‘You want to tell Daddy you went like a big boy when he calls, don’t you?’
‘Soldier daddy,’ the little boy says. He pinches his lips and shrinks into a smile.
Jelly’s mother forces a grin and says, ‘Soldier daddy will be so happy you went like big boy. And, Sally and Jack will be so sad…’ she makes a so-sad face ‘…if there is no cake for the fireworks.’
Jelly curls his toes, scrunches his chubby face and hums something monotone, pretending to push. His mother turns away and crosses her arms.
Once he sees she’s not looking, Jelly slides from the toilet and pulls the lever, clapping his hands while the water swirls and tumbles away.
The sun hangs to the side of a sewage plant, making its shadows lean long and thin from the tangled pipes. At a single pump station, two men peer over the short wall of a buried concrete cylinder, its dark hole leading some thirty feet below.
The younger man, Eddie, turns on his headlamp. ‘I’m not sure I want to see what’s down there,’ he says, brushing a speck of dirt from his coveralls.
Ralph, the older man, pries open a nearby manhole with a crowbar and rolls the cover to the side. ‘Listen,’ he says, ‘you’re thinking too much about what it is. I’ve been doing this for twenty years and you know what I call it?’
‘Muck. Unless it’s real bad, and then I call it muckity-muck.’
‘And the smell?’
Ralph pulls his mask up from around his neck and places it over his mouth. ‘To be honest, kid…’ he says through the paper, ‘…you get used to it.’
Outside an apartment downtown, a man begins to climb stairs with a clay pot and a bag of fertilized soil under his arm.
Ten flights a day keeps the doctor away — that’s what his father always said.
When he reaches the tenth floor, he uses his plaid shirt, already shadowed with sweat, to wipe his face. He tucks the hem back into his pants and goes into his father’s apartment.
A nurse stands at the kitchen sink, rinsing out a liquid syringe, when he walks into the room.
‘Hey, Alfred,’ the nurse says. She turns around, smiles in a tired way. ‘Don’t flush the toilets or nothing today.’ She gestures to a pool of brown water in the sink. ‘The pipes aren’t draining right.’
Alfred sets the pot and soil on the floor and takes a deep breath. He nods and stares at a photo of him and his father, taken some twenty years back on their trip to Machu Pichu.
‘How’s he doing?’ Alfred asks.
The nurse wipes her hands on a dish towel. ‘Been asleep most of the day. Moaning, sometimes. His medicine schedule’s by the bed.’
‘What’s that for?’ The nurse points to the empty pot.
‘The plant in the bedroom,’ he says. ‘You think it’s big enough?’
‘It’s already got a pot. What’s it need a bigger one for?’
Alfred eyes brighten. ‘Plants are funny. They only grow when you…’ He watches her reach for her purse. ‘I’m sorry, are you in a hurry?’ he asks.
She puts the strap over her shoulder. ‘I’m going to a barbeque,’ she says.
Alfred smiles politely, rubbing the space between his eyebrows. ‘Of course. I don’t want to keep you,’ he says.
She smiles and offers a limp wave as she closes the door behind her.
Jelly’s mother squirts the final frosting star in the upper left corner of her cake. Next to it, Jelly sits on the counter licking a rubber spoon.
‘We’re going to have sparklers, and hot dogs, and soda. Aren’t you excited?’ she says, turning to reach for the cellophane. When she looks back, a corner of the cake is gone, its yellow innards spread open like a wound. Jelly slouches with his palm over his mouth, red frosting oozed between his fingers.
The doorbell rings and Jelly’s mother pulls him from the counter, pushing the cake away from the edge. She wipes his hands quickly. ‘You stay right there, mister,’ she says, and runs off to answer the door.
Jelly hangs his hand eye-level to a small dog that licks the ends of his fingers.
‘No puppy,’ Jelly yells. ‘No.’
The dog cowers for a moment, studies Jelly’s face before leaning in to lick again.
‘No!’ Jelly says, swinging his fist. ‘No, no!’ He chases the dog until it slips in the space between the wall and the sofa. Jelly crouches near the crack, peering inside at the trembling animal.
Jelly’s mother pulls open the front door. ‘Mary!’ she says to a woman holding a baby in a car seat. Behind Mary, a little girl carries a giant diaper bag around her shoulder. She smiles, revealing one half-grown front tooth and one missing.
‘Hi, Sally,’ Jelly’s mother says to the girl as she steps through the door. She kisses Mary on the cheek and says, ‘I hope you’re ready; I’m making margaritas.’
Mary nods, setting the car seat on the floor. Jelly runs over and looks under the visor at a small sleeping baby. He reaches in and pets the baby’s head, smearing frosting across its black hair.
Sally turns from the backyard window, bellowing, ‘Can we do the sparklers out here?’
Mary waves Sally over and digs through the diaper bag, finally pulling out a tampon. ‘I’m just going to use the bathroom real quick,’ Mary says.
Jelly’s mom gestures to the hallway and then turns to Sally, who’s got Jelly clutched, squirming in her lap. ‘Mommy says,’ Sally tells her, sounding hopeful, ‘that when you have your period it means you can have a baby.’
Jelly slips from Sally’s grip and runs across the room. Jelly’s mother nods as if listening, but she stares at a framed photo on the living room wall: a man in a blue jacket, the collar pinned with two bars, his hard face smooth shaven, his forehead bisected by the black visor of a white hat.
Eddie and Ralph walk single-file down a dank and narrow tunnel, their headlamps fanning across the walls, their boots sloshing a skin of water on the floor.
‘Won’t be long before it’s dark,’ says Ralph.
Eddie steps forward and grips his rubber gloves around the metal ring. He twists and heaves and the door opens a few inches, letting a stream of brown water drain out.
‘Holy fuck,’ Eddie says, peeking in to see the mountain of sludge, four or five feet high, surrounding the massive lift pump in the centre of the room. A condom sags from the edge of the mound. Eddie pulls his head back from the door, doubles over and gags inside his mask.
Behind him, Ralph chuckles. ‘That there’s the muckity-muck,’ he says, sounding near delighted. He pulls a utility hose from the wall, hands Eddie a stick and tells him to start stirring.
They work in tandem, Eddie with the stick and Ralph with the hose, wetting the debris, softening it, breaking it down like sand on the side of a canyon, until enough spills out for them to open the door a few feet.
Eddie looks up at the sky, a circle of navy high above the pump chamber. Then he looks down at the plank, the surface now slime-covered, and he says, shaking his head. ‘I don’t know, Ralph. I don’t think the brain can adjust so easy.’
Pop?’ Alfred says. He walks in carrying the pot and bag of soil. He places them on the floor and walks up to his father’s bald head poking from the covers.
‘Happy birthday,’ he says, brushing the old man’s grey stubble. His cheek beneath wrinkles like thin sheets of dough.
His father’s eyes open, glazed over. He smiles and reaches out.
Alfred clasps his palm. Across the room the television murmurs the news. Fireworks at nine. He lays his father’s hand back down gently and pulls the dropper from his pocket, setting it next to a glass bottle on the bedside table. He picks up the prescription. Studies it. Runs his finger over the label: Morphine Sulfate. Sets it back down.
Alfred lays a towel on the floor and takes the withered plant from the corner. He pulls it over, along with his supplies. He opens the bag of soil and pours some into the bigger pot between his legs. He looks at his father whose eyes are closed, his mouth sloped open. He grips the base of the plant and pulls, causing the roots to pop from their mooring. They hang from his hand, dirt-clumped, white and slippery as worms.
Alfred’s father stirs on the bed, emitting a little moan.
‘You okay, Pop?’
The old man is quiet again.
‘We can turn off the TV if you want,’ he says. ‘Or we could watch the fireworks?’ He looks over at the clock on the nightstand. 8:43.
Outside, in the dim light under a picnic table, Jelly pulls up tufts of grass to throw at the dog. Ignoring him, the dog licks the mother’s bare toes peeking from under the checkered table cloth before her foot swings and disappears.
Above, the two women drink their margaritas, watching Sally swivel her hips to suspend a plastic hoop.
‘Every time the phone rings, I just keep thinking it’s going to be about him, you know?’ Mary says, downing the last of her drink.
Sally loses interest in the hoop and approaches with the box of sparklers. ‘Can I light some?’
Mary nods, and Jelly’s mother helps Sally open the box. She strikes a match and lights a sparkler. The end fizzes up, spitting off embers. Jelly runs out from under the table, his eyes wide, his wet mouth agape. He chases after Sally as she dances across the lawn drawing zig-zags with the sparkler in the air.
Just then, the city’s first firework bursts overhead. The boom echoes against the house, sounding like cannon fire. Sally lowers her sparkler to gaze up at the spectre of grey smoke left behind. Jelly covers his ears and runs to his mother. Another crack, another boom, and he buries his face in her lap.
From a distance, Sally watches Jelly and his mother, outlining them with her sparkler before it burns to naught and she turns her head back to the sky.
It’s got my boot,’ Eddie says, throwing his weight forward.
Ralph sets down his hose and walks up the plank. He kneels and gives Eddie’s boot a few yanks. ‘Just pull your foot out. Leave the boot.’ he says.
‘What?’ Eddie yells.
‘Leave it,’ Ralph says. ‘Take it off.’
Eddie jerks his leg back and forth a few more times, before he finally gives in and pulls out his foot, denuding a white sock that glows like a stark and sterile ghost.
Alfred lifts the limbs of his plant, placing pencils under the sagging branches to buoy them. As he reaches for another one, he hears a groan. Alfred stands and looks at his father’s head, a grey bean on the pillow.
Alfred lifts the dropper from the nightstand, runs his finger down the medicine sheet. He checks, then double checks to be exact, before he measures the morphine and stoops to whisper in his father’s brittle ear. ‘Happy hour.’
The old man’s tongue peeps out, dry as a lizard, once the dropper meets his lips. Alfred dribbles the morphine and waits for him to close his mouth, waits for his throat to bob. When he finally swallows, Alfred fills the dropper again. ‘Two for one,’ he says and pours a dose into his own mouth. He follows it with a sip of water. Then he settles close to his father on the bed, resting his hand on the old man’s shoulder.
Reclined against the headboard, Alfred watches the anchorwoman over his feet. She smiles — enjoy the show — before the television goes black, and the fireworks soar up the screen, their tails whipping like tadpoles through the sky, until they bloom and shatter like glass.
Photograph by Derek Key