The grass rose in sumptuous fullness, and needed one more cutting before everyone’s arrival.
The special clinging heat that hugged southern Ohio in the summer promised a typically uncomfortable Fourth of July, but the Staley place was blessed with plenty of trees: saltings of pine, ash and pecan stood adjacent venerable stands of oak that bracketed the old white frame house and provided a mottled leafy canopy and a measure of comfort.
Such doldrums aside, this wouldn’t be just any old Fourth. It was the Bicentennial, and Portsmouth was as ready for it as anywhere. Bunting hung in the streets, mailboxes were duly festooned and parade routes laid out to wend and creep through town with maximum pomp and flutter.
Most of the Staleys’ food preparation was set for two grills which stood side by side under the largest oak in the house’s rambling back yard. Lawn chairs, pulled from sheds and whacked loose of dirt and dust would need to be joined by the attendees’ offerings, as the cookout on the Fourth was the one mandatory family event, trumping birthdays, Christmas and so forth. Ed Staley began coals around 1:00, the sun bright on his neck as he traversed the yard, and the flinty, shrubbed semicircle of his driveway was soon full of arrivals bearing covered dishes, pie plates, beer and fireworks.
Ed—a stout man of utilitarian stock who was grudgingly acclimating to his forties—occupied one corner of the kitchen’s counter space next to the refrigerator where he took in the chatter and hubbub. He slowly stirred a deep brown sauce, stuck in a finger for a tiny sample, then stirred again. He glanced over at his wife, who peered out the kitchen’s window.
“Eddie, are there enough chairs?” Jeanette knew there would be, but she fretted a bit nonetheless.
“There will be.”
A growing number of grandchildren passed by his side with regularity, dodging various of their parents and aunts and uncles and hugged Ed in greeting before cracking open the refrigerator for an inspection.
“Hi, Grandpa,” and to each of these he’d ask about the progression of the child’s summer, or a ball team or some other newsworthy development. The kids hugged him for his warmth and air of camaraderie, and a couple of the older ones knew to inquire after the sauce.
“Burgers, all made up and ready for the grill.”
“With your sauce.”
“Got the sauce right here,” he’d indicate with a little flourish, and a smiling child made her way back through the kitchen and again out to the shady, magical terrain of the yard.
“Ed, what does Dana say about Ohio State?” asked an uncle.
“She’s doing better than last year. Last year was just…it was a lot to take in.”
“Got her talked out of Antioch, at least,” Ed considered further, shaking his head a bit. Noncommittal murmurs of assent from the room. The only thing worse than getting mixed up with the hippies in Yellow Springs would’ve been a misstep involving attendance at Kent State in some sort of peeved protest.
These feelings went unvoiced—almost.
“I hope I don’t have to hear about Ford,” said Ed.
“Or the embargo,” offered an aunt, unable to resist the bait.
“At least the damn war is done with,” said the uncle again, his father’s namesake and a meatier version of Ed. “Seems like—“
“That’ll do, everyone,” said Jeanette, removing deviled eggs from the refrigerator and assembling trays on the counter. “No politics. We’re happy to see Dana. We’ll have a nice meal and catch up.”
After further murmurs the group began to move outside, slipping quickly through the door to thwart the heat and flies.
In any event, and all other chatter aside, Ed had one more finishing touch to add to his sauce, and he waited for the kitchen to clear out. He watched through the window as his brothers fanned out to corral and set up further clusters of chairs and a complement of several avocado-green card tables (courtesy of a bumper crop of S&H Green Stamps). He felt good—still—and he was the oldest son. Children ran in waves that rippled through the yard, breaking into moist-browed parts that reassembled, smiling, and were becoming hungry as well.
Alone, he completed the sauce and headed outside.
The sun crested fiercely above the family’s heads, spilling brightly through the oaks’ cover, then seemed to hang, fixed, over the yard.
Finally the food. A serving line formed next to the grill, where Ed tonged thick patties onto buns while Jeanette and a sister worked tables laden with slaw, potato salad, deviled eggs and chips. The kids crouched immediately onto blankets, Kool-Aid propped between their knees, and attacked the burgers.
Ed’s youngest brother Harvey, after two huge bites, shook his head slowly in appreciation.
“That has got to be the best sauce I’ve ever had. I just don’t know how you do it.” He resumed, nipping at a couple of edges where the char had glazed perfectly with the sauce, and closed his eyes in pleasure. Ed, midway through his own creation which was thick with lettuce, purple onion and mustard, shrugged as he chewed.
“Plain old sauce,” he allowed, “maybe a bit of mustard, a bit of Worcestershire, just a splash of beer…”
“And that’s not all.”
A grandson rounded the corner of the house, followed by a lanky, reserved young brunette. Dana had arrived. The crowd looked up, nodding and waving in greeting, and Jeanette walked over to greet her daughter.
“Mom,” the girl smiled. “Hi.” She hugged her mother tightly, then turned to receive Ed’s welcome as well.
“Feel like eating?” he asked.
“I’m starving,” she said. “Yes!” and the two walked toward the grill, stopping for hugs along the way. Dana wished she’d worn shorts, but her sandals allayed the temp a bit. Ed asked about the recent semester as she spooned potato salad onto a plate and licked away a stray smear from a thumb.
“Not bad, you know…but I’ve had two chemistries in a row that have killed me. Ugh.” She bit hungrily into a burger. “I can’t take it.”
Harvey’s diminutive wife, Glenda walked over and pulled up a chair next to Dana.
“Did you get that birthday money?” she asked sweetly.
“Oh!” Dana exclaimed. “Yes, yes, I did! Thank you so much!” She leaned over to hug her aunt.
“Are you still dating that boy?” Dana leaned forward, trying to place the face in question.
“Him. No, not any more,” she finally said. “He graduated, and that was that.”
“Oh,” said Glenda. Dana took a long drink of tea.
“The kids are so big,” she offered.
“Oh, yes,” agreed Glenda, folding a napkin and wiping her fingers briefly. “Carter was in Columbus a couple of weeks ago. Did you make it?” Jeanette, chasing a bit of slaw around the edge of her plate simply said “Glenda.”
Ed glanced toward the blankets.
“Boys!” he barked, then “I don’t know about Carter.”
She’d sparred so recently. In class, on the quad. She’d even turned a mild disagreement with Peter into a blindly furious storm of offense and even insult. No wonder he’d left. Sometimes arguments took so much energy. They subtracted from the moment, in that they differed about the past or pronounced direly upon the future. What was lost in the moment? What suffered and was lessened in the wake of furrowed brows and bickering?
Moments like this.
Forget all that.
“Dad, as usual, you’ve really outdone yourself.”
“Oh,” he said.
“I’m going to get another burger. I was starving, but it’s also—the sauce is so tangy.”
Ed looked around the yard at his family, now leaning back for a smoke or some coffee, thinking of chilled watermelon and ice cream and a soaring, multi-colored apogee in the evening sky, and saw their lengthening shadows and drowsy contentment.
“Happy you like it, honey. Good to have you home.”
Jerry Staley was a slight seven year-old who, under quieter circumstances, had begun to accompany his mother to the library to satisfy a growing reading habit centered, at the moment, around auto racing, the late Cretaceous, and a rotating roster of youthful detectives. Today was a day for running, though: hide and seek, tag, running full tilt in search of the next base, the next gasping round of the game at hand.
The kids had fallen into their natural groups, squinting, periodically standing over a garden hose to drink in stomachfuls of warm water. Most of these cousins would be gone after the fireworks, home for another long stretch of months. And just when they’d all re-established their teams and swaggering parlance and rhythm. He hated to see it end. His dad beckoned him over.
“You’re not getting near that clothesline, are you?”
“Be careful, son.” Jerry waved at Dana, who sat cross-legged and relaxed. She reached for him, feigning delicate dismay at his grimy back. There was a small bowl of sauce still on the table, with a plastic-handled brush.
“Can I have the rest of the sauce, dad?” Ed held out the bowl.
“Get some on your finger.”Jerry swiped two fingers around the entire rim of the bowl, then sucked at the smoky tang.
He was now an intimate, one of the converted.
He now wondered about the recipe, too.
Sometimes in the yard, in the fading light of dusk, or in the dimness of the basement, Ed felt his mind slow and reject the plodding advance of age, and he could feel the texture of the minutes and his parcel of concerns slip away.
As a boy he’d sat, clad in cotton shorts on that cool wooden floor, as the walls rose in the quiet toward the distant ceiling, a high and gloomy reach that he found oddly comforting. He studied the new copy of Life he’d pulled from the sofa’s dark endtable. There were pictures of people coming and going and doing things, people in cars and airplanes, and even an elephant—towering and proud, who stood in mute majesty.
He liked the surprise of the ad pages with their great bold splashes of color, and he now opened to a double-page spread for Tamerlane Royal Bar-B-Q Sauce. He knew this bottle. His mother had a bottle like it right in the icebox. Yes, it was the same as the bottle he saw on the page before him.
“Finest quality for your finest recipes,” read Myra over his shoulder, her finger tracing the words on the page. The bottle made Myra happy, apparently, as happy as mother, as happy as the mother on the page, even.
Eddie studied the sturdy, red-capped bottle a moment more before turning the page.
Four years isn’t long in some respects. In others, it’s a long time indeed. Long enough for circumstances to change, for lives to settle, to be besieged by care, or want, or worse. If one is lucky, there’s enough of a thread through these years to keep one’s life comprehensible…maybe even enjoyable.
For the Staley family, it was long enough to keep a commitment, and they now reappeared—faces lined a bit more but still with their familiar visage, their dutiful common cause.
Dana, enjoying a rare break from her jaunts as a TWA stewardess, had spent the night of the 3rd at home with her parents so as to properly assist with the cookout. She felt good. She was fairly surprised that during a campaign debate, as the cameras settled upon Ronald Reagan and a tentative exchange begun with her dad, Jeanette remained silent behind her paper.
For his part, Ed expressed little excitement about the candidate, and in a brief aside about his party and its decline (it seemed in the past few years), turned his eyes toward Dana and said, curtly and finally of Nixon:
“He lied to the American people.”
Dana carried that with her to bed, and rolled it around a bit in her mind in the following morning’s sunshine.
Jerry reckoned the value of four passed years in the maturation of a cousin who’d moved to Texas for a while and was now back. Sherry had hair that was corn-silk blonde, and she wore the most delightful cologne, or soap, or something. They were worth racing over, though, her young attentions. Jerry won three races to the front yard’s queue of cars and back, but on the fourth, Sherry smiling and cheering him on, he tripped and skidded into Harvey’s Volkswagen. Yes, worth it.
Worth the appearance of his mother and a subsequent bawling-out, and even being sent to his room with the eyes of the yard upon him in bemusement. He approached the kitchen’s screen door but then stopped, hand poised at the knob.
His dad was inside the kitchen, distorted somewhat by the screen but clear enough as he left the sauce bowl long enough to get a jar of dill pickles from the refrigerator, open the lid and add a quick, liberal splash.
He’d be noticed in a moment and have to trundle inside, chastened, to wait for the call to eat. He glanced backward briefly, then back to his dad.
The jar safely back in the fridge, Jerry turned the knob and walked inside.