David F. Eisler

Mortars and Cakes

After loading our merchandise into every available corner and covering as much as possible with a large, colorful blanket, the five of us jammed ourselves inside the vehicle and drove off the Indian reservation.

It was the Fourth of July, and my wife and I had taken a spontaneous flight from New York to Tacoma, Washington to visit friends we hadn’t seen for three years. They picked us up at the airport with a plate of fresh strawberries, blueberries, and cheese which we devoured on the way to the house where other friends and family were gathering for the party. None of us had kids then, so the logistics were much simpler.

The house was on the shoreline of one of the many inlets connected to Puget Sound, with a backyard overlooking a floating private dock that would later become the stage for our celebration. My friend’s wife, who grew up in this house, tells me that other families along the waterfront also like to set up their own fireworks displays and shoot them off in a friendly competition that, for whatever reason, had become less spectacular in recent years. When the time comes, I volunteer to go with the group for supplies while others keep watch on the grill and small children running around the shoreline.

We arrived at the reservation around five or six in the evening, and the market was still bustling with last minute shoppers. We parked the car and walked over to the dozen or so stands selling their explosive wares, circling slowly around them as if shopping in a department store at the mall.

“Can I help you find anything today, sir?”

“Just looking around, thanks.”

“Okay, well you just let me know if you need any help.”

And so on.

My friend Peter and his brother-in-law Ted, more experienced with this business, made a few slow passes through each of the stands to seek out the best stuff. I recognized the standard fare—bottle rockets, Roman candles, sparklers—but most people were studying the dozens of boxes stacked on tables around the lot. Peter tells me they are looking for mortars and cakes. I’ve heard these words before, I tell him, but each in a different context. He explains that mortars are tubes that shoot larger fireworks high into the air to explode with a deep kaboom, the ones typically associated with professional shows at festivals or theme parks. They take a few seconds longer to set up and light, so they help maintain the flow of any good display. Each mortar tube comes with six shells of various colors and patterns. They make the oohs and the aahs. They also frighten dogs, small children, and combat veterans.

Cakes are the different boxes on most of the tables. They also shoot up into the air from multiple tubes, but require less setup and effort, usually just a single fuse sticking out of one of the corners. If mortars are the baritones, then cakes are the tenors, adding harmony and flavor. The right combination of mortars and cakes can lead to a colorful sky symphony, not to mention the envy of the other houses along the waterfront. Too much of one or the other can mean a flat performance, with arrhythmic spurts of loudness that lack decoration, or too much flair without enough punch. Balance is the key.

A young teenager walks up to one of the nearby salesmen, his eyes drifting downward and his voice quiet. “Do you have any M80s?” Simulated artillery rounds, I realize after a moment, remembering the riskier days of my own adolescence and early adulthood.

The salesman replies sharply and without hesitation, at a volume loud enough to deter future inquiries, “No we do not. That is a dangerous and illegal item. No one here will have those for sale.” The kid, clearly disappointed and now doubting the awesome reputation of Indian reservations, walks away silently. Maybe he would try somewhere else.

With the sun threatening to set in a few hours, some of the vendors were looking to unload as much of their stock as they could. I heard several of them offering good deals on top-shelf explosives provided that the buyer was willing to take the cheaper low grade materials with them. After enough reconnaissance, Ted struck up a promising dialogue with one of the sellers. The tone of the conversation changed in our favor after Ted quietly informed the man that we would like to spend a thousand dollars on his arrangement of mortars and cakes, and that we would like the best deal possible. The man nodded. Ten minutes later, more than thirty boxes of cakes were stacked next to the cash register and ready to load into the car, along with a complimentary assortment of smaller, less dangerous stock for the kids back at the house.

The best mortars are called Excalibur.  They shoot the highest and come with real pipe instead of cardboard, which tends to warp and explode after a heavy bombardment. Each Excalibur package comes with twenty-four shells. We buy two, the last two, as well as one other lesser brand that we are assured is nonetheless comparable.  We are less picky about the cakes, taking away a selection with names like “Above the Law,” “Gorilla Warfare,” “To Hell and Back,” “Captain America,” and “Blonde Joke.”  Peter and Ted feel confident about the show.

Shortly after observing our transaction, one of the other vendors came over and tried to sell us a box of M80s for a hundred bucks. No thanks. Peter tells me that we don’t mess around with that stuff.

The drive back to the house adheres to all posted speed limits, lest the police have a reason to stop our crowded vehicle and inquire about the nature of the cargo hidden beneath the oversized blanket in the truck space. The roads of the Pacific Northwest, beautifully lined with dark, imposing trees watching over every curve, give ample opportunity for a crafty officer to catch the unsuspecting driver coming off the ramp from the reservation and add to what I can only imagine is a well-stocked closet of explosive contraband at the local police station.

Once we finished unloading our score onto the dock, I sat down on one of the deck chairs looking out at the water. The crisp air, the open space, the serene atmosphere all cause me to question what it was I wanted from the new path in life I had chosen. At the time, my wife and I lived in a small Manhattan apartment, our only windows facing another building so that we were granted about an hour of natural sunlight each day. The smell of hot garbage, the subway, the crowds, the ceaseless noise. I’d come to the city full of wonder and anticipating adventure, but somehow I felt less convinced of its superiority with each light breeze and peaceful moment staring at the simplicity of the rhythmic waves.   

The calm breaks momentarily when Peter asks me to help nail down the mortars on the dock so they won’t fall into the water.  The walkway wobbles slightly after each step, but I try to ignore it and focus on my task. My fingers fumble inside my pocket to take out a nail, and after a few light taps to steady it at the base of the tube, the hammer comes down sharply.  I close my eyes and wince, but still manage to drive the nail into the wood. The rest of the nails go in more easily.

Darkness finally comes and the show begins, with Peter and Ted dancing across the dock, lighting each of the mortars and cakes in celebration of the birth of our country, a country that all three of us have served in uniform. The first mortar shoots up and illuminates the sky with a beautiful red glare and thunderous boom. Even though I was expecting it, I still forget how closely fireworks resemble the sounds of war.


David F. Eisler

David F. Eisler served as an officer in the U.S. Army from 2007 to 2012 with assignments in Germany, Iraq, and Afghanistan. In 2014, he earned a master’s degree in international affairs from Columbia University. He is also a member of the Board of Directors for the non-profit literary organization Words After War. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Daily Beast, Collier’s Magazine, Military Review, and the upcoming anthology of short stories, The Road Ahead: Fiction from the Forever War (Pegasus Books). He lives with his wife and son in Alexandria, Virginia.