My Aunt Gertrude thinks firecrackers are the work of the devil.
She thinks movie theaters are, too. So I knew better than to ask her for money to visit the firework tent that had miraculously erected overnight, right next to the new Bojangles.
"FIREWORKS! ONLY 19.99!!!" flashes on a sign that is propped against the tent's main entrance.
“It’s only $19.99!” I say to my Uncle Theo who is counting his crumpled dollars to pay for our weekly Sunday dinner: a box of Bojangles’ famous fried chicken, a gallon of sweet tea and a small chocolate cake.
“That will be $19.99,” the freckle-faced teenager says to my uncle Theo, and he hands over the cash. As we carry the bags of food to our car, I take one last look over my shoulder at the fireworks tent, secretly hoping for a miracle. But Uncle Theo shakes his head no once again, and I sigh. “You never let me do anything fun. I don’t wanna stay the night with y’all anymore.”
Once the food is loaded into the car, Uncle Theo hands me a crisp, folded $20 bill. “Here, Chris. Don’t get nothin' too dangerous. Your Aunt Gertrude will kill me if you end up setting yourself on fire. And hurry up so this chicken doesn’t get cold.”
I skip inside, quickly looking at each shaky, metal row until I find the pack I want: 100 bottle rockets: $19.99.
The package is almost as tall as I am, so I drag it behind me, making a long line through the clay dirt floor. The cashier is waiting for me with a Marlborough cigarette dangling from one side of his mouth. Even though I am clearly not old enough to be buying fireworks alone, he doesn’t even ask where my parents are. Instead, he glances out the tent’s makeshift front “door” and Uncle Theo waves to him from the front seat of his caddy.
“Need a bag, honey?” the cashier asks and I nod yes. He loads my bottle rockets into a large trash bag, along with ashes from his cigarette. I drag the bag outside and load it into the back seat. Uncle Theo doesn't help.
Once we are back at my aunt and uncle’s home, I devour my chicken and I drink my sweet tea so fast I get hiccups. “Slow down, child!” Aunt Gertrude says. “You can have more to eat if you want!” But I don’t want more, all I want is to take my bottle rockets up on the hill to launch them as soon as the sun goes down.
But how will I launch them if Aunt Gertrude was home?
As though the angels above heard my prayer, my Aunt Gertrude rose from the table and wiped her mouth with her napkin. “I’m off to choir rehearsal” she says, as she kisses me on the forehead. “You be good, now. And don’t be messin' around with no fireworks. You hear me, girl?”
“Yes, ma'am,” I lie.
Uncle Theo and I watch her pull out of the driveway and as soon as we see her tail lights disappear from view, uncle Theo grabs his matches, two empty Coca Cola bottles and his cigarettes.
We run to the top of the hill behind their house and I rip the bottle rocket package open, sliding four bottle rockets into each Coke bottle.
“Ready?” Uncle Theo asks as he lights the skinny ends of each bottle rocket. Within seconds they shoot into the sky and explode and I cover my ears as the ash falls down into my hair.
We repeat this again and again until all 100 bottle rockets are gone.
Uncle Theo lights his last cigarette and we walk back down the hill through the smoke, just as Aunt Gertrude pulls up.
“Where y’all been?” she asks as she wraps her soft, puffy arms around me.
“Aw, we just went for a walk, Gertrude. Is that a crime?” Uncle Theo says.
Aunt Gertrude just laughs. “Well as long as y’all weren’t messing around with those demonic fireworks!”
“Oh, no ma’am! I follow my orders,” Uncle Theo says as he winks at me. Aunt Gertrude laughs.
“What’s this in your hair?” Aunt Gertrude asks as she brushes ashes out of my ponytail.
“Oh, I must have dropped some ashes on her head when we were out for our walk,” Uncle Theo said. “Sorry about that, Chris.”
“Well, now I have to wash her hair before she goes to bed, Theo,” she said as she sighed.
Later that night as Aunt Gertrude is cleaning the kitchen, Uncle Theo comes in. “Can you take that trash out?” she asks.
“Yeah, sure,” Uncle Theo says. “And don’t forget to throw those burnt up Coke bottles away that y’all used for the fireworks earlier.”
Uncle Theo froze in place and looked at her, expecting her to frown.