“That Firecracker Summer” By Mike Lee

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That Firecracker Summer

By Mike Lee

“Ouch. Damn. Damn. Damn!” Sarah muttered, knocking her water jug against her thigh, as she walked toward the Farm and Market road that led to the town named for her mama’s family.

The grass blades cut into her bare ankles. Sarah wore half-broken flip-flops; borne from teenage hubris and indefatigable obstinacy. This was of no surprise: she is the one and only from a family where the principal rule was do as much as you can get away with. Getting by and over it while picking up what falls off from trucks, with drug store sunglasses and cheap makeup easy game when the cashier is distracted, the topper moments later getting extra cash at checkout with the magic of using fast talk, slicked with sweetness and distracting sparkling gray eyes expressing words in honeysuckle bullshit artist hailing from dirt road 

“Ma’am, I’m sorry, but I gave you a ten.”

“Are you sure, sweetheart?” The cashier was already self-questioning her actions, her wedding band hand already hesitating over the open drawer.

“Yes ma’am…. It’s five, six, seven, and ten. I think you are a little short. Yes, ma’am, I gave you a ten.”

Sarah lowered her forehead to maximize sincerity. Not using eye shadow was a nice touch: this made Sarah look younger and more acceptable to born-again Christians obsessed about being so good that getting into their heaven was greased on the rails of their gullibility.

Always works—until it doesn’t. In this little town doing the chump change shakedown you can only do once, because you know how the country ladies love to talk.

Sarah reached the hillock and clambered over the wire fence by the two-lane asphalt ribbon cutting toward the town. Summers with grandparents were at once an agony and escape from bullshit. It wasn’t as if she was missing anything. Her life at home was too controlled to do anything beyond early curfews and vetted friends. Daddy, dope paranoid and cop shy saw trouble in everyone.

So it was mornings with flapjacks and bacon on the griddle. Afterward, wanderings across the grassy fields with cedars and mesquite spit by the devil’s angels cut across by gravel tracks and trails, and the two-lane blacktop that began at Dripping Springs, with a junction with the main Hill Country route out of Austin at the town square, before terminating in Bourne. When she was a child, Sarah was on that road late at night huddled under the blanket in the back seat staring at the night sky driving back from picnics and extended family get-togethers.

Sometimes Sarah brought a book to read, and always she carried her teddy. This summer, though the bear was back at home, placed on her bed pillow directly below the poster of Robert Plant. She felt she was too old to bring it to her grandparents this time around.

Her parents were old hippies, and the music on the old Realistic cassette deck reflected that. Dylan, Janis, The Weight by The Band.

Ah, and Pure Prairie League. That song. Amie, whatcha wanna do? It evoked that day when Sarah waited out front of the school waiting for the boy she wanted.

Yes, Sarah standing there waiting for that boy, all the while soaking in the rain of her favorite dream. Yeah, that is what this was like, and remained so.

The heat turned Sarah pink before the sun burned her dark, and she walked along the road on the edge of the shoulder because the hot asphalt—even in late morning—would melt the soles of her flip flops.

She passed the tire yard, and the old stone-built gas station turned into an antique store that no one seemed to stop by to shop. Corrugated tin garages selling farm equipment and aging pickups, no beer joints because this is a dry county, no alcohol available except at the clubs Sarah was too young to be allowed to enter.

But the Baptists and the Seventh Days tolerated cigarettes, so Sarah got her smokes at the convenience store, lighting one as she walked toward the town square.

The paperback bookstore and the café beside it were Sarah’s haunts. The bookstore didn’t open until noon, so Sarah had an hour to sit in the shade outside, smoking cigarettes and thinking of getting a fresh stack of science fiction. Currently she was into Le Guin. 

She drank her coffee, the queen of the concrete bench when Bobby arrived. He pulled up in his black top, cherry red Buick Skylark. While Bobby wasn’t the boy back in Austin, he offered freedom from flapjacks, had weed and did stuff she liked well.

She thought he’ll do as he leaned for a sloppy kiss.

Amie, whatcha wanna do. She thought about the boy she had waited for. But—black top, cherry red.

“Hey baby, the firecracker stand just opened up in Blanco. I want to pick up some Black Cats before they run out,” Bobby said.

“No M-80s, please,” said Sarah. “They scare the fuck out of me.”

“They’re illegal,” he said. “They ain’t gonna have them.”

Sarah did not believe him, but watch can she do. Behind her she heard the bookstore door unlock.

She flipped her cigarette spinning to the pavement.

“C’mon,” Sarah said, nudging Bobby. “There’s a book I want to buy. Then, we can go get the firecrackers.”

“Boom,” Bobby said, spreading her fingers in front of his face and stretched his arms upward toward the sky.

With a shudder, Sarah had a premonition. But she forgot about it until she remembered later, for forever.

Boom.

“Man on a Horse” By Mike Lee

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When Alfred was boy, his father was a mounted policeman for the NYPD, stationed at a precinct near their home in Staten Island. He was a tall man, statuesque on his horse as he made his rounds in the neighborhood, presenting to onlookers the epitome of strength and authority. 

His father joined the police when the borough was still known as Richmond County, separate and distinct from the city across the inner harbor. Richmond then consisted of villages hugging the north shore, and to the south, farming communities and beaches at the southern tip

Alfred’s father was part of the mounted police force known as the Staten Island Dragoons. At parades, they wore high helmets with tassels flying in the breeze as the unit rode down the cobblestone streets every holiday.

When the four counties surrounding Manhattan voted to merge, his father became a member of the NYPD. Although he still trod on the cobblestones on his beat, it was no longer as a small-town county police officer. He now represented the largest and greatest city in the world.

Every morning, he put on his tailored white gloves to fit his large hands, and button the tunic of a tall man’s uniform with ease, but tuberculosis, fueled by alcoholism, came to gradually lay him low.

When the boy was 12, Alfred’s father died, leaving him responsible for his mother and younger sister.

That September the boy did not start seventh grade. Instead, Alfred made his way daily by trolley and train to the south shore where he worked sweeping floors in a nickelodeon run by a quiet Hungarian named William Fox.

When he was sixteen, the boy managed an entire row of Fox’s nickelodeons on South Beach. On weekends, he went to Fort Lee to haul equipment and props for Fox’s newly formed film production company 

Sensing his intelligence, spirit and dedication to hard work Fox offered to take Alfred to California. Opportunities abounded out west, he told him. You can make a fortune with me, he added.

“This is a great opportunity,” Mr. Fox told the boy, now a teenager on the cusp of adulthood.

The response was easy, and given expectedly. “I have to care for my mother, sir. I must stay here.”

Years later Mr. Fox was seriously injured in an automobile accident, and while in recovery he lost his fortune in the stock market crash. Misfortune reached its nadir when Fox lost his film empire in a hostile takeover led by his creditors. He died in obscurity in Brooklyn, no longer associated with the company that bears his name.

The young man worked around Staten Island, toiling in the gypsum factory on the north shore near his home in Port Richard. When drafted during World War I, Alfred joined the state militia, and later was attached to the U.S Army’s Aviation Section, Signal Corps, the unit that later evolved to the modern air force.

He was a corporal and a cook, serving in Oklahoma and Texas.

After the war, Alfred returned home. He fell in love with a tall Irish girl working as a clerk at the Edison record store in nearby New Brighton. They married, raised a family, and three heart attacks and a major coronary later, Alfred waited for his wife and sister-in-law in the back seat of a car in the parking lot of a Bon Marche in Asheville, North Carolina.

He was 77, and grateful he made it this long.

Alfred was with his grandson—his youngest—who was 11 and had already shown the drive and intelligence he had shown in his youth.

As he sat with his grandson he recalled declining Mr. Fox’s offer, and felt no regret. He remembered his father’s alcoholism, but did not tell the kid that. It was too horrible. One night, his father got so drunk he tried to ride his horse into their home.

Mother made him promise to never drink. His solitary vice was cigars, petit coronas.

He told his grandson of the summer of 1918 watching rattletrap biplanes straining for height in the Texas sky. He talked about his best friend, who was killed in a training flight crash.

Alfred told the story of meeting his wife at the record shop. He had the snapshot he took of her, now crinkled and faded secreted away in his wallet. With gnarled fingers, weakened by work and diabetes, Alfred showed him.

As they sat in the back seat under the late November sun, he fell silent. He remembered that though his father was a mounted policeman, he never taught him to ride. Alfred couldn’t recall that his father even put him on a mount.

Alfred thought to when he watched his buddies ride horseback in Oklahoma and Texas. When offered he always nodded no. They kidded him about it, but good-naturedly.

Impulsively, he opened the passenger door.

“C’mon kid, let’s take a walk.”

He nudged the boy, who moved lazily out of the car.

They walked until they arrived at the row of kiddie rides by the entrance of the Bon Marche. Stopping at a weathered mechanical horse, the old man fished a dime out of his pocket. 

“You’re too old for this,” he told his grandson, placing the coin in his hand. “But I’m not.”

He climbed up. It was too small for his frame, and due to his age hard to keep balance. Still, Alfred was determined. He motioned for his grandson to put the coin into the slot.

Hoofs clacked loudly on the cobblestones of Ann Street as the young police officer rode toward Richmond Avenue. In a measured trot, he expertly turned right at the broad avenue.

Resplendent in his police uniform and tasseled helmet, he cut an attractive figure to the ladies watching from the passing trolley.

With his white-gloved hand, he saluted, smiling at the tall brunette staring at him from her perch in the rear of the trolley before continuing on his rounds.


Mike Lee is an editor, photographer and reporter for a trade union magazine in New York City. His fiction is published in Soft Cartel, Bending Genres, Ghost Parachute, Reservoir, The Opiate and others. Website: www.mleephotoart.com. He also blogs for the photography website Focus on the Story. https://focusonthestory.org/stories/