“Alley Brats” by Kristian O’Hare

Fourth of July, 1985, 51st and Honore, Chicago South Side. Out back, in the alley, I watch Rickie and Frankie Gomez, twin brothers with matching peroxide-yellow rattails, take turns launching bottle rockets out of emptied RC Cola bottles. The sky swallows them up and burps.

The Gomez twins are slowly working their way through a cardboard box full of fireworks: colorful pyramid fountains and rockets and pinwheels, all wrapped like fancy candies, with names like Golden Phoenix and Roaring Tigers. They throw me a box of jumping jacks and a book of matches. Mom was serious when she said only sparklers, but she is too busy with the neighbor ladies prepping the potato salad to be paying any attention, and Dad, well, he is too busy drinking Little Kings Cream Ale with his buddies on the stoop, talking shit, jagoff this and jagoff that. Dixie Whistlers cry out like a tea kettle in the distance, followed by the sound of police sirens.

Don’t be a punto, Frankie Gomez says as he fondles what looks like a stick of dynamite. I look at the tall wooden fence that shields my backyard and imagine my parents on the other side, oblivious to what we’re up to. Our newly painted fence has already been defaced by gangs: spray painted crowns and the letters L and K. It was the way the gangs marked their territory. Like dogs pissing on a fence, Mom says.

My dad says kids lose their eyes every fourth of July, some lose fingers. Frankie and Rickie laugh, their big stupid teeth like Chicklets.

I strike the match and hold my breath until a lick of flame nips my finger and I have no choice but to light the wick. Those long seconds feel like seduction as red undresses blue. The jumping jacks zip down the alley, cracking pink and yellow stars against the asphalt before landing in the new neighbor’s backyard. We notice smoke floating above the dead dry grass, next to a kiddie pool full of dead bees.

Two old Polish sisters lived in that house forever. They would come over to our house every Easter to unload dishes of pierogies and long, pale sausages. One sister would pinch my cheeks, while the other one would ask my mother why she dressed me like a girl. And then one day they were gone. Vanished. Rumors went around that they died, a gas leak poisoned them in their sleep. Oh that’s just awful, my mom said. My dad said, Well I can’t say I’ll miss their cooking.

A few months later, Angel and his sister Chickie moved into the neighborhood. Angel, who was also in the third grade, didn’t know how to play Superhero. He always wanted to be Wonder Woman. We’d tell him he could be Green Hornet or Aquaman. I want to be Wonder Woman. But Wonder Woman is a girl, I’d say. You can’t be Wonder Woman, you maricon, then Angel would get upset with us and run home crying like a cabrona. His sister Chickie had a Monchhichi face and a rat nest of hair choking in plastic barrettes and ponytail balls. She liked to tattle on us when we used the F-word, which was often. We didn’t like Angel and Chickie.

Mom calls out dinner! And like alley rats, we scatter, scurrying back to the yard. Nearby, in Cornell Park, lady finger firecrackers explode in succession. What were you boys up to back in the alley? Mom says. You normally don’t come when I call, not that quickly. Next door Brian and Craig sword fight with lit sparklers. Mom, look, I point. Mom doesn’t want to be bothered. She is too busy opening things: bags of Jay’s potato chips, French onion dip, ketchup, mustard, relish. Instead she shoots Dad a look that says deal with this. He runs over to the fence and yells Knock it off, you little jagoffs! They respond with a fuck you, dropping their fiery swords and running back inside their house. My hero, Mom says. Those kids are going to end up in prison or worse. Where are their parents? Mrs. Gomez shakes her head and says, Eddie’s probably busy beating the shit out of Jackie.

A boombox blasts the eerie, icy synths of Run-DMC’s “Can You Rock It Like This,” b-boys hit the cardboard with a toprock and respond with a coindrop. I can rock it like that. The sky grows sooty. Pops are heard in succession. Gun shots? More sirens. Maybe fire trucks, maybe an ambulance. That Fourth of July, we survived digits intact, but the next day we learned that Angel and Chickie’s dad had to borrow a neighbor’s garden house to put out a small fire in their backyard and one of the older Gomez brothers, Noel, the one in high school, lost an eye, shot in the face with a Roman candle.

Kristian O’Hare’s writing has appeared in Third Coast Magazine, San Francisco State University’s Fourteen Hills, South 85 Journal, New Orleans Review, The Indianapolis Review, Fatal Flaw Literary Magazine, Hobart, Fauxmoir Lit Mag, Reservoir Road Literary Journal, Peatsmoke Journal, and Raleigh Review. Upcoming: Sweet: A Literary Confection (January 2024). O’Hare lives in San Francisco and teaches first-year writing, creative writing, and literature courses at San Jose State University.