Thursday, June 01, 2006


I knelt low to the ground of my grandfather’s driveway, tensed on the balls of my feet, ready to run away as fast as I could. But not yet. I had broken in my hand a Black Cat firecracker, the kind sold in gaudy oases on the sides of the interstate, snapped it open so that its lode of curiously desiccated gunpowder shone silver and dry. In my pocket was one of my grandfather’s cheap plastic Bic lighters that were everywhere in the house he had built himself in the 1950’s. I propped the broken firework on a small rock so that its inverted V pointed up, the broken junction ready for the fire.

I can’t remember where this idea originated, though I know that it was something I learned in the kindly addled care of my grandparents. My grandfather, known to everyone as Rip, had been an alcoholic all my life and my grandmother, Mary Lou, was pleasantly fogbound after a stroke some years before. He would keep buckets of these Black Cats and bottle rockets and Roman candles around the house all year round. If it burned, if it exploded, if it whistled like a hellish tea kettle, he would buy them in bulk and I loved him for it.

Whenever I stayed with my grandparents, long stretches each summer, I was left largely to myself, given a few dollars for the convenience store down the street, Ross’ Thriftway, where I would buy candy and comic books: Batman, Iron Man, Captain America, Alpha Flight. Still cheap at forty and fifty cents, I’d buy two or three and begin to read them on my way back to my grandparents’ home, which sat atop one of the first hills that rose up to make a neighborhood called Beverly Hills. I loved the human heroes best and I filled boxes with the tattered copies, nicked and torn, rolled, read.

Every season could not have been summer but it seems that way now. The hill their house was built into continued to rise up steeply over the house and cut into the earth was a crudely poured concrete pool. At night, after dark, late but still warm and humid, I’d go with Rip up to the pool where he’d strip down to the ragged boxers he always wore and dive in. Most nights I’d join him in the water, warm as a bath. For him, it was a bath. He kept a bar of soap by the diving board and would soap up, his arms, chest, his face and dark hair. He called me and my brother crumbsnatchers or wickerdicks or worse if he was drinking. There was something about him I could not quite believe was real, actual. Years later, in graduate school, I would write too many poems trying to get at that elusive quality, that which is the stuff of myth, maybe. None of the poems were ever all that successful, not really. I gave up before long. The poem that should be his would probably be set in that pool he dug and poured himself, plain soap clotting his hair with suds while night bugs ticked against the light overhead.

He owned a junkyard in town, Bohanon’s Auto Parts. Better Used Than Abused was his slogan and the days I could go to work with him were spent climbing into the twisted husks of totaled cars that would slowly be stripped of the last of their remaining worth. Inside I would find battered old eight track cassettes, Elvis, Pink Floyd, Steve Martin. I’d find safety glass in its strange litter across the dashboard and seats. Holding it up to the light, it seemed an odd blue-green, a color like the sea. There was never money. Sometimes stuffed beneath the seat I’d find pornography, cheaply produced magazines with bored looking girls sprawled out across car hoods, their swollen breasts rising up. I felt wrong to look and I rarely did, returning the cheap magazines under the seat.

I would snap the hood ornaments from the cars or pry the fake crests that were affixed to the sides of the Chrysler Cordoba. I loved the Cordoba’s. Ricardo Montalban would espouse the unspeakable luxuries of rich Corinthian leather on television commercials that worked well enough on me. All these parts were pure contraband, however; I had to sneak them home, tucked in my socks, wedged into my back pocket. Often enough, though, he’d find me out, cursing me with gusto.

Rip owned farmland in Chickamauga, Georgia, the farm he’d been born on and worked until leaving to be a turret gunner in World War II. On that land he let me drive trucks, cars, motorcycles, without the least supervision. I was twelve years old.

It is a wonder I survived myself at all.

Somehow I had discovered a broken firecracker, carefully lit, would spew from its center, from its halves, streams of sparks like a sparkler. I had taken a few packs of Black Cats outside on that summer day to light them, to insert them in the overripe tomatoes that grew outside, to explode the red pulp in a shower. But first I broke one of them in half. I took the Bic lighter, flicked it aflame, and put the tongue of fire to the halved explosive.

There were no sparks. I felt a shock wave roll through my hand up the length of my right arm. My ear buzzed like the hives my grandfather tended behind the house. The day seemed muted now, draped in thick cotton, indistinct. I held up my hand, dumbly counting each finger, looking for the ragged absences of one or more of them. All were still there and I felt a second wave, nauseous gratitude pouring in like floodwater. I got up from where I crouched, still ringing, still shocked, and stumbled inside the house, speaking to no one, crawling in to a bed, willing myself to sleep, saying a panicked prayer I could not hear myself speak.


Anonymous said...

Yes. It's amazing any of us survive anything that explodes in our hands. I see you thinking, Paul Michael, and I'm loving this direction. . .keep it up!!! (and to the order of chapters. . .who was it who so many times said "So many words. . ."

Anonymous said...

What a grand little mid-summer tale!

Taylor Loy said...

"grand" and "little" even.

Did you know?
13% of people who look at your book on Amazon actually go on to buy:

Japanese Death Poems: Written by Zen Monks and Haiku Poets on the Verge of Death

Your goal if you choose to accept it is to get this to at least 25%

A noble enterprise.

I kinda miss you, man.
(men have to say "kinda" to each other)

The wedding is still on for Aug. 12.
If not before then
I hope to see you then.

There are some pictures I took in Seattle posted on my web page that you might like/get a kick out of.