It’s dusk when the doorbell plays a tinny series of bells that remind Kent of some classical music he can’t name. It’s the first time he’s heard the doorbell, and whoever rang it is the first visitor at his new place.
“Hey, Tobe,” Kent says from the cramped, unpacked galley-kitchen, “want to get that?”
Toby pauses his video game—a month-early birthday gift that Kent couldn’t afford but knew would both probably piss off Stephanie and win him some soon-to-be-single dad points—and goes to the door. Kent is cleaning up their dinner, a Gigantor Prime Cut from Minsky’s, half of which went untouched. He’s angling the pizza box into the nearly empty fridge when Toby calls out.
“Dad, some guy,” he says and pauses. “Jeff…says he lives across the street. Wants to talk to you.”
Kent wads the paper plates and napkins and stuffs them and the plastic cups in the open trash bag on the floor and turns the corner out of the kitchen. A man in jeans and a black t-shirt stands on his slab porch in the dusky light. A haze of sulphury smoke hangs over the neighborhood. Pops and sizzles and booms fill the air around them. The man has tattoos up and down both arms, and his blonde hair is slicked back like a 1950s greaser.
When Kent steps past Toby and opens the storm door, the man’s smile surprises him. It’s wide and bright. “Hi,” he says, extending his hand. “I’m Jeff.”
Kent notices the man’s unusually long fingernails on his right hand. Kent squeezes hard, overcompensating, a habit he’s developed in his job as an admissions counselor at the applied technology skills branch of a local community college. The school offers a number of technical degrees: diesel repair, HVAC, auto body, construction. The students are nearly always men, many in their 30s and 40s, who’ve come to learn a new technical trade after being laid off or phased out of their jobs in the changing economy. Problem is, at least for Kent, these men often have difficulty filling out the online application, securing high school transcripts, and producing writing samples. Because the degree programs are associate’s degrees, the students in the technical programs have to be placed in the appropriate composition and math classes. Convincing them the value of those classes is the hardest part of his job. He never forgets to point out, though, that all they need is a D and they can move on.
“Kent,” he says. “What can I do for you?”
“Like I was just telling your boy, I’m from just over there.” He jerks his thumb toward one of the identical duplexes that line both sides of the street. The only things that distinguished them are the vehicles in the driveways and the level of lawn maintenance. “I know you just moved in, but I wanted to let you know about the neighborhood fireworks show.”
“Fireworks? Cool,” Toby says, and Kent looks at him, incredulous.
“I know,” Jeff says. “Pretty badass, right?”
“I had to drag you to the fireworks stand earlier. You said—” Kent starts, but Toby just shrugs. Up until this year, a day or two before the Fourth they’d hit three or four stands and load up on fireworks of every type: small stuff like snakes, smoke bombs, tanks, sparklers, and firecrackers; and bigger stuff, like parachute bottle rockets, roman candles, fountains, and shells. He always spent way too much money, but as much as Toby loved it, he never regretted it. He’d been banking on their shooting off fireworks together tonight being something special, something symbolic to show Toby that though he’d moved out, they were all going to be okay. It didn’t seem to interest Toby this year, so Kent just bought a couple cellophane-wrapped variety packs of small nightworks.
“It’s set to start in like an hour, over in the field,” Jeff says, pointing to the field where their street ends in a cul-de-sac. The realtor told Kent she suspected the developer ran into financing issues. “Davis—the guy drives the jacked-up Ford down the way—has been putting it on for like six years now.”
Though Kent had only been here for three days, he knows exactly who Jeff is talking about. Davis is the same guy who, at 7:30 that morning, was blasting some 80s pop mix that heavily featured Duran Duran while working on his truck.
“He’s a good dude,” Jeff says and sort of nods at both Kent and Toby as if waiting for them to agree. “Anyway, the reason I stopped by was to invite you, of course, but also to ask…you know what? Fuck it. Oops—sorry!” he says and slaps his hand over his mouth. “I mean, never mind.”
“Ask what?” Kent says.
Jeff lets out a breath and his lips pop quietly. “It was my year to collect donations from everyone to help offset Davis’s costs—we try to get folks to chip in five or ten bucks—and I didn’t even want to ask since you just moved in, but the HOA chick said…you know what? Just forget I said anything. I mean, I know how it is.”
“What’s that mean, you ‘know how it is’?”
“It’s just,” Jeff says and then looks from Kent to Toby back to Kent. “I mean, I get it man.”
Kent doesn’t look away from Jeff, though it takes everything he has. He hates that his situation is so obvious, and even more that Jeff is taking pity on him. If Toby hadn’t been there, he’s not sure what he would have said.
“Anyway, so a sort of new thing this year. Davis asked me to plug in and do a kind of Hendrix at Woodstock National Anthem-type-deal,” he says, leaning back and striking an air guitar pose. “Should be pretty sweet.”
“You play guitar?” Toby asks.
“Since I was probably—how old are you?”
“Twelve,” Toby says, “or, I’ll be twelve next month.”
“I was about that age, yeah. I play guitar for a living actually, if you can believe it.”
“Cool,” Toby says, the word dripping with admiration. “Mom said I could get one for my birthday, and once everything gets back to normal, I could start taking lessons.”
“Normal?” Kent says, but Toby’s not paying attention.
“Tell you what, next time you visit your dad, bring your axe and I can show you a few licks. We can jam,” he says and gives Kent a wink.
“Thanks!” Toby says.
“Hey, if your dad doesn’t mind,” Jeff says, and looks at Kent but doesn’t wait for him to respond, “my boy, he’s about your age, is out running around with some friends, and I’m sure they’d be happy if you joined them.” Before Kent or Toby can reply, Jeff turns and sticks his pinkie fingers in his mouth and cuts loose a whistle that gets his son’s attention a few houses away. He waves the boy over.
When he approaches his father’s side, he smiles and says, “Hi.” He looks like a perfectly normal kid, and not one from the band of pre-teen hooligans Kent’s seen roving the neighborhood the last two evenings.
Jeff lays his arm over his son’s shoulders. “Junior, this is Mr. Kent and his son…”
“Toby,” Toby says.
“Right, Toby. You think Toby could hang out with you all? His dad just moved in.”
“Sure!” the boy says, “C’mon!”
“Let me get my shoes,” Toby says and sprints to the living room. He stumbles putting on his shoes and hustles out the door.
“But what about your new game?” Kent says. “You were gonna show me something?”
“It’s okay. I can do that in the morning before Mom picks me up.” Kent hears Junior introduce himself and watches the two shake hands.
“Come check in with me before the fireworks,” Kent calls out, but Toby and the boy are already running across the yard and out of earshot.
“Don’t worry, Junior’s a good kid. I don’t let him play with any of the little fucks who live here full time.”
“He doesn’t live with you?”
“Every other weekend, a month during the summer. His mom and I divorced a few years back. I don’t want to say you get used to it, but…” Jeff says and offers a tight-lipped smile. “I saw your ex drop off your boy yesterday afternoon.”
“Not my—we’re separated.”
Jeff looks at Kent and then around him into the house. “Okay,” he says, and raises his hands, surrendering.
Kent takes a breath. “She’s filed,” he admits. “I just haven’t signed the acknowledgment yet.” And, without even thinking, he tells Jeff something he hasn’t anyone else. “One morning after Toby got on the school bus, she told me she didn’t want to be married to me anymore. Right there in the kitchen.”
“Shit man. Damn,” Jeff says. “Well, welcome to the least exclusive club in the world.”
As soon as Jeff leaves, Kent goes straight to the fridge and grabs two beers from the dwindling twelve pack. He cracks one and takes a long swallow. Though he gave off a pretty clear us-single-dads-gotta-stick-together vibe, Kent imagines he could become friends with a guy like Jeff, if he can set aside his envy. It isn’t that he’s a musician—though he has to admit it’s pretty cool—it’s that he is doing it, living the life he wants. Kent feels the same around the men he helps enroll at the community college. Though these men are often facing a forced career change, at least they are doing something to advance themselves. They’re learning or refining a skill or trade and then applying it out in the world, building or fixing things. On his better days Kent understands he’s a necessary cog in that wheel, but usually he sees himself like the guy in the circus whose job it is to hold the hoops highly trained animals jump through. Kent somehow cobbled together eight semesters worth of college in fits and starts and restarts over the course of a dozen or so years while working to help raise Toby and support Stephanie while she got her bachelor’s and then master’s in Social Work, and the best real job he could land with his General Studies degree and resume full of shitty part-time jobs was as an entry-level admission’s counselor at community college. It isn’t as if Kent sacrificed some ambition; he was too busy trying to scrape together money and finish school to have really dreamed about some future career. He liked history classes and had even briefly entertained thoughts of being a history teacher, but he knew there was no way he would’ve been able to do all the education classes, to say nothing of the student teaching.
Kent paces the rooms of his new place, looking at the paltry scatter of boxes. He thought his old house—his old life—had been so full of stuff, but when he packed, nothing seemed to belong to him. Everything was Anna’s, or no…it was more like the things they’d accumulated over the years—lamps, pictures, end tables, books, CDs—belonged to the house, like they couldn’t be separated. All Kent really wanted was for none of this to be happening, but since he couldn’t fix that, all he took besides his clothes were the spare bedroom mattress, the old kitchen table that had been shoved in the corner of the basement and piled high with junk, and some of his tools from the garage. He could pretend that he’s adopting a kind of Spartan lifestyle, and it might fool some people, but in truth, Kent just doesn’t care. The relative emptiness of his new place suits him.
He finishes his beer, shaking the remains at the bottom of the can before placing it on a box marked “bedroom.” He pops the second one and crosses the small living room and sits on his Goodwill-new couch. Toby’s console rests on the beat-up coffee table, the game on what looks like the home screen. He picks it up but doesn’t know what to do; he was never really into video games, but like most people his age, he had an original Nintendo as a kid. His only frame of reference is the two buttons and the plus-shaped directional control, but this has two joysticks and so many buttons he feels like he needs another hand, or at least a few extra fingers to make it work. He pushes buttons, and one must work because the text on the screen asks, “Join battle?” He pushes buttons again until one works again, and he is moved into a kind of lobby where a timer counts down until the “battle” begins. In the two minutes he waits, he drinks most of his second beer. When the countdown ends, his character, a muscled blond guy in sleeveless fatigues and, inexplicably, a scarf, is dropped out of the sky from some kind of flying bus. Nothing about this makes any sense to Kent, but he likes how it feels watching his character glide over the land. He figures out he can control his flight with one of the joysticks, and he wishes he could just keep floating over the surreal yet weirdly realistic topography. Dramatic mountains and cliffs dominate the horizon, and uninhabited forests, waterways, and a fully modern town dots the island below. When his character lands, an overly large pickaxe appears in his hand. No one else is around him, so he has time to mess with the buttons and figure out the basic controls for moving his character. He knows from the little Toby has told him that the object of the game is to find weapons and kill everyone. He discovers quickly that he can smash and break just about anything he strikes with his pickaxe, and he has an overwhelming urge to run wild, destroying whatever is in front of him. But it’s all so immersive—even on the small handheld screen—that without even realizing it, he’s fully absorbed in the world of the game.
Aside from the thumping techno pop, Kent finds it strangely tranquil walking his character along the river. Boulders and cliffs emerge from the hillside above him, and though he doesn’t know where the river leads, he’s happy to follow it. They weren’t ever really an outdoorsy family, but there is something about this that makes Kent wish they had been. He imagines playing the game with Toby and having a younger version of his blonde character exploring this world alongside him. Sure, Toby’d probably want to destroy and kill, but that’d be okay with Kent so long as they could do it together. He even fantasizes scenarios where he kills some other character to save Toby, or somehow sacrifices himself to allow Toby the chance to win the battle. Though he couldn’t afford this console—there was a nervous moment at Best Buy when he inserted his credit card into the machine and it took longer than normal to process—he starts thinking of ways to swing dropping another three-hundred and fifty bucks on a second one so he can play with Toby while he’s at his mom’s. He makes a mental note to cut back on beer for a month or two and see if he can skimp a little on groceries and maybe dig through some of his old shit to see what he might sell. He has some comic books and baseball cards from when he was a kid, and even a crate of his dad’s old LPs. There has to be a little money there.
The river rounds a bend, and when his avatar climbs over several car-sized boulders, he’s met with a gorge and a roaring waterfall like something from National Geographic. Kent feels a touch of vertigo. He marvels at the level of detail. Things still have a surreal, almost cartoony look, but there is a sense of harmony Kent feels at the abyss, and though he isn’t usually an emotional guy, he knows if he let himself, he could cry. Again, he wishes Toby were here, either on the couch or in the game, to experience this. He takes a deep breath, grabs his beer from the coffee table, and brings the can to his lips. But on the screen, he hears a single shot and flinches, spilling the last of the beer on his shirt. His avatar throws up his hands and falls backward before dissolving into a blue vapor. Though there is no blood or gore, Kent experiences the shot viscerally, a pain deep in his gut. The view fades to black, and he flips the console onto the cushion next to him.
On his way to the fridge for another beer, Kent notices the two paper sacks of fireworks he bought earlier sitting by the door. “Fireworks,” he says, “jesus…”
He grabs the sacks and is about to stuff them in the trash, but he stops. He imagines Toby coming to the kitchen for breakfast tomorrow morning, seeing the fireworks in the trash, and, head hanging, apologizing for not shooting them off with him. Kent’s stomach tightens at the thought. He won’t have his son feeling guilty for growing up. It occurs to him how stupid it was to try to force it, that it was just nostalgia, and that he should’ve known better. He gets the last two beers from the fridge, and then takes the fireworks and a lighter outside.
It’s now dark, but the ambient light from open garage doors make it so that Kent can see most of the neighborhood has gathered in a half circle of lawn chairs and blankets at the end of the street, near the undeveloped field. A flashlight beam bounces around, and Kent assumes this is Davis finishing setting up the fireworks. A few small children run in circles, sparklers ablaze, the sulphury air thicker even than before. Though there are still small-scale pops and the occasional rat-a-tat-tat of firecracker strings, most of that has been replaced by the deep percussive booms of larger fireworks being shot off all over town. Two houses down, Jeff has pulled a giant amp to the mouth of his garage. A white guitar hangs from his shoulder as he tunes up and tinkers with his settings.
Kent takes his bags of fireworks to the end of his driveway and looks for Toby, but he can’t find him in the crowd. Kids are still out running around, but in the darkness, he can’t really tell them apart. Kent tears the cellophane from each pack, wadding and stuffing it and the thin cardboard backing into the bags, and lines up the fireworks on the curb. He doesn’t allow himself much time to consider how pathetic this looks compared to what is about to happen at the end of the street. He opens a beer and looks again to where Jeff is finishing setting up. He raises his beer toward Jeff, and Jeff returns a devil horns salute.
Kent takes the lighter from his pocket, sparks it, and starts lighting wicks. He gets four lit before the first one, a silver fountain, begins hissing and showering sparks, and he has to back away. The second in line is another kind of fountain, but this one shoots crackling balls of red sparks eight or ten feet into the air. Kent swallows a mouthful of beer and notices that many of his neighbors have turned in their chairs and are staring at him. He raises his beer to them, too. “God bless America,” he shouts. “Whoo-hoo!” But no one waves back.
Kent goes to the other end of his line of fireworks and lights as many fuses as he can before the first one ignites. He dances and whoops and hollers around the showering sparks and strobing, multi-colored crackling balls. “Fuck yeah!” he shouts. He’s a little drunk, but not so much that he doesn’t realize he’s making an ass out of himself. Even more people are watching him, and Kent knows Toby’ll be embarrassed. Embarrassment a kid is supposed to feel about his father, not guilt.
While everyone watches Kent, Jeff’s guitar squeals a long drone of feedback which, after several seconds, bleeds into the opening notes of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Kent shouts along. “Oh-ohh, sa-ay can you seeeeee!” People look from Kent to Jeff and back, unsure where to focus their attention: at the guitar player ripping into the national anthem or at the crazy asshole singing and dancing around the puny fireworks spurting in his driveway.
A deep thwonk sounds, and a second later, above them bursts a blue pyrotechnic that Kent feels deep in his chest. Some in the crowd flinch at the boom. He wonders if there has been some missed signal or timing thing between Jeff and Davis. Things are out of sync, but he sings on: “By the dawn’s earl-lee liiight!” At the next thwonk, people crane their necks skyward, ready this time and no longer focused on Kent’s singing or Jeff’s guitar playing, and in the flash of red from the burst, Kent sees Toby—he’s sure it’s his son—across the street, standing a few feet away from the group of boys, watching him. Kent stops and waves; he can’t help himself. The next shells explode, briefly overwhelming Jeff’s wailing guitar, irradiating them all in silver and then gold. Just as the light fades and before the next shell bursts, though he can’t be sure, he thinks he sees his son raise his arm to wave back.