04 July 2008

Pictures at an exhibition

Fourth of July in our neighborhood is bigger than all other holidays rolled into one. It is a daylong affair, beginning with pancakes and culminating in fireworks (illegal, of course).

The children are awake at the crack of dawn, quivering over the idea of a breakfast that includes sausages and chocolate chips. I have only just begun to sleep again after weeks of insomnia, so the spouse waits until nearly 9 to wake me with coffee. He takes the children around the corner, and I promise to join them if I can get my eyes open.

Somehow a half-hour passes and they have returned before I've managed to down a second cup of coffee. I hear tales of magnificent pancake concoctions.

Babies cry, dogs bark, children run in packs, the doorbell rings. It is neighbor J., and she hands me a sheet of paper.

"I hurt my foot last night," she explains, and suddenly there is an opening in the beanbag toss tournament. The spouse eagerly grabs it. He and the daughter will be a team, defending the family name and honor. They return a few hours later, the daughter drenched and red faced.

"We won the first round," the spouse announces, "but then we lost to J and B." Two of the Soaring Rodents, of course. Most of the team camped out in the neighborhood overnight to join in the festivities.

"Why are you so wet?" I ask the daughter.

"I was filling water balloons!"

"Of course," I reply, resigned.

I'd made my contribution to the dinner--an enormous bowl of hummus--the night before, so I don't have to cook today, other than to make lunch. I boil hot dogs and heat beans in between half hours on the exercise bike. The son has to retrieve the daughter from J.'s house, where she is filling more water balloons with J.'s daughter. The spouse, son and daughter stuff down hot dogs and beans and any other food that isn't nailed down. They--and the rest of the neighborhood--are now preparing for the parade. Yup. We have cars, floats, children on bikes and scooters. About five people watch while the other 100 parade around the neighborhood. Mardi Gras crews in New Orleans have nothing on the 'hood crews.

As I pile the lunch dishes in the sink preparatory to returning to the bike, I peek out at my neighbors across the street. They are decorating a large cart with trees and huge balloon dragonflies. What looks like a chicken house graces one end.

I suspect their chickens will be going for a ride.

I hear the spouse's enormous red convertible fire up. He and the son are pulling out into the street, the daughter's boom box resting on the open rag top, blaring patriotic music. He seems to be leading the pack, and the small children on various wheeled vehicles zoom alongside. The float bearing our little grand marshal follows behind, the chicken float bringing up the rear, giant dragonflies bobbling in the air. Adults on a tandem bike wobble along and I see the daughter, who has eschewed the convertible, shoot by on her scooter, silver helmet gleaming in the hot sun. It is over 90F and quite humid. Next comes the skateboard brigade.

"Aw, God," exclaims a sweating spouse when it is over. "Time for a shower!"

"I'm hot, Mommy," says a purple-faced daughter. I hand her a wet paper towel.

"I found this in the street," the son waves a somewhat smashed Dum-Dum at me.

"Throw it away," I tell him.

"I can't eat it?" he grins.

I gesticulate firmly at the garbage can.

I arrive at the main event, dinner, a bit late. I'd sent the spouse, the son and daughter on with the hummus, but I still needed to dry my hair, and I'd promised the spouse I'd make a pitcher of margaritas.

I stop and exchange a few words with people I've not seen in awhile, say 'hi' to various neighbors. My next door neighbor comes up to where we are congregated, swaying a little on his feet.

"We just got back," he says apologetically, "36 hours of travel."

He looks slightly wild, eyes red-rimmed. I recognize the look, and I know the feeling. The exhaustion of long, long distance travel, the sense one cannot take in enough oxygen, the need to download what has occurred. The first time I returned from the Soviet Union, I was so captive to this landlocked variety of rapture of the deep that I had no idea which language I was speaking at any one given moment, and so was wandering with a perfect sort of clarity between English, Spanish and Russian, a travel pidgin that made no sense to anyone but me.

He and his wife have been in a Third World country. "It wasn't a good trip," he says, and it is very important to him that he is clear about this, "but it was necessary."

I have been to such places, and understand what he is saying. There are experiences that aren't exactly pleasurable, but remove us from ourselves and our comfort zones, show us different truths and other routes to happiness. We see.

"People are just people," he says, shaking his head. "They had nothing, but they were happy. They wanted to share what they had. All we had to do was smile at them."

He looks at us with sorrow and frustration. "Why do we feel like we have to fix everything?"

Neighbor M., she of the mobile poultry, comes over and puts her head on my shoulder. "I haven't seen you in so long!" she cries.

"I decided that you need your own HGTV show," I tell her. "How To Decorate Your Float. It was great!"

"Thanks!" she replies with glee.

"But I need to know," I whisper. "Were the chickens on it?"

"Just the pretty one," she replies sotto voce.

The children are putting on their annual talent show. The son has not deigned to participate this year, nor have most of the older children, but the daughter is still young enough to enjoy the experience. She dances well, and she looks not just happy, but content to be performing.

A neighbor turns to me. "Have you gotten her an agent yet?"

I laugh.

The spouse says, "She has the greatest smile."

"Of course she does," I reply smugly. "She has her mother's smile."

The sea breeze has picked up and the sun has dropped far below the horizon. The sparklers have been brought out, and young and old alike are dancing like dervishes in the street, brandishing the flaming sticks. One of the organizers is trying to encourage everyone to sing, but it's been too long a day, too hot, and everyone just wants to be entertained.

The fireworks brigade begins their show. They are serious about their whizz-bangs, serious about making a lot of noise and a lot of fuss, but serious, too, about safety.

And about finishing up before we're busted by the sheriff.

Several years ago, the fire brigade showed up, seemingly to remind us gently that fireworks are not allowed. Everyone smiled and nodded and offered the firefighters dinner. They didn't return for the show.

Two years ago, we were rousted by the sheriff, who apparently waited until the show was over to tell us all to go home.

Tonight, someone in another neighborhood is shooting off aerials.

"Yay!" says the spouse, "that'll distract the sheriff."

Everyone laughs. And this year, we are not visited.

It is too dark to do much clean up and everyone will reconvene in the morning to make sure the mess is cleared away. I see there is still a significant amount of hummus left, and I seek out C., who always throws a party the day after, to ask her if she'd like it for tomorrow.

C. and I trade books. Most recently I've given her my Ann-Marie MacDonald books.

As I try to ask her about hummus, she grabs my arms. "Fall on Your Knees! Oh my God!" she cries, "Tragic! Beautiful!"

I walk the hummus down to her house to the staccato boom of fireworks going off everywhere. I can see a large (probably legitimate show) to the south, and smaller spurts of color elsewhere. To the west, the new moon is setting, just a sliver of light, but huge in the sky. I am tired, and curiously full-hearted. My shoulders ache, and I lift my arms, port-de-bras, from first position to second to fifth overhead, stretching my shoulders. I see the moon once again through the circle made by my arms and for an instant feel that I'm embracing the universe.

Go listen to some good music: "Pictures at an Exhibition/Promenade. Allegro giusto, nel modo russico; senza allegrezza, ma poco sostenuto" from the album Mussorgsky: Pictures At An Exhibition by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic.

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