The Shapiros | Michael Wesner
I was halfway through a Maury rerun when the kids started yelling about dolphins. It was almost noon on the Fourth of July, and I was drinking coffee from my Garfield mug in front of the new sixty-inch Smart TV that I’d bought with ex-husband, Carlo’s, child support. The piece of shit. Even though our children were well into their twenties, some legal mistake with the paperwork kept the son of a bitch sending me money each year. He called my cell every once in a while to ask me to do something about it, but I stopped answering after I bought the TV. My ass hadn’t felt this comfortable in years, and I had just settled into the loveseat in a position that didn’t hurt my hemorrhoids when I heard the kids hollering out back.
“Mom, come quick!” Jessica yelled.
“Hold on a minute!” My eyes were glued to Maury. “I gotta find out who gave this baby cocaine!”
“It’s dolphins!” Craig said. “Right near the house!”
“Ho-lee shit!” I launched myself up from the loveseat, spilling coffee onto the shag rug and burning my thigh, but I didn’t care. It was the best holiday of the year. For the first time in too long, my kids were back home.
I burst through the screen door and scurried through the backyard to meet them on the seawall. The lawn was mostly sand and dirt these days, with small patches of grass and weeds struggling to grow like the tufts of beard that checkered Craig’s face. I had to take my time stepping over a few planks of wood, leftovers that had been rotting out back ever since I’d removed Carlo’s dock. He’d bought it way back when we were still married, and it quickly became a splintery eyesore on the water, almost as faulty as our marriage. The view of the bay was the only thing that made this shithole worth it now that the new housing development across the water blocked my sunset. I joined my kids on the cracked concrete seawall and peered out into the calm blue waves. “Are you sure you saw dolphins?”
“Sure as I saw my eyelids this morning,” Craig said.
“What the hell did you just say to me?”
“It’s a saying.”
“It’s a shit saying,” I said.
“People say it.”
“Look!” Jessica pointed at the water. Sure enough, shiny grey blobs appeared no farther than a stone’s throw from the seawall, swimming closer and closer.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” I said. “Look at those sons of bitches go!”
“They’re coming right towards us!” Jessica said.
Water sprayed from their blowholes, making a pfft sound like a person pretending to be an elephant. Craig laughed to himself. “Sounds like you, Mom, when Dad calls your cell.” “Do not mention your father right now, Craig Shapiro. This moment is magical.” And it was. Despite the fact that my kids were grown and living on their own, they came back on the Fourth to spend time with their old, lonely mother. I might not have had all the money in the world, but I knew that this was truly important.
The dolphins went under again and we waited a minute. I pulled out my Winstons and lit my second to last cigarette. Craig asked to bum the other but I rejected him. I told him too much smoke and the dolphins wouldn’t come up again. Maury still blared on the television inside —something about a pharmaceutical scientist and psychosis in children. The studio audience ooed and awed while we stared at the rolling waves.
“There they are again!” Jessica yelled.
The little rubbery blobs floated even closer this time. There must’ve been a hell of a school of fish in front of the yard. That, or Craig poured bacon grease over the seawall again. “The dolphins are almost close enough to touch,” he said, and with that came an idea. “Craig, go get the ladder out the garage,” I said.
“What for?” he asked.
I smoked my cigarette and watched the dolphins. “Remember that time you guys wanted to go to Discovery Cove?”
Jess looked over at Craig with that fussy look she always gets, but Craig was staring back at me. “When we were, like, twelve?” he said.
I nodded and sucked my Winston. Carlo and I had been at each other’s throats ever since we’d said I do in that Chinese buffet they’d converted into a church. Our fighting peaked when the kids were in middle school, and I finally asked for a divorce while he sipped Budweiser on his dock. The commotion took a toll on the kids. I wanted to cheer them up with Discovery Cove tickets but couldn’t foot the bill after paying the lawyer. Now that they were grown and home, this could be my time to finally shine as a mother.
“Mom, what are you thinking?” Jessica asked.
I blew a cloud of smoke and the wind caught it. The dolphins pffted again. “You kids are gonna swim with the dolphins like you always wanted,” I said.
Craig cheered, then leapt over a plank and ran around the house like a good boy. Jessica pouted at me. Her bright orange hair glimmered in the sunlight, flowing with the wind just like my cig smoke. I’m still not sure where her red headedness came from, but it sure as hell wasn’t me. Her Daddy was bald when I met him, and I don’t believe I slept with any other man around that time, though I won’t put my hand on the good book and swear about anything from that marriage. Most of those memories have escaped me. Anyway, Jessica looked beautiful next to the water.
“You want us to swim with these dolphins?” she said.
“Yeah, I do.”
“Well, you couldn’t when we tried ten years ago, could you? Shit, you might as well now.”
“Mom, I don’t think this is a very good idea.”
“Quiet now,” I sucked the cigarette in. “Here comes your brother.”
Craig came bounding around the house like a wild boar, swinging the extension ladder back and forth. He very nearly tripped over a mound of dirt that would’ve sent him straight over the seawall. But no, he’d gotten more coordinated since that incident at the Vincetti’s wedding years ago. Oh, sweet Craig. We had to scrub champagne out of the rent-a-tux for two weeks straight before the place would take it back.
He handed me the ladder and Jess gave me that fussy look again, the kind she gave me as a baby before she’d shit herself. I stuck the cigarette back in my mouth and dropped the foot of the ladder into the water. It was just so good to have the kids home.
The ladder touched the bottom without having to extend it. The dolphins circled the bay about a dozen feet from the yard. Craig went in first, and I figured that if that lanky mess of limbs had no problem then I could just dive in too. I descended the ladder so quickly I damn near choked on my Winston. Jessica warned me to be careful, that I didn’t know what was at the bottom, but I told her I did too, that her father’s Ford Fiesta had been down there ever since I drove it through the yard and over the seawall after the divorce. I was joking, of course — I had pushed it off the dock at John’s Pass in ‘99 — but the kids didn’t find that funny. They had their father’s sense of humor. I laughed all the way down the ladder and into the water, then swam five feet out into the bay where sweet Craig was now trying to pet the dolphins. I shouted back at Jessica that there was nothing out there that could get me, that this wasn’t my first rodeo, and floated out into the bay, laughing until I choked on my own cigarette and something sharper than a rusted Ford sliced open the bottom of my foot.
“God help me!” I yelled. “I’m dying!”
It felt like a paper cut, if paper was thicker than a 2×4. The saltwater burned my wound something fierce. I screamed and kicked, but it felt like the water was going to tear my skin and muscle straight from the bone like wrapping paper from a Christmas present. I treaded water with one leg until my hemorrhoids started burning and I got a Charlie horse in my non-cut foot. My body started sinking. I spit out the cigarette and saw dumb Craig floating away without me, then turned to look up at my beautiful daughter standing on the seawall. How pretty she looked with her red hair flowing in the wind… she should be my final image, not that curly haired fool chasing after dolphins.
“My time has come!” I shouted.
“What the hell did you do?” Jessica said.
“The Lord has come to take me!”
“I told you this would happen.”
“Don’t give any of my shit to your father!” I flapped my frail bat wings in the water as hard as I could, but I was still going down. Jess crossed her arms and made that shitting face again. “At least make it look like you tried to help me!” I said.
The cut throbbed. I tried to lift my legs up to float on my back, but my toes barely touched the surface. My front half went under for a moment, and I couldn’t see nothing save for my life flashing before me like in one of those Hallmark movies. There was Leroy, my dead betta fish, flowing down the toilet after he jumped out the bowl in third grade. I saw Carlo and that ugly blonde goatee he wore when he asked me out at the Veteran’s Day dance at Gutter Guards Bowling. Then pregnancy number one, pregnancy number two, and finally the divorce lawyer’s beige suit, blazer collars popped above his fancy gold chain, a jungle of hair on his knuckles. I saw a cloud of pelicans flying up and away from the water as a red Ford Fiesta sank deeper and deeper into Boca Ciega Bay, until Carlo’s Buccaneers license plate was completely submerged by murky blues and greens and fish in between. Now I sank deeper and deeper like the Fiesta before me, finally on my way to where the pipes lead, to see my beloved Leroy again.
But then I thought: Fuck that fish, I had shit to do on this Earth. My Independence Day party was tonight. The kids were gonna meet the guys from the bar, and I was gonna use Carlo’s child support to buy a turkey. An Independence turkey. I had to live to taste my Independence turkey!
“Jesus H. God, Jessica,” I shouted. “Help your poor dying mother for God’s sake!”
“Would you just stand up?” she said.
Delusional girl! I was going in circles now, struggling to keep my head above water. Neighbors across the bay were coming out from their waterfront mansions to stare. I wasn’t even sure where Craig had gone. He could’ve been abducted by the dolphins for all I knew. “Mom, just put your feet down and stand!” Jess said.
“Don’t test me, Jessica.” I swallowed rust-flavored water. “So help me God, if you don’t get in here right now to help the woman who gave you life — ”
“It’s, like, five feet deep!” she said.
I put my non-aching foot down slowly, where it met soft clay. It took my weight, and I stood still for a moment with my head above the waves to catch my breath. I wiped water from my mouth and blew my nose into the bay. My girl was brilliant.
“Jessica, throw me a damn cigarette,” I said.
“No,” she said.
“Whatever cut my foot is still out here. I need my smokes to defend myself.” “I think I touched a dolphin!” Craig shouted in the distance.
“Shut up, boy!” I said. “Where were you when your mother was out here dying!” The Boormans were watching. Across from our little one-story home was their three-story sunset-blocking behemoth — a monument to everything wrong with waterfront real estate. The couple stood out on their dock next to their sailboat, a large thing labelled Lemon Squeezy. They wore matching short shorts and sipped on lemonades.
“Can I help you?” I shouted. “Having fun over there?”
The wife shook her head and the husband wrapped his arm around her. He was wearing a button-down sweater. It was 90 degrees.
We hadn’t gotten along since someone called the sheriff’s office with a false tip about terrorist activity happening in their mansion. I was at the Vincetti’s wedding that night but they still blamed me. You push a Ford Fiesta into the ocean one time and suddenly you’re a bomb threat faker.
“Show’s over, there’s no more!” I said.
They both looked away from me, heads turned in opposite directions like the eyes of a nervous chameleon. I started up the ladder on one leg and plopped onto the seawall with my bleeding foot up in the air. Jessica went into the house to grab the first aid kit. The seawall looked like one of those teen slasher movies I took Craig to see when he was little. Where was Craig? I turned and saw my lanky son floating down the deep end of the bay as if nothing had happened. Where had he learned to swim so good?
The Boormans resumed watching from their dock as Jessica uncapped a bottle of disinfectant. I lit my last Winston, which helped a little. Then I slipped the Boormans the bird, which helped a lot. Jess tore a strip of gauze and dabbed a rag with alcohol. I sucked my cigarette and listened to the end of the Maury episode from inside: “You left our two-year-old son in a 7/11 bathroom overnight?” The Boormans averted their eyes as Jess applied the cold, stinging gel to my foot. I turned my face to God and screamed like a banshee. Blood splattered onto the seawall. The television crowd cheered.
By the time the afternoon rolled around, my foot still looked like something out of a Vietnam movie. Jessica insisted that I cancel on the Independence turkey and settle for drinks with her and Craig instead. I was bummed, but I was willing to compromise as long as the kids stayed. The fellas I invited from the bar understood. Most of them were veterans with war injuries themselves, so they empathized when I called and told the story. I flat out refused to see the doctor Jess recommended. There wasn’t the money for it after I bought the TV, and I figured that after two full decades of mending Craig’s skateboarding injuries, the least I could do was heal a gashed foot. Besides, I still had some painkillers left over from the car accident in ‘04. They weren’t prescribed to me then and they weren’t prescribed to me now, but why the hell not? A girl’s gotta party on the Fourth of July.
Crevon came over while the kids were out getting groceries. He was my pot dealer, occasionally my mechanic, and sold fireworks during the summer months. I asked him to come drop off some M-80s but he stayed to help me with a letter I was writing to the Social Security Administration. I had applied for disability on account of my hemorrhoids, but Uncle Sam had had the nerve to reject me without explanation. Crevon had worked for the IRS in the ‘90s, and he said it made him an expert on the SSA by association.
“If you’ve worked for one government office, you’ve worked for all of ‘em,” he said. “Shit, I’m just about as good as an FBI agent.”
I offered him a Miller if he could convince them that rectal inflammation had stopped me from gainful employment. He set the M-80s down on a dirt mound in the backyard and got to writing. A couple hours passed before my kids showed up for the festivities. Jessica came first with a bottle of wine and a quiche. Craig came in a little later with a six-pack of Shiner and, coincidentally, a quiche. I asked ‘em what the hell they thought they were doing bringing French food to a party celebrating America.
“Quiche is French?” Craig said. “I bought it at Walmart.”
Crevon cracked open a beer and told us that quiches weren’t French, they were an English pastry with a French name. I asked him where the hell he learned that, and he said he read about it in some book. Crevon was like that sometimes, always reading and then bragging about reading.
“English, French, what’s the difference?” I said. “I just want something American for a day celebrating America. Like hot wings. Or pizza.”
“Pizza isn’t American either,” Jess said. “It’s Italian.”
“Actually, the delivery pizza we eat here is American,” Crevon said.
“Well, not originally.”
“Yes, originally.” Apparently, he’d read in some book that delivery pizza was different from the way it was cooked in Italy. “There’s Domino’s in Rome that serve American pizza, which is different from the pizza that a real Italian joint would serve.”
“Have you ever been to a Domino’s in Rome?” Jessica asked.
“No, I read about it.”
“Is that all you do all day? Get high and read books, and then talk about the books you’ve read?”
“No,” Crevon said. “I also sell fireworks during the summer months.”
Jessica and Crevon hadn’t gotten along since he’d started selling me pot after the divorce. He was the one who got me those painkillers. Now that he was writing me a letter to the SSA, I invited him to stay for the family festivities even if we weren’t cooking turkey. He accepted and spent most of the evening arguing about books and pot with Jess.
I lit a few glass candles and lined them up on the seawall after sunset, a nice touch to distract from the bloodstains. We filled a cooler with Shiner and set it down on the mound of dirt in the middle of the yard, right next to the M-80s. Then I hauled some chairs out from the garage and unfolded them on the edge of the seawall. It was a struggle and a half doing all that with my busted foot, but I did what I could. The yard might’ve been full of old planks and dying grass, but shit did it all look pretty once the candles were lit. The fireworks were beginning on the other end of town, and we could see ‘em great over the water even if the Boorman’s skyscraper was in view. I sank into one of the yard chairs, determined not to let them get to me. I opened a beer, propped up my crippled foot on the seawall, and leaned back. “Well, ain’t this the life?” I said.
Craig and Crevon agreed, but Jess was miserable. She couldn’t find an opener for her wine in the kitchen and had to settle for a bottle of Shiner. Even in the dark, I could tell she was making that shitty face. I wasn’t about to let her ruin my night after she cancelled my Independence turkey, so I did what any smart mother would do and blew smoke up her ass to the party’s guest.
“Y’know, Crevon,” I said. “Jess just started a fancy job down in Sarasota.” “Well, no shit,” he said.
“Yes shit. She’s playing guitar for the profoundly handicapped.”
“It’s called musical therapy, Mom,” she said. “And they’re not profoundly anything. They’re autistic.”
“It’s poe-tah—” she paused. “Never mind.”
“I used to play a little acoustic back in my day,” Crevon said.
“Is that so?” I asked.
“I had chops like you ain’t never seen. I could do Allman Brothers, Creedence, Zeppelin. Do the profoundly handicapped like Zeppelin?”
There was a big pause while Crevon sipped his beer. I figured Jessica must’ve been thinking ‘bout climbing down the rusted ladder and floating away into the bay. I tried my best to grow my kids up with thick skins, but Jessica could be a little sensitive. Still, I was proud of her for the job. (And for drinking Shiner, even if she gagged on every sip.) I knew that it was tough on her and her brother to grow up in this wreck, with divorced parents who sank cars and fought. After they graduated high school and left the nest, I thought they might never fly back. But here we were: candles reflecting on the water, stars twinkling above, celebrating the greatest holiday God ever invented. As a family. Jessica forced down some beer and cleared her throat. “My students do like Led Zeppelin.”
“Good,” Crevon said. “What’re you doing these days, Craig boy?”
“Craig’s still at the Wendy’s in Seminole,” I said.
“I can speak for myself,” Craig said. “I’m still at the Wendy’s in Seminole.” It was good to see Craig speak up for himself. That was the second time tonight. Earlier, Crevon lit a joint and passed it back and forth with me a little bit, and Craig had asked for a hit. I said no, of course, since I had to keep my motherly attitude, but it was good to see Craig putting his foot down and asking. After some time, he even steered the conversation in his own direction, and began to tell the story about the dolphins. I could’ve easily jumped in and made it about me, but something about watching Craig control an audience stopped me. He stood up and showed Crevon the ladder, then walked down the seawall to point out where the dolphins were. Right after he told the part about me slicing my foot, Craig tripped on a crack in the seawall. He stumbled a minute before regaining his balance, but punted one of the candles across the yard on accident. It zoomed past Crevon’s head, nearly taking a chunk of his ear with it, then bounced off the lid of the cooler and landed in the dirt. Craig apologized and we all had a good laugh about it. I even caught Jessica giggling into her beer before the candle rolled over and lit the M-80s.
“Good God!” I shouted. Six quarter sticks of dynamite exploded all at once. The yard lit up with white light and dark smoke. The noise scared me out of my chair and into a fire anthill. Craig screamed and leapt over the seawall, straight into the bay. Crevon and Jessica both ducked into their chairs and shouted at me to do something, but I couldn’t on account of the fire ants. One bit me right on the ass cheek, and I stood up so fast that for a second I thought my foot gash re-opened.
The bangs and pops died down as quick as they had started, but the smoke was getting worse. Crevon rolled out of his chair and onto the lawn, then went prone like a sniper in the trenches of my yard. I stepped over him and limped to the cooler to fan the dark smoke away with my arms. Luckily, the M-80s had been far enough away that nobody was hurt, but my poor yard was decimated. A few planks of wood had caught fire and some sand around the cooler had just about turned to glass. It looked like napalm had rained down on the yard. Felt like it too.
Jessica coughed up a storm as the smoke loomed over the bay. She knocked her chair over, then sprinted across the yard and into the house, shouting about a fire extinguisher in between hacking sounds. I opened my mouth to remind her I didn’t have one, but then figured I’d let her catch her breath while she found out herself. I grabbed another Shiner from the cooler — thank God the M-80s hadn’t claimed the beer — and then hobbled my way back to my chair. A very crossfaded Crevon picked himself up off the dirt and stepped onto the seawall, then unzipped the fly of his cargo shorts. He put his right hand on his heart and began singing the national anthem as he unleashed a steady stream into the bay.
I cracked my beer open with my tooth. About fifteen feet out from the ladder, Craig was floating log-like where the dolphins had been swimming this afternoon.
“You good, son?” I yelled. Craig gave me a thumbs up as he floated south. “You comin’ back soon?” He shook his head no and continued drifting, either avoiding the smoke or still looking for dolphins. He was a big boy now. I trusted him.
“And the home for the brave,” Crevon sang. He pumped his fist in the air in celebration, then zipped his fly and used a burning plank of wood to light a second joint. Jessica sprinted through the smoke with a miniature extinguisher and sprayed the lawn. Apparently, she kept one in her car. Crevon and I got shitty off his joint while she finished extinguishing the yard. I must’ve gotten higher than God because suddenly an hour had passed and the doorbell was ringing. When I answered it, I was greeted by Craig at the front step, sopping wet with the Pinellas County sheriff behind him. This was the same guy that had handled my sinking of Carlo’s Ford, and the incident when the Boormans were investigated for domestic terrorism. His name was Ted. We went way back.
“Two things, Sherry,” he said at the door. “One, I want to be the first to tell you that your boy’s got a lean body, good enough for the force. Strong swimmer, he is. Really ought to think about applying.”
Craig waddled into the living room, dripping water on the shag rug.
“Thank you,” I said. “That’s high praise coming from you.”
“Second, I’m here to give you a citation for possession and use of illegal fireworks.” “You have no proof.”
Ted pulled out his cell phone and played a video. It showed the whole incident: the candle flying, Craig jumping, Jessica extinguishing, Crevon singing. The video had been filmed from the other side of the bay. Those damned Boormans…
Ted handed me a slip of paper with a fine for a grand on it. Even if I got the disability checks for my hemorrhoids, I’d have a hard time paying this one.
“You wanna stop in for a beer?” I said. “Maybe work this thing out the old-fashioned way?”
“I’m on duty,” he said.
“Come on, Ted. It’s the Fourth. This is for your country.”
“Tonight, I’m handing out citations for my country.”
“I didn’t want to have to do this.” I held the slip of paper out in front of him and tore it to pieces. I wasn’t gonna let a fine ruin my favorite day of the year — the first day in a long time I could sit back and celebrate freedom with my kids. Freedom from terror and freedom from Carlo. Freedom to set off fireworks in peace. The tiny shreds of citation fell like dead leaves onto my doormat. Ted looked down at the ground and sighed.
“We’ll mail you another one on Monday,” he said. With that, he closed my own front door on me from outside. In the backyard, Crevon was asleep in the lawn chair and Jessica had gathered her things to leave. I almost tripped on another candle as I stepped onto the seawall. I shook my fist into the night and screamed across the bay.
“Damn you, Boormans!” I said. “How dare you!”
It was dark as hell out, and the couple were just faint black outlines but I could see ‘em. They got up from their chairs and moved inside, but that wouldn’t stop me. Crevon’s snoring was louder than the M-80s, but I still heard Craig’s wet shoes squishing with each step as he came outside to join us. Jess hugged him goodbye, and soon enough I heard her car door slam out front. I screamed at the Boormans some more for driving away my daughter, though I doubted very much that the black outlines inside the McMansion could hear me. Who cared? I was high as hell, a teensy bit drunk, with a throbbing foot and horrible hemorrhoids. I screamed at their house about the citation, about the fake bomb threat, and about the dolphins. I threatened them to call the Sheriff’s Office again and complain about my noise. But mostly I just screamed so that they’d know that, even if they had ruined my night, they would never ruin my family. I’d had fun with my kids regardless of them, and I would continue to have fun with my kids until either Carlo’s child support dried up or the Good Lord sent me six feet under.
Why? Because I had faith that Jess would come back. I had faith that Craig, for every time he floated off, would swim back to me. And I had faith that despite all obstacles, I would make us the family that we couldn’t have been before. We would swim with every dolphin, light every firework, and eat every quiche that the divorce wouldn’t let us. Nothing could shake my faith in that. Not Ted, not Carlo, and certainly not those damned Boormans. So, I screamed plenty loud so that each and every one of them could hear. God himself and the Founding Fathers heard my promise that Independence Day.
Then some fireworks popped off near Treasure Island and Crevon woke. We smoked another joint and I stopped screaming. I even let Craig have one whole hit.
About the Author:
Michael Wesner holds a BA from Eckerd College, where he studied Creative Writing with a particular emphasis on the use of humor in literature. His previous work has been featured in The Eckerd Review and Gower Street Press. Originally from the outskirts of Philadelphia, he currently lives and works in St. Petersburg, FL.