Smoke Left Behind
It’s the evening of July 4th and the fireworks are blooming in sawtooth spirals, but the math is off, the spirals are uneven. We are mixing drinks in the living room. There are a whole pyramid of options, three of them spiked with MDMA—come play the American Roulette, we yell. God Save the Queen is the response from the balcony and we all laugh. We laugh until we bend and the corners of our ribcages are almost touching like a tunnel that’s caving in on itself. Soon we’ll be a complete circle of pale, snapped bones. Stonehenge of the body.
Someone is wheezing in the hallway, trying to remember how to breathe in the dark. The electricity has been out almost three hours now, but the absence of light doesn’t bother us, doesn’t slow us down. We’re too young to be inconvenienced by the hull of a house, still at the root of adulthood with a thousand possible branches to climb. We slide off our damp shirts, twist our hair into knots. We light quick-burning emergency candles and use cell phone flashlights and our fingertips on the edges of the wall. We hold one another’s shoulders as we slip through the dilapidated hallways of the old house.
The straight-edgers bring jars of lemonade and cans of soda and tacos with yellow grease running out of the paper wrapping. They salute us or throw up the peace sign, the top of their fingernails round and white, just like the round white of their eyes. Some of them are cleaned-up, grown-up versions of ourselves that are struggling not to exhale nostalgia. Some of them are church people miserably adhering to their claim of purity and abstinence. They come in reliable old Chevy’s and polished Impalas. They lay blankets on the lawn. The women sit cross-legged or on their knees, and they smile at us with straight, white teeth. One of the men brings an envelope to the door.
Cash? we ask.
Cash, he says, and goes to find a spot on the lawn he has paid for.
No one offers them a drink. Our agreement is three years old and still honored: they get the yard, we get the house and whatever substances we’ve pooled. It’s the best spot in town for viewing the fireworks, unless you’re a pocket-money yuppie that shells out twenty bucks just to stand on the overcrowded courtyard. Like us, the straight-edgers want open air to celebrate independence. But we own the house.
Fire is in the sky as though it belongs there, as though we’ve only been alive all this time waiting to see the stars explode and trickle into the night. From the balcony we watch and kiss and toast the shittiest things we can think of: the mass hunting of dolphins, the last reported gang-rape, child labor, the wrist-slitting suicide of our dead mayor. We laugh after every toast and hate each other and hate that we’re growing these nightmares inside ourselves, the roots creeping through every sweet childhood memory, every sky-clear dream of space.
One of them calls to us, Be careful up there, but who are they calling to? We’ve been sitting on the edge of the balcony railing, but now we creep like ants up the frame and onto the roof. We’ve got a bong up there, the smoke making dissipated spirals in the dark. We slip on the decaying shingles, water sloshes out of the bong and trickles down the roof onto their gingham pallets.
Sorry, we say.
Be careful, says one of them.
A thundering blast of red and green that ripples outward into the sky like waves. Color fades into smoke. We toast the smoke that stays in the air long after the lights are gone. No one can remember how to get down from the roof.
One of them starts singing, Oh, say can you see—
We’ve seen it all. Five second bytes of everything gone wrong in the world, the bright collection of stories and sounds about those dead or dying. So have they. The night is still and dark for one second, two, three. Another wave of color and light. They rise to their feet, singing, as though it is church and they are being led by fireworks in the sky. Two of the clean-shaven men pull out guns. Don’t worry, they’re just blanks, says a girl. They point the barrels straight into the air, responsible CHL holders, responsible members of the NRA, responsible wearers of red, white, and blue colored t-shirts that glow like embers in the flashes of light. The shots ring in the air.
Some of them are still singing—Oh say does that star-spangled. Now it’s our turn to watch. We’re not laughing, the shots sound like bad dreams, they’re uneven and out of sync with the fireworks. The math is off. It hurts our heads. The shots sound like bones cracking in the old house, the spine snapping in five different places.
A girl screams. It’s sharp in all our ears. We hear her, despite the fireworks. The singing stops. We listen for her voice.
In the doorway she collapses, the old wood of the house creaking beneath her. A few loud explosions, too distant, the pop-popping rain of light. She is just another wild sound laced with pain and anger, hand clutching her shoulder. Fucking guns, fucking guns, she says.
Is she one of ours? we ask ourselves. Some of us jump off the roof to identify her, but most of us don’t trust the drop, don’t trust our legs to hold us up when we get there. The roof pulsates beneath us. We cannot find a way down.
Is she with us? they ask each other. She’s crying now, soft whimpers against the percussive night. Someone throws a blanket around her shoulders, they help her into the nearest Chevy. They take her, tearing down the dirt road in a whirlwind of dust and gravel. The rest of them pack up their things, shoving empty cans and cast-off sandals and unused sparklers into their backseats and leaving us quietly.
Some of us are off the roof now. The electricity flickers back on, the microwave beeping like a heart monitor, the kitchen littered with a thousand personal belongings: car keys, socks, lipstick, pill bottles, reading glasses. We’re coming down from highs and throwing up hard liquor. A stench from the unflushed toilet. The house is too bright and seeped in smoke. Her blood trickles down the blue doorway, one huge splat surrounded by streaks of reddish brown. A firework left drying in the night air.
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