Storyteller: Firecrackers

“Mom, can you take me and my friends to Chinatown?” I asked my mother, trying to be nonchalant, as she watered the garden.

She paused and turned to give me a familiar look that included equal amounts of skepticism and exasperation. School had let out a few weeks prior. I had just graduated from sixth grade and now I was pulling weeds. It was early evening after a day during which the temperature climbed to more than 100 degrees, and my mother’s prized tomato plants hung limp from the heat that still radiated from the earth.

“I am not taking you and your friends to San Francisco to buy illegal firecrackers,” she said and then went back to watering.

For the last couple of years I’d attempted to have her drive me down to where I’d heard firecrackers were being sold in back alleyway deals.

“What?” I said, trying to make my voice sound as incredulous as a 11-year-old can sound. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I am just really into Chinese culture lately. We learned about it in school, and …”

Before I could finish my sentence she interrupted.

“Firecrackers are illegal and dangerous,” she said. “If you’re really wanting to go down for a cultural experience I would be happy to take you and your friends, but it will need to wait until after the Fourth of July.”

“That’s too late,” I wanted to say, but instead I said, “Great,” and then added to my mounting and ineffective lie, “When we do I’d like to take some pictures for a school project I’m working on for next year.”

She turned off the spraying water and stood for a moment before turning to me slowly.

“Tim, you shouldn’t lie,” she said. “It’s common.”

My mouth opened as I started to speak, but when her eyes narrowed I snapped my lips together and then smiled my most angelic smile before going back to pulling weeds. I sensed her staring at me for a long time before the sound of the spraying water resumed, the mist bringing with it the soothing aromas of damp, warm earth and the sharp smell of tomato plants.

I’d come across a particularly difficult weed, its roots tightly holding onto the earth, so I pulled harder, standing up to gain leverage. The plant finally popped out of the earth, and I fell backward to the ground holding the dislodged weed with its roots in a clump of heavy dirt.

From my new vantage point I noticed that an enormous insect, a Jerusalem cricket, or what we called a potato bug, was caught in the tangle of roots. Its bulbous yellow body was about the size of a large man’s thumb and looked transparent in the fading sunlight. Although I’d never been bitten by one of these bugs, I’d heard rumors from my friends that they could bite through clothing in their quest for the taste of human flesh. Without thinking, in an act of spastic agitation, I flung the weed and its cargo away from me, the projectile arching up and in the direction of where my mother stood.

Before I could yell out a warning the clump landed on her foot. The sound of the spraying water stopped.

“Did you throw something at me, Timothy?” she asked.

“No, but there was this bug, and …”

She turned to me.

“Stop.” Her voice sounded tinny, and her expression had morphed into one of retribution.

I lowered my head while I sputtered a few more “buts.”

Her foot tapped on the dirt, bringing with it puffs of dust and, to my dismay, on her shoe was the bug, its heavy body clinging to the laces.

“Mom, look there’s a bug on your …” I started, but she interrupted.

“What is it about fireworks that makes you go so crazy every year, willing to lie and manipulate,” she said, her voice beginning to rise slightly.

She was getting ready to flip out, I knew it.

“But mom, really,” I said and pointed to her shoe in desperation. “You’ve got a huge bug on your foot.”

My mother had three boys. She had grown leery of our tricks to avoid discipline, so she did not look toward her shoe but instead scanned the area, likely assessing how to block my possible escape routes.

The bug had stirred and was now lumbering up her shoe in the direction of her pant leg.

I sputtered helplessly, “Mom, really, look,” I pleaded.

She shook her head and began to chew her lower lip methodically, which was never a good sign.

When I lowered my gaze back to her shoe the bug had disappeared from view, and what happened next is another story.

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Originally published in the St. Helena Star, June 2016