Andy Appleby’s Fireworks

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“I wonder if God ever just feels sorry for you,” I thought as I sat there soaking in the sweltering courtroom of the Migdon County Juvenile Justice Center during the summer of 1948.

     “State your name,” said the prosecutor, Mr. Kratt, with his pencil nose and icy stare.

     “Joshua Everett Wade, Sir.”

     “Do you go by any other name, Mr. Wade?”

     “Well,” I said, “Momma calls me Skunk-Butt when I’m in trouble, Sir.”

      Snickers rippled through the room and Kratt scowled slightly.

     “Enough,” he said to everyone. “And are you familiar with the defendant?”

     “Well sure, Sir. Me and Andy been best pals since third grade.”

     “Can you describe your whereabouts on Tuesday, July 2nd, between the hours of 10:00AM and noon?”

    “I was shootin’ marbles out back of Tuttle Grocery with Freddy McEntire and Skeet Johnson. Andy was there, too.”

     Kratt knitted his eyebrows together.

     “Mr. Wade,” he pronounced, “no less than four witnesses have already stated, under oath, they noticed Andy Appleby loitering in front of Cazban General during that time. Am I correct?”

     “I don’t know who they seen, Sir. Andy was with us the whole time, honest to God.”

     Freddy and Skeet sat on the back row with their sunburned faces, wide-eyed and heads bobbing.

     “So you admit,” came Kratt’s rejoinder, “that you were with Mr. Appleby during the time period in question, when over seventy-five dollars’ worth of fireworks were stolen from Mr. Cazban.”

     I didn’t much like the way this was going, and I fidgeted with the marble in my pocket, a neon green popper I won from Glass-Eyed Gus last summer. I shuffled it around as I pondered how much I should admit.

     Several moments passed.

     “Mr. Wade, you seem distracted. What’s in your pocket?”

     “It’s just a marble, Sir.”

     “Hand it over. I’ll not let the proceedings of this court be interrupted by a silly toy,” Kratt ordered.

     I slowly drew my prized popper out, but hesitated to place it in his pale outstretched palm. I looked at the judge.

     “Hand it over,” he calmly instructed.

     I rose up to surrender my contraband, and at this very moment Providence chose to play its hand.

     Sometime in 1932, it turned out, Judge Williams ordered every chair and table in that courtroom nailed to the floor. A scuffle had broken out one day, resulting in several breakages of furniture and décor, not to mention a couple of skulls.

     As I stood up, several things happened at once: I realized too late that in my fidgeting and squirming I had wrapped my foot around one chair leg. I promptly lost my balance and went crashing over the witness box banister.

      I still made an effort to plant the popper into Kratt’s hand, and he made a determined attempt to receive it. This only resulted in the marble bouncing through the air and landing in the exact center of court stenographer Alison Pennybottom’s emphatically burdened brassiere.

     Half the jaws in the room dropped and half the cheeks turned in shame as Alice shrieked and went diving for the offending projectile. She fished the shiny orb out only to see it escape her grip and go rolling toward the gallery.

     “Order in the court!” shouted the judge as the bailiff sprang into action to retrieve the renegade ordnance. Only he ended up kicking my poor popper and sending it through a small hole at the bottom of the bar. A slightly larger marble would have gotten stuck, and that would have been the end of things. However, in what my Grampy often called a plumb coincidence, the rocketing roller barely slipped through and on to the gallery pews where sat none other than Glass-Eyed Gus McCormack.

     Suddenly eyeing a chance to get his ace shooter back, Gus dove at the same instant the bailiff and several other well-meaning citizens also tried to capture it. The courtroom shook with a sound like a football scrimmage line a split second after the snap. Bodies went flying, Gus went tumbling, the bailiff flipped over and slammed his boots into Mr. Cazban’s astonished face, and in all the kerfuffle my marble kept rolling to the back of the courtroom where Freddy scooped it up and thrust it into his pocket.

     As the bailiff regained his bearings, he grabbed up Gus by his suspenders and shook him.

     “Blast it, boy! What did you do with it?” he screamed.

     Right at that moment, something fell from the chest pocket of Gus’s bib overalls and onto the floor a mere three feet away from Mr. Cazban with his bloody nose: a bright red jumping jack from the Nantucket Fireworks Company.

     “That’s one of my fireworks!” exclaimed Mr. Cazban. “I had just received them that morning. I hadn’t even put them out for sale yet!”

     Every eye in the courtroom lasered in on Gus’s bewildered face.

     “I don’t know where that came from! That’s not mine!” he stammered.

     But we all had seen it fall from his pocket. In short order, Judge Williams dismissed the case against Andy Appleby and closed the proceedings, detaining old Glass-Eye and dismissing the rest of us to go about our merry business.

     As we shuffled out of the courtroom, I locked eyes with Skeet Johnson and he gave me a quick furtive smile. Skeet was the best pickpocket in the county, and I was pretty sure I knew how a jumping jack ended up in Glass-Eyed Gus’s bib overalls that day.

     Several months would pass before the boys and I took our stash of firecrackers way out to Potter Falls, about ten miles away, where we told our folks we were going camping. We tried to light a few, but we ended up burying most of the loot. I guess we figured enough was enough. You can’t keep hoping the Lord will wink at you.

One Way Trip

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The wind up here is incredibly strong, more so than I imagined it would be. Only someone in my state of mind should venture off the dirt road and near to the ledge on which I am standing, teetering a bit, but presently resolute in my place on this ball of dust we call Earth.

I’ve thought through all the reasons, for and against. Eventually, a man sees the futility in arguing with himself, locked in a contest for which there are no real winners, one for which nobody truly cares about the outcome. It’s not as if one facet of me will come out the victor, claiming a supremacy of ideas and a certainty that everything will be alright from here on out. No side of me will gain anything by winning his debate, except a totality so thorough that nothing familiar will survive, afterwards.

The time for verbal jousting is over. Standing at the edge of what was once the bedrock of an ancient ocean floor, thrust through the eons up to a towering height, far above the greatest edifices of mortal men, I peer down and take in the vast scene below me. I can clearly make out a river winding like a black slender snake through the rocks in the gorge, even by moonlight. The night-time sun is at its fullest brightness; I chose this night especially for this reason. No blind leap into the unknown darkness for me; that will come soon enough. I want to take in every detail.

I’ve even thought about how long the journey will take. Accounting for wind shear and my general shape, it should take about twelve seconds to reach the bottom, barring something miraculous. I don’t know if this will be the longest or the shortest twelve seconds of my life.

I look down. Should I say something on the way down? It would fall on deaf ears. No one will mark whether I yell “Geronimo” or “Remember the Alamo.” Who really recalls the Alamo, anyway, outside of Texas? No, I think a silent trip is the best. I will see what I will see and it will be over. One can take this sort of trip only once.

I gaze up at the moon, and all sorts of questions start to pop up in my mind. That’s how my mind works. I don’t set about to unravel the deep mysteries or longing queries of humanity. They simply pop up like soda bubbles with little pre-planning. Why does this moon appear so big to my eyes but so small when I take a picture of it? Did we honestly go up there or have we all been victims to the greatest hoax in the history of mankind? If that pale sphere is strong enough to move the vast oceans about, can it in some strange way keep me from hitting the rocky floor and splitting into smaller, more gruesome versions of myself? Now that would be marvelous.

Departure time has arrived. Air traffic control has given the green light, and we are cleared for takeoff. The fat lady has sung and it is time to go home. I can think of a few more metaphors, but I am only delaying the unavoidable.

Is this inevitable? Who decided this was inescapable? Did I lose that debate? No, there is no need to go through the whole thing again. This is not about inevitability. Nothing so final is ever certain at any given time. The future twists and turns at every moment from a thousand butterfly wing decisions rippling like currents with growing or diminishing force, depending on whether you covered your mouth when you sneezed, or whether some girl twenty miles away ran a stop sign. You can go mad thinking about it. All you can do is decide what you are going to do at each moment and hope nothing interferes. I suppose sometimes you hope something will, in fact, interfere; but not today.

I step out. At the last instant I spread my arms out and pitch forward, a windswept crucifixion in midair, a bird of stone with neither feather nor flight, a flesh and blood tree uprooted from the razor edge of the flat earth we always suspected.

Have you ever had a dream that seemed to be responding to external stimuli in an almost impossible time frame? Or one which seems to take days to unfold when you know you were only asleep for an hour or two? I have always surmised that our perception of time is a fluid thing. I imagine children experience time much more slowly than adults, which is why the ten-minute drive to get groceries flies by when I’m behind the wheel now, but felt like half an hour when I was a child in the backseat back then. If I was ever unsure of my ideas about time, certainty has come crashing in a second after I began my descent. Something about knowing this is my final twelve seconds has caused my brain to jump into dream-fast mode.

The first wave of thought that hits me is regret. Not about what I just did, but a hundred different stupid things that have plagued me from childhood on up through recent years. Like the time I told one girl, who was so excited she had been appointed to the F.A.T. council at school, that she was perfect for the job since she was, you must understand, quite large herself. Yes, those words came out of my mouth before I realized she was talking about the Food Advisory Team and no such correlation had entered her mind until I uttered that sentence. Her face fell, and as I can recall she never spoke to me again for the rest of our high school careers.

Disappointments flashed through, recollected and experienced in a second: a girl who once convinced me to do my first suicide turn into traffic, then later said I should have been braver and asked her out; she would have said yes. I remember an application for high school Hall of Fame recognition that I turned in empty, so sure I would be a shoo-in I completely forgot to fill it out. Another time I backed out of serving in the military mere days before I was to take the oath. Where would I be now had I honored my commitments?

All of it fades and is supplanted by the recollections of all the brass rings I ever reached out and grasped, honors and accolades, scholarships, impossible feats. All amounts to a hill of beans now. It was just glittery trinkets, long since tarnished and dulled. My mind brings them out for one more dog and pony show, so I can remember I was once great among men.

Then a wave of sorrow crashes over me. This is what prompted this journey in the first place. Love lost, friendships lost, missed opportunities, things I should have been better at, time I wasted in vain pursuits. It does raise the question for the thousandth time: why don’t I just resolve to do better from here on out? Why not call a do-over and try to do right after today and the next day? Deep inside, though, I know life has no do-overs, and the ghosts and demons I summoned in moments of weakness will follow me all my days.

My body twists about and I notice the moon so silvery bright, watching me, in turn, grow smaller against the floor of the gorge that must surely be a breath away now. Now an odd thing occurs both to that heavenly body and to me. The shining orb looks bigger than it was when I viewed it from the top of the cliff. In fact, it is expanding even as I continue to fall, taking up more and more of the sky. I notice canyons and valleys and trenches growing clearer as its vastness envelops the clouds and the stars. I can actually feel its light on my body like a tractor beam. Inwardly, I sense the rays of moonlight tugging at my very soul, trying to separate it from this mortal flesh which continues to hurtle toward the jagged rocks below.

Why haven’t I hit the bottom? I wonder this a moment before the thunderous impact of my body against the stony outcroppings lining the bank of the river. I often hear people say they are being pulled in so many directions, or that they don’t know if they are coming or going. Those expressions turn out to be weak approximations of the real thing. For an instant I perceive with horror my head, my right and left ribs, my arms and legs, explode in different trajectories. There is no time for pain, just a split-second of feeling like a human supernova and then…

Then. Impossibly, a “then” proceeds.

I still see the moon. Its beams now course through me and fill me with their light and energy. They pull at me, although I can’t determine which part of me since I am still quite sure I am currently splattered all over a good portion of stone floor. I float upwards as the lunar light pulls me into its embrace, and what took one dozen seconds to cover now takes several minutes as I rise higher and higher, until I can discern the ledge from which I have recently plunged.

Now this mysterious force lifts me over the edge, and I am helpless in its grasp, drifting away from the edge and over the cold hard ground, toward the little tent I have been spending the last couple of nights in. I am like a blown bubble, floating gently in through the front opening. I land softly on my bag, still warm from when I last lay in it. Warmth envelopes me, fills me, and delight seeps into my soul as I realize I still possess eyes. I perceive that they are shut and all is dark. I open them. I am alive, and will be ever more so, afterwards.

At Long Last

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Angela plodded slowly toward the cold stone slab that jutted from the brown grass, dried and withered by winter wind. She knew the path, every curve and rise in the ground as familiar as the small wrinkles of her son’s hand had once been.

Her son. It had been years since the accident, and for years she had hoped that somehow, she would see him at this solemn sanctuary, as impossible as it might seem to others. But he never appeared. Week after week, season after season, she made this trek against all common sense, against what others had repeatedly told her.

He’s not there, they told her. He’s far away where you can’t reach him.

“Far away where you can’t hurt him,” came a voice behind her.

It was her husband. She hated whenever he would “just happen” to show up here during one of her private visits.

“Go away,” she said coldly.

“Go away? Go where?” he spat angrily. “Where can I go that I don’t have to face this?” He was pointing at the grave stone. “Everywhere I go, I see this thing! Everywhere I turn I see it.”

“Then why do you come here?” she asked him.

“Because I want you to know what you did to me! What you did to us. You want me to walk away while you have your little pity party, when you’re the one who did this!”

“I know I did this!” she answered. “You think I can forget it, Rob? You think one minute ever goes by when I don’t think about it?”

“You’re a fool. Nothing you do here is going to conjure him up. He’s gone, and you are never going to see him again,” Rob continued.

“Is this what you want?” she asked. “To see me broken like this forever? To see me disappointed each and every time I come here? To torture me with something I can’t ever change? What do you want?”

“I want my son back!” Rob shouted. Angela knew he would have cried right then and there if he was capable of it.

She turned away from him and looked once again to the headstone in the dead ground. Twelve years had passed since the night she ran that stop sign late at night in the town where they had grown up, married, and raised a family. A family that was utterly broken now.

By now, Angela had accepted that Rob would never forgive her. But RJ. She wanted her son to forgive her for what she had done, somehow, some way.

“Mommy?” she heard a tender voice in the distance.

She glared at Rob.

“You brought her, too?” she hissed at him.

“She’s part of this, too,” her husband simply said.

Indeed, Sara had been coming to this place as well, throughout the long stretches of emptiness that had become their lives since that fateful night.

Angela and Rob had been arguing. As much as she had tried not to do that in front of the children, this one was a full rager, one where each one says things they don’t mean, in order to hurt the other one in ways they haven’t tried before. She didn’t even see the sign. In an instant their world changed forever and they were torn away from RJ permanently.

“Sara, honey, Mommy’s glad to see you,” Angela said.

“You don’t look glad, Mommy,” the girl said. “You never look glad.”

Angela felt her anguish welling inside her. Sara spent most of her days with her father. In the fallout after the accident, Angela had in some sense lost her daughter as well. She rarely saw her anymore.

They heard footsteps.

“Rob!” Angela gasped. “It’s him. I know it. It’s him.”

“Angie, that’s not possible. He is far away now and will never come to this place. Why can’t you accept that? Why do you have to keep putting us through this?”

“Rob, no, it’s him. Look!” she exclaimed.

Against all expectation, there he was, emerging from a fog and walking slowly toward the headstone around which they were gathered. He was tall, with long brown locks that spilled over his black silk suit. A young lady with sandy blonde hair and a green dress walked beside him.

“RJ, oh I’ve missed you!” Angela started.

“Quiet,” insisted her husband. “He can’t hear you.”

“Rob, I’ve been waiting for this for so long! I want to talk to my son. He’s finally here.”

“RJ, oh RJ,” she began. “Oh, I’ve missed you. I’m so sorry I did this to you. Mommy didn’t mean it, RJ. Please tell me you can hear me. RJ!”

The young man stood pensively over the headstone. There was no sign that he could hear his mother, or even that he was affected by the memory of her. He looked at the young woman next to him. She squeezed his hand.

“Go on,” she whispered to him.

“Mom. Dad. Sara May. I know you’re probably wondering why I’ve never come to this place since that day.” RJ could feel tears welling up. He hadn’t expected that. He continued.

“I’m sorry. But it was so hard after what happened. I didn’t want to see you anymore. I was so alone. I was so angry. But…” he trailed off for a moment, taking some effort to keep his composure.

“I’m here now,” he declared. “I don’t know if you can hear me.”

“We can hear you, son!” Angela shouted.

“Hush,” her husband warned her. “This might be the only time we ever see him. Please be quiet.”

“If you can,” RJ went on, “I just want you to know that I forgive you. It took a long time. Long years of growing up without a family. Long years of not knowing who I was, learning to make it on my own. I was so angry and hurt for so long when you went away.”

Tears were running down his cheeks now. Angela, her heart breaking all over again, reached toward him to wipe them away, but her touch did nothing.

“But then one day, I realized you gave me something. Something precious. Something that you couldn’t have anymore, but you had given to me. Life. I figured out one day that life is precious: my life is precious. And I knew then that I was going to live the best life that I could. For me…and for you.”

Angela was aware that for the first time in ages, her husband was standing next to her. Sara grasped her hand.

“I’m all grown up, now, Mom. Just like you said I would be. This is Lizzy,” he said, gesturing to the young woman by his side. “We going to get married. She’s pretty, just like you were, Mom. She makes me happy. And one day we’re going to raise a family, just like the one I had.”

Slowly, the agony in Angela’s heart began to melt, and in its place a tiny seed of peaceful hope took hold. She looked at her son and felt something other than sorrow for the first time in so many years; she felt proud of him.

“So goodbye, now. Don’t go feeling bad anymore. What’s done is done, like you used to say, Dad. You used to say that better is the end of a thing…”

“Than its beginning,” Rob whispered.

“Than its beginning,” RJ finished.

They all stood silent and still for a long moment.

“That was beautiful,” Lizzy said to her fiancé. “It’s what they would have wanted. I just know it.”

“I think you’re right,” he answered her. “I don’t know how, but I think you’re right.”

RJ took his Lizzy by the arm and they both strolled away, with each step fading into the fog and out of his parents’ sight.

“Goodbye, my son,” Angela called after him, knowing there was no way he could hear her.

“Let’s go,” she heard her husband say.

“Together?” she asked.

“Together, Angie,” he answered. “We’re a family.”