Michael Grimala moved to Nevada in 2012 to take a job as a reporter for the Las Vegas Sun, but he’s a native of Massachusetts, where he set his debut short story, “A Trunk Full of Illegal Fireworks.” As you may have imagined, it’s a Fourth of July story. We’re pleased to present it in our current issue (July/August 2021), in the Department of First Stories. We hope the story and this post related to it will add spice to your Fourth of July weekend. Happy Independence Day! —Janet Hutchings
I asked my older brother why the police were in the front yard, talking to our father. Brad waved me off, which annoyed me. I remember that distinctly. He was twelve, only two years older than me, but at that age I assumed he knew and was keeping it from me.
The two uniformed officers stood straight, their pants creased with no bend in the knee, one of them holding a piece of wood. Dad leaned back in his stance, a tall, thin hanger for frayed blue jeans and a faded golf shirt. Brad and I watched from around the corner of the front stoop, crouched next to a hedge bush. I can still picture the exact angle from which we observed that scene; past the police, across the street from our tiny house in Worcester, Mass., sat a large, vacant lot. The empty parcel took up the entire length of the block.
And that, of course, was the reason for the police visit. They gestured toward the lot, and the still-smoldering remnants of the previous night’s bonfire. In our neighborhood, it was tradition: The week leading up to the Fourth of July, everyone dragged their scrap wood, discarded furniture, and other assorted flammables into a big pile in the vacant lot on Riley Street. On the Fourth, amid a smattering of civilian fireworks displays, the pyre was lit.
It burned all night. Everyone came out to watch that year, like every year. It was a celebration, the best Worcester could offer.
But the police weren’t concerned with working-class good times. Building a fifteen-foot-high bonfire was against the law, and so they dutifully walked up and down the streets the next day, asking questions. That eventually brought them to our house. They knew dad was a carpenter because everyone knew that. They knew he had a stack of collected lumber in the backyard, too.
The police found a four-by-four post that had escaped the bonfire without much damage. It had been left on the perimeter of the pyre and looked no worse for wear.
It also, after a quick inspection, matched some other posts dad had stored in the yard.
Being Worcester, and being our neighborhood, the police talked it over with Dad right there in the front yard. When the conversation ended, Dad marched through the front door. Brad and I snuck around to the back of the house and looked through the screen door as Dad made a few phone calls, trying to scrounge up a helping hand.
I guess no one answered, or they were too busy to come, because for the rest of the day my father worked in that lot, by himself, clearing away the entire bonfire. The cops kept watch from their car as he ran a hose across the street and sprayed the whole thing for an hour, then put on his heavy work gloves and pulled every charred scrap out of that pile.
A dumpster arrived—the only person that picked up when Dad called—and parked on the side of the street. Dad trudged every single piece of burnt debris across the lot and tossed it into the dumpster. Couch frames, mattresses, plywood, everything. When the area finally lay clear, he raked the ashes around and hosed the ground again. It was dark by the time he finished. He made the burdened walk across the street—empty, where dozens of people had lined the sidewalk the night before—and back into the house.
I don’t recall exactly what happened next, but he probably sat down to dinner with us, turned on the baseball game, helped us with our homework, etc. Regular Dad stuff.
I had completely forgotten about that incident until EQMM asked me to write a blog post as a sort-of companion piece to my Department of First Stories entry in the July/August issue. That story is set against the backdrop of the Fourth and deals with a father making a hard decision to protect his family, and I never made any connection until now.
Dad never talked about the day the cops made him clean up the lot. I think that’s just how life is, from his perspective—rarely easy.
He never asked me or Brad about it, either. If he had, we would have been no match for his deductive powers; we would have readily admitted we had gone into his lumber days before and hauled some pieces across the street to the bonfire, like our friends were doing. Like the entire neighborhood did.
Thinking back on it now, I’m positive he knew. It couldn’t have been a very difficult mystery to solve.
Anyway, Dad read my EQMM story shortly after the issue hit newsstands. He’s a great father and a voracious reader (mostly legal thrillers) and he phoned to say he enjoyed it very much, though he questioned why it ended “just when it was getting good.” I called him out on the backhanded compliment and we laughed about it.
I think next time we talk, I’ll have to come clean. He’ll probably laugh it off. “Hey, at least you got a story out of it,” he’ll say.
If your story is as well written as this post, it should be a great read. (Sorry I haven’t gotten to it yet.) Sounds like you had a good childhood, though I’m aggravated on your family’s behalf that none of the neighbors came out to help that day. Surely they saw the work your dad was doing over so many hours.
Thanks Barb. I still wonder about that too, all these years later.
Wonderful story! Thanks for telling us all this bit of your childhood!