Stories

Fireworks – Naomi Brauner

Below me on the hill people hold their phones up in front of their faces. The fireworks explode and their faces change colors behind the screens. I am abused by the sounds of the fireworks and by the people watching. I am too high up on the hill, and I look down at the people and cannot understand their painted-on smiles. I look back up at the fireworks and flinch. It goes on for almost an hour. There are firefighters at the top of the hill, lighting the rockets, craning their necks to see, running to the next one. The hill shakes from the force of the explosions, over and over again. I scream to the firefighters, Don’t you people ever get tired of this?
        What joy these people get out of fireworks I cannot understand. It is a terroristic act. I back down the hill. Children nuzzle into their parents’ arms as if they are hearing a lullaby. When it finally ends I am all the way in the baseball field, looking at the sea of people in front of me, the tree branches obscured by smoke, and I feel that I am floating in outer space.
        My legs are sticky inside of my plastic pants, which I wear with heavy socks tucked into my boots. Because of the risk of tick bites. There are all kinds of new species now, of ticks, and some can spread deadly neurological diseases within fifteen minutes of biting. I don’t risk it, I wear impenetrable clothing and check myself as soon as I get in the door. On my walk home hordes of people roll by in their SUVs with Live Free or Die plates, and I look inside their tinted windows to see what kind of families they are. Blonde daughter with her phone out, no doubt posting pictures of the horror show, and blond son, chubby and sticky with popsicle juice and probably about to start whining; mother with a bad dye job who smacks her gum when she yells at waitstaff, bald father with erectile dysfunction who wears wrap-around sunglasses. They could offer me a ride but they don’t.
        I came up here, to this town, to escape my roommate. My roommate was a hazard to my potential for emotional prosperity. After we graduated college she got involved in the Brooklyn arts scene and lost whatever sense of loyalty she had. She started taking my clothes and after wearing them would leave them soaking in the bathtub instead of going to the laundromat. The tub developed a blue stain from the dyes. She experimented with her sexuality on our couch. She started a fire once on our electric stove. She was unstoppable, and I would often unthinkingly bow to her before leaving the room, just a little dip of the head. I couldn’t help myself. Her paintings of politicians wearing animal masks continued to propel her further into the art world and she did not invite me to any of the openings. We just weren’t communicating, me and her, even though when we moved in together one of our supposed shared intentions was to cultivate a community with each other. On our first night I wrote that on the whiteboard hanging on the door. Later, from across the apartment, I diagnosed her as a kleptomaniac and a sex addict and a dyslexic, for she could not understand the chore chart on the fridge.
        So I left my ruined clothes in the apartment and I rented a house up north. I wanted out of the art scene even though I was not in it. For a discount on the rent, I agreed to maintain the house’s garden. The garden of the house is overrun and I have not begun my weeding duties. On the porch I strip down to my underwear and immediately put my clothes in the washer: ticks are magnetically attracted to you and if you walk close enough to them, they’ll snap from their spot on the ground and bore into you. Say goodbye to your neurological well-being and anything you ever loved. I get in the tub with half a watermelon in my hand and I don’t turn the water on, instead I check my body again, and I eat the watermelon — it is an anti-parasitic food and I am protecting my gut — and the juice drips on my chest. My roommate wrote a health food newsletter because she believed she could not make art without having a balanced microbiome, something she called the Internal Generative External Generative. I would buy her fruits, a sampling she could feature in the newsletter, but she never wrote about them. I began leaving notes next to the fruits about their energetic and digestive benefits but she still ignored them. It’s quiet in the house and I think I can hear mice in the walls, despite my exhaustive efforts. The house is too big for one person.

In the morning there’s a knock at the door and it’s my new neighbors, a young couple holding a box of store-bought cookies and smiling. They tell me they just moved in, they want to introduce themselves and compliment the sunflowers in the yard, and they apologize in advance for the cars lining the street. They just had a baby — they give each other an adoring look, which makes no sense, since they both already know about the baby — and the woman, a small, bushy-haired woman in her thirties, is Greek, so her whole maternal family has driven up to care for the infant, and the couple has no idea when this maternal family will leave. The man is almost a foot taller than his wife and he smiles at me when she says this about her maternal family, as if I would understand. I have no idea what they are talking about. I smile back and take the cookies.
        We walk around the garden and they remark on the success of the squash plants, which are grotesque. There is milkweed, they tell me, which is blooming early, and the butterflies are swarming on it. The neighbors show me how to weed, a gentle tug at the base, which I am grateful for but do not understand why they are so interested in this garden when they have their own house. When they finally leave I put on my pants and socks and boots and stand in the garden, willing myself to adjust to the threats of it, the ticks and bees and millipedes. The next day, I eat the cookies for breakfast at the kitchen window and look out at the yard, the sunflowers I did not plant, and across the wall of cedar trees to the neighbor’s house, which is tall and beige, like the man. The cookies, being store-bought, taste like plastic and are an artificial shade of tan. There are cars everywhere, as they promised, and I can hear the shouts about the baby’s sleep from inside.
        I am full of cookies and looking in the mirror. On the left side of my upper back I find a black dot. I can’t get a good enough look in the mirror, but I know enough to know time is of the essence. My brain is at stake. Tweezers in hand, I can’t get a good enough angle, and if I do it wrong — I’ve watched videos — I’ll be stuck with the head of a tick in my flesh, slurping my blood and poisoning me, even without a body. I stretch my arm but it’s not long enough.
        I walk to their house and am careful not to let my shirt touch where the tick is, I’m holding the two shoulders of the shirt with my fingertips. The woman answers the door, hair nested on her head and the baby squirming in her arms. It has a double chin and drool all over its face but I smile and coo at it anyway to make the woman feel less embarrassed. She asks me why I am holding my shirt like that, and I tell her it’s nothing. The entire house smells like meat. I wonder if they will invite me to dinner. She leads me to the back porch, where the grill is already smoking. I realize I didn’t bring anything to give them, and consider going to get the same pack of store-bought cookies they gave me, as a way of telling them to get better taste and as a way of establishing our similar gift-giving ideas. There are chairs set up around a table and she gestures for me to sit, the baby hiccuping. The two of them are out of a picture book. When we are comfortable outside I tell her that actually, I think I have a tick, and could she please take a look. I bring my shirt up over my head and she says, Oh, bends over to look, stands up straight and says, I think that’s just a birthmark. I ask if she’s sure, and she says Yes, but she doesn’t say it in such a sure voice.
        The man comes out of the house, a bowl of thick red sauce in his hands. He raises his eyebrows and I let my shirt drop back down, and the woman tells me it’s definitely a birthmark. She offers the baby to the man and sits across from me, smiling, like she’s a doctor who has finally made it to our appointment, which I resent, because she didn’t even take the tick out of my back. She is the kind of woman people see at the bar and sidle up to, joining her and her big group of girlfriends, buying them all drinks and laughing at her jokes. I cross my arms.
        Their names are Effy and George. They moved from an apartment on the other side of town and had been saving up for a house for a long time, until Voila, and Effy gestures to the beige house, which itself looks store-bought. George asks me how weeding is going and I tell him I am loving it so that he won’t ask again. We talk about the town, its plethora of burger restaurants and the single anarchist bookstore. They tell me they too were at the fireworks show. I look at them for a moment when they say this, imagining their faces changing colors, reflecting the light of the explosions behind their phones, and I uncross my arms, ready to leave. Out of bravery and my strong sense of morality I tell them I think those fireworks were heinous, completely excessive and dangerous, and the sounds, they were almost trying to make them as loud and disturbing as possible. Mostly they’re evidence of inconsiderateness, I tell them, only people who don’t care about anyone else would put those on. Effy and George nod gravely. George tells me that those fireworks have been controversial for decades, dating back to the turn of the century. The fact of their continuance is due to an intricate 1930 bylaw in the town constitution written specifically for the purposes of upholding the National Anthem’s promise. In the intervening years, town residents and scholars have debated whether the National Anthem made a promise at all, given that it was just a poem. I do not care about any of that but I think his historical knowledge is impressive.
        George tells me people have been fighting the fireworks show for years, but the town fire department, with their money and their power, continues to terrorize the town. They insist on the fireworks. The fire department is so controversial, he tells me, an organization formed in opposition to it. Though we don’t really like the term organization, he says, It’s more decentralized than that and more democratic. Now I’m the one nodding gravely. It’s called VFS, George says, Volunteer Fire Squad, and we’re the ones who keep the town safe from the threats of fire in all its forms. Even town-ordained fire. I might not have noticed them, he says, but VFS were the individuals standing in the woods on the perimeter of the park, holding flashlights and armed with miniature fire extinguishers and makeshift water pumps. They wear black jackets that say VFS on the back in reflective lettering. I tell him, That sounds like a noble mission, extinguishing fires takes great poise and is often thankless work.
        George suggests I join him for a patrol that night. The sweat drips down my legs inside my plastic pants. To be modest, I nod and say, Sure, why not. I linger on the porch for a while, the warmth of the sun and the grill on my face, until Effy says she has to put the baby down for a nap. They walk me to the front door and I almost offer to stay for a while longer, but instead I shake their hands and skip across the yard.

My roommate used to leave cookie crumbs on every surface and when we developed a mouse problem, she tried to keep them as pets. Inside my new house the floors are clean, I wipe my finger across the floorboard to make sure. I think of the dust mites I disturbed so I take a shower. It is only after I shower that I remember the garden, and thinking of Effy and George’s calm faces side by side on the deck, I put on my protective clothing and wade into the garden’s chaos. These people have values and integrity, a sense of unity. I begin to weed furiously, accidentally tearing up a few newly sprouted sunflowers.

We leave at midnight to start our patrol. George comes to the door with black lines painted under his eyes, and he is wearing camouflage pants and no shirt. On his pants he has a shiny badge that says CAPTAIN, and when I point to it, he says, Yeah, technically I run the squad, but again, no hierarchy. His body is painted green. I can see the hair in a line below his belly button and the small patch of it in the middle of his chest. Not having much by way of guerilla gear I wear my plastic pants, and he tells me on the walk over that I’m going to make myself known, on account of the swishing. He tells me that VFS is all about becoming one with the woods and feeling the danger emerge. It’s always manmade, he says. I tell him that’s something people back in the city don’t understand, and he says that’s something people everywhere don’t understand. We continue walking in lockstep toward the hill.
        Rumor has it that Wiccans live in the woods around the park. George tells me that each VFS member has their own idea of who the Wiccans are. One guy thinks they’re the Communists who sometimes hold rallies along the river, a group of college girls who wear face masks. Another guy thinks they’re old women from the hill towns who arrive via canoe, their skin silver and waxy, like a pixie’s. None of them have ever seen the Wiccans in real life, and George says this in a whisper. The image of a sickly woman who haunts the trees makes me want to cling to George’s back. He’s very sturdy.
        VFS, I learn, is made up of only men. Women don’t seem to care about fire safety or justice in this town. George explains their approach to me. We walk the perimeter of the park, okay? Every man has his own zone and uses his senses to sniff out danger, he says. Here’s the gear pack, he slugs it onto my shoulders, In there you got everything you need, your walkie-talkie, some water, the handcuffs, couple rolls of fluorescent tape, and a pack of flares, which you shouldn’t use, you understand, unless it is a deadly motherfucking emergency. He walks me over to the parking lot, where a fire engine stands, straight out of 1930, a rounded pick-up truck with a ladder on the side and an aging hose snaked in its bed. This is headquarters, he says. Now, listen, these are your comrades. He looks at me and I nod seriously.
        I walk with George in his zone as an orientation. He squats behind trees and stays low to the ground. He does not want to talk or make any noise at all. I walk behind him, holding my body tight. I imagine us coming upon people camping, stomping out their fire and confiscating their illegal substances. They’ll look back on the night we caught them and be grateful for our persistence. They will admire our sense of duty and wish well upon us. George continues to slide ahead of me until I lose sight of him, the trees groaning above me. I do as he instructed and listen to my instincts, and by instincts I mean I listen for the sounds of the other VFS members, and I pace the same wooded area. I feel like a provider. Effy is not out here in the woods probably because she is not up to the athletic task. My roommate could not survive a night in the woods because she does not understand the importance of a shared mission.
        The walkie-talkie tells me that one guy has found a group of teenagers setting off pop rockets. He calls for backup and soon the forest is alive with the sound of men swinging their way through the woods, walkie-talkies blaring, all herding toward the scene of the crime. I follow George’s breath. We converge at the bottom of the hill on three teenagers, boys, with basketball shorts and pimples. George shines a flashlight in their faces and tells them, You idiots are endangering the public. Do you want blood on your hands? I look at their hands. I bet George will remember this as the day I proved myself as a member of the squad. He moves the flashlight close to their faces, blinding them, and says, I’ll remember you, I never forget a face. I look at the boys and try to memorize their faces but they are too young and pimpled to be of any interest to me. George turns to us and I say, Well done, and he says, Sh, you’ll blow our cover. Then he says, Get back out there.
        I return to the firetruck as the sky starts to lighten, having spent all night swishing under the trees, smacking my arms, picking at birthmarks. Muggy, I keep saying, too muggy, but that’s the life of a soldier. I sit against the tires and watch the birds. I think about George’s drooling baby. What a fireproofed house he must have, with an infant and in-laws and such, and all that grilling. He’s a protective man with a caring instinct. When he appears from the brush, walking with a bandana around his head, I stand up, at attention. We nod to each other.

I weed at the back of the house. To avoid the mosquitoes I spray bug spray directly on my face. My eyes water the whole day. If George or Effy look out their window they’ll see how responsible I am, how I stick to my word. The milkweed has a dozen monarchs on it and I take a break to watch their wings open and close.
        Before I left, my roommate told me that I had to loosen up where it counts. She wouldn’t understand the power of weeding a garden. That’s why I couldn’t go to the gallery openings, because I can. Everyone in Brooklyn thinks that living in squalor and ignoring people is normal. My roommate had a large social media following because she did those two things exceptionally well. When we moved in together I assumed we would have some shared values about space and friendship, and she told me that if I dropped the RA act I would be a lot more fun to be around. For several weeks I vaped inside and didn’t use my shower caddy, but she didn’t notice. I prepare for the next VFS run by investing in camouflage clothing specially made for the Amazon and other parasite-dense forests, and I buy green acrylic paint for my skin. Special shoes that look like socks that are silent in the forest and completely impenetrable. Plus a solar-powered attachment for my phone so the flashlight is even brighter. And after deliberating for a while, a pair of night vision goggles that promise to track animal movements. I will be able to move about the woods with total control and ease.

When George picks me up for our walk to the park, I can tell he is surprised by the skilled application of my camouflage paint and the curve of my Slim Fitting pants. My night vision goggles are unlike anything he has ever seen, and he tells me this, and says I could also just get used to using my own eyes, which to me sounds like agreeing to be weak and vulnerable. He’s not weak or vulnerable, though, and his hips are narrow in his pants, and he has two graceful dimples on his lower back, which shift as he walks. He keeps a hand on his waistband.
        I am sitting next to a blueberry bush when my walkie-talkie lights up. A tree is burning, a Wiccan has set it on fire. The walkie-talkie crackles and George’s voice is on the other end: Fugitive found, I repeat, fugitive found — young girl, north side of hill.
        I get there first, having sprinted through the woods at the sound of George’s voice. The tree has been charred by sparklers stuck in its knots, small branches smoldering on the ground. Everything smells like burnt sugar. Whether the girl is a Wiccan or not, I can’t say, mostly because I don’t think Wiccans smell like cigarettes or wear new sneakers. Though she does have black hair. Separated by only a couple feet, George and the Wiccan stand across from each other, some kind of negotiation taking place. George kneels in front of her and takes on a voice I imagine Effy and the baby do not know yet. Did you come here with anyone? He asks her. She shakes her head. Do you live nearby? She shakes her head. Does anyone know you’re out here? Can you tell me your name? No answer. What about how old you are? No answer. The other guys arrive, and they’re getting frustrated. Dragging their boots through the grass like toy bulls, telling her to give us a break. George asks, Do you know that you put yourself in danger? She shrugs.
        He breaks eye contact and stands up. You put yourself and the rest of us in danger, he says, and you put this town and this forest in danger. Why would you do something like that? She looks up at him — maybe she is a dwarf, or just really malnourished? — and smiles a little. George looks back at her with his chest heaving. The girl seems to me like someone who has a heavy center of gravity, like she could singe a planet-sized crater into the ground. I feel sure George sees this too. She’s the kind of person whose movements everybody tracks, who exerts control of her environment, the trees above her scratching for mercy.
        George gets taller, like a walrus on its back flippers, his eyes all angry, his teeth visible. The Wiccan stares, and I know that she sees what I see, and as I watch the two of them root themselves on the ground, I feel my chest spark at his bravery and my colon rush at the attention he gives her. George and I both look at the Wiccan and I want to tell him that I will join him wherever he’s going next. The thrill of being part of the protective force makes me feel like levitating.
        On the walk home I tell George, You did a great job, you should get some kind of town recognition. He is modest in response, he shrugs, and I tell him, No, really, you are incredible, you keep us all safe. He looks at me and gives a little smile, which I take to mean that he likes the compliments and sees me as a companion. I reach over and touch his shoulder and say, I’m glad to be your comrade. I see a side of you that Effy and the baby can’t. He shakes my hand off and says, Please respect my personal space. The paint on my stomach has begun to crack and fall off and I loosen my belt so the pants fall a little further down my hips. He walks in front of me as a way of not staring too much.

George does not come to pick me up for our walk to the park the next night, or the one after, but I see him run down the street each night with his gear on anyway. I sit out on the porch and call to him, to let him know I’m ready to go, but he just runs by. I cannot keep up with him and cannot go into the woods alone.
        My roommate’s health food newsletter has an issue called Taking Stock. It’s literally about making chicken stock but it’s also about her appreciation for the people in her life. She does not mention me at all and instead lists the artistic innovators in her community.
        Effy’s maternal family’s cars still line the street, piled three deep in their driveway. Upon further inspection I can see that even their cars are messy and outdated. When I approach the front door, Effy answers with the drool-covered baby in her arms. She tells me George is busy and she doesn’t know when he’ll be available again, and she does not invite me inside her house.
        Gardening feels impossible, the threats of the garden too close even when I’m inside. The clicking of millipede legs is all over the windows and I can hear the flies buzzing from every crack in the plaster. I am the only one in the house. A groundhog comes and eats through the herbs and I can do nothing but bow to his gusto. I put on my plastic pants before going to the store where I purchase cookies. I return to the beige house near sunset and knock for a while before placing the cookies on the doormat.

The cookies are no longer on the doorstep so I know George and Effy are home. I knock again and again, for a long time, until finally George answers. Behind him I can see Effy and the baby in front of the television, both of them looking at me. I wave, Hello there, bet you guys heard about that Wiccan. There’s a bunch of them out there, so they say. I am being nice. They continue to stare at me as if they have never had a conversation before, and George says, Let’s talk outside. He closes the door behind him and I reach for his hand, now that we’re alone. Please stop, he says, and I know he’s pained by the marriage yoke, so I touch his neck to let him know the yoke is imaginary. You have to stay away from me lady, he says. That’s a terrible thing to say, I tell him, and he says, No, seriously. His face is set, he is not asking me any questions, and his tone is not like how it was with the Wiccan. It’s like he is on some other planet or wearing headphones. Don’t worry, I say. We’re in community together, I understand you. I smile at him to let him know this is true. He says, We’re not in community together, I don’t know you, please leave me alone, and then he shuts the door and goes inside.

I will be brave, I tell myself, covered in paint. The woods are especially quiet that night and I follow my instincts and my night vision goggles so I can see the other VFS members from afar. Their shapes are low to the ground. They hang on branches and poke puddles with their fingers. I can tell which one George is by the way he moves, grazing the tree trunks, light on his feet, pausing between every maple tree to sniff the air. It’s itchy out and I watch the men pace their respective zones. I am in a tree, not very high up, and have been there since before the shift began. I am taking the advice given to me. I am connecting with the woods. I am trusting my instincts. Participating in VFS from afar is still participating. I’m still part of the group, we are still defenders of freedom, safety, and justice, that’s what I know. To walk alongside is to wear a helmet made of friendship, one that even a little tiff with George cannot dent.

One last knock on their door in the morning. I want to tell him I went out there last night, that’s how committed to the cause I am, and I did well, climbed several trees. No answer. I say his name out loud, then Effy’s, and still no one comes to the door. I pace the street in my plastic pants and I’m overcome with a hunger like a closing fist. The curtains part briefly and I see the outline of Effy’s face, she is hidden by the sun’s glare, I think we make eye contact and then the curtains close again. I tell them from the street that I am not trying to bother them, and the more I shout, the more bothered I become.
        It’s a human right, I think, to be protected and made whole, and what George doesn’t understand is that not everyone has a family to return to. And not everyone has an art world where they are applauded and subscribed to. George and the VFS guys and my roommate are accepted arbitrarily. I did everything right and I am a worthy comrade. Yet I still do not appear in the newsletter, nor do I have a fire-proofed house, or a spit of meat on the porch. I sit on the curb. Their door is locked behind me.

The weather has gotten cooler and fewer people are coming to the park to roast marshmallows or set off rockets, so the VFS guys pace their areas restlessly. From my tree I can see more than they can, this time without my night vision goggles, and the park is swirling with wind and bats. Owls come so close to my tree I can see their beaks in the moonlight. I think of the locked doors.
        I bring cigarettes with me to the park. I see the guys huddle around the truck and murmur to each other and I sneak past them, up the backside of the hill. They are held together by their imaginations, and I am tempted to whisper Fools as I pass them. I don’t. I let myself savor the moment. The cigarettes are light in my pocket and I finger the corners of the box. My perch in the tree is between several bare branches. The cigarettes taste like a cash register and I force myself to feel the smoke tickle my teeth. I sit there for a while with a cigarette, my tongue swimming in tar, thinking about the decay of mulch in the garden, the crawling ants all over the basil plant, and spit.
        I use my phone to light up the cracks in the bark and I stuff old newspapers in every crevice. I strip my shirt off and leave it hanging from a crooked branch, and then I hop down. The sparklers fit neatly in the lines of the bark on the tree’s flank, and the nail polish remover flows steadily from the bottle, disappearing into dark wood. I flick the butt of my second cigarette onto the tree. Nothing happens. I try again and it still doesn’t light. Then I light a third one and hold it against the trunk. My phone can record video in high definition. Through the crystalline viewfinder I see the sparklers pop and the acetone burning blue, climbing the tree, catching the newspaper. The crackle of walkie-talkies begins and I hear them panting. I squat in a bush several yards from the tree and look through the thorned branches, and I see George, first to arrive, and watch him take out the makeshift water pump, which dribbles onto the roots. The wind carries the fire and soon the low, dead branches are mumbling with flames. The others come and I watch them form a circle around the tree. The acetone burns out and soon the newspapers do too. The branches and my shirt are still timidly lit. They spray water and foam until it all dies, a feeble whisper of smoke.
        George stands with his hands on his hips and brings his top lip into his bottom one, sucks away the sweat beaded there. Boys, he says. You know what to do. The men lower themselves into squats and go silent, the only noise a hiss of steam from the tree. They swivel their heads around with their eyes closed. Like moles. George’s hair is stuck to his wet forehead.
        It does not take long for them to pull apart the branches of my bush and find me squatting there shirtless. George shines his flashlight on me. What kind of bullshit is this? I don’t answer. Are you kidding me? I don’t answer. Another guy steps over and looks at me. Lady, what, why the fuck, you? I look at George’s wet face. If I didn’t know better I would hand you off to the cops, George says. If it were up to me you’d get put away, you know what, fucking crazy. You. What the hell, he asks. I stare back at him. Get the fuck out of here, he tells me. What? I say. Get out of the park. Leave us alone, you’re fucking crazy. Go, Jesus Christ, you’re lucky I’m not calling the cops. George looks at the men and says, Get back out there, and they turn away from me and stalk off into the woods.

I sit in the truck. I rest my head against the ancient hose. It is still early in their shift, and the park is alive with noise again. I want the satisfaction of seeing George at dawn. I want to show him how easy it is to cast him aside. I stretch my legs out and I watch the video on my phone. It’s dark and shaky and the blue flames jut from the trunk like arrows.
        I stay in the truck. The scratch of smoke begins to fade from my throat, the sky begins to lighten, the ball in my stomach begins to loosen. I am wondering where anyone in the world is, how come they’re not here. Hey, she says. I sit up and see no one. Hey. In a tree a couple feet from the truck, the sallow-skinned Wiccan waves at me. She is smoking a cigarette and wearing baggy jeans. Hey, I say. It’s nice up there. She nods, smiles, and flicks the cigarette on the ground. She slinks down the bark and tosses her black hair, kicking the ground before walking deeper into the woods. I get out of the truck and let my instincts guide me.