The 4th of July on Panorama Drive
My Aunt Gertrude thinks firecrackers are the work of the devil.
She thinks movie theaters are, too.
And short skirts.
And tank tops.
And women who wear a lot of makeup.
So I knew better than to ask her for money to visit the firework tent that had miraculously erected overnight, right next to the new Bojangles down on 1st North Street.
“FIREWORKS! ONLY 19.99!!!” flashes on a sign that is propped against the tent’s main entrance.
“It’s only $19.99!” I say to my Uncle Roscoe who is counting his crumpled dollars to pay for our weekly Sunday dinner: a box of Bojangles’ famous fried chicken, a gallon of sweet tea and a small chocolate cake.
“That will be $19.99,” the freckle-faced teenager says to my uncle Roscoe, and he hands over the cash. As we carry the bags of food to our car, I take one last look over my shoulder at the fireworks tent, secretly hoping for a miracle. But uncle Roscoe shakes his head “no” once again, and I sigh.
“You never let me do anything fun. I don’t wanna stay the night with y’all anymore,” I say as I stomp my tiny feet back to the car.
Once the food is loaded into the car, Uncle Roscoe hands me a crisp, folded $20 bill. “Here, Will. Don’t get nothin’ too dangerous. Gertie will kill me if you end up setting yourself on fire. And hurry up so this chicken doesn’t get cold.”
I skip inside, quickly looking at each shaky, metal row until I find the pack I want: 100 bottle rockets: $19.99.
The package is almost as tall as I am, so I drag it behind me, making a long line through the clay dirt floor. The cashier is waiting for me with a Marlborough cigarette dangling from one side of his mouth. Even though I am clearly not old enough to be buying fireworks alone, he doesn’t even ask where my parents are. Instead, he glances out the tent’s makeshift front “door” and Uncle Roscoe waves to him from the front seat of his shiny caddy.
“Need a bag, honey?” the cashier asks and I nod yes. He loads my bottle rockets into a large trash bag, along with complementary ashes from his cigarette. I drag the bag outside and load it into the back seat. Uncle Roscoe doesn’t help.
Once we are back at my aunt and uncle’s home, I devour my chicken and I drink my sweet tea so fast I get hiccups. “Slow down, child!” Aunt Gertrude says. “You can have more to eat if you want!” But I don’t want more, all I want is to take my bottle rockets up on the hill to launch them all, one by one.
But how will I launch them if Aunt Gertrude is home?
As though the angels above heard my prayer, my Aunt Gertrude rose from the table and wiped her mouth with her napkin. “I’m off to choir rehearsal” she says, as she kisses me on the forehead. “You be good, now. And don’t be messin’ around with no fireworks. You hear me, Wilson?”
“Yes, ma’am,” I lie.
Uncle Roscoe and I watch her pull out of the driveway and as soon as we see her tail lights disappear from view, he grabs his matches and two cold Cokes from the fridge.
We stop at his car to get my fireworks and then we run to the top of the hill behind their house. He pops the tops off both bottles of coke and hands me one.
“Ready? Bet you can’t beat me!” and we turn the bottles up to our mouths and begin to drink as fast as we can.
I win. Of course.
Uncle Roscoe takes his switchblade and slices the box of bottle rockets open. I can smell the sulphur as I slide four bottle rockets into each Coke bottle.
“Ready?” Uncle Roscoe asks as he lights each bottle rocket.
Within seconds the rockets shoot into the sky and explode! I cover my ears as the ashes fall onto my braids. My tiny lungs are (happily) heavy with the (illegal) firework soot.
He repeats this again and again until all 100 bottle rockets are gone.
Uncle Roscoe takes my hand and we walk back down the hill through the smoke like we were ending a concert, just as Aunt Gertrude pulls up.
“Where y’all been?” she asks as she wraps her soft, puffy arms around me. She smells like home, even when I am mad at her.
“Aw, we just went for a walk, Gert. Is that a crime?” Uncle Roscoe says as he nervously shifts in his seat.
Aunt Gertrude just laughs.
“Well as long as y’all weren’t messing around with those demonic fireworks!”
“Oh, no ma’am! I follow my orders,” Uncle Roscoe says as he winks at me.
“Mmmmhmm. After 40 years of marriage, I doubt that! And what’s this in your hair, child?” Aunt Gertrude asks as she brushes the bottle rocket ashes out of my braids.
“Oh, I must have dropped some ashes on her head from my cig when we were out for our walk,” Uncle Roscoe said. “Sorry about that, Will,” he said to me, winking again.
Later that night as Aunt Gertrude and I are watching the Waltons, Uncle Roscoe comes in. “Honey, can you take that trash out?” Aunt Gertrude asks.
“Yeah, sure,” Uncle Roscoe says.
“And don’t forget to throw those burned up Coke bottles away y’all used for the Wilson’s bottle rockets earlier.”
Uncle Roscoe and I look at each other in silence.
“They are at the top of the hill where y’all left them,” she said as she kissed my forehead and went to bed.