Earl counted twenty-seven boxes of Roman candles on the shelves and fifty in back storage, and was just about to note it on his inventory sheet, when his thought process was interrupted by a customer enjoying some free sample-firecrackers (complimentary with each visit), which then made him forget if it was twenty-five boxes or twenty-three. This was the fifth time he lost count that day, and although he earlier resolved to get the inventory done during business hours so that he could punch out a little earlier than usual, the fifth time was enough to make him grumble, throw the clipboard down and decide to do it after closing time. He ambled back into the store, careful to dodge the Catherine wheels on display, and found his two co-workers in pretty much the same places he left them an hour ago: Lenny at the register, expediting the latest family of customers and trying to deflect the discount-begging from the parents while their children wandered about the shop and grabbed fireworks and/or matches off the shelves; and no other customers around, which meant that it was not a customer he overheard using the complimentary firecrackers, but Wayne, as usual, not doing anything remotely productive.
—There’s supposed to be some kind of deal with you guys, isn’t there? I saw an ad in the paper.
—I haven’t heard anything about it. Hey Earl.
Earl faced away from them and started to rearrange boxes on the shelves, rotating stock as it were, stock that does not expire anyway, his favorite means of looking busy to deflect customer questions.
—Hey, Earl, have you heard of that deal? Half off on bottle rockets?
—I’m sorry, sir. My manager has never heard of that deal.
—Could you give us the discount anyway?
—Earl, can you give them the discount anyway?
—Why, because they really really want one? No.
—I’m sorry, sir, my manager said he can’t give you the discount anyway.
A customer (or Wayne, Earl supposed) threw a firecracker a little too far, right next to a Flaming Dragon on display. It lit the fuse and went up to the ceiling, letting loose the smoke alarms (which would not relent for the next twenty minutes) and the chemical fire-extinguishing sprinkler system. The shop nurse, on duty for emergency triage in case of third-degree burns, appeared moments later.
—Anyone need my help?
—No, just a false alarm. Wayne, for the last time, the free sample firecrackers are for guests only.
—Sorry, Earl. Want me to turn off the sprinklers?
—No, you know you’re not allowed to anyway. Go get the mop before someone slips and cracks their head open.
Wayne grumbled, went to the closet and procured a mop and a wet floor sign. When Earl returned to the shop, after shutting off the sprinklers, the family was still by the register soaking wet and holding the six-pack of bottle rockets in dispute.
—Earl, he wants to know if you can call the owner and work out a discount or something.
—I’m sorry, sir, my manager said he can’t call the owner and work out a discount.
—Well, what if I go write you guys a bad review? Everyone who wants to buy fireworks will know not to go to your store because of me. What do you think about that?
—Earl, he says he wants to write a bad review of the store. Everyone who wants to buy fireworks will know not to go to this store.
—That’s his prerogative.
—My manager said you were more than welcome to do that if you want to, sir.
—Hey Earl, can I grab a couple Roman candles tonight?
—The employee discount for Roman candles is fifty percent off, you know that, Wayne.
—Oh, so he gets a discount?
—Earl, he wants to know why Wayne gets a discount and not him?
—Because Wayne works here, albeit tangentially. If he really wants the employee discount that bad, give him an application.
Lenny reached under the counter and gave the man a slip of paper.
—My manager said that Wayne gets a discount because he works here, if a little tangentially. If you want you’re more than welcome to fill out an application…
—Wayne, did you finish mopping the floor?
Earl, however, answered his own question with the next step he took.
—Oh, shit. Sorry, Earl. Did you crack your head open?
—No, I just…
—Phew, that’s good. That would have been eerily presient, presc… like you could tell the future. Landed on your ass instead huh? Well that’s good, at least. Want me to get the nurse?
The nurse appeared by his side.
—Are you alright? Do you need my help?
The nurse retreated back into the nurse booth. The customer slapped a few bills on the counter and walked off with the bottle rockets and his family in tow. Earl spotted Wayne taking a box of Roman candles. So that would leave twenty-two. Or twenty-five?
—Hey Earl. They forgot their change. Should I…
—You want me to go chase them down and give it to them?
—Just go. All of you, just go away! I can handle it.
Earl rose to his feet and rubbed the tender spot on his backside. Wayne and Lenny stood side by side and regarded their manager.
—What’s your deal anyway?
—Yeah, how come you’re always such a jerk?
—I really don’t know. Just go away, please.
(Despite what he told Lenny Earl knew the precise reason behind his question. About seven years ago he started downloading a personal collection of internet pornography and storing it on his computer. Throughout that seven years it developed into an immense, richly variegated cornucopia of concupiscence, within the bounds of reason and legality of course. Earl never thought much of human company; he distrusted most people at worst and found them sort of dull at best. Being a human himself, however, he was unable to escape the pangs of physical connection that afflict most other humans, and so the immense collection was his means of assuaging such pains. He kept to himself in the daytime and at night expunged all his secret yearnings for companionship and human connection in one fell swoop. However, about a month ago his computer crashed, and unfortunately for him he never had the foresight to back up this library of sexual abandon. Earl spent the last few weeks metaphorically kicking himself. A computer repairman was out of the question; the collection was enormous and outrageous enough that if a repairman had happened to stumble upon it the shifty looks Earl would inevitably receive upon receipt of the repaired computer would be more than he could bear. And so, in the daytime humanity continued to frustrate him despite his efforts to avoid it, and at night he had no recourse to purge these frustrations, which only made him more irritable the day after.)
—Maybe there’s a way we could make you a better person.
—Yeah. You know, like someone with a little manners.
Earl went to the register, took a penny and flipped it in Wayne’s direction, which the latter caught with one hand. Wayne and Lenny frowned, turned away from Earl and left the shop with a shrug.
—Aw, hey! Now my register’s short!
The meaning behind Earl’s gesture was not lost on either of them: it was no secret the fountain in the middle of the town square granted wishes. No one knew where it came from, or when it appeared, or how it came to be, indeed, no one seemed to know anything about the fountain other than, in exchange for a penny, it would give anyone a one-time offer of any one thing that one could imagine. Fortunately enough, everyone in town was dull enough that they would neither wish for anything too problematic or extravagant, nor tell anyone else with a greater imagination about the fountain’s whereabouts or wish-granting abilities. Most people treated the fountain as they would any other general store, a place to pick up a loaf of bread for one who did not want to deal with the exorbitant prices of the local supermarket, or a couple sparkplugs for the pickup, for one having trouble finding someone to give him a ride to the body shop all the way out near the town limits.
The firework shop owed its existence to this very same fountain. A summer or two ago a family traveled near the town to a summer home by the beach and inquired among some folks where they could go for a decent Independence Day fireworks display. Whichever townsperson they accosted replied the same way any of them do when approached by a stranger, by thumbing toward the fountain in the town square, as to say if you’re looking for something you’ll find it, one way or another, over there. And so, because no one really ever knows why anyone ever does anything, the patriarch of this traveling family took out a penny from his pocket, threw it in the fountain, and wished for, not a fireworks display, not even the best fireworks display anyone had ever seen, but instead a fireworks shop, one in which they could procure their own fireworks at a reasonable value. The shop instantly came into being, the fireworks were procured, and a good time was had by all.
The Fourth came and went, but the fireworks shop remained in its wake. The people in town realized that, though a wish can be a powerful thing, it can’t keep a business in the black. The traveling family could not be depended on, for they had left town on the fifth, leaving who knows who to clean up after them and get the shop making money again. Strangely no one in town considered whether a dedicated fireworks shop was even necessary, just as it never occurred to anyone to simply leave the neglected shop out in the open to die, like how the Tibetan monks dispose of their dead, by cutting open the bodies and leaving the incised corpses to lie on the mountains for the carrion birds to dine upon until they have all had their fill. No, they said, we would have none of that, the survival of the firework shop would become our town’s paramount point of order, for while Tibetan carrion birds at least have the manners enough to clear the table after a finished meal, we are not Tibetan carrion birds.
Earl stumbled upon the firework shop the same way as anyone else would: first he accepted their offer to work for them because they wanted him when no one else did, then, when he worked hard enough to be offered a shift leader position, he took it, because nine dollars an hour was two more than seven, then finally, when he worked even harder enough to be offered a manager position, he took that one as well, because fourteen an hour was five more than nine. It never occurred to him to use the fountain to advance in the ranks of firework sales administration, nor did that seem to be one of his pressing goals in the first place. (He did not even seem to want to use the fountain to fix the aforementioned problem of his lost collection, though it had occurred to him once or twice.) No, unlike others in town, Earl wanted to save his single wish for something special. Maybe finally take that trip to Istanbul he always wanted. Something like that.
The KPIs were entered and handed in, and once again it was discovered Wayne was still not upselling the extra Catherine wheel with a purchase of a six-pack of bottle rockets, or perhaps Lenny, which in either case meant that Earl had not properly motivated either of them. Well, something would have to be done about that, yes sir, of course, I’ll look into it, and so on, and soon enough it was time for Earl’s lunch break.
On a usual work day Earl would forego his lunch break, work for an extra seven dollars or so and recuperate with a larger meal at home to compensate. However, something on that particular day compelled him to punch out and find a place that served a good egg salad sandwich. He did not even especially like egg salad sandwiches, but he did know that the cafeteria in the local library three blocks down from the fireworks store served the best egg salad sandwiches in town, and so the library it would be for the next half hour of Earl’s immediate future.
He found the shop nurse in the library proper when he arrived. She was reading a book lying flat on the table, which meant he could not look at the cover and judge her taste in literature. It surprised him to see her here, but it made sense the more he thought about it, since it was a Tuesday, and Tuesdays are slow days, so chances were unlikely to the point of acceptably nonexistent that anyone in the shop would become injured on a Tuesday, which made it her usual day off. Forgetting about the lunch altogether, since as usual he did not require the nourishment nor did he especially like egg salad sandwiches, he sat next to her and said hello. She drew her attention away from the book and placed an admonishing finger up to her mouth. Earl was taken aback by this reproach and was almost moved to leave the library just as spontaneously as he had entered it, until her warm smile made him forget he committed any offense, if at all.
—It’s a library, silly. You have to whisper.
Lowering his voice to a whisper, Earl was surprised how much he enjoyed speaking to the nurse in this new environment, away from the noise of the constant firecrackers and bottle rockets going off in the store, the smoke alarms and flame retardant sprinklers and their relentless beeping. He enjoyed this conversation so much that he ended up speaking to her for three hours, forgetting that he had to return to his shift.
—It’s weird, I never really see you at the shop, since you’re always in your nurse booth I sort of always assume that you’re there.
—Yeah, I guess so. Seeing as how you never get hurt very often, we never really get a chance to talk to each other, do we? Anyway, I like coming here when I’m not working. The quiet is a real change of pace.
—I was just thinking that. It’s nice to get away from all the noise in the shop. I can’t remember the last time I whispered so much.
—I guess noise comes with the territory.
—Yeah. I wonder if there’s such a thing as a place that combines fireworks with whispers…
—A movie theater?
—Let’s find out together. Meet me there at eight tonight.
Earl met her at the local theater that night. The film wasn’t very good but that was to be expected. She was right though, amid the cacophony of shouts and gunshots and explosions projected on the canvas the audience along with them was rapt in silence and attention, and any rare conversation did not dare to rise above a whisper.
Nor was this the last time Earl found himself spending time with the nurse. They would meet multiple times at the theater and see even more films together, each one worse than the last. When Earl was not whispering with her at the library during his lunch breaks every Tuesday afternoon he found himself purchasing fireworks on the side, then “accidentally” setting them off on the store premises, which would of course summon the nurse from her booth in response and provide him with an opportunity to speak with her. If one of those fireworks ended up actually “accidentally” injuring someone, then all the better, he could speak to her even longer.
This went on for the next three weeks, until Earl found himself in an emotional state of sort of being kind of in love or something I guess with the nurse. For their next date Earl suggested they see one more movie, the most heinous film yet, and after the film Earl would ask her to accompany him to the fountain. The nurse agreed. They left the theater before the reprehensible film concluded and found themselves with an early head start for the fountain rendezvous. Earl took two pennies out of his pocket, gave one to the nurse, and held her hand for the duration of the walk over to the town square. When they reached the fountain, a firework whistled through the night sky, heralding their arrival.
—That’s weird. I don’t remember hearing any plans about a firework display tonight.
Earl cracked a smile. There was indeed to be no scheduled display that night. He was supposed to be on duty at the shop that night, which meant two things: either Wayne or Lenny had gotten their hands on some fireworks and, without Earl to deter them, found themselves free to set off a display of their own, or through their own negligence, without Earl’s stringent work ethic to deter them, they had inadvertently set off the entire shop alight, and the display was the end result of the entire store going up in flames. Earl did not care either way; everyone knows how fireworks in literature are short-hand for amorous emotions coming to a head, from Joyce all the way to your common Harlequin hack author, and so the fireworks in the sky, far from causing him to worry about his future employment status, instead gave him hope.
Earl turned to the nurse and told her he had something to tell her, but if she liked, she could throw her penny into the fountain first. She did so. Immediately after a postman arrived, gave her an envelope entrusted to her name, and left just as quickly as he arrived. The nurse opened the envelope and gasped.
—Oh! It worked! It finally came true! I’m going to New York City!
—Isn’t it wonderful, Earl? It’s always been my dream to be a real nurse, in a real New York City hospital, the injury capital of the world! No one gets shot, or stabbed, or jumps off tall buildings anywhere else in the world more often than in New York! Oh, the things I can treat there, not cooped up in a booth at a rickety old fireworks shop… injecting morphine drips, applying skin grafts, tourniquets… tourniquets, Earl! Real tourniquets! Isn’t it great?
—When… when are you going?
—Tomorrow. I also wished that I had already given two weeks notice two weeks ago, so it shouldn’t be a problem at the shop.
—Well… That’s great. I’m happy for you. What do you say we watch the fireworks to celebrate?
Earl and the nurse turned away from the fountain and watched the display in the sky, amid the oohs and aahs of townspeople noticing the display for themselves. The nurse noticed Earl, despite his discretion, slip his own penny into the fountain from behind his back, and when she asked him what he wished for he said nothing. For all she knew, he did not wish for anything at all.
(In fact he finally wished for his computer to be in working order once again, good as new, just as when he first purchased it, but with, of course, all the same content before the malfunction occurred. If life had any hope of becoming bearable after this, that hope would lie solely in that terrible beautiful collection. Istanbul could wait. The nice thing about his manager position was it earned him more money than before, enough to save up for a passport and plane ticket and trip expenses and so forth. Even if he lost his job through negligence he had enough managerial experience to simply apply his skills to another business. He already felt better, as if he could comport himself politely and humanely around most people from now on. He was not sure if it was Lenny or Wayne who made the wish to make himself become a better person, which meant he would have to thank both of them. For now, at any rate, he had had his small taste of human connection and was over it. That was the funny thing about watching fireworks. They’re nice to look at, true, but once you’ve seen one display you’ve pretty much seen them all.)