We ate charred hotdogs and yesterday’s leftovers at the picnic table on Grandma’s covered patio. It smelled like rain even in bright weather. Rot had seeped into the thin layered wood of the awning and up the legs of the paint-chipped table. I chewed my potato salad carefully, spitting pimentos onto the cement floor, but only when my mother wasn’t looking. It was July 5, 1987.
My brother Ben saw me turn and spit. He grinned. “Lolly’s spitting out food!” he yelled, gleeful to be the tattler. He reached into the metal chest cooler behind him and fished a can of root beer from the ice-flecked water.
Our mother stopped talking to Aunt Rena and turned to me. Then she scanned the ground and saw the dozen or so pimentos freckling the cement. “Lorena Grace. If you don’t act like a big girl you will not go to the beach with your cousins,” she said, her mouth turned down in the way we had all gotten used to.
Sometimes she called me her big girl and sometimes she accused me of being little; the conflicting statements left me wondering which one I should want to be. That day, I almost opened my mouth to say so, or some child’s version of that. I shut it and looked at my plate instead. I knew she wasn’t done so I waited, trailing the tines of my plastic fork through the ketchup and mustard smothering my hotdog, swirling one condiment into the other until I had a Spirograph of red and orange and yellow.
“Is there something wrong with the potato salad I spent so long making yesterday morning?” She stressed the word wrong, and for whatever reason, morning, too.
I stopped making art. No answer would be the right one. I knew this even at six years old. So I shoved another bite of dry potato salad into my mouth and chewed, not hunting out the sour-tasting pimentos with my tongue, mashing it together and swallowing. I choked down three bites before she turned back to my Aunt Rena, satisfied that I learned my lesson.
My mother and aunt resumed their discussion of my father, who had stayed inside with my uncles to watch a baseball game on television. Between crunching black hotdog skin and listening to Ben chug soda, I thought I heard my mother whisper something about my father “having a fair.” Immediately excited, I interrupted her to ask if there would be elephants to ride, then, too foolish to stop, I added that I hoped there wouldn’t be painted clowns, or at least not the sad kind. I had been chewing and a pimento slipped from my cheek and stuck to my chin.
She glared at me. “Eavesdropping is for church gossips,” she said. She habitually put down church gossips—still does—and I didn’t want to be lumped in with them. She didn’t mention talking with my mouth full, but I knew that was also bad manners. I slouched, ashamed. I tried to freeze, but my bottom lip betrayed me.
Little puffs of air came from my mother’s nose, and her chest heaved. She didn’t look away.
“Sorry,” I managed, but it was barely a mewl, muffled by the hotdog rind in my mouth. I swallowed the scratchy bite hard and tried again. “I’m sorry.” Aunt Rena saved me by having a very sudden and loud realization that she hadn’t yet told my mother about her bumper crop of heirloom tomatoes. My mother turned back to her and stopped huffing. I was always extra nice to my aunt after that.
Across the table, Ben finished his third hotdog and belched. He wiped his mouth on the back of his hand, trailing an orange smear of ketchup-mustard on his knuckles. He left it there. I thought about telling our mother that he hadn’t eaten any potato salad, with or without pimentos, and adding that I saw him take two dollars from our grandmother’s dresser earlier. Forgiveness by deflection.
But next to me, my mother twisted a paper towel in her lap, tighter and tighter until it looked like a thin white whip. Aunt Rena was still talking; I caught “Early boy” and “Beefsteak,” but my mother didn’t seem to hear her. I decided not to tell on Ben, who belched for the second time without saying “Excuse me.” He got up to chuck his empty plate in the black garbage bag tied to the end of the table. Then our cousin Will came running from the front yard, smacked Ben on the shoulder and yelled “It!”
Ben’s heels kicked up dirt clods as he ran after Will, and they disappeared around the side of the house. Will is my Aunt Rena’s youngest. As boys, when Ben and Will got together they formed a secret club, and I wasn’t allowed to play their games. Another cousin, Jennifer, was there that day, but she was a teenager; all she did was read magazines, stretched out on Grandma’s old fold-out lawn chair in a two-piece bathing suit. When I finally finished my hotdog and hid the rest of my potato salad under a napkin, I ran off to play alone. My mother didn’t notice when I got up.
A flagstone path wound from the patio to the front yard and I followed it, avoiding the cracks between the stones. Closer to the road, a Virgin Mary statue stood weeping, her pale arms stretched out like she was asking the slow-passing cars for help. I posed next to her, mimicking her stance, wondering what the people blurred behind windshields could do for us.
The Pakisandra planted around Mary’s feet spilled outward like tar tipped from a bucket, its thick growth unchecked since Grandpa died two summers before. I waded into the knee-high creepers, liking how my feet disappeared, ignoring the small clouds of gnats I disturbed. I pretended it was quicksand, that Mary was a sad orphan sinking in it, that I had to save her and if I did she would grant me three wishes and then we would become soul sisters. I renamed her Magnolia, since I thought the name Mary was boring. But after a sharp rock I didn’t see slipped into my sandal, I abandoned the game and her.
For a moment, I considered looking for the boys, but they’d only accuse me of being a tag-a-long, like always. I spent a few minutes wishing I had a puppy, or a baby sister, or a mother who’d paint my nails when she painted hers. Like always. Then I wandered into the backyard.
A three-sided fireplace squatted in the corner of the shady lot like a surly toad. A rusted grate rested on its stone walls, cooked on by my uncles but never cleaned. I watched as a crow landed there and pecked at a piece of aluminum foil stuck to the grill. He seemed uncertain, like he wasn’t sure he really wanted the bright piece of metal. He cocked his head, regarding it with his right eye and then his left, adjusted his position, pulled at it and let go. He ruffled his wings, exasperated. He repeated this until a larger crow landed next to him and in one smooth, quick motion, ripped the foil from the grill and flew away. The smaller crow pulled his head back and cawed, indignant or bereft. I felt sorry for him and hurried back to the covered patio; my mother and aunt were gone. I dug in the picnic trash until I found the piece of foil that Grandma had used to cover the fruit salad. I pulled it out and ran back to the fireplace but the crow was gone. I looked up, trying to find his sleek black body in the branches of the walnut trees overhead. I spotted two squirrels but no birds. I crunched the foil into a ball and set it on the grate in case he came back.
Damp dead leaves had collected in and around the base of the fireplace, too wet and thick to burn in the small fire my uncles had started there earlier to cook the hotdogs. I poked the toe of my sandal into the musty pile, flipping back a few layers. Potato bugs scurried away from the light. A curl slipped out of my ponytail when I crouched down to look at them and I tucked it behind my ear. A fat potato bug curled his body into a tight ball when I caught him on the run. I rolled him between my fingertips like a piece of clay. Then I balanced him on a dry leaf, rocking him back and forth while humming “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” He only fell off the edge twice. I put him back in his wet home and covered him with leaves, patting the top into place like I’d never been there.
I walked around the house to the driveway, noticing where burn marks from last night’s fireworks blackened the concrete. One of my uncles had bought them at a discount shop over the Pennsylvania state line and half had been duds. But we cheered for the ones that lit and whistled, their bright lights reflecting in my father’s glasses. The lawn chairs were still out on the driveway, and I sat in one. The canvas cut into my legs so I moved to the flat concrete. It was warm from the sun but not so hot that it burned, and I lay there pretending to be a pie baking. I would be apple. My mother never made cherry and Dad was allergic to rhubarb.
My cousins had gone down to the rock-and-grit beach at the end of the road and I was supposed to go with them. I meant to. My mom had helped me into my stretchy turquoise bathing suit with the neon straps and warned the bigger kids not to let me go in the lake past my waist and not to take their eyes off me. I had grabbed my sand pail and my pink shovel, hung a bright orange towel around my neck. I was going to build a fort for the rocks in my bucket that I had drawn faces on with a Sharpie. There was a whole family and a cat and an elephant. A couple houses down the road, though, lagging behind on short legs, I realized I had forgotten my floaties. I couldn’t go in the water without them—it was a rule. So I turned back. I thought I could catch up after.
The adults were in the kitchen, the sounds of running water and Rod Stewart and Aunt Rena’s laugh coming clear through the screened window. I walked beneath it, crossed the patio and went into the garage, finding my floaties in our beach bag. But one had deflated. It would take forever to blow it up by myself, and I knew my cousins were getting farther away. I walked out of the garage, intending to go in through the back door and find a grownup.
Then I saw Ben crouched low over a cardboard box next to the fireplace. The box had words on it printed in bright yellow. I couldn’t read them—they were too big for me. I recognized the pictures, though. It was the box of leftover fireworks from the night before. My uncles had put it on a high shelf in the garage and told us not to touch it.
“What are you doing?” I asked. I wasn’t tattling. I just wanted to know.
He put his finger to his lips and smiled—he never smiled at me, and now we had a secret. So I smiled too, dropped my floaties and my shovel and my towel and my sand pail, and walked over to him. My footsteps didn’t make a sound on the soft moss.
“What are you doing?” I asked again, whispering this time. I looked toward the kitchen window.
“I didn’t want to go to the beach,” he said. “And Will was scared to get in trouble. I told Jennifer I’d come back to look for you.” He held Grandpa’s old Zippo lighter in his hand, the silver one with the American flag stamped on it. He didn’t ask why I’d fallen behind. I didn’t ask where he’d gotten Grandpa’s lighter.
“Can I do one?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “You’ll mess it up.”
I was hurt.
“I mean, you’re too little,” he said then, “and I think it’s better if I just do it. But you can watch, okay?”
I nodded, agreeing to the terms of being there.
He picked a bunch of firecrackers out of the box. To me they looked like colorful cigarettes all tied together on one end, with a string trailing down by my brother’s knee.
“Get back,” he said. “Watch this.”
I moved a few feet back.
He flicked the Zippo and blue fire spit out near his thumb. He lit the long wick and let the flame dangle for a few seconds. When it was just an inch from the firecrackers, he threw them into the stone fireplace. The noise they made was like loud popcorn. I jumped up and down, giggling.
We both looked toward the house. No one came
“Do it again!” I said, forgetting to whisper. He forgot too and picked something else out of the box. It was bright purple and shaped like a top, with a needle in its center. A wick stuck out of its side.
He pushed its needle point into a raised clump of moss on the ground and lit the wick. The disk fizzed, then spun, orange sparks flying from it in a circle like a UFO getting ready to take off. It broke free of the moss and began to move, first toward me, then away toward my brother. It bounced off his sneaker and sparks hit his ankle before it slowed to a stop against the base of a nearby walnut tree.
I ran over to him. He rubbed at his ankle and I smelled something awful, but he just laughed. I leaned closer. Little blisters bloomed on his skin and the blonde hairs there curled black. I looked at the house and inhaled, ready to yell for our mother. But he grabbed my arm. He said, “One more, okay, Lol? Then we’ll run down to the beach and catch up with Jen and Will.”
I considered my limp floatie. Maybe he would blow it up for me. I exhaled my ready breath and nodded.
He walk-limped to the box and picked up something that was about the size of a Flintstones Push-pop. I thought it was beautiful. It had a pointed top like a castle tower and rocketship fins on the bottom.
“Yeah,” said my brother, but not really to me.
He set it on the ground, pointed end up, working its base into the same moss that had braced the spinning top. He felt around the bottom until he found a coil of string and stretched it across the ground toward him. Then he motioned for me to step back again and pulled the Zippo out of his pocket.
He reached to light it, then looked over his shoulder at me. “Farther,” he said.
I took one step back. He shook his head.
“I want to see,” I whined.
Ben stood and walked over to me, grabbing my thin shoulders. He walked me back and to the left, so I stood next to the fireplace. “Here,” he said. “Stay.”
I stuck out my lip but didn’t move.
He lit the wick and stepped back. The little firework crackled and hissed, then shot up with a whistling sound. I tried to track it in the air, but lost it in the tangled tree branches. Ben couldn’t see it either. Both of us were looking up, hands shielding our eyes, when we heard a pop and roar.
The rocket had come back down, several feet from its launching pad, and straight into the box still half full of sparklers, firecrackers, and snappers. Flames darted from the cardboard and rolled down its sides. Ben turned around and tackled me, flattening me on the damp ground. Then he squished me between himself and the stone fireplace, tucking my head into his chest and pinning it there with his forearm. I couldn’t see and the stone grated against my back. I knew Ben was peeking over the fireplace, watching the display. I could tell by the way he drew in his breath and held it.
I listened to the pinging and popping of the fireworks for what seemed like a long time, imagining their wicks catching one after another as the box burned. I could hear crackling and wondered what color sparks and smoke they gave off. I wanted to look but couldn’t move. Then I heard our uncles cursing and my mother screaming. We were dragged out from behind the fireplace.
Our mother slapped Ben. His head flopped to the side, face turned to the ground. He left it hanging like that.
“What were you thinking!” she yelled, her voice sounding like someone else’s. “She’s just a baby! She could have been hurt!”
Ben cried without making noise; I could tell by the quivering of his shoulders. I thought of the shiny white blisters on his ankle then, but he didn’t point them out. Our father stood to the side, his mouth opening and closing. The two of them looked like actors in a silent film, but then my mother broke in again.
“You know you are forbidden to play with fire Benjamin! You know that! We agreed!” Her voice rose in pitch and volume. There was a looseness about it that frightened me.
I retreated a few steps, back to the safety of the fireplace. I wanted to speak up, to tell her to look at me, that I was fine, that he was hurt and not me. That he had saved me. But my voice wouldn’t work
She kept screaming. “How could you do this? How could you disobey me like that!”
Then she remembered me. I thought she might hug me, or slap me too. I braced myself for either, but she didn’t touch me. “Why in the hell aren’t you with your cousins?” she said.
I pointed to my deflated floatie on the moss behind her, hoping it would do for an explanation. I looked at my father for help, but he was watching my mother.
She walked over to the remains of the cardboard box, its wispy edges curling into white ash. She picked the whole mess up with her bare hands and chucked it into the fireplace, then went into the house through the back door.
Grandma and Aunt Rena followed her, arms crossed tightly over their chests. Our uncles walked into the garage, muttering to one another, and I heard Grandpa’s old fridge clink open. Dad noticed Ben’s leg.
“Christ,” he said. “That needs ice.” He put a hand on Ben’s shoulder and led him over to the patio. Ben sat on the picnic table and Dad scooped a chunk of melted-together ice cubes out of the cooler. When the ice touched Ben’s ankle he cursed. Instead of scolding him, Dad just said “Take it easy.”
I stayed where I was, watching the last of the cardboard box crumble and fall into the damp leaf pile. I wondered if Ben would talk to me when we got home, but figured, like always, that he wouldn’t. I wanted to tell him that going to the beach hadn’t seemed that fun anyway, and that I wouldn’t squeal on him for still having Grandpa’s Zippo in his pocket, or about the two bucks, or about anything else, ever. I wanted to look at his cheek, to see if Mom had left a mark, to say I was sorry, in a way, that she hadn’t hit me instead, or at least, also. I wanted to ask if his ankle still hurt. What color smoke the fireworks gave off. How bright the sparks really were.