By Patrick Thomas Henry
The fireworks seemed to hover over the town, suspended by anticipation in the bruised air just over the streetlamps’ flare, before the rockets exploded into red swirls striated like peppermints, into greens more vibrant than the maple leaves curling in on themselves. Each burst dissolved into tinseling ash. The adults’ eyes followed the powder settling through the streetlamps’ heavy orange glare. Only then did they notice the ghost-white contrails wavering like cirrus clouds, the smoke marking the rockets’ unsteady paths to a terminus. Only then did they hear their children laughing or yelling threats, they couldn’t tell which.
The town was small, only a few houses clustered around an intersection. They felt accomplished, having finagled a streetlight for each corner from the township’s budget, but the lamps cast their homes in too honest a light—siding peeling off in strips, yards sprouting more shingles and car parts than gardens. Who could want to live in those houses? So they celebrated outside, where the humidity was as suffocating as the pockets of insects fogging around the streetlamps.
Fireworks and beer solved whatever problems these men and women had with the weather. They sat on rusted bumpers, russet flakes dusting their rumps when they stood up to fetch more beer from the ice-filled Igloos. They watched bottle rockets burst into the sky and detonate into orange shrapnel. They hollered for their children, told them to haul their asses over to the coolers if they wanted soda while it was still cold. A Roman candle shot upward, with a trailing comet’s tail of sparks cutting through the vaporous traces of previous fireworks.
The children, navigating the yards’ mazes of sedans and pickups on cinder blocks, glanced upward to the splintering bursts of color. The kids uttered a collective “Ooooo,” then resumed their stalk between the remnants of vehicles. They were holding mason jars in their hands, captured fireflies bouncing against the glass walls as their bulbs pulsed distress signals. Each child vied to catch the most, to stymie siblings and friends. So, they opened car doors to block routes, or kicked ruts into the ground with their heels to force others to stumble and fumble their mason jars, or stretched out lengths of cracked garden hose as tripwires.
They were left alone to their pranks, the adults busy with rockets and icy booze-stocked coolers.
The adults cracked open beers, cans fizzing, and they lit another bevy of rockets, fuses hissing. The men grunted, laughed, punched each other’s shoulders. Their wives fueled stifled contempt—muttered comments—with a steady intake of beers. Those men were always bragging about their street rods. They were always working on cars and driving nowhere.
A little girl had stopped, mason jar clutched to her chest like a stuffed bear, to look over to the adults. A boy watched her from behind a stack of tires and thought he’d steal her bugs, so he pushed a tire-less wheelhub toward her. The rolling hub tumbled her over, and she fumbled her mason jar onto the fender of a truck. The glass rolled down the metal, shattered when it struck the dry ground. Bawling, she sat on her haunches, hugged her knees, and rocked herself.
The crackle of a firework rupturing doused the girl’s wailing. Her captured fireflies, now liberated, flittered up into the night, bulbs glowing hot as embers wafting from a bonfire. She clutched at her skinned knee and gawped, in a rapid back-and-forth, at the showering ashes of the fireworks and the upward trundle of the liberated insects. The boy, chawing the inside of his lip, helped the girl to her feet and offered her his own jar. She slapped him, a thunderclap of fireworks echoing the smack.
An engine’s growl interrupted the night: a two-door coupe, painted a dusky purple, was lurching into the town, its opalescent headlights blurring into the orange haze of the town’s streetlights. The car’s suspension squeaked as its wheels dipped into potholes and climbed back onto even pavement. The men tossed firecrackers after the car, but their pitches only struck the black plume of the car’s exhaust. One of the wives called them immature; she hurled cans of beer at the men. They caught the cans, struggled to hold them, condensation lubricating their palms. The wives then shouted to the children that they’d better come over now if they wanted a soda.
The children hollered that they’d come after they’d fed their bugs. Some children hid in the cabs of cars for peace, for the chance to feed blades of grass and snubs of twigs through punctures in the mason jars’ seals. They counted the insects by their bulbs, flashing on and off. They glanced toward the street, where the men lit rockets’ wicks with slender barbecue matches.
The final assault of fireworks ignited the sky an almost-golden hue. The burst washed red over the adults for a moment, then receded to the streetlight’s dismal orange. The fireflies blinked in the children’s jars, each glimmer arcing against the glass, in and out, then darkness. The children cupped their jars in their hands, as one might try to shield the flickering of a candle’s wick.
The night was ending; the mothers yelled again. The men drank and staggered. The children bounded back with their jars, and they chirruped about how many fireflies they’d caught. They would protect the bugs and feed them and keep them happy.
But by morning, all of the captured insects were dead.