In which we celebrate Independence Day in Independence. I learn more about life and death and Richie Scudder. Robin returns and I’m so happy and then I’m not.
Already before noon on the Fourth of July, the shimmering air was smoky with firecrackers and Black Cats. It was as hot as the inside of a cow and every bit as humid. Mama decided that she’d stay home with the little kids. She’d put a wet washcloth on her head and take a nap in front of the window fan, something she’d been doing more and more of here lately.
Dad could hardly touch the steering wheel without burning his fingers. He pulled his ball cap low over his eyes and shook his head at Jimmy. “Honey, you gotta wear those durned corduroys today?”
“I’m not too hot, Dad. Honest.”
If I were a mean person, which I’m NOT, I would say he wore those long britches so no one would see his pudgy white legs.
“Okay, kiddo,” Dad said. “To each his own.”
“Did you know that exactly one hundred years ago today was when they just got done fighting the biggest battle ever in the whole western hemisphere? In the Civil War? It was at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in eighteen-sixty three.”
Dad rubbed at his pointy nose. “Wahoo! Is that right?”
Jimmy grinned. “Uh huh!”
After a load of sweating and band music, we saw the sun bouncing and flashing off of the teeny spectacles of a genuine Used-to-be President of the United States, Harry S. Truman. He said it was great to be in a country where we could say mean things about the fellows in the government and not get thrown in jail, then go fight the whole world to defend our nation if we had to.
“That’s right,” said Dad under his breath. “I fought for this country and the right to gripe about those knuckleheads in Washington. I swear, President Kennedy’s the only fella in that town who’s got any sense.”
Between Dad’s commenting and the broiling sun over our heads, it was hard to concentrate on Mr. Truman’s speech. I thought about popsicles or would have if Clark hadn’t poked my arm. “Carmie, look at Jimmy. He’s getting sick or something.”
Sure enough, Jimmy was swaying. I grabbed his hand and called out, “Dad!” A lady behind us exclaimed, “He’s fainting!” all in the instant that Jimmy fell. Dad caught him and carried him through the crowd. Clark and I passed people squeezing themselves together to make a path for us. A sunburned woman wearing plaid shorts pulled a bottle of orange Nehi out of the cooler at her feet. “Here, hon. Give this to him.”
President Truman, too far away to know about us, kept on with his speech.
Dad set him down in a puddle of shade under a tree by the parking lot. Soon puny-looking Jimmy was
drinking nice lady’s pop and Dad was fanning him with a newspaper.
“Golly, honey,” said Dad, “couldn’t you have waited until after the speech to go and faint like that?”
“A cherry bomb!” someone yelled.
“Some darn kids blew up a trash can over there!”
I still had my hands over my ears when another BOOM came from the same direction: from the cars shimmering in the parking lot. Then there was a series of pop-BANGS , dog-barking, and people shouting, “Hey!”
“Some danged fool – !”
“...those tough kids – !”
“They tied firecrackers to that pup!” Dad hollered and a black, wild-eyed blur whizzed right past us. Zoom-away went Dad and Clark.
“Catch it!” Jimmy shouted, trotting after them.
I just stood next to the tree, both of us rooted to the spot and too smart to be running on a hot day. It was a long time before Clark and Dad came back.
“That dog’s probably in Kansas by now,” Dad said, wiping his red, sweaty face with the tail of his shirt.
“Where’s Jimmy?” I asked and in the next instant, we looked in the direction of scary sounds: tires squealing, people shouting and screaming.
Dad took a wild look around then glared at me. “I thought he was here with you keeping an eye on him!”
“Mister?” Some stranger hollered at Dad, “Is that your kid over there?”
We ran to where four or five sweaty people were bunching around Jimmy. Tears streaked his dirty face and his corduroys had a rip in them. He’d wrapped his bloody tee shirt around the dog.
“I think she – she’s dead!” Jimmy sobbed. “She was running because she was scared and a car hit her. The person who was driving didn’t mean to. I tried to save her, Dad.”
“Here now, boy,” said Daddy. “Here now. Of course you did. Let me look at her. Maybe she’s all right. Maybe she is. You come sit down, son.”
I could tell by the look on Dad’s face, as he examined the little dog, that it wasn’t all right, not at all. Folks clucked their tongues and shook their heads. Someone said, “That pup’s a goner. All’s you gotta do is look at it...” Then we heard a familiar, nasty voice: “Man! I ain’t never seen nothin’ so funny!”
The people around us turned to look and they parted so we could see Richie Scudder laughing out loud with his pimple-pussed buddies. “I never seen a dog run so fast: pop-pop-pop-pop! Did you get a load of that jelly-bellied kid scrambling to get a hold of that mutt?”
The creeps were too busy cracking themselves up to notice Dad bearing down on them. He grabbed Richie’s shirt with one hand and made a fist out of the other. He used the same voice he must have used on tough railroad cops in the bad old days.
“What’d you say?” Dad’s arm-muscle bulged out his angel-harp tattoo. “Did I hear you laughing at my boy?”
“Your boy?” Richie blurted while Dad kept right on, his voice getting louder and louder. “You kids tied gol-durned firecrackers to that pup? You kill a dog and laugh about it?”
“Kill it? We didn’t –! ” Richie looked over at us and anybody could tell he didn’t know until that minute what’d happened to the dog. Color drained out of his face down into his hightops. “Look, we was just havin’ some fun...”
“Pop him, Dad!” Clark cried. “Sock him in his snot-locker!”
“Take off!” Dad snapped. “Don’t let me catch you or your lousy friends messing with no harmless pups nor any kid of mine, you got that?”
Richie and his buddies walked away. One of them, when he was a safe distance from Dad, laughed, sort of. Dad snorted air out of his nose. “I should have punched that hoodlum,” he growled.
I saw a look on Jimmy’s face right then, a determined look that made me see how he would look and be when he became a grownup man. He ignored Clark telling him how brave he was. He just went off carrying that little dog in the direction of our car.
We were all quiet on the way home. Jimmy got to sit in the front seat. “I’m going to name her Cracker,” he said. “You think that’s a good name, Dad?"
“Yes, son. A fine name.”
He buried her in the backyard and helped Jimmy tamp Cracker’s scrap board of a grave marker into the ground. We all stood there while Jimmy read, in a steady voice, the Bible verses that began, “The Lord is my shepherd...”
I was glad for the dog that she had us to feel bad for her while she was on her way to heaven but still, her sad funeral made me all the more anxious for nightfall. At last it came, magic, buggy darkness full of pops, fireflies, and smoke. Georgie got to hold his first sparkler. From across the street, we saw the red spark of old Mr. Herman’s cigar along with its owner coming slowly towards us, to sit with us and watch Larry, Clark, and Harry running across the dark yard trailing smoky light like laughing comets.
Mama and Jimmy pushed the porch swing back and forth with their feet in a slow, comforting rhythm. Was the baby crying or dreaming in there, in Mama’s broad, firm middle? Planning what kind of person it was going to be? Was it hearing firecrackers all far away, like corn popping in the kitchen? Did it know what kind of family it had signed up for or were we all going to be its surprise too? Or did it still have a chance to be born to rich people in Paris? I wished I could talk to Robin about it. She said they’d be back right after the Fourth of July and anyway, she had to be back in time for my birthday next week.
A series of especially loud booms came from up the street. “Oh my goodness!” Mom exclaimed. She smiled down at herself and pressed her hands against her belly. “That woke up the baby.”
Old Mr. Herman ran his hand through the tuft of white hair on the top of his head and took his cigar out of his mouth. “I reckon that Skudder boy and his friends must’ve bought out the inventory at the fireworks tent out on the highway. Now you know,” he said, “he wasn’t always such a harum-scarum fellow. I can remember when Richard was a good boy, a proper lad, before he lost his mother.”
“Well,” said Dad, “he’s a proper knucklehead now.” With that, he walked over to where Mom was a nightcloud in the porch shadows. He bent down to kiss Jimmy’s cheek, then Mama’s belly and didn’t seem to mind at all that smiling Mr. Herman watched him do these things. Daddy handed Mom a sparkler, as if it were a rose and it lit up her mild, happy face. It was as if, sometimes, my folks were their own family, no matter how many kids came along to mess things up.
“Thirteen years ago, Carmenita, that was you in there,” Dad said, as he lit another sparkler and handed it to me. “Man, I was never so excited and nervous.”
Firecrackers popped, sparked, and danced in the smoky dimness as Mama stroked the top of Jimmy’s head. “It’s okay. Mama’s boy,” she murmured. Behind his glasses, Jimmy’s eyes were wide and dark.
I was more and more impatient all the next day and the next, waiting for Robin to come back. In the refrigerator was a strawberry cake Mom and I made to pay back Robin’s mom. In my sketchbook was a princess I drew to calm myself down. She was on top of her castle by an ocean. Wind blew her gown, her cape, and the silky veil flowing from the tip of her pointed hat. I was going to add a sailing ship for her to see in the distance, but I kept going out on the porch to watch for the Culpeppers’ big black car to come around the corner.
“Carmie, stay in or stay out! You’re making me a nervous wreck,” Mom said, fanning her bright face with a newspaper. “Take these kids up to the playground, why doncha?”
“But it’s gonna rain any minute.”
“I hope so! Maybe it’ll cool things off.” She lifted her chin to breathe in little breaths. “Go on now. I need to rest, just a little bit. Jimmy, you go too. You need some fresh air.”
Jimmy followed me and the little squirts out the door, looking like he’d a whole lot rather stay in and read his book.
The sky over the swings and jungle gym was an angel kingdom full of cloud-mountains, all dark and light, looking like a good place for thunder-gods and goddesses to have their palaces. I steadied Georgie on his twenty-seventh slide down the sliding board. The other boys were making themselves dizzy on the merry-go-round when we heard a huge thunder-boom.
Georgie screamed, half-scared, half-excited.
“Whoa!” Clark shouted. “Look at the lightning!”
“One-Mississippi, two-Mississippi,” Jimmy started counting.
“Come on!” I hollered. Big cold raindrops were already plopping on us and polka-dotting the playground. “You don’t have to know how close it is. Let’s go!” Thunder cracked like a giant whip. I scooped up Georgie and all us kids ran home through the rain, not even noticing that the Culpeppers’ big black car was back where it belonged. I didn’t even see Robin and her little brother on their front porch until she yelled at me.
“Boy oh boy, Carmen, if anybody ever says you Cathcarts don’t know enough to come in out of the rain, I’ll tell that person he’s full of prunes!”
Over on the Culpeppers’ front porch glider, our stories, Robin’s and mine, tumbled out and collided into each other.
“Mr. Herman told Jimmy he saw Mrs. Truman up at the store…Hey, did you know Richie’s got a job there?”
I left out Clark embarrassing me with his big mouth and me seeing that cute boy. “Anyway, she was buying a can of pork and beans and...”
“...fireworks in St. Paul and my dad played the piano in a wedding for one of his cousins. I got a new dress for it and ...”
“...that poor little dog! You shoulda seen the look on Richie’s face when he thought my dad was gonna sock him – hey, the rain stopped!”
“We had to stop the car right by this busy road so Darren could puke from eating seven hot dogs in a row and you shoulda seen my mom...”
“Hey, my birthday’s next Friday. Did I tell you that?”
“Nope. Mine’s October 27th. I wish I’d waited and gotten born on Halloween.” Robin shrugged her shoulders. “So are you going to have a party?”
“Not really.” My whole insides were buzzing with the good news I’d been saving up and putting off telling, to make it even more exciting. “We’re gonna have my cake on Saturday because Dad works Friday, right? He works nights now, but so anyway, listen: My aunt – you’re really going to like her. She’s going to take off work so she can take us, me and you, to the movies over in Kansas City and go see Cleopatra! Won’t that be so neat?”
“I’m not sure that would be an appropriate film for Robin.”
“Mom!” Robin jumped to her feet; we both did. Did I even notice Robin’s mom in her doorway listening to me? No.
“No, please!” I said. “My Aunt Bevy’s gonna call you and…”
But Mrs. Culpepper had turned her attention to Jimmy who was carrying a pink-iced cake across the driveway into her yard. “Is that for us? How nice!”
Then she caught sight of her kid over in our yard full of puddles and boys. Immediately her smiling mouth was a scowl. Words began pouring out of it like BBs out of a bucket. “Darren Albert Culpepper, you’re soaking wet! And filthy dirty! You come get cleaned up! Robin, we’ll discuss this later. Thank you; what did you say your name was? James? Did you help your mother make this cake?
Oh, you did, Carmen? Well, how very nice; you and your brother had better run along now. Robin needs to set the table for supper. Darren, leave those disgusting sneakers on the porch. We’ll see you later...”
Robin signalled me with a quick look at her treehouse. Her lips made the word, midnight as all three Culpeppers went inside and their door clicked shut.