By SEAN DIETRICH
— My wife and I parked beside the bay, facing the water, to watch the fireworks. I hear the distant sound of children laughing in the night. The popping of far-off bottle rockets.
It’s July 4th and it’s been a weird day. I can’t pinpoint why. Maybe it’s because it’s been overcast. Maybe because we’ve been quarantining for 42,382 days. Maybe because this year’s holiday has been about as eventful as watching the Lawrence Welk Orchestra play “Beer Barrel Polka.”
Which is exactly what I did this afternoon. A cable channel was playing “Lawrence Welk Show” reruns. I watched about four male singers in sparkly ascots sing “Red Sails in the Sunset” while Myron Floren showed the world how the accordion should be handled.
And now I am here to watch the fireworks before going home to remove my teeth and go to bed.
There are a few other cars here tonight. Maybe four. In the vehicle beside ours are young kids. Their car windows are down, they eat red-white-and-blue popsicles.
They say little-kid things like, “COOL!” And: “COOLCOOLCOOL!”
I believe this is the only word they know.
“Hey! Look!” one kid shouts to the other, pointing at any object ranging from a booger to a live water buffalo.
The other kid will say, “COOL!”
Their mother is young. Wiry. She sits upon the hood of her car — a mid-90s Nissan. When she arrived earlier, her vehicle made a loud noise. CLACK! CLACK! CLACK!
Her Nissan needs a new CV axle. I know this because I once had a ‘98 Altima with the same problem. You could hear me coming from a mile away.
The woman looks tired. She’s kept the same cigarette going for the last thirty minutes while playing on her phone.
“MOM! Can we have another popsicle?”
“As long as you share!” says Mom.
I get the feeling that this woman is so tired that she wouldn’t care if they were playing with a bottle of hydrochloric acid, as long as they were taking turns.
I break the conversational ice.“Glad it’s not raining tonight,” I say.
“Yep,” she said.
Her kids fight over a popsicle. She barks at them in that harsh, life-threatening tone that only true mothers can perfect. It is a voice somewhere between Betty Crocker and the Terminator.
“If you don’t share,” she said, “no fireworks.”
Silence. Both boys put their arms around one another and I could swear I hear them singing “Kum-Ba-Ya My Lord.”
“You from around here?” I ask.
“Tennessee. Driving back tonight, couldn’t get off work long enough to stay, but I wanted my kids to see the beach for the Fourth.”
I ask her what she does in Tennessee.
She shrugs. “I clean hotels.” She takes a long pull on her Marlboro. “I used to hate it, I swore I’s gonna quit, but then all this [bleep] happened with this [bleep]ing COVID. I’m just grateful to have a [bleep]ing job.”
She sighs and a cloud leaves her nostrils.
“This hasn’t been a good year,” she says. “I don’t know how I’m still making it. My dad’s on hospice.”
She gives a soft laugh. This leads to a cough. Then she tells me more about her coworkers. Before long, I realize her coworkers are not just friends. They are her lifeline.
Last month, for example, she needed a new water heater. All the gals at work chipped in to buy her one. They have been helping with her grocery bills, too. And babysitting. One coworker used to be a hair stylist, so she’s been giving the woman’s kids free haircuts.
“MOM!” shouts one kid.
This time, the woman doesn’t bark. She faces them and gives a look that would chill your blood. The kids fall quiet.
I can see her face in the moonlight. She has lines deep in her cheeks, and the stance of someone with a strong lower back. This is a hard-working woman. This is someone who loves her children enough to work double shifts.
We are interrupted. The sound of heavy artillery fills the night.
The sky lights up. We see fireworks. They shoot high beneath the full moon, filling our black night with multi-colored joy. We ooh and aah. People stand beside cars, pointing to the sky. The bay reflects each fiery burst like a big mirror.
When the display is over, there is a gentle applause from people nearby. And it is over.
The fun has finished. Now it’s back to real life. We will return to our pandemic world, which doesn’t look anything like the world we grew up in. Some of us will go home and keep trying to make sense of it all. Others will keep being a mother, keep working a full-time job, paying the bills and helping their fathers die with dignity.
The young woman crushes out her cigarette and places a surgical mask over her face. She jumps into her car. She rolls down her window and bids me a genuine goodbye. “Happy Fourth of July,” she says. “Stay safe, it’s a crazy world out there.”
“You, too. I’m sorry about your dad.”
I hear her CV axle clicking all the way down the road until her tail lights disappear. She has a long drive ahead of her tonight. She has work in the morning.
But somewhere in Tennessee, a bunch of good friends aren’t going to let her fall no matter what happens. And I think that’s very cool.
Even cooler than Lawrence Welk.