Read Streetlights Like Fireworks Online

Authors: David Pandolfe

Streetlights Like Fireworks (2 page)

 
3

Pajama Boy and the
Resonant Object

 

That night, my parents make me go to one of Caitlin’s dance
recitals. Caitlin’s only thirteen so I understand the part about being
supportive. And it’s not like I stare into space while she performs. I watch
and I’m truly impressed with her skill. At the same time, dance isn’t really my
thing and it’s not like I force my music on my parents or sister. Most of the
time, they ask me to turn down my amp when I’m practicing and my parents won’t
let us jam in our garage. That part, I’m used to. But I have a ton of homework
and should be studying for exams next week. Still, I wait it out, not
complaining. I know better.

We get some dinner after and it’s pushing nine by the
time we’re heading home. I stare out the window as we cruise through the dark,
past all those big houses and bright lamp posts. I’m sure many people would
think Edmonds is a perfect town. Safe, good schools, pretty parks and annual
community events. But I grew up here, so I know this town is a little too
perfect. There’s not a whole lot of acceptance if you deviate from the norm—the
norm being white, straight, conservative and superficial. There’s also no
shortage of money in Edmonds so almost everyone lives in giant houses and
drives shiny new cars.

We’re no different and maybe that’s the part that bothers
me. We too have plenty of money and a giant house on a huge piece of property.
My parents drive shiny new cars. We have lightning fast internet and massive
televisions. Pretty much, you name it and we have it. After all, my father runs
a law firm named after him three times.

Sometimes I imagine being part of a different family. In
my imaginary family, my parents are creative people who sometimes forget to
comb their hair. They wear faded jeans and sweatshirts and splatter paint while
working on artistic projects. They make sculptures in the living room. My
imaginary parents listen to current music on alternative radio stations.
Sometimes they listen to jazz and blues too (I’m totally fine with that). I
picture them being well-educated, but at the same time doing what they love
rather than what they think they should to keep up with everyone else. In a
word, they’re cool. I’m on the fence about having siblings in my imaginary
family. I’d probably be okay with that too but I just haven’t spent a lot of
time imagining who they might be.

 Where have these images come from? A fantasy, obviously.
And it isn’t like it matters. My imagination can do whatever it wants but I’m
still stuck in my actual life. At least I get to be around Doug’s and Justin’s
families sometimes. Maybe it’s ironic that they’re both from families on the
outside of the whole Edmonds affluence thing. Doug’s dad is a carpenter and
Justin’s family owns a pizza and sub place. But the thing is, I’ve been around
their families enough to know they’re way happier than we are. They actually
smile and laugh. They have favorite shows they watch together. At the same
time, being around their families sometimes just reminds me how much I feel
like an outsider in my own.

When we get home, I spend an hour plowing through math
and drafting an essay on
The Scarlet Letter
for English, which is at
least in keeping thematically with my earlier thoughts about our conformist
town. It’s after ten when I’m staring at Lauren’s number and wondering if it’s
too late.
I drift off, thinking about the way her
hair frames her face and the intensity of her eyes. I think about her full lips
and the curve of her hips. I wonder what it would be like to kiss her. I force
myself to stop fantasizing. I’m not doing myself any good and it’s also not
getting any earlier.

I send a text.
are you up?
(Not exactly a
brilliant start, I realize.)

Of course.

sorry. wasn’t sure
(Kind of pathetic. I’m on a
roll so far.)

Do you know how to form capital letters? Use the shift
key.
Are you stalking again?

no!

To which, stalking or forming capital letters?

neither. I mean Neither!

Seriously? Never mind. Is this about the guitar?

Yes
(Face burning, but proper capitalization.)

Sentences end in a period. Even short ones. For
example: “Yes.”
(She hates me, for sure.)

My phone buzzes and I jump. For some reason, I ruled out
that possibility. “Um, hello?” I say.

“Um, hello to you too,” Lauren says. “You know, you could
have just called. A quaint custom, I realize.”

I wish I could see her expression. I think I hear a smile
but I’m not sure. “But it’s kind of late.”

“It’s ten-fifteen. But okay, in this town that’s
considered late. Are you like all in your jammies?”

Actually, I am like all in my jammies. Not that I wear
actual pajamas but I’m wearing the sweat pants and T-shirt I’ll be sleeping in.
But I fake-laugh and say, “No, I was just—”

“You’re totally in your jammies.”

“Why would I lie?”

“I’m not sure,” Lauren says. “Why would someone lie about
that? Kind of weird. Anyway, tell me what happened with that guitar you found.”

I tell her about being drawn to the Telecaster and how,
when I picked it up, the world around me basically vanished and I saw that
woman onstage. About that moment when it seemed like she looked right at me. I
hesitate, then tell Lauren how I imagined hearing her.

A few moments of silence follow. Then, Lauren says, “Why
do you think you imagined it? You experienced it, right?”

The thing is, I’ve given that part a lot of thought. In
that moment, it really did feel like she looked right at me. As for what she
said, it wasn’t like I actually heard her with my ears. I heard her inside my
head.

“I don’t know,” I say. “I’ve never experienced anything
like it before.”

“Fair enough. Let me ask you this—did your friends have
any sort of reaction to the guitar? You know, were they curious, did they get a
feeling about it? Anything like that?”

I think back to Gary talking about his past, trying to
recall if Justin or Doug even noticed the old Telecaster while to me it
suddenly seemed like the only thing in the room. “Nothing like that,” I say.
“It was just me. I had to check it out.”

A pause. Did she yawn? I think I heard her yawn. “Then my
guess is you’re the intended recipient. That part seems clear.”

“Recipient of what?”

“The resonant object.” By her tone of voice, I can almost
see Lauren shrug.

“Resonant object? What does that mean?”

A second or two ticks by. “Well, that would be an object
that resonates. At least, for you.”

Helpful. “But what’s a—? Never mind. I’m assuming you
mean the guitar.”

“Definitely. You need to get it.”

“How?”

“I guess you could buy it,” Lauren says. “Sorry, but I
should probably finish my homework. It’s getting late.”

“But you just said it wasn’t late.”

“Whatever. Have a good night, Pajama Boy.”

~~~

At first, I’m not sure why I wake up in the middle of the
night. I listen but the house is perfectly still. It’s just me, alone in the
dark. At least, that’s what I think until I notice the outline of a man
standing in the corner of my room—a dimly glowing silhouette that can’t
possibly be there. I close my eyes and open them again. He still stands there,
only he’s solidified a little. I sit up, heart hammering in my chest. I stare
across the room. He looks young, maybe in his late twenties, hair reaching
almost to his shoulders. I keep staring at him and he seems to be staring back.

“Is this about the guitar?” I say, even though it makes
no sense. But it doesn’t have to make sense. Obviously, I’m dreaming. Telling
myself this doesn’t help when he suddenly flickers forward and stands next to
my bed. I rear back, wanting to call out but my throat seizes. I sit there
gulping like a fish.

Then he’s gone. There’s just darkness where he stood even
as his image continues to fade from my retinas.

I don’t sleep after that. I stare at the ceiling, eyes
wide, until sunrise. I wonder if I should see a psychiatrist or ask my parents
to schedule a CAT scan. Maybe I have a brain tumor or something. I’m used to
unusual things happening but I’ve definitely turned some sort of corner.
Finally, I climb out of bed to the sound of birds chirping outside. I go to my
desk, pick up my phone and see a text from Lauren.

Don’t rule out spectral visits. Probably should have
mentioned that.

 

 

 
4

Reverse This Curse

 

It shocks me a little to see Lauren sitting in the cafeteria
the next day. She has a way of coming and going from school at odd hours,
disappearing from classes and then reappearing days later. No one knows why,
although her grades are always rumored to be perfect (which might explain the
leeway she’s allowed). Either way, one thing about her behavior always remains
consistent—she never joins the rest of us in the cafeteria at lunchtime. And
who could blame her?

Like Edmonds, Patrick Henry High isn’t the most accepting
kind of place. At Patrick Henry, those less than perfect and popular do their best
to remain invisible. This tactic applies to the cafeteria too, of course, which
means imperfect people gather around tables at the back of the room—tables
which might as well have “Losers Sit Here” banners above them.

Justin, Doug and I aren’t quite that looked down upon,
although we aren’t too far off. Not exactly fitting into the loser class, we’re
considered more mutants with some acceptable traits. Justin, for example, has a
deserved reputation as a math genius and runs killer hurdles on the track team.
Doug kicks ass at soccer and it wouldn’t surprise anyone if he bench-pressed a
rhino. As for me, three words: Atkinson, Atkinson and Atkinson. In Edmonds, a
respectable family history is usually enough to do the trick (even though, in
almost every other respect, I should qualify as an outcast). Accordingly, we
typically claim one of the tables near the back but not fully in the social
shadows.

Either way, we’d never sit at the table Lauren now
occupies alone. Did she know what she was doing when she claimed the premier
table, front and center? This doesn’t appear to concern her as she sits reading
a tattered copy of
Hetalia
. She locks her eyes on mine and curls in her
index finger, that smile of hers tugging at the corner of her mouth. I have to
admit, I don’t mind this part one bit.

“What’s up with that?” Doug says. “That chick scares me.”

“Dude, are you seeing her or something?” Justin says.
“Awesome.”

“We’re just friends,” I say.

“You should change that,” Justin says.

I join Lauren while a bunch of flustered, perfect people
mill around, glaring and not quite sure where to set their trays. Evidently,
Lauren scares them too.

“We appear to be throwing nature out of balance,” I say.

Lauren rolls her eyes. “Just ignore them. They really
hate that. So, did you get the guitar?”

“We talked yesterday. How could I have gotten it
already?”

She shrugs. “I don’t know, but I really think you
should.”

“Are you sure? I mean, it could have been just some
random—”

“Did you have a visitor last night?” Lauren seems to be
having fun. Her eyes shine with curiosity.

I think back to her text that morning. “How did you
know?”

She nods and sets her book down. “
Confusion understandable. I didn’t actually
know
but I had a
feeling. And I trust my feelings. I also had a dream about it.
” Lauren’s
cheeks redden but I barely have time to consider the fact that she had a dream
involving me, before she adds, “It’s more common than you think when this sort
of thing happens. Obviously, that guitar you found meant a lot to someone.
Enough that you picked up on all that energy. But the thing is, living people
usually move on. They find new objects. So, it occurred to me that your lady
friend might just be a ghost. Don’t worry, you get used to them. My place is
like ghost central.”

She has to be kidding, except for the fact that I spent
the night waiting for the sun to rise. I’ve still been trying to convince
myself it was a dream. A long dream in which I remained awake the whole time.

“It wasn’t her,” I say.

Lauren’s eyes widen. “Seriously, it was a different
ghost?”

She doesn’t try to keep her voice down, whereas I pretty
much whisper, “I’m just saying I saw a guy.”

“Cool! Did you two have a conversation?”

“Sort of.”

Lauren stares at me.

“Problem?” I say.

“I was joking. That almost never happens.” She leans in
closer. “You’re not lying, right?”

I shake my head. “Not lying. I asked him if it was about
the guitar and he sort of got in my face before disappearing again.”

Lauren raises an eyebrow, thinks for a moment, then says,
“This is going to be fun. Call me when you get the guitar, okay?”

With that, she gets up and leaves the cafeteria, throwing
nature further out of balance by leaving me alone at the prime piece of real
estate. I don’t linger. It’s not exactly an address I ever wanted to live at.

~~~

Now, I face two dilemmas. First, I have to find a way to get
the guitar even though I have almost no money. Second, I have to get the guitar
when it’s the last thing I want to do. After all, the guitar brought with it
visions, voices and a ghost in my bedroom. Still, the guitar has also brought
Lauren into my life—a girl who previously showed no awareness of me being
alive. Not that she pays a lot of attention to anyone else, but that just makes
her interest that much more intriguing as far I’m concerned.

There’s something else I admit to myself. I don’t just
want to know Lauren because she’s hot in a dark, kind of scary, way. Or because
she might be able to crack the code on that guitar flash. Her existence in our
town also means I’m not totally alone in the world. That there’s someone else
out there—in real life, not on television or in movies—who suffers from the
same condition of knowing things they can’t possibly know and don’t want to
know. I definitely have to get that guitar.

But how? I have less than fifty dollars remaining from
Christmas cards and that sort of thing. I have my “savings” from various odd
jobs over the years, such as raking and mowing lawns, but I don’t even know
where that money is. My parents deposited it into some sort of “college
savings” account as some sort of plan intended to teach me responsibility.
Either way, that isn’t going to cut it. Which means asking my father, bread
winner and hence finance czar of our family. Thankfully, he’s been pretty
upbeat lately after representing a development company whose proposal to build
on a wildlife habitat met with objections from a local environmental group. His
argument: the herons, deer and beavers can easily find a new place to call
home. Right now, job creation and economic stimulation matter more. The result:
Soon, we’ll have more condos for sale alongside the river.

So, it seems possible I might catch him in a generous
mood that evening as he stands on the back deck having a cocktail and warming
up the grill. Before long, he’ll slap steaks down onto the fire. I saunter out
onto the deck, walk past him and stand gazing out as if my sole purpose is to
contemplate the sunset. What parent wouldn’t ask what was on your mind?

“What’s on your mind, Jack?”

Still, I pretend to be lost in thought.

He tries again. “Everything okay? You’ve been kind of
quiet lately.”

My father has his moments. Every so often, he really does
try. The problem being, we still always fail to connect. But this isn’t the
time to worry about it.

“Sure, everything’s fine,” I say, then turn my attention
back to the trees rimming our backyard. “I mean, I guess.”

I do my best to sound despondent without overdoing it. My
father walks over and stands at the deck rail next to me. We look out at the
sunset together.

“Ready for summer?” he says. “You must be psyched that
school’s almost out. And I really do think you’ll end up enjoying camp this
year.”

Actually, I’ve been trying not to think about that. In
two weeks, I’ll once again find myself in the
Teen Extreme!
program at
Camp Explorer. This will be my second year as a “Leader in Training” since, at
seventeen, I’m now too old to just ship off to camp and too young to be a
full-on counselor. Despite the fact that, technically, I didn’t
volunteer
for this, my parents insist the volunteer hours will look great on my college
applications. I’m not exactly looking forward to the hiking, paddling,
horseback riding, archery and soccer, all enjoyed in the
Extreme Heat!

Meanwhile, Caitlin will be participating in the Morgan
Lake Camp for the Arts dance program. She’ll sleep in an air conditioned cabin
and spend her days leaping about on gleaming wood floors. While I return each
year with my skin peeling, plastered with islands of Caladryl and feeling like
insects laid eggs under my skin, typically Caitlin comes home only slightly
more tan than when she left, due to occasional nature walks and swims.

I’d almost managed complete denial, but now feel myself
sinking. I don’t say anything since I’ve already objected to this plan several
times. I know the result will be the same if I object again.

“You’ll be glad you did it,” my father says, evidently
not noticing my total lack of response. “Experiences like that make for a
well-rounded person. Anyway, what’s on your mind?”

I do my best to focus on getting the Telecaster. How to
sell this deal? It’s not like I don’t already have a guitar. An amazing guitar,
actually—a Gibson Les Paul with a tan to black starburst finish. A Christmas
miracle two years back when my parents kept insisting what I really needed was
a graphing calculator and a new wardrobe (as well as new interests and new
friends). In the end, they shelled out for the Les Paul thanks to the spirit of
the season. Now, I can only hope two years will seem like a long time.

“Actually, I’ve been kind of thinking about this guitar I
found.”

My father sighs. A few seconds pass before he says,
“There I was thinking you might have a girl on your mind. You seemed so
preoccupied before.”

This seems like a card I can play. “Well, there’s that
too. I kind of met someone. And she agrees that I should get the guitar.”

He nods but I can tell he’s already tuning out. Now, his
eyes alone are on the trees surrounding our yard. “Sounds complicated.”

“Yeah, it sort of is.”

He sighs again and for one moment I hope he might just go
for it. Instead, he says, “As far as I can see, you have two options. Save to
buy it or wait until your next birthday. Maybe we can talk about it again
then.”

There it is. I know my father well enough to be certain
the verdict is final.

~~~

When I show up at Edmonds Music, Gary
stands behind the counter killing time by checking out YouTube videos on his
iPad. I’m glad to see he’s alone in the store since, after all, I’m about to do
something idiotic. I’m not sure I’d be able to follow through if anyone else
was around. If Justin and Doug were there, no way. Besides, they’d talk me out
of it in a heartbeat.

I tell Gary my plan and he stares at me hard for a few
seconds, presumably to be sure I’m not joking. When I convince him that I’m
serious, he examines the Les Paul he sold to my parents not long ago. He checks
it front and back to see that the finish remains nearly as perfect as when it
left his shop. He tests the tuning pegs, as well as the volume and tone knobs,
to be sure they’re still tight. He sets the guitar back inside the plush red
lining of its case and casts a glance toward the wall where the old guitars
collect dust. He looks at me again.

“Are you sure about this?”

For Gary, this trade is a no brainer. If we weren’t
friends, I’m sure I’d already be out the door with a receipt in my pocket.

Across the room, the scarred, old Telecaster no longer
catches sunlight. No, I’m not the least bit sure. “Maybe I should try playing
it again.”

Gary flips a pick into the air and I catch it. I cross
the store, pull the Telecaster down, plug in and sit on an amp with my back
turned to Gary. I wait but nothing unusual happens. I’m just sitting there
holding an old guitar while Gary rustles stuff around in the background. I run
a few riffs, testing the action. The Telecaster plays better than expected, the
action pretty fast actually with that thin neck and low frets. I form a few
chords and strum softly. I close my eyes, strumming more chords, and that’s
when the flash comes. A mild flash this time, not overwhelming like the first
one. I see her again, a phone pressed to her ear while tears stream down her
face. I watch as she reacts to something being said, nodding, her face
strained, her eyes closed. The image fades.

“Jack, what’s up?”

I shake my head, the fog lifting. I turn to see Gary
watching me, understandably confused. I’ve stopped playing and am now just
sitting there staring into space. I consider putting the Telecaster back on its
mount, packing up my Les Paul and leaving again. Gary would be fine with it,
I’m sure.

But then another image comes to mind. I picture Lauren
smirking when I tell her I can’t handle what’s happening. I see her shaking her
head, just briefly, the message clear all the same.
Yeah, that’s what I
figured. For a few minutes, I almost thought you were like me.
She turns
and walks away.

So, okay. Telecaster today, CAT scan tomorrow.

I carry the guitar to where Gary stands waiting behind
the counter. “Thought you might have changed your mind,” he says.

“No. Let’s do this.” I try to smile but I’m not sure I
quite pull it off.

“Okay, then.” Gary does his best not to grin but, after
all, he’s just made an unbelievable trade. He closes the case on my Les Paul
and seals the clasps with a click that, to me, sounds profoundly final.

Gary goes out back and comes back a minute later carrying
a case I know at a glance belongs to the Telecaster. A worn, black rectangle,
stripped bare in spots, torn in others where tiny threads dangle like loose
sutures. Gary sets the case on the counter next to my Gibson’s and opens it to
reveal a flattened tan interior, any cushion long beaten down. He takes the
Telecaster from me, lowers it into its case and snaps it closed. I lift that
case off the counter and take on the burden.

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