Sometimes a person needs to blow something up.
At least that how I felt as I drove through a lonely stretch of Wyoming desert. I was on a journey to Utah, the goal of which was to get my head together, devise a plan for my future, and hope that Fate would give me some kind of a sign.
I had traveled more than 1,200 miles. Fate offered up no signs. In fact, the only signs I came across were billboards selling fireworks.
Fireworks are illegal in my home state of New Jersey, so I couldn’t help but marvel at just how many fireworks stores existed west of the Delaware River. Every one had its own colorful billboard, pleading with me to me try my hand at losing my fingers. At first these offers weren’t difficult to resist. I found fireworks stupid. Also, I was fond of my fingers and wanted to hang on to all ten.
As my car sputtered further from home, however, as the states got longer and more featureless and Fate continued to oversleep its alarm, the billboards became more persuasive. By the time I reached that Wyoming desert, I had decided that fireworks weren’t stupid at all. In fact, it seemed more and more stupid to not blow something up.
I’ll be careful, I told myself. If I’m careful, I probably won’t lose my fingers. In a worst case scenario I might blow off a pinkie, but who really needs a pinkie? And maybe a missing pinkie will impress girls. I’ll tell them I lost it in Desert Storm.
The matter was settled. I vowed to stop at the next fireworks store I could find.
Minutes later I was greeted by a billboard.
Fireworks! 1 Miles (sic) Ahead!
“Billboard” is too generous a term; it was a large, hand-painted sign tamped down along the side of the road. I decided it was charming. It’s probably a mom ‘n’ pop explosives store, I thought. I was always a big believer in patronizing independent businesses, so this suited me just fine.
I soon spotted the store near the horizon, standing out among the rock formations and wisps of brown scrub. It wasn’t a store as much as it was an aluminum Airstream trailer on a cinder block foundation. It glistened like a beacon in the midday desert sun. Parked next to the trailer and almost as luminous was a 1970-something sedan painted in a “Have A Nice Day” shade of yellow. They were the only man-made objects for as far as the eye could see.
I pulled alongside the yellow car, which was huge in a way only 1970-something American-made sedans can be. It was pristine and spotless, as if it just came off the factory line with a fresh coat of Turtle Wax. The only thing interrupting the perfect, ding-free surface was an 18-inch-long, metal American flag bolted to the rear fender. (I had discovered that the further west I traveled the more often people used American flags in their decorating. The events of 9/11 would amp up the East Coast’s level of patriotism, but in the 1990s, flags in New Jersey were about as rare as a street corner in Perth Amboy that didn’t smell like feet.)
After admiring the sedan a moment more (it was quite a contrast to my filthy, exhausted Plymouth Duster) I clomped up the two steps into the trailer.
Inside the setup was simple and efficient. Running the length of the trailer was a long glass counter displaying explosives arranged with the studied, loving care one might use to show off Tiffany watches. Behind the counter, from floor to ceiling, were open shelves showing off cheaper, more utilitarian, weaponry. An entire shelf was dedicated to the types of explosives that I thought only existed in Roadrunner cartoons.
This was my very first visit to a fireworks shop and I was kind of in love.
The trailer was empty, so I loitered for a long moment taking it all in. In the glass cabinet, I spotted something black and menacing, a softball-sized sphere with a not-quite-long-enough fuse.
‘Woah,” I said aloud and leaned on the counter to get a better look.
Upon touching the glass, a flash of movement shot up from behind the counter and sent me slamming backward into the wall.
The source of my alarm was the largest German shepherd on earth. He stood on his hind legs and pressed his front paws on the counter as if he was there to wait on me. In that pose he was as tall as I was.
The dog stared at me. He wasn’t angry – I could see that much – but he wasn’t happy either. I sensed he could emotionally go either way. His stare told me that his mood depended entirely on what I decided to do next.
So I did nothing. Both of us were as still as a Natural History Museum diorama.
To my relief, I heard a chipper yell from outside. “Coming! Coming!”
The door flew open and in strode a dusty man with the hungry, lean muscular build of someone accustomed to a life of hard work. In one graceful move, he propped his butt up on the counter top, swung his legs over it, and spun to face me from the other side. He pressed his enormous hands against the counter, mimicking the pose of the dog standing to his left.
He projected a broad smile. “Saw your plates!” he said with undisguised awe. “You’re from New Jersey!”
“Yup.” I said, smiling back.
The man gave the German shepherd’s head a little scratch.
“Beautiful dog you have there,” I said as a pried myself off the far wall.
“Sure is,” his smile grew wider as he scratched the dog again. “Bud is my friend and protector.”
The dog nuzzled the man’s hand and opened his mouth in a slight, doggy grin. Despite his contentment, Bud never took his scrutinizing eyes off me. Bud was indeed a protector.
“Why are you all the way out here?” he asked.
“To buy fireworks!” I said, and we both shared a chuckle.
“They’re illegal where I’m from,” I went on. “So I decided to get some in Wyoming.”
This time the man did not share my chuckle. He only nodded as if he understood the situation all too well.
“Fireworks are a symbol of our freedom,” he said. “You know that, right?”
His question caught me off guard.
“Sure,” I replied.
“When someone denies you the symbol of your freedom, they are denying you freedom.” His tone was harsh, accusatory, as if I might be the one responsible for New Jersey’s fireworks law.
Then he added, “You know that, right?”
A little chill zipped up my spine. In that moment I noticed that I was talking to a man who was larger and stronger than I was. I then noticed that this man had a dog named after a beer that was also larger and stronger than I was.
“Sure,” I replied. My words made me sound as weak as I felt, so I cleared my throat and kept talking. “Sure,” I repeated. My voice still wavered a little, but at least it was louder. “Of course I know that. That’s why I’m here.”
He studied me for a long, excruciating moment. He nodded.
“What can I get you?” he asked.
When I was alone in the trailer, I had all but settled on those softball bomb things, but now, with my heart hammering in my chest, I said the first firework that sprang to mind.
For those not in the know, bricks are a set of tiny firecrackers with interlaced fuses. When lit, the firecrackers explode in a machine gun series of rat-a-rat-tats. By fireworks standards they are probably the wussiest things you can ever possibly buy. They’re not even as dangerous as sparklers.
To his credit, the man didn’t flinch. A sale was a sale I suppose. “Black Cat?” he asked.
“Black Cat?” I repeated. I didn’t know what Black Cat meant.
“Black Cat’s the best.”
It dawned on me that Black Cat was the manufacturer. “OK.” I said, starting to recover from our earlier conversation. The angry storm seemed to have passed.
“Large or small?”
“What does the large look like?” I asked. He pulled out a package of bricks the size of a queen mattress.
“Small, I think.”
The small was the size of a twin mattress.
He took my money and stuffed it into a cash box.
As he stared down into the wad of money inside, I saw his jaw clench.
Once. Twice. Three times.
Still staring at the box’s contents, he shook his head — slowly at first, but, then, with greater and greater intensity.
He was revving himself up. I was faced with the realization that the storm hadn’t passed at all; I had just been standing in the eerie calm of the eye.
“Um. I really like you car!” I said.
He flicked my comment away. “Freedom is our most valuable resource and they’re taking it from us. All of us! You know that, right?”
“Janet Reno is the one doing it. She’s a Communist. Now, me? I’m a Christian. Are you a Christian?”
“Yes,” I said.
Bud began to take cues from his owner’s mood. The dog’s stare seemed more intense than ever.
“Well, Reno’s no Christian! Christians don’t rob people of their freedom!”
“No,” I said. My eyes flickered to the shelves behind the counter. I didn’t notice before, but hanging above the fireworks shelves, a shotgun was on display.
Then, like the merchandise he sold, the man exploded. I was assailed by a ferocious life philosophy. His hatred of Janet Reno segued into his hatred of President Clinton, which led to the IRS, which led to The Bankers, which led to how he refuses to get a license or insurance for that car I liked so much because no one had any damn business meddling in his affairs.
But the cornerstone of his sermon, the apex of his rage was reserved for the Phony Wars America had fought in the past – and the Real War that we’d all have to fight in the future.
Because that Real War was coming.
It was coming soon and no one was gonna be able to sit it out.
Everybody was going to have to take a side.
I didn’t understand much of what the guy was talking about. This was months before the Oklahoma City bombing; the militia man philosophy was not yet on anyone’s radar. What I did understand was that I had blindly wandered into something ominous. Something far worse than blowing off a pinkie.
My brain took stock of the situation:
You are more than a thousand miles from home.
You are in the middle of a desert.
There is no one for miles around.
No one knows where you are.
And where are you? my brain asked, rhetorically. You are in a trailer. With an angry, crazy man. A muscular German shepherd. A shotgun. And about four tons of explosives.
Take my advice, my brain said. Whatever this man says, you agree.
I don’t know how long he spoke, but it seemed interminable. I don’t remember him winding down, either; one moment he was raving, jabbing his finger and waving his fists, the next moment the trailer was silent.
He stared at me, seething.
He handed me my wussy brick purchase. I took it, but couldn’t move — not with him staring like that. I could see that there was far too much unspent rage still inside him to do anything rash — like leave.
So I cleared my throat. Then I spoke.
“I never thought of it that way before,” I heard myself say. “You are absolutely right.”
His eyebrows furrowed for a moment, but then I caught one corner of his mouth flicker. Was it the beginning of a smile?
Keep going, my brain said.
“Thank you.” I went on. I held out my hand. He stared at it a moment, then took it and shook it with bone-crunching firmness. He was a missionary; I was his convert.
“What’s you’re name?” I asked.
His charming smile returned. “Name’s Luke.”
“I’m glad I met you, Luke. Very glad.”
I took my bricks and strode with great purpose through the trailer door.
“Glad I met you, too!” Luke called after me.
I hopped into my car and turned the key. Luke followed me outside.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“My name’s Bob,” I said. I then slammed my gas pedal to the floor and left Luke behind in a cloud of dust.