I sat back and looked out the window at the fireworks in the black sky. They were smaller now, less colorful. I heard an echo of my voice as a carload of murderers chased me across an open lot firing bullets at my body, and my hatred and fear distilled into color. “Fucking niggers,” I’d said, over and over. I closed my eyes, and in the darkness, they still took note of the fight bursting above me in the sky.
The bus dropped us at the corner of Mass. Ave. and Columbia. I walked Angie back to her house and when we reached it, she touched my shoulder. “You going to get that looked at?”
For all the pain, when I looked at it on the bus, I realized it had only grazed me, cutting the skin like the slash of a good knife hardly lethal. It needed cleaning and it hurt like hell, but it wasn’t worth a cosmetic job in an overcrowded emergency room at the moment. “Tomorrow,” I said.
Her living-room curtain parted slightly: Phil, thinking he was the detective. I said, “You better go in.”
The prospect didn’t seem to appeal to her all that much. She said, “Yeah, I guess I better.”
I looked at the blood on her face, the cut on her forehead. “Better clean that up too,” I said. “You’re looking like an extra in Dawn of the Dead?
“You always know the right thing to say,” she said and started toward the house. She saw the parted curtain and turned back toward me, a frown on her face. She looked at me for almost a full minute, her eyes large and a little sad. “He used to be a nice guy. Remember?”
I nodded, because I did. Phil had been a great guy once. Before bills came and jobs went and the future became a vicious joke of a word, something to describe what he’d never have. Phil hadn’t always been the Asshole. He’d grown into it.
“Good night,” I said.
She crossed the porch and went inside.
I walked up onto the avenue, headed toward the church. I stopped in the liquor store and bought myself a six-pack. The guy behind the counter looked at me like he figured I’d die soon; a little over an hour ago one that seemed like a lifetime now I’d bought enough liquor to start my own company, and now I was back for more. “You know how it is,” I said. “Fourth of July.”
The guy looked at me, at my bloody arm and dirty face. “Yeah,” he said, “tell that to your liver.”
I drank a beer as I walked up the avenue, thinking about Roland and Socia, Angie and Phil, the Hero and me. Dances of pain. Relationships from hell. I’d been a punching bag for my father for eighteen years, and I’d never hit back. I kept believing, kept telling myself, It’ll change; he’ll get better. It’s hard to close the door on optimistic expectations when you love someone.
Angie and Phil were the same way. She’d known him when he was the best-looking guy in the neighborhood, a charmer and natural leader who told the funniest jokes, the warmest stories. He was everyone’s idol. A great guy. She still saw that, prayed for it, hoped against hope no matter how cynically she viewed the rest of the world that people change for the better sometimes. Phil had to be one of those people, or what gave anything purpose?
And then there was Roland taking all that hate and ugliness and depravity that had been shoved into him since childhood at every turn, and spinning around and spewing it back at the world. Waging war against his father and telling himself that once it was done, he’d be at peace. But he wouldn’t. It never works that way. Once that ugliness has been forced into you, it becomes part of your blood, dilutes it, races through your heart and back out again, staining everything as it goes. The ugliness never goes away, never comes out, no matter what you do. Anyone who thinks otherwise is naive. All you can hope to do is control it, to force it all into one tight ball in one tight place and keep it there, a constant weight.
I reached the belfry still less risky than my apartment and went inside. I sat at my desk, drank my beer. The sky was empty now, the celebration ended. The fourth would be the fifth soon and the migration back from the Cape and the Vineyard had probably already begun. The day after a holiday is like the day after your birthday everything seems old, like tarnished copper.
I placed my feet up on the desk and leaned back in the chair. My arm still burned and I straightened it out in front of me and poured half a beer on it. Homemade anesthesia. The cut was wide but shallow. In a few months the scar tissue would pale from a dull red to a duller white. It would barely be noticeable.
I raised my shirt, looked at the jellyfish on my abdomen, the scar that would never fade, never be mistaken for anything innocuous, for anything but what it was: a mark of violence and depraved indifference, a cattle brand. The Hero’s legacy, his stamp on this world, his attempt at immortality. As long as I was alive, carrying this jellyfish on my stomach, then so was he.
When I was growing up, my father’s fear of flame burgeoned in direct proportion to his success in fighting it. By the time he reached the rank of lieutenant, he’d turned our apartment into a battle zone against fire. Our refrigerator contained not one, but three boxes of baking soda. Two more in the cupboard below the sink, one above the oven. There were no electric blankets in my father’s home, no faulty appliances. The toaster was serviced twice a year. Every clock was mechanical. Electrical cords were checked twice a month for cracks in the rubber; sockets were investigated every six weeks. By the time I was ten, my father pulled all plugs from the sockets nightly to minimize any stray currents of malevolent electricity.
When I was eleven, I found my father sitting at the kitchen table late one night, staring at a candle he’d placed before him. He was holding his hand over the flame, patting it occasionally, his dark eyes fixed on the ropes of blue and yellow as if they could tell him something. When he saw me, his eyes widened, his face flushed, and he said, “It can be contained. It can,” and I was stunned to hear the thinnest chords of uncertainty in the deep timbre of his voice.
Because my father’s shift began at three in the afternoon and my mother worked nights as a cashier at Stop and Shop, my sister, Erin, and I were latchkey kids long before the term became fashionable. One night, we tried to cook blackened redfish, something we’d had during a trip to Cape Cod the previous summer.
We poured every spice we could find into the skillet, and within minutes, the kitchen had filled with smoke. I opened the windows while my sister unlatched the front and back doors. By the time we remembered what caused the smoke in the first place, the pan had caught fire.