Cooking on the grill was a drawn-out process that began with the lighting of the coals. Our dad was the firekeeper, a master pyromaniac who delighted in emptying half a can of lighter fluid onto the black briquets, then swept his silver Zippo out of his pocket and administered the flame. The fuzzy heat of a June day was momentarily transformed by the liquid charcoal fire and we would stand as close as we could bear it, viewing the world through blue swirls of viscous heat.
Down the sidewalk came the mothers, suntanned and smooth, their freckled shoulders glowing above terrycloth halter tops, clutching brown paper grocery bags to their chests. Bags of buns and Lay's potato chips spilled onto the picnic table, and the kids were sternly warned not to eat yet. Our neighbor Don dragged down his big ice chest and the dads filled it with beer. The mothers joined mine in the kitchen, just above the carport, where they washed lettuce, sliced tomatoes and onions and peeled the cellophane wrap off thick pink slabs of steak.
The radio, propped against the screen of the kitchen window, broadcast the Cardinals game from St. Louis, and from time to time a roar would arise from the huddle of men, followed by the tipping of beer bottles. Their task was to announce when the coals were ready -- a pure science my father believed in to the core of his being: Not enough white ash and the meat would be engulfed in flames; too much, and the heat wouldn't be great enough.
While the coals simmered, the kids drifted to the backyard to toss a baseball or across the street where we jumped the ditch onto the school playground. The older girls planted baby brothers and sisters on the bench seat of the merry-go-round, squeezed their chubby fingers around the metal bar in front, then pushed the contraption round in a wobbly circle. Slowly at first, then faster, we ran along the outside perimeter, then jumped on when the momentum of weighted circular motion took over.
As dusk crept in, the little ones wandered home and clung to their mother's knees or piled onto a dad's lap. The quiet stillness of that time of day drove me to the school swings -- huge, institutional-sized ones with chains as thick as a father's thumb. Pumping rhythmically, I watched the sky pull away as birds dropped out of it like kamikazi flyers. The faint flutter of bats, congregating around the globes of streetlights, tickled my peripheral vision.
Across the street, from beneath the carport of my house, smoke rose in billowing puffs as my father sprinkled the too aggressive fire with water from a Coke bottle. The cooking had begun in earnest now, and the mothers scuttled about, bent to the needs of their hungry children, spreading mustard on hotdog buns, balancing paper plates, piling on chips and spooning clumps of potato salad.
I dragged my bare toes in the hard dirt with each backward swing, then catapulted onto the prickly grass with one final thrust forward. The walk home across that field seemed longer at night, the shriek of crickets rising from the ditch.
Hotdogs, watermelon, potato salad, piles of Lays, Coke gone warm, the sticky communion of sweaty shoulders smashed together around the picnic table. We ate as fast as we could, then tossed our plates as we ran into the darkness to capture lightning bugs.
Our parents lingered. The mothers gravitated into the ring of fathers. The long night of summer washed across the neighborhood like a heavy hand that held us all in place.
(First published June 11, 1997)