By Julie Rea
Photograph by Reelika Ramot
The fireworks accident happened a week after Becca made her father cry.
Becca, age six, and her father played a game when she was in the bath and he was in the bathroom with her, shaving or using the toilet. She would say sternly that she didn’t want to be friends anymore; he would pretend to be devastated. Then she would say that she was kidding, and he would act like he had heard the best news of his life. But one day, Becca told her father that she didn’t want to be friends anymore, and he started to make high-pitched noises. It took her several seconds to realize that he was crying.
Covered in suds, she sat in the bath, watching her hands squeeze a plastic doll, not knowing what to do. She had never heard her father cry before. It was like she had thrown him a ball, his arms had fallen off when he went to catch it, and she had seen his insides in a way she shouldn’t have.
She listened to her father tear toilet paper from the roll and blow his nose, flush the toilet, and exit the bathroom with a loud clearing of his throat.
She looked at her bathwater with its islands and frothy coasts of soap bubbles, trying to understand what had happened. She had wanted to make her father laugh, not cause more upset. Her parents had fought the night before, fought worse than ever. From her bedroom, Becca had heard the raised voices, the front door slam as her father went out, and her mother crying. Now, her father was home from work because it was Saturday, and he and her mother mostly weren’t speaking to each other. When they did, their voices were low with anger. Becca had spent much of the day in the backyard in order to avoid the thick tension of the house.
When Becca was done with her bath, her parents went for a long walk in the woods behind their house. When they came back, they were holding hands. Her mother told Becca not to say mean things to her father.
Becca said she was sorry, but she was embarrassed for her father. He was a big man who played basketball and taught math at a troubled Portland high school. He was the toughest man in her world. But now, he made her think of that boy in kindergarten who had cried in class. And in the days after the bathroom incident, her father didn’t pick her up and swing her around after he got home from his summertime job at the Parks Department, like he usually did.
A week later, Becca’s father drove the family to the fern-carpeted hills of Northwest Portland and her mother’s parents’ house. They were celebrating Becca’s parents’ birthdays, both of which were in July.
In the back seat of the car, Becca looked out the windows at the bridges and buildings of Portland. She was glad to be going to her grandparents’ house, where Becca’s grandmother, after whom Becca was named, doted on her.
Strawberries grew in front of the grandparents’ house. It was dark, and Becca and her parents followed a trail of stones, illuminated by lights at foot-level, through the strawberry patch to the front door. In the living room, scattered couches and easy chairs were upholstered in pink fabric. On the walls were mirrors, clocks, and prints of Oregon flowering plants in pink frames.
Both of her grandparents were thin and athletic. They spent lots of time playing tennis at the Club (although her grandmother had done so much less since her knee surgery). Her grandfather was a vice president of a bank. Her father responded seriously to his questions, as if doing his best to answer a teacher. Her grandmother, who had skin the color of milk, wore silky cardigan sweaters and habitually pinned back her bobbed red hair in a particular way.
The family ate in the dining room that had a view of Portland and Mount Hood. There was a white tablecloth and old dishes with intricate patterns. Her grandfather sat at one end of the table; her grandmother sat at the other. Plates were handed around carefully. Everyone knew to mind his or her manners.
After dinner, Becca went downstairs to the finished basement, where all of her grandparents’ old things were. On the floor were baskets of glass Japanese fishing weights that had washed up on the Pacific Coast and polished agates, also found on Oregon and Northern California beaches. Fishing rods hung on the wall. Pieces of rose quartz sat atop books and photo albums. In the photos, her grandparents appeared in France, in Belgium, in Hawaii, and in a series of camping sites from their trips around the American West.
Becca found an old volume of fairy tales and sat on the floor, reading as she waited for her grandmother to fetch her to decorate her parents’ birthday cake.
The story Becca read was about the brotherhood and rebellion of a peppercorn, an onion, and a lemon that were trapped in a cupboard. All expressed a determination to fight their captors until justice was achieved. They lined themselves at the edge of the cupboard, ready to leap to freedom. But the cupboard opened and a hand reached for the nearest ingredients: the peppercorn, the onion, and the lemon. The pepper was crushed, the onion was diced, and the lemon was sliced and squeezed into tea. That was it. Nothing else but the beginning of the next tale on the following page.
At the sound of her grandmother on the stairs, Becca put the book back in its place on the shelf and got to her feet, feeling a little sick.
Her grandmother stopped halfway down the stairs, a firm grip on the banister for balance. She said, “Ready, honey?”
Becca picked up her backpack and followed her grandmother up to the stairs to the kitchen.
In the backpack was a sooty metal box that smelled a little bit like eggs gone bad and was about twice the size of a Rubik’s Cube. It had a big smile and triangle eyes cut into one side, like a metal Jack-o-Lantern. It had been the hit of their family fireworks 4th of July celebration a couple of weeks prior: the tallest fireworks fountain Becca had ever seen, the sparks shooting out of the box a good five feet or so into the air. And after the sparks ended, the box glowed from explosive heat. Orange eyes and an orange mouth floated in the dark. Becca, her mother, and her father laughed in happy surprise.
The morning after the Fourth, her father had asked her to help him dispose the carcasses of the fireworks that littered the street in front of the house. She had kept the foul-smelling smiling box because it was shiny (where it wasn’t sooty) and neat looking.
Now, Becca wanted to use the smiling box as an ornament on the birthday cake to remind her parents of that happy night, of how it had been before the fighting, her father crying, and the awkwardness.
Her grandmother led her into the kitchen. Aside from the cake and the plates on the counter, the kitchen was spotless and smelled of lemon-scented cleaner. The only sign of dinner was the hum of the dishwasher.
Her grandmother narrowed her eyes as Becca carefully placed the smiling box on top of the frosted cake.
“That smells a little funny,” said her grandmother.
“I know,” said Becca. “But we can take it off as soon as they blow out the candles.”
“I think they’ll like it; I really do.”
As always, her grandmother looked at Becca like Becca’s opinions were significant. “Okay, honey,” said her grandmother.
Her grandmother encircled the smiling box with candles and lit them. The long flames of the candles lapped the box as she picked up the cake.
Becca went into the dining room to turn off the lights. She opened the door for her grandmother, who carried the cake to the dining room table.
Becca worked the dimmer so the lights came half-on.
“Well—my goodness,” said her grandfather.
Smoke was coming out of a corner of the smiling box.
“What is that,” said her father.
That was when the smiling box began to spout sparks. The sparks became a fountain of colored fire that reached the ceiling. Sparks rained down on the white tablecloth and cloth napkins and fell into glasses of wine and cups of coffee.
Becca screamed, “Fire!” Her mother yelled at her father to do something and pulled Becca back from the table.
Her grandfather went into the kitchen and came out with a fire extinguisher. He tugged futilely at a plastic ring that locked the extinguisher. Her father went to help by sawing at the ring with a dinner knife.
Meanwhile, sparks left slash marks all over the tablecloth, napkins, and dishes. Part of the carpet was smoldering. A finger of sparks touched the window, and the drapes began to smoke. Red, white, and blue sparks blackened the ceiling.
As Becca’s grandfather barked, “Rebecca, wait!”, her grandmother approached the smiling box with a large rag.
The tower of sparks sputtered at if it were running out. Seeing her chance, her grandmother rushed toward the box on the cake, holding the rag before her like she was going to smother a wasp’s nest with it.
But then the tower violently spewed sparks. Her grandmother lost her balance and fell, grabbing the tablecloth and pulling everything on it towards her as she did so. The movement of the plate caused the smiling box to fall off the cake and onto the table.
The box’s fall didn’t stop it from belching a fire of sparks. Her grandmother fell to her knees, face-to-face with the box, her head and hands enveloped in a shower of sparks. It was like she was facing the firing engine of a tiny rocket.
Becca and her grandmother screamed.
Her grandmother was admitted to OHSU’s burn unit. Becca saw her the next day, when she visited with the rest of the family. The doctors were going to operate to try to restore sight to her grandmother’s blinded eye. Her hands and her entire face, aside from her mouth and nostrils, were bandaged. She wasn’t conscious.
Becca’s mother was on one side of her grandmother’s bed; her grandfather was on the other. Her mother was crying and telling her grandmother how much she loved her, how everything was going to be fine, and how the doctors were going to fix her. Her grandfather stared into space, refusing the chair Becca’s father kept offering.
Becca waited with her father on the side of the bed nearest the door. Her mother and her grandfather stood with their backs to them. Visiting hours were almost over, an announcement on the PA told them. Her father said that maybe he should take Becca to the car. Her mother, not turning, told him to go; she would be there in a minute.
Becca walked by her father, feeling like she was choking on the guilt that filled her mouth, black as tar. “It’s all my fault,” she said. But she wasn’t alone in the doghouse: her mother was enraged at her father for letting Becca sneak off with the smiling box. Her mother had screamed at him until three o’clock that morning.
Her father took her hand. “You were trying to do something nice,” he said.
She started to cry then. As she cried, he continued to hold her hand. She wondered if the kitchen ingredients in the old fairy tale, who had met their fate because of their resolution to do something good, had had any time to hate themselves for their stupidity before they were eaten up.
Julie Rea’s work has been published in several places, including The Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine, The Otter and Vol. 1 of Mosaics: A Collection of Independent Women. Her essay “Keying a Car” will be published in Vol. 6 of The Nude Bruce Review. She is a graduate of the City College M.F.A. Creative Writing Program and the N.Y.U. School of Law.
Currently, she lives in the Philadelphia area and writes about life in a wheelchair and other