Firecracker

by Douglas W. Milliken

She’s holding her thumb and crying over the cutting board when the paraders pass outside. She’d been slicing vegetables for her breakfast, struggling through a stony red onion and cursing herself silently for never having a sharp knife in her kitchen. Then the blade slipped and ran its dull edge across her thumb, and though it hurt—there was force—it did not cut her skin. And suddenly she was grateful for all her dull knives. She could be bleeding and thumbless now. But she is fine. So great is her gratitude, she weeps. Then the parade goes by. She must have heard it coming for a while before she hears it. Bass drums and snares and trumpets and a trombone. She rushes to the window to watch the procession pass. First the band tromping behind a ticker-taped pickup. Then children, stoic in their painted faces. Then men and women with saintly icons held tight and lovingly in their arms. All marching in a haphazard body. Now and then, wandering among them, an old man lights off a firecracker. It’s beautiful. She finds it all beautiful. What any other day she would find sentimental and trite. It is beautiful. By the time the marchers are gone and the music has faded to an echoing ghost, she’s forgotten all about her thumb. She only feels wonder that so many people can be celebrating the same thing all at once, that it’s even possible for any idea to be shared between two people. Let alone a crowd. Let alone in communion. It’s stupefying, she thinks, that we do anything at all.

The sun lies soft and warm through the window. Birds exist quietly in trees. Far off: a firecracker’s pop. Stupefying. She goes back into the kitchen to finish making her omelet.

Douglas W. Milliken is the author of the novel To Sleep as Animals and the collections White Horses and Brand New Moon. Other work also appears in McSweeney’s, Glimmer Train, Radio Silence, and the Believer. www.douglaswmilliken.com

What surprising, fascinating stuff can you tell us about the origin, drafting, and/or final version of “Firecracker”?

    The first draft of “Firecracker” was written in an ambient gallery space attached to the Casa Luis Barragán is Mexico City. I was there at the gallery to see my friend, the musician and sound-artist Carmina Escobar, perform with the experimental music group Liminar. My reasons for being in Mexico in general are much harder to so explicitly outline. This was in the final week of October, so everywhere I went, there were altars of orange and yellow marigold and burning incense and stylized skulls in memorandum to the dead, but the gallery was sterile white and full of people who knew one another and spoke excellent Spanish, neither detail being anything that applied to me. I try to not always be the sort of person who feels completely alien in the world. But sometimes I am exactly that person. I leaned against the far wall and slid to the concrete floor. I dug in my pocket and found a pen and a scrap of paper. While the musicians prepared for their performance, I thought about onions and dull knives and parades, and I waited.
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