Grilling was a drawn-out process that began with the lighting of the coals. Our dad was the fire keeper, a master pyromaniac who delighted in emptying half a can of lighter fluid onto the black briquettes, 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, viewing the world through blue swirls of viscous heat.
Down the sidewalk came the mothers, suntanned and smooth, their freckled shoulders glowing above terry cloth 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 and tore iceberg 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 in which my father believed 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 to char the pink skin of a hotdog.
While the coals simmered, the kids drifted to the back yard 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 swings with chains as thick as a father's thumb. Pumping rhythmically, I watched the sky pull away as birds dropped out of it like kamikaze 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, slowing down, then hopped 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 Lay's chips, 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. A thousand stars shone overhead. Up and down the block, rotating sprinklers clicked and whirled, shooting glittering tendrils of water across the lawns. Night phantoms, we slid in and out of shadows, playing hide-and-seek, tag and kick the can. The long night of summer washed across the neighborhood like a warm, heavy hand that held us all in place.
(First published in June of 1997)