Fourth of July
Ernie lay on his back in bed, left arm under his head propped up on a pillow. He took a drag from the first cigarette of the day as he watched the daylight grow stronger through the pulled shade of the tiny camper he lived in.
He jumped at the sound of poppers in the dirt road that ran past the front of his trailer. A glance at the clock made him groan. Seven-thirty in the morning and the little brats were already out playing with fire works. He flung the sweaty sheet away and stood up. It was a single short step to the screened window. After he pulled the shade aside and winced from the full brunt of the early morning sun in hung-over eyes, he yelled, “Knock it off,” then slammed the window shut.
Ernie sighed. That was just going make it hotter in the camper, but he couldn’t take the constant pop, pop, popping. It sounded too much like gun fire. The ashes from his cigarette, still between two nicotine-stained fingers, dropped to join the remains of its brethren on the lifeless carpet beside the bed.
In what passed for a kitchen he scooped coffee into the maker and filled it with water. He punched the start button and was made a slightly less grumpy as the sound of water begin its path through the fresh grounds.
Shouts of warning rang out from the road outside, the kids set another string of poppers alight. Ernie braced. Pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, in rapid succession with screams of glee coming from the now larger pack of kids gathered from the trailer park. He stared out of the tiny window over the sink at the trailer next door, smoking the cigarette and waiting for the coffee.
He wanted to get out of town, get to the country, someplace without parades, crowds and fireworks but the car was in the shop. Before the coffee was done he poured some into his least dirty cup, letting the still brewing coffee pour over the hot plate, hissing and steaming and adding to the burnt coffee smell. He shoved the pot back under the stream and sipped the life blood of his day. His nerves were already on edge from the popping and screaming outside.
When the phone rang he jumped. Who the hell is calling at five till eight? He picked up the cell phone lying on the table amidst the remains of take out wrappers, bags and empty cans of beer.
“What?” he snarled.
“Good morning to you, too, buddy,” the voice responded with a laugh.
“It’s too early, Brian.” Ernie scrubbed the cigarette out in the overflowing ashtray next to the loveseat. He put his coffee on the stained arm of the sofa and plopped his feet on the coffee table, scattering more take out wrappers. “The damn kids are outside already, firing off poppers and screaming like the Viet Cong.”
“Come on out to the house, Brother. I’ve got brats and ribs and Mary’s made potato salad. No fireworks, I promise.”
Ernie’s interest picked up. His brother Brian had the childhood home, an old farmhouse they grew up in. He swallowed some of the still too hot coffee. “Car’s in the shop.”
“I’ll come get you. I know how the 4th brings out your PTSD. Say yes.”
Ernie lit another cigarette with his Zippo. His engraved unit crest nearly rubbed away. A screamer went off. It sounded like it was right outside his trailer. He dove for the floor, coffee flew all over the loveseat and ragged carpet.
A tinny voice came from the phone, now on the floor just under the kitchen cabinet. “Ernie? Ernie? What was that? Are you OK?”
Face flushed with shame, Ernie got up and retrieved the phone. “Yeah, I’m all right. Damn kids set off a screamer.” He walked back to the loveseat and picked the cup up. He poured more coffee into it and shoved the kitchen table wrappers off onto the floor to sit down at the table.
“Are you coming out?”
“Yeah,” Ernie scrubbed his three day old beard. If he stayed here much longer those kids would be dead. “Yeah. Come and get me. I’ll be cleaned up by the time you get here.”
When Brian arrived in his new SUV, Ernie was sitting outside his camper, shaved and in clean clothes, smoking. Brian got out and gave his brother a hug. “I don’t see any kids.”
“I chased’em off.”
“Glad you’re coming out. Mary made your favorite, lemon meringue pie.”
The two of them got into the car. “You two are too good to me. I’m a mess.”
“That’s what family is for, Ernie. You did your duty, time for us to pay it back.”
Ernie stared out of the passenger window as his younger brother backed out of the parking spot. The camper was rusted and ugly. The lawn chair he’d been sitting in was missing half of the webbing. He could still hear the pop, pop, popping of gun fire deep in his memory and if he took his hands off of his knees, they’d be shaking. He felt the way his camper looked. “Thanks, Brian. I appreciate that.”
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