If America had a quintessential smell, it would be found in the winds over the farmlands of the Midwest, in the summer’s heat against the backdrop of entire horizons filled with corn and grain. It’s in the sweet smell of water in irrigation ditches that give life and sustenance to all, and in the warm mustiness of sweat and hard work. On top of all of this add the pungent scent of mischievously spent gunpowder. It was July 4th and Jon was right where he wanted to be. It wasn’t so much the place and time, but who he was with.
If America had a quintessential girl, it would be Allie. Her sundress delicately wandered the curves of her body, and the setting sun betrayed her silhouette through the thin cloth. She walked down the road in front of Jon swaying with the grace of the summer breeze, red hair blazing in the golden light. She always said she was afraid of burning up in the sun, but from Jon’s eyes she looked to be the heart of the flame.
They turned down a dirt road and Jon adjusted his heavy backpack. Roman candles and a whole myriad of other fireworks stuck out from each of the pack’s pockets. The popping of bottle rockets and Black Cats greeted them on the road, as did the smell of roast pork. At the end of the driveway, their friends gathered around a horse trough and pulled cold bottles of beer out of the ice. Allie turned to face Jon, stuck out her tongue and started running toward the rowdy group.
Jon lumbered after her, backpack swaying from side to side. When she reached the barn and the clearing, Allie was immediately swarmed by friends. Hugs were thrown freely, and some hands lingered on the small of her back. Jon slid away and grabbed a beer, shaking a few hands and bro-hugging his way to the trough. It would still be five years before he could legally have a beer, but no self-respecting American sheriff was going to write him up for having a beer on Independence Day.
Jon popped the top and let the cold cheap beer flow. He wanted that chatty warmness to come over him, but he would have to wait until the buzz took him there. Until then Jon would let the fireworks speak for him. Red, white, and blue fireballs shot from his first roman candle and he handed out lit sparklers to passers-by. The people who went to school with him smiled and ran onward, leaving streaks of joy and sparks in their path. He watched them, grateful for the smiles that saved him from the awkward starts and stops of party conversations.
Above him, an over-sized flag hung over the doors of the barn. Jon raised his beer to the flag, wished it happy birthday and polished off the first of many beers.
The summer night raged on. When darkness fell over the party the music turned louder, a blitzing mix of country and rap and every other genre that didn’t really jive but let the young men and women dance in the light of an ever-growing bonfire in the center of the clearing. Bottle rockets blasted into the night, along with the rumbling artillery shells that bloomed and bathed the party in rainbow glows of wondrous chemicals. The orange firelight only fed their desire to beat back the darkness.
The dancing itself was a primal thing, bodies touching and promises whispered between the pairs on the dirt dance floor. Every three minutes or so the tone changed. It alternated between the surging hip-hop and the tightening intimacy of slow songs. When a honky-tonk tune came on, even Jon found himself wandering into the crowd next to Allie and following the unknown steps of line dancing. He figured he was white enough to at least do that.
He never quite understood how the line dances were picked or how everyone else seemed to know the steps. Even still, he learned the dances and clomped his way through while he peaked at Allie dancing. He ignored the men in cowboy hats that slowly moved toward the girl, waiting for that change of song that immediately made people grab the prettiest girl next to them for the coveted slow dances. The warm night provided no shortage of pretty girls either. Short shorts and smooth legs surrounded him, but he only wanted one girl who twirled in her sundress.
As the song faded out and a slow ballad came on, Jon walked to Allie and reached for her hand. To his surprise, she reached for him as well. He pulled her close. Not too close, though. Nothing to give away what he felt. He fell into that simple two-step pattern, praying his feet wouldn’t betray him. One hand on her waist, feeling the delicate strength of her body, the other wrapped in her surprisingly tough hand.
Allie smiled at Jon and asked, “Why are you shaking?”
Jon stammered before saying, “Uh. Blood sugar?”
Smooth. So smooth. Idiot, Jon thought.
“So you’re saying it isn’t me then?” she teased.
“No, err uh, yes, I mean you look wonderful. You probably are sweet enough to tweak my blood sugar.”
She giggled and moved a half step closer. Every fiber of his being wanted to run to the barn and hide, but Jon felt his arms pull her to him. She dropped his hand and wrapped her arms around him and rested her head on his shoulder. He felt his hands go clammy. The swirl of booze and the girl made his head swim. He closed his eyes for a moment, savoring the scent of her fruity shampoo.
The song ended, feeling like only seconds had passed. She smiled and said, “You’re a better dancer than I thought you would be.” The next song started, a total flow breaking pop song. A young man walked up to her and asked Jon if he could take her for a song. Jon just nodded and Allie winked as she was whisked away by a tall and thin man with better facial hair and a belt buckle large enough to make the most stoic cowboy jealous.
Jon just stared at the dancing people who found a rhythm he knew he couldn’t match and retreated to the safety of his backpack of fireworks. He dug deep and found a small flask his grandpa had lent him for the night and took a deep pull. She had literally been in his arms. Not a friendly hug, not some obligatory goodbye embrace like he was used to. She had held him back, body to body. It had to mean something. He had to say something.
Instead he watched her dance with other braver young men and wished that his small thoughtful candle could match the blazing star that he had held for just a few moments.
He coped with his jealousy and indecision in the most American way possible. He blew shit up. Once literally. He followed a group of people into the field behind the barn and rigged the biggest cow patty he had ever seen with hastily tied together explosives. The manure blew into a thousand pieces. People cackled and drank beer and asked him if they could have roman candles. He shared them gladly, feeling embraced by the night and his classmates.
He blasted artillery shells into the night as he watched couples sneak into dark corners of the barn and into the corn fields. Over the noise, he didn’t hear Allie come up behind him as he lit a fuse.
“Looks like you are having fun,” she said and touched him on the back. He dropped the giant two stage bottle rocket on the ground. It seared off into the night, screaming toward an enormous stack of hay bales at the edge of the clearing.
Jon looked at Allie. “It won’t catch.”
Then he heard the second stage, a rush of magnesium meant to burn bright white in the sky. It was like dropping a flare into the bales. Immediately the fire surged up.
“Oh shit!” he shouted and sprinted toward the fire nearly 100 yards away. Allie stomped towards it as well, her boots kicking along with the ground. She was laughing. He was terrified.
Jon poured out the little remnant of his beer, squelching about three square inches of fire. He desperately tried to stomp the growing blaze out.
Allie yelled for his shirt and he didn’t understand. She ripped it off of him while he stomped at the slowly growing inferno and ran to a muddy pool a few yards away. She dunked the shirt and threw it at him. He finally understood and started swatting the fire out. He looked over at Allie and was stunned. She was stomping out the fire, wearing only tight yellow boy shorts and a matching bra. He read the label. She glistened with sweat, pale body perfect in the glowing fire. She was swatting with the much larger and more effective sundress.
He felt a burn moving up his leg as the fire started to catch on his pants. The slow motion dump of adrenaline caught and he started swatting again, smothering the fire before it could reach the rest of the 12-foot wall of hay bales.
Others started to join them, sacrificing their shirts to snuff the fire out. Darkness started to overtake them as the blaze died. People started to whoop and catcall. Some even clapped.
Then a very distinct explosion rang out. It wasn’t a firework.
A giant burly man stalked toward them with a shotgun. He shouted into the dark, “Which one of you assholes started this?”
Jon looked at Allie and for the second time that night snatched her hand. They ran together toward the line of corn and ran down the rows. It wasn’t at its full height yet, so it was more like wading through a waist-high sea of plants.
They ran, Allie just shy of nude and Jon in jeans. When they reached an empty irrigation ditch they dove in, gasping for breath. He stared at Allie in the moonlight, her face covered in soot but still smiling.
“I love you,” he blurted out.
She leaned in and kissed him, hard. Then they heard another blast in the distance and ran into the next set of fields.
He wasn’t sure how long they ran, but somewhere he lost a shoe. He didn’t care. He wasn’t going to let go of her hand this time.
When they finally reached another farm and another barn, they started to catch their breath. They snuck into the open doors and climbed to the dark loft. Horses neighed below them but not enough to reveal their presence to the neighbors in the house.
They sat there in the dark for a while, her leaning against him watching the door. She broke the silence first. “Did you actually mean what you said back there?”
Coming down from his adrenaline high, he was shaking more than when they danced and yet somehow felt less scared. “I did. I think I always have. Ever since Sunday School when we first met.”
“I kinda figured,” she said. Allie looked up at him and allowed a soft kiss. The kiss tasted like ash and cheap whiskey and the whole of every desire he ever had. It lingered longer than she intended.
“Do you… could you love me?”
“I’ve always loved you as a friend.”
He felt his heart drop, swelling confusion in his gut. She turned and climbed on top of him. “I’d be lying if I said hadn’t thought about more,” she said and brought her body against his. “Tonight I absolutely love you. We’ll see if it sticks by morning.”
Jon brought a hand to her cheek and brushed her hair out-of-the-way. He pulled her closer and kissed her. His other hand slid down her back before resting a thumb in the band of her panties. He pulled at them, getting a handful as he went.
The heat simmered between them. Jon felt a lifetime of anticipation and thoughts falling away as he finally had her. He rolled her onto her back in the hay and stood over her on his knees. She grabbed at his belt, shaking hands fumbling before the buckle relented. Their clothes fell away and with a few awkward moments he now shared a very different anniversary with the 4th of July.
Once again he found himself trying to learn the dance as it went, not knowing the steps. The awkwardness was buried behind a smattering of giggles and small gasps that escaped from both of their lips.
His arms still shook despite it all, and in sensing his nervousness she rolled him over, set him deep inside and took control. She took his hands and put them on her breasts. Her own grabbed his shoulders and she started to rock. The cool breeze wafted over their sweaty bodies, fighting back in vain to quell the heat between them.
Like all fireworks shows, this was over all too soon. He couldn’t see it in the dark, but she was grinning ear to ear, proud of her work. With his breaths heaving, she knelt down and kissed him deeply before climbing off and wrapping his arm around her.
As is the case with all young people, once would never be enough. They spent the night in the hay exploring each other, fighting off the coming of the morning light.
They woke to the sound of boots climbing the ladder to the hay loft. The deep thuds were moving too fast, and in the sleepy haze, the pair scrambled for clothes.
An older man with a graying beard peered over the ledge, the man shouted, “Jeeeeesus,” and nearly fell from the ladder. When he regained his grip, his face turned bright red and he quickly climbed down.
Allie covered herself with the scorched dress, wide-eyed and mouth agape. Jon stared back, pulling his boxers on as fast as he could. A pile of hay came up with them, making what would be a very itchy walk home.
From below the old man said, “I don’t run an inn. I swear if my own first-born hadn’t been conceived up there I’d be getting my gun. You kids have two minutes to get the fuck out.”
Allie and Jon obliged, slipping clothes on almost as fast as they were torn off the night before. They climbed the ladder, and Jon wore an expression of guilt and he whispered an apology. Allie’s face was nearly the color of her hair and she just ran past, carrying her boots along with. The dress hung in charred shambles over her.
When they reached the road and it seemed like the barn was far enough behind them, Allie and Jon broke into unhinged laughter. She grabbed his hand and they walked down the road. He soaked in the sun, knowing his shirt was lost to the night.
Through the taste of old beer and all that had happened the night before Jon sheepishly asked, “So… did it stick through till the morning?”
Allie just nodded and wrapped an arm around his waist. Together they walked through the morning light, smiling easy through their hangovers into a morning that smelt like American fields and spent fireworks.
Tony Southcotte: Tony hails from the Rocky Mountains somewhere around the state of Colorado. Possibly raised by grizzly bears, this gritty denizen of the arena now spends most of his time grappling with Java updates and dysfunctional RAM. With not much fiction under his belt, it might seem tempting to bet against Mister Southcotte, but an impressive knowledge of everything from PVC pipe to psychedelic drugs makes Tony a storehouse of fiction waiting to hit the paper. Plus, you know, there’s the possibility of him ripping you apart like a grizzly bear.