Our first annual “In Remembrance of Dad BBQ” coincides with the baby shower of a neighbor down the street. We can see, from the slate of our patio, that a pentagon of birds are rotating over their yard. The patron of the household continues to lob objects at them, to keep them from roosting in the trees that shelter his daughter as she opens box after box of pastel-colored onesies.
“This is another good reason not to have trees,” says Steven, and he looks over at the one tree in our back yard, and turns the corn cobs on the grill. We can see the scar on his left forearm pretty clearly now, and he says,
“Anna, what the hell? What happened to the hot dogs?”
Anna is at the end of the patio, instructing her four year old daughter in the proper way to remove dog crap from her jelly sandal.
“You said we weren’t doing hot dogs, ass, remember?”
She scrapes the ball of her foot on the ledge of the concrete, and her daughter imitates, and some cousins are swinging from the two ropes that hang from the tree house.
It was in the spring of ’89 that Dad nailed ascending two-by-fours to the trunk of the biggest backyard tree. For the first week he could be seen in the evenings around dusk, standing on the top step, wrapping his arms around the tree in a supportive hug. He would look up. Through the window over the kitchen sink, Mom would dry a pan with a towel and watch him hang on, watch the back of his still-brown head point itself toward a branch, another branch.
“What are you doing?” she would shout through the screen, the towel circling the metal rim of a saucepan.
“Shut up!” he would reply.
“I said what are you doing?”
“I’m planning. Shut up!”
“Have you ever thought of blueprints?”
“No, I haven’t, so shut up!”
“Well, your daddy thought the yard looked kind of bare with just the one. That man loved nature,” says Mom, with her chin in her hand. The cousins are trying to climb the ropes now, up into the tree house. It is a wooden platform nestled vaguely amid the branches, secured, we assume. On its planks are sketches in pink and purple chalk, declarations of love, of revenge, and notices that one gender or another is not allowed, depending on the script of the hand. One of the cousins reaches the top.
“Guys, be careful, alright?” Steven says, closing the lid of the grill.
“I told you to get down, boys, and if one of you falls, I ain’t gonna feel sorry,” says Aunt Sarah. She sits next to Mom, and Uncle Ron sits on Mom’s other side, and rolls his eyes, swirls his drink in a glass decorated with green and yellow flowers.
“They’ll be alright, Sarah, quit bitchin’. They’re boys, that’s what boys do. They climb shit. Let ‘em be boys!” Uncle Ron laughs to himself and looks into his glass, takes a long drink from it.
“Well I am their mother,” says Aunt Sarah with emphasis, “so let me be their mother. And don’t use that kinda filthy language, Ronald, this is a family gathering.”
“Like they ain’t heard it before!” says Uncle Ron, who leans back and scratches his belly. “Hell, Jack used to cuss up a storm before dinner like it was tradition, and ain’t we here to remember Jack?” Uncle Ron gets up and crosses to the grill, takes the tongs from Steven. “Am I right, Steve? Shit damn! Ha!” He slaps Steven on the back, and laughs again, opens the lid of the grill and pokes at the hamburger meat. Steven looks at his feet and laughs a little.
Steven was eight or nine when Dad started in to pulling apart palettes he’d taken from work in the back yard, with a cigarette bobbing between his lips. Steven would come home from school and open the gate in the fence, and walk back to find Dad crouching, the hammer clinking against the metal cat’s paw, cigarette burning.
“What are you doing, Dad?” Steven heaved his shoulder up to reposition his backpack. Dad stopped hammering and reached up to take hold of his cigarette, took a long pull. He looked up at the sky, and blew the smoke out slowly.
“Well are you building something?”
“I don’t know, son.”
“Can I help?”
Dad looked at Steven for a minute. Then he put the cigarette in his mouth and picked the hammer back up. From the side of his mouth he said, “No, son, go do your homework or whatever. Go help your mom.” He struck the cat’s paw three times, then laid down the hammer and yanked the nail out. Steven heard the creak of the boards, then the squeak and sigh as they gave up the nail. He shouldered his bag up again and walked inside through the back door.
Uncle Ron sniffs at the burgers and the corn, and declares them ready with a grunt. Anna puts her daughter in a folding chair by the table and goes inside to retrieve the pile of Styrofoam plates, the big green fluted glass bowl full to the top with yellow potato salad. Steven transfers the smoking food onto glass plates, and we come by in order and spear things with forks and portion out side dishes.
“Good stuff,” says Uncle Ron, and he eases back into his plastic chair. “This is Jack’s kinda dinner.”
“He was always a big fan of Mom’s potato salad,” says Anna, pushing a tiny spoonful toward the face of her daughter, who winces.
“I don’t guess your mama ever bothered to mention that it’s my recipe,” says Aunt Sarah, raining pepper down on her corncob. We laugh, and we eat.
“Does anybody remember the time I tried to make his birthday cake?” says Anna, looking around the table. “I was maybe twelve or so, didn’t actually know what I was doing in the least. Anyway, I tried to make it homemade, without boxed stuff or anything, and it looked terrible.”
Steven laughs. “Oh my god, I remember, it looked like a—“
“Well it wasn’t supposed to!” Anna says, and smacks Steven on his leg.
“What happened?” asks Aunt Sarah around her hamburger.
Anna shakes her head at herself. “Well, Dad was really into bowling at the time, so I tried to make the cake shaped like a big bowling pin. I cut it out and put icing on it, put red food coloring on for the stripe on the neck, but it just sort of bled, so I ended up just mixing it together with the white, and then…well.”
“What?” says Aunt Sarah, looking back and forth between Anna and Steven.
Uncle Ron laughs, slaps his leg. “It looked like a pecker, Sarah!” He wheezes, slaps his leg again.
“Ron!” says Mom, and looks hard over at him. She looks back at Aunt Sarah, and says, “Yes, Sarah, it did look a bit like a, uh, a penis.”
“Anyway,” says Anna, taking a plastic butter knife away from her daughter, “besides that, it didn’t taste so hot. But Dad didn’t say anything, kinda laughed I think, but he ate it. Cut it up and took it to work with him in zip-lock backs for the rest of the week.” We laugh a little, keep on eating.
After a few days, Dad’s cigarettes were gone, but we could see that he had brought home bottles. He sat in the back yard, tearing up palettes and staring in front of him, and taking drinks from one of his bottles. He started nailing the boards together and positioning them in the tree, along with some thick plywood he’d picked up somewhere. He took a jigsaw and cut a hole in the plywood over the steps on the trunk, big enough for him to squeeze through. Steven stood in the back doorway and watched him until Mom called them both for dinner. Mom and Dad would talk to each other at the table, but their words were short.
“And your daddy was funny, y’all. Your daddy was the strangest and funniest man I knew,” says Mom, wiping the condensation from her glass with a paper towel, “and I think everybody knew that’s why I liked him.” Mom looks up, tilts her head back. “When we first met, he used to annoy the snot out of me, pulling little pranks, hiding my purse and things like that. I was a girl, though, so I pretended to get my feelings hurt, even though I knew he was playing because he liked me.” We chew our food and close our eyes and listen to Mom. “A couple years ago, and I think y’all have all heard this, he gave me a piñata for our anniversary. Like, a straight up donkey with tissue paper hanging off it. Well, I didn’t know what to think, thought maybe he was going crazy, getting Alzheimer’s or something like that, but anyway. He didn’t give me no explanation, just set it in front of me on the coffee table and kissed my cheek and walked to the bathroom. I didn’t know what to do with it, so I just hung it up in the kitchen over the sink. Couple weeks later, he was being an ass, just like his normal self, just saying stuff to get me riled up. Anyway, long story short, I got mad and looked at that piñata and I just took it down and put it on the floor and went to town on it. I mean, stomped it to pieces. Later I went in to clean it up and I saw something shiny laying there. I moved the paper and the cardboard and stuff, and right there on the ground was this bracelet I’m wearing.” Mom holds her right arm up, shows us the delicate gold hanging there, flecked with green gems. “The man was out of his mind,” Mom says, and sighs.
The sun is easing down behind us and warms our backs and shoulders. We are full of food and at our ease, and there’s a bit of wind that circles round our heads. Something heavy, too. We look at the center of the patio table, altogether, and we think for a moment he might show up. His head, silky white, might rise up and smirk, say “You conjured me, now what the hell do you want?” We smile at the table and remember him funny, remember him good. We smile at the table. Steven rests his elbows on the arms of his plastic chair, stares down at his lap.
One night Dad worked right through dinner. He was up in the tree, and the noise of hammering would reach us at the table every few minutes, flanked by long periods of silence. We looked at Mom, who just pressed her lips together and offered us more green beans. There wasn’t much talking.
And then, we remember, just as Mom was bringing out cheesecake for us, we heard the sound of a laugh. Anna was five, and she laughed too. Steven didn’t. We heard another laugh, and Steven got up from the table and walked to the back door.
“Sit down,” said Mom, “and eat your dessert.”
Steven looked back at the table and shook his head.
He walked out into the back yard, where the sky was mostly dark blue, a bit of faint orange coloring its bottom edge. He looked up at Dad, who lifted a bottle, brought it down, and dragged the back of his free hand across his lips. Dad looked down at Steven and laughed again.
“What are you doing out here, boy? Go on back inside, go eat your dinner and watch Tiny Toons. Let your pop get back to work.” Dad laughed.
“Come inside, Dad. Mom wants you to come inside.” Steven scratched the back of his neck.
“Your mama doesn’t want nothing,” Dad said, and put down his bottle. He picked up the hammer and held it loosely by the handle, let it fall forward till its nose hit the tree branch in front of him. “Your mama doesn’t want nothing.”
“Come on, Dad.”
Dad looked up at the moon, with its faint light, watery around the edges. “No, son,” he said.
Steven looked up for another minute, then made for the first step on the tree trunk. He climbed up and up, lifted his thin body up onto the platform, and sat. Dad kept on looking at the moon for a minute, then lowered his head to acknowledge his son. They stared back at each other, and the wind came and shook the leaves, moved the tops of their hair. Steven picked up Dad’s bottle, and Dad said, “Son…” Steven picked it up high and threw it, and a second later we all heard it break apart, heard it drain itself into the ground. Then Steven saw Dad’s hand fly back, felt it connect with his face. He felt the platform scoot out from beneath his bottom, and he felt light. He saw his feet against the dark blue sky, saw the weak-tea moon framed right between them, and his back hit the grass. He laid there for a moment and looked up at Dad, who leaned over the edge of the platform and made a noise we all heard, but couldn’t place. Steven rolled over and felt a sting and a burn in his arm. He looked down at the ground, the broken pieces of Dad’s bottle, and at his arm, the red coming up, surfacing, and spilling. Then everybody was screaming, and everybody was loud.
After the sterile waiting room, and after Steven’s arm was stitched up, Dad cried. He put his face into his hands and cried and cried. Anna walked up to him in the kitchen where he sat on a bar stool, and she put her little head against his back. “Tell your brother,” he said when he could, “I’m sorry I didn’t finish his treehouse.”
Dad left the hammer up where it was, and didn’t go up again. After a while, Anna and her friends would climb up and whisper and giggle to each other, and one of them accidentally kicked the hammer down, where it lay in the grass next to the wheelbarrow and rusted. Dad picked up the glass from the back yard and brought home no more bottles. He started doing the dishes for Mom after supper. When he died two summers ago, it was because of a heart attack.
Steven is looking down at his lap. He clears his throat, and we all look at him. He looks up and back at us. We all look across at each other, don’t say anything, listen to the wind. We hear our neighbor’s father down the street, yelling “Hey hey hey!” at the birds, hoping they’ll be frightened, or at the very least confused, and fly away.
We all keep looking at Steven. There is something heavy again. “Well,” Steven says, and points up to where the cousins are sitting on the platform, throwing bits of hamburger bun down onto the ground. He keeps pointing up at the platform, and we look at it, and we hold our breath. Steven stands up.
It is as this moment when our neighbor’s father, in the ultimate act of love, brandishes a bullhorn and pulls its trigger. At the harrowed whine of the horn, the birds are startled, and finally flee their post. From our table on the patio, the sound is like a siren, and we can see the feathered air strike headed for our quadrant. Now would be the time to duck and cover, to huddle together under the flimsy green plastic of the table’s edge. Instead we watch together, and the birds draw closer, hysterical and intent. Catastrophe approaches, but we stand our ground.