It was 6:30 in the evening on the Fourth of July when I threw a few items in my knapsack, swallowed a 2 mg tab of Dilaudid and headed down to the Esplanade to watch the fireworks. In my 30 years in Boston I’d never seen them, a glaring omission which some might consider on par with never having seen a Red Sox game at Fenway Park. My work place parking garage is only a 15-minute walk from the Hatch Shell, the epicenter of the ritual extravaganza, so I skipped the T and drove into town. The familiar route of my commute, usually traveled during morning rush hour, was unimpeded to the point of being unrecognizable. The illusion of a deserted Boston lasted until just short of the garage, at which point I spotted the first of many Uncle Sams, each with their brood of Cousin Sammys. There were all tramping en masse, all in the thrall of the Great New England compass. I parked, took the elevator to the street and joined the hajj.
As I walked down Arlington St I decided to phone my mom knowing that as a native New Englander she’d appreciate this auspicious moment. Mom’s been feeling low for the past few months, ever since pulling up roots in Riverside, her home for 50 years, and moving to Northern California. For me, just knowing that she was no longer there has been disorienting. My childhood home is finally left without a Jolliffe to bear witness. Now as I walked I intoned for her the name of each sacred, sentimental landmark I passed: Beacon Street, the Golden Dome of the State House, the Public Garden, and other set-pieces from Make Way for Ducklings. Mom’s spirits lifted a bit and she vowed to watch the fireworks with me on TV. We hung up with a promise that I’d call her during the 1812 Overture.
I snapped shut my phone and naively attempted to outsmart the mob, heading upstream toward the bridge over Storrow Drive. I was immediately beaten back like a salmon. The maneuver proved unnecessary however, as Storrow Drive had fallen at the feet of an army of patriots marching inexorably towards the banks of the River Charles. After fifteen minutes or so of threading through the narrowing capillaries along the riverbank I once again tried to think strategically and stepped gingerly off the path into a seemingly impenetrable patchwork of picnic blankets and folding chairs. I located a tiny but sweet triangle of real estate and claimed it with a sprawl. The spot had a higher percentage of grass than dirt and commanded a view of the western sky unobstructed except by trees on the low horizon, irrelevant once the high altitude show began.
I should mention that for a week I’d been plagued by a good old fashioned tooth ache brought on by the jack hammering of a molar and the subsequent inept insertion of a temporary crown. My dentist told me (5 days ago) that the ache would go away after a couple of days, so I had upped the Ibuprofen and hunkered down. Daytimes had been bearable but in the evening a throbbing pain tended to set in. Last night I had finally relented and taken a Dilaudid from the dwindling supply left over from my ordeal with a broken arm. It did the trick, but, mindful of its addictive tendencies, I had vowed not to take another and to call my dentist after the holiday weekend. However as I headed out the door this evening my jaw was throbbing like Tom Hanks’ and it was a no-brainer that rather than jamming a ladies ice skate into my mouth I’d allow myself just one more pill.
And so as it happened, at about the same time that I stretched out on my patch of grass to await the festivities, I had arrived at a humming peace with the abiding crowd and setting sun. My tooth, though still mildly aching, no longer seemed to matter. The evening was pleasant; tropical, but not oppressive in its heat. Many of those around me, obviously seasoned veterans of the wait for darkness, were wiling away the time with all manner of diversion: cell phones, books, playing cards and conversation. I set about the task of doing some solitary wiling of my own. My lack of a smart phone in a literal sea of these devices brought on a momentary twinge of inadequacy, but undaunted I pulled out my primitive little Sanyo flip job, the one which my daughter says I should feel embarrassed to be seen using in public, and pondered its potential. I’d already spoken to my mom, and had left 4th of July messages for my brother and my dad. I scrolled shamelessly thru my list of numbers, one by one ruling out a long list of people who, as pleased as I might have been to speak to, all seemed to put me at risk for being yanked from my reverie, prone and alone in the crowd. Just beyond ‘G’ I came upon Bob Holmes. We hadn’t spoken in months, not since he’d moved back to Ohio where he and Becky had purchased a ranch and a few head of cattle. I realized that of many on my list, he was perhaps the best bet for engagement in a conversation that would seamlessly marble with the evening. I dialed his number and he picked up. Greetings, present circumstances and news were exchanged and I was cast into a reverie of the fading old days when Bob was just a tunnel’s ride away in East Boston. To Bob, just last night up to his elbows in assisting a calving Guernsey, those days must have seemed even further. We bantered for a while and could have continued, but a nearby tower of loud speakers began to boom with a fulsome baritone voice reciting a high fructose patriotic narrative. Bob and I took it as our cue to end the conversation.
Whether the voice abated or like my toothache simply faded into insignificance I’m not sure. All I remember is that up the Charles River the sky was shrugging the sun closer to the crayoned Cambridge horizon, and though the 1812 Overture was hours away, I decided once again to call my mom.
“More bad news”, she said upon picking up the phone “My TV’s broken!”
Somehow she’d changed a channel setting and now her screen was all “snow”. All those who she might have called upon for help were away for the holiday weekend and it was apparent that she and I must face the dire situation on our own. I let her initial despair wash over me the way, as a kid, I used to duck the raging turmoil of foaming Pacific Ocean waves, coming up on the other side in the momentary peace of a million sizzling bubbles. As I spoke to her, lying on my back, head propped on my knapsack, the evolving horizon seemed to speed up. The clouds, a study in purples and reds lit on their underbellies, shredded and banked in the west. An internal voice pried at the moment, telling me to get off the phone and properly take in the exquisite panorama. For a moment I actually did get up on an elbow and divide my attention. But better instincts prevailed and I lay back, unfocused my eyes up-river, and leaned into the Sisyphean task of explaining a fifty-button remote control to my mother three thousand miles away in the sundown quarter.
“Do you see a button that says T.V.?”
“Ok, push it”
Mom, heartbroken but strong, sensed my resolve and brought her own to our endeavor.
“I pushed it.”
“Did anything change on the screen?”
The sun came in sideways, like aoxomoxoa under a crimsoning palette of clouds toasted to a perfect glow, just the right distance from embers. We talked methodically, lingering as long as necessary on each word, burros heading west, clopping down the years to a place further than my memory could take me. Out Route 66, when that was the première highway to California; gas was 25 cents a gallon and they cleaned your windshield and checked your oil. Under the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, crossing the Colorado River at Needles. Up Highway 1 to Redwood City where during Word War II, Mom cared for the children of working mothers whose husbands had gone to war. To San Francisco and celebratory nights on Market Street out on dates with New England boys, young sailors on a last hurrah before shipping out. Word upon word, back to Berkeley when the United Nations was there, and gazing across the street, mesmerized by a sea of humanity in every costume and color.
“Is there a button with a number on it?”
Mom suddenly exclaimed “The screen says 4!”
The cool patios of The Mission Inn with its dark heavy beams and its Spanish arches. Its goldfish filled fountains fused with the sky’s hemoglobin drip as our attention joined and time passed out of mind. Family camping trips next to high mountain streams, a tent pitched in a low oxygen world for a week, divining trout from icy brooks and cooking on a Coleman stove. The beach at Oceanside, an umbrella posted first thing each morning, bamboo mats spread and folding chairs positioned, an invitation to the day. I gazed over my chest down the Charles River looking in the direction of the Sierra Nevada, skirted in 16 million year old lava flows where black and white woodpeckers traversed gigantic gorges with one a flap of the wings in the dimming light.
“Mom, can you walk over to the T.V.?”
“Yes, just a minute”
I took in the entire dome of the sky as the air burst with humidity and the river swaddled the archetypal New England diorama. I attended to Mom’s voice in my left ear and, with surprising ease the diffuse sounds of the turning earth in my right. Laughter, “pass the bug spray”, the conversations and sweet nothings of strangers. The Boston Pops tuned and the crowd milled patiently. I waited for her to walk to the television set with perfect faith that she could bring the screen back to life. For a moment I was free of the feeling that I might miss something, that feeling, itself the cause of missing everything.
“Ok I’m there”
“Ok, now push the ‘up’ arrow”.
We talked it through without hyperbole and without resort to the usual rhetorical flourishes of exasperation.
A red and white robed choirboy, bearing flame at the tip of a brass candle lighter, enters the sanctuary from the side, ascends the stairs and steps nervously toward the altar. Enveloped by the massive hymnal tones of a pipe organ he lights two candles. Frenzied ducks flap across the green waters of a pond, racing toward fists full of breadcrumbs. Palm trees in straight rows point Seussically toward the sky. In the new neighborhoods garish streetlights violate the sanctity of night. Out Victoria Avenue a solitary street lamp, a hobo’s fire, marks the street that leads out to the hills where everything is possible.
The president of the League of Women Voters, glances out the kitchen window looking down onto a boy on a rope-hung, back yard swing. A call from Massachusetts taken on the kitchen phone, me watching from the black and white TV-lit den. A hundred visits back home, peering out the window of a descending airplane at the swimming pool encrusted sprawl of Southern California.
Images tilt, tremble and finally succumb to a fiery demise at the end of this summer day. The choirboy returns at service-end. He extinguishes both candles, a wraith of smoke coursing around the edges of the brass snuffer and hovering over pools of hot wax. The distant sound of bells is audible, ringing from a Churrigueresque steeple and out over the rooftops of Riverside. Soon it will be dark enough for the show
“What does it say on the screen?”
“Now it’s gone back to 4!!”
In the end of course, we failed to fix the television. I would be alone in my sunset and Mom, three hours later, in hers.
When they finally went off, the fireworks were all they had been billed for a lifetime to be; all the familiar ooooos and aaaahhhs, plus a few I’d never seen before. There was one display in particular which I still think about. It consisted of seven or eight short vertical strings of what looked like red beads, Christmas tree bulb crimson. Like snips from a Mardi Gras necklace, they formed a bottom border for the exploding choreography. For all the world they appeared to be solid objects in the sky. For what seemed like several minutes they held the line and did not fall or fade. And then they were gone.