The brass ship’s bell on the deck rings out. It’s Opal, summoning them to assemble the shish kebabs. So far, so good.
Lindsey steps back to gauge the level of tension—these noisy family gatherings always a fine balance between exuberant chaos and vigilance for the signs of irritable exhaustion, which in her dad lead to outbursts of rage. It occurs to her, not for the first time, that the family reflex of monitoring Arlen’s emotional state is right on a par with watching the kids for signs of overstimulation and crankiness. It’s just that his tantrums wreak more destruction.
Today they might sail through the shoals unscathed. As if by unspoken agreement, nobody’s talking about Kevin. No political arguments yet, and even Lonnie, longtime employee of the local pulp mill, hasn’t baited Lindsey about being a “tree hugger.” Arlen has traded his Viking helmet for his baseball cap with the Navy veteran’s insignia, and the guys are mellowed out with beer. The kids are just tired enough from the game to let Phyl shepherd them through the messy art project of putting together their shish kebab choices without skewering each other. Fran’s beside Opal, stepping in right in time to take a heavy fruit platter just as her shaking hands are about to drop it and provide Arlen the perfect excuse to launch into one of his tirades. Everyone pulls up a chair around the fire, breathing out a sort of group sigh as the skewers ray out, propped on the metal rim, and the bacon-wrapped venison sizzles over the coals.
Lindsey, hanging back on the deck, pops a rare beer and dribbles a grateful libation over the edge onto the grass, a ritual she picked up in Central America. She takes a swallow and moves along the decimated table, assembling her own concoction of venison, fruits, and mini potatoes.
Over in the circle, even Joanie has loosened up, and Lindsey can hear her launching into one of her funny stories:
“Lordy love, I think I’m too old for this!” She gestures toward Eric’s baby Kendra, now sleeping peacefully on her blanket in the shade. “I mean lugging around a big old baby on one hip and that huge diaper bag hanging on the other arm, and my back keeps reminding me it’s fifty….” What she doesn’t need to explain is that Kendra is over a year old now, but what with being a premie, and who knows what drugs Tammy was on before or during the pregnancy, Kendra hasn’t learned how to crawl yet. Joanie has to take her to physical therapy, and ends up carrying her a lot.
“…at work the other day. I mean, I was just telling myself I’ve got this under control. You know, I am Woman, I am strong….”
Lindsey hangs back on the deck, doesn’t want to break up Joanie’s flow, remind her of her grief and anger over Kevin, just as she’s got everybody chuckling.
“So mid-afternoon the phone rings, it’s the daycare center, looks like Kendra’s got an ear infection and I need to get her to the doc. So I call the clinic, get the latest appointment I can but I still have to leave early, and you know what a crab the boss is. So I pull in to daycare to pick her up, then I realize I left the frigging diaper bag in Don’s car because we had to make a last-minute switch that morning. I’d been thinking, well, it’s only a ten-minute drive home, so I’ll just give her a juice bottle and we’ll be fine.
“Anyway, Kendra’s screaming a blue streak, they practically lob her into my arms and slam the door, so I cuddle her right up and then realize she’s got applesauce smeared all down her front and now I do, too. Well, okay, I can handle that. So I strap her into her baby seat and give her the bottle. I know we’re supposed to be weaning her onto a sippy cup, but I just can’t deal with it sometimes. She can’t seem to get the hang of how to hold onto it, and she loves her bottle….”
“Hear, hear!” Ross raises his own bottle in recognition.
“Yeah, when are you guys gonna graduate to sippy cups?” Joanie shoots at him.
“Whatever works,” Don interjects.
“Well, that’s what I was saying to myself. I’m super-Grandma, just whisk her into the doc’s, get some ear medicine, we’ll be home in no time.” Joanie shakes her head. “But noooo…. You don’t even want to hear about the ordeal at the pharmacy. I’ll get to that later. Anyway, I pull into the clinic lot, we’re pushing it, but they better not cancel the appointment for only being five minutes late. Good! Kendra finished off the bottle. But she’s still crying. Then I realize she didn’t drink it, she managed to spill it all down her front and she’s sopping wet. And sticky purple. And her diaper’s full. Oh, Lord.”
By this time, everyone’s laughing. Clearly Joanie’s going for the comic release.
“So of course no diaper bag, no change of clothes, and she’s screaming now, rubbing her ear, I’ve got to get her in there. The only thing in the car is Don’s ratty old sweatshirt—”
“Hey, that’s my favorite soccer team shirt!”
“Right, well now it’s Kendra’s dress. I strip her down and put that thing on her and I drag into the doc’s office like some street druggie all smeared with goo and the baby in rags and would they by any chance have a diaper so I could change her? They’re looking at me like, Social Services took the baby away from the mother and gave her to you?”
Hooting laughter from the circle. Joanie’s shaking her head, and Lindsey stands frozen in awe that her little sister can be this strong. Just emerging from the self-absorption of her own double-whammy with the cancer and the divorce, she’s grasping all that the family has been enduring.
Joanie’s shoulders are shaking now, and Lindsey realizes she’s not laughing. Don stands up, takes her shoulders and gets her to stand, guides her toward the deck steps.
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