The Buckleys were, you might say, entrepreneurial. Particularly on Fourth of July Eve in the Waffle House parking lot.
The boxes started coming in early May. Big ones, with smaller, candy-colored parcels inside. Momma always ordered the bestsellers first. Roman candles, bottle rockets, and sparklers. The pussy fireworks, as Dad would say. Fireworks for people who couldn’t handle the good stuff. After she made sure we had enough of those, the real explosives started piling up. Explosives with names like The Ear-Splitter and Black Plague.
On that last, all-important day of sales, I tried to drop my end of the bargain. The sun was already high and hot in the sky, practically melting the curtainless window pane in my bedroom. It was a dog-killing heat. Between 10 a.m and 3 p.m, tying your Jack Russell up in the sun was a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by eleven months, twenty-nine days in jail or a fine of up to $2,500.
I was more sensitive than a Jack Russell. The heat wasn’t good for my constitution, either. At the first sign of July warmth, my body broke out in splotchy pink rashes, whichran up my legs like a pair of tube socks. These hives came each year, as perennial as the dandelions that grew beside the road. But rash or no rash, I couldn’t get out of helping. When I begged off, Momma hit me with a question—virtually pinning my arm behind my back.
“Do you wanna eat or not, Darcy?” she asked, looking like she’d throttle me if I actually answered.“Cause that’s what this money’s going towards. Money for your food and your clothes and—”
“All right! I’m coming. God, I...”
“We’re leaving in ten minutes. Throw something decent-looking on.”
I didn’t see the need to look decent. Anything I wore was just gonna get gross, anyway. Peddling fireworks under a sweltering tent was a sweaty occupation. But still, I threw on my nicest Machine Gun Kelly T-shirt before heading for the door.
“Darcy! Your Dad and I will be in the car! Grab the money trunk on your way out!”
The money “trunk” looked more like a plain metal box. It was about the size of a board game. Dad came up with the name, saying that it made him more optimistic about our chances. After all, onlyreally rich people would ever have to tote their money in a trunk. Over the years, Mom and Dad had taken to slapping stickers from past side hustles all over the outside. Mary Kay, Young Living, LulaRoe. None particularly successful, but memorable nonetheless. The surface felt cool in my hands as I hauled it out to the car.
Year after year, Dad set up shop in the same place. There weren’t too many options in a town like Norris, Tennessee. We usually wound up driving to Clinton, which was small too, but less so than some of the surrounding places. Once a week, everybody from the outskirts converged on Clinton to do their shopping at the Walmart before heading back out into the boonies. Dad chose a grassy lot near the highway, about a stone's throw away from the passing cars. Our tent sat on a patch of turf under the shadow of the Appalachians, blue mountains looming over ill-planned, urban sprawl. We weren’t close enough to benefit from any ski-town tourism or temperatures, but our tent still sat within sight of the fog gathered around the peaks.
Waitresses at the Waffle House next door hated our business, mostly because they used the space as employee parking for the rest of the year. Of course, those old Southern grandmas didn’t see any of the money the rental brought in. Matters like that didn’t fall to them. Buddy Dixon had the final say onfinancial decisions. He owned the Waffle House, and was rumored to run two more in the next town over as well. Buddy was a thin, slight man who, in Dad’s eyes, was something of an entrepreneurial giant. Using family land to make money off strangers was the ultimate racket. Dad admired the scheme, even if he himself was also lining the man’s pockets.
Us Buckleys were loyal patrons of Howie’s Party Rentals, a company that specialized in loaning out inflatables but also carried tents for revival meetings, strictly heterosexual weddings, baby showers, and pop-up shops like ours.
Sheila, an arthritic-looking waitress who managed the place for Buddy, always took pains to hobble across the curb—a journey that, in her mind, was well-worth its effort since it facilitated future complaining. She’d tell Dad about how parking across the street at the Mcdonalds was hellish for her knees. And her back. And her hair, which couldn’t handle the extra wind encountered in the crosswalk. Dad always nodded, like he was listening real hard, before proceeding to rent the spot again the next summer. Our tent couldn’t rest anywhere else.
Well, it wasn’t really our tent, so to speak. It was a rental. Us Buckleys were loyal patrons of Howie’s Party Rentals, a company that specialized in loaning out inflatables but also carried tents for revival meetings, strictly heterosexual weddings, baby showers, and pop-up shops like ours.
If running a small business was hard, then running a small pop-up business felt even harder for onereason: we could never keep all of our shit in one place. At the start of each day, we had to haul ass from what Dad called the “Buckley family homestead” (aka an apartment complex down the road), all the way back to our selling spot. A metallic clatter followed our explosive-filled truck out of the parking lot, which I’m sure made the landlord more nervous each year. A fire hazard coasting on four bald tires. We then had to lug about a hundred boxes into the tent, which is what we began doing on thatlast, all-important day of sales. Arms full of sparkler boxes, with the money trunk balanced precariously on top, I walked behind Dad. A man born without the ability to feel even the slightest sense of urgency.
“This could be your livelihood one day, Darcy,” he said, stopping to survey what he saw as his future empire. “Imagine that.”
Daddy often paused, mid-stride, to dream about the future. I stood behind him, halfway through the tent flap, staring at the farmer’s tan on his shoulders. It looked like strawberry milk and clashed with the yellow of his thinning hair. I thought about flicking the burnt part to make him yelp (and hopefully move), but settled for snark instead.
“Well, I imagine the cost of living would have to plummet for that to happen.” A look of wonder spread across his face.
“When did you get big enough to know what cost of living means?”
A gruff sort of optimism colored Daddy’s outlook on life. I rolled my eyes and plowed past him into thetent. We always spent hours building up walls of our merchandise, stacking one box on top of anotheruntil we had a labyrinth of explosive materials. At fourteen, I could finally see over the rows. I wove my way through the boxes, taking in one violent streak of color after another. Explosive reds, yellows, and oranges. Jagged cartoon balloons describing the size and sound of the little bombs inside.
I trudged over to the only table under the tent. Our mock checkout area, complete with a 1980s cash register plucked from a yard sale. The machine was mostly made from a dingy white metal, except for some plastic buttons and a glass display screen. Each year, when I typed in our prices, green numbers would appear on the screen before being printed out through the receipt slot near the top. I plopped my sparklers down beside the register and tossed the money trunk on the grass below. Loose change clattered against the metal. Dad followed me inside, cheerful as ever.
“Hell,” he continued, shaking his head in mock disbelief. “I’m not even sure if I know what cost of living means. Are you hearing this, hon?”
Across the tent, Momma was busy writing on some poster board. Her dark Judy Garland curls bounced along with the movement of her hands. For advertising, she’d replaced her delicate cursive with blocky letters:
SUPER SHELL BLASTERZ. $299.99! THIS WEEK ONLY!
We Buckleys always used uppercase letters for our signage. Dad liked to say it was a way to shout at people while they shopped. A fine marketing strategy, just as long as he didn’t actually yell at anyone, which he did in fits of excitement. He never got mad. Just overwhelmed by enthusiasm. The sort of enthusiasm I could muster only in the Halloween aisle at Walmart. My year-round fascination with all things spooky had started to trouble Momma. Dad just ignored me, just as long as my obsessions didn’t put on a damper on his obsessions.
“Every American needs fireworks on the fourth,” Daddy declared, pointing a finger at me from across the table. “They need them. Not want. Need. That’s how we make money to feed you. That’s how we’re gonna move up in this world.”
“Mom, why bother writing ‘this week only’ at all? I mean, everyone knows it’s only this week. When else do people buy fireworks?”
Momma glanced up from her work, brows raised above thin-rimmed glasses. “I’m creating a sense of urgency. That’s how you sell stuff.”
I didn’t think anybody had ever urgently needed fireworks, and I told her so.
“Every American needs fireworks on the fourth,” Daddy declared, pointing a finger at me from across the table. “They need them. Not want. Need. That’s how we make money to feed you. That’s how we’re gonna move up in this world.”
After wrapping up this speech, he was gripped by another shot of passion, and reached out to wrap Momma in a hug. Her face remained blank, peaceful even, as her hands drifted out to brush him away, the whole scene looking like a cow lazily swatting flies with its tail. He couldn’t quite make contact, buttook the rebuff in stride and started making his way past her and toward a crate of bottle rockets instead.
I decided to make myself scarce. At that moment, there were no customers milling around the shop we’d set up. Most people wouldn’t start rolling in until dusk—procrastinators who’d forgotten about theholiday until the banter of radio hosts reminded them on their way to work. It was the perfect time for me to disappear. But Daddy looked up after my first hesitant shuffle.
“You’ve got fifteen minutes! Twenty, tops! And don’t go spending any money at the Waffle House! We don’t need to be giving that Sheila any business!”
He was trying to be funny, so I decided not to laugh.
“Man,” he said, “that’s the moodiest kid I ever saw.”
Momma sighed in confirmation, scribbling away at her poster board. She normally investigated my mood swings a bit more. Unlike Dad, she experienced different shades of emotion. A cooler, more mellow range of feelings from day to day, like the blues and greens of the mountains that loomed over East Tennessee. Dad was different. One folder of paint samples from Lowe’s could capture his emotional range. Maybe one with just a few shades of yellow.
My emotions were the whole damn sample aisle. During my break, I opted to sit on the hood of ourtruck out front. The metal scorched my bare thighs, but the discomfort gave me more grist for complaints. I sat there for a while, watching cars fly past and feeling sweat drip down my back. Every once in a while, I’d get honks from trucks. At the sight of a teenage girl, some old men took to whooping and hollering all kinds of foul stuff. Actin’ like they’d just been let out of a cage. Hey babydoll, why don’t you come sit on my lap for a while? I just stared down at our roadside signs till they passed by.
COME VISIT THE MASTER OF MOOLAH! THE SULTAN OF SAVINGS! STEP INSIDE UNCLE SAM’S FAVORITE LITTLE FIREWORKS SHOP! BUY FIREWORKS! DON’T LET THE COMMIES WIN!
I didn’t know what that last one meant for the longest time. As a kid, I’d always assumed it had something to do with “commas,” and held onto this idea until mentioning it to Mom one day, who mentioned it to Dad, who thought it was quite un-American of me not to know about the communists yet. Now, I found myself longing for a father who would declare a war on commas. I’d rather he be a fierce opponent of the Oxford comma, instead of some middle-aged Dad obsessed with Cold War America.
Sweat gathered beneath my thighs, making it hard to stay on the hood. I kept sliding forward, like butter drifting around in a skillet. No one had thought to bring chairs. Months of planning failed to prepare my parents for the reality that we might need to sit down at some point. Or maybe it was deliberate. A tactical decision meant to encourage constant work. My blood boiled. Even mountain heat can kill if you give it the chance.
For the rest of the afternoon, even after my self-declared break, this anger coursed through my bloodstream. The high that came with hatred made running the checkout station feel a bit more tolerable. Or maybe just a little less pointless. I needed to get out of here. And if I had to get out, then maybe I could fly off on the wings of a semi-successful fireworks business.
Maybe, if I honed my cashier skills and swore off all frivolity, I could escape becoming the next sultan of savings. But I liked frivolity. Quite a bit, actually. And I was also a terrible cashier.
I couldn’t count change, even with the register telling me how much to give back. I possessed neither speed nor accuracy. Most customers just gave me sympathetic smiles. East Tennessee isn’t exactly the math capital of the world. My customers knew they wouldn’t fare any better.
“May I ask you a question about some merchandise?”
I looked up, and then up some more, until my eyes landed on the tan, slightly wrinkled face of Councilman Tom Garrett. Some men can look wrinkled in a sophisticated way. Not like a drug addict or haggard, suburban mom. Men like Councilman Garrett looked like they had consented to their wrinkles, allowing them to crop up at the corners of their eyes.
“Uh, my dad might could tell you about stuff a little better. I can go get him if…”
The councilman sighed. “No, never mind, then. Let’s just check out.”
He slid a box of Texas Pop Rockets across the table. I turned to enter the price into my register, so that it could tell me how much change to give back. But as I pushed the buttons, I noticed that the screen remained blank. No tiny green numbers. Mouth dry, I looked at the councilman, only to see him extending a fist full of cash in my direction. Hands shaking, I took his bills. I felt like I was in Driver’s Ed, trying to steer with a pinch-faced instructor in the passenger seat, only to find that my brakes didn’t work. Careening toward a math problem I couldn’t solve. I looked into a box under the table for a pen and paper. The money trunk sat to the right, nestled in the dry grass. Inside the box, I found only a little tub of Carmex and some cans of Mountain Dew. The Buckleys were nothing if not woefully underprepared.
The sound of a foot tapping roused me from the search. Councilman Garrett refused to gaze off into space, the way some customers might zone out in the middle of a transaction. He stared right at me. The memory that he also worked as an accountant slithered up into my brain.
“I’m sort of in a hurry.”
“Yes. Right. Sorry.”
I looked down at the bills, now wadded in my hands, blinded by the sort of panic that most people reserve for home invasions. Drawing in a ragged breath, I pressed the button that stretched across the bottom of the register. The money compartment sprang open. I rifled through the bills, wanting more than anything to give him the exact change back. Tears pricked at my eyes.
“You know what, just keep the rest,” he said gruffly, snatching up his box. He began his walk to the exit, slumped over like some kind of martyr to teenage stupidity. Meanwhile, Dad stood next to the exit flap, ready to bid the councilman farewell. I could always tell when he was gonna talk to a customer. His body language gave it all away. He’d shift his weight from one foot to the other, all while keeping his blue eyes trained on the person. Like some kind of deranged sheep dog, waiting for its owner to throw a ball.
“Thanks for coming in, sir! Be sure to visit us next year, ’cause we’ll be—”
“You’d better hope she’s pretty one day, ’cause she sure can’t do much else,” Councilman Garrett interrupted, gesturing back at me before ducking beneath the tent flap and out into the world.
“Nana used to tell me that math is for ugly girls, anyway.” Momma leaned across the register table, propped up on her elbows and stared at me. I heard myself start to protest, even though I knew she was just trying to make me feel better in her own weird way. “Nana was senile,” I said.
Heat simmered beneath my cheeks. The fever started there and spread, making its way up and down my face, rolling out a violent, red feeling. On that last, all-important day of sales, I crouched down behind my makeshift checkout station and cried. It wasn’t a great hideout.
Anyone who glanced down could see a nearly grown girl sitting in the dirt. The tears came anyways.For a good twenty minutes, I sat down there, whimpering and picking at the stickers on the money trunk.
After a while, I cracked open one of the Mountain Dews from the other box. The useless one. A long swig helped clear the phlegm from my throat. I stood and brushed the dirt off my backside.
“What’s the matter, baby doll?” Dad yelled from across the tent, cupping his hands around his mouth to amplify an already booming voice.
“He said I could keep the change! Well, the register’s broken and I couldn’t count—” He gave me a blank-faced stare before raising his fists in triumph.
“Woo! That’s good money right there. He basically tipped you for being bad at math!”
A laugh gurgled up from somewhere deep inside my chest. A ragged, strained sort of sound, more likean animal panting for water than the sweet giggles of television teenage girls. Dad considered himself victorious. And he was, really. Back then, even the most unhinged laughter trumped crying. Hysteria felt better than anything akin to sorrow. I laughed until my stomach churned, filled with Mountain Dew and post-sob session snot.
“Nana used to tell me that math is for ugly girls, anyway.”
Momma leaned across the register table, propped up on her elbows and stared at me. I heard myselfstart to protest, even though I knew she was just trying to make me feel better in her own weird way.
“Nana was senile,” I said.
“Senile and right.”
“C’mon, baby,” Momma said, reaching across the table to comb my hair with her fingers. “We’re too cute to do math.”
I didn’t believe in being too cute to do things, even back then. Plus, Momma could tackle any math problem. Her sharp, no-nonsense demeanor lent itself perfectly to the nonsense of math.
“Don’t think another thing about that asshole. You’ve been doing just fine all day.”
She stood and opened her arms, waiting to wrap me in a hug. A tired feeling draped itself over my body. I walked around the table and into her arms. Momma rocked me back and forth, but in a comedic sort of way, like rocking an oversized baby. The motion of the hug left me feeling wrung out like a dish cloth. From across the tent, Dad saw this affection and decided to investigate.
“Are you still upset about what that guy said, baby?” he asked, apparently finding it hard to believe that I was still dwelling on it. “Don’t think another thing about him. He’s just a rich asshole.”
“Yeah, and we’re poor assholes,” Momma chimed in. “Which is infinitely better.” Another frenzied sort of laugh got the best of me.
“That’s more like it!” Daddy whooped, giving me a hard little shake on the shoulders. “Now, let’s talk about how we’re gonna spend that guy’s change.”
For the rest of the night, I worked in the clear-minded state that only comes after a breakdown. Soreness pricked at the edges of my eyelids, but my mind jogged along. Our business had never seemed so promising. I figured it was time to lean in and really make the most of the situation. At one point, I even helped a customer find our Roman candles, walking him over to that section while his wife chattered about the newest Mission Impossible movie near the register. And, every once in a while,when Mom or Dad passed by my station, they’d whisper about what we’d do with Mr. Garrett’s change.
“A trip to Dollywood this winter, to see the Christmas lights.”
Momma always leaned towards the beautiful, even while scheming about how to spend someone else’smoney. For her, our business efforts would finally pay off whenever we could get some pretty things. Not Gucci or Prada or Louis Vuitton. Those were all the wrong kind of pretty. Momma wanted sparkly lights, flower bouquets, and the ocean.
“Campaign signs, so I can run against Garrett in the next election.”
It never took long for Daddy to veer straight toward the absurd. For him, one day’s paycheck was justthere to fuel the next day’s antics. Still, I said nothing. We went on like this all night, the suggestions growing more outlandish as we grew more exhausted. By around midnight, all the customers had vacated our tent—out enjoying the holiday with their families. At that point, even I could tell that we’dsold a lot of our inventory. The tent looked more barren than usual, with only a few of the biggest explosives left over. Most people, even in East Tennessee, wouldn’t light those fuses.
Cicadas chirped in the distance, a clatter that mingled with the buzz of fluorescent lights from the Waffle House next door. The diner stayed open all night, but around eleven, someone dimmed the outdoor bulbs ever so slightly, making it look like the restaurant had gone to sleep with the rest of the world. One camping lantern lit up our tent. It was an old Coleman lamp that never left the back of Dad’s truck. Bugs swarmed around the top, each one gearing up to dive into the bulb. One by one, theyswooped toward the light—little bodies sizzling whenever they made contact.
The crackle kept me company as I started picking up trash. For me, cleaning has always been a way toindicate that an event should end soon. When a host starts cleaning up, everyone should just leave. End of story. As a kid, I can remember cleaning up my birthday parties—wrapping the leftover cake in foil and sticking it in the fridge, marching around collecting cups and plates—all in a grand attempt to tell my parents to send the guests home.
It always took them longer to believe that no one else was coming. Most years, Daddy held his postuntil one or two o'clock in the morning, willing each car to stop for some heavily discounted fireworks. Momma had gotten a little better about knowing when to call it quits. I could hear her trying to ease him into leaving across the tent.
“I don’t think anybody else is showing up tonight, honey. Let’s go help that girl of ours cleanup.”
Arms full of trash, I looked back at Mom, winding her way through the boxes. Daddy followed closely behind her. Soon, we were walking around the tent, scanning the ground for anything man-made. Three pairs of eyes locked on the dirt. The weak lamplight, or maybe just my exhaustion, cast a blur over thescene. Every once in a while, I’d see Dad’s blond head or Momma’s curls vanish, only to pop up in new, odd places as they retrieved litter from the ground. When I couldn’t hold anymore, I walked over to the trash can behind the register.
“You’d think people could take their garbage with ’em.”
Irritation never drove Dad’s complaints. I always got the sense that he just wanted to fill a silence, and didn’t know any other way. Observations about the many sins of “people” always filled our clean-up sessions. I listened while he aired his grievances and Momma tossed up solutions for him to ignore.
“Yeah, maybe we should put a can out next year,” she offered, ducking down to scoop up a plastic straw.
“We have a goddam can! I don’t understand why people just—”
“That can’s behind the register,” Momma said, straightening up and fluffing out her curls as she spoke. “The customers weren’t gonna walk back there, unless we put up a sign that says ‘trash can’ next…”
“Where’s the money trunk?” My father punctuated his sentences with slang and profanity. Hearing a question undecorated by these dramatics made me feel odd. Mouth tight, I turned and followed his gaze to my post behind the register.
A small patch of flattened grass was all that was left of the money trunk.
Dad patted his jeans pockets, like the metal box had wound up in his Wranglers somehow. Meanwhile,Momma ran over to the space behind the register, leaning over to scour the ground below.
There’s something particularly awful about upsetting someone so even-tempered. It’s a scary thing—to see anger simmer in a gentle face. A sob rose in my chest. She looked at me and said, “You’d better be thinking of ways to make this right, Darcy. You’d better be thinkin’ real hard right about...”
“Darcy! What’d you do with the money trunk?” I could hear the strain in her voice as she spoke.
“I don’t know, I... It was there this afternoon, I saw it around…”
“You saw it this afternoon?!” She gestured wildly at the lamp light and dark streets—flailings meant tocommunicate that it was far from afternoon. “It’s midnight, Darcy! It’s fuckin’ midnight!”
I’d never been on the receiving end of Momma’s cussing. She reserved her profanity for traffic in themorning, politicians on the TV at night, and sometimes Daddy, whenever he tracked mud on thecarpets. But for me, my mother’s wrath was uncharted territory. My chest tightened.
“I know, Momma. I-I’m sorry, maybe we...maybe we took it out to the truck already?”
She perked up at this suggestion. Dad and I watched her cross the tent, a new sense of urgency changing her usual calm glide to short little paces out the door.
Dad wouldn’t look at me. He stared straight ahead, toward the tent flap, waiting for his wife to comeback. A grim look set like stone across his face. The expression didn’t budge when Momma walked back in, but a small bit of hopefulness sprang up in my chest regardless.
“Was it in the truck?”
“Nope,” she said.
I could see tears blooming behind her glasses. The lenses magnified them, making the droplets look like something we could all drown in. She began to cry in earnest. Tears flowed down into her cakeyfoundation—through a trail previously paved by sweat from the day’s work.
“Oh my God, Momma. I didn’t mean to, I—”
I walked over and took her hand, trying to show how sorry I was. Momma leaned against me. But with every fresh sob, she looked up and glowered at my face. A pit formed in my stomach. There’s something particularly awful about upsetting someone so even-tempered. It’s a scary thing—to see anger simmer in a gentle face. A sob rose in my chest. She looked at me and said, “You’d better bethinking of ways to make this right, Darcy. You’d better be thinkin’ real hard right about…”
“It’s my fault, baby doll,” Dad said, locking eyes with her while running a hand through what was leftof his hair. “I made her leave to go help some guy earlier. That musta been when it got snatched.”
He remembered it all wrong. No one ever told me to abandon my post. I’d left of my own accord, thinking I was doing something right for a change. The sudden urge to be helpful was enough for me torun off and leave our money unattended. I opened my mouth to set him straight, but noticed something else first. He was shifting his weight from one foot to the other. Chin lifted, eyes trained on Momma, body swaying softly the whole time. Waiting for her to throw the ball. Looking at him right then, something clicked. My Dad was a natural-born salesman. And he was gonna try to sell Momma on this not being my fault.
Momma glanced from him over to me and then back to him again. Not really knowing what to do witheither of us. I can’t imagine that she didn’t realize what was going on. He wasn’t a subtle man, even when he wanted to be. Falling into his classic selling stance was a dead giveaway. I could see her making the same observation. All the lines and ridges on her face came into view. After a few seconds of silence, she took her glasses off and wiped them on her dirty tank top.
“How are we gonna make up for all that money?” she asked, not bothering to look up.
If nothing else, no one could say that Dad was ever short on plans. No matter what fell into his lap, he could spin it into some kind of opportunity. Always selling something, even if he didn’t quite know what it was or how much he wanted for it yet. Truly, he was the last of his kind—a carnival barker, missing only the pinstriped suit, woven hat, and a cane to swing at frightened pedestrians. As light and breezy as ever, he chose to see my mistake as a “no harm, no foul” sort of situation. His line of reasoning didn’t make much sense, considering how much damage was done. But somehow, I think he knew that when I’d run off and left my post, it’d been because of a newfound enthusiasm. And I guess he understood enthusiasm better than anybody. So maybe that’s why he decided that, although harm was done, there wasn’t any real foul. At least, he didn’t seem to think there was one when, without missing a beat, he grinned and said,
“Welp, I reckon I’ll be asking ol’ Sheila at the Waffle House for a job tomorrow.”