Sparklers and Snakes
by Jack Helbig
“There’s one. And there’s one. And there’s one. There’s one.” This is my sister, Gretchen snorting and counting bad perms.
“There’s another one!” laughs Bonnie. She sits behind me by the window.
“Oh god, look at that one!”
Trish doesn’t say a thing; I notice she’s been very quiet this trip.
It’s the summer of 1975 and I just got my license last April. This is my first summer driving, and since my sister has a much busier social life than I do (this was the summer I discovered I had no friends) I have become her de facto chauffeur. The three of them squish together in the back seat of our second car, a 1964 VW bug.
We pull over onto the grass by the side of the road and I jump out, planning to open the door and bow theatrically as they emerge. I have done this before. I think it makes me seem kind of European and elegant, but it drives my sister crazy. “Cameron, we can do it.” she says, pushing the seat forward the moment we stop, reaching for the door handle from the back seat.
By the time I got around the car, Bonnie is scooching out of the seat, butt first. I don’t want to look like I want to watch this, so I turn around and look at the fireworks stands.
There were three of them. Set up under tents at the Shell Station, at the Clark Station, and next to the Hager Farms farm stand. This is the year before the bicentennial, so things are not over the top patriotic yet. But there is a large American flag flapping at the Shell Station. Under it on the pole is a Missouri state flag and a black P.O.W./M.I.A “You are not forgotten.” flag. The flag at the Hager Farms farm stand is smaller, but there are four of them, stuck in the ground at each corner of the tent. In front of the Clark station, there is a huge fiberglass man, originally Paul Bunyan, with a beard, stocking cap, and overalls, but his overalls and cap had been given red and white stripes and his beard was painted white. Uncle Sam as lumberjack.
We all start off in the direction of the Shell Station, but before we walk far, Gretchen turns and says to me, “Let’s meet back here in like an hour, okay Cam?”
Dismissed. I am free to wander around the tents alone and sink into my teenage brooding the way I do. I watch them as they sashay away. They are all three wearing those little tops with pockets in front and tiny the hoods in the back, like everyone was wearing at school a month ago.
I have to remind myself they are off limits. They are my sister’s friends. And besides, they all have boyfriends. At least Bonnie does. Chris Farrell. Or he will be her boyfriend as soon as he finally dumps Mindy. At least that’s what Trish told Cameron’s sister Bonnie had told her. She told her when I drove the two of them to check out the Saks at Frontenac Plaza two weeks ago. They didn’t know I listened to everything they said in the backseat, while I played chauffeur.
If she’d known I listened, it would’ve driven her crazy. But I didn’t care. Besides, I was pretty sure she told them all the pervy details of my life: the harem of Playboys under the bed, the hours I spent scotch taping every window shade to the frame so no neighbor could see in the bedroom.
Besides I couldn’t stop my brain. Every time I looked at Bonnie and Trish I saw them in a Playboy spread: Trish, naked, straddling a horse; Bonnie laying back in a hammock, looking straight into my eyes; Trish and Bonnie tangled together on a bed, on a blanket, on a beach, under a waterfall, Trish inviting me to join, in a large bathtub, in a wading pool, Bonnie in a clear running mountain stream, in a sandbox, on a trampoline, Trish, Bonnie, Trish, Bonnie, Trish, on a seesaw, in two go carts zipping around a small track, washing a car, mashing up against the windshield, splattering soap on each other, wet, oily, soapy, wet, naked, slippery, shiny, wet, naked, naked, naked, oh god, so naked!
I walk toward the lumber jack Uncle Sam. Maybe she is here again this year. The Girl from West Geezus. That’s what Josh called her last year. And the girl was pure West Geezus: scrawny arms, scraggly teeth, no nice sandals, no chic tennis shoes, no shoes at all. Not a large person. But she had a way of standing, chest out, pelvis tilted forward, her legs apart, that made her seem feisty and solid and even a little masculine. And her hair: kinked and curled in what his sister called “a real bad puurrrrmmm.” That how she said it. Purrrrmmmm. With a thick accent.
I’d wanted to try to talk to her last, but Josh only wanted to go off into the corn field and shoot off his bottle rockets.
Josh couldn’t come this year. This year Josh had Rachel. Rachel had said at first she really, really, really wanted to come, but at the last minute she couldn’t. So Josh couldn’t come either. I didn’t understand why Josh was so excited about a girl who only talked about how little she ate at meals.
The Girl from West Geezus is working the booth again this year. She is the only girl in the stand. She looks even tinier than I remember, especially alongside all those huge farm boys, strong arms, overalls. She is constantly laughing, maneuvering around them, touching their arms lightly to get them to move a little to the left or to the right or stay still.
I pick up a large sky rocket. I finger the long wooden tail absent-mindedly while I watch her. And as I watch her a giddiness builds up inside me. For a short time she stands almost in front of me, talking to three boys with glasses and painfully short hair.
“Hi, Darlene!” one of them says.
“How ‘er you doin’, Darlene?” another says.
“What’s goin’ on, Darlene?”
Darlene. Ick. Why did all the girls out here have names like synthetic fibers? Raylene. Rayanne. Why not just name your baby girl Styrofoam? That’s my sister’s joke, but I’ll take it.
When his sister said this on the say out there, I laughed and said, “Why not just name her dacron polyester?” No one laughed when I said this. And when I looked in the review mirror there was my sister, just staring at him with that look.
The boys point to a brick of firecrackers. That’s hundreds of firecrackers with their fuses braided together. When they go off they sound like machine guns. The girl from West Geezus adds them to a basket next to the register, and rings them up. Then she takes money and then places the fireworks in an IGA bag.
She handles each firework carefully, like it was nitroglycerine, like it was TNT, dynamite. She puts the bottle rockets into first, then the brick of Black Cats, then three fountains, nestling them in, points downward. Then a bunch of fierce looking plastic bombs.
I watch her as she packs: Raggedy denim shorts, slung low on her hips. T-shirt, once black now charcoal grey, faded album cover for a heavy-metal band, sleeves cut away, bottom cut off like the football players wore them at high school. Her hair, shaggy, and long, and blonde, the fake blonde of Playboy bunnies and girls whose boyfriends drive pick up trucks.
Watching her takes me myself. I like that feeling of being out of myself. I am sick of myself. I think too much therefore I am too much. That’s what Josh would say, and I agree. I prefer just to watch the world, not be in it.
That’s why I wasn’t expecting it when the girl actually walked up to him, stood in front of him, made eye contact, and spoke: “What do you want, honey?”
“Um.” All I see is her eyes, staring right at me, scary close. Her eyes are green.
“Do you want something?”
Her voice is lower than I thought it would be. I thought she would have wispy baby voice. But it was deeper, stronger, one of those don’t fuck with me voices. She did have the butter on grits drawl, though. And she did smile. Kind of.
I am about to speak but my throat suddenly goes dry. I gasp out — “Oh, oh, I’m, um, still looking.”
“’Kay. Anytime yer ready.”
I am humiliated. I walk away, drift across the street to another stand, hoping to God the Girl from West Geezus will forget him.
There is loud music was blasting from across the street. A song I kept hearing over and over that summer, over and over and over.
Love. Love will keep us together. Think of me babe whenever.
I think I see Bonnie in the crowd on this side. I start to go over to her to ask where his sister and Trish are, but when I get closer it see it is someone else. Bonnie’s build — short legs and heavy breasts — but her face looks older and sadder. Bonnie in ten years. Or five years, the way she is going.
I look back and can see the Girl from West Geezus, leaning forward, handing a bag of fireworks to a very large man in a blue suit. He must have come right from work. In the cornfield behind me I hear a burst of firecrackers.
In my mind I see myself walking over to the Girl from West Geezus, just oozing. “Hello. I think you’re cute.” Her voice would be wispy then. And her smile would slowly open.
You, You belong to me now. Ain’t gonna set you free now.
Yes! I will. I will do it!
I take a breath and walk back over. The crowd is larger now. The sun has not gone completely down yet, but the floods are on. Tomorrow is the 4th and everyone who put it off to the last minute is here. I really have to push and squirm to get through the crowds.
I pick up a package of sparklers and some snakes. I practice what I will say when one of the farm boys behind the counter catches my eye.
“You wanna buy that?”
“Oh, yeah, sure.”
A moment later I find myself standing there, bag in one hand, change for a five in the other. My face is burning. I feel myself leaving my body.
I see the Girl from West Geezus walking around the booth. I watch her shorts moving on her hips, the white threads twitching and jumping. I note without direct emotional involvement that her hips inscribe two sine waves in the air, 180 degrees out of phase, as she sashays. “Fascinating, Captain,” I hear Mr. Spock say in my head, “And very human.”
I suddenly feel very bold. I push back up the counter and as I do I see her handing a bag to the person next to me. I am about to say something when she turns and walked away, inscribing another pattern in my mind.
Burning, I grab a thick brick of bottle rockets. My money is hot and sweaty in my hands when the Girl from West Geezus walks over to my side of the tent again. She doesn’t wait on me. Instead, in one quick move, one unexpected move, she bends over to take something from a box on the ground. And I watch her bend over. I memorize her as she bends over. I am suddenly flooded with shame and lust as, for a few glorious microseconds, time slows down. And I take shot after shot of mental pictures. I watcher slowly her leaning over, watch the top of her T slowly open up, watch her breasts slowly, slowly, push open the top of her T, look down her shirt hoping to see, hoping to see revealed, nicely, gently sloping, a little more, and a little more, and a little more–
She stands up more quickly than I’d anticipated. Her eyes catch mine and her smile drops away. I actually didn’t see much actually but she clearly doesn’t know that.
Oh, god. She thinks I am a perv. I think I am a perv. She blinks and her face goes blank. She turns on her axis and sine waves to the other end of the tent. I turn to ash. And blow away.
And that’s when I do it. It is totally unplanned, but I do it.
I will, I will, I will, I will.
I grab a great big brick of bottle rockets and shove them into my bag, my face warm, mys throat dry. I backed away slowly, slowly, slowly, turn my back on Uncle Sam and quickly walk down the slope to the street. I stand and look back, frozen in place.
The air is cool for a July in St. Louis. There are no crickets tonight. My bag feels heavy and I know I have done something evil. In my mind, I run over and over the clip of the girl from West Geezus, bending down, breasts pushing, gravity tugging, the top of her shirt opening.
I realize I can never come back here. I can never come back. I will never again see the Girl from West Geezus.
“Cam? Cam? Cameron!”
I look there was Trish walking towards me.
“I didn’t know you were going to buy any fireworks?” she says. She is grinning.
“Well, I, um, a.”
Trish’s smile grows wider. And then she says in a whisper, “I saw what you did.”
“I, um, a.”
Trish just stares at me. I look down and back up. She says nothing and I suddenly see how blue her eyes are.
Then she speaks: “Don’t worry. I won’t tell.”
“Okay,” I say, surprised at how naked my voice sounds.
“I like to do that, too. Mostly lip gloss.” Her smile is gone now. “This gloss,” she points to her lips, “came from the cosmetic counter at the new Saks.”
I look at her lips and say “Nice.” But really it takes a long time for me to really hear her. When I do I repeat, “Very nice.” I am sure I sound like an idiot, so I try to say something else, “You really, um, took that?”
“Yes. It’s kind of a turn on.” Then she smiles again.
I am smiling, too, but I don’t know why. “It is. But I, um, don’t do it very, um, often.”
Actually, I have never stolen anything before. But I don’t want her to know that. So I am busy inventing in my whole mind this criminal; I plan to confess it all the moment the right moments comes along.
“I don’t either. Not that often.” Trish takes out a cigarette from her breast pocket. “Just when I need a little something extra.” She starts to light up. “Want one?”
I shake my head. I don’t smoke. But I say, “Not right now.”
“Good,” she grins, “I only have this one.” A moment later she exhales. “Don’t tell anyone I still do this.”
“I told my mother I quit.” Then she smiles again.
“She’s at the Bonnie and Chris Show. We ran into Chris and Mindy — and Bonnie ran off crying.” Trish rolls her eyes as she exhales another plume. “She and Bonnie are off somewhere talking. I get so tired of the Bonnie and Chris Show, you know?”
It’s amazing. I have never seen her like this.
“Sometimes I just have to get away, you know?” Then she gives me that smile again.
“Yes,” I say, more to fill the silence than to agree.
“Look what I’ve got,” Trish says, and she pulls out a box of snakes from that same breast pocket. She extracts a tiny bud of charcoal from the box. She holds the bud in her fingers and for a moment I imagine her nipples must look like that bud. And then I can’t get that idea out of my head. I wince but she doesn’t see. I am such a perv.
Trish kneels on the ground. I kneel awkwardly next to her. She places the nip on a large round rock. She fires up her cigarette and touches the glowing part to the bud. A moment later it catches. A sooty, sulfurous flame. And from flame crawls a long piece of black ash.
“They never look like snakes to me,” I say.
“Me neither but I love watching them. It’s cool.”
“Yeah. They look more like tiny black tree branches than snakes.”
“You’re right. But who would buy them if they were called tiny, black tree branches?” Trish laughs and then she pokes at the snake. A slight wind sends it stumbling off across the grass. It tumbles into the road and a moment later it is flattened by a tire.
“So it goes,” she says quietly and I am stunned because she is quoting my favorite book. Or she might be. I can’t tell for sure. I want to ask her if she has read Slaughterhouse Five. I want to ask her a lot of things. But suddenly my sister shows up with Bonnie. My sister looks pissed and Bonnie’s eyes are red.
“Cam. We need to go home.”
Trish and I don’t move.
“Like right now?”
“Okay,” I stand up. Then I help Trish up, a move that makes a frown flash over my sister’s face. Trish sees and she quickly turns, flashing a smile at me.
All the way home, I keep looking in the rearview mirror, hoping to catch Trish’s eye. But it’s too dark. So instead I give the smile I mean for Trish to the bag of sparklers and snakes and bottle rockets sitting happily next to me in the passenger seat.
Jack Helbig is a teacher and writer living in Oak Park, Illinois. He writes regularly for THE CHICAGO READER. His plays have been produced around the United States and Australia. Most recently his play, THINKING OF HER MADE HIM THINK OF HER, was performed at that 2014 Elgin Fringe Festival and the 2015 Piney Forks Theatre Festival in NYC. He has collaborated on a number of musical adaptations with Gregg Opelka (THE MERRY WIDOW, two Offenbach one-act operettas (MY NIGHT AT JACQUES), and a musical version of a French farce (HOTEL D’AMOUR)). He has also written a musical with Tony-Award winner, Mark Hollmann, (THE GIRL, THE GROUCH, AND THE GOAT). This is the first short story he has had published in a very very long time.