Well, there were legal ones and illegal ones.
That Christmas, there were legal dads (the divorced ones who might stick around) and illegal dads (the ones who ran off and never came back). Christmas was the butt-end of a year when it seemed like they all left. Now, I remember it was only some of them, but it didn’t seem that way then. I just knew mine did.
And knew, too, like the rest of us, that you probably wouldn’t see your illegal dad ever again unless you were on your summer vacation near Sleeping Bear Dunes in Michigan 25 years later in some fucking McDonalds, him eating a sausage biscuit and you getting a coffee, and he said good morning as if a quarter-century had gone by like the smoke emptying out of your morning cigarette, and instead of a red plastic laminate table with hard plastic yellow benches, it was back to when you both were sitting down in the breakfast nook to a proper breakfast—two eggs any way you want, grits, thick bacon, a cup of freshly sliced fruit—that your mom had made for you both and hadn’t made since your dad left.
When that happens, you can’t reach across the table and coldcock your dad, although he deserved it, plus throw in that he certainly whipped you enough when you were a kid. No vengeance, but no forgiveness, either, is what some doctor told me and then added: just forget it. I’m a dad myself now, and I can’t.
Legal fireworks were like Roman Candles, Colorful Birds, and Lady Fingers.
Illegal meant a certain breed of fireworks, like M-80s and Cherry Bombs. But they weren’t illegal in the same way as the dads who’d skipped out without ever paying alimony or child support (and you were lucky if you ever saw them again). And they weren’t illegal like beer and cigarettes or even going into the no-more-draft army, because with those things, you just had to be of age to enjoy them or to enlist. M-80s and Cherry Bombs were just illegal, no matter how old you were.
Plus, the illegal ones didn’t carry a nice warning on them: “Light Fuse—Get Away Fast!”
Once, Ms. Funchess (my friend Tim’s mom) ratted us out to all the other moms for blowing up things with M-80s and Cherry Bombs in her driveway. We got a curt warning from our mothers, and some said if only our fathers were here. Our mothers didn’t talk to us much that summer, except for the one time, the Talk (about the Lady Fingers).
We’d buy the 10-ball “Roman Candles with report” as it said on the tube. It took us about a year to figure out that “report” meant “blow up.” With our Christmas money (if you had a rich uncle, a $5 bill tucked inside those little Christmas cards the banks used to give out, a little pic of Lincoln looking out at you), we’d buy fireworks, because they were the one thing that would never end up in our stockings or under the tree.
Because it was the Christmas our dads left. So, our moms had to get jobs teaching high school or working at the department store like they used before they got married and didn’t think they’d need to work anymore.
Under the tree, that Christmas, we might find pellet rifles and little cans of oily .22 pellets, sure. But fireworks, no, too dangerous. We had a good time hunting down birds and squirrels and shooting beer and soda bottles in Chartwell, which we called our neighborhood, but it was just a half-mile loop that doubled back, like a snake eating itself. Or, it was a neighborhood that started and ended with any house you wanted it to.
were the smallest conventional firecracker and almost thin enough to slip inside your arteries, like a stint. They explode small—a little pop—but more than a roll of three caps smashed with a hammer like we’d done when we were six, complete with the ear-ringing afterwards. After the explosion, the smoke curls up, in a wisp that doesn’t last long. Both my grandfathers died of strokes, of arteries with a small pop. I am afraid I will go that way, too.
When we lit our M-80s and Cherry Bombs, Roman Candles and Lady Fingers, we didn’t bother with punks (they look like sticks of incense but smell nothing like them). We lit them with our Marlboros, holding their burning orange ends to the fuses. Better than trying to hold a damn match to them.
“Don’t be a dumbass like me and start smoking,” our dads had told us, before they cut out. Shit. Some of our dads smoked cigars—stogies, they called them—after their doctors told them that their next pack of Viceroys would be their last.
No better way to spend your money
is what it seemed like whenever we bought firecrackers. Everything we spent money on—beer, fireworks, cigarettes—were all things that we used up—and that’s why we liked them.
Ms. Moore and the Colorful Birds.
Colorful Birds were fireworks shaped like a tiny tin can. When they went up to the highest branches of the loblolly pines, sparks of red and green spun out of them. They didn’t explode.
Ms. Moore said they were pretty. Ms. Moore was David’s mother, and she would say this from just inside her garage: she would be at the old freezer where she’d buried—under the venison chops and steaks and hams and big tubes of ground venison carefully stacked there by David’s dad before he left, under investigation for graft from his service laundry company and running around with someone called Aleesha who our moms said was a dancer, and we knew that didn’t mean ballet or tap—a half-gallon of Old Aristocrat Vodka—that she nipped on all afternoon, being sure to replace every few days—and into the dusk when we sent up the Colorful Birds.
David said his mother had some money coming from her family, who owned a chain of grocery stores in North Carolina, and from her run-off husband’s mother, who seemed to like her more than she liked her own son, which was good, because he was one of the illegal dads and never sent his mother or David shit. She also drank about half a gallon of milk a day, David said, to coat her stomach, and she only ate on weekends. Steak and fries with lots of catsup that she put off to the side of the plate and also swabbed with forkfuls of steak. Plus, an iceberg lettuce salad with homemade Thousand Island dressing of mayo and catsup. So, she was pretty thin.
Gloria Moore in her sundress or a halter and jeans and painted nails, would appear in the open garage door and say please don’t blow up any Lady Fingers, but that she loved Colorful Birds. So we sent up all the Colorful Birds we had and said we were sorry that we didn’t have more. With the fluorescent light of the garage screaming behind her, she looked like she wanted us to believe that she was a goddess, and that by standing there in her high-heel mules without falling over, she couldn’t be drinking or be a drunk.
Lady Fingers, and then, the Talk.
Besides being the smallest and weakest firecracker you could buy, Lady Fingers were these dainty and spongy cakes that ladies eat. And that’s what got our mothers to administer the Talk (they had heard about us blowing up Lady Fingers).
The Talk was in the kitchen with the linoleum under your barefeet going a little gooey in the summer heat. The kitchen was our mothers’ place, and most of our dads—before they cut out for good—spent as little time in the kitchen as possible. As you were getting the lecture, looking away or not listening meant the lecture would go on until you started listening, and she, your mother, had all day, mister. Plus, you weren’t listening, the air of the kitchen got all still on you, like you couldn’t hear the compressor on the fridge anymore, or the water slowly dripping in the sink that needed somebody to replace a washer, or the tiny bubbles popping in the simmering green beans when the three strips of bacon got tossed in.
Our mom’s talk was about sex. Which led to being given a booklet from 4-H about bovine husbandry since both cows and humans were mammals, and our mothers saying how they weren’t answering questions about it, that’s what the book was for, but also how if we still weren’t satisfied, we best ask our fathers about it. They got quiet for a while, and then, they told us one thing outright. Don’t ever love and leave a girl, ever. When they said it, their eyes got tight.
We stayed away from girls, but not because we wanted to. We couldn’t get girls to look at us, much less sleep with us. We didn’t know anything about them, it seemed, and the one person who did, our dads, weren’t there. In that still air of the kitchen, way back when, as the Talk about Lady Fingers curled up and away, like Marlboro smoke leaving your nose in a French exhale, well, that was where your mother left you. Where it hurt like hell, not having a girlfriend or your dad anymore.
Charles Israel, Jr., teaches creative writing at Queens University of Charlotte. His poetry chapbook, Stacking Weather, from Amsterdam Press, was published in 2011. He has had poems and stories published in journals including The Cortland Review, Crazyhorse, Field, Nimrod International Journal, North Carolina Literary Review, and Slipstream.