Fireworks

Baker’s Pick
John A. Ward


It’s Fourth of July, 1955. I’m 13 years old, in my first year of high school and starting to get interested in girls. When I’m a senior, I probably won’t care about fireworks anymore, but for now, my favorite is firecrackers. They come in packages of fifty with the fuses braided. Sometimes I unroll them to see the Chinese writing on the newspaper inside. I could set off a whole string, but never do that. It’s wasteful. Me and Cooder put one under a tin can to see how high it will blow. The lid pushes out and after a double dozen blows apart.

We make guns out of pipe, seal the end with a screw-on cap and drill a hole for the fuse. It’s a hand-held cannon. The cannon ball is a marble. I guess we’re lucky we never shoot our eyes out. Last summer we had a war, made a long-barreled gun on a bipod and fired it from the big rock in the woods. We used crab apples as hand grenades, bored a hole in an apple, stuck a firecracker in it, lit, and threw. When it went off, the attackers were splattered with applesauce shrapnel.

That’s the small stuff. The next level is half-inchers, that thick and two-and-a-half inches long. They have a red braided fuse and a red cylinder body, the kind of firecrackers you see in cartoons. They’re used the same way as little firecrackers, but have more bang.

Cherry bombs are next, round and red, like cherries. What’s neat is the fuses are waterproof. We throw them in the lake. They explode deep under, send up a plume and leave a hollow on the surface the waterspout flops back into. Somebody lights one and flushes it down the school toilet. It explodes inside the plumbing. I never do that. Cooder might, but I’m not saying.

Sometimes, Cooder’s uncle gets him special fireworks, like Roman candles. We put on a pyrotechnic display for the whole family. They shoot red, green, and gold balls of fire. There are fountains and pinwheels that shoot showers of sparks, and rockets too, that we stand up in a Coke bottle. They fly up like comets. One hits the cottonwood tree and bounces down from branch to branch, right into the middle of us. We scatter out of the yard. Cooder’s Mom thinks we’re going to burn down the house. There are torpedoes that we throw. They explode on impact. Cooder hits his sister in the butt with one and his Mom gets real mad.

We hardly ever see anything like a starburst. They’re considered very extravagant and only someone with money to burn would buy them.

We have sparklers. We light the first with wooden matches, which is very hard. After that, we light one sparkler from another. They burn very bright. They’re like little starbursts and we write our names with the afterglow. We try to make big circles and pictures and we dance with the light.
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John A. Ward was born on Staten Island, attended Wagner College in the early ’60s, sold his first poem to Leatherneck magazine for $10, and became a biomedical scientist. He is now in San Antonio running, writing and living with his dance partner. E-mail: jaward04[at]sbcglobal.net.

Frogs

Macfisto’s Pick
John A. Ward


I press the lid onto my Styrofoam coffee cup. The fit is critical. Get it right or dribble coffee all the way down the hall.

“That’s a poison frog,” he is talking about my tie.

“Yes, a poison dart frog,” I say.

“I’ve seen them.”

“Where?”

“In Guatemala.” He looks like the dust jacket photos I’ve seen of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Marquez is from Colombia, but I have a notion that everyone in South and Central America looks like him. I know it isn’t true. Daniel Ortega looked nothing like him.

“You lived in Guatemala?”

“Yes, I helped a biologist collect frogs and snakes.”

“You were a graduate student, or a technician?”

“No, guerilla commander.”

“I’ve heard that the frogs are disappearing, becoming extinct.”

“Yes, the nights are getting quiet. They used to be filled with their peeping, but it’s not because we collected them.”

“No, I think it’s parasites or pollutants.”

“It’s not just the frogs. The rain forests are disappearing. In another fifty years, the only frogs will be the ones on your tie.”

“I’m 62. I’ll be dead before then.”

“Men can live to be 120 years. You’ll be only 112 then.”

“Not me, men in my family don’t live that long.”

“It’s true. You have to choose your ancestors carefully.”

“Of course, none of them died of natural causes, so who knows. What about you?”

“Oh, I’m already dead.”

“Really! How did you die?”

“Poison arrow.”

“You look good for a dead man. How do you manage that?”

“Push ups and wheat germ, and I have unfinished business.”

“Oh?”

“I’m looking for the man who took the frogs.”

“It’s not me. This tie was a gift.”

“I believe you. You have an honest face.” He pushed a hollowed reed across the table to me. “Take this.”

“What is it?”

“A whistle. It makes the sound of the poison dart frog. If you find the man who took them, blow it and I’ll come.”

I pick it up and put it in my pocket. He turns, walks out into the parking lot and disappears among the cars.

Coffee drips all over me on my way back to the office. When I check the lip of the cup, it’s defective, crushed and bent. I don’t know if I did it, or if it was like that when I got it.

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John A. Ward was born on Staten Island, attended Wagner College in the early ’60s, sold his first poem to Leatherneck magazine for $10, and became a biomedical scientist. He is now in San Antonio running, writing and living with his dance partner. E-mail: jaward04[at]sbcglobal.net.

Whatcha Got There Babe?

Flash
John A. Ward


I am discovering things almost too late in life for them to benefit me. For instance, eternity and women are not what I thought they were. I spent most of my prepubescent life in church where I learned nothing practical. I thought it was a way to get in touch with God and eternity, to save myself. From what, I don’t know, being mortal I guess. Church has a way of convincing its members that they are eternal. By the time I was twenty-one I defected to the mortal life. It is no coincidence that I met Anne about that time.

Another reason people go to church is singing. Churches are full of singing. I had plenty of evidence that I couldn’t sing. I knew from the pained expressions on the faces of my pew mates that if I kept making my joyful noise in the ears of the faithful I was going to hell. So I left church and never sang again.

That eliminated the third reason for going to church, meeting other people. Churches are good for that, but so are dance halls, writer’s groups and bookstores. Once when I was in Bookstop with Anne, I got several stacks away and lost my bearings. I saw a hand reach for the audio book shelf and take something. I said without thinking, “Whatcha got there, Babe?” She turned and I realized it wasn’t Anne. My mind flashed, I’m in trouble. Here it is the age of liberation and I’ve called a woman I don’t know from Eve, Babe. Then she showed me what she had and smiled. Then I knew that I was in even bigger trouble than I thought.

It was such a friendly smile, I wanted to invite her to coffee at the EZ Diner next door, but how would I explain it to Anne, only a few stacks away? I said, “Oh sorry, I thought you were someone else,” and beat a hasty retreat. I found Anne and said, “Got what you want? Good. Let’s get on line.”

“I was going to look some more,” she said.

“No, let’s get out of here now,” I said.

We’ve made it a running gag. “Whatcha got there, Babe,” I say and she laughs. I like to do it in the morning when she’s brushing her hair in the mirror, fresh from the shower and naked. “Whatcha got there, Babe,” and I kiss her on the neck. If she has the hot curling iron wound in her hair, she squeals and jumps away, but if I catch her between waves, she turns her head and smiles, our lips meet and the morning fills with sunshine and birdsong.

Who would have believed anything that blatant would be effective? Anne says it’s because I look friendly and innocent. When I do something like that, it’s cute, not offensive. So I am collecting my bon mots, storing them up for the next life in case I don’t meet Anne again.
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John A. Ward was born on Staten Island, attended Wagner College in the early ’60s, sold his first poem to Leatherneck magazine for $10, and became a biomedical scientist. He is now in San Antonio running, writing and living with his dance partner. E-mail: jaward04[at]sbcglobal.com.

Strike Zone

Flash
John A. Ward


I’m at bat and I’ll strike out. This is what I worry about at 10 years old. It’s not the same thing I worried about at 8 and 9. I’m not good at sports that require skill. It’s all right when I’m just playing in the cow field with the other guys and the bases are squares of cardboard. We never have the same team from day to day. We just play for fun. Nobody cares. But when my father makes a donation to a team, the Frank Smith All Stars, my life changes.

I don’t know who Frank Smith is. The All Stars are in last place all season. I have a uniform, number 37, my Boy Scout troop number. They play me in right field. That’s where they play the slugs. It’s much more serious now, because I’m on a regular team. I ooze self-defeat. Instead of going to the plate determined to get a hit, I go there not wanting to strike out. The coach knows this and tells me to draw a walk. I scrunch up. The strike zone is from the armpits to the knees. I try to shrink it down. This is a challenge. I have to discover the point of returning diminishment because if the umpire thinks I’m deliberately shrinking the strike zone, he estimates where it would be if I was standing up, stretching even, and he calls the pitches on the basis of that. It happens to me a few times until I wise up and figure just how much I can telescope my body. It helps that my uniform is too big and I can almost squat in it without him seeing that my knees are bent.

This works. I don’t have to worry about striking out. If a pitch comes down the pipe, I just have to foul it off. Fast balls are trouble because they can blow by me before I know it. That’s no problem on the first two pitches. I’m not allowed to swing on them. I get good at this. I can foul off anything near the strike zone if I pay attention. The opposing pitchers start walking me because the game will be called if we don’t get three innings in before dark. I don’t get a hit all year, but I get on base a lot. Then the coach puts in a substitute runner, because if I stay on first I’ll get picked off. I become a specialty player, a walker, just like they have place kickers in football. I don’t worry about striking out anymore. It’s a distinction to do what I do.
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John A. Ward was born on Staten Island, attended Wagner College in the early ’60s, sold his first poem to Leatherneck magazine for $10, and became a biomedical scientist. He is now in San Antonio running, writing and living with his dance partner. E-mail: jaward[at]stic.net