It’s 8:15 p.m. on Sunday, July 3, and Traveling Tom seems to know where he’s going. Good, because I’ve got no idea where we are. We’re driving east on Highway 6 from Oxford to, we hope, Sardis Lake. I’ve been there once, four years ago. Tom hasn’t technically been there in this century, even though he lives twenty minutes from it.
Five minutes ago, we took a turn onto a road where the only noise comes when we drive over rumble strips on the asphalt. We pass a squat brick building—Black Jack Baptist Church—with a lit-up sign that announces “Come in out of the heat. We’re prayer-conditioned.” A gas station or two slides by, and then silence and darkness. Dusk settles into the trees. With our bright headlights on, and few cars accompanying us, the road looks shallow and spooky, as if the trees were walls pressing in slowly on us.
Finally, we see a sign for Sardis Lake. Tom makes a right turn onto a gravel, one-lane road. The sound of crickets chirping is everywhere. At a fork in the road, we see a sign to the right that says “Road ends in water.” Good to know. We veer left.
We come eventually to a trail cul-de-sac that overlooks the still, flat waters of Sardis Lake, lit only by fireflies, stars, and the remains of sunset. There are no drunk rednecks, and no teenagers trolling for make-out spots. There’s the ruins of a long-ago campfire, but not much litter around it. Except for us and the insects and the croaking, unseen frogs, it’s a completely quiet, empty place.
An hour ago, Tom and I bought collectively about $30 worth of fireworks. Multi-colored sparklers, popping flash balls, rockets of various sizes, spinners and lighting sticks rest in brown paper sacks. Tom’s brought a lighter and a long, black flashlight. We make small talk as we unpack the fireworks. “This is awesome,” says Tom. “We should have brought cigars.” He’s right.
All the same, the environment’s perfect. A half-mile east of us, a bright orange streak rises from the ground, and then explodes into pink sparks. The boom ricochets around the lake. The sky is pitch black, and I can’t wait any longer. Grabbing a black Star Shooter that can stand unassisted on the ground, I run to a small shore. I light it and step back. The sound is deafening—a great, raw whoosh—as it surges into the sky, showering the water with sparks and ash. The explosion is anticlimactic, though it twinkles a bit in the smoke.
Tom does not miss his cue. We light our sparklers—a six-pack costs 60 cents—and twirl them madly, pretending that we’re scribbling onto the night. “We should have brought a camera,” Tom says. “We could’ve spelled out our names with these things, and shot them on the camera.” We both sigh, but just for a second. The sparklers, changing from yellow to purple to white in seconds, are too beautiful for us to get mired in minor regret.
We set off the flash balls, which pop out gorgeous, twinkling spheres of fire into the sky. We shoot off rockets large and small; one explodes and ejects a man on a parachute simultaneously. I set a cone onto the ground, light it, and run. It emits a tall shower of thin, flaming strings of light for a full minute. It’s so bright that our t-shirts glow white as if it’s mid-morning.
Our favorite is a spinner, the most diminutive firecracker we bought. It looks like a metallic top, bright blue and benign—a space-age dreidel. Don’t be fooled. Tom sets the spinner on a log, lights it, and tiptoes away. Suddenly, there’s a shrill, loud whine in the air. Christ, the thing hasn’t even lit up yet, and it’s scaring us. It revolves, faster and faster, like a thing possessed. Shreds of fire come out of its sides; it’s brighter than even the volcano cone. As the exact moment that we expect it to fizzle out, it jolts into the sky, roaring like a Concorde. It explodes madly and brilliantly, leaving behind enough smoke to make us cough.
All too soon, we’re out of firecrackers. What drives us to devote so much energy—the buying of firecrackers, the driving to the perfect spot, the mosquitoes, the wait, the humidity—on something so ephemeral? For a brief moment, we had paintbrushes and a palette with which to paint the night sky. We made our neon versions of Abstract Expressionist art onto the black-gessoed canvas. But it absorbs our paint almost as soon as we let fly, and now we’re left with nothing.
Driving back to Oxford, we see a thick swath of smoke around Black Jack Baptist Church. Sure enough, there are two teenage boys in the church parking lot, setting off bottle rockets. They’re cackling. I’m sure the pastor wouldn’t approve, which just makes it funnier.
Well, we’re left with almost nothing. As corny as it sounds, the glow from the firecrackers is now in my heart. This is the most fun I’ve had all weekend.