Downstairs in Tommy’s split-level house, the air settled in musty layers. Galaxies of dust orbited inside sheets of light pouring through the sliding glass door, all the little particles purling like a creamy fluid when I blew at them. Despite the mid-summer sun, the house was dark, its deep cherry wainscoting stealing all the natural luster of the noontime and hoarding it away. Thick, dark carpet—the pile so lush it nearly engulfed our bare feet—did the same. Even on the brightest days, the lower floor of Tommy’s house was drenched in evening light.
We sat at opposite ends of the overstuffed sectional that had retired some years prior from its duty upstairs, where brighter, newer things had taken over. On the most popular spots, its reddish leather was chafed and worn. Its once billowy arms were tired, deflated and dry, their skin chapped and flaky like they’d spent the years in winter. Tommy threw his weight forcibly into its back, kicking up his smooth, somewhat chubby legs at the same time. With a painful break of tension, his seat reclined. My end still had the wooden hand lever, but the mechanisms buried in the couch refused to work any longer. I jerked and jerked and threw my weight like he did, but Tommy said it was no use, it hadn’t moved in years.
We sat at opposite ends of the overstuffed sectional and watched Hell Raiser, which Tommy’s grown-but-not-moved-out brother, Gene, left unattended in his bedroom. Gene slept in a room on the bottom floor, on a mattress with no frame or box-spring, amid piles of wadded up clothing and guitar magazines. He kept his bicycle there.
Although the gore was no longer new, having watched the movie the night before, my stomach still rose nearer my throat as I anticipated the more gruesome scenes. The grainy, dim screen of the projection TV, which was also a retiree from upstairs, made it seem like a home movie, somehow more believable. Tommy laughed aloud in his high, prepubescent voice when some unwitting character’s skin was separated from his flesh.
Aside from us, the house was empty. In fact, the whole neighborhood was quiet. It was the tenth of July, the crest of summer, and it was Wednesday. All the responsible adults would be toiling at their work. Tommy’s dad was an engineer for the Clark County Transportation Department; his mom worked in a call center for Norm Thompson. Gene went out on his bike the previous evening, leaving his room open. When Hell Raiser finally ended, all that could be heard was the hum of the water heater and a chorus of blue jays fighting over the cherries that had fallen to the grass and begun to split in the heat. Tommy said his mom told him they were poisonous, but he said they weren’t.
“They do taste like shit,” he said.
Our boredom complained against the heat of day, the time when even birds rest their voices beneath the working sun. It was too hot to ride bikes, there weren’t enough of us for a water fight, and the high school boys would be smoking in the park nearby. For a while, we languished on the huge sectional, Tommy flipping from soap opera, to news, to soap opera. Then he shut the TV off.
“I know,” he said, jumping up abruptly from the couch and sending mushroom clouds of dust roiling in the column of light that came through the door. “Gene has roman candles.”
I’D BETTER GET HOME SOON, I thought, Brody’s probably hiding in the basement already, and there’s d-Con down there. As big and boorish as he is, my dog is utterly terrified of fireworks. And as much as he hates stairs, the ones down to the cement basement are a small price to pay for escaping the explosions. If I’m available, he’ll take refuge beneath me, wedging all one hundred thirty pounds of his bear-like girth under whatever parts of me he can, his eyes as big as dinner plates and drool flowing copiously from his dopey looking mouth. If I’m not home, he’ll find the smallest place in which to squeeze himself, or, if the war is really raging, he’ll take shelter in the dark earth below the house.
The neighbors had started lighting off one or two small shows each evening about a week before Independence Day. Every day since, the intermittent pops and whistles grew more frequent and predictable. By all indications, the fourth that year would not be peaceful.
On the bike ride home from work, which is two miles exactly, the sounds of military conflict rose up in all directions. Mortars erupted in the distance, echoing unimpeded through the cloudless sky. Smaller firecrackers shredded the quiet summer as they pelted like automatic gunfire, Piccolo Petes crying in every direction their obstreperous salutes. Already the battles exhaled a haze that skirted the horizon and stung my nose as I pedaled ardently for Brody.
Through the glass French door I saw the dried saliva streaks on my black tile floor. They covered the entire kitchen, a universe of drips and splatters, a monochromatic Jackson Pollok of my poor dog’s spit. When I opened the door, the slight breeze that shuffled past me lifted up plumes of hair, carrying them like little cyclones through the house. There was no sign of Brody. No tail thumping the floor in anticipation of daily greeting, no guttural snarl as he tears white cotton entrails from the sad, lifeless duck whose carcass lay disrespected on the carpet, no slobber stringing down my leg and on my shoe. The basement door was agape.
TOMMY AND I HAD CUT A PATH earlier through Gene’s room, to procure the video cassette that both our mothers would have been strongly opposed to us viewing. But this excursion would be deeper yet.
“They’re in his closet,” Tommy said. “Somewhere.”
He stepped clumsily over piles of clothes, trying hard to place his feet where they would at least be close to carpet. Once, he stumbled, grabbing out with a doughy arm to catch himself and nearly taking with him the only lamp that lit the room. Its golden neck squealed as Tommy’s clammy hand slid down it.
“Dude, screw this,” Tommy said from one knee as he began to turn around, his round cheeks red, sweat just barely glistening above his brow. “We’ll never find them in this shit-mess.”
“Aw man,” I pushed against him. “You’re right at the closet. Don’t be a baby.”
It took us both to open the closet door. The folding woodgrain panels fought against a thick layer of junk on the floor, rolling up beneath it like a doorstop until we finally forced them through. Inside, Gene had heaped clothing, grungy camping gear, precariously stacked VHS tapes—many of which were bootlegs and home movies—and a respectable supply of liquor. We left the booze alone as Tommy and I started rifling through the landfill.
There was no real need to be mindful of our tracks, so we simply tossed everything to one side until we saw the floor, then did the same on the other. Armful by armful, we un-piled the pile we’d just made, sometimes scooping soft material with both hands and flinging it across the closet.
“Why does your brother have so much clothes?” I asked, wrestling a pair of jeans from the bottom of the jumble.
“Cuz he’s an idiot. I don’t think they’re here,” Tommy quickly spat, the frustration and exhaustion breaking through his nasal voice. “He must have shot them off or something.”
That was that, the search was through. We’d scoured every inch of the closet to no avail, displacing so much litter and clothing that shutting the doors was impossible.
“Screw it,” Tommy conceded. “They won’t fucking close.”
On the outward journey, a plastic grocery bag caught my toe, sending me face-first onto a slippery drift of Guitarist magazines. The floor smelled like socks, and I could see trails of grey ash like disgusting little river deltas beneath the jumble. But something pricked my nose from underneath the scent of sweat and cigarettes. It might have gone undetected but for the freshness of July fourth that blasted triumphantly in my memory so that just the slightest whiff of black powder floating amid the stench glared like a beacon of the prize that laid at my feet. In the very bag that sent me down, that grabbed me by the foot as if begging me not to relent the search, still huddled all together and wrapped in crinkly cellophane, no less than five roman candles, complete with “sparkling report.”
“I found em, Tommy,” I beamed victoriously. “And there’s bottle rockets, too!”
DUSK WAS WELL into its nightly westward march, already wringing streams of pink and purple from the sun as it was pressed down into the distant sea. If only that brilliant display were enough to sate a neighborhood starved for pyrotechnics. But, overhead, the sky was much too busy to pay much heed to sunsets. It was still light enough that the bottle rockets and mortars were practically invisible, leaving only scattering clouds of smoke that lingered in the air as little bits of paper shrapnel rode the breeze to someone else’s roof.
When I flipped the switch and lit the basement, Brody looked up, startled, from the foot of the stairs, his pupils as wide as quarters, and hollow. His entire body jostled as he panted, and from his swinging tongue a steady drizzle wept onto the dusty floor, making a little mud puddle between his folded arms. All the d-Con appeared to be where I’d left it.
Once I was home, Brody never left much space between us. On occasion, the heat would compel him to the opposite side of the living room, where the sun had been absent for hours already. But, before long, a bottle rocket would whiz into the sky and pop, and under my legs he’d come.
I’ve got an aunt who sedates her dog heavily on the fourth. All day long it traipses sluggishly across her white carpet, looking like at any second it might keel over and stop living. She doesn’t even know if the little, pitch black poodle dislikes fireworks; she’s fed it drugs since it was just a puppy. Years ago I asked her what the dog did during thunder storms. “She does fine,” my aunt said. “We give her half a pill in the morning if the forecast calls for lightning.” No wonder the poor dog is always so unnerved, shuddering next to her owner in front of the T.V., eyes agape and praying that the weatherman will make a foul sky.
Just before dark settled in completely, a large, white van backed up the gravel alley between my backyard and the neighbor’s front. Being built a step or two higher, my home affords a clear view of my neighbor’s activities, despite the five-foot fence that keeps them from my yard. So I watched the van threw up a shower of gravel, peppering the paint clear up to the door as my middle-aged neighbor laid enthusiastically on the throttle.
The man had moved in with his wife just a few months before, and I didn’t have a grasp at all of who or how he was. I still really don’t. Probably in his mid-forties, he seems to be a handyman of sorts, leaving every morning in a pickup crammed with tools, pipes, boards, sometimes paint and garbage cans. His hay-blonde hair is cut into a bowl that dangles thin and even around his pale red face, parting on his forehead and at his smallish ears. Coveralls hide most details of his build, but he’s at least six feet tall, with hands that look as solid as the hammer in his belt. He appears dimly lit.
Almost every night, Brody and I walk in front of his house. Almost every night, he and his wife sit in their garage, drinking beer and playing cards in lawn chairs, yelling at their tethered Pomeranian as it bucks at the end of its leash. Brody whimpers anxiously and tries to hurry past, while the two people and their dog beat their clamor through the neighborhood. The louder they scold it, the more ferociously the elfish little thing snaps, until we hurry out of site.
The man’s wife met him at their garage door, smoke twisting up in sweltering kinks from the long, thin cigarette between her fingers, causing her to squint as they hang around her eyes. They began unloading boxes, the man taking two each trip, his wife only one, and stacking them on the little sloping patch of grass that fronts their home. Six altogether. Two piles of three, stark white, maybe four feet cubed. Then the man left in the van, and returned several minutes later in his truck, his wife having time enough to smoke another slim beneath their porch lights while she waited. Beer in one hand, he sliced open the first box, and from it lifted a large, red tube, and several lime-sized balls. A ball went down the tube, and then a lighter flared.
WE HADN’T STARTED SMOKING YET, but Tommy and I both had Zippo lighters. Mine was black—matte black—with a pot leaf painted on one side. I’d bought it from a store in the mall where it was stuck firmly in a rotating display on a glass cabinet filled with pipes, both the dry and the water variety. I remember being nervous when I bought it.
Tommy’s Zippo was a glitzy chrome one. It donned a smiley face with a bandana, a five o’clock shadow and half-cocked bloodshot eyes. His brother showed us once that he could open the lighter and strike it in the same motion, and Tommy flubbed endlessly to recreate that feat. His fingers slapped and grappled uncouthly at his lighter, sending it to the ground with nearly every try. Eventually, he’d have to give up and light it the normal way, which he used to say was amateur.
“Call me amateur, then,” I’d say. “But it looks like mine is lit, and yours is on the floor.”
Besides, I like the click the Zippo made when the spring caught and sent the lid open. Sometimes I’d open it without lighting the wick, then close it again, over and over, just to hear the rhythm. But a lighter has to justify itself to its owner on occasion, or else it’s all a bunch of noise.
“Think he’ll be pissed?” I asked as Tommy forced the door to Gene’s room closed.
“Yeah,” he said, “probably. But fuck him. He’s a dumbass.”
Across the street from Tommy’s house, an apple orchard grew. We didn’t know its owner, and I never saw a single person working in it, so I was content to treat it like public property. It was here that we planned to make our show. The trees were green and healthy, with apple blossoms blooming in between its abundant leaves. No matter what time of year it was, it always reminded me of fall, the turfy smell mingling with the apples that had over the years been churned into the soil. But, in July, the undergrowth was hollow and crispy. It crackled as we stepped over the incompetent fence, and puffs of golden dust exploded out from underneath our shoes. More than once, I had to take a shoe off and, balancing on one foot, remove slivers of hay from my sock.
In the middle of the field, I pulled the roman candles from the bag and bit the cellophane that bound them. A sturdy gust of wind kicked up just as I removed the wrapper, plucking it from my hand and rifling it helter-skelter through the trees. It snagged a low branch as I ran after it, thrashing in the gale like a flag of glass and sending out glances of light as the sun shot through it. Hanging higher than I’d thought, it took a couple leaps to grab it, and in the effort I nearly lost hold of it again. Once I finally had the trash, I jailed it in the plastic grocery bag with the other fireworks. Tommy waited while I came back with the litter, his lighter gleaming as he mishandled it.
With a roman candle each, Tommy and I flicked our Zippos and lit the fuses. It always seems like time takes on a mocking air when you await something spectacular.
The fuses hissed, then disappeared into the papery tubes. Then nothing—that intolerable pause. Then “poof—poof—poof.” I felt the recoil as the black powder lit and blasted out. I saw the thinning trails of smoke follow each report. I aimed straight and steady, unfaltering, watching the dim balls of color arc above the trees then vanish. The smell of independence filled my nose and warmed my blood. And then a car drove by, slowing as it passed the orchard.
“Tommy,” I almost whispered. “I think they saw us.”
FROM BEHIND THE GLASS DOOR, I couldn’t help but watch. Like an ant, the glowing ember marched patriotically along, throwing tiny sparks and leaving a faint trail of exhaust that only showed when it rose high enough to touch the light sliding from between the neighbor’s blinds. It seemed methodical, almost purposed in the way it burned along. Funny, how suspense can walk between impatience and apprehension. Step one way, and the rush is baiting and seductive. Step the other and it repulses, wittingly hyperbolizing the moment of crisis.
Up the smolder climbed, casting a shadow of the shrinking fuse along the cardboard cylinder, flickering jocularly at what little time was left. Then it disappeared. Smoke hesitated above the chute’s open mouth. It fell loosely down its side as the silence stilled the breeze. It meandered from my neighbor’s lips, who stood a yard away and stared expressionless toward what was going to happen. Then boom!
The first explosion was dull, bassy. It thundered in and out like an instant of a storm, jolting the dishes in their cupboards and shivering my vision through the panes of glass. Then silence. Brody jumped from where he laid, not more than two feet behind me, and before he touched my knees the sky unfolded. Every color known broke free from the darkness which corralled it, embarrassing the stars above and all the flowers below. A murderous crack pillaged the air, sending Brody to the floor between my legs, which cut me to the ground on top of him. I don’t doubt for a moment that was the way he’d hoped it would go.
Nothing but a plume remained, fixed in the evening by the silence that it seemed to cause. And then, as I hauled myself from atop my dog, a rain of papery shrapnel collapsed on my roof. A few small pieces cooked among the buds that lie deceased beneath my blooming Roses of Sharon. Some weightier bits bounced and rolled across my shingles until finally jumping to their grassy rest. Let them have their fun, I thought, coaxing Brody back inside as I went to get the hose. It’s only one day.
I wetted down what portions of roof I could reach, wondering if I should have done so sooner. All the shrubs got a healthy drink. The patch of bamboo, which yearly overtakes my yard, drooped sadly as the water pelted its thin leaves. For a moment, I enjoyed the soggy smell, the pattering of all the foliage shaking off the moisture to the soil and bark below.
The second shell pealed inside my chest. It was the same dense clap as before, only more cutting with no walls or doors to stifle it. By the time I’d turned up to see how high it was, a pulse of red and white shredded loudly above me. Tails of blue speared out from the explosion, fizzling away and then cracking. Five tentacles of purple smoke fanned out from the blast, holding in the sky as if expecting some applause. And then the fallout.
In the calm that followed, glowing flakes of cardboard simmered to the ground. They spat and snickered on the saturated lawn. Leaving the hose uncoiled and charged, I made for the door. On its inside, a patch of steam expanded and contracted rapidly, Brody’s greying muzzle just barely standing out against the darkness within. No sooner had my fingers probed the handle than another concussion slammed into us. Brody’s eyes displayed with vivid accuracy the brilliant detonation that followed, each one flashing red and blue so that I needn’t look behind to see the show. And then he bowled his heft into me gain, both of us this time upset.
I RAN AS FAST AS THE LEGS I hadn’t quite grown into yet would let me, neon green Body Glove shorts rustling between them, the smell of black powder in my wake. Behind me, Tommy flailed, still holding the spent roman candles in his hand. Nearly to the edge of the orchard, one of his silver Vans came loose from his foot, and the step that followed unleashed from his gut a wretched scream.
“Fuck! I got a sliver!”
“C’mon, dude!” I yelled.
We cut around the side of Tommy’s house, through the sloping, sandy yard, underneath the second level patio where the day came through in spears between the two-by-fours, and slid breathlessly into the lower level.
“Shut the blinds,” ordered Tommy, as if whoever saw us sprint across the street and through the lawn would know the universal symbol for “no one’s home, please move along,” and head next door to investigate, leaving us untouched by their stern reprobation.
Tommy still had his roman candle, and asked interrogatively what I did with mine. Whiffs of the smoky scent drifted from him as he went to Gene’s room to dispose of it. Mine was in the field across the street, fallen apple blossoms scrubbing away its sulfurous traces with their mildness. My hands, though, did not enjoy the same purification. Clutching the firework in them as it blasted all nine shots, against the guidance printed finely in its side, had stained my skin a wicked odor. Cupping them around my face to inhale the damnable, but not unpleasant mischief they betrayed, I went straight into the bathroom to wash them.
Sooty water swirled above the drain before it vanished. Who knew a little roman candle could make a person’s hands so filthy? It took another wash and rinse to launder the smell, and while I scrubbed them for the second time, I relished in the coolness of the lower level bathroom. Blue towels hung from icy looking chrome loops. Tropical fish danced along the vinyl shower curtain as waved slightly from our movements. Everything was wet and cleansing, and I ambled at the sink a while. Tommy did the same, pumping plenty of the flowery soap into his hands from its nautical themed dispenser. Together, we unloaded on the couch, hovering in the summery silence that remained after our maelstrom.
But it was broken all too fast. From what seemed to be the driveway came a ratty purr following a short and high pitched squeal. One door shut, then another. Then a conversation stifled by the walls of Tommy’s house. It sounded like several men, like something rather urgent.
Slowly, we snuck upstairs. Tommy ducked under each window, not knowing that he hunched to shallow, causing to lurk across each window frame what would have looked from outside like a red pillow as his Nike shirt moved past. I shot as quickly as I could across the floor, skidding on my hands and knees, barrel rolling into his room. Each of us opened a tiny slit in his Venetian blinds, offering a squinted view of the firetruck that idled just beyond the yard.
Water soared into the colonnade of apple trees—its stream as thick as any of their trunks—arced high above the leaves, and pounded white and misty near where we had been. Frothy spray tossed beneath its span and cut the sunlight into colorful ribbons.
Just a little plume of smoke rose up from where the water led. What might have looked like a cloud of dust released by some rogue gust of wind. But they poured the water on with all alarms, changing angles every couple seconds to ensure an even dousing.
While two of the fighters manned the hose, casually looking back and forth from each other to the field as if they were chatting, a third man, clad in dingy yellow armor that looked heavy and thick, came up the driveway. Well before he reached the door, both Tommy and I hit the floor. Still, I remember catching eyes with the beardless man just before I moved away.
He knocked mildly, then sternly. Then he rang the doorbell like someone who’s not sure that it works, pressing the button so rapidly that he gave the little tune no time to sing. Neither Tommy nor I moved a bone, not a single piece of sinew. I don’t know how, but I could feel it as the firefighter tried to peer through the windows.
The engine turned at the end of the block and growled away. Tommy and I rose, slow and quiet, and made for the living room, which afforded a better view. Everything was cool and easy once again, not a thread of smoke arose from the dripping field at which we peered. We dared not venture out of doors at all again that day, but sat in the tepid darkness of the lower level, playing Super Mario and Zelda, and other games that reminded us of olden days.
It startled us when the front door slammed shut. It was just the middle of the day, I thought. We should have had the house for hours still.
Feet descended the stair rapidly, giving us no chance to speculate before Gene bounded in the room, his long, curly hair bouncing around his shadowed face.
“This was on the doorstep,” he lifted the charred remains of half a roman candle. “Are you little assholes getting into my room?”
“All we did was borrow Hell Raiser,” Tommy keenly spouted. “I had to hold my nose just to get it.”
BLAST AFTER BLAST AFTER BLAST! The neighbor’s firepower was impressive by any standard, leaving Brody hyperventilating for what seemed like hours and hours. Between the blinding flashes, nanoseconds of darkness wiped through my home, clearing the way for more and more and more. Effulgent salvos volleyed maniacally through every window. Relentless showers of smoky paper danced across the roof. Spent plastic shells tapped and skipped along the cut stone path that borders my house.
I knew Brody needed me. I knew that, without my protection, he was exposed to the berserk celebrations of a middle-aged man gone mad with patriotic zeal. But my judgment had been smoked out by the penetrating fumes that crowded all around. Rage and retribution. Scorching embers fell upon my lawn like kindling for the fury roasting in me.
Kneeling down and embracing him, “Brody,” I said with valor, “I’m going right outside. Everything’s okay. Sit. Good boy. Stay.”
He ignored me completely as I stepped outside the back door. Normally I’d have corrected him, but it was no time for discipline. Such intense disquiet can unhinge even the most stalwart of us.
Just as I grabbed the hose, a mortar blast shook the atmosphere. With unprecedented speed the shell erupted. Not eight feet in the air, the misfire littered sparks in all directions. Red and white flames ricocheted off the windshield of my neighbor’s truck, swatted at the ivy leaves that climb the wooden fence, sizzled in the rosebuds dead and soaked among the bark.
Narrowly escaping the fanatic sparks, I drowned every spot I saw them touch. Underneath the pandemonium of what had to be the grand finale, I threw obscenities over the fence the best I could. “Who’s gonna clean all this shit up?” I asked, knowing well that it was me. The guy just stood, stone still, with a cigarette clinging to his lip, shoulders slumped, hands hanging, deaf to the world.
Shooting my water over the fence, not even close to the epicenter of all the turmoil, I realized that not a soul could hear me, that like my water cannon, my voice was futile in the rage of battle. So I put the hose down, walked up the deck, opened the French doors where Brody hunkered like a shedding mass of fur, and knelt down with him on the kitchen floor.
“It’s just one night,” I told him softly, letting his steamy breath build condensation on my glasses. “Let them have their stupid fire. Let them all burn down.”