All day I’ve been the salty one. The child who does not want company. Only my “people”. My two older brothers, our big black tom cat, and our gentle german shepherd. And my tree. Maybe we could all somehow sit in my tree. But they are all occupied.
With neighbors and family and friends we call aunt and uncle and cousin.
It is July 4th. 1976. The bicentennial. I am 5 years old.
Our gas grill has been going all day. All the kids have been playing and waiting.
Waiting for the smell of St. Louis BBQ ribs (there was no other style except Kansas City maybe as far as we knew).
Waiting. For the smell of Benson & Hedges, OFF bug repellant and Budweiser to give over to sulfuric fireworks.
It is loud already without the bang and pop and boom that sound like Vietnam, M*A*S*H*, Cambodia – places on the family room TV screen. Being the youngest in the house by 7 years means seeing things that only my heart understands, my brain has no meaning. My mouth, no words.
It is a Sunday. Magic 108 FM’s Quiet Storm sachés, and croons, and begs its way from the speakers our father has run from inside to the back porch. There are bid whist and rummy royal and arguments that poke fun, and there are stories, all of them funny, on this day I have been told is special. A day for a party.
Our country is 200 years old.
At the ready are snakes and sparklers and bottle rockets and other things I don’t know the names of and never will. My oldest brother is 15 and in charge of the lighter. He starts with the sparklers and hands one to our 6-year-old cousin who can’t wait. One. Second. Longer.
Something snatches my chest up and my lip begins to quiver. Quietly. But my brother notices.
“Don’t cry, Lissa. I got one for you too.” He doesn’t look at me, only at the lighter and the sparkler in his hand. Careful with his responsibility and his baby sister.
“I don’t want it,” I protest loudly.
And the tears begin to form and fall. My ears are stuffed with cotton. All the aural evidence of celebration is far away at the end of binoculars turned the wrong way around for close examination.
“Mom, something’s wrong with Lissa.” He announces matter-of-factly and turns back, smiling, to the larger pyrotechnics laying out on the sidewalk in front of us.
My other brother appears in my vision. The one I am closest to in age. He takes a step farther away from the fireworks waiting to be lit and puts an arm around me. We are standing that way when our mom walks up.
“What’s the matter? You have a stomach ache?” She does not use words like “tummy” or euphemisms like “upset” for movements and proclivities of the body.
“Do you have a fever?” She continues in my silence and brings her hand with its perfectly shaped but unpolished nails up to my forehead.
“I don’t know. I just don’t feel good. I just don’t feel good.” I suck air in fits as I try to stop crying.
“Do you want to go inside? Let’s go inside.”
She grabs my hand. My brother lifts his arm from around me. I feel his eyes watch as we walk toward the house. I want him to come too but don’t want to stop his fun. I want all of these people to be laughing. Having fun. Enjoying. And yet. Somehow. Not this.
“I want Teddy and Smokey to come too.” I say out loud. And as if the dog and cat have heard me, they scurry in front of us and into the house when my mother opens the screen door for us to go in.
When we get to my room, I pull my rocking chair to the window and grab my life-sized Black Raggedy Ann doll and sit with her in my lap, the dog and cat sat on either side of the chair.
“Do you want me to stay?” My mother asks.
“No.” I tell her. “You can go back, I can see you all from here.”
And I can. I watch through watery eyes the fuzzy painting, that my mother told me was impressionist style on a trip to the St. Louis Art Museum. This one a rendering of fireworks over our tree-ringed backyard.
“This isn’t right.” I say over and over. “This isn’t right. We are not supposed to happy today.”
Snatches of one of my recurring dreams keep flashing and laying themselves over the scene in front of me.
The grasses grow tall and fade to wheat color. One of my brothers and I hide among them, behind two bushes, me in a long and dusty dress over laced up boots. My hair in two plaits under a hat. My brother in heavy cotton pants with suspenders and a used-to-be-white, button-down shirt. The sleeves rolled up. The same dirty brown boots as mine in a much larger size. We each had a pistol. He released one hand to give me direction. Stay down. A palm faced the earth and lowered slowly. Be quiet. The hand moved to his face, an index finger over his lips.
Now he is smiling and laughing with big eyes like he is my age instead of twelve as a bottle rock ascends and explodes over the dirt basketball court where they’d just been playing an hour before.
I am back in the grasses behind the bushes and facing the direction of the house where I sit in my second story bedroom. The dwelling, our dwelling, shrinks down to the size of three rooms on one level. It is no longer brick. It is only 50 feet away. We watch as two of them approach the house. They try the door, find it open and go in.
They come out again, one of them carrying a bundle of goods in a sheet. The other fetches a bottle and a box of matches from the satchel on his horse and begins toward the house again. My brother pulls the kerchief from around his neck up over his nose and mouth as he stands and shoots him in the shoulder.
The other one whips around and he shoots him too.
“Cover me,” he says. I am only twelve but I know what this means. Shooting lessons began when I turned 8 and our mother gave me her gun before she disappeared and left us on our own.
Neither of them moves as he walks past them making a wide circle arcing to the entrance. When he gets to the porch, one of them reaches for his holster. I shoot his hand.
My brother pauses but does not turn around. When he emerges, he has the wooden box we kept under the floor boards. He calms the horses with his ways, then secures the sheet filled with goods and box to one of the horses. Then he trains his gun on each of the men and kicks them. They do not stir. He waves me over and points to the other horse. We can’t stay here.
“But,” I begin to protest but know it is futile.
“We can’t stay here.” He says it out loud.
The fireworks are over. It is past my bedtime. No one cares but I am ready. I get up. The cat and dog raise their heads and watch as I take off my shorts and t-shirt. Sit on my metal canopy bed that was in the house when my parents bought it and take off my shoes.
My brother appears in the doorway. Still sweaty and smiling. “Do you want me to read you a story?”
He removes his shoes and lays on my bed. I choose a book and settle under his arm. Everyone should be able to feel this way.
Banner Photo Credit: Vivek Marni | Flickr