Fireworks – Tommy Vollman

I’m not sure if the sky really is higher during the summer or if it just feels that way. There’s probably an explanation for it. Maybe it’s an optical illusion. Or maybe it has something to do with the tilt of the earth or the position of the sun and the lengthened days. But I don’t care much for explanations; I’m more about feelings. And the feeling I get beneath a high, summer sky—a big, blue sky—is one of endless possibility. It’s as if anything can happen. Anything.

And that’s what I like; I live for that feeling. I’d do almost anything for it. But today I don’t have to. Today is one of those days: a day with a sky that’s blue as forever and about a million miles high. Today’s sky is one that outfielders hate. Vin Scully says that. He says outfielders hate high skies because the high sky swallows baseballs whole. He also says that skies like today’s can give a bird vertigo. I don’t really understand what that means, but I love the Dodgers, so I’m always thinking about the things Vin Scully says. Of course, I live in Ohio and listening to Vin Scully is hard in Ohio, but I have an old transistor that catches an AM station out of South Dakota—I think—where there’s a Dodgers farm club. The station rebroadcasts Dodgers games late at night—at like one or two a.m.—and I can catch them all the way in Cincinnati on account of AM stations turning up their bands late at night.

But I won’t catch the game today. Even with the band up high, I’m too far away. Besides, the Dodgers are off today, traveling. But I’m not really thinking too much about the Dodgers today since today’s the Fourth of July. It’s also my last day as a fourteen year-old. I feel like I should be excited, but I’m not. I’m not really much of anything. Still, tomorrow’s my birthday, and I’ll celebrate it in McLean, Virginia because that’s where mom booked the hotel. She’s particular about hotels, but crazy frugal, too. She’s always telling us how she got a deal on the room and how much it should’ve been—how much it would’ve been—without the deal. Her fall-back, when she can’t get a deal, is The Courtyard, and that’s where we’re staying tonight and why I’ll celebrate my birthday in McLean tomorrow. The Courtyard’s there, and we’re staying there since there weren’t any deals to be had in Washington, DC, which is where we are now. We’re driving in the Jetta, and dad’s been behind the wheel most of the day. We drove to Arlington Cemetery, the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials, across to the Washington Monument, and then up past RFK to the National Cathedral. We didn’t get out at RFK even though I really wanted to; there just wasn’t time.

Two days ago, we took the Metro in and left the car at the hotel. Dad said that was the way to get into Washington, DC.

“This is the way everyone comes in,” he said on the train that morning.

But then yesterday, mom said we weren’t taking the Metro, so we drove. We didn’t take it today, either. Mom says this is better, us having our car in the city. She says we can get where we want to, when we want to—no waiting around for trains or worrying about tickets and time tables and stops or things like that. She says it’s safer, too. And that’s important, especially on the Fourth.

And so we’re in our car, back near the Jefferson Memorial, and it’s July 4th and traffic and parking are a zoo.

Dad says everything’s a zoo.

Mom says we should imagine what it would be like on the goddamned Metro.

The fireworks are set to go off in two hours, and there’s nowhere to park; it seems like all the streets are closed or closing. The cops are out in force, ticketing like hell, so dad says we’ve really got to be careful.

We pull up to a spot along the Potomac that overlooks the little inlet that mostly surrounds the Jefferson Memorial, and it’s clear, even to me, that there’s no way in hell anybody can ever park where we’ve stopped, much less on the Fourth of July. But it’s the Bicentennial fireworks display, and dad says this is something we’ll remember for the rest of over lives, so we‘ll park here because what’s America without a little civil disobedience.

Mom isn’t having it because the ticket, she says, will be a fortune. She’s also worried, worse yet, about the car getting towed. She wonders how we’ll ever get back to McLean and the hotel, especially since we’re supposed to leave for Virginia Beach tomorrow where she got a deal on a four-star right on the water.

Dad says it’ll be fine, that we’ll watch the car and move it if we have to. But mom wants to know where we’ll move it and how. Dad just keeps telling her it’ll be okay, that they’ve already ticketed over here. He says if anyone comes to tow the car, we’ll just move it then. He tells her we’ll have time because they can’t just tow a car in five seconds; he says it takes 10 or 15 minutes, and by then we’ll be able to get to the car and move it.

I wonder why we couldn’t have just paid for parking back near the Smithsonian and then gone up to the Mall to watch the fireworks with the thousands and thousands of other folks we saw as we drove by—the folks sitting on chairs and blankets with Cokes and chips and stuff.

I asked about parking near the Smithsonian twice, but dad said no, both times. He said we had to watch the fireworks by the Jefferson because we’d have a better view. I’m not sure how that’s going to be the case, since there are trees everywhere, and we seem farther from just about everything, but dad says they’ll come up right above the Jefferson, off the Potomac. I’m not sure how he knows all these things.

I notice that the cars in front of and behind ours have salmon-colored paper strips tucked under their passenger-side wipers. The strips blow lightly in the breeze, anchored tight against the base of each windshield.

“Are those parking passes?” I wonder aloud.

“Nope,” dad says. “Tickets.”

I nod my head.

Mom stares at the tickets, as if they’re what we came to see.

“Huh,” Mom says. “They’re the same color as—well, almost. . .”

Her voice trails off, stolen by the heat and humidity. In a matter of moments, she’s over at the car. Dad and I stay put and watch her, busy in her purse, then her wallet, then with our passenger-side windshield wiper.

Mom comes back from the car, triumphant. She’s planted her library card under our passenger-side wiper. The card is mostly the same color as the tickets, but it’s a good ten inches shorter. Nobody’s going to be fooled by that, I think. Nobody. Mom’s convinced, though, and she immediately sets to work convincing us. I don’t think dad much cares; he’s just relieved that she’s not talking about the car and parking or tickets or tow trucks anymore. Of course, now she’s talking about how much the library card looks like a ticket—which it doesn’t—and how great of an idea this is—which it probably isn’t—but the fireworks have almost started, and dad’s not paying much attention to what she’s saying, anyway. But I am, so she continues until the cops show up.

We watch as the two officers—both female—approach our car, closer and closer still. Then mom stands, followed by dad, and finally, me. We walk briskly and arrive just as the cops are inspecting mom’s library card.

“Is this yours?” the shorter of the two asks. Her tone is sharp, and she’s wearing those mirrored sunglasses that cops always wear on TV and in the movies. Most of those cops end up being crooked, though. Our reflections are stretched, strained thin by her silvery lenses. I’m nervous, sweaty at the base of my spine.

Mom tells them about parking passes. She tells them that’s why she put her library card under our windshield wiper. She speaks to them in her professional voice—that’s what I call it—the one she uses when she answers the phone at the doctor’s office. It’s also the one she uses when she talks to my teachers and the neighbors we don’t know so well.

The cops look at one another and laugh.

“No,” they say, almost in-sync.

Then the taller one adds, “But I’ll give you an A for effort.”

I can tell mom doesn’t think they’re funny. I wonder what they think of mom.

“You know, though,” the shorter of the two states, “you can’t just try to pass something off as a citation.”

Everyone’s quiet—mom, dad, me, the cops. Even the city and the traffic and the hundreds of thousands of people seem a little quieter. They’re not silent, but they’re quieter.

“Well,” mom stammers, “that—“

“Wasn’t what you were doing,” the taller one finishes.

“No,” mom answers. “Of course not.”

I wonder if the cops believe us.

I don’t believe us.

There’s a ticket being written, but mom can’t let it go. She’s got reasons and reasons, so many reasons, but she can’t possibly say them all. Not here.

Our car’s parked illegally and has been for some time. A library card’s not a parking pass or a citation.

The cops have walked away when mom blurts out a question.

“Will it get towed?” she asks.

The taller of the two stops, turns, and stares at us.

“What?” she asks.

“The car,” mom repeats, “will it get towed?”

The cop shrugs and wrinkles her face. “Most likely,” she replies. “It’s cited and parked illegally.”

She turns, takes a few steps toward her cruiser, then stops. As if tugged by some invisible string, she spins around again to face us.

“But you’re not going to leave it,” she says. “Right?”

“Well,” mom replies, “I mean, it’s already got a ticket.”

“Exactly,” the cop answers.

Mom doesn’t say anything back, but I can tell she wants to. Soon, the fireworks will start, and I’ll be able to see if dad’s right.

We walk back to the pad of grass a few hundred feet from the car, the one tucked beneath the stand of trees where we were before the cops showed up and wrote our citation.

Dad’s nervous now and distracted. He’s worried about the car, about it getting towed.

But nobody says anything.

“Should we move it?” mom says, finally.

Dad exhales and checks his watch. It’s a digital, and he wears it with the face on the palm side of his wrist so he makes a bit of a production when he checks the time. He hasn’t always worn it this way, only for the last few months. I wonder if it’s comfortable. It’s hard for me to imagine that it can be.

Dad still hasn’t answered her.

He checks his watch again, glances at the car, looks out at the Jefferson, then checks his watch once more.

Mom waits.

Dad checks his watch a fourth time just as fireworks suddenly rip open the sky.

Our silence isn’t that strange anymore.

I watch the fireworks and so do mom and dad, but I can tell they’re checking the car, looking at it, then past it, continuing to check, I imagine, for the tow truck.

And so for a few minutes our eyes stay busy. They dart from the sky to the car to stretch of road beyond the car, and then to the bridge and ramp beyond that. Mom and dad never look at me, but I look at them, checking, watching, checking again.

And then they appear: orange lights, faint, at first, then brighter and brighter still.

Dad tells us to hurry. He darts, and mom darts, too. They hustle, but it’s only a few hundred feet to the car, so I linger and stare up at the sky a few moments longer. Bedsides, the orange lights could be anything, really.

I count to seven, then I run, as well. I reach the car first and see it: a rusty, white tow truck. The orange lights are so bright now that it’s so close—now that I’m so close. I wonder how it’s even possible with all the light from the fireworks.

When dad gets to the car, he already has his keys out. They’re a jingling mess of work and home and church and the sheds at the baseball fields, but he’s got the one extended that fits in his door and the ignition.

The tow truck passes, headed elsewhere, and all we’re left with are the fireworks and the smell of sulphur and smoke and the Potomac. We pile in the car, and I watch through the streaked pane of my driver’s-side rear window as the fireworks fall, glimmer, sparkle, and fade there above the Jefferson, exactly where dad said they would.


Tommy Vollman is a writer, musician, and painter. He has written a number of things, published a bit, recorded a few records, and toured a lot. Tommy’s work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the “Best of the Net” anthology. His stories and nonfiction have appeared (or will appear) in issues of The Southwest Review, Two Cities Review, Palaver, Pithead Chapel, and Per Contra. He has some black-ink tattoos on both of his arms. Tommy really likes A. Moonlight Graham, Kurt Vonnegut, Two Cow Garage, Tillie Olsen, Willy Vlautin, and Albert Camus. He’s working on a novel entitled Tyne Darling and has a new record, Youth or Something Beautiful, slated for release in early-2019. He currently teaches English at Milwaukee Area Technical College and prefers to write with pens poached from hotel room cleaning carts.