She and Leo and the kids are living in the bookstore basement. Pearl is just fourteen and getting beautiful, swinging between the woman and her ex-husband. Pearl’s father has a respectable middle-class house, along with a new wife and new babies. The bookstore basement is dark and the air is bad and the neighborhood is criminal. The woman had hoped to find a new place before Pearl came for the summer. But there she is anyway. And Leo is indifferent, as usual. He can live anywhere when he doesn’t have to work too much.
So she starts getting up early in the morning, leaving Leo asleep on the mat, slipping out for coffee and a newspaper. First thing she does is open to the classifieds and start calling my name, having become somewhat religious again during her past months in dark rooms.
I see her face peering through the black and white lines of the fine print, like prison bars between us. I’m sitting a third of the way down the page in a slot under General Help, and she is looking at something off at a diagonal — Administration, I would guess by the angle. I start waving, and she finally looks down. I can see her eyes light up when she fixes on the words just above me: “Wanted — COUPLE WITH A CAMPER willing to camp out for two weeks; earn up to two thousand dollars. . . .”
A couple with a camper! She has a camper, though it doesn’t run, and she is a couple, though she knows Leo doesn’t want this kind of work, but she does have a couple of kids. . . .
She gets on the telephone and calls. A Mr. Burns tells her this is a job selling fireworks at a Mr. Pow-Pow Discount Fireworks stand somewhere outside the city limits for the ten days before the Fourth of July. She can begin when the fireworks are picked up on June twenty-third, which happens to be her birthday. Mr. Burns asks if she has any children, and she says, “Yes I do, they help me in the bookstore.”
He says, “Oh, that’s good! That’s just the kind of people we need!” And he schedules an interview.
The next few days she meditates and tries to eat pure food and goes into the dark rooms by herself whenever she gets an opportunity and chants and swings her arms in ways she considers to be chakra exercises, trying to keep my attention. And believe me, I am watching her all the time because it is kind of funny and interesting, all these motions she goes through just for my sake.
The day comes and she dresses in a hot red shirt with a long hawk feather in her hat. She catches the bus to the La Quinta Motor Inn where Mr. Pow-Pow and his staff are set up. Mr. Burns is doing the interviews. He’s a red-haired guy, with a red neck that looks like hers, and he talks like he comes from close to the same part of the state as she does. When she mentions the town of her grandparents he has at least heard of it.
So he fills her in on the job. There are fourteen Mr. Pow-Pow stands set out around the city limits. They have to stay open from 9 in the morning until 12 at night for ten days running, with someone sleeping nights at the stand to guard the stock. In return for the work you make a fifteen-percent commission on the gross sales, which can be quite a bit with a good stand. Mr. Pow-Pow himself is pacing around the room in a white cowboy shirt and boots, and he is nodding and talking to a couple of the interviewees. He says, “Yessir, fireworks stacked up in the barns on a ranch can make a whole lot more money than raising cattle.”
Mr. Burns says he’ll call her and let her know. They shake hands and she swaggers out like she can handle whatever, and the next morning he calls and she has a stand.
Now she hauls her camper to a mechanic. It’s just been sitting on the lot dead and undiagnosed. He says it will cost her that much and that much and too much in order to fix it. And he charges her so much just to get under the hood and look at the basic problem. She doesn’t even have that to give him. So she leaves the camper on his lot, where it sits locked up until she has the money or he gets tired of it and calls a tow truck.
She considers the alternatives: sleep in the fireworks stand? take a taxi out? eat all meals at the nearest Dairy Queen? rent a U-Haul and sleep in it?
“Do you really want a fireworks stand?” John, her boss at the bookstore, asks her. He’s in town looking over the accounts.
“I think she is crazy,” Leo says.
“Yes, I really want it.”
“So that you can run off to the desert in the middle of the summer. That’s stupid. It’s too hot out there this time of year.”
That is her plan. When she makes all this money she’s going to get the kids and put them in the camper and take them back out to the desert.
“I like it hot. I want it to be hot.”
“I’d rather be in the mountains,” Leo says.
“You can borrow my pickup truck if you want to,” John the Boss says. “You all could sleep in the bed if you can’t get anything else.”
On her birthday, she drives John’s pickup to a place just outside the city — a fireworks rendezvous. Three kids are sitting with her on the front seat: Leo’s son Jesse, at twelve the right-hand man and red with excitement, a boy born with a lighter in his back pocket, setting off firecrackers before he could tie his shoes; Mack, at eighteen the foreman; and Pearl, at fourteen a newly pubescent bombshell squirming and yelping because of the fun in the air.
They go down a secondary road looking for an arrow and a trailer, then pull into a cleared area. There is Mr. Burns, his little red mustache twitching, with his tan, blonde, and beautiful wife, plus a son sweating like crazy as he moves around crates. Other stand owners are backing their vans and station wagons and trucks up to the trailer for the initial twenty-four boxes, marked “dangerous explosives.” They load the truck as high as the rear window, amidst the smell of gunpowder and Mr. Burns joking, “You’re not a smoker, are you?”
He tells her where to look for her stand. She drives that truck so politely through traffic, looking for some asshole’s cigarette out the window, but is she nervous? No. She has no vision of the truck as a large powder keg, no time for wondering whether a very hot summer sun, which this sun in fact is, might somehow set things off. How amazing it is that she knows so little about gunpowder; she should read up on it.
She drives past the turnoff, all four heads craning, but they don’t see anything. She turns around and goes the length of the road again. Then she sees it — an oblong white stand, a high cross on top strung with lights, sitting by itself, the view from the highway blocked by a mobile home sales lot. Bad news.
She unloads the boxes and gets out the diagram Mr. Burns gave her. It shows where to place each kind of firecracker on the display stand. They work as if they are setting up birthday candles on a giant cake. They work right on into the night so the stand will be ready the next morning at 9. At midnight, the hour she was born, they are still working. They finish at 3. The kids pitch their tents behind the stand. She lies down on a quilt in the bed of the pickup and looks up at the early morning stars and the airplanes flying out of the black field across the highway, until sleep grabs her up and swings her around the moon.
Leo jumps out of a truck attached to an air-conditioned camper he has rented for twenty dollars. They kiss each other by its door.
“The garage called about your bounced check,” he says. “And the final word on the camper is at least nine hundred dollars for a rebuilt engine.”
“If he calls again, tell him I’m out here selling fireworks to pay for the camper. Tell him I’m thinking about him every day.”
A van delivers more boxes of fireworks to the stand two or three times a day. They are kept busy counting boxes and putting colored missiles and three-foot sparklers, sizz booms and pop pops and star balls, satellites and Mr. Pow-Pow jumbo packs on the shelves. Mr. Pow-Pow’s boys come out and put a flashing arrow at the road that says MR. POW-POW DISCOUNT FIREWORKS: MORE BANG FOR YOUR BUCKS!
But there’s not much business. Three kids from the neighborhood. One asks how much eight pennies will buy. One with a quarter, one with a dollar probably ripped off from a mom. Total commission the first day is twenty-two cents. The second day they make a dollar. The third day thunder rolls in and lightning blinks in fast crackling sheets and waves. The clouds are orange instead of black, and when it starts raining they close the stand and lock the front shutters. The fourth day there are supposed to be coupons in the newspaper, and she thinks that will bring in some business. But that is the slowest day of all.
Jesse and Pearl walk to the other Mr. Pow-Pow fireworks stand about a fourth of a mile down the road to see how it’s doing. When they come back Jesse says, “They’re doing a lot better than we are.”
A little later she goes down to check it out herself. The stand operator is a beautiful teenage mother with outstanding boobs and long curly red-orange hair. A mix of young men in Air Force fatigues and off-duty casuals are pouring their paychecks into stacks of her crackers.
There is a competitor’s stand at the other end of the road called American Flag Works. Mack goes down there and someone tells him that if you haven’t ever worked these stands before, the owners give you the worst locations.
Still, Mr. Pow-Pow’s van keeps coming out with more boxes of firecrackers. The little stand is soon stuffed to the rafters with firecrackers all ready to explode. Mr. Pow-Pow’s van man says the other stand down the road is making three times the money she is. He says, “Maybe business will pick up tomorrow.” The next time he comes he asks if business has picked up, and she tells him no. He says, “Maybe you’ll get sold out come Fourth of July.”
On the fifth day, she paces around the vacant lot looking at the lighted arrow and the DISCOUNT FIREWORKS sign above the stand. I am trying to send her ideas as fast as I can think of them. She imagines a huge sign, something on four-by-fours. She could string more lights, and maybe get some flags, or some long banners, and put them everywhere, all along the road, signs saying forty yards and twenty yards and Turn Here — COYOTE PAT’S FIREWORKS — maybe a twenty-foot plywood coyote with a firecracker in its paw. Or maybe a coyote sitting on a forty-foot roman candle, and MR. POW-POW DISCOUNT FIREWORKS in smaller letters. But she knows that there are regulations making those kinds of signs impossible. Besides, she doesn’t have a bit of money.
She starts thinking about some kind of ceremony, how after midnight when the stand is closed, she and the kids could dance around with three-foot sparklers, chanting prosperity slogans.
The clouds gather in the east again, as they have every day since the stand opened. That afternoon she has a tiny bit of good luck. One of Mack’s friends comes by and leaves her and Mack a marijuana joint. Mack smokes the first half, and after supper she asks him to look after the stand for a few minutes while she goes into the trailer to smoke the other half.
It starts to rain. She can hear the drops coming faster against the aluminum siding. She can hear the kids calling to each other to cover the fireworks. She knows the kids know what they are doing, so she doesn’t hurry the smoke. When it is down to nothing, she steps out into the rain.
Inside the stand, the kids race up and down the aisle putting away the fireworks. The wind blows as Mack tries to get the awnings down and the counter secured.
“I hate this storm, I just hate it!” Jesse tears furiously at one of the latches.
“Now Jesse,” she says, “you shouldn’t hate the storm.”
I have been watching her all this time. But now my own Leo comes around from the back to catch me by surprise. He sticks both sets of fingers on both sides of my ribs, and I jump and whirl around to see him grinning over me.
“You stop that!” I yell.
And there is a huge clap!
The fireworks stand is picked off the ground and shaken and put back down again. Fireworks fall from the display cases. Mack and Pearl stumble into each other.
“Get out of here!” the woman yells.
Jesse and Pearl start running, but Mack keeps working to tie down the awnings.
“Get out of here!” she yells.
“We’ve got to secure the stand, Mom!”
She fumbles with the locks until they sink into place, then they run.
Once outside she can see what happened. The lights are off the crossbeam, and the cross beam itself is tilting. Part of the roof is black and splintered. Understanding comes like a delayed explosion in her head. Lightning has hit the fireworks stand and here she is thinking about it! Instead of being dead! Instead of flying through the sky with a fountain of fireworks a mile high!
She scrambles into the trailer after Mack and shuts the door against the rain. The clouds outside have made the trailer dark, and the kids are still, thrown into various scared and shocked positions. Literally glowing.
“Well kids,” she says, standing in front of them, “we have just been hit by lightning.”
Little balls of light start rolling all over them when she says that, all around their heads and down their arms. “I knew it, I knew it!” Pearl starts yelling and clapping her hands. The woman blinks and sees veins — her veins — like lightning bolts running inside of her, making her pulse like a firebug.
Jesse yells, “I’m scared,” and throws himself on the bench like he’s been hit again. A halo is coming off of Mack’s blond hair like incandescent light.
“We’d better start thanking somebody,” she yells like she is yelling out of a tornado, “or thanking something — we’d better thank the cosmos that we’re alive.”
The light flickers across each face and multicolored balls bounce around the trailer every time anyone moves. “Okay, everybody ready?” she yells. She holds up her hand and when her hand goes out, everybody screams, “Thank you!” Her hands go up and out again and they scream, “Thank you!” And then they yell, “Thank you thank you thank you,” so that pretty soon dozens of pinwheeling balls are bobbing all around them.
“You know what?” she asks, suddenly struck. “I say this has got to be what I was asking for all day, don’t you see? I was talking and walking all around the lot, trying to figure out how to make thousands of dollars come to this stand, and then the lightning came! And we’re alive! It’s got to be for one thing and one thing only —”
She pauses and looks at Jesse expectantly. He asks, “What’s that?”
“Publicity!” she says. She repeats it triumphantly. “Publicity! I’m going to call the newspeople. I’m going to walk down to the Dairy Queen right now and call!”
Jesse says, “But don’t you think you should wait until it stops raining?”
Pearl says, “At least until the lightning stops.”
Mack says, “At least fifteen minutes.”
She says, “Okay, I’ll wait fifteen minutes.” But she steps out of the trailer anyway. The rain pours straight down. She goes over to the stand and peers in. There are fireworks lying around on the floor. She walks in and steps over the mess to the change box. But stepping into the closed stand is like moving through a block of molten air, thick and invisibly slick and black, as if obsidian streams were congealing around her. She dashes back through the rain to the safety of the trailer. She leaves the trailer door open because the air is so cool and smells so good. Close to the door is a pot she set out earlier for dishwater.
“Now listen, kids,” she says, scooping some of the water into a coffee cup. “This is powerful water now. This is water which came after lightning struck.” She drinks some of the water and savors it, fans herself with her other hand, and passes the cup.
So she does get her photo in the newspaper. And people do start flooding out to see the stand and buy fireworks. She shows them the black spot in the roof where the lightning hit and the track in the ground where the stand once stood. And all the dead bugs electrocuted along the counter. She lets people touch the wood she says is still so full of electrical energy it’s bound to keep anybody who touches it buzzed through the holiday. And so they buzz. And they buzz. And hundreds of people flock around the stand buying fireworks. Money flies through the air, dozens, hundreds, thousands of bills. She stashes them in paper sacks and stores them in the closet of the trailer.
But when the Fourth is over and accounts are in, she’s still living in the basement. Pearl’s playing in the alley and Mack is building light stands underground. After she pays all the kids their various percentages and pays back Leo all the money she had to borrow to operate the stand and pays back the bookstore her salary advances and pays the bounced check from the garage and replaces the borrowed fan that was broken by the kids and repairs the flat tire on John the Boss’s truck and returns the other truck to Dallas, she has about thirty-seven dollars left, which she blows on meals out and marijuana and Salvation Army clothes, and she sits in the cool of the basement the rest of the summer like a burnt ember waiting for the ash to settle.