It was Independence Day.
It was the anniversary of when the Lost Girl’s partner abandoned her, and I was trying as hard as I could not to think about it. After what happened over the winter, I never want to think about her again. Trying not to think about someone, as we all know, is worse than futile. Trying not to think of something makes every worry ten times more severe.
There’s no Independence Day parade in Steubenville, and the annual Free Day at the pool is too crowded for introverts like Adrienne and me. I was just getting over being sick and too exhausted to write, so there wasn’t any money for more than basic groceries. We didn’t have a big feast, but I did get chocolate and marshmallows and gluten-free graham crackers. Adrienne had a grand time making S’mores in the microwave. We “voiced” another story, about the dollhouse neighborhood children hunting down a stalker who was leaving them threatening messages made of words taped together from magazines. Then she wanted to go out somewhere interesting before the fireworks, but there was nowhere interesting to go.
I remembered that a certain gas station chain was having a cheesy promotion, selling every variety of gasoline for $1.77 a gallon in honor of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. We had half a tank. At that price, we could afford to top it off. We got into Serendipity and went across the river to Follansbee, avoiding the construction on the Veteran’s Memorial and instead taking the old Market Street bridge.
The gas station in Follansbee is right on the highway, as is the rest of town: Route 2 suddenly goes from fifty miles an hour with a guardrail down the middle to thirty miles an hour with stop lights, the main street. I’m always frightened of what will happen if I slow down a little more efficiently than the great big semi trucks that are inevitably behind me. And then I was stopping, right there on the main street, behind a truck, because the line for gas was right out into the street.
Adrienne asked if we shouldn’t just go home, but at that point I couldn’t see around the cars in front of me anyway, so I stayed where I was.
It took about five minutes just to get into the parking lot.
The parade of vans and pickup trucks spiraled around the pumps and looped the convenience store. No one was directing traffic save one exhausted-looking gas station employee, waving her arms apologetically and mouthing I don’t know what. By the time I got to the pumps, I found that half of them were completely empty. At the other half, dismayed customers were complaining that the only kind of gas left was the kind with ethanol. I parked in a space near the convenience store, trying to think what to do, and then the car-shaped gap in the line I’d left disappeared and I realized I was stranded.
Adrienne and I watched the sky go from blue to yellow to orange over the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains– not the ones I’m used to seeing, the hills of West Virginia that reflect the sunset, but the ones on the Ohio side that go black as the sun sets behind them.
There’s something macabrely appropriate about observing the founding of the United States by tricking Americans into waiting in a breadline with nothing to show for it, but I don’t think that’s what the gas station had in mind.
We went back over the Market Street bridge, with slightly less gas in the tank than when we’d started.
Back in Steubenville, the interminable concert was still going strong. Happy people milled back and forth their with red, white and blue glowsticks gleaming in the twilight. The air smelled of frying oil and cannabis. Adrienne and I found a seat on the curb by the police station, just across from the park. We watched the bootleg fireworks shows going up in the yards of people across the river on the West Virginia side– rocket after rocket, hundreds of dollars literally going up in smoke. Appalachians are enamored of their fireworks, as I’ve mentioned many times.
Finally, the actual municipal display began.
It didn’t begin with the band playing the Star Spangled Banner, as sometimes happens. It began with an emcee I could hardly hear intoning a countdown– also a very American choice. Next thing I knew the sky was awash in light and sulfur clouds. Adrienne covered the one ear that didn’t have an earbud in it and watched the whole thing with her head tilted to the side.
Somehow, this year, it just didn’t impress me.
I’ve never not been cynical about my country, but particularly this year. I am burned out on hope.
I love America when Americans stand up and insist she live by her principles: that all men are created equal, and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inevitable rights; and among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But it seems to happen so rarely. I’m worn out with hope that things will get better. I am so exhausted waiting for things to get better, working for things to get better, only for everyone to revert to the way they were again and again.
About two thirds of the way through the display, someone moved in the crowd across the street. I saw, to my surprise, that it was The Lost Girl herself.
I thought she was walking towards me, but it was only that she hadn’t seen me in the dark. A moment later she was pretending not to see, and veering off to the side.
Soon after came her partner, with a baby on his hip– not the new one she never let me see, but the second youngest, the one I watched in the car sometimes when I helped her run her errands. They didn’t bring any of the other children. He, too, pretended not to see me and stared straight ahead. They disappeared into the dark and up Adams Street.
The rockets continued to light up the gray-purple sky, blotting out the stars, smoke marring the view of the Appalachian foothills, explosions drowning out every other sound. And then the display ended, with a final gigantic volley. We all clapped– for what, I’ll never know. The fireworks couldn’t hear us. America itself doesn’t care about Appalachia and wasn’t listening for our applause.
I got into Serendipity to take Adrienne home, and it was night.
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