The sound comes; a distant thumping, the dull falling of running feet, a low voice barking, then feet on the veranda, then John exploding out the screen door slamming:
“YOU COMIN’ OR NOT!!!”
I lean awkwardly into the heavy wooden lawnmower and turn to watch John vanish around the side of the house. I look back to the veranda, half expecting to see the old man’s chair roll up but no one comes. Sweat streaks down my red face, my stiff stubby fingers tight and cramping on the handle. The lawnmower sits silent, patient in the morning heat, its shadow long on the grass and dandelion. Above, the sun burns a white coin.
Down the lane, I catch up to John. He’s stopped to pick up small red racket that has fallen from his pockets. The air smells of mint and over-packed garbage cans, the heat of the day starting to take hold of the waste.
“You got matches?”
John pulls a small box from his waistband and hands them to me.
“I brought this too,” he says.
He holds out a bright yellow pool ball. He presses the side. A spark. Again. A flame.
“Pop’ll kill ya if he finds out.”
“He woan,” John says. “Here, I got some string too.”
We cross the road to Higgins field and wade through the waist-high grass, thistle-burrs hitching to our socks and jeans. We climb a long slow hill. Below lies open land, sporadic trees to the west, the town a brown cluster in a wheat yellow patchwork. We lurch in the morning heat, and then come to Pinkers, the stink smoldering at the top of the hill. Somewhere off, a dog barks but nothing else stirs. We kick through fly mounds of trash and debris, old furniture, boxes, paper, black plastic.
“Here,” John says. He picks up a cracked glass jar. Inside are a few green plastic soldiers, a blue bowlegged cowboy, a faded gray aluminum horse, stubby bits of used crayon.
“Yeah these. Let’s do these.”
In a shallow dirt ditch next to the field, he dumps the contents of the jar in the dirt. I sit, pulling the box of matches and string from an oversized pocket.
We blow up everything. John handles the fused red shells with precision, his hatchet face shiny, jubilant, blasting foam cups, tin cans, soldiers, and crayons. When the matches are done, we switch to the pool ball lighter, its flame orange and pointed. We set fire to a small village of milk cartons. We watch an old cigar box full of derby ticket stubs burn and smolder. We blow apart a bald plastic doll. Later, with our artillery exhausted, we lay still in the ditch, surrounded by mangled Marines and a now blackened horse. I flip through the odds and ends of bundled colored paper from the cigar box; quinellas, exactas, stained paper like a foreign currency.
“We goin’ to the parade?” I say, handing John our spoils of war.
“Naw. There’s not much of a show ‘less you like lame fireworks. It’s the old man’s thing down at the firehouse anyway.”
The heat of the day simmers in the dirt around us. John paws the sweat from his thin face. He slowly rotates the lighter in his hand. “You ‘wan any of this stuff?” he says, nudging one of the fallen green Marines with his toe as if it might be somehow alive.
“These here ain’t too bad. I used to like them. Tough guys.”
I pick up the plastic cowboy. A leg has melted to a twist. “This one’s pretty banged up. Kinda like Pop’s.”
“Shut up,” John says. “It ain’t like that at all.” He stares at the lighter. “It ain’t.”
We sit in silence and watch the horizon. A light wind now moves over the wheat fields below. I cup a hand over my brow and squint at the sun.
“It’s gonna be some h…”
The grass behind us suddenly shoots up, orange and white crackling fast. Fat smoke plumes gray then turns black. The wind picks up and the fire explodes. I jump, stepping back as John leaps away, dropping the lighter.
“Pop’s gonna kill us.”
“He woan find out,” John says. “We weren’t here.” The flames leap higher.
“Ya hear’n me. I wasn’t.”
I watch as John races down the hill, his own shadow chasing after him as he plunges and disappears into the tall dry chaff. As I turn to run, I step on something hard. The lighter. Jamming it in my pocket, I run into the dump, a shadow myself, quickly swallowed whole by Pinker’s smoldering landfill.
On the road, the engines go up the hill, their red racket rumbling, their sirens blaring around the melting morning sun.