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Authors: Eliza Lentzski

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BOOK: Bittersweet Homecoming
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My dad’s just coming out of the back room that serves as his office when I enter.

“Hey, Dad.”

He wipes greasy hands, heavily calloused but with no signs of arthritis, on an already dirty rag. “Hey, kid. You come down for the parade?”

“They still do that?”

“Like clockwork.”

“So why are you open? It’s the Fourth of July.”

“Just working on a project for Emma Bernstein. You remember her, right?”

“Works at the bank?”

I pause and reflect on what I’ve just said. It’s strange being from such a small town. Nothing gets a proper noun name except for a few restaurants and hotels—the only businesses we have more than one of.

“Why don’t you grab a Popsicle from the freezer, and I’ll meet you out there?” my dad suggests.

In addition to hammers and nails, he also stocks a few candy bars and summer treats. In the winter months he uses the giant icebox to store hunks of venison, purchased from local hunters. My California friends would probably be horrified to know he stores deer meat next to the popsicles and ice cream drumsticks. I grab a green Popsicle— sure to turn my tongue an interesting color—from the freezer and go outside.

I sit down on the curb in front of my dad’s store and wait for the parade to start. The sidewalks are crowded with similarly minded people sitting on coolers and lawn chairs. The tornado whistle goes off, indicating the parade is about to begin. With so much water surrounding the town, tornadoes are rare. The warning siren is only ever used to announce the beginning of town-wide events like the Fourth of July parade or to proclaim that it’s noon on a Sunday.

Kids cover their ears when the slow rolling police, ambulance, and fire trucks blast their sirens. The volunteer firefighters are dressed like clowns. Local politicians up for re-election in the coming months toss candy from floats, and gangs of children run into the street to claim the Tootsie Rolls and Blow Pops.

My dad makes a noise as he eases himself down to sit beside me on the curb. “Where’s your sister?” he grunts.

“At the house.” I pull my legs up and rest my chin on my bare knees. I had knocked a few times on her bedroom door before heading out, but she’d only yelled at me to leave her alone.

He stares straight ahead. “This used to be her favorite holiday.”

I pat his knee. “It still could be.”

 

+ + +

 

“Time to get up,” I crow.

Emily pulls the quilt over her head in response.

I tug at the bottom of the handmade cover, but she holds fast to her end. “Come on, Em!” I practically whine. “You have to come with me to the Firemen’s Picnic.”

“Why?” Her voice is muffled by the comforter over her head.

“Because it’s tradition!” I exclaim. “You already missed the parade, but there’s still time to catch the potato sack and the three-legged races.”

“You should go without me.”

“But, Em,” I pout, “I want to go with
my sister
. I haven’t been to the picnic in like twenty years.” It hasn’t been
that
long, but it might as well have.

This time when I pull on the blanket, she doesn’t immediately tug it back over her head and hide. Her face is red and sweaty, and her hair is slightly out of control. “Everyone’s going to look at me.”

“Let them. You’ve gotta get outside. You’ve gotta spend some time with the living.” As soon as I say the L-word I know I’ve made a mistake. Emily’s eyes water up, and I’m sure I’ve just set her back a few weeks.

“Does the volunteer fire department still host the picnic?” I ask, trying to change the subject.

She nods, and I can hear the affirming words get caught in the back of her throat.

“Hot dogs and ice cream sandwiches?”

She nods again. “And orange drink,” she manages to choke out.

“The most watered-down orange drink in the state,” I say. I can practically taste the powdered drink mix on my tongue. “See? Now you
have
to come with. You need your annual dosage of orange drink. It’s good for the soul. Keeps you young.”

She manages a watery smile. Victory is within my reach.

I grab her hand. Her skin is cold to the touch, and I intertwine my warmer fingers with her icy digits. “C’mon, Em,” I coax. “Come just for a little bit.”

She exhales noisily through her nose. It rattles, and I’m on the lookout for tissues. “Okay.”

 

+ + +

 

Like much of my hometown, the city park looks untouched by time. There’s a new jungle-gym in the center of the playground, brightly painted in red and blue and surrounded by shredded tires so if kids fall while playing, they’ll bounce. The old classics are still there though—the wooden see-saw, the deathtrap merry-go-round, the hanging tire swing on a rusted chain. I feel the need to get a tetanus booster shot just looking at them.

In an empty green space no bigger than a football field, the kids’ foot races are being held. From where we stand I can hear the supportive cheers coming from the surrounding crowd. I competed in those foot races every summer growing up, but always came in fourth place, trailing behind the more popular girls, never placing high enough to have my name printed in the newspaper.

A sizeable line has formed near the cluster of grills as people queue up to get their complimentary Fourth of July hot dog. I can sense Emily’s discomfort; if we stand in that line she’ll be surrounded by sympathetic glances without any place to hide.

“Want to go sit over there until the line gets shorter?” I ask, pointing to a vacant wooden bench. Emily nods, looking visibly relieved.

There are far fewer people in this section of the park. Most people are either at the kids’ races or waiting for a hot dog.

“Not so bad, right?”

Emily makes a noncommittal noise beside me. She’s always had a hard time admitting when I’m right. I’m sure it’s a sister thing.

I close my eyes behind the tinted lenses of my sunglasses. It’s a beautiful day, but with my sister sitting beside me, still perceptively sniffling, I feel guilty for enjoying the sun on my skin. It never really gets above the mid-70’s around here, which is something I do miss about my hometown. LA is too hot for me. LA is too much of just about everything for me.

“Amelia, not so high.”

I open my eyes at the sound of a vaguely familiar voice.

A little blonde cherub, pale skin despite the summer season, and a pile of curls on top of her head, scrambles down a giant wooden playground structure. I remember playing on it myself in my youth. It looks like a giant ladder made out of telephone poles.

“Is this okay?” the little girl asks. She looks around five or six years old, but I can’t be sure. I know very little about kids. Her hair is an ephemeral swirl of light blonde hair. It’s wild and unruly, like a delicate puff of cotton candy, or like a mound of soap bubbles that might scatter with one stiff breeze.

The woman from the bar, Charlotte, shields her eyes from the sun with her hands. “Much better,” she approves.

I can’t help but stare at her in profile. She’s even more beautiful beneath the high afternoon sun. She splits her attention between the paperback on her lap and the jungle gym. Long, thick eyelashes curl up when she checks on the young girl. She’s wearing a sleeveless sundress and strappy sandals. It’s a little dressed up for a day at the city park, but she looks great. The skirt hits just above her knee, revealing tan, toned calves. The top of the dress dips low enough to show off that defined collarbone I’d been privately admiring when she first waited on me, but it’s modest enough to not show off cleavage. The shoulder straps of her sundress sink seamlessly into round shoulders. Her arms are what really draw my attention—long and lean with definition in her triceps.

“Hey, Em?”

My sister makes a humming noise beside me. “Yeah?”

“Do you remember Charlotte Johansson?” Her last name suddenly comes to me.

“Uh huh. We graduated together. She’s still around town, I think.”

“Yeah, I saw her working at Roundtree’s the other day.”

“What about her?”

“Who’s that kid with her?” I nod my head in their direction as unobtrusively as possible.

“I think it’s hers.”

“Really? Is she married?”

“I don’t think she and the kid’s father ever got married. I hear he was a real asshole to her.”

“You hear a lot of things, don’t you?”

She shrugs, nonplussed. “It’s a small town. People like to talk. You know how it is.”

I nod. People certainly
do
like to talk. It’s one of the major reasons I had to get out of this place. Being gay in a small town is front-page news. I’m just lucky that I didn’t figure it out until I was away at college so I didn’t have to face these people every day.

“Why do you ask?” Emily questions.

“Asking for a friend.” I’m well aware of how distracted my voice sounds. You can’t blame me though—the woman’s got killer legs that I hadn’t seen before because they’d been hidden behind the bar.

“How’s Kambria?”

The mention of my girlfriend’s name is what’s able to pull my attention away from Charlotte Johansson’s legs. My sister looks at me with what I can only describe as a smug smile on her face. I know she’s judging me and my wandering eyes, but I’ll take the smugness from her any day; it’s the first time I’ve seen anything remotely resembling a smile on her face since I got to town.

“You’re horrible,” Emily scolds me. “As a feminist, shouldn’t you be above ogling?”

I return my gaze to the leggy blonde. “What can I tell you? I’m a bad feminist.”

“How’s your writing going?” Emily asks.

“Slow. But that’s the glamorous lifestyle I chose for myself.”

Emily’s always been supportive of my creative goals and my passion for writing for the stage, but I know she’s never quite approved of it being my sole income. It’s too risky, too unconventional of a profession for her. But even I had worried about that; could I continue to be prolific and productive for the rest of my working life?

“Ever think you’ll write for TV or maybe write a movie screenplay?”

“I’d never say never, but so far writing for the stage has been good to me.”

“Why do you live in LA?” she asks me.

“What do you mean?”

“LA and television; LA and movies, sure. But I don’t see the connection between Los Angeles and plays. Shouldn’t you be in New York?”

“I have no aspirations to write a Broadway play if that’s what you’re suggesting.”

“Why not?” she presses. “Don’t you want more?”

“More what? Money?” I shake my head. “I like my life. More money or fame or whatever isn’t going to make me happier.”

“But I still don’t get it. Why LA?”

“I like the weather,” I quickly dismiss. “Are you hungry?”

She sighs quietly. “Not really.”

“I’m sure there’s a hot dog-shaped space in your stomach.” I pat her leg before I stand up. “I’ll be right back.”

 

 

The scent of charcoal is heavy in the air. I juggle two hot dogs and their condiments in one hand and two small Dixie cups filled with orange drink in the other.

“You need some help with that?” I hear someone ask.

“No, thanks. I’ve got it.”

I’m admittedly not watching where I’m going; I’m too focused on not dropping the orange drink, which is exactly what I do. One of the wax Dixie cups slips from my grip and hits the grass. The liquid splashes on the ground and some clings to my bare ankles.

“I guess I don’t have it.” I look up from the spilled cup to see Charlotte Johansson smiling at me.

“Hi.”

“Oh, uh, hi.”

“Charlotte,” she says. “From the bar the other day?”

I nod vigorously. “I remember.” As if I could have forgotten.

“Just making sure,” she smiles affably. She bends to retrieve the disposable cup and tosses it into a nearby garbage can. “People tell me I look different when I’m not covered in fryer grease and Jack Daniels.”

“I recognize you,” I say. “I mean, you look cleaner and less sweaty, but still the same.”

Her mouth twitches and her nose crinkles. “Didn’t you tell me you’re a writer?”

“Yeah. Why?”

“Shouldn’t you—I don’t know—be better with words?”

“Oh,” I exclaim in understanding, “I’ve always been good with a pen and paper, but not so much with my mouth.” I grimace as soon as the words hit my ears. “That came out all wrong.”

“When’s the last time you came to one of these?” Her question is meant to save me from my awkward response, and for that I like her just a little bit more.

“The firemen’s picnic?” I breathe out. “God, it’s been years. At least a decade, probably longer.”

“I bet it’s exactly as you remember it,” she muses.

I nod in agreement. “Everyone’s hair looks more grey, wrinkles more pronounced, but other than that everything looks the same.”

She flips her long hair over one bronzed shoulder. “God, I hope you haven’t lumped
me
into that category,” she laughs.

“Oh! No, you look great,” I insist.

“Yeah,” she slyly grins, “maybe you should stick to pen and paper.”

She eats the rest of her hot dog in small, precise bites, and throws away the paper coffee filter that had been wrapped around the bun. I don’t want her to catch me staring, so I stare into the bottom of my orange drink instead. There’s a black speck floating in the watered-down mixture, and I can’t tell if it’s dirt or a bug. Either way, I’m done drinking it.

“Tut, tut.” Charlotte looks towards the sky. “Looks like rain.”

I hold my arm out, palm up, as the first few sprinkles hit my skin. The gentle patter exponentially worsens, forcing the picnickers to run for shelter. Charlotte grabs my hand and tugs me towards the closest covered patio. It’s a cement slab that serves as a platform for wooden picnic tables. Everyone else has the same idea until we’re all squished together beneath the open-air canopy. I can still feel a few stray raindrops through the cracks in the shelter’s roof, but it’s better than standing in the pouring rain.

The rain doesn’t seem to bother the children, however. If anything, it’s re-energized them. While we adults are crammed beneath the roofed shelter, the party continues for them beyond the shelter’s reach.

BOOK: Bittersweet Homecoming
8.67Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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