Wednesday, July 4, 2018

The Fourth of July

State Capitol Building, Bismarck, North Dakota

July 4th used to be my favorite holiday. Now it's just a day -- a day off from work; a day of watching TV and if the stars align, taking a nap. 

When one lives in a small town, summer holidays are joyful. The early morning sun beaming through the kitchen window warms your skin; your sinews tingle with anticipation.You rise early to stir up a peach coffee cake and lean against the toasty oven door to twirl the dials on the kitchen timer. The kids are still snuffling softly in their beds.

The heavy air hints of a coming sunset thunderstorm; my cotton blouse clings to the plumb between my breasts and hips. The radio on the kitchen counter thumps with John Anderson croaking out Swingin'. The phone on the wall rings and I flip the volume low on the transistor. My little sister is calling from Mom and Dad's. "What time are y'all coming over?" she asks. She's flown up from Fort Worth with her little son the afternoon before, because she, like me, knows how much the Fourth of July means. "No one's up yet," I say. "Give us a couple of hours."

I rap on bedroom doors. "Let's go!" My sons stagger out of their rooms and woozily flick shower knobs to scalding. Then they dump all manner of fireworks -- Roman candles, bottle rockets, "inferno" fountains, M-80's -- hey, how'd those get in there? -- out of paper grocery bags onto the living room floor and argue over which belongs to whom. I twist Saran Wrap around my coffee cake and grab my Minolta SLR off the bedroom bureau; snatch my purse and herd everyone and everything into the car.

At 9:00 we pull into the driveway. The garage door is wide open and Dad is sitting inside on a lawn chair nursing a stained mug of coffee and flicking his cigarette into a sand-filled coffee can.  Upstairs Mom's slicing hard-boiled eggs with a paring knife, dropping the yellow-white rings into a Tupperware bowl of boiled baby potatoes. Apple and cherry pies rest on cooling racks on the counter. She swabs her damp forehead with a tissue.

My sister is parked on the sofa in front of the TV where Cyndi Lauper's bee-stung lips are warbling Time After Time. "What time you think we should leave?" she asks. "It's gonna be hell getting a parking spot...and it's hot," I say. Lissa, the transplanted Texan, reminds me that I have no earthly idea what "hot" is.

We have to finalize transportation arrangements. Since my older sister and her husband won't saunter over until three p.m. or so, they are not part of the equation. My little brother and his boys like to go their own way -- they'll get there when they get there. Mom has long ago sworn off sun, plus she's hoping to grab a snooze once everyone vacates the premises. That leaves approximately seven people to pile into Dad's Lincoln to traverse the river and pray for a parking spot that isn't two miles and two hulking coolers away. Our ultimate destination is the curb in front of Mandan's McDonald's, where my sister-in-law works the breakfast shift and my brother loiters waiting for her to doff her McD's apron and join the party. We stake out our spot on the street's edge by parking our coolers and blankets and troop inside the joint to order up pancakes plunked inside Styrofoam containers and where Dad can get his coffee fix. We hover, waiting for one party of the three hundred clamoring hordes to depart so we can finally sit down at a sticky Formica table. I'm itchy to get out of there and get down to the business of snapping pictures. Finally my sis and I lower ourselves to the curb and commence to doing what we do best -- making smart-alecky comments about anything and everything around us.

Before long we hear the faint trill of snare drums and the bassy bray of trombones. The parade has begun. Viet Nam vets march past us hoisting the American flag and the black MIA banner. I stand and my chest tightens. Damn, I'm patriotic. The Mandan High School marching band follows behind and I nod in deference to my long-ago school days. My sister didn't attend Mandan High, so it's just color and pomp to her.

Dad and my brothers (little brother has made his way over, as he inevitably always does) stand behind us and comment on the line of farm implements and antique cars. "I had one of those," is Dad's clarion call. A polka band atop a flatbed squeezes out an accordion solo. I click the shutter on my camera with one hand while herding my boys away from the street with the other, when they venture a step too far to collect candy thrown by everyone participating in the promenade. They barely avoid the hooves of the draft horses in their quest to claim bragging rights to the biggest mound of candy.

I'm feeling a little queasy from the combination of sun fever and prefab pancakes, but I'm exhilarated.  We gather up our blankets and miscellaneous detritus and tromp, sunburned, the two miles back to the car. We never even comment on the spectacle -- it is what it is -- a part of us; a part of our essence.

Mom's face crinkles with concern as we alight the stairs; she searches Dad's face for hints of sun stroke. But Dad, like me, is exuberant. He lives for this day.

The burgers are sizzling on the grill; big bowls of potato salad and baked beans claim the dining room table. Dill pickle spears repose in the crystal relish tray. My brother claims the couch and stretches out to pseudo-nap. My sister and I sit cross-legged on the living room carpet and laugh at nothing. Kids do what kids do; rambunct the staircase and holler. It's now almost 3:00 and still no sign of my big sister and her husband. I'm mildly irritated because I'm starving and the food looks sooo good. My sister-in-law will eventually pity-eat a slice of my coffee cake; I found the recipe on the back of a can of Libby's Sliced Peaches in Heavy Syrup, and it's my go-to pot luck contribution, because it's easy to make and almost impossible to ruin. It really stands no chance against home-baked cherry pie with a lattice crust, however.

Dad is down in the garage smoking again. I'll join him as soon as I'm tactfully able. Dad is  anticipating my brother-in-law's arrival -- his smoking and BS'ing buddy. That makes at least two of us who are impatiently waiting.

My little brother is outside entertaining his kids and mine with all manner of mischief. My big brother on the couch squinches his eyes open, then closed again. Mom announces to no one in particular that "maybe I should give your sister a call."  My brother rolls over on his side and grouses, "let's just eat." Of course, Mom would never broach that notion.

By and by, the missing couple arrives; my sister toting a tray of deviled eggs. Mom gushes over this offering and declares that she needs to get the recipe, as if she (or even me) does not know how to pipe mustard-mayo into boiled egg crevices and sprinkle them with paprika.

The entire scattered family, their antennae quivering, descend upon the dining room table like ravenous raccoons, pawing and snatching food items with abandon. Chinaware plates piled high, they find the nearest folding chair, empty floor space, recliner arm, to perch on and savor the repast as if it's their final prison meal before the noose drops.

The bellyful re-energizes my brother. He badgers us to play a board game or at least break out a deck of cards.  My little sister and I sit it out. We'll go our own way, which is downstairs to the family room to watch Beavis and Butthead and giggle. My kids eventually saunter in and join our MTV party.

Unspoken, everyone is waiting for night to fall and for the pièce de résistance -- the lighting of the fireworks. Once dusk descends, everyone congregates on the front stoop -- Mom sips from a mug of coffee that will keep her awake until two a.m. Dad settles in beside her and fires up another smoke. My brothers become the kids in the clutch -- setting up combustibles in the middle of the street and lighting them afire. I hold out my arm to bar my kids from running out too close and suffering debilitating burns. A couple of houses down the block, someone is firing up bottle rockets, which zoom and whiz and pirouette. My brother-in-law scuttles out of the way of the flaming missiles just in time. My oldest son wants desperately to set off one of his showering fountains, so I pull out my lighter and touch it to a "punk", wait for it to glow red and carefully hand it over. He rushes into the street, lights the fuse and runs. Life is inherently dangerous. A little bit of risk gets one's corpuscles pulsing.

The family show continues for an hour or so. I hear the rumble of thunder in the western sky. Or is it fireworks? The horizon flashes orange. A nighttime thunderstorm is the perfect ending to a glorious Independence Day.

The clock ticks; the showers of sparks become redundant. My kids are beginning to wither. It's late. Time to lift their dozy bodies into the back seat and depart. We say our goodbyes, knowing we'll meet again just like this the next Fourth of July and we'll follow exactly the same routine.

I arrive home and spy my countenance in the bathroom mirror. My face is pale salmon except for two white rings circling my eyes. I change out of my sweat-dampened shorts and tank top and snuggle inside my living room rocker, light up a smoke and savor the bliss.

Today was perfectly perfect.

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