This year, the town council permitted its denizens to shoot fireworks from an earthen dam on the Fourth of July. Rather than the police and fire departments criss-crossing the county, better to keep the insanity in one place: that was their reasoning. But revelers arrived early, herds of them. They soon established territories and fired Roman candles at late-coming encroachers. By dark, pleasure boats launched explosives at the dam from the reservoir and those on the dam returned fire. Police lights and sirens and bullhorns added to the mayhem. This is the America in which my peers claim they grew up. I don’t know about that, but it’s the childhood they insist upon now.
The casualties included 14 flash burns, a fractured femur, a broken nose, two concussions, a detached cornea and one heart attack: mine. I lit a bottle rocket to signal for help but in the noise and smoke and paper shrapnel, it was lost. A cop passed me during the mayhem but thought I was drunk. By the next morning Elvis had left the building.
I am not sure if I exist now in the ether or surrounded by brimstone. The latter seems more likely. My sins outnumber my virtues. If it were this act or that habit that put me in error, I could have corrected my course, but I was amiss in a more fundamental way, not rudderless but uncertain what a rudder was for.
Children save some people. I’ve witnessed it. Those fathers got something right I didn’t. Two years following my high school graduation I ended up with a 17-month-old child who clobbered anyone he encountered with a stuffed rabbit. Jerome’s mother had plans for something past small towns and I wasn’t the sort who formed intents let alone followed them. I knew nothing but consequence.
I watched Jerome’s favorite movies with him. I changed diapers and dressed and undressed the boy and played airplane to get him to eat his carrots. I enjoyed Jerome mightily, but I enjoyed him as you might a favorite dog who rode with you everywhere and put its head out the window and let the rushing air flap its ears.
At night when I put Jerome down, he’d rattled his crib’s bars hoping to be freed a little longer. Then his head rocked and his eyelids grew weighted and he slipped into sleep. A kind of peace was supposed to accompany these moments and it did on occasion. But the calm was the sort you observed rather than participated in. I felt alone and resented television for lying.
From kindergarten, Jerome was behind in reading. By the middle grades, his peers treated him with benign indifference. The only trouble he ever got into started as generosity. He stole a ribbon from the dime store to make our neighbor girl, Sarah, a necklace. Of course, the cashier caught him. Jerome wandered town until dark then had no choice but return to the house. He seemed contrite, so I bought him some ice cream.
Jerome wanted a soldier’s discipline, the kind that generals employed to order them to perform the impossible. I was not interested in discipline. It came off as apathy. Maybe it was. Jerome slipped into that hole teenagers do when others lose track of them. It led to drugs for some, but Jerome attended church instead. The minister opened and closed services with a prayer, then his acolytes set the Bibles aside. What his group required wasn’t chapter and verse; they hungered for philosophy, a simple one that didn’t repel them with logic.
“Show yourself,” Jerome demanded one night.
Over the next hour God arrived or He didn’t and Jerome hallucinated Him. This God, Jerome’s perhaps – yours too, maybe – ignored Jerome’s plea and just hovered there as if to mock the boy.
Me? I scrambled to meet the bills. A 20 here or there went to the boy. He might have admired the quality of paper and studied the engraving for Masonic symbols then stowed them in a box like baseball cards, for all I knew. Living is just waiting for the steam to come off your morning coffee, I’ve discovered. Passing over allows you time to drink it finally. My contribution to the boy was only groceries and a house where he lived in the margins. I lacked the imagination to do more; it’s my great failing; I could not reason my way out of the roadless countries of my own mind.
Sarah had become a young woman, ordinary in the manner that all young people are ordinary and exquisite at the same time. She followed Jerome during Sunday services. She was poor and the minister managed to give her a sack of leftovers once in a while and a little cash from the meager collections each meeting.
Rumors of a tryst circled them. Jerome ignored them. He seemed to have no interest in Sarah aside from charity. I didn’t think Jerome was an ascetic or a prude but I believed he found love separate from sex. Love was chivalrous. It filled you with something bigger than yourself, then sex pulled the plug and drained romance from the tub. It was late, but he’d reached the place where they converged and it left him awkward and uncertain. Or maybe Jerome saw sex as how he got here, not love, and he didn’t want to be responsible for anyone entering the world under the same terms. I figured him for a long bachelorhood until he hunted me down at my parts store counter job.
“I require $300,” he said.
“I got a pistol I could sell. I got to know why first.”
“Justice of the Peace. Sarah and I are getting married.”
“Is she pregnant?” He informed me it didn’t matter, which I assumed meant she was.
“The usual reasons.”
I unloaded the weapon. That week I stopped the truck for Ellie, the crossing guard, while she escorted children from one side of the street to another and in the grocery passed Jennifer Connors and her sister Elizabeth both navigating baby strollers through the aisles, the infants’ faces slivers between blankets and caps or bonnets. Then in the bank line, I encountered a woman I didn’t know with a child no more than two weeks old. She was like a drawing of a baby, pursed lips and a nose almost lost in all that face. Her countenance was a flaccid pool, either awe or confusion or both at once. Her eyes blinked in the lights. This child was just a few days in the world, but she attended what she saw fiercely and without ceasing.
In art books, paintings are all the same size because pages can only be so large. But in museums, you have to retreat to the back of the room to take some of them in. I wondered if those painters squinted at their work up close then crossed the studio and examined it from the back wall or if they just continued a line until the paint coagulated the brush or dripped to the floor then commenced another and only later the last supper or melting clocks or water lilies or a soup can appeared.
I wondered if they were parents of their paintings.
I read once that any human, artist or not, is a blank page, so the first writing remains no matter how much comes after. I don’t hold with that. Women sing to fetuses before they’re born; some read them books. And what the mother takes in, whether heroin or vitamins, multiplies in the womb. The writing appears to begin before the paper is paper. Even in Eden, the Old Testament god scribbled in the world for six days before people, words such as apple and serpent that ticked like a bomb.
What had I written in Jerome’s pages?
I swapped my year-old truck with my boss for his older model, then banked the $1,000 difference. I inquired with his wife the cost of weddings. Cheap was four grand, she replied. So I sold the 30.06 my father gave me and a 12-gauge I inherited when my mother passed. My boss drew up a note for the difference. My son is getting married, I told customers, and some congratulated me; I didn’t even know you had a son, others said.
I realized I didn’t want the cheapest wedding for Jerome so I hawked a ring with a diamond from my grandmother for another $500. Then I contacted his mother. She still went by her maiden name but resided only 20 miles away. Jerome’s dad, I reminded her. I invited her to the wedding. His whole family should be there, I figured.
“He doesn’t know me,” she said.
“I’ll introduce you after.”
She sighed, then asked me the date. I visited Jerome after his Bible study and presented him with the cash in a manila envelope.
“For a real wedding not a cheap one either. One where I walk with you down the aisle.”
“Sarah and her father would want to do that.”
“OK they can come too,” I said. “You organize the thing. I’m no good at that. But I need to know a date.”
He accepted the envelope.
“A date,” I reminded him.
Next week he brought me a wedding license.
“The date,” I reminded him.
“Yesterday,” Jerome said.
“What about the money?”
“We saved it.”
“For the baby?”
He looked stumped a moment.
“Oh,” he said, finally. “Yes, the baby.”
I didn’t know if they were pregnant or not. How could I ask? A fiction exists about this sort of conundrum. You believe there are lessons there but I learned nothing. I had no idea what to tell people. Judge not, lest ye be judged, the lord says, to those who think themselves righteous but the town would judge me plenty. It was unfair. I never judged them. But they would argue my compliance was not out of good will or decency but uncertainty. I never pounded the gavel and called the court to order, so how could I have delivered anyone mercy or peace? Everything I did was a guess, nothing born from conviction and I guessed badly because guessing is haphazard and a haphazard existence was all I knew.
After, Jerome rarely spoke to me outside the cordial. I figured Jerome would find his way, maybe several ways and when he steered their directions some would swell with light until it was all he could see and others the light would flicker like a match in a hard wind and smoke and die. What he would do about it, even now, I remain unsure. We aren’t granted omniscience here.
I do not know if the silence between us relieved the boy, but it did me, which is another way in which I failed him. Time passed and he took over for the minister. Sarah moved but he said they stayed married, which was good, I guess, though a part of me hoped they encountered a bump or two because they hadn’t done it my way. As far as the child, I don’t know.
I left my number with Jerome’s mother but we never spoke again. What reason would we have? I paid off the loan over several years but the guns were gone. All I could only afford was a used Prius and I endured more ridicule over it.
Then my ticker quit keeping time.
Jerome attended the funeral but said no prayer for me, for good reason, and now I reside past where a deity’s hammers of good and evil no longer beat at me and only the earth and worms separate the two.