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P. S. Ehrlich


O Say Can You Skeet

by

P. S. Ehrlich

 

 

            Is it dark enough?

            Is it dark enough yet?

            Is it dark enough for you?

            Hiding Christmas presents from a not-quite-six-year-old was child’s play compared to hiding fireworks from the same not-quite-six-year-old, given that child’s incendiary interest in all things flammable.

            A family conclave was held to decide where to conceal the explosives, with every closet and Grampa Otto’s gun room being dismissed out of hand.  Finally the crawlspace was selected, the fireworks were smuggled there in the dead of night, and at dawn the next day Kelly Rebecca was found (in her Roger Ramjet jammies) struggling to open the crawlspace hatch.

            It then became necessary to explain again and again why all the rockets were notgoing to be set off right away.  “Not till tonight, hawney; it’s got to be dark.  First we put up our decorations, and then we have dinner, our big Fourth of July family cookout—”

            “Burgers and wienies?”

            “That’s right, burgers and wienies, and just wait till you taste our homemade ice cream, better than any you can buy in a store,” etc.

            But Kelly Rebecca remained unconvinced as to the day’s whens and wherefores, and had to be turned over to her Uncle Buddy (home on vacation from postgrad dramatics at Northwestern) for entertainment or at any rate diversion.  And throughout their punch-and-judying, throughout the arrival of the Hungerfords (Aunt Ollie and Uncle Walt with their three boisterous boys), the setting up of patriotic décor and dinner, the contested spitting of watermelon seeds and the repeated refusal of Kelly Rebecca’s mother to come downstairs and put in an appearance—through it all bounced the unsinkable refrain: Is it dark enough yet?

            Now with dinner done, the paper plates scraped and placed in the incinerator to contribute smoke to the Glorious Fourth, Gramma Addie Otto and her sister Emmy sat down to share a pitcher of iced tea.  Out in the yard Uncle Buddy and the Hungerford boys could be seen setting up the fireworks, supervised by Grampa Otto (overweight he was, and inclined to perspire) from the back porch glider.  Farther off, kept at a supposedly safe distance, Kelly Rebecca gamboled about with a sparkler alight in her hand.

 

            Her Great-Aunt Emmy (no Kansas farmwife but an urban copyreader nearing retirement) stirred at the sight.  “How that child can go jumping around with a full stomach on a day hot as this, beats me.”

            “She’s young,” Gramma observed.  “She doesn’t feel it yet.”

            “She will, soon enough.  Just as well she’s not in here asking questions.”  Emmy detached her glass from its clinging coaster and took a sip.  “So.  What’s to be done about Carrie?”

            Gramma exhaled.  “She’ll file for divorce, I suppose.  I can’t see them working things out, not now.”

            “Well.  And then what?”

            “Last night she was talking about moving to Demortuis, finding a job there.  Starting over.  That might be best.”

            Snort from Aunt Emmy.  “And just what sort of job does she expect to find, eight years out of college?  Doctor, lawyer, Indian chief?  Cocktail waitress, more likely.”

            “Now Em, you always said she showed the most potential—”

            “I always said that before she upped and married a Marine jet jockey whose only thought is outer space and how to get himself there.”

            At which point the telephone rang.  Uncle Walt answered and listened a laconic while.  Then, to Gramma: “It’s him.  Wants to talk to her.”

            Gramma traded significant glances with Aunt Emmy before calling up the stairs.  “Carrie?”  (Muffled, negative response.)  “CaroLINE?”  (Muffled again, somewhat louder.)  “Olivia!  Tell your sister her husband’s on the phone and will she kindly pick up the extension! …What now, I wonder.”

            “Begging her to come back,” guessed Emmy.  “Divorce would scuttle any chances Gower Kitefly’d ever have of making astronaut.  Can’t be such a thing as a divorced astronaut; Life magazine wouldn’t stand for it.”

            “That’s so,” said Gramma.  “Yes, he’ll try to sweet-talk her around same as always, and when that doesn’t work—”

            “—if it doesn’t—”

            “Not this time, I think.”

            Nor did it, as Aunt Ollie revealed when she came down to relate the latest.  “She wouldn’t speak to him, wouldn’t even take the phone to hang up on him; I  had to do it, and you know what else?” asked Ollie, looking like a parakeet escaped from its cage but uncertain where to flutter.  “Now she’s talking about getting a nose job.”

            “A what?”

            “A nose job.”

            And with that and a couple of iced teas, Ollie fluttered back upstairs.

            “Did you ever hear the like!” Aunt Emmy wanted to know.  “Somebody ought to give that girl a good talking-to…  I suppose you think I’m volunteering.”

            “Well, it was you helped pay Carrie’s way through school.”

            “Yes, and look how much good it did.”

            “Think of it as an investment,” said Gramma.  “And if she did move to Demortuis, you could maybe keep a good close eye on your investment—”

            “—and save it from cocktail waitressing; yes, I get your drift.  Hum.  I expect I can talk to her about it, anyway.  I’ll go up in awhile then, and give Ollie a breather, and we’ll see. But it won’t be easy, you know, with the child and all.”

            Gramma turned her glass in a twiddly circle.  “Well,” she said, “Bert and I were thinking we might keep Kelly here.  Put her in Aunt Livy’s old room.”

            “Were you, now!”

            “It’d just be for awhile, till Carrie gets all this put behind her.  Bert and I are fixed okay, and besides Kelly’s our only granddaughter.  I mean it’s not as though Ollie and Walt have room for another ’un.”

            Uncle Walt glanced up from the Booth County Roundup long enough to leave no doubt about that.

            “Well, I’ll tell you one thing,” glared Aunt Emmy.  “I’ve had more conversation with that child Kelly in this one day than I’ve had these twenty years with Walter Hungerford…  But did it occur to you, Addie, that you’re sixty years old and have maybe done your full share of childraising?”

            “Oh well, Buddy’s still just a big kid even if he is twenty-three.  And try to look at it from Kelly’s point of view: been a Marine brat all her life, always moving, never a chance to settle down; no wonder she gets so bouncy.”

            “Hum,” said Emmy.  “Even so, she’s not-quite-six—”

            “Makes no difference.  Child ought to have a chance to grow up properly.  And in case it’s slipped your mind, let me remind you that Grandma Wunderlich raised the two of us—”

            “—in this very house, and did it a sight better than Dad could’ve after Mama died; yes, I know how that song goes.  But just you keep your eyes open, Adelaide.  There’s something about Miss Kelly Rebecca—”

            “She’s a darling and a sweetheart!”

            “Oh, she’s a lively little thing all right.  Headstrong and highstrung, that’s what that child is, and too much of both.  She doesn’t get it from Carrie either; that’s Gower Kitefly all over, with his Jimmy Cagney look-alike act-alike song-and-dance…  All I’m saying is, you and Bert had best watch your step.”

            “Well!” went Gramma, finishing her iced tea double quick.  “All the more reason, then, why we mustn’t let her be upset by any of this—whatever happens.  She mustn’t get an inkling that there’s any trouble or blowup going on; not an inkling.”

            They looked out the kitchen window at the small girl wearing a red T-shirt and once-white shorts (now thoroughly grass-stained) with a blue ribbon in her bright blonde hair, and a fresh sparkler expostulating in her hand.

                    *

            Bounce bounce bounce.

            Running round and round Gramma-and-Grampa’s house, lookit all the porches!  Back porch side porch front porch roof!  Big silver mailbox out front with B.L.OTTO on it, the sight of which made Great-Aunt Emmy shake her head and cluck her tongue; maybe she’d been expecting a letter that wasn’t there.  Big front lawn and even bigger back yard, full of what Grampa called “fouracres” though it looked like ordinary grass, except for the great big garden with all sorts of flowers and veggies and things—“the envy of the neighborhood,” Grampa boasted, and Kelly Rebecca repeated the phrase with a relishy drawing-out as she launched herself on another lap round the house: “The ennnnvy of the nnnneeeigh-bor-hood!”

            Tall pole in the back yard with a big bell on it that she’d gotten to pull, summoning everyone to dinner—“We can’t eat till you ring the bell, hawney”—because she was the youngest member of the Wunderlich family there, even if her last name was really Kitefly.  Anyway, it meant Cousin Jerry Hungerford couldn’t ring the bell this year, which caused him to have a jealous fit, which was just fine with Kelly Rebecca since Cousin Jerry was a creep.

            Garage full of cars, shed full of tools, another littler shed that Grampa said used to be a chicken house in the olden days and which Kelly wished still was, so she could feed the chickens and hear them cluck and watch them making eggs.  Farther out back was a long ladder with a too-high what-a-gyp bottom rung, leading up to some lucky tall person’s house in the trees.  Then there was a little brook without any fishies, though this was supposed to be “the country,” and all the stories and TV shows about “the country” claimed it was supposed to Teem With Nature.  Well, at least there was a set of railroad tracks teeming beyond the brook and an occasional real live train running over them, trailing a red caboose to wave to.

            The sound of the trains reminded Kelly Rebecca of the planes back home, and the sound of planes always got her even more excited than she ordinarily was.  She’d been superexcited all through the plane ride here from California, and had to keep asking to go to the cuuuute little potty in the back of the plane, which hadn’t improved Mommy’s mood any. Kelly had assumed her Daddy was piloting the plane and wanted to go up to the cockpit and watch him doing it, but Mommy just went hush.

            The thought of Mommy saying “hush” reminded her of some of Mommy’s other words, like “obsession,” the sound of which never failed to make Kelly laugh.  Even now, thinking about it—“obsession!”—she fell to the ground and rolled in the grass, her burnt-out sparkler tossed ecstatically aside.  “Ubbbb-session!”

            It was times like this, when Kelly sent herself into gigglefits at the mere thought of the sound of words, that Mommy would say things like “I can’t take any more!”—though she’d never say any more of what.  Probably dessert, since Mommy was always on a diet, or supposed to be, and in fact hadn’t come out to have any of the yummy burgers and wienies and baked beans and corn-on-the-cob and watermelon and homemade ice cream, better than any you could buy in a store.  Maybe she’d had hers upstairs on a tray.

            It was getting really, really dark now and Kelly Rebecca started back, lingering by the old chicken house since Dougie Hungerford had swiped a cherry bomb from the fireworks supply, and had whispered to her that later on they were going to try blowing up the old chicken house with it.  Kelly could hardly wait.  Being involved in an explosion wouldn’t faze her at all, nossir!  Never a skinned knee nor a bruised finger despite all her antics; and though she’d broken collarbones by falling out of trees, they had never been her collarbones.

            Fiery stuff was just like the sound of airplanes to Kelly Rebecca.  When her sixth birthday came in three weeks and two days she planned to demand twelve candles on her cake, unless she could talk Mommy into more.  Or maybe Gramma: Kelly had gotten the idea they might be staying with Grampa-and-Gramma for awhile.  Which was just fine with her, since their house had so many porches, and on the back porch was a “glider” even though it couldn’t fly, and in the glider was Grampa Otto all by himself till Kelly Rebecca jumped up beside him and got a great big Grampa-arm roundabout her.

                    *

            There were more empty Falstaffs down by the glider than perhaps was strictly necessary.  Grampa always referred to these as “dead soldiers,” and over the next several years, whenever Kelly would hear Vietnam casualty figures announced over the radio or on TV, she would picture a field full of vacant beer bottles.

            Now Grampa was examining his latest, revolving the last few drops around the bottle bottom.  “Care for a taste, Miss Skeeter?” he asked, and Kelly Rebecca accepted with a grand air, careful to take the bottle using only one hand, not two like an infant.

            “Bert!” exclaimed Gramma, coming out just then with Uncle Walt and Aunt Ollie relieved of her upstairs vigil, plus a freshmade pitcher of lemonade.  “Bert, you’ll be the ruination of the child.”

            “Rubbish.  This little girl was born to do nothing but laugh.  Am I right, Skeeter?”

            “RIGHT!” said Kelly Rebecca.  “Is it dark enough now?”

            “Why, I do believe it is,” said Grampa, and “Let ’er rip!” he directed Uncle Buddy and Mickey, the oldest Hungerford boy, who were serving as detonators.  They started off less than incandescently with snakes and squibs and torpedoes, but even these gave Kelly the leapin’ jumpies; and when the Roman candles began their rackety auto-da-fé, Grampa found it necessary to haul Kelly onto his lap.

            “You stay put,” he ordered.  “Let the boys handle things.  Don’t want to get yourself hurt, now do you?”

            “I don’t ever get hurt!” she insisted.  Squirm squirm squirm, little Ants in Her Pants, first called “Skeeter” by Grampa Otto when as a two-year-old she’d shown hellbent determination not to be carried into the Market Square A & P that once upon a time had been Wunderlich Bros., the family grocery.  Nossir, Kelly Rebecca was going to walk in on her own two tiny feet, which hit the floor with a ZAP and a FLASH when she was set down for a mere moment by her tuckered-out mother.  And by the time they caught up with her, she’d managed to knock over an entire display of tomatoes and be the cause of a hapless stockboy getting a bump on his head when he slipped on the tomatoes trying to clean them up.

            “Well, you are a handful,” Grampa’d said on that occasion, and repeated here and now.  “I expect that’s because you’re really a great big amazing colossal girl, scrunched and packed down into a little ole bitty Skeeter-type doll.”

            “Like a firecracker!” said Kelly, cackling through his scrunch-and-packdown

re-enactment.  She returned the favor by grabbing a napkin and mopping the many sweatbeads from her grandfather’s face.

            “Careful now!” he told her.  “Leave me my nose.”

            “Hold me Grampa!”

            “I gotcha.”

            With the old man securing her knees, Kelly flipped backwards and hung upside down. “Grampa leggo!”  Stubby legs snapped up straight, and Kelly Rebecca stood neatly on her blue-ribboned head.

            “Oh hawney!” wailed Gramma.  “Not after all the fuss we had getting your hair washed!”

 

            Kelly executed a Marine-clean somersaulting flip and ended up on the glider beside Grampa again, just in time for the launch of the first rocket.  WHEEEE-OOOP! it sang with a hottentot bang, and “That’s the kind of rocket my Daddy wants to ride!” Kelly announced as it splattered against the sky.

            “Just about what would happen if Gower was flying it”—a thought Gramma Otto kept to herself, wishing Grampa had done likewise with his ironic cough.

            Aunt Ollie for her twittery part was deeply moved, having been bothered all day by Kelly’s showing no great curiosity as to where her father was or why her mother was spending so much time indoors upstairs.  But moved though Ollie might be, she didn’t altogether approve of the child’s gleeful aplomb.  “Kelly—”

            “—RebecCA!  That’s what Mommy says.  She goes, ‘Kelly RebecCA!’ and you know what I say?  I go, ‘Yes ma’am!’ like that…  Mommy gets mad sometimes.”  Which remark brought all the adults quiet discomfort; even the fireworks seemed briefly muted.  But Kelly RebecCA! remained blithe as ever, mind and body pingponging along.

            Aunt Ollie tried again.  “Aren’t you just a little scared by all this, Kelly?”

            “Scared!  Only babies get scared.”

            “That’s right,” said Grampa, while Gramma gave Ollie’s ribs an elbowing.  “And this little girl’s no baby, are you?  Next weekend your Uncle Walt and I’ll take you down to the range and show you all about skeet shooting.”

            Small round startle-you-blue eyes turned upon him and stared.  “Skeet shooting?  Are you going to shoot me?”

            Grampa laughed and opened up another beer.  “Well, do you feel like a clay pigeon?  Like to get flung out of a trap to be shot at by hunters?”

            “Now, Bert—” went Gramma, and “Wow!” went Kelly, who could hardly wait.  Blowing up chicken coops with cherry bombs seemed like baby stuff in comparison.  She’d have to act very grownup if she hoped to stand a chance of being skeet-shot.  “I’m going to first grade in this many months!” she hastened to remind everyone, making a V‑for-victory à la the recently deceased Winston Churchill.  Then: “One, two—buckle my shoe!” she gigglefitted, extending her bare foot for Grampa to pretend to buckle.

            Gramma saw this as a natural-born opportunity.  “Where are you going to first grade, hawney?” she asked.

            “I don’t know yet.”

            “Well, we have—”

            “I went to kindergarten in Califorrrr-ney.”

            “Well, you know—”

            “‘They said Califorrrr-ney is the place you oughta be—’”

            “We’ve got a pretty nice grade school right here in Marble Orchard.”

            “‘So they loadied up the truck ‘n’ moved to Beverleeee.’”

            “Course, that’d mean you’d have—”

 

            “‘Hills, that is.  Swimmin’ pools—movie stars—’”

            “Kelly, listen a minute—you’d have to move in here with us, and live here year-round.  Would you like that?”

            “Could I have a horse?”

            “Um—well—a pony, maybe.  Your Mom and Aunt Ollie had a fine one, name of Junebug—”

            “Could I have two then?  So the first pony won’t get lonesome?”

            “Don’t see why not,” said Grampa.

            “YIPPEEEE!” cried Kelly Rebecca, and went cart cart cart wheel wheel wheeling down the driveway, bright blonde hair a-flap.

            “How come we don’t get two ponies?” Jerry Hungerford was demanding as Kelly galloped back on Invisible Timmy, not to be confused with Real Life Timmy, who at that moment was shedding his meager stuffing on Kelly’s pillow upstairs, next to a bunny rabbit so discolored by distemper that it was known as Rusty Bugs.  These provided the child with companionship as well as entertainment or at any rate diversion, much like Kelly Rebecca’s abrupt diversion from being an equestrienne to becoming a buzzbomb, and not just any buzzbomb but one targeted for close encounter with the skyrocket to whose fuse Cousin Mickey had recently applied a match; and there was a split second of consternation for everyone to share, and just enough time for Grampa Otto to shout “Skeeter—” in a grey grackle voice before the rocket went SHWEEEEE-OOOOP with a whizbang KABOOM!

            Then followed a flurry of terrified uncertainty in the smoky too-damn-darkness.

            From which Kelly Rebecca emerged characteristically unscathed, spared even the terrible legscar anyone else would have sustained if not deserved; and she was promptly enveloped by relatives hugging her and kissing her and giving her backside smart openhanded wallops for behaving like a reckless jugheaded fool.  “Ow! make up your mind!” Kelly was saying, when she caught a glimpse of the still life in the back porch glider.

            “Is Grampa okay?” she asked.

 

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