A few stray fireworks died dull against daylight and Peggy yawned. Distorted guitars and a hissing snare drum snap invaded her brain through her earphones as Dad pulled into the driveway with a bump over the uneven road. The trunk was filled with enough cola to drown God. Peggy thumbed through the ratty issue of Spin that was like a holy object now. Screaming the lyrics that made her heart ache, Kurt Cobain sang into her, making her briefly forget that he was dead, head blown off by his own hands, leaving them all numb like ghosts still walking the world. She rolled up the mag and shoved it under her arm.
Dad stopped the car in front of the two-story house in the woods, complete with satellite, that Mom called a cottage: their vacation home for Dad to… rest. Peggy lifted the report card in the front pocket of her flannel shirt, still in its envelope, still sealed, still unread as it had been when they packed the car in Berkley. She knew she flunked. Might even have to repeat grade ten. But the damn thing seemed invisible to everyone else.
Dad took a swig of Dark Creek Cola and smiled, looking out at nowhere in particular. On the lawn, the same guy with a beer-gut and backwards baseball cap who had dropped off wood for the dark ages stove was pushing a mower, barbed-wire tattoos on his forearms. Peggy snickered. Mom, she thought, I wonder what you’ve been up to? Sometimes she wondered if Dad was robotic because he couldn’t see stuff, like her report card, or because he could and it hurt too bad, like the mower man.
Dad smiled through his five o’clock shadow, stopping the car, a can from a righteous batch of Dark Creek Cola in his thin but strong hand. You’d not even know he’d been fired, the way he was pounding that cola, like when the lab was “so close” to the breakthrough on their killer satellite… until the Soviet Union died, President Clinton told the boys to take their satellite and go home, and Dad’s frantic campaign to save his project ended up in a black hole. But at least he’d found his Dark Creek Cola. She pulled the report card up a bit further as he stopped the car.
Dad looked at her, beaming.
She hit stop, smiled back.
“Great batch.” He put the cola in the cup holder and adjusted his glasses. “Let’s unload the rest into the bar fridge, they lose some flavor if too warm.”
Her smile twitched, and the acne under her freckles trembled in a blackhead graveyard. “Sure.”
They unloaded the crates into the garage, stacking them outside the little fridge. Peggy took the last case from the trunk when Mom’s voice rose over the buzz of the mower like an elegant drill sergeant.
“Nathan? You didn’t forget the eggs, did you?”
A tight smile snapped across Dad’s face before he went back to the car and drove off. Peggy stood in the gravel dust of Dad’s exit, cola crate in her arms, as Mom appeared. She was still sickly beautiful, fighting her forties with everything Mary Kay had in her arsenal. Dad would not have stood a chance if he hadn’t been the smartest thing in engineering to come out of Berkley in a cold decade. Well, that’s what Mom said to Dad’s boss after too much rum and coke during a milestone party where she made Peggy wear a dress. A dress with pink flowers.
Mom was in her white tube top, complete with beige skirt and gardening clogs. “Jesus,” she said as the dust cleared, voice back to smooth, sharp tones. “For a genius he can be such an—” The dust cleared. “Peggy? I… thought you were listening to music in the backyard.”
I’m always listening to music, she thought, adjusting the crates, Kurt safe in her armpit. “Nope. Cola hunt.” She hustled the case to the garage.
Mom crossed her arms, flexing slightly. “So he finally found a magic batch even out here? I’ll have to do two rounds of aerobics for just looking at the cans.” Mom shook her head. “And, sweetie, your skin will never clear, drinking liquid sugar.”
Peggy pulled out a can, cracked it open, and sipped. “Really.”
Mom carefully stepped down the rickety steps to the garage floor as if it were the grand stairs of a ballroom, voice smooth. “Don’t be like that. I’m trying to help. You can’t tell me you want acne. Look, I have something inside, I got it just for you, and it will clear those things up right away.”
“I’m not a doll.” Peggy took another long sip. If it weren’t for a birth record, you’d have thought Mom had won Peggy in a poker game.
Mom walked closer. “Why do you always do this when I try and help?”
“Do what?” She took a sloppy sip. Cola dribble ran down her cheek, staining her shirt above the report card jammed in her shirt front pocket.
Mom took the can away. “Sulk. You’ve been in a mood ever since that musician… died.”
Peggy shoved cans into the little fridge, arm tightly holding the mag to her body. “Really.”
“Look, I’m sorry. He obviously had problems, but—”
“Really.” Working mach speed, she rammed in cola.
Mom kneeled, her perfect knees jutting out from the hem of her skirt. “Darling. I know it hurts. I remember when John Lennon died. It felt like… well… like a part of the world died. A good part. But you do them justice by honoring their memories, not letting yourself go to shambles. Get back to living, being happy. And I know you’d be happy if you took care of yourself instead of dressing like a union foreman.” She took out a Belmont Mild from a pack on a shelf. “Look. Why don’t you come inside? Just try what I got for you?”
Peggy shut the fridge door. “Don’t.”
“Sweetie, I’m trying to—”
“Lie to me.” She stood. Kurt wouldn’t back down from his feelings, but she wasn’t him. She coughed. “You’re a good liar. And I don’t need to be tricked into being something I’m not.”
The can crinkled in her hand. “You. Or Dad. Or anyone else.”
Mom stood, lit her cigarette, and gave the mower man the briefest of glances as she blew out a stream of smoke. (Dad would flip if he smelled smoke inside the house, even a cottage.) “Look, I never said that. I never would. Why don’t you tell me who you are, then? Huh?”
Peggy gripped the magazine in her tight little fist, chest sticking out as much as it was able, report card like a bull’s-eye tacked to her flannel. “Me?” Peggy smirked. “I guess I’m just your weirdo daughter, neither brilliant nor beautiful. Enjoy your health snack. It does wonders for your complexion.” She left.
“We’re going to talk about this later,” Mom said.
Peggy entered her room, a mothball stink wonderland of baby blue wallpaper and girly pink drapes. She left the door open. She went through her Nirvana tapes and stuck in Bleach. Her hand traced the outline of her Unplugged bootleg. She’d tried listening to it after, in tribute, and got as far as the last song, “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” before she started bawling and hit stop. Too hard.
She let Bleach pour into her head, then thumbed through the last interview with Kurt in Spin, but it started to hurt. So she took out the envelope, tore the seal, and removed the official and serious-looking report card and flopped on the bed.
English: F. Despite verbal aptitude, Peggy failed to hand in any assignments besides a rather moving poem about—
Feh, Peggy thought. Surprised Ms. Fisher remembered I was there. The drunk dyke only had eyes for Cindy Sanchez.
Science: F. While I am sure it is difficult to be the child of one of the nation’s most acclaimed scientists, Peggy showed a lack of commitment to the last half of the course and failed her all her second term labs…
Blah, blah, blah.
Wait, she thought. I’m sure I flunked Mr. Harris’s snore fest.
“It was sad to see Peggy start so strong and end so poorly. Her test scores were high and she wrote a very substantial proposal for her artifact-recreation, a model of the first Chinese rocket, that she failed to hand in. I was looking forward to seeing it in action.”
She snorted. Harris was a chump. Peggy had cranked out that proposal in one night based on a wacked-out article in one of Dad’s old Science Wonder mags on space travel and the ancient world. In China, a zillion years before Christ, some dude named Wu Han had strapped a bunch of fireworks onto a chair and blew himself into space. Or to pieces. But the article, written by some nutcase named Wenner Burn Hovar, who seemed to have articles in every other issue, claimed he’d made his own rocket chair and launched his dog into the upper atmosphere after hearing about the Soviet dogs launched into space. She’d laughed out loud reading the piece, and made it her proposal. She could not believe Harris had bought it.
But she had passed.
The snicker of joy died as she read the last page. “…must repeat the classes she failed—”
Something grabbed her toes. She shrieked and scurried back, until her earphones fell off.
“Jesus Murphy,” Mom said, covering her heart, the aroma of lilacs and smoke around her. “You’d think I’d just hit you with a coat hanger.”
The report card lay on her lap. “What do you want?”
“Lunch with my family. My weirdo daughter does not live on cola alone. Then we’re going to the neighbors’ for a party. You’re welcome to come, but I’m sure you’d rather stay here and destroy your hearing. But when I get home, we’re having a chat.” She gave her a stern look. “What are you reading?”
Peggy’s heart raced. It was right there, right there, but she couldn’t say a word, she couldn’t make it that easy. But Mom was so close—
Mom raised her hands, head shaking. “You know what? Keep your secrets. I can’t handle this drama right now.” She left and Peggy gagged on her words.
Peggy looked at the report card again, and hit play. As her head swam in the dark fuzz of “About a Girl,” an idea hatched. Dad’s oblivious. Mom can’t deal with me unless I doll up like her. Well, I got another way to make you see me.
“Lift off,” she said as Kurt screamed the word “Free.”
After egg salad sandwiches with diet mayo, Dad and Mom left. When Mom’s practiced laugh was at a safe distance, Peggy snuck out to the store where Dad got the cola, blasting In Utero through her skull for the hour it took to get there on foot. Two hundred bucks of allowance, saved since Kurt died. Any new music was sacrilege.
As the sun hung over the horizon, she found the store. Wasps flew in drunken circles around a trash can that stank of melted ice cream and dog piss. She went straight to the front, a minor tremble of fear in her gut. Behind the desk was a local with a backward baseball cap and a Budweiser t-shirt. He smelled like cut grass and Aqua Velva.
The mower man. She hit stop.
“Howdy, stranger. Run out of cola?” He grinned.
He crossed his barbed-wire arms. Dude was a walking patchwork cliché. But he was all that stood between her and her mission, dubbed OPERATION NIRVANA. Not original, but she wasn’t Kurt. She smiled. “So, who do I have to bribe to get some fireworks?”
He shook his head, whistling low. “Sorry, darling. All sold out. Of the legal kind.”
“Do I look like a cop?”
He smiled. “Now, what would your mother say if I sold you those nasty things?”
“I’m betting she won’t notice until they’re blown to hell.”
“Heh. Good point. I like you, freak.” He flexed his own arms. “You don’t much look like your mother. Too bad.”
She never enjoyed being ugly more than right at that moment. She took out her twenties. “I’m her daughter from Bizarro world. Good tipper, bad looker. Now how about some boom sticks?”
He laughed. “You people are weird, weird, weird.” He bent and put a massive black cardboard box on the table. “This is the last of the load. Hell, you’d be doing me a favor if you took ‘em.”
She grabbed the box with a grunt. “Done.”
“They’ll give you one hell of a bang! See you later, freak.”
She snickered. “Yeah. Keep your eye on the sky.”
The lawn chair was stitched together with an assortment of massive, illegal fireworks with nicknames like “ASS BLASTER,” “RAGING NAPALM,” and “NUKE JUNIOR,” the whole mess stinking of black powder and anticipation, all strung together with enough duct tape to stitch God’s mouth closed. She sat on the chair, sweat from the walk soaking her shirt, reading the crinkled Spin interview. It almost read like the first time. Things she missed popped out, a sad code, a fuse not yet lit tied to a shotgun trigger.
“Songs are like firecrackers, roman candles for your ears and mind. Something beautiful and dangerous that explodes, lights up the dark, then fades.”
Maybe this will be beautiful and dangerous too, she thought. Beautiful and dangerous. It sounded good. Coming from Kurt.
The sky eased from blue to dark pink. A chill followed. She dug in her back pocket for the pink lighter Mom kept in the car and never used. She flicked it on and off, on and off. Tremors of sadness surprised her as she put her hand above the flame until she hissed, waved away the pain and flame, then went back inside. She put her report card on the kitchen table. The empty space for the required parental signature for her repeating grade ten glared like an empty epitaph. She flicked the lighter, and each time thoughts bubbled.
This is lame.
This is not lame, it’s important.
It’s a history project.
Is that all?
Kurt went off like a firecracker.
But… I’m not Kurt. He had all that suffering, all those ulcers and hard times. I just flunked English and Science and—
And they don’t care. They don’t really see me.
Or am I just a poser fan girl?
World won’t miss another one of those.
God, shut up and just get on with it, you chicken shit!
She flicked it off. Outside, it was darker. Someone stood before the chair. Hands in pockets. Sleeves rolled up. In his hand was her Spin.
God, it’s the mower man—
A light flickered from his other hand. A match.
“Don’t!” Peggy said, rushing toward him. “Not yet!”
The match lit the face of her father. His five o’clock shadow was a thin black beard, but his eyes were wide. He blew out the match, smoke trailing it like one of Mom’s cigarettes. “There you are.”
“Jesus, Dad, what are you doing here?”
He put the mag on the floor, took a Dark Creek Cola from a cooler at his feet and cracked it open with one hand. “Fireworks. I forgot them. God, though, the smell takes me back. Smell and taste. Always great for memory.” He kicked some of the wrappings around the chair. He smiled. “Black powder and DC Cola. That’s how it all started. Rockets and cola and yaw control, dreams of John Glen fighting Yuri Gagarin in orbit, racing to the moon, beating the Reds. War of nerves and nukes.” He tapped the can. “And victory. Just not obsolescence.” His nose twitched.
“Dad? You ok?”
“No. But I’m better.” The words were stone heavy. Peggy took a step forward. He took another long sip, eyes blinking, pressing his comb-over back in place. He studied the chair, then looked at her. “What are you building?”
The truth hung around her wrists like a lead weight, keeping the lighter down. A statement? A casket? “I’m not sure anymore.”
“Looks like Wu Han’s rocket chair.” Dad got on his knees and looked at her contraption. “But it won’t fly. Not like this. You need more concentrated powder. You’ll just blow the chair to pieces.”
Wow, I even suck at even blowing myself up. God, does that sound stupid, even for me… “Wait. How do you know about Wu Han?”
He tore apart the tape, stacking the fireworks in the chair. “I published an article about him at seventeen. Not juried, but still.”
Her guts winced. “Really?”
He tore the tape away. “Well, they wouldn’t print them when I used my name and age, so I used an anagram for Wernher von Braun and sent them again. Heh. The chump of an editor never caught on and I used that pen name for years!” Dad took a sip but laughed so hard he snorted cola.
Wanner Burn Hover, Peggy thought. The guy who blew up his dog, or blew it to the stars… Peggy noticed the stillness in the air.
“I can fix this,” Dad said. He got up. “Here, hold these. I’ll be back with more. I think they’re in the kitchen.”
She stood, a fistful of boom sticks in her hand. In the far distance, firecrackers were going off in dribs and drabs, like distant gunfire, bursting out of sight. Christ, Dad had blown his dog into… space? Pieces? What the fuck?
Dad returned, box of fireworks in his hands. “Sorry to take this over. I know you made one for school. How did that go?”
It didn’t. Because the day before, Kurt Cobain had shot himself into space on a one way bullet and never came back… She shook her head. “What? What did you ask?”
“You were making this for a class. History, right? Your mother let you stay up to finish the proposal, but I don’t remember seeing the chair. I wanted to help, but she said you had to do it yourself, that I’d just go go go.” He laughed, adjusting the fireworks. “Guess she was right. How did yours fly?”
She dropped the lighter. “Not well, Dad. Uh… why don’t you show me how it works?”
“You got it!” He pounded a Dark Creek Cola then got to work while Peggy tried to breathe. When he finished, he exhaled hard. “Ready to see medieval space flight at its finest?” He took a fresh can of DC Cola from the cooler and handed it to her.
She started laughing. “Yeah, I’d love to.”
He smiled, then kneeled beside the chair and began to fiddle.
Peggy went inside. The report card sat on the kitchen table, untouched. She took it, went back outside, and put it under her arm. She grabbed the Spin magazine. Kurt smiled back at her. She rolled it up tight, bound it with duct tape, and set it in the chair.
Dad poked his head out from the bottom. “What’s that?”
She crossed her arms, flexing against the cold. “A passenger.”
When Dad was done, the chair looked like an ACME homemade bomb from Looney Tunes, sitting far away on the far side of the backyard, surrounded by pine trees like pitch-black sentries from a fantasy flick.
Peggy put a cassette in her Walkman, fast-forwarded to the last song, his last song, then braced herself. The matchbook was still in Dad’s small hand. “Alright. Ready for lift off. But what should we name the vessel?”
She sniffed. “Rocket Ship Nirvana?”
Dad looked up at the emerging stars. “Ha! A Buddhist rocket ship. Very appropriate.”
“What do you mean?”
He kept looking up, comb-over sliding off his head. “Nirvana is a state of rebirth, and end of suffering. I’m sure old Wu Han would approve.”
“Nathan, you left an hour ago.” Mom was louder than usual, but managed to cut through the grassy back yard in heels as if it were a runway. “So. Is this where the fireworks show is?”
“Yeah,” Peggy said. “You don’t want to miss it.”
“Is that a lawn chair?”
“Countdown in ten,” Dad said, striking the match only using one hand. “But stand back way back. This is going to be a doozy.”
“Well, whatever you’re doing, let’s get the party started.” She raised her lit cigarette in dramatic fashion, smoke rising as if from a fired gun.
Peggy handed her the report card.
Mom took it.
Peggy hit play. The dark echo of blues chords played jagged on a secondhand guitar thrummed through her as Kurt asked her where did she sleep last night?
In the pines. In the pines. Where the sun never shines. I’ll shiver the whole night through.
Lightning crackled before the thunder. A blister of white that stank like burning hair emerged from beneath the chair, as if its base was made of burning magnesium, trailed by the hiss of a thousand snakes being tortured. A tear cracked past Peggy’s eye. Something touched her shoulder.
Not a thousand little shots, like she expected, not a million cherry bombs dying at the same time, but a jerry-rigged powderkeg that blasted like galactic buckshot into the sky with a crackling thunder. She watched it burn a trail into the sky, like a shooting star running away from home in the wrong direction. In the wake of the boom, she found herself in her mother’s arms. Dad raised his arms in victory as Mom gripped her tight while Kurt’s voice died at the end of the tape like an epiphany. She pressed stop and heard her mother’s voice. Strong, soothing, and live.