I leaned in over it, my face low to the ground, to the thing I’d broken, the cheap firecracker I’d unraveled from its dry, crumbling mates, its fuse gray, unassuming. I’d snapped it in two so that the powder spilled from it. The firecracker was stolen, as was the lighter: my grandfather kept a bucket of them atop the freezer. If it was ever empty, and it rarely was, my grandmother would shell peas into it, wordless and stroke-daft, her fingers shedding beans into the bucket with ease. But, mostly, this pot held firecrackers my grandfather loved: Black Cats and M-80s and spindly bottle rockets he would light in his hand, only to let go in the seconds before detonation.
Somehow I had discovered the powder inside the firecrackers would not necessarily explode. That it would spark up and shower the ground with a few seconds of flinty fire. I would bend the firecracker into a V-shape, its rupture pointing up, prop it on a piece of dusty gravel so that it stayed that way, and snap my grandfather’s stolen fire alive in my hand.
It did not always catch. Some of the firecrackers were old, years old, I think, dry as a mummy. I’d try again, until the fire took hold and the shower of sparks hissed up. It never lasted long. A few seconds. Mostly a smoke that was dense and bitter. But the sparks were starry, amazing to me, bouncing away, obliterated within seconds.
At my grandparents’ home there was access to fire: lighters, matches, gasoline, and addled, inconstant supervision. I could do anything.
At night I would stay awake, long past my grandparents’ bedtime, just so I could wade through the clotted waters of pay cable, flipping through each channel filled with Chuck Norris movies, cheap junk, and worse. I felt as though each film, vile, barely competent, was meant for no one but me. And in that cathode flicker I grew to love a kind of solitude.
The fire wouldn’t catch, wouldn’t take. I’d burned my thumb, trying. It felt raw, throbbed. I was on my bare knees now, kneeling on the beat-up driveway. It was summer, the cicadas in the trees singing their buzz saw song.
One last time, I said to myself, flicking the lighter’s serrated wheel. Click. Fire. I held it to the broken Black Cat.
Even in the instant, I think I marveled at it, how a shock wave felt, rolling through the body, through my still outstretched hand.
This time: no spill of stars, no bright sizzle bouncing down the slope of the driveway before blinking out in the long grass.
Only the firecracker exploding, its force pitching through my hand and up my arm, leaving it all to tingle and throb, numb meat.
All my fingers were there, though indistinct to me, and I wasn’t burned, but even so, I seemed submerged, my ears stuffed with thunder. They rang so sharply it scared me.
I went inside, to a sink, and filled a glass with cold water. This seemed important, the way people on TV are always given water to drink after some barely averted disaster, burning wreckage all around, maybe, but a glass of water, one thousand sips. I drank it all down, still deafened, my ears crammed with struck tuning forks, it seemed. Am I deaf now? I wondered, unsettled, afraid.
The thought was too much. I lay down in my uncle’s old bed, high off the floor, in the room he’d left behind for marriage. In one corner a fish tank burbled thickly, the water all algae, all waste, all green neglect.
The ceiling swam above me and I only wanted sleep.
From One More Theory About Happiness by Paul Guest. Copyright © 2010 by Paul Guest. Excerpted with permission of Ecco.