We were hurrying to the car, and we were already late.
I remembered with annoyance that we’d parallel parked far down the other end of the block. I darted down the narrow one-way street, irritated, Rosie sprinting ahead with her martial arts dobok in her arms. We passed houses already decked out for the Fourth of July: porches arrayed in red, white and blue bunting; flags fluttering from windows; tri-colored pinwheels sunk in the mud of gardens. It was pretty, and I would have liked it if I’d had time to look.
As we passed one of LaBelle’s formerly stately foursquare houses, I heard a scream.
“IDIOT!” said someone. “F*CKING IDIOT! F*CKING MORON!”
I walked a little slower. Once I overheard a man beating his wife, yelling just like that on a hot afternoon just like this, and I had to call 911. So now when I hear yelling, I eavesdrop just in case.
“F*CKING IDIOT!” came the screams, a man’s voice, furious. “IDIOT!”
And then the door opened. A moment later a bearded man was on the porch, shirtless, clutching his phone. His posture was not the one I expected, not the broad-shouldered intimidating pose of a pissed off Appalachian. He looked helpless. He looked small.
“Sorry,” he called to another man, on the porch across the street. “I’m sorry. I just found out my friend overdosed. He’s dead.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
I don’t think he heard me. He went on to the man across the street. “”I knew when he was getting money together yesterday that he was gonna get killed. Idiot. I knew it. I knew he was gonna get killed and he’s dead now. F*cking idiot.”
I didn’t know of anything else to say or do, except to leave him talking to the neighbor.
The drugs have been particularly bad this summer. Overdoses have surged. They are finding people passed out in the street. Many have died. I had never seen so many police cars patrolling the narrow one-way of LaBelle as I saw that night, driving Rose to her martial arts classes. Everywhere I looked I saw patriotic decorations and I saw police officers armed to the teeth, again and again and again. This is America. This is what we do for an emergency like a rash of drug overdoses, in America. We don’t increase paramedics or mental healthcare. We increase the presence of law enforcement. More guns, more arrests.
That was the mental image I couldn’t shake, as we went into the holiday weekend. The man on the porch, half-dressed, helpless, angry, yelling. The police cars everywhere. The feeling of being in a war zone, in the tense lull between gun battles.
On Saturday I took Rose to the next town over to watch their fireworks display. We ended up in a church parking lot, our backs to the tall brick building, facing the municipal show. It began with a volley of monochromatic explosions, each a dented circle of pink dots, a clumsily drawn heart bursting in the sky. Then there was a spray of loud, colorful rockets like any fireworks anywhere. First I heard them popping in front of me, and then I heard the popping echo off the bricks of the church. It went on that way for half an hour, the pops and the echoes again and again, church and state, church and state. Then the grand finale, more fireworks closer together, so I couldn’t even tell which noises were church and which were state.
I did what I always do when I’m in the middle of a loud, chaotic situation. I started humming songs and reciting things under my breath. It’s a form of stimming my brain has always done when I’m overwhelmed by sensory data. I can’t help it anymore than I can help closing my eyes when I sneezed. That night I hummed and recited a mix of American poetry. Oh say can you see by the dawn’s early light what so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming? Thy ramparts make tyranny tremble when borne by the red, white and blue. What, to a slave, is your Fourth of July? We, the people of the United States of America, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity do ordain and establish this constitution for the United States of America.
Ordain, as if America was a church.
Once again I saw the grieving man yelling on his porch. Idiot. F*cking moron. The patriotic decorations. The police prowling. The overdoses. America.
There was one final bang, and a final pink heart broke in the sky. We all applauded, for some reason. Who were we applauding? The fireworks designers couldn’t hear us. We clapped to honor a mist of sulfur-scented smoke that dissipated over the Ohio Valley, and then we went home.
The next day, my dear friend was part of a political demonstration in Ohio, marching in a Fourth of July parade dressed as the Statue of Liberty, with theatrical blood dripping down her legs to protest the Supreme Court. It all seemed very funny and appropriate until a few minutes later, when I saw actual blood at a parade. The news exploded with word of the madman shooting paradegoers in Highland Park, and then the pictures and video appeared. Five dead, then six and then seven. Eighteen injured, then twenty-six, then thirty. A band playing music and then the band members breaking into a terrified sprint. Paradegoers taking refuge in strangers’ houses, sheltering in place all day. A toddler wandering the parade route looking for Mom and Dad, both of whom were dead. Police officers in riot gear running back and forth. An officer with head in hands, standing among the debris of an abandoned parade.
Again, the grieving man.
I didn’t know what to do except to take Rosie swimming, and then to take her downtown to the Steubenville fireworks. And there I was again, looking up at the bright flashes, hearing the sharp cracks of bombs bursting in air. Oh say can you see by the dawn’s early light what so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming? Thy ramparts make tyranny tremble when borne by the red, white and blue. Oh brave new world that has such people in it. What, to a slave, is your Fourth of July? We, the people of the United States of America, in order to form a more perfect union. Idiot. F*cking moron. I’m sorry. I just found out my friend overdosed. He’s dead. It is a tale told by an idiot, all full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
We clapped for a mist of sulfur smoke again, and again we went home.
That was when I heard the news of the shooting at the Philadelphia Independence Day fireworks. I watched the video and heard the gunshots and the screams. I saw the photos of crowds stampeding away from the shooting, as fireworks exploded overhead.
Oh say can you see by the dawn’s early light?
In a way, it is oddly appropriate that our national anthem is about people standing in the dark after a bombing, straining to see if the flag is still there.
But if it’s there, what does it mean?
Image via pixabay
Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross, The Sorrows and Joys of Mary, and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.
Steel Magnificat operates almost entirely on tips. To tip the author, visit our donate page.