“America! My America!” Jordan shouts as he comes pell-mell down the hallway and into the dining room. Max’s red graduation gown floats out behind him, a Burger King crown is secured at his brow with a blue bandana, and he’s waving a plastic lightsaber overhead, dangerously close to every light fixture he passes.
“The lights,” I say. “Watch the lights!”
“Yeah, let’s go to Oakland for the big lights,” he says.
“No, the kitchen lights!” I point as his still-flailing lightsaber makes a wide arc and just misses the globe overhead.
“Are we going to Jack London Square?” Max asks, deftly flipping the omelet in the frying pan. When the kids were younger, we frequently spent the Fourth of July in Oakland watching the fireworks display over the water, but this year Jay and I have other plans.
“We figured that since we’re in a legal firework county this year,” Jay says, “we’d go old-school.”
“Why do I get the feeling that old-school is going to suck?” Jordan asks, lowering his lightsaber long enough to pluck a sausage link from the plate on the stove.
“Running around the apartment complex with two sparklers apiece does not constitute old-school,” Jay says as Max carries the eggs over from the stove and we all tuck in around the table. “After breakfast, lose the cape and we’ll go get some fireworks.”
“The gown, you mean,” Jory says, swishing a wide sleeve with a flourish. “It’s a cap and gown, right Mom?”
“At the moment it’s a crown and gown, but technically, yes, I think you’re right. Now eat.”
“And by the way it’s my gown,” Max says, “and my America.” He smirks, recalling the sleep-talking episodes from his childhood, during which he inexplicably shouted “America, My America!” over and over again.
They return later in the day with fountains, an afterburner, Saturn Missiles, bang snaps, black snakes, sparklers and a Pagoda, which they present with all the flourish of game show hostesses, reading the descriptions and warnings on each paper wrapper aloud.
Shortly after dark, we join our neighbors in the street. Jay lets Max do most of the setting up and lighting of the fireworks. Jordan struts across the street to chat up a cute pixie girl and a tall black boy with a mohawk who are sitting on the tailgate of a truck, trying terribly hard to look bored. When the sparklers come out however, Jory rushes back across the street to grab a box.
“I’m taking some for Iris and Bret, too.” He waves the box in front of my face.
“Do not chase little kids with them. I mean it.”
“Yeah, yeah. Don’t trip!”
There is an indescribable magic in the smell and the smoke, the pop of flashers and the wail of a Whistling Pete, a slow-motion enchantment in the dusky silhouette of a child on a bicycle, riding circles in the street with sparklers trailing behind. When our own firework stash has been depleted, Max, Jay and I linger at the edge of the driveway, delighting in the flares and flashes up and down the street.
A few blocks away, someone lets loose with mortars, which burst up over the rooftops, reminiscent of our Jack London Square days. I call Jordan back from his new friends and we head out to the backyard for a better view of the overhead show. Max drags the futon from the porch out onto the lawn and flattens it out so we can lay across it, with our legs dangling off the side. Iggy and Lola jump up and shove themselves in between us.
It is one of those rare nights where we are connected and at peace. It’s funny how a thing like that can swell in your chest unexpectedly.
These first few weeks back in Modesto, Jordan has been calm and congenial. No screaming fights, no slamming doors or strange behaviors. I keep expecting at any moment for the newness to wear off, but for now it is holding.
As we lie here on the folded-out futon in our first real backyard, I realize that in just a month, Max will be eighteen. Grown. And even Jory is only three years out from adulthood. Yet for tonight we are all children, eagerly anticipating each glorious explosion in the night sky above us.
“America, my America,” I murmur, reaching over to ruffle Max’s hair.
“Mom, you’re not gonna start singing that Lee Greenwood song, are you?” he asks.
“I’m going to try really hard not to.”
[this is an excerpt from The Complicated Geography of Alice, currently available at Amazon in paperback and for Kindle.]