Roman Candle

Andrew Mangan

1.

When you know Pops will be home, you take your little brother to the field two miles north of town, where you shoot Roman candles at each other. It’s just a game, just a way to off time. The more time killed out here, the less you’ll be at those trailers of yours.

You do this two, three, four times a month, stocking up on fireworks at Compton’s, a gas station up the road that sells year-round. Sometimes you pay for them, cough up what little you’ve earned from salting fries part-time at Wendy’s. Mostly, though, you and Davy steal. You start by chatting up whoever’s on register. Compton’s daughter, Stacey, is the easiest to distract. She’s sixteen and has a thing for you. Maybe it’s because you’re three years older and this inflates your value. Maybe it’s because, when you were in high school with her, you never called her “Snapper” or any other name related to that old dental situation of hers. She’s not the type of pretty you usually go for, but you’re not exactly using her, either. You’d be lying if you said she isn’t fun to talk to. She calls you “Ak,” short for Akron, a name Maw chose for one of her un-thought-out reasons.

While you play diversion, Davy gets to pilfering. At the shelves beside the checkout, he fills his backpack with bottle-rocket bundles, firecrackers, Roman candles, then he mopes over, asks if you’re done already. Davy, an owl-eyed ten-year-old with a harelip and home-done bowl cut. Nobody’ll ever get wise to him. And even if they caught him, they’ll probably just let him take whatever, maybe see if they could help fit any more into his pack.

Years later, the drug charges will come down on you. The aiding and abetting. The Controlled Substances Act and so on. And you’ll blame Pops all you can, but it’s not like you didn’t have options, and it’s certainly not his fault you chose all the bad ones.

2.

On a Monday in September, you and Davy leave the field early, a steal of fireworks still in his pack. Your driveway’s a snake of grass pressed dead from use, and as you pull up, you can see Maw on the steps of the trailer you all live in. She’s taking quick hits on a menthol. She has a bathrobe wrapped up around her, and it twitches with each jog of her leg.

You step out of the pickup, walk over to the trailer, Davy crunching leaves at your heel.

“Akron,” she says. “Your father’s looking for you.”

“Why?” you ask.

“I don’t know where he is.” She’s misheard you, but you say all right.

She stubs her cigarette out on the top step, flicks it into the yard. Her robe is open, and underneath it she’s got on a lime-green bra and sweatpants. There is a new, waxy scar on her collarbone, though who knows what from. She orders Davy inside so she can help him do his homework. As he passes you, you brush some dandruff-looking paint flakes off his shoulder. Sometimes your brother gets carried away in Art.

Alone now, the air is cool, empty. Pops’s Grand Am is nowhere to be seen, so it’s over to Bud’s trailer. Pops hired an assistant back at the break of summer, after Pops and Maw’d had that final, big row of theirs. Pops has lived somewhere up in Pevely ever since, and Bud now occupies the other trailer full-time. Or full-life, really. He never leaves. Pops brings him groceries, bags of ramen and protein bars. That other trailer’s the sole reason you see Pops around anymore. It’s about fifty feet away from your own, and it’s smaller, the type families hitch to trucks and haul out to state parks for summer barbecues and camping. (A “camper,” you think it’s called. Then again, you’ve never camped.) Its smell hits when you’re halfway over there. You try using your shirt as a sort of respirator, but the pickled-egg funk cuts right through your collar’s scent of patties and cheese product. Ten feet away, you toss a stick at the trailer’s door. And another. Then Bud throws it wide. The inside’s thick, trash-water stench overwhelms you. Your throat clogs with it, makes you cough. Bud steps outside, claps the door shut behind him, peels off his gas mask.

“Pops in there?” you ask. Bud shakes his head. He has these purple earbuds in, but you can tell he heard you. For a few minutes you go through the usual back-and-forth with him. Bud’s a twig, pale, bald like a medical condition. Mask-lines are etched into his face. Scabs freckle his neck. You don’t like looking at him. He seems a half-flash from death, and you wish it’d come sooner, for his own sake.

Bud slowly lets on that he doesn’t know where Pops is, or when he’ll be back, or that it’s Monday, so it’s back to the big trailer, your trailer, to wait. Yours doesn’t smell much better. A muggy cocktail of soiled carpet, scummed dishes, and trash you’ve forgotten to drop off in the bin at Wendy’s. Still, better at all is better enough.

In your room Davy is curled up on his bed, thumbing at his Game Boy Color, the birthday present you gave him two years ago. You lie on your bed, face down. “Davy,” you say into the mattress, “start your homework.”

Pops is home an hour later. He stands at your door. Patched pants, breast pocket boxy with a soft-pack of USA Golds. “There you are,” he says.

It used to be that when he needed something from you, things went south real quick, even if you complied. But now he hasn’t hit you in months, not since he moved out in May. Now he asks you favors. No commanding, no demands. It’s because he doesn’t see you but twice a month—that’s probably why, since you yourself haven’t changed at all.

And now, Pops asks you to buy for him. Pseudoephedrine, he just calls it “pseudo.” The state allows 3.6 grams a day, 9 grams a month, and he needs one ten-dose box of Aleve Cold & Sinus today, one tomorrow, and one more the next day, to max you out. He doesn’t ask you every month, though. He wants you to stay off the state registry. He’s looking out for you, he’s said.

“Sound good?” he asks now. But you’ve never turned him down, and you don’t this time, either. You agree. He nods. “I’ll see what else Bud needs,” he

says, and smiles.

As he starts to leave, you shift to your side on the bed. Davy hasn’t even looked up from his Game Boy. His face is slack, his mind focused. Things really have gotten better since Pops moved out, got nice, became The One Who Asks. Your life is no longer the fight it once was, no longer the struggle. Now, it’s just what is.

“I got some errands, too,” you call to Pops. He stops, faces you. “So it’ll take longer.”

He says that’s fine, then smiles again before he leaves.

You get up, find another shirt, sniff it to check its degree of clean. You put it on and ask Davy if he’s hungry. “You want to get a burger?” you say. You should’ve gone for food first, gone to the library after. Nothing’s asked of you if you’re not around.

Davy doesn’t answer. There’s no budging. No glance, even.

“Fucking hello,” you say, and that gets his attention. Cursing always does. “Let’s go,” you say. You grab his jacket, gather some clothes, your mouthwash. You’ll find somewhere else to stay that night. Because this new normal of yours is nothing better. Because look at what you’re doing. You’re participating, it’s your choice. Because—don’t forget—eventually Davy will be old enough to buy pseudo too.

Outside, Maw is still on the steps, still smoking. Three new crushed cigarettes beside her clean, bare feet. You lead Davy down into the mulchy yard. “Hey,” she calls. You pause.

“I . . .” she says, but lets the thought drift. Is she going to make some excuse, explain again how this is your livelihood, all of yours, and that it’s good for you to take part? In the scheme of things, we’re lucky. They’re Pops’s words, and she’s too tired or ashamed to finish them this time.

Back in May, right before Pops moved out, you heard Maw tell him about her not wanting to live out here anymore—something you were too shitless to say yourself. He told her to fuck off. He hit her. Shortly after, she brought up with you the idea of going to a DV shelter. But here you are four months later and you’ve gone nowhere. Pops is calm now, has been for awhile, and that’s all Maw seems to need. She’ll never leave him, anyway. You know this. She thinks she owes him everything.

You tighten your grip on Davy’s hand as you head for the pickup.

“Where’re you going?” she says.

“Walgreens, then some errands, then Steak ’n’ Shake for dinner,” you say, shutting yourself in the truck. Out the windshield, you can see her. She almost looks pretty. She has such terrible teeth.

You start the engine, jerk it into reverse, and drive away calmly, as if you were planning to return.

3.

Festus isn’t much of a town, even for Missouri. A littering of fast-food restaurants and apartment complexes, some ballooning subdivisions, nine trailer parks, ten gas stations. With a Walmart, Big Kmart, Schnucks, Walgreens, and Prescriptions Plus, the town is lousy with pharmacies. There’s also a small public library where you invest your free time when Davy’s in school.

When you were a kid, your family used to live near that library. Just a run down Highway 61, in Blue Fountain, a trailerhood by the hospital. Back then, Pops would grill franks for you and Maw on a tiny Weber set up on your gravel drive. But not long after you hit seventeen and got working, Pops sprung for a pair of used trailers from some hookup of his, moved you all down Route M, out deep in the trees, your closest neighbor an easy two miles off—three if you took the roads.

“Move’s good for us,” Pops said. “Things’ll get easier. And when they do, we’re gonna celebrate. We’ll do pasta and wine. We’ll go to the mall.”

What he really meant was, no cop will take the time to drive way out to where you now live. Of all the perps like him, there are worse that need dealing with. Cooks more successful, closer to the center of Festus.

4.

You drive to Compton’s because it’s nearby and you figure you can buy some candy bars for supper. You explain your plan to leave, to get an apartment in Festus, that you don’t want either of you to grow up around your father, that environment. But as you park, all Davy asks is, “We really going to Steak ’n’ Shake?”

He seems excited, and you have some money, so you say, “Sure are.”

You meant to bring him a ten-piece nugget from work, but all shift, the manager hovered at the counter and it wasn’t worth another year of him rejecting your requests for full-time.

“I don’t think Pops likes what he does,” Davy says. The sun is behind you and his eyes are squinted nearly shut as he talks. “He told me he wants to get

out of it. Drugs.”

This is something Pops says a lot, and you point this out to Davy. He’s quiet.

“Why we leaving now?” he asks, after a moment.

You don’t really know how to explain it, or if he’ll understand. You just say, “I want us to get out while we still want to.” You promise that you’ll visit your parents, and he seems to accept the plan.

“But why we at Compton’s?” he says.

Truth is, that for whatever reason you thought of Stacey when you were leaving the trailer. She and Maw both got the same blonde hair, deeper voices than you expect. Getting out of the truck, you tell him, “Gonna ask Stacey if she wants to come with.”

“I don’t wanna go on your date,” he groans. You tell him to wait here.

Stacey usually works Mondays after school. Inside, you ask her what time she gets off, and she says tonight at six, grinning. “Why, what’ve you got going?”

“Was gonna grab some Steak ’n’ Shake,” you say. “Wanna join up?”

She says she’d love to.

5.

You and Davy go to the library until six. The library’s inside the old police station, and they haven’t done much to spruce it since. In your free time, you’ll usually set yourself up in one of the old holding cells, now bar-less, with a copy of Car & Driver or Thrasher, or the stray novel the library ladies push on you. Into the Wild, Wuthering Heights—you’re rarely a fan. Often the women stick a styrofoam cup of coffee in your hand, or a can of Pepsi, and then ask if you’re eating enough, do you want a snack? Always you decline. I’m eating plenty, you say, because owing folks doesn’t suit you. The women might be kind only because you’re not some slack-jaw forced to come in for an end-of-the-semester essay, or a skeev that the women will then have to keep tabs on so you don’t use the library’s free internet to jerk it. Or you might remind the women of their sons. If they have them. You don’t know. Never asked.

But Davy’s no bookworm, so when you get there he messes around on a computer. A librarian shows him a game called Mega Math Blaster and another all about phonics. “I can read,” Davy says, scowling at the screen. “I’m ten.” So you step in, introduce him to the old-school Oregon Trail they have, and he digs gunning down rabbits and bison, even if he keeps having to restart every fifteen minutes when all his folks die of dysentery, snakebite, and exhaustion.

You let him have this for a few minutes, then remind him about his

homework.

“Just one more game,” he says. “I ain’t gonna die on the next one. I found the trick.”

“No,” you say. “Homework.”

“Just let me get past the Kansas River Crossing.”

“No.”

“Come on,” he says, knowing that if he needles you enough, you might yell, call him a fuckwad in public, and then feel bad enough that he can just have his way.

But you don’t. “Homework,” you say, and eventually he backs down, retrieves his backpack, smoothes out a worksheet on the edge of the table, then stares at it with his face open. Where will you take him tonight, where will you both go after supper? The older librarian might let you stay at her place for a few nights. She probably won’t even mind Davy’s bedwetting problem. She’s always been the nicest to you, surprised you with a turkey sandwich one day. (You would’ve felt worse not taking it.) But then there’s Stacey. You don’t know where she lives, but it could be somewhere nice. Maybe she’ll take you in for at least tonight, then you’ll find somewhere else. Because really, how long before your father hits you again? Before he seizes your shirt, pins you against your mattress, and chokes you with his forearm so it won’t leave a bruise? The springs shrieked like a kicked dog. You could paint these women one hell of a picture. You could even lie and say your life is still like that.

The older woman faces you and says, “You’re real good with him, getting on him about his homework, taking him to the library. You’ll make a terrific father someday.” And that’s when you know there’s no use in asking her for anything. She has no idea who you are. She’ll be lost at what to do with both of you. First hint at what your Pops does, and she’ll call some agency. And why the hell owe something to some old lady you don’t know, who doesn’t know you? Fuck that. You’ve seen what need can do to a person.

6.

When the sun goes red with fatigue, you both leave, meet up with Stacey. She’s waiting in the parking lot, leaning on her primer-gray Corolla. She eyes Davy as you approach. “Yeah,” you say, “I have to look after him for a bit.” You half-expect her to break chocks, but she throws on a smile, says it’s no problem, none at all. Zero.

At Steak ’n’ Shake, everyone orders burgers and cheese fries. There’s small talk about movies, the Tom Cruise War of the Worlds you and Davy saw two weeks ago, which she also saw and thinks is okay. She points to your elbow, the small worm of a scar there. “What happened?” she says. A couple months back, Davy grazed you with a candle. You tell her you brushed against a heating element at work, and she makes a youch face. Davy, the whole time, all he says is his order.

When the tab comes, you just stare at it and so does Stacey. You want her to offer to take it. It feels awful, wanting that. She doesn’t deserve this, you don’t need her for it, you probably have enough to cover it. But you’re not using her—no, it’s about generosity. You need to see how generous she is. How generous you can let her be.

She spins the tab to face her. She brings out her wallet, counts out the full bill. The server arrives, takes it. You feel worse. You say, “We should go watch TV or something,” and her eyes hesitate on the table. But then she says sure, even suggests her place, her face tinting pink. You say that sounds perfect.

7.

Stacey lives in a house. You haven’t been in a house for three years, not since you took a girl named Riki on a date and her mother invited you inside to wait as Riki finished prepping. And you miss them, the houses. Stacey’s has this cool, ’70s-looking plaid wallpaper and a waist-high wall separating kitchen from living room, and the walls aren’t made of paneling, and there are stairs and the stairs lead down to a basement likely filled with all the extra pictures and furniture and things they probably somehow don’t have room for upstairs. Davy, who still isn’t talking, which isn’t a bad thing since he won’t blab to her anything bad, like where you live or why you’ve left. Davy is less impressed with the house. Unlike you, he has friends who have houses.

The three of you settle in her living room. You slouch into the cloud-comfy sofa. “Davy’s got homework to do,” you say, and Stacey steps into the din-
ing room and clears a spot at the big table among all the papers and receipts. “Here,” she says, “nice little workspace.”

With Davy in the other room, she switches on some romcom thing set in New York City, and nestles against you on the sofa. She smells like Tide and table salt. She has too many moles. You kiss her, anyway. You crawl on top of her. She grips her legs around your pelvis. After some time you pull your head away and ask if it’s okay for you to stay there tonight, you and Davy could even lay out in the basement, on the concrete. She says she doesn’t think so. “My dad’s supposed to be home soon.”

“Please,” you say. You have no other options. You’ll find a way to repay her. After sometime she says sure, she’ll ask. You unweave yourselves from one another and sit apart until her father arrives soon after. A large man with heavy eyelids. He seems kind, accommodating.

“Can I talk to you in the other room, Daddy?” Stacey says. He nods. They go into the dining room. Fear clenches your gut, but you feel hopeful. Davy returns to the living room, plops down beside you. His worksheet still isn’t done. He spent his time drawing a covered wagon in the margins.

You can hear Mr. Compton in the other room. “No,” he says. “Honey, I’m not comfortable with any boys sleeping over in our house.”

You’ve always wondered if he knew you stole from him.

8.

Back in the truck Davy asks the obvious. Where to next?

So why not drive to the police station right then? It seems so simple to choose. Thing is, if you haven’t done it yet, why would you now? Think about it. You walk in on your mother strung out and, sure, you get mad and, sure, you wish she wouldn’t do that and you could just leave, but you go on back to your room and shut the door and do something else instead. You play a video game, read a book. Then you wonder what you’ll defrost for supper. You get distracted. You don’t think about it. Or maybe you do grab your brother and you go to supper. Maybe you do this two or three times. You decide enough’s enough—fuck yeah it is—and you leave, but you go back. It becomes easy to go back.

So, no, you don’t go to the police station. You drive home, to the trailers.

But first, you pass the exit for your road. You keep driving on Route M, up to the field. There, you light off the fireworks still in Davy’s backpack. The grass in this enormous field is cut tight to the ground, and you and Davy run easily, firing the bottle rockets up into the navy-dark sky. Then you start on the Roman candles. You’re sticking their bottoms in the ground and watching them pop off. You’re shooting them at each other. As always, you over-aim by a couple yards on purpose. And then you come to the final candle in this mis-packaged bundle of one candle too many, and you hand it to Davy and he snatches it, walks a couple ten feet away. A flare tears by your head. But neither of you get hit—that’s the amazing thing in all of this, isn’t it? There’s luck in this, right? Nobody can’t tell you there isn’t at least relief.