The Firecracker Festival of San Vicente
Steve Rodriguez

Hayward Fault Line Winner

Harry Harlow steps toward the coffin, a Lone Star beer in his hand.

Friends and relatives surround Uncle Billy’s corpse. Most of them are clutching a drink. Their loud, raucous voices rattle the walls. Arrangements of flowers and ribbons wishing the retired fork lift operator a peaceful rest are scattered throughout the old Victorian house.

Walking past the living room window Harry catches a glance across the border. The city lights of Juarez sparkle in the clear April night. San Vicente is another three hundred miles south, he recalls, deep in the heart of Mexico.

He feels a nudge on the elbow and turns to see his wife.

"We’ll leave tomorrow right after the funeral," she tells him. "The flight to Dulles airport departs at five o’clock."

Her words drift past him, like notes from the Irish ballad playing in the background.

"I remember the first time Uncle Billy took me down there," he says. "I was only seventeen. I had the time of my life."

"Where?" She asks.

"Down to San Vicente."

She scolds him. "Are you still thinking about that firecracker festival?"

He doesn’t expect her to understand. After all, he had nearly forgotten the Firecracker Festival of San Vicente--the youthful memories long dimmed by adult concerns--until last night, when his El Paso cousins boasted of making the annual pilgrimage.

Harry explains, staring straight at the coffin. "Three nights of firecrackers and drinking. Damn, it’s a free for all. You can buy every firecracker that’s ever been made," he says, imagining the simple delight of an M80 explosion.

Her response is swift. "Harry, tell me your not going down there."

He shrugs. "It’s a family tradition. Uncle Billy would have wanted it that way."

"Tradition? You haven’t attended the firecracker festival in ten years. Besides, your office expects you in on Thursday."

He thinks of the office back in Washington DC. For six years he’s been the loyal federal employee, working long, hard hours in that gray government building, sacrificing countless nights and weekends. Why shouldn’t they allow him to have a few more days off? The Commerce Department, he reasons, has certainly exacted its pound of flesh from this public servant.

"The office can do without me," he says.

She sighs. "Harry, you’ll end up injuring yourself."

He sips his beer and studies Uncle Billy’s huge hands, noticing the corpse’s missing thumb, blown off during the 1985 festival. Then he stares at Uncle Billy’s black eye-patch, the product of a defective cherry bomb lobbed back in ‘73.

A pound of flesh here, and a pound of flesh there, he tells himself. But how you lose them makes all the difference.

First published: May 2002