“SURRENDER THE CHOW, or walk the plank!” Arlen greets Lindsey as she reaches the deck toting her mini-cooler with beer and potato salad for the family do. He’s brandishing a croquet mallet like Thor’s hammer, sporting the horned Viking helmet he bought after a dig-up-the-ancient-family-roots phase a few years back.
“Dad, I don’t think Vikings did plank-walking.” Pirates, Vikings, Arlen’s probably channeling both today.
“Well, get your butt out here for an obstacle-croquet match. Loser goes in the pond, whether we’ve got a plank or not.” He grins, then roars scarily and waves the mallet, chasing five-year-old great-grandson Chad, who tears off across the yard.
Lindsey blows out a breath of conditional relief. Dad’s in a jovial mood, at least for now. She sets down the cooler and checks out the two long picnic tables arranged on the deck, tablecloths secured with clothespins.
Fran, flopped on a lounger in the thin strip of shade next to the house, tilts her head toward Arlen and holds up both fair-skinned hands with crossed fingers. “So far, so good.” She looks tired, not surprising with her job managing a local furniture store, plus her Phyllis divorced now and moved back in with the kids.
Lindsey nods. “How’s Mom holding up?”
“The usual. Fussing around with the condiments and place settings, won’t sit down and rest. I gave up, sent Phyl in there while I watch the kids.” She waves a hand toward the yard where her oldest, Ross, and the clan’s assorted grandkids and great-grandkids are setting up croquet hoops in the most difficult-to-reach spots like behind shrubs or next to Arlen’s twenty-foot pole flying high the American flag. It was Lindsey who first came up with the obstacle-croquet concept when they were kids and spread the game out into the woods behind their old house in town, so every year she’s designated to explain the “rules.” Which leaves plenty of room for creativity in interpretation.
A rumbling roar and gust of exhaust fumes as towheads Jesse and Connor barrel around the house and down the driveway on Arlen’s four-wheeler, heading for the newly mown hayfield. Bingo races after them, yapping.
Fran shudders. “God, I was hoping that contraption was out of commission. Death on wheels. Christie said no, but of course Arlen fired it up anyway.”
“Linny, Linny!” It’s Bitsy in one of her trademark frilly dresses, tugging on Lindsey’s shorts. “Gramps says you have to help put those wire things up.”
“Okay, just a sec. I’ll be right out.” She pushes through the screen door as Fran claims a “kiss for Grandma” before releasing Bitsy back to the game.
In the kitchen, petite, curvy Phyl is looking especially pretty in one of Opal’s gingham aprons. She’s managed to persuade her “Gran” to sit down, at the counter, where she can supervise the slicing and layout of the shish kebab fixings, make sure the proper platters are being used. Joanie’s daughter Sharon winks at her Aunt Lindsey as she lines up the dishes on the counter for Opal’s inspection.
“Anything I can do?”
“Nope, we’re about set, just waiting for the fire to die down to coals. You better get out there for that game,” Sharon tilts her head toward the door, “or we’re gonna have Grampa in here stomping around again. I made him put down the skewer he was using for a sword.”
“Good job. Potato salad’s out there in my cooler.” Lindsey gives Opal a kiss on the cheek, then heads out to join the fray. She skirts the fire pit made from a tractor wheel rim, lawn chairs circled around it and metal shish kebab skewers clustered upright at ready position like so many bristling bayonets. At least Arlen’s not charging around with one of those poised to put out somebody’s eye.
Joanie, in sun hat and dark glasses, is sitting in the circle with Don, Sharon’s husband Kyle, Fran’s husband Lonnie and their youngest Skip, Ross’s wife Christie, and Eric’s baby napping on a blanket beneath an umbrella. Lots of empty chairs. Then Lindsey remembers that Eric’s back in drug rehab. And, of course, this year there’s no Marci, Rob, Patty, or Kevin.
Lindsey waves as she passes. Joanie pointedly ignores her, and Lindsey prays they can avoid another blowup about her “meddling” over Kevin. Maybe it’s easier for Marci and Joanie to blame her instead of Dr. Bennerton, especially for this revenge campaign Rob’s on, and maybe they’re right. She hasn’t told anyone about being fired. Why add to Opal’s worry quotient? She already has a lot of family members on her prayer list.
Christie waves at her, and the men raise their beers.
“Lonnie, I want a rematch after the way you cheated last year,” Lindsey tosses out.
He pats his paunch. “Yeah, I’ve been in training. Maybe the second round. I need some more painkiller first, before I’m ready to play with Arlen.” He waggles his beer bottle, then takes a long pull.
“Taking your goddamn sweet time, you yard-bird!” Arlen roars across the lawn at Lindsey. “Take those hoops over to the other end and plant ’em. We already got the post in, down by the pond.”
Last year they had to dive for the wooden balls lost in the “water feature.” That was after Don had lobbed one high with a golf-chipping swing (since banned) and narrowly missed braining Phyl on the sidelines. Maybe that was why she was safely indoors today on Opal duty.
Lindsey rounds up the kids. “Okay, remember, we hit one at a time, right? And you duck and cover your heads if the ball goes up into the air?”
The kids nod, then grab her hands and drag her toward the pond to finish setting up the course. Which involves lots of shrieking laughter and waving of mallets. Oh well, so far the only injury has been the year Fran hit her own foot trying to knock Arlen’s ball into the woods.
This year the closest call is Bitsy getting too excited and losing her grasp on the mallet, sending it instead of the yellow-striped ball flying toward little Daryl and his blue stripes. Skip drops his beer bottle and jumps in to pluck Daryl out of the way, but Bitsy’s so upset that Lindsey decides to deliberately miss the last goalpost and let Bitsy knock her ball into the woods. By some miracle, nobody’s gone into the pond. Yet.
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. They come face to face with Lindsey.
She sets down her skewer, moves toward Joanie and starts to raise her arms, wanting to hug her.
Joanie stops short, scrubs angrily at her eyes, glares at Lindsey. “Not you. Don’t you come looking for—” She breaks free of Don and stalks off into the house.
Don stands with his hands half-extended, staring. He finally shakes his head. “Hey, Lin….”
She blows out a breath. “It’s okay.”
“Goddamn!” Arlen breaks in helpfully. “What the hell’s wrong with her?” Then, “Son of a bitch, her goddamn shish kebab’s burning! Don, yours, too. Wake up, birdbrain!”
“Got it!” Lonnie struggles up from his chair, lunging over to grab the two skewers with the flaming bacon fat, but he trips and knocks into Fran’s chair, tips his beer bottle spilling over her feet. The burning skewers, jostled, fall into the coals, taking along Opal’s.
“Jesus fucking Christ!” Arlen roars and jumps up, grabbing skewers at random and pulling them aside. “What the hell are you goddamn idiots—”
“Stop swearing!” Fran’s dabbing at her sandals with her napkin.
Arlen thrusts the skewers onto the edge of the fire pit, steps over to grab her arm. “Don’t you tell me what to do, you know-it-all little shit! Think you’re the queen around here, the way you boss everybody around.”
“I boss? I boss?” Fran scowls up at him. “Here’s Mr. Lord of the Universe telling me—”
“Oh, don’t!” An anguished cry from Opal. “I can’t bear it!” Then she slaps her hands over her mouth and hunches over, rocking herself.
Arlen whirls and glares at her. “Oh, go piss on yourself, you old bag! Now it’s one of your pitiful-me routines?”
“That’s enough. We’re out of here.” Phyl stands up, face grim. “Come on, kids, you know the rule.” The nieces and nephews have decided they won’t subject their kids to the verbal abuse, so if Arlen starts in, they’ll just pick up and leave these gatherings.
The kids start to protest, and Bitsy bursts out crying. “I want my shish kebab!”
“We’ll stop at McDonald’s, honey. You can get a toy.” Phyl rounds them up in record time, brushing past Arlen, who’s still ranting at Opal. He kicks a couple of the half-cooked skewers that have fallen over the edge of the metal rim. Fran commandeers Lonnie and Ross, and they’re all moving, collecting their stuff.
Lindsey’s still rooted on the deck, hot flash blazing through her on a surge of anger. She gives herself a shake and hurries down the deck steps to Opal, who’s hunched over, hands covering her ears as Arlen vents, yelling down at her.
“Stop it, Dad!” Lindsey moves between them. “Can’t you hear yourself?” She pulls Opal to her feet and guides her shuffling steps toward the house.
“You fucking whiners can all go straight to hell!” Arlen stomps off past the flagpole, kicking a croquet mallet aside as he heads for his shop. Black smoke rises from the charring skewers still propped over the coals.
Skip comes weaving drunkenly around the edge of the deck, pulling a hose. “Yeee-ha! Happy Fourth of July!” He grins and lets loose the spray over the charring mess, steam and smoke billowing in the breeze past the snapping red-white-and-blue.
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