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Don't mess
with the bull.


(Based on a true story. Names have been changed to protect the innocent.)

Trouble always seemed to find me during the holidays, and Christmas Day of 1992 was no exception. My family had enjoyed the usual hedonistic chaos of the holiday at my aunt's house. It was about that time of the afternoon when new presents reach their expiration date. I had received a great haul that year, but I didn't want to share some of the more choice gifts with my cousins. So I took out only a couple that I didn't mind them playing with. We had played with them for several hours, and my enjoyment of them had worn thin. There is only so much time one can devote to giving her cousins crude, prison-quality tattoos with a vibrating Squiggle Wiggle pen before the magic runs out.

My boredom mounted as I lounged on the bed in the back room, gorging on fun sized holiday Hershey's chocolate with my cousin, Ashley. I had traded her all my gold Mr. Goodbars for all of her green Special Dark. I was the only kid I knew "special" enough to like Special Dark. We had been reprimanded and sent to the back room for biting my older cousin, Matt. He had tried to steal a notepad on which Ashley had written the names of all her celebrity crushes with the announcement that he was going to read it out loud to all of the family members present. We shut the door on his arm, trapping it, and then gnawed on it like a couple of little rats until he dropped the notepad.

During our imprisonment, we lazily played the game MASH, and although I can't remember the specific outcome, it probably went something like this: Ashley would marry Vanilla Ice in a peach-colored wedding dress. They would live in an empty Taco Bell building, drive a Lamborghini and have nine children. At some point my mom appeared in the doorway.

"Get your stuff together," she said. "We're going to visit Jim and Lacey."

My heart dropped a bit. I had mixed feelings about this news. Jim was my mom's boyfriend. Seeing him was nothing special--we saw him all the time. The fact that his daughter Lacey was going to be at his house was the only reason I didn't feel completely exasperated about having to make another stop before going home. On the one hand I was tired, and I wanted nothing more than to go home and open all the gifts that I had not yet had the chance to play with. But Lacey was the same age as me, and we always found some sort of mischief to get into. It might be fun to see what she got for Christmas. Plus, I knew she would let me use her as a guinea pig for the new makeup kit that Santa brought me. She was a real sport about that kind of stuff.

I gathered up my all my presents and loaded them in the car, told my relatives goodbye, and my mom and I drove off to Jim's house. I stared out of my window and pressed my nose against the cold glass and felt cool air radiate all over my face. It had been pretty warm earlier that day. I had had to take off the jacket portion of my wind suit when I was running around with all the other kids at my aunt's house. But now that the sun was setting, there was a chill in the air. We rode in silence, the radio off.

When we got to Jim's house, Lacey greeted us at the door.

"Merry Christmas!"

We went inside, and it took a few seconds for my eyes to adjust from the sunlight outside to the darkness within. Jim was standing at the stove cooking sausage and corn under the dim light of an exposed bulb that hung from the ceiling in the small kitchen. His rental house was always dark inside with its brown wood paneling and minimal lighting. A Christmas tree that looked like a ragged toilet brush leaned in the corner. Its multi-colored string of lights cast a rainbow glow over the tiny room.

Lacey was eager to show me her new gifts, so we flopped down on the floor of the open living room and she showed me her electronic diary. It had a keypad so that you could type out diary entries, play word games, ask it questions, and use it as a calculator. She had already made a few journal entries detailing her feelings about a boy named Allen, who she claimed was her boyfriend. We got scared when she said the calendar function had no data after May in the year 2000, and Jim chimed in that it was because that's when the world was supposed to end.

The food was ready, so we each grabbed a plate and Jim served us some corn and sausage. Lacey and I sat down in front of the TV and turned on Nickelodeon. Imagine my excitement when my favorite show, Ren and Stimpy, was on. My mom hated this show, and usually made me turn it off on the occasion that she caught me watching it. But, since she was with her boyfriend, I thought she might be distracted enough to let it slide. It had been my experience, in the short amount of years I had been on this planet, that uptight adults sometimes loosened up around other adults for fear of being seen as prudes, or at least that was how I perceived it.

Unfortunately, things didn't go my way this time. This episode was the one in which Ren and Stimpy go swimming in the lake, and a man, naked except for a Band-Aid strategically placed over his butt crack, jumps out of the bushes in order to go skinny dipping with them. My mom immediately became upset, and Jim, showing off to be in her good graces, ordered us to turn the channel. I have always had the heart of a lawyer, so I tried to argue that God created everyone with a butt crack, and since they were God's creation, they were beautiful. Lacey was always a very compliant child, and turned the channel without a peep.

After we were done eating, I pulled the makeup set out of my jacket pocket, and Lacey and I went to work on our faces. The palette contained several choices of blush and eye shadow and a couple tubes of lipstick. We were not cowards when it came to cosmetics. Our philosophy on painting faces was "Go Big or Go Home." We both chose the same colors for our faces: pink blush, blue eye shadow, and red lipstick. I painted her face first. I brushed the blue powder on her eyelids from her lash line all the way up to her eyebrows. Then I made sweeping circles with the pink blush on each cheek. I slathered her lips in a thick coat of greasy, red lipstick, well past the lip line to create an exaggerated cupid's bow. It was her turn to paint my face, and she did pretty much the same job. When we were finished we looked like two eight-year-old tarts ready to head off to a 1970s-era discotheque. My mom and Jim laughed at us.

Then Jim's face suddenly lit up. "Hey I got a surprise for you!"

He went into his bedroom and came out with a humongous Christmas stocking. He handed it over to us. "Here's one more gift."

We looked inside. It was bulging with Black Cat firecrackers and those little white poppers that snap when you throw them on the ground. He might as well have handed us a stocking with a million dollars in cash. He fished a Bic lighter out of his pocket and lit the punk that was in the stocking. He handed it to us, and told us to be careful and to use common sense. We ran out the back door. The sun would soon be setting, and we were not about to waste any time.

Looking back as an adult, I realize that this was one in a long line of "busy presents" that Jim had given Lacey and me so that he and my mom could have some uninterrupted time together. I don't know if he had originally bought the firecrackers for himself as an immature amusement and decided that procreation was worth sacrificing his stash for, or if he had specifically bought them with us in mind. Nonetheless, the stocking of fireworks this year, the Super Nintendo the year after, and the apartment he rented that had a nice swimming pool a couple years later were all meant to get us out of their hair and keep us occupied for long periods of time. Jim's idea of helicopter parenting meant purchasing a remote controlled helicopter to keep us playing outside for most of the day.

Anyway, as a second grader I was blissfully ignorant to what was going on inside the house while Lacey and I were experimenting with blowing up things in the yard. Our first objective was to find holes and pipes that we could place the firecrackers into. It had rained the night before, and there was still standing water in various places around the yard: the hollow metal poles supporting a clothes line, some white PVC pipes that were sticking out of the ground around the cyclone fence, empty flower pots. We took our time untangling each Black Cat and propping them at precise angles to maximize the amount of water that would spew from the resulting explosions. We piled up some dirt in the middle of the yard, and placed several firecrackers in the mound. We shouted with glee when the dirt flew in the air. Had anyone seen us, two little lunatics in clown paint squealing while we blew things up, they would have called the mental health authorities to carry us away.

The great disappointment came after we lit the very last firecracker, and discovered that the only things we had left were the little white poppers. We listlessly threw a couple of them, disappointed with their underwhelming snaps. We threw about five of them, then stared at the brown stains they left on the vinyl siding of the house. Then a light bulb went on in my head.

"What if we dump out all the powder and light it? I bet it would make a really loud pop!"

We grabbed the three boxes of poppers and looked around for a smooth surface on which to dump the contents. The carport wouldn't do; if we messed up the truck or the car, our parents would end us. We spied the green dome of the septic tank cap poking up out of the grass. Bingo!

We sat down facing each other, one on either side of the dome, and got to work unwrapping each popper and pouring out the powder. We were very careful not to let the breeze take any of it. Once we had a nice little pile, Lacey grabbed the punk that she had stuck upright in the grass and held it up in the air like a magic wand.

"On the count of three."


She lowered the punk.



As soon as the ember on the end of the stick came within half an inch of the pile, I felt a slap to my face and the deafening roar of pure gunpowder igniting. It sounded like a shotgun blast. We both stared at each other, stunned. Gray powder clung to the makeup on Lacey's face, and I could feel it itching my own eyebrows and cheeks. My ears were ringing. Lacey stubbed out the punk in the dirt, and we walked straight to the house without speaking. I had a weird feeling inside. It felt like we narrowly escaped disaster.

We walked in the door and saw my mom and Jim cuddling on the couch. They glanced at us and commented about how loud that last firecracker had been. Lacey went to the bathroom, and I followed. We each wet a washcloth and wiped our faces off. I went and lay under the Christmas tree in a shell-shocked daze. I never looked at those seemingly innocent white poppers the same way again.

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MarshMellow Posted on Dec 16, 2015 at 12:50 PM

Hoju, It's awesome that you are still in touch with your childhood buddy. I wish I could say that "Lacey" and I had kept in touch, but our parents split up when we were about 12 years old. She lived with her mom in a different town (this was before we had internet at home) so we never saw each other again after that.

Hoju Koolander Posted on Dec 14, 2015 at 06:36 AM

The explosions and makeup parts were fun, but I am more touched that you got along with your Mom's boyfriend's daughter. I had as similar experience, where my Mom's boyfriend wasn't my favorite guy in the world, but his Grandson and I were best buds. They could take as much time for hanky-panky as they wanted as long as the two of us got to hang out. We're still in touch today and have many years of adventures to look back on.

MarshMellow Posted on Dec 11, 2015 at 03:03 AM

Thanks, everyone, for taking the time to read my essay.

Vaporman87, I refuse to be sued by anyone who doesn't heed my cautionary tale. I recommend keeping your face away from the action.:)

Vaporman87 Posted on Dec 11, 2015 at 01:40 AM

We have poppers sitting on top of our piano right now. Hmmm.

DirtyD79 Posted on Dec 11, 2015 at 12:58 AM

This article is great. I got those poppers for years on 4th of July as a kid and for some reason never thought to do that.

NLogan Posted on Dec 10, 2015 at 11:09 PM

You weren't the only kid special enough, I am allergic to peanuts and always made the same trade Mr. Goodbars for Special Darks. Now my kids give them to me because they don't like dark chocolate.

Vaporman87 Posted on Dec 10, 2015 at 04:51 PM

That was awesome. Great story, MarshMellow. Welcome to RD, by the way.

This was a joy to read. Really well written and fun the whole way through. I can't imagine what that final "boom" must have been like. I think I would have stuck to eating Special Dark bars with my Squiggle Wiggle tattooed hands while playing the Nintendo from a previous year after that.

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