleaner and waits, but a tiny, caustic sea remains. She lights a cigarette and climbs under the sink with a bucket and then disassembles the plastic pipes. What water the bucket doesn’t catch ends up on her jeans. She watches the patches of blue turn sickly white before her eyes.

When she finishes with the pipes, she takes off her jeans and washes them in the sink. Her panties are floral patterned. She goes outside and hangs it on the clothesline with the towels. The afternoon breeze is cool against her bare legs. A foreign-made car slows down as it passes by but she does not pay it any mind.

Later she disconnects the phone line and plugs it into the back of the family computer. They keep the computer in the dining room, which is the only place they had room for it. Marie is not good with computers and keeps instructions for how to check her e-mail taped to the wall. The sound of the computer turning on like a tiny sunrise. She sits at the computer in her floral panties. Stretch marks across her once taut thighs. She moves the pointer slowly, like she’s afraid it could get away from her. From the depths of her inbox, jokes about lawyers in hell and images of the Virgin in a Waffle House waffle call out to her. A chorus made up of everyone you’ve ever hated. She opens each e-mail but reads few of them. There is a message she has prepared a response for but hasn’t received yet. She does not forward the pleas from the parents of cancer patients, a flagrant challenge to their promises of karmic vengeance. Once Dwight told her that she should just forward the stories. “They don’t hurt anybody,” he said.

“They aren’t real,” she said, “just clutter.”

“But what if they aren’t?”

 

Jordan makes good on his word and tears the house apart in search of the fireworks. He enlists Luke to help. They begin in the obvious places—under their parents’ bed, in the hall closet, behind the winter coats and boxes of empty picture frames and scented candles, in the back of the garage, where they find a long-forgotten Christmas present. It is Luke who says he sees something out in the old doghouse. He takes out a long rocket with an electric blue dragon curling around the tube and the name Lucky Dragon in lettering like the Asian buffet sign. Jordan tells his brother that when you launch fireworks they scream because they have ghosts in them and the ghosts are burning up.

“Who puts the ghosts in them?” Luke asks.

“The Chinese,” Jordan says.

“Where do they get the ghosts?”

“Protestors.”

“Why were they protesting?”

Jordan tells his brother that the protestors were protesting that the ghosts of other protestors were being put into fireworks.

“But what happens to the ghosts?”

“They burn up.”

“What happens when they burn up?”

Jordan pauses. “They die.”

“What do you mean?”

What could he have meant? Luke looks like he is going to cry. Jordan tells him to shut up and then he stuffs handfuls of bottle rockets and Roman candles in his bookbag, finds his mother’s cigarette lighter, tells Luke that he’s going out and then he is gone.

The car graveyard is an old lot, two acres at least, of cars, trucks, and tractors in various states of disrepair, covered in rust the color of crusted blood. The grass is tall; more than one young heel has been threatened by a copperhead here. A stand of conifers on the far edge of the lot. A murder of crows huddled on the power line. The boys gather round an old flatbed. There are six of them, all wearing t-shirts and shorts. They spread out amongst the dead cars, each pocket stuffed with extra Roman candles, to reenact the lore of someone’s older brother. For a moment everything is still. The day is warm and still and absolutely clear. Someone begins to enumerate the rules—no teams, no shooting someone when he’s down, no aiming for—but he is cut short when a scream of green light shoots past him. Three respond. They hold their candles straight out and trained on their targets even as their bodies shift laterally between cars. They take aim through the cars, the old windows framing their targets. Someone jumps up onto the seat of an old tractor and aims straight down at unprotected heads. The air fills with shots like comets from illuminated manuscripts. Errant stars skipping across car hoods and bouncing off bodies, leaving marks the boys won’t forget even when after they’ve faded. Sparks dancing over fatigued metal. Small plumes of smoke rising up from the grass. The field is reduced to light playing across the thickening smoke and the complaint of crows. Someone takes off for the field and another gives chase. The entire ritual is over in less than ten minutes.

When Jordan comes back to the house he finds his brother in the backyard next to a hole in the earth. He asks Luke what he’s doing and Luke says nothing, but Jordan sees the corner of one of the cakes sticking out of the hole. Luke says that he doesn’t want more ghosts to die. He sees the hate in his brother’s face and gets up to run, but Jordan is nearly twice his age and Luke barely makes it around to the side of the house before his brother is upon him. Jordan throws him to the ground and gives him a black eye. A shrill cry rolls over the yard and through the towels and jeans on the clothesline. Jordan pummels his brother’s arms, which are instinctively thrown over his face, until he tires himself out and sits propped on his knees like a Mandarin bureaucrat, breathing heavily while his brother reels from side to side.

Marie gets home first. She finds Luke in the kitchen with his hand over his eye. She takes a bag of frozen corn from the deep freeze and hands it to him. Jordan is upstairs, where he will wait anxiously until she is ready to come up and give him what he’s got coming. She sits with Luke at the table until Dwight comes home.

 

Dwight, Marie, and Luke drive to Jeff Davis park. Jordan is left at home at Marie’s insistence. For a while he watches TV, then he goes into the kitchen, where the floor is covered with bits of dirt from where Dwight tried to clean off the fireworks that Luke buried. He goes back out to the garage and wipes the dust bunnies off the ancient Christmas present. Inside he finds a toy he might have cared about once. Years later he remembers that night for the cool of the screen door against his cheek where he waited like a dog for the rest of his family, before he went upstairs to lie awake in bed.

At the park, Dwight has trouble lighting the remaining cake. He curses and smacks the red trigger lighter with the heel of his hand. After a minute or two, he gives up and asks Marie for her matches. The cake spews sparks and fireballs into the air but it looks nothing like what the label promised. Luke screams and refuses to let go of his mother’s leg, for reasons he cannot articulate to anyone. When Dwight gets to the Screamin Hellcats, dented from the small shovel Luke had tried to bury them with and still speckled with dirt, he will catch the attention of a passing patrolman. Marie will be the first to spot him, just before he pulls up alongside the grass and tells Dwight that it’s illegal to set off fireworks in a public place. He will threaten Dwight with a citation when he gets indignant. When he asks what’s wrong with the boy, Marie will tell him there’s nothing wrong, he’s just scared, is all.

Before that happens, Dwight takes an empty beer bottle from the grass and begins shooting bottle rockets away from the hill. If you were to watch that part of the sky from about a mile off, maybe from the bed of a pickup truck, next to someone you do not love but can bring yourself to sleep with, you would see the bottle rockets overcoming gravity and hear the dull sound of laughter or crying—which is indistinguishable from a distance—and feel thankful that someone had, at least for a moment, peeled back a piece of the night.