Monday, July 9, 2007
I live in Smalltown USA. This is where we watched fireworks at the high school on Saturday night. I’d never seen fireworks at a high school before. Where I come from we’d usually go out on my father’s boat, the Cookie Too (named after my mother), and watch them from the bay. Dozens of boats would anchor and sit bobbing on the water, kids rushing to one side or the other, nearly tipping the boats with the lopsided weight. “Look!” they’d cry, pointing to dozens of colorful explosions in the sky. We could see them all. We could see the ones in the city. The last time I watched the fireworks on my father’s boat, we could see the Twin Towers. They were lit up red, white and blue.
Before we moved down the shore and my father got a boat, we lived in Jersey City where watched them from the flat tarred roof of the apartment building. All the Italians were up there with food. They gave us cherries and slices of cantaloupe. Joe Centonzi drove the fruit truck. We sat on vinyl kitchen chairs with chrome legs next to a giant TV antenna and a vent pipe and spit pits into the alley below.
One time we went to Shea Stadium to see the fireworks. They were playing Beatles music while the bleachers filled up. I’d never heard that group before. (We called them groups, not bands.) That was something new and different.
At the high school, there were bleachers but that was where the similarities ended. It was like a Lifetime movie. I almost expected a trombone player on a gazebo, but there was a bluegrass band on a flatbed. There were stands with ladies in straw hats selling lemonade, pies and watermelon. There was a man in overalls selling kitchen knives, two for twelve dollars and scissors, sharp enough to cut a penny. Kids bounced and tumbled in a big blow-up jumping thing the fire department rented for the occasion.
I let Kelly run around loose. As soon as we appeared, her girlfriends spotted her, squealed and off they went, arm in arm, barefooted and giggling. There weren’t that many people there, just all the locals, and I felt safe letting her go. If I craned my neck, I could see the whole football field and everyone in it.
I know child molesters are everywhere. They are teachers and priests and coaches. They are aunts, uncles and the girl next door. Some of the nicest people. I trust no one. But if I couldn’t let her go here, I might as well keep her locked up in a cage. Now and then she ran back to us and asked for money—“Can I have a dollar to get my face painted?” Or for something glow-in-the-dark. Or for streamers on a stick. I was happy she was hitting us up. It was a good way to touch base. I leaned back in my chair.
Then Wesley Bell, an old dairyman with an impressive operation on both sides of the highway and his wife, Mrs. Wesley Bell, unfolded their lawn chairs right behind us. I never could understand her name—sometimes the southern accent is like a foreign language to me and I have to either ask for the hundredth time, what was that you said? Or I just smile and nod, pretending like I know. In the case of stories being told, I can usually figure out what I missed. Names are a problem.
Wesley promptly leaned over and asked us where we were from. He said, “Joisey? I had to go up to Joisey once. Back in 1971. I had to pick up some cows in Princeton.”
I didn’t bother telling him that I doubt there’s a single cow left in Princeton. In fact, there might not even be any dogs left except for those little foo-foo dogs who ride in the pocketbooks of ladies who live in McMansions and who hire specialists to walk them and paint their little toenails.
“Yankee cows? Were they all unruly?” I said. He nearly busted a gut laughing and then we were in.
He talked our ear off the entire time we waited for the fireworks to start, telling us about the local history of our road. It appears one simple road can have a lot of history and everybody knows about it even though they live on other roads miles away. We found out who was buried where, why the road curves to the right and what they did with that old farmhouse that used to be down by the creek. Board by board, we found out what they did with that old house.
People are friendly to us. Of course it helps that we’re Eldon and Pearl’s neighbors. That’s always a get-out-of-jail free card. Everyone loves Eldon and Pearl. We learned right quick, that’s how they say it around here, not, we learned really fast, but right quick, to mention we lived right across the street from Eldon and Pearl.
“Oh, you live in that white house across from Eldon and Pearl? You must be good people!” and they’d put their arms around us and tell us where the best fishing spots were and what to do about those carpenter bees in the barn.
“You don’t need to go and buy any special stuff. Just spray Sevin dust in them holes and then plug ‘em up. Just plug ‘em up with some caulking and that should do it. Don’t waste your time about it. Them carpenter bees are worse than termites. Why they ate Johnny Johnson’s barn down to practically nuthin’, they did. I recommend you get some of that Sevin dust and do it right quick.”
By the time the fireworks started, Wesley introduced us to another dairyman, the lady who taught math in the middle school, the boys from Hurt, the mayor and the county supervisor. We were talking to everyone and that’s not even counting Eldon and Pearl’s kin.
I like saying, “kin.” I’m trying to get out of the habit of calling them, “relatives.” Kin is warmer and friendlier. I think I can do it. I already trained myself to say, “Holy cow,” instead of, “OhmyGod,” and the unladylike “Holy shit.”
I wasn’t expecting much in the way of a fireworks show, since the place was so small—how much money can the local fire department have to put into it? How much do they make on barbecue fundraisers and spaghetti dinners anyway? But the fireworks were so good, I kept thinking I was seeing the finale. Then they’d keep on going.
When it was over, I thought of grabbing our chairs and running. That’s what everyone would do up north to avoid getting stuck in a traffic jam. But we filed off the field in an orderly way with everyone else. There was plenty of room and more socializing happened on the way out. We stopped and got chocolate chip cookies.
When we got to the truck, my heart dropped. I realized my movie camera was gone! I must have left it where we were sitting! Kurt ran back and Kelly and I put everything into the car and then followed. Not only was it a valuable piece of equipment, but there were movies on it of Jamie’s college graduation. Irreplaceable movies! I felt sick.
We cut through the crowds coming out through the little gate as fast as we could. Excuse me, excuse me. I knew it was gone. As I ran, I looked up ahead to where we’d been. And there was Wesley Bell and Mrs. Wesley Bell, standing next to the camera, their chairs all folded up and ready to go, waiting for us.
“I sure am glad ya’ll didn’t get all the way home before you noticed you was missing somethin’,”Wesley said. “I woulda had to run it down there for you. I know where you live you know, right across the street from Eldon and Pearl. I lost a camera myself once. It was back in, oh, I think it was ’75 or ’76. It was one of them fancy Instamatics. Before they had movie cameras…” and he proceeded to tell us the story until the football field was empty, Mrs. Wesley Bell was yawning and the ladies in their straw hats were packing up their lemonade and pies for another occasion.
I couldn’t believe no one stole the camera. That’s not what would have happened up north. Up north I wouldn’t have walked to the bathroom in a football stadium without putting the strap of my pocketbook over my body and clutching it against me for safekeeping. It’s not like this in the city. This was something new and different.