by S. Furlong-Bolliger
This short story was originally published by Untreed Reads.
“You know, my wife, Dawn, just has no sense of humor anymore,” I was telling the guys. We were hanging out at Sid’s Hardware. They offered free coffee and a few of us had gotten into the habit of gathering there in the mornings.
“Well Larry,” Chet started, pausing to spit a sunflower shell into his white foam cup. I’d never seen Chet without a mouthful of sunflower seeds. “It’s hard to keep any sense of humor around here since Halport closed. Most of the town’s out of work.”
“Yeah, those SOBs at Halport,” Hank added. Hank never minced words.
“I get that guys, believe me,” I said. “It’s just Dawn. She’s over the edge these days.”
Chet tossed his cup into the trash, folded his arms across his chest, and let out a long sigh. “What’s her problem, Larry?”
I could feel the corner of my mouth twitch with anticipation. “Well, she was complaining, as usual. Seems she’s so bitchy these days. Going on about how Joe Farley bought his wife a new Mustang. She says she never gets anything—”
“What?!” Hank jumped in. “Is she nuts? You’re out of work, man. You can’t be buying a new car!”
“That’s what I said. I told her, ‘Look here, Dawn,’” I paused for effect. They were hanging on my every word. “If you want something that goes from 0 to 150 in less than five seconds, then get yourself down the hall and hop on that bathroom scale.”
That got a hoot from the guys. They were rolling. Hank even slapped me on the shoulder as I tossed my cup and turned to leave. “You always crack me up, Larry,” he said.
Yeah, that’s me—I could always leave them laughing. Only it was getting harder these days. Most of us were on our last benefit check, so things were about to go from bad to worse. A lot of my friends had already moved away.
Booneville was drying up since the Halport plant had shut down. It was still hard to believe that some corporate suit running numbers in a skyscraper thousands of miles away had killed my town.
As I crossed the street, I passed in front of the courthouse in the middle of the town square. Hanging above its steps was a large red, white, and blue banner announcing the annual Booneville Fourth of July Celebration. I paused and stared at the banner. Its festive flare seemed to mock me. Guess I wasn’t much in the mood for festivities.
There just didn’t seem to be much to celebrate this year. With Halport closed, the town couldn’t even afford to shoot off a few lousy fireworks.
Inside the First Federal Bank, I slid my government check across the counter—my last. I should have been saving more over the years. I kept telling Dawn that we were going to be fine, but truth was we weren’t. I’d survived Nam and the loss of both my parents, but none of it had scared me as much as what lay ahead. I stood to lose everything—my house, my truck, Dawn maybe. I should have been better prepared. I just never even saw this coming.
“Hi, Larry. Deposit?” the teller asked, interrupting my thoughts. It was Sandy, from the plant, a single mother of two boys. At least I could be grateful that it was just Dawn and me. I couldn’t imagine being in this situation with kids to support.
“No, just cash.” Rumor had it that the bank wasn’t doing too well.
We made a little small talk as she counted out bills. After commenting about the weather, she worked her way into the same discussion we had every time I came to the bank. As usual she ended by saying, “Sure, the bank doesn’t pay nearly as well as Halport did, but Larry, a job’s a job. And I’m lucky to have this one.” Well, I had news for Sandy. Luck had nothing to do with it. She was working a job that paid half of what she used to make because some stinkin’ CEO decided that she didn’t matter…that her kids didn’t matter…that the whole damn town didn’t matter.
I didn’t say any of that though. I just smiled politely, pocketed my money, and turned to leave. On the way out, I ran into Gus Severson, the esteemed mayor of Booneville.
“Hey, Gus,” I started in, plastering a smile on my face. Then I stopped. Gus looked horrible. “You okay, Gus?”
Although it was just a polite question—no one in town was okay since the plant closed.
“Just a little down, that’s all, Larry. I just heard about Todd Landry.”
I nodded. I knew Todd Landry—a young kid, fresh out of school. He’d worked the line at Halport. I hadn’t heard what he’d been up to since the plant closed.
Gus swiped nervously at his brow. “You don’t know, do you? He shot himself, Larry. Cops found him this morning.”
“Yeah, guess he did it right after the repo man took his truck.”
“Oh, God.” I couldn’t believe it. “They took his truck? That truck was everything to that kid. He sunk every paycheck into it—lift kit, oversized chrome wheels, roll bar, halogen lights….”
I threw up my hands and turned away. That was the last straw. It was just like in the war—some Halport CEO made a decision to destroy hundreds of lives from the comfort of a plush office just like those damn D.C. politicians did to me and my combat buddies in Nam. People were just expendable casualties that they could swipe away with a stroke of a pen.
Dead kids, ruined families, so much senseless destruction … I had to do something. After Nam, I swallowed my bitterness and picked up with my life like nothing wrong had happened, but not now. Now I had to take a stand.
Back in my truck, I recounted the wad of bills and worked out the details of my plan. More than likely I’d be immediately arrested, but what did that matter? Halport had destroyed my town. Someone needed to show them what Booneville was all about. And, tomorrow’s celebration would be the perfect time to do that. Besides, I had nothing to lose. Well, Dawn maybe, but we were already on the downhill slide; had been ever since I lost my job.
* * *
Late that night, I pulled into his garage with a pickup full of supplies to carry out my plan. I was hoping that Dawn was already asleep, or maybe out with the girls, but no such luck. I didn’t even have the gear in park before she made an appearance. “Where have you been? Do you know what time it is? You left for the bank at nine o’clock this morning!” She was wearing her favorite blue robe. I hated that robe. It looked like something that had been caught in the wheels of The Grinder at last year’s Monster Truck Rally.
“Sorry, honey. I just had a few errands to run.”
“What’s all that crap in the back of your truck? There better still be money in the checking account. Remember I told you I was getting my hair done before the festival tomorrow.”
I avoided her stare and immediately busied myself unloading the truck. Dawn had this look about her. It could scare the piss out of a hornet. “Uh, looks like a lot, honey,” I started, struggling to come up for an explanation. “But it hardly cost anything. I was able to get a lot of bang for my buck.” I chuckled, silently admiring my own wit. A lot of bang for my buck—wasn’t that the truth?
Dawn shook her head and stomped back into the house. At least she hadn’t asked about the supplies. There’s no way she would understand what I was about to do.
I finished unloading and got down to business. A peaceful fog settled over my mind as I worked, punctuated by the hissing of the blow torch and the clanking of metal tools. As the night grew longer, mosquitoes began swarming. I swatted as they buzzed my ears and feasted on the damp areas on my back and face, even working their way under my welding mask. Just like in Nam, the little demons seemed to permeate everything.
It was a weird thing. Mosquitoes always triggered memories of my time in the jungle. I remembered what it was like all those years ago as a scared twenty-year-old, hunched down in the hooch, wide awake, ears preened listening for the sound of grenade-bearing VC. I don’t think I slept a solid night in Nam.
Tonight I was feeling that same mix of exhaustion and fear as I felt those long nights in Nam. Only back then, I never quite understood what I was fighting for. I was just trying to survive. Get back home. Tonight, however, my mission was clear. And, even though I was an old man, I was working with the efficiency of a young soldier, capable and determined, continuing into the early hours of the morning, until I had completed my task.
When I was finished, and satisfied with my efforts, I loaded the truck. Quietly, I raised the garage door and coasted down the slope of my driveway in neutral. God forbid that Dawn would wake up and catch me in the act.
Once I was on the street, I cranked the engine and headed to the abandoned plant. There, aided by a little moonlight and my headlights, I spent the next few hours setting up. When all the fuses were properly attached, the detonator set, and the entire area carefully concealed, I returned home to catch a few hours of sleep.
* * *
“Larry, aren’t you awake yet? Get up! The parade’s going to start.”
I rolled over and moaned. “Good morning, honey.” I pried my eyes open, plastered a smile on my face. “You’re hair looks fantastic,” I said, remembering that she had said something about getting her hair done this morning. Although it looked like the same old mop of brown curls that she always had, I knew that if I screwed up and didn’t mention the hairdo, I’d pay for it all day.
I levered my aching legs out from under the covers and started making my way to the closet.
“I was hoping to get a spot in the shade,” she whined at me. I just kept smiling, doing my best to ignore her. I was determined that not even Dawn’s nagging was going to ruin my big day.
I put on my red Budweiser shirt and a blue baseball cap—the one with the Camaro logo—grabbed a couple of lawn chairs and headed out the door with Dawn by my side. I even tried to grab her hand as we made our way down the sidewalk.
She batted it away. “What’s wrong with you, Larry? You’ve been acting strange lately.”
“Nothing, honey. Why?”
“Well, for starters, you noticed my hair this morning. You never notice that type of stuff. And now you’re smiling. What’s going on with you?”
“Just happy, I guess.”
“What do you have to be happy about?” She eyed me suspiciously. “No, there’s something going on. Don’t think you can hide it either. I’ll figure it out.”
Yeah, that was true. She’d figure it out. Everyone would. This was going to be a Fourth of July that Booneville would never forget.
Fifteen minutes later we were sitting on the curb outside the square, watching the parade, which was pitiful in comparison to past years—the marching band was off-key, the Corn Queen was butt-ugly, and Bubba Higgins didn’t even drive his hotrod. Halport had succeeded in destroying yet another thing—Booneville’s Fourth of July spirit. In fact, the only people smiling were geriatrics on the old folks’ float—their dentured grins wide as they waved miniature flags to the crackled sound of the “Star Spangled Banner” being played over a portable boom box. Of course most of them suffered from Alzheimer’s; they probably didn’t even know that Halport had killed the town.
Despite the crappy parade, and much to Dawn’s irritation, I was still smiling. Today was the day I was going to finally shove it to Halport Industries. I let my hand slide over the detonator inside my pocket. With one push of a button, I was going to completely alter the day’s celebration.
After the parade, I sprung for a couple of corn dogs and two lemonade shake-ups. Dawn loved lemon shake-ups. We stayed in our chairs, eating and watching the crowd as it gathered in the square for a festival. Games for the kids and craft booths were set up, the Lions’ fried pork chop sandwiches, and Gus Syverson, dressed as a clown, twisted balloon animals for the children while soliciting mayoral votes from their parents.
From time to time, I allowed my gaze to wander across the square to the abandoned Halport plant. If my buddies wondered why I wasn’t being my normal social self, they didn’t bother to ask. Most of them were too busy filling plastic cups at the beer garden, drinking down the last of their Halport checks one cup at a time. Of course, many of my friends were gone, having turned back their houses to the bank and left town. And then there was Todd Landry. He was gone for good. I raised my lemon shake-up in a mock toast. “Tonight’s for you, buddy,” I muttered under my breath.
“What did you say?” Dawn squawked.
“Nothing, dear. Just thinking out loud.”
She was giving me that look again. I turned away. Unfortunately, the direction I looked just happened to be where the Boonville High dance squad was conducting a carwash fundraiser. My eyes seemed to have a mind of their own, settling upon the half-dozen well-endowed, bikini-clad girls who were busy sudsing up cars.
“What are you looking at?” Dawn hissed, smacking my arm.
I turned back, a ready excuse on the tip of my tongue, but she was already standing, gathering her things.
“I’ve had about enough of you, Larry. Don’t think that I don’t know what’s going on.”
I stared in disbelief. She knew about the detonator? About my plan?
“Just look at you. Staring at those half-naked girls! I know what you’re thinking about. That’s all you men think about. And I know why you’ve been smiling so much lately. You’ve got something going on the side, don’t you? Well, don’t think that I’m going to be putting up with that!”
She had it all wrong, but I wasn’t about to correct her. She had her lawn chair folded and purse slung over her shoulder, all ready to make a dramatic exit. Why would I want to chance it that she might stick around longer?
Besides, she’d know the real truth later. Everyone would.
The afternoon passed quickly and soon the focus of the crowd turned to a makeshift stage in front of the courthouse where a local rock band was setting up. They were hauling out amplifiers, subwoofers, and other equipment that must have cost the young punks their whole summer earnings put together. I watched them, thinking how ironic it was that they really had no idea what the Fourth of July was really about. Kids these days hadn’t a clue about what it was to fight and die for freedom. Hell, the closest they got to real combat was at the end of some game controller.
I hung out and listened to them play for a while. I didn’t recognize any of the tunes—mostly just modern crap. It was no surprise that only the kids were dancing while their parents stood off to the side, gathered in small groups, chatting. Every once in a while, a piece of their conversation would float over the top of the amplified racket coming from the center of the square. They were all talking about the same thing: no money, no jobs, and poor Todd Landry.
The snippets of their conversations reinforced my resolve to carry out my plan. I slipped away, heading to the alley running aside the abandoned plant. It was time to put my plan into place.
Mindful of the detonator in my pocket, I worked quickly checking over my work, repositioning a few canisters, and resetting fuses. A few minutes passed before I heard the band playing its final song. It was a slow one for all the couples in the crowd. I felt a little sad twinge. Dawn and I used to always dance the last song together. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all. What if—
I shook it off. No time for second thoughts. I listened carefully for the last chord, knowing that the crowd would soon start to disperse. It was time. Time to show this town that Halport wasn’t going to win.
I slid my thumb over the detonator.
The first two canisters exploded into the night air with thunderous reports that rocked the sky and shook the ground. The crowd cringed, voices screamed out in shock, babies whaled with fear.
Then … before the pungent after-whiff of sulfur could fade … red, white, and blue sparks burst into the air.
Explosion after colorful explosion lit the sky in front of the hollow shell of a building that was once Halport Industries.
I watched as the collective gaze of my friends and neighbors turned upward, mesmerized by each pop of color and fading thread of light. After each lingering echo they cheered and clapped. It was the most dazzling fireworks display that Booneville had ever seen. For a few sensational minutes, everyone forgot their troubles and the devastation that had fallen upon our town. We forgot the impending funeral of one of our youth, robbed of his life by the senseless decisions of an uncaring corporation.
I looked on with pride. Sure, setting off explosives inside the city limits was illegal. Actually, smuggling them across the border and detonating them without the proper pyrotechnic license was enough to land me in deep trouble with the ATF for years. Not to mention that I was now officially broke. But, at least I had shown everyone that Halport may have taken our livelihoods, but it couldn’t take away Booneville’s Fourth of July Spirit.
Who knew how I would feel tomorrow, but tonight, I felt the satisfaction of retribution.
Now, I only had to worry about what Dawn would say when she heard about this.
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Okay, I admit it, I was sure he was going to set off a bomb & I was afraid of what would happen–who would die. This ending was a twist that brought a smile! Very nice!
Happy Fireworks Day! Nice job.
Excellent story. Great characters. Would love to see them again in another story.
Recent spoof by Gail: “Voters to Choose Face for Front of $10 Bill” http://www.thespoof.com/4ICm