Saturday, April 16, 2011

The War of the Fireworks and My First Dead Body

Having left Silver Avenue because of the Crack House, the Mexicans, the Lumbees, and that suspicious hole in my bathroom ceiling, I moved into a house on College Hill that had been cleverly divided into three apartments. It was a circa 1930’s bungalow with high ceilings, big windows, and an enormous bathroom. While my gas range was tiny, made for traveling around in a camper really, my bathtub was more than six feet long and came with clawed feet. Pyro lived two blocks away and he was happy to help me paint the apartment when I moved in. The front sitting room with wide windows that looked out to the street was given a nice coat of eggshell white, but since the kitchen was the largest room and central to the apartment we went kind of wild and painted it salmon pink, the bathroom was painted cornflower blue which made the glass shelves we put in the windows sparkle and I loaded them up with piles of plants and this made for a steamy greenhouse . . . baths have never been the same since I moved from that place. And finally my bedroom was painted an antique white to compliment an iron bedstead I had found at a thrift shop on Elm Street. This was a real step up from my crumbling digs back on Silver Avenue.

My landlord Jeff was a different sort from good old boy real estate  mob boss Eddie of Silver Avenue. Jeff owned many houses in College Hill, including the old Victorian across the street which had a gingerbread front porch and was inhabited upstairs by a good hippie friend Todd and downstairs by The Fattest Woman in the World named Jane. Jeff was known to many as a first class slum lord with a heart of gold. He ran around town in a banged up van filled with paints and tools and his sidekick was a middle aged beagle named Snoopy. Pyro had known Jeff for years because he’d done some painting for him before he went to college and Jeff had been his landlord at one point, during the weird years. So we were all one big happy family. I settled into the apartment very happily with my two cats, my books, and my record collection. My walking commute to the library was cut in half and I didn’t have to walk up dark Silver Avenue anymore. I felt practically yuppified.

Py and I befriended the older gentleman bachelor who lived upstairs, a man named Dave, who had grown up in the College Hill neighborhood and who had a fairly amazing collection of original art by local artists. He held lovely dinner parties where we ate black eyed peas and country ham and drank beer into the wee hours.

And then, the war of the fireworks began.

Todd, the Dead Head following, glass-blowing, stained-glass box maker, sometime roofer, part-time engineering major who lived across the street came over one night and said he had some fireworks he just bought on a road trip and wouldn’t we like to set them alight with him. Well, next thing you know, Pyro says he’s got some fireworks back at his place and he rides his bike up the street and returns with a backpack full of ammunition. By the time we got started it was almost midnight and so the street was mostly asleep and we’re out there in the middle of the road lighting this roman candle and that chinese star rocket  and next thing you know, we’ve got a full blown light show happening, and the neighbors come out, including my old English professor Jim and his wife who Dannie and their two little kids who are wearing nothing but their skivvies and Dave from upstairs comes down and tells us that the woman in the third apartment has a dog named Bandit that’s afraid of thunder and if we don’t stop, well, he’s liable to jump out the second story window, so we stop. And the street smells like gun powder and Todd says that he thinks his fireworks were higher quality than Pyro’s  and even though their hippies,  you can tell that this means War.

So a few weeks later, I have to drive to South Carolina to visit family and Pyro tells me to stop at South of the Border and pick up the biggest, loudest, craziest fireworks I can find and I say okay. When I return, I find out that while Pyro was feeding my cats and hanging out at my apartment while I was away, Todd had been coming over in the middle of the night, banging on the door and saying, “Hey man, come out here and see THIS!” And Todd would light something and it would explode in the middle of the street and wake up the neighbors and poor Bandit would bounce off the walls upstairs. So when I get back with this trunk full of stuff, we launch an attack one night on unsuspecting Todd who’s sitting on his front porch with his new girlfriend . . . the moon is shining, and we’re full of wine and we hide in the holly bushes and start shooting rockets across the street at them and next thing, Todd’s running up to his apartment and a full on rocket attack ensues. We’re shooting bottle rockets the size of bayonets across the street at each other and never mind that it’s midnight on a weeknight, and that someone could lose an eye, the point is that we need to prove that one neighbor has a greater arsenal of fireworks than the other neighbor. Well, Todd runs out of rockets and so do we. And we go back in the house and Pyro says, “Well, I guess that’s it for the night.” But I have something in my trunk that I hadn’t told him about. The Secret Weapon!  Todd’s windows had gone dark, it was probably 1 am now and I go out to the car and haul the A-Bomb into the house. I put it on the kitchen table, “This will show ‘em” and Py grinned from ear to ear like no other Pyromaniac could and I handed him a book of matches. The A-Bomb was specially constructed to go off in several stages, but the label was not very specific as to how it might behave. It was the biggest single firework you could buy at South of the Border without some sort of permit from the military. Not only was it bigger than a bread box, it was heavier than a cannonball. It delighted us with it red and yellow paper wrapping -- it was delicately decorated and it promised us Might with it’s depiction of cascading stars and exclamations in Chinese. We turned off the apartment lights and went out into the street, planted the A-Bomb on the yellow line, looked one way, and then the other, straightened the fuse, struck the match and called up to Todd’s bedroom window, “Hey Man, Watch This!”

Pyro touched the lit match to the fuse and before the flame reached the canister we knew we were in trouble, because the canister seemed to split open, and a scream emanated from it’s belly that seemed to come from hell. We ran back to the steps of the house as the first stage began; huge molotov cocktails were shooting straight into the sky and then coming back down at us from every possible direction and sirens were going off . . . we realized the sirens were coming from the A-Bomb. The street seemed to be opening up, it was as though we had released banshees and goblins and demons and poltergeists by setting this thing alight. We crouched and the blinding blue light of the second stage illuminated the entire neighborhood and we saw Todd and his girl come out on their porch and they yelled something, but we couldn’t hear them over the A-Bomb. I held Pyro and he held me, “What have we done?!” and the lights began to ring on up and down the street, phone calls were being made, children were being tucked into root cellars, because certainly the End of the World had come to Carr Street on this Tuesday night in June. Stage three came more horrible than stage two, with the smell of mustard gas and sulphur flames rising from the chasm that was once our street reaching up toward the power lines, and perhaps higher, so that passing airplanes might be engulfed. We had opened Pandora’s box all for the glory of winning the fireworks war. And what of Bandit? The kind old dog with the phobia of storms? His owner was holding him in the bathtub and praying that our D-Day would soon be over. But it went on, for what seemed like an eternity, each stage more terrifying than the next, with it ending with a hale of fireballs that shot sideways into our holly bushes and underneath Todd’s front porch. Why our houses didn’t go up in flames I don’t know. When the A-Bomb finally succumbed, we stood open mouthed on the sidewalks with our neighbors and listened to the pile of black ash hiss like a great monster that we had slayed.

No one said a thing, except for Jane, the fattest woman in the world, too fat to come out on the porch, she opened her window and yowled, “I hope that’s the end of that!”

and it was . . .

Jane used to sit on an old sofa on the front porch and talk to everyone who walked by. She asked everyone to buy her cigarettes and beer down on Tate Street, “Honey, here’s some change, will you bring me a pack of Marlboros and some Pabst Blue Ribbon?” and she never gave you enough money, but you got her what she wanted anyway. One time she gave me a small list of groceries to get her from the Safeway; brownie mix, milk, half dozen eggs, butter, Wonder Bread, deviled ham, and Duke’s Mayonnaise . . . it had to be Duke’s. And I obliged even though she only gave me three dollars to pay for it all. She said that Jeff the landlord was coming by soon to drop off Snoopy for a few days, she was very happy that she was going to be baby sitting the beagle. Jane only had one lung, the other had been taken out cause of cancer, and she breathed so loud that you could hear her gasping from the street. Of course smoking and drinking beer and eating mayonnaise sandwiches was going to kill her, but it wasn’t our business. All we could do is be neighborly and pick things up from Tate Street that she had no way of doing herself. Every once in a while a taxi would come and Jane would miraculously descend the front steps of the big house and heave herself into the taxi and you’d see the rear end of the taxi sink so that the bumper dragged on the pavement and left sparks as they drove away. Sometimes she was going to the doctor, and sometimes, we heard, she was going to visit family somewhere out in Summerfield.

Three days after I picked up the groceries from the Safeway, Dave came down and knocked on the door, “Did you hear what Jane did?”

“No . . . ”

“She made a pan of brownies and shared them with Snoopy. She killed him.”

“Oh no!”

“Oh yes. Jeff is so mad he could kill Jane.”

A sort of blue fog came over the street for the next few days. Everyone was mad at Jane for killing Snoopy. She didn’t mean to kill Snoopy, but we were all mad at her just the same. She stayed inside. You could see her at her kitchen window. A car came one day and a man we had never seen took a bag of groceries into the house. He quickly left and we figured he was Jane’s family, she was so ashamed she had called family to get her supplies.

The weekend came and Pyro and I packed up our car to go camping -- it was the Fourth of July and we headed for the Black Mountains for a few days of hiking and tent living. We came back on a Monday afternoon and there were thunderstorms blowing through Greensboro. It was late afternoon when we parked the car and started hauling our gear into my apartment, light rain was falling and the skies occasionally let loose with the clap of thunder or the flash of lightning. Pyro hurried to get the last of our stuff into the house -- he didn’t like being outside during lightning storms cause he’d been hit by lightning a few years before while hiking at Grayson Highlands. Just when we sat down at the kitchen table to a cold beer and thoughts of a long hot bath to wash off the woods, a horrendous flash of lightning and explosion of thunder seemed to bring the roof down. The lights went out and the air zinged with electricity. I could feel my hair stand up on the back of my neck. I looked at Pyro and he gripped the table with both hands, he was spooked. Marley the cat shot down the hall and stopped suddenly in front of us, he hissed at us as though we were strangers. And then I heard by screen door swing open and slam and heavy footsteps came running from my front study into the kitchen, it was Dave from upstairs, “Call the police, I think Jane is dead!”

“What?!”

“Go look for yourself”

We ran out the front door and there across the street, laying in the yard, at the base of the white porch, was Jane, face down, her flowered nightgown billowing in the breeze, all that was left of the storm that had just passed. She was motionless and she seemed to be part of the earth already.

“Is she dead David?”

“Well, I haven’t gone over there yet, but she was on the porch when I got home and that was just few minutes before that hellish lightning hit and it knocked her clear out of her sofa and into the yard. So, she’s gotta be dead. Call the police, okay?” I ran inside and made the call, but they told me they had already sent an ambulance and when I got back outside, Pyro was standing in the street with Dannie, the professor’s wife, who did nothing but watch The Weather Channel all day, and she was hysterical, “Where are my kids? Has anyone seen Stephan and Josie?”

“No Dannie, we haven’t seen them”

“Well, we have to find them, cause I don’t want them to see Jane.”

Dave was across the street with another neighbor, this big guy who we never knew very well, but he had flipped Jane over somehow and he was doing CPR on her and she was blue. I had never seen a blue person and I couldn’t believe how brave this guy was pounding on Jane’s chest, the chest that contained only one lung and suddenly Dave wretched and then Pyro looked at me, “Man, she is so dead, they need to just leave her alone.” And the ambulance arrived and they went to work on her with the defibrillator and they give her several jolts and the huge continent that used to be Jane’s body lurches up and down and she’s bluer than the evening sky that was hanging over us all now and we wanted them to stop. And finally, they did. They gave up on Jane and it took nine people to put her on the gurney and lift her into ambulance, which sank with her weight and our horror as the doors closed. The sun set by the time they drove off with dead Jane and by then Dannie had found her kids and she was rushing them into the house for their dinner and a night of watching the Weather Channel and Pyro and I curled up in bed together and wondered what Snoopy would do when Jane showed up in Heaven only a week after she put him there.

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