Son of the Beach
“’Twas as if the island was a playground and he the interminable man-child; the island’s amaranth who made a solemn vow to never leave it and to protect it from all that was wrong and unjust and boring and normal. It was the island that asked for him and to it he was given. The island itself was a marvel, constantly seeking to keep the outside world out. And waiting on its shores stood an invisible army of men thrusting primitive weapons high in the sky, bound to fight the onslaught of commercialism and natural destruction until the end of time, and always watching them with the wind blowing through his hair and the sun’s rays bouncing off his rotisserie skin was Holland, the keeper of the island.” –Johnny “Cheese” Caswell, Former Oak Island Lighthouse Keeper, Fisherman and Town Drunk. (1945 – 2018)
Amsterdam’s alarm went off at 5 am. It was first the call of a rooster, then the revving of a powerful engine, the sound of a cannon blast and finally a screeching train whistle. He sprang upright.
It was the 4th of July.
Amsterdam celebrated all holidays religiously, even making a wild spectacle of Arbor Day. But he lived for the Fourth based on two key elements: an unconditional love of country and the Fourth’s status as an all-day drinking holiday culminating in explosions.
At six am, Amsterdam fell into his oceanfront hammock and gazed at the horizon. The sun’s hint slid light across the water. The beach was deserted, and the ocean appeared still. A bald eagle swooped down and glided inches above the waves before regaining altitude and disappearing into the sky.
Amsterdam envisioned the Bald Eagle soaring ever higher, until the curve of the Earth was visible, then piercing the ozone, sizzling to ash and floating off into space as something new and bigger.
Sheriff Glen awoke to his alarm clock bleeping and slammed it against the wall for the thousandth time in their decade long relationship.
He crawled out of bed like a Galapagos turtle, rubbed his paunch and stood alone in tattered tighty-whities scratching himself.
An hour later, he moved at normal speed, chugging what remained of his coffee and lighting his third cigarette. Independence Day felt like a prison. The wonder cascading through his mind was whether that prison was the day or his life.
By ten Amsterdam felt more anxious than Kurt Cobain when the heroin dealer wasn’t answering the house phone
The sea remained lifeless.
Amsterdam waited by the street. A trumpet sounded the arrival of his grandfather, Charles Holland, in his immaculate fifty-four Rolls convertible which slid across the Oak Island streets ostentatiously, like watching Secretariat compete in a dog race.
Charles Holland was dressed as Uncle Sam and it took a serious effort for Amsterdam to pick himself up off the ground and stop laughing before getting in the car. Behind the wheel, Charles Holland puffed a giant cigar and sipped a mint julep from a twenty-four-karat gold goblet.
After a forty-five-minute drive, they arrived at Big Jack’s Fireworks Emporium—a giant cylindrical structure built to resemble a firecracker located on the outskirts of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
The parking lot was full, and the aisles were impassable. Standing behind the register was Big Jack, dressed in a blue tank-top, red jogging shorts and white sneakers, sporting a flattop that indicated prior military service.
When he noticed Charles and Amsterdam his eyes lit up like an atmosphere pelting mortar.
“Follow me boys!” he shouted, leading them to a room in the back.
For Amsterdam, stepping into that room was entering an ancient tomb. Mortar tubes five, six times the norm. Soccer ball sized shells. Bottle rockets like patriot missiles. Firecrackers like dynamite. But what transfixed him sat alone in a corner. It resembled a Saturn missile, only a hundred times bigger. No commercial pick-up could move it.
He stared at it while Big Jack lead Charles Holland around the room.
“These are U.S. Missiles one nineteen because they go a hundred and nineteen stories before exploding,” he began, “These black elite mortars travel ten times higher than your standard mortar and the blast circumference is the size of a football field.”
Charles Holland nodded enthusiastically and lit a cigar, which put the fear of God inside Big Jack, though he hesitated to complain and held up a Roman candle the size of a cannon.
“Twenty-five shots and you plan on holding this baby in your hand might want to do so over water and have a parachute packed!”
Amsterdam stood motionless in the tractor beam of the giant Saturn missile he felt had the possibility of reaching one of the nighttime sky’s dead stars.
“So? What do you think?” Big Jack asked.
“We’ll take it all,” Charles Holland said.
Sheriff Glen arrived at the station at noon. The office was in turmoil, no guidance and too much unprepared preparation. The beaches were filled to capacity, there wasn’t an empty hotel room, and between the five home rental companies on the island there may have been a dozen vacant beach houses. The parade was slated for one, and God knew what madness would transpire in the hours leading up to the fireworks showcase on the Ocean Crest pier at nine thirty.
Sheriff Glen slammed the door to his office and sank into his chair. “Cheryl!” he screamed.
His secretary, Cheryl cracked open the door.
“Did we get those State Troopers?”
“No, sir. We sure didn’t,” she responded, “All sent to Southport.”
“Yes, sir,” Cheryl said. “They say there’ll be fifty thousand there today.”
“Really, Cheryl?” Sheriff Glen said, mock enthusiastically.
“Oh yes! It’s going to be a great time!”
“Are you going, Cheryl?”
“I wouldn’t miss it!”
Sheriff Glen stared back blankly.
“Cheryl,” he said calmly.
After watching her go, Sheriff Glen popped two Tums, lit another cigarette and stared at his computer screen intently. It wasn’t on.
At three in the afternoon, Amsterdam sat on his front porch drinking and plotting. Charles Holland sat on the opposite end of the porch behind a massive office desk. Extension-chords ran from inside and a television sat on a footstool playing the ticker tape.
The sound of fireworks exploding could be heard all over the island and somewhere, someone was shooting off bottle rockets into the blank, still light simply to hear the pop.
Amsterdam was feverish, tapping his foot and smoking until he felt a slight shaking of the earth and heard the faint sound of blades slicing air. The military helicopter he’d employed to drop a twenty-foot by twenty-foot slab of six-inch thick concrete on the beach in front of his home had arrived.
A dozen men slid down on cables to set the slab firmly and release the harness then ascended back up. Amsterdam watched the chopper sail away into the distance. In six hours, he would wage war against his own town, his island, with a display of light to scorch the sky and remain imbedded in minds for at least as long as he walked the sand on the edge of this great land.
At five, Sheriff Glen watched Cheryl and the rest of the non-officer personnel rush to put the finishing touches on their days. He grunted, closed the blinds and retrieved a bottle of cheap Irish Whiskey from his desk drawer.
The big attraction was the sleepy town of Southport, a historic village on the Cape Fear River that looked out at both Bald Head and Oak Islands. The Southport Fourth of July festival was an all-day affair beginning with hundreds of arts and craft exhibits and a wide array of food carts and ending in a fireworks display over the river.
There may well have been fifty thousand people in Southport, but that didn’t mean there weren’t fifteen thousand tourists and seven thousand more Oak Island residents prepared to let loose like a bad hog tying and they weren’t prancing around craft exhibits, purchasing ice cream cones or boiled peanuts and drinking glasses of Merlot.
They were baking in the hot July sun, turning into lobster people, throwing back cases of cheap American beer and grilling succulent pieces of animal flesh with a type of reckless abandon so complete, all evidence of normalcy or rules retreated with the tide.
Around seven, under the shade of dusk, the fireworks arrived. Amsterdam and Charles Holland toasted whatever they saw, be it a pelican flying by, a boat sliding across the horizon or a beautiful woman passing on the beach below.
A well-compensated team of locals appeared and funneled out of pickups to set up their extravagant display on the beach.
Just before nine, Sheriff Glen and his six deputies set out for the beach strand. There were three other officers patrolling the rest of the island. Sheriff Glen had taken two Xanax.
He situated his deputies around the pier with one blocking access to the pier, one patrolling and two watching the crowds from the closest public accesses. Satisfied, he decided to hit the beach and was soon walking through reveling hordes.
Across the island, people made their way to the beach with chairs and coolers.
Amsterdam watched from his porch as the beach around his display filled. Usually he would have been throwing a giant party, but this was different. Though extravagant and reasonably enjoyable, Amsterdam had been disappointed by the town of Oak Island’s twenty-minute mortar show too many times. They were out to send a message, which they’d originally discussed two years prior while watching the Oak Island fireworks display. A younger more idealistic Amsterdam looked at his grandfather, after a disappointing fantastic finale and expressed his desire to put on a display that represented how he felt about the grand possibilities of life and the place where he lived.
Now, two years later, the plan had come to fruition. It would have happened the previous year, but Charles Holland accepted a last-minute invitation to Naples, Florida. His first and last visit to Naples. A town he claimed was “full of glitzy restaurants and gaudy yachts occupied by loose coarse skin wrapped around brittle skeletons cloaked in World War II money which at one point resembled human beings.”
They sat on enough explosives to rival the show at Disney World. The dream was in reach and all that could stop them was the faltering of ten new grill lighters.
At nine fifteen, Charles Holland allowed the blazing cherry of his cigar to hover over his watch. They held up grill lighters and began their trek towards the launching pad. There was no hoopla, no three-point lighting, and no flowing dolly movement to track them. Only the stars in the sky; the rhythmic lapping of wave and shore and the dull murmur of the crowd watching the town’s display as it faintly illuminated their paths.
The confidence on their faces resembled that of astronauts approaching a rocket. They reached the launching pad and took their places.
The way they moved was an amazing choreographed dance. They started on opposite ends and lit two giant mortars. The blast before the ascension shook the ground and the mortars sliced air before exploding in the sky, lighting the beach for several thousand yards and sending showers of sparks raining down upon its shocked inhabitants.
Whiplash was rampant. They moved magically in the light, flailing their arms and dancing before arriving at the next apparatus they would light fire to. It was mortar after mortar for five minutes that dwarfed the town’s display to such an extent there were notable pauses between shots. The black elite mortars were of an exceptional quality and burst in the sky like so many wild dreams; glorious tendrils of fire with nothing to latch onto, grasping their moment as Amsterdam laughed. Leaving behind arachnid wisps of smoke floating against the black.
Next, they moved to fifteen plastic sewer pipes set out for the one nineteen missiles. They started at opposite ends and lit them one by one. The six-foot bottle rockets soared over the ocean and turned the night into day.
A crowd gathered around the launching pad. No one watched the town’s increasingly erratic display.
The Roman Candles came next. Each placed in five-gallon buckets tied to the ground with rope attached to stakes buried in the sand. Charles and Amsterdam started side by side and crossed over each other going down a row of twenty Roman Candles shooting one after another into the American sky.
The town’s finale resembled a sparkler in the distance.
Car alarms whined all over the island and a mad rush of humans galloped towards Amsterdam’s plot.
The stampede would leave in its wake fifty injured and a critically wounded elderly couple. Fire Engines, EMS, the entire police force and Sheriff Glen had been deployed and they too had flooded the beach.
Sheriff Glen screamed and shouted behind his Xanax induced mask about his plan to murderously end whoever was responsible.
Amsterdam took a moment to soak in the majesty of the Buick sized Saturn missile he was preparing as his finale. He picked up the fuse which was the size of a maritime rope. It took him several minutes to light it and he sprinted away, confident the possibilities of this going wrong could include the destruction of his own home and most around it.
The fuse sizzled and when the first shot flew towards the sky a great hush settled and even the authority figures could only watch.
Amsterdam placed his mirrored aviator lenses over his eyes and stared towards the sky. The explosive love of his life shot red streaks of light across the darkness for fifteen minutes; the sky morphing into a giant screensaver, the sum of the parts changing in liquid movement accompanied by silence and deafening screams from the apparatus.
When the final shot fired and the anticipation of some last insane flourish passed, Amsterdam and Charles Holland slowly parted the crowd and walked up to Amsterdam’s house. When they reached the porch, they gazed down upon the stunned and waiting onlookers, who burst into wild and emphatic applause.
Bio: Wilson Koewing is a writer from South Carolina. His work has recently appeared in The Fiction Pool, Ellipsis Zine, Fiction Kitchen Berlin, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, New World Writing and Pembroke Magazine.