(a short story)



By Kimberly Jean Smith


Afterward, you will recall that you were once aware of something called bad luck. You will remember it as a sense of abstract pity you felt, when you heard that a woman you used to work for had a baby afflicted with cerebral palsy. When you saw the infant for the first time, his twisted body and misshapen head stunned you as did your lack of tenderness toward him. You struggled for some response. But in that drama––the drama of deformed baby––you were relieved to say, the mother had the starring role not you.

You had imagined that with her new stiff-limbed child, she joined a small cast of characters––noble moms and supporting players––which included all the other women who had been touched in this way and all the other families who knew her kind of pain. You will soon learn, when bad luck strikes, it cuts you off from all it hasn’t touched. And everyone else it’s marked as well––degrees of isolation you will find surprising.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Mothers Against Gun Violence, Mothers Against Tired Truckers, Mothers Against Spinal Meningitis, Sexual Predators, Salmonella Poisoning and Suicide. You will now recognize what is behind these Mothers Against. You have become, Mothers Against Recreational Explosives (MARE). You could just have easily become Mothers Against X-Husbands Who Leave Their Sons in the Care of Reckless Teens, or Mothers Against Young Men Who Like to Hear Loud Noises or even Mothers Against Mothers Who Never Teach Their Own Sons to be Careful With Someone Else’s.

These will be the whole sad facts of your case:  A cherry bomb––the explosive not the pastry––is secreted in the pocket of your ex-husband’s new girlfriend’s teenage nephew. Your six-year-old son takes a trip with his father to the rodeo grounds where the annual Fourth of July fair has begun and the new girlfriend and her nephew await.  Lips brush against your boy’s forehead as you whisper goodbyes, and in his backpack you have hidden a clean pair of shorts. He no longer likes clean clothing, but you have hidden them there because he is spending the night with his dad, as he does every other Saturday, and he can fight about clean shorts with him. Not a molecule in your body or heart shivers, warning you your son won’t come home. I promise, the universe will convey no such message.

You will play the next scene over in your head often. How your boy must have been so thrilled to be at the center of the teenager’s game. “Run, Toby.” You hear the young man’s commanding voice, though you’ve yet to meet. (He’s 18 now and still refuses your invitations). “Go put it in that trash can. It’ll be fun.”

Where will your ex-husband have been at that very moment? Across the way ordering milkshakes, he will tell you at the hospital, while the doctors try to put your boy’s face together. At the time, it will seem like there can be nothing worse than having a boy with no face. Then they will tell you your boy is dead, and you will see that there is something worse, and you are now living it. “I was ordering milkshakes,” your ex-husband will say, flexing his nostrils, a nervous tick you will be seeing for the first time. He won’t look you in the eye when he says it. He will never look you in the eye again, but you will feel him staring at you from across the room during the small gathering your sister-in-law organizes after the funeral. You feel the weight of his gaze, and it has a weight. You measure it by the heat you feel when your back is toward him. That weight is fear. He wants to know how you are surviving. How can you be surviving, he wants to ask you. You wonder if secretly his fear isn’t a fear that you will go on surviving.

He wants to see me falter, you think, because he must hold together until I do. He doesn’t know that you will already be in the process of inventing “the work”, and that “the work” will see you through every moment, every hour of self-destruction. “The work” will be yours and not his because: 1) You thought of it first. 2) You are the mother. 3) You were not there when the accident happened as that accident would not have happened if you were there. That too is the thought that has weight, which floats around the room in the air between you and your ex-husband.

You will find hours to imagine the glee or strange curiosity Toby must have felt as he put the bomb in his mouth. Yes, that is what your boy did. Your boy, who loved the taste of cherries, put that cherry bomb in his mouth seconds before it exploded.

You will be aware that for many people this action on your son’s part is just freakish enough to be funny. Sometimes, you will imagine the jokes they must tell under their breath horrified at their own laughter. It will surprise you how little this hurts. It’s as if these jokes are told in a language you no longer speak; the language of true-events-that-are-really-too-tragic-and-absurd-to-take-seriously-without-going-crazy.

You don’t know that tongue anymore.

You will visit a psychiatrist who will give you antidepressants, which you will not take because the depression seems apt and anything less than depression would be a betrayal to your son.

You will gain a best friend––Joye with an E. You do not believe that E. You can imagine this Joye adding it somewhere back in her adolescence. You do not trust her, because she “really wants to understand.” Why would anyone want to understand? But you gain Joye, or someone like her, soon after you gain your cause, and you will often be glad she is there to lick stamps and drive you to the airport on your way to another rally.

Sometimes, late at night when you are not on the road traveling across America trying to convince others that fireworks kill––you will have already been on national television twice––arguing that fireworks should be banned, that the criminals that produce them should be thrown in jail, that children should not be taught to adore their flash or boom, that fireworks should not be given clever names like Night Brites, Red Rockets, Tiger Tails, Fire Snakes, Popping Poppies or Cherry Bombs, which make them seem like harmless toys or sweet candies and not the small but deadly fistful of explosives they are––you will go to your local market and buy some dark plums and a small tub of ice cream in a flavor you don’t really like.

They will be the only thing in your cart, which you will have wheeled around the store for an hour without consciously knowing what to put in it. Those plums and that ice cream will be all you could come up with at that hour in your exhausted lonely state. And then, when you get to the check-out lane, you will remember that you are in that magazine by the register and that you need copies for your files and some to mail to your supporters. So, you pick up a dozen or so.

“Oh,” the cashier will say, slowing “I saw you in there.”

“Yes.” you will answer in a voice that no longer sounds like your own. You recognize it as your TV voice, because every conversation is a chance to educate. “That’s me.”

There will be a small black and white picture of you in the back pages of the magazine, holding a picket sign that has been professionally printed at some cost. It says, “Ban Fireworks Now!” There are two or three other women with you, but the photographer will have asked you to step forward, so that the picture is really of you alone on the state capital steps, holding your sign with an earnest smile. The accompanying six-paragraph article will explain your whole sad story in the barest of terms with an opening anecdote about Toby and a quote from yourself that’s somehow an honest enough description of your loss to move even you.

“How sad,” the cashier will say, as she begins to scan your magazines, “I had no idea that had happened to you.”

“It did,” you answer. “It happened to me. And it can happen to you too. And that’s why we are working so hard to get rid of them. Do you have children? Would you let them play with a stick of dynamite. That’s what a cherry bomb is, really. A quarter stick of dynamite. They’re illegal here, but easy enough to buy if you want to, and kids want to. And if your child gets near them they could lose a hand or an eye or even their life, like my boy did.”


The cashier stares at you.  A look of intense pity will cross her face. You will recognize it as the gaze someone gives you from far on the other side of an invisible fence.

“How sad,” she will say. “Really, how sad.”

You will realize by her further silence that she is waiting for the money. You hand her $15. When she gives you your change, she squeezes your fingertips between her own for a quick second. You see a flash of guilt and shame as the cashier recognizes this for the lame gesture it is. It’s in the way she turns her face from you, hiding behind her hair before she gives a smile to the man who will be waiting behind you.

You will arrive home where your desk dominates the living room. Joye sometimes stacks your papers in neat piles. But today there are envelopes and personal letters from people all over America and Canada. People you don’t know, spread across your desk not in piles but in a flood, as if a dam of grief has been broken. Today will have been the day you counted donations. You earned $1,500 opening your mail.

Your ex-husband will sometimes send you a check. A large check. Larger than the child support payments he used to make. Sometimes you will cash them. Sometimes you will throw them away.

Late at night after returning from Cincinnati––a publicity trip that Joye will have given you the money to make after a young girl was temporarily blinded by her father’s homemade bomb––you will crawl on to your living room couch and catch a display of fireworks on television. It’s their season. The ice cream will sit resting in your mouth tasteless and cold. The plums are sour and hard. Those fireworks will be awesome to you, imbued with meaning beyond meaning. They will remind you of everything little thing from before and after. They will be everything you now know.

You will curl your toes under the sofa cushion and hug an old blanket to your chest. The entire sum of your universe will arrange itself artfully before you. A green blossom. And then a red one. A shower of violet and silver. An arc of gold pin-points shuddering from east to west. A white hot flash and a boom. The light will be suspended like a feather over water. For a moment your heart will seem to stop. And this will be you. This will.