There was an enormous explosion up the street.
“That one’s got to be illegal,” I said to myself.
People in LaBelle like their fireworks. This isn’t exactly a safe place for fireworks– the houses here are so close together that on some blocks, the eaves overlap. The yards are small; there’s plenty of overgrown grass and brush, and July is the time of year that’s closest to being dry in the Ohio Valley. But that never stops them. They save up all year and then drive over to West Virginia, where the laws are much more lax, to buy fireworks. They start setting them off halfway through June; it reaches its apex on Independence day but it doesn’t stop completely til August.
I was going to go down to the park, for the municipal fireworks. Steubenville can’t afford to control crime or fix its sidewalks, but it has a nice big pyrotechnic display in the park every year, and it’s certainly safer to watch them in the park than staying in LaBelle while the fireworks parties are happening.
But I never made it to the park.
Another massive crack shook the street; a firework that looked bigger than the house in front of it billowed up into the air.
I stopped on the corner to watch.
“Yall can sit right here and watch, there’s a seat for ya,” said a strange woman sitting on her back step.
“Oh, thanks,” I said. “I’m going to the park to meet my husband and daughter.” And I started away.
That was when I heard the woman sobbing.
Talking to strangers is a sacred act, and we know this because Christ talked to strangers so often. But I’m not very much like Christ. I don’t like to talk to strangers. I’m quiet and bookish; I don’t join groups. I keep to myself. I don’t know how many opportunities for consoling Christ I’ve missed with my introversion and shyness. He will tell me Himself someday. So I can’t say what it was that made me stop walking this time.
I pretended to check my phone for texts.
The woman went on sobbing.
Another firework went up, three houses away, bright as the ones set to go off in the park and dangerously close to the roof. I stood there in genuine awe; then I remained standing, pretending to be in awe, because the woman was still sobbing and I didn’t want to walk away.
I watched the next few fireworks shoot off, as the sky grew dark. There was still time to walk to the park and meet my husband; I fiddled with my phone, hoping he’d text and give me an excuse to ignore Christ and walk away.He will tell me Himself someday, how many times I’ve ignored Him and walked away.
The woman was on her phone now, leaving a desperate-sounding message. She and I watched the next firework. We breathed the sulfurous air.
“Got a light?” she asked.
I didn’t. I pray I have one burning brightly when He comes again– but either way, I wasn’t carrying a lighter. I never smoke. I’m healthy in my habits, not out of virtue but because I’m afraid of everything.
“Sounds like a bad day,” I ventured to remark.
“It’s the worst day of my life.”
Next thing I knew, I was on the porch, watching the illegal home fireworks display.
“You can see the park fireworks from here too– right over that house. Best seat in LaBelle, right here,” the woman said. She reached for her beer; I could see the bruises on her arms. Then she was crying again.
She told me what was wrong. I won’t betray a confidence, but it was a terrible story. There was domestic violence involved. She was physically safe at the moment but emotionally destroyed.
I had a hand on her shoulder next. I couldn’t help but think of all the times the strange, harsh, raggedy people in LaBelle called to me from a porch or a step, and I looked at the cracked sidewalk and walked away. I couldn’t think of one reason why I was sitting on the steps just then, with cigarettes and beer, watching people blow things up, trying to comfort a traumatized woman I didn’t know, but there I was.
She swore heartily, then looked at the sky. “Sorry, Mamma. My mother was an evangelist. This is her house. Sorry, Mamma. I need Jesus. Jesus, I need you. Jesus, Jesus.”
“Jesus,” I repeated. “Jesus, Jesus.”
My hand was already on her shoulder; next thing I knew I was praying over her. I don’t know when I began. I couldn’t say if I got a Word from the Lord, but I remembered that verse about walking through the Valley of Shadow. That’s what LaBelle is, after all: the Valley of Shadow. He already told us He’d be here.
Then the municipal fireworks started. We watched them together, our heads jerking back and forth like spectators at a tennis game, admiring the professional display and the bootleg one together.
“Oh, beauty,” she said as a pink heart-shaped firework blazed over the house. “That’s what I needed. There’s not enough beauty.”
“Not around here,” I agreed.
We stood up and applauded to no one when the City display was finished.
“Come with me,” she said, and led me to the alley where the other fireworks were going off.