Fiction, Vol. 2.2, June 2008
Buntz and I go up to Kiwi Hill to light off fireworks. Buntz and I are always doing things we’re not supposed to do. Like we’re not supposed to light off fireworks without one of our parents supervising. “Play with them in the yard where I can see you. Use the candle lighter so you don’t burn your fingers,” my mother tells us. So we ran off to Kiwi Hill with the plastic bag full of fireworks and a red matchbook with the silhouette of a naked lady on the front. Yeah, rules have no authority over me and Buntz. My mother says, “No sugar before dinner, you’ll spoil your appetite.” So what do Buntz and I do? We order us a couple of Avalanches at Benny’s—twenty-four scoops of any flavor ice cream drizzled with caramel, chocolate, melted marshmallow, chopped nuts, a heaping blob of whipped cream, and a cherry as bright as the sun. It spoils my appetite all right. Buntz and I are handsome guys and our mothers make sure to tell us every day. We catcall the girls from the private school (“Lookin’ gooood!”). If their boyfriends give us any trouble, we know we can take them, two on one. No one ever challenges me and Buntz to a fight (you better believe, if they did, we’d accept). We wait until one minute before curfew to run inside. We like our folks to work up a sweat. Buntz and I are card-carrying badasses. We grew up in the roughest part of the suburbs. Like Chuck Darwin said, “only the toughest and most badass survive” (page one of the book).
We found How to be a Badass (Junior Edition) in the school library. It’s a thin, black, eighty-page paperback scuffed white along the spine and edges. It was sandwiched between two thick coffee table books in the photography section, where Buntz and I were searching for pictures of non-silhouetted naked women. Buntz snuck it out under his shirt. It became our bible, our teacher, our friend. The pages are barely holding on to the spine and are smudged with marks left by our dirty fingers. It was printed in 1959, so it’s been around the block, but the wisdom inside is ageless. It taught us how to clean and condition our leather jackets, how to grease back our hair, how to spit fat wads of tobacco like ballplayers and blow rings of smoke, how to turn our dad’s car into a kickass ragtop and make our Huffys purr like Harleys with a draft card and clothespin, how to walk, how to take a punch—I could go on all day.
A couple of guys from school are coming up to Kiwi Hill to watch the show. Buntz’s uncle got us scads of the finest Kung-Pao gunpowder when he went to Las Vegas last weekend—Roman candles, rockets, jumping jacks, bumblebees, fountains, firecrackers, only the good stuff. We were restless all day in school waiting, waiting, waiting to get our hands on the loot.
Buntz and I are arguing over the lineup. He wants the bigger stuff first. I want to build up to a grand finale.
“Can you guys hurry up? I still have some homework to do and we’ve gotta be home by nine,” Jerry Smothers says. He’s the pizza-faced kid with the metal mouth sitting cross-legged on the grass, a waist thin enough to belt with any thumb-finger combination. Next to him is his younger brother, Beanie, who is a spitting image of Jerry, only a foot and a half smaller and without the bad skin.
“Jerry, if you’re gonna be a whiny bitch about it maybe you should just leave,” Buntz says. Jerry frowns. The pimples on his face seem to crowd around his nose.
“Come on, Beanie, let’s go.” He taps Beanie on the shoulder and they go galloping down the steep hill.
“Yeah, go cry to mommy like a little girly bitch!” Buntz shouts after them. “I think little baby Jerry needs his w-w-wattle!”
We resolve to kick things off with the firecrackers, because we’ve got tons of them and they’re the loudest of the lot. I light the first one and run. Buntz is still holding the firecracker in his hand and right before the wick burns out, he drops it at his feet and dives. BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! Buntz is rolling on the ground laughing.
“My turn.” Buntz lights me and I hold it to the wick’s end and throw it. A chain of fiery bursts lash out into the night like machine gun fire. Some dogs answer to the noise, but up on the hill they sound a long way away.
We’re halfway through the firecrackers. It’s Buntz’s turn to go. I strike the match and light the fuse. Buntz has this evil grin on his face.
“Don’t throw it at me, Buntz. I’m warning you, don’t throw it.” But it looks like he has something else in mind. Buntz’s hand is still wrapped around the firecracker and his grip isn’t loosening any. The flame is almost out. BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! The smoke blurs his right arm. A wrinkle of fear ripples through me. The smoke clears and Buntz’s whole arm is shaking. His hand is covered in black soot and looks gnarled like ginger root. He screams louder than any firecracker. The dogs are howling. My whole body goes cold. His cry is terrifying, like a wounded animal. He is a wounded animal.
“Oh shit. Oh shit. Oh shit.” He begins chanting. We fly down the hill. Buntz has a steady rope of tears streaming down his face, but he’s managed to blunt out the sound of his pain. He’s sniffling a little bit, but that’s all. His t-shirt—the one he got at the Hard Rock Café last year—is knotted around his hand. The whole bottom corner of the shirt is wet with blood, splotching the toes of his Chuck Taylors.
“We’ve gotta get you home, Buntz.”
“No, we can’t. I told my parents I was going to your house. Your parents have to take me to the hospital.”
“We can’t. My parents think I’m at your house.” His lips quiver. Heavy, icy tears are rolling down his cheeks. We both know the nearest hospital is miles away, too far to reach on foot.
“What does the book say?” I snatch it out from my back pocket and riffle through the pages for “accident” or “injury” or “blood”.
“Crying is a one-way ticket from Coolsville to Goofsville. That’s it. I can’t find anything else.”
“J-Jerry’s dad is a nurse.” Buntz says. I smirk. Jerry’s dad’s nursing is something we like to dangle over his head. Buntz and I are tearing through yards, over fences, and across the quiet, moonlit streets. I ring Jerry’s doorbell a number of times. Mrs. Smothers answers the door.
“Buntz hurt his hand. Buntz hurt his hand bad.” I say. She steps back against the door to let us through.
“Jeff! Jeff!” Mr. Smothers emerges from the kitchen. He sees Buntz and the blood puddling on the hardwood floor.
“We were lighting fireworks.” No further explanation is needed. Mr. Smothers examines his hand. For the first time I’m seeing it up close. Part of his middle finger is missing— Buntz’s favorite finger. I can’t stand looking at it and turn away.
“He needs to go to the hospital,” Mr. Smothers says finally and goes looking for his keys. Jerry and Beanie come pouring down the stairs asking what happened. Mrs. Smothers tells them to go back up to their rooms and they obey grudgingly.
Mr. Smothers is speeding along the empty roads. I’m sitting in the front and Buntz is sprawled out in the back mewling like a lonely puppy. He’s a bloody mess. I wonder if he could die from a loss of blood. And everyone would blame me.
“You should have looked for the finger. They might have been able to sew it back on.” Mr. Smothers says. Buntz is bawling now. I imagine someone finding the finger the next morning, maybe a jogger or a woman walking her dog, the mutt smiling with the charred finger clenched between its front teeth.
We wait in the emergency room. Buntz’s heels are rapping up and down and his body is hunched over, his hand hidden in the folds of his shirt.
Thirty minutes pass before “Eric Buntz” is called. Mr. Smothers says we’re lucky that there was hardly anyone in the emergency room tonight.
The doctor shakes his head. It’s on the tip of his tongue—tisk-tisk. But he doesn’t say it. He sterilizes the socket, stitches it up and wraps Buntz’s hand in gauze. I have to look away for most of it.
Buntz and I get floggings from our parents. Buntz is grounded for four weeks and his parents put him on a low dosage of Yidalin—the kosher stimulant. I get six weeks—three for the accident, three more for keeping them in the dark and bothering poor Mr. Smothers instead. Mrs. Buntz bakes Mr. Smothers one of her famous Buntz cakes. Buntz gets no Buntz cake.
It’s not all lemons for Buntz. He can sell the severed finger gag better than anyone I know now, and he uses the missing finger to gross out the pretty girls. Whenever people hear the story from one of us, they always like to end things (especially if they’re older) with Well I hope you learned a valuable lesson. Or sometimes instead of valuable, they say important. Why does everything have to be boiled down into a life lesson? I don’t get it. What does everyone have against badasses? Until quiffs and ducktails fall from grace, I’m in it for the long haul.