“Gary! Can I pet your dog?” The boy sat on a bike with one leg down. Two other kids sat behind him perched on their bikes, the hot sun beating down on their tanned skin. The leader, the one calling me Gary, looked about twelve.
“The dog’s not friendly. If you touch him, he’ll bite your hand off,” I said.
Rufus was a yappy wiener dog. He’d pulled the leash taught. The hair on his back bristled. All twelve pounds of the vicious beast was bloodthirsty. I tried to get rid of him a few years ago. The wife and kid said no. Three private trainers, and Rufus was still peeing on the carpet. The dream of a clean and stainless white carpet was like a Maserati-nice to look at on social media but you knew it wasn’t real. No one had clean carpets. At least not anyone I knew.
“Kid. I don’t know how many times I have to tell you. My name isn’t Gary. It’s Brad.”
He pushed the kickstand up. His two minions did the same. Then, like the flicker of a dying lightbulb, the minion to his right reached into a backpack and whipped out a gun. The kid moved with such speed, Clint Eastwood himself wouldn't have had a chance on the quickdraw against this twelve-year-old gunslinger.
My short and so far unfulfilled life flashed before me. My mother was in labor for thirty-six hours. She was small and I was big. The doctors got me out, but it almost killed her. They sent me to Catholic school. I prayed, smoked a lot of pot and got a D- in trigonometry. Parents were pissed. I didn’t care...I’d never use trigonometry again. I’m 30 and my iPhone does all the math for me. Broke my ribs my senior year. Didn’t see number 42 coming. He popped me like a Mack truck. Bones cracked. I dropped the football. We lost. Had sex for the first time in college. It was nice, but things didn’t last. She moved back to Maine while I stayed along the Pacific. Got a normal job, doing normal office things. There were lots of meetings and spreadsheets and iPhone math. A friend of mine introduced me to Molly. I bought us steaks and wine. We danced. Under the moonlight, I asked and she said “yes.” A year later we had a daughter. Time to buy a house because it was the American thing to do. All I could afford was a small fixer upper with cracked paint and old carpets that were now stained with urine from an undisciplined weiner dog. The neighborhood was full of crime and all the houses were a pasty gray, but I told myself the area was up in coming. I was investing. Molly thinks the neighborhood boy calls me Gary because it’s geeky. “He’s just fooling around. Boys will be boys,” she said. Now one of the boy’s friends was going to shoot me. The silver gun barrel winked in the sunlight. My tombstone would read: mediocre life-didn’t try too hard.
I raised my arms, covering my face. Rufus broke free and charged. Two explosions sounded off on my chest. I tumbled backward onto the lawn. I heard the screech of tires as the kids sped away. So this was it. I was gonna die. Shot by some kid on my front lawn with my useless weiner dog. I would be on the news. Middle class, hard working guy shot up by the neighborhood gang. The media would have a field day.
“Hey Gary!” The boy was standing over me. He cradled Rufus in his arms. Rufus was spacing out, tongue lulling and legs limp. “You all right?”
“My name isn’t ‘Gary.’”
“I’m sorry my friend shot you. I told him not to, but Anthony doesn’t listen to anyone.”
I sat up and looked down at my chest. Two bright yellow splotches were smeared across my white shirt.
“Anthony said you wouldn’t care. The paintballs wash out. We shoot each other all the time. Your dog is nice.”
Rufus licked the boy’s face. Worst guard dog ever.
“Give me the dog.”
Rufus and I went inside. Molly was in the shower. My kid came running up to me. She was three.
“Why are there eggs on your shirt, daddy?”
“These, Winifred, are not eggs. I was shot. Don’t tell your mother.” I threw the shirt in the trash.
That night I ate half a pepperoni pizza and a pint of Ben and Jerry’s. My gut bulged like an overstuffed sack of potatoes. I watched Al Pacino spray bullets from a machine gun he called his “little friend.” Molly came in. I tried to kiss her and she pulled away.
“Brad, I want a divorce.”
The TV lit up with gunfire. Blood splattered across the screen. I slept on the couch that night. I was exhausted, but couldn’t sleep.
Molly said I was a good guy, but there was nothing happening. We went to work. We paid our bills. We invested 10% of our income in the stock market. We took turns picking Winifred up from daycare. We had no friends. I never took her out anymore. We used to go dancing and now I pay more attention to Netflix than my marriage. She read The New Yorker and was upset that I didn’t. The only reason we knew time passed at all was because Winifred was getting bigger. The marriage was numb. We tried all kinds of things to get the spark back, but that loving feeling Tom Cruise sang about was gone...it had run off in the night leaving behind our broken marriage.
A bomb went off outside. I bolted upright. It was half past midnight. Rufus was barking. I gave him a soft kick in the butt. Hard enough to feel it, but soft enough to let him know in some dark corner of my mind I still loved him, even though he just stood there while juvenile delinquents shot me.
I stepped out into the open. A streak of fire whistled into the air, then it popped into a million golden sparkles. Three boys were in the street. The boy who refused to call me by my name held a lighter in one hand. In the other, he gripped a bottle rocket.
“Hey! Do you have any idea what time it is!”
“Oh Shit! It’s Gary.”
The one called Anthony raised the familiar paintball gun and squeezed the trigger. He shot me in the leg. I screamed and chased them for two blocks. I almost had a heart attack and gave up. When I got home, Molly was in the living room.
“What happened to you?”
I’d lost a slipper in the pursuit and a blue splat of a paint dripped down my thigh.
“Are we still getting a divorce?”
The next morning was the 4th of July. The train into the city was empty. I had a seat all to myself. I thumbed through a copy of The New Yorker, trying to understand what Molly thought was so cultured about it.
I took my coffee black. It tasted bitter, but I needed the caffeine to wake up or I’d screw up the spreadsheets. Screwing up spreadsheets in my line of work was a cardinal sin. The IRS was very unforgiving. I forced myself to focus on the blurry numbers on my computer. No matter how many times I read them, my brain couldn’t process the simplest equations.
Would our divorce be clean? Would Molly take me to court? Child-support wasn’t cheap. I’d probably get joint custody right?
“What are your plans tonight?” My boss stood over my cubicle. He liked to make small talk. We’d been having these conversations for ten years. He didn’t really want to know my plans. He just wanted me to answer the question fast so he could tell me what he had planned.
“Dinner with the family. Maybe watch a movie. No plans really.”
“Good,” he said. “Cause I need you to work late tonight. I’m taking the wife and kids to see the fireworks by the water. We need to get there early to get good seats.”
“Really depends on how fast you can get these tax forms done.” He dropped a ream of paper on my desk. “Get them done early, and then you can go. Not one second before. Okay?”
I nodded. I sifted through the papers the boss just handed me. I was going to be stuck here until at least eight. Molly would be upset. Maybe if she wasn’t filing for divorce I’d care.
Four o’clock rolled around. I hate four o’clock. At four o’clock, it’s too late in the day to start doing anything worthwhile but it's too early to go home. Four o’clock is purgatory. My whole life felt like four o’clock.
The phone rang.
“When will you be home? I want to go see fireworks.”
“I’m sorry baby girl, I have to work late tonight. I’ll make it up to you.”
“Mommy wants to talk to you.”
I prepared myself for what was coming next. There would be yelling. I’d get the “you are a horrible father and husband, and you act like work is more important than your daughter” speech.
“Brad.” Her voice was curt, devoid of emotion.
“I thought about it this morning. I decided to give you a chance to make this right. We have a kid. We should try. But I swear on my mother’s grave if you don’t take us out to see fireworks tonight it’s over. I already have a lawyer.”
It was now 4:17 p.m. The stack of tax returns loomed in front of me.
“Can you pick me up?” I asked. “We can go straight to a show from the office.”
“I’ll be there in 30 minutes.” I heard Winifred cheer in the background. “Don’t screw this up.”
I called the boss. The phone rang four times.
“What can I do for you, Brad?”
“I can’t get these returns done tonight.”
“You have to. No choice. It’s a big client. IRS is already up their ass and we are overdue on the returns. Needs to be done before you leave.”
“But it’s July 4th.”
“If you want to have a job in the morning, you don't leave that desk until those returns are done.”
He hung up.
I went through the documents with violence. My marriage was on the line.
The phone rang again. I glanced at the clock. It was 5:00pm. Molly and Winifred were here.
“Molly, I can’t leave yet.”
“How much time do you need?”
“The longer I’m on the phone, the longer I’ll be. Hang tight.”
I looked out the office window. Our white sedan idled on the curb. The stack of paper taunted me. It was to be alive and spoke to me with sinister laughter: “I mean nothing, but am I everything. They say there is nothing but turtles all the way down, but they are wrong. There are no turtles...there are only 1099, W-2, 1098, 1040, W4, S-Corp, Sole Proprietorship and a hundred other meaningless terms that will bury you. You’ll die under a mound of half done returns. Fired. Miserable. Alone. You exist to let people down. Molly will leave. You will see Winifred once a week. You get shot with paintballs and they call you Gary. Gary, Gary, Gary...the neighborhood loser with the stupid guard dog. Maybe when Molly leaves you, she’ll let you keep Rufus….”
The phone rang. It was now 5:30.
“Molly, I’m almost done. I’m coming. Don’t leave.”
“I’m not kidding, Brad. The lawyer’s name is Drew. This is your last chance to make our family work.”
The clock struck 7:00. The return was nearly done. I looked out the window. The white sedan was still there. I checked my phone. It said the fireworks started at 8. If I sprinted down at 7:15, broke every traffic law in the book we could make it.
I finished at 7:30.
I grabbed the returns and dropped them on the boss’s desk. The elevator was taking too long, so I ran down the stairs. My office was seventeen stories up. On floor ten, I slipped. My forehead cracked against the railing and my vision split. A small cut opened up on my forehead and blood dripped into my eye. The cellphone in my pocket was shattered. I realized, I’d left my briefcase upstairs. It wasn’t going anywhere, but that white sedan wouldn’t be waiting for me much longer. By the time I got to the bottom, I thought I was going to throw up. Sweat ate through my undershirt and blood defaced my blazer. The front door was locked. I screamed at the security guard to open it for me. His name was Karl. Karl asked me if I was all right. I screamed the F-word and demanded he open the door. He did. I ran out. The white sedan was pulling away. I ripped off my shoe and threw it at the car. It smacked the back windshield and the car stopped. I ran around to the driver side and opened the door. Molly’s eyes went wide.
“What the hell are you doing, Brad!”
I was a monster, soaked in sweat and blood. I would die before we missed the fireworks.
“Daddy, are you hurt?” Winifred asked.
I could barely breathe. My lungs felt like they had doubled in size and my heartbeat trembled in an erratic death rattle.
I grabbed Molly’s arm and shoved her into the passenger seat. “It’s over Brad. We can’t make the show.”
I ignored her and turned to Winifred. “I’m fine baby. Everyone buckled up? Daddy’s going to break some laws.”
I peeled out. Molly and Winifred screamed. I zipped through a red light, made an illegal u-turn, cut off a Pickup truck, got flipped off by a mean Filipino woman and skipped paying the bridge toll.
“Brad, are you out of your mind?” Molly screamed as I narrowly missed a semi. I was the captain. This was my ship and I spun the wheel drunkenly.
A pop sounded off from the back of the car and we fishtailed. I fought the wheel and steadied the course. A few seconds later we came to halt. It was almost 8:00. We had a flat tire. I grabbed the spare and frantically put it on. I cut my hand on a lug nut, punched the back bumper and for the second time that day screamed the F-word.
Molly got out.
“Brad, you’re acting like a lunatic. If you don't knock this off I’m going to call the police. Take us home now!”
I hung my head and slumped into the driver seat.
“Daddy.” Winifred’s pudgy face blinked at me in the rearview mirror. “Are we still going to see the fireworks?”
I turned to Molly. Tears welled up in her eyes. There was no anger. Only disgust and disappointment.
“I’m sorry, sweetheart. No fireworks tonight.”
Winifred tried to stay strong. But I could hear the sniffles behind me the whole drive home.
I turned the corner and drove up to our house. The driveway was blocked. Three kids were in the street. They were huddled around something and sparkles bounced around them. There was a loud whistle and a fiery streak whooshed into the air. Sparkling tendrils bloomed across the sky.
Molly looked up into the night sky.
I parked on the curb. We got out.
I stood there-a bloody, sweaty failure holding Winifred’s hand. The entire street lit up with laughter and fire. Kids and families ran every which way as the sky flashed. Molly leaned on my shoulder. It felt like God had finally decided to make some prayers come true.
The boy who called me Gary smiled. His friend Anthony, the paintball-wielding demon, waved. The third boy stood there with his arms full of rockets.
“Can I try?” Winifred asked.
“Sure,” they said.
I gripped her hand. “Only if I help you.”
The boys stuck three bottle rockets into the grass of my front yard. I got down on one knee. Molly held Winifred behind me. I lit the rockets one by one. They went up into the night sky like magic.
Winifred jumped up and down.
Molly went inside. She returned a few minutes later with a blanket and sandwiches. I shared with the boys and together we lit the black velvet sky ablaze. Winifred squeezed between me and Molly.
“This is the best firework show ever.”
And she was right. Oranges and purples and yellows and fire-apple smoke crackled and popped. I watched the spectrum of colors refract in Molly’s eyes. My heart rate was finally slowing down. I was still in my sweat-stained suit and I looked mad. But that was okay. Because in that moment, I knew the only people for me were the crazy ones, the ones who told their bosses to piss off, who ran and ran and ran and only slept when their hearts gave out. I was suddenly filled with insatiable desire. Desire for love. Desire for my wife. Desire to be something other than a wilted blade of grass, waiting for the winds of fate to blow me in the right direction.
I leaned over Winifred’s tiny head. A red firework blossomed overhead. I tried to kiss Molly. She pulled away and smiled.
“No kissing. But I won’t call the lawyer yet. You have a mountain to climb.”
The kid who called me Gary, the ring leader, dropped a burnt-out roman candle. He gave me a thumbs up.
“Hey kid,” I said. “What’s your name?”
“Nice to meet you, James.”
James cocked his head to the side. “But I’ve known you for months. You’re Gary.”
“How many god damned times do I have to tell you!”
Molly squeezed my arm. Maybe in the morning I’d buy my own paintball gun and shoot those little pricks off their bikes. But for now, I basked in the joy of knowing my wife wasn’t calling the lawyer yet and I hadn’t let Winifred down.
Maybe her Dad was all right?