Will Hindmarch is a freelance writer and designer who co-produces the occasional off-shoot event with Story Club Chicago. (New South Side shows are coming this spring!) It’s possible he drank the last of the almond milk.
(Now and again, I plug into Chicago’s rich and varied live lit scene. Watching people tell their stories live—and trying to tell my own—has taught me a lot about story construction, audience dynamics, and how to let people into your work. The following is the first thing I ever read at one of these events. I read it at Dana Norris’s amazing Story Club series in Chicago. Though I’d read in front of audiences before—on stage, in bookshops and auditoriums, on the radio—the experience with the audience there was a delight. If you can find storytelling events in your town, maybe give them a shot as audience or reader.)
(You can also hear me read a variation of this piece on Installment 4 of the Broad Shoulders podcast, for grown-ups.)
In summertime, the sky above my neighborhood gets loud. Explosions live there. They set off car alarms. Sometimes the echoes of the explosions get drowned out by cheers or laughter, sometimes by what sounds like panic. Most of the time, they’re followed by silence. From my desk, I hear the blasts whistle and pop, crackle and boom.
I’m inside, at my computer, making a big deal out of stuff someone wrote on an Internet forum or on Google+ or wherever. I fret and fidget and dwell and obsess. I mistake forum posts for, pardon me, actual writing. I sometimes spend time trying to get the language and nuance of a forum post just right, to reward a deep reading for context and subtext and what I didn’t say in addition to what I did say. I craft tweets to work in series, to counterbalance doldrums with guffaws, to modulate the ups and downs to convey the ongoing arc of the character I portray online. I open the browser like it was a leather case and I fiddle. It’s like busking, except I tweet out in the hopes that others will send tweets back. I tweet for tweets and wonder why my novel’s not finished.
And my modem keeps cutting out, like it’s trying to spare me from something, like it’s trying to hide a newspaper from me at the breakfast table. For a few days, I dreaded what was happening on the Internet without me. What gags and dramas passed by? What glimpses into other people’s lives? Was I falling out of the conversation, falling behind the discourse?
Outside, a firework booms.
Fireworks are both grand and nerve-wracking for me. I like my fingers. I want to keep my fingers. Yet I don’t think too hard about the explosions going off outside my building. They zoom and pop and light up the night for a second—just a second—and then they’re gone. I think of them as atmosphere.
But I’m sitting at my desk, facing the Internet, when another big boom rattles the joint and knocks a thought off a shelf in my head.
Have I been packing powder into cans? Have I been clicking Like buttons as if flicking a lighter? Have I been lighting the fuses on tweets hoping that they’d give off enough light to dazzle? Have I been thinking that the momentary flare of an explosive status update would last in people’s minds? Have I been distracting myself with Internet fireworks until it’s all just smoke in the sky, noise you tune out while you read actual writing of actual substance by actual light?
I don’t ignore the fireworks outside, but neither do I rush to the windows to scan the sky for them. I certainly don’t sit at the window all night just in case somebody sets one off. So why do I do that at the browser window? Who gives a damn about a tweet that’s bright for a fleeting moment, becomes a smoky ghost, and then is gone forever?
The fireworks continue for a couple of days. I disregard them, using them as a mantra for disregarding the Internet, thinking I’m being willful and smart, thinking I’m teaching myself to reduce my dependence on outside validation by blocking out the booms. I’ve found a metaphor that I think has substance and will make me understand. The Internet, I tell myself—and post on Tumblr—is a bunch of fireworks going off outside.
The fireworks keep coming. This one pops and then sizzles. That one plays a high-pitched slide whistle.
Some go off in a sequence of blasts, like somebody working the pump on a shotgun. Boom. Boom. Boom.
One of them rattles like a rain of dry spaghetti poured onto a tile floor for a straight minute.
Another one sounds like a cannon with no ball. I picture a wooden ship rocking in recoil on the street behind our building. Later I’ll learn that this one trades light for sound, that’s it’s all boom no flash—less of a firework and more of an ignited sound shot into the air.
Finally, on the Fourth of July, day of, my wife says “Let’s go.” Let’s go out and walk around and see what’s happening in the sky. So I go.
It’s 98º outside in the dark. There’s fire in the sky and the ground is so hot that Columbus Drive swells and buckles, curling open at its seams. I’m overdressed in full jeans, a sweaty Decemberists ringer-tee, and a loose button-down shirt. The dudes with the high-grade fireworks go half-dressed in just jeans or long denim shorts. One of them rubs his leg when stray embers spray across his shin. The culprit firecracker goes off not a foot from the belly of an SUV, breaking what I took to be an important rule of fireworks shows: Aim up.
Teens shoot bottle rockets that bounce off telephone poles and wires. Kids run laughing through their yards with sparklers in their hands. Their fathers and uncles walk around in tattoos, not shirts. Their mothers and aunts have their sleeves rolled up over their shoulders.
One of the rocket men looks detached, either Zen or exhausted. He doesn’t crouch down when he preps a rocket, he bends over it, like a plumber looking down a pipe. An unlit cigarette dangles from his lips. He presses a smoldering stick of incense to the fuse and waits. I imagine the incense is sandalwood. When the fuse starts sparking, he turns and steps away. I’m not even sure he looks up when the firework goes spinning off, its tail arcing between houses, between wires, and explodes above us, its cinders blossoming and crackling in the sky, in the windshields, in our eyes.
The guys handling the works are all casual, even bored—bored of the blares and the spectacle, maybe, after years of it. I imagine they’re setting the sky on fire just so the kids can have a Fourth of July. Which is when I realize the rocket men are doing something risky and important, keeping us awake for a few hours over a few nights so their kids can see these fireworks from years away. They’re lighting the fuse on a memory that will fondly flare and crackle again and again over twenty, thirty summers, until these kids blow up the sky for their kids.
A rocket’s glare lights up the night for a second—just a second—but lighting the night isn’t what a rocket’s really for. The sky is not what they’re meant to ignite. The fireworks were momentary only because I’d forgotten to go and look at them. So much is like that.
We walk back to our apartment and the sky keeps shuddering past midnight. The night rattles, people laugh and holler, and the street turns red from the spent papers of blasted fireworks, the husks of explosions drifting in the wakes of cars.